Sunday, May 20, 2012


Price: £8.99 ISBN: 978-0-9570984-3-5. pub. Nine Arches.

This is the first full-length collection that C.J. Allen has published since his 'New and Selected' from Leafe Press. Full of vintage Allen work, it comes highly recommended:

The Memory of Rain

The memory of rain on public parks
and tennis courts. The acres of regrets.
Sunset on the disused printing works,
as good as gold, as good as sunset gets.
The railings with their eczema of rust
you stood in front of once when you were nine
and watched the sky turn colourless and vast.
Dust like old grey blankets. Then more rain.

And love was once the very latest craze,
like alchohol, or sex, or Benzedrine,
and kicked in like all three. On quiet days
you'd watch the old men on the bowling green
and listen to their antiquated banter,
and go for walks, and feel a bit nonplussed,
and head for home and think about the winter
in rooms filled up with sunlight and with dust.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Roy Marshall, Laressa Dickey, Amy De'Ath

Roy Marshall, 'Gopagilla' (Crystal Clear Creators)

Laressa Dickey, 'Companions, Corps of Discovery' (Miel Books)

Amy De'ath, 'Erec and Enide' (Salt Publishing)

I have a (as yet untested) notion that the quality of most published poetry is higher than it was back in the days when output was controlled by a few London publishing houses, and most published poets were educated at Oxford. My contention is supported by three pamphlets I picked up at the Leicester book fair back in March. All three poets are at the beginning of their careers, or at least of their careers as published poets, although I believe that Roy Marshall, the oldest of the three, has been writing poetry for some time, and has recently returned after a long lay-off (usually a good sign).

Of these three, Roy Marshall's poetry is the most conventional; his writing contains emotional responses to observed events, subjective commentary on the external world and employs pathos in description of such things as family bonds and the passage of time, all of which is executed with enviable skill. What marks this poet out from many writing in a similar vein is the knack for highlighting the particulars that capture an emotion or encapsulate a story:

The circuitry of crickets on the air,
his red wine and cigarette breath,
a sickle and scythe laid aside,
and rosemary scent, rising.

The valley draped in wood-smoke webs,
my hair ruffled by his hardened hand...

Close observation, combined with beautifully-judged phrasing. Wayne Burrows, in his foreword, talks of Marshall's '...compression and unforced lyricism..' which is about right, but such attributes don't come without hard work and a long poetic apprenticeship; both of which Marshall evidently put in before bringing out this first slim collection. This pamphlet comes from the excellent series of first collections by Leicester-based Crystal Clear Creators.

Marshall's poems have a theme of family history and reconciliation running through them. I quote the following poem in full to show the skill and economy at work here:

National Service

Smaller wars can be fogotten between wars;
afterwards wars, the months and years of enforced peace.

A man of my Dad's generation told me how
you could go from Nissan hut and blancoed coal

to Korea, in a week, how a lad might replace a sentry
who'd been shot that evening;

how, at nineteen, you might catch shrapnel
in your spine and wheel-chair bound

get home to find your teens at an end
and the swinging sixties just beginning.

Laressa Dickey is American, and writes a poetry which is in a recognizably American style; spare and laconic, with its cadences rooted in everyday speech, not dissimilar to the poetry of Shannon Tharp, whom I recently reviewed. Compared to Marshall, Dickey's verse is more abstract, and its effects are reinforced by its spacing on the page. Phrases are lifted from their surrounding language to float as self-contained linguistic units.

You can go where you are not wanted

think those places slowly

without actually breaking skin

The impression I got from this poetry was rootlessness and distance; something reflecting perhaps the vast physical dimensions of the USA. I was confirmed in this feeling by reading the afterword, in which Dickey says:

'In my imagination, since I was a young girl, Amelia Earhart has been crossing the ocean and roaming the skies continuously. The memory of flight, the memory of roaming'.

The poems also touch on the domestic lives of women. Dickey asks 'what is it to be a women living - with what am I to concern myself.'  The poems address this question in snatches of words, like entries in a notebook:

Pretend love is a rocket, small salad greens
I note the seasons

I want to be a beautiful

impromptu meetings on limestone hills

When reading these poems I found myself, rather than reading serially, instead scanning the page, and flicking back and forwards in the book, which seems to be a way to let these pieces of language work their meditative effects:

go farther down to board

That evening I was quiet

I believed a song was boarding

The most linguistically innovative poet of these three is Amy De'Ath. The medieval story of Eric and Enide provides a loose framework around which youthful poems of love and desire are constructed, alongside more literary and intertextual poems. The poetry is clearly influenced by Language poetry, and the notes at the back reference Chretien de Troyes, Emily Dickinson, Virgil and John Clare. The language is woven from statements and phrases which at times appear to make sense, and to relate to the adjacent phrases, but most often veer in unexpected and disorienting directions.In this, De'Ath reminds me of the British poets of the 1940s who are being recovered and used as models by many left-field contemporary poets. Here's a poet writing in 1942:

Should I be here in this rare scaffolding
Clutching the promise of primrose?
You with a yokel handful of blight
Pitching your jacket on gowan,
Conceal the hollow in the core of love
For fear will fast after it move.

and here's De'Ath.

How to glide on promise
hunted hunted honed the sky
alone lacking ground a sky
alone on the border of a shadow
of a cloud betrothed and hunted

What's common here is both the lyric impulse, and the denial of a foothold for the reader, thus keeping the attention at surface level, at the level of the language itself. This produces some beautiful effects, and provides an invigorating read; although it's hard on the reader, in comparison with the direct statement and connection with the external world provided by a poet like Roy Marshall.

It should go without saying that I'd recommend anyone to buy and read these three poets.

Anyone recognize the 1940s poet?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Welch on Lowenstein

Review: 'Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry' by Tom Lowenstein. (Shearsman Books, £9.95)

"The poems in this volume", writes Tom Lowenstein in his introduction, "have all emerged from ethnographic work in Northwest Alaska and come from three separate periods of writing spread over thirty years". In 1993 Bloomsbury published Lowenstein's "Ancient Land: Sacred Whale". Subtitled "The Inuit Hunt and Its Rituals" this account of Eskimo life on the Peninsula of Tikiraq in Alaska focussing on the traditional whale hunt was narrated largely in verse, interspersed with prose sections giving background material. At the time, it attracted some very favourable reviews, in the London Review of Books and elsewhere. But one is struck by the fact that it was reviewed by critics who by and large, did not otherwise write about poetry, and in the poetry magazines the book went largely unacknowledged. It is not as if Lowenstein didn't have a track record. His first book publication had been a collection of translations of Eskimo poetry, made from the versions of the Danish originally collected by Rassmussen; this appeared from Allison and Busby in 1973 at about the same time as his fieldwork in Alaska was getting under way. The first collection of his own poetry to appear, "The Death of Mrs Owl", came out from Anvil in 1977, and in 1978 The Many Press (and here, as the press's founder perhaps I should declare an interest) brought out "Filibustering in Samsara". It is as if, when the Bloomsbury book appeared, people where not quite sure where to place these texts.

To read the full review, click here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Servant of the Royal Household

As I've been reminded by James Shapiro's excellent BBC4 documentary, Britain's most influential writer, national artistic icon and cultural export - not to mention literary Olympian - was effectively a servant of the Royal household, paid to entertain, not to say flatter, the King, which he did very effectively. I wonder how much this has influenced British history and helped keep the monarchy in place. I know the plays are ambiguous, ambivalent, questioning and quite clearly transcend their author's role as Royal lackey. But its still easy to construct a composite 'Shakespearean' view that works to support the British monarchy. Indeed, some of the speeches of the history plays are an accepted part of the royalist narrative. Had our foremost poet / dramatist been from the nineteenth century (being a post-revolutionary, more egalitarian era), as were Hugo or Baudelaire in France, or had he been an outsider in the way that, arguably, Dante was in Italy, or, say, Whitman and Dickinson were in the USA, how differently would British history have turned out? I'm not suggesting the the plays' investigations of power and politics are limited, or that, transferred to other cultures, they can't act as powerful challenges to authority; I'm just musing on their influence on Britain and its monarchy; could they be partly responsible for the fact the we're subjects, not citizens, and that our government and top layers of society are - even in the 21st century - stuffed with Lords, Ladies, Dames, Knights, Dukes and Princes?

The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic, London

Not only did I get to see this superb production the other, but I was lucky enough to go on a night when the main cast members came on stage at the end to conduct a question-and-answer session with the audience. Only a handful of people stayed, so it was quite casual and intimate; quite a privilege. Eve Best (who was wonderful in the title role) said that that she found it harder to learn lines of this play than any other play she'd acted in. The other cast members concurred, suggesting that it was the irregularity of the verse, and its regular lapses into prose that made it difficult. Everyone agreed however, that 'The Duchess of Malfi' contains wonderful poetry. The irregularity of the verse may be because its a relatively late Jacobean work, written in the year of Shakespeare's death.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Scott Thurston on Robert Sheppard's 'The Lores'

Indoor utopia welfare pastoral

The Lores: Robert Sheppard  Reality Street Editions £7.50 ISBN 1-874400-23-7

The Lores, like Empty Diaries, constitutes a major section of Sheppard’s remarkable Twentieth Century Blues project. Like Empty Diaries, it is partly based on mathematical modes of construction, in this case, as Sheppard explains, the number of words in the book – 5040 – derives from Plato’s ideal number of citizens for his second Republic. As Sheppard explains, the fact that this number is divisible by most numbers makes it useful for ‘raising the taxes and militia, and – doubtless – for surveillance’. The tension between Plato’s laws and Sheppard’s lores, suggests the argument underlying the text – that absolute models of power must be resisted and replaced by plurality, even locality in the form of ‘bye-lores’. The poetics of this plurality are documented in Sheppard’s text ‘Linking the Unlinkable’, collected in his Far Language (Stride, 1999). A response to the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard in ‘Discussions, or phrasing “after Auschwitz”’ and Jacques Derrida’s reply to this lecture, Sheppard sketches a poetics of the ‘creative linkage’ of phrases (as opposed to the ‘authority of the sentence’), as a model of ethical writing which argues with Adorno’s notion that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. As Derrida writes: ‘If there is somewhere a One must it must link up with a one must make links with Auschwitz’. Creative linkage is a means by which disparate materials may be yoked together in a politicised poetical discourse. This is not the same as juxtaposition – the links must appear both more and less disruptive, so that they persuade by their connection.

To read the full review, click here: