Sunday, 30 November 2008

Jorn Utzon Has Died

Sad news. One of the 20th century's architectural geniuses has died - Jorn Utzon, the controversial force behind Australia's most famous building, the Sydney Opera House - arguably, in terms of its surprising shapes, a precursor to the Gehry style.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Poetry and religion

There is something dispiriting - literally - about Nick Laird's latest column in this weekend's Guardian Review (the Review lists Tuesday's Oxfam event in London, by the way, and also features a best of the year book roundup, which might be of interest to readers of Eyewear) - in how he discusses his lost faith - and subsequent attempt to find it in poetry. Faith isn't just lost. Faith is like a radio that needs to be constantly tuned - sometimes, the faintest signals of possibility can be detected, at other times, it is all a fuzz.

When one entirely loses faith, one is in a sense saying something about the human soul: that there isn't one. Otherwise, if one still believed that, then not all would be lost. Nihilism and poetry reached an exquisite dead-end in the darkly fascinating morgues and flesh of Gottfried Benn. Laird, though, seeks to argue that poetry can replace, even supplant religion - not a new thought, surely. Keats thought this. Wallace Stevens exemplified it. And Heaney continues the modern-romantic quest to achieve epiphany in the world, not beyond it. So too, does Ashbery, in abstract indeterminate ways. Most poets these days are atheists, or non-God-types, who place a lot of store in pure poetry, to achieve the lift-off their discarded faith (or religion) can no longer supply.

Poetry, though, is not a sturdy belief system, nor does it supply the constant sources of wisdom, warmth, and illumination, that a religious, or spiritual, belief system can. Poetry, in the occult hands of a Yeats, has immense symbolic resources, and can yield extraordinary instances of illumination (Bloom speaks of such sublime instances in Emerson, or Whitman) - but poetic visions are rarely sustainable coherent systems capable of assisting one through all of life's natural cycles of joy and grief.

Lord knows, poets try. Poetry, however, is a handmaid to religion - as in the work of later Donne, or Hopkins. Poetry finds words for things that may not have words beforehand. But it isn't those things, itself. Beyond language: a mystery. In that mystery, perhaps, a God. I wish Laird well on his journey to map a search, with science and language as his guides. One day, the poet who seeks a new religion may find an old faith waiting for him, where his journey began.

Guest Review: Benson on Evaristo

Dzifa Benson reviews
Blonde Roots
by Bernardine Evaristo

When the television series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots came out in 1977, I watched it with the scalp shifting horrified fascination that I imagine many people, black and white, watched too. Since then, I have read and seen many other books, films and television documentaries about the iniquities of slavery. Some of it has been documented in grossly minute detail – the floggings, rapes, amputations, the Middle Passage, the savagery, the exploitation, the humiliation – they are all very well known these days. All have been disturbing to take in but nothing has been quite as shocking since that initial jolt Roots ministered. It was difficult to imagine how slavery’s sorry history could be rendered afresh in art.

In what is perhaps a homage to Haley’s Roots (surely the title can’t be a coincidence?) the ever inventive Bernardine Evaristo’s new book and first novel entirely in prose, Blonde Roots, does make you consider that dark period of history in a new way. Here, the very Swiftian ‘what if?’ premise is a simple but audacious one – turn the slave trade on its head, imagine a world in which Africans enslaved Europeans for 400 years instead of the other way round and while you’re at it, make sure you mix it up geographically too. ‘Aphrika’ sits in Europe’s place, and ‘Europa’ in Africa’s. Off the coast of Aphrika is the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, with its capital, Londolo whose districts include, Mayfah, To Ten Ha Ma and Brixtane. And where we expect the Caribbean, we find the West Japanese Islands. It puts me in mind of the African proverb “until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” But Evaristo, who is half Nigerian and half English, is not trying to score points for blacks against whites. The overarching thrust of the message in Blonde Roots is that we are no different from one another with regards to culpability and susceptibility, an idea that is encapsulated in the quotation from Nietzche in the preface, ‘All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ Evaristo is making an important point about the way in which an excess of power corrupts and distorts human nature.

Our heroine, Doris Scagglethorpe, comes from 'a long line of cabbage farmers' in the north of feudal England where life is hard and she and her family are in serfdom to the local squire. One day, while playing hide and seek with her sisters, she is seized by her own countrymen, taken to a slave market near the coast and thrown on to a ship, where she lies on a shelf in the stinking hold and learns the reality of a slave's day to day existence during the Middle Passage. I n the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, the most powerful country on the Aphrikan continent, she is enslaved by Bwana, also known as Chief Kaga Konata Katamba whose slaves are branded with his initials, KKK. The book is divided into three parts, the first and third narrated by Doris with the second by Bwana.

Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her language mixes contemporary argot and features such as ‘glamazons’, ‘wiggers’ and even idlers gathering in Coasta Coffee with the startling, precise imagery and emotionally wrought lyricism of poetry which is most apparent in Doris’ drily comic tone. In fact, language becomes a source of comedy in the last part of the novel, when Doris, having been thwarted in her first attempt at escape, is banished to plantations in the hinterland of West Japanese islands, falling in with a community of slaves who were born into slavery and learning their patois. As with the heroine Zuleika in Evaristo’s novel in verse, The Emperor’s Babe, Doris is feisty and faces her fate with an unflinching lack of self-pity. And just like in The Emperor’s Babe, Evaristo relishes meshing past time frames with contemporary vernacular in an anachronistic narrative structure. It’s interesting that Evaristo makes no reference to time at all making the novel atemporal and disorientating and therefore challenging.

While the parts narrated by Doris are undoubtedly the emotional anchor of the story, it is in the middle part, where we get to hear Bwana speak that carries the intellectual heft of the novel. In a bid to better himself as a young man, he visits Europa but finds himself appalled by its backwardness and savagery, its ‘Heart of Greyness’ and even more repulsed by an Aphrikan who has gone native in a clear reference to notions of race vis a vis intelligence raised by Joseph Conrad’s novel. Bwana, who comes off like an old Etonian finds that:

The Caucasoi is unable to calculate mental arithmetic beyond what they call their ‘ten times table’. Because the Caucasoinid brain is so stunted, it has also naturally led to somewhat blunted emotions. Along with the beasts of burden who work the fields, the Caucasoi is incapable of acute emotionality because, due to its Neo-Primate state, it is but a few steps up from the animal kingdom with its primary preoccupations of Perambulate, Agitate, Capitulate, Somnambulate, Ejaculate, Procreate, Masticate, Procrastinate and Hibernate.

Nor, when the Caucasoi receives physical ‘pain’, does he suffer in the same way as me and thee. Beating the hide of a Caucasoi is more akin to beating the hide of a camel to make it go faster. Be not hoodwinked into thinking that the blood shed and the skin torn of the Caucasoi is a crime against humanity, no matter how much they shed crocodile tears to convince the gullible among you otherwise.
Surely even you diehard liberals are by now doubting your old verities?
…To put it in simple terms, the Caucasoinid breed is not of our kind.

Earlier in the novel, Doris herself notes that: 'I could see how the Ambossans had hardened their hearts to our humanity. They convinced themselves that we do not feel as they do, so that they do not have to feel anything for us. It’s very convenient and lucrative for them.'

And as the novel winds to its conclusion, Evaristo is interested in looking at the social consequences of the trade. Nose-flattening jobs are affordable and tanning salons abound. Young ‘whyte’ men working on the plantations begin to talk about women of their kind as ‘hos and bitches’. Their black ‘massas’ read books with titles such as Healing your Inner Child, Planter Chic: Master of Taste and Beyond the Colonial: 100 Inspired Ideas for Your Home. Perceptions of beauty are completely subverted when we hear stringy, flaxen locked Doris herself describe in vivid detail her people's inferiority issues about belonging to the alleged physically, intellectually and morally debased ‘whyte’ race – ‘naturally, having whyte skin was all the evidence the sheriffs needed to accost a young man and strip-search him.’ It is a world in which even your name is not your own, perhaps the ultimate means by which an oppressor can suppress and obliterate identity and culture.

Cleverly, Evaristo shows admirable control over the story, restraining herself from allowing the reasonable anger engendered by her tale to boil over into a rant about the horrors of the trade. Certainly, the biting wit helps to leaven the pathos but ultimately, this is the sad and finally redemptive story of a teenage girl.

Dzifa Benson is a poet, writer and performer based in London.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Poem by Sampurna Chattarji

Eyewear is delighted to welcome Sampurna Chattarji (pictured) this Friday. Born in Dessie, Ethiopia in 1970, Chattarji is an award-winning poet, fiction writer and translator.

Her books include The Greatest Stories Ever Told (fiction) and Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray (translation) both published by Penguin India. Her poetry has featured on Hong Kong Radio; in the international documentary Voices in Wartime; in First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing from India 2; Fulcrum Four: Fifty-six Indian Poets (1951-2005) and Imagining Ourselves, an anthology released by the International Museum of Women (IMOW) in San Francisco; as well as in Indian and international journals such as Wasafiri, nthposition, Slingshot, The Little Magazine and Chandrabhaga. Sampurna is an Executive Committee Member of the PEN All-India Centre, Mumbai, and on the Editorial Board of its journal, Penumbra.

Her first book of poems Sight May Strike You Blind has been published (January, 2007) by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters. I first met her through the 100 Poets Against The War work I did in 2003-04 (she submitted poems that were in the anthology), and we had tea in London's Marylebone, and talked of many things, a year or so ago, as she travelled through on her way back home. She's very talented, and deserves to be widely read. I hope that, in time, the work of her generation of Indian poets, who write in English, will be better known (and more widely published) in Britain, and beyond.


of the earth,
all subtlety dies
with a pinch too much.
You taste freedom,
the knife-edge on your teeth.

Faceless men eat saltless food
in a north-western frontier town.
You cannot eat the salt of a man
you might one day need
to kill.
A blood-feud bursts,
froth at the corner of your mouth.

It kills you one grain at a time.
You crave it cold
crusted on a glass
a leech of lemon on your lip.
In hard times a bite of chilli and salt.
In good times a bite of chilli. And salt.

Then one day,
tired of domesticity,
you turn into a pillar.
No looking back now.
Your saline gaze fills oceans.
You melt into tears
warm and salt on my tongue.

poem by Sampurna Chattarji


Terror knows no bounds, is an attempt at boundless contempt for society's limits. It appeals, therefore, to those who believe that limits are wrong, or currently are of the wrong shape - paradoxically, many who enact terror desire more, not less, limit. Yet they work in chaos who desire a new order. Mumbai, a great city of the world, is currently facing a new kind of freewheeling madness and cruelty that makes artistic depictions of the urban same, in films (like the recent Batman) jejeune and false. What is being expressed in these terrifying acts is that free agents of ruthless determination can move at will through serious cities, nearly unhindered - yet ultimately, hindered. That battles are still raging, more than 24 hours after the initial attacks, is alarming. Anarchy, it now appears, can appear anywhere, in even the midst of great civilisations, and establish small failed states. The 21st century is falling apart. Obama can only do so much, and most of the world seems to be tearing itself to bits.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Is comment free?

The Guardian has a slogan online: "comment is free". Too true. I've noticed, lately, that sometimes articles appear (in print) in The Guardian, and other papers, a few days after the same ideas, even phrases, and images, have circulated, freely, in (on?) the blogosphere - including, a few times, at Eyewear.

Most recently, today, columnist Mark Lawson has a piece on the poet laureate, referencing John Sergeant, Obama (not normally two subjects linked, I'd have thought) and other comments that strongly echo my post of a few days back on the same subject. Coincidence? Surely.

However, bloggers are doing a lot of the unpaid gruntwork these days, it seems to me, for the "professional" media commentariat, and, since we all know (from plagiarism cases on campus) that "Googling" can get results, fast, it is surely time that some credit is due, when whole arguments or themes are lifted, verbatim, from popular blogs.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Woolworths Not Worth Much

Sad news. Woolworths, the original "five and dime" store, and one of my earliest childhood memories (buying red licorice there) has gone bust. The UK is entering a new phase, then, of its economic crisis.

Golly G?

Brian Campbell has an interesting post on some alledged weirdness over in Canada re its top poetry prize. Judges in cahoots with a winning poet? Nah, no way - and never in the UK!

Review: Chinese Democracy

Eyewear grows old. It wears its trousers rolled, and stuffs fingers in its ears when listening to Axl Rose.

Chinese Democracy is both eponymous and oxymoronic, and, bloated. This review commits a sin - that of refusing to listen to the whole before judging the parts. The parts are tediously overwrought, overlong, and overloud. Mr. Rose, who inspired Nirvana and much else that came in the 90s, in the wake of his revival of hardcore rock, has an exquisite wail, and a voice to reckon with. He is a rawk gawd.

That is enough to make this 14-song album an event, and a disaster - as in Titanic. No album should have a song called "Prostitute" and be in the hands of children. Or is that too moral? At any rate, AC/DC's recent foray into the black ops of heavy metal, Black Ice, was good dirty fun, and never took itself without a tongue in someone's cheek. This cheeky CD, though, is a Rose that stinks.

Guest Review: Horton on Bird

Christopher Horton reviews
Hannah and the Monk
by Julia Bird

In Hannah and the Monk, Julia Bird’s first book, almost nothing is as it first appears. One example is "Clip", which if it begins with the bright optimism of any typical Hollywood road movie, ends with the kind of dark catastrophe more in keeping with a bleak David Lynch thriller. When a couple who had been ‘necking Americanly in the front seat of a Cadillac…a Buick’ are unceremoniously killed by ‘a swarm of stockfootage’ the tone quickly changes and it becomes apparent we have been cunningly misled.

Indeed, throughout the book, Bird exposes the limitations of narrative by consistently denying us the happy ending we may unconsciously desire. Her brief short film poems – of which there are five threaded throughout the book – similarly subvert the conventional storyline. In "Short Film", for example, a man who seems to be taking his first driving lesson is about to freewheel into his own mother or at least this is strongly inferred: ‘Through the windscreen’s/ frame he could see the porch step, his mother from the waist/ down, milk bottles full of air.’

But if Bird is adept at undercutting and revising the reader’s narrative expectations, she also has the uncanny ability to summon up a killer image. "Fire in a Crowded Theatre", like "Clip", refuses to provide us with a happy ending, instead winning the reader over with its central conceit. The fire that threatens to engulf the theatre becomes, in itself, a performance so that the ‘half dressed stars’ come to see the inferno as ‘the plot of this play’.

Throughout the book there is the sense in which Bird is playing with the reader and, whilst this could possibly be wearing if carried out by a lesser talent, she pulls it off well. So well in fact, that we even excuse her indulgencies - a number of the poems are the end product of word games ("Prelude 1" uses the vocabulary of the fridge magnet poetry kit). One reason for this is her clear enjoyment of language and her willingness to extend the imagination as far as it will go.

But Bird is also able to persuade the reader of her cause. In "Article of Faith", for instance, she alludes to the continuity of past to present. Citing a number of infamous and historical happenings, she writes ‘articles of these are sherbert in our throats’ and by the time we get to the last two lines ‘Do you believe it too? / Breath if you do’, the reader is prepared to put aside what might, in reality, be a well founded scepticism and join with her.

If Bird’s box of tricks enables her to convince us of practically anything, it is her humour that keeps us charmed. Even in those poems which appear initially more conventional, such as "The Animals Went in Two by Two" and "The World’s Population Visits the Isle of Wight", there is a subtle, gently mocking tone. This is the poet again enjoying the act of writing, revelling in the fun of the fantastical. In "The World’s Population Visits the Isle of Wight", she poses the question ‘could you get the world’s population on the Isle of Wight?’ The answer is perfectly judged and to comedic effect: ‘They fit. There’s some doubling up in the B&Bs/ but the landladies juggled the kitchen shifts.’

This is also a collection with a great deal of technical merit. Whilst it would be overstating it to label her a formalist, Bird is someone who clearly takes time to count the beats. "Covent Garden", possibly the best-worked and most entrancing of the poems in the collection, seems to possesses a kind of symmetry through its tight metre, brief asides and treatment of speech. In the poem a chance meeting becomes more a test of the boundaries of love that perhaps infers the poets’ own trepidation in defining that feeling. It is the sense of longing ‘underneath the moon and planes in tiny triangles of sky’ that endures.

"Covent Garden" is an example of a poem that hooks and draws the reader in. Our interest is in the experience but also what it seemingly tells us about the poet. Where Hannah and the Monk perhaps falls short is that it fails to do this more frequently. We learn very little about the poet throughout the collection and whilst this is by no means a call for self-indulgence, there is a sense in which we are left partially unfulfilled, craving more biographical hints and greater insight. As such the book oddly does not always feel to be the sum of its parts and although there are some outstanding stand-alone poems, it is hoped that in subsequent collections the poet may delve a little deeper. That aside, this is a book that confirms Bird as a real talent with tremendous potential.

Christopher Horton is a London-based poet.

Monday, 24 November 2008

8 Poets in 80 Minutes for Oxfam Christmas Fundraiser

at 91 Marylebone High Street,
December 2, 7 pm

AF Harrold
Peter Robinson
Phil Hancock
David Prater
Nancy Mattson
Joe Dunthorne
Niall McDevitt
Julian Stannard

Public Poet Wanted?

Odd news. The next British Poet Laureate will be selected in a bizarre mix of academic and public polling (which may yield cross-purpose results). This may not be the great Obama moment that seems intended - democracy and poetry don't always mix well, since the vast majority of people don't understand the value or purpose of poetry extends beyond voicing 19th century sentiment in rhyming couplets. Nor is new poetry merely rap, though Eyewear likes Lil Wayne. Should the winner be a dynamic, talented, personable and decent poet, like Simon Armitage, or a brilliant, important contemporary figure like Carol Ann Duffy, all will be well. Maybe Prynne could win. However, the selection process might just as easily yield a John Sergeant type, a favourite plucked from mediocrity to challenge artsy-fartsy (perceived) notions (though past laureates were often bland anyway). I feel the Ivory Tower is about to be shaken. What next, choose the Archbishop of Canterbury by phone-in?

10,000 Hours To Be A Poet?

I heard Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian guru, on the BBC today, citing an idea from his new book on successful persons (though this idea has been kicking around for a while): namely, it takes 10,000 hours to master the skills of something, from football to math, to music - so, Mozart is not born, just given more time to practice. In poetry this explains hard-working Pound (or Yeats), but not quite young guns like Rimbaud, or Keats. Creative wrting, as a methodology, begins to make more sense when seen in such a context though - as the valuable space in which the mind can continue to do what it must for its art.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Poem by Aleah Sato

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Aleah Sato (pictured) to its Friday Feature.

Sato spent her twenties traveling across the United States, and, in 2002, moved to Toronto. Her writing explores secrets and society. Much of Sato's work seeks to expose the tyranny of dualistic thinking and its impact on our relationship with nature and each other. Her poems have appeared in numerous print and electronic publications, including Wicked Alice, Nthposition, Blue Fifth Review and Eclectica. She is the author of Badlands, No Peaceful Sleep, and Extinct.

Nine Years

I am happy here. It doesn't say so but I am sure
it was happiness. The sun shining on our white
skirts and sneakers. Two cats in tow. We always liked dogs
but the cats held secrets. I am smiling like I don't know
what is happening. Behind my head, there's a vague figure of a man
tinkering on a truck. It seems as if he's laughing. I could be wrong
but I am sure it was something like laughing.

The other girl was my sister. She is grown and married now.
She has kids of her own. Between us, two countries
emerge and dissolve. We always liked the country songs
no one sings anymore. We were pretend
Patsy Cline. I am on the phone with her. Now not then.
She says her house is on fire. My hands are made of water.
We are too far apart to combine the two.

Sister, if I knew that age nine was the end of innocence,
what would I have said to you? Could we run out of pictures,
dislodge the bodies? Like the part of us being photographed,
stripped by summer, is here or blown apart. The shoulder.
The skirts. The brown truck and pant legs panting. It connects
the dots, the bones to this, you know, and it is not the happiness
we thought. And it never will be.

poem by Aleah Sato

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Simmonds Goes From Strength to Strength!

Congrats to Kathryn Simmonds, UEA graduate and a rising star of British poetry - she's just been shortlisted for The Costa, for the "most enjoyable" poetry book of the year. Probably so, hers is a superb collection, which rightly won the Forward prize recently, but who shortlists for this? Surely Katy Evans-Bush, or some other Salt poet, should have also been on that list, too.

Bingham and Kendall

It surely must be a footnote to history: even as Lord Bingham, formerly Britain's top legal mind, considers the war on Iraq illegal, poetry critics like Tim Kendall argue that the 2003 opposition to the war, by British poets, was merely fashionable, likely futile, probably aesthetically nugatory, and, finally, ultimately hypocritical, even self-serving. While America has elected an anti-Iraq war president, Britain, with its limited democracy, resists any public inquiry into the mess; and, its most conservative literary types oppose even the slightest hint of literature becoming embedded with the biggest political issue of our time. Why is this?

Pax Americanada

Good news. Poet and editor Greg Santos of Pax Americana has put together a special online issue of contemporary Canadian poets, including rob mclennan, John Stiles, David McGimpsey, and Jason Camlot. I'm also there, with a new poem that fleshes out the title for my recent New and Selected (a poem not actually in that book though). Do check it all out.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Mickey Mouse Is 80 Today!

Eyewear wishes Mickey Mouse a very happy 80th birthday! Steamboat Willie was released on 18 November, 1928. It's hard to fathom the influence of that moment, or his high-voiced, finger-challenged character - both for good and ill. Without Mickey, no Disneyland empire; without Mickey, no Bugs Bunny.

Mickey has been the face of watches, pop art, subversion, and, of course, the name of all that is dumbed-down or facile ("Mickey Mouse classes"). He's resilient, at 80, but less popular, I think, than he once was. Still, an icon, even a cartoon one, deserves some respect. How old is Pluto?

Monday, 17 November 2008

Grace Hartigan Has Died

Sad news, first seen on Silliman's blog: Grace Hartigan has died. Hartigan was an American Abstract Expressionist, and close friend of the leading New York School poets, including Frank O'Hara.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Guest Review: Shields On Skloot

Andrew Shields reviews
The Snow's Music
by Floyd Skloot

Many of Floyd Skloot's poems about artists address moments when their brains are still creating in a way they cannot physically keep up with. In "John Field in Russia, 1835," for example, Field "has come back to die where darkness lasts," but his mind is still generating melodies—rather, his body is, as he learns when he sits down at the piano:

His hands move before
his mind knows the opening theme.

Thus do the body's long-ingrained practices provide an outlet for the brain's productivity even without the active knowing of the mind.

There is a whole section of such poems in Skloot's latest collection, The Snow's Music, including poems on Georges Braque, Paul Signac, Claude Monet, and Claude Debussy, as well as a comic turn on George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers playing badminton on the beach. (In Skloot's 2007 Selected Poems: 1970-2005, published by Tupelo Press, there are also poems on, among others, Walt Whitman, Maurice Ravel, Flannery O'Connor, and "Brahms in Delirium.") Poems like these are common enough that it would be easy to put together an anthology of them—and Skloot's work in this mode would fully deserve to be included in it. But his most unusual poems about historical figures are in a mode unique to him: poems about his hallucinations of visits from such figures to him in rural Oregon.

The Snow's Music contains two such poems, one on "Ezra Pound in a Spring Storm" and the other on "Thomas Hardy at the Harvest Supper," which begins with Skloot, not Hardy, in a moment of anticipation like that of Field at the piano: "I know before I wake that something's wrong." After a week reading about Hardy, Skloot writes:

I went
to sleep in Oregon and woke somewhere
in Dorset.

After a vision of Hardy playing fiddle at the harvest supper, Skloot arrives at an epiphany:

Art and life were transformed into dream,
and the dream absorbed time and place.

But Skloot's visions of other writers are not always epiphanic, marked as they are by their cause: the medication he takes because he lives with brain damage caused by a virus in 1989. Field's anticipatory knowledge marked how his body "knew" the music before his mind did; Skloot's anticipation, in the Hardy poem, marks not a creative power but a pre-rational sense, coloring the whole poem, that "something is wrong."

Skloot's Selected Poems contains quite a few hallucinatory visits from historical figures: Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Gauguin, among others. One poem even describes "Reese in Evening Shadow"—that being Pee Wee Reese of Skloot's childhood baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Here, Skloot highlights the source of the visionary moment:

Nursing the day's final herbal
concoction against joint pain
and lost sleep, the same drink
I have used all twelve years
of my illness, I tilt my head back
in its battered Dodgers cap to rest
against the slats of an Adirondack chair

as a screech owl's solo whistle
pierces the endless crescendo
of bullfrogs and bumble bees

when Reese at last drifts back out
of evening shadows.

These visions always arrive quietly, in a combination of Skloot's perception of the world through his condition, a vividly described natural scene (often mentioned in the titles, such as "Rasputin in Darkness" or "Nabokov, Mist"), and the quiet, often hard-to-perceive appearance of the figure in question.

The combination of these two types of poems is one of the primary ways Skloot addresses his brain damage in his poems, but there are more direct poems as well, such as "First Steps" in The Snow's Music:

After fifteen years
my first steps
without a cane
are quick and stiff.

Here, too, Skloot turns the poem toward the issue of knowing, as he discusses how he had merely forgotten his cane:

Maybe I did plan this but did
not know. Which would be consistent not only with Freudian interpretation
but with brain damage as well.

Skloot decides to go ahead and try to walk without the cane because his illness has taught him that "the body / knows things the mind does not."

That line connects Skloot's direct discussion of his brain damage to the ways he circles around it in his poems about historical figures. He also pursues issues of knowing in his Hamlet essay "Jangled Bells" (in his 2004 memoir In the Shadow of Memory, published by Nebraska), where he compares Hamlet's problems to his own: "Our problem, me and Hamlet, is how to know, how to be sure of our powers of reason. ... I quickly reach the limits of what I know, stranded [in the downstairs hall] without a sure sense of direction. The more I ponder, the more confused I get." Skloot goes on to relate the problem of knowing to an uncertainty about what to do: "Not knowing how to think means not knowing how to act." In this discussion of "not knowing," he then returns to the theme I have identified in his poems: "I have gradually learned ... that a part of me knows what my brain does not." All this reflection on knowledge, action, Hamlet, and his own condition inevitably leads Skloot to the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, and he concludes that "the real question at the heart" of that speech is "how to be, how to live, especially when you find yourself at the end of your ability to know." Again and again, the problem is "how": how to function in an impossible situation.

In Skloot's poems, the theater provides an answer to that question: on stage, one knows how to act, as in "Playing the Bawd at Twenty," a poem about playing Pompey in Measure for Measure:

For two hours
each night I knew what to say about right
and wrong in a world gone wild with deceit.

"I knew what to say": for the twenty-year-old who is afraid of not knowing what to say, this is surely the attraction of acting, where you can play someone so much more sure of himself than you really are. Skloot's biography adds another layer to the poem: because of his brain damage, the man here remembering his youthful self's elation is often unable to say the right thing.

For Skloot, then, incompleteness—of self, of mind, of knowledge—is not just a recurring theme but a daily battle with the limitations of his condition. This makes the epiphanies poets aim all the more hard-won in his work. And even when epiphany does arrive, as in the vision of harmony in "A Unified Field," what one knows about epiphanies becomes an issue:

Because the night is clear and cold,
because the moon is new, and Mars
so close it seems to be in bloom,
because his mind imagines room
for wonder, he sees everything hold
together a moment under the stars.
He knows it will not last ...

And the vision of harmony and balance concludes with a series of negations (a negative epistemology, as it were) in which one word ("less" instead of "else") opens up the poem into an acceptance of how never-ending Skloot's problem ("how to know"; "how to act") is:

There is nowhere else to go,
no one else to ask, and nothing less to do.

Andrew Shields is an American poet living in Switzerland.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Poetry Focus: Susan Wicks

Susan Wicks by Sarah Corbett

De-Iced, Bloodaxe 2007
Night Toad, New and Selected Poems, Bloodaxe 2003
The Clever Daughter, Faber 1996
Open Diagnosis, Faber 1994
Singing Underwater, Faber 1992

The poetry of Susan Wicks is surreptitiously erotic, ‘I curl, sniffing you … comfort the tip of your lost tongue …we still do it in our sleep’ (‘After Sixteen Years’, Singing Underwater), ‘this is how they make rain, the raw/repeated drumbeat of two pulses ….Her two legs split perfectly open ..’ (‘Rain Dance’, The Clever Daughter), ‘Rolled in my mouth, my tongue/is growing fat. By morning/it will have found the farthest places’ (‘Sleeping Alone’, Night Toad). There is a continuous noting of the power of the body that has the alert languor of sex; that is never just tender:

I follow the soft valley of your
nape, parting the hidden
shafts to the scalp, white and unwrinkled
as the skin of a boy I once saw
shivering on a field, his hair
teased into rosettes like a guinea-pig’s.

‘Cutting Your Hair’

And yet the poems, although acutely embodied, elude physical weight; it is as if she has discovered a technique, in language, for levitation:

… Then a second time,
rounding a blind bend, the brush lifted
on a ground of sunlight, seeming to give us
darkness, the spine seeming to open
a new space hidden between tree trunks,


Or for stepping into and returning, gifted, from the world of the dead:

But no, they have
passed each other, they separate,
they have vacated the night’s mirror,
that last light from the sky,
the symmetry
that made disappearance necessary.

‘Mute Swans’

Wick’s poetry is not so much the poetry of a mother, or wife or daughter; it is not just the poetry of its subject matter, but an evocation of a realm of coming into being. The poems inhabit an altered state, like that of the newly delivered mother, attended by the proximity of death, and of life washed fresh in its glare.

These are small poems, delicately formed, often radiating from freeform sonnets, bright lit windows or doorways into vividly re-imagined worlds. They recall the fleeting but visionary attentiveness of the modern French poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘The black curls on the nape of your neck are my treasure’ (‘Flare’), or Paul Eluard, ‘He puts a bird on the table and closes the shutters./He combs his hair and it is lovelier in his hands/than a bird’ (‘Void’) (Wicks is a French scholar and a translator of the contemporary French poet, Valerie Rouzeau). In recent work, her influence has been American, the poems opening out, discursive, such as in the long sequence, ‘MacDowell Winter’, in De-Iced, dedicated to the American writer’s colony, where Wicks does most of her writing away from the pressures of teaching in England. There is both the metaphysics of Stevens and the nature-mystery of Frost in this:

Before I came, I was this I shaped space
Somewhere in New Hampshire. Light from the sun and stars
Passed through my body; the sub-zero air; a deer.

‘MacDowell Winter, 19’

Yet still, in her latest collection, what is specifically Wicks’: visceral and surprising, delicately miniaturist:

The horse girl startles,
whinnies at me, flares
the deep, dark crawl-space of her nose.

‘Picasso Museum, Paris, August’

Friday, 14 November 2008

Has British Poetry Been Destroyed By The Mediascape?

Reading the latest Forward anthology of best poems, etc, of new British poetry, a terrible thought suddenly hit me - the aesthetics of the 30-second TV advertisement had become the default lyric position of 75% of all contemporary mainstream British verse. The style - speedy syntax, clever image, cunning set-up, perfectly amicable and yet "fresh" pay-off, and overall sense of accessible, pleasing, upbeat zest, yet with some edgy topicality - it's all TV, mate. I know, because I was a TV writer. I understand this machine-tooled, gleaming perfection - it is the popular product that Adorno warned us of. Readers of Eyewear know I still enjoy high-quality pop stuff - but I also know its place, its contexts. I resist some guilty pleasures. Poetry needs, at times, to yield fewer of its mysteries at a first Palin-wink. Ambiguity, complexity, obscurity, difficulty - these were not just the rallying cry of modern poets for the fun of it - they were elements of a strategy of resistance - resistance to the near-total reification of people as souls, and minds - and to the collapse of some civilising presence in history, be that God, or traditions that were the less-fragmented aspects of warlike capitalism. Anyway, British poetry is exceptionally well-made and entertaining currently - and is reaching a pinnacle of professional excellence that is almost frightening. It took a terrible machine to elect Obama - one that spent millions upon millions - oodles. Poetry may have the best of values at its heart, but needs to retain some of the texture and roughening pleasures of the less-glossy, the less-perfected, the less-selling thing. Poetry needs to be less about quality, and more about something stranger, and more disconcerting. Reading Lynette Roberts again last night, the beauty of her difficulty, allied to an ordered emotionality, was striking - here was a poet who could use words, but also treat them with caution.

The Writer's Voice

Talk and Reading by Al Alvarez
Legendary poet, critic and writer

"The Writer's Voice"
Thursday 27 November 2008
At 5.00 pm
Clattern Lecture Theatre, Penrhyn Road campus
Kingston University
Kingston KT1 2EE

The talk will be followed by a wine reception and book signing

RSVP to Lisa Hall by Tuesday 25 November(020 8547 7853)

Travel and location information:

Poem by Nathalie Handal

Eyewear is pleased to welcome Nathalie Handal (pictured) this Friday. Handal is a poet, writer and playwright. She has directed and is the author of numerous plays, and her collection The Lives of Rain was Shortlisted for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize/The Pitt Poetry Series.

She is a member of Nibras Theatre Collective and Associate Artist and Development Executive for the production company, The Kazbah Project. I was very pleased to have her in the anthology 100 Poets Against The War - and very glad to be including her at Eyewear, as well.

She is one of the poets currently writing whose work - political and lyrical - seems most needed in this decade, for how it negotiates the way language slinks, sways, slides and shifts between beauty and truth, at once terrible and lithe.

Recently, she co-edited a significant anthology of world poetry from Norton, Language for a New Century, with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar, which I recommend.

Les Eventails, Portraits of Passion

The shadows of birds fading on a fighter’s back

The undressing of words on an unstamped postcard

The wet swings in the distant park

The jealousy of raindrops on the umbrella of lovers

The laughter of a boy before a bird

The song of two flutes, two swords, two bracelets, two fingers

The stare of a wave before a pearl

The yearning between the legs of a farmer’s wife

The opening of doors closing midday

The sudden howling of our muse - and

les eventails - disturbing the strange guest inside of us.

poem by Nathalie Handal

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Berry and Wilkinson Launch Pamphlets This Friday

Two of the best younger British poets (both included in my just-out Manhattan Review special section) - Emily Berry and Ben Wilkinson (pictured above) are launching their debut pamphlets from tall-lighthouse this Friday, 7.30 pm, in London, at the Acquarium Gallery, Farringdon. This is not to be missed for those within reach.

The Inner Circle of Contenders

Seamus Heaney is undeniably THE major Irish poet of the second half of the 20th century, and, after Robert Lowell, Thomas, Larkin, Hill and Ted Hughes, likely the greatest English-language lyrical poet, in the Hardy-Frost tradition, since 1950. Of the great 20th century poets, he's possibly one of the Big Ten. I've met him - he's charming, and fun, and real. And serious. So, this new interview with him (related to a forthcoming book) is basically necessary reading for anyone concerned with poetry of our time (and of the past).

The excerpts here are frank, personal, and at times even intimate - the man comes through, as intelligent, principled, dedicated, and human - a sort of poetic Obama of the 60s/ 70s - a man who made poetry matter, for many, putting it down in soil it hadn't been rooted in before. Heaney has not, it is clear, made peace with the experimental wing of contemporary poetry - he calls it "a refusal of the kind of poetry I write" - which begs the question any mirror does - isn't his kind of poetry a refusal, equally, of the avant-garde sense of what poetic language entails?

Having done so much, so well, it's perhaps too bad Heaney hasn't also managed to undertake to comprehend, perhaps encircle or even transcend, such divisions in poetry - but then again, some kinds of avant-garde poetry are so dead-set-against the kind of post-romantic, post-colonial, pastoral-modernist lyric that Heaney writes, that maybe he gave up on this battle. More ominously, he describes a clear-cut route to poetic recognition, one which is perhaps grossly oversimplified - then again, Heaney faced no real obstructions in his rise, so evident was his ability - after all, he went from Faber to the Nobel, and never really had to eke out a rep in the margins, small magazines, and coffee shop open mics of the world. Still, his belief that reputations are now decided by decade, and that there is an "inner circle of contenders" for best poet, that, independent of marketing, easily knows who has "got it" and who has not - and his vision of poets celebrating the best when they meet (as opposed to doing-down poets they resent, which is often the case too) - would be naive if not a little chilling.

Heaney seems to naturalise, entirely, the process of poetic production, dissemination, and reception - as if taste, ideology, bias, nationalism, even simple ruthless competition - did not in fact also stand in the way of clear, cool, appreciation of the major poets. It's true, no poet without respect from any other poet is ever going to amount to anything, since it is by poet to poet that poetry is passed on, hence lives - but surely, there are many inner circles, and varying aesthetic values. Even religions have schisms, and no priesthood is without its heretics. Heaney reveals himself to be both inherently good, and conservative, in this interview. Nothing though takes away from the quality of the poems themselves, which ring clear as bells in winter.

Irish Obama

There's something immensely moving about the way the world is being lifted by the Irish Spring that is Obama's election victory. And now, a hit song about Obama being Irish.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

TS Eliot Shortlist

Just saw this now - must have been out of the loop to have missed this - actually, just busy with the American elections, teaching, and my own life (poetry does slip sideways and away some times - probably good to let the hot air out of the tires from time to time). Good to see Jen Hadfield on the list - she stayed with my parents for a few days in St. Lambert as part of this epic Canadian journey poem; and Romer. Imlah should win, I'm sure. Maura Dooley has a good shot at this, too. Notably absent are any of the good Salt collections from this year - including those by Katy Evans-Bush. Also, where's the Simmonds? Ah well, at least they got Doty on it. Good luck to them.

In Search of the British Obama

The man who should know whether there could be a British Obama says bias in the UK would hold such a surge of joyous meritocracy back. If so, that's a shame. But not entirely surprising. Those, such as myself, who live here in Britain, but observe it from an outsider position, can clearly detect the curvature of class beneath the skin - bluntly, some more force will be required to even this place out, to allow a level playing field. I think the key may well be education. Clearly, access to good schooling is paramount. But so too must ideas change. Americans "dream" and dream big - they will themselves to transform - and while it is sometimes terrifying to others (when the dreams are nightmares of domination) there is no denying the possibility of anything happening in the US of A - even very good things. That nation is a green beacon of excellence.

The UK, too, is a democracy, with much genius, yet it is timorous when it comes to change (its reference is resistance to revolution, not acceptance of it) - and this can be seen in an enduring provincialism of spirit, at its worse typified by anti-European, anti-American, and anti-international, thinking. An Obama style leader can come from the UK, but it will take a shift in thinking, as well as social structures (often of course the same thing). However, one final barrier remains: religion. President-elect Obama is a Christian convert. 54% of Roman Catholics who voted voted for him. He also did quite well with mainstream Protestants. Obama snatched the "God Vote" from McCain and the Republicans.

Note that the amazing joy of the American people after electing this great man was partly the joy of a religious nation, reaching out to the horizon of belief. Britain is a far more secular, even militantly atheist, society - and, famously, proud of its self-protecting "irony" (versus American sincerity). It is hard to have both a faith-based idealism such as lifted Obama up, and a cynical, secular elecorate, such as too often keeps Britain's political climate down. No God: No Obama.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Duncan's Underground

Andrew Duncan's Origins of the Underground: I've been reading it on the train from Manchester to London today. The book is must-have for anyone interested in British poetry from the 30s to the present, and counting. It's as if Lester Bangs, or Greil Marcus, those great rock and roll / punk critics, had been turned loose to consider, in freewheeling yet always informed, and brilliant fashion, poets like Terence Tiller, F.T. Prince, George Barker, and Lynette Roberts - yup, that's right, it's a completely personal, eccentric, yet researched foray into my favourite British period - the Forties.

This isn't a review or a full-blown commentary on the book - wait for my book on the 40s for that - but an appreciation of a book that's never less than controversial, impassioned, and often deeply useful, even when annoying. One of the things that Duncan really achieves is to push along the tired us/ them, avant-garde/ mainstream thing - and observe that the real issue should be poets driven by ideas, or intelligence, and those not. Duncan writes with such an engaged conviction that poetry is not obsolete, he breathes new life into it.

Poem by David Prater

David Prater (pictured) is the poetry editor of Cordite (see links) and a significant Australian poet, currently based in the Netherlands. He'll be reading for the December 2 Oxfam fundraiser.

Eyewear is happy to feature this poem, at this time.


drained without shame under
lights in a clearing skin so
oh provoke me white drifters
slide a canvas wax wing over
the unforgiving cold conduit
called rations pipeline by a
soft sand footprint threaten
strikes upon infrastructures
western worlds never noticed
what smouldered in the lusty
icons our yesteryears alpine
lakes polluted by hot sperm
swimmers upstream & cryptic
destinations hand sheathing
beehive hairdos bleach peel
coming into cans & over fat
sizzling in pans on bracken
eucalyptus highs in moments
of fire right inside a zone
unaware of their binoculars
trained upon my abs a laser
tracing the sky or my pants
shifted nervously from feet
to a crotch reassured by wet
stains i'll stand above you
shading your upturned mouth
then we'll switch a shallow
dummy bid for freedom trick
the snipers bleak radiation
meet me at these coordinates
lover oh xx by northwest xx

by David Prater

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Todd Swift Reading For the Oxford University Poetry Society

I will be reading from my new collection, Seaway: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, 2008), this Thursday, 6 November, as part of the Michaelmas '08 series, as a guest of the Oxford University Poetry Society - a great honour. Former invited guest poets include Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Elaine Feinstein, Andrew Motion, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Farley. Other guests forthcoming include Colette Bryce (next week), and Daljit Nagra, Week 8.

The venue will be St Edmund Hall, Old Dining Hall and the reading should start at 8.30pm.

Hope to see some of you there.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Crichton Has Died

Sad news. The major popular, controversial novelist and entertainment writer Michael Crichton has died - at the young age of 66. He was astonishingly prolific and succesful in tapping in to the zeitgeist, creating the TV series ER, and the Jurassic Park franchise. This alone would make him a key cultural figure of the 90s.

His greatest novels were The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man - icily-procedural and strangely prescient thrillers about the collision between humanity and science, or the unknown aspects connected to science (bacteria, brain surgery). I still think the original The Andromeda Strain one of the most disturbing films ever made, and can still recall the underground labs, monkey autopsies and the epileptic fit as if it was yesterday.

Crichton lost many fans (including me) when he became a sort of Dawkins of the anti-global warming set, though. His finger usually on the pulse, this pro-Bush perspective was oddly out of step with the times, and his death, timed at the moment of maximum goodwill after the election of the greatest potential president since Kennedy, 48 years ago (that is, half a century ago), is equally unfortunate. What should not be lost sight of, though, is that Crichton had a kind of genius, for combining fact, fear and entertainment, in a way that updated Poe's hyper-rational terrors.

Oxfam Poetry Series Is Back

I am doing another season of Oxfam poetry events, at 91 Marylebone High Street, due to popular demand, between December 2008 and summer 2009.

This includes the December Christmas fundraiser, on December 2, featuring:

AF Harrold
Peter Robinson
Phil Hancock
David Prater
Nancy Mattson
Joe Dunthorne
Niall McDevitt
Julian Stannard


A January mini-festival, with two end of month events featuring poets such as Annie Finch, Ken Edwards, John Hegley, Mimi Khalvati, Kathryn Simmonds, Michael Horovitz, Tug Dumbly, and others.


The March launch of the latest Manhattan Review issue, featuring the special section on The Young British Poets, including Emily Berry, Sally Read, Daljit Nagra, Melanie Challenger, and more.


More details of the 2009 events in 2009.

Do rsvp for the December event with Martin Penny, starting today, if you wish.

Seaway launched Tuesday

The launch went very well last night - thank you all who came, and supported the poets reading. The shop estimates over 90 in attendance, perhaps 100. Sales of books were vigorous, to match (over 75 Salmon books sold). It was good to see such warmth from the London poetic community.
Tuesday, 4 November, 2008

Todd Swift & Fellow Salmon Poets
Celebrate the launch and signing of his Seaway: New & Selected

Featuring guest readers Patrick Chapman, Susan Millar DuMars, Kevin Higgins, Jessie Lendennie, and Pete Mullineaux

Admission free
Start Time 7 pm

Oxfam Books & Music
91 Marylebone High Street
London, W1

To reserve a place
Call Martin on 0207 487 3570

Our Kennedy Moment

Change has come to America, has come to the world. In a moment that feels vastly unfamiliar, because good happens less often in history than wickedness, a truly good man has won office as most powerful person in the world, lifted by true purpose, the idealism of millions, and the love of countless others across the globe. As if Kennedy and King were one, the best of American virtue and intelligence and energy has been fused. The word historic has been cheapened, but this is a truly historic moment. I am so glad to be alive to have witnessed the win of Barack Obama.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The Bond Identity: Quantum of Solace Review

Eyewear has seen the new Bond film (#22) at the Tricycle Theatre cinema, where a plaque notes, cinematography was nearby invented, around 118 years ago. My immediate reaction is, Quantum of Solace is one of the half-dozen best of the whole series, if not quite as good as Casino Royale.

It's easily the most stylish and nuanced, with more film references than many (including to Vertigo in the bell tower). Clearly, the Bourne trilogy has made a deep impact on the choreography of the action (rooftops, and brutal fights) - and the use of mobile telephony. However, the rooftops from Bourne are, of course, really the rooftops from Vertigo.

There are several elements never-before-seen in a Bond film, which artsy director Forster adds, including reaction shots from wounded, or shocked, or dehydrated extras in crowds and peasants (in Bolivia), humanising, almost de-Orientalising, Bond's previously imperialist trappings.

Further, the dialogue about espionage, power, oil, the environment - between spies - seems both intelligent and suspiciously liberal. Most notably, in a proto-feminist aspect, the main Bond Girl (pictured), played by Olga Kurylenko, does not become Bond's lover, but more action equal, and, at most, Platonic buddy.

The villain seems to be a sort of Roman Polanski Euro-squirt - a grinning louche Frenchman half the height of anyone else in the room. Too bad he gets dispatched so easily in the confusing ending, in some bizarrely unstable eco-hotel.


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...