Sunday, 24 February 2013

Guest Review: Willington On Lane

Alice Willington reviews Instinct by Joel Lane

Instinct is a pamphlet of 23 poems, and its subtitle is poems of desire. These indeed are “poems of desire”; but the poet’s focus is the end, or the death, of desire, and the aftermath of physical passion. The images are strong, “After breakfast, I’ll walk you/ (on hollow feet) to the bus stop.” Or, “You need these souvenirs. /Your body’s an empty plate on the pavement.”

It is a rare event in this group of poems for the joyful centre of passion to be articulated and for happiness to be told unadulterated. In the poem ‘The Cries’:

            “a boy whoops softly, and a girl
            Laughs, once, with such complete
            Tenderness and repose that the bare
            walls cannot use the sound.”

In this collection it is as if the poet himself (or herself) cannot use these sounds of tenderness and repose. It is “too good”, and the poet takes the camera of a listener at the other end of the corridor, rather than experiencing it for himself. The joy in orgasm contained in ‘Fly Boy’ (“far below, a fist of water/puts out the aching light”) is dreamt of, not experienced. The poem starts “To hold you”, as if the poem contains what is desired, not actual, and indeed the tale of Icarus is the tale of a hope doomed to failure. ‘Goth’ is the one poem where sexual pleasure is tasted and relished, spoken by a gravelly poetic persona as if by an older woman to a younger man, and the taste of “cheap roll-ups” leaves the narrator smiling.

This pamphlet is my first encounter with Joel Lane. The 23 poems are collected from the stretch of his writing career, and I expected therefore that there would be some noticeable differences in the forms, techniques and concerns, but in fact the poems display a striking unity. There is a close adherence to regular stanza form. Full rhyme is occasionally used, spread out across a poem to provide an additional hold of sound, for example in the poem ‘Autumn Light’,  (meat – cheek – deep) or close together at the end of a poem, to provide closure, for example “kindness/blindness” in ‘Matt’. There is a tendency to close down poems, rather than leaving the images to lead the reader

In ‘Hidden City’, for four stanzas the lovers lie spent, “astonished by pure light”, but the final stanza cuts to an autopsy where “nothing” is “written/on your heart.” I wonder whether this is in fact an unnecessary excising of hope. Sometimes the images seem to deliberately obstruct understanding or insight. In ‘Fireguards’, the images constantly return to “the mess in the chimney’s throat”, after “so long trying to force/doors.” This frustration is, however, a reflection of the way human relationships can be dead ends or a “blind alley,” and also of the nature of desire and eroticism, which both lingers and disappears “while the morning covers up its bruises”, and even before then, in uncomfortable beds where “the passion’s formal”.  It is as if the poet is poised forever at the end of the affair and isn’t sure what comes next, or is looking back to before to find the way forward. The aptly titledThe Great Unknown’ is the poet wanting “one date left”, but the landscape of the poem is of wolves moving fast over a frozen waste, a “folk myth/ from colder times”, a landscape from the past which is in fact the poet’s future.

These poems are good, and memorable, but they are not satisfying. Love is “a fragile echo on the telephone”, and the brightness of a night with a girlfriend is “two decades past.” It is a pamphlet of dulled pain.

Alice Willington has been writing poems for 8 years, and has been published in Horizon Review, New Linear Perspectives, Initiate and Avocado. She was included in Lung Jazz, the Oxfam Anthology of Young British Poets under 40. She writes about mountains, but lives and works in Oxford.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Poetry Focus: Poem by Rae Armantrout

Eyewear is very glad to feature the major American poet Rae Armantrout (pictured) this Saturday in London, and not just because she too wears eyewear.

Professor Armantrout, who is associated with the West Coast Language Poets, studied when younger with Denise Levertov.  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her collection Versed, and her book Next Life was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2007.  She has taught for may years at the University of California, at San Diego



When did you first learn
that the bursts

of color and sound
were intended for you?

When did you unlearn this?


Believing yourself
to have a secret identity
can be a sign
of madness.

On the other hand,
the lack
of a secret identity
can lead to depression.

Many have found it useful
to lie down
as men
believing themselves
to be little girls

or as girls
believing themselves
to be mermaids
in their own bodies.

poem by Rae Armantrout; reprinted online with permission of the author.

Guest Review: McCauley On Oswald

Amy McCauley reviews A Reply to the Light by Peter Oswald

Peter Oswald’s A Reply to the Light is a many-headed book, but primarily it is as a document of psychology that it comes into its own. If the book is read as a journey through Oswald’s innermost motifs and obsessions, the book reveals much about a man cut off from experience; an existentially isolated figure who – at best – observes life from the periphery.

Take ‘Description of a Prostitute Seen Through a Window in Amsterdam’ for instance. The title alone might serve as a motif for Oswald’s position, or attitude as a poet.  Because frequently his poems describe scenes that are just beyond the poet’s reach; and time and again, both the ‘I’ and the eye appear to be physically and emotionally removed from the action. As if to emphasise this sense of distance, many of the poems contain either real or invisible windows between the poet and the contents of the poem. So in ‘Description of a Prostitute…’ Oswald writes:

She has submitted her own body

As evidence. It has been frozen.

She accepts the jurisdiction

Of everyone.

She has been locked

In a glass prison. (p. 10, lines 5-10)

This is more rhetorical gesture than description. In fact, the prostitute is no more than a symbol or a cipher – but for what remains unclear. There is little sense of depth to the scene and virtually no sense of the prostitute’s reality. There is little sense even of a wider mythic reality. ‘She has promised not to try to escape’ Oswald writes; ‘Here she sits till death comes!’ (p. 11, lines 15-16) The allegorical style feels somewhat one-dimensional, particularly when the poem lacks both emotional insight and psychological depth. There are, however, stanzas of disarmingly rich ambiguity, such as:  

No one has ever done

Anything against her.

A crime is no longer a crime

When it has been paid for. (p. 12, lines 33-36)

The suggestion of misogyny in ‘A crime is no longer a crime / When it has been paid for’ indicates where the power lies. The sense of the poet as voyeur – forever looking in from the outside – is powerfully felt. The prostitute – who ‘admits everything’; who ‘holds back nothing’ (p. 10, lines 3-4) – is ultimately a passive muse around which the poet constructs his

glass prison of language. But the duality in this stanza: the suggestion of the prostitute’s innocence – ‘Nobody has ever done / Anything against her’ – makes this particular moment amphibious and interesting. And at moments like this – when the slipperiness of language enters the scene – Oswald possesses the capacity to astonish. The final stanza glitters:

Over the burned dunes,

Through the grey acid streams,

Under the green sky of Venus

She runs and she runs. (p. 13, lines 49-52)

This stanza is representative of Oswald’s real strength – his vibrant, clear-headed visual motifs. And when Oswald’s images work best they are carried by a natural, rhythmic capacity for speakable language. Indeed, Oswald at his best writes poems you can hear both on and off the page. This melding of image with sound is to be found most abundantly in his writing about animals. A cat is ‘Leaping at bees / Like a fountain’ (p. 18, lines 9-10) in ‘To a Cat Dying of Poison’. A buzzard is a ‘Mad tramp gripping the pulpit, shrieking / Into the upturned faces of the fields and woods and / pools.’ (‘Buzzard’, p. 57, lines 8-10) And in ‘Rooks’ he writes:

But through us rises

Gossip of the veinwork of leaves,

And the twists of timber springing apart

And leaping together (p. 40, lines 39-42)

These are deliciously chewy lines for the eye and the ear. But ‘Rooks’ stands out not simply because of its rich, precise language: it is also one of the very few poems to adopt the point of view of someone or something other than the poet. As such, it is a real breath of fresh air. ‘Rooks’, however is the exception.

By and large, the book occupies two modes; the first mode resembling that of the Romantic poets. Here, Oswald’s lyric ‘I’ addresses nature with unrestrained lyric abandon. Curiously, he exhibits no sense of self-awareness, and as a result the writing often feels na├»ve and amateurish. ‘In Nights As Lonely As the Sun’s’ for example begins:

In nights as lonely as the sun’s,

I live my second innocence,

Dreaming about the moon’s white thighs,

In dark asphyxiated skies. (p. 37, lines 1-4)

This simply doesn’t feel like poetry being written in the year 2012. Later in the poem Oswald spells ecstasy ‘extasy’ (p. 37, line 11) – a quirk which, among other such eccentricities (liberal use of the comma; an insistence on capitalising words on a new line; the spelling of balloon ‘baloon’ (See p. 35, line 1 and p. 45, line 16); use of archaisms such as ‘beseeching’ (p. 41, line 6), or neologisms such as ‘profoundment’ (p. 17, line 10)) – serve to give the impression of a man writing out of his time.

Oswald’s second mode is clearly influenced by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. He employs it in what might be called his public poems – those poems dealing with London for example, or with the nameless prisoners in ‘HMP’ – but here his writing all too easily slips into either rhetoric or sentimentality. As in his poems about women, Oswald’s London poems feel unreal and lacking in depth, as though the poet is shut off from experience by a glass wall.

Indeed, the pervasive sense in this book is that of a man struggling to enter fully into the world around him. It is of a man who strains for connection with the things and people he encounters. And it is of a man whose language often strays too close towards homage or pastiche. To be sure, there are moments of brilliance, but they are much too few and much too far between.

Guest Review: Page On Clark

Jocelyn Page reviews Dis ease and De sire by Kim Clark

Clark’s title and two well-chosen epigraphs (the relevance of a third epigraph referring to Facebook statuses eluded this reviewer’s grasp) suggest an authorized nose into her situation, a signpost of permission to approach the topic and the text with an open, inquisitive regard.  And much in ‘Dis ease and De sire’ is informed by or otherwise relates to Clark’s disease, multiple sclerosis.  Many poets write of their own illnesses in subtle, effective ways, for one example Jo Shapcott who, in her latest collection ‘Of Mutability’ avoids naming the cancer that fuels the poetry.  Clark , however, opts to include a fair amount of reference to MS, including some description and terminology -  ‘wait, find my cane, no, I’m fine, / weight between my shoulder blades’ (‘Lacuna’) and ‘words worth their weight / in myelin.’ (‘The Abduction’) However, ‘Dis ease and De sire’ feels far from a documentation of the illness and more a manifesto for Clark’s life with MS that, at its best, celebrates through the gusto of life experiences -

    Want to lick salt 

from delectable hollow in the flesh

between thumb and finger on my one good hand,

to toss back tequila, brace the heel of my boot

against the dim-lit bar rail, hip-cocked

and sexy.  Savour the bite,

the zing, the punch of lime,

the slow heat down my throat’   (Nerve)

Clark’s publisher, Lipstick Press describes the collection as ‘a literary vivisection of a particular life displayed without pity.’  Indeed, the ‘zing’ of the author’s memory is precisely what highlights the disease, in opposition.  The desires, sensual (‘Girl on a Mango’) and sexual (‘Night bloom’) are all the more powerful for their understood diminishment due to illness, but they are also championed for their own sake throughout the text.

Clark’s freedom with experimentation in terms of layout on page (‘Flirting absolutely’ and ‘Girl on a Mango’) and lineation (‘Untitled’, p.5) feel an appropriate manifestation of raw emotion perhaps driven by disease and desire.  Syntactically, much of the collection feels truncated, staccato, deprived of exactly the lyric that one might expect from such a heartfelt manifesto.  Or is Clark’s desired effect a holding of the breath, a tight-lipped study of her ‘particular life’?  There are areas that could benefit from more critical editing, such as the final, tautological line in ‘Night bloom’ -‘savour brief thrill / of sensation / arousal’ and some puzzling punctuation choices, with a marked over-usage of the bracket [ ] and several baffling tildes ~ that complicate rather than add to the work.  Three ‘Untitled’ poems out of nineteen in the pamphlet seems a product of haste or oversight rather than design.

But these editing issues disappoint rather than detract from the overall impact of Clark’s voice.  Like a child, I want to ask those tricky questions after reading ‘Dis ease and De sire’.  I want to go from text to biography and learn more about the woman who drives these themes forward. 

Jocelyn Page is a poet from Connecticut living in Southeast London. Her pamphlet smithereens was published by tall-lighthouse in 2010. Her poetry has also appeared in Poetry Review, Smiths Knoll, The Rialto and Magma. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College.

THE BEST OF 2017...

Aim High, more often Year-end Best of lists are invidious, and, also, these days, ubiquitous, to the point of madness. But we have love...