Book Reviews

Poetry London
Insisting on their Place

Portraits: Elaine Feinstein. Carcanet £9.99
Mimi Khalvati: The Weather Wheel. Carcanet. £9.95
Andrew Waterman: By the River Wensum. Shoestring Press. £9.00
Michael Schmidt: The Stories of My Life. Smith/doorstop. £9.95

Recently I came across a poetry blog discussing why poetry isn’t read by more non-poets. Why it seems, almost exclusively, to attract those who, themselves, write. Smart, educated people read novels, go to art exhibitions and the theatre. But few ‘civvies’ are found clutching slim volumes of new poetry. Is this the fault of contemporary poets or a logical consequence of the shifting language of modernism and postmodernism, which has meant poetry is no longer something that ‘ordinary’ people turn to, as once they did, to give voice to thoughts and feelings they cannot easily name but, rather, something that’s studied for its form (or non-form) by practitioners and those in ivory towers? I remember a workshop I ran some years ago at Hebden Bridge with David Constantine who, interestingly, claimed that a poem should not be written unless it absolutely insisted on being so. It’s a thought that’s stayed with me and seems a good yardstick. Does a poem have a beating heart? Did it, against the odds, insist on life or is it simply a literary exercise?

As a poet, translator and novelist, Elaine Feinstein has an intuitive sense of what makes a poem. Her voice is deceptively conversational, accessible and full of warmth. She brings to life East End Jewish poets, literary figures and torch song singers such as Billie Holiday, building up characters with the engagement of a story-teller. The first poem, Courting Danger, in her new collection, describes eating “red sea urchins…on a platter of ice”, “somewhere near the Bastille”, with the Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, underlying Feinstein’s rich relationship to Russian poetry as a translator. This is followed by a poem to the memory of the young Isaac Rosenberg, who died “in the mud” at the front on April Fools’ Day, 1918. A Jew “from Stepney East”, “he was always shy with Oxbridge toffs”. An outsider “his Litvak underlip could put them off”. Jews as outsiders, as well as those who, in some way, simply feel themselves to be exiles from the mainstream, are very much Feinstein’s territory. Whether it be, Zelda Fitzgerald, “waking into self-hatred”, the “fragile/and wispily dressed, Jean Rhys”, or Disraeli with his “Glossy black ringlets, blistering waistcoats, silver-buckled shoes” “released…/into the gentile world”, in contrast to his “skull-capped and scholarly” father. (Though, as Feinstein notes, “Baptism did not make you less a Jew, /cartoonists mocked your aquiline profile/and drooping lip.”)

Assimilation and its effects are a recurring preoccupation explored in Siegfried Sassoon and the Wish to Belong. These concerns are, of course, subtly biographical for someone of Feinstein’s background and generation. Elsewhere the poet as young wife and mother, confronted by the demands of domesticity and “bland everyday disorder”, listens to Edith Piaf’s songs “of failed loves, loneliness and poverty” and finds herself longing for “Paris streets, and the glamour of a woman/who never had safety to lose”.

In the final sequence Death and the Lemon Tree, Feinstein confronts the challenge of continuing to write into old age:

                           “Downhill –
so why not simply coast? It’s not my way.
Work is my game. It’s how I play.”

Observing four new tips on the “grey skin of the lemon branches”, she concludes with feisty panache, in this most sympathetic of collections: “So, you’re not finished yet, /my resilient tree. Good. Let us age further.”

The Weather Wheel is Mimi Khalvati’s eighth book with Carcanet. Born in Tehran, she grew up and was educated in England. This eclectic background contributes to her poetry’s nuanced character, its practise of extending an image, of drawing it out like a thread and following it wherever it leads, so worlds within worlds are evoked with the intricate detail of a Persian miniature.

In this her first full-length collection for seven years, she restricts herself, in each poem, to sixteen lines set out in couplets in which she investigates, in lyric form, the nature of love and loss. Written around the time of her mother’s death, the first group, Earthshine, takes the day’s weather as a starting-point with its effect on the poet’s mood and imagination. There’s a desire to reconnect with a chthonic animal self. A mouse lies in the shadow of her arm “shut eye a tiny arc like the hilum of a broad bean”. Other poems are populated with a menagerie of lemurs and snails, an electric fish. The flickering sun becomes “a sparrow in the house” seeking “dust grounds/small as a handkerchief to play in.” Like a zoologist Khalvati observes the intricate detail of these small animals, the “miniature paws like nail clippings” or Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, a “little living furry torch, eyes two headlamp luminaries”. She, herself, becomes a grey squirrel “helpless, blind and deaf”. Slowly it becomes apparent that these vulnerable creatures are a substitute for her lost mother and mirror her own grieving child within. Absence is evoked, echoing the historic sense of absence that she may have felt when sent off as a young child to boarding school in the Isle of Wight.

Other poems spin off to exotic destinations such as Marrakesh, weaving a rich, interconnected tapestry. Cold and wrapped in a shawl, drinking tea laced with Manuka honey in the early hours of the morning, she meditates on the refugees pouring through the checkpoint at Ras al-Jedir on the Libyan border, without even a “striped hem blanket” for protection. Elsewhere, in a beautifully observed image, she notes the snow swirling around a streetlamp like a swarm of gnats. The 72 poems gathered, here, into six subtitled sections with each section consisting of 12 poems, are challenging, yet emotionally coherent. Like a kaleidoscope or the Weather Wheel of the title, they shift and turn to reflect a fluctuating world where the natural phenomena of stars, snow and animals provide a counterpoint to grief.

Andrew Waterman was born in London in 1940. He has been a bank clerk, a kitchen porter and a bookshop assistant (surely a rich background for any poet), before reading English at the Universities of Leicester and Oxford and then taking up a career teaching at the University of Ulster. He has published eight collections with Carcanet and one with Marvell Press. Now he has made his home in Norwich where the River Wensum winds through the city. This provides the trope for his latest collection, a meditation on the uniqueness of individual lives. The river runs lightly through a number of these poems, including the title poem and those that open and close the book. Other settings and time scales include the Ice Age, classical antiquity and Nazi wartime atrocitities. A number re-inhabit childhood memories and these are among the most satisfying. Sitting in the pub garden At the Red Lion, after “another stint at the gym, for my own good” he notices three small children, “ages four to seven/maybe, the girl in red, the littlest one/squealing to keep up, round and round the pub,/… the board chalked Roast Lamb, Steak and Kidney, Pudding.” It’s something of a Proustian moment as he watches them “just running. Running for the sheer joy of it. As I once did.” But this tender everyday observation that ends the first poem in the book is somewhat undercut by the solipsism of the last sentence, which closes down emotion rather than opening up the line to the reader’s imagination.

Waterman claims affinity with George Herbert, Wordsworth and Louis MacNeice. For him each of these poets expresses an “inner quest through everyday experience and observation rendered in language which is evocative but doesn’t strut”. Though it’s Edward Thomas to whom he feels closest and his influence can be felt in the short poem Hawthorn where: “Again it makes me gasp, this sudden white/seethe of hawthorn in the hedgerows”. For so much beauty brings poignancy to a moment of solitary witness: “Again to go unused, because unshared, /without which nothing in me is completed.”

Elsewhere, as in the scholarly, descriptive poem written in the Museo Archeologico Eoliano, Lipari, the research and learning sit a little too heavily and the emotional heart feels just a little too faint, as though some of these poems might just as happily been born as essays. More seductive is the final poem, Getting There. A walk by the river and a short train ride along a little used branch-line become a meditation on the shortness of life and the inevitable approach of death.

                 “Nothing where I alighted
Except a stile, the rack up to the ridge:
Sunstruck, assuaging, it lay spread before me”.

Were it not for publications such Carcanet Press the landscape of British poetry would look very barren. Along with others such as Neil Astley at Bloodaxe, Michael Schmidt has kept the rich diversity of contemporary poetic voices in this country alive. He is a one man literary band. Not only a publisher but an academic, translator and literary historian. His new collection, Stories of my Life covers a broad canvas. Childhood and memory are counterpointed against old age, shanty towns and the ancient world, as well as desire – both personal and historic. In The Bus Stop the poet muses on the relational consequences of missing the last bus and train, while in Answering the Emperor Julian (Mesopogon, after Cavafy) he gives a poignant portrait of the “ugly” emperor hiding his “hare lip and his crooked jaw”, along with “his desire”, behind the “shrubbery” of his coarse beard; both god and all too human man.

There are also poems to the Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo, who signed himself Dr. Atl, which reflects something of Schmidt’s interest in his own early Mexican background, and to Henry Adams, American historian, descended from two U.S. Presidents, who was secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador in London, as well as those taken from the Anglo-Saxon. In Present Tense, with its themes of metamorphosis and the persistence of love beyond the grave, we find oblique references to John Donne’s, “two climates, hemispheres”, as well as to Andrew Marvell’s: “The grave’s a fine and private place”, as an old man “chews the air”, while “Under the ground his bride/ Travels north and south/ Transmitted by worms”.

As in Ovid she will be turned into a tree, resurrected and “stand/On trunks for feet and pray.” And in so doing she will become forever present tense, much as the lovers on Keats’s urn remain in the eternal moment. Such poems illustrate Michael Schmidt’s undoubted erudition. But it is poems like Agatha, a remembrance of a childhood relationship where he asks “What is it like in heaven, Agatha?”, that touch an emotional nerve. One of two epigrams at the beginning of the collection, from Michel Foucault on ‘Las Meninas’, reads: “But perhaps the time has come to give a name to the image appearing in the mirror’s depth, which the painter in front of the picture contemplates”. It is an apt precursor to this multi-faceted, multi-reflective collection.

Sue Hubbard’s most recent novel is Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her recent exhibition of poems Over the Rainbow, with the artist Rachel Howard, at 11 Spitalfields and The Poetry Society, were taken from her latest collection: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt).

Book Reviews

Anthony Bailey
A View of Delft Vermeer
Then and Now

Published by Chatto & Windus

Little light is shed on this Dutch interior

Vermeer’s reputation is based on fewer than 40 paintings. His first 20 years, between his baptism and betrothal, are document-free. No diaries, no extensive legacy of letters, survive. Vermeer was not an uncommon surname: in Delft alone, where he was born in 1632, it belonged to an apothecary, a physician and a schoolmaster. Other artists in the United Provinces shared the name, which was often misspelt by public officials as “van der Meer” (“from the lake”).

The first 70 years of the 17th century were, for the Dutch, their Golden Age. Holland was a work of engineering science, a land rescued by man’s ingenuity from the sea. A surge of patriotic self-esteem led to a flowering of Dutch art that satisfied what the historian Johan Huizinga called the Hollanders’ “intense enjoyment of shapes and objects” and “unshakeable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things”. The Dutch were essentially a bourgeois people, down-to-earth Protestants with anti-Latin tendencies. Painters were guild members and their work was to be seen in shops, inns, and markets; sometimes it was even bartered for provisions.

Vermeer, the son of an art dealer who was also a pub landlord, grew up against a rising tide of Protestantism. The 17 Catholic provinces had been part of the Habsburg Empire, ruled by Spain, but dissenting sects of Lutherans, Anabaptists and Mennonites were spreading. In 1572, William, Prince of Orange, took the Spanish fleet at Brielle and began a decade of military tumult. By the early 1600s, the country was largely at peace, though wary still of Spanish Catholicism and British economic competition.

In his biography, Anthony Bailey uses scholarly research to construct a vivid portrait of the city in which Vermeer worked and lived. In lieu of hard biographical detail, he creates a painterly picture of Delft, with its “long box of streets and canals surrounded by a defensive wall and a watery girdle of canal and river”, where “the skyline of orangey-red pan-tiled roofs was dominated by three towers”.

Bailey begins dramatically by describing an explosion in a munitions factory that destroyed much of Delft, including the work of the talented Carl Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt’s, and left the way clear for Vermeer to rise to become the city’s leading artist. He grew up as something of an only child, with a much older sister, and married the older, prosperous Catholic Catharina Bolnes, with whom he had 15 children (11 of whom survived).

Everyone with any money bought pictures, and the most prized were history paintings. Yet, influenced by the vernacular scenes of Pieter de Hooch and by the desire, no doubt, of finding some peace in a household of bawling infants, Vermeer became attracted to small-scale pictures. Paintings such as The Lacemaker or Woman in Blue reading a Letter are imbued with a sense of withdrawal into domestic tranquillity. His preferred subjects are women, whether the Girl with the Pearl Earring or Martha and Mary.

This work speaks eloquently to a modern audience, through the appeal of his subject directly to the viewer ­ rather like the intimate first-person narrator in a modern novel. In soft Dutch light, Vermeer places his sitters in quiet, ordered interiors. Their presence is ambiguous; nothing is explicit, questions are implied, but never answered. It is this innate sense of hesitation and doubt that makes his work seem so relevant. Despite their 17th-century clothes, these are modern people with whom we can identify.

While Bailey manages heroically with the limited facts, and discusses many of the paintings in detail, the book is, by definition, short on psychological insight. Much of the end is padding and a listing of modern novelists who have appropriated Vermeer as their subject. Unlike the great biographies (say, Richard Ellmann on Wilde or Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf), where characters and voices come through from their diaries and letters, Vermeer remains a shadowy figure. So we are left to turn back into the dark corners of his interiors, to the riddles posed by his quietly miraculous, yet enigmatic, paintings.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

The Complete and Illuminated
Books of William Blake

Published by Thames and Hudson

William Blake Tyger

As Tate Britain prepares to host its first major Blake exhibition for more than 20 years and Thames and Hudson have produced an issue of The Complete and Illuminated Books of William Blake, it is perhaps worth asking what relevance the work of this singular 18th century artist might have for a modern audience? For most, our experience of Blake is as a children’s poet. His famous poems about lambs and blacksmiths and, of course, his infamous Tyger, from his most popular works, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, are write large in many a childhood memory. Familiar, too, are his odd and prophetic images of fiery angles, of God and a handful of arcane prophets with long white beards. Was Blake, therefore, simply a one off, a mad eccentric who saw visions; ”poor Blake’ or ‘poor Will’ as his contemporaries often referred to him? Or can he be seen as part of an alternative line of cultural dissent that still has ramifications for us today? Perhaps it is a nice irony that a major show Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art opens at The Royal Academy – the place where Blake studied and occasionally exhibited his work – when that apocalyptic prophet par excellence is about to be re-launched into the forefront of our thinking. But was Blake’s understanding of the Apocalypse similar to the image we have now of a sort of Armageddon horror-show? Or would he be appalled by the appropriation of his apocalyptic vision?

The son of a tradesman, Blake was an odd and pugnacious child who never went to school but was apprenticed instead, by his father, a modest tradesman, in 1772 at the age of 15, to a well-known commercial engraver of his day, James Basire. Recalling in later life seeing ‘the Angel at my Birth’, his parents tolerance and unusual liberal attitudes sprang from the atmosphere of radical dissent that was, at that time, pervasive in London. As a young apprentice he was dispatched to draw the medieval monuments and tombs in Westminster Abbey and expressed a precocious desire, a ‘great ambition to know everything.’ At the same time, Blake was beginning to try his hand at verse, which he showed to the painter John Flaxman and the Revd. A.S. Mathew who paid to have them printed in 1783 as Poetical Sketches. These works, like those of his contemporary Thomas Chatterton, who created the so-called ‘lost’ corpus of work by a priest named Thomas Rowley, looked back nostalgically to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan period. This was part of the mood of the day. Romanticism – of which Blake is broadly and loosely a part – was largely historical in its outlook, seeing Medievalism as a lost Golden Age. This Gothic revival was, partly, a reaction against the rationalism of thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Newton and Locke, and the French philosopher, Constantin Voney, who argued that religion was a deception on the peoples of the world, giving power to the few. While Blake was certainly influenced by the mood of Revolution from the continent and the political atmosphere that embedded him in the political legacy of the Leveller wing of seventeenth century Puritanism with its penchant for millenarianism, it was his own idiosyncratic personality and his series of visions, which had started in childhood, that led him even further back to ancient Egypt, to the cave-paintings of India, to ancient Mexico and Britain and finally to his own myths of eternity. Whilst across the channel the comrades were espousing the essentially materialistic cause of overthrowing the ancien regime, Blake’s egalitarian interests lay in other realms – in the Bible and the ancient world, in Bardic epics from a bygone age, in myth and the sublime. “All Religions are One” he argued. “As all men are alike in outward form, so (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius.”

William Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience

These attitudes were greatly influenced by the contemporary prophet and visionary, Emmanuel Swedenborg, who saw spiritual, rather than political, possibilities in the era’s tumult. ‘The Last Judgement’, he claimed, was accomplished in the Spiritual World in the year 1757 … the former heaven and the former earth are passed away, and things become New.’ But in the mind of many the theories of Swedenborg were seen as ‘mystical whims’ similar those held ‘by the fanatical and knavish doctrines of the modern Rosycrucians – by Magicians – Magnetisers – Exorcists.’ This brew of magic and faith-healing found expression in Blake’s friendship with the painter Richard Cosway, a mesmerist and magician, who practiced arcane related to alchemical and cabbalistic teaching. There were, according to Blake’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, ‘reports of erotic ceremonies, the imbibing of drugs or ‘elixirs’ and ritual nudity.’ This was an era of sexual licence and Blake’s notion of sexual promiscuity, though probably not acted upon, is there to be seen in recurrent images in his work. Among the groups of London mystics, alchemists and astrologers with whom Blake would have been familiar, was frequent talk of prophecy, of the hearing of supernatural voices, while the apparent ministration of Angels was a common occurrence. If this portmanteau of beliefs seemed a little out of kilter with his images of Christ or Mary, then Blake could refer to Paracelsus, a devout Christian and a practising magician, for whom ‘everything that lives is Holy!’ And ‘Each man has the essence of God, and all the wisdom and the power of the world within himself’. These magical views reflected the kernel of Blake’s own beliefs.

To many contemporaries Blake seemed like a lost unworldly soul, adrift on the practicalities of life along with his wife and soul-mate, Catherine Butcher, to whom he announced his love, within minutes of their first meeting, because she admitted she ‘pitied’ him. Their childless marriage became central to his life. Though Catherine obviously had to endure a good deal, admitting to one young friend, ‘I have very little of Mr Blake’s company, he is always in Paradise.’ For Blake believed, with an almost childlike innocence, in ‘my Genius or Angel’, pronouncing ‘I laugh at Fortune & Go on & on. I think I foresee better Things than I have ever seen.’ He had an extravagant belief in his own abilities, placing himself alongside the likes of Raphael and Durer.

Blake self-published his extraordinary works announcing that this was a project to bring high art into the homes of ordinary people. His range appeals to a variety of readers. Songs of Innocence, probably his best known work, and created primarily for children, is a nostalgic recollection of a London childhood, of walking out to the rural edges of the city. While its companion Songs of Experience reflects the intellectual activity of the revolutionary years as does The Marriage of Heaven and Hell c.1790 and Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1793. The books America a Prophecy 1793 and Europe a Prophecy 1794, are a turning point. Both have prophecy in the title and ally Blake to the prophets of the Old Testament and to the bards of Ancient Britain, warning of the need for moral transformation in the face of imminent apocalypse. This millenarianism had been strong since in Britain since at least the Middle Ages; almost everything Blake wrote or designed makes reference to the earthly destruction cited in the Book of Revelation. Jerusalem is offered as the ultimate Promised Land. The Prophetic Books, though arcane and difficult to interpret, display an extraordinary potency in their juxtaposition of text and design where tiny figures dance along the lines of poetry and flames appear to ignite the page. This new method of colour printing – a form of monotype – was able to produce only limited editions, but with stunning colourful effect.

William Blake Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Jerusalem, consists of 100 plates of relief-etched text and images of dazzling visual intensity. It is the culmination of Blake’s visionary process. Jerusalem is only to be reached by individual and national rejection of materialism, while redemption can only be achieved through the restoration of the primal unity of man and Britain embodied in the figure of Albion. Blake also became more and more drawn to Celtic mythology through the work of Edward William, the poet, Unitarian and stonemason. Throughout his work he maintains a holistic position whereby the body cannot be separated from the mind or soul, or the human from the divine.

So where does Blake fit? Well the legacy of his vision can be seen in that of the Irish mystic poet Yeats, with his interest in arcane, ancient myth and Celtic revivalism. So, too, are many of his insights, according to Ackroyd, reflected in the work of Freud in the 19th century and some may argue in Jung’s esoteric leanings and archetypes. A similar, though more prosaic vision of heaven, is to be found, this century, in the work of Stanley Spencer and Blake’s legacy can be traced, obliquely, through those psychedelic, drug-induced, Nirvana-searching years, that Age of Aquarius, the 60s. But ultimately Blake’s vision is unique. For him ‘Poetic Genius is the true Man.’ He envisaged Jerusalem as a sacred city of art and science for the lost English tribe. It is also London with ‘Spires & Domes of ivory and gold.’ But around it lies ‘the land of death eternal’ which includes the world’s official religious creeds that have excluded ‘Divine Vision.’ Yet if Man can shake off the materialism of the world ‘then you may approach the great City of Art and Manufacture where every lovely form exists in four-fold splendour’. This is the city of the Incarnation, the place of Divine Humanity that exists within each created being. For Blake the apocalypse was a chance to unite with Divinity, not as we might envisage it today, as some sort of final solution that points us only towards the horror of the void.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2000

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Eavan Boland
Code

Published by Carcanet

In 1761, the Queen of English Silversmiths, Hester Bateman, registered her own silver mark after the death of her husband, a successful chain maker, and went on to manage, over the next 30 years, a huge commercial operation aided by her sons and daughter-in-law; a highly unusual position for a woman in the 18th century. In Which Hester Bateman, 18th Century English Silversmith Takes an Irish Commission, the first poem in Eavan Boland’s new collection Code, is a complex work. Ostensibly about the fashioning of a marriage spoon, it evolves into a meditation, not only on the nature of art, but also on the years of colonial oppression of the Irish by the English – “the spirit of our darkest century.” For Boland this relationship also obliquely parallels the tensions within the institution of marriage. Yet despite Bateman’s Englishness, the Irish poet has chosen as her subject a strong and independent woman who managed, though married with children, to create an autonomous creative existence; an example that would appeal, no doubt, to Boland who has long been concerned with feminine roles. In this series of juxtapositions we are presented, in microcosm, with Boland’s themes: Irish history and women’s lives. For in the decoration of the spoon, made by an English hand – “the sweet colonial metal” – we can see etched into the silver – “chased”, “scarred” and “marked”, as into the Irish psyche, the “grapeshot and tar caps” “the hedge schools and the music of sedition.” And although made by a female artist, as an English woman, Bateman would have been no ‘sister’ to her Irish counterparts with their “scarred” lives. Yet amid this colonial quagmire, this “craft of hurt” there is a possibility of redemption. “Here in miniature a man and woman/Emerge beside each other from the earth.” “They stand side by side on the handle”, elemental, archetypal so that:

“Past and future and the space between

The semblance of empire, the promise of nation,
Are vanishing in this mediation
Between oppression and love’s remembrance

Until resistance is their only element.”

“History” Boland suggests “frowns on them: yet in its gaze/they join their injured hands and make their vows.” It is love, then, that is our “resistance” against history and hatred. Not romantic love, but a love that is solid, earthed. A day-to-day, married sort of love, “this constancy; what wears, what endures,” as she writes in the concluding line of Lines for A Thirtieth Wedding Anniversary. The collection is dedicated to her husband Kevin Casey.

Again and again Boland returns to this image of enduring familiarity as the basis of love. In Quarantine, about the terrible conditions endured by an old couple forced to leave the workhouse in Carrigstyra in West Cork during the famine in 1847, she describes how they died from the “toxins of a whole history.” Yet at the end “her feet were held against his breast bone/the last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.” It is in the minutia that we express, what at its best “there is between a man and a woman.” In Once the poet stands at her suburban window with her husband – “Did you know our suburb was a forest?” and directs him to take her hand and look out and image “Irish wolves: a silvery man and wife/…They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.” This “safety” is marriage’s gift; the reward for the long haul. “I do not want us to be immortal,” or as she says elsewhere in Thank’d Be Fortune ” we never envied the epic glory of the star-crossed.” What matters is “this ordinary, ageing human love.”

In turns highly evocative, poignant and moving, there is a danger that the accumulated tone of these poems – despite Boland’s feminist credentials – and her prose poem Against Love Poetry – which claims that she has “loved women’s freedom” and “marriage is not freedom” might seem a little complacent to those who fail – through ill luck or ill judgement – to have penetrated or sustained this warm circle of quotidian domestic love.

If ‘marriage’ is the subject of the first half of this collection – marriage that provides a framework to experience the self ‘in history’ – then language forms the subject of the second half; language in the sense of a ‘tongue’ or a ‘voice’ that defines identity. For never far behind the personal in Boland’s work lies the political, what the American writer Elizabeth Schmidt highlighted in an interview with Boland, from her autobiographical writings, as “that true meeting between a hidden life and a hidden language out of which true form would come – the form of a true poem”. Our history, and who we are, is delineated by speech, whether as in Emigrant Letters when the poet looks down from an aeroplane over “town, farms fields – all of them at that very moment/moulding the speech of whoever lived there,” or in her long title poem Code, which is dedicated to Grace Murray Hopper 1906-88 maker of a computer compiler and verifier of COBOL. Here Boland identifies with Hopper as someone on the “edge of language” and addresses her “poet to poet”, drawing the analogy that to write poetry is to create a form of code during which “You have no sense of time.” Addressing Hopper in the second person “west of me and in the past/…You are compiling binaries and zeroes. /The given world is what you can translate” Boland explores the links and differences between them. “Let there be language/even if we use it differently.” She goes on to imagine Hopper at her desk “in the twilight/legend, /history, myth of course, /are gathering in Wolfeboro New Hampshire, /as if to memory”. Hopper is a “Maker of the future” for whom “origin and outcome will never find/their way to you or shelter in your syntax-“. Yet despite their differences “We are still human”, linked by their endeavours – “head bowed” struggling, “writing code before the daylight goes.” What, of course, for Boland they are both doing is defining themselves as creative women through the uniqueness of language, a language that ‘decodes’ a particularly female experience of the world – what Hélène Cixous has called L’Ecriture Femine.

“I am writing at a screen as blue
as any hill, any lake, composing this
to show you how the world begins again:
One word at a time.
One woman to another.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

AS Byatt
Portraits in Fiction

Published by Random House

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

A S Byatt writes in Portraits in Fictionthat “Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites rather than metaphors for each other. A painted portrait is an artist’s record, construction, of a physical presence… A painting exists outside time and records the time of its making.” In contrast “a portrait in a novel… may be a portrait of invisible things” such as thought and desire. A painting, therefore, is largely a spatial experience while the understanding of a text is temporal, for through it we experience the unfolding of the writer’s imagination. As readers we share the author’s journey, whereas with a painting – however many marks are left revealing the struggle of its making – we are witnesses only to the point of arrival.

The sitter of a portrait may also feel threatened by the artist’s interpretation, with the work, more often than not, ending up more a portrait of the artist than the sitter. But those who find themselves appropriated into novels may feel attacked; and haunted thereafter by an often unwanted doppelganger. Writers rely on the varying images constructed by their readers; so Byatt tends to be distressed by film adaptations and the “blasphemous feeling” when her characters are represented by photos of real people on book covers.

Portraits in Fiction originated as a lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery. Byatt uses her immense erudition to delve into the complex relations between portraits and characters. In her own novels, she has evoked the power of portraits – as in A Virgin in the Garden, set in the 1950s at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, where her red-haired heroine takes on some characteristics of the Darnely Portrait of Elizabeth I. Novelists have often used portraits as imagined icons, while characters may use them as temporary mirrors: as when Milly Theale is shown a Bronzino in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. It bears a striking resemblance to her own image; she reflects on her mortality and “the paradoxical timelessness and death of portraits”.

Byatt’s authors range from Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch to Salman Rushdie, and her artists from Holbein to Cézanne. She gives a prolonged analysis of perhaps that most famous portrait in literature, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, where the portrait shifts from its normal fixity into a hidden temporal narrative recording the decadence of both Dorian’s life and the erotic arousal felt by the artist. Though packed with analysis and information this is a book, perhaps, more for the scholar than the casual reader. Those without a knowledge of the novels or portraits discussed may find Byatt’s discourse rather arcane.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Ciaran Carson
On the Night Watch

Published by Gallery

Showing not Telling

Sue Hubbard finds what slips between languages in collections by Gillian Clarke, Valérie Rouzeau and Ciaran Carson.

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin asks, ‘What does a literary work “say”?’. ‘No poem’, he suggests, ‘is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener’. In this statement he seems to be implying that a work of art is always a showing rather than a telling and goes on to add:

Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.

Ultimately, translation, he suggests, serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. Benjamin appears to take Freud’s view that art, at its best, reveals the latent content behind what is manifest. Freud said of poets:

“… One may well sigh, when one realizes that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity”.

Groping towards meaning is thus the role of psychologist, translator and poet alike. For as in psychoanalysis profound insights are reached through the revelation of what it is we really meant rather than what it is we have apparently said. A poem, thus, becomes an act of almost alchemical transformation, a translation between feeling, meaning and language. This reciprocal relationship between languages, this revelation of what exists in its gaps and spaces, is what these three books have in common. Meaning exists in the gaps between Clarke’s Welsh and English, between the French baby-talk, neologisms and translated English of Rouzeau and Wicks, and in the echoes of Irish, especially the genre of song known as sean-nós (‘old style’), which linger behind Carson’s terse English lines.

The nuts and bolts of language are also of fundamental concern to Ciaran Carson. In perhaps his best known poem Belfast Confetti, the nitty-gritty of language, its fonts and letters, its question and exclamation marks become synonymous with the ammunition of riot squads during the troubles. Carson was brought up bilingual in Irish and English, and the sense that meaning lurks beneath perceived surfaces is everywhere in his new poems. The style is something of a departure from his previous long lines reminiscent of C K Williams. Made up of fourteen terse lines of two or three words each (a bow towards the sonnet form), each poem is written in couplets, with spaces in between each couplet. Their real subject is silence; the attempt to find meaning in the interstices and lacunae of what appears to have been said. Here, Carson demonstrates a sympathy with his compatriot Beckett who wrote of:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. (Proust and the Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit.)

Written in three movements, the poems are full of darkness, illuminated only by tentative chinks of light in the small hours and the first flutters of birdsong. Meaning is elusive, seeping through slits and cracks, nooks and crannies. The dawn is full of the wail of sirens or as in ‘Between’:

two hoots
of a factory horn

an aperture
of silence two

puffs of smoke
an afterthought

against the blue
of night

becoming morning
as you stoop

below the lintel
to step out

into the street
beware

Mortality overshadows these poems. In the first light ‘flickering / through the slats’, ‘we turn on / the radio for / but will not hear / about tomorrow’. They are infused with a sense of waiting, though for what is not made clear. The image of the common medicinal flower eyebright or euphrasia is scattered among these poems as a metaphor for clear-sightedness. Yet such clarity is only ever fleeting:

we speak in sign
language at times

not in so many words.

Remembering and forgetting, and the memories we choose, or are capable of hanging on to, are themes that run through this work like a refrain. At school Carson was influenced by Hopkins and Frost, both poets whose meaning lurks behind the heft and power of their language. He has said in the past that he is not interested in ideology, only in language. But these obdurately bleak poetic palimpsests reveal an endless search for a form of transcendence, which seems forever to be just out of reach.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Linda Chase
Not Many Love Poems

Published by Carcanet

Three very different books recently landed on my desk leading me to ask the fundamental question as to what it is that makes a poem. Turning to Terry Eagleton for advice he reminded me, in what he admits is a rather dreary definition, that “a poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end”. 1Morality is a surprising word in a modern, secular context, but Eagleton goes on to explain that the word “before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live more fully and enjoyably; and the word ‘moral’ in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience…. Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purpose”. It was bearing this statement in mind that I read these three books.

There is a special responsibility to reviewing a collection by someone who has recently died. It is, in effect, a final word. There are no future chances for the poet to change directions or to have another go. Linda Chase, the American poet, who died of cancer aged 69, lived in Britain for 40 years but her essential American spirit continued to colour her work and life. Growing up in Long Island, New York she studied English and creative writing before moving to San Francisco. Her influences were home grown: William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and the Beats. A child of the 1960s her poems are infused with the values and insouciance of that singular decade. Deceptively informal, her verse is colloquial and uninhibited, at times deeply moving, on other occasions inclined towards bathos. The range of material in this, her last book, Not Many Love Poems, is wide ranging and includes: teenage sex on the sofa, a relationship with a new lover, illness and radiotherapy. Chase tells stories of friendships, love affairs and relationships with family, celebrating the gift of “numberless, glorious, blessed days”. The first poem, Our Life, poignantly reduces a shared life, and a single death, to seven two-lined stanzas and five decades beginning: “In the 40s we swam/like fish in the water-turtle lake”, and gets as far as the 80s when “I buried you.” Its power lies in the small incidentals remembered: “In the 70s I threw you/an apple from an upstairs window” and the unsettling fact that these unembellished, almost throwaway, fourteen lines stand for a whole lived existence. Elsewhere there is youthful passion to be found in an Airstream Bubble Trailer where “the table is never up/since the bed is needed day and night”, and there are poems about betrayal, love and illness including the stark and bravely feisty Pronouncement:

This is big, really big.
Now I can feel how big
it is, she says, examining
a scramble of red grey
hair snared in one hand.

Love is an important theme, as in Dare, where a couple innumerate the ways that they would mourn the other’s demise. “Let’s talk about death, she said. You first.” Not all these poems are of equal magnitude, not all of them are strong enough to stand alone but as a collection they exude warmth, tenacity and guts and are, therefore, more than an adequate testament to one life richly lived.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Gillian Clarke
A Recipe for Water

Published by Carcanet

Showing not Telling

Sue Hubbard finds what slips between languages in collections by Gillian Clarke, Valérie Rouzeau and Ciaran Carson.

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin asks, ‘What does a literary work “say”?’. ‘No poem’, he suggests, ‘is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener’. In this statement he seems to be implying that a work of art is always a showing rather than a telling and goes on to add:

Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.

Ultimately, translation, he suggests, serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. Benjamin appears to take Freud’s view that art, at its best, reveals the latent content behind what is manifest. Freud said of poets:

“… One may well sigh, when one realizes that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity”.

Groping towards meaning is thus the role of psychologist, translator and poet alike. For as in psychoanalysis profound insights are reached through the revelation of what it is we really meant rather than what it is we have apparently said. A poem, thus, becomes an act of almost alchemical transformation, a translation between feeling, meaning and language. This reciprocal relationship between languages, this revelation of what exists in its gaps and spaces, is what these three books have in common. Meaning exists in the gaps between Clarke’s Welsh and English, between the French baby-talk, neologisms and translated English of Rouzeau and Wicks, and in the echoes of Irish, especially the genre of song known as sean-nós (‘old style’), which linger behind Carson’s terse English lines.

Gillian Clarke is one of the central figures in contemporary Welsh poetry, the third to take up the post of National Poet of Wales. Born in Cardiff, she currently runs an organic smallholding in Ceredigion; the Welsh landscape and language are the shaping forces behind her work, providing a framework for self-definition. She exemplifies this position in Pocket Dictionary. Finding a dictionary inscribed in her father’s hand she says:

Here the world
began, and then is now. I am searching
for definitions, ambiguities, way
down through the strata, topsoil, rubble
a band of clay, an inch or so of gravel…

As an archaeologist might search for an understanding of a lost civilization she excavates the dictionary looking for ‘a gleam of meaning, / a sudden uprise of remembering’. For Clarke memory is synonymous with language. In First Words, ‘the alphabet of the house’ was made up of her grandmother’s ‘Cariad, not Darling. / Tide and current are llanw, lli’. The sea speaks in tongues. It tells her forgotten stories, scattering fragments on the shore like longhand in half-remembered, often forbidden Welsh. Clarke’s world is full of the here-and-now, which makes her accessible to a wide range of readers. Whether she is describing a diving otter –

the surface closing over
as the sounding rings of a splash,
smashed the moonlight,

– or the women ‘heaving cloth into tubs, load after load’, in her series on Mumbai, her rich imagery is located in the physical, sensual and actual world. Yet, immediate as her poems are, something deeper and more complex lurks beneath their surface. The past is another country, inhabited by another speech, her mother’s. Clarke was the child of a tenant farm, where her mother’s Welsh tongue was suppressed, ‘spat out like a curse’, so that it didn’t sound to the daughter like ‘a language older than legend’. In her Glas y Dorlan, Gillian Clarke describes stopping in the Brecon Beacons for a picnic as a child with her father. ‘Let’s begin by naming the creatures’, he announces. Then, with ‘a sudden electric blue’ and ‘a shock through the heart’, they see a kingfisher. Pioden y Dŵr, Glas y Dorlan. Blue-by-the Riverbank. Heritage is experienced through this dual relationship to language and the world named through words, which become triggers of remembrance as much as any Proustian madeleine.

Throughout these poems memory and water are intertwined. Names of rivers run through them – the Severn, the Dyfi, the Neb and Ouse. A man ‘wrapped in a waterfall, / undressing himself of the city’s dirt’ in India lets the ‘bright rope of water’ run through his hands. Here water becomes an element of rebirth, through which he will become cleansed and ‘blameless as a newborn’. Elsewhere Clarke remembers her father passing the time with stories as they drove to the sea, teaching her words ‘the ‘gw’and ‘w’ of wind and water, / the ll-ll-ll of waves on the shore’. Here was a child for whom the lost mother tongue became synonymous with the deepest emotions, those of a daughter for her father. ‘Tell me the names for the hare!’, she commands. ‘Sgwarnog for its long ears. / Cochen for it red-brown fur’, he tells her, as if sharing a secret. Clarke’s work is characterized by it inclusiveness, its humanity and deep feeling towards the landscape and natural world. There is only ever the very occasional false note, where something is overstated, such as a river becoming a ‘water-dragon’ in an unnecessarily Gothic image.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Jasmine Donahaye
Self-Portrait as Ruth

Published by salt
A Guidebook of Darkness

The title poem of Jasmine Donahaye’s collection Self-Portraitas Ruth gives a clue as to how to read these poems. As with Fernando Pessoa, there is a sense that life’s complexities are more easily faced from behind an adopted persona. Here, issues of displacement, nationality, exile and impossible love are dealt with against the backdrop of the biblical story of Ruth, a Moabite woman forced into exile who refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, later being rewarded by marriage to her kinsman Boaz. It is the same Ruth that we see toiling ‘amid the alien corn’ in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Yet here, in a wheat field where ‘a quad bike engine shuts off’ and ‘the tractor has not yet been turned on’, a woman undresses: ‘I pull down the straps of my dress and step out of its little silk collapse at my feet’. The poem seems to be set in Wales for ‘the boy on the quad bike tells his dog tyrd’ma’. Yet, in a highly sensual stanza, the protagonist speaks of oiling her thighs and buttocks, as instructed by her mother-in-law in preparation for seduction, adorning herself with the Yemenite jewels brought by the older woman into exile. Yet, unlike the biblical story where Ruth, though a stranger, is rewarded by marriage, ultimately becoming the great-grandmother of King David, here

…the men looking over their shoulders
expressionless, almost hostile,
are waiting for me,
a trespasser,
to leave.

Born in England, Jasmine Donahaye emigrated with her family to California, where she lived for twelve years before settling in mid-Wales and gaining a PhD in Welsh Writing in English from the University of Wales, Swansea. Her Jewish family has its roots in nineteenth-century Palestine and the book resonates with Israeli and Palestinian history, wrestling with conflicting perspectives of exile and home, tribe and religion, love and belonging. Through a variety of voices, and the shifting use of Welsh, Arabic and Hebrew words, Donahaye refuses to adopt a partisan stance, slipping between the claims and sympathies of both sides. In Thirst, an apparently female Palestinian voice cries: ‘Atash, thirst, tzamah: in any language / an open mouth, a plea’ Looking across at an armed Israeli soldier, with his ‘macho promise’, she asserts that ‘What you say about us is untrue’. Tensions start first with thirst, leading to Palestinian resentment and then Israeli disgust. The denial of water becomes a form of emotional rape as the soldier strikes a rock and ‘a thousand streams ejaculate’. For such ‘petty rage’ the poem argues, ‘your right of return / has been revoked, / so why blame us for the exile?’

The hovering sense of catastrophe is further explored in the erotic love poem Palestina. Slipping past a border guard asleep at his post a female persona claims: ‘Here’s where it began… / a thousand years ago’. As she takes off her dress the soldier realizes that:

Her body was a map of
my body; where she had scars, I had scars.
I traced her terrain: the ruined watchtowers
where the gunmen had lain.

The histories and hurts of these contested lands are entwined like those of ill-fated lovers. There is a passionate anger here that refuses to attribute culpability uniquely to one group. Jewish guilt is faced head-on in Stoning, where the poem asserts that even when Abraham was offered Hebron by his new neighbours he ‘insisted nevertheless on paying 400 / Old Israeli Shekels’ while now ‘my people are throwing stones’ at a farmer, already attacked by ‘febrile women’, who silently ‘drops / like an empty sack’. The body, too, becomes a site of guilt and unease, as in Fetishes where an ambivalent desire for anal sex is conflated with the dilemma over whether or not to touch that holiest of holy sites, the Western Wall. In the oedipal poem My father’s circumcision, the moel (the Jewish circumciser) ‘with his ragged nail / tears the foreskin’ then ‘bends his head / to suck the wound’.

Who then, in this complex history of the Middle East, is innocent who culpable, when too many look away and fail to resolve these historic conflicts? Perhaps, as the poem suggests, we all have blood on our hands. Yet there are moments of respite, as in Water, where sweaty and dusty in a shop on Sderot Yerushalayim, the poet stops to buy refreshment and stands for a quiet moment in the cool of the shopseller’s shade: ‘he an Arab and I a Jew, / and water simply water’. In 2006 Jasmine Donahaye’s first collection Misappropriations was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. With this new collection she establishes herself as an assured, challenging and brave voice, unafraid of confronting difficult issues or upsetting those with more sectarian views.

The cover of Yang Lian’s Lee Valley Poems shows a cluster of dark bulrushes, like calligraphic marks, against an early morning mist. Whilst I would not suggest judging a book by its cover, it does say a good deal about Yang Lian’s poetry. One might be forgiven for thinking that the location is some remote spot in his native China. In fact it is a misty morning on Walthamstow Marshes. This elision of place is touched upon in his introductory essay: A Wild Goose Speaks to Me at the beginning of this new collection. Here he states:

There is no international, only different locals … What is ‘local’? Are its contents geographical, psychological, historical, language- based or even linguistics-based? … ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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Book Reviews

Mark Doty
Firebird A Memoir

Published by Jonathan Cape
Over the Rainbow

This high- wire artist of American poetry has come down to earth with a moving, intimate memoir.

When I first heard Mark Doty read, a number of years ago in London, his work was utterly new to me so I was unprepared for its impact. Here was a different poetry to the, all too often, ironic word play – poetry as BritArt – that pervades so much of the English scene. Here were poems that grabbed your heart and squeezed it till it missed a beat. In two of his best-known collections, My Alexandra and Atlantis, not only did he deal with AIDS, with grief, life and art, he also spun intricate linguistic webs, so fine, so fragile that he risked them dissolving into hyperbole, yet was somehow so certain, so sure-footed that he never fell from his high wire.

Full of light and shimmer, of surface sheen and sensual detail, Doty’s poetry mixes an acute observation of the perceived world with an astute poetic ear to create lines that not only luxuriate like a sinuous sequined dancer in their own beauty, but also have a sense of real urgency. Both scintillating and searing, he seems to have created a new poetic form; a synthesis of emotional power and linguistic experimentation. So a Doty publication is awaited with anticipation.

Firebird is his new memoir, a form much over-exploited in contemporary American writing, but which Doty manages to elevate to the discipline and structure of a well crafted novel. His language is much simpler than in the poems and, therefore, in a sense more intimate, for one is not dazzled in the same way by its pyrotechnics. In the prelude he is in London awaiting the results of the T.S. Eliot prize (which he wins) looking, in the National Gallery, at Perspective Box with Views of a Dutch Interior by the 17th century Dutch painter, Samuel Von Hoogstraten. This image of piecing the fractured world back into some sort of shape or meaning echoes Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theories of the creative impulse. It is not what we have experienced or seen, but the way that we reconfigure it that ultimately counts. “Does he mean,” Doty asks of Von Hoogsraten, “that even the most distorted form might come true? No matter how deep the trouble, how twisted the form, the rectifying lens of art could set it right?”

As a “chubby, smart, bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent” with an ‘artistic’ mother prone to alcohol and religious mania, a father who worked in aluminium, and with phallic appropriateness, on the Apollo moon rocket at Cape Canaveral, and a wild sister who ended up in prison for credit fraud, Doty had more than enough to contend with before discovering the early stirrings of his gay sexuality. Through a collection a acutely observed period detail: his absorption in the delights of the knick-knacks found in his sister’s bureau draw, his flirtation with the songs of Petula Clarke and Judy Garland, and above all his love of dance where he identifies with the Firebird “Isn’t it fire itself, the fact of burning which enables the bird to dance”, Doty begins his long journey towards self-acceptance and that of his dysfunctional family. This is not before his psychedelic experimentations with drugs and a near shooting by his deranged mother.

The memoir may lack some of the linguistic glitter-dust of the poems, but Doty holds us from the start on his emotional roller-coaster towards his artistic redemption and always avoids the easy and pat. For despite the transcendent finale, when he and his current partner visit the Virgin of Guadalupe who has appeared in Salt Lake City, he is acutely aware that “reconciliation and resolution are things that happen in stories, and are never complete in life.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2000

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Book Reviews

Susan Elderkin
The Voices

ISBN: 978-1-84115-202-8
Published by Harper Perennial
Paperback
130 x 197mm

Spirits of the land, who sit in hammocks and watch TV A strange, supernatural story doesn’t quite convince

“When I was about three,” Susan Elderkin said, when interviewed about her first novel, Sunset Over Chocolate Mountain, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, “…so young that I couldn’t write, I just wanted to tell stories. I could barely talk. It’s just the earliest thing I can remember that I wanted to write stories. I remember learning to write with a pencil at school, and thinking that it’s really important that I learn to write so that I can write my stories down.”

Named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, she has just published her second novel. Such glittering credentials are a huge pressure on a young writer, for it leads the reader to expect a good deal. The Voices is a big book – more than 300 pages – a strange, magical realist sort of a novel where the first character we meet is the wind. Set in the remote, sun-baked landscape of the Australian bush, it is, in a sense, a moral tale. One which warns that modernity is in danger of cutting itself off from the natural world, from the old lore and atavistic knowledge of the Aboriginal people who were once deeply connected to this blood-red landscape through their totemic relationships with the rocks, animals and birds, their song-lines and dreamings.

Billy is a lonely boy. His young mother, Crystal, has never quite taken to him, more concerned with being the sexiest girl in town and her adulterous relationship with the Aboriginal Stevo with the big “wonga” who works at the servo. On the edge of manhood at 13, Billy is the boy who asks awkward questions in class. “It doesn’t make sense,” he protests. “How am I supposed to know what’s right and what’s wrong?” Introverted and ignored, he turns for answers and a sense of identity to the stones and rocks that he collects, and to his beloved roos. “He’d never shoot a roo. Never ever. Billy loves these kangaroos more than anything else in the world – more than himself, he reckons.” Then one day Billy hears strange singing. It is a small Aboriginal girl who has sung him up. She names him Wallamba or “kangaroo boy”; from this moment his life changes in ways over which he seems to have little control.

Juxtaposed with this narrative we find Billy, 10 years later, in a hospital in Alice Springs. He has been in a fight and has mysterious injuries to his thighs and genitals which it is rumoured he received from a “run-in with some Wongis. Got himself a taste of black-fella law”. The doctors diagnose him as schizophrenic. In fact he has been running from the voices in his head, which are actually the spirits of the land, and from his own sense of transgression. Only Cecily, his Aboriginal nurse, will listen.

There is much that is finely observed here about the life of poor whites and “half-blood” Aboriginals in this far-flung corner of down under. Whether you fall in love with this book will depend if you buy the chatty colloquial style of the voices of these ancient bearded beings, lying around in hammocks, picking up the phone and watching TV, like antipodean Rumplestiltskins.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

The Art of Tracey Emin

ISBN 978-0-50028-385-1
Published by Thames & Hudson
23.50 x 15.80 cm
Paperback
224pp
54 Illustrations
First published 2002

The art of a self-made icon

She’s come a long way, has “Mad Tracey from Margate”, the girl with ‘big tits’, who bunked off school, shagged older men behind the beach huts, had an abortion or two and famously walked out of a TV interview drunk. Not only does she make mucky beds for the Tate, turn up at all the best private views dressed to kill in Vivienne Westwood, have a posh house round the corner from Gilbert and George, appear on the cover of every glossy magazine but she has even been guest editor of the Guardian weekend colour section. Now a clutch of critics and academics has written a book of essays about her, The Art of Tracey Emin. Soon there will be a course in some university department in “Tracy Studies” and her transformation into cultural ‘icon’ will be complete. Madonna watch out!

Like Princess Di, Tracey Emin has made a cult of victimhood and dysfunction. From poor-little-abused-girl she has reinvented herself as a superstar. Hers is an art for a TV generation hooked on celebrity and the voyeuristic exploits of Big Brother. Her detractors talk of “High art lite” but it is, as with Diana, her artful ambiguity that makes her hard to dismiss. She has made folksy tents hand-sewn (mostly by assistants) with the names of everyone she has ever slept with in dyslexic mirror script and hysterical videos about her abortions. But she has also made some wonderfully nervy drawings and monoprints that owe their spirit to the Expressionism of Munch, the transgressive sexuality of Egon Schiele and the man who once said ‘anyone could be an artist’, Joseph Beuys.

One of the delights of this book is watching academics’ ability to tie themselves in knots and turn anything into critical discourse. Many might consider Ulrich Lehmann’s essay a prime candidate for Pseud’s Corner. For not only does he sight Baudelaire, but Freud and Wittgenstein’s Tractus to theorize Emin’s work, which seems to be using a rather big hammer to crack an easy nut. Much more resonant is Jennifer Doyle’s essay that examines Emin’s work in the context of first wave feminists such as Judy Chicargo and Cindy Sherman and talks of the “blurring [of] the boundary between Emin’s person, her work and her public persona”. Or the late Lorna Healy’s essay deconstructing how Emin uses ‘Pop-cultural strategies’ in her videos to seduce her ‘fans’ who shout out ‘I love you Tracey’ when they see her. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that for Auerbach. Healy asserts that it is Emin’s powerful mixture of vulnerability and assertiveness to which her audience responds. They want to ‘be’ her, ’empathise’ with her ‘neurosis’, her ‘wounded’ psyche. For one of the problems is that viewers so often, in this age of therapy, have an inability to discern the elision between the consciously constructed ‘narrative’ of Emin’s oeuvre and her apparent tear-stained autobiographical ‘disclosures’.

There is no doubt that her work is narcissistic and solipsistic and her anarchic desire to ‘epater le bourgeois’ begins to seem rather disingenuous as she moves towards middle age relishing the very trappings that are her passport into that fold. But her art is born out of a society where few are rewarded for their perspicacious philosophical insights or their craft, but rather for the exposure of their anorexic angst or their exploits in the Oval office. Exhibitionism is the new Expressionism. Joseph Beuys was wrong; not any one can be an artist. But as Monica, Vanessa, Diana and now Tracey demonstrate, anyone can be a star.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Margaret Forster
Keeping the World Away

ISBN: 978-0-701179-82-3
Published by Chatto & Windus
352 pages

Still lives and hidden passions

At the height of his fame the flamboyant artist Augustus John predicted that “50 years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother”. It may have taken a little longer, but retrospectives at the Barbican and Tate have shown that it was indeed the quiet sister who was the real artistic innovator, and not the bravura brother with an eye for a finely drawn line and a well-turned ankle.

Introverted yet defiant, Gwen John modelled and painted in the bohemian circles of fin-de-siècle Paris, where she became the mistress of the much older and very famous Rodin. Her meditative paintings that include cats, nuns, self-portraits and empty attic rooms have a Zen-like stillness that masks the inner turmoil she experienced as she waited in the grip of obsession for her lover to visit, a lover for whom she was only ever a diversion from the main themes of his art and the long-standing relationship with his companion, Rose.

Painting the same subject again and again, Gwen John used the interior of rooms to explore abstract space. Her female figures become more expressionistic until they seem almost to dissolve towards abstraction. Reclusive after her disappointment in love, she moved to Meudon where her “Rules to Keep the World away” included not having more social intercourse than was strictly necessary.

Margaret Forster’s novel takes as its starting-point the trajectory of a supposedly lost painting by John, which touches the lives of a number of women over a century. Beginning with Gillian, on a school trip to the Tate, the book ends with her becoming the guardian of the little painting which has been lost, stolen and almost destroyed during its journey from Paris to Hampstead and Chelsea, via a trip to Cornwall during the Great War and a brief sojourn in the wilds of Scotland.

Gillian is left the painting by a barely-known benefactress because she has understood its “real” meaning. It is then to pass from woman to woman, becoming an unlikely symbol of feminist solidarity. In clear prose, Forster creates essentially a series of short stories interlinked by the fate of the painting and the lives of the protagonists. Near the beginning we see something of Gus and Gwen’s childhood in Tenby and her ill-fated relationship with Rodin. But for a book about a painter, there is never a real sense of what it means technically and intellectually to struggle to make a painting; something that preoccupied Gwen John.

Perhaps the most touching and finely drawn character is the lumpen but intelligent Edwardian daughter of Lord Falconer, Charlotte. After an educational trip to Italy with her enlightened father, she blossoms from ugly duckling to acceptably attractive bluestocking, realising that her desire to be a painter, like the unknown woman artist of the little canvas in her possession, is an unrealistic pipe dream.

Forster uses the lost painting to speak of women’s lives and to create a metaphorical thread that links them. Well crafted, if a little contrived, the book lacks a certain passion in comparison with the wonderful biography of Gwen John by Sue Roe. It’s all a bit safe, a bit middle-of-the-road and middle-class. I’m not sure that the fiercely individualistic, and truly bohemian, Gwen John would have approved.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Cynthia Freeland
But Is It Art?

Published by Oxford University Press

So now it seems, that among their other duties such as policing the streets of London, the Metropolitan police have become art critics, when this weekend they paid a visit to the Saatchi Gallery to denounce the work of the photographer Tierney Gearon, who has taken nude photographs of her own small children disguised behind masks, pissing in the snow and playing on the beach. It would be interesting to hear what arguments the Met use to decide whether or not Ms Gearon’s work is art. With what critical theory they substantiate their case. Remember, too, the outcry in 1976, the accusations about the waste of public money, the sensational publicity when Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) – a load of old bricks – was bought by the Tate and then subsequently vandalised. Contemporary art seems, more than any other creative form, to invoke the ire of the middle-brow. There appears to be a brooding anxiety that somehow they are being duped, that those clever-dick artists are pulling the wool over their eyes. Dripped paint, nudes smeared in blue and pulled across a canvas, elephant dung and unmade beds – why a child could do that! In her extremely lucid But is it art? Cynthia A. Freeland, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, Texas, has written a book of simplicity and clarity that may well come to rival John Berger’s celebrated Ways of Seeing as a readers’ digest that deconstructs the rubric of theories that make up contemporary art criticism. What becomes manifest is that so often it is the wrong question that is asked. For rather than a baffled ‘But is it art?’ the pertinent query should be ‘is it good art?’

In language as concise as any English teacher could wish for and mercifully free of ‘art speak’ – she challenges the sacred cow of obfuscation so prevalent in art writing by announcing in the introduction that “A theory should help things make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon and weighty words”. Oh that many an art magazine editor should be forced to read her! Freeland then cavorts with bravura and aplomb through theories about blood, ritual, beauty, and sexual politics. She moves with consummate skill ducking and weaving through different readings of Greek tragedy, Chartres Cathedral, African nail fetish sculpture and Native American dance to an analysis of Baudrillard’s simulacrum and Walter Benjamin’s theories on reproduction to digital media and MTV.

She reminds us that for most tribal people art and artefact are not distinguishable, that the notion of the individualistic artist is a modern, western construct and that Medieval European Christians did not make ‘art’ as we understand it, but saw themselves as skilled craftsmen who tried to emulate and celebrate God’s divine beauty on earth. She starts in myth and ritual and shows how art rooted in these gave cohesion to older societies, pointing out that modern artists cannot take this consensus of shared beliefs in their audience for granted and that meaning is therefore mutable. This, she suggests, can lead to a sense of shock and abandonment, so that art may be perceived as something alien or ‘other’. Symbols used in religious art such as blood, become shocking when employed by artists like Andres Serrano in his infamous Piss Christ, 1987, which makes use, as the name suggests, of bodily fluids.

Kant is nominated as the predecessor to modern scientific psychologists who judge concepts of beauty by studying viewers’ eye movements when subjected to visual imagery and his influential definition of beauty is explained as that which has “purposiveness without a purpose”. This sense of ‘rightness’, manifested largely through form rather than through meaning, developed into the modernist theories of ‘significant form’ expounded by Roger Fry and the notions of ‘flatness’ championed by the American critic Clement Greenberg. Wagner, Kant’s notion of the Sublime, and Andy Warhol are all discussed and Freeland illustrates how it is now impossible to separate art theories from the practice of making art, so interdependent have they become. The ‘primitive’, the ‘exotic’ and the feminine are all rapidly explored and whilst she is careful not to privilege one philosophical stance over another, one senses that her own view of art probably accords with the critic John Dewey’s who claims that art “expresses the life of a community.”

This is a valuable book for anyone perplexed by the arcane theorizing of contemporary art. It is, in the end, optimistic, displaying just about a respectable degree of scepticism illustrated in the quote from the environmental artist, Robert Irwin that ‘art’ “has come to mean so many things that it doesn’t mean anything any more.” Nonetheless Freeland endorses his view that art is perhaps best described as “a continuous expansion of our awareness of the world around us.” For art can both enhance an awareness of ourselves as well as challenge and expand our perceptual relationship to our surroundings. For this reason – dead sheep or not – we will continue to create it and look at it in an attempt to make sense of the complexities of our fractured modern lives.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Michael Glover
Only So Much

Published by Savage Poets Collective

Three very different books recently landed on my desk leading me to ask the fundamental question as to what it is that makes a poem. Turning to Terry Eagleton for advice he reminded me, in what he admits is a rather dreary definition, that “a poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end”. 1Morality is a surprising word in a modern, secular context, but Eagleton goes on to explain that the word “before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live more fully and enjoyably; and the word ‘moral’ in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience…. Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purpose”. It was bearing this statement in mind that I read these three books.

To receive endorsements from John Ashbery and Joseph Brodsky sets up a degree of expectation. Only so Much is Michael Glover’s seventh collection. A critic and the editor of the online poetry magazine the Bow-Wow shop, as well as a poet, his enigmatic poems create a series of small psychodramas and stories. The shadowy presence of another, addressed only as ‘you’, suffuses the title section of the book. Always elusive we are never entirely sure whether this is a lover or an idea, a part of the self or another. “Let me make of you what I will”, “I am, as ever, expectant for you”, “You were never what you said you would be,” and “yes, you were never quite yourself”, the poet writes tantalisingly. There are numerous images of leaving and parting: “Surely you are not still here/When I told you to go,” “That you left me when all love was over,” “waving goodbye, goodbye”, and “I stealthily watched my own careful departure”. Love, in Glover’s world, seems to be a hazardous business.

“When I enter the door to that room by which you have entered…” the teasing opening lines of The Enigma of the Hour, based on a painting by de Chirico, part of a commission by the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence for an exhibition in 2010, only continues the sense of alienation. Here language becomes ever more unstable and surreal; rocks grind their teeth, the piazza leans against the walls, clocks live and breathe. A sense of loss hangs over the poem. “Lovely you were on your wedding day…../If I only knew your name.” Images of doors proliferate throughout these poems: “half-shut and half-open”, “The door of your home. The door of the womb”, suggesting points of transition or rites of passage between different emotional states.

For someone who writes about art there are, as you would expect, further poems based on paintings: on Hockney and Shani Rhys James, as well as Andrew Wyeth. There is also a humorous poem to a potato and an impassioned plea for the place of poetry in the modern world: “Make us all saleable again as in the old days, /When poems would fly from the shelves like bread from the baker’s.” Idiosyncratic and evocative these haunting poems ‘unspool’ – to use John Ashbery’s word – in the mind, leaving a sense of something barely glimpsed and strangely enigmatic.

Linda Chase
Not Many Love Poems
Published by Carcanet

There is a special responsibility to reviewing a collection by someone who has recently died. It is, in effect, a final word. There are no future chances for the poet to change directions or to have another go. Linda Chase, the American poet, who died of cancer aged 69, lived in Britain for 40 years but her essential American spirit continued to colour her work and life. Growing up in Long Island, New York she studied English and creative writing before moving to San Francisco. Her influences were home grown: William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and the Beats. A child of the 1960s her poems are infused with the values and insouciance of that singular decade. Deceptively informal, her verse is colloquial and uninhibited, at times deeply moving, on other occasions inclined towards bathos. The range of material in this, her last book, Not Many Love Poems, is wide ranging and includes: teenage sex on the sofa, a relationship with a new lover, illness and radiotherapy. Chase tells stories of friendships, love affairs and relationships with family, celebrating the gift of “numberless, glorious, blessed days”. The first poem, Our Life, poignantly reduces a shared life, and a single death, to seven two-lined stanzas and five decades beginning: “In the 40s we swam/like fish in the water-turtle lake”, and gets as far as the 80s when “I buried you.” Its power lies in the small incidentals remembered: “In the 70s I threw you/an apple from an upstairs window” and the unsettling fact that these unembellished, almost throwaway, fourteen lines stand for a whole lived existence. Elsewhere there is youthful passion to be found in an Airstream Bubble Trailer where “the table is never up/since the bed is needed day and night”, and there are poems about betrayal, love and illness including the stark and bravely feisty Pronouncement:

This is big, really big.
Now I can feel how big
it is, she says, examining
a scramble of red grey
hair snared in one hand.

Love is an important theme, as in Dare, where a couple innumerate the ways that they would mourn the other’s demise. “Let’s talk about death, she said. You first.” Not all these poems are of equal magnitude, not all of them are strong enough to stand alone but as a collection they exude warmth, tenacity and guts and are, therefore, more than an adequate testament to one life richly lived.

Peter Robinson
The Returning Sky
Published by Shearsman Books

Peter Robinson is a vicar’s son. Born and brought up in Salford he remembers his parents performing madrigals. His literary education was further advanced by the singing of poems set to music by William Blake, George Herbert and William Cowper, long before he knew what they were. After working part-time for the 1988 Poetry International at the South Bank he went off to teach in Kyoto. His new book, The Returning Sky, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, collects together poems written over the four years from the time he left Japan and returned to England, through the global financial crisis and on into the current new austerity. The opening sequence, inspired by a trip to the US, captures its intrinsic ‘otherness’. A collapsed corpse on the street corner of Wiltshire and Westwood lies ignored while Stranger than Fiction plays at the local movie house. This sets the tone where things both ordinary yet strange intrude from the periphery: the radio broadcast of the president’s speech from a “worker’s too-loud radio” in the Art Institute in Chicago, the “Christmas tree decked out on the thirteenth floor” in a hotel window across the way. Gary Metro, with its “snow flurries turning to thin rain” and “rust-belt squalor” reveals a world where money is “growing tighter” and ubiquitous FOR SALE signs proliferate on properties that are now unsalable due to the sub-prime scandal.

Being lost and trying to find one’s way are recurring themes In Robinson’s work. In Peripheral Vision, a poem set in a northern suburb of Parma, Italy, “we arrive from elsewhere, /foxed by a new gyratory system/…and we’ll be lost once more”. His poems grow out of the circumstances thrown up by his life so that even a return home to Reading, with its Whiteknights Park – once the scene of extravagant parties hosted by the Fifth Duke of Marlborough and now part of the university campus with its Human Resources centre – seems uncanny. While down by the canal, near the onetime Huntley & Palmers factory: “A sudden scent of wood smoke/rises across locked, sluggish water/where a drowned white bicycle seems to float up from the depths,” surfacing like a lost memory. Reading may not intrinsically have much more inherent ‘poetic’ potential than John Betjeman reckoned Slough possessed but many of Robinson’s poems are set there. Those such as Reading Gaol feel a bit contrived – competent poetic exercises rather than felt experiences – where thoughts on the price of items in Reading Homebase are conflated with Wildian quotes about killing the thing you love. This is a big book with copious end notes, which means that, at times, the poems feel too explained. Robinson is at his best when describing the strangeness of marginalia such as “Thick gas pipes snake from underground/to cross the Kennet’s course/beside a red-brick rail bridge”, as in Gasometers , or “a creosoted shed/ with ivy bursting through its boards-“, an image that reminds me of Mahone’s mushrooms, in the fine poem Like a Foreign Country, where time is distorted and realigned like perspectives in a mirror so that a return ‘home’ feels as strange as being in a foreign country.

Days gone, terraces, terra incognita,
were like our faces redefined
at a bathroom mirror when it’s cleaned;
for time had taken its advantage
over us, the gained
and lost perspectives realigned.
That much would have to be explained.

1 Terry Eagleton: How to Read a Poem. Blackwell Publishing 

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Germaine Greer
The Boy

ISBN: 978-0-500284-88-9
Published by Thames & Hudson
280 x 216 mm
Paperback 256pp
206 Illustrations, 177 in colour

Woman’s right to ogle

In his seminal 1972 work, Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote that “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” In a nutshell, this was the foundation of most feminist art criticism of the 1970s, by writers such as Griselda Pollock and Whitney Chadwick. They were to challenge the image of the passive nude female, lying like an inert odalisque draped across a velvet couch for the delectation of the male gaze. This work paralleled much of the gender analysis undertaken by Germaine Greer in her infamous The Female Eunuch.

Never one to go gentle into that good night, Greer has written about most phases of womanhood, including, most recently, the menopause. Now she seems to have decided to become a frisky old dame and research the delights of “the boy” in visual and literary culture. Greer claims, as the last bastion to be mounted, a woman’s right to ogle. Her argument is that during three decades of sexual politicking, women have forgotten the sensual delights to be had from the short-lived beauty of the young male, located between the sprouting of his first pubic hair and the growth of his beard. History has assumed, she argues, the viewer to be male and the history of the male nude to be the history of homosexuality in visual arts. Think Colette and Chéri, and you get something of her gist as to the delights that await the older woman with the young man.

Although The Boy is a scholarly work, there is a sense that Greer has picked a subject with which to have a good romp. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, she admits that “girls and grandmothers are both susceptible to the short-lived charm of boys, women who are looking for a father for their children less so.” She traces art’s obsession with the beautiful boy; from classical images of Apollo and Dionysos, and Michelangelo’s David, to the curled beaux of Van Dyck, pointing out that it is often the androgynous, feminised characteristics of the boy that make him vulnerable and appealing. Small boys, as shown in 18th-century portraits, were dressed as girls in muslin gowns.

The boy is examined in his many incarnations as naked martyr à la St Sebastian, winged angel, boy soldier, toy boy, seducer and narcissist. Boyhood, according to Greer, is a time of rampant sexuality and play with little thought of responsibility. Thank goodness she was never the mother of teenage sons!

In modern times the boy has also become an erotic focus. Think Jimmy Page of The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, with his red-gold curls, bare chest and dirty dancing, or Jim Morrison, his boyish hips clad in snakeskin trousers, or the young Elvis: embodiments of Dionysian rapture as they are followed by screaming bands of young girls, a horde of slavering Maenads.

Thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated, The Boy nevertheless falls between two stools. The argument, unlike its feminist precursor that reclaimed the female body from the male gaze, does not seem really significant in terms of art history and amounts to a footnote within critical theory. Others of a more voyeuristic bent might feel cheated that the book is rather dryer and less erotic than the title promises. But, no doubt, Germaine had fun.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Philip Gross
The Water Table

Published by Bloodaxe

A Guidebook of Darkness

In the 1990s, as a judge for the Writers’ Inc poetry competition, I was delighted to announce Philip Gross’s emotionally arresting sequence The Wasting Game, based on his daughter’s experience of anorexia, as an undoubted winner. I mention this simply because at the time he felt there had been little interest in the poem (though the book of The Wasting Game went on to be shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread Award). I suppose the moral of this is that as a poet you never know. You just have to work hard and hold faith. I suspect that at the time its rawness went rather against the zeitgeist for irony and cleverness. Now, of course, Philip Gross’s hard work and faith – he has been writing for more than thirty years – have been rewarded by the T S Eliot Prize. Insouciance and ‘cleverness’ suddenly seem rather dated in a world where things continually fall apart and centres fail to hold. There appears to be a desire for the arts (literary, visual, and filmic – note the success of the Hurt Locker at the Oscars over the glitzy blue-peopled Avatar) to engage with the authentic, to reflect something of life’s spiritual frailty and uncertainty. Philip Grosss The Water Tabledoes just that.

Rooted in the landscape in Penarth in South Wales, where Gross lives and teaches Creative Writing at Glamorgan University, the connective watery thread that runs through these poems is that of the Bristol Channel, with its low tides and ‘forty foot drop to muddy shallows’, where:

With a gradual rip

Like a concord of lathes, with a crypt smell

two green-grey-brown stiffening blades

of water fold in.

From this first poem Sluice Angel, the dramatic tidal waters provide an aperture onto an alternative way of experiencing reality. ‘The tall shut doors of the hall / of the world at which the weight of water / of incipience does not need to knock’ transmute into something Hopkins-like and feathery; ‘wings / flexed, shuddering, not to soar / but to pour themselves down, to earth’. Water, landscape, industrial scenery and spiritual experience all meld to create meditations on the nature of the man-made world and our lost wilderness. Water becomes synonymous with the body but a ‘body that seems to have a mind’. Yet it is, as Gross tells us, an ‘unquiet body’, one that can ‘never lay down its silt’, that is ‘always trying to be something other, to be sky, / to lose itself in absolute reflection’. Water, thus, becomes a metaphor for an inchoate spiritual longing, the desire to transmute or evolve into something else.

These sentiments are revisited in ‘Design for the Water Garden’, where ‘A water-glass lens / through which you can see only water’ becomes the vehicle, in the surrounding dark matter, in which we are able to view ‘the stream through which light enters the world’. Light and silence are elements that punctuate Gross’s poetry. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this imagery comes from his practice as a Quaker. He has also claimed that as a result of growing up with his Estonian father, who makes repeated appearances within these poems, he was ‘brought up bilingual – in English and silence’. Light becomes synonymous with memory. At high tide on almost the longest day, ‘there is more light in the sea than the sky, / more recollection than reflection’. Gross has said that: ‘In a sense water in itself is nothing, but it is this perfectly clear, perfectly reflective substance in which you can see the world reflected in all its angles’. There is also wit here. In Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA he makes oblique reference to our ubiquitous desire for glossy lifestyles, where to shop is to feed our dreams and confirm our existence. IKEA becomes a modern-day temple, a ‘whole world’ and raison d’être:

We could see ourselves in one, these half-a-rooms

of dolls’ house lifestyle, life-sized (the books on the shelves

in Swedish).

Yet, as he wryly observes, customers ‘stumble out into…

astonishment / to see, after all, it’s just a shed’.

If there is any criticism of these poems – and it is a slight one – there is a tendency to forced colloquialisms that strive a little too officiously for vernacular credibility, as when the weather is described as ‘iffy’, or in the overstated description of ‘the bridge’s peppermint-cream / hint-of-neon filaments’. But these are quibbles; for this is a beautifully executed collection – a meditation on what it means to be human in a fluid, often seemingly meaningless, world. As Gross says of water in his poem Pour, it is:

a thing

in space, that lives in this world

like us, with purpose

though not one

least particle is constant, knows

its place, could account

or be held

to account for what it is or does.

Jasmine Donahaye
Self-Portrait as Ruth

Published by salt

The title poem of Jasmine Donahaye’s collection Self-Portrait as Ruth gives a clue as to how to read these poems. As with Fernando Pessoa, there is a sense that life’s complexities are more easily faced from behind an adopted persona. Here, issues of displacement, nationality, exile and impossible love are dealt with against the backdrop of the biblical story of Ruth, a Moabite woman forced into exile who refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, later being rewarded by marriage to her kinsman Boaz. It is the same Ruth that we see toiling ‘amid the alien corn’ in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Yet here, in a wheat field where ‘a quad bike engine shuts off’ and ‘the tractor has not yet been turned on’, a woman undresses: ‘I pull down the straps of my dress and step out of its little silk collapse at my feet’. The poem seems to be set in Wales for ‘the boy on the quad bike tells his dog tyrd’ma’. Yet, in a highly sensual stanza, the protagonist speaks of oiling her thighs and buttocks, as instructed by her mother-in-law in preparation for seduction, adorning herself with the Yemenite jewels brought by the older woman into exile. Yet, unlike the biblical story where Ruth, though a stranger, is rewarded by marriage, ultimately becoming the great-grandmother of King David, here

…the men looking over their shoulders

expressionless, almost hostile,

are waiting for me,

a trespasser,

to leave.

Born in England, Jasmine Donahaye emigrated with her family to California, where she lived for twelve years before settling in mid-Wales and gaining a PhD in Welsh Writing in English from the University of Wales, Swansea. Her Jewish family has its roots in nineteenth-century Palestine and the book resonates with Israeli and Palestinian history, wrestling with conflicting perspectives of exile and home, tribe and religion, love and belonging. Through a variety of voices, and the shifting use of Welsh, Arabic and Hebrew words, Donahaye refuses to adopt a partisan stance, slipping between the claims and sympathies of both sides. In Thirst, an apparently female Palestinian voice cries: ‘Atash, thirst, tzamah: in any language / an open mouth, a plea’ Looking across at an armed Israeli soldier, with his ‘macho promise’, she asserts that ‘What you say about us is untrue’. Tensions start first with thirst, leading to Palestinian resentment and then Israeli disgust. The denial of water becomes a form of emotional rape as the soldier strikes a rock and ‘a thousand streams ejaculate’. For such ‘petty rage’ the poem argues, ‘your right of return / has been revoked, / so why blame us for the exile?’

The hovering sense of catastrophe is further explored in the erotic love poem Palestina. Slipping past a border guard asleep at his post a female persona claims: ‘Here’s where it began… / a thousand years ago’. As she takes off her dress the soldier realizes that:

Her body was a map of

my body; where she had scars, I had scars.

I traced her terrain: the ruined watchtowers

where the gunmen had lain.

The histories and hurts of these contested lands are entwined like those of ill-fated lovers. There is a passionate anger here that refuses to attribute culpability uniquely to one group. Jewish guilt is faced head-on in Stoning, where the poem asserts that even when Abraham was offered Hebron by his new neighbours he ‘insisted nevertheless on paying 400 / Old Israeli Shekels’ while now ‘my people are throwing stones’ at a farmer, already attacked by ‘febrile women’, who silently ‘drops / like an empty sack’. The body, too, becomes a site of guilt and unease, as in Fetishes where an ambivalent desire for anal sex is conflated with the dilemma over whether or not to touch that holiest of holy sites, the Western Wall. In the oedipal poem My father’s circumcision, the moel (the Jewish circumciser) ‘with his ragged nail / tears the foreskin’ then ‘bends his head / to suck the wound’.

Who then, in this complex history of the Middle East, is innocent who culpable, when too many look away and fail to resolve these historic conflicts? Perhaps, as the poem suggests, we all have blood on our hands. Yet there are moments of respite, as in Water, where sweaty and dusty in a shop on Sderot Yerushalayim, the poet stops to buy refreshment and stands for a quiet moment in the cool of the shopseller’s shade: ‘he an Arab and I a Jew, / and water simply water’. In 2006 Jasmine Donahaye’s first collection Misappropriations was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. With this new collection she establishes herself as an assured, challenging and brave voice, unafraid of confronting difficult issues or upsetting those with more sectarian views.

The cover of Yang Lian’s Lee Valley Poems shows a cluster of dark bulrushes, like calligraphic marks, against an early morning mist. Whilst I would not suggest judging a book by its cover, it does say a good deal about Yang Lian’s poetry. One might be forgiven for thinking that the location is some remote spot in his native China. In fact it is a misty morning on Walthamstow Marshes. This elision of place is touched upon in his introductory essay: A Wild Goose Speaks to Me at the beginning of this new collection. Here he states:

There is no international, only different locals … What is ‘local’? Are its contents geographical, psychological, historical, language- based or even linguistics-based? … ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self.

Yang Lian
Lee Valley Poems

A Project of Poems and Translation with Polly Clark, Antony Dunn, Jacob Edmund, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, Agnes Hung-Chong Chan, Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, Arthur Sze

Published by Bloodaxe

Born in Berne, Switzerland in 1955, where his parents were in the diplomatic service, Yang Lian mostly grew up in Beijing, and, like millions of other young people from cultured backgrounds, was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ during the final years of the Cultural Revolution. It was after the death of his mother in 1976 that he began to write poetry and became, along with Bei Dao and Duoduo, one of Beijing’s leading experimental underground poets – known as ‘hermetic’ or ‘misty’ poets, a derogatory term created by conservative Marxist literary critics who resisted their avant-garde poetics. In 1988 he visited New Zealand where, after the brutal Tiananmen Square uprising of June 1989, he remained in exile until 1993, then making London his home.

In the first poem, Where the River Turns, written in four parts, the ‘two oily blue wings’ of water, where the river opens out, become a metaphor for the difficulties of cultural duality:

water spreads from two directions two flashbacks

where the river turns

(…)

you exist at the point of a fish bone

the past in two directions are both empty

Yang Lian’s poetry bridges the gap – arguably first explored in Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems in 1915 and a profound influence on twentieth century poetry – between the sensibility of Chinese traditional poetry and occidental modernism.

In The Journey, ‘the wild goose calls, a cry / thousands of miles away, piercing night’s whirlpool’. Yet despite this trigger of remembrance the ‘water tells nothing’. Language, Yang Lian suggests, has ‘no past tense, no nostalgia’. Memory lacks clarity; writing is merely a form of ‘ghost script’. It is only through the body that we really remember. The calls of the wild geese ‘transform the landscape; darkness / transforms my flesh’:

the pull of dreams

longing for each other over thousands of miles

all in the circle driven out by what isn’t yet written

only to circle back to here.

Through the act of writing, these poems become converted into the landscape of the inner self, part, as Yang Lian suggests, of the ‘I’ of the text. Hearing the cry of the wild goose above the Lee Valley’s waters, he is drawn back into the Tang dynasty. Time collapses. As he says here, ‘distant’ and ‘deep’ mean the same thing. Within a largely postmodernist discourse depth has, too often, been seen as contentious, as backward-looking. It is the terrain of modernism, of Freud and self-analysis, which eschews the novelty and eclecticism of the postmodern for the ‘depth’ of archaeology and history. Great poetry – good poetry even – needs to have the courage to face the dark void, to listen to the wild goose’s call and follow where it leads, like ‘following a guidebook of darkness’. This is just what Yang Lian does in a voice that is melodic, haunting and true.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

On the way to Work
by Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn

ISBN: 978-0-571202-57-7

Published by Faber & Faber
Hardback

The vulnerable underbelly of an artist in a pickle


So “the hooligan genius of Soho” turns out to be a nice Catholic boy from Leeds who really wanted to be a painter but ended up pickling sharks. He may have done drink and drugs and bared his bum in the Groucho, but he always “really loved this idea of art maybe, you know, curing people”. As with that other Catholic boy, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst is obsessed with death; and, as with Warhol, his mythological status reaches far beyond the art world to those who wouldn’t know a Pollock from a Picabia if it stood up and bit them. Just mention the word shark and someone will say knowingly “Ah! Formaldehyde”.

Part of the generation of Goldsmiths College students that includes Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, Hirst and his mates appealed to Charles Saatchi’s theatrical tastes and were shown in 1992 under the label Young British Artists (later branded “YBAs”). Even in his second year at Goldsmiths, Hirst was changing the face of the British art scene with Frieze, an exhibition he organised of his contemporaries at Canary Wharf.

In On the Way to Work (the title taken from paintings by Bacon and by Van Gogh), Gordon Burn has conducted a series of taped interviews with Hirst dating from 1992. It’s a tedious, lazy format that fetishises as holy writ every repetitious expletive uttered by the subject. Hirst has the habit of contradicting himself, so on one page he’ll be going hell for leather that “the less I feel like an artist the better”, only to insist later that he’s nothing if not an artist. But among the verbiage is revealed a man, still only in his early thirties, struggling with fame, money and a serious commitment to art; though at times he sounds more like an Alan Bennett “Talking Head” than a cutting-edge artist.

His greatest aesthetic influence was not, as might be expected, Marcel Duchamp but Mr Barnes, an old eccentric whose flat near Hirst’s childhood home was filled with years of collected detritus. As the enfant terrible of the private view, one might imagine he was of one of the “painting is dead” school. In fact, Hirst admits that “I’m kind of old-fashioned”.

His heroes are Bacon, whom he considers the last great painter, and Matisse. Bacon appeals for his violence and energy, Matisse for his colour. It seems odd, but Hirst thinks of himself as a colourist, a fact he insists is demonstrated by his spot paintings and the packaging in his medicine-cabinet installations. He is, he admits, quite a Romantic.

Yet looking back over a decade, this shouldn’t seem surprising. The fragility of existence has always been his big theme. He puts things behind glass (think of Bacon’s encased Popes) and creates modern icons. A shark becomes The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the life cycle of flies feeding off a dead cow’s head becomes a metaphor for resurrection and the notorious Mother and Child Divided – a dead cow with her calf suspended in formaldehyde – plays on the traditional iconography of religious art.

Yet in these pages Hirst comes across as more vulnerable than macho. He hates being alone and hardly conforms to the stereotype of the lonely artist in a garret. He was involved in setting up Pharmacy – a restaurant in Notting Hill, west London – and had sallies into the music world. “I’m a Gemini! I want to fucking share everything with everybody and have a party for the rest of my life.” It’s all part of wanting to be famous, to be the best drawer in his class at school, to be loved and live forever.

Maybe it’s because his dad left when he was a kid; and he wasn’t even his real dad. Now he is Damien Hirst the myth, he’s finding it more complicated to be Damien Hirst the man. He doesn’t just want to go on churning out “Damien Hirsts”. “You have a thing ahead of you in the future, what you’re going to become. You have this thing. You’ve always got it; you’ve always had it. Well, I don’t have it any more. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have it any more. No one.”

“I want the world to be solid,” he says. “But it’s so fluid and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Lynne Hjelmgaard
The Ring

Published by Shearsman Books


Incarnations of the Wild

Born in New York City in 1951 Lynne Hjelmgaard moved to Denmark in 1971. There she studied art and taught Creative Art to children before becoming a fulltime sailor. As a result of crossing the Atlantic with her husband she wrote her first chapbook in 2002 Distance Through the Water (I want Press, France). Now her new book-length sequence of poems, The Ring, follows the wanderings of a young widow as she moves from city to city in an attempt at to achieve emotional reparation.

There is a lightness of touch to these itinerant poems filled with smells and sounds, particularly of the sea: “the howl in the rigging”, the smell of “a sea dried sheet”. Nostalgia is conjured through an intense concentration on things:

“You bought woven saddle bags from Afghanistan
Containing one pair of pants, a toothbrush,
Two hard bound diaries with pages coming out and one pair of
underwear.
There was an Afghan coat you sold in the desert
And the dirty pots you threw out of your kitchen window.
(They were too hard to clean)”
(When we first met)

Other dreamlike poems evoke something of the monochromatic northern tones of a Vilehlm Hammershøi painted interior.

“the easiest path
to the sea
is through the wild roses
the peeling lounge chairs
on the terrace, lavender
where the deer sleeps in the morning.”

Essentially meditations on how loss changes love, these poems move from the lyrical: “Now I turn my pillow/to face the sliced moon” and” I remember you were/in Denmark hanging laundry up / I hear your clogs in the hall” to pragmatic instructions on how to avoid morbid self-pity: “You shall not think that you are special. / Join a group.” (Copenhagen Widow)

Throughout the voice is colloquial and spare avoiding the traps of emotional hysteria that all too often overwhelms the poems of loss by Sharon Olds. A restless peripatetic motion runs through the sequence constantly questioning what constitutes belonging and home. It is as if to stay too long in anyone place would involve facing too much reality, too great a confrontation with grief. Poems list things to do in each city visited: “Attend local poetic events./ Schmooze incessantly” (London). “Walk until tiredness and / hunger overwhelm you.” (Rome). “Go back / to get in touch / with familiar street smells: / the bread moist / fruit, him.” (Paris) “get a tattoo?” (Berlin). Grief, we are told, is the price we pay for love but ideas about love and life gradually shift and change as the protagonist observes an older widow friend who “cycles around Paris / in high heels, has a Cuban Tango partner / who comes up to her chin.”

“In the end is my beginning”. Finally, through her physical and emotional wanderings, the poet is able to see the world differently, embrace change and ask honestly and poignantly that most fundamental of questions as she finally takes off her wedding ring: “What do I want?”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

A.L. Kennedy
Day

ISBN: 978-0-224077-86-6
Published by Jonathan Cape
280pp

War of the words

A.L. Kennedy, readers and prize committees agree, is a lavishly talented writer. When she’s not churning out award-winning novels, she performs as a stand up comic and is, by all accounts, very funny. She claims it’s because she has a sad life – that she took up comedy to sustain her after the loss of an important friendship. Her many gifts promise equivalent sparkle from her new novel.

And Daydoes not disappoint. The warp and weft of the RAF tail-gunner anti-hero’s life is constructed from impeccable research at the Imperial War Museum and the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. The period detail is faultless: “the stink of drizzle rising up from wool and everywhere the smell of living blue: polish and hair oil and that sodding awful pinky-orange soap and Woodbines and Sweet Caporal and those other cheap ones, the ones they give away after ops: ‘Thames cigarettes, to flatten out the nerves.'”

Dayis the story of an RAF serviceman and prisoner of war who found meaning and escape – as did so many of his class and generation – from an unpromising upbringing in the war. Now, in 1949, he has been employed as an extra in a war film that mirrors much of his real experience. During the actual war, he found camaraderie in the fellowship of his crew, in the dangerous “ops”, the swearing and the dark shared humour.

Shipped out to Germany to an ersatz camp, a sort of simulacrum of the real thing, he begins to recall what, in many respects, he would prefer to forget: his boyhood in Staffordshire, where he was helpless to defend his mother against his drunken abusive father; the loss of his mates in bombing raids; and the not-altogether-satisfactory relationship with the woman in his life, Joyce. There is also the memory of his premeditated act of patricide – over which he seems to have no moral uncertainty – the revenge taken on his drunken father with a well-aimed brick, which toppled him into a river where he drowned.

In many ways, Day echoes Pat Barker’s powerful Regenerationtrilogy. But Barker’s tale was simply told – the unfamiliar rituals and details of the past were not clouded by riffs of experimental writing. There are times, in contrast, when Day’s shifts from third to second person, italics and unpunctuated sentences combine to create a kind of textual madness. Kennedy means, no doubt, to convey the disintegration of her central character’s personality – but this queasy loss of sanity is driven less by the narrative than by her novel’s discombobulating style. Period detail and bravura writing alone are not enough to create a sympathetic novel.

The technical trickery heightens the flashbacks experienced by A (Alfred) Day – a name presumably chosen to mark him out as an Everyman, a sort of archetypal Unknown Warrior. But the second person, a mode more suited to poetry and sustained moments of intimacy, is unconvincing – it feels, here, like little more than a means to constantly wrong-foot the reader.

Kennedy has defended her stylistic fireworks, saying in a recent interview that experimentation is “like anal sex” – if that’s not what readers want, then they should keep away. Yet, sustained over pages, her style is relentless, particularly as the narrative is told exclusively from Alfred’s point of view. Other characters – his mother, his girlfriend, even his close mate Pluckrose – all seem like ciphers rather than fully formed people.

Kennedy’s writing is often darkly funny, but there is little obvious humour in Day. Her novel is an audacious experiment, but its intrusive, self-conscious style prevents a story of potential pathos from ever truly touching the reader.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

James Lasdun
The Horned Man

ISBN: 978-0-099428-35-0
Published by Jonathan Cape

A paranoid tale of Manhattan transference

Lawrence Miller, an English lecturer in gender studies, is lying on the couch of his Manhattan analyst. He casually asks her whether she considers that his finding the marker left in the book he has been reading that morning, which appears to have moved without his knowledge, to be a case of parapraxis – “Freud’s term for the lapses of memory, slips of the tongue and other minor suppressions of consciousness.” Thus starts a tale of Borgesian complexity, a seemingly banal story of the life of a minor academic, which fast becomes a surreal descent into a dark world where fact, fantasy and fiction are barely distinguishable.

After the case of the apparently moving bookmark, Miller finds that he mistakes a woman in the street for his analyst and that his phone bill contains a number he has never called. These are only a few of the uncanny events that flag his shifting hold on reality and indicate a possible conspiracy implicating him in a series of brutal murders. Using both wit and black humour, James Lasdun contrasts the emotionally inept Miller, caught up in the campus straitjacket of political correctness, with his fellow English academic Bruno Jackson, a cavalier womaniser under investigation for sexual harassment.

Also peopling his etiolated world are a prim attorney who develops an inexplicable passion for him, his estranged wife, an elderly, glass-eyed neighbour and a Bulgarian translator of Kafka, dismissed from the college for his sexual shenanigans – he was, after all, “from a different culture”, “with a different set of values”. The translator may or may not be living a fetid Caliban-style existence under Miller’s desk, as well as being pathologically violent.

Best known as a poet and short-story writer, Lasdun writes terse and economic prose that borrows stylistically from Raymond Carver while employing the dislocating uncertainties of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. His complex narrative is reminiscent of a set of nested Russian dolls, and there is a pleasing interconnectedness to the plot that will delight jigsaw fanatics as they watch the story fit together with satisfying clicks.

Lasdun was born in England of Jewish extraction but lives in America: his themes, both in his recent collection of poetry Landscape with Chainsaw and in The Horned Man, pose questions about inclusion, class and belonging. Miller spends a great deal of time anxious about his interview for his Employment Authorisation Card; he feels “an elastic limit stretching only so far from the warm centres of human society. Step beyond it, and you couldn’t count on being gathered back in.” Lasdun’s Europeans are freely disdainful of the puritanical sexual mores in American academia, though this apparent irreverence is painfully contrasted with Miller’s experience as a young boy in England, when he catastrophically misreads a series of social and sexual codes.

While there are times when the protagonists can seem more like rooks and pawns in a game of chess than flesh and blood, it is Lasdun’s narrative skill and psychological exploration of the “hidden oubliettes of consciousness” that make The Horned Man a worthwhile read. In the end, he seems to suggest (unsurprisingly for a novelist and a poet) that reality is as much about how we live inside our heads as what goes on in the external world.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Roddy Lumsden
The Book Of Love

Published by Bloodaxe


Staying recently in a strange house after giving a reading, I chanced, in my room, upon an ancient copy of Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving. Fromm defines love, unfashionably, as a decision rather than a form of barter where marketable assets are traded in a sexual exchange for the best available model. For Fromm, love is largely a choice, not an overwhelming obsession projected onto the love object. Fromm’s humanistic image of constancy seems now almost quaintly old fashioned, as if it belonged to an age before the ‘invention’ of what Tom Woolfe defined as the ‘me’ generation with its sense of alienation and belief in the divine right to instant gratification and happiness. Maybe according to this thesis Roddy Lumsden’s new book from Bloodaxe should be called The Book of Obsession, but one presumes that the title The Book of Love is knowingly ‘post-modern’ and therefore self-mockingly ironic. Love these days usually comes dressed in inverted commas. Lumsden very effectively creates an edgy urban world of male fantasists for whom love is often closer to solipsistic obsession than to anything Fromm might have recognised. Incident in a Filing Cupboard, the first poem in the collection, sets the tone. This is office love, where every look, even a meeting in the filing cupboard, is interpreted as a sign, “as if an intimacy had just occurred between us.” Lumsden’s characters are outsiders, ‘wannabees’, slight misfits with an often grandiose sense of their own sexual prowess. There is the boastful encounter with An Older Woman in “Mid-1990s, Scotland, dead of winter/And more than old enough to be my mother” in “A Brookes & Simmons dress … bra and knickers/ … in contrasting colours”. We are also party to the fantasies of Love’s Young Dream, an implied loser, who according to “the guys at work” “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell”, despite the excess of cologne and hair gelled “up in an Elvis lick.” There are Tricks for the Barmaidto get her into bed, “It’s only a matter of time before she sleeps with me” and unrealised fantasies of Troilism – where despite obsessive day-dreaming the poet decides – “a small moon … above a harvest field” is just as “ … satisfying, in its own way, enough.”

Lumsden is at his best when, with verve and panache, he plunders his idiosyncratic word-hoard, which borrows not only from his vernacular Scottish but also from the language of games, slang, art and street culture. This he does with economy and style in the pair of poems Glasgow and Edinburgh that in tone recall something of the opening of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings.

“On every corner, someone’s hawking hope
and dreams with plastic straps and wonky seams.

The men call the women pridda bayba.
The women call their menfolk Sunny Jim.”

Yet despite the air of bravura laddishness and quick-witted banter Roddy Lumsden reveals himself, in fact, as a bit of modern-day romantic in Against Naturism.

“I realise it’s not all salad sandwiches
at pinewood picnics, endless volleyball.”

“But it’s not for me, beneath my double load
of Calvinist and voyeuristic tendencies.
For me, I have to see the clothes come off:
the way a button’s thumbed through cotton cloth-
a winning move in some exotic game.”

He has an astute ear for the cadences of contemporary speech. Like the bloke in the pub, who fancies himself as a bit of a raconteur, he wants to keep us amused with a good tale well told. One poem, though, points to a deeper darker side. East of Eden is a shocking poem about a mugging. But it is not the mugging that shocks. The violent youth sorts through the contents of his female victim’s handbag rejecting “the greasy snibs of lipstick”, “the sixty quid in tenners”. He then dumps it and sets it alight leaving only a postcard with “Just two words. The first is BLAME./(I see her now.) The second is my mother’s name.” Despite the literary mask, the anger seems raw, felt, experienced.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Daniel Mason
The Piano Tuner

ISBN: 978-0-37541-465-7
Published by Picador
Published on: September, 2002
317 pages

For the Victorian colonialist, ‘going native’ was not only a form of insubordination but a retreat from European values. The races of the Empire’s far flung lands were considered ‘primitive’ and childlike. The anthropologist Malinowski believed they existed at the “lowest cultural levels,” whilst Europeans occupied the “highest”. ‘Primitive’ peoples were seen as mystics, in tune with nature; libidinous, irrational, violent and dangerous. They represented what Freud contemporaneously described as our id forces and were, therefore, dangerously seductive. It was this dissolution of ‘civilised’ boundaries and the stirring of our unconscious desires, just as much as the exploitation of the Congolese by the Belgiums, which formed the backdrop to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it is Conrad’s tale, along with its notorious hero, Mr. Kurtz, (with touches of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo) that creates the blue-print for Daniel Mason’s first novel, The Piano Tuner.

Mason received his degree in Biology at Harvard in 1998 and spent a year studying malaria on the Thailand-Myanmar border, where he wrote The Piano Tuner “between lessons at medical school.” Like Conrad his novel starts in London. There is even a similar thick fog hanging over the city when his Marlow-like figure, Edgar Drake, a piano tuner and specialist in rare French Erard pianos is ordered by the Director of Operations for the Burma Division of the War Office to go to Mae Lwin, a remote outpost in the Shan Plateau to tune an Erand which they have recently supplied to the music-loving Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll. “A concession we must make to keep him at his post” as he is “indispensable” and “commands one of the most dangerous and important posts in our colonies.” For Carroll is not your usual military man; he speaks Shan, has an in-depth knowledge of the healing properties of the local flora and keeps the peace – so rumour has it – with music rather than bullets.

The novel follows Drake, as he leaves behind his loving wife (Conrad’s Intended) through a series of graphic adventures, including an ill-fated tiger hunt in Rangoon, to his eventual encounter with Carroll and his beautiful English-speaking Burmese mistress in a secret jungle hide-away. But as the plot unfolds Drake realises that the polymath Carroll, is not all he seems. Could it be that this humanitarian and arts lover is also a warlord, an adventurer and a spy?

Mason is good on Victorian London and the arcane history of the Erard piano, on bringing to life the political complexities of Burma in the 1880s when the British were keen to secure the region against the French. But the interwoven love-story whereby Drake falls for Carroll’s mistress is predictably one dimensional. With the clichéd strands falling from her flower-pinned hair and “cool moist skin” it as though he already has one eye on the film-script.

But this is an ambitious first novel. The real seductress, though, is not the doe-eyed Khin Myo, but the potently exotic region that exerts its power over Drake with disastrous consequences. It is no coincidence that Carroll is translating the Odyssey. “Now I understand … what Dante and Tennyson wrote …” he tells Drake, “that he wasn’t lost, but that after the wonders he had seen Odysseus couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to, return home.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

David Morley
Enchantment

Published by Carcanet


Incarnations of the Wild

When I was a child one of my favourite poems was The Raggle Taggle Gypsies, a Scottish Border ballad written around 1720. It seemed to suggest a parallel, unregulated world that sat alongside my own, rather constrained, suburban existence. The words spoke of the unfettered pleasures of an alternative life close to nature; exotic, sensual, dangerous even. Something of this atmosphere is evoked in David Morley’s new collection, Enchantment. That it begins with an unconventional sonnet-sequence in memory of his friend Nicholas Hughes, a distinguished professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes who tragically hanged himself at the age of 46, not only flags up Morley’s own role as an ecologist and naturalist but links him to the poetry and imagery of Ted Hughes, whose mythic relationship with the natural world hovers behind these poems.

The Wordsworthian epithet at the beginning of the book: “with rocks and stones and trees” also suggests a connection with the elemental. The close observation of a Water Measurer – that spindly insect which can be seen slowly walking around on the surface of ditches and ponds, apparently pacing out the distances between points – reveals a specialist knowledge of fauna that avoids the trap of much over romanticised nature poetry. Dragonflies, mayflies and Alaskan salmon are all, here, closely observed. In Proserpina Morley refuses the easy bien-pensants of environmentalism “I could write a cliché about conversation here / but I won’t and I won’t because I can’t”. For he understands that the mess of the external world, all too often, mirrors a deeper internal disquiet:

“It is true
that what we waste bends back to grind us. My rubbish
is also here in me, and I shove and shovel it around
everyday, sometimes alert to its weight and stench
but most of the time too busy or bored to see or scent
the wealth and ruin of evidence, its blowflies, the extended
families of vermin.”

But it is the second section of the book that takes me back to that childhood excitement of The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. It begins with Hedgehurst, a poem based on a traditional Romany story taken from Duncan Williamson’s Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, about a creature that is half hedgehog and half human. Spoken in the voice of the Hedgehurst the tone is incantatory, ancient and pagan. “What weather rouses me / to lag my limbs with lichen, /to fold fresh thatch around me?” Like some John Barlycorn or Green Man from a medieval mystery play the Hedgehurst appears like the incarnation of the wild:

“I had kenned from my wrens
how to cave-mine my call,
to speak through soil, make
speech slither through a hill”

In the later, more obviously, narrative sequence A Lit Circle, Morley creates a series of monologues spoken by various circus folk, including the ringmaster, clown and strongman. Fizzing with Romany and Parlari (the unwritten language of fairgrounds and gay subculture) he conveys a sense of what it means to live on the margins of mainstream society. As Demelza-Do-It-All, who has an act as a barrel-walker says, “down in the industrial estate with my sister for small animal food, /the vet for the dogs”, she saw “swastikas scratched on every circus poster.” Romany traditions and superstitions, along with a fierce pride in their itinerant way of life, are graphically drawn in Songs of Papusza:

The straw on which a Romany gives birth is burnt. A gipsy dies;
the caravan with all goods and clothes is flashed into flames.

They’re unclean.

In these strangely evocative poems where a blacksmith creates a girl from fire and a mother slides her fairy baby into a waterfall, David Morley taps into myths and folklore to weave a series of spells reinventing the oral tradition of poetry and returning it to fireside and hearth.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Les Murray
Taller when Prone

Published by Carcanet

Incarnations of the Wild

Taller When Prone is Les Murray’s first volume of new poems since 2006’s The Biplane Houses. There is a jaunty playfulness about this collection that belies the news of a relapse into the depression described in his memoir, Killing the Black Dog. The volume is dedicated to ‘the glory of God’ and, indeed, there is a Whitmanesque inclusiveness here, the sort of expansive delight in the natural world that can be found in Hopkins.

Murray has perfect pitch when it comes to Australian vernacular. To read these poems is like looking through a kaleidoscope in which glimpses of rural (and sometimes urban) landscapes, and the characters that inhabit them, swirl into view. The tone is often incidental and throwaway, the rhythms and meters deliberately broken, often wrong footing the reader with their apparent artlessness, as if to avoid the pomposity that the very notion of a poem might engender, Subjects range from the toppled head of a statue, a traveller’s tale From a Tourist Journal where the Taj Mahal is described as “liver stone” “held aloft with liverwurst mortar” to a Lunar Eclipse, for which Murray searches for the appropriate simile only to find that:

… two Tongan bouncers found the word:
foi’atelolo, a baked pig’s liver
fat with oil, a chief’s portion .

There are poems on snoring and childhood, and a fanciful little four liner about a police car “with a checkered seam of blue and white teeth along its side”, lying beside a stream of traffic like a submerged ‘croc.’ Some of my favourite images come from The Conversations with its plethora of strange facts such as: “Chinese eunuchs kept their testes in spirit” and “Donald Duck was once banned in Finland / because he didn’t wear trousers”. In another four line poem At the Opera the rhyming of lorgnette with ‘born yet’ conjures something of the humorous word play of Ogden Nash. Employed by the Macquarie Dictionary to collect and define neologisms, Murray celebrates “single word poets” in his Infinite Anthology as “by far the largest class of poets”. Among his entries are:

“Irish town – a Soweto of old-time Catholic labour
bunny boiler – one who kills her offspring
dandruff acting – the stiffest kind of Thespian art
blackout – Aboriginal party of picnic, whites not invited
butternut – homespun cloth dyed with hickory juice
shart – a non-dry fart
Baptist Boilermaker – coffee and soda (an imagined Puritan cocktail).”

Les Murray has become something of a ‘national treasure’ both here and in Australia, the Seamus Heaney of the antipodes, and it is in observations “Like all its kind/ Python has a hare lip” that he constantly shows us the world afresh. Yet I have to agree with the potential heresy uttered by the Australian poet and reviewer Robert Gray who wrote of Murrays’ poetry in The Australian that “opacity…has become a settled feature of it, making whole poems mystifying at times. His poetry, more and more has acquired a riddling quality: the language can become so dense that no light escapes from it.” As an example he cites is three line The Springfields:

“Lead drips out of
a burning farm rail.
Their Civil War.”

I am afraid that I, too, find this hopelessly gnomic and, like Gray, am not sure that I am sufficiently lured in to care what it means. At his best Murray is a quirky inventive narrator and story teller and we sit with him, captivated, as he nurses a window-struck kingfisher. His more direct poems, such as The Filo Soles about children dipping their feet into new-laid tar to cross a hot road, are often the ones that pack the most emotional punch.

“Kids learned to dip
their feet in the black
and quench with dust,
dip again, and back
in the dust, to form
a dark layered crust
and carry quick soles
over the worst.”

With this evocative image Murray reminds us that he still has a Blakian capacity “To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower.”

David Morley
Enchantment

Published by Carcanet

When I was a child one of my favourite poems was The Raggle Taggle Gypsies, a Scottish Border ballad written around 1720. It seemed to suggest a parallel, unregulated world that sat alongside my own, rather constrained, suburban existence. The words spoke of the unfettered pleasures of an alternative life close to nature; exotic, sensual, dangerous even. Something of this atmosphere is evoked in David Morley’s new collection, Enchantment. That it begins with an unconventional sonnet-sequence in memory of his friend Nicholas Hughes, a distinguished professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes who tragically hanged himself at the age of 46, not only flags up Morley’s own role as an ecologist and naturalist but links him to the poetry and imagery of Ted Hughes, whose mythic relationship with the natural world hovers behind these poems.

The Wordsworthian epithet at the beginning of the book: “with rocks and stones and trees” also suggests a connection with the elemental. The close observation of a Water Measurer – that spindly insect which can be seen slowly walking around on the surface of ditches and ponds, apparently pacing out the distances between points – reveals a specialist knowledge of fauna that avoids the trap of much over romanticised nature poetry. Dragonflies, mayflies and Alaskan salmon are all, here, closely observed. In Proserpina Morley refuses the easy bien-pensants of environmentalism “I could write a cliché about conversation here / but I won’t and I won’t because I can’t”. For he understands that the mess of the external world, all too often, mirrors a deeper internal disquiet:

“It is true
that what we waste bends back to grind us. My rubbish
is also here in me, and I shove and shovel it around
everyday, sometimes alert to its weight and stench
but most of the time too busy or bored to see or scent
the wealth and ruin of evidence, its blowflies, the extended
families of vermin.”

But it is the second section of the book that takes me back to that childhood excitement of The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. It begins with Hedgehurst, a poem based on a traditional Romany story taken from Duncan Williamson’s Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, about a creature that is half hedgehog and half human. Spoken in the voice of the Hedgehurst the tone is incantatory, ancient and pagan. “What weather rouses me / to lag my limbs with lichen, /to fold fresh thatch around me?” Like some John Barlycorn or Green Man from a medieval mystery play the Hedgehurst appears like the incarnation of the wild:

“I had kenned from my wrens
how to cave-mine my call,
to speak through soil, make
speech slither through a hill”

In the later, more obviously, narrative sequence A Lit Circle, Morley creates a series of monologues spoken by various circus folk, including the ringmaster, clown and strongman. Fizzing with Romany and Parlari (the unwritten language of fairgrounds and gay subculture) he conveys a sense of what it means to live on the margins of mainstream society. As Demelza-Do-It-All, who has an act as a barrel-walker says, “down in the industrial estate with my sister for small animal food, /the vet for the dogs”, she saw “swastikas scratched on every circus poster.” Romany traditions and superstitions, along with a fierce pride in their itinerant way of life, are graphically drawn in Songs of Papusza:

The straw on which a Romany gives birth is burnt. A gipsy dies;
the caravan with all goods and clothes is flashed into flames.

They’re unclean.

In these strangely evocative poems where a blacksmith creates a girl from fire and a mother slides her fairy baby into a waterfall, David Morley taps into myths and folklore to weave a series of spells reinventing the oral tradition of poetry and returning it to fireside and hearth.

Lynne Hjelmgaard
The Ring

Published by Shearsman Books

Born in New York City in 1951 Lynne Hjelmgaard moved to Denmark in 1971. There she studied art and taught Creative Art to children before becoming a fulltime sailor. As a result of crossing the Atlantic with her husband she wrote her first chapbook in 2002 Distance Through the Water (I want Press, France). Now her new book-length sequence of poems, The Ring, follows the wanderings of a young widow as she moves from city to city in an attempt at to achieve emotional reparation.

There is a lightness of touch to these itinerant poems filled with smells and sounds, particularly of the sea: “the howl in the rigging”, the smell of “a sea dried sheet”. Nostalgia is conjured through an intense concentration on things:

“You bought woven saddle bags from Afghanistan
Containing one pair of pants, a toothbrush,
Two hard bound diaries with pages coming out and one pair of
underwear.
There was an Afghan coat you sold in the desert
And the dirty pots you threw out of your kitchen window.
(They were too hard to clean)”
(When we first met)

Other dreamlike poems evoke something of the monochromatic northern tones of a Vilehlm Hammershøi painted interior.

“the easiest path
to the sea
is through the wild roses
the peeling lounge chairs
on the terrace, lavender
where the deer sleeps in the morning.”

Essentially meditations on how loss changes love, these poems move from the lyrical: “Now I turn my pillow/to face the sliced moon” and” I remember you were/in Denmark hanging laundry up / I hear your clogs in the hall” to pragmatic instructions on how to avoid morbid self-pity: “You shall not think that you are special. / Join a group.” (Copenhagen Widow)

Throughout the voice is colloquial and spare avoiding the traps of emotional hysteria that all too often overwhelms the poems of loss by Sharon Olds. A restless peripatetic motion runs through the sequence constantly questioning what constitutes belonging and home. It is as if to stay too long in anyone place would involve facing too much reality, too great a confrontation with grief. Poems list things to do in each city visited: “Attend local poetic events./ Schmooze incessantly” (London). “Walk until tiredness and / hunger overwhelm you.” (Rome). “Go back / to get in touch / with familiar street smells: / the bread moist / fruit, him.” (Paris) “get a tattoo?” (Berlin). Grief, we are told, is the price we pay for love but ideas about love and life gradually shift and change as the protagonist observes an older widow friend who “cycles around Paris / in high heels, has a Cuban Tango partner / who comes up to her chin.”

“In the end is my beginning”. Finally, through her physical and emotional wanderings, the poet is able to see the world differently, embrace change and ask honestly and poignantly that most fundamental of questions as she finally takes off her wedding ring: “What do I want?”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Ruth Padel
The Soho Leopard

Published by Chatto Poetry

If Ruth Padel was a man – say Jonathan Miller – she would, no doubt, have the adjective ‘Renaissance’ placed in front of the noun, as in ‘Renaissance Man’; but it is not a description that we are much given to using for women. But there is no doubt of the breadth and depth of her erudition. The great great great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin on her mother’s side she studied classics, became the first woman fellow at Wadham College, Oxford, a research fellow at Woolfson and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge and Birkbeck. She studied in Paris and Berlin and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. For a while she worked and lived in Greece, sang, she likes to note in her biographical details, in an Istanbul nightclub and the Heraklion Town Choir. She has published six collections of poetry, won the National Poetry Competition, been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Whitbread prizes and established a poetry column in The Independent on Sunday entitled 52 ways of looking at a poem. She has written on women in opera, on rock music and masculinity, is a Fellow of the Zoological Society and for the last two years has been researching the threat to wild tigers in remote parts of Asia for a new book. So apparently exotic is her life that it is difficult to think of Ruth Padel as someone who has to do anything as mundane as the weekly shop in Tescos; though, of course, she must. And it is exactly this eclectic, postmodern mix of high culture and demotic experience that is the hallmark to her writing. “Passion, wit, music, texture and elegance,” are the words Paul Durcan has used to describe her poetry. Other adjectives commonly employed are ‘glittering’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘sexy’. It is quite a reputation to live up to.

Her new collection The Soho Leopard is perhaps her most daring and virtuoso to date, adding the magical realism of animal legend and the zoological, alongside a smattering of references to love, to her already broad canvas. Here she melds a highly cultured register – some might argue a touch elitist and arcane – with the modes and tonalities of street language. It is a high risk strategy and, as with all such strategies, there are times when she pulls it off like a magician conjuring a white rabbit from a top hat and others when she slips from the high wire. The first poem in the first section, Mary’s Elephant, Elizabeth’s Spinet sets the tone. The poem is based on an embroidery panel in the V & A, which hangs in the British Galleries next to a spinet. There are references to C. Gensner’s Icones Animalium, to Mary’s impending execution, while later in the poem, which as we are told takes place “some night in the 1580s” “Cousin E tries some Byrdian version of Only the Lonely… It is here that, for this reader at least, the problems start, with this weaving of colloquial phrases and references into her tapestry of erudition. Padel has said “I want to be able to contain within every poem the very formal, maybe archaic things and also slangy demotic stuff.” This collaging is something that in poetry she has made very much her own but in other media, such as the visual arts, such a devise might seem so old hat as almost to be a cliché. There are times when it works wonderfully well as in the surprising and seemingly effortless description in Saviour of the Leopard running through the sky all day on his “Lucozade paws”. Here “Lucozade” not only functions as brilliant adjective denoting exact colour, but it also conjures fizz, brio and energy.

Padel seems to have an unquenchable thirst for the arcane and the exotic. In the five line stanzas of Saviour we find the “Itzamna, King of the Mayan sky” along with the “Lords of Xibalba”, there is also a liberal smattering of “atropines/narcotics, phytotoxins” and “glycosides”. While in the succeeding poem, The Hand that Fed Him, where Jaguar “God of the Amazon” takes man back to his cave to show him fire and feed him, the guessing of what has been served on the menu: “Grilled crocodile? Broiled anteater?” is followed, slightly uncomfortably, by “Fab! So new, so now.” There is something slightly off key about this diction. As if the poet is striving too hard and, like the youthful mother who tries to appear ‘hip’ around her teenage kids and their friends by using their slang and dressing in their fashions, only succeeds in getting it wrong and embarrassing them. The same might be argued for voice of Yellow Gourds with Jaguar in Dulwich Pizza Hut with its references to the fashion world of “Kenzo, Versace, Agnès B”. Surprising and original though the images are in the title poem Soho Leopard, where in a magical realist scenario the endangered Amur leopard slinking down the streets of Soho becomes a conceit to mull over a failed relationship, it is in poems where Padel allows her highly original imagination simply to reveal the world anew, rather than engineering false cultural collisions, that she is at her strongest. In her poem about The Pazyrak Nomad found in the permafrost of the Altai Mountains her descriptions of the ancient mummy are finely observed. “Skin, full of tannin./ Gut,/ a lunette of glass. This halo of copper screw-studs/ round her head means what was inside was special.” Here the diction and descriptive language do not act primarily as a devise to grab the reader’s attention by their odd juxtopositioning but are organic to the vision, tone, smell and feel of the poem.

Among the poems in which she executes this skill with a sharp exactness are those that form the series The King’s Cross Foxes, a commission from ArtAngel in conjunction with the sculptor Richard Wentworth. Linking the rhythm of the life of these urban foxes “with ancient British names for the year’s twelve full moons, named for seasonal human activities in the country”, as she tells us in her notes, she gives a vibrant picture of these newly-arrived, largely clandestine inner-city dwellers. Here the eclectic mix of fare the dog fox brings back to his lair is aptly descriptive rather than a tricksy, stylistic trope. “Voluted Kentucky Fried Chicken bones, / maggoty pigeon’s left wing. Fat brown slug, /a wet-glisten Havana cigar. Prawn Pot Noodle.” Her description of the vixen’s call as “Her three-stanza bark, coughed scream/in the dark, that could be a murder, a child”, combines a fear of the dark and the feral with a dread of the unknown night city all in two lines. While the “black, deaf and blind” fox clubs conjured under the “duvet of her brush” could hardly be bettered. Here, too, her specialist knowledge of the fox’s nose – perhaps this is where being a Fellow of the Zoological Society comes in – does not seem, here, like a promiscuous way of seducing the reader with arcane detail but is integral to the very essence of the fox’s behaviour and the language necessary to describe him. One can almost imagine Ruth Padel in some dark goods yard whispering these words, David Attenborough style, crouched in front of a BBC wildlife camera, so exact are her descriptions:

“With his vomero-nasal organ (smell-cells,
behind front teeth in the mouth’s ribbed vault),
and two hundred million scent-receptors
(humans have five) packed in his nose –

so granulated, wet and mad for pungency –

Someone once described her poems as a collection of “cultural bricolage” and this is, no doubt, the effect that she is aiming at with titles such as: The Forest, The Corrupt Official and A Bowl of Penis Soup, a poem on painting, deforestation, corruption and the poaching of tigers. There is no doubt that Padel is a linguistic wizard, always achieving an unusual image or word where others may have settled for something less original or startling. Yet there are times when the emotion of her poems feels diluted by the digressions, where the intricate, complex embroidery of words can feel overloaded and one longs for simplicity and an emotional directness as in the fox poems. There is not doubt that Ruth Padel is a ‘glittering’, brilliant and very talented poet. What will be interesting to see if, in the future, she has it in her to become a great one?

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Don Paterson
Landing Light

Published by Faber & Faber


On Becoming a Fan

Today I opened the paper to see that Don Paterson had won the Whitbread Prize for poetry with his latest collection Landing Light. No surprises there then. But I make an admission; I have never been a fan. Admiring of the brio, the panache and the verve I read Nil Nil and God’s Gift to Women like one amazed at angels dancing on pinheads or a tightrope walker crossing the high wire in stilettos, gawping at the dexterity and skill of his tight language but not caring very much that he had bothered to do it. For his poetry, for me at least, as the beer advert insists that all good beverages should, never touched me in the places that other poetry managed to reach. As an art critic, used to the brat-pack of yBAs with their animal carcasses in formaldehyde and unmade beds, their two-fingers-in the-air to the establishment, I saw Paterson and his Picador cohorts as the Damien Hirsts of the poetry world. All in-your-face street cred; the hard boys of the postmodern stainless steel stanza. That Paterson had a great ear for conversational language was not in doubt but his poems seemed aggressively self-defensive, to lack vulnerability which, surely must, in the end, be the sign of great art. I simply did not find the laddish swagger engaging. As he wrote in A Private Bottling:

“…Let me propose a toast;
not to love, or life, or real feeling,
but to their sentimental residue…”

Paterson’s seemed a world of simulacra, where nothing was quite real but rather all sassy surface. He ransacked the word hoard of the pub and the club to write – both in English and Scots – of porno movies, coco butter and masturbation or of his lover’s room under the ironic title 10001 Nights – the Early Years, in which he described with cold detachment his “puddled suit” strewn on the floor next to “her dog-eared Kerouac,/the snot-stream of a knotted Fetherlite”. This were also moments of Trainspotting aggression: “I killed the alarm, /then took her head off with the kitchen knife.” His poetry was often dense and obtuse; it seemed, rather arrogantly, to care little about wooing the reader.

But then came Landing Light. Up at the Edinburgh Festival during the heat of August, writing art reviews, I slipped off for the day to hear some poetry at the Book Festival. Paterson was reading, part of a double act with John Burnside a poet I knew I would enjoy, but despite my prejudices I was completely seduced by some of the poems he read. There was a raw passion that poked through the tightly packed surface of language, restrained to be sure, but of a spiritual depth and a lyric intensity I had not experienced before in his work. And what had brought about this change? Well cliché though it may be – the softening of the hard man – it seems to have been the fathering of his twins. Certainly there are still a number of testing, surreal poems that grudgingly yield up their complexities to the reader, the strange tale The Long Story or the poems in Scots dialect – for which I am sure he has a good ear but as a Sassenach I find it hard to judge – but which seem, as in Twinflooer to need footnotes almost as long as the poem. There are, though, some wonderfully evocative poems on the landscape and traditions, such as St. Brides: Sea Mail, but it is in the first poem in the collection Luing, where he watches the slow “red vans sliding silently between her hills,” on the small island that Paterson introduces the image of birth that dominates the book; birth, which throughout these poems is both actual and metaphoric.

“Here, beside the fordable Atlantic
reborn into a secret candidacy,
the fontanelles reopen one by one
in the palms, then the breastbone and the brow,
aching at the shearwaters’s wail…

His sonnet Waking with Russell is one of the most tender evocations of fatherhood I have read. It is as if Paterson’s tight glittery language has found a worthy subject and he seems rather to have amazed himself:

“Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again…”
So that:
“I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.
Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin
and the true path was as lost to me as ever
when you cut in front and lit it as you ran.”

Love, as they say, seems to concur all, even bringing back hard Scots poets to the ‘true path’; a poetry that can cause the heart to flutter. Just as touching is the poem to Jamie, The Thread in which Paterson remembers, as he watches his small son race down a windswept hill, how he nearly died at birth, “All that trouble just to turn up dead,” and muses on the fragility of the thread that holds both life and relationships together. One of the loveliest poems, Letter to the Twins, begins with an epigram about Romulus and Remus from Plutarch. Here the paternal voice dismisses instruction on the “infinite laws of Rome” in favour of educating the young boys in the art of satisfying a lover. Writing about sex in either prose or poetry is notoriously difficult, but Paterson brings it off with tender lyrical eroticism.

But just in case previous fans should think that he has gone all mushy there is plenty of the ironic, sparky Paterson here, too. In A Talking Book he swipes at more or less his whole constituency of potential readers “those kabbalists and chrsometronomes/who drag each sentence through their fine-toothed combs,” and “those undecided shades in Waterstones” even bitingly “those holders, old and new/of the critic’s one-day travel-pass”. He drops in illusions to Barthes and literary theory laconically along the way, just so we know that he knows what’s what, adding “the charge of being clever, coy or cute/I will not even bother to refute.” This is a tough poem about forms of choice, both personal and creative. The poem ends with the gutsy pronouncement that:

“There is no wall. Pick up your bed. Walk through it.
Last chance, friend. So do it or don’t do it.”

Like the poet William Carlos Williams for whom there were no ideas but in things, Paterson suggests something of the same. His poems are generally not much concerned with self-revelation, “Here is the secret long vouchsafed/to the brotherhood of things and things alone.” Life, he seems to suggest, is a series of new encounters, new sensations, even simple things such as sliding on the ice in the lovely short poem Sliding on Loch Ogil.

Scattered throughout the book are some wonderful versions of Rilke, Dante and Cavafy. Paterson is never afraid to stretch himself technically either with his rhyme schemes or with the visual shape and form of a poem such as The Box. His poetry became known for being clever, hard, hip and gutsy. But now, it seems, he has added a whole new dimension that lifts his writing from the realms of mere technical adroitness and wit into those of a fierce compassion and empathy.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Pascale Petit
What the Water Gave Me

Poems after Frida Kahlo

Published by Bow-Wow Shop

The use of the mask is a long established tradition, from Japanese Noh drama to modernist poetry. For Yeats, the use of the Mask represented the repression of the ego, a means of escaping subjectivity and sentiment by exploiting ideas of ‘the self and anti-self’. The idea of the mask is used once again in new collections by Carol Rumens and Pascale Petit. While each poet adopts something of Yeats’ strategy, there is in both books a large amount of post-modernist picking and mixing.

‘Never has a woman with a moustache been so revered – or so marketed – as Frida Kahlo,’ wrote Stephanie Mencimer in the Washington Monthly in 2002. ‘Like a female Che Guevara, she has become a cottage industry… Volvo has used her self-portraits to sell cars to Hispanics, the U.S. Postal Service put her on a stamp, and Time magazine put her on its cover. There have been Frida look-alike contests, Frida operas, plays, documentaries, novels, a cookbook, and now, an English-language movie…’ The Kahlo cult first emerged thanks largely to Madonna, an avid collector who claimed to ‘identify with her pain.’ Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA’s chief curator, once suggested that ‘Each group seems to find some validation in Kahlo. In some ways we’re obsessed with ourselves and sexuality. Kahlo was very much a part of that narcissistic body culture.’ The paintings reflect her tumultuous relationship with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and her deteriorating health as a result of a bus accident. Kahlo had more than thirty operations, and her gangrenous leg was eventually amputated. But without ‘her pain’ would she have made it as an artist at all? It is doubtful, as there is little original in her manner of painting. Her talent was to dramatize her life in her paintings, cultivating a self-image as a ‘heroic sufferer.’

A tragic bio has been the prerequisite for greatness for women artists and writers from Artemisia Gentileschi to Gwen John, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, in a world not sympathetic to female talent. Yet one of the tenets of feminism was to remove the feminine from the yoke of victimhood. Of the 150 or so works by Kahlo that have survived, most are self-portraits. As Mercimer suggests, ‘Kahlo’s art is to painting what the memoir is to literature – self-absorbed, confessional… The inflation of the artist over the art is certainly not unique to Kahlo… Feminists might celebrate Kahlo’s ascent to greatness – if only her fame were related to her art. Instead, her fans are largely drawn by the story of her life, for which her paintings are often presented as simple illustration’.

So where does that leave a British poet who has based a whole collection on Kahlo’s life and work?

Fourteen of Pascale Petit’s poems from this collection first appeared in 2004 – at the height of Fridamania – as a pamphlet entitled The Wounded Deer – Fourteen Poems after Frida Kahlo, which was a first-stage winner in the Poetry Business Book Competition. In England, it was not until a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern in 2005 that Kahlo’s popularity really took off.

Petit has always been an autobiographical writer. Like Plath and Anne Sexton before her she has made ‘pain’ her hallmark. Now, in a consummate act of ventriloquism, she has given voice to Kahlo’s work and life ‘to focus on how she used art to withstand and transform pain.’ In many ways this suits Petit’s exotic, surreal style very well. The ‘I’ of her more autobiographical poems of the past has been transformed into the voice of Frida; the Frida of ‘Suckle’, for example, whose ‘nurse is Mexico – one breast is Popocatéptl,/the other, Lake Xochimilco,’ or the Frida of the painting The Broken Column who says ‘When I tried to dress this morning/a crack opened in my chest,’ or the Frida of ‘The Blue House’ who claims: ‘My pelvis is a palette/on which night/is mixing day’s colours’, or the Frida of ‘Living Nature’, where:

I have been hung naked, head down.
I have had my right leg amputated.
My back smells like a dead dog.

The surrealist imagery of Kahlo’s paintings – André Breton fell in love with her – perfectly suits Petit’s voice, allowing her to plunder Kahlo’s dreamscapes, often to startling effect. As a sometime artist herself, the poems are full of colour and visual pyrotechnics. To research the book Petit spent time in Mexico, and the poems are peppered with authentic references to Mexican deities and places. With the help of a mirror, after her accident, Kahlo began painting her trademark subject: herself. ‘I paint myself… because I am the subject I know best.’ These words might have been Pascale Petit’s, which is what makes this is such a perfect pairing.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Proust:
In the power of photography by Brassäi

Published by University of Chicago Press


Is a picture worth a thousand words?

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, as “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.” An imaginary possession of the past was, of course, the theme of Marcel Proust’s chef d’oeuvre. In Time Regained, he urges the reader to approach his work from different angles, suggesting, “Perhaps you will see better with this lens, or perhaps with this one.” Later he compares his work to a sort of “optical instrument”.

In 1924, when he arrived in Paris, the young Hungarian photographer Brassaï turned to the works of Proust as a means to improve his French. He found a kindred spirit. Not only did he discover that Proust avidly collected photographs of friends; Brassaï also came to realise how Proust had used photographs in the construction of his innovative narrative. In his fascinating Proust: in the Power of Photography, never before published, Brassaï investigates the novelist’s use of photography as a metaphor for involuntary memory, pointing out that early in Swann’s Way, the magic lantern “drew out of the darkness images which plunge the young Marcel into an enchanted world.”

Brassaï shows Proust’s penchant for being photographed in uniform, and how his descriptions of landscape and Combray had the quality of snapshots. (He studied both architecture and painting in photographic form, his ill health preventing travel.) Most fascinatingly, he reveals how, for Proust, who kept a whole collection of photographs in his bedroom, they acquired an unconscious fetish-like quality.

In love with Gilberte Swann, young Marcel stands beside her, leaning over the balcony of the Swanns’ apartment: “Gilberte’s braids… touching my cheek… For even an inch of one of these braids, what heavenly herbal wouldn’t I have given to enshrine it? But in despair of obtaining a real piece of those braids, if at least I could have had a photograph of them.” Here braid, photo and love object all elide into the site of unobtainable longing. Although a contemporary of Freud, Proust appears to have been unfamiliar with psychoanalysis and, therefore, unaware of the psychology whereby an object stands in for the missing object of desire.

Brassaï demonstrates how life, art and artifice meld in Proust’s novel, so that it is almost impossible to evoke protagonists and places without referring to the circumstances and characters that inspired them. Illustrated with previously obscure photographs of Brassaï’s High Society series, this intriguing book charts how the early-20th-century fascination with photography, along with the growing interest in the exploration of our psyches, merged in Proust to create the great modern work on the investigation of memory. For Proust it was language that was the “developer” that “fixed” the past. As his health failed he retired to his room, “my darkroom” as he sometimes referred to it, where he wrote: “I am the man” who has withdrawn from the world in order the more vividly to relive it.”

Portraits in Fiction
AS Byatt

Published by Random House

A S Byatt writes in Portraits in Fiction that “Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites rather than metaphors for each other. A painted portrait is an artist’s record, construction, of a physical presence… A painting exists outside time and records the time of its making.” In contrast “a portrait in a novel… may be a portrait of invisible things” such as thought and desire. A painting, therefore, is largely a spatial experience while the understanding of a text is temporal, for through it we experience the unfolding of the writer’s imagination. As readers we share the author’s journey, whereas with a painting – however many marks are left revealing the struggle of its making – we are witnesses only to the point of arrival.

The sitter of a portrait may also feel threatened by the artist’s interpretation, with the work, more often than not, ending up more a portrait of the artist than the sitter. But those who find themselves appropriated into novels may feel attacked; and haunted thereafter by an often unwanted doppelganger. Writers rely on the varying images constructed by their readers; so Byatt tends to be distressed by film adaptations and the “blasphemous feeling” when her characters are represented by photos of real people on book covers.

Portraits in Fiction originated as a lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery. Byatt uses her immense erudition to delve into the complex relations between portraits and characters. In her own novels, she has evoked the power of portraits – as in A Virgin in the Garden, set in the 1950s at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, where her red-haired heroine takes on some characteristics of the Darnely Portrait of Elizabeth I. Novelists have often used portraits as imagined icons, while characters may use them as temporary mirrors: as when Milly Theale is shown a Bronzino in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. It bears a striking resemblance to her own image; she reflects on her mortality and “the paradoxical timelessness and death of portraits”.

Byatt’s authors range from Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch to Salman Rushdie, and her artists from Holbein to Cézanne. She gives a prolonged analysis of perhaps that most famous portrait in literature, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, where the portrait shifts from its normal fixity into a hidden temporal narrative recording the decadence of both Dorian’s life and the erotic arousal felt by the artist. Though packed with analysis and information this is a book, perhaps, more for the scholar than the casual reader. Those without a knowledge of the novels or portraits discussed may find Byatt’s discourse rather arcane.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Maurice Riordan
Floods

Published by Faber & Faber

Michael Longley once dubbed Patrick Kavanagh “a mythologist of ordinary things.” In that sense Maurice Riordan’s new book from Faber, Floods owes a debt both to Kavanagh and to his heir Heaney, in its fidelity to the actual lives of real people. Born in County Cork in 1953, Riordan is part of that wave of Irish poets that Evan Boland once described as belonging to the ‘Global Village’, a generation concerned with the ironies of identity, language, history and culture. Riordan’s indebtedness to a nostalgic, humanistic Heaneyesque sensibility can be see in the parallels between the opening lines of Heaney’s poem A Sofa in the Forties from The Spirit Level:

“All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train”

and Riordan’s opening of The Rug:

“The small boy has abandoned his game
With the rolled-up tinfoil ball. He’s rolled back the rug
to expose the newspapers placed there as underlay,”

But being nearly a generation younger than Heaney, Riordan not only celebrates the fast disappearing world of rural Ireland remembered from his childhood but also tosses in, with a practiced casualness, words and phrases culled from contemporary culture. In a mythic poem The Boy Turned into a Stag after Ferenc Juhasz, he opens with the Heaneyesque lines:

“A mother calls to her only son
across the distances.
She comes to the front of the farmhouse”
And calls out to her son.”

yet only three pages later the narrator surprisingly compares himself to “a reggae guitarist who shakes/His locks above the dance floor.”

In a poem such as Bilberry he celebrates memory and tradition with a vignette of the closely observed and quotidian in the manner of Kavanagh describing the life of Paddy Maguire:

“Never having uttered a word
I race out of the barely field and lift
the horse-head knocker from the blank door”

while in Caisson he explores a fascination with science, playing with theoretical possibilities and impossibilities in an extended intellectual conceit:

“If light, then, could part the carbon lattices

Or: our ears were like bats’ – but so enhanced,
So threaded into the brain, we saw the world

As noise:”


Jackie Wills
Party


Published by Leviathan

Jackie Wills’s new collection Party from Leviathan is a very good-looking book indeed. A hard-back with a stylish paper jacket, it highlights how flimsy and disposable most modern paperbacks have become. Her first collection Powder Tower, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was short listed for the 1995 T.S.Eliot Prize. With such an impressive start to her career it is understandable that she wanted to publish as many poems as possible in this collection, but 60 poems is a lot, and a further refining of the collection would have perhaps, like the homeopath’s dose, made it stronger. In his wonderful essay, Poetry and Psychoanalysis, from Promises, Promises, published by Faber, the writer and psychotherapist Adam Philips quotes one of the early British analysts, Ella Sharpe, as saying “The genuine poet is an intuitive psychologist.” Jackie Wills is at her strongest when she taps the arena, beloved by both psychologist and psychoanalyst, of childhood and daily memory. The book opens with a poem Regatta, that locates her childhood, in the unlikely poetic breeding ground of Aldershot.

“Each year, a parade of fire-power
on Aldershot sports ground was made musical
with marching bands, every local common was littered
with spent shells … ”

This is interesting because unexpected, a childhood neither poeticised as a rural idyll nor exoticised as gritty urban poverty. We are not used to poets who come from backgrounds that include, as part of their daily lives, Exocets and Tomahawks, the drilling of soldiers. Willis works best when she keeps her canvas small and her images tight such as in the tender poem to her mother Gagarin’s Moon.

“Over the hoover, my mother sings ‘Moon River’
or what she knows of it, “wider than a mile”,
da daa dada da daaa, humming the rest
as she dresses naked dolls. The song’s from
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mercer and Mancini’s
Oscar win of 1961.”

Anyone old enough to have also been a child then will immediately be transported to early 60s suburbia by the accuracy of tone and period detail. The poem concludes with a small epiphanal moment in the image of the moon as a symbol of closeness between mother and daughter.

“ … The moon in the day
is a tunnel into these nights. The two of us
so close, the sky enormous, this other place.”

But elsewhere these epiphanies tend to be missing and the poems too often become simply competent descriptions that do not lead to that ‘psychological’ insight Sharpe claimed for the best poems. At times the language seems forced, as in Cavern. Here the well-observed violent relationship between teenage girls is diluted by a lacing of alternative stanzas with the names of various types of contemporary music: “Raggae, ska, soul and funk/US Garage, R&B”. But this has the air of a borrowed rather than an experienced language, one that the poet has appropriated, rather than a manner of speaking that forms the patina of her natural speech. While in Blue Mountains the image of the blue veins in the weightlifter’s neck, which are compared with a view of blue mountains, seems strained, a striving for the artful metaphor – for we never hear of the weightlifter again and he only seems to be included to provide the comparative conceit – rather than an organic and integral part of the emotion of the poem. There is also a tendency to rely, when writing about place, rather too heavily on description, albeit highly competent, and therefore a failure to provide a sufficiently satisfying movement through the body of the poem from genesis to conclusion. A fault, perhaps, of writing too much, or including too many poems in this ample collection. The poems that linger longest in the mind are those where all the images build together, as in the moving poem The Man who Speaks Four Languages. Here both the emotional force and the narrative are carried by the single image of a post-war European refugee offering the poet’s grandfather – presumably a doctor – a small statue as barter for treatment.

“It’s a boy, bending to pull a thorn
from his foot. The man tells me
how it reminds him of running
in woods without shoes, of his mother’s
warnings.”

Here Jackie Wills has found, with skill and empathy, a perfect objective correlative to stand for loss and pain, which carries the poem toward its moving denouement.

Roddy Lumsden
The Book Of Love

Published by Bloodaxe

Staying recently in a strange house after giving a reading, I chanced, in my room, upon an ancient copy of Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving. Fromm defines love, unfashionably, as a decision rather than a form of barter where marketable assets are traded in a sexual exchange for the best available model. For Fromm, love is largely a choice, not an overwhelming obsession projected onto the love object. Fromm’s humanistic image of constancy seems now almost quaintly old fashioned, as if it belonged to an age before the ‘invention’ of what Tom Woolfe defined as the ‘me’ generation with its sense of alienation and belief in the divine right to instant gratification and happiness. Maybe according to this thesis Roddy Lumsden’s new book from Bloodaxe should be called The Book of Obsession, but one presumes that the title The Book of Love is knowingly ‘post-modern’ and therefore self-mockingly ironic. Love these days usually comes dressed in inverted commas. Lumsden very effectively creates an edgy urban world of male fantasists for whom love is often closer to solipsistic obsession than to anything Fromm might have recognised. Incident in a Filing Cupboard, the first poem in the collection, sets the tone. This is office love, where every look, even a meeting in the filing cupboard, is interpreted as a sign, “as if an intimacy had just occurred between us.” Lumsden’s characters are outsiders, ‘wannabees’, slight misfits with an often grandiose sense of their own sexual prowess. There is the boastful encounter with An Older Woman in “Mid-1990s, Scotland, dead of winter/And more than old enough to be my mother” in “A Brookes & Simmons dress … bra and knickers/ … in contrasting colours”. We are also party to the fantasies of Love’s Young Dream, an implied loser, who according to “the guys at work” “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell”, despite the excess of cologne and hair gelled “up in an Elvis lick.” There are Tricks for the Barmaid to get her into bed, “It’s only a matter of time before she sleeps with me” and unrealised fantasies of Troilism – where despite obsessive day-dreaming the poet decides – “a small moon … above a harvest field” is just as “ … satisfying, in its own way, enough.”

Lumsden is at his best when, with verve and panache, he plunders his idiosyncratic word-hoard, which borrows not only from his vernacular Scottish but also from the language of games, slang, art and street culture. This he does with economy and style in the pair of poems Glasgow and Edinburgh that in tone recall something of the opening of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings.

“On every corner, someone’s hawking hope
and dreams with plastic straps and wonky seams.

The men call the women pridda bayba.
The women call their menfolk Sunny Jim.”

Yet despite the air of bravura laddishness and quick-witted banter Roddy Lumsden reveals himself, in fact, as a bit of modern-day romantic in Against Naturism.

“I realise it’s not all salad sandwiches
at pinewood picnics, endless volleyball.”

“But it’s not for me, beneath my double load
of Calvinist and voyeuristic tendencies.
For me, I have to see the clothes come off:
the way a button’s thumbed through cotton cloth-
a winning move in some exotic game.”

He has an astute ear for the cadences of contemporary speech. Like the bloke in the pub, who fancies himself as a bit of a raconteur, he wants to keep us amused with a good tale well told. One poem, though, points to a deeper darker side. East of Eden is a shocking poem about a mugging. But it is not the mugging that shocks. The violent youth sorts through the contents of his female victim’s handbag rejecting “the greasy snibs of lipstick”, “the sixty quid in tenners”. He then dumps it and sets it alight leaving only a postcard with “Just two words. The first is BLAME./(I see her now.) The second is my mother’s name.” Despite the literary mask, the anger seems raw, felt, experienced.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Peter Robinson
The Returning Sky

Published by Shearsman Books

Three very different books recently landed on my desk leading me to ask the fundamental question as to what it is that makes a poem. Turning to Terry Eagleton for advice he reminded me, in what he admits is a rather dreary definition, that “a poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end”. 1Morality is a surprising word in a modern, secular context, but Eagleton goes on to explain that the word “before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live more fully and enjoyably; and the word ‘moral’ in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience…. Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purpose”. It was bearing this statement in mind that I read these three books.

Peter Robinson is a vicar’s son. Born and brought up in Salford he remembers his parents performing madrigals. His literary education was further advanced by the singing of poems set to music by William Blake, George Herbert and William Cowper, long before he knew what they were. After working part-time for the 1988 Poetry International at the South Bank he went off to teach in Kyoto. His new book, The Returning Sky, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, collects together poems written over the four years from the time he left Japan and returned to England, through the global financial crisis and on into the current new austerity. The opening sequence, inspired by a trip to the US, captures its intrinsic ‘otherness’. A collapsed corpse on the street corner of Wiltshire and Westwood lies ignored while Stranger than Fiction plays at the local movie house. This sets the tone where things both ordinary yet strange intrude from the periphery: the radio broadcast of the president’s speech from a “worker’s too-loud radio” in the Art Institute in Chicago, the “Christmas tree decked out on the thirteenth floor” in a hotel window across the way. Gary Metro, with its “snow flurries turning to thin rain” and “rust-belt squalor” reveals a world where money is “growing tighter” and ubiquitous FOR SALE signs proliferate on properties that are now unsalable due to the sub-prime scandal.

Being lost and trying to find one’s way are recurring themes In Robinson’s work. In Peripheral Vision, a poem set in a northern suburb of Parma, Italy, “we arrive from elsewhere, /foxed by a new gyratory system/…and we’ll be lost once more”. His poems grow out of the circumstances thrown up by his life so that even a return home to Reading, with its Whiteknights Park – once the scene of extravagant parties hosted by the Fifth Duke of Marlborough and now part of the university campus with its Human Resources centre – seems uncanny. While down by the canal, near the onetime Huntley & Palmers factory: “A sudden scent of wood smoke/rises across locked, sluggish water/where a drowned white bicycle seems to float up from the depths,” surfacing like a lost memory. Reading may not intrinsically have much more inherent ‘poetic’ potential than John Betjeman reckoned Slough possessed but many of Robinson’s poems are set there. Those such as Reading Gaol feel a bit contrived – competent poetic exercises rather than felt experiences – where thoughts on the price of items in Reading Homebase are conflated with Wildian quotes about killing the thing you love. This is a big book with copious end notes, which means that, at times, the poems feel too explained. Robinson is at his best when describing the strangeness of marginalia such as “Thick gas pipes snake from underground/to cross the Kennet’s course/beside a red-brick rail bridge”, as in Gasometers , or “a creosoted shed/ with ivy bursting through its boards-“, an image that reminds me of Mahone’s mushrooms, in the fine poem Like a Foreign Country, where time is distorted and realigned like perspectives in a mirror so that a return ‘home’ feels as strange as being in a foreign country.

Days gone, terraces, terra incognita,
were like our faces redefined
at a bathroom mirror when it’s cleaned;
for time had taken its advantage
over us, the gained
and lost perspectives realigned.
That much would have to be explained.

Michael Glover
Only So Much

Published by Savage Poets Collective

To receive endorsements from John Ashbery and Joseph Brodsky sets up a degree of expectation. Only so Much is Michael Glover’s seventh collection. A critic and the editor of the online poetry magazine the Bow-Wow shop, as well as a poet, his enigmatic poems create a series of small psychodramas and stories. The shadowy presence of another, addressed only as ‘you’, suffuses the title section of the book. Always elusive we are never entirely sure whether this is a lover or an idea, a part of the self or another. “Let me make of you what I will”, “I am, as ever, expectant for you”, “You were never what you said you would be,” and “yes, you were never quite yourself”, the poet writes tantalisingly. There are numerous images of leaving and parting: “Surely you are not still here/When I told you to go,” “That you left me when all love was over,” “waving goodbye, goodbye”, and “I stealthily watched my own careful departure”. Love, in Glover’s world, seems to be a hazardous business.

“When I enter the door to that room by which you have entered…” the teasing opening lines of The Enigma of the Hour, based on a painting by de Chirico, part of a commission by the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence for an exhibition in 2010, only continues the sense of alienation. Here language becomes ever more unstable and surreal; rocks grind their teeth, the piazza leans against the walls, clocks live and breathe. A sense of loss hangs over the poem. “Lovely you were on your wedding day…../If I only knew your name.” Images of doors proliferate throughout these poems: “half-shut and half-open”, “The door of your home. The door of the womb”, suggesting points of transition or rites of passage between different emotional states.

For someone who writes about art there are, as you would expect, further poems based on paintings: on Hockney and Shani Rhys James, as well as Andrew Wyeth. There is also a humorous poem to a potato and an impassioned plea for the place of poetry in the modern world: “Make us all saleable again as in the old days, /When poems would fly from the shelves like bread from the baker’s.” Idiosyncratic and evocative these haunting poems ‘unspool’ – to use John Ashbery’s word – in the mind, leaving a sense of something barely glimpsed and strangely enigmatic.

Linda Chase
Not Many Love Poems

Published by Carcanet

There is a special responsibility to reviewing a collection by someone who has recently died. It is, in effect, a final word. There are no future chances for the poet to change directions or to have another go. Linda Chase, the American poet, who died of cancer aged 69, lived in Britain for 40 years but her essential American spirit continued to colour her work and life. Growing up in Long Island, New York she studied English and creative writing before moving to San Francisco. Her influences were home grown: William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and the Beats. A child of the 1960s her poems are infused with the values and insouciance of that singular decade. Deceptively informal, her verse is colloquial and uninhibited, at times deeply moving, on other occasions inclined towards bathos. The range of material in this, her last book, Not Many Love Poems, is wide ranging and includes: teenage sex on the sofa, a relationship with a new lover, illness and radiotherapy. Chase tells stories of friendships, love affairs and relationships with family, celebrating the gift of “numberless, glorious, blessed days”. The first poem, Our Life, poignantly reduces a shared life, and a single death, to seven two-lined stanzas and five decades beginning: “In the 40s we swam/like fish in the water-turtle lake”, and gets as far as the 80s when “I buried you.” Its power lies in the small incidentals remembered: “In the 70s I threw you/an apple from an upstairs window” and the unsettling fact that these unembellished, almost throwaway, fourteen lines stand for a whole lived existence. Elsewhere there is youthful passion to be found in an Airstream Bubble Trailer where “the table is never up/since the bed is needed day and night”, and there are poems about betrayal, love and illness including the stark and bravely feisty Pronouncement:

This is big, really big.
Now I can feel how big
it is, she says, examining
a scramble of red grey
hair snared in one hand.

Love is an important theme, as in Dare, where a couple innumerate the ways that they would mourn the other’s demise. “Let’s talk about death, she said. You first.” Not all these poems are of equal magnitude, not all of them are strong enough to stand alone but as a collection they exude warmth, tenacity and guts and are, therefore, more than an adequate testament to one life richly lived.

1 Terry Eagleton: How to Read a Poem. Blackwell Publishing

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Sue Roe
Gwen John, A Life

Published by Chatto & Windus

There are certain families, the Brontës and the Stephens (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) to name but two, who produce prodigiously talented offspring. The Johns were another. Gwen and Augustus John grew up with their younger sister and elder brother in Pembrokeshire. When Gwen was eight their mother died and their stern, broken-hearted solicitor father left the children pretty much to their own devises. For the 1880s they had a remarkably unrestricted childhood, running wild without shoes and socks on the beach at Tenby, where Gwen and her younger brother began to draw gulls and shells. These bohemian beginnings were to set the tone for the rest of Gwen’s life. After her death in 1939 the myth grew that she had been a recluse. Certainly her life was somewhat overshadowed by her colourful, talented brother, Augustus, and his flamboyant domestic arrangements with his wife, Ida, the charismatic Dorelia and their collection of children, but, in fact, Gwen exhibited regularly, was collected by the American patron John Quinn and led a daring and unconventional life. Augustus once predicted that ‘fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother.’ His pronouncement proved highly perceptive, for it is, indeed, Gwen who is now recognised as the great artistic innovator and one of the most original artists of her day.

Based on her passionate unpublished letters, Sue Roe has created a vivid picture of this remarkable, shy, strong willed and singular woman. Roe draws us into her narrative following Gwen to the Slade and later on her reckless unchaperoned walking trip with Dorelia to Rome ‘carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment’ when they slept outdoors and lived on bread, grapes and beer. They made it as far as Toulouse and then went on to Paris. Gwen was never to live in England again. Showing remarkable independence, she supported herself by modelling amid the Bohemian circles of early 20th Paris where she met Rilke and Picasso. Among those for whom she posed was Rodin, with whom she had an intense affair, although thirty-six years his junior.

Roe conjures the complexities of this relationship with great empathy. Although married, Rodin had had many lovers and used his models to explore female sexuality and the female form. For Gwen this passion was to mould her life. She yearned, above all, for complete erotic and spiritual unity. Her sexual awakening was epiphanal. To quote Rilke, she experienced all beauty as ‘a quiet enduring form of love and longing.’ Despite her devotion to painting, Rodin became her main passion; she was even prepared to sacrifice her art, waiting for hours in her little attic room in case he should decide to drop by. Yet although he paid her rent and continued to visit her spasmodically, virtually until his death, he could not meet her need for spiritual symbiosis.

He also proved to be a major influence on her work, but after his death she turned increasingly to the Catholic Church, though, at times, her need of Jesus seems alarmingly close to her emotional/sexual need for Rodin. All her life she longed for intimacy and her apparent hard-won serenity masked a deep inner turbulence. It is this quality that imbues her haunting paintings. Still and austere, they are filled with restrained emotion having something of the tranquillity of a Vermeer coupled with the intensity of Rembrandt’s portraits. She had exacting standards, telling herself that ‘Unless you have the will to be great you will fall into mediocrity’ and kept copious little black notebooks filled with technical jottings on colour tones. After her death Augustus read them saying ‘Astonishing how she cultivated the scientific method. I feel ready to shut up shop.’

In 1911 she moved to Meudon, sleeping in what was virtually a garden shed with her cats and giving herself retraits, periods of time when she would see no one and just paint. She drew her cats, the children in church, but mostly she painted women in rooms, canvas after canvas, trying for an elusive perfectionism. In the 1970s her paintings were much used on Virago book covers, as if presenting her as a feminist icon. But she defies such easy stereotyping. For what we discover in Roe’s insightful biography is a woman of fierce independence and intelligence, an artist of unique vision and talent, who nevertheless would have – at one point – given up everything for a man. Yet we watch her grow through her struggles to become not only the slightly eccentric recluse and great artist, but a woman who never compromised, living life to the full, on her own terms.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Valérie Rouzeau
Cold Spring in Winter

translated by Susan Wicks
Published by Arc


Showing not Telling

Sue Hubbard finds what slips between languages in collections by Gillian Clarke, Valérie Rouzeau and Ciaran Carson.

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin asks, ‘What does a literary work “say”?’. ‘No poem’, he suggests, ‘is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener’. In this statement he seems to be implying that a work of art is always a showing rather than a telling and goes on to add:

Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.

Ultimately, translation, he suggests, serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. Benjamin appears to take Freud’s view that art, at its best, reveals the latent content behind what is manifest. Freud said of poets:

“… One may well sigh, when one realizes that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity”.

Groping towards meaning is thus the role of psychologist, translator and poet alike. For as in psychoanalysis profound insights are reached through the revelation of what it is we really meant rather than what it is we have apparently said. A poem, thus, becomes an act of almost alchemical transformation, a translation between feeling, meaning and language. This reciprocal relationship between languages, this revelation of what exists in its gaps and spaces, is what these three books have in common. Meaning exists in the gaps between Clarke’s Welsh and English, between the French baby-talk, neologisms and translated English of Rouzeau and Wicks, and in the echoes of Irish, especially the genre of song known as sean-nós (‘old style’), which linger behind Carson’s terse English lines.

When Valérie Rouzeau’s poetic sequence about the death of her father, Cold Spring in Winter, was published in France a decade ago, under the title Pas Revoir, it was met with immediate critical acclaim. The French language has quite a different history to English. The Académie Française, started under Cardinal Richelieu, consists of forty members, known as ‘immortels’ who have the task of acting as a sort of language police to keep French pure and free of foreign influence. For English speakers and writers, used to a rich cauldron of American, Caribbean and Indian words, this purity can seem restrictive. For Valérie Rouzeau it has been an invitation to inject French with the vernacular ring of lived experience. Puns, slang, neologisms and baby-talk are all thrown into an eclectic postmodern mix like the piles of scrap metal once sorted by her father.

From the point of view of the translator her work poses many challenges. The mixed registers and arcane words meld with a variety of cadences, from adult speech to the lament of the little girl Rouzeau used to be, to create a singular voice. In the opening lines of her first text the reader is taken by surprise.

Toi mourant man au telephone per –
noctera pas voir papa.
Le train foncé sous la pluie dure pas
mourir mon père oh steu plait tends-moi
me dépêche d’arriver
Pas mouranrir déspespérir père infinir
Lever courir –

The multiplicity of tones is complex and, at times, destabilizing. Pernoctera is an arcane word taken from ‘pernocter’ (to pass the night). The register then shifts to that of wheedling baby talk ‘oh steu-plaît tends-moi’. The compressions of ‘steu-plaît’ and ‘tends-moi’ emphasize the child’s pleading, while ‘mots-valises’ and ‘mouranrir’ are invented words, which give the whole a disturbing insistence. Susan Wicks has not shied away from these problems in her translation:

You dying on the phone my mum he will
not last the night see Dad.
The train a dark rush under rain not last
not die my father please oh please give me
the get there soon.
Not deadying oh not desperish father
Everlast get up run fast –

It would be hard to imagine that an educated female French writer of Rouzeau’s generation had not been influenced by French feminist thinkers such as Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, particularly Cixous’s notion of l’écriture feminine; that is language defined by the feminine body and female difference, a language of deconstructed fragments rather than assured wholes. That Valérie Rouzeau undertook to translate Sylvia Plath’s Crossing the Water for her Masters degree comes as no surprise. Not only is her subject matter familiar from Plath’s writing, but there are also echoes in the passage quoted of Plath’s own muscular urgency in the first stanza of Daddy (‘You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe…’). The father is not a new subject for women poets. Both Plath and Sharon Olds have made paternal relationships the core or much of their work. But Rouzeau adds her own singular twist in a fragmented postmodern syntax. This is not just an exercise in verbal dexterity but a poignant sequence where the poet struggles to make sense of her loss, a state beautifully captured in Susan Wicks’s translation.

Ciaran Carson
On the Night Watch

Published by Gallery

The nuts and bolts of language are also of fundamental concern to Ciaran Carson. In perhaps his best known poem Belfast Confetti, the nitty-gritty of language, its fonts and letters, its question and exclamation marks become synonymous with the ammunition of riot squads during the troubles. Carson was brought up bilingual in Irish and English, and the sense that meaning lurks beneath perceived surfaces is everywhere in his new poems. The style is something of a departure from his previous long lines reminiscent of C K Williams. Made up of fourteen terse lines of two or three words each (a bow towards the sonnet form), each poem is written in couplets, with spaces in between each couplet. Their real subject is silence; the attempt to find meaning in the interstices and lacunae of what appears to have been said. Here, Carson demonstrates a sympathy with his compatriot Beckett who wrote of:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. (Proust and the Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit.)

Written in three movements, the poems are full of darkness, illuminated only by tentative chinks of light in the small hours and the first flutters of birdsong. Meaning is elusive, seeping through slits and cracks, nooks and crannies. The dawn is full of the wail of sirens or as in ‘Between’:

two hoots
of a factory horn

an aperture
of silence two

puffs of smoke
an afterthought

against the blue
of night

becoming morning
as you stoop

below the lintel
to step out

into the street
beware

Mortality overshadows these poems. In the first light ‘flickering / through the slats’, ‘we turn on / the radio for / but will not hear / about tomorrow’. They are infused with a sense of waiting, though for what is not made clear. The image of the common medicinal flower eyebright or euphrasia is scattered among these poems as a metaphor for clear-sightedness. Yet such clarity is only ever fleeting:

we speak in sign
language at times

not in so many words.

Remembering and forgetting, and the memories we choose, or are capable of hanging on to, are themes that run through this work like a refrain. At school Carson was influenced by Hopkins and Frost, both poets whose meaning lurks behind the heft and power of their language. He has said in the past that he is not interested in ideology, only in language. But these obdurately bleak poetic palimpsests reveal an endless search for a form of transcendence, which seems forever to be just out of reach.

Gillian Clarke
A Recipe for Water

Published by Carcanet

Gillian Clarke is one of the central figures in contemporary Welsh poetry, the third to take up the post of National Poet of Wales. Born in Cardiff, she currently runs an organic smallholding in Ceredigion; the Welsh landscape and language are the shaping forces behind her work, providing a framework for self-definition. She exemplifies this position in Pocket Dictionary. Finding a dictionary inscribed in her father’s hand she says:

Here the world
began, and then is now. I am searching
for definitions, ambiguities, way
down through the strata, topsoil, rubble
a band of clay, an inch or so of gravel…

As an archaeologist might search for an understanding of a lost civilization she excavates the dictionary looking for ‘a gleam of meaning, / a sudden uprise of remembering’. For Clarke memory is synonymous with language. In First Words, ‘the alphabet of the house’ was made up of her grandmother’s ‘Cariad, not Darling. / Tide and current are llanw, lli’. The sea speaks in tongues. It tells her forgotten stories, scattering fragments on the shore like longhand in half-remembered, often forbidden Welsh. Clarke’s world is full of the here-and-now, which makes her accessible to a wide range of readers. Whether she is describing a diving otter –

the surface closing over
as the sounding rings of a splash,
smashed the moonlight,

– or the women ‘heaving cloth into tubs, load after load’, in her series on Mumbai, her rich imagery is located in the physical, sensual and actual world. Yet, immediate as her poems are, something deeper and more complex lurks beneath their surface. The past is another country, inhabited by another speech, her mother’s. Clarke was the child of a tenant farm, where her mother’s Welsh tongue was suppressed, ‘spat out like a curse’, so that it didn’t sound to the daughter like ‘a language older than legend’. In her Glas y Dorlan, Gillian Clarke describes stopping in the Brecon Beacons for a picnic as a child with her father. ‘Let’s begin by naming the creatures’, he announces. Then, with ‘a sudden electric blue’ and ‘a shock through the heart’, they see a kingfisher. Pioden y Dŵr, Glas y Dorlan. Blue-by-the Riverbank. Heritage is experienced through this dual relationship to language and the world named through words, which become triggers of remembrance as much as any Proustian madeleine.

Throughout these poems memory and water are intertwined. Names of rivers run through them – the Severn, the Dyfi, the Neb and Ouse. A man ‘wrapped in a waterfall, / undressing himself of the city’s dirt’ in India lets the ‘bright rope of water’ run through his hands. Here water becomes an element of rebirth, through which he will become cleansed and ‘blameless as a newborn’. Elsewhere Clarke remembers her father passing the time with stories as they drove to the sea, teaching her words ‘the ‘gw’and ‘w’ of wind and water, / the ll-ll-ll of waves on the shore’. Here was a child for whom the lost mother tongue became synonymous with the deepest emotions, those of a daughter for her father. ‘Tell me the names for the hare!’, she commands. ‘Sgwarnog for its long ears. / Cochen for it red-brown fur’, he tells her, as if sharing a secret. Clarke’s work is characterized by it inclusiveness, its humanity and deep feeling towards the landscape and natural world. There is only ever the very occasional false note, where something is overstated, such as a river becoming a ‘water-dragon’ in an unnecessarily Gothic image.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Ann Rower
Lee and Elaine

ISBN: 978-1-85242-416-9

Published by Serpent’s Tail
Published on: March 2002
Paperback
302 pages
7.8 x 5.1 cm

The cover of another American writer, Ann Rower’s, eminently skippable book, Lee&Elaine, announces it to be High Risk, whilst the press release curiously claims it “features real dialogue (from taped interviews) with Barbara Streisand, Francis Ford Coppola and Claus Oldenburg”. This a writer who cannot decide whether to write clit lit for art babes or rite of passage reportage. A woman writer takes a winter rental in East Hampton, near the Green River cemetery where many of America’s famous 50s Abstract Expressionists are buried. Middle-aged, escaping her dull marriage, she sets out to ‘explore’ her repressed lesbian side. Obsessed with the cemetery, she decides to write a book in which Lee Krasner and Elaine De Kooning – the wives of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning – come back as ghosts and lesbian lovers. The fact that these women had no discernable relationship in real life seems to be of only minimal concern to Rower. This potentially interesting story turns out merely to be the backdrop to the sort of drab fiction published by women’s presses in the early 70s, when certain imprints published almost anything deemed ‘relevant’ by a woman, bringing to mind Dr. Johnson’s famous remark about women preachers; that like dogs walking on their hind legs, what seemed to be surprising was that they could do it at all.

Rower’s most favoured literary devise is the pun: “I wanted to write. Right” “To know. No.” and, as Lee says “I can’t believe I’ve been dead for years.” “For years,” Elaine answers. This is a book full of scented ‘tranquillity’ candles and undiluted creative writing exercises – our heroine, of course, teaches a creative writing class. There is also a little light lesbian bondage, no doubt to justify the High Risk label, but very little about Lee&Elaine. Jason Hook, an archivist and one of Rower’s own characters voices the most astute criticism. “It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. What are you writing? A romance novel? Fiction? You don’t go around making assumptions … .You are no writer. You haven’t done any background, you haven’t read anything, you know nothing about the situation, you don’t even know if you like their work.” If only Rower had listened to him and done the work – now that would have been an interesting book.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Carol Rumens
De Chirico’s Threads

Published by Seren

The use of the mask is a long established tradition, from Japanese Noh drama to modernist poetry. For Yeats, the use of the Mask represented the repression of the ego, a means of escaping subjectivity and sentiment by exploiting ideas of ‘the self and anti-self’. The idea of the mask is used once again in new collections by Carol Rumens and Pascale Petit. While each poet adopts something of Yeats’ strategy, there is in both books a large amount of post-modernist picking and mixing.

Carol Rumens has fourteen full-length collections under her belt. Her poetry delights in erudition, form and wit. Her copious use of curious, exotic and humorous metaphors has its roots in Martian Poetry, the movement that Wikipedia – fairly or unfairly depending upon where you stand on the cultural spectrum – calls, ‘a minor movement in British poetry in the late 1970s and early 1980s’ that aimed at breaking the grip of ‘the familiar’, by describing ordinary things in unfamiliar ways. That Martian poetry was related to surrealism is very apt given Rumen’s relationship, in her new book, to de Chirico.

Rumens prefaces the first poem, ‘The Birth of Venus’, (which is from a sequence entitled ‘Sonnets for Late-Elizabethan Lovers’) with a quotation from Bernard Fontenelle’s 1686 description of Venus. She then continues with passages of description based on ‘Hubble’s filter’, colloquialisms such as ‘we’ve learned a thing or two/Since then’, and language culled from the tabloids, Renaissance maps and space odysseys:

We construct her centre-fold
Of continents into the foamy world
Of Terra Aphrodite, Terra Ishtar.

In ‘Alba’ we move within the space of four lines from REM sleep, via Kwiksell and Costsaver, to the gift of a latuca sativa (that’s a lettuce to you and me) proffered by ‘my boss’. It’s witty and sharp, with the ‘green gleam of his glances’ leading us through to the final lines: ‘he beckons me onto his office-lounger, /And offers my lips his salad-bowl, prêt-à-manger’ – and all within the sonnet form.

More curious is the ‘verse-drama with soundscape’ entitled ‘De Chirico’s Threads’ which gives the collection its title and, considering it is around forty pages in length, involves a huge cast that includes not only Giorgio, but his brother Alberto Savinio, his dead sister Adele, his parent Ariadne (of Minotaur fame), along with André Breton and various forgers and fakers. The play explores in verse, using (here as elsewhere in this book) the Italian canzone form, de Chirico’s rejection of surrealism and his return to classicism, when he chose to pit himself (and lost) against such masters as Titian, and to ‘copy’ versions of his own early work – which was what sold.

The play asks various questions: ‘Does art have only one song, does it die after adolescence?’ And, perhaps by extension, ‘Is it merely the clutter of toys/ Untidied, the under-the bed of little boys?” A nasty Forger (ya-boo-hiss!) says:

Style sells. His name spelt style,
But that was once.
His latest style’s past-tense.

But do we learn any more about de Chirico from this than we would by reading a good biography? I’m sure this collection will garner plaudits such as ‘erudite’ ‘playful’ ‘a fusion of the philosophical with the personal’ – but perhaps I’m just not that easily riveted by the ‘clever’. As Henry James said of John Singer Sargent, he seemed to suffer from a ‘sort of excess of cleverness.’

Pascale Petit
What the Water Gave Me

Poems after Frida Kahlo

Published by Seren

‘Never has a woman with a moustache been so revered – or so marketed – as Frida Kahlo,’ wrote Stephanie Mencimer in the Washington Monthly in 2002. ‘Like a female Che Guevara, she has become a cottage industry… Volvo has used her self-portraits to sell cars to Hispanics, the U.S. Postal Service put her on a stamp, and Time magazine put her on its cover. There have been Frida look-alike contests, Frida operas, plays, documentaries, novels, a cookbook, and now, an English-language movie…’ The Kahlo cult first emerged thanks largely to Madonna, an avid collector who claimed to ‘identify with her pain.’ Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA’s chief curator, once suggested that ‘Each group seems to find some validation in Kahlo. In some ways we’re obsessed with ourselves and sexuality. Kahlo was very much a part of that narcissistic body culture.’ The paintings reflect her tumultuous relationship with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and her deteriorating health as a result of a bus accident. Kahlo had more than thirty operations, and her gangrenous leg was eventually amputated. But without ‘her pain’ would she have made it as an artist at all? It is doubtful, as there is little original in her manner of painting. Her talent was to dramatize her life in her paintings, cultivating a self-image as a ‘heroic sufferer.’

A tragic bio has been the prerequisite for greatness for women artists and writers from Artemisia Gentileschi to Gwen John, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, in a world not sympathetic to female talent. Yet one of the tenets of feminism was to remove the feminine from the yoke of victimhood. Of the 150 or so works by Kahlo that have survived, most are self-portraits. As Mercimer suggests, ‘Kahlo’s art is to painting what the memoir is to literature – self-absorbed, confessional… The inflation of the artist over the art is certainly not unique to Kahlo… Feminists might celebrate Kahlo’s ascent to greatness – if only her fame were related to her art. Instead, her fans are largely drawn by the story of her life, for which her paintings are often presented as simple illustration’.

So where does that leave a British poet who has based a whole collection on Kahlo’s life and work?

Fourteen of Pascale Petit’s poems from this collection first appeared in 2004 – at the height of Fridamania – as a pamphlet entitled The Wounded Deer – Fourteen Poems after Frida Kahlo, which was a first-stage winner in the Poetry Business Book Competition. In England, it was not until a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern in 2005 that Kahlo’s popularity really took off.

Petit has always been an autobiographical writer. Like Plath and Anne Sexton before her she has made ‘pain’ her hallmark. Now, in a consummate act of ventriloquism, she has given voice to Kahlo’s work and life ‘to focus on how she used art to withstand and transform pain.’ In many ways this suits Petit’s exotic, surreal style very well. The ‘I’ of her more autobiographical poems of the past has been transformed into the voice of Frida; the Frida of ‘Suckle’, for example, whose ‘nurse is Mexico – one breast is Popocatéptl,/the other, Lake Xochimilco,’ or the Frida of the painting The Broken Column who says ‘When I tried to dress this morning/a crack opened in my chest,’ or the Frida of ‘The Blue House’ who claims: ‘My pelvis is a palette/on which night/is mixing day’s colours’, or the Frida of ‘Living Nature’, where:

I have been hung naked, head down.
I have had my right leg amputated.
My back smells like a dead dog.

The surrealist imagery of Kahlo’s paintings – André Breton fell in love with her – perfectly suits Petit’s voice, allowing her to plunder Kahlo’s dreamscapes, often to startling effect. As a sometime artist herself, the poems are full of colour and visual pyrotechnics. To research the book Petit spent time in Mexico, and the poems are peppered with authentic references to Mexican deities and places. With the help of a mirror, after her accident, Kahlo began painting her trademark subject: herself. ‘I paint myself… because I am the subject I know best.’ These words might have been Pascale Petit’s, which is what makes this is such a perfect pairing.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Penelope Shuttle
Sandgrain and Hourglass

Published by Bloodaxe

“Grief,” said Queen Elizabeth II in a flash of insight “is the price we pay for love.” William Faulkner put is slightly differently: “Given a choice between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief.” While the American clinical psychologist Jon Brantner insisted that: “Only those who avoid love can avoid grief. The point is to learn from grief and remain vulnerable to love.” The lesson, of course, is that grief is a part of the warp and weft of life.

Grief forms the base note to Penelope Shuttle’s tenth collection Sandgrain and Hourglass. Born in 1947 in Middlesex, Shuttle has lived in Falmouth, Cornwall since 1970. The death of her husband the poet Peter Redgrove in 2003 inspired her last collection Redgrove’s Wife (2006), which was both a lament and celebration of his life and death. In the past Shuttle has admitted that she has suffered from that occupational hazard familiar to many poets – depression. But poetry’s ability to name the ‘enemy in order to fight your corner more powerfully’ has helped to deal with the feelings of loss and desolation. In this newest collection of more than 70 poems, mostly elegies for her husband, (though some are written in remembrance of her father), there is a subtle shift: “Nowadays / the most serious things / come into my heart / lightly.”

The book forms a journey through the process of mourning, and the poems are carefully ordered to that effect, from the despairing note of “You are lost to me forever” from The Keening, through states of magical thinking explored in The Scattering, an incantatory spell for the disposal of her husband’s ashes, and The Repose of Baghdad punctuated with lines of wish- fulfillment such as “If we ever meet again,” of “If I ever sleep with you again,” to the quiet resolution in the book’s coda – that “Happiness returns, after a long absence”, even if “she’s a very small creature indeed.”

Shuttle charts in lucid accessible verse her responses to love and loss that, as the actress Maureen Lipman wrote in the Daily Express, speaks very strongly to anyone who has suffered a similar fate. She is at her best when blunt and spare as in the series Heyday:

“Husband, take my greatest treasure –
this rogue tiger, Grief …
See, he has eaten all of me bar my hands.”

The power of this startling graphic image, where Grief is personified as a mauling tiger leaving only the writer’s tools, her hands, brings the reader up short, and is a reminder of the physically corrosive sensation of loss, as are the final lines of Handmaid:

“No one’s travelled so far as you,
my love,
your voyage a knife, my heart its apple.”

This is Shuttle writing in her highest register in contrast to the more conversational poems such as Taking Out the Drip that follow incidents in a way perhaps more suited to prose and where, occasionally, poetic tautness has been sacrificed to too much telling as in the first two stanzas of At the HospitalAt the Hospital – “Early morning, quite and lovely September” – when the poem really seems to take off in the third stanza:

“It takes us so long
to get you into the hospital gown
a nurse comes to investigate,”

Not every poem in this collection is about Redgrove. There is also a loving sequence of five poems in memory of her father, and a lovely poem, Edward SanEdward San, about translating Edward Thomas into Japanese: “Now it rains in orchards / in the land of the haiku.”

But what will make this collection read is its emotional honesty. Shuttle does not shy away from difficult emotions, does not smile sweetly and pretend all is well when, in fact her heart is breaking. There is courage here, and hope. In the final poem happiness is seen as a small spider “learning to spin her web again, / lodging modestly behind the washer-dryer / in the back kitchen,”.

Grief is, indeed, the price we pay for love and happiness returns in different and unexpected forms. The trick, as Shuttle writes, is to recognise it.

“I don’t ask for an outbreak of joy so major?
the police are called to quell it,
just your wren-song
drawing each no-longer-endless day to a close,”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Susan Vreeland
The Passion of Artemisia

ISBN: 978-0-67089-449-9
Published by Viking BooksPublished on: Jan 2002
Hardback
302 pages
16.3 x 15.2 cm

The American writer Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemesia is to art history what Merchant Ivory productions are to film, glossy, professional and full of colourful vignettes. It is a grand confection of a novel, but like a box of Milk tray, after the first few seductive bites it leaves you hungry for something more substantial. Artemesia Gentileschi was the Renaissance’s most famous woman artist. Raped by her father’s artistic colleague she was tortured when she attempted to denounce him. Later her father betrayed her, as did the husband to whom he had given her in a marriage of convenience. The book opens with the court scene in which Artemesia is being tried by The Sibille, “an instrument designed to bring truth to women’s lips.” Cords are tightened around her fingers when she does not give ‘appropriate’ answers to the authorities, scaring her painter’s hands and branding her forever with the marks of patriarchy.

Every page is luscious with detail – “a rabbit stew with onions, white beans and turnips that smelled of sage and basil and garlic” is one of the many descriptions of food that makes this novel read like a Jamie Oliver cookbook for the Medicis, whilst every street scene is as embroidered with as much detail – “milk-white oxen wearing flowered wreaths and hauling carts of olives”, “weathered crones” with “gnarled fingers” or “swallows careening through laundry strung from upper windows” – as any gorgeous Venetian tapestry.

Freeland’s sentences are spattered with italicised Italian, crystal chandeliers are candelaria, the her baby daughter is a bambina and although the fisherwomen sell, squid, mussels and oysters they also, for some reason, sell frutti di mare, rather than sea urchins, as though they were not supposedly speaking Italian all through the book but conversing in a sort of American pidgin. Vreeland’s sex scenes are full of pressed loins, crashing waves and swelling sea. But film set costumiers should have a field day if this is ever made into a movie; there is a ball, a wedding and other countless ‘period’ cameos. Freeland is the Joanna Trollope of the Renaissance world. She provides few surprises, but if you want to curl up on a beach this summer with some romping art history lite, this is the book for you.

Lee and Elaine
Ann Rower

ISBN: 978-1-85242-416-9
Published by Serpent’s Tail
Published on: March 2002
Paperback
302 pages
7.8 x 5.1 cm

The cover of another American writer, Ann Rower’s, eminently skippable book, Lee&Elaine, announces it to be High Risk, whilst the press release curiously claims it “features real dialogue (from taped interviews) with Barbara Streisand, Francis Ford Coppola and Claus Oldenburg”. This a writer who cannot decide whether to write clit lit for art babes or rite of passage reportage. A woman writer takes a winter rental in East Hampton, near the Green River cemetery where many of America’s famous 50s Abstract Expressionists are buried. Middle-aged, escaping her dull marriage, she sets out to ‘explore’ her repressed lesbian side. Obsessed with the cemetery, she decides to write a book in which Lee Krasner and Elaine De Kooning – the wives of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning – come back as ghosts and lesbian lovers. The fact that these women had no discernable relationship in real life seems to be of only minimal concern to Rower. This potentially interesting story turns out merely to be the backdrop to the sort of drab fiction published by women’s presses in the early 70s, when certain imprints published almost anything deemed ‘relevant’ by a woman, bringing to mind Dr. Johnson’s famous remark about women preachers; that like dogs walking on their hind legs, what seemed to be surprising was that they could do it at all.

Rower’s most favoured literary devise is the pun: “I wanted to write. Right” “To know. No.” and, as Lee says “I can’t believe I’ve been dead for years.” “For years,” Elaine answers. This is a book full of scented ‘tranquillity’ candles and undiluted creative writing exercises – our heroine, of course, teaches a creative writing class. There is also a little light lesbian bondage, no doubt to justify the High Risk label, but very little about Lee&Elaine. Jason Hook, an archivist and one of Rower’s own characters voices the most astute criticism. “It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. What are you writing? A romance novel? Fiction? You don’t go around making assumptions … .You are no writer. You haven’t done any background, you haven’t read anything, you know nothing about the situation, you don’t even know if you like their work.” If only Rower had listened to him and done the work – now that would have been an interesting book.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Jackie Wills
Party

Published by Leviathan

Jackie Wills’s new collection Party from Leviathan is a very good-looking book indeed. A hard-back with a stylish paper jacket, it highlights how flimsy and disposable most modern paperbacks have become. Her first collection Powder Tower, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was short listed for the 1995 T.S.Eliot Prize. With such an impressive start to her career it is understandable that she wanted to publish as many poems as possible in this collection, but 60 poems is a lot, and a further refining of the collection would have perhaps, like the homeopath’s dose, made it stronger. In his wonderful essay, Poetry and Psychoanalysis, from Promises, Promises, published by Faber, the writer and psychotherapist Adam Philips quotes one of the early British analysts, Ella Sharpe, as saying “The genuine poet is an intuitive psychologist.” Jackie Wills is at her strongest when she taps the arena, beloved by both psychologist and psychoanalyst, of childhood and daily memory. The book opens with a poem Regatta, that locates her childhood, in the unlikely poetic breeding ground of Aldershot.

“Each year, a parade of fire-power
on Aldershot sports ground was made musical
with marching bands, every local common was littered
with spent shells … ”

This is interesting because unexpected, a childhood neither poeticised as a rural idyll nor exoticised as gritty urban poverty. We are not used to poets who come from backgrounds that include, as part of their daily lives, Exocets and Tomahawks, the drilling of soldiers. Willis works best when she keeps her canvas small and her images tight such as in the tender poem to her mother Gagarin’s Moon.

“Over the hoover, my mother sings ‘Moon River’
or what she knows of it, “wider than a mile”,
da daa dada da daaa, humming the rest
as she dresses naked dolls. The song’s from
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mercer and Mancini’s
Oscar win of 1961.”

Anyone old enough to have also been a child then will immediately be transported to early 60s suburbia by the accuracy of tone and period detail. The poem concludes with a small epiphanal moment in the image of the moon as a symbol of closeness between mother and daughter.

“ … The moon in the day
is a tunnel into these nights. The two of us
so close, the sky enormous, this other place.”

But elsewhere these epiphanies tend to be missing and the poems too often become simply competent descriptions that do not lead to that ‘psychological’ insight Sharpe claimed for the best poems. At times the language seems forced, as in Cavern. Here the well-observed violent relationship between teenage girls is diluted by a lacing of alternative stanzas with the names of various types of contemporary music: “Raggae, ska, soul and funk/US Garage, R&B”. But this has the air of a borrowed rather than an experienced language, one that the poet has appropriated, rather than a manner of speaking that forms the patina of her natural speech. While in Blue Mountains the image of the blue veins in the weightlifter’s neck, which are compared with a view of blue mountains, seems strained, a striving for the artful metaphor – for we never hear of the weightlifter again and he only seems to be included to provide the comparative conceit – rather than an organic and integral part of the emotion of the poem. There is also a tendency to rely, when writing about place, rather too heavily on description, albeit highly competent, and therefore a failure to provide a sufficiently satisfying movement through the body of the poem from genesis to conclusion. A fault, perhaps, of writing too much, or including too many poems in this ample collection. The poems that linger longest in the mind are those where all the images build together, as in the moving poem The Man who Speaks Four Languages. Here both the emotional force and the narrative are carried by the single image of a post-war European refugee offering the poet’s grandfather – presumably a doctor – a small statue as barter for treatment.

“It’s a boy, bending to pull a thorn
from his foot. The man tells me
how it reminds him of running
in woods without shoes, of his mother’s
warnings.”

Here Jackie Wills has found, with skill and empathy, a perfect objective correlative to stand for loss and pain, which carries the poem toward its moving denouement.


Roddy Lumsden
The Book Of Love


Published by Bloodaxe

Staying recently in a strange house after giving a reading, I chanced, in my room, upon an ancient copy of Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving. Fromm defines love, unfashionably, as a decision rather than a form of barter where marketable assets are traded in a sexual exchange for the best available model. For Fromm, love is largely a choice, not an overwhelming obsession projected onto the love object. Fromm’s humanistic image of constancy seems now almost quaintly old fashioned, as if it belonged to an age before the ‘invention’ of what Tom Woolfe defined as the ‘me’ generation with its sense of alienation and belief in the divine right to instant gratification and happiness. Maybe according to this thesis Roddy Lumsden’s new book from Bloodaxe should be called The Book of Obsession, but one presumes that the title The Book of Love is knowingly ‘post-modern’ and therefore self-mockingly ironic. Love these days usually comes dressed in inverted commas. Lumsden very effectively creates an edgy urban world of male fantasists for whom love is often closer to solipsistic obsession than to anything Fromm might have recognised. Incident in a Filing Cupboard, the first poem in the collection, sets the tone. This is office love, where every look, even a meeting in the filing cupboard, is interpreted as a sign, “as if an intimacy had just occurred between us.” Lumsden’s characters are outsiders, ‘wannabees’, slight misfits with an often grandiose sense of their own sexual prowess. There is the boastful encounter with An Older Woman in “Mid-1990s, Scotland, dead of winter/And more than old enough to be my mother” in “A Brookes & Simmons dress … bra and knickers/ … in contrasting colours”. We are also party to the fantasies of Love’s Young Dream, an implied loser, who according to “the guys at work” “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell”, despite the excess of cologne and hair gelled “up in an Elvis lick.” There are Tricks for the Barmaid to get her into bed, “It’s only a matter of time before she sleeps with me” and unrealised fantasies of Troilism – where despite obsessive day-dreaming the poet decides – “a small moon … above a harvest field” is just as “ … satisfying, in its own way, enough.”

Lumsden is at his best when, with verve and panache, he plunders his idiosyncratic word-hoard, which borrows not only from his vernacular Scottish but also from the language of games, slang, art and street culture. This he does with economy and style in the pair of poems Glasgow and Edinburgh that in tone recall something of the opening of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings.

“On every corner, someone’s hawking hope
and dreams with plastic straps and wonky seams.

The men call the women pridda bayba.
The women call their menfolk Sunny Jim.”

Yet despite the air of bravura laddishness and quick-witted banter Roddy Lumsden reveals himself, in fact, as a bit of modern-day romantic in Against Naturism.

“I realise it’s not all salad sandwiches
at pinewood picnics, endless volleyball.”

“But it’s not for me, beneath my double load
of Calvinist and voyeuristic tendencies.
For me, I have to see the clothes come off:
the way a button’s thumbed through cotton cloth-
a winning move in some exotic game.”

He has an astute ear for the cadences of contemporary speech. Like the bloke in the pub, who fancies himself as a bit of a raconteur, he wants to keep us amused with a good tale well told. One poem, though, points to a deeper darker side. East of Eden is a shocking poem about a mugging. But it is not the mugging that shocks. The violent youth sorts through the contents of his female victim’s handbag rejecting “the greasy snibs of lipstick”, “the sixty quid in tenners”. He then dumps it and sets it alight leaving only a postcard with “Just two words. The first is BLAME./(I see her now.) The second is my mother’s name.” Despite the literary mask, the anger seems raw, felt, experienced. 

Maurice Riordan
Floods

Published by Faber & Faber

Michael Longley once dubbed Patrick Kavanagh “a mythologist of ordinary things.” In that sense Maurice Riordan’s new book from Faber, Floods owes a debt both to Kavanagh and to his heir Heaney, in its fidelity to the actual lives of real people. Born in County Cork in 1953, Riordan is part of that wave of Irish poets that Evan Boland once described as belonging to the ‘Global Village’, a generation concerned with the ironies of identity, language, history and culture. Riordan’s indebtedness to a nostalgic, humanistic Heaneyesque sensibility can be see in the parallels between the opening lines of Heaney’s poem A Sofa in the Forties from The Spirit Level:

“All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train”

and Riordan’s opening of The Rug:

“The small boy has abandoned his game
With the rolled-up tinfoil ball. He’s rolled back the rug
to expose the newspapers placed there as underlay,”

But being nearly a generation younger than Heaney, Riordan not only celebrates the fast disappearing world of rural Ireland remembered from his childhood but also tosses in, with a practiced casualness, words and phrases culled from contemporary culture. In a mythic poem The Boy Turned into a Stag after Ferenc Juhasz, he opens with the Heaneyesque lines:

“A mother calls to her only son
across the distances.
She comes to the front of the farmhouse”
And calls out to her son.”

yet only three pages later the narrator surprisingly compares himself to “a reggae guitarist who shakes/His locks above the dance floor.”

In a poem such as Bilberry he celebrates memory and tradition with a vignette of the closely observed and quotidian in the manner of Kavanagh describing the life of Paddy Maguire:

“Never having uttered a word
I race out of the barely field and lift
the horse-head knocker from the blank door”

while in Caisson he explores a fascination with science, playing with theoretical possibilities and impossibilities in an extended intellectual conceit:

“If light, then, could part the carbon lattices

Or: our ears were like bats’ – but so enhanced,
So threaded into the brain, we saw the world

As noise:”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright

Book Reviews

Yang Lian
Lee Valley Poems

A Project of Poems and Translation with Polly Clark, Antony Dunn, Jacob Edmund, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, Agnes Hung-Chong Chan, Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, Arthur Sze

Published by Bloodaxe

A Guidebook of Darkness

The cover of Yang Lian’s Lee Valley Poems shows a cluster of dark bulrushes, like calligraphic marks, against an early morning mist. Whilst I would not suggest judging a book by its cover, it does say a good deal about Yang Lian’s poetry. One might be forgiven for thinking that the location is some remote spot in his native China. In fact it is a misty morning on Walthamstow Marshes. This elision of place is touched upon in his introductory essay: A Wild Goose Speaks to Me at the beginning of this new collection. Here he states:

There is no international, only different locals … What is ‘local’? Are its contents geographical, psychological, historical, language- based or even linguistics-based? … ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self.

Born in Berne, Switzerland in 1955, where his parents were in the diplomatic service, Yang Lian mostly grew up in Beijing, and, like millions of other young people from cultured backgrounds, was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ during the final years of the Cultural Revolution. It was after the death of his mother in 1976 that he began to write poetry and became, along with Bei Dao and Duoduo, one of Beijing’s leading experimental underground poets – known as ‘hermetic’ or ‘misty’ poets, a derogatory term created by conservative Marxist literary critics who resisted their avant-garde poetics. In 1988 he visited New Zealand where, after the brutal Tiananmen Square uprising of June 1989, he remained in exile until 1993, then making London his home.

In the first poem, Where the River Turns, written in four parts, the ‘two oily blue wings’ of water, where the river opens out, become a metaphor for the difficulties of cultural duality:

water spreads from two directions two flashbacks
where the river turns
(…)
you exist at the point of a fish bone
the past in two directions are both empty

Yang Lian’s poetry bridges the gap – arguably first explored in Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems in 1915 and a profound influence on twentieth century poetry – between the sensibility of Chinese traditional poetry and occidental modernism.

In The Journey, ‘the wild goose calls, a cry / thousands of miles away, piercing night’s whirlpool’. Yet despite this trigger of remembrance the ‘water tells nothing’. Language, Yang Lian suggests, has ‘no past tense, no nostalgia’. Memory lacks clarity; writing is merely a form of ‘ghost script’. It is only through the body that we really remember. The calls of the wild geese ‘transform the landscape; darkness / transforms my flesh’:

the pull of dreams
longing for each other over thousands of miles
all in the circle driven out by what isn’t yet written
only to circle back to here.

Through the act of writing, these poems become converted into the landscape of the inner self, part, as Yang Lian suggests, of the ‘I’ of the text. Hearing the cry of the wild goose above the Lee Valley’s waters, he is drawn back into the Tang dynasty. Time collapses. As he says here, ‘distant’ and ‘deep’ mean the same thing. Within a largely postmodernist discourse depth has, too often, been seen as contentious, as backward-looking. It is the terrain of modernism, of Freud and self-analysis, which eschews the novelty and eclecticism of the postmodern for the ‘depth’ of archaeology and history. Great poetry – good poetry even – needs to have the courage to face the dark void, to listen to the wild goose’s call and follow where it leads, like ‘following a guidebook of darkness’. This is just what Yang Lian does in a voice that is melodic, haunting and true.

Philip Gross
The Water Table

Published by Bloodaxe

In the 1990s, as a judge for the Writers’ Inc poetry competition, I was delighted to announce Philip Gross’s emotionally arresting sequence The Wasting Game, based on his daughter’s experience of anorexia, as an undoubted winner. I mention this simply because at the time he felt there had been little interest in the poem (though the book of The Wasting Game went on to be shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread Award). I suppose the moral of this is that as a poet you never know. You just have to work hard and hold faith. I suspect that at the time its rawness went rather against the zeitgeist for irony and cleverness. Now, of course, Philip Gross’s hard work and faith – he has been writing for more than thirty years – have been rewarded by the T S Eliot Prize. Insouciance and ‘cleverness’ suddenly seem rather dated in a world where things continually fall apart and centres fail to hold. There appears to be a desire for the arts (literary, visual, and filmic – note the success of the Hurt Locker at the Oscars over the glitzy blue-peopled Avatar) to engage with the authentic, to reflect something of life’s spiritual frailty and uncertainty. Philip Grosss The Water Table does just that.

Rooted in the landscape in Penarth in South Wales, where Gross lives and teaches Creative Writing at Glamorgan University, the connective watery thread that runs through these poems is that of the Bristol Channel, with its low tides and ‘forty foot drop to muddy shallows’, where:

With a gradual rip
Like a concord of lathes, with a crypt smell
two green-grey-brown stiffening blades
of water fold in.

From this first poem Sluice Angel, the dramatic tidal waters provide an aperture onto an alternative way of experiencing reality. ‘The tall shut doors of the hall / of the world at which the weight of water / of incipience does not need to knock’ transmute into something Hopkins-like and feathery; ‘wings / flexed, shuddering, not to soar / but to pour themselves down, to earth’. Water, landscape, industrial scenery and spiritual experience all meld to create meditations on the nature of the man-made world and our lost wilderness. Water becomes synonymous with the body but a ‘body that seems to have a mind’. Yet it is, as Gross tells us, an ‘unquiet body’, one that can ‘never lay down its silt’, that is ‘always trying to be something other, to be sky, / to lose itself in absolute reflection’. Water, thus, becomes a metaphor for an inchoate spiritual longing, the desire to transmute or evolve into something else.

These sentiments are revisited in ‘Design for the Water Garden’, where ‘A water-glass lens / through which you can see only water’ becomes the vehicle, in the surrounding dark matter, in which we are able to view ‘the stream through which light enters the world’. Light and silence are elements that punctuate Gross’s poetry. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this imagery comes from his practice as a Quaker. He has also claimed that as a result of growing up with his Estonian father, who makes repeated appearances within these poems, he was ‘brought up bilingual – in English and silence’. Light becomes synonymous with memory. At high tide on almost the longest day, ‘there is more light in the sea than the sky, / more recollection than reflection’. Gross has said that: ‘In a sense water in itself is nothing, but it is this perfectly clear, perfectly reflective substance in which you can see the world reflected in all its angles’. There is also wit here. In Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA he makes oblique reference to our ubiquitous desire for glossy lifestyles, where to shop is to feed our dreams and confirm our existence. IKEA becomes a modern-day temple, a ‘whole world’ and raison d’être:

We could see ourselves in one, these half-a-rooms
of dolls’ house lifestyle, life-sized (the books on the shelves
in Swedish).
Yet, as he wryly observes, customers ‘stumble out into…
astonishment / to see, after all, it’s just a shed’.

If there is any criticism of these poems – and it is a slight one – there is a tendency to forced colloquialisms that strive a little too officiously for vernacular credibility, as when the weather is described as ‘iffy’, or in the overstated description of ‘the bridge’s peppermint-cream / hint-of-neon filaments’. But these are quibbles; for this is a beautifully executed collection – a meditation on what it means to be human in a fluid, often seemingly meaningless, world. As Gross says of water in his poem Pour, it is:

a thing
in space, that lives in this world
like us, with purpose
though not one
least particle is constant, knows
its place, could account
or be held
to account for what it is or does.

Jasmine Donahaye
Self-Portrait as Ruth

Published by salt

The title poem of Jasmine Donahaye’s collection Self-Portrait as Ruth gives a clue as to how to read these poems. As with Fernando Pessoa, there is a sense that life’s complexities are more easily faced from behind an adopted persona. Here, issues of displacement, nationality, exile and impossible love are dealt with against the backdrop of the biblical story of Ruth, a Moabite woman forced into exile who refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, later being rewarded by marriage to her kinsman Boaz. It is the same Ruth that we see toiling ‘amid the alien corn’ in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Yet here, in a wheat field where ‘a quad bike engine shuts off’ and ‘the tractor has not yet been turned on’, a woman undresses: ‘I pull down the straps of my dress and step out of its little silk collapse at my feet’. The poem seems to be set in Wales for ‘the boy on the quad bike tells his dog tyrd’ma’. Yet, in a highly sensual stanza, the protagonist speaks of oiling her thighs and buttocks, as instructed by her mother-in-law in preparation for seduction, adorning herself with the Yemenite jewels brought by the older woman into exile. Yet, unlike the biblical story where Ruth, though a stranger, is rewarded by marriage, ultimately becoming the great-grandmother of King David, here

…the men looking over their shoulders
expressionless, almost hostile,
are waiting for me,
a trespasser,
to leave.

Born in England, Jasmine Donahaye emigrated with her family to California, where she lived for twelve years before settling in mid-Wales and gaining a PhD in Welsh Writing in English from the University of Wales, Swansea. Her Jewish family has its roots in nineteenth-century Palestine and the book resonates with Israeli and Palestinian history, wrestling with conflicting perspectives of exile and home, tribe and religion, love and belonging. Through a variety of voices, and the shifting use of Welsh, Arabic and Hebrew words, Donahaye refuses to adopt a partisan stance, slipping between the claims and sympathies of both sides. In Thirst, an apparently female Palestinian voice cries: ‘Atash, thirst, tzamah: in any language / an open mouth, a plea’ Looking across at an armed Israeli soldier, with his ‘macho promise’, she asserts that ‘What you say about us is untrue’. Tensions start first with thirst, leading to Palestinian resentment and then Israeli disgust. The denial of water becomes a form of emotional rape as the soldier strikes a rock and ‘a thousand streams ejaculate’. For such ‘petty rage’ the poem argues, ‘your right of return / has been revoked, / so why blame us for the exile?’

The hovering sense of catastrophe is further explored in the erotic love poem Palestina. Slipping past a border guard asleep at his post a female persona claims: ‘Here’s where it began… / a thousand years ago’. As she takes off her dress the soldier realizes that:

Her body was a map of
my body; where she had scars, I had scars.
I traced her terrain: the ruined watchtowers
where the gunmen had lain.

The histories and hurts of these contested lands are entwined like those of ill-fated lovers. There is a passionate anger here that refuses to attribute culpability uniquely to one group. Jewish guilt is faced head-on in Stoning, where the poem asserts that even when Abraham was offered Hebron by his new neighbours he ‘insisted nevertheless on paying 400 / Old Israeli Shekels’ while now ‘my people are throwing stones’ at a farmer, already attacked by ‘febrile women’, who silently ‘drops / like an empty sack’. The body, too, becomes a site of guilt and unease, as in Fetishes where an ambivalent desire for anal sex is conflated with the dilemma over whether or not to touch that holiest of holy sites, the Western Wall. In the oedipal poem My father’s circumcision, the moel (the Jewish circumciser) ‘with his ragged nail / tears the foreskin’ then ‘bends his head / to suck the wound’.

Who then, in this complex history of the Middle East, is innocent who culpable, when too many look away and fail to resolve these historic conflicts? Perhaps, as the poem suggests, we all have blood on our hands. Yet there are moments of respite, as in Water, where sweaty and dusty in a shop on Sderot Yerushalayim, the poet stops to buy refreshment and stands for a quiet moment in the cool of the shopseller’s shade: ‘he an Arab and I a Jew, / and water simply water’. In 2006 Jasmine Donahaye’s first collection Misappropriations was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. With this new collection she establishes herself as an assured, challenging and brave voice, unafraid of confronting difficult issues or upsetting those with more sectarian views.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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