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Guest Review: Ian Brinton on Radical Landscape Poetry

Ian Brinton reviews
edited by Harriet Tarlo

This is an absolutely splendid book! Very attractively produced, beautifully laid out, intelligently edited, it is a book to return to time and again. Harriet Tarlo makes her intentions absolutely clear in the introduction when she writes ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’ and the multiplicity of forms presented to the reader within the one hundred and eighty pages of this book is testimony to that world of changing landscape:

I have focused here on poets whose formal techniques are exploratory and experimental enough to be called radical, poets whose ideological pushing of the boundaries is to be found integrated into the forms their poems inhabit.

The editor also makes the essential point about juxtaposition, ‘often through parataxis’, being a fundamental linguistic principle and suggests that some of the anthologised pieces by Wendy Mulford, Peter Larkin, Elizabeth Bletsoe and herself ‘juxtapose differing arrangements of prose blocks, found text and stanzas of poetry, each within their own spaces.’

These diverse texts speak to each other across the space, allowing readers to enter the poem and speculate over their relationship to each other.

The world of comparison and contrast, definitions being arrived at through an awareness of differences, owes something here to the French phenomenologist Francis Ponge who sought for ‘la qualité differentielle’ in his concern for appearances. Ponge’s eye was attracted to contrasts, edges, contours, meeting places: those areas which define where one thing ends and another begins. When faced with an amorphous mass Ponge seems to suffer from a type of vertigo, a feeling of being overwhelmed or annihilated by sheer bulk, and so rather than write about the immensity of ‘ocean’ he prefers ‘Bords de mer’, ‘edges of the sea/seashores’, where ocean becomes defined by that which interrupts it.

One of Peter Larkin’s contributions to this Shearsman anthology presents this superbly as he explores in ‘Turf Hill’ the interplay between the wild and the industrial, the electricity pylon and the tree:

How the boles thin to the widener of tracking turf, pylon by terrace of heeded instrument! If the tree-standing for wire is the pull of cantileaf, what can indent its continuous ornament looping on power line? The trees are resident by unavailing advantage, full technical sorrow lattices their derivative store of staying beside-hand a cloaked way below. Each wafer strut as actuator, soft spring between wing and store. Field follower across overhead pitch, into the straits which fertilise a neb of impasse, but where wire cups to its beak, a lift of towers inciting local spine, so spike your green along. Forked untransformable at heel of branch, trees topped for their sail-at-root, they bare these iron masts whenever nothing can have happened to the great limb.

Here vulnerability threads its way through ‘unavailing’ to the word ‘sorrow’ before shifting to the association of the human traveller (‘cloaked’) which suggests both secrecy and protection. The density of this rich passage concludes with a further shift towards commercialism as the verb ‘topped’, associated with the wood management of pollarding, moves towards the pun on ‘sail’/sale and the voyaging image of ‘masts’ pushing on wards with human commercial enterprise. This piece is extracted from Larkin’s volume Slights Agreeing Trees (Prest Roots 2002) where the photograph accompanying ‘Turf Hill’ emphasises that movement of voyaging forth.

The world of Gerard Manley Hopkins haunts the background of some of this writing and it is perhaps not merely coincidence that one of the contributors, Mark Dickinson, wrote an undergraduate thesis on the influence of Hopkins on Peter Larkin’s work. Nowhere is this association clearer to my mind than in the work of Colin Simms whose poem ‘The Crags at Crookleth Beacon’ stands near the opening of this anthology:

On High Crosset Climbers Comb
                        an hour destroys the kestrel’s home, charnel-tower
their privacy-plucked piracy   ching   chine-sing from chinks, in clints
sheep merely shear, shift stints           will   goes   when        people   hit   the   hill.

The unthinking idleness of destructive speed with which man despoils the environment echoes that unforgettably poignant image in ‘Binsey Poplars’, felled 1879, where that window of the soul, the eye is pierced:

                        Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all…

Colin Simms concludes his poem with the plea ‘never mind the economics of the trip/ give me a poetry of observed relationship’. These are words which could well describe the work of the late Roger Langley whose sense of Charles Olson’s statement from ‘Human Universe’ (‘The meeting edge of man and the world is also his cutting edge’) is recorded in his interview with Roger Walker in Angel Exhaust 13:

And sitting under a tree in Suffolk again, with lights going through the leaves. Oh yes: standing under a tree for an hour and a half. One peculiar evening, that’s the biographical centre of it: I walked out of the village at dusk and, as is extremely unusual nowadays, I stood for an hour and a half by a track and no-one came anywhere near me. And it just occurred to me that I ought to stand without moving at all for that length of time and see what happened. Not even turning my head. A lot of rabbits came up and sat on my feet. And moths whipping about within inches of me. A feeling that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough.

I thought that was an interesting experience: to be alone and perfectly still. As soon as you move things take on meaning, don’t they? Because things become things that you’ve got to step round or walk over or something. They instantly become part of your map, as it were. Whereas if you stand absolutely still, then they might not be part of any map at all. You ‘see’ the place when you haven’t got any designs on it.

Langley’s own Journals, also published by Shearsman, would make an ideal companion to The Ground Aslant: a British ‘composition by field’.

Ian Brinton is an English critic and scholar, who reviews regularly for Eyewear.
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