Twins, Orphans, Angels: on the work of Don Mee Choi

I. Introduction

It has taken me a number of months to work out how to write about Don Mee Choi’s two works of poetry and poetic translation Hardly War and DMZ Colony (Wave Books), and I should say at the outset that, as a white, English, male non-translator with only a smattering of a couple of European languages and someone whose awareness of Korean history is, or was, negligible, I have approached them first and foremost from the perspective of a student. There was reading I needed to do before I was able to write anything about these works, and this reading has led to more reading and a journey which as I write is anything but over. I knew I needed to write about the two books together from a point a while back when I asked the poet in a brief tweet if the second, DMZ Colony, was intended as a sequel to the first, Hardly War; her response was that the two volumes were more like sisters. Given the metaphorical importance of the twin and the orphan to Choi’s work, splitting the two up didn’t seem right. I think they belong together and should be commented on as such. As I realised that it was impossible to engage with these works without also engaging with Choi’s theory of translation, I have also included her short essay-pamphlet Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (Ugly Duckling Presse) as part of this review.

There are two more things to say by way of introduction before getting the review/essay underway. The first is an apology to readers for its length: in effect this is two or three blogposts in one as it’s based on three texts and various background works, so I’ve divided it into five sections to keep it feeling organised. The second is an admission of guilt, itself a partial explanation for the post’s length I think: I taught English as a foreign language to learners from around the world for nearly twenty years at a private langauge school in Cambridge, England; a good proportion of them were Korean, and in all that time I have somehow managed to remain almost completely ignorant of Korean history and culture (outside of an awareness of the tastiness of kimchi, the desirability of Jeju island as a holiday resort, and the fact that Korean and Japanese students would occasionally feel uncomfortable talking to each other about certain subjects – although this last was rare). That I have not been more interested over these years in the history and culture of my students says something about me and my context as ‘teacher of English’ that I don’t much like. Don Mee Choi’s work is allowing me to focus on and work through that.

II. ‘to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry’

Hardly War and DMZ Colony are difficult to pigeonhole – they are at the same time translation, memoir, poetry, reportage, photo essay, polemic, experiment in radical translation, and an expression of both Choi’s own translation theory and those of others – notably Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and more contemporary theorists Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson. Choi’s project is political, but she sees clearly that the political, the racial and the poetic are all bundled together in language. As a translator, she is perfectly positioned, where one of the languages is of the dominant global power and one is of a people dominated by that power, to create a new and itself powerful voice which is able to destabilize the power imbalance, to create a rift or, as McSweeney & Göransson call it, a ‘deformation zone’ which “makes impossible connections… unsettling stable ideas of language”.

Choi examplifies this in Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (from here on Translation) where she builds on Walter Benjamin’s Brot and pain as two words meaning ‘bread’ but which also (in my translation anyway) “strive to exclude each other” because they have different “ways of meaning” (Choi’s translation has this as “modes of intention” but pausing over the different translations of a theory of translation is way too meta for this essay!). Choi relates this to the Korean word for ‘cornbread’, oksusuppang, which combines the French pain with the Japanese oksusu to signify the food that was given to Korean schoolchildren after the Korean War as aid from the US. Here she shows us how the very language spoken strains against Korean sense of identity, nationality and race: a European word (Old Empires), a Japanese word (interim Empire) and a word which symbolises current US hegemony (contemporary Empire). “(M)y tongue”, she tells us “even before it had ever encountered the English language was a site of power takeover, war, wound, deformation, and, ultimately and already, motherless” and at this same level, the tongue level, she says the “seemingly benign humanitarian intention” behind the cornbread handed out by the US “creates involuntary longing, a life-long craving, which could easily be translated as a desire to be colonized”. We begin to understand the potential, the latent power of the translator who works with translation as an “anti-neocolonial mode” when she says “But my tongue deforms, it disobeys. I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity.”

This strategy of opening up language at a base level to uncover the “wound” of the “deformation zone” is taken up right at the beginning of Hardly War, where Choi renames the US in its literal Korean language form as Beauty=Nation, (and by the same token she labels herself ironically Me=Gook). Here again politics and language come slamming up against each other. She points out in Translation that Korea is a country a quarter of the size of California with almost one hundred US bases, reasonably therefore relabelling Korea as a ‘neocolony’ of the US: a dependency in all but official designation whose military would revert to complete US control in time of war. What we are reading, then, is an expression of “geopolitical poetics”, which “involves disobeying history” and is where the Korean identity (what Choi calls “race=nation”) “gets to speak it’s own faint history in its own faint language”.

The geopolitical split between north and south is, of course, the ideological split between communism and capitalism. The rift in language that Choi opens up allows an escape for the reader able and willing to follow her from the dominant western placing of Korea as a metaphor of [north=commies=bad] versus [south=neolibs=good] to create a more complex and ideologically transgressive picture of a people’s oppression from the level of the individual identity up.

The notion of “disobeying history” and whispering a “faint language” remains throughout both books and is intimately connected to ideas around the potential of creativity for giving voice to those who have been silenced either by death or powerlessness. A good example is ‘The Orphans’ sequence of prose poems at the centre of DMZ Colony, in which Choi creates the voices of imaginary orphaned survivors of the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre of civilians by the South Korean army in 1951. As the symbolic voices of all the children who really existed and really died in the massacre, these poems feel like they are whispered by ghosts, who speak in honour of all the children who suffer in the world. “History is ever arriving”, Choi tells us in an introduction to the sequence, highlighting that all language and therefore all translation is part of the “collective consciousness” and implying that these imaginary voices have a genuine claim to be part of the ‘real’ world (and they feel harrowingly genuine) an implication given emphasis by the inclusion of sketches by Ahn-Kim Jeong-Ae, a feminist scholar and activist who provided Choi with detailed information about the massacres. Translation is not mediation, then, but creation; and it is key to this sequence that Choi wrote each of ‘The Orphans’’ voices first in Korean, in her own handwriting (shown in the book on the left-hand page) and then translated this into English (shown opposite the Korean). The faint language which disobeys history comes from neither the ‘translated from’ or the ‘translated into’ but from somewhere in between the two.

Immediately before ‘The Orphans’ comes Choi’s rendering of her interview with octogenarian North Korea sympathiser Ahn Hak-sǒp who was a political prisoner for many years and suffered torture at the hands of the south korean army. His voice comes through in the juxtaposition of the actual notes taken by Choi during their interview with the stoccato bursts of her transcribed translation, in a sequence which includes stream of consciousness, the repetition of words, the intrusion of handwriting, the breaking down of spoken language into poetic lineation and fragmentation, and even the opening up of ideas that come from Choi’s mis-readings of her own handwriting, suggesting new creative directions (“Toward Global Humanity”) almost like a form of (not-quite)-automatic writing which takes the writer and reader towards some metaphorical spirituality within the “deformation zone”. An old man’s voice transforms before our eyes into something which, like the orphans, takes on a higher level of symbolic power than it could have had without this poeticised translation.

It is, I think, impossible to locate the depth of meaning in Choi’s work without engaging sympathetically with the political thinkers who have influenced her. The trajectory down from Marx is clear from both her content and quotations and one of the places this is most manifest is in DMZ Colony’s ‘The Apparatus’. Here the philosophy of Louis Althusser combines with Kafka’s imagery from The Penal Colony and the poet’s own experience going through immigration into the US. Choi takes the sadistic horror of Kafka’s torture device and puts it into a dialogue with a distillation of Althusser’s repressive and ideological state apparatuses to create a powerful impression of them as equally violent, equally current, and equally to do with the domination of one language over another. Here translated quotations from fiction are elided with quotations from ideology theory, both of which are elided with the memories of the translator and the words of torture victim Mr Ahn, until the language becomes broken down into parentheses, split apart almost the way the prisoner was set to be cut into in Kafka’s short story (a fate which ultimately, and tellingly in this context, awaited the officer). There is violence being done to language in this section; this is more than a disturbance in meaning, it is the breaking of a symbolic system, or perhaps the symbolic breaking of a system. This is translation as insurrection.

III. ‘the eternal twoness’

As I mentioned above, Choi takes many of her cues from translation theorists Benjamin, Deleuze & Guattari, and McSweeney & Göransson and forges from their ideas a new aesthetic which as far as I know is hers alone. Translation is not the passing of a message from one who knows to one who doesn’t know, but a “map”, an area in which endless crossings are possible between the parties. The crossings are both ways, goings and returnings; and it is this notion of ‘return’ which is fundamental to an understanding of Choi’s work because it ties together her radical politics and poetics. Repetition and motif are used throughout Hardly War from the outset: the repetition of the same or similar images, and of words and phrases (a nice example comes from an unnamed poem in which official war narratives impose themselves on the strange, quiet, child language of a young Korean’s consciousness: “narrowly narrator”, “superbly so” and “the naturally convincing BBC” are repeated in words superimposed on an image of Choi as a child carrying her little brother on her back, which itself is in ‘slant-rhyme’ with a previous image of another Korean girl carrying her brother on her back in front of a tank in the Korea war). These motifs come and go, some returning later in the book, as they simultaneously fragment the narrative and provide it with cohesion (although narrative is probably the wrong word, progression of thought would be a better way of putting it). This idea is broadened out in DMZ Colony in the first section ‘Sky Translation’ when migrating snow geese inspire Choi to make the return to Korea both physically and as a creative project of translation. This brings us back to the longing of homesickness (home + sickness) that Choi translates from the internally-culturally-oppressed nature of the Korean language. It also evokes return in the sense of Korea returning to being a single country, to a position where the south is no longer a neocolony of the US and the north is no longer an ‘othered’ state.

The theme of twoness returning to oneness, or at least twoness existing singly, finds expression in the ‘twin’ motif, from which extends the doubleness implicit in the idea of repetition and return: “I come from a land where we are taught that the US saved us from Commies and that North Korea is our enemy. I come from a land of neocolonial fratricide. I come from such twoness. I speak as a twin” (Translation) But this is also the “eternal twoness” of (non-identical) twinhood that insists Benjamin’s “Translation is a mode” is paired with “Translation is an anti-neocolonial mode”, and which places the handwritten Korean notes of ‘The Orphans’ next to their typed English counterparts.

Choi’s father was a war photographer and her relationship with him and his photos is another central theme – daughter and father becoming yet another ‘twoness’. Uncovering the mysteries of her father’s absence when he was away in war zones and investigating the history he caught with his camera is one of the ways Choi explores the violence of the Korean War and the extended period of US-backed authoritarianism which followed it. The Hardly War sequence entitled ‘Hardly Opera’ surreally runs with ideas from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (‘opera’ here being a pun on ‘operator’) and anecdotes from an interview with her father, as the translator becomes “the daughter of the Operator living inside the camera with Spectrum, with History. Everything and everyone inside the camera are mad. They also enact their wish, the wish to return to the world.” So return is again the key, the driving theme; but the flowers that her father now photographs in his old age become characters in a bizarre incanted world. They combine with the horrors and political turbulence the same camera saw, to be interpreted by the daughter, who perhaps also wishes for that part of the relationship with her father which was lost to his career, to be returned to her.

IV. ‘what moves across the mirror’

Yet another way in which ‘twoness’ or ‘return’ manifests in Choi’s work is in her treatment of mirrors. This is not ‘return’ in the sense of ‘reflection’, however, but “mirrors as sites of translation, deformation zones” (Translation), inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), by Korean poet Kim Hyesoon (whom I’ll come back to in a moment), and by their use in Korean shamanic tradition. In DMZ Colony, mirrors are primarily a tool for the creation of ‘Mirror Words’, backwardly-formed nonsense words of the ‘Erewhon’ variety. But they are not intended satirically as Samuel Butler’s was, rather, Choi tells us beautifully: “Mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance. Mirror words defy neocolonial borders, blockades. Mirror words flutter along borders and are often in flight across oceans, even galaxies. Mirror words are homesick. Mirror words are halo. Mirror words are orphaned words.” The English-speaking reader is disturbed by this, having to do some translation for themselves, they are made foreign by the words, the translator is not providing a finished product as expected, she is requiring the reader’s engagement, attention, action. “Ruoy Ycnellecxe, / Si ti Laitram Wal? // Laturb Eripme!” As she says in Translation, something “miraculous” happens within the mirror; and Choi turns this zone of miracles on the South Korean regimes the late twentieth century.

Kim Hyesoon, whose work Choi translates, also make use of mirrors, and in Translation Choi quotes from Kim’s poem ‘Memories of Giving Birth to a Daughter’: “I open a mirror and enter, / mother is inside a mirror, sitting / I open a mirror and enter again, / grandmother is inside a mirror, sitting.” Here the mirror represents the oral tradition in shamanic tradition, which was the only place “women were free to express and explore their identities” because in their performance of rites, songs and stories they “were not subservient to men”, so Kim Hyesoon’s use of mirrors “derive from a historically and linguistically expelled zone” or, as Kim herself says: “…that place patriarchy, that male-centred thing breaks, the universality of all things breaks” (Translation). So, it is clear that the “disobedience” that mirror words compel is as applicable to patriarchy as it is to autocracy, and indeed the suggestion is that in terms of twentieth-century political history, the two are inextricable – another ‘eternal twoness’ perhaps. I’m not sure whether the centrality of Choi’s father to her work is ironic in this respect, but the internal dialogue she has with her memories and his photos in, for example, ‘Hardly Opera’ suggests that she is negotiating ideas of filial piety and family dynamics in Korean society (I’ve read a little on this in Bruce Cumings’s Korea’s Place in the Sun, which I got hold of to inform my understanding of Choi’s work) but if Choi is commenting on or subverting Korean patriarchy, it is at a level deeper than I have yet been able to reach!

It seems to me that an “expelled zone” of sorts is set up in the final section of DMZ Colony ‘(NEO) (=) (ANGELS)’ which compliments Choi’s father’s photographs with short prose poems, and which brings together many of Choi’s ideas, metaphors and concerns: fathers, mothers, children, orphans, cameras, martial law, birds, homesickness, colony, eternity. And it distills these themes, creating from them a voice which speaks with great clarity (all the clearer from coming straight after the mirror words section) of an identity for a unified Korean people, like the voices of ghosts from a twentieth century of domination, war and massacre, one which takes us right back to the first piece in Hardly War, ‘Race=Nation’, a new formulation of the “uri minjok” – the pre-war sense of Korean national identity which was, Choi tells us, an important factor in galvanising the anti-colonial independence movement during the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945: “Who are we really?” this voice asks, “Are we orphans of beauty? Are we angels of eternity?” These are questions late in the piece, which complicate statements made at the beginning: “In reality, we were all angels…orphans who aren’t orphans,. Angels who aren’t angels”.

Angels are in important image to end on: both ethereal and earthly, at once dead and living, here and not here. Where ghosts are passive, angels are active. They also take our minds back to the migrating birds, sharing with them both wings and the habit of crossing and returning between realms – the wings also represent twoness, twins or two mirrored halves. It is astonishing that Choi is able to combine so many of the complex strands of these books in a single symbolic figure, but in the figure of the angel she achieves just that.

V. Conclusion

This essay/review is incomplete, as they always are; it is one of the wonders of literary works that no attempt to encapsulate them will ever end in success – reading a review can never stand in for reading the actual text, only ever conveying a rudimentary picture of what it contains. What I have written here will seem uninformed and perhaps naïve to those more expert in the field of translation theory, and Korean culture and history, but as I said at the beginning Choi’s work is part of a journey I am still on and intending to continue.

I will have been successful as a reader and a reviewer if I have been able to convince even one of you who were not intending to do so, to take a good long, careful look at Hardly War and DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi; in the finest Marxist tradition, she is creating work which is not satisfied to ponder and reflect the world but wants to change it.

You can buy Hardly War here.

You can buy DMZ Colony here.

You can buy Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode here.

You can read the New York Times review of Hardly War here.

You can read the Chicago Review of Books review of DMZ Colony here.

The Poem as (in a Pig’s Arse) Friend

I’ve liked The Poetry Exchange’s regular podcast project Poems as Friends since I heard John Prebble and Andrea Witzke Slot’s conversation with Nicholas Laughlin the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books about the Martin Carter poem ‘Proem’. Laughlin’s disarming reading of this difficult-to-pin-down poem as he and his hosts notice things about it which have not struck him previously, his openness in accepting a level of non-understanding (“not an irresolute but not a resolved poem”) along with his insights into individual lines and a positioning of the poem in its political context struck me as a very healthy approach to poetry, and one which comes through in all these Poems as Friends episodes (there are more than fifty of them now). The idea of embracing a poem as a friend you wish to spend time with as oppose to a trophy you wish to hold aloft on social media as evidence of your great reading fits perfectly with the ideas around Responsibilities of the Reader that I posted about recently. It is also an approach which seems very anti-Cancel Culture to me, and while I think Cancel Culture is in some ways a misnomer for the phenomenon of principled people finding a voice for protest (let’s face it, there are aspects of Culture that can do with being Cancelled), it also has a knee-jerk, baby-out-with-the-bathwater side to it which Poems as Friends resists. The most recent episode, featuring actor, writer and director Stephen Beresford talking to Fiona Bennett and Michael Shaeffer about Larkin’s ‘Vers de Société’, is a very good example of this warts-and-all friendship aspect of The Poetry Exchange’s philosophy.

Stephen Beresford, friend of Larkin’s Vers de Société

Philip Larkin, of course, if he has not already been cancelled is, along with Ted Hughes, ripe for the cancelling. He ticks all the boxes for the problematic dead white male poet category, and it would be silly to deny that there are elements of his writing which are not only out of kilter with contemporary sensibilities but objectively snobbish, racist and sexist. It’s the misogyny, not to mention the intellectual snobbery, as Bennett and Beresford point out, which comes through in ‘Vers de Société’ in the line “…to catch the drivel of some bitch / Who’s read nothing but Which”. But Beresford says at the beginning of this conversation that for him “(this poem) is the friend that most other people don’t like, and they say the wrong thing, and there’s a WhatsApp group where people discuss how terrible they are…and because of their unpopularity, because they’re difficult, I find as I’ve got older I’ve more and more grown to respect them”. This is the real strength of Poems as Friends. Some people will read an article like the one linked above and decide that Larkin lies on the wrong side of the good/bad divide, taking their relationship with him no further than that; but others will recognise the idea of an imperfect friend – one who you know well enough to be able to appreciate their good qualities, which stand side-by-side with their bad ones to make them a fully-rounded person. And it is hard not to acknowledge that sometimes the most difficult individuals can (in spite of and because of that) also be amongst the most talented, creative and profound.

Philip Larkin

The problematic line in this poem stands side-by-side with “Funny how hard it is to be alone”, “…looking out to see the moon thinned / To an air-sharpened blade”, “Too subtle that. Too decent, too. Oh hell.” and “Beyond the light stand failure and remorse” in a tightly-structured rhythmical pattern and fluctuating rhyme scheme. And there is something in knowing that a poet has written bad lines (and bad poems) which makes them seem rather more human and even increases your respect for there good lines and poems.

It is in fact the play of the beautifully expressed melancholy in Larkin against his intense miserablism that makes him the unique poet he is. Measure, for example, the complexity of hope expressed in ‘The Trees’ which caused me to pick that poem to read at my son’s funeral, against the attention-grabbing naughtiness, the ‘sayability’ yet the simple truth, that runs through ‘This be the Verse’ (the first lines of which my own mum happily quoted at me a few years ago).

It’s the latter of these two Larkin voices which brings us the gift of “In a pig’s arse, friend.” in ‘Vers de Société’, and to which Beresford rightly pays tribute. I don’t know whether this would be best formally rendered prosodically as an anapaest followed by a spondee or a pyrrhic followed by a molossus, but either way it is immensely satisfying to say, carrying exactly the right weight of intonation, vulgar imagery and conceptual juxtaposition to raise it from the level of ‘insult’ to ‘poetic insult’, which is itself an under-valued genre of poetry. This is the kind of line, the kind of poetry, which would not be possible without the arrogance and sense of entitled snobbery which also manifests in more seriously ugly ways on occasion. There is no reason for us to ignore or forgive Larkin for his faults in order to celebrate him for his more profound and enjoyable moments. I’m very grateful to The Poetry Exchange for reminding us that poetry, like friendship, doesn’t always have exist on a good-bad spectrum.

The conversation here is amusing and intelligent, and the readings are very well done (as always in these podcasts); Beresford’s comments on writing and loneliness are particularly apposite: “There are two massive things that if you want to be a human being and alive in the world you have to negotiate, and they are being alone and being with other people”.

If you haven’t come across The Poetry Exchange yet, I would recommend taking a look and having a listen.

https://www.thepoetryexchange.co.uk/

The Responsibility of the Reader

I came across a Twitter exchange recently on the subject of poetry editors’ sometimes harsh indictments of poet’s work and also the fragile reactions of some poets to having work rejected. This made me think a couple of things which I’d like to share here for anyone who’s interested.

One is the sheer confidence, the chutzpah we might almost say, of editors who are able find it in themselves to say ‘See this? This is a good poem. This one? Average. And this one here is complete rubbish’. This is worth spending a moment thinking about, because to an extent I can relate to poets who react in sobs to having their submission rejected and/or ripped into; there is no use pretending that when you criticise a poem you are not criticising the poet, you are, and so if you destroy a poem…well, let’s say there is at least a moral responsibility on editors to be kind in tone if not in content – this is why I baulk a little at the amusing rudeness of editor-critic-poets like Ian Hamilton and Craig Raine (although I have to say, the baulking does not diminish the amusement). However, my own experience of editorial comments has been extremely positive, rejections being either short and sweet, short and neutral, or short and constructive – all of which seem reasonable. And let’s face it, an editor should not be made to feel bad for rejecting a poem and saying why – in fact there is no reason why they should even give a reason – after all poems take up space in magazines; if someone turned up at my front door with a giant panda asking if they could leave it with me, I would like to feel I could turn them away without explaining why I didn’t want it in my house. Equally it would seem like an odd reaction on the part of the panda’s owner if they burst into tears on being asked to find somewhere else to keep their pet. But back to this editor chutzpah. First of all, I suspect you have to be a certain type of person to be an effective editor, constant and acute poetic doubt is surely inefficient if nothing else in the day-to-day running of a literary journal; but it is also likely that one of the reasons you set up your magazine in the first place is that you didn’t think that there was enough of the kind of poetry you liked out there and you wanted to help enable more poets who did produce the kind of material you like. Part of establishing a poetry magazine is, I imagine, setting out in your mind a fairly robust set of personal criteria for what constitutes ‘good’ poetry; this is subjective of course, but you’re not going to get far as an editor without it. You probably have a pretty good poetic education to start you off, either formal or informal, and it will not take long for the submissions to start rolling in and you will soon become one of the most prolific poetry readers in the country. You will have seen far more poetry by people of far more levels of experience and technical ability than almost any poets out there writing. You will become for want of another word, an expert – within the context of your criteria and your magazine, but an expert nonetheless. And this is when your confidence (chutzpah is unfairly pejorative) will start to build and you might sometimes find it hard to rein in the off-hand slights when writing rejection emails. As I say, my experience is that editors mange this pretty well.

Considering all this, I remember why I get frustrated with the label ‘gatekeepers’. Editors aren’t gatekeepers, they’re housekeepers, and they know what they want their house to look like inside, I don’t. Having said that, they are also the most valuable enablers that the poetry community has, and of course they have a responsibility towards our shared cultural space, as we all do; but that doesn’t mean accepting my poem just because I happen to think it’s the best thing ever written.

Thinking about the responsibilities of editors made me think too about ours as readers of poetry. It seems to me that there are two sets of responsibilities involved in the process of mediation which takes place in and through a poem. The poet has a responsibility to transfer a set of meanings-as-they-see-them out onto a piece of paper (or similar), once they have done that, their responsibility is over – their responsibility to the poem, that is – the poem is out there and a larger, more diffuse and difficult set of responsibilities take over, that is to say, the responsibilities of the reader(s) of the poem. In some ways it seems odd that the focus generally seems to be on the poet’s responsibility, as it is so soon over and represents such a tiny part of the life of the poem. I mean, granted without the poet’s discharging of their responsibilities no other would be possible, but this shouldn’t blind us to subsequent responsibilities. These are, I think, some of our responsibilities as readers of a poem:

To read the poem carefully (not skim online and take to the socials)

To read the poem carefully again numerous times

To consider when the poem was written

To consider who the poem was written by

To consider the context the poem was written in

To assume the poet was not an ill-intentioned, mendacious imbecile

To consider what the difficult bits might mean

To consider what presuppositions and prejudices we bring to the poem as readers

To consider that we ourselves might be the imbecile and the poet actually quite clever

To consider how the context in which we are reading the poem may affect our understanding

To try not to feel belittled by words/lines/stanzas we don’t immediately understand

To fight back irritation with a poet for writing something we do not immediately understand

To consider that the poet might be trying to do something different to what we think they are trying to do

To ask others what they think about the poem (and what they think the poem is about)

To reject or accept what the other person may say about the poem on a basis other than their status as a valued legitimising voice

To consider that we might learn from the poem

To be open to the idea that the poem might change the way we look a the world if we let it

To remember that poetry is not prose

Barthe’s Death of the Author surely has a concomitant Responsibility of the Reader, but while it seems that many are happy to agree meaning is constructed solely by the reader of a text – or that there is at least some kind of contract between writer and reader – they are also keen to point blame directly at a writer the  moment the constructed meaning doesn’t fit entirely and immediately with their already-complete-and-unshakeable worldview. Others claim, for example, that literature should be critiqued as a product of the social forces that gave rise to it, but they also seem ready to denounce writers whose (perceived) meanings refuse to dovetail with the reader’s understanding of the world.

I’m not saying that a poet should not be taken to task for homophobia, racism, sexism, fascism or whatever, but I am saying that any critic (editor, professional critic, student or general reader of poetry) should tick off an internal list similar to the one above before they get about their criticising. Most editors and professional critics are likely to do this already, I suspect that fewer students and general readers do). Just as the conversational onus should not always be on a speaker to speak in a certain way but also on a listener to upskill in order to be able to listen clearly to a variety of accents, dialects and languages, so the poetic onus should not lay solely with the writer of a poem but equally with its reader.

Of Ghosts and Folds: Call in the Crash Team by LYR

The music seems to fold around the words. That was my principal response as I was listening to Call in the Crash Team, the debut album from LYR, a collaboration between poet laureate Simon Armitage, musician Richard Walters and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Pearson.

The interaction between spoken-voice-sounds, which carry precise meanings, and music-sounds, which carry more nebulous meanings (to my ears, I mean, a non-musician), is one I find interesting. Sung words seem deliberately to emulate the quality of music, they want to be one with it, to become a feature of a single body created by the sounds made by all the other instruments in the piece combined. They may aspire to be a striking feature, perhaps the most attractive of all, but part of a whole nonetheless. Spoken words are different; they are proud of their difference, they seem to know that they are the body of the piece, that the music, however subtle, nuanced, and expressive, exists for the benefit of the words – to give them colour, warmth, individuality. Music is like a coat wrapped around spoken words. Musicians will disagree I imagine, but this is how it seems to me from the perspective of poetry.

The coat is an apt metaphor given that one of the pieces in Call in the Crash Team (I’m going with pieces because songs surely by definition must be sung), called ‘Greatcoat’, uses the long, heavy coat of a dead man to build a rather sinister picture of his life and character in vague and sometimes surreal terms:

Under its weight you’re buried alive,

under its wing the raven flies.

But I’m ditching you, brother, dropping you off

on the piss-stained steps of a charity shop.

These words are the body of the piece and the simple strings which break out into an electronic beat as the poem progresses are the coat that hangs and folds around them. I say these words, but it’s not the words as you see them above, rather as they are uttered in the recording by our poet-laureate in his well-known, measured northern tones. This is perhaps another reason why the words are amplified above the music: listening to Simon Armitage is like watching Robert Downey Jnr: whoever he’s playing you’re acutely aware that it’s him. And this of course double-edged – there’s a thrill in watching Iron Man, but if you’re after the subtleties of character acting, you’re watching the wrong film. This is not a criticism of Armitage (or Robert Downey Jnr for that matter) it’s just a fact of super-stardom; and if UK poetry has a super-star, it’s Simon Armitage. An actor reading the lines might have made them meld with the music a little more, but that would have created a very different album, and of course Armitage has always been famous for his strong and distinctive poetic voice, with his actual voice delivering the lines being one of the things which has over the years made his live performances so deservedly popular; it is also one of the pleasures of this album. So, on reflection perhaps we should think of a better metaphor for than the man in the coat.

More apt may be to say that the music is the weather, or the atmosphere (I was trying to avoid the word, but hey), that the spoken words of the poems walk through. I still say it folds around them but perhaps more dynamically, like the rush of cars and buffeting air folds around the “Central Reservation Man” in the bleak in-between hinterland of ‘Urban Myth #91’:

Tramping Britain’s middle lane

between the triple carriageways.

Tightrope-walking the thin line

between the barricades.

Or it folds and flaps like the wind that brings the trains to a stop in ‘Leaves on the Line’ (a strange and startling poem that makes a child’s folk rhyme of commuter boredom):

Till Leaf Man come

How long, how long?

Or it hangs and  swirls, mist-like, around the very words of these largely rhymed pieces with their lyrically regular rhythms, verse/chorus structures, and Armitagean characterisations; as in ‘The First Time’ (a depressive’s reminiscence of first love and love’s first failure) :

Did you marry that chump with the fags and the cash

And the clapped out Ford and the copper’s moustache…

…Call it the first time,

call it the last time,

call me a dead beat

for slicing up dead meat

There are ghosts all over the place in this album, in that central reservation (wraith-like if not a full-on ghost), in a bathroom doorway (from where a dead woman watches her widower husband get ready, possibly, to go on a first date since her death), and in the sound from the “diamond on vinyl” of a record player still spinning as the police discover the hanging body of a suicide (apparently Ian Curtis of Joy Division). And where there are not ghosts, there are fading memories, lost moments and failed relationships – absences reported or represented in the voice of a character who is only half there themselves. As I think about it now, I wonder if this is one of the reasons the music works well with Armitage’s voice, because as well as enfolding it, it blurs its edges. His voice alone would be a clearly-defined figure, sharply contrasting with a blank background, but the music spreads the figure out, dissipates it, not so much providing a background as pulling at the words so that they become thinner, opaquer, or chameleonesque, more of the background itself. More ghostly.

I’ve shifted here slightly from my original comment that spoken words are proud of their difference, but not so much. I think they are, but maybe hearing music at the same time as words are spoken causes a blurring of meaning-boundaries, and this works ideally for the atmosphere of loneliness, loss, bitterness, and grief that LYR are aiming at with this album.

This makes it sound like a very depressing album, and it would be if it were not (a) leavened by Armitage’s trademark northern drollery (“Stands up on its own when you’re not around, / smells like a dog, smells like it drowned” – ‘Greatcoat’), (b) softened by his almost Beatlesy successions of half-surreal images (“paper-clip bracelet / crucifix pendant / cinnamon toothpaste / chewing-gum pavement / liquorice protest / dragonfly heartbeat” – ‘Zodiac T-shirt’) and (c) lightened by his amusingly peculiar – and sometimes sinister – character colours (e.g. ‘Never Good With Horses):

You said a man with his own telescope

isn’t especially strange,

and to be a collector of doll’s houses

is fine for a guy of your age

But the above-mentioned leavening, lightening and softening is also a result of the music, about which there is nothing remotely depressing. I find Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson’s music beautiful, evocative, and sometimes  mesmeric; I’ve focused on how I feel it interacts with the words rather than how it actually sounds in this blog post simply because I don’t know much about music technically and I could say little about it beyond bland Radiohead comparisons – but, to coin a phrase, I know what I like,  and the movements, melodies and motifs are clearly very skillfully structured to achieve and emphasise all the effects I’ve mentioned above. The nuances of shading that the music brings to the spoken words I’ll have to leave to a reviewer with a better-trained ear and more music-rich vocabulary than I have.

Suffice to say, though, Call in the Crash Team is worth a listen.

The Man in the Tunnel: Flint by Adriana Díaz Enciso

themaninthetunnel

If you are impatient with amateur philosophy, I’d recommend skipping to the second paragraph of this review; I’m including some initial pondering because my admiration of Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams, an e-pamphlet by the Mexican poet and translator Adriana Díaz Enciso, takes me back to some fundamentals about my own thoughts on language, which I would like to sketch out but which may seem unnecessary, especially to anyone better versed in the philosophies of language and literature than I am – I know this kind of self-indulgence can be frustrating in a blog review; so don’t get irritated, move on. 

*** 

One of the most basic elements of language, as many have said before me, is that it puts one thing beside and in place of another. A word sits beside a real-world object or action, and for the purposes of communication replaces it, their proximity allowing understanding to be carried over to the former from the latter. Once a system based on this metaphorical connection has been established, abstraction can follow; and human (as opposed to animal) thought can begin. It is also then that a line between pure functionality and pure aesthetic beauty can be drawn and discourses can be set out along such a line. All uttered or written language exists on this line. Text messages, screamed curses, romantic novels, pop songs, conversations about the purchase of office stationary, and prayers, are all overlapping categories on this same line. There are many types of category, some tightly defined and others vague; and two of the vaguest categories, ones which between them stretch the full length of the line between pure functionality and pure beauty, are prose and poetry. Where (and whether) we see these two overlapping is both a personal matter and a moot point, but if all language is metaphorical then one way of distinguishing between poetry and prose might be to notice that poetry tends to centralise, emphasise, and problematise the metaphor; while prose tends not to, preferring to keep metaphor as part of its inner communicative workings. This is not a hard and fast rule, there is richly metaphorical prose and prosaic poetry, but considering where a piece of writing lies on the function/beauty line, along with the extent to which its use of metaphor is, let’s say, surprising and complex, might help sometimes when you’re looking at prose that feels like poetry (Ali Smith’s work is an example of this for me, as is Olga Tokarczuck’s) or poetry which feels like, as the saying goes, chopped-up prose. 

*** 

The reason I’ve started this review with the above prelude is that Díaz Enciso describes Flint in its brief introduction as ‘genreless’ and while I can see why she does so, I disagree: Flint is prose poetry. Though it takes many of the features of prose, and as a rather beautiful expression of death, grief, and hope for life it may lie about halfway along the function/beauty line, its use of metaphor (what it puts beside and in place of what) is pure poetry.  

Flint takes as its focal point a dream in which the poet (and we know it is the poet and not a constructed ‘speaker’ in this case because Díaz Enciso takes the trouble to include a prose essay after the prose poem describing the events leading up to and surrounding its creation) meets and walks along “some passage with all semblance of light dulled” hand in hand with the lead singer of The Prodigy, Keith Flint. This leads on to other vivid dreams which, as Díaz Enciso is a Blakeian, we might even call visions. Flint had, shortly beforehand, committed suicide by hanging (although the coroner’s verdict remained open), and, though the poet knew very little about him, the barely contained insanity of his performances and his carefully constructed modern-devil persona (“imp, infernal dervish, entrancing in your dance of rage, though polished, raw”) work as a conduit for her contemplation of the deaths of two of her own friends – most poignantly the Mexican musician Armando Vega Gil who, very shortly afterwards, committed suicide in the same way as Flint. The tunnel from the Firestarter video becomes the passage in the dreams – a link between life and death, sorrow and joy, friends and strangers, and ultimately between what is said and what cannot be said. One of the glories of this work is the way it takes away the menacing, claustrophobic tunnel to hell gently (temporarily perhaps) from The Prodigy and replaces it with a ‘passage’ which takes the reader, through the movement in its etymology, towards hope, not hell.  

The metaphorical power of Keith Flint himself and the tunnel/passage is intense. And this iconic figure of nineties youth-angst is juxtaposed with the poet, a literary woman whose age is not mentioned but who we assume from context and, if you like, from googled photos, is middle-to-late-middle-aged. In life, Flint tapped the figurative potential of his name to create a metaphor of himself (instability: rage, insanity, frustration etc), and I think one of the things that I like about this work is that Díaz Enciso respects that, builds on it and reciprocates by turning herself into an opposing – or perhaps I should say complimentary – metaphor (stability: quiet reflection, contained grief, ageing and acceptance). 

Alongside these two unlikely companions a third surprising metaphor is developed, and eventually becomes the binding force of the whole piece – “Look – Spring blossoms. Dots of white and gentle pink swaying in the harsh wind beneath leaden storm clouds”. In a sense, this traditional symbolism of renewal and hope should not work simply because it is so, for want of a better word, unoriginal. But it does work, in my view, because it is originally used: startlingly positioned beside (and therefore in place of) the two already startlingly-positioned metaphors of Keith Flint and the poet. The imagery of springtime blossom grows naturally from the words spoken about Flint in tribute after his death, which are in stark contrast to the ‘firestarter’ image: “Generous. Beautiful. So kind.” In fact, the only section of the piece to be presented in what might be seen as a ‘poem’ format is a collection of such words, which describe the man himself. But the blossom is also problematised when Flint is called “(a) dangerous artist: he who holds in bare hands the many-edged flower” – so the hope offered here does not necessarily come without cost. Flint at times appears to personify a redemption of which he himself can have no part, Christ-like he is “offered up: self-inflicted, scream in flesh” to a “snarled humanity in its thousands” who “sway as one”. And so as a simultaneous embodiment of both Christ and the Devil, Flint stands as a public symbol of human strength and human frailty. How far this can be extended to include a private symbolism of the poet’s friends and family is hard to tell; Díaz Enciso mentions her own father only in order to categorically deny the existence of any such extension (“No: I have nothing whatever to say to him”) and there is nothing to suggest we should not take her at her word here; although we may pause long enough to acknowledge that the music of poetry echoes in wells deeper than any of us can know. 

Flint is built around a central question, one that is at the heart of grief and at the heart of life: “How do we give hope to the dead?” Because we are all, in the end, ‘the dead’, and because we are all strangers to each other (it is only a matter of degree), this extended prose poem is about finding the passages that lead us towards each other, so that we might “commune”, or (to use a noun phrase which carries more specifically religious connotations), so that we might partake of “communion”: a wonderful word, which Díaz Enciso uses in relation to the crowd at a rock concert which later becomes the crowd at a funeral. It is in this communion (which, more than a coming together, is a sharing of intimacies) that hope in the form of Spring is found. Not for nothing does the poet comment at Flint’s funeral “The world is, today, an orchard”. 

I suspect, because of its unusual form and perhaps because of its use of a real-life deceased  individual with relatives and presumably an estate, that this may be a pamphlet which continues to find full publication elusive, but I hope I am wrong because it is a profoundly moving piece of work which deserves a wide readership. Anyone who has a mind open to the creative and generative potential of placing one thing beside and in place of another, should take a look at what this e-pamphlet has on offer. 

Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams is available from Adriana Díaz Enciso’s website, here. 

The poet will donate one third of any proceeds to the National Suicide Prevention Alliance and another third to the NHS. 

41 Couplets for JK Rowling

winding river

Nature doesn’t draw straight lines,

although it feels like that sometimes.

I don’t end where you begin.

Myths of blood and myths of skin

serve to help us reproduce

but they’re open to abuse.

Borders set with a ruler

make us stupider and crueler

because that’s how we organise

ourselves into warring tribes.

Our biology’s the same,

it creates a two-team game,

a you and I out of a we,

so male and female’s all we see

when we’re gradients of both,

the ratios changing with growth

and age.

*

              The point is language,

the tool we use to manage

our affairs, such a primitive

weapon, allows us to live

in this bewildering forest

only by slicing as it must

through impenetrable tangles

(unfathomable angles

our brains’ geometry must lop),

otherwise, we come to a stop.

 *

Or we might take the birds-eye view

as gods and politicians do,

and see a certain tract of land

with a river in the sand

twisting out a natural border

between two states. There’s order

in this meandering split,

‘I know where I live, this is it,

you’re on your side and I’m on mine’

we say. But people near the line,

where there’s some kind of bow or bend,

may be closer where they stand

to the centre of the other

state than their sister or brother

on the river’s farther shore.

 *

There’s no universal law

or diktat of clear division –

that’s a human imposition.

All the problems which arise

from this (the almost-truths, pure lies

and inconvenient facts

around feminism) detract

nothing from this central theme

that contrary to how it seems

we construct ourselves from words,

make boundaries, more or less absurd,

just so we can understand

some small part of this strange land

called existence we’re walking through.

 *

Accepting we in place of you

and I is one part of the work

(the slow, careful, magical work)

we do as writers and readers –

outside of social media’s

toxic, real-time, hunting ground –

of listening to the startling sound

that plays in our one human voice.

We might not know we make a choice

but we do, each time we engage

in this enterprise called language,

which frees even as it restricts

and allows within its edicts

us to see a little further

than the biology of other.

 *

Maybe one day you’ll see these lines,

or else you never will, that’s fine –

an amateur with time to spare

has no claim on a billionaire

whose own is no doubt dearly bought

and likely has already thought

through everything addressed above;

but I will post them here with love,

as evidence of my refrain

to all who find them in their brain:

it’s not true that we stand apart –

one doesn’t stop where others start.

 

 

Subverting the hipster: AK Blakemore’s Shia LaBeouf

AKBlakemoreShia

It’s not easy to get inside the poems in AK Blakemore’s new pamphlet Shia LaBeouf (Makina Books). Individually they are difficult: surreal, fragmentary, imagistic, and in some cases almost haiku-like in their brevity and the way the images are spliced. Take for example the following (the second in a sequence of poems whose name is a symbol I can’t find on my computer, kind of like a >) transcribed here in its entirety:

 retailing 

single ‘dead swan’ 

in white medical-grade silicone 

 Perhaps a found poem, perhaps a found ‘idea’, or maybe a complete figment of Blakemore’s imagination, this juxtaposition over three lines micro-narrates a movement from capitalism to nature to technology, one echoed and united in the progression of line ending sounds -ing, -an, -one from the back to the front of the mouth, and which leaves with the reader a sense of unease and fascination at the idea that you might be able to purchase the plastinated corpse of a swan somewhere (and confusion: is the bird dissected and preserved? Who would want that, and why? Is it Hirstian art? Wouldn’t white silicone obscure it from view? Or is this a symbol of natural beauty being obscured by blank modernity and commercialised? And what about swans and myth, and royalty…) – but the reader is left moving on from the poem with nothing particular to do with this sensation. A later brilliant phrase, “the atrocious swan of love” (“may”), indicates that this image is actually a reflection on a relationship which is either souring or over but which won’t go away; we can never be sure what the poem is about and we never need to be. This doubt and multiplicity is part of Blakemore’s special talent, I think, and something which she develops further in this pamphlet than in previous collections. To understand what it is she is up to, we could do worse than go to the poet herself, in a review piece she wrote for Poetry London in 2018: “the best poetry for me represents an unravelling of the world from the sharp point of an individual consciousness”, she says, going on to describe “(a) flash of ultraviolet, which, rather than reproducing the lived experience in edifying primary colours, brings the stain, the seed, the subcutaneous bruising into sharp relief against darkness or obscurity”. Individually, then, these poems are such “sharp points”, mystifying (but tight, condensed) images evoking the mind behind Blakemore’s speaker’s ‘voice’, they are the psychic stains, seeds and bruises whose meaning only begins to “unravel” when, like the string of pearls on the pamphlet’s cover, they are seen as a whole rather than as individuals. Tellingly, although precious stones and crystal are mentioned a number of times, the only direct mention of pearls is in the following stanza from “Love’s Easy Tears”:

 google 

how to hide a cigarette burn 

with a string of pearls. 

 This could refer to self-harm, abuse or an accident, but either way these jewels conceal a wound rather than display it to the world and at the same time offer advice on how to go about such concealment. But here the hiding of a scar itself becomes an act of protest and self-affirmation, and the instruction on how to do so reads as an expression of solidarity; it is a finger held up to the world. For me, as in Fondue (ORB, 2018), this is Blakemore developing some of her central themes – female alienaton, lifting strength out of weakness, agency out of passivity, and voice out of non-voice. As she writes in the next stanza from the same poem:

 if given licence 

my own frailty 

will become voluble – 

bioluminescent 

 So there is a subversion of  the ‘natural glow’ here which I’m tempted to link back to Blakemore’s “ultraviolet” comment in the Poetry London article as a form of ‘non-standard’ or ‘other’ light, and one which is in direct contrast to the more obvious, everyday sunlight which lands illuminates “a fat bee on a bright brick wall” (“may”). The luminescence the speaker aspires to here is not obvious, and it is not necessarily there for all to see, but it emanates from within these words/pearls/worlds, these “sharp points” within which the speaker’s life appears distilled and contained.

 These poems come from a place where intense introspection and creativity meet, and as such Shia LaBeouf is the perfect eponym for the pamphlet (it’s also a good joke, given LaBeouf’s history of plagiarism, that Blakemore is here ‘plagiarising’ – in a manner of speaking – his whole puplic persona for the purposes of her own creative work). She writes in the titular poem:

 if you’re reading this, Shia, you’ve an advocate and friend in me 

 By expressing solidarity with this ‘artistically tormented’, ‘troubled’, ‘edgy’, ‘difficult’ (etc.) character, the speaker is claiming not only creative but temperamental kinship. Here Blakemore might have been open to the charge of basking in LaBeouf’s reflected 21st century beatnik glow (again, the glow) were it not for the fact that destabilizing the white male grip on such identities is at the centre of her project. Although the word beatnik has fallen into archaism, or worse wilted into a sort of bland bohemianism, the related term hipster is very much in vogue as a commodified and middle-class white male signifier. In that respect it remains much as it was when Norman Mailer coined – or comandeered – the term in the late fifties to bolster his  (problematic, to say the least) concept of The White Negro; it is just that sixty years of late-stage capitalism has robbed it of any bite it once had. And while the race aspect of the hipster is not Blakemore’s to tackle, the Mailerian masculinity aspect most certainly is. And I can’t help thinking that the woman-shunning, homosocial-hipster Beat Generation writers are not far from some of these poems. Does Blakemore indirectly reference that arch-Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg in ‘the reading’, another three-line poem, which more obviously takes a swipe at William Faulkner (and, I think, at his poem ‘A Poplar’), but whose first line “shivering cock!”, for me, brings to mind Part Two of Howl? “(G)ranite cocks!” blurted Ginsberg as he flailed in a sea of exclamation marks and ‘Molochs’. Blakemore shuns attention-seeking male prolixity in favour of concise ‘it’s-there-if-you-know-how-to-find-it’ female complexity (her line is mysterious/humorous: is the cock shivering because it’s flaccid and cold or erect and hot? And am I the only reader who hears Robin from the 1960s TV Batman in this palm-thumping cry?). Anyway, while LaBeouf himself is a refreshing change in some respects from your standard Hollywood career-icons, he is ultimately just an emulation of the hipster, a 60-year-old subversion. However, in her close psychological dissection of contemporary female isolation and difference, by associating her speaker with Shia LaBeouf (and I should say, by placing him so close to the Faulkner poem reference – I notice his name is also identically stress-patterned with ‘shivering cock’!) Blakemore is subverting the age-worn concept of ‘the hipster’ itself, claiming a once-male preserve and creating a new space from which to express a different experience. While the Beat Gen Men said what they wanted to say about society and masculinity in thousands upon thousands of words, AK Blakemore expresses 21st century alienation, for women, in just a few well-chosen ones.

Shia LaBeouf is available for pre-order now from Makina Books, here

Disclosure: I asked for and received a pdf review copy of this pamphlet free of charge.

Music & Complexity: Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten by Oisín Breen

breen

grasp

Oisín Breen’s debut volume (‘collection’ really being the wrong word for this 95-page, three-act meditation on memory, love and loss) presents the reader with an extremely enjoyable and sometimes profound series of reflections, cogitations, lyrical flourishes and interpretive frustrations. It is hard not to be impressed with Breen’s utter rejection of contemporary poetic trends and the skill with which he maintains what might be described as a High Romantic diction. It could easily come across as pastiche yet finds a voice of its own as much through bloody-mindedness as anything else; the poet relentlessly works his fulsome descriptions (“Memories, stilled and muted harmonia, / silk-heavy in the russet wind, / like sinuous leaves with ice-cracked spines, / and a timbre of slowness”) alongside moments of tender simplicity (“Tending your grave, / I find it as pretty as ever”), surprising and effective similes (“What maker stretched out melancholy, / like a fattened pig’s skin, / into a parchment of minor regrets?”) and disarmingly open revelations of past cruelties and misdemeanors (“I hid because there was a kid nearby I knew. / We all called him retarded. / I was bullied too, but hating him was a guilty treat. / I was happy to feel like everyone else.”) to create an idiom that is very much his own. It is an idiom that will put some off immediately and lose others along the way, but it is one which I find rewards a patient and sympathetic reading – or to give that a more metaphorical twist: you’ve got to allow yourself to be pulled along in the wake of Breen’s language or you’ll sink. 

 While the diction may be romantic the overall tone of Breen’s project is modernist, and as we move through the narrative triptych we encounter myriad literary, religious and folkloric allusions juxtaposed with shifts of register and scenes of contemporary Irish/Scottish life (which we are surely intended to assume are the poet’s own memories – this is how I take them at least) and all of this of course echoes with Joyce and Eliot – the pub scene at closing time deliberately conflates famous scenes from Ulysses and The Wasteland I think, and it is impossible not to relate the central voice to Leopold Bloom (the speaker even has a friend called Stephen!). But the density of allusion and religious reference is such that it was David Jones who kept coming to mind as I read this collection; and it was back to Jones’ not-always-unproblematic writings on poetry that my mind wondered as I read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten. This, from his preface to The Anathemata, is worth reading with Breen’s poetics in mind:

…one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependent involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.

If you are disinclined to agree with Jones on this, or to accept his idea that the language of the past exists in the present as ‘deposits’ which are there to be mined or collected (I’m not sure what verb Jones would use here) by poets, who can thereby access truths deeper than they will find on the surface alone, then you will be likely to run out of patience with Breen quite quickly. I have sympathy with this modernist view of poetry, although as I say it is not without problems and has a tendency to lead towards the political right of insular breeds with shared heritages and ethno-exclusivity. Breen’s work, I should be clear, shows no signs of taking any such sinister turn, but suffice to say the reader looking for succinct nuggets of pared-back poetry should look elsewhere.

As the title alone illustrates, Breen’s work is as much about the sound of words as their semantic value; in fact it might not be far off to say that the book is a re-balancing of words’ meaning with their musicality: in prose, the former is given primacy, in poetry the latter gains ground, but as to how much, that is the business of the poet, and it’s arguable that part of Breen’s project is to bring these two aspects of language into equilibrium – or even to position musicality as dominant. This resonates with the continual references to song throughout the book; the speaker refers to words and the stories they tell as a “brutal song”, “vital song”, “one song”, “song of meaning”, and “song of understanding”. And it is possible that in listening to the book read out loud (the hard copy apparently comes with a CD of Breen’s own reading) it would be possible to discern melodies and motifs which I have missed with my internal readings, and which may carry meanings in the same way that Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte carry meaning for musicologists.

Breen, according to an online biography, is also a student of Narratology, and one way to read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten is as an experiment in narration. How far, Breen seems to ask, can I take readers out of the prosaic world of the text’s events (the story, or diegesis – i.e. a youngish man visits his father’s grave,  and goes drinking with his pals) and into the protagonist’s poeticised, stream-of-consciousness (the narrative – i.e. a youngish man mulls on life, experience, memory and grief, journeying towards some form of self-reconciliation and understanding) before the work’s sense of meaning starts to fall apart? To this extent, the work is an intriguing failure, in part because the momentum of the external story never builds sufficiently to carry the weight of the internal narrative, and partly because the characters (the deceased father, particularly, but also the friends, and the ‘she’ of the final movement) are all lost in the complexities and music of the narrator’s inner voice. We learn nothing about the narrator’s father, and the placing of flowers on his grave (though full of delightful irony – bringing to the dead the ‘life’ of cut flowers which will then wilt and die) is in the end just a stimulus for the narrator’s memories and musings – much like Proust’s madeleine. It would have been lovely to hear more about who this man was, and why he stimulates such intense rumination in his son. Is there some deeper unexpressed secret lying at the heart of the piece? That we do not learn the answer to this question was likely part of the poet’s plan, and now, as always with poetry, I dislike judgmental readings and am suspicious of the dictum that a work should be judged even ‘on its own terms’, because every critic (every reader) brings their own terms with them. But I will say this: I came away exhausted. Yes, exhilarated with the language, but also worn down by what reads like a 95-page Joycean epiphany.

But if Breen’s reach ultimately exceeds his grasp within these pages, it is because his aims are so lofty – I am reminded of Julian Barnes’ comment on the Michel Houellebecq novel Atomised, which, he said “hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits”. Much the same could be said of this volume, I think, and that Breen does not ultimately bag everything he aims for, does not detract from the great deal there is to enjoy and ponder in this book – and to look forward to with respect to this poet in the future.

You can buy Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten from Hybrid Press, here.

A Glimpse of What Hovers: Just a Moment by Ian House

house sunflowers

I’m sometimes a little suspicious of ekphrasis. I’m not sure why but I think it is related to a feeling I get that it is used for one of two reasons: either because the poet has run out of ideas of their own or they are showing off their knowledge and understanding of another artist’s work. A third reason might be that they are practising their own craft by tapping into the craft of another – there is nothing wrong with that of course, although it would seem more appropriate in a creative writing workshop than a published collection. I have similar suspicions about the use of extensive epigraphs and in-text allusion. A little cynical? Maybe. And I should say that as a poet I use ekphrasis, epigraphs and allusion as much as the next person, so it’s hypocritical too. Furthermore, there are countless examples of wonderful ekphrastic (and art- or artist-inspired) poetry online and in print, some of which I have blogged about before, for example this piece I wrote on Sasha Dugdale’s incredible ‘Welfare Handbook’ towards the end of last year. I mention my suspicions here only to acknowledge some of the prejudices I brought to my reading of Ian House’s New and Selected Poems, recently published by Two Rivers Press, and to add emphasis to the delight I found in having my suspicions in this case blown to smithereens.

To say that House’s poetry embraces ekphrasis does not do justice to what has clearly been a life’s project for him. His work, I think, transcends the very idea of ekphrastic poetry and finds instead an expression of the symbiosis of life and art. Yes, he describes visual works of art, as traditional ekphrasis would, and he does so beautfully, as in his central sequence of seven poems based on the paintings of Paul Nash ‘It Must Change’: e.g. “blazing yellows and oranges / intenser than all imagining / fierce as a fusion reactor / self-unsparing self-consuming / the sunflower hurtles downhill” from the sixth poem in the sequence (‘It Must Burn’). But many of his poems are not descriptions as much as contemplations and digressions, as in ‘Now You See It’, inspired by Ai Weiwei’s 1995 triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ in which House recreates the heartbreaking descent towards the ground of a priceless work of art before questioning our reaction as viewers (“Couldn’t you admire the man / who had the balls…?”) and then proposing a way of understanding the problems surrounding Weiwei’s paradoxically iconoclastic artwork (“We… / wanted someone to tell us / … / that we share no genes with the millions / who’ve shattered statues, burned books.”). On other occasions, the artwork is used as a point of departure from which to bury into a moment or a relationship from the poet’s (perhaps I should say the speaker’s) past: “When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale, / the long, dumb wail,” he writes in a poem called ‘L’histoire centrale’, “there was no reason on earth it reminded me / of you”. The irony here of course is that the painting clearly does remind the speaker of the ‘you’ and their perhaps brief moments together outside the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, and so Magritte’s depiction of a “woman with the grey cloth over her head” and her suitcase which may or may not contain “louche / camisoles, canaries, cinnamon (and an) odour / of excitable gunpowder” becomes charged with the unspoken sexuality of a ‘brief encounter’ and a certain film-noiresque danger (via German Expresionism) which allows House to suggest a depth to the speaker’s relationship – however brief – with his interlocuter, and a profundity to his regret, that could not have been achieved without his use of allusion and ekphrasis.

Even when casting back to his childhood in ‘The Harbingers’ the first of the ‘new’ poems (which take up a good two-thirds of this ‘new and selected’) House recalls an early experience at an outside performance of ‘As You Like It’ in which his ten-year-old self is alert to the “shiver of leaves” which anticipates Orlando’s arrival through the “twilight and greenwood”. He takes this moment as representative (at least “a hint of a sense”) of the engagement with art as a way of understanding the world which has, it seems, remained with him throughout his life. He describes it succinctly and beautifully as “a glimpse of what hovers, / of what’s beyond presence”; but then takes it further with a stanza which I think goes to the heart of his poetic project: “and may be disclosed / in the unforeseen moment / by a tree or a smile or a chair”. It is this movement from ‘tree’ (natural/non-human) to ‘smile’ (natural/human) to ‘chair’ (a combination of the natural/non-human with the natural/human resulting in something non-natural/non-human but paradoxically both natural and human, i.e. art) which I think speaks to a complexity in man’s relationship with art which, were it not so precisely described by House, would approach the Spiritual. He concludes the poem with a stanza that captures the purity and peace he finds in art which many might turn to religion in order to locate (“a glass of water, say, / simply that, a volume / limpid and still.”) The double-meaning of “volume”, of course, is not lost here.

Elsewhere, House engages with the life and work of artists as diverse as Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens, Ovid, Kazimir Malevich, Djambawa Marawili and Gogol. And what a pleasure it is to be introduced in some cases to creative minds you have never heard of before, and in others to be reintroduced as though for the first time.

As ever when writing a review it is more difficult to decide what to leave out than what to include, but there are two further aspects of House’s work I would be very remiss not to mention.

The first is that, for all this talk of art and ekphrasis, House also writes beautifully about nature, and often surprisingly aswell, particularly in the selection from 2014’s Nothing’s Lost (“How sexy bream are” he declares in ‘Silver Bream’, “industrious lap dancers / in slinky chainmail”!). This is illustrated also in the following stanza from ‘Peregrine’, which also displays the poet’s abilty to bring that viscral and startling vision of nature back to his central artistic theme, leaving us with a heightened sense of both:

Not for her the hawk’s swerve
to the tossed gobbet. She’ll biff
a rook like a bullet, grab and rip
like a machine, strip life
to the bone, like poetry.

The colloquial and dated ‘biff’ is the surprise here, but paired with the more traditional ‘bullet’ it evokes perfectly the precision and blunt power of a falcon’s mid-air attack, and a further surprise is to have the violence of this attack compared to poetry, “strip(ping) life / to the bone”; but that really is what poetry does, isn’t it?

My second point will probably already be clear from what I have said above, but it is worth stating overtly: these are poems of great technical skill which balance form and content extremely thoughtfully. To illustrate this I will return to ‘L’histoire centrale’ from Cutting the Quick (2005). The content I have already mentioned, but it is worth pausing over the way the rhyme scheme forms a sort of vertical bracket around the poem’s ‘central story’ i.e. the “me” and “you” which end the lines of the fifth (of ten) couplets. The “head” of line one is reflected back in the “lead” of line twenty, as the “tuba” of line two returns in the “rubber” of line nineteen; and then the ‘almost’ semi-rhyme (suitcase/louche) in the second couplet is set against the ‘almost’ visual rhyme (Prague/rouge) in the penultimate. Between these rhymes the cetral protagonists are cushioned on either side by lovely and imaginative slant-rhyming: odour/powder, centrale/wail, mine/rain, hall/swell, and Don Giovanni/alchemy. I submit that the rhyme structure of the poem protects a valued memory as though it were encased in the heart’s india-rubber, as “whispered” by the speaker’s partner by the “twinkly Vltava” in the final couplet.

And I would furthemore submit this poem (see in full below) as evidence that in taking a lifelong engagement with visual and literary art as inspiration, Ian House has created his own, quite astonishing, works of art.

L’histoire centrale

The woman with the grey cloth over her head,
one hand behind a tuba,

has no need of the reticent suitcase
and its cargo of, let’s say, louche

camisoles, canaries, cinnamon, its odour
of excitable gunpowder.

When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale,
the long, dumb wail,

there was no reason on earth it reminded me
of you

plaiting your words with mine
as we watched the skirmishing rain

from the door of the Rudolfinum concert hall
while Brahms and Mahler’s swell

drained through talk of Don Giovanni,
Arcimboldo, Rosicrucian alchemy

to beer and the backstreets of Prague.
The streetlights splotched your rouge.

You whispered that the heart was india-rubber.
The twinkly Vltava was sheeted lead.

You can buy Just A Moment from Two Rivers Press, here.

Small Hopes: Island of Towers by Clarissa Aykroyd

lighthouse1

There is a short poem towards the middle of Clarissa Aykroyd’s debut pamphlet Island of Towers which is called ‘Lighthouse’ and in which an island and its lighthouse are metaphors for a person sighing and sobbing in their sleep. In three brief couplets (the third separated from the first two by a couplet-sized blank space, perhaps indicating the eclipse between flashes from the lighthouse) we get a powerful impression that the sleeper is lost in their own darkness, one more profound than the dark of night or sleep. “Morning hasn’t come” we are told, as though it should be here by now but has failed to arrive. Whatever this sleeper’s darkness is, it remains despite the fact that “the lighthouse lifts so high, (and) the island / streams with light”.
This image of an island with a tower sending its searching light out into the unknown is not only towards the centre of the collection in terms of sequencing; it feels, in fact, as though each poem exists while briefly lit by some central illuminating force (the reader’s eyes? the poet’s pen?) before disappearing back into the mystery of the unknown. That is not to say that the poems are unmemorable, the opposite is true and some of the images are wonderfully startling, such as the “green-eyed cat /…crossing no-man’s land to me/delicately carrying a fish.” (“Leningrad Spy Story”), but that there is much in Island of Towers to imply a search for some kind of light (I read this, in line with the lighthouse metaphor, as the reflected light of the poet’s ruminations – I don’t find anything to imply that it is the Light of religion; the searched-for light seems more likely to stand for ‘tranquillity’ if not quite ‘understanding’). With each poem failing to reflect the desired light, the poet moves on to the next, until the final two poems ‘Stained Glass’ and ‘Wicklow Mountains After Rain’, which both shine vividly, glaringly almost, with “white gold light” and “brushstrokes of gold”. But there is, it seems, no revelatory sense of ‘seeing the light’ because even in these final poems the light is either illusory (“this is fire that lulls to sleep”) or overwhelming (“I tried to grasp it, ran out but lost it”). Light is also blinding (“light blinds dark in fathoms” – ‘An Eye, Open’) and possibly damaging, like a stain on the retina (“And this is leaving, carrying the flash/behind my eyes, into the dark outside.” – ‘Dakar’). And so ultimately, a sense of mystery remains. It may be that the short sequence of Sherlock Holmes poems (and I happen to know that Aykroyd is an enthusiastic Holmesian) are a nod towards the sense of joy and adventure inherent in trying to solve a possibly unsolvable mystery.
I said above that each poem fails to reflect the desired light, but this is not a failing of the poems as much as the effect of each one being part of an ongoing journey (and perhaps a circular one, as in the sad and dizzying ‘Carousel’). Indeed, almost all of the poems are inspired by, named after, or contain references to specific locations around the world but this could not be described as a Poetry of Place because the places described are shrouded in darkness, internalised as ‘dream-worlds’, or expressed in terms of the ‘not-quite-arrived’ or the ‘just-leaving’ (“island to island, stone to stone” – Night on Cook Street’) – and usually all of these at the same time. Looked at from one angle, the titular “island of towers” is Cairo (from the poem of that name), but it could equally stand for any of the cities, ancient and modern, that this pamphlet ‘visits’. It does not take too great a leap of imagination to see the buildings of a city as an island rising out of the surrounding flatness, and every city sends out its own light streaming into the darkness – both actual electric light and the metaphorical light of life and culture. But in a sense, and more interesting to me, every poem in the pamphlet is a little island in itself, each with its own faint source of light, and the poet/reader becomes like the ‘he’ of the first poem, ‘As though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul’ (presumably the poem’s dedicatee Ivo Machado), who “…had to fly into the storm because there was nothing but storm”, but who still found and expressed a sense of positivity for the future in all the darkness and despair, “small hopes, each a distant light” – these distant lights are stars, island towers, and poems.
To conclude this brief review, Island of Towers is a pamphlet which finds space, in its twenty-three short poems, to mystify and beguile with the beautiful surrealism of an “invisible rainforest” in a London Underground station where “a girl in a long black dress / has one hand uplifted” and on her finger a jewel, or “a ladybird/…stars her finger” while “Her green eyes bloom like gardens” (‘Northern Line’), and elsewhere to guide the reader, through exquisite word-choice over just seven lines, towards the life, work and tragic suicide of Paul Celan, in a poem which unostentatiously displays a profound connection with Celan and ends with the unforgettable image of an “…impossible bone spur on my heart” (‘In Paris’).
But I would recommend this pamphlet above all, in these months during which we are overwhelmed by COVID-19, for the distant lights it provides, the small hopes.

Island of Towers is available from Broken Sleep Books, here.

Clarissa Aykroyd blogs on various poetry matters, here, at The Stone and the Star.

Disclosure: I know the poet a little through Twitter and we have found that we agree on a number of poetry-related issues. If this affects any of the above review, I am unaware of it.