Sunday, 31 August 2008

Seaway: New and Selected Poems

I am exhiliratingly pleased and proud to announce that, after living in Europe for more than a decade, I finally have a poetry collection out with a European publisher. It's Seaway: New and Selected Poems, from dynamic, well-respected, Salmon Publishing, Ireland. It's to be launched November, 2008 (more about that in the goodness of time).

Those who have followed the development of my work since the 1990s will know that my poems had previously appeared in four collections from punchy small Montreal press, DC Books, from 1999-2007. The books sold well in North America, and got some good reviews, but were not widely available in the UK or Ireland, where I most often work, live, and read. So, it was time for a selection that yoked together, from my approximately 200 poems that been published previously (in pamphlet or full collection), a representative clutch - along with several newer poems. As such, the 120 pages or so of poetry includes 80 poems.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Palin Isn't Funny

Michael Palin is funny. Sarah Palin isn't. Yes, she puts another crack in the glass ceiling - but also would set back the cause of reform in America by decades (to paraphrase Kane) if elected Veep (and potentially President - McCain is not a healthy man). Eyewear had predicted, last week, that McCain might select her (or another female running mate). Now that it has happened, it is worse than I thought. Palin is pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and pro-drilling in the untouched Alaskan wilderness. She's a Thatcheresque-Lite figure, a villain in drag. To compare her nomination to the profound history that Obama is making is to travesty the Civil Rights Movement, and his subtle, strong eloquence and integrity.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Poem by Pamela Uschuk

Eyewear is very glad to feature the American poet Pamela Uschuk (pictured) this Friday. Uschuk is the author of four books of poems, the award-winning Finding Peaches in the Desert, One Legged Dancer, Scattered Risks (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) published by Wings Press and Without the Comfort of Stars: New and Selected Poems (2007, Sampark Press). Future publications include Crazy Love, a collection of poems from Wings Press.

Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies worldwide, including Future Cycle, Poetry, Parnassus Review, Agni Review, Calyx, Ploughshares, Pequod and O Taste and See. Uschuk’s literary prizes include the the Struga International Poetry Prize, and the Dorothy Daniels Writing Award from the National League of American PEN Women.

She has spent many years traveling to teach creative writing to Native American students on the Salish, Sioux, Assiniboine, Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Crow, Tohono O’odham and Yaqui reservations in Montana and Arizona.

Uschuk has been the Director of the Center for Women Writers at Salem College, where she has also taught Creative Writing. Editor-In-Chief of the literary magazine, Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts, Uschuk is a professor of Creative Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. She makes her home outside of Bayfield, with the writer William Pitt Root.

The Horseman of the Crass and Vulernable Word
For J.H.

The hemlock loses the tanager,
a bright blood streak
in a whirling gauze of snow.
Where do we go?
You told me the eye was lost,
old lens in a dish of milk
going to blue-veined cheese,
a lens that sneezed
when you laughed the mockingbird’s laugh,
the horse’s white laugh,
saying your brother accidentally
shot it out as you crawled
under barb wire, hunting.

I was young and fell in love
with your wounds, your tongue,
half-song, half-glands,
strong as the Calvinist hands
that whacked and fed your swampy youth.
I was young and drank vermouth
while you fell to your knees
in the Ford’s back seat where you teased
until I laughed too much
when you begged please,
and your one-eyed touch
stared up at the night jar sky,
blinked at Orion, your
archer, saying good-bye.
I laughed but I feared your tongue,
your thighs. I was young.
I had heard.
Never love a poet at his word.

You were the man who could maim me
in those days when whiskey
clarified any dark thing.
Like Bobby and Annette we’d sing,
Baby, you’re my beach blanket;
I’m your Mickey Mouse coquette.

You knew my crippled heart, my blind side
but I’d ride ride
ride on that edge where the heart’s not given,
can’t be taken
or lost to an archer or poet with one eye.
Oh, the heart has a spongy hide
believing in love’s bromide.
Mine found its bed unmade, undone
when you left with your joking tongue.

But I tell you this now,
horseman of the crass and vulnerable word,
love is damp as a cloud-blown beach
and crawls in your bones
that never lose their ache.
When I dreamed your face- -
so blindly polite, just the glimpse
of a lens of a face, just before
the horse, the dark and slippery horse I rode
so far out to sea
that the shore was a crumb the gulls couldn’t eat- -
I went numb in my sleep.
Even numbness passes.
I am half-blind in this half-blind night
but I’ve learned to ferment
wine from ash.
And you, it's always late--
you've broken your horse,
now lie under it.

poem by Pamela Uschuk; reprinted with permission of the author. First published in Another Chicago Magazine.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Guest Review: Thompson On Harwood

Nathan Thompson reviews
Selected Poems
By Lee Harwood

Choosing what to include in the Selected Poems of a poet such as Lee Harwood must be nigh-on impossible. His work is allusive and elusive, multi-faceted and open, and often curiously nostalgic for the present – all in all pretty tricky to pin down. I guess for the editors of this volume there were, broadly, two ways of going about it: either simply pick the “best” poems or attempt to follow the trajectory of the work as a whole.

This team of editors, which includes Harwood himself, seem to have adopted the latter approach. As such, people are going to notice the absence of particular, and anthologised, favourites. Personally I missed the lightness of touch of “Central Park Zoo” and the free-wheeling tenderness, exhaustion and absorption of “Love in the Organ Loft”. But these qualities are to be found throughout this book and these poems are available elsewhere if I want to read them.

And this is an important point: as the first selection of Lee Harwood’s poems to be published since the Collected came out in 2005 it doesn’t need to include all the “best bits”. It’s doing a different job. And as a distillation of the essence and importance of Lee Harwood’s writing, this book strikes me as about as close as it’s possible to get.

Just as the editors of this Selected Poems couldn’t include everything of note (appropriately enough, since presence and absence are recurring themes in the poems), neither is it possible to discuss Harwood’s work from all, or even most, perspectives within the scope of a brief review. So I’m not going to attempt it. If that’s what you’re here for, click away now (Roobarb And Custard is available on YouTube if you’re killing time). Instead I’m going to concentrate on two aspects of Harwood’s work fore-grounded in the Selected Poems that remain constants throughout Harwood’s creative output: story-telling and the poetry’s relationship with the reader.

In 1979, in a poem addressed to Lee Harwood, his friend Paul Evans notes, probably with tongue in cheek, the impossibility of describing the colour-variations of the sea: “It’s no good Lee; it can’t be done”.

But “it” (the second “it”) depends on precisely what you’re trying to do and at what point “it” is deemed to be complete. Harwood’s work as a whole qualifies Evans’ statement, implying that any description of an aspect of the outside world depends on what your expectations are, and who’s helping. “It” can’t be done assertively. But it can be done by suggestive and collaborative means: juxtaposition of phrases; careful use of the physical spaces between words and the mental distance this creates between ideas – the poetic equivalent of engaging with the space between the sea and the tide-line where you know the sea has been – and by accepting that you need help: asking and hoping that the reader will interact with both the words on the page and his or her own mental constructs and experiences in order to create a transitionally “complete” version of the poem or description:

touching you like the
and soft as
like the scent of flowers and
like an approaching festival
whose promise is failed through carelessness

[from “Linen”]

This is, of course, not a concern particular to poetry but one inherent in any form of interaction. And, as such, Lee Harwood explores the gaps in sense that exist as part of our attempts to communicate experience. There comes a point when if you want to share, rather than superimpose, an experience you have to trust the other person’s imagination and let go, taking the risk that the gift may not be accepted or even understood. But for the poet there is the potential gain of creating a new experience for the reader every time he or she reads a poem, since that poem will necessarily shift with the ephemera of the reader’s subconscious mind at every instance of reading. There is also the intimacy (lacking in more didactic poetry, be it Avant-garde or mainstream) and openness that such a shared experience, literary or otherwise, brings. Perhaps this, along with the long and languorous lines, is partly what gives Harwood’s poetry a sensuality, even when the subject matter would seem to preclude it:

A group of men can sit stiffly
for a regimental photo of the survivors of the disaster,
and then try to look neat and alert.

And their children ... ?
living in a calm beyond this knowledge?
It is not so much a question of guilt
on either side, but maybe some form of recognition
which rarely happens.

And the years pass until one generation dies
and their knowledge with them
leaving behind only feelings of confused longing
that quietly spread beyond any conscious resentment.

Now put it together.

[from “One, Two, Three”]

The willingness in Harwood’s work to both share and respond marks it out. All writing is, of course, an act of sharing. But usually there is a power flow from the writer at the top, down through what is written, to the reader at the bottom. The work itself is the medium for something else – a message or what have you, usually set out pretty clearly, or distorted equally clearly (as with so-called unreliable narration). In Harwood’s re-assignation of the roles in this relationship, the spaces themselves, the gaps between the three parties (as with the ellipses in the work itself) are highlighted and become integral. Although interpretation is a necessary part of any artistic relationship, and allowing for differences of opinion and alternative readings, the intentional creative flow (of somebody actively “telling” a relatively passive somebody else “something”) is not usually actively disrupted as a necessary pretext to the act of interpretation itself.

But a Harwood poem responds to the reader as much as the reader responds to it, and the writer is almost disempowered by not being able to be part of this reader response. In its “complete” state the work hovers between that which is written and the reader, who is implicitly asked to add something because it is absent. And only at this point in the process, when the reader starts “telling” the poem what fills those gaps, is a “something”, however nebulous, created.

Thus Harwood’s work tacitly posits that in a healthy reciprocal relationship with the reader a poet suggests and even coaxes, but doesn’t show and tell. As such, posturing and muscle-flexing, whether that of the self-consciously Bardic; that of the “elitist language and technical conceit is more important than communication” camp; or that of the self-appointed movement-style everyman, is refreshingly absent (I should say that the examples here are of course extremes, rather than representative types, before the comments stream begins to bubble).

The interactive aspect of the poems sits well with the collage techniques Harwood often uses in his work – whether that of self-collage – the distancing of opinions implicit in the frequent use of quotation marks, fragmentation, spaces between words, and italics; or the inclusion/collusion of other writers’ words, which provide hiatus, self-checking when on the brink of stating a case too strongly, and most importantly reinforce a sense of conversation, communication and collaboration.

And this concern is still apparent in the new poems of this Selected, particularly in those extracted from the otherwise unpublished sequence “Gifts Received: Six Poems for friends”, in which Harwood responds to the gifts of the title, in this case a Mexican bus ticket (which is printed in the middle of the text):

where language falters near struck dumb
to try to say what matters
and what’s so far from clear so beyond the words

[from “Gifts Received: Six Poems for Friends – 5”]

At first glance all of this may seem to contradict the other preoccupation that this Selected highlights in Harwood’s work – that of storytelling or, perhaps more accurately, story creating. However, Harwood’s stories are rarely conventional. Sometimes they begin where most stories finish. For example in the first line of “Landscape with 3 people” the narrator rides off with three horsemen as if into the sunset of a Western, which is a way of foregrounding the “what’s here now” element of the present, where the future is ambiguous and the past, well, “it was all ice-skating” to borrow Harwood’s own phrase from “When the geography was fixed”. And the tricks and devices of narration are self-consciously highlighted – for example the murder weapon in “The doomed fleet”:

The heavy service revolver seemed somehow too
melodramatic to be real enough for its purpose.
I suppose there was no doubt about efficiency
- only about motives.

The framework is laid out for the reader to assemble, the comprising parts are disarmingly simple, and structural and psychological devices are often presented on the equivalent of a literary sandwich board.

But at the same time the doubt this poetry raises in motives as “explainers” for particular actions or events (even to the extent that the text, by means of collage and other techniques of disassociation such as ellipsis or shifting pronouns, gently dissuades the reader from trusting that “the writer thinks” or “this is about”: the usual tools for straightforward textual interpretation) allows not just for ambiguity but for the reader’s input as party to the all-important creative participation and inherent shape-shifting that paradoxically defines a typical Harwood poem.

This technique allows Harwood to avoid the moralising attitude of much recent poetry, which imposes a coherent and emotionally linear narrative and the appearance of “motive” after the event. In a Harwood poem the narrator doesn’t claim to “see what’s really always there” and it seems strange to suppose that he or she can. You can’t paraphrase many Harwood poems, or reduce many to a usable sound-bite. So the overall effect is to create an open space into which the reader is invited.

As such, because of the apparent bare transparency and the lack of cause-and-effect focussed forward motion in a Harwood text, it is easy to read into it a kind of faux-naivety, but this is perhaps to miss the point. Whatever else, Lee Harwood’s poetry is genuinely realist, as distinct from Realist. Superimposing an “experienced” view, that of hindsight or knowing description (used as a psychological or narrative framework), onto an “innocent” situation is to make a judgement not possible to the person, or character, in that present.

Although this is the stock in trade of Realist writing it may equally be seen to be the ultimate artifice. As soon as a reader is asked to judge, whether explicitly or implicitly, for example in a proscriptive content- focused context, the reader ceases to participate in the present tense of an experience. The spectre of “truth” (if you like – I’m not sure I do like, but can’t express it better today), which is as close as you’re going to get, is in the linearly incoherent, even inconsequential, details and juxtapositions.

A book like this, rightly or wrongly, perhaps invites critics to try to contextualize Harwood’s work. And perhaps they’ll feel it’s quite a break with tradition.

After all, once Yeats had finished hammering his thoughts into a unity, he and his fellow romantic-modernists left behind a whole lot of broken and fragmented thoughts. If you’re a poet you have to do something with them. You can pick up the pieces and try to fashion another unity, like Eliot or Ted Hughes. You can try to pretend that nothing ever happened beyond Yeats’ early work, stamp on the pieces and write apparently detached, well-turned-out poems, adapting traditional Realist approaches to a different era, like Larkin. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But you can also do something else entirely. To continue to dabble in slightly spurious images and comparisons, maybe Harwood’s approach to the post modern problem is akin to trying to focus on something at night: you see it more clearly if you look just to the other side of it. And critics might suggest that true realist poetry should reflect, as Harwood’s does, such momentary shifts and flickers, the badly lit but often beautiful ambiguity of most experiences, in which things will happen just outside the window (real and metaphorical), and disconnected thoughts are always going to disrupt the narrative.

Critics aside, this is a book for readers. And it’s a book of beautifully open poetry, written with care (in both senses). If the reader is willing to accept the invitation to communicate, there is about these poems the sense of spending time with an old friend whose goodness and sometimes stoic good humour has won your trust, whose words provide the companionship of:

Obscure silhouettes
That act as possible guides to get home,
To touch familiar things, never taken for granted.

[from “The Artful”]

Nathan Thompson is a British poet.

Editorial note: some of the typography of the quoted texts may be inexact due to formatting for online browsing. When in doubt, refer to the published text.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Breakaway Republics and Barack

The news that Russia has recognised the breakaway republics hitherto within Georgia will be bad news for many people - and perhaps most of all Mr. Obama. With the resurgent rise of The Bear, The West has become more militant and tense than ever, and McCain more than matches Biden when it comes to the foreign policy seriousness the American people seem to require at this time. New polls in American suggest this is already a tied race. It just got less-than-tied, I think - McCain will find rising problems with Russia to his relative advantage.

London Needs New Tropes For 2012

Eyewear is always pleased to hear Jimmy Page play guitar, and to see Beckham kick a football, but feels that there's something rotten in Britain when the tired tropes of umbrellas and red doubledecker buses are hauled out to pass on the visual and symbolic Olympic torch. Worse still, though, for London's handover moment (8 minutes of rock and roll and bland choreography), was the lack of imagination - instead of flights of fancy and wonder, such as China displayed (or Athens before it), we were offered the familiar image of urban celebrity - a jaded air, a fug, of louche backstage pass cynicism hungover the handover - as if the 2012 Olympics were just one more reunion tour for some aging stars. London, and by extension, the UK - can and will do better than this, I am sure. Few other nations possess so much visual and verbal dexterity - Rowling, for one, could offer tips on how to do magic. This sub-Herman's Hermits moment, of bus stop torpor, must be by-passed quickly. London's swinging - hopefully as a pendulum, away from cliche, and into fresh, original, innovative design.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Poem by Kelvin Corcoran

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome British poet Kelvin Corcoran (pictured) this Friday. I've been reading his Reality Street collection, Lyric Lyric, of late, and am very interested in how he thinks around and through the "English lyrical tradition" (in Rosmarie Waldrop's words) - sudden brilliance flashing "out against the grain, in the flaws" (Waldrop again). Anyone who wants to understand alternatives to straight-ahead mainstream poetics, and to yet enjoy how thoughtful & musically delightful these other roads can also be, should read Corcoran.

Corcoran’s work came to prominence with his first book Robin Hood in the Dark Ages in 1985. Eight subsequent collections have been enthusiastically received and his work has been anthologised in Britain and the USA. His New and Selected Poems is now available from Shearsman Books. The sequence Helen Mania was made a Poetry Book Society choice in 2005.

An interview with him is included in Don't Start Me Talking (Salt, 2007). A major new collection Backward Turning Sea was published by Shearsman in 2008 and includes an extended sequence on the work of the painter Roger Hilton. It was reviewed at Eyewear by Alistair Noon.

Corcoran is currently giving a series of readings for the Arts Council exhibition Geometry of Fear at galleries around the country.

Learning To Play The Harp

(for Andrew Duncan)

The lost poems of W S Graham written
as a boy in Govan and in all of his life,
the shipyard nightshift listens still
to John McCormack on Radio Eire sing
The Harp That Once at closedown.

Silent now, night tenor of silence
shed on the dark waters of the Clyde,
as if words might launch the boy across
the black river, another world, no more
at closedown and dawn, they’re gone, as the smoke.


Have you ever heard anything as sweet as that?
though Sydney’s radio was not bought at Spicer’s shop.

And that would be my dad around the house somewhere
singing the same song, he drones in and out of the tune.

It was all taken from us you know, by the English, the war
of loss and burnt letters, the despised and disappearing past.

His voice steps in and out of the tune, up the stairs
making still the house, the garden in deeper silence.

Fixing the boy in place counting down he sees
the grain in the black wooden chair deepen.

The anti-Orpheus, darkness spilling from his hands,
pity the man in the alcohol box: you can do nothing.


Of course it was the morning
up early for apprenticeship
when the radio played the harp
before the train to Glasgow.

My good mistake at first light
to sing the song I didn’t know,
the boy dreamt the night before
the poem unwritten in the shipyard.

Andrew - your term, migrating
over the border and awa’ for
Scotland and the Duncan generation,
the savage survival flight path.

Turning back on itself, the past
a brown river running through town,
invisible the dead crowd the banks
made quiet under a ribbon of mist.

I remembered walking home
in the early hours thinking of her,
her mouth made me dumb
- will you come across the water to me.

The moon sat on the top of a hedge
at the end of her dad’s garden,
half the night we lay there
her face in victory in a square of light.

Of course that was the morning
walking by the closed shops,
the river is green not brown
and above the weir it widens.

It speaks and slips its rhythm,
and I launch the One Hope off the map
from the mud and flattened reeds,
the sky wheeling and released.

poem by Kelvin Corcoran; photograph, reproduced with permission of the artist, by Jemimah Kuhfeld.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Bolt Too Bold?

Mr. Bolt is now one of the great, and most thrilling, Olympians - so it seems odd that the Olympics boss has chastised him for being too showy on the track. A bit like, yes, trying to keep lightning in a bottle, or accusing Mozart of using too many notes. While the world cheered, apparently, this dour pencil-pusher fumed. Anyway, given the overblown spectacle of the Olympics opening ceremonies, it seems like a Kubrick "war room" paradox to ask the great Jamaican sprinter to slow his antics down to a mediocre pace. So long as he respects the other competitors, he should be allowed to strut his stuff after crossing the finishing line - I suppose what galls the official is that Bolt is the first man in history to actually celebrate while competing, and still win.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Blyton The Landscape

A recent poll has discovered that Britain's best-loved writer is Enid Blyton - ahead of Rowling, Christie, Austen, and Shakespeare - let alone Dickens, Orwell, or Rushdie. I am not sure this says as much about Britain, readers, or books, as it first appears - maybe more about polls.

It does tend to suggest that the books, and authors, people love, are not the ones that our teachers, or critics, would want us to. Surely, for all her evident charms and pleasures, Blyton is not a major literary figure of our times - or is she? Then again, maybe this poll confirms what Eyewear has long-feared - that British reading habits are in decline. Fewer read poets, of course - but also, it seems, if this poll is to be believed, fewer read "the greats".

Why do most people read, most of the time? What do we talk about, when we talk about loving writers? Do we love their style, their content - or their ability to transport us, amusingly, via the imagination, to other realms we'd prefer to inhabit (albeit ones fraught with danger or adventure). The plot is one-eyed king of this blind world. When reading becomes simply another form of entertainment, or worse, a mere way to pass the time, we are almost doomed to idiocy, as a culture. Reading should be, among other things, a challenge.

If it diverts, the diversion may lead upwards, into darker regions, that offer complex footing; some may stumble, or be lost in the mist. Curling up with Blyton on a rainy day is great. But crack open Empson, too.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Britain vs. Australia, not Canada

Observers of Olympic coverage today on the BBC and ITV would have noted that one of the main stories - the story in fact - was that Britain is in third place in the medals table (counted in terms of number of golds) - ahead of Australia, in fourth place. Canada, it should be noted, is only in 17th place, at last count. At one point, a news commentator said that "all that mattered" was that Britain be "ahead of Australia".

It is an undeniable truth that the British have several chief rivalries that keep them interested and on their toes: in sport, Australia (not least because of cricket, and rugby), in food and wine, France, and, in soft power, America (both nations vie for cultural-entertainment dominance, in such industries as publishing, film production, music, and the other arts). For Canadians, who are not included in these flattering, amicable and interesting tussles, much is lost.

I have long felt that the lack of a dynamic cultural conversation - let alone a rivalry - between Canada and the UK impoverishes both nations. It is particularly so, because it means that the poets of Canada and the UK are not as well known in each other's lands as might otherwise be the case (of course, our prose writers are much loved here in the UK).

At any rate, for the average British citizen, Australia looms far larger in the imagination, than Canada. Why this should be so is not clear, since it is much farther away - perhaps that is why, and because it is so warm there, and cluttered with curious beasts.

It might come as a surprise to many, in Great Britain, that Canada is, indeed, the far more imposing rival, in reality.

Australia has 20 million citizens; Canada over 33.

Australia's GDP is measured in the billions - but Canada's is over a trillion.

Australia's continental bulk is impressive, but Canada is the 2nd largest nation on the planet.

Australia is mineral rich, but Canada's petroleum reserves are reckoned to be next to Saudi Arabia's.

Australia's life expectancy is 80 - Canada's 81.

At any rate, Australia's prowess at summer sports is impressive (but less so is their skill at winter sports). They make a good Olympic rival for Team GB, if hardly a nemesis.

Canada, though, is also worth keeping in mind. After all, Canada is hot half the year.

Guest Review: Birchall on Wilkerson

Danny Birchall reviews
Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman
by Cathy Wilkerson

The afterlives of terrorists are a curious cultural fascination. We’re not talking here of Martin Amis’ middle-aged and concupiscent fascination with the reward of virgins, but rather what happens to a state’s most violent internal enemies, those who took up arms against it, once their movement has passed into history.

Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader’s stories went with them when they died in Stammheim; Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer will never tell the tale of their suicide attacks on the London Underground in July 2005. But those who do survive show a remarkable propensity to reflect in public on the meaning of their actions. Bill Ayers, a leader of the Weather Underground has published his memoirs, and ex-RAF member Astrid Proll speaks publicly in the UK. Even fiction concerns itself: Hari Kunzru’s roman à clef of the Angry Brigade, My Revolutions, plots the personal crisis of a rediscovered urban guerrilla.

There could be an element of nostalgia to this reflection, as an age of political terrorism comes full circle. Just as Bob Hoskins realises with horror at the end of The Long Good Friday that he is not dealing with tractable gangsters, but the implacable wrath of the IRA, so now do our recollections of the red terror of the 1970s contrast cosily with the image of Islamist terrorists, who do not even offer demands for negotiation.

Cathy Wilkerson’s moment of notoriety in the history of left-wing political terrorism was her involvement in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in 1970. Wilkerson and four other members of the Weather Underground were using her father’s house in preparation for an attack on an army officers’ social event at Fort Dix. An unplanned detonation levelled the townhouse, killing all present but Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin, sending Wilkerson underground for ten years.

In Flying Close to the Sun, Wilkerson attempts to put her actions into context: to explain how her political involvement led to terrorism. From a relatively privileged background, she received a Quaker college education, and her first arrest at the age of 18 was in a civil rights protest to improve conditions at a school in a local black community.

The real crucible of her radicalisation, however, was Students for a Democratic Society. Initially the youth wing of a small socialist organisation, by the mid-1960s SDS had an important role in the burgeoning American protest movement, energised by both increasing US involvement in Vietnam and vicious racial oppression in American society. Having flirted with electoral politics as a congressional aide, like thousands of her fellow students she soon decided that more serious change was urgent than congress could allow.

Wilkerson briefly edited the SDS paper, New Left Notes, and became a Washington organiser. Like Jane Fonda, she made a solidarity trip to Hanoi, but due to US bombing never got further than Cambodia. The SDS wavered between the urgency of the anti-war struggle, and black liberation battles at home. Theoretically, they bridged these gaps by defining black America as an internal colony, fighting the same anti-imperialist war as Ho Chi Minh. Practically, they struggled with the problem of being an organisation mostly composed of privileged white students. Eventually they disintegrated in a faction fight between workerists favouring industrial infiltration and those in favour of mobilising the immediate anger of youth. The latter faction won, and SDS became what was at first known as Weatherman, and then the Weather Underground (pedants note: the name comes from "Subterranean Homesick Blues"; like ‘situationism’, ‘weathermen’ is a frowned-upon back-formation). From organising premeditated riots like Chicago’s ‘Days of Rage’ they quickly proceeded to planning individual acts of terrorism.

Wilkerson’s own account of these events is detailed, though her style is fairly leaden. The section detailing her SDS years, and the alphabet soup of left-wing politics (ERAP, SNCC, NLF, WUO…) is both much longer and less interesting than the description of her time as an armed insurgent. The strange sexual bonding practices of Weatherman and the comical inability of liberal arts graduates to wire a pipe bomb correctly might both merit more attention than the minutiae of SDS organising work. As a reader, you want to cut to the chase: we know what this book is really about.

But her account is also persistently underlaid with reflections that only make sense after the townhouse explosion. Her sporadic concern with what constitutes good and proper political leadership is later illuminated by the extent to which she feels that the leadership of the Weather Underground personally manipulated and betrayed her. Elsewhere, she follows the switch and turns of the SDS without ever providing the feeling of a progressive and personal political development.

What she does convey is a desperate, almost frantic, desire to somehow use her own life to change the world for the better. Once involved in Weatherman she was committed to the extent that, she says, "I was willing to die or be hurt, but I wished it all made more sense." In fact, within both the SDS and Weatherman she consistently agitated for the fight against women’s oppression as a meaningful and important part of the overall struggle.

In retrospect, she defines the key problems as dogma and secrecy: her experience since leaving the underground has taught her that life is more subtle than Weather Underground communiqués allowed. Like other ex-Weatherman members, she has substituted the local struggle for the global and now works in education. But she remains barely optimistic about anything other than that "the great lumbering people will survive."

Bombs that go off when they shouldn’t, and bombs that don’t go off when they should, provide second chances. Two weeks after the July 7 bombings, six young British men attempting to do the same thing unexpectedly found themselves on the way to prison rather than the morgue. Their context could be described as similar to Wilkerson’s: an unjust war abroad, and racism at home. In thirty years’ time might we be reading the words of Yassin Omar or Ramzi Mohammed, explaining how they came to embark on the path to becoming a bomber?

Danny Birchall is a London-based poet and writer. He blogs at Squares of Wheat.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Poem by Kathryn Simmonds

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Kathryn Simmonds (pictured) this Friday.

Her first full collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette was published earlier this year and is a Poetry Book Society recommendation; it is also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including Poetry London, The Guardian and The Scotsman. In 2006 she won the Poetry London Competition.

Like many of the leading younger British poets of the moment, she has an MA in Creative Writing - in this instance from the University of East Anglia. Simmonds also writes short stories. She works as an editor and lives in north London.

The World Won’t Miss you for a While

Lie down with me you hillwalkers and rest,
untie your boots and separate your toes,
ignore the compass wavering north/north west.

Quit trailing through the overcrowded streets
with tinkling bells, you child of Hare Krishna.
Hush. Unfurl your saffron robes. How sweet

the grass. And you, photographer of wars,
lie down and cap your lens. Ambassador,
take off your dancing shoes. There are no laws

by which you must abide oh blushing boy
with Stanley knife, no county magistrates
are waiting here to dress you down: employ

yourself with cutting up these wild flowers
as you like. Sous chef with baby guinea fowl
to stuff, surveillance officer with hours

to fill, and anorexic weighing up a meal,
lie down. Girl riding to an interview,
turn back before they force you to reveal

your hidey holes. Apprentice pharmacist,
leave carousels of second generation
happy pills. The long term sad. And journalist

with dreams, forget the man from Lancashire
who lost his tongue, the youth who found it,
kept it quivering in a matchbox for a year.

poem by Kathryn Simmonds

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Poetry Focus: Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore by Kim Roberts

A poet I return to again and again is Marianne Moore. She has an odd, precise, mathematical quality to her poems, many of which are written in syllabics. But she often combines syllabics with rhyme to make nonce forms. For example, "Nevertheless," one of my favorites, is written in three-line stanzas with six syllables to a line, but lines two and three always rhyme.

"The Fish" has an even more complex pattern: five-line stanzas with one syllable in line one, three in line two, nine in line three, six in line four, and nine in line five. The rhyme scheme is AABBC.

Moore loved to create challenges for herself. She also incorporated quotes from books she read, often completely out of context, because she delighted in the flexibility of language and because, as she wrote, "I have not been able to outgrow this hybrid method of composition."

Moore examined the objects of the world closely. I admire her humility. She does not write about herself, but she is infused throughout the poems as an observer. She writes ardently about nature (often picking strange animals as her subject: jerboa, basilisk, pangolin). Her themes, whether writing about the paper nautilus, marriage, or describing a mountain glacier, are always filled with a sense of rigorous, intellectual wonder.

Her main subject is awe, and re-reading her, she continues to surprise.

Kim Roberts is the author of two books of poems, most recently The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007). She edits the online journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly and lives in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

America In Georgia: The New Airlift?

It may not be, exactly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it has echoes of that moment. It may more closely resemble the Berlin Airlift, of 60 years ago. America's late, but chillingly decisive, entry into the Russian-Georgia war (simmering now, but not entirely over, according to new reports of intransigence, as of time of this post) raises the stakes. If the US navy, air force, and military is actually going to enter Georgia, bringing supplies, the Russians will have to open blocked routes. With US armed forces on the ground in the country, the tripwire for wider war is in place. Obviously, diplomacy should win out, and this matter be temporarily calmed. However, make no mistake, Bush's statement, today, is more determined, and directly confrontational, than many in the EU, and beyond, might have hoped. It shores up Georgia's ruins, reinstates some Western credentials, and offers horse-out-of-the-barn support. Hope it doesn't lead to blowback.

Guest Review: Saunders on Begnal and DuMars

Craig Saunders reviews
Ancestor Worship by Michael S. Begnal
Big Pink Umbrella by Susan Millar DuMars

Michael S. Begnal and Susan Millar DuMars are both poets, both hail from the United States, and both have set down roots in Ireland. They share a publisher, Salmon, and were born in 1966.

Both collections are relatively concrete in their approach. DuMars’ book, Big Pink Umbrella, paints very clear emotional pictures. Begnal’s Ancestor Worship creates a more challenging set of psychogeographic explorations. All too often, modern poetry fights too hard to be abstract, often for the sake of intellectual posturing. The strength of both of these collections lies in their accessibility.

DuMars has a curious style, particularly in the first part of her collection. Her poems tend to be setups for an emotional punchline at the end. She does this with evident skill, often leading the reader through a discourse on the familiar, wondering what the point is, only to blindside them in the last line or two. It’s a technique she uses well, but after a while, it becomes more or less predictable. It becomes tempting to just skip to the end and see how she’ll hook you.

At times, these punchlines deliver a wallop. The best, perhaps, is in a simple poem called “Honey.” Its narrator is a child watching her mother in the kitchen. The images are simple and familiar, but at the end, she delivers two lines, “Mom, keep singing./ I am your daughter,” which come with surprising power. The poem brings out fear of loss and separation, and for a single parent, they’re almost chilling.

The poems in her book do not explore grand ideals. This is not Dorothy Livesay crying out for the fate of humankind. It is emotional and direct. At least, that’s when it’s at its best, as in poems such as “Morning Kisses.”

My hands, stained with coffee grounds,
look like a gardener’s hands.
The early air is soft and damp on my face,
and I thank the sky

for morning kisses.

But then comes the other Susan Millar DuMars. While the first half is lovely, if not earth shaking (except for "Silk Scarf", which may offend some feminist sensibilities ), the second half of the collection seems weaker, and even, at times, self-indulgent.

Perhaps that’s what one should expect when confronted by poems with titles including “On Not Getting Nominated,” or “To a Writer I Used to Know.” The former is a brief cry of despair at, well, not getting nominated, something that all writers face. And some anguish over. And, apparently, some feel compelled to publish that moment of rejection. As for the latter, it’s an attack on an unnamed writer. The Irish have a long history of masterfully poetic insults, but this one doesn’t manage to muster the artful vitriol of J.M. Synge.

Big Pink Umbrella starts out well. There’s an uncomplicated charm to it, and there are several lovely poems that show the writer’s evident skill. Unfortunately, near the end, it descends into the work of a writer writing about being a writer.

Ancestor Worship, by Michael S. Begnal, is an entirely different creature. His poems are often more complex. They frequently build on a sense of place, often blurring geographic lines and creating a sense of displacement, perhaps most obviously in “Walled City,” where dream blurs Galway and childhood memories of Prague. At other times, the lines blur, uniting disparate cultural landscapes in the way a traveler or expatriate will look for the familiar within the foreign. He does this with varying degrees of success in the longer poem, “Madrilenos.”

For the most part, Begnal’s poems bring together an obvious love of travel and cultural exploration, and a superb ability to convey the mood of a place. It’s hard to imagine Ireland, or the UK., for that matter, without the pub where old men gather and have done so from the beginning of their memories. This he captures masterfully in “Old Men’s Bar.”

Salmon-pink walls, this fishy room,
these stuffy cushioned booths
(I’m tolerated),
old men pouring the water jug,
whiskeying their innate suspicion of writers,
fellas in caps just shooting the shit,
“Can you read without the glasses?”

No book of poetry completely comprises gems of literature, and this is no exception. There are weaker works in it, and at times some needlessly coarse language (at other times, clearly justified coarseness). But Ancestor Worship has more than its share of gems and is, simply, a pleasure to read and to explore.

Poetry of this sort is at its best when it takes you into the heart of the scene, and Begnal frequently manages this magical transportation. It’s a book to read and to re-read. And given that the poet is still relatively young, it’s a book that leaves hope for even better works to come.

Craig Saunders is a Toronto-based writer.

A Gertrude Is A Gertrude Is a Gertrude

According to the BBC, there were "no Gertrudes" in 2005 in Britain - that is, the name is simply facing extinction. Pity. If, as seems the case, parents are more and more guided by celebrity status in the selection of monickers, some might reflect on the great Ms. Stein, and try to call back into social use the wonderful "Gertrude".

Monday, 11 August 2008

The Guns of August?

Either this war is going to wind down soon - as cooler heads prevail - or it might escalate. If it does, and the West is pulled in (as Georgia tonight seems to hope) to support a nascent democracy and would-be-NATO member - then all bets are off. This could be the next world war to start in August. At the moment, Russian tanks are still advancing. David Cameron has called for stronger measures, as has the US vice-president (who we know calls the shots). But what can be done, without a tipping point being reached, that is really chilling?

Mahmoud Darwish Has Died

He should have won the Nobel prize for literature - and might have had he lived longer - but as it is, Mahmoud Darwish inspired a generation of readers and poets in the Middle East, and beyond - becoming one of the most admired, loved, outspoken, and sometimes controversial, poets of the age.

As editor, with Val Stevenson, of 100 Poets Against The War, I worked with many global poets. We were thrilled to have his poetry as part of our project - it added so much. The great man will be missed.

Naked Aggression

Those considering "human nature" or "civilisation" (opposed ideas, if not ideals) might note how paper thin good human behaviour can be. The current war between Russia and Georgia seems to point to the obvious: where international law is concerned, power is the ultimate rule.

Eyewear notes, that, despite our best efforts to concoct uplifting sporting, artistic, and religious events and artifacts to the contrary, most of human action is governed by a desire for control, and a fear of those stronger than us - at least on the world stage. How else to explain the way in which nations of the world are perpetually governed by those content to utilise all force necessary, to compel agreement?

It is a depressing thought, but the 00s are beginning to look a lot like the 30s - a decade of bad economies, and aggressively militaristic leaders the "West" is unable, or unwilling, to take on directly. The current war in the Caucasus may end soon - or it could boil over. Dick Cheney has sounded bellicose, and Georgia is, after all, a key American ally - its borders are a line in the sand. All these leaders, thugs by another name, throwing boulders at each other in paleolithic twilight - one wants to say, when will we grow up? It may not work like that.

Whether genetic, or learned, or somewhere in between, human culture's two-faced visage, Mozart and the death camps, is putting intolerable pressure on the future of human existence: natural resources have become depleted, and nation states aren't getting any less eager to throw their weight around. What wars does the 21st century have to look forward to? Who is going to stop them?

Obama (who will likely be defeated in this more warlike moment) is as bellicose as his rival. Wars are coming, and the priests split hairs over gay marriage, and the poets tussle over form and content. Civilisation better get thicker, fast. Or it'll be shredded. The animal beneath may be an osprey with a triggered claw.

The Best of Canadian Poetry in English, 2008

Good news - Tightrope Books has started a new series, to celebrate the best poems written by Canadians and published in a magazine - based on the hugely succesful long-running Best American Poetry series. The first incarnation will appear this October, as The Best of Canadian Poetry in English, 2008. The guest editor this time around is Stephanie Bolster, and series editor is Molly Peacock.

The editors have gone through all the leading Canadian magazines, and selected 50 poems. I'm very pleased to say that one of them is mine, "Gentlemen of Nerve", which first appeared in Vallum. I hope that readers of Eyewear, interested in new developments in Canadian poetry, will buy a copy, and support this significant new publishing initiative. Canadian poetry, on the North American continent, is often starved in the shadow of the USA, but has its own histories, communities, and trajectories, worth celebrating, and reading.

The British In Cold Water

Not wanting to be a turncoat (I normally root for Team Canada) but the British team at these Olympics has been showing proverbial grit and determination - and, thankfully for female sport - showcasing the depth and quality of British women athletes. First, there was that gutsy road race the other day (and a long-needed gold medal for Wales, and the UK) from Cooke - and now, an incredible, and mostly unexpected triumph in the water, for women's 400m freestylers, Adlington and Jackson. Their race was so well-paced, and so team-oriented (both supporting the other) it could almost be the bespoke Olympic story - forget Phelps and his drive for massive amounts of gold, here were two unsung hardworking, big-hearted swimmers, who merely pulled excellence out of the bag when it was most needed. Well done!

As an aside, it'd be nice if the BBC showed a few more competititors from other countries from time to time - the focus of all national broadcasters is obviously meant to be on the national teams, but the spirit of the Olympics does also transcend nationalism, in the sense that great stories of success break through, regardless of what flag the athlete's wearing (one thinks of the amazing podium hug between the Russian and the Georgian).

Sunday, 10 August 2008


Warning: self-interested plug.

Eyewear recommends PoetCasting, always - and especially this week, when I am its featured poet. Poet Alex Pryce has done a great job building an impressive list of recordings - and, fortuntately, with the support of the Arts Council, intends to keep going for some time. Good news for all those who enjoy hearing, as well as reading, their British-based poets.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Poem by Allison McVety

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome poet Allison McVety (Pictured) to these pages, today - 08.08.08. - auspiciously the start of the Beijing Olympics, and, sadly, war between Russia and Georgia.

Her poems have appeared in the Times and the Forward Book of Poetry and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. In 2007 she completed an MA at Royal Holloway, University of London with Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott as her tutors and where she was awarded the PFD Poetry Prize.

McVety won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition in 2006 and her first collection, The Night Trotsky Came to Stay was published by Smith/Doorstop. This debut collection was recently shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize 2008. The poem below is reprinted from this collection.

She works in IT and teaches at the University of Reading.
Eyewear wishes her all the best for the forthcoming Forward.

Boy on the Bus

That school gabardine of mine
with its slip-in, slip-out lining,
quilted for winter use,
invisible brown on a bus of standard-issue.
Box-pleats and woollen tights knock knees
with overalls and Crimplene frocks.
In amongst the chiffon,
a crêpe-de-chine square on a shampoo and set.
One man in cavalry-twill, umbrella
tapping a tune on the soles of his brogues. And you
in army & navy surplus, air force blue,
collar raised and cocked, a knapsack
hanging from your shoulder
with the casual cool of William Hulme.
I never learned your name or saw you,
beyond your walk to an empty seat,
was never brave enough to look behind
or smile, but I felt you all the same.
Seventeen stops of feeling you.
Boy on the bus, I don’t remember what happened
to my gabardine with its slip-in, slip-out lining,
its detachable hood, but I’ve seen your coat often
at fêtes, in second-hand shops, and once
in the cloakroom of the festival hall.
Each time, I’ve checked the label for your name,
the pockets for mine.

poem by Allison McVety; reprinted with permission of the author from The Night Trotsky Came To Stay.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Postmodern Spoken Word and Canadian Fusion

In case you wanted to know more - or anything - about Postmodern Spoken Word - well, this is the place you want to be. Among other things, it kindly suggests I created a new spoken word genre, "Canadian Fusion". Gee, thanks, but: credit should also go to Tom Walsh, the intrepid musician-composer who pioneered the Swifty Lazarus style with me, in Montreal, throughout the 1990s.

Guest Review: Baban on the Best New Music of 2008 (So Far)

Alan Baban writes on new music for Eyewear

This year I studied the ear and briefly decided that music sucks. Obviously I was wrong (maybe I still am), and maybe this is just one long big extended metaphor for you to think I’m all bats, and oh but he’s about to say Garden State is really the best movie, and it is (it really isn’t) but, no matter, it’s true, I promise. I caught a cold "demand for literalness". I rescinded all critical duties. I stopped listening, pretty much, to music.

Like all parboiled ascetics, what this actually amounted to was a set of rules. The first being that all music was off limits [Raffi doesn’t count]. The second, sure enough, that I couldn’t play an instrument. A nd the third: vinyl! I worked on my stacks. I harboured a ridiculous amount, mountains of cases, some cassettes, lots of stuff you’d never need. I spent time listening to Raffi. I broke the cassettes, and bought new ones. My room became dusty, but exclusive: no noise, just new records, rare finds, stuff I probably don’t like, whatever. Japanese psyche has the best cover art, incidentally. As does drone. But anyway, I boxed up my Grados, pulled out the plug, etc. I started watching movies, I eyed boxsets, it goes on. I got into falafel. I reread books. I spent more time listening to Raffi.

And pretty soon I circled back to my original position, which, briefly: another year, more music. More music in another year is more music. More music is more music, full stop. The volume of material out there at the moment – via blogs, site hyperlinks, freebies – is unprecedented and daunting and not a little insane. We’re not in the age of the Bob Dylan bootleg anymore. This is some whole other sphere, much wider but somehow less deep, not as relevant. A mainstream counterculture, where everybody is up-and-coming or else on their way. Suffice to say that the product has never been this narrowly defined, or casual. People are cashing in.

Which is to say, really, that it’s easier than ever to get burnt out. Surviving – and making the most out of – new music may as well be a process of disengagement, of keeping things fundamentally open by involving oneself less. Does it really matter that the new Black Kids LP is a waste of their time? Or that Coldplay the band released another serious Coldplay album? It seems all we need is another over-documented supersecond before even our saturation is out of habit. Enough, already! I don’t want Chris Martin to start getting ideas. Imperial Bedroom is already the catchiest cryptographic exercise there can be. I, personally, just want out of this decade without another Talib Kweli punchline.

This is all to detract, of course, from the fact that 2008 has been a pretty phenomenal year for music. I’m going to start with Lil’ Wayne, for the good reason that the better part of my generation thinks he’s God. I do believe: Wayne is gifted with the most charismatic Kermit-croak of a voice, gliding over syllables, letting things sit, eating it up, spitting it out, that sort of thing. He can be smooth as the second-hand, and constantly on the lurch. At other times it’s as if someone’s pouring red and black ants down his throat. His beats are concocted by a bevy of producers, but you’d never know; Wayne is Wayne is Wayne. T he man just dominates. He may be the body-wrap iconoclast we’ve been in a decade-long tailspin over.

Granted, his Tha Carter III is "technically" (as in: manifestly) bad. It doesn’t so much dissolve the notion of what "good music" should be, as it reminds us, exhaustively and by crabbed example, that "good music" – whatever that precisely means – definitely (definitively) isn’t this. This is a record that Weezy made three times over the past three years. I t works on no objective level other than it being the premier zeitgeist-flushing para-concept record that he just happened to release in 2008. I mean, have you even listened to this thing?! It opens with a half-minute long metaphor about Wayne’s penis, and why that matters to you, personally. There’s also a track where Wayne – currently on bail for drugs charges – seduces a female police officer. Dangling over all this, like the cracked portent you feel Wayne wants it to be, is the sad realisation that dude is probably not long for the grave, anyhow (Wayne yelling at more than one point, “Assassinate me, bitch!”).

It would all essentially be so stupid, is what I’m saying, if it wasn’t already so stupid. To listen to tracks like “A Milli” and “Dr. Carter” is to get mainlined on Weezy’s grand tip; to get wind of what makes that freak of a voice tick and to follow-through on whatever loose and tangential notions take him from “yeast infection” to “geese erection”.

Still in the realms of madness is Hairdryer Peace, the new, weird offering from LA-based no-wave crew The Hospitals. This is a record that takes its title – and storm-swept cover art – hilariously seriously. Nary a second passes without the interjection of some feedback buffeting and/or unintelligible new departure point. This is bedroom psyche rendered as a vast, genre-bending expanse: its song-construction doesn’t so much abide, as it consumes and regurgitates, acid-fried, all the niggles and crooks, the smoothed-over rhetoric and innate "otherness" that’s been working like a slow comb through popular music for the better part of a decade. In its moot parody it recalls early Mothers of Invention; in its uncompromising approach, an especially zoned-out Scott Walker. Otherwise it’s just sort of awesomely, and aggressively, loud.

Aggression plays as the big, arching context for Erykah Badu’s year-eating stunner, the defiant, and improbably titled New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War. Badu (pictured above) who first cut grit as a neo-soulster, is here re-made, re-fashioned and boldly re-purposed as… what, exactly? Her singing and expression is still unparalleled: at once coy and tacit, and then retiring into something like pressured rudeness. What really drives Amerykah, though, and declares it triumphantly as this year’s most enterprising, and important headfuck is the sense that its approach brings something new and relevant to the scene. By jacking the base elements of hip-hop’s golden age and targeting them as a kind of new body politik, Badu has tapped into a rich barrel of inspiration, wherein sonic detail and broad metaphysics collide to amass something distinctive; a cold front and a socio-cultural event horizon chased together, beautifully, by the singular and empowering depth of the record’s aesthetic.

Producers like Madlib and 9th Wonder inject forward-thinking elan into what are, alternately, space-funk accidents, protest-songs and straight-up bangers. Just as a song is made more effectively memorable by the degree to which it makes us, as listeners, complicit in the sometimes very knotty internal logic of its ends, Amerykah skirts oblivion, rides out on peripheral tracks and apparently threatens to lose us. A couple of listens reveal it as a deeply felt, and shockingly sober record; as if Badu and her crack team of beat-taskers sat down, smoked and then conscientiously decided to make the best, most edifying record of the year. Which they did (so far)! It’s only been a few months since its release, but New Amerykah is sounding more and more like a landmark album.

Baban is a poet, writer, and and medical student based in London.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Pauline Baynes Has Died

Pauline Baynes is one ofthe greatest of 20th century illustrators for children's literature - and one of the most loved. Sadly, she has died.

Her drawings for the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, literally added another dimension to that work, investing its imaginative reaches with new levels of intrigue and pathos. I loved her illustrations in the Narnia series, and for some of the Tolkien books, too.

Other great illustrators of this kind would include Garth Williams, who transformed Stuart Little, and Jules Feiffer's The Magic Tollbooth. Peggy Fortnum's Paddington Bear is also delightful. And one also recalls work for The Wind in the Willows, by numerous hands. Eyewear welcomes reader's comments on their best-beloved illustrated children's works.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Review: The Dark Knight, or, Ledger Domain

The Dark Knight, in a very short time, has moved from being a much-anticipated sequel in an ongoing graphic novel franchise, rebooted by clever director Christopher Nolan, to becoming one of the most impressively-received film products of the last twenty years. Already, it is on track to become one of the most profitable movies ever. But that's just money (as the Joker might say) - and this movie has also, already, received critical plaudits galore. There is talk of the deceased Heath Ledger getting a posthumous Oscar; and The Dark Knight is greeted, in some circles, as the actioner equivalent of Citizen Kane - perhaps the "finest" ever entertainment film.

Turning to Ledger, and his Joker - how good is he? Well, Nolan's curious mix of sterile and shaky mis-en-scene, recalling Kubrick, Mann, as well as The French Connection (and of course the recent gleaming Asian cop thrillers like Infernal Affairs), creates a refreshingly all-too-human villainy. Ledger's Joker is always vulnerable (he seems to possess no actual physical powers, and precious few mental ones) - propelled forward, apparently, under the steam simply of his own mania. His method truly is his madness. Ledger's acting is corporeal, visceral, and (whether hunched or dancing a demonic jig) always charismatic; at times, his tortured face, and physicality recalled a young Brando. I fear we have lost a young actor of potential genius. The vocalisation of The Joker is, perhaps, another thing - at times, he sounds like a warped Al Franken, the SNL comedian.

The character of The Joker, and his purpose, are a little pretentious, to be sure. Claiming to be acting beyond good and evil, in order to test the limits of systems, and order, to create "chaos", he is really a dimestore late 19th century nihilist - someone out of Dostoyevsky, or Ecce Homo. Then again, the Situationist burning of the money (actually borrowed from The Idiot as a trope) could place his villainy in a later, more post-modern mode of conceptual or performance art. Indeed, The Joker, as conceived by the Nolan Brothers, is basically a cliche - the sociopath-as-outsider-artist. The threat to Gotham is not an allegory for Islamofascism, but instead, good old fashioned Western existentialism. Nothing The Joker, or the film, says, would have shocked Kafka. God is dead, and the law is, to say the least, compromised. Further, all the ideas and images associated with masks, doubles, dual-identities - well, all Gothic (in Gotham) - so let us say The Dark Knight is about as modern as Poe. Or perhaps Baudelaire, who knew a thing or two about the corruption of morality, and the urban. All this to say, Nolan says nothing new about our lives, about evil. However, his film's pace and fluidity does manage to bring across a great sense of menace - and few cop or cartoon flicks have ever shot a city (Chicago) in such a contemporary way.

I found the Harvey Dent subplot a little dull; and, as much as I love the work of Gary Oldman, his Commissioner Gordon work here is very good, but not excellent. The Joker's mayhem, and sick little plots (easy to figure out once one realises they are all simply inversions, or mirror-images, of normal morality), all rest on a premise of dog-eat-dog - and fail when humans prove themselves capable of doing good. Therefore, the final idea of Batman as chased out - as necessary pariah (a sort of underground, inverted Christ) - hardly makes sense - the people of Gotham proved their essential goodness, and no doubt would have welcomed Batman back. Bruce Wayne may or may not enjoy his multiple Russian sex-partners and glamorous lifestyle - why does he refuse to openly assume the role of hero? Ah, because he needs to do things supra-heroic (and sometimes wicked).

Here, the film apes the neo-con line about extraordinary rendition, water-boarding, and other familiar tropes of the Bush era. Is America darkest before its dawn? The film's overlong, and ponderous ending, manages to leave The Joker, and the possibilities, hanging. Sadly, Ledger will not reprise the role, one I hope they will now retire. What next, The Riddler?

In conclusion, The Dark Knight is an advance on many other filmed entertainments, but is neither as unique, stylistically, or intellectually, as it appears. Still, it may be one of the best American crime films since The Departed, on which so much of it is based. It should be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Forward Poetry Prize 2008 shortlist announced

The Forward Poetry Prize 2008 list has been announced. Congratulations to all those listed. It's a pleasingly open field, this year, with a few fresh faces and unexpected discoveries.

There are a number of categories, including Best Collection, and Best First Collection.

Poets (in no order) Mick Imlah (The Lost Leader), Sujata Bhatt (Pure Lizard), Jen Hadfield (Nigh-No-Place), Catherine Smith (Lip), Jane Griffiths (Another Country) and Jamie McKendrick (Crocodiles and Obelisks) are up for Best Collection. None of these is a clear winner - they're all inventive and worthy - but Eyewear predicts that Imlah will probably win for his major work.

Hadfield, as a fun aside, stayed with my parents for a few days when travelling across Canada to write her collection - a visit still warmly recalled by my family. Bhatt, Smith and McKendrick have all read for the Oxfam Poetry Series, and their work can be found on either Life Lines or Life Lines 2.

The Best First Collection list includes emerging poets Simon Barraclough, Andrew Forster, Frances Leviston, Allison McVety, Stephanie Norgate, and Kathryn Simmonds. Once again, this is too close to call, but Leviston, McVety or Simmonds seem the likely winners in this category, though Barraclough's witty collection is also a strong contender.

Best Poem of the year is likely to go to Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, or the wildly comic Tim Turnbull - the strongest three of a strong, and inclusive, field.

Poem by Sarah Corbett

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Sarah Corbett (pictured) this Friday.

Corbett's first collection of poems, The Red Wardrobe, (Seren, 1998) was shortlisted for The Forward First Collection and the T.S. Eliot prize. Her second book from Seren was The Witch Bag (2002), and her third, Other Beasts, has just been published, this July.

She is currently writing a verse novel as part of a PhD at The University of Manchester. She lives in West Yorkshire with her son and writes full time.

I first met her when she read for an event I co-organized, a few years back, to celebrate the anniversary of the beginning of Imagism in London. It's good to see new work of hers out in the world; the poem below was, until now, unpublished.


In the hotel room we saw the beauty of home,
too far out to touch still, and effervescently moving,
played the ‘being home’ game, until it felt too real,
as if I’d stepped back and left you, watering the roses.

We read until dark and Pluto winked its blue eye
behind the curtain. There was too much clear space,
and the moment panning out was like the light breaking
over the valley, the rain coming over the Sierras.

The fan turned the warm air loudly and the same bee
reconnoitred the window. A chorus of car horns
repeated after the game, and in the gaps a she-cat mouthed
the necks of her kittens as she moved them.

When you left me, turning to the wall for sleep,
I smoothed the skin of your small tanned back,
the damp crook of your leg over the covers,
your slim bruised foot crossing Russia for home.

poem by Sarah Corbett


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...