ictus

ictus

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Blackout: A Poem from Human Form

Like patient abrasion of a dug-out artefact
brittled with age, to grasp what’s come to light,
you chafe the jaded Swan Vesta across
its worn sandpaper-page – in that dank
yellow box the crumbly duds outweigh
the live. We hunch around you in mumbling
suspense, like Neanderthals at their first glimpse
of fire. At last, a cursive scribble detonates
with a sound like Velcro unseaming.
 
We recoil a touch, as you stoop, and communicate
the momentary, palm-cupped flame to a candle:
a glow-worm sacrificed to a glow-animal.
 
That abrupt blackout – moments before,
as though the whole house fell unconscious -
had you rooting through cupboards, rifling drawers
like an intruder to unearth these instruments
of sight, locating the children through a sonar
of name-calls and blindman’s-buff gropings.
 
Soon enough, the living-room’s ushered back
as a woozy apparition coaxed from tea-lights,
eery for a moment as a séance
or Hall of Rest. But someone’s dug out
a November sparkler or two, crackling-bright
and acrid: they arc-weld the candle-haloes together
and sear a blurred initial on your retina.
 
Bereaved of TV, we soon lope to bed, probing
with torch-beam the wraith-mobbed corridor
of the stairs. I colonise the freezing sheets
inch by inch, resisting awhile the liminal dreams
that muster in the frostscapes on our window,
afraid to miss the sleep-balm of your last Goodnight;
then burrowing deeper, mining for warm,
I replay my body’s initial unclenching
in the vivid, tactile blackness of your womb.

                                                        First published in Human Form, March 2013

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Charlotte Mew


Came across this by accident on an interesting website:

http://historyofmentalhealth.com/2014/03/23/1928-charlotte-mew/

Serendipitous too as I recently read of Charlotte Mew in Tim Kendall's excellent Oxford Book of First World War Poetry, which I wrote a review of over the summer. I recall an collection of her poems being brought out by Virago in the '80s - remember those alluring green editions?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Old is the New New

   The PBS Next Generation list of "the most exciting new poets" is extraordinary in that there is nothing new about it. Every poet selected either already has an established reputation or has been a prize-winner or had a debut that's been a PBS Choice. Is this promotion primarily about taking risks on encouraging and nurturing new poetry or is it rather on the whole a desperate bid in the face of a shrinking market to bolster the careers of poets with proven track-records of achievement, an exercise more akin to hedge-fund management than to the discovery of fresh, unheard styles and voices?
   I say desperate because some of the choices are a little baffling. Adam Foulds is a fine writer but he has only published one book of poetry The Broken Word (impressive as it was) and that was back in 2008; since then he's produced two novels and as far as I know no poetry by him has appeared in magazines or journals. In other words, the impression is that Foulds is now concentrating his energies on prose and indeed is invariably described as a novelist . I can't see by what stretch of the imagination Foulds could be described as a new poet "currently lighting up the scene"; but he's a successful writer, he's won awards and prizes and I'm sure Cape (part of Random House) could do with selling a few more copies of The Broken Word.
    Equally, Sam Willets brought out one book in 2010, New Light for the Old Dark, which has some good poems in it but has published nothing since. Like many people, I like Mark Waldron's work: his idiosyncratic friskiness with language can appeal to admirers of both the "post-avant" and the more mainstream (though these facile definitions have inter-curdled of late.) He's had two volumes out and is a well-respected figure on the scene, looked up to by younger poets, getting towards being something of an eminence grise: but "sparky" new poet?
   It's positive that there are more women than men on the list, of course, with some genuinely worthy inclusions like Heather Phillipson and the performance poet Kate Tempest (also nominated for the Mercury Prize - now that's an exciting first). And positive that a poet published by an independent press like Penned in the Margins - Melissa Lee-Houghton - should be recognised, although this is very much the anomaly among a preponderance of Faber, Carcanet and Cape authors.
   I'm aware that having an existing reputation within the poetry world doesn't mean that any of these writers couldn't do with their work being further talked about, promoted and marketed. It doesn't of course mean that you're making a steady income from poetry or have in any way "made it" as a writer. Given sufficient funding it would be beneficial if more than one initiative like this could be happening, with more backing awarded to promising poets who have yet to have their first book published; but something I learnt at the Penned in the Margins discussion panel last week (part of their ten year anniversary celebrations) is that more poetry-books are being published by a greater number of publishers than ever before but in fact less copies are being sold. That's quite a bleak conundrum, isn't it?
   In that kind of scenario, with smaller presses and of course online printing gathering in importance, it's clear we need to be looking beyond PBS promotions to locate where the genuinely new and exciting currents in British poetry are coming through.
   Check out the Next Generation 2014 here:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/next-generation-20-poets-poetry-book-society-kate-tempest

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Optic Nerve

   Pubs and poets go together like the yin and yang of the known universe, inseparable and insoluble. In every pub in the UK there is a poet sitting in the corner scribbling gnomic fragments with prosodic marks over them, mouthing odd syllable-shapes, waiting to be bought another drink: they are part of the fixtures and fittings inherited from one landlord to the next along with the jukebox, the darts-board and the large dark stain on the carpet. The Dream-Songs would not be the randomised jibber-jabber conflating lyric profundity with maudlin prattle they are if Berryman had not composed many of them in bars and Dublin pubs: they boldly enact the woozy decline into incoherence, the loss of all sense of epistemological proportion and the sheer joy of talking bollocks that accompanies the pub-philosopher's nightly (or daily) downward spiral, immersed in this zone of permissible transgression like Hamlet's king of infinite space, deferring the bad dreams of next morning.
   I say this by way of preamble to a new blog myself and some friends have embarked on, with a focus on writing about interesting or characterful pubs we come across both in London and outside it, posting reviews that will hopefully also be interesting and characterful. It's intended as a celebration of the pub in all its diversity in a time of widespread decline (31 pubs closing a week) when for God's sake we need it more than ever. What other manifestations of communal interaction do we have to offer in the UK that we haven't stolen from other cultures? Morris dancing? The greasy spoon café?
    How else are you going to escape from the diurnal grind of quiet desperation that 'austerity Britain' has pushed you into? Sit at home reading poetry?
    The blog's called The Optic - see what I've done there? - so please take a look at the opening chapter:
    optic1.blogspot.co.uk

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In Their Own Words

    If you missed it here's the first part of an interesting new BBC4 series comprised of old BBC footage of 20th Century poets edited together in chronological fashion to form a (very) basic history of British poetry. The opening clips of Pound show what an amazing place the castle in the Tyrol he came to live in towards the end of life was: he seems serene there, as against the impression the last fragmentary Cantos and Donald Hall's Paris Review interview (1960 I think) give of an old man "mired in depression". Great to see Hugh MacDiarmid speaking on film, especially in the context of the forthcoming Scottish referendum ("England must disappear") and equally RS Thomas talking in his flinty way about Wales and the way religion and poetry co-existed for him - were, in effect, one. 
     Auden on Parkinson is an amusing oddity, although Betjeman on the same programme is merely a low-brow showman (not shaman). And if I hear Dylan Thomas doing that ridiculous hammy singsong on 'Do Not Go Gentle' once more this year I'm going to scream:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04dg1lz/great-poets-in-their-own-words-1-making-it-new-19081955
   Afterword: the link to iPlayer is no longer live but you can catch the two parts of Great Poets In Their Own Words on YouTube. It's chopped into 15minute segments so I'm not going to provide links to all the parts.

Monday, 18 August 2014

'Measuring the Dead': McCabe's In the Catacombs

    Last summer I participated in the walk around West Norwood Cemetery which was the culmination of Chris McCabe's project reflecting on the resting-places and reputations of twelve poets buried there and examining  whether any of them warranted being rescued from the oblivion of the unread. As well as being a fascinating exploration of the lives of obscure writers (contextualised with intriguing tangential information from local historian Colin Fenn), it was a beautiful sunny day and the walk around the leafy, placid cemetery stands out in my memory as among the vividest moments of that long summer. I tried to capture a sense of this in the pictorial record I posted afterwards, Ephemeral Stones.
    A year later Chris's prose-narrative about the project - In the Catacombs: A Summer among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery - has appeared and its a compelling read in a diverting, Iain Sinclair-like compound-form: part-autobiography, part-poetry criticism, part-literary and social history, part-Gothic fantasy/prose-poem. The delineation of his research into the obscure poets' lives and works is illuminated by pointed insights into figures like Hopkins, Dickinson and Rimbaud - whose masterpieces very nearly escaped the posthumous acclaim we now accord them - as well as the formerly-lionised Tennyson and Swinburne whose august lines seem to be embedded within the intricate Victoriana of the cemetery. In following McCabe's obsession with deceased poets and their place within history and society we come to realise that this is very much a personal journey in itself, an attempt to locate himself and his work within the shifting currents of poetic tradition as well as a struggle for reconciliation with a past represented by memories of his dead father.
    It's encouraging to witness a comparatively young poet attempt to engage with the historically-grounded poetry of previous eras like this, disowning the unsatisfactory templates deployed by his contemporaries and disentangling the roots of his practice through a sensitive recognition of form and rhythm to gain a renewed sense of his own potential claim to literary posterity.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Coffee With Joyce

  As part of a camping trip to Istria in northern Croatia, I discovered this tribute to my favourite writer James Joyce at Cafe Uliks (Croatian for Ulysses) in the beautiful Italianate town of Pula. The bronze statue seems a substandard second-cousin of Gaudier-Brzeska's head of Ezra Pound - whether that's a deliberate reference given their connection I'm not sure.
   Pula was the first place Joyce lived in after he had eloped from Dublin with Nora Barnacle in late 1904, then called Pola and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He taught English here at the Berlitz School for some months before moving onto Trieste, the first city of the famous peripatetic trio of locations cited on the last page of Ulysses. It seems a suitably multicultural, polyglot meeting-place for a writer who incorporated so many languages into his prose: I recall there being Serbo-Croat and Hungarian words melded into Finnegans Wake from the time I studied it intensely although the references escape me now. The head of the Berlitz Schools in Pola and Trieste, the euphonious Almidano Artifoni, is immortalised in Ulysses by lending his name (somewhat improbably) to Stephen's music-teacher, to whom he speaks Italian in the 'Wandering Rocks' chapter.
    I also came across an allusion to Pula in Dante, Joyce's favourite writer:


"As at Arles where the Rhone sinks into stagnant marshes,
   as at Pola by the Quarnaro Gulf, whose waters
   close Italy and wash her farthest reaches,
the uneven tombs cover the even plain..." (Inferno, Canto IX, tr, John Ciardi)


  Basically Dante's drift is that Pola was the site of an extensive Roman cemetery (ie. a pagan sepulchre comparable to the one he finds in the City of Dis). Pula today still boasts some impressive Roman monuments such as the amphitheatre and Forum.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Holiday Reading

        Karthika Nair                                
   The heatwave this week has coincided with the start of my summer holiday so I've been revelling in a rare sense of untrammelled reading and writing-time, often on the balcony with the sun on my face. Like most teachers and parents, I'm also celebrating the news that Michael Gove is no longer allowed to dismantle our education system by reverting it back to his own hubristic version of a private school classocracy from the 1930s where only English authors are studied (ie. not even any Irish, Welsh or Scottish ones), only English history is taught and the arts are sidelined in favour of more utilitarian subjects - is that so different to the "narrow monoculture" the Islamic faith academies he ordained then disowned have been villified for?
   Among other things, I've been dipping into the new edition of The Wolf, whose wonderful opening poem by Karthika Nair is a potent blast of strange, estranging language; the nested, protean form of Sophie Mayer's prose-poem 'Silence,Singing', incorporating criticism, history and autobiography in a compelling assemblage, also stood out for me. There are thought-provoking reviews of Muriel Rukeyser's Selected and a collection of the envelope-poems of Emily Dickinson (this also by Sophie Mayer) - in both cases convincing me that these are books I need to acquire.
   I also took receipt of Soapboxes, a new KFS pamphlet by Wolf editor James Byrne. In it he turns his hand to the somewhat disregarded genre of the political satire, excoriating with savage wit both the media-saturated, hyper-commodified banality of Little England and the bible-wielding, war-mongering American Far-Right personified by Sarah Palin. With Pound's scabrous Hell Cantos as a reference-point, Byrne elaborates a powerful invective in a time of wholesale political disaffection and apathy.
    Byrne's clearly been writing intensively of late as he also has two full collections forthcoming later in the year, one from his UK publisher Arc (White Coins) and one from US imprint Tupelo Press (Everything That is Broken Up Dances). An intriguing sampler of work from these books can be read in the new Blackbox Manifold 12, alongside poetry by Zoe Skoulding and Kelvin Corcoran:
  http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/