About Eyewear the blog

Eyewear THE BLOG is among the most read British poetry blogzines, getting more than 20,000 page-views a month. It began in 2005. The views expressed by editor Todd Swift are not necessarily shared by the contributing poets and reviewers, and vice versa. Eyewear blog is archived by The British Library. Any material on this blog infringing copyright will be removed upon request.


Thursday, 30 April 2009

All Fall Down

There is a good case for arguing that 2009 is shaping up to be the most catastrophic year in world history since 1939 (the start of the second world war). Despite the "Obama effect" - now in its 101st day - the world, in '09, is currently facing the most serious economic downturn since at least 1945, and, the most dangerous pandemic threat for forty years. On top of that, ongoing environmental degradation, and all the other problems that usually confront humanity, promise to make this end of the decade a particularly nail-biting one.

Eyewear, for one, is cautiously pessimistic. A few days ago, I believed that the swine flu virus might stay confined to those who had been to Mexico, or had contact with those there - but today, and as we move to Level 5, that seems less likely. Instead, health officials are now speaking of deaths - and the only question seems to be how many zeros after the one. One is reminded of Dylan Thomas who wrote that "after the first death there is no other" - but in a pandemic, that seems reversed - "after the first death there are so many".

This is a chilling time, almost a calm before the storm. London feels a bit like the first hours after the Martians landed on the common, that eerie normalcy that at heart is dreadfully false. How many days before the pandemic breaks out of its relatively contained mode, and really starts wreaking havoc in North America, Europe, and beyond? Time - often a healer - here may not be so kind. We all fall down.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Flying Pigs

The WHO has argued that this recent swine flu can "no longer be contained". Perhaps. But is it not more a question that the current capitalist system - which is heavily reliant on aviation - did not want restrictive measures? Consider this option - had a limit or ban on flights to and from Mexico (even Mexico City) been implemented, and enforced, for a fortnight, until the full import of the virus could be determined, none of the cases currently in Europe, including Scotland, would have occurred. And, it is possible the life of the child who has sadly just died, because on the same plane with some other British-bound tourists, could have been saved. I understand that European tourists want to get home, but transporting them back in small tubes with recycled air for nine hours is a form of slow-motion homicide (potentially). As aviation is seen to be increasingly dangerous, to our health, why is it still allowed to thrive?

Monday, 27 April 2009

Is Roger McGough The Next Poet Laureate?

Eyewear's been out and about over the weekend, and bumped into a few leading poets, and the word on the street, and in the pubs, seems to be that maybe, just maybe, the next Poet Laureate for the UK will be Roger McGough. We'll see soon enough, but at one time it seemed that either Armitage or Duffy was the shoe-in, before other intriguing options emerged, too, like Jackie Kay and Ruth Padel. McGough, who donated work to some of the Oxfam CD work I did, is a hugely popular and likable British poet, equally at home with crowd-pleasing adults and children. He would be likely to continue the energetic outreach of the Motion years - but would he be the pluralist the UK poetry scene badly needs? In America, the idea of 'Hybrid Poetry' is catching on, and a similar generational shift is required over here. However, in terms of bringing poetry to the masses, the Merseyside poet could hardly be rivalled.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Eyewear Poll

Dear Eyewearers, in order to determine how often I should update my blog, which has become a hungry mouth to feed (with content), it would be very useful if you could vote in the poll. Basically, if it turns out almost no one really visits all that often, I'll wind things down soon. I have several big projects on the go, and am finding it more and more time consuming to keep Eyewear state-of-the-art.

Poem By Susan Millar DuMars

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Susan Millar DuMars (pictured) to the Friday Poets series. She'll be reading on Monday, 27 April, at the Troubadour in London, along with some other very fine Irish poets.

She is an American writer based in Galway, Ireland, born in 1966. She received a bursary from the Irish Arts Council for her book of short stories, Stupid Slim Neck Audrey Hepburn Dreams. Susan contributes a column on the arts to the Galway Advertiser.

She is married to the poet Kevin Higgins and together they coordinate the well known Over the Edge readings series in Galway. Her recent poetry collection, Big Pink Umbrella, from Salmon, was to my mind an excellent debut, and I look forward to what she publishes next.

Her writing manages to be both artful and very true, and is therefore often quite effective. One gets the sense that here is a writer who has lived, is living, and is sharing depths of experience, generously.


Fallen 1973

Jesus - a snappy dresser
in cranberry velvet, butterfly sleeves,
Breck girl hair.
And I dress up for Him.
The navy coat with gold buttons
that waits all week,
sighing. I’m seven
and still chew my hair.
I make the world
with each click
of my black buckle shoes.

Sunday school - my chair rears up on its
hind legs, a stallion I am
taming. I’m good with wild things,
patient, fearless. Repeat :

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep...
(But death is a nothing, a nonsense word;
my life a party that no one ever leaves...)

Falling is like waking up.
The strings are cut.
My teacher lifts me from the floor,
rights my chair.
I cry because
No One caught me.
Nothing held me there.


poem by Susan Millar DuMars

Silliman In London

One of the most influential and controversial American poets of the last thirty years - and the most famous American poet-blogger - Ron Silliman - will be reading in London on May 5, at 7 pm, at Birkbeck. An event not to be missed by anyone in the UK with even the remotest interest in contemporary US poetics, and the means to travel. I read with Silliman once, years back, in New York, at Bob Holman's venue. A very enjoyable evening.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Chapman On Ballard

The Thousand Dreams of JG Ballard

The 'Sage of Shepperton', JG Ballard, died on Sunday at the age of 78 after a long illness. His last published book, Miracles of Life, was a deeply moving memoir in which he reviewed aspects of his life from the vantage point of old age. It was a fascinating insight into the mind of this genius of the suburbs, who created a fictional world so complete and immersive, one was often tempted to just move there and be done with it.

However, it might be said that everything you needed to know about Ballard could already be found not in a memoir but in his novels and stories. From the heartbreaking beauty of an early tale, 'The Garden of Time', to the shattered realities of the none-more-avant-garde 'condensed novels' of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard's world was constructed out of his experiences as a boy in wartime Shanghai, as well as his engagement - shaped by those experiences - with the post-war world he found dull yet full of possibilities for shaking things up. Influenced by the Surrealists as much as his training in medicine, Ballard went on to create a literature of the 20th Century that eschewed the cosy domesticity of much contemporary fiction, and delved deep into the subconscious to show us the world in terms we would begin to recognise only later.

His early quartet of disaster novels, a 'four seasons' of the apocalypse, included The Wind From Nowhere (disowned by the author, though it's quite an entertaining read); The Drowned World, his first classic, a sort of Conrad-on-Acid; The Drought; and The Crystal World. That last book contains some of the most mesmerising imagery in his entire oeuvre, the whole of nature turned into a beautiful but dead crystalline landscape. But it is The Drowned World, written half a century ago, that seems to predict the future that faces the planet now, if global warming progresses as far and as fast as it might. His heroes in these books, and indeed in most of his later ones, were typically solitary men threatened by, and eventually embracing, an implacable world changing beyond recognition. As would later become clear, these were landscapes of the mind, as powerful in their way as anything dreamt up by Dali or Ernst.

Among Ballard's early stories are some fairly conventional tales of future dystopias and space travel, but he quickly moved past that, as his imagination truly took flight (often in a commandeered single-engine aircraft). He soon became a leading light in the New Wave of British Science Fiction, a sort-of movement that was in some ways the literary equivalent - at least in its aims - to the cinematic Nouvelle Vague that broke with convention and gave us some of the grammar we now take for granted. But Ballard transcended even that, diving into the darkest psychology not only of individuals, but of our society. He showed us the world in a fractured mirror and at first we couldn't see ourselves in it, many people considering him beyond psychiatric help.

Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, Ballard did not so much break boundaries as refuse to acknowledge them at all. The aforementioned Atrocity Exhibition was a dense hypertext of a novel that followed the breakdown of the protagonist's mind in a style that rivalled Ulysses for its at-first-impenetrable obscurity. A series of psychogenic fugues, it was not intended to be read as a conventional novel. Stick with it and it's a rewarding, bracing and yes, funny book full of sharp insights and wry observations. It also establishes the Ballardian world as we have come to know it in his subsequent work, though it draws on tropes that appeared earlier in his stories. This was followed by a loose trilogy of technological dream novels, Crash, High-Rise and Concrete Island, with their playful deviance and refreshing anti-utopianism.

Much has already been written about Crash, particularly around the time that Cronenberg made a rather wonderful film adaptation in 1996. The fact that both novel and book, a quarter of a century apart, inspired outrage as well as admiration, is testament to the power of this story of people so disaffected they must go to extremes in order to feel anything at all.

The first Ballard novel I read, The Unlimited Dream Company, involved another one of his solitary-and-possibly-insane heroes - an aeronaut who crashes his plane into Shepperton and transforms the suburb into a fervid world of the imagination. That this entire tale might be the ravings of a dying man is more or less immaterial. What matters is the world that is created and the freedom it brings to the bored suburbanites. This is perhaps Ballard's central theme: the world we know is only a couple of dreams away from being totally undermined and destroyed; and this possibility is to be welcomed. Chaos is good and creative - and extreme chaos has already taken hold in Hello America, an adventure yarn that gave us another alien landscape, this time a long-abandoned United States that has reverted to desert and submitted to entropy.
His next novel brought Ballard to wide public attention.

Empire of the Sun was the partially fictionalised story of a boy named Jamie and his struggle to survive in the Lunghua internment camp in Shanghai during the Second World War. Ballard has often suggested that this world was more real to him than the England he returned to after the war. Here he reveals the source of much of his familiar imagery. The dead pilots in burnt-out cockpits, the drained swimming-pools, the sports stadium full of riches looted from the homes of the wealthy: these were the icons of his earlier work, now shown to have been not entirely fantastic after all. The novel ends with the Hiroshima bomb, its light announcing to Ballard that World War Three had already begun. Empire of the Sun was a remarkable book, perhaps the one he was born to write, but also the book he couldn't quite get down to until he was older and had absorbed those formative experiences. As he said himself, his time in the camp took twenty years to forget, and another twenty years to remember.

Spielberg made a pretty good film of Empire of the Sun in 1987, one which many consider the director's first mature work, though for me that honour goes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ballard was happy with the film and found it curious to meet 'himself' on the set, played with remarkable skill by the young Christian Bale.

Like a magician showing you how his tricks work, or a comedian explaining the joke, there is always the danger that once an author gives away his secrets, his subsequent work becomes less powerful. That is not because he has finally exorcised his ghosts, or that he has written a bad book, but that the audience now knows what to expect. Ballard, I think, suffered a little from this. In two of his subsequent novels, The Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise, the wonders seemed slightly more mundane, as though, having explained himself, he was now a little self-conscious. For the first time, even though he had made a career of doing exactly that, to often startling effect, Ballard appeared to be repeating himself. On the other hand, Running Wild, a satire of Thatcherism in which perfect parents in a gated community were killed in mysterious circumstances, anticipated the later quartet of 'crime novels' that would bring him great acclaim.

The Kindness of Women, his semi-autobiographical sequel to Empire of the Sun, followed a grown-up Jamie, now called Jim, on his return to England after the war. The other major influence in Ballard's work and life, after his time in the camp, was the death of his wife early in their marriage, leaving him a single parent of three young children. It was a devastating blow of course, and Ballard is at perhaps his most tender and vulnerable in this fictionalised telling. Amusingly, the author emerges as living proof that, contrary to Connolly, the pram in the hall is not the enemy of promise. Rather, being a father liberated Ballard and gave him the freedom he needed to write, to embrace life and let his imagination run riot. In his memoir Miracles of Life, he refers to this, charmingly suggesting that it was, in fact, his children who brought him up.
Throughout his writing life, Ballard was a master of the short story. Some of his best work has been in that form. The linked tales collected in Vermilion Sands, my favourite Ballard book, concern a magical and twisted resort of the future, in which orchids sing, clouds are sculpted, and houses react to the occupants' mood. It is naturally enough laden with Ballardian imagery and character-types: distant but fascinating femmes fatales, doomed solitary heroes, and concepts that are simply above and beyond what most writers dare to imagine. About a hundred of his short tales are collected in The Complete Short Stories, an indispensable book that covers his career from 1956 onwards. His most notorious short is perhaps 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,' a genuinely funny piece written in 1968 when Reagan was first a candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. A mere twelve years later, Ballard again looked prophetic.

Non-fiction aside, Ballard's career ended where it had begun, with a loose quartet. Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come cast a cold eye on modern western civilisation, yet felt strangely old-fashioned, as if the world had finally caught up with Ballard and he was now not predicting where we were headed if we weren't careful, but describing where we had already arrived. Not only that, one got the impression that this was a world Ballard was quite happy to live in.

James Graham Ballard was, as has often been noted, sui generis. Indeed, the Collins Dictionary defines 'Ballardian' as:

(adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

I will miss reading a new Ballard for the first time, but I am grateful for what he left behind. His nineteen novels, and especially his short stories, comprise an imaginative world that is so strange and compelling it can take us a while to recognise our own in it. We are living in Ballard's world now, and we can't say we weren't warned.

Patrick Chapman writes for Eyewear. He is an Irish poet, screenwriter, essayist and fiction writer.

Monday, 20 April 2009

JG Ballard Has Died

Sad news. An age has ended, with the death of one of the great visionary British novelists of the post-Orwell era. With Burgess and Burroughs, JG Ballard can be said to have been one of the greatest darkly comic dystopian 'cult' writers of the last 60 years, inventing entirely new landscapes for a sociopathic Western society to expose and explore its drives and desires. Eyewear will be featuring a post by Patrick Chapman, one of Ballard's literary heirs, later this week.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Poem by Anne Korff

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome the young German poet Anne Korff (pictured) this Friday - perhaps apt since her love of film dovetails with the fact that this week is the 60th anniversary of the editing of The Third Man. For those who are into auspicious numerology, this is Eyewear's 1,313th post.

Korff was born in a town next to Hannover, Germany, in 1985. In 2004 she graduated from the local secondary school and left to work and travel in England. In 2008 she graduated from Kingston University London with a First Class Bachelor Degree in Creative Writing and Film Studies. It was here that I met her, and where she impressed me greatly with the creation of a brilliant TV Bible on the golden age of Hollywood - and, of course, her poems.

They strike me as being very powerful and clever in their fusing of film and feminist theory with disturbing, sometimes erotic, and highly expressionistic verbal construction, often presented with disrupted syntax and hybridity of language - these are postmodern European lyrics that echo Benn as much as Plath. The one I have chosen here is actually in some ways less sinister, and more playful, than much of Korff's work.

Some of her poems have been published in Ripple Magazine. Several more are forthcoming in Nthposition, in May. Korff is currently interrupting her further studies in order to work on her creative projects including scriptwriting and poetry. She lives in London.


My favourite movie

Blood red nails cut
short flaking and hair
curls around my neck into
a touch of evil my lashes
black my lips painted
in dark, dark red
I wink at the dark passage
my boots deadly knee high
my thighs in black jeans tight
in a lonely place I sigh a
farewell my lovely

On my bicycle I lean onto
the handlebar and shoot the
pianist with the road
rising ever so slightly
me gradually breathless
wind strokes my cheeks
bare and tears at my hair
une femme est une femme
my lips parted red painted I
taste exhaust fumes
at the back of my
throat the sunshine
tickles my chin like Jules
et Jim and glistens
in the drops above my lips

poem by Anne Korff

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Guest Review: Black On Flynn

Linda Black reviews
Drives
by Leontia Flynn

Leontia Flynn’s second collection Drives raises the question to what extent a troubled childhood influences creativity. According to Alice Millar such creativity 'somehow permits us to give form to the chaos within'(Pictures of Childhood). Millar rejects Freud’s notions of ‘infantile sexuality’ – his drive theory – and the Oedipal complex (referred to in one of the epigraphs to Drives) for unfairly blaming the child.

What of the parents in all this? ‘Back in his childhood were parental rows/really responsible…’ ('Robert Lowell'). ‘ A finger is pointed’ (‘Samuel Beckett’) mostly at the mother; ‘ It is inconceivable this is not to do with my mother’. In ‘Charles Baudelaire’s Mother’ he writes to her ‘I think the one of us will kill the other’. Bishop’s mother ‘won’t return from the institution’. Is the mother to blame? She certainly can’t, or didn’t, make things better; ‘… unheard and unheeded, are the cries of a blubbery child’. (‘Alfred Hitchcock’).

Flynn takes as her subjects the lives of others – writers, film makers – giving them posthumous voices in a series of sonnets. The poem ‘Elizabeth Bishop’ links themes of travel and the passing of life ( the second epigraph is from Bishop’s ‘Arrival at Santos’):

‘…..the door which she heard slam
[…..]
slams for her too. She thinks it says her name:
orphan, depressive, drinker, lesbian –

and soon-to-be veteran loser. Losing
in many attractive locations: Maine,
New York, and (scene of her near-death
brush with a cashew) Brazil . . .
lost parents, houses: she’ll lose exceptionally well
lover by lover. She even loses her breath.’

Creative lives lived in the shadow of depression; the drive to repeat childhood trauma. An epigraph to ‘Winter Light’ tells us late in life Bergman was too ‘depressed’ by his films to watch them.

The depiction of people and places is often harsh. New Year does not bring hope as ‘Word reaches us: a friend of a friend is dead/ by her own fair hand.’(‘Poem for New Year’). ‘For the suicide in the Tate Modern’, reflects the poets own sense of mortality:
‘They said your phone rang, that you took the call

then fell, and died. The sympathetic trace
(read ‘morbid instinct’) falters at this part.
After the vaulting over what comes after?

There’s a sense of loss rather than discovery, of inevitability – death, despite being ‘a jerk’ (‘Dorothy Parker’) can’t be outwitted.

How much successful writing comes from happiness? I don’t sense much happiness here. There’s a lot of travelling; a lot of places – Barcelona, Rome, Paris, New York etc – briefly visited, a mood of restlessness and dissatisfaction, a searching for something (seemingly not external). The view is often bleak. In ‘Personality’, looking out ‘…onto the row upon row of grey hills’ the poet comments ‘just at this moment/ there isn’t much in my life I’d miss if it were over.’ You take yourself with you, as the phrase goes. Beausoleil is ‘…less of a town; more of a few roads stacked/on the suicide skid from the cliff to the silent sea…’ ‘The Little Mermaid’ ( ‘the worst tourist attraction, not just in Copenhagen, but maybe anywhere’) ends with, ‘You can not take one more pace. Each step brings pain…’ Later, in ‘Don’t Worry’, we are told ‘ – but don’t worry/ about famine or war, here in our world/of love. Okey dokey?’ Drives is a book that stirs both the emotions and the intellect.

Then there are the many illnesses; the boy who will develop leukemia (‘Dhillon Sees The Ocean: The Odyssey’), Beckett’s ‘ boils, odd facial rashes, phantom pains in the limbs/ nightsweats, insomnia, dreams of suffocation, /palpitations, panic attacks, diarrhoea , aching gums . . .’ ; Lowell’s ‘ill-spirit’. For ‘Marcel Proust’, ‘life is a sickroom/ - a morgue requiring three coats and a muffler’. Christmas comes ‘like cholera’. In contrast are the moving poems about the poet’s own mother and father reaching the ends of their lives, displaying non of the anger reflected in the fore mentioned poems.

Towards the end of the book I found myself thinking; here is a voice acutely aware of the temporality of life, but not a voice of old age – what of the drive to create life? only to turn to the last poem: ‘Poem for an Unborn Child’, not it seems the poet’s own:


‘To ‘avoid any danger of suffocation’
I ‘keep away from children’, men with beards
and weird prescriptions . . .’
On first reading Drives, my impression, my after image, was a somewhat disturbed picture. After close reading it’s still a troubled one, but illuminated by Flynn’s brave and heartfelt exploration of the journey through life,

‘as though (old story)
life and art
were
for this poet, as minutely clocked

as his dramatic final taxi journey
(as his heart
in his body) when both stopped.’

(‘Robert Lowell’)

Linda Black received the 2004/5 Poetry School Scholarship and won the 2006 New Writing Ventures Award. The beating of wings (Hearing Eye, 2006) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. She received an Arts Council writers award in 2007. A collection of prose poems, Inventory, was published by Shearsman in 2008.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Canuckifornia

Eyewear receives a lot of stuff it is asked to mention. I can't do it all. But somethings are too good to pass up. For one thing, this mooted book is a subject dear to my heart (Canadians in Hollywood); and, more to the point, it has one of the best titles ever.

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: “Canuckifornia,” an anthology of Canadian poets writing about California, seeks submissions of individual poems or groups of up to 10 poems. Poets should be natives of Canada, former or current Canadian citizens, or former or current permanent residents of Canada. The purpose of this collection is to display a range of Canadian reactions to (and appropriations of) the myths and realities of California, a state where many expatriates have gathered. Canadians have migrated to the Golden State to pursue careers in the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley, academia and many other fields, and they have brought their own sensibilities to bear on the so-called “Golden State.” At the same time, California’s laid-back image, individualistic ethos and new mixture of ethnic influences have forced many Canadians to confront and question their own approach to life, both on the professional and the personal levels. Yet California’s high cultural profile in North America means that no Canadian with any degree of interest in life abroad can have failed to form a vivid impression of its influence. Thus contributors need not have resided in (or even visited) California to be considered.

Submissions or questions may be sent via regular mail to Roan Press, P.O. Box 160406, Sacramento, CA 95816 (USA) or via email.

Poems received by Jan. 1, 2010, will be considered for inclusion. The collection will be edited by Dr. Bradley Buchanan, Associate Professor of English at California State University Sacramento. Professor Buchanan is a native of Windsor, Ontario.

Blog Standard

The recent news in the UK has been filled with the planned "smear campaign" from one of The Prime Minister's Men - a plan to use a blog to spread gossip and innuendo to destroy rival politicians in the Tory Party. Eyewear found it odd how alarmed and shocked the media was at this (a little like the Casablanca moment when Louis discovers gambling in his casino). Anyway, for poets it was no news at all - since poetry-related blogs and "listserv" networks and sites have been spreading nasty, often anonymous criticism and worse - sometimes character-assassination - for years.

A good example is this one from Poetry Snark, about me. It's pretty crass and ignorant stuff. And that's the tip of the iceberg (the Titanic sank today, in 1912). Poets sometimes claim they batter each other to hell because "the slice of the pie is so small" but that makes little sense - competition only gets nastier the more there is at stake, not the less (see presidential elections, and life and death struggles between men on polar ice caps with ice picks). No, the truth is likely simpler: human nature has a "dark side" - and not only Nixon, Darth Vader and Gordon Brown partake. Freed from the limits of body, able to fling expression to the four corners of the globe, humans choose to mostly send messages of love, humour, and vicious bile.

For every helpful and supportive message posted at a blog, or one that is clever or informative, one is just as likely to get something that a lunatic might balk at. Each day I have to reject comments that aim to humiliate poets whose work has been posted here - not creative or helpful commentary, but really nasty dumb stuff. Why is this? Well, for once, people don't read blogs like they do books. Each post can be arrived at separately from its whole - its context - and often messages are left simply on that message. The comments therefore do not engage with the overall "message" of the blog - but the post.

That seems to be a textual rule of blogs - the post is the unit of meaning, the text. Blogs, therefore, are not The Text - but rather, the anthology, or library, or bookshelf, holding thousands of separate if related texts. And each and every one of them is open to attack, almost calls out to be smeared. The politicians cannot be blamed for this. The poets were there first, as with so many things.

Guest Review: Mazer On Pollard

Ben Mazer offers a close reading of
'Invitation to a Vampire'
by Clare Pollard

From the point of view of this Bostonian, (spiritually exiled in his own city! gasp!), The Wolf in London (Editor, James Byrne) has just published something marvellous in Clare Pollard's 'Invitation to a Vampire' (The Wolf, 19). Every line in this poem is delicious, independently and in context carrying the weight of an enormously permeable presence. Just what that presence is, and what it permeates, tows and squeezes emotion through an intensity of impending dread into the heart of desire. The poem leaves nothing in its wake, seemingly swallowing up existence itself with its weird words.

The epigraph from Bram Stoker is worth saving for after. The poem truly begins in mid-flight—

Whirlpools of gulls whip over harbour—
clou ds of yellow eyes—
and the stone sea's fearsome, melted
and roused to terrible passion.


These inseminating 'Whirlpools'—summoning an immediacy of dread worthy of Todd Browning's Dracula film—or my childhood's tattered green Sundial Press copy of Bram Stoker's masterpiece—(never mind the deliciousness of 'pools'/'gulls'/'yellow'/'melted', 'Whirlp'/'whip', 'over harbour', or the masterful whipping violence of the first line, in flight out of darkness)—are auspices of an inclusively spiraling montage of perspectives dragging the ether of being and feeling to the precipice of self-questioning. Hideously murky and multiplicitous alien onlookers—'yellow eyes'—hang in macabre, piercing detachment over the granite-like, and hence death-like, force of a sea that itself is bidden by some alien force to an instability and uncertainty proximate to an unspecified 'fearsome' and 'terrible' eventfulness. The single word 'melted' paints an entire picture not only of forces of nature, such as snows, drawn into vastnesses of metamorphoses, such as seas, but, by insinuation, of entities as concrete as death or nothingness being themselves subject to animating alterations of a disturbing nature.

Pollard's poem is built in a rolling sequence of quatrains. With an increasing rapidity of cutting, a series of unsettling vantages are brought out of isolation into a seeming simultaneity of informing evil.

Adders slip through moors behind.
On the promenade lovers
masticate winkles.
Punch kills the baby.


How deliciously the makers of life devour the living. With what a sleeping punch Pollard's pulling of punches garnishes the accidental with the toxic and killing ironies of the irresponsible. Lemonade provers, maters are adders of mores and matters, I might add.

The roses on the fortuneteller's
tatty hut are leeched,
and I've never bought a reading
for fear she'd shrug
for I am good and pure, a bore,
and in my room, again,
writing this diary, its prim script:


And what is there more to fear than the indifferent judgement of the fortuneteller, the imaginary and self-magnified miniscule guilt of being 'good and pure, a bore'. The diarist seems almost to take pride in the legible strides of [her?] annunciated insignificance. Almost as though trying to ward off evil by whistling, but also as though yearni ng for a visitation of evil to relieve her of her condition. How melodramatic and self-pitying the comma before 'again'; how proudly self-denigrating the self-observance of the diarist's penmanship. Oh, I'm such a bore! Are you listening? Yet, while her attention is focused on her diary, what attention is focused upon her?

The weaving of consonantal sounds—'tatty hut'/'bought', 'for fear'/'for'/'pure'/'bore', 'she'd shrug'/'good', 'pure'/'my room'/'prim'—is prim and good and pure. 'tatty hut' is a delightful phrase, aptly conjuring multiplicities of tellings, of verbal comings and goings, of worn-ings, universal tattlings, divinings. All omens are of the not good.

My engagement ring tightens;
a noose on the gallows.


The poem's ring of engagement tightens: 'yellow eyes' (oh yes!)/'noose' (noo...)/'gallows'. To the diarist this is news. And then a luscious line:

Yet something dark veins me,
as jet veins Whitby's cliffs—


Something there is that will not let wit be. And down a few lines:

I have heard there is a nun
walled up in our sacked abbey—
another legend warning of desire.


Pollard's poem proceeds through pantheistic self-apprehension ('I'm the lighthouse lamp') and Browningian anxiety ('and a prow pierces the beach') to a graveyard with 'through-stones flat as beds' (revivifying and through-veining the Whitby through-stones) and the pointed appearance of 'the white moon like a fingertip/pressed up to glass—/a brute bat's wings are beating at the glass!'

The pounding, insistent rhyme of 'glass' and 'glass'—built on the sound of the preceding 'gallows'—(not to mention the beat of 'brute' and 'bat') constitutes not only a reiterative, self-accusatory confrontation with the world, moving from simile to the extremer identification of sheer naming at the precipice of immersion, with only 'glass' remaining between self and world, between self and self, but, perhaps, the world. It is as if that (voice or intuition...) which is within the narrator-poet-victim-self were the substantive world-word in apprehension, moving into culminative staticity. Oh, the shame! The shaming of the naming! Clare is clear as glass.

Come on then—I invite you in.
Why fight my own thought?
I'd roam this world too.
Penetrate it.


One roams oneself. One penetrates oneself. One is two too. Invites or fights. 'Penetrate it' is double-edged invitation and self-apostrophe. So is 'Why fight my own thought?': these are words for a vampire to hear; vampires beget vampires. Suck their blood and they may live forever. The invitation is to endless repercussions of the self.

Feed on me that I can feed,
for I am sick of being tame.
Evil and freedom
are the same.


'I am sick of being tame' means two things. But T. S. Eliot says there is no freedom in art. Perhaps freedom is not what we think it is. Possibly 'I am sick of being tame' means many things. Or possibly there is only one thing it can mean, if it should mean anything at all. The epigraph is Stoker: 'You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more.' Let me say at least that the chief delight of this poem is not in its philosophical content, nor in unauthorized invention, nor should it be, but rather in the human emotions of longing and reflection which it expresses with palpable humour and distinct wit.

I have not quoted Pollard's poem entire. It is obvious that I think it worth looking up. The dawn is coming, and I must go now.

Ben Mazer's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many international periodicals, including Stand, Agenda, Harvard Review, Salt, Jacket, and Verse. He is the author of The Foundations of Poetry Mathematics (Cannibal Books), and other books. He is also the editor of Landis Everson's Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005 (Graywolf Press) and Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (forthcoming from Harvard University Press). He is a contributing editor to Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Guest Review: Horton On Dooley

Christopher Horton reviews
Keeping Time
by Tim Dooley

Tim Dooley’s book Keeping Time, his first full length collection since 1985, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, appears to be less about keeping time and more about what occurs when you miss a beat to transcend the prevalent zeitgeist. Often, the characters in these poems are found caught between the orthodoxies of mundane post-industrial life and the urge to cut loose from the ‘rat race’ – the poems 'Out', 'Edit' and 'a Salesman in the Lakes' might all be cited as examples of this. In 'Out', for example, Lucille who has seemingly been laid off from her job, embarks on a winding journey of the east of England, then finally, the coast, where the sheer vividness of the natural world infers epiphany: ‘where oyster catchers dive for food/ and the diamond-glittering, brown-and-grey-skinned seals,/ swivel and swim between sand bank and arctic sound’.

Journeying is also important to Dooley and a number of the poems in the collection describe travel – from the escapism embodied in driving to music ('Yes it is' and 'Sunday Morning') to those of walking through the diverse and historic districts of London ('In the palm of my hand'). It is as an observer to movement, as someone passing through, that his eye is most acute. Yet, as is the case with memory, the nature of the journey is rarely sequential or straightforward; rather it comes in snapshots and incomplete remembrances. These ‘side glances’ to the transitory might be seen, at one level, as a conceit for life itself and the disorientating effects of time passing.

To this end, Dooley is less concerned with the destination, and the narrator’s placement within it, than he is with the notion of transitory experience that, by its very nature, will always elude our grasp. This is perhaps best exemplified in the last stanza of 'In the palm of my hand' and its last line: ‘Daily we brush against it or glimpse it beyond our touch./ What we walk through fail to say, or try to hold’. The poet’s reoccurring recognition that those things we ‘try to hold’ will, inevitably, escape us is depicted as a kind of exile. Whether in the wistful ‘Revenants’, where upon return to Prague, faces are altered by ‘disease age, or merely compromise’ or in ‘Echoes’ where a former student returns for a work reference after a life in New York and subsequent drug-induced mental illness, there is a sense of something lost to and in time as well as to the meddling hand of fate.

Dooley is that rarest of things: both a public and private poet astutely attuned to the public mood and imagination but also able to strike a gentle, understated private tone. In his poem 'Tenderness', he takes us from the nostalgia of vinyl and a second-hand Dansette record player to, finally, the heartfelt resonance of the word tenderness in Otis Reading’s well known song. In the poem 'The length of spring', he feels the same ‘fierce brightness’ experienced at a friend or relative’s funeral as he does marching against the Iraq war. Whilst other poets might retreat to domestic subject matter to reflect personal or private insight, Dooley does not shrink from big historical moments and demonstrates seamlessly how such moments inform our inner lives.

Perhaps what endures most in this collection is Dooley’s fierce poetic defence for, and belief in, the strength of the human spirit, often in the face of oppressive political forces that threaten to engulf the self. 'Digital' is a brave poem, unafraid to confront these forces. It begins with the line ‘Like a girl with a new pony’, as if to feign innocence, and ends candidly with the same motif, ‘This is no pony, just/ a naked man’. The use of the word ‘just’ here is disturbingly informal - almost casual, and holds tremendous potency in light of what we now know about Abu Ghraib. 'Cellular' combines an outsider's observations of self-obsessed commuters with rare glimpses of their vulnerability, culminating in the image of a husband trapped beneath the rubble, tapping the digits on his phone: ‘until the voicemail’s memory could take/ no more spoken word or text.’ Avoiding the numerous pitfalls that any poem about 9/11 has to negotiate, it is the ambiguous ‘we’ that hears and sees but is not implicit in the experience that works so effectively here.

However, Dooley does not always successfully convey his often ‘off the wall’ subject matter. The poems where the poet tries – perhaps too hard – to bring in a multiplicity of historical or literary references work less well because they appear either too oblique to inspire interest or run away with themselves. 'Brief Encounter' – a largely well crafted poem – is too overcrowded with incident, characters and literary reference to have a lasting poignancy. 'The Secret Ministry' and 'Mr Wu', though undoubtedly original, again dissociate themselves from the reader through a deliberate desire to demonstrate assumed knowledge rather than wonder.

In Keeping Time, Dooley consistently critiques the way in which we live and yet, curiously, this is a book that instils a faith in humanness. The characters in these poems, and one suspects the poet himself, are searching for something that feels to be real or at least more real than the standardised and artificial modern day coda that prevails. As such, much of the poetry in this collection offers an alternative, an escape route, whether through music, travel or language itself. We have had to wait some time for this collection but in it Dooley has confirmed himself as a poet of intelligence, gentle charm and genuine wit. He is not only a poet of our time but a poet that is needed for our times.

Christopher Horton is a poet and reviewer based in London.

Facebook Poets?

The Times has run an impressive article, singling out a few (ten) younger British poets, for attention. As I recently included or mentioned several of these same poets in my Manhattan Review section, such as James Byrne, Joe Dunthorne, Luke Kennard, and Emily Berry, I can only concur, and in fact, welcome such a focus on them. However, I cannot help but feel there is something a tad disingenuous about the "Facebook poets" tag that has been applied here. Not by the poets themselves, I hasted to add. As with "The Movement" tag, this is a media label.

I am the co-founder of the original "Poetry" group at Facebook, with over 6,000 members - and I can tell you, while poetry circulates via that leviathan, it does so at a snail's pace; few real poets post work online. Facebook mostly reps mediocre poetry; it is superb for advertising events, magazines, contests, etc. - and in that way only is this "generation" of under 35-year-olds shaped poetically by that networking service.

Primarily, the young British poets are formed by the same literary and personal forces that have shaped poetry in England since at least 1799 - because, of all the arts, poetry is the least likely to be immediately shaped or altered by technology (it requires simply a writing instrument and paper, or even, simply a memory).

However, few people have been as evangelical as myself since 2003, in advocating the use of e-books, blogs, websites, etc., to promote and encourage poets to reach new audiences, and each other, online. In the sense that the Internet breaks down barriers, and opens poets to new sources and alliances, these younger poets are perhaps differently-wired. But not totally wired.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Easter In England

Christ has risen, but not, it seems, in secular England. A quick look at the terrestrial TV listings for this long holiday weekend reveal no stone has been unturned, to present any even vaguely religious, uplifting, or redemptive shows. Where are any of the great Biblical TV or film epics of old? Or a family musical? Beyond the wasteland of cringingly-secular TV, turn to the pages of The Sunday Times - whose pages make no mention that this is the holiest day of the year for Anglicans and Catholics - hardly a complete minority of readers. Instead, lewd stories of brothels in Nazi-occupied France, and the latest sleaze from the Gordon Brown inner circle (which looks increasingly Nixonian) are paraded before us.

What has happened to England, and, more generally, to the UK? Its churches are half-empty - and so are its poetry readings. I see a connection (Eyewear always does, of course) between the ebbing of the sea of faith, and the decline in an interest in poems. Consider how many of the modern greats wrote religious or spiritual poems: Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Eliot, Auden, Prince, Dylan Thomas; even Wallace Stevens explored atheism with a sense of the numinous. There has been a lazy atheism at work in British popular culture since the 1960s that can be roughly linked to the easy hedonism of the rock and roll and comedy ethos. But life is not just a joke, or a three minute song, however perfect. After the sex, and the drugs, there are deeper implications, farther needs. I am not convinced that science, technology, or the entertainment industries have managed to find any magic bullets for that part of the self - call it a soul - which calls out for healing, and to love, often unconditionally.

Poetry, when joined to the sacred, can be empowered - and, indeed, even an honest struggle with faith - as one encounters in Hopkins, or R.S. Thomas - can be thrilling and profound. However, Larkin's surprsing hunger for the serious has been strip-mined by the British media - and blogs now feed this devil's banquet as much as the older formats. Yesterday, my neighbour rang my door at midnight to say to me "Happy Easter! God is dead!" - his idea of an atheist's prank. What a sad statement on the world of today. Eyewear tries to respect a variety of faiths, beliefs, and philosophies, but has little time for pure negativity, of any kind, especially when it seems aimed at merely cheapening the complex and various experiences of the inner life. Poets who deny the possibility of another world, or life, beyond this one, must surely be reducing their visionary range immensely. At any rate, however austere or low the horizon, the thing to do, one hopes, is to try and spot something better, ahead. Peace be with you.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Music In The First Quarter Of 2009

What was the dominant trend or style of popular music in the 00s? Clearly, the digital explosion of "myspace" guitar bands like The Arctic Monkeys, - and albums online, like In Rainbows, and the developing complexity of dance and pop music (one thinks of Britney Spears) and the ongoing importance of rap (L'il Wayne). Then again, the rise of Freak Folk; or such acoustic bands and signers, like Bon Iver and The Fleet Foxes. Also, the treated voice (Kayne West, Fever Ray) and the return of synth-pop.

Anyway, the last year of this decade has begun impressively, with several albums released since January 1st that are among the strongest since 2000, and will certainly be among many critics' end of year lists. If the trend for 2009 continues, this may be the decade that ends with a musical bang.

Eyewear wants to suggest the top seven albums so far, in no order, as he's heard them (and this excludes mixed but sometimes interesting new works from Springsteen, Doves and Depeche Mode); it will be hard to keep many of these off Eyewear's list this December:

1. White Lies - To Lose My Life...
2. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
3. U2 - No Line On The Horizon
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!
5. The Decembrists - The Hazards Of Love
6. Fever Ray - Fever Ray
7. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Guest Review: Naomi On Four From Cinnamon Press

Katrina Naomi reviews
An Elusive State: entering al-chwm by Steve Griffiths;
Flashes and Specks by Elizabeth Ashworth;
Hearing Voices by Ruth Bidgood
and Return to Bayou Lacombe by Jan Villarrubia

Four very different voices from this publisher based in Wales; ranging from visions of Utopia, to poetry of the natural world, to found historical poems, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Steve Griffith’s An Elusive State: entering al-chwm is intriguing from the start. The reader is guided into the pronounciation of ‘Al-chwm’ but its meaning is unresolved. Griffiths offers an introductory poem before exploring the nature of this state in over 40 poems (including several sequences). He puns on ‘state’, whether this is a state of mind or a state of being, is left for the reader to decide. This is an enjoyable puzzle. I found a great deal of political allegory and philosophy, alongside references to the USA, the Islamic world and Wales. The collection contains mostly short-lined, longer poems and sequences, with a confident tone and good occasional use of slant rhyme. Griffiths enjoys playing with language and perception. I particularly enjoyed the opening lines to ‘Entering al-Chwm’: ‘It began and ended with the barking of tethered dogs,/a hundred street lights for the non-existent carouser,/nobody up who was up to any good/but nobody was up,’.

Every time I felt I was getting to grips with how Griffiths’ Utopia might work, he pushed the meaning further away. This evocative section from ‘Just enough’ is a case in point: ‘Al Chwm’s up/for some kind of prize/but the judges get lost,/it’s too small/like a best kept station/with no line but a platform garden/and there are so many silent tracks.’ Griffiths doesn’t show his hand too early. This is a collection for readers who like to do some of the work - and his fresh imagery adds to the enjoyment of this collection. On the rare occasions where Griffiths spells out the meaning as in ‘Beyond anxiety’: ‘resistance was killjoy/to the seduced/and was exposed to the full panoply/of a military complex.’ the poetry loses its energy. But these moments are few and far between in a thoughtful and seductive book.

Flashes and Specks by Elizabeth Ashworth contains an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s ‘There was a Child Went Forth’. Ashworth’s is a questioning collection; she is interested in light, colour, and what might be. As with Griffiths’ poetry, Ashworth tends to specialize in ‘skinny’ free-verse poems, yet Ashworth’s are mostly grounded in the natural world. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that she inhabits nature in much of her poetry. One of my favourite poems, ‘I Do Not Know What It Is That Is So Welcome To Me’ typifies some of the best of her writing, as with this section: ‘My home in autumn/Where my life ticks/In the frosty kitchen/And the narrow little bed/Whose eye is limpid/Whose pillow is moist/Whose breast thuds at the sky’.

Ashworth’s collection throngs with stars, birds, illumination and occasionally, love. I particularly enjoyed the strong endings of her poems, as in ‘And the true nature of love/Loose in our hands like reins’ from ‘Two Small Animals’. I would also single out for praise the glimpses of violence and disquiet in Ashworth’s poetry in this generally accomplished collection.

Ruth Bidgood’s Hearing Voices consists of found poetry, or poems which are based on found material with some additions. Introducing found poetry, Bidgood explains: ‘Editing is often minimal; sometimes it entails abbreviating, cutting unnecessary repetition; but in a true found poem one should not invent or add.’ A great deal of research has gone into the ‘finding’ of these poems; and they are mostly drawn from letters or other written work of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries from England and Wales. I consider the found poems to be the most effective and moving, and I particularly enjoyed those that gave voice to women’s and men’s complaints from centures ago, as in ‘1. Dan Parry writes from London’: ‘I will have satisfaction for all my trouble/in running after your business/and spending my moneys.’ These complaints feel curiously modern; the language may be from another era but the issues often resonate today. Here is an excerpt from ‘7. Grievance’ based on a letter from Alice Owen to her parents in 1712 (in which Sidney is Alice’s sister): ‘Methinks you might/have employed your pen in something else/than soliciting for Sidney: in/congratulating me or joining me in prayers/for my safe delivery out of a great rogue’s hand’.

While I enjoyed the poems, they occasionally feel overly prose-like and some of the line breaks seem odd. However, there is much to admire in this original collection. The short sequence of prose poems ‘Bringing Home the Bride’, contain the wonderfully understated ‘The Homecoming’, in which the groom describes the objects of married life and a surprise which awaits, ending with ‘I led her in’.

I have never been to New Orleans or Louisiana but Return to Bayou Lacombe took me straight there. Jan Villarrubia’s opening sequence of ‘Postcards from Katrina’ contains a good deal of powerful writing: ‘The levee broke./It broke open and broke again and again and/Lake Pontchartrain poured forth brine and pesticides that had dripped/from those clean, green lawns. It broke,/over and over, poured into Lake Vista, Lakeview, Village de L’Est, the Lower Ninth./Flowed up Elysian Fields Avenue like something from/One Hundred Years of Solitude or the Bible or both.’ (Postcard No. 1). There are times where the language is a little stale, or the line breaks could have worked harder, but these are far outweighed by the strength of Villarubia’s poetry.

I found the poems about her late parents (to whom the book is dedicated) to be some of the strongest, most evocative poetry in the collection. ‘Father, Hiding’ is a stand out poem: ‘Crouched behind stairs, listening/to the girl with the black hair/sing in the bath./Married her.’ And the title poem ‘Return to Bayou Lacombe’ is extremely moving, while avoiding sentimentality. It opens: ‘My father moves the pirougue easily,/the paddle, like another limb.’ and ends ‘My father was here yesterday,/gliding, winding so gracefully./He has never left this place.’

Katrina Naomi Naomi won the 2008 Templar Poetry Competition and the 2008 Ledbury Festival Text Poem Contest. Her first pamphlet, Lunch at the Elephant & Castle is published by Templar Poetry. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. She has received a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2009.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

For The Haliburton Of It

It's becoming something of regular thing: the annual Haliburton literary evening is having its third outing later this April, on the 21st. I'll be along to read, with a bunch of other writing-and-reading Canucks based in London, including my fellow poets John Stiles, Pierre Ringwald, Heather Taylor, and Nancy Mattson.

April Poets Now Online At Nthposition

For those who keep track of such things, this is the 1,300th post at Eyewear. April's 14 poets now up at Nthposition.

Credit rating & True blank
by Peter Robinson

Roosevelt Island
by Alex Cigale

Sales pitch & The cactus
by Kathryn Jacobs

An alien is for life, not just for Christmas
by Steven Van-Hagen

Dialogue with the bald spot
by James Grinwis

Rural New England
by Hassan Melehy

Fascists built all the best buildings
by Jason Monios

Firing Squad, an Ars Poetica
by Jon Morgan Davies

Elliott Smith
by Justin Lowe

gifted
by Noel Rooney

Surprising times
by Jan Harris

Gold and gloom
by Donald Brown

After the fact
by Bill Howell

The tryst
by Adam Burbage

Manhattan Review Young British Poets Feature Noticed At Best American Poetry

Good news. My feature on "The Young British Poets" in The Manhattan Review has been mentioned at The Best American Poetry blog. Good to see these younger poets getting attended to in America.

Side & Swift

Jacket has created a page reprinting the dialogue that Jeffrey Side and I had at Eyewear about his thoughts on Heaney. I think such dialogues throw a positive light on the generative power of blogs, to instigate new platforms for criticism and critical engagement - and indeed revaluation - of poets, poems and poetic texts.

Angel In The House Of Poetry

I think this is worth following this month of poetry: Angel House Press is running an online project called NationalPoetryMonth.ca, a celebration of the nation of poetry. Each day during the month of April, a new poem will be published. The writers come from the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and the United States. The site is free and all of the poets have graciously given their poems without payment. The schedule is below.

1. Elizabeth Kate Switaj - Passage
2. Camille Martin - katrina, tundra
3. Emily Falvey - Envy
4. Colin Herd - after i
5. Gil McElroy - Many Bits of Order
6. Marcus McCann - Loaded-ness
7. Kane X. Faucher - Untouch
8. Frances Raven - Leveling
9. Ben Ladouceur - Bayshore
10. Joel Lipman - Untitled [Golden Ink]
11. Sheila E. Murphy - Stop Keeping Things (All to Yourself)
12. Sandra Ridley - Untether : Unhinge
13. Christine McNair - so be it
14. Jamie Bradley - Epithalamion no. 1 / Epithalamion no. 2
15. Paul E. Nelson - Poet's Obligation
16. John M. Bennett - Lood Breath
17. Roland Prevost - how the halogen grins
18. Nicholas Power - From the Window of the Heart of Amsterdam Hotel
19. John Gillies - morning mantra
20. Philip Meersman - Doel 3
21. Patrick Edwards-Daugherty - Austin
22. Pearl Pirie - late and later
23. Margaret Malloch Zielinski - A Lesson in Edible Plants
24. Caleb JW Brasset - The green mountain
25. Cameron Anstee - Self Portrait as my Father's Books
26. Joseph Kuchar - On Coffee and Erf(x)
27. Sean Moreland - Thin Things, Prettily Dishevelled
28. rob mclennan - love is an impossible narrative
29. Todd Swift - April, April!
30. Peter Ciccariello - g, dying, center stage

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

My 43rd Year To Heaven

Dear Eyewearers, I have grown old, and roll my blog - or rather, want to offer you a new poem on the occasion of my 43rd birthday, today, in sunny London.

My 43rd Year To Heaven

History presses like a wall
against our shy backs –

shall we take the floor,
now that nothing costs more

than it did in 1944, and dance?
Life is such that one has to go

in and out of doors of great hotels
to sleep on beds that later are remade

while all the bills get paid
by an invisible millionaire

for some, while others become maids
or valets until their skin goes grey.

The sun will return in the morning
to remind us that the night belongs

to priest and demon equally,
and after the eighteenth-floor leap

into the delicate unspeaking air,
the chauffeurs look the other way.

I was sad before, and may be later today,
and the intensity of our hug

as we watch Niagara's Herculean effort
pour like a slot machine made good

is a long abstract emotional flood.
You and I pump blood and adore

the time we were given to love
but sense, like tiny clocks that must wake

prime ministers to greet mountains,
our time is soon, and all living things die;

or if they live eternally, do so in myth.
Still and mostly because I can't take it,

let's think of ourselves as mythic then,
which, while a bare lie and lonely to do,

makes us cling more closely in the spray
as the mist about us rises from the affray.

poem by Todd Swift

Review: Twilight on DVD

I finally saw Twilight - and haven't read the novels. Let me wear my heart on my sleeve - I loved it. Most reviews patronise "the girls" in the audience who swoon. However, I feel everyone deserves a slice of the Teen Gothic Sublime, and rarely has a film delivered so well on the genre (Titanic perhaps). There are dozens of art-house reasons to sneer at this sort of sentimental portentous product - and one to cheer: because they did it without irony.

Irony, the bane of modernism (and its spice) has rendered many a Hollywood project DOA - so this one's undead and undying romanticism was blessedly true to the material, and the vein being mined. No one tried to be hip or knowing. They just played it straight. Star-crossed lovers, vampires, deep woods that David Lynch could sink his teeth into, and high school hormones and angst, even baseball - what more could a North American kid marooned in London want? Well, one thing - a Carter Burwell score, his best since Fargo.

I look forward to the sequel, which I see Chris Weitz is helming - which is fine, since he was good for The Golden Compass - though I thought Hardwicke did a great job first time around.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Griffin Prize Shortlist Announced

As the editorial in Carcanet's PN Review #147 observes, in Britain, with the decline of public interest in poetry, and the death of engaged serious newspaper reviews of poetry, prizes are the way most people hear about a book of poems. The editorial observes that, while for the media, poetry is never news (one could recoin a phrase: poetry is news that never becomes news), prizes are news. So what the poetry publishing slash marketing people did was, create a lot more prizes, to generate more interest.

In a way, this is a good thing. What's wrong with prizing poetry? All who love the art want to see it more visibly appreciated, not less. As that infamous editorial goes on to observe, though, prize juries too often (all the time?) fall into the hands of certain coteries, cabals, elites, gangs, - call them what you will, you know them when you see them. Basically, prizes tended to be judged by peers and colleagues, and almost no attempt to even appear disinterested is undertaken in the "Anglo-Saxon" poetry world - so, poets published by the same publisher, poets who are best friends, or lovers, or married, or editors of each other, or who share the same address or agents - select each other's work. It's not entirely a fair complaint, since try to find a jury of poetic peers that does not love or hate the defendant. The poetry world is small. Anyway, enough with the ponderous preliminaries.

The latest huge prize shortlist has been announced, and it is The Griffin Prize, Canadian and International lists. The Canadians include Kevin Connolly, Jeramy Dodds, and A.F. Moritz, for The Sentinel (a book I reviewed at Eyewear). This seems a reasonable group. I am not sure why, however, Jason Camlot's brilliant Insomniac Press book, The Debaucher, was not on that list - it is easily as formally and linguistically adept as any of these. Of the three going for the prize, Moritz, surely, has the advantage. Connolly is good, but part of a strong Toronto-based generation, which includes Ken Babstock and David O'Meara, and is not necessarily the representative poet of his group. Moritz, on the other hand, may be the great Canadian poet of the moment, or one of them.

Turning to the International list, is, as one might expect, turning to the big leagues. Here two of the major poets of the moment - Derek Mahon from Ireland, and C.D. Wright, from America, go head to head, nominally competing with the recently-deceased major Scottish poet Mick Imlah; and the slightly less-well-known but still respected Dean Young, also an American. Imlah's Lost Leader is something of a magnum opus, and was surprisingly beaten to the post at the T.S. Eliot Prize awards in London recently. Depending on one's perspective, it may be the one to beat. I wouldn't count Mahon (or Wright) out either. Young would likely be the dark horse, but such things happen. So - the media gets the news, and the suspense.

It says something about Canada's stock of poets that "our" list will likely fail to set pulses pounding - there's no world-renowned Canadian poet currently, outside the radius of the Carson-Cohen-Atwood-Ondaatje group; and of that list, two are best loved for their prose, one for their songs, and the final one, well, for the poetry. As I've said before, while I understand why the Griffin Prize has two categories - to raise the Canuck profile while celebrating English-language poetry everywhere - I think it would be just as astute to simply have one prize, and let Canadians go head to head with their Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh, New Zealand, Australian, South African, and Carribean peers.

An Older Magic and the New Atheism

Aslan, of course, was reborn thanks to an older magic; and in Holy Week it is good to know that some forces are at work to counteract the far newer atheism. Madeleine Bunting's thoughtful piece in The Guardian considers ways that scepticism of religion can be more creatively nuanced, and how even Andrew Motion wonders at what it would be like to believe. More importantly, she reminds her readers that religious faith can be a constantly enacted process - not a dumb-list of things to obey - and, for the Christian, must ultimately be about love - a love that forgives and is kind.

Guest Review: Wilkinson On Nurkse

Ben Wilkinson reviews
The Border Kingdom
by D Nurkse

In much the same way that D Nurkse’s seventh collection of poems, The Fall (2003), comprised of three sections of grouped poems, his ninth and latest book, The Border Kingdom, is divided into four sequences. The variety of the poems and the uneven length of the sequences, however, suggest that the book’s prevalent theme was not conceived from the outset. Poems, after all, have a useful tendency towards naturally grouping themselves together and forming a coherent whole; different poems extending into one another through recurrent images and themes, as a result of the poet’s preoccupations, interests and concerns. Where The Fall’s sections addressed childhood, married adulthood and illness in old age, then, charting the Blakean journey from innocence to experience and the consequent fraying of our thoughts, beliefs and singular identities, The Border Kingdom’s four groupings of poems approach states of limbo and ambiguity from an assortment of often unusual angles, spanning wars waged from the Biblical to the present and the fractures and fragments left behind, to the legacies of fathers and the complex heritages that they leave their children.

‘Jericho’ opens the book’s first section, ‘The Age of Crusades’, in an intense, if elliptical, burst of imagery. Describing ‘a high window’ where ‘a white curtain knotted against itself / gives a glimpse of the lovers / as they were before the war’, this deceptively simplistic poem depicts the ‘undo[ing] of a mother-of-pearl snap / while a cat perched on the sill / looks down with burning eyes’. Despite Nurkse’s tendency towards the longer, often sequential poem, then, in many ways this short, sparsely rich account of intimacy in a city dominated by conflict sets the tone for the rest of the book: tender, humane and evocative whilst at the same time darkly political and historical, Nurkse’s poetic voice combines felt emotion and level-headed thinking to impressive effect. In ‘Albi’, for instance, another poem in the collection’s opening section, the narrator’s harrowing tale of his being ‘sealed up in a wall’ is related matter-of-factly in precise, conversational lines, but with an eerie feeling that is – as good poetry should be – difficult to describe; emotional and strangely spiritual, yet also markedly impersonal: ‘Then I was the wall itself, / everything the voices long for / and cannot have – the self, / the stone inside the stone’.

It is this captivating style that lends Nurkse’s poetry its sometimes startling originality. This is especially evident in ‘Ben Adan’, an arresting poem in which a seemingly innocent prisoner is instructed by his captor to dig his own grave. Here, it is less the haunting beauty of the poem’s imagery, despite its imaginativeness (‘At thigh-depth I found / a layer of black loam / and a tiny blue snail / that seemed to give off light’) than the disconcerting yet well-pitched tone of the narrator’s voice (‘perhaps in a moment / he will lift me up / and hold me trembling, more scared than I / and more relieved’) that gives the poem its poignancy and delicate weight. This allows the poem to interrogate the reader’s notions of power and captivity (in both a psychological and physical sense) in ways that a more straightforward engagement would fail to hit upon, and Nurkse’s work with human rights organisations have no doubt helped contribute to his producing such accomplished poetry on the matter.

In the book’s second sequence, ‘The Limbo of the Fathers’, there is a continuation of this type of (im)personal political poetry; finding poignancy and wide-reaching revelation in the nuanced specifics of individual lives, rather than looking for history’s lessons on a larger, grander scale. ‘In the Hold’, for example, is an affecting account of the poet’s father leaving Nazi Germany as a stowaway in ‘the stifling void’ of a boat, depicting how he ‘counts the coins in his sack, / the stitches in the gunny weave – / takes his pulse, then having / no more real things, he counts / the members of his family, the chimneys / of his village, all the days / of his life in the old country’. Similarly, the deft specificities of the poet’s memory in ‘Practice’ – recalling his throwing ‘a white Spaldeen / shaped exactly like a baseball […] / all morning at the fence post’ as an extended metaphor for our childhood ‘practicing’ at adulthood – makes for an enjoyable and gently nostalgic, if slightly inconsequential, poem; the poet ‘relieved of a great burden / to see [his] father so clearly, / shivering, gray, stammering to himself, // mincing a clove of garlic / until it was fine and plural / as the gesture itself’.

Unfortunately, The Border Kingdom’s third sequence, ‘The Limbo of the Children’, is less engaging than these earlier poems. This is perhaps odd as the section also contains a handful of the book’s best pieces. Among these is ‘Canaan’, a short lyric on the failures inherent to language which, though bringing little new to our postmodern understanding of drifting, unpredictable signifiers, finds, in both senses, fantastic images to evoke our relationship with the spoken and written word: ‘How the mind wound up the doves / and sent them volleying / over the shepherds’ low fences’. This delight and frustration with the failings of communication is also conjured effectively in ‘The Child’, in which the young narrator describes how ‘no one calls me you. / I am addressed in the third person / as if I were sideways to the world’. It is a shame, then, that these poems sparkle among a sequence which is otherwise littered with numerous narratives reflecting on nature and mountains in particular, which, though often richly descriptive and subtly musical, are too often full of inactive lists that do little more than to describe (albeit atmospheric) landscapes (‘Hitching to Mount Hebron’, for example, or ‘At High Falls’).

This aside, however, when Nurkse hits his stride such writing can begin to evoke the Hopkins of ‘No Worst, There Is None’, and even the Wordsworth of ‘The Prelude’, in its merging of the landscape with the poet’s state of mind. In 'The Border Range’, for instance, the narrator states how: ‘Sometimes we boasted / of the waterfall, the whirlwinds, / the downy soft-pinioned owl / drifting in daylight / with a hole in his voice, / the immense cliffs’, before concluding: ‘And that is all anyone knows / of those years of marriage, / labor, voluntary poverty: / those mountains were perfectly flat / and exist only as a little rip / where the map was folded once too often’. Through taut language and economic use of imagery, this poem succeeds in adopting our relationship with nature as a metaphor for our often difficult relationships with one another, an impressive feat which Nurkse pulls off with considerable skill.

It is satisfying to find, then, that the closing sequence of The Border Kingdom, ‘The Gods’, is the best of the collection; comprising of consistently engaged and engaging poems on the difficult subject of conflict in the contemporary world. The success of these poems often rests on their approaching subject matters from oblique angles: in ‘Late Summer’, for example, an unknown terror grips the narrator who ‘ha[s] to remind [him]self: / this is darkness’, while in ‘Liberation in Winter’, the threat of a bombing is described as ‘maybe just a faux pas between lovers // who lie naked, an inch apart, / in the stepwise shadows of the blind’. Similarly, the fallout of 9/11 is addressed with care and subtlety, imagining ‘children [drawing] the plane, / sticking out their tongues, pressing / hard with crayons, never looking up / as if they’d seen it all their lives’. Here, the towers in the child’s drawing become ‘a huge box’, ‘the fire – an orange flower: / God – a face with round eyes / watching from the margin’, and ‘the fireman in his smudged hat / running with outstretched arms / up a flight of endless steps / that veered suddenly off the page’.Just as the sequence, and collection, closes with the image of ‘round pools, / […] trembl[ing] as if a child swam there’, then, the thought-provoking child’s drawing in ‘After a Bombing’ most starkly suggests an idea that recurrently surfaces throughout this deeply philosophical, deceptively simplistic, and often rewardingly discomfiting collection: namely, that our habitual handle on the world is often staunchly limited, narrow, and thus frequently inadequate, and that greater understanding, even redemption, may often lie in a freer, fuzzier, and more openly imaginative approach to the world.

It is to Nurkse’s credit that he has written a book of poems which expresses this so unprescriptively and effectively, then, and that explores a great deal more besides in diction and syntax well-pitched between ordinary speech and poetic elegance; a collection which is much more, as the narrator of ‘Canaan’ states, than mere ‘signs on the blank page’.

Ben Wilkinson’s poems and reviews have appeared in publications including Poetry Review, Poetry London, Stand and the Times Literary Supplement. He writes critical perspectives of contemporary poets for the British Council’s Contemporary Writers site. His first pamphlet of poems, The Sparks, was published last year as part of tall-lighthouse’s Pilot series, and he read at this year’s StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Surgeons vs. Bankers

A beloved friend has recently had surgery, and I have been with them in hospital for 48 hours, getting out for a few sunshine and aimless wandering breaks. All I want to say now is - whatever they pay surgeons - and nurses - it isn't enough. Any society that does not reward these remarkable hard-working life-givers and savers fully is doing something utterly wrong.

This Monkey's Gone To Heaven

Doolittle, whose 20th anniversary was last Friday, is perhaps the least likely Easter release of all time, and, I think, one of the greatest pop culture products of the last 30 or so years. Anyway, it's a great album, and one of my ten favourite. The lines "If the devil is six/ Then God is seven!" must be among the most ecstatic and joyously weird ever sung.

Pixies albums are strange, exciting, exotic, and chilling events. On Doolittle, religion, surrealist film, mass murder, true love, general mania, desire, the body, and evolutionary theory, get flummoxed with sounds never before linked - ululating and alternatively crooning vocals, perhaps the creepiest, most plaintive of all time and most willing to go new places - and zanily, uncannily creative use of the rock palette of instruments. It's the album that, when you heard it, you knew you were "alt" or "indie". Heaven it was to be young in 1989.

Pixies were to music what Peter Lorre was to German cinema. Now, the irony we all know is, this 1989 masterwork prefigures everything good about Nirvana- the screeches then lyricism, the tenderness and odd medical obsessions, the fast and slow, the off-kilter sublime postmodernism of it all - being innovative and fun and off-putting all at once - and, whereas Nirvana became rich (and some became dead), Pixies became, instead, critical darlings, and, basically, commercial also-rans. This may be why Doolittle, after 20 years, smells still as off-sweet, whereas, will In Utero really remain classic?

Blogs In Books

Browsing in a bookshop near Hampstead Heath yesterday, I came across Nick Laird's new novel, which I flicked through, before going on to other novels there, including my favourites, such as The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited - works of masterful stylishness. I wouldn't want Eyewear's readers to think I don't enjoy good prose - sometimes, it can almost be as good as poetry. Anyway, back to this new novel. I haven't read it, of course, but I've read bits of it, in situ, and there seems to be a key character in the novel who is a thirty-something, chubby, frustrated Londoner who has a blog, where he basically rants about TV shows, films, albums he likes, books, etc.

Now, Laird has been lurking on the blogosphere, no doubt researching this character for his novel. I know this, because he's read Eyewear at least once or twice. I am glad to see bloggers in novels. It's a bit like Conrad tossing in an anarchist; or Maugham a scientist. Bloggers are a part of the zeitgeist, that's all. One day, they'll be quaint, and gone, like hack journalists with loose ties and pencils behind their ears. However, there's something condescending about the way that some in the literary firmament write about blogs and bloggers. Rather than viewing blogs as a new genre, worth exploring, it is treated more like a rash that should be eradicated, or ignored as best as possible. Irritating. The Establishment likes to be irritated - because it reminds them they exist.

What mostly irritates them is when someone, or some form, comes along, that they can't control, or black ball. Blogs are in that category - almost by definition, they are beyond anyone's borders. Anyway, I see the pathetic over-rated side of blogs, and agree with Laird's novel that many bloggers are lampoonable. Still, had Laird decided to himself write a sustained blog over several years, one engaged weekly with culture, and the world's events, as they flow or leap into view, he might have discovered the form as not being merely a platform for swipes and gripes (it is that sometimes sadly) - but a profound new way of communicating - with thousands around the world.

I am not sure it is entirely accurate to suggest that blogs might one day be seen as a new form of the novel, or memoir - non-fiction fiction of the Capote sort - but writing a sustained blog over half a decade is not simply an anti-social vice, or total waste of time. It is also a creative thing to do. Satire that merely simplifies does no one any favours. Meanwhile, I hope to read Laird's book, in the goodness of time. Maybe you should, too.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Good News

Caesar and Christ were not meant to be fused - one rendered to one precisely what the other had no earthly need for, secular power. However, on Palm Sunday, it seems a blessing in the open to hear news that the world's most powerful military leader has announced - even as utopian horizon of action - the idea of a nuclear-free world. Obama may do secular - but unlike Blair, he also seems to do a bit of God, too.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Poem by Jason Camlot

Jason Camlot (pictured) is a poet, singer-songwriter, and university lecturer based in Montreal, at Concordia University. His areas of interest include Victorian Literature and sound recording techniques, especially in the early days of the wax cylinder. I have much more to say about him, and will add more to this post later.

This is from his second collection, Attention All Typewriters!, from DC Books.

The Wind Divider

Träumend an der Schreibmaschin’saß die kleine Josephin’…--Gilbert and Profes

Hovered and swiveling behind the gray
cloth wall of her cubicle
divider, she has me seek into my drawer
for more than pencils. My rebel
typewriter girl who goes to the movies
alone soaring to screen
on the paper-clippèd wings
of my lighter /darker imagination.
Green ice-flashes of the Photostat machine
ignite her as St. Theresa in passion. She glides
past my station in white stockings
and Wallabees, red ones, like some devil nurse
prepared to I.V. the water cooler
with one scarlet ink cartridge.
Her hair black and shiny as trash bags
overstretched in their receptacles, so well groomed,
the best kept secretary, with airs, inviolable,
like a sadistic Veronica working in an office
just to spite Daddy. Or, my clean new American girl
as comfortable with Pitman as with Gregg,
tomboyish and undemanding, her fantasies
refillable, mine untold: (At the typewriter in a dream
Sits my little Josephine…/My longing tapped
upon her keys/But she will need more keys than these…)
Spied through loose-leaf
reinforcements, I can smell fresh duotang,
taste the gluestick like sorrow on my lips,
hear the dust of rubber erasers
falling like little blackened frowns,
feel her like a pocket full of Parker Posey.

by Jason Camlot

Eyewear's "Followers"

Eyewear has over 70 "followers" currently - but I feel the term is misleading. That's because they're leaders themselves. Most of them have their own dynamic literary blogs. The blogosphere, for all its faults, does run on sympathetic energy, in many ways. Eyewear also is regularly read by hundreds, often thousands, of other readers each month. Increasingly, it's one of many places for writers, especially poets, to meet. I just wanted to step away from the droll persona I sometimes adopt and express my appreciation for all your support over the last few years. Keep leaving comments. And, as always, I welcome reviews and reviewers.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Poetry vs. Literature

Poetry is, of course, a part of literature. But, increasingly, over the 20th century, it has become marginalised - and, famously, has less of an audience than "before". I think that, when one considers the sort of criticism levelled against Seamus Heaney and "mainstream poetry", by poet-critics like Jeffrey Side, one ought to see the wider context for poetry in the "Anglo-Saxon" world. This phrase was used by one of the UK's leading literary cultural figures, in a private conversation recently, when they spoke eloquently about the supremacy of "Anglo-Saxon novels" and their impressive command of narrative.

My heart sank as I listened, for what became clear to me, in a flash, is that nothing has changed since Victorian England (for some in the literary establishment). Britain (now allied to America) and the English language with its marvellous fiction machine, still rule the waves. I personally find this an uncomfortable position - but when one reads that Bloomsbury's profits are down massively due to the absence of a new "Potter" - one has to face facts. There is a publishing industry in Britain. It is a commercial enterprise, endorsed by government bodies, and cultural organisations and affiliated media sponsors, and festivals. Together, it constitutes an "establishment". On the whole, this system favours the novel, and narrative, over poetry of any kind, and surely, poetry with disrupted syntax. Why is this?

It has nothing to do with poetics, and everything to do with profits. "Most" people who buy books want a "good read" - they want "a story". Novels with stories can be made into TV shows, and films. Money can be made. I have often said this at this blog, but poets are now second-class citizens. I often meet literary figures who barely know any poetry, except that published by a few large presses. For most "writers" and those involved with culture, "literature" in Britain is novelists, life writers, screenwriters, and a few poets.

This is not troubling, to most people. For, the definition of an establishment, surely, is that it is an order of things that represents what appears, on the face of it, reasonable, and natural. This is why it is so easy to marginalise bloggers and poet-critics who demand a different way of considering writing and publishing - because they appear as mad and violent as some of the G20 protesters - they seem like people who just want to smash some glass and spoil the fun. I have spent over 24 years organising poetry events, supporting fellow poets, editing, reading, performing, writing, studying, and teaching, poetry.

Most days I feel that I have "wasted my life". The impact that poetry writing and poetry promotion has, on the general public, the popular culture, and for the average person, in the UK, is close to nil. Despite the hundreds of superb British poets - who do touch some lives, of course - poetry has been marginalised, by precisely the sort of Anglo-Saxon narrative triumphalism that does so much for fiction. In fact, one of the mistakes that lyric poets have increasingly made, I feel, in the 20th century, is to try to make compromises with science, business, government, and also prose and its handmaidens plot, suspense, narrative, and lucid structure (admittedly all part of Epic Poetry). Lyric modern poets have tried to downplay what is most poetic about poetry (its artificial language) and emphasise its pleasures, and how it is part of the same world as "novels" - or have they become what is known as "experimental".

The truth is, poets buy in, far too much, to the idea that fiction has won, and that its delights and world (of fame and celebrity and film deals) is one they might approximate. The flourishing in the UK over the last 20 years of all these prizes for poetry and all the marketing, has been a sometimes desperate attempt to package and sell poetry as "a good read" - as work that, like a "good novel" - satisfies the reader. Poetry is more radical than that. Poetry makes demands on the reader - of time, and of thought - that sometimes lead to demands for action. One's life may have to be changed.

Novels can also do such a thing (George Eliot, for instance, has such an effect). Yet too often, novels are, more or less, "entertainments". How many arts organisers, and festival directors, really want to see the world shaken to its foundations, or the way that life and language is perceived profoundly altered? Not many, I'd imagine. Instead, there is a desire for more comfortable "books" and more sheeplike readers, who are meant to "buy" the "latest" "read". Literature, sometimes, is as sad as money.