Friday, July 31, 2009

Tom Chivers on Barry MacSweeney

Two great poets in conversation -- OK, Barry MacSweeney is dead, but his spirit lives on, and Tom Chivers hears it singing in the landscape of the North-East that they both share. I fell in love with MacSweeney's poetry during my undergrad and this post has sent me back to my box of chapbooks for Pearl. As Tom writes, in Pearl
Barry remembers a childhood romance with a local girl he calls “Pearl”, whose palate is cleft: she cannot speak. The “a-a-a-a-a-” in the poem becomes an agonised utterance in the powerful theatre of Barry’s live readings. The Pearl sequence is more than mere nostalgia for place. Much more. It is memory passed through the gauze of lived experience, the demons that taunted the poet’s psyche. The demons of drink that would eventually catch up with him, mouths rustling with knives. Innocence crushed. Spoilt beauty. A broken landscape, populated by ‘the turbo-mob, weird souls dreaming of car-reg / numbers and mobile phone codes’.
It's full of cracked allusions to the medieval Pearl poem written by the same poet as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. [I have some issues with the inarticulate-woman-as-landscape trope, see also Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, but Pearl is never simply an allegory, nor is she a mirror for MacSweeney's own struggles to articulate tenderness and rage, but a real person].

Tom's made a radio doc about a pilgrimage to MacSweeney's landscapes, and this is a great post about the journey on My Place Or Yours, bloghotspot for poetic psychogeography.

MacSweeney's books Wolf Tongue and The Book of Demons are published by Bloodaxe.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Inger Christensen, It

Do you have a pile of books that defeated you on first read? I do: they include One Hundred Years of Solitude, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, and Inger Christensen's It are the top of the pile, the books that spring to mind when thinking about coming back from defeat to a second attempt (I've never managed a second attempt on Orhan Pamuk, though, having read the first 100 pages of three of his books). And in the second attempt, the re-visitation of what at first seemed so alien and alienating, a special pleasure emerges -- maybe like the pleasure of very early reading, when each new word or syntax offered the same sense of encounter, confusion and illumination. What all three books share is there utterly immersive worlds, their uncompromising immediacy and idiosyncracy, so that to read each book is to invent a world.

It's pleasure accrues even more so as the book-length poem is, as Anne Carson points out in her introduction, a cosmogony and a cosmology, a brief history of time described as the power of language and the imagination. It, for Christensen, is both fear and love, and the language that they make people spill as they imagine worlds into being. Unlike Hesiod's cosmology, which wants to assert that we have fallen from a golden age, Christensen's cosmology is of its moment in 1969, a radical call that - in language, and in language's ability to set free the imagination and the body - another world is possible.

I began my re-reading with the introduction, and approached the book anew with an amazing fact in mind, communicated to Carson by translator Susanna Nied: the book was
a huge popular favourite, It was quoted by political protestors and politicians alike; lines from it appeared as graffiti around Copenhagen; some parts were set to rock music and became esoteric hits.
Which is in danger of making the book sound a bit like Julie Taymor's Across the Universe: a whimsical tour of the most crushingly obvious bits of 60's protest culture. There are definitely invocations of sexual and social abandon as the poem unfolds, but they are embedded in the most blistering, subtle, surreal, beautiful, maddening, evocative accounts of the ills of consumer capitalism and the military-industrial complex.

Probably my favourite representation of this imbrication of Christensen's surreal poetic/prophetic imagination and her social conscience comes TEXT, the third section of middle chapter LOGOS {the book is mathematically structured]. Reminiscent at once of Ursula K. Le Guin and Janet Frame, this section re-creates the world in eight stages: sand, light, water, grass, summer heat, paper, snow, beds, first as a series of decontextualised fables, then as the account of a patient in a mental hospital struggling to prove her sanity, then as instructions for protestors, and finally as a limpid and haunting image of a protest in museum, live bodies and dead cultures curling around one another. Criss-crossed by the repetition of phrases, and painstakingly creating and changing voices and contexts, this section left me at once in awe of the structural and lyrical brain behind it and exhilarated by the immediacy of political poetry without dogmatism.

I could imagine G20 protestors shouting out lines from these poems in London earlier this year -- not least because the Danish title, det, is deeply suggestive. There are several poems where Christensen deals with the spiralling asymmetries created by ideas of ownership (of bodies, of objects, of language), writing that her poetry is "all something I've borrowed from the world" (STAGE/variabilities/4), thinking about writing and readership as debt -- or gift -- relationships. This is no easy happy-clappy one-for-all culture being proposed, but a thoughtful and precise devolution of the concept of ownership that still preserves some kind of selfhood: again, echoes of Le Guin, here The Dispossessed.

Like Le Guin, Christensen is gently insistent on sexuality and human touch as the indefatigable source of resistance to power, a tenderness that admits the humour of human sexuality and finds further resistance and invention in it:
Things comply with the lovers/be-
cause the lovers comply with things

if making love is prohibited/the lovers
comply with the prohibition and call it

something else/when those in power arrive
at the scene of the crime/they see only

the dust and the toppled statues/the helpless
hands and the skulls' broken edges/the whole

illiterate passion/and smile
everything is stifled/the very process

as such is shattered/everything is ridiculous
old ruins and muteness/they do not see

all the naked demonstrators/who tenderly
press themselves against the broken marble figures (TEXTS/extensions/4)
Undoubtedly, it's my extensive geekiness that causes me to imagine this scene taking place in the wrecked museum on Caprica where Starbuck goes to retrieve the arrow in Galactica Season 2. But there is something science-fictiony about Christensen's writing...

It's not just her dealings in an ambiguous utopia, a projected world, or in the fabular. It's not just that she speculates, nor that she populates her poems with oddities and juxtapositions, although they accomplish astonishing shifts of perspective and mood that a novelist would require a full book to assert. I have to quote her Lysistrata in this context:
There are lesbian feminists
hefty flesh-worshiping matrons

Bernini figures set free
baying swans

land in a plaza during siesta
line up for a protest march

naked procession through the streets
Clytemnestra in the lead

pure provocation
So what is it that sets this apart from Adrienne Rich's testament to a similar era? That surreal shift to seeing the protestors as "Bernini figures set free" and the storied reference to "Clytemnestra in the lead"? I think it's an attitude, one that Christensen sums up in STAGE/connectivities/5:
I've tried to tell about a world that doesn't exist
in order to make it exist...

I've tried to keep the world at a distance. It's been easy.
I'm used to keeping the world at a distance. I'm alien.
But this is more than Martian poetry because its riddles are political, an attempt to use poetic (il)logic to unravel the detrimental illogics of a capitalist society.

Call it what you will: speculative fiction, utopian fiction, imaginative literature. Guardian blogs and a Nobel prize for Doris Lessing notwithstanding, it's a pretty maligned genre in the serious literary world, where realism is still the (yawn) gold standard. And, let's face it, because most SF is socially and politically conservative, repetitive nonsense (but then so is most realist literary fiction). Christensen doesn't set out to show a world we know accoutred with a few snazzy toys or filtered through a kooky outsider: she wants to re-make the world, or rather she wants us to re-make it for ourselves, to recognise the world, and the language that invents and defines it, as partial, temporary, changeable, beautiful, and funny. Because we can love it and laugh at it, the world is subject to our agency -- as we are to its, as the writer is to the reader's. That causality and interconnection is why she chooses to structure LOGOS using eight terms coined by linguist Viggo Brøndal to analyze and categorize prepositional relationships: symmetry, transitivity, continuity, connectivity, variability, extension, integrity and universality. Christensen's poetry not only encompasses, but activates them, all. And while I love her fables and braided narratives, it's her reinvention of the lyric image (decentring the individual, deprettyfying nature, being funny) that lifts me into a new relationship with language and the world.
My world is discontinuous
in relation to the world as a whole
and in relation to you
it has wings

My world is a language through water
with the shining nerves distributed
as when the sun in water randomly generously
anyway it has wings

Wings of water

And I want you to know that it has a certain effect
it has a certain tingly effect
a rejoicing in the absence of cause
Leap says the world and I fly

That's how I drown my world in the world (STAGE/variabilities/5)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lorna Goodison, Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems

I've been reading a lot of poetry in translation recently, principally from Arc's Visible Translations series, but also from Carcanet. Maybe it's just because Guinea Woman shares a publisher with Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard and Inger Christensen's It (see previous and forthcoming blog posts respectively) but I found myself approaching Lorna Goodison's work as if in translation.

I've also read Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems this year, and Goodison's beautiful memoir From Harvey River, so maybe the feeling of translation stems from the *un*familiarity of hearing one story told in three, or more, ways. Family tales and figures from Jamaican history recur across the three books symphonically. Somehow, the more immersed I become in Morant Bay and nayga bikkle, the more I feel that I am on unfamiliar ground as the detail brings me up close to a world that I know only through words.

That's not to say that Goodison's poetry is alienating: not at all. It is so absorbing, such sensurround writing, that reading it has the qualities of walking through a particularly vivid dream. Or rather, that's how I want to take delight in it. I follow the rigorous yet compassionate intellect that excoriates the legacy of colonialism. I follow the narrative of family and home and love. But I want to reside in this poetry as something beyond lyric's conventional trompe l'oeil, its trick of the word. It moves (in) my body the way that watching dance does, and I've never been able to write about watching dance. I need to take up the challenge suggested by the excellent feminist poetry blog delirious hem for their August forum. They are inviting submissions to O Say Can You See: nonverbal reviews and adaptations of women's poetry.

I'd like to cook my response to Goodison's work (which is alive with food, both picked and cooked), or dance it, or paint it -- Goodison is a visual artist as well; the cover painting is her own. Her poetry urges me to reach beyond my verbal skills, the wordplay I fall back on, and find embodied, five-sense expression for the sheer joy that her work releases in me. Of course, that sounds like a get-out clause ("Miss, I can't write my essay, I'm too overwhelmed by the physical pleasures of the text") and some kind of racist echo: "Oh, this Caribbean poetry is *so* physical, not literary and intellectual like "our" writing." Which is a problem of the EuroWestern dichotomous brain: if I talk about a poetry being sensuous, physical, spiritual, colourful, sexual, edible, it's immediately in the column with "female" and "non-white", as if poems that make the reader want to dance, eat, make love, run in the rain, travel, listen to grandmothers' stories, cook, sew, or laugh are second-best.

Goodison's poem "For Love of Marpessa Dawn," about a boy who falls so madly in love with the performer who played Eurydice in Black Orpheus that he convinced himself he was going to Brazil to rescue her, speaks with a warmth that is both affective and political of the non-rational inspirations of art. "We were / willing to make that leap of faith," she writes, "For we were all misplaced beings / our true selves ripped from the world book / of myths." There are poems in this book that could make me run to Jamaica to fall in love with Aunt Rose and her honey advice. It's a poetry that makes me want to serenade beneath windows as Garth Baker intends to do in Rio.

One reason that I started writing these poetry reading notes last month was to get away from the idea that practical criticism, close reading and intellectual analysis are the only acceptable ways to approach poetry. At the same time, I wanted to be rigorous in discussing how poetry affected me emotionally, physically, imaginatively and intellectually. So how does Goodison's poetry open my mindbody up to its rhythms and images? There are a number of modes and moods in the book, including incantatory poems that draw on Rastafari. There are also a number of "writing back" poems, such as "To Mr William Wordsworth, Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland," which rework the colonial relationship between Britain and Jamaica, drawing them closer and redressing historical asymmetries in a way reminiscent of Derek Walcott's work. There are many poems that bring to life memories and family histories, like "Coir" and "In City Gardens Grow No Roses as We Know Them," rich in specific flavours and speech rhythms that prefigure the intensely immersive recall of From Harvey River. And there are tender love poems like "Domestic Incense" and "A Bed of Mint" that reach back into the traditions of pre-Islamic Arabic love poetry to engender a spiritual and located erotic.

But the poems that engage me the most in terms of wanting to *write* about them, to quote them and share them, to testify about them, are a series that run throughout the book about the poet as woman/woman as poet, and the strange practice of poetry. Sometimes witty and lighthearted -- like "The Mango of Poetry" -- and sometimes lucid and medicinal as a meditation, like "Sometimes on Days Such as This," these poems are vital and astonishing, and speak something about poetry *as* embodied practice, as lived experience, that I don't think I've heard elsewhere. Goodison reveals this as "Bringing the Wild Woman Indoors," in one of the many poems in which she writes exactly about the bodily rituals that the rest of us might gloss over as habits. She sanctifies these practices of cleansing and robing not as civilisation or religion, but as tenderness, when she envisions the freshly bathed and dressed poet greeting her wild "disheveled and weeping" self, and brings "her to live inside with [her] forever." Rather than a duality of raw and cooked, the poet casts both "starched garments of white" and a "half-hemmed dress" as poses, costumes, attitudes that do not separate but parallel the "true sister[s]."

"Some Things You Do Not Know about Me" unwinds from its disingenuous title to become a rapturous account of the act of creation, a Genesis story grounded in the details of the poet's cup "rich brown like bitter chocolate" and the evening's cooking. It's a glimpse at once intimate and universal, the poet engaged in a dervish as the poem's flow sets her dancing:
Round and round the table I go
till my wild whirling
shaves the edges off the square table,
and I'm whirling now around a round table.
I go so until I fall down,
and wherever my feet are pointed
it is there that I take the poem.
Like this one, I think now I will have to take it East,
so I will light a stick of incense
and play Bob Dylan wondering
if she might be in Tangier.
Or I just might sit quietly
and take my own self there.
There's room in this ecstasy for the domestic, for music, for tired feet -- and space, too, for the layering of "there": the poem's East, Tangier, the imagination. Above all, "there" is the body not as vehicle for possession, nor as transport system for the mind, but as the threshold for the self, which is poetry.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The War Works Hard [Al Harb Ta Malu Bi Jid], Dunya Mikhail

I've been meaning to read The War Works Hard, but in typical Delirium's Library fashion its place on the "degree of urgency" pile (thanks to Gareth Evans for the phrase, and SF Said for the concept) got shifted around as I went to a jammy new indie bookstore - Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market, where the manager was busy a) selling large numbers of books and b) receiving "welcome to the 'hood" champagne from Moro (as an indie bookseller manquée, I'm not sure which is more incredible) - and got distracted. Still, there's nothing like a bracing read of John Berger's and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, one of my Clerkenwell purchases, to re-engage the mind with seriousness, poetry and war. Berger is one of the great vectors of poetry in translation to English-speaking audiences, especially poetry from Turkey and the Middle East, championing Nazim Hikmet and Mahmoud Darwish among others. In and our faces, he writes that
Poems, regardless of outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
and our faces is a collection of meditations written for New Society and The Village Voice in the early 1980s and published in 1984. Bloomsbury reprinted it in 2005, when the metaphor of poetry on the battlefield had become overwhelmingly urgent.

That urgency is something that Carol Ann Duffy bravely tried to address this weekend with a series of commissioned poems addressing the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, published in the Guardian Review. The article takes its title, "Exit Wounds," from the pithiest and -- to my mind -- best poem in the selection, Paul Muldoon's "Afghanistan":
It's getting dark, but not dark enough to see
An exit wound as an exit strategy.
Maybe it's the couplet's brisk echo of soundbite and spin, of rock lyric and football terrace, that makes it the most successful of the contributions for me. It's a slogan but not a simple one, with an elegance and doubledness that makes it poetry. The changes rung on the dark, and the changes of scale from wound to war, are mordant and compassionate. Its stance is fierce and observant, rather than gushing with the liberal pieties that mar almost every other contribution (with Daljit Nagra's obscene paralleling of the break-up of his marriage and the long-running wars being the nadir). Alan Jenkins' scabrous "Descent" - a pastiche of Dante's Inferno - and Carol Ann Duffy's "Big Ask" (in memory of Adrian Mitchell) both bring a wide and vivid point-of-view, using poetic traditions to structure and amplify their rage and humanity. But Mitchell's voice is sorely missed amongst this crowd, not least for his ability - like Muldoon's - to work (with and against) the voice of media and popular culture. A contribution from Michael Rosen wouldn't have gone amiss: his poem "In Gaza, children" offered a YouTube generation wake-up call earlier this year, and showed him as perhaps the only current British occasion poet with both the soapbox and the style to speak up.

Rosen's committed stance, as a Jewish anti-Zionist, is perhaps what the poets assembled by Duffy lack. They have all been silent, at least publicly, until asked to go on record, and few -- if any -- appear to have a defined position. Given that contemporary British writers (Amis, McEwan) have raised swords as what Ziauddin Sardar brilliantly called the Blitcons, perhaps that's for the best -- but the poems in the Guardian use the lyric mode not to walk the battlefield tending and recording the wounded, but to frame it aesthetically, to build monuments to the writers' own grief. When Clare Shaw writers that "It Could Have Been" her child killed in Iraq, or an Iraqi child who survived in London, her universalising parallel avoids addressing her complicity, as (I presume) a British voter and taxpayer in favour of a frankly McGonogall-esque catalogue of sentimentality. It's hard to write a poem on commission about a subject as overwhelming as a war -- and what Shaw's poem, like Jo Shapcott's, tries to suggest is the insidious and omnipresent quality of these two wars that are being fought at a distance, for unclear goals. Duffy begins her article by reminding the reader that previous generations of war poets fought in wars: the current generation (of Anglo-American poets, anyway) watches war on TV. Her introduction leaves implicit the changing class histories of the military, education and poetry publishing, as well as the radical transformation of global warfare, that have created such a circumstance, and she also fails to raise the question of why these poets have not spoken out before -- and, moreover, about whether she considered seeking out Iraqi or Afghan poets living in the UK to contribute.

It's not that Iraq and Afghanistan have gone unheralded in poetry: there were multiple rapid-response anthologies (mainly from small presses and leftist poets) and Poets Against War continues to publish work online. Their poet of the month is Ibrahim Nasrallah (translated by Rick London and Omnia Amin), a Palestinian poet and journalist. Like Mikhail (whose work I will get to in a minute, promise) Nasrallah is a "war" poet by circumstance, but also by choice, whereas the poets selected by Duffy write as if they have made the difficult and negotiable choice to deign to be implicated in, and confronted by, war, as opposed to revealing, unconditionally, that it is now part of our daily lives. This stance of condescension reminds me of something Eliot Weinberger said in February 2003, when he was speaking to the “Poetry is News” conference organised by Anne Waldman and Ammiel Alcalay:
People who are poets presumably know something abut writing. So why does it never occur to them to write something other than poems? There are approximately 8000 poets registered in the Directory of American Poets—are there even four or five who have written an article against the Bush Administration?… Why must poetry magazines always be graveyards of orderly tombstones of poems?

Like Berger, Weinberger has been a vector -- as translator, essayist, journalist and speaker -- for poetry in translation, and particularly for poets who are intellectually engaged in confronting, challenging and documenting the effects of war. The phrase "war poet" contains a multitude, and Weinberger does not shy from deconstructing the narcissistic pieties of writers such as Carolyn Forché ("Reading El Salvador," Works on Paper). He could be describing most of Duffy's commissions when he writes of Forché's work that it is "written to a formula... addressed in the first person [and]... elegiac, nostalgic, melancholic, filled with references to distant, violent events. The essay ends with an excoriation that marks the very difficult and narrow line walked by any Western liberal poet looking to record the atrocities of war and our own sense of impotence and despair in the face of them:
To presume to "link arms," to declare oneself equal, with those who have endured such torment; to speak to people who will be corpses in the morning and claim that you too are digging deep into your own death - if that means anything at all - and that you have done all you could do: it is more than naïveté or audacity. It is the liberal side of colonialism... For Forché, civil war is an emblem of guilt... She is the kind of political poet produced in the age of the personal crisis.

What, then, is a poet to do? Perform a poetic version of Sacha Baron Cohen's lifestyling disguises in order to find a place from which to speak "authentically" -- because that could seem to be where I'm heading by/towards Dunya Mikhail, to say "Only an Iraqi poet can speak legitimately and convincingly about [ie: for] Iraq." It's not. Some of Mikhail's poems, such as the well-known title poem "The War Works Hard" (read it on, along with two other poems from the book) are alive with ironies and horrors embedded in detailed observation, in a kind of closeness to the subject matter. Mikhail's plangent innocences, her simple declarative style, poses a hard-won clarity: a double-edged blade that cuts reader and poet equally. In other poems, the simplicity feels reductive -- perhaps because the translation (and Elizabeth Winslow's translation is pellucid almost to the point of invisible) cannot convey the delicate and radical work that Mikhail is doing in Arabic, reworking traditions, metaphors, wordplay.

The poems are undated, so it's hard in some cases to tell what the immediate motive or root of an individual poem might be, and therefore to delve into theories as to whether the poetry loses its emphasis after Mikhail leaves Iraq for the US in 1996. But two recent poems suggest that the division isn't that simple: "Inanna" and "An Urgent Call" (addressed to Lynndie England) have a febrile immediacy, an engaged energy, that deals exactly in the territory of watching the war on TV. Inanna, widely worshipped in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), was famously considered the forerunner of Aphrodite as a goddess of love, but she was also a member of the Sumerian war pantheon. In Mikhail's poem, she speaks both love and war, and the strange relationship between the two created by new media that allow the viewer to observe the battlefield without being near enough to cross it, or to bring succour. Watching from afar, Inanna sees her "old neighbors / on the TV / running / from bombs, / sirens / and Abu Al-Tubar [a burglar and murder, nicknamed 'the hatchet man', whose rule of terror in Baghdad occurred in 1973 at the same time as the Kzar coup and threatened the control of the Ba'ath party]."

Inanna watches her "new neighbors / on the sidewalks / running / for their morning exercises." The exact physicality of the comparison works like Muldoon's neat couplet, overlaying two images rendered disparate not by scale but by location and situation. The absurdity is implicit rather than voiced, displaced into the larger absurdity of Inanna's situation "here / thinking of the relationship / between the mouse and the computer": this is the crucial turning point in the poem, from Inanna's stance as observer to her sense of implication, as she starts yelling through the screen at the looters on both sides: "Behave, you sons of the dead!" The relationship between the mouse and the computer is one that I don't think about that often, but Mikhail's Inanna suggests that it's a useful one for thinking about the relationship of the poet to the world. The computer (world) can function without the mouse, even without an operator: it goes on processing, glitching, being remotely commanded, running to programme. But the mouse (poet) may not derive her power from the computer, but certainly derives her purpose.

So poet as navigator, as pointer, as executor of actions. I've been part of some discussions recently about whether "point-and-click" politics and charity are all they are cracked up to be: does signing an online petition imply the same kind of commitment as going on a march or writing a letter? But digital democracy is ripe with potential (something Weinberger exploits by circulating his articles via listservs and email) and also as a model for a new poetics, something Juliana Spahr investigates in thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, the finest poem I've read about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Mikhail, Spahr suggests the poet as mouse, directing the reader to this story and that, building an alternative web within the web, always on the move. A click of the mouse may not be a long walk to freedom, but as a model for "war" poetry, its questing intelligence, its ability to highlight, choose, and act has a brilliant balance of observation and agency. It can leads the reader (and poet) into the screen, into communication with the impossibly distant warriors and civilians trapped behind the glass, towards something more considered than a false alliance predicated on "It Could Have Been", something more mobile and immediate than a monument. Mikhail, in her stance as "war" poet and war goddess, is defiantly the mouse that roared.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Kill the Radio

When I read Charismatic Megafauna and could only write cascades of exclamation marks in my notebooks until they looked like Woodstock chattering away in Peanuts, I wasn't sure how to approach making my thoughts public -- until I read Linda Hutcheon's latest thoughts on reviewing and it kicked my ass into realising that reviewing is about honesty, not making people like you. Reviewers are *not* charismatic megafauna (all those large mammals that people feel kindly towards while they eat their pig sandwiches). Or if they are, they're tigers.

Here's the thing: I think that Tamsin Kendrick has a compelling voice and has parlayed her striking performance poetry into poems that work on the page: no easy thing.

And yet.

And yet, with such a compelling voice at her service, she uses it to hymn female passivity and romanticise male violence. At first I thought that this pissed me off because it's within the framework of her Christian faith and I am not a fan of organised religion. But then I was reading Lorna Goodison's Guinea Woman today and her Rastafari poems filled me with their spirited joy. Also, I stand in awe of John Donne's metaphysical turn from human to divine erotic, and especially the poem "Batter my heart, three person'd God." Kendrick has her sights on a similar metaphysical shock and awe, but there's shock value in the violence of some of her images, there's also the yawn factor in reading yet _another_ cultural text that praises the passive, waiting female who gets turned on by a beating. I wonder if she could apply her talents to examining the conjunction of sex, violence and the Church in, for example, a residential school in Canada? Or the Inquisition? She has the verbal fireworks to make it happen: but the ethical imagination? Another question.

Of course, not all poetry has to engage in critical analysis or political history. But accepting, and even lavishing seductive descriptions upon, the metaphysical and masochistic knots of violence and desire in the Christian faith (and in patriarchy) seems, to me, a dangerous thing. And that's why I was so excited to discover Dorothea Rosa Hearliany's Kill the Radio on my reading pile -- reminded that it was there by the fact that she didn't come to Ledbury this week, courtesy of the fools at the Home Office. Instead of playing broken Barbies for teenage kicks, Herliany comes out swinging with love poems that end with images of castration and devouring. She brings an askance wit to the conjunction of violence and desire, exploring the hunger of it, its oscillation between the parties in a relationship, its flow _against_ power.

And that's where her book really stands out: this is writing with no time for the status quo, including the status quo that demands a polemic poetry of resistance. There's no spelling out a political stance here. Instead, her poems re-route communication: they send "secret sex telegrams" so intimate they burn the eye, "kill the radio," write "one letter after another, not knowing your address, / and never sent them to you" ("There Are Many Paths...").In the silence and the confusion of address, they speak with an amazingly direct language, a fierce assault on political and personal hypocrisy where the suppression of (female) sexuality in the public (and private) sphere is paralleled with political suppression. Like W.S. Graham, she is as fierce with the reader as she is with her lovers, paralleled in the "you" the poem calls out. Writing about the day of Suharto's resignation, she tells the reader:
you were aware of almost nothing
in the world where you lived
your life was a brief tale
which interested no-one. ("One Day in Indonesia").

Yet this strident poet striding the streets of Yogyakarta frequently compares herself to a snail "carrying [her] restless shell from one swamp to another" ("Uncoloured Symphony"). The snail's first appearance provides a beautiful metaphor for the work of poetry. Struggling to write in "Talking Trash," the poet says:
i am like a snail with no trail to follow.
searching for the home
it carries on its back.
Yes: this is the work of poetry, looking backwards and forwards at once, quixotic and never resigned, never comfortable, seeking the perfect, unseeable grammar of the snail shell's spirals. And there are many poems in the collection that offer a snail's-eye view of the shell, its immensity seen in fragments. I love the series of letters for Nadia, Jennifer, Julia and Lorena which articulate a rare poetry of female friendship, of the erotics of the letter, "the breath of your foreign love" ("A Letter For Nadia"). I rage with the furious poem "Cardboard Houses," which ends, in the voice of the houses' dwellers, " 'we are commercial objects / turned into victims / by your conscience!' " (The poem's subtitle, "—for a third-rate movie" makes me think, irresistibly of Slumdog Millionaire).

And then there are two poems that operate in some sphere beyond for me, because they are about music: something that I don't understand at all, but something that moves me, especially when turned into language. I should add here that the translator Harry Aveling, who worked with Herliany on the poems, does a fantastic job, preserving the immediacy of the poems. His introduction also papered over my shameful ignorance of Indonesian recent history. Maybe that's one reason these two poems catch at me, because the references to Western classical music make me feel that I'm on safe(r) ground.

And yet.

Part 4 of "There Are Many Paths in the Old City of Melancholy" begins with the poet imagining "Joan Sutherland singing Mozart's Die Zauberflote / but it is a tiny woman begging for coins," an image that reminded me hallucinatorily of Tsai Ming-Liang's film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (set on the Malaysian/Indonesian border), which was part of Peter Sellars' New Crowned Hope festival of work inspired by Mozart's late operas. An act of prescience, yes, but its uncanny force is met -- and perhaps exceeded -- by the haunting fragment 9 of "Kill the Radio":
i thought it was beethoven, reaching out:
silence had frozen around the door. the embrace
was perfect.

i was not yet asleep, but very tired.
i heard steps approaching,
they were too soft to be loneliness

the room was distant, sad: kilometers away
a car roared, half-way home.
then the silence returned - the old silence,
dancing alone.

but it was not beethoven.
That's my feeling reading Herliany: I thought it was [x] / but it was not. She leads you in, persuades you to listen, allows you to feel nuances of nuances, and then turns -- like Graham's "beast in the cage" -- and brings you into the "old silence", the chaos of making criss-crossed by silvery snail-trails of her lines. Their effect is gradual but utter. "One Day in Indonesia" is not enough for me: I want more "secret sex telegrams" and lost letters from this major poet. And I want to hear her read. Home Office, take note: this is not a woman to mess with.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sarah Hesketh, Napoleon's Travelling Library

I've been engaged in my favourite form of work-avoidance, browsing poetry publishers' back catalogues -- in this case, Carcanet's, in order to take advantage of their 20% summer discount. Lots of titles caught my eye, but one -- Daniel Weissbort's Nietzsche's Attaché Case -- made me wonder if a new genre is emerging: poems and/or collections concerning the minutiae of the lives of famous men, the way in which these noted individuals accompanied and catalogued themselves.

Sarah Hesketh's Napoleon's Travelling Bookshelf -- published this month by the wonderful Penned in the Margins -- is not only concerned with the eminent, but it's full of curiosity as to how we catalogue, carry and discard our lives. The title poem finds Napoleon reading amidst Russian wastes, and others draw out similar moments of intense introspection and awareness against dramatic backgrounds: a mentally-ill woman struck by the "new necessity / of forever remembering the waltz" in "The Ballroom at West Riding Asylum" or friends "expecting the mutter of wings" in "Waiting for the Indiana Night Moth." Hesketh's poems often touch on moments of heightened expectation, rather than of loss or satisfaction, the moments in which we catch ourselves thinking, observe ourselves and commit the observation to memory. "Saturday Night Fly" and "Faking" both make this moment of awareness -- in the context of dressing up to go dancing, and negotiating with a lover -- glitter with specificity.

The poems themselves generate heightened expectations because of their precise and inventive titling, frequently conjuring images or whole narratives, from opener "Wild Boar of New York" to the final poem (and one of my favourites) "Suzanna Ibsen is cold." Wildness -- particularly of the snowy kind -- and femininity run quietly as themes through the book, culminating in a moving elegy for the playwright's wife that extends the genre (?) of wife poem pioneered by Carol Ann Duffy in The World's Wife.Suzanna echoes the characteristics of Ibsen's heroines -- "Ghosts / live in her bones" -- becoming an embodiment of his "large theatre-throat" in a subtle meditation on the relationship of literature to life. There's no bookshelf here where Ibsen catalogues his life -- except Suzanna herself (and her "rack of disappointment").

It's in this context of gathering that poems like "Green Song", "23 Kinds of Solitaire" and "Chaconne for Ice" fall into place. On their own, each seems like a workshop exercise working through shades, names and images. Offset by the wittily-named "The Year is 2095 and Bjorn is Planting Seeds from the Norwegian Ark," these poems of change-ringing become an enquiry into the human desire to collect, collate and preserve against an imagined future. Often, the poems appear to emerge from such acts of collecting that turn the poet's awareness to news stories, and their details, that the general reader might pass by as unimportant to the scope of history. "The Ladies of France Buy New Shoes" and "Warsaw Uprising" surface the small (and seemingly inconsequential) details of lived experience from overwhelming narrative of WWII. Poignancy is saved from mawkishness by Hesketh's ability to inhabit a real, defiant voice in each situation. Although the ladies of France walk with "the whole foot leaving the ground at once," they are grounded, earthy, worldly, and the Uprising comes to the reader in "the brack and the flail / of mudsuck and sewer-snipe."

These are ambitious -- in the sense of a large-minded writer with a strong sense of historical responsibility -- without being arrogant: it's their precision, but also their stance aslant. Hesketh gives a hint of her poetic manifesto in "Casting", which advocates not being the queen, but
the messenger
who will take the letter
that is always delivered too late.
Slipping scenes somewhere on the ship
to Norway. Lost from sight
behind the ice-mapped waves.

There's a glancing reference to Hamlet in that messenger on the ship, and therein to Eliot's Prufrock who pronounces himself "not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do." So in the apparent stance askance is also declaration of intent. No walk on the beach here, but ice-mapped waves: a colder landscape, etched as copperplate. Hesketh is a fine poet, in the calligraphic sense, a poet of blade-like enjambment and almost aphoristic lines. This, from the end of "Lillith's Lament":

I taught my children several things:
never to roost where the apples grow;
never consent to lying below.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sascha Aurora Akhtar, The Grimoire of Grimalkin

"She calls severance, fatal
altruism won't help now" (Urban Sojourn)

What's a reviewer to do in the face of such predictions? Severance is fatal -- so I'm doomed from the quote-and-paste start. And altruism won't help: this book gives no quarter and asks no charity. It echoes the casual grotesque of contemporary cinema, from Haneke to Hostel, in what could be called a Tarantino poetics. But, as the speaker in Urban Sojourn says "My restraint comes like a constipate / trying to pass a bowel movement": this is poetry that gets off on shitting in the pot.

And potty-mouthed isn't its only register -- with a vocabulary this dynamic to conjure with, the poet can be forgiven some verbal diarrhea. Running off at the mouth counters the "constipate" expectations encountered by the [fill in the blank: female; postcolonial; workshop; publishable] poet. Gossiping, babbling, scatting, blabbering: these are considered the actions of those who don't conform to Audre Lorde's "mythical norm," those regarded as incapable of forming conscious meaning, of using language with agency. More Dada than bar-bar ("barbarian" coming from the Ancient Greek barbaroi, meaning "those who go 'bar, bar' [ie: talk nonsense] when they speak"), Akhtar works her mouth like a dictionary-chomping version of Beckett's Not I.

And in the incomprehension, magic emerges. Grimoire relates etymologically to grammar (and glamour, pace the cover image of Theda Bara vamping it up in Salome), the magic of words. "Cathexis 1:1" samples the cod-Latin used in medieval witchcraft (not looking that different from the "Lorem ipsum" cod-Latin used by printers as a placeholder for text). Mis-constructed from classical Latin, and often featuring words from multiple vernaculars -- and nonsense words as protection or summoning -- grimoire-Latin casts a long spell over Akhtar's work with language, which also scatters echoes of Polari, A Clockwork Orange and backslang: these invented language systems are marked by their production as codes for marginalised groups. There's also an investigation of the Orientalisation of magic in the citation of terms like "chibouk" and "effendi": the dark, seductive (feminised) East of Valentino's The Sheikh is being taken apart in the maelstrom of inventive invective.

While the book has its own rhythms -- and in performance, the poems are surprisingly funny and ear-gaging, spit like rhymes at a battle -- they can become wearing as well as entrancing. Yes, the beats of the divine horsemen can be heard thrumming in your head as Akhtar's work pulses through its cathectic verbal transformations, but occasionally that cathexis feels like a literal throwing-out or -up, the verbal equivalent of Linda Blair's performance in The Exorcist. It's not that I want content, confessional or catalogical -- I'm fine with language as language, all micaceous surface and refraction -- nor that I want to "call severance" on a fascinating and agitating voice. But sometimes my attention is so shattered that as a reader I feel like the fluke worm in "Urban Sojourn":
An unwitting mouth bites it in half;
neither one knows what happens next.
Both mouth and worm can be aware -- are, in tighter poems such as "Subfusc" and "La Peinture" -- but a collage poem like "60 by 120 KM Ellipse" can't quite make a virtue of its addiction to distraction.

There's something of the franticness of a modern Salome dancing the Seven Veils to keep us from seeing what's underneath. Her vast vocabulary and brilliant ease with (and across) language(s) tempts her into the show-tricks of the "magi of make-believe" (Marasmus). I know that Akhtar has more in her than the easy laugh of:
Creatures doomed
to state the obvious
what a plight for
pillocks! (Valhalla)
Nothing up her sleeve. When she puts down the conjuror's wand, she rises to the possibility of seeing through the veils by exercising persistence of vision:
I have met the Demiurge
& he is a pretty sight
for eyes sore from photophobia
forced to see the sleight of hand (Sirvente Moi).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Keri Finlayson, Rooms

Keri Finlayson's Rooms opens with a poem titled "Cave Painting" that outlines (in charcoal) her project in the book: to explore a curious and productive tension, the relationship between language and image in human communication. The book will offer, promises the poem:
Pictures about words
Words about pictures
Stanza about camera
Rooms about rooms
through a delicate interplay of histories -- personal, aesthetic, technological -- that set in motion the shadows on the wall.

But like Plato's analogy of the prisoners in the cave, Finlayson's work betrays an anxiety about language as a means of representation. The book begins with the statement that "before the beginning there were pictures," rooting the visual spectacle of cinema in cave painting, while language is "the gloss … the la la la … The going barbarian." It ends with poems arranged in crystalline forms suggestive of the atomic structures of silver nitrate and celluloid, the principle components of early film. Brittle, combustible and unstable, the material elements of cinema are paralleled with the fleeting and dangerous images that they captured chemically. Recounting, in various combinations, a fragmented sequence of remembered events, as if editing a film sequence, Finlayson measures how far words can approach not only the images recorded on film (which itself may be lost or faded) but -- more importantly -- those that happened off-camera.

The world of the book is that of Cornwall just after the First World War, of the fishing village where Finlayson's grandmother was born -- and where she was discovered by a silent film-maker who got her pregnant and deserted her in the care of her violent priest father. That is the primal scene that plays again and again through the book: with each poem, we drop a penny in the pier machine and watch again as the black-and-white (textual) figures perform their herky-jerky (e)motions. Fixed as/by melodrama as much as by silver nitrate, this all-too-familiar Griffiths-esque narrative of the kohl-eyed innocent is given - literally - texture through the verbal materiality of village life, with Finlayson's particular emphasis on fishing and on knitting (in "Knitfrocks"), giving the title of the poem in which the film-maker first sees his star -- "Casting" -- a triple sense. Inferring that film's techniques and traps are as old as cave painting, hook-baiting and "slip[ping] the knot" strips away its smoke-and-mirrors mystery, its celebrity. The poet also casts a weather eye over the cinema of the natural world, rooting film's chemical sheen in "Gorse, ore fed, suck[ing] up smelted quartz flecks as sap, / Fruiting copper flakes" ("Cornish").

Finlayson has a kenning way with her word-hoard, a love of alliterative play and of specific vocabularies, often layered over each other. This works to great effect in "Fine Cut" (The Sex Scene), where a deep knowledge of Cornish fauna is made strange through a Latinate vocabulary that transposes Church language into the Latin used for biology and geometry -- and sex, too, becomes a geometry. When she moves away from these specifics, from the tight patterning of words within a register and a line, Finlayson is prey to slightly clumsy generalisations like the line that ends the book: "We have the ability to burn." Given her delicate tracing of family history through the knotted shadows cast by village crafts and film's chemicals, Finlayson clearly has ability to burn when, like a film-maker, she keeps her (kino-)eye on the details.