Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Norwich Union

Sad news. Norwich Union is to change its name to Aviva. As a student of Creative Writing at UEA, I was - and am - often in Norwich - a city famed far and wide for its eponymous life insurance company. Aviva strikes me as the sort of bland globalspeak that does no one any good, and aims to avoid striking any chords or nerves - but its very blandness rankles. I suppose it does have the latinate life at its root - but the better name was the one that had a home, a real city, at its heart.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

London In Sunlight

It seems that summer arrived today, in London - with the 20 Celsius weather. Finally! People are out, dressed like it's August in Cannes, or Miami. No time to blog, really. I was just so delighted with the sun and blue sky.

Below, an unpublished poem of mine, written last summer in Canada, to celebrate this day.

Laurentian Lakes

My brother and his wife come down to the lake
Late, vegetarians with their barbecue; but
The fuel is gone, so they drive off with my wife

In their car, leaving me alone with the lake.
Well, there are the Germans ruining the water
With their attempts to break it, and the spine-turning

Girl-guard tilted up against the shack,
Glassed-up and closed. I look out
At the copied trees, and rocks, then double-back

To her, young and caught like a hook
In the pages of a novel that might not quite be
A book, but is a story, flowing over the locks

Of each chapter-ending, that stop-start
Editors like, because it jumps like suspense;
Fish jump too, for flies; bats curve in on them.

Flies get the mouth treatment from below and above,
The downside of living at the surface of things –
Death springs from such doubled-worlds pinching in;

As words will pinch the eye, the heart.
Hans leaps again from his rowboat into black,
Yodels closed off by the audience of water

That takes his performing seal act for real, well,
For good enough. He comes back to the world,
His hair over his eyes; his companion strangles

The boy for the sheer August of the day. In three
Weeks, we’ll be in the money-world of London.
Their green car returns with fuel, with food,

And we break out a fire to grill, on the sand,
Hamburgers made from soy, images of sky
Catching in the teeth of the water, with trees.

poem by Todd Swift

Friday, 25 April 2008

Poem by Helen Mort

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Helen Mort (pictured) this Friday.

Mort comes from Sheffield, but lives in Cambridge. There she runs a Poetry Society Stanza and helps organise CB1 Poetry nights. Her pamphlet, the shape of every box, was published by Tall-lighthouse in 2007. That same year, she received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors. She is also a past winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year prize.

Mort wrote a lot of the poems in the shape of every box between shifts or at work in a nightclub, and is currently writing a long sequence, God of the Gaps, about Sheffield nightlife. Most of her influences are drawn from contemporary Scottish and Irish poetry. She is not to be confused with her uncle, Graham Mort, also a poet - though his work continues to be an influence.

I've known Mort for several years now, and she strikes me as one of the most assured, and promising, of her emerging generation of 21st century mainstream British poets. She has a finely-tuned ear, often seemingly composing for the music, as much as the meaning, of words; but establishing a strong, emotive mood in the work. At once modest, instantly likeable, and serious, she's also refreshingly concerned with the world beyond poetry, as well (notably, her long-distance running). Her first full collection is something to look forward to.

Travelling north

with a borrowed rucksack,
an empty hip flask stowed
on the table to spare me
conversation, I am carried
at speeds no longer thought
remarkable. The carriage
moves through flanks
of brick or lucent woods
where banks formed walls
before we even dreamt
of fences, through scrap yards
and outskirts, blanked
by windows where kids once
gathered to chuck apple cores,
through the backs of new estates,
where egg-box houses
press the tracks between them,
and the flowerbeds
are furled, red handkerchiefs
for bidding leave - I wish
I knew how many of us
have passed through home
this way; close-mouthed,
fast, crossing the street to dodge
old friends we’re in no mood for.
The town’s retreat, that glimpse
of shoulder blade through doorway,
the craned necks of the beech trees
and beside it all,
our colour supplements,
the studied backs of hands,
a woman cradling
her mobile phone,
struggling to catch
some parting word
who only says
I’m losing you,
I’m –

poem by Helen Mort

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Revaluation: Youth Without Youth

Francis Ford Coppola used to be the most-admired American auteur of his film generation - Scorsese has likely taken that position (though Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas do not, to my mind, trump The Conversation, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now). Last year, his first film for a decade was released, Youth Without Youth, based on a curious novella by the controversial once-Fascist scholar and writer, Mircia Eliade, whose memorial service was presided over by Saul Bellow.

The film was almost universally derided. As such, it was a failure, critically, and at the "Box Office". I have finally had a chance to view it (just out on DVD in the UK), and wish to alert its new potential audience that it's a wonderful picture, to be sought out. The film's critics have noted its strengths, as if they were weaknesses: the production was filmed in Eastern Europe, and features a cast of sometimes-dubbed foreign actors (many from Downfall); the sets are sometimes artificial-seeming (what else are sets?). Indeed, the film avoids naturalism, for a fantastical rambling, and often paranoid, journey into sexual desire, dreamstates, religion, Eternal Return, reincarnation, doppelgangers, the rise of Hitler and then the Cold War - no American movie has been so intellectually heady, or weird, since Altered States.

An audience seeking a coherent Hollywood form would be disappointed - otherwise, the film's long, curious, disjointed, often illogical (dreamlike), even phantasmagoric, structure, is rather enchanting, and ultimately deeply melancholy. It seemed the less commercial twin to his brilliant, flamboyant Dracula (another film about time, separated lovers, and the destructive nature of desire). In this case, the desire is for knowledge, not blood, and the aloof, arrogant professor allows societies, and those he loves, to die, around him, in his remote quest to understand "the origin of language". As such (and with the rose motif) it is a romance about the mind and the body - a romance about science and history in fact - that refers to Kane, and reminds me, most of all, of Welles' late European films about truth and fiction (often low-budget, nominally stylish espiongage stories, and ramshackle, but satisfyingly so - especially Arkadin). For those prepared to relish a supremely artificial, flawed, textured, deeply intelligent, strange, and ironic creation, Youth Without Youth, rather than disappointing, may charm, or haunt.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Review: Time Gentlemen, Please by Kevin Higgins

Kevin Higgins recently had this said of him, in Justin Quinn’s The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000, "Chapter 12, The Disappearance of Ireland":

Kevin Higgins (b. 1967) has demonstrated a good satirical savagery when facing the new Ireland. His first collection, The Boy with No Face (2005), contains many poems in conventional lyrical modes (in which he is weaker) and others with a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show. He has perhaps acquired much of his sharpness by taking part in poetry slams. ... A satire which eschews moderation and openly admits its own savagery can only succeed.

His second collection, Time Gentlemen, Please, is just out with Salmon, in Ireland. I think it is an extraordinary book, easily better than The Boy With No Face. There are any number of rising Irish poets, at any time, but Higgins must now count high among that list, alongside Wheatley, Morrissey (who recently won the National Poetry Competition), and a few others. They are very good, very intelligent poets. Higgins is something else. He has something that I admire, as a critic, more than anything else: style. Not just style, a completely original style. Indeed, though I usually cringe at this term, he has a "voice" all his own.

Or rather, his voice combines elements from other voices - Orwell, Morrissey (of The Smiths), Larkin, Kavanagh - in ways no one could have expected, or defended against. His tonal elements are unique because his own ontological position is so (in this sense invalidating the argument that language writes us - sometimes Galway does): he writes of miserabilist experience, down and out in Ireland, as a former Marxist now happily married, and seeing the onanistic error of his former ways. This grim, ironic, and rather acid backstory is combined with a pointed use of quasi-surreal image, and startlingly sure and nasty quips, that almost constitute a new sort of trope - half-metaphor, half-gripe. A lot of poets play with the punning equivalence between Karl and Groucho - but Higgins really does bridge the worlds of Marxist theory, and Marx Bros. praxis, with steely verve. I think he is the funniest Irish writer of his generation - which is saying a lot - and no other Irish writer has ever made me laugh aloud so often, other than Oscar Wilde. In some sense, his poetic is the reverse of Wilde's - a fart for fart's sake - as he avoids beauty and aims directly for "Truth" - which he then skewers. I'd say he was a Swiftian satirist, but that would belittle his poetic achievement. The poems, themselves, are aesthetic objects, full of complexity, irony, and nuance. He is simply the very best comedic poet of his Irish generation. But I must go further - he is the best politico-comedic poet - which is a rarer, and stranger combination (one thinks of Paul Durcan, but even he can't hold a candle to Higgins).

I suppose I could name drop all day, so I want to quote a few lines. The collection is in five sections, and offers a generous 70-plus worth of poems - enough for two slim volumes from some presses. In almost every poem, something happens that is jaw-droppingly odd, and usually involves an unexpected simile related to the shabby world of local or global politics (or the shabby streets of Galway, before the Celtic Tiger); in a sense, Higgins has found his objective correlative in Pravda, or CNN - as encountered in a grimy pub. He has transformed and updated Eliot's sawdust floors, and found new equivalents. No other poet writing in Ireland is as actually modern, or accurate, in connecting the flaws in human experience, to the ways of poetic expression. He's Prufrock, marooned in the West of Ireland, and no less cosmopolitan - the world has come to Galway City, at long last, via undersea cables.

Here are just a few examples:

"Morning slick as a tabloid supplement";
"each day's // metallic tap-water taste";
God is "a balding former Congressman for Wyoming";
"Instead of masturbation, I find socialism";
"the rich / green Lord Tennyson sea";
"the day on the verge of its first Kit Kat";
or, comparing the memory of his dead father to "this / orchestra of car-alarms / at four a.m" ...

and so on, for many more poems and pages. Time and again, Higgins uses humour, sharp observational skills, and bile, to compose brief, imagistic poems of original mood and rare power, to amuse, move, sadden, and inform. His work, therefore, is neither entirely lofty-Irish, and surely not opaque enough to excite the austere-experimental type - but it is undeniably poetry of full integrity, and major Irish poetry, for our time. I look forward to his next collection, as I would the reunion of The Smiths. It would / will be miserablist heaven.

Guest Review: Phillips On Robinson

Tom Phillips reviews
The Look of Goodbye
The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems Of Luciano Erba (translated)
by Peter Robinson

Written between 2001 and 2006 (unusually for him, Peter Robinson specifies as much on the cover), the poems in The Look of Goodbye cross a broad range of territories, from Liverpool to Japan, with sojourns in Italy and briefer visitations to Austria, London and Glasgow. There are long-haul flights across Siberia and through “cloud convoys” above the Baltic; a delay in Paris while a dead passenger has to be offloaded from “that makeshift flying hearse”; and jet-lagged hours in airport transit lounges where “the ground slightly rises and falls/with an undulant motion” and there’s the “promise/of futures not ours in the distance”.

That’s not the whole story, of course, and Robinson certainly isn’t what you’d call a travel poet, an EasyJet-generation post-Beat in search of experience in so-say exotic climes. A sense, though, of being permanently in transit and, as it were, between cultures permeates this richly textured, finely tuned collection.

In Robinson’s particular case, this transitory state - which, thanks to globalisation and economic migration, not to mention cheap airline tickets, is becoming an increasingly common one - is largely due to the fact that he lived in Japan for eighteen years, teaching at universities in Kyoto and Sendai, whilst maintaining emotional ties with the north-west of England and, through marriage, Italy. Ever since the first collection he published after moving to Japan, 1992’s Leaf-viewing, his poetry has, to varying extents, reflected the stresses of this three-way pull – displacement, dislocation, reverse culture shock and the meaning of home (wherever that might be) are recurring themes – and yet here, from the opening evocation of an Anfield-dominated, red-drenched boyhood Liverpool in "Red Dusk" to the final, reconciliatory "With Eyes Closed" (where “gaps” become “no more/than measurable spaces”), there’s a renewed directness, a clearer urgency.

Hence the cover dates: Robinson returned to England to live in 2007; these poems are from the last few years he spent in Japan. Beneath sometimes casual-seeming, conversational surfaces, there are fundamental dramas working themselves out.

At first sight, perhaps, drama might seem a strange description. A “connoisseur of shadow”, of “underprivileged moments” and – a key phrase here – “loose ends”, Robinson can seem almost consciously anti-dramatic at times. In "The Better Halves", while “our local Italo-Japan Association” attend an event to call down good fortune on the Italian World Cup football team, he’s “at the non-event of a five-tier/pagoda undergoing restoration”. And when, as in "Numbers Game", he opens with something of a Homeric flourish – “Approaching the ancestral tombs/in their stands of pine” – this quickly turns to a different, more downbeat register: the “flights of worn-down steps/as we make our way back to the grandparents’ house/at 22 Sea View Terrace/however many years ago” or an admission that “I’ve had to take a long way round”.

Only, of course, that isn’t where the poem ends and a memory of learning how to count as a child dissolves into more troubling adult thoughts and into a final unsettling metaphor which, as it were, surges into view over the brow of a hill: “you still can’t know/how many years more or less there are,/how many stairs to climb/before you arrive near the top, the top/step, step up and go.”

The experience of reading a Robinson poem, then, is… well, yes, an experience. You might start “outside a fish and chip shop” (in "Mentioned in Dispatches"), with a “Sun setting over a sea horizon” (in "On The Scene") or even “Halfway down the women’s slope” (in "Auspicious Motives") but there’s no telling where you might end up or predicting how you might get there. "Mentioned in Dispatches" extends to his father’s wartime experiences and a possible link with poet-captain FT Prince of "Soldiers Bathing" fame; "On The Scene" resolves into a defiance of loneliness; while "Auspicious Motives" slaloms through home-coming, isolation, death, an old woman at a zebra crossing and ultimately, in a possible nod to Seamus Heaney, the self-government of the tongue.

As poet Roy Fisher has said, it’s as if Robinson “carries a listening device, alert for the moments when the tectonic plates of mental experience slide quietly one beneath another”. Rather like the engagingly querulous mini-soliloquies of John Donne or Andrew Marvell, only without the schematic, mannered Metaphysical artifice, these poems are dramas of a mind – and heart – at work.

Perhaps, though, that is to make them sound too inward-looking, too personal. The bigger dramas of the wider world are here, too, after all - whether that means war, violence or impending ecological disaster. In "Calm Autumn" – which originally appeared in the 100 Poets Against The War anthology – there’s the struggle to find out whether the first Gulf War has started using a recalcitrant short-wave radio while in ‘"Ratifying Kyoto’", brief but telling allusions to the Kyoto summit and global warming (“protocols of snow,” “holes… poked in the sky”) give a poem that’s ostensibly about house-hunting a more universal, more ominous significance: we are all having to think about what our “future habitat” might be now.

That Robinson doesn’t adopt a platform and pontificate – the anger at air-strikes making “mockeries of UN truce terms” and a spin doctor’s “crafted” phrases in "Lying Figures" is about the closest he comes – means that, instead, he evokes all the more successfully what it’s actually like – what it actually feels like – to live in a world where things are out of joint, where many of us feel frustrated, angry or depressed about that but where few of us have the power to do very much about it and are left to glimpse (in an allusion to Dylan Thomas) “the hand that didn’t sign the paper” (at the Kyoto summit) in the distance, through trees.

That’s not to say, of course, that Robinson is relentlessly depressing. There may be poems about death, war, emotional difficulties but there are also poems about love, friendship, the surviving bits of nature which aren’t already dotted with factory chimneys and apartment blocks. Likewise, there’s a relish for language itself, a sustained attention to its details and a musicality that’s often been overlooked in Robinson’s work but is evident here in astutely deployed rhyme, rhythm, assonance and harmonics. Conversely, there’s also a satirical appreciation for the absurdities that language is pushed to by the bureaucrats, politicians and other speakers of corporatese who insist on coming up with nonsense like “beautification enforcement area” or “Lifestyle Protection Centre”.

Robinson’s linguistic antennae serve him well in another of his enterprises, too. As well as his own work, he’s also a well-respected and conscientious translator, most notably of Italian poets. In 2006, a near-lifelong engagement with the 20th-century Milanese writer Vittorio Sereni resulted in a substantial bilingual Selected Poetry And Prose, while, more recently, he’s published The Greener Meadow, another substantial bilingual edition, this time of the selected poems of Luciano Erba. Like Robinson himself, both these poets have a keen eye for detail and are adept at exploring the deeper complexities that lurk behind the everyday.

The slightly younger Erba, in particular, constructs extraordinary, fragile pieces out of stray observations and apparently random collisions of objects, memories and reflections. “I’ve a cream tie, an old/weight of desires/I await only the death/of every thing that had to touch me” ends the nine-line "Tabula Rasa?" (a poem which Sereni refers to in his own "The Alibi and the Benefit") while some of his more recent poems from 2004’s "The Other Half" seem to hover in the hinterland between language and silence, almost not existing at all.

As Robinson says in his translator’s note, Erba “avoids the dangers of high afflatus in the Italian language and its various cultural exploitations by sticking to the details of circumstantial existence” and for readers coming to him for the first time, it’s particularly striking that he – and Sereni, too, for that matter – explore ways out from under the shadow of modernism that are very different from those taken by their contemporaries in the English-language mainstream. In their originality and wit, their reticences and individuality, they extend our understanding of what poetry can be – as indeed does Robinson, both in his own work and in his well-crafted translations of theirs.

Tom Phillips is a poet and writer based in Bristol.

The photo is of Luciano Erba and Peter Robinson.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

The QES Weighs In On Poetry

A few years back, I spent a bizarre night, lecturing on contemporary poetry, to the QES (Queen's English Society), and Dr. Bernard Lamb (a writer of naughty limericks, as on Eyewear). It comes as something of a surprise then, to hear him on the BBC radio this evening, debating with poet-critic-publisher Michael Schmidt (one of the best minds British poetry and poetry criticism has), on whether or not poetry must rhyme and use traditional metre. Lamb insists it should, and wants the "Poetry Society" to tell him what poetry is, suggesting that any society that doesn't know what poetry is shouldn't be a poetry one; of course, he's very wrong. Poetry is essentially unknowable, and poetry gestures to new, yet unheard, or written, ways of saying. It also, obviously, resists easy definition, and narrow formal limits. What's the point of poetry, or a poet, who always toes a line? Surely, any rule that a society - especially one designed to uphold the "Queen's English" - might come up with, would be a good one to break, and by a poet. Schmidt acquitted himself very well, and proved his points ably.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Poem by Charles Bernstein

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Charles Bernstein (pictured) this Friday. I happen to think he's one of the most significant poets now writing in the English language, and that his recent collection, Girly Man (newly out in paperback this April 15th) is one of the key poetry books, so far, of the 21st century.

Like the music of minimalist Glass, much of the effect is in the shifting tones, the space between the lines, the comedically-timed, exquisite swerving what-comes-next of it all. But in maximalist manner. Bernstein combines (as no British experimental poet currently alive perhaps does - Empson did) the highest and lowest of registers, and the full range of verbal possibilities in his work - from silly pratfall music hall tricks to deadly serious matter.

As such, his poetics clouds minds, and befuddles issues, but makes something clear: no language is out of bounds for a poet, no matter who she is. I find his work bracing, tough, hilarious, sometimes totally out of line, and often inspiring. He's the future of poetry, now. It should be said, many students, fellow poets, and critics, take his oeuvre of manifestos, polemical writings, and texts, with utter seriousness.

And that's fine, and as it should be. He's one of the generators of that much-discussed, oft-misread "school", of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets - whose indeterminate refusals of complacency or empirical/lyrical traditional form extended the WC Williams/ Olson franchise, combining Yankee open form with (often French) other traditions, without becoming merely an annex or branch of Ashberyian abstract lyric postmodernism. I happen to believe, and this may surprise him, that his work, like Yeats,' will one day be read, with much of the scaffolding of the theory burnt away (just as the Occult and mythic elements of Yeats are often now), and enjoyed, as magnificently pleasurable poetry of energy, style, and high wit.

But for now, the work continues to have political and forceful social purposes in its refusals to be certain things to some readers - so the fascinating tension (even paradox) of his work, and figure, continues - how to be both avant-garde, and so darn entertaining. Not that Bernstein is simply some hipper, smarter Billy Collins, but that highly-theoretical (and often anti-lyrical) poetry has rarely been so stylishly presented.

He'll be reading in London with others on May 14, 2008, as part of the Openned series. If you can, go see him. Few readers make the oral occasion of the performance so richly-textured a part of the process of closely listening to words.

One More for the Road

Like comedy never strikes the same place
More than a couple of times unless you
Change costumes and dance with me, dance

Till the furniture turns to props and
All the mops are a chorus of never
Before heard improbabilities, honeyed alibis

For working too hard, mowing the Astroturf,
Cranking the permafrost, watering the microprocessors
On the kids’ conveyor belts. The bird never

Flies as high as an old-fashioned kick
In the carbonization. --They gave me till
Friday to let them know if the job would

Ever be complete. We’re getting there, just
Fall a little further behind by day
And after dark it’s a mule’s paradise.

from World on Fire

The poem above appears here with the kind permission of the author, and is from Girly Man.

Aime Cesaire Has Died

Sad news. The great poet, anticolonial thinker, and political activist Aime Cesaire has died. Where was his Nobel, one wonders. No matter, his life, work, and poetry speak out beyond such things.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Review: Joe Jackson's Rain

On the day when the media reflects on the death of Joan Jackson (nee Joan Hunter Dunn), I've come to listen, finally, to the new release by Joe Jackson, the CD Rain. I agree with a review at the BBC site which says it is a great work. I'm tempted to say it's Jackson's entirely unanticipated, and unheralded, late masterpiece. Indeed, there's something triumphant in its effortlessly cool pop achievement, and something oddly stirring - for Jackson has been an "Invisible Man" (the title of the opening track) for years now, except perhaps as a grumpy pro-smoking activist (a stance I tend to disagree with). Jackson's career began 29 years ago (in 1979), and he's always been more famous and admired in North America, where the British "New Wave" sound he pioneered with Elvis Costello and a few others caught on - even more than back home.

His four biggest albums are Look Sharp!, I'm The Man, Night And Day, and Body And Soul, and over the course of these, Jackson refined his nasal whine, his acid, even snide, wit, and his Jazz-pop hybrid (moving from guitars to piano, more and more) - really playing with how sentiment and cool could coincide (usually by marrying sad-sack heartbreak themes with ironic lashings of bile). Often, his snarling humour marred the overall tone of the work, while paradoxically sometimes being its best element. The best of Jackson has the joy of the music from the Peanuts' cartoons, and Rain has that keyboard zest (especially on "Citizen Sane").

He's always been a more talented musician (and better singer) than Costello, but never quite received his due. I met him a few years back, in Marylebone, leaving a Waitrose store, carrying milk. We spoke briefly, but he was a little tetchy. I don't think he appreciated my enthusiasm for his work (I was, after all, just a fan). I think Jackson is one of the greatest of British popular musicians of the post-Beatles era, and Rain has several songs ("Too Tough" and "King Pleasure Time" for instance) that are among his finest - classics-to-be. This is one of the albums of 2008.

Guest Review: Pasold on Wormser

Lisa Pasold reviews
The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir Of Living Off The Grid
by Baron Wormser

“Words weren’t meant to do what poetry wants to do with them,” writes Baron Wormser. “Words are counters we use in daily life to note whatever we wish to note. We exchange them and live more or less unconsciously with them.”

I don’t agree. Written words may have originated as counters—admittedly, the Rosetta Stone doesn’t boast any hidden poetry other than its amazing translation of taxation laws—but over time, words have acquired different weights, different ramifications, different subcultures, and all kinds of different meanings.

Take the expression “living off the grid”—an expression I first heard in the Yukon, to describe someone living in the bush, in a two-storey log cabin, off the electrical grid. A literal definition, but the words “living off the grid” want to mean so many other things—including living outside of the controlled grid of ordinary daily life, beyond urban expectations, living out in uncharted waters.

Living off the grid seems such an apt condition for poets—especially considering how often poetry is left off the grid of cultural discussion—that I approached this memoir with high hopes. As Poet Laureate of Maine for the first five years of this millennium, Baron Wormser is well aware of the implications of his subtitle, even though he no longer lives in the house in the woods that is the raison-d’être of this memoir.

But the book falters in its apparent dual purpose of illuminating Wormser’s life in the woods, and his choice to live in poetry. The Road Washes Out in Spring chronicles the years from 1975 to 1998 when poet Baron Wormser and his family lived off the grid in a house they had built themselves. Wormser says of himself and his wife: “We wanted to be the snow, to surrender our tiresome, declaiming egos and experience utter stillness. That yearning was fanciful but balanced by hardheaded labour. The wood didn’t cut itself; the paths didn’t shovel themselves. We were romantics with backaches.”

I like the fact that Wormser doesn’t shy away from these backaches. In fact, I might have enjoyed more practical, linear narrative about life in the house. “Often when we told people how we lived, they asked us forthrightly how we could live that way. What was with us?” writes Wormser. I’ve now read his memoir, but I can’t answer that semi-rhetorical question. There’s a substantial trend in non-fiction writing today that focuses on a person’s life within a particular house. Wormser’s book could have run along those simple lines—“he came to rural Maine, built a house in the woods, and lived there.”

Wormser refuses to be so straight-forward, giving us instead a rambling series of short essays. He begins with his move to the house, and he ends with his departure, but between these two bookends of time, his themes and ideas are free to wander. The result is very much like a walk in the woods—filled with moments of wonder and self-recognition, but occasionally bogged down in mud and dead leaves. Seasons become jumbled, family members appear or disappear with barely an explanatory note, and Wormser’s excellent thoughts about poetry and home are detoured by random theories about Reagonomics and child-rearing.

I’m left wishing I’d worn better boots for this particular walk. Or, that I’d read the book intermittently, opening it for a short essay out of context, then closing the covers again. His short chapters stand individually as brief essays, and sometimes it seems there is another book trying to break free from his memoir—a book about poetry rather than memory. Wormser’s musings on poetry and the present moment are consistently thought-provoking and often eerily beautiful. He writes: “I never tired of simply watching one thing—a length of a tree—turn into something else. It was exhilarating and cautionary. Everything could change. Everything would change.” These meditations on evolution and the “now” of the present are the strongest parts of the book—it’s these passages which linger in my mind, challenging me to consider poetry and daily life in new ways.

Wormser writes: “When I spoke to people about poems, one quality I pointed out was the tremendous ability poems had to ‘dwell’, to stay in the moment as long and as deeply as they could.” He elegantly compares this concept of the poem to the longevity of trees. But Wormser is speaking “to people about poems”, leaving me as a reader to wonder—which people? Which poems? Such absent details become increasingly distracting, even as Wormser includes a few fine character sketches of neighbours who become, if not friends, then interesting acquaintances.

Wormser notes that his own poetry never connects him to the community around him; perhaps that was never its purpose. For Wormser, poetry is an ongoing task that finds value in what contemporary society too often casts aside. His choice to live off the grid “…wasn’t dynamic; it didn’t make anything important happen. Its promises lacked glamour.” Yet this very lack of glamour gives him time to explore the value of being present in the present tense, gives him time to “dwell” in the woods, trusting in the value of the difficult, wayward word.

Lisa Pasold is a widely-published Canadian poet and journalist, who divides her time between Paris and Toronto.

Love and Tennis In A Time of War

The pulse of 20th century British poetry's durability - and sometime light, popular touch - can be taken today, as the death of the most famous tennis-playing woman in poetic history was announced: that of Miss J. Hunter Dunn, who, of course, inspired Poet Laureate John Betjeman to compose his most-beloved poem, "A Subaltern's Love Song". It might only be traditional verse, but it was musical, brilliantly witty, swooningly (if realistically) romantic, and oh-so gin-and-lime middle class. There may be "poetry wars", but somewhere there is also a Britain that needed such poems, and, thankfully, got them. Growing up, I loved this poem, and was moved, to hear it mentioned on the BBC this morning - and sad that Miss Hunter Dunn had died. As I've said before, the heart belongs in poetry, too - and sentiment - and a great challenge for the 21st century is to try to find ways to intelligently combine feeling, and complexity, in poetry, so that it neither stales, nor panders, while also communicating (if only sometimes) with readers, in the world.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Can You Infra Dig It?

It is rare for a book review that discusses rock and roll to cut to the heart of contemporary British poetics, but Toby Litt has managed such an exciting feat. In his review of Simon Armitage's new book, Dig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist, he raises a striking point about the "fantasies" that Armitage is willing and able to open up to: ones that seem genuinely bounded by humility, and attention to a local (even Larkin/Little England) perspective. As Litt observes, for Armitage's aesthetic worldview, "grandiosity is infra dig." It is as if the sin of pride had been oddly inverted here - a curiously cramped ambition haunts some contemporary versions of poetic Englishness - as if being true to one's own self, own voice, own place, were enough (were always, even, possible).

This is certainly the reason behind the ongoing belittling of the poetic style of the Forties, best exemplified by Dylan Thomas, on the part of many mainstream UK poets, and their ongoing discomfort with more verbally-artificial poetic work, too (a la Forrest-Thomson). There seems to be a laddish, charming, but somehow limited, requirement to ground all one's expressions, and linguistic utterances, within the horizon of the known, the familial, the national, the gently lyrical. This is, of course, an anti-modernist, anti-cosmopolitan turn, and, as Litt argues, well, it is also entirely unworthy of the gods or demons of rock and roll. Imagine Iggy Pop without Rimbaud, or Dada, or David Bowie without Berlin's camp (and other) excesses, or The Doors, without Baudelaire, or Lou Reed without Delmore Schwartz, or - as Litt points out, Bob Dylan without Dylan Thomas - it is a faintly ludicrous thought experiment.

What Armitage has done, exceedingly well, is write poetry with true verve and music, that touches a popular nerve, without ever being less than intelligent, stylish, surprising, or aware of the poetic traditions from which it derives. His best poems are among the best of the last 25 years, in his English lyric tradition - he's almost the English Muldoon. Why should such a playful, entertaining, and gifted poetic figure seek to emulate musicians and other celebrity figures (of whatever stature) when his own back catalogue is already admirable as is? Mr. Armitage: you rock. Relax. Shelve the rock star thing. Being a poet is a great gig, no?

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Gordon Brown Is A Tiny Dot on This Planet

Gordon Brown is having a bad week. Make that last few weeks. He bottled the election, and then has continued to be weak, indecisive, and rudderless - from the environment, to the Olympics, to any number of things. The talk, in this weekend's UK press, is that the contest may already be on to suceed him. One hopes so. Labour is doomed under this dour dot. Meanwhile, Mr. Mugabe has managed to coin one of the funniest insults ever in political history, even while managing to ruin a whole nation. Calling Gordon Brown a "tiny dot on this planet" was funny - but mainly weird. Mugabe's priceless fist-gesture was part of the impact of the taunt, which was a direct hit on Brown's already scuppered-vessel.


I have not been rickrolled, have you? The latest Internet "craze" - apparently the most widespread (and basically harmless, a nice change) viral of all time - involves the vanilla 80s crooner, Rick Astley, a manufactured heart-throb who for four years was world famous, then gently declined into total (and gladly-received) obscurity - until now. Eyewear loved Astley's music, then, and still retains a fondness for the idea of the man, and his music - it was fun, old-fashioned, tuneful pop. I think the sweet irony of rickrolling is that Astley never hurt a fly, has no axe to grind, and is entirely out of the loop; a good pop culture icon to reinsert into the Zeitgeist.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

The Death of Andrew Crozier

Sad news. The significant British poet Andrew Crozier died on April 3rd. Eyewear asked Ian Brinton to write a few words. They are below:

Andrew Crozier 1943-2008

As an undergraduate in his third year reading English at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Andrew Crozier edited what Ralph Maud was to call ‘an Olson-biased’ American Supplement to Granta. The short collection was largely based on Donald Allen’s landmark publication, The New American Poetry 1945-60 and included work by Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley and John Wieners. At the end of this publishing adventure which was prepared to rattle the status of the safe English Movement poets Crozier appended a letter from Charles Olson to George Butterick which included the phrase ‘freshen our sense of the language we do have’ adding that ‘the spirit of Olson informs this whole collection: he is the major figure in mid-century American letters.’ It was no surprise then that Crozier should have quoted a line from Olson as the title for his own Collected Poems (Agneau 2, Allardyce, Barnett 1985): All Where Each Is.

A major figure in the Cambridge movement of poetry, Crozier founded Ferry Press in which the list of publications included Brass by J.H. Prynne as well as work by John James, Douglas Oliver, Peter Riley, John Temple and Chris Torrance. He co-edited The English Intelligencer in 1966 before moving to the recently-founded Department of Comparative Literature in the new university of Essex where he started The Wivenhoe Park Review which in turn became The Park when he moved to teach at Keele University.

Whilst studying at SUNY (Buffalo) he played the major part in the re-establishment of the Objectivist Carl Rakosi as a prominent poet in America. Having discovered the slim 1941 volume of Rakosi’s Selected Poems he recognised the enormous talent in this work prompting him to set out to discover what he could about the poet and why he had ceased to write. The journey was not easy since Rakosi had changed his name to Callman Rawley but Crozier’s determination finally unearthed the poet and in an interview Rakosi gave in 1986 he said ‘If Crozier had not written that letter, I might not have gone back to writing.’ In 1987 he edited the anthology A Various Art (Carcanet) which, as The Oxford English Literary History suggested, ‘scorned the pusillanimous set of conventions consolidated by the Movement in the 1950s’.

Jeremy Prynne’s introduction to Crozier’s first published volume of poetry, Loved Litter of Time Spent, referred to a central quality in the writing ‘the possible as it really comes over, day by day’. This sense of a quality of space in which the importance of life can take hold haunts Crozier’s remarkable achievement in The Veil Poem, a collection of nine interrelated pieces which engage with the relationship between the self and the surrounding world. This interrelatedness is a central aspect of Crozier’s work from the early "The Life Class" ("Nothing is to be the sign/of a separate history") to the later prose poem "Driftwood and Seacoal":

Those massed identities, spread one way and another, banked and scattered in new neighbourhoods. I hold them like your bearing in me, between a beacon and the showy stars, looking along the pebbles on the beach. So others in us, if, not therefore not, but also, go separately together.

Ian Brinton is a critic and schoolteacher based at Dulwich College. His latest book, Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990: (Cambridge Contexts in Literature) is out autumn 2008. He is Chair of the English Association's secondary schools committee in the UK and the Editor of The Use of English for The English Association.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Poem by Alistair Noon

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Alistair Noon (pictured) this Friday. Noon (born in 1970) grew up in Aylesbury, studied German and Russian, and has lived in Russia and China. He has been based in Berlin since the early 90s. In the later 90s he wrote sound poetry and performed at sound art festivals internationally. I first met him, a few years back, when he and I both performed at a Magma launch, at the Troubador, in London.

He's an active translator. Noon's translations include, from German, WWI Expressionist poet August Stramm and emerging contemporary figure Monika Rinck; from Russian, Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman, and from Chinese, contemporary poet Xiao Kaiyu.

Noon has worked as a language teacher, translator and most recently in hospital administration in Berlin. He coordinates an excellent annual reading series in that city, Poetry Hearings, and is an editor of Bordercrossing Berlin, a superb-looking periodical, with much of value in it. His recent essay "Translocal Underground: Anglophone Poetry and Globalization" appears in issue #3. It's recommended reading.

Noon is a poet-critic worth knowing about. As such, I've published his work at Nthposition, invited him to read in London at my Oxfam series, and, more recently, been happy to feature his review work here at Eyewear. Seek his work out. Happily, there is some below...

The Lakefarers

The sky was simple as we pushed from the quay;
there was no storm to fear with the far shore in sight.
We trusted the surface, knew the day would end
as unsalient as bare feet on wet grass.
We clutched at the rail and giggled as the first
lurch of the keel warped our course.
This was no case for the luminous waistcoat,
no hands looped on fear. We were aboard.
No face went lame or lips turned dry
under the moving sky.

Then Ear Lake bared its length to a blast
from helix to lobe. The wind blew trenches
in the water, pounded lakeside trunks. Gusts
shocked the boat, their timing guesses. The turn
to the shore would twist and capsize us, the sliding
door of the cabin slammed open and shut.
Sniffed and licked by a faithful fear,
we looked into the fathoms. The Captain’s wage,
crisp and light, was no currency we could take
to the floor of Ear Lake.

Skill in misjudgement or a kind of jinxed luck,
tillered our hull towards land
until the waves and our pulse rates lowered.
Shining stone crawled out of the sky,
and we slowed to the zone of shallow breaths.
Were we drugged by New Year’s Eve,
our senses less than acute? Our feet
wobbled on the gunwale, our minds a collision
of curses at Captains and at our trust
in a misjudged mission.

poem by Alistair Noon; photo by Clare Jephcott

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Guest Review: Noon On Borek

Alistair Noon reviews
Donjong Heights
by Ben Borek

Judges of the National Poetry Competition must be glad, no doubt, of the sanity-saving line limit in the rules. Deliberately or not though, that limit helps norm the poem of our times into a text of forty lines or under. So much poetry from both the distant and the not-so-distant past would, if it were entered now, be disqualified, in more than one sense of the word.

Ben Borek’s recent Donjong Heights tells how one inhabitant of an eponymous tower block in South London organizes a Christmas party with the ulterior aim of winning back his estranged grand amour. For this it draws on Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin as a model, with its distinctive and complex fourteen-line stanza form.

That isn’t all that Borek half-inches. The Russian winter countryside and its melancholic, bored inhabitants are transferred to Peckham in December, inc. plumbing problems and SAD. Dancing the mazurka is replaced by staggering out of the boozer. As in Pushkin’s work, there are boxfuls of contemporary cultural references, both high- and low-brow, in this case to everything from Adorno to Hiphop, via Watership Down. A knowing, tongue-in-cheek narratorial voice fesses up to its failings. Mood and mode are varied by inserting letters into the narrative, or shifting from the past tense to the present.

Pushkin also supplies the model for some of the kinds of rhyming used. One is translingual rhyme, principally between English and French, such as in ‘après vin’ / ‘man’ (French has similarly snooty connotations in Russian). This is tied into the hero’s Francophilia: he discourses on the relative merits of Camus and Sartre, rhyming ‘egalité’ with ‘anthropocentralité’. There are numerous fun proper noun rhymes – ‘chance it’ / ‘The Lancet’ for example – and sometimes the two techniques are combined: ‘Siddhartha’ / ‘persona non grata’.

Donjong Heights is still very much its own thing though. Borek’s hero is also the main narrator (in contrast to Onegin, who is the object of an unnamed storyteller). There is also a hilarious postmodern lisping, berating ‘Omniscient Narrator’ – more of a one-person Greek chorus really – who gets his two cents’ worth in whenever he can. And this must be the first time that a DJ’s spinning turntable has been subtly transformed into a symbol of death.

Borek and his lisping second narrator rhyme where no poet has rhymed before. Here’s part of the shopping list for the Christmas party that the hero throws:

Tequila (with a jar of thalt)
An oak-wood finished thingle malt.

That party provides the opportunity to throw together most of the novel’s characters. A lot of fun is had in their interaction, and in the observation of how interlocutors – here highly disparate ones – find common ground in conversation. The hero’s macho wrestling brother and a sensitive Italian tailor bond over a discussion of the merits of lycra as a material, and a disgraced and disgraceful former Oxbridge tutor receives a lecture on the etymology of ‘break’ in hiphop parlance from a drugged-out DJ.

All this would be so much entertainment if it weren’t for the background noise: the hero is terminally ill. Though there’s a kind of jocularity here too – the condition in question is the medically impossible one of the heart simply slowing to a stop – impending death remains real enough in the narrative to lend the text the kind of depth that great comedy can have – vide Blackadder Goes Forth, which played out in the Trenches. The omnithient narrator quipth ‘It’th not a punithment – it’th fate’, and in an era in which biologists refer to cell fate, that final abstraction is not so out-of-key with contemporary thought.

There are a couple of things I’ll carp at. The book is beautifully produced in terms of its graphic design, but now and again the spellcheck function seems to have been overlooked. The rhymes occasionally cross into the Pam Ayres zone (‘nominally’/‘abominably’). Sometimes they trip up on their stresses: when a strong sound structure has been created, variations are likely to be read/heard as either meaningful or else ‘wrong’. The lovingly detailed characterizations of the teenage DJ and the late-Flower-Power fan of esoterica contrast with the skimpy view of the hero’s object of desire. She appears intermittently in the hero’s memories and in written communication, but doesn’t come to life the way the other characters do. As the hero’s attempted reconciliation with her provides the central tension of the plot – will they get back together? – something of an imbalance in the characterization results

Many elements are carefully placed, contrasted and developed though: one character is into reggae, another into hiphop; clothes get wet in two separate erotic episodes; shopping on credit for clothes and Christmas over-consumption are recurrent themes. Ms Esoterica’s fry-up of tofu and rice on the one hand, and diverse piss-ups on the other, foreshadow and are then synthesized in the Christmas orgy of booze and food that ends the book.

Donjong Heights is a great deal of fun, and, as it draws to a close, both raucous and moving at the same time. It also demonstrates what poetry can still do and be at the present time if it chooses to play off past models of narrative and discursive thought (for a revival of the essay mode in the digital age, see for example Andrea Brady’s recent Tracking Wildfire).

Links to Alistair Noon’s work online can be found here. His translations from German, Chinese and Russian include Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman. He coordinates the annual Poetry Hearings festival in Berlin, coedits the magazine Bordercrossing Berlin, and is guest-editing an online symposium on the work of Sean Rafferty this June.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Monday, 7 April 2008

Men In Blue

Eyewear was there, yesterday, in London, as the Olympic torch began its marathon (and was it ever!) on foot, in Notting Hill. I was actually present for pro-Olympic purposes (My family has long been a believer in the Olympic spirit).

Makers of video games will no doubt be musing on this one: 31-miles, dozens of bearers, thousands of cops - you be the protester and snuff the flame out! Or, as France put it, today's relay through Paris will see the flame protected as if "a visiting head of state" - in short, a symbol worth dying for.

Or at least struggling against. This is dangerous territory - already, the attempts in London to blow the flame out with an extinguisher, or by knocking down anyone who carries it, have badly missed the mark. The Olympics are a movable feast - an ideal, and an event, larger than the host state, on any occasion. It isn't the Olympic flame that needs to be rekindled, or doused - but the actions of a particular government, that should be addressed - and there are other ways to do this. Meanwhile, on to Paris, where the spirit of '68 seems alive.

However, my sympathies for the torch bearers end a little short of one blue line. There was something weird about the "men in blue", tracksuited and serious, who surrounded the torch as it moved through the streets of London, like Secret Service officers guarding a US President (their diplomatic and police status still unclear). Whenever action was called for, they jumped into action - effectively. However, their very determination, and focus, seemed to call into question the purpose of the relay in the first place - if China needs to defend this symbol so badly, so forcefully on foreign soil - what else might they be using overdetermined force for, at home?

The tragedy of this Olympics, as it unfolds, is that a very admirable sporting event has been linked to a regime that seems incapable of adapting to the occasion, or the times.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Charlton Heston Has Died

Charlton Heston, the Oscar-winning star of Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes, and other epic films from the 50s-60s, has died, not before making some of the greatest kitsch and sci-fi films of all time, as well, including Irwin Allen spectaculars. However, his finest film was the Orson Welles late masterpiece, Touch of Evil, which is, after Kane, one of the finest, strangest films of the 20th century.

Indeed, Heston's unassailable, virile decency is a dynamic lynchpin of the movie's explosive hybridity - straddling the US-Mexico border, and dealing with the dualities of interracial marriage, truth and lies, film and radio (sight/sound), and crime and policing, among others, in its modern baroque style. I love this brave straight-faced performance of his, and I think it earns him kudos critics often withhold from him; if we can forgive Pound his intolerant ideology, why can't we forgive Heston, a serious film actor, his older manhood with its boyish guns?

At first, he was a liberal, who worked for civil rights, and to support Kennedy. In later life, he vociferously defended the right to bear arms, and thus tarnished his Godlike image. Still, he remains an icon of 20th century Hollywood.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

How To Dislike Poetry

Poetry always lays claim to a Golden Age just behind the corner. Perhaps poetry was always, more or less, unpopular - mainly of interest to a few. It seems that, in 1947, according to Time, the problems for poetry were not that far removed from in the schools today.

Nor was contemporary poetry more appreciated in the 1950s. According to John Press in The Chequer'd Shade (London: OUP, 1958), Stephen Spender stormed out (in protest) of a poetry reading being held at a Foyle's literary luncheon when Lord Samuel took the occasion to attack "the vice of obscurity" ruining British poetry, and read out, with evident distaste, a poem by Dylan Thomas, starting "A grief ago..." - such distaste still evident today among many English poet-critics.

A new acclaimed book by fellow-Montrealer and music critic, Carl Wilson, on the music of Celine Dion, has taken the subject of distaste in a fun and fascinating direction - he loathed her work, and sets out to comprehend why she is still loved by millions. Perhaps, as he argues, criticism needs "the bad" in order to have a "good" and justify its own role. Perhaps taste and critical evaluation are hardwired into us, or merely lifestyle choices, or - well, I am still reading, but it is an engaging study in experimental aestheticism.

Burnt Out In London

The Olympic torch - once a near-inextinguishable brand (or is that symbol?) of something good - is guttering in London. The culprit is China, whose recent brazen incarceration of a man whose chief crime seems to have been to critique obvious flaws in the system, is sadly obscuring the glory of the Olympian flames, with rather shady behaviour. Eyewear had hoped this would not be another 1936 - but it seems increasingly likely. China doesn't get it - it can't host a wonderful, open, world event, and also continue to be a bullying tyranny.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Poem by Elaine Feeney

Speaking of Bertie... Eyewear is very glad to welcome, this Friday, one of the rising stars of the new Irish poetry - one who speaks in different ways, without fear of being thought funny, or crude, or critical (as Joyce was, or Kavanagh, or Durcan, as Irish poetry often can be, when not striving for the merely lofty).

Elaine Feeney (pictured) was born in Galway in 1979. She studied English and History at University College Galway and completed postgraduate study at University College Cork and University of Limerick. She divides her time between teaching, writing and being a mother.

Feeney has been writing poetry since her teens and has published her work in journals and magazines. In 2007 she published a short joint collection entitled Indiscipline, with Dave Lordan. Known as a strong live performer of her work, Feeney has read her poetry at venues in Ireland and England, including the Cuirt International Literature Festival, Irish Film Insitute Dublin, and The White House Poetry Revival.

She lives in the countryside with her partner Ray, and her two boys Jack and Finn.

The Polish Have Caused A Crash

‘The Polish have caused a crash
On the boreen
Between Whites
And the old house.
And Brazilians
Have opened a new
Mexican restaurant beside Molloys.
Even the Chinese chef
Is giving out.
There isn’t a car with tax
And not one of the new ones
Are putting a thing into her economy
Shopping in Aldi.
They’ll screw up the new children
With their gutter genes.
John Nolan even told me
The same thing happened when
The farmers mixed Freisans
And Belgian Blues.
The moo’s out of the fuckers
Was unreal
And everyone knew it was
Because they
Weren’t true blue.
The new priest has
Lady callers
With tracksuits
And bling
Pink nails
And blow up beds.
He thinks nothing
Of drinking the new coffee in
Mocha Beans.
‘tis fucked entirely
We are fucked entirely’

poem by Elaine Feeney

Tears in the Fence (Number 47)

Tears in the Fence. Is that tears, like crying, or ripping? Never you mind. Either way you say it, this is one of the best "little magazines" now operating in the British Isles - one independent of mainstream and avant-garde alike - or rather, simply interested in whatever it deems interesting, regardless of hype or coterie affiliation - a magazine always open to poets from abroad (especially France, North America and Australia) and various styles and ways of writing. The editor is poet David Caddy.

I'd recommend you submit and/or subscribe. It's only $20 cash for four issues for Americans, and £15 for three issues here - or take the lifetime gamble, for a mere £100 (!). For American orders, contact Deane Laczi, 714 South 12th street, Lafayette, IN 479005, USA. Send other queries to Caddy at 38 Hod View, Stourpaine, Blandford Forum, Dorset, DT11 8TN.

Issue 47 has reviews of Giles Goodland, my new collection Winter Tennis, and Ian Brinton on Lee Harwood. It features poems by, among others, Joe Dunthorne, Chris McCabe, and Lisa Gordon. Tom Chivers has a fun, clever little essay on tattoos, Internet browsing, and making a "living" as a poet. The review of my book, by Alex McRae, says this, among other things: "Its range reflects the assured skill of a writer whose curiousity leads readers into strange and magical places."

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Guest Review: Jensen On Chiasson

Charles Jensen reviews
Natural History and Other Poems
by Dan Chiasson

This omnibus volume collects together under one title the lion's share of poems from Chiasson's first two American books, The Afterlife of Objects and Natural History, with a few new pieces tacked on the end for good measure. It's always instructive to read a poet's work in depth, granting the reader the rare opportunity to witness a poetics as it coalesces over the course of what amounts to many years of the poet's work; this volume does just that, presenting a cohesive and fully-rounded perspective on Chiasson's body of work thus far.

Chiasson's poetry can be characterized by its dualities. As a poet, he is concerned both with the ancient world and its contemporary counterpart, locating between them a sort of formed conclusion—that one leads decisively into the next. This is most succinct in the long poem "Natural History," which takes as its formal and thematic source the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder.

In part III of the poem, "Pliny," Chiasson writes: "I stepped on a bird this morning. It had fallen between /two parked cars. My boot heel made it quiet, // sobbing noise, not at all like birdsong. It was / brittle and soft at once, like matchsticks inside // chewing gum. As a child in Rome, I dreamed someday / I would be Emerson's 'transparent eyeball'". This poetry seems predicated on an instinctual belief that implies, perhaps, all knowledge is accessible at all points in history—that our separation from the classical world of Greece and Rome is not so disparate as we might believe.

Is Chiasson revising the Jungian collective unconscious into a theory more akin to collective history? Chiasson himself manages the duality often in his work by placing side by side "one-half Latinate and / one-half shit," ("My Ravine"), causing the language of knowledge and science to collide unapologetically with the gutteral and often confrontational parlance of our times. Or, as he phrases it in "Cicada," this is a poetry of both "doctrine and dog shit." In this way, Chiasson bridges many further dualities—the world of the academy with the world of the trailer park; the immortal world of ideas with the fallible world of the body; the self and the perception of the self. It is between these discrete entities that Chiasson locates the worlds of his poems.

Chiasson's work can be characterized by a deep, entrenched sadness. Poems frequently find themselves, sometimes inexplicably, worrying the concepts of death, decomposition, departure—even the implication of death, what Chiasson refers to as "the kitsch / of death" ("'…and yet the end must be as 'tis'"). Particularly in The Afterlife of Objects does this preoccupation hold center stage as it creates tension between the inevitable failures of the body against the static persistence of things.

In "My Ravine," the speaker describes a place in which a landfill for box springs, bookcases, desks, and even "somebody's hairdryer" becomes the irresistible resting place for deer, who ultimately "stare at each other and wander / bewildered down my ravine and turn into skeletons." Later, in "Natural History," the image appears again, but as an elephant: "Worn out by suffering, we lie on our great backs, / tossing grass up to heaven – as a distraction, not a prayer. // That's not humility you see on our long final journeys: / it's procrastination. It hurts my heavy body to lie down."

Many of the poems strike at the nerve center of tragic events. A child in the neighborhood dies, or a speaker's father suffers toward death, or another child is tortured by sexual abuse at the hands of his father. "You are an elegist at heart," he writes in "Coda," "but loss shocks you." In recounting any of these small stories, the poems' speakers remain detached, untouched—uncannily akin to a nightly news anchor who, deadpan, reports yet another victimization in our culture. In the last example, the speaker recounts his suffering at the hands of a neighborhood bully, who, in retrospect, writes how "Then one / gray ordinary day // his father held him / down and nearly fucked / the life out of him. // Then he was quieter, and I / became sole / ruler of the neighborhood." ("Blueprint") Even the line breaks here enhance the sense of cognitive dissonance: the speaker is aware of both the horror of the crime and its seeming "ordinariness," yet instead chooses to focus on what it won him rather than what the boy experienced.

There's a resistance of the redemptive quality of the confessional mode—instead of learning from these experiences, characters are trapped within them, or unaware of their role in these human dramas. It's precisely this turning away from horror, or a refusal to comment on it directly, that is Chiasson's true strength. He smartly leaves all judgment and commentary for the reader to determine, much like an attorney merely presenting facts, not rhetoric.

There is also a playfulness at work in these poems, an awkward playfulness in which Chiasson's speakers often comment on the poems as they narrate them. This heightened self-awareness of these pieces as both art and something that can never quite capture the function of art would be reminiscent of a self-referential poet like Billy Collins were it not for the poems' darkness, layers of surprising imagery, and embrace of human emotional failures. While several pieces seem strike the pose of "the poet at his window contemplating life," Chiasson's preoccupation with decay and disappointment trump the mode and, wittingly, critiques it.

Chiasson's work collected in this volume is as varied in content as the broad catalog of Pliny's Historia Naturalis, absorbing into it objects, animals, and people alike; it cuts across eras writ large and lifetimes cut short, maps geographies mundane and exotic. The book leaves you with an exhaustion you might recognize as a kind of poetic jet lag. You've traveled long distances with Chaisson, seen unforgettable things—and, once home again, it's hard not to return to the memories of his stark images and surprising turns of phrase, haunting as they are.

Charles Jensen is the assistant director for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He holds an MFA in poetry from ASU. He is the author of three chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O'Hara chapbook award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon. He was a recipient of a 2007 Artist's Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, The Journal, New England Review, spork, and West Branch. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

April Poems Now Online At Nthposition

End of the Ahern Era

Irish leader Bertie Ahern - a key player in the Irish peace talks of the past decade - has announced he will resign in early May. I met him once in Budapest, he seemed affable. His resignation, somehow related to accusations made that he received dubious payments at some earlier stage of his political career, marks the end of a distinguished career - and also the end of an era in Ireland - what was called The Celtic Tiger, but may now be seen as The Ahern Era. It was a giddy time of champagne promises, to put the crass label on the crass bottle - when unexpectedly high rates of economic growth turned Ireland into the well man of Europe - turned Dublin into a quasi-Monaco of drug-fuelled high living. At times, it was surreal - house prices as high or higher in Dub 4 than in Chelsea or Ken.

All this had an impact on Irish poetry - after all, the cocktail of sudden wealth, perceived glamour, and political defrosting in the North was heady - and meant a new generation of poets emerged, who, for better, or worse, spoke for a new time, in new ways. These would include Kevin Higgins, David Wheatley, Vona Groarke, Tom French, Patrick Chapman, Sinead Morrissey, and a few others, a generation younger (and sometimes bolder) - and somewhat freed from the Heaney/Muldoon influence. Not that any of these poets was ever a real estate or mobile phone tycoon - but something of that glister rubbed off on them. Ireland was big again - not just in America, or London, but at home. Now, there is a slump - the "super-boom" is over. House prices are falling to (real?) levels.

The gilding is coming off the age. Will another, newer generation of poets emerge, to diagnose the current? Or will the good under-45-year-old poets who came of age during Ahern's Era now fulfill their promise, simply in shabbier times?


900 posts at Eyewear. Why? And, now it's done, where to? 900 pages in a book, that'd be a lot! Somehow, though, there's ennui in this, a public wasting of energy. Readers will know I've begun to add more reviews, and work, by other writers and poets - increasingly, it seems uninteresting to focus on my own work alone (indeed, I have a pile of recent publications to announce, but never find the enthusiasm for it). Anyway, I've decided to keep the blog going a little longer, at least until the end of April.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Poem By Hamish Wilson

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome major British poet Hamish Wilson (pictured) to these pages this day. Wilson was born in 1958, and educated at Oxford, Cambridge and London Metropolitan universities. As a child he suffered from night fears, but his brothers made that go away, as he writes in his poem "Mind Robbers".

Wilson is one of the leading exponents of the "Light Bulb Makars" school, which, in the last few years, has become so influential on these isles. In his dour, sometimes grumpy, and often brilliantly dazzling reviews for the major papers (and BBC radio), Wilson has attacked any poetry which "uses language like frippery, like a girl's pink ribbon" and denounced "the fake makers, the fun-havers".

For Wilson, poetry is "science - and not just science - rigorous making, like hammering a sawblade back into shape after it has been bent by a fool." Wilson names his heroes as "Yvor Winters and Adam Smith", and bases much of his anti-rhetorical stance on Smith's own belles lettres lectures and the works of Popper. "Popper got it basically right," he's written in his study Sharp Vision: How To Write Poetry True To Experience.

Wilson has had three collections published, Break Bright Windows (1994), The Mind Robbers (2000) and, in 2007, his multi-award-winning Ovid In Scilly (2007). Indeed, Wilson has won all the prizes that the UK has to offer poets of his kind, often twice, sometimes three times. His proudest achievement is The Wallace Stevens Prize. He has also been the judge of all the leading prizes.

He is also an active editor - of poets, non-fiction writers (he favours salmon fishing books, and works on atomic physics) and novelists, all winners of prizes. He has put together the astonishingly rigorous anthology Lean Young Mean, which celebrates his belief that poetry is best written "by young men without fat on them, men fighting trim, men who think God is a sissy, and Dylan Thomas weak-minded." Drawing inspiration from Horace, then Hardy, then Larkin, he's written "Christ may be dead, but Homer was a Scotsman." His ideal poem is "clear as piss-water, clearer, like ice in a fist" and warns that "to read a poem is to engage in mud-wrestling with Lucretius."

He's also said "there's only one or two poets now writing of any worth." Not everyone agrees. Bjorn K. Bernstein, a leading avant-garde writer, has described Wilson as "a boob who thinks words are meant to mean, not buzz". The title poem, below, is in his trademark style, the "postmodern double-sonnet". Enjoy the genius.

Ovid In Scilly

No poems about makers -
making is more precise,
makes snow
look like ice
in a glass of Scotch.
Scotch that, break
the glass,
it is too colourful,
and creation, like space
should be dark, clear,
and not stuttered
like a signing, a bed
with stars, with oodles
of unheimlich fakers.

Mind robbers,
poets with words,
here, in wind and rain
I prefer to commence
again, unheard,
stark as an iron filing,
a central nail,
burrowed in the brain
of a lean young man
who shuns pastry;
whose sense of scansion
is less expansive
than a nun's
in a vast, erudite mansion.

poem by Hamish Wilson

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