Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year!

Eyewear has made it through another year.  Phew.  So far surviving epidemics, coalitions, sequels, anthologies, social networks, and all manner of stuff, there is much more to be done.  But not yet, not now - today and tomorrow call for sober and less-than-sober reflection, celebration and consolidation - for the time that has been, and the times still to come.  May you all find some good and joy in 2011, and have a great New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

New Poem by Sam Buchan-Watts

Worship Services

If I draw out London like a cross
the Old Kent Road would stretch
the length of Christ’s sick body.

Catching the 453
like a potential virus,
I’m a slow shot up his spine.

But the bus stops
with deliberate ache of reason.
The perpetrator has called it

and drags my eyes to an ungodly paradox
-church shop and ASDA side by side-
where He stands (dispersed in glossy paperbacks)
author of all; beaten by showcards.

Through this valediction of faith
thanks be to yellowed window, I witness
the plastic gore of 4-way adaptors.

Next door: Grisham tops some trial,
life as I want to see it, loud and taut.
Warm green colour schemes

balance Mum with Dad,
my potential kids well fed,
not realising, that they themselves

are a kind of food.
I think of my mother, ten
years back. Weekend day mistook-

she got the wrong kind of mass-
Attending Tescos for my
weekly refill, of re-healing.

poem by Sam Buchan-Watts.  He recently graduated from Goldsmiths College and co-runs Clinic Presents which publishes a biannual anthology of the best new contemporary poetry art and photography, and through which are put on gigs and exhibitions of the best new poets/bands/artists in anything from an abandoned strip-club in Mayfair to a private school in Berkshire.

Guest Review: Jones on Butler

Josh Jones reviews
by Jenna Butler

I’ll come straight out with it – Jenna Butler’s Aphelion is one of the strongest, most assured and most promising debuts I have read. It begins with epigraphs from Denise Riley – not the easiest thing to follow – and never looks back. Which is telling in regards to the poems themselves: they are focused as much on movement as they are stasis and definable place, are acknowledgments of the impossibility of the present moment ever truly being represented, that refuse to be controlled or dictated to by the past or the future.

Take, for example, ‘Heatwave’, the opener. It begins by situating itself in present tense, narrating the past:

She almost makes it
through the first week.

The poem then proceeds to recount metonymically the various possessions of whomever ‘she’ is leaving:

his set of Vonnegut;
damp pages clinging

like tentative hands.

And so on, leading us back to the locatable ‘now’ in which the poem began. Only now we leave the realm of that which can be structured and ordered and enter the world of desire, in which she is both elegising the loss and bemoaning the part ‘he’ played in it, the “heat” he “doesn’t understand”, before revealing to the reader in a kind of anti-epiphany that it is precisely this not understandable heat, the sunlight that cuts “whitely through unsashed windows”, that leads her to where she wants to be – a non-place that “[strips] her clean” and “[asks] nothing”. It is this sense of unobtainable presence, or absence, that informs Aphelion and permits its confident, unforced philosophical considerations; that allows these poems to transcend being simply pretty, often beautiful images of an individual in a state of travel, of movement.

The book is split into three sections: North America, Europe and The Red Ghazals, the latter being an extended sequence, an idiosyncratic take on the ghazal ( There are no radical departures in form and content from part to part (loose incorporation of the ghazal notwithstanding), more a vague shift in focus.

Butler’s poetry is characterised by how its glance disrupts the space between looking outwards and looking in. The poems yearn for objects, things, the world, and portray them lovingly. They aim less for narrative than imagistic clarity, a kind of photographing, marvelling at

this patient sunlight
its citrine crawl

how it obscures
some things     reveals
these others

(‘Petroglyph Trail’, p. 26)

Yet it quickly becomes apparent that while the poems depend upon the things of the world, the majority of the action is internal. The external world is repeatedly characterised, explained in terms usually applied to people: “skin of water”, “bruised grass”, a spare tire “stuttering like/a second-rate heart”. While the sheer volume of personification in the first part, let alone the whole collection, can get a bit frustrating, it is always purposeful, always vital to the specific image, specific poem. Through these applications of the human to nature, the speakers’ (for the most part first- or second-person) perceptions are presented to the reader. These aren’t epiphany poems so much as realised moments – no, unrealised moments, moments turned into fictive, aesthetically gorgeous artefacts, as ‘truly’ representative of what they depict as are photographs. And it is in this failure to represent that the poems revel – the form, full of white space, the lack of punctuation and caps, the fractured syntax all aim to create impressions, to stroke the edges of the observable world as lyrically as and as accurately as possible, all the while aware of the impossibility of capturing the thing in itself as it is. The subject matter mimics this, so many poems throughout being concerned with “sudden absence”, with “reconfiguring absence”, learning

[...]to see you
less clearly     more truly

(‘Salt Spring Island’, p. 24)

While there are possibly a few too many poems that have the presentation of an absence as their main subject, they can, as with the persistent personification, be justified by the impressive control that runs through this collection, the astute extending and reinterpreting of its main themes and motifs from beginning to end.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Aphelion is its musicality, which is mirrored in Butler’s use of jazz to portray the tone of city observation. It recurs notably in two poems: ‘Granville Island, 1997’, in which “blue jazz over a harbour/traced in lights” describes, in a sense, the feel of what her poetry is trying to do, i.e. change the things being observed as they are inscribed in order to create an impression, while attempting to retain some ‘essence’ of the natural world; and in aptly named ‘Jazz’, maybe the most immediately satisfying piece of the lot, in which music becomes everything, the time and space between event and recollection, memory, the world in and out: “its scope/the heart’s estranged melody”.

This is a brilliant and important debut, one that deserves to be widely read. Butler’s light experimentation with form, her vivid lyrical touch and her pervasive philosophical compressions are a pleasure to read, and will linger with you. It demands, through engagement with it, a re-evaluation of the interaction between self/selves and world. I advise all to pick up a copy of Aphelion as soon as possible.

Josh Jones is a British poet currently studying at UEA, Norwich

Sunday, 26 December 2010


With oddly cruel timing, the Coalition government, showing its true colours this Christmas season of giving, has withdrawn funding for a charity which puts books into the hands of children to encourage literacy.  This is just not on.  However, Eyewear does believe there needs to be far more philanthropy from rich private citizens in the UK, as well as government support for the arts, and at least hopes that some one will step forward to keep this going.

Friday, 24 December 2010

A Cold Coming

The Pope - for the first time ever - addressed a radio audience today in Britain, on the BBC - and his message was both warm and classically Christian.  His message was canonical: the Christ child entered the historical world, not as a conquering saviour, but a fragile, suffering human being, liberating the human condition in subtle, surprising ways.  The complexity of the Christmas message is in its paradoxes - which have made Christianity so endlessly attractive to artists and writers - for its ironies and ambiguities allow for rich and continuous rejuvenation.

But, it also has a simple core, which is love.  Rather, love and forgiveness, for the two are not quite the same.  This Christmas message is often symbolised, in a secular way, as Santa Claus, that great outrider of Christian humanism.  Santa, who cannot be faulted, gives of himself each year for little children, showering them with gifts (if the kids have been well-behaved); the rest of the year, the childless man with his supportive wife, works with a factory of elves to manufacture toys and games for children, in polar conditions.  His panache in such austere regions is marvellous, and signals light in the bleakness.  The Christ message, too, is a gift - for adults as well as the young.

It is not an easy gift to unwrap, though - for it calls upon nimble fingers and an ever-alert heart.  A Catholic, I find that faith and service are tested by the world, my own foibles and worse, and the challenges of being human.  Being kind and supportive and humble is counter-intuitive in a dog-eat-dog capitalist metropolis like London.  Fortunately, my brother and his wife have brought a Christmas gift into our lives this year, by bringing my young nephew to stay with us.

Without children of our own, the sudden appearance of a sweet-tempered little boy, wee and blonde and smiling and self-delighting, only 18 months old, is captivating, and a miracle of energy and love in a small bundle.  Their generosity in bringing their family to be with us is deeply moving.  I think the ultimate message of this holiday, this holy day, is family - or loved ones - hopefully both - conjoined in mutual affection and optimism - having a good time with those closest to us.  From such a manger of concentrated love then must outpour this kindled goodwill, unto all others.  Have a blessed Christmas!

Verbatim: SLAMbassadors 2010 announced

The Winners of the Poetry Society's SLAMbassadors 2010 announced.

Out of over 400 talented young people 10 were crowned the lucky SLAMbassadors UK 2010 by Judges Adisa and Joelle Taylor. Take a look and a listen at their videos here:

Wishing you all a very happy christmas and stay poetic!

Festively yours,

Foyle Young Poets

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas Poem by Geraldine Clarkson

For the Lady
This old December, let ice shingle
in the eaves, let frost sparkle
on the ground, sprinkle diamonds
in the fields. Let skies in the dark
wink with stars. For the Lady.

Let winter earth break open,
heavy clay fall away,
rock, crust, and mantle, crack:
bud forth an Infant. Let flinty
silence sing. For the Maiden.

See, she’s kneeling by a Child,
folds her cloak around Him,
her immaculate breath mingles,
in the midnight warm-straw air,
with the Bairn’s. Her bright Sun.

Clamber near the Crib,
jostle shepherds in the night;
tiptoe round the lolling oxen;
bring a candle to the Light.
Maybe He will smile. For the Lady.

poem by Geraldine Clarkson

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Desolation Heathrow

BAA, which runs Heathrow, has admitted it turned down an offer by the British Army to help shovel away the snow and ice on its runways.  Instead, it went it alone, and has cancelled thousands of holiday flights, spoiling Christmas for tens of thousands of people.  It also only invested half a million pounds this year in cold weather removal gear, but boasted of profits of over 350 million.  Heathrow should be ashamed.  The truth is, British companies offload the suffering onto the British people, when bad weather strikes, shrugging their shoulders and blaming an act of God or aberrant weather, when in fact the fault is in their own balance sheets - the weather is perfectly ordinary at Christmas (we had snow last year too) and such snowstorms, in American, Canadian, or Russian, cities, would be shrugged off, as minor, easily de-iced and cleared away.  This is incompetence with a human cost.

Steve Landesberg Has Died

Sad news.  The laconic comic at the heart of US cop-shop top sitcom Barney Miller, Steve Landesberg, has died today.  One of my favourite shows growing up, along with Welcome Back, Kotter.


It seems like a very long time since my last Swift Report - and this was quite a year.  The year when Eyewear THE BLOG had its fifth birthday.

It began with my esophagitis out of control, and my being treated with an experimentally high dose of medication to control the production of acid in my stomach.  I was in pain all the time, and lost a lot of weight due to problems with digestion and not wanting to eat; I was facing depression.  I was off work.  Fortunately, an excellent team of doctors in London centered in and around Harley Street established the correct treatment regime, and I am much better a year later.  I've put on some weight again, and am no longer in physical pain.  I went back to work  slowly, part-time at first in the winter semester at Kingston, but by the summer was back to regular duties.

In April I turned 44, in the desert of Oman - I had wanted to kick-start my turn back to health with an adventure holiday.  The beauty and hospitality of Oman lifted my spirits greatly.  I also got new glasses, which John Hegley praised when we bumped into each other at Paddington.  Nothing like approval from the master!

In the summer, I travelled to Hydra, which I love, and also to Ireland, for the wedding of my wonderful brother-in-law, James, to the superb Michelle.  My wife and I drove around the Ring of Kerry.

I became a Catholic on the summer solstice, under the guidance of my dear friend Fr. Oliver Brennan.

I blogged for a week for The Best American Poetry blog, on The Young British Poets - twice.

I met with Al Alvarez to discuss my new work.  Two poems were accepted by Poetry, forthcoming early 2011.  I also had a poem in Poetry Review.  I published an online e-book, Experimental Sex Hospital.

In the autumn, I was very pleased to read for the Maastricht International Poetry Nights, and to meet poets from Iceland, Holland, South Africa, and Australia.

In October I received a kind and supportive letter from John Ashbery.

In November, Evan Jones and I launched Modern Canadian Poets, from Carcanet, in Manchester and London.  It was a treat to have David McGimpsey and George E. Clarke over too.  It was the first such publication in Britain in 50 years.  The book sparked controversy in Canada's leading papers, and was mentioned in the FT.

In December I wrapped up another successful year of Oxfam readings (this year supported by Kingston University) which featured leading poets such as David Lehman, Philip Gross, John Glenday, and Jen Hadfield, among others.

I am looking forward to seeing my little nephew Alex at Christmas, as well as his parents.

What else?  It's been a tough year.  I never thought I'd be up and out and about again, working as hard as before.  But here I am.

Plans for 2011?  Completion of my PhD (I am in my final months of writing up).  Maybe a new book of my own poetry out end of 2011.  An anthology of Young British Poets for Cinnamon and Oxfam in the works.  I may start a small poetry press.  I have a novel in mind....

On the shortest day of the year, let me offer you this small bit of wisdom: it does get brighter in the darkness, eventually, and slowly, surely.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas Poem by Todd Swift

A Christmas Story

They couldn’t get through
Because of the snow

So all that icicle day
He stuck to the window

Too shy to pray
Too small to say

Why have you abandoned me?
Then, at the final hour,

As eve lifted to morning
Hooves clattered like squirrels

In the eaves, soot rained
And ho ho hos and bells

Made truth beautiful
As any white lie; a clot of coal

Single and uneven on the mantel;
Who had told on him?

Had his sins been so thorough?
Now, gifted judiciously

By his untrim hero,
A hirsute saint in a fat suit,

He came to learn his worth
Set about rubbing palms black

Wherein the spark of a diamond
(Hope) cut against skin’s frail grain.

Better to believe, be damned
Than rise to empty promise

A chalky kiss in the garden;
Heart pain unwraps as balm.

poem by Todd Swift

Peter Oswald On Verse Drama

Actually Do. Advocating for Verse Drama
A difficult client. Firstly, the term is stone dead. Drama is ok, but ‘verse’ describes a kind of poetry in uniform, at drill not in combat. It gets worse, when you arrive at the term blank verse. Here the poor soldiers don’t even have live ammunition.

Things improve alot when you get to the exponents. Euripides. Marlowe. Lorca. To name but a few. But they’re all gone. A Guardian critic, interviewing me, opened with, ‘Verse drama has an illustrious past, a dead present and no future.’

So how about new terminology? You could talk about Initiatory Theatre, Non-Realistic Theatre, DysCheckovian, but all these would fail to include the main point, which is incantation. Why chant, you may ask, in this modern day?

The reason is that it lifts the spirits. I don’t wish to implicate my client in black arts. Actually I do. She can’t exist without incantation. It’s her culture, that’s how she was raised.

It’s a balancing act.The unrhyming iambic pentameter (is that better than ‘blank verse?’ ah me, no) is the verse form nearest to normal English speech. That’s a gift and a danger. A living verse playwright has written of his defiant urge to use ‘the ghost of the iambic pentameter.’ But the ghost of the iambic pentameter is normal speech. Got to put breath back in it.

There is another name associated with all this, which is Eliot. I feel obliged to defend my client from misrepresentation. Godfather Pound said, ‘The first step was to break the pentameter.’ I agree but, still I say, ‘The next step was to put it back together.’ Eliot wanted to pick up the thread but he cut it.

I have got a wandering answer to the Guardian critic, tracing a lineage that the Puritans did not finish, (nor, I hope, the Anglicans.) Your Honour, my client is not dead. She fled over the channel to France, found happiness in rhyme, then travelled to Swabia and Weimar for a difficult rebirth, then to Norway. Ibsen started out as a verse playwright, then perfected ‘realism’, but – as he told his English translator – he always intended to return to the verse form for his last play. However, not wanting to draft his own death warrant, he never actually dared. The result is that some of his later plays – definitely his last play, ‘When We Dead Awaken,’ are crying out to be in verse.

I know this feeling. I started out writing plays in prose, not daring to presume. But why deny yourself? A verse play is not just a verse play, there can be flashes of prose ‘realism’, high comedy, a bit of incantation. That’s what the mind is like.

Of course it requires the co-operation of theatres. My own enterprise was saved – for a time – when the Globe popped up by the Thames. No one else would commission new verse plays. But reader, spare a thought for the young playwright writing plays for ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’.

Something happened to Ibsen. His plays are strong, but over and over again there’s this old man tortured by a young woman. Could that young woman be my client? Verse drama killed Schiller at 46, the good historian straining to turn research into poetry. Shakespeare’s histories are really mysteries, ceremonies of initiation. Don’t try it at home. Actually do.

Playwright and poet Peter Oswald was recently featured at Eyewear.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

George Solomos Has Died

Sad news.  George Solomos, Paris-based editor of little magazine Zero in the heyday of the post-war Left Bank scene, has died.

Guest Review: Rader On Jivani, Harrold & Turner

Harrold, a British poet
Dean Rader reviews
Insensible Heart
By Maureen Jivani
By AF Harrold
Difficult Second Album
By Simon Turner

When A F Harrold writes in ‘Atlanticism,’ ‘I have no way to measure the distance across / the Atlantic,’ it’s unintended allegory.  I know very little about contemporary British poetry—Americans rarely publish in British journals and Brits only slightly more often send work this way. I knew none of the three publishers of these books and had heard of only a couple of the journals the poets had published in. Harrold, Jivani, and Turner could have been a 70s Art Rock band for all I knew. In short, when I started reading these books, I was flying blind.
            And it was exhilarating.
            As someone who just went through the book-compilation process, I was curious not only about the micro aspects of the internal design of the poems but also the macro design of the book itself.  I was struck, for example, by A F Harrold’s author photo.  It seems so utterly English to me with the black suit coat and matching black tie.  Bespectacled and bushy-bearded with a black bowler and a lapel pin, Harrold could either be an embodiment of the earnest British poet or be mocking the semiotics and accoutrement of the earnest British poet. 
            A quick dip into the book suggests it might be a bit of both.  In ‘Watch,’ for example, the second poem in Flood, the poet begins with an observation-slash-anecdote: ‘I own three watches (two belonged to dead men, / and one’s still my own) and none of them work.  / I looked, just now, and saw the time, read the hands / and thought how slow the day’s going’ (10).  Frank O’Hara’s casual off-hand self-narration that serves as both entrĂ©e to the poet’s world and as comic relief from that world comes to mind when I read these lines.  Both poets enable the small to become a metaphor for the big, in this case watch and time, the effervescent present, the dead-laden past.  Where this poem departs from O’Hara is its weight—Harold is far heavier.  O’Hara’s feet skip so lightly across the page; Harold’s verse, here and elsewhere, is more lapidary.  Those weighty spondees and iambs thunking along like a stone clock make the poem move as slowly and as deliberately as the speaker claims the day goes.
            This is a nice move. 
            It’s a great example of form not just mirroring content but creating it.  Harrold, as it turns out, is a stealth formalist. He’s sneaky. His easy diction combined with his reluctance to go for the intensely lyrical, uber-imagist clause can lull the reader into complacency.  But, in wonderfully rendered poems like ‘The Phone Number’ an irregular rhyme scheme hooks up with a regular meter:

What great disgrace he took away, what secret shame,
I never knew. Only that, for one reason or another,
He was hardly mentioned, like someone else’s cancer
Or an over the limit phone-call we’d all rather forget.

In time I grew uneasy about this conspiracy to silence,
And I unfolded a scrap with a phone number on it
And knowing it felt wrong picked up the receiver.

And there was that voice, so distant it seemed quiet (27)

When you can pull off consistent two-syllable end rhymes without sounding Dr. Seussish, that’s strong work. 
The alliterative appointments and clever internal and slant rhymes fill out the poem’s aesthetic design, but what makes this poem equally captivating is its impressive narrativity.  It’s a great story.  In fact, many of Harrold’s poems are great stories.   Like O’Hara, Harrold’s poems enact what we might call the anecdotal maze.  They often begin with an observation or anecdote and then take us, circuitously, to and ending point that, unlike most postmodern poetry, actually is determinate.  Note the opening lines of the following poems:

            One day, walking from here to there in the rain
            It might have something to do with windows, my not driving

            Walking home from another disappointment

            It’s the same music day after day. From my studio wafts

            Kate said she’d once kissed a man whose cock

There’s very little in your fridge again

The clouds are low tonight – no stars shine –

These are envois that invite engagement.  They beckon the reader in to their little homes.  These poems love the reader.  This fact might be one way British poet distinguishes itself from American poetry—at least at present.  English poets seem less eager to put the reader through the ringer.
            When it does come, then, it feels particularly glorious.  My favorite poem in the book, ‘Keep On Keeping On’ is a whirlwind of language:

Pass through the portal, the passage, the doorway,
the alley, the wormhole, the window, the chink,
the keyhole, the skylight, the gateway, the tunnel,
the pinhole that’s forced in the butterfly’s back,
crack in the rock-face, the cave-mouth, the well-mouth,
the trapdoor, the hatchway, the fanlight, the frame,
the eye of the needle, eye of the hurricane,
the hole in the ear where an earring’s just been (33)

Whew!  Great stuff! But, you don’t want a whole book of it.  It comes almost exactly in the middle, just when you want a jolt of language to shake you out of your readerly lethargy.
            I would like to have seen more pieces in this vein and fewer conventional love poems like ‘Star,’ which enjoys far too much intertext with Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Somewhere Out There.’ But, that is a minor complaint.  The brevity of these poems and their philosophical underpinnings reminded me, favorably, of the great Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, and their penchant for form invites comparisons to a San Francisco poet British readers may not know but would like, Randall Mann.  Overall, this book was a treat for me: comfortable and surprising at the same time.
            I might say the same of Maureen Jivani’s Insensible Heart, except to say that it was both slightly less comfortable and slightly less surprising.  Drawing on her experiences as a nurse, Jivani locates many of her poems in dislocating settings—operating rooms, hospitals, the open body, disease.  These are not, traditionally the provenances of poetry, but they are topics currently permeating popular culture.  It’s no surprise that Insensible Heart has been shortlisted for the London Fringe New Poetry Award for 2010. It will strike a chord with a number of readers. Those who know Dana Levin’s wonderful In the Surgical Theater, another impressive debut, will see similarities in the two books and their title poems.
            The opening poem, cleverly titled ‘Open Heart,’ sets the stage for the whole book, or, should I say, clears off the operating table for the poet/surgeon to begin.  ‘I had a heart in my hands once,’ the poet exclaims, and we realize after a second, that sentence is no metaphor.  Or, perhaps it is but it’s not solely metaphor—it’s also fact.  So, when the poet writes

And sometimes it leapt,
That insensible heart, like a flying fish
Or one left behind when the tide
Goes out. Poor heart to be stranded
Like this, a fist of blubber, in my small hands.

The patient’s heart is not the only thing leaping here.  Hers and ours also jump. But, the secure grip of the poet brings it all back home, securely, in those final two lines.  I love ‘fist of blubber’ here.  It’s a perfect image and a perfect metaphor.
            In fact, I wish Jivani had ended the poem there.  I’m not sure we need ‘in my small hands’ either sonically or thematically.  And, if I have a criticism of the book it would be from this craft perspective.  This poem serves as a good example.   The second line after the stunning opener is ‘It shivered like an injured bird.’  As a metaphor and as a line of poetry, a shivered and injured bird brings nothing new to the (operating) table.  A few lines later she writes, ‘Such an enormous task, / it took all the long afternoon.’ Again, ‘enormous task’ and ‘long afternoon’ fall flat to my ear, as does ‘a tunnel of light’ and ‘dungeon-cold room’ which appear in the next stanza.   In a short poem of only fifteen lines, every phrase, every word counts. The punch of holding a heart in your hands wants to be met by an equally jarring linguistic or syntactic punch.  Don’t get me wrong: I like the poem, and Jivani gets some good shots in, but it could have hit harder.  It lands a glancing blow, and I want to be bruised.
            Jivani belongs to what I would call the Mary Karr school of poetry.  Karr, best known for her memoirs, such as The Liar’s Club, locates the poetic not in language or form but in story and emotional resonance.  Jivani’s best moments come when her diction is pared down, almost minimalist so that the expressivity of her project takes center stage. Consider ‘Stone –baby,’ a riveting poem about still-birth:

I hold you in my palm,
trace the outline of skull, torso, limbs.

I hold you to my heart
expecting a heartbeat
or at least the echo of a heartbeat.
                        Awkward fruit,
                        I will name you a sacred name.
                        I will offer you my own stopped heart (29)

Tactile and wrenching, this poem, like the previous, emphasizes the poet’s hands and what she holds in them.  To over poeticize this moment could be viewed as aesthetic inappropriateness.  It is almost in bad taste to invoke language’s exuberance for so horrid a tragedy.  The poem sacrifices what it might accomplish linguistically for what it communicates emotionally. 
            Sacrifice remains for me the enduring theme in Insensible Heart.  What we give up; o what we give up. In ‘Times is Hard, Mrs Lovett,’ we don’t know who is giving up what:
                        The whore folds
                        herself into him,

                        her left hand
                        presses down

                        on his groin,
                        Such times, lover,

                        brings us
                        closer to god. (35)

There’s that hand again, holding something else this time!  In this poem, as in ‘Stone-baby,’ the predictability of the line breaks undermines the surprise of the poems—but not much.  These are still amazingly intense pieces, in part, I’ve decided because they revel in physicality.  What is surprising is the poem ‘Stroke.’  One reason is because the poem is illustrated.  How often does that happen?  Another reason is because in a book about illness and nursing, one expects a poem entitled ‘Stroke’ to be about cereberovascular accident. But, as the illustration and the poem suggest, it’s actually about touching.
            My favorite poem in the collection also surprises.  ‘Forensics’ is a prose poem divided into four ‘exhibits,’ all of which are just this side of gory.  Jivani’s language here dons the white coat of the lab technician.  It’s clinical, detached, almost scientific.  Darkly tragic (or tragically dark), the poem also flirts with the comic (or the blackly comic).  The tone is absolutely perfect, and the poem’s architecture is ingenious.  It’s a brilliant poem.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Simon Turner’s Difficult Second Album is the cover.  It is the coolest looking book I’ve seen in a long time.  My wife, who designed my book cover, kept raving how well done it is.  I detected a hint of jealousy.
I, too, felt a twinge of jealousy reading Turner’s book. On more than one occasion, I found myself saying, ‘Hmm . . . I wish I’d thought of that.’ Difficult Second Album is a marvelously cheeky book (I felt very English there). I enjoyed it so much, it came dangerously close to making my Best Poetry Books of 2010 List for The San Francisco Chronicle
The most experimental of the three books under review, Difficult Second Album might also be, paradoxically, the most accessible. On one hand, the poet plays with poetic form in a disarming way.  For instance, a series of short epistolary poems bear the title ‘My Rejection Slips.’  Most begin, ‘Dear Simon,’ and all revel in a tone one could only describe as charmingly self-deprecating:

Dear Simon,

Thanks very much for your submission. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s quite ‘right’ for our publication. We’re as open to the ‘avant garde’ as anyone else, but a Giro slip & a cheque for £49.50 made out to British Gas is perhaps taking innovative poetics a little too far!   (13)

As the second poem in the collection, it helps establish a modality; it indicates to the reader that the rest of the book will be pitched in a certain tenor—ironic, even postmodern, humor.   However, even if a reader doesn’t really get the postmodern self-reflexivity of the book, she will get the experience of rejection, and she will understand the relatability of poking fun at your own failures. 
            The self (or the many selves) emerges as the main topoi of Difficult Second Album. Or, put more theoretically, the book enters into a state of play with the poetic self and its antic (but burdensome) persona.  Entertain, for instance, section 1 of the uncapitalized ‘the poem is nothing—version 2.0’ in which the poem’s dedication reads: ‘after Simon Turner.’ 
Ho ho! 
I am reminded of Charles Wright again, this time for his sharp poem of self-interrogation, ‘Poem Almost Wholly In My Own Manner.’  For Wright and Turner, poetic self-awareness is not a drawback but a kind of animus. Both are always already aware of themselves as poets and their poetic manner as a means of identity formation.  That ability to never be fully immersed in the poem but standing just outside it, perhaps even mocking it, can come off as coolly aloof.  Turner’s humor saves his work from self-obsession or solipsism; however, the awareness of the poem as a text risks detaching the poem from its emotional source.
            Thankfully, other poems in the collection pick up that ball and run with it, but even then, it’s a guarded emotionalism—a notably poetic intimacy.  Much of the poems concern themselves with poets and poetry.  There are poems to or after Ted Hughes, William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, and a striking number of American poets, like Charles Simic, William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara, Ezra Pound, and James Wright.  Others begin with aphorisms about what poetry can and cannot do, and, again, all are punctuated by the recurring series of rejection slips.  The cumulative effect is that poetry is everywhere and nowhere; it does so much and nothing; I am poetry and yet I am not.  Thank goodness we always have poetry.  Yikes!  We may only have poetry!
            But, it’s good poetry.
            When Turner unlocks the cuffs that shackle his poems to irony, some real beauty breaks free:

                        In the humming bird, the bright hinge under her muted grin
                        In the big-eyed bride, the grey bird triggered the bridge
                        In then hundred chapels, let us plunder these unseen trenches
                        In the furious stone, the fusion of risen sun


                        I watch the moon, too closely, have watched
                        till dawn, the sun wedged between hills,

                        a plucked fruit, and have sensed a swelling
                        terror when I saw the moon remained,
                        and the sun remained
                        ignored. At noon I bloat my belly
                        with bartered wine and sweetmeats,

                        all the body will receive—
                        indulgences, abuse. Dust smears everything,
                        and gives off its light. Surgeons wring
                        their hands, ply me with salves
                        of river-cooled oil and juniper ask.

                        The sun—rose and beaten brass—crashes
                        down on the city as dusk;
                        rolls through the alleys and souks,
                        comes to nothing. My garden, this night, is awash
                        with colours: jasmine pumps musk like squid-ink.

This final passage, from the penultimate poem ‘The Twins, Embracing,’ is a gorgeous meditation on the twinning of city and garden, nature and nurture, the body and its other.
            So, what did I learn about contemporary British poetry from these books? You’ve got some talented poets over there (which, of course, I already knew).  It was refreshing to have different voices and timbres in my head.  British English carries a slightly different cadence. It still, to my ears, sounds more formal than American English. And, in that internal voice your brain produces when you read poetry silently, I kept hearing a British accent (especially in Harrold’s poems), which makes me think of Sir John Gielgud or Benny Hill.  Either way—as with all of these books—it’s win/win.

Dean Rader's debut collection of poems Works & Days won the (American) T.S. Eliot Prize for 2010. He reviews regularly for The Rumpus and The San Francisco Chronicle where he also writes a column for the City Brights section. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Featured Poet: Linda Black

Eyewear welcomes, this freezing and snowy British day, Linda Black, pictured, who was last featured here in 2007. Black is a poet and a visual artist. In 2006 she won the New Writing Ventures Poetry Award. The beating of wings (Hearing Eye, 2006) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. She received an Arts Council writer’s award in 2007 and a collection of prose poems, Inventory, was published by Shearsman in 2008. Her second collection, Root, is forthcoming from Shearsman next year. She is co-editor of Long Poem Magazine.

Interpretation (4)  

It’s years since she’s been and it hasn’t changed a bit: A fire warms from a recess cut into the wall, burns slow and glowing. Here is a different clutter; walls papered with pictures (look – there’s one of hers) surfaces laden with books. On the counter tentatively delineating kitchen from ‘living’ space, as though there’s no place else sits a family of carvings, like  miniature Henry Moore’s, grand in conception, small in stature; over-large fruit, segmented, ready to be relieved of each inedible portion. Here dwells, she thinks, a thinking mind, not one to be bothered by the travails of housekeeping. The air is smoky from fire and tobacco. Amongst the paraphernalia – ashtray, coffee cups, newspapers – lies a grand ‘neglected’ tome of Italian proportions. A large bulldog clip is clamped ceremoniously over half the pages.

(The man next to her is reading a poem. She is sufficiently close (seated) to notice he reads backwards, starting at the last line and finishing at the first. Such originality, she comments. Turns out, he’s a bit of an inventor – some sort of electrical device consisting of tangled wires and a very large bulldog clip – a newcomer, not yet established in …. I’m just popping over to the electrical shop says she to buy a light bulb (low voltage) excusing her sudden departure, and here he is again making connections, taking the liberty of testing out his contraption, which entails crawling on all fours. Feeling the need to vouch for his credentials, she approaches the owner of the shop pointing out the prototype on the floor, beginning to explain, with no knowledge whatsoever, exactly how it works.)

Swine Flu Is Here

I met with my doctor today to review my chronic condition, an Oxford-educated specialist, and a charming, elegant, and unflappable man about as likely to panic as the Rock of Gibraltar.  He advised me to get the new three-in-one influenza vaccine soon, as he has seen the latest government estimates.  While the current rate of infection is approximately 22 per 100,000, it will grow tenfold or more in 2011, and is set to overtake the epidemic numbers seen at the pandemic's height in mid-2009.  As healthy people under the age of 65 can die from this influenza, it seems worth being concerned.  However, vaccines, too, have their risks, however slight (and somewhat vague).  I am therefore, as a hypochondriac of sorts, between a rock and hard place.

Blake Edwards Has Died

Sad news.  The legendary film director Blake Edwards has died.  He was 88.  Edwards had a huge impact on popular culture, for roughly two decades, between 1961 and 1981, starting with his classic, best-beloved Breakfast At Tiffany's, and ending his run of hits with Victor Victoria.  Between them came the hilarious quasi-racist The Party, and other Sellers hits, featuring the Pink Panther Theme, as well as infamous sex romp, 10.  His last works were mediocre.  In fact, much of his work was, and often a little of its time (one thinks of the Chinese caricature of Mickey Rooney), but at his best, he was a sort of emblem of the hedonistic zeitgeist.  For his Capote adaptation, and the Sellers farces alone, he will last.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

For A Former MA Student of Creative Writing - Geri Lambert, R.I.P.

Geri Lambert – Former MA Student of Creative Writing at Kingston University

By Jo van der Borgh

On Tuesday 16th November Geri Lambert passed away after a long battle with cancer at Guy’s Hospital.  The last time I saw her was at the end of September with a mutual friend, Emma Strong.  It was at the hospital and she was full of life, her hair curly from the chemo.  It suited her.  She spoke of her writing plans, the food she missed, the people she missed; her dear partner Trish and her mother.  She generously told me I was born to be a mother, as I gave my little, then eight month son Oscar a tub of baby food he wasn’t enjoying at all!  Emma had her little Eva with her and Geri was enjoying the makeshift nursery atmosphere.

I first met Geri when she bounded into the room where I sat on my own waiting for our first workshop with Todd Swift.  Within moments I was told all about her background.  How she had given up a lucrative career as a sales director to pursue this MA in creative writing and how she wanted to give her idea of being a writer a chance.  I was told about her horses.  They were very important too.  The thing that struck me most was her immense zest for life and enthusiasm, something that never left her until her dying day.  Even the texts she sent about the next op she was about to have were optimistic.  She would never give up on anything.  This was also true of her writing.  When shortlisted by ITV for Alan Titchmarsh’s show last year for her book ‘The Donut Girls’, she already knew of the cancer, but she went on undeterred.  ‘It’ll take me mind off it,’ she said jovially.  She never was published, but she came so close, sparking interest from well known agent, Luigi Bonomi.  Sadly, in the end, the operations and treatment had to come first.

Geri, another former MA student Guy de Ferrer and I spent a long weekend at my parents’ home in Kerry, Ireland about a month before she told us she had cancer.  We workshopped, drank wine and ate lots of food with cream in it prepared by resident chef Guy. We went for walks on Ross beach.  Guy turned his hand to poetry and Geri started a sit-com.  Geri spoke a lot about Ireland and her Irish partner Trish.  It was a great weekend.  I’m glad we were all ignorant of her cancer then.

We all miss her dearly.  The post-MA workshops, started by Justine Brown, most regularly attended by Geri, even though she had the longest commute to Kingston from Rottingdean on the Sussex coast, will never be the same again. 

Rest in peace Geri Lambert, you are an inspiration to us all.

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