Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bill Manhire In England in November; new poem

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Bill Manhire, New Zealand's leading poet of his generation, to its pages today with a poem.  Manhire will be appearing at various events next week and beyond in England.  Here is his schedule:

November 2: a reading, as part of the launch of Simon Armitage's Poetry Parnassus project; Poetry International.

November 3: talk and reading, Kingston University, Kingston-upon-Thames, Penrhyn Road Campus, John Galsworthy Building, JG4002, 4-5 pm; all welcome; admission free.  Introduction by Anna Smaill.

November 3: Reading poems by Edwin Morgan as part of a tribute evening called The Scots Makar; Poetry International.

November 5-7: Aldeburgh Festival

November 9: the Gerald Finzi Reading at the University of Reading, 6.30 pm.

The Ruin

Storm roared in the roof: a rocking of towers.
Giants stood then stumbled.
Once they strode into weather and wind.
Where stairs went down, only these mounds.

Then more is missing.

Walk toward the baths: they are missing.
Toward ramparts and ring-hall: missing.
Toward Romans and Saxons:
missing and missing.

Each man under-taken.
Generation and generation.
Here is a gate made of frost,
Here tiles were torn away and [missing].
Here was fire. Here was [lost]

And here is the true charred text.
See how the ruin rides among riddles
– anchor and inkhorn and loom –
bumping against whatever happens next.

Oh earth went over them all:
chalice and harp, wanderer and wife,
palace and tented place.

Grey moss on red stone . . .

And here and there a glance, a gleam

a home [but missing]

dwelling we almost glimpse across the water.

reprinted with permission of the author from The Victims of Lightning (Victoria University Press, 2010).

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Guest Review: Brown on Higgins

[editor's note: I've posted this review gladly, as it offers an alternative position on a collection that I personally admire a great deal.]

Phil Brown reviews
Frightening New Furniture

My first experience of Kevin Higgins was through the anthology Identity Parade (Bloodaxe 2010). The sample we get of Higgins in this anthology is enough to leave any reviewer somewhat excited at the prospect of getting their teeth into his latest collection. Poems like 'Almost Invisible' and 'The Great Depression' emit such a visceral bleakness wrapped in aural excellence as to leave you with the feeling of being in the presence of ‘the real thing’.

And so, it was with great excitement that I awoke one day to find that the generous Mr. Swift had posted me a copy of Higgins’ latest collection, Frightening New Furniture for review.

That was four months ago now. How naïve I was. I started off by reading the thing cover to cover in two sittings. ‘Hmmmmm’ I thought, ‘There must be something I’m missing here.’ Then I went through with a highlighter and a biro.

That was July, and since then I’ve been regularly dipping into the thing in the hopes of arriving at some sort of conclusive feeling towards the collection. I’ve taken this book to Africa, Scotland, Ledbury, I’ve read it on beaches, aeroplanes, trains, in the staff room of my school, pubs and during lessons. I would suggest that I have spent more time reading this collection of poetry than any other in my life.

‘Man up and write a bloody review then!’ I hear you shout at the screen as I take up valuable Eyewear-space.

Oh, naïve reader, that it were that simple. But, you are right, it’s just a book after all, and I do profess to dabble in the art of reviewing these piles of paper, ink and glue. So let’s start with a wide-shot and hitch into a slow zoom.

So, I suppose I should tell you that Kevin Higgins is Irish, his biography reads as an impressive list of awards, residencies, involvements in the live-scene and he is part of the hallowed cohort in Identity Parade.   Credentials box – ticked.

The reason I find it hard to criticise this collection is that the very thing that I dislike about it seems to be its selling point. Look, there on the back cover, at the quotation from Nigel McLoughlin. Can you see it? “His curmudgeonly grumpy-old-man-ness glaring at the reader wondering what the hell they’re laughing at.” That’s just it McLoughlin… I hate ‘grumpy-old-man-ness’ and Higgins delivers it in droves.

“…Ireland’s become
this minimalist spaceship
where people just sip their decaffeinated water
and listen to David Gray.”

quips Higgins… and

“… grannies nationwide
being denied the traditional
new set of teeth for Christmas…”

not to mention that

“… Burnham-on-Crouch
is having its Woolworths taken out.

The talk is of Somali pirates
and bacteria in the tea towels.

Each new set of government statistics
are the worst figures ever.”

and then

“One by one,
our favourite restaurants disappear…
…Our Red Bull days
have delivered us to the guy
with the rubber glove
now standing over us:

“I am Quantitative Easing
and the only thing
you haven’t tried.””

Beyond simply tying to out-Charlie-Brooker Charlie Brooker, this approach to writing always rubs me up the wrong way. The opening sections of the collection feel like the result of too much Googling – ‘what happened in April 1967?’ and the likes - which more or less sets the tone for much of the poetry to be found here.

All the grumpiness and ephemera and pop-references are generally shallow and poorly handled, distracting the reader from the fact that Higgins is an incredibly good poet. The poetic motifs that thread through this collection are highly effective – one particular trick of Higgins’ is to depict the world’s sounds as conspiratorial and malevolent:

“A trolley
rattling down a corridor telling me things
I don’t want to hear.” (from 'Thursday, April 6, 1967')


“The rain saying terrible things
as we drive off, that Christmas
you didn’t die.” (from 'St. Stephen’s Day, 1977')

I am also a fan of Higgins’ knack for describing things as a component of their assets. These little descriptions permeate the collection – ‘morning was breakfast baps and gravel’ ('That Was My Country'), ‘the cheap polyester suit my father became’ ('Cheap Polyester Suit'), ‘I’m this strategic handshake; all the rooms I’ve ever worked and less’ ('Another Monday'), ‘He becomes the old address books he carries everywhere with him ('Yesterday’s Pinstripe Suit').

In a more varied collection of poetry, this nifty motif really would have served as a beacon of congruence between the myriad voices and methods that I would expect in a collection of this length. Sadly, Higgins does not need to employ such subtle devices to give Frightening New Furniture a sense of coherence; with few exceptions, the poetry in this book can be summarised with these two lines from his poem 'Quality of Life':

“But I was happier then.
Not like now.”

In Frightening New Furniture, Higgins is a poet whose work often indicates a disdain for humanity, yet is never as artful in it as Larkin or as darkly amusing with it as Peter Reading. His poetic ‘I’ mumbles like a defeatist about failed revolution and how it all needs to change, yet never offers us any suggestions about how to solve the status quo he so fervently hates. He merely grumbles at how pointless it is trying to change this awful world of ours:

yesterday’s perfectly sculpted revolutionary
was always today’s paunchy liberal who slugs
his cabernet, and watches daytime TV
with an elderly Labrador named
Aldai Stevenson, the Fourth.’

You’ve worked with this guy before right? There’s a new guy in charge at the office and he’s got some great ideas about how to shake things up and get the team more focused and working more productively? And then some grumpy old bastard sits at the back talking about how ‘oh I’ve seen all this before, it never works. What’s the point?’ Welcome to the poetic persona of Kevin Higgins.

The real heartbreaker of this collection however, is that it gets incredibly good towards the end. Honestly. Pages 60-93 are pretty much uninterrupted excellent poetry. With poems like ‘Bookshop Romance’ and ‘Relaxation Techniques No. 1’, I have no doubt that Higgins would have won me over as the Irish Hugo Williams. Sadly though, I had to waft through 60 pages of Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as re-told by Victor Meldrew to get there. Salmon should have taken the title for this collection from Higgins’ poem, 'Unmade', and called it Alone With My Armchair Hates.

Phil Brown is a recent Eric Gregory winning poet, and school teacher, who lives in London.

New Poem by Suzanne Richardson Harvey

Eyewear is glad to publish a posthumous poem by the American academic and poet Suzanne Richardson Harvey (1934-2010).


As I carve a path through the jungle
Of creditors' threats and lay off notices
Resignations and legal briefs
I remember my tenth birthday
The party with undrunk lemonade
Left over toll house cookies
Unblown whistles and horns
Favors no one took home

I was fresh from a New England village
Where the fate of an elm on the Old Post Road
Was the Holy Grail in someone's Crusade
I was a toll house and lemonade guy
A whistle and horn kid

These days lemonade comes laced
With maraschinos and grenadine
Mrs. Fields caters the cookies
Whistles and horns arrive enshrined
In cellophane from Saks

These days kids sip guava punch
Nibble mandarin orange and anisette bars
Crave exotic flavors
And horns with the Hallmark label.

poem published with permission of the estate of Suzanne Richardson Harvey.

Monday, 25 October 2010

New Poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Eyewear is glad to feature a new poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, the Australian poetthis chilly Monday in late October.   Wallace-Crabbe (born 6 May 1934) is an Emeritus Professor in The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne.  He was Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University. He is now chair of the Australian Poetry Centre.  His New and Selected will be out from Carcanet in 2011.


       What is it, then, to love the world
     sipping its colour-patched enchantment
  from nub and frond, sepal or wavelet,
   to pierce unutterable blurring
  and perceive things clear?

      To do so will not stop the bombs
        nor silence fatal scripture-freaks.
     Oh, no. Seeing this fretwork patterning
of jacaranda on macadam
is no more than good in itself.

To lounge and think about beauty,
       "the unplumbed salt estranging sea",
    or a spider's wiry legs, twitching,
     only means owning art's eye,
    so there some of us are:

        neither a diplomat nor a killer be -
    a good thing, on the whole -
    but we claim our planetary vote
in flashes or yearnings of
      ostensible peace. And so there.

poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Review: The Social Network

David Fincher has been making Hollywood films since 1992, but it was fifteen years ago that he became a critical and commercial favourite with the stylish, dark and shocking Se7en.  Since then, he has made a handful of classic films, as good in their way as anything by Hitchcock or Kubrick, the directors he is most often compared to, in terms of theme and visual originality: Fight Club, and Zodiac.  He has also made a few mediocre films, like Panic Room and that Benjamin Button fiasco.  Zodiac marked a new level of maturity for the director - for that film is justifiably admired for its open-ended, Checkovian (nothing much happens) manner, combined with a low-thrumming menace.  Fincher is, notably, best at mise-en-scene.  He is, like Michael Mann, a stylist first and foremost.

Therefore, his new film, The Social Network, seems an anomaly, though it is about male competition, a regular concern.  It is not about violence (physical anyway) and is not particularly twisty; it also affords few obvious visual treats.  Instead, Fincher has made his masterpiece, with the genius of contemporary fast-paced dialogue, Aaron Sorkin.  I think this movie is one of the best of the new century, and is a sort of hyper-new Citizen Kane - a Citizen Com.  The Kane comparison is not merely cheap or idle - this film, too, charts the lonely rise of a media tycoon, who sacrifices true friendship along the way to the top, to build a questionable empire.  Both films feature a media start-up, exuberant early promise, madcap dialogue, and a dramatic structure that uses flashback to seek the truth.  Both are also centered in California, ultimately.

The Social Network's major achievement is its total transcendence of its supposed topic - a billionaire computer geek.  From the start, when we see a young Zuckerberg wending his way through Harvard Yard, with Trent Reznor's subtly ominous score, a sense of foreboding is built up, so that the title card, telling us this is 2003 hits with something of the impact of the cards in Schindler's List.  We are shocked to realise we are witnessing the making of a phenomenon that is insidious and has maximum culture-changing impact, almost in real time.  Never a docu-drama, the movie maximises the editing options, soundtrack, cinematography, and lighting, to create a hyper-real, very tense, and always entertaining battle of the wits between the uber-men of Harvard and the computer twits.  The film's anti-hero is a cypher, appropriately, as wired-in, and self-directed as any arch-villain in a comic, but also very normal, even sad.  His last act, of friending Erica Albright/Albrecht reminds us that Albright is his Rosebud - the early loss of genuine human contact that triggers a velocity of empty ascension; and her name also echoes the great renaissance artist and theorist.

Ultimately, the key line of dialogue, the key trope is the sentence "can we speak alone" - used several times in the film at key moments to indicate a breakdown of communication, in a public space.  In these instances, the poignant paradox of Facebook is glossed: there is no private space anymore now, and no one again will be able to really "speak alone".  The horror of the film is that a potentially antisocial genius has invented a new form of human communication that utterly transforms the landscape of human interaction. Five specs out of five.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Guest Review: Quintavalle on Mazer


There are worse role models than T. S. Eliot but reading through Ben Mazer’s Poems his presence can get a bit overwhelming. In “Crushed Rains” for instance where the narrator finds himself

wondering what’s become of failed romances,
missed opportunities, lost chances,
now twenty years of dinner and of dances,
            the felt but never undertaken stances

the reader is left to wonder where Prufrock ends and Mazer begins.  The two “Rhapsody on a Winter Night” poems make their allegiances even clearer by borrowing not just their mood and diction but also their title from the older poet. 

Another openly acknowledged influence on Mazer is John Ashbery whom he invokes in the poem “Death and Minstrelsy” – “there is not a single other/contemporary poet who I do admire” –  and whose disjunctive, campy, cinematic style can be felt throughout the book.  Ashbery returns the favour via a back cover blurb – “To read him is to follow him along a dreamlike corridor where everything is beautiful and nothing is as it seems” – which, while an accurate description of Mazer’s style, could equally be applied to Ashbery himself. 

Well, mutual back-scratching is nothing new in the world of poetry reviews and again, you could do worse than choosing to emulate Ashbery whose dominance over poetry in the second half of the 20th Century is comparable to Eliot’s in the first half.  But you could surely do better too.  Especially if you have the talent of Mazer who, judging by this book, is a prodigiously gifted writer.  There is a musicality to his verse which is genuinely pleasurable, both sensually and intellectually (“Unguent breath requires a text of song./A plectrum scattered at the old piano.”) and part of me wishes he would shrug off his forebears and do his own thing.  But this would be to make him the kind of poet which he is not.  This is poetry from the groves of East Coast academe – learned, world-weary, witty – and best to take it on its own terms, even if I find those terms slightly limiting. 

And on its own terms this is top-notch stuff.  “The Double” and “The Long Wharf” are beautiful poems and as late-romantic lyric poetry goes this is probably as good as it gets.  The long surrealist romp of “Tonga”, part-Edward Lear, part-Ronald Firbank is worth having as well.  When Mazer ventures into more experimental territory the results are less convincing: the block capitals of  “EVEN AS WE SPEAK” read like the textual equivalent of a politician trying to dress cool – chinos, ironed shirt and loafers; and the two and three word lines of “Before” seem sloppy when compared to such masters of the short line as Zukofsky or Creeley.  Mazer is at his best when he gives free rein to his lyricism (the longer poems in this collection seem stronger than the shorter ones) and when this book works there is something truly delightful to it, like kicking off your shoes and putting on the Schubert.

And yet, as should be clear by now, I was left unsatisfied by this collection.  Too often it felt like Mazer was staying within his comfort zone, that his wide reading and technical virtuosity were being used, not to confront the world but to keep it at a distance.  Invoking his idealized Tonga, Mazer declares “I want to live there, far from continents … the dizzying atmosphere/is what I seek, quite far from any mainland”.  This is the Yeatsian dream of Inisfree transposed to the southern hemisphere and as in Yeats’ poem, Mazer conjures up his dream island in glorious, sensual, musical language. But Yeats also wrote “September, 1913”, and there is precious little of that kind of writing in Mazer’s book.  While it is wonderful and necessary to escape to a fantasy world, any poet worth his or her salt must surely live in the here and now as well. 

Too much poetry can, paradoxically, kill the poet.  It did this to Rilke, it almost did it to Wilde before tragedy intervened (a tragedy which he seems to have been consciously seeking out by not fleeing England) and produced De Profundis and Reading Gaol.  I am not wishing civil war or imprisonment on Mazer, just hoping that he can let a little more of the world in at his New England window.  It would be a shame if such a talented poet were never to turn his attention to slightly more serious subject matter.

Quintavalle is a poet and acting poetry editor of Nthposition currently based in Paris.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Featured Poet: Robert Sheppard

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Robert Sheppard to these pages this Friday.  He was born in 1955 and educated at the University of East Anglia.  Sheppard's most recent books are the Complete Twentieth Century Blues from Salt which collects work produced over a decade or so and Warrant Error from Shearsman Books, his response to the 'September 12' we have been living through, whether we will or no. Also a critic, he has published recently a monograph on Iain Sinclair from Northcote House and has edited The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood. His Poetry of Saying is one of the major statements, along with Duncan's Failure of Conservatism, in the struggle of critique against the complacencies of the Movement/post-Movement mainstream.

He is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, Lancashire, and edits Pages as a blogzine.  He can be heard reading poems on The Archive of the Now.  Sheppard's writing -  of the left, and engaged with the ethics of poetics, questions, through his critical and literary works - the conservatism of much of British poetry - and is one of the key ouevres, in the last thirty years, of the UK "other" community of poets and writers, sometimes known as linguistically innovative.

Erotic Elegy

After Sigismunds Vidbergs’ Revolution (1925)

You thrash open the thick
Curtain interrupted we see

The troops bayonets
Fixed for entry they howl

For your sacks of gold
I moan for your reserves

Of desire both buried
I pillow against you breasts
Plumped in my shift
Brutal daylight

Shafts the length of my smooth
Legs from cool thigh

To bejewelled heel as I
Touch your arm I feel

You’re ready to split and
Spill but we tremble as one

Providential storks on
The drapery shake

A pane crashes somewhere
I know they’ll crack open

My curves like a shell
They’re weak with war my

Enriched lips captive on
Your captured plush will

Offer full account in
The speech of the Phoenix

That now I see is what smoulders
Upon the auspicious drape

August/October 2007


from ‘Out of Nowhere’

from Warrant Error

You build from song
an architecture of tumbles

a dance of stumbles on a shelf of air.
You name this the space left by the human.
You excavate Babylon or the strata of resting Jews
and the ribbons of tight ink on Pinkas Synagogue wall
with the surnames’ bejewelled rubrication

(Whenever erased they’re re-written
the act of their scrubbing
inscribed anew)

Stones leaning splinter through time
for those with no names
possess no death. You ex-
hume the ex-human in human unfinish

After the Last Word
of the dead text necrophliles come
our next words
which yet survive

as reasons
for living happily out
of nowhere and now

and then on to multitopia bearing
the stories so far

whose passions read as co-
eval becomings
geographies of affect in
capital Isness where
human unfinish is all about


            ‘… comme l’aube l’azur timide…’

She hangs heavy from her corset for this story
so far. She raises the arc of one red-dotted brow
and flutters firework lashes at her fist-headed vamp

They scowl into each other’s dark eyes but see only
nipples espying their true love through peepholes

The boy loves their leather fronds their clamped chokers.
He licks along twisted seams across buckled tattoos
through the purple mesh on their big legs swinging.
They mould themselves with man-maid passions.
She pushes her sex through his clench of meat

until her blind phallus drops as its straps sag.
Chained cuffs cover his un-pouched cock-ring.
She shrinks his gaze she bites her fake nails
while her lover’s glove kisses his lips, and he swoons

The poem sends itself from anywhere
to your little box there it replays it
over and over. No redial no recall.
Dead ears drop in your lap. Pause.
No reply possible skip onto Message Two

I see the twin cathedrals they’re twisting below
terror has been hijacked by artifice. Commas cower
along Hope St as we torque above them out of control
spluttering towards the radio tower full stop

That was your fake captain speaking
through me printing fear backwards
through his script. Out of nowhere

poems by Robert Sheppard

TS Eliots 2010

The TS Eliot Prize - there were apparently 123 eligible books this year.  I'd like to see the longlist of the other 113 - it would be far more refreshing.  What's set in?  Acclaim fatigue.  Heaney and Walcott, with their Nobels, don't need the attention or the money.  Either, of course, has a book good enough to win such a prize.  As do all of the other eight on this list. It seems sad the big news angle is that one of the poets is a "recovering heroin addict"!  Most poets I know are recovering from, or entering into, one addiction or another, at any given time, or facing some life crisis - as are we all.  That is the media's fault, the media that has managed to almost kill poetry dead in the UK with its stop-start attention.  Is it good that Annie Freud and Fiona Sampson and Pascale Petit - three of the best poets now writing in England - are noted?  Yes.  I think most exciting is the presence of Brian Turner here - a poet not widely known in the UK, yet.  Turner is arguably the most important "War poet" of this decade.  Of the others on the list, none is weak.  Robin Robertson is a poet's poet.  Armitage is a crowd pleaser.  Willets is a big debut.  Haynes is increasingly a formalist maestro.  All could win, if they could get from under the famous shadow.  Turner's winning the prize would be most appropriate as a summation of the 00s, if nothing else.  Walcott's White Egrets is one of the greatest late works in the high modernist style since Yeats.  Too close to call.  But - where are the Salt books?  Where is the breakthrough of the performance poets, the avant-garde, the youth wave?  In those other 113, lies the future of British poetry, unless in Britain, poetry's future is endlessly repressed, always to return as the angry margin.

Bob Guccione Has Died

As a Catholic feminist it might raise some eyebrows to say the following, but, like St Augustine, I was not always thus; there were days of stolen pears, so to speak, in my youth.  So, let me briefly say, that, apart from my father, and my Uncle Jack, and perhaps Oscar Wilde, Pierre Trudeau and Alistair MacLean, I can think of no man more influential to me before the age of 14 than Bob Guccione (not even Hugh Hefner).  It was - no longer I imagine - a boyhood rite of passage in Canada, in the 1970s and 1980s, to steal and swap copies of one's Dad's Penthouse magazines, and, frankly, to enjoy them.

Guccione's aesthetic had a great impact on my teen imaginary - he had wanted to be an artist, and had a strange overlush taste, and photographed his nudes both provocatively, but, in the early days, with a respect that placed the solitary women in picturesque settings - the Penthouse sublime involving pearls, and nylons, and peacock feathers, and wrought iron beds, and big pillows.  It was, of course, pornography - which has its faults that needn't be discussed here (that's a longer conversation and one worth having).  For, despite and because of what it was (I knew it when I saw it) I was drawn to Guccione's vision of a decadent world of voluptuous available women.  Guccione's magazine became increasingly shocking, trying to compete with Hustler's outright misogyny, and some of its experiments with iconography and iconoclastic imagery (Nazi lesbians, for instance) were taboos too far.  Guccione's own life was tragi-comic.

He had many kids and wives, and lived, at one point, in the biggest house in Manhattan, a multimillionaire and (in America at least) a household, notorious, name.  Penthouse was synonymous with middle-class evil - it penetrated our lives excitingly but we knew it was wrong.  The Internet killed that, as did some other business dealings, and Guccione died a failed artist, basically penniless, of a dreadful cancer - but, it should be added, at almost 80 years of age.  He was, if not an artist, a key public bohemian of his age - an aesthete of questionable taste, but an aesthete nonetheless.  I briefly worked for his company, GMI, some thirteen years ago, and though in his offices once in New York, didn't meet him.  Apparently he kept to himself.  The limousines, the swings, the antebellum outfits, the bad puns - "any pet in a storm" - the infamous Letters - Penthouse was the Stones to Playboy's Beatles.

Film Illiteracy

Now that the Guardian has listed its top 25 films in 7 categories (Horror, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Action, Art-House, Comedy, Crime and Romance) I must observe the following - any list of the top 175 movies which does not include, in no order, Shane, The Third Man, The Silence of the Lambs, 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea, Fantasia, Rambo, The Shawshank Redemption,  Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Majestyk, Ice Station Zebra, The Poseidon Adventure, The Wrath of Khan, Pretty Woman, The Elephant Man, Out of Africa, Sophie's Choice, Schindler's List, The Sting, Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Midnight Cowboy, Titanic, or An Officer and a Gentleman, can hardly be said to represent the best of genre films.  On the other hand, it is good to see Mulholland Dr., Pulp Fiction, Touch of Evil, Vertigo, Peeping Tom, Days of Heaven, and a few other classics, there.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

New Poem by Peter Oswald

Eyewear is very glad to feature a new poem this Wednesday by Peter Oswald.  He is a playwright, poet, and performer. He has had verse plays performed at the Globe Theatre, National Theatre, and on Broadway. His many plays are published by Oxford University Press, Methuen, and Oberon Books.

Cold May

Cold May comes through the window - trembling panes
Have marked its passage through the glass and through
The water of our glances, down the lanes
Of lungs, trees shaken by its nowhere-blue.
The sight of its no-face where cloud-thoughts pass
Through its unmind, will wipe your face away,
A finger-picture on the misted glass,
And put you where it was, so that cold May
Is looking out at you. See where it stares
Out at you now, two children eating toast,
Normally noisy but now hushed as hares.
Cold May has filled them with its shivering ghost,
And you must change and come back to them soon,
With all the shouting sunlight of warm June.

poem by Peter Oswald

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Guest Review: Naomi on Petit

Katrina Naomi reviews
by Pascale Petit

That Pascale Petit originally trained and worked as a sculptor is evident in these finely wrought poems. While many of us may work in response to paintings (or other art forms), I suspect that few would be able to create and sustain such a vivid and varied full-length collection as What the Water Gave Me.

Every poem takes a painting by the celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as it starting point. I’m an admirer of Kahlo’s paintings and feel I know her work fairly well; therefore I wondered what Petit could show me that I hadn’t already ’seen’ or experienced for myself. The answer is, plenty.

I’ve thought about writing a collection in response to two of my favourite (very different) painters - Paula Rego and Stanley Spencer - but would worry that a whole book dedicated to each would be dull. Yet there’s no such worries here. I don’t think Petit could write a dull poem if she tried. And for the most part, these poems couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Petit’s work, her signature is scrawled large on these poems (even when she takes on Kahlo’s voice). Here are the hummingbirds, the almost ‘casual violence’ of the language of her poetry, along with a typically abundant (and for this reviewer, highly welcome) dose of magic realism.

For anyone who isn’t so familiar with Kahlo’s life history, Petit has provided a brief ‘Author’s note’ at the start of the book, which highlights, among other things: Kahlo’s polio as a child, her near-fatal bus accident as a teenager (which left her in constant pain for the rest of her life) and her stormy marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera.

Petit explains that the poems (including several sequences) all bear the title of one of Kahlo’s paintings. She has chosen to present the 53 poems in more or less chronological order, in terms of the events of Kahlo’s life. It is worth noting that 14 of these poems first appeared in a Smith Doorstep pamphlet The Wounded Deer (a first stage winner in the 2004 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition). If you’ve already read and enjoyed The Wounded Deer, you’ll enjoy What the Water Gave Me.

However, as already alluded to, Petit’s poetry is rarely an easy read. The constant theme of this new collection could be said to be pain - and the possibility of its alleviation through art and contact with nature (primarily in the form of animals or birds). I would suggest that another less immediately obvious theme is that of sex. In ‘The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened’, for example, sex is akin to rape and to being hunted down. Sex in ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’ has its own violence:        
‘When the moment came for you to enter me
I grinned at the sugar skulls and wax doves
            and tried not to think of the tram,
            the handrail piercing me like a first lover,
            and me bouncing forward, my clothes torn off,
            my body sparkling with gold powder’ […]

Yet, the poem ends with Kahlo stating that she’ll try again tomorrow night ‘to get this sex thing right, and the night after that’.

Yet, with Petit’s poetry, we are never told what to think. Of the more ‘sexual poems’, one of my favourites is ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, which again recalls the instance of Kahlo’s accident, when she was pierced by a metal rod. Here are two excerpts:
‘Whenever we make love, you say
it’s like fucking a crash -
I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.’[…]

I didn’t expect love to feel like this -
you holding me down with your knee,
wrenching the steel rod from my charred body
quickly, kindly, setting me free’.

Petit finds beauty in the ugliest of circumstances; for the most part these can be unsettling poems, yet Petit frequently offers some redemption (as befits the theme of art conquering pain); and Petit’s imagery is likely to stay with any reader long after they’ve finished her collection. Petit’s imagery is powerful, disturbing and highly resonant; consider this extract from ‘Fruits of the Earth’:
            ‘[…]the girl
            who once glimpsed a woman running
            down the street with her intestines in her hands,
            holding them up like the fruits of the earth.’

Or from ‘Prickly Pears’, (the ‘third eye’ here belongs to her husband Rivera):

            ‘whose third eye can see
            into the abbatoir of my chest

            where my heart hangs
            from a meat-hook.’

Whatever can spill out from a body (or indeed from a painting) into a poem does. Indeed, for all of the dark subject matter, there is a wonderful sense of thrill and urgency throughout this collection. Colour and emotion abound.

I’ve never read a poem about childbirth like this. From ‘My Birth’:
            ‘[…] Look at how
            I wear my mother’s body
            like a regional dress -

            its collar gripping my neck.
            For now, her legs are my arms,
            her sex is my necklace.’

Petit is seemingly unafraid of tackling any subject (which is, for this reviewer, part of what makes her such an exciting poet). ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’ is anything but ‘another suicide poem’:

            ‘Never have clouds
            tried to be so solid
            wanting to break your fall […]
            the air frothy
            as an epileptic’s mouth […]
            when the window spoke its glass vowels
                        that drew you to the balcony.’

I’d like to end with a complete, short, poem, ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’, which I feel typifies some of what Petit can do in terms of imagery, language and craft. It’s a poem that I’ve used at several workshops on writing from art. However many times I read this poem, I always see something new, just as I might if I were looking at the work of a favourite painter. And I think Kahlo would approve.

            Self-Portrait with Monkey

            The bristles on my brushes work
            like furtive birds. Hours pass.
            When the painting starts to rustle,
            Fulang-Chang grips my neck,
            too frightened even to yelp. As if
            the leaves are hiding a forest floor
            where I have buried a troop of monkeys
            alive. As if the only sound in this
            whole house is the breathing of animals
            through thin straws, even tonight,
            when it’s too late, and I am long dead.
            And you, brave viewer, meet my gaze.

Katrina Naomi’s first collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake (Templar Poetry) was shortlisted for the 2010 London Fringe Festival New Poetry Award. 

Monday, 18 October 2010

Do we dig them too?

Sean O'Brien's review of the latest (12th) Seamus Heaney collection, Human Chain, in this weekend's Financial Times - a rather blue chip journal - opens with the statement, unqualified, that Heaney is the English-language world's greatest living poet.  The certainty of the statement (unverifiable?) took me aback, though I am sure that many poets, critics, and readers enjoy the idea of there being such a poet, and that great poet being Heaney.

I find the rectitude in some of Heaney's work to be too fine, too crafted - as if his genius had been sifted through a mesh that categorically removed the grit and rage and lust, and left only nobler particles.  He is without doubt one of the greatest.  The Greatest?  Ali had that title, but he was Ali.  I recall a time when, in the late Thirties, co-living poets would have included WB Yeats, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, as well as HD, Marianne Moore and Robert Frost.  Now, that time is not surpassed by our great fortune, and even then, it would have been unwise to anoint one to be the greatest, though if I could have, I might have said Yeats and Eliot were tied.

Heaney, it seems to me, is among a constellation of greatness, that would have to include Derek Walcott, Anne Carson, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, John Ashbery, Medbh McGuckian, Geoffrey Hill, and a few others.  I understand why, for many British and Irish readers, Heaney's work rears titanic - not least because he seems to follow directly from the line of Hughes - and because his rather wonderful sense of the sound and sense of poetry combines the organic rootedness of Wordsworth with the sometimes classical imaginary of Frost, or later Eliot. He is an exemplary poetic figure for our deracinated times, and seems to offer the quality control we feel might have been lost by the infamous "too many poets" there actually are.  With a lot of jabber at the gates, crown a king.

There's rather a bit too much Virgil in Heaney, for my liking - how many times can one poet descend to the underground before they should get a season ticket? - I consider Larkin a greater poet, and his myth-kitty was subtly bare.  I look forward to his letters to Monica.  By the way, Anthony Thwaite seems to me to be a great English poet, as is Dannie Absie a great Welsh poet.  Where is the advocacy for these older poets?  Effortless praise has raised the oeuvre of Heaney out of the sometimes sensible range of human discussion.  It is time to widen the casting of praise to reach more open ground.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Mandelbrot Has Died

A genius of mathematics - the literal visionary who allowed us all to see the world anew - Mandelbrot has died.  Fractals inspired countless writers, artists, as well as scientists.  Here is a link to Alice Fulton's essay on Fractals in poetry.

The Death of Mandelbrot

Within shape the shape in-widens
its own owning of imagination
the slice of ginger gingerly slid off a knife
as each blade is the lawn, as fern informs
infernal logic, fanning out sloughing
green.  Lightning makes its mark marking sky-light.
Snow flakes off snow to make and break ice small
and right, hot at heart with the thump of delight –
each jag and messy turn or spin a boomerang
that bangs back the yin.  I think
I cannot understand how all spreads:
peacock's flamboyance, shell's hard-luck contours,
a brilliant argument of whorls –
contains its own brand making as the hand made

fingertip's twirling private name speaking
breaking into bigger complications
that turn small and smaller, snick down.
Unnatural how nature snarls out its fame:
ridges and rivulets flame,
plucking the pane’s rain-dance open -
burn and drop both strewn
with numerate dazzling –
coast of legerdemain curling
deepness up to origin again.
Bolts of whiteness crack but will not strain.
Whitennes bolting does
force alight music
alert to straining crackles, curvaceous night.

poem by Todd Swift

(revised version from original post)

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