Featured

Finishing off and starting out

I am about to retire from teaching so I thought I would give myself something to do by starting a poetry blog. I write poetry and I enjoy reading poetry but reading poetry properly is hard work. I have always found that to engage fully with a poet’s work I have needed to write about it.  I enjoy writing and I want to keep my brain in working order so I will be posting reviews of poetry I have enjoyed and reflections on poetry of the present and past. I don’t anticipate doing much until I have actually retired at the end of the summer, but getting to grips with the mechanics of blogging is a necessary start. If you should stumble across this site, apologies for the amateurish nature of it and the likely blunders.

ballycastle

Diversity from Oxford

The TS Eliot prize drew criticism for the lack of diversity in its short list, although it was won by the only poet of colour included, Ocean Vuong, who also happened to be gay. However, at the level of the smaller presses, diversity thrives and younger poets from a range of ethnicities and sexual orientations are producing exciting and innovative collections. Two recent publications from poets with Oxford links exemplifying this trend are a hurry of english by Mary Jean Chan, published by ignition press, which is part of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and Five Storms (smith/doorstop) by Theophilus Kwek, who is a former president of the Oxford Poetry Society and, like Chan, a co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

The blurb to Mary Jean Chan’s book describes her as making a ‘significant contribution to poetry and queer writing in the UK’. Certainly, as a young, Hong Kong Chinese, queer woman, she seems to tick all the boxes. However, there is a danger that her PC rating may obscure the power and strength of her poetry. This is a very strong debut collection which explores and exploits some compelling autobiographical detail. In some ways, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which also mines the process of coming-of-age. As Heaney’s book had the presiding figure of the father, so this one is dominated by the presence of the mother, addressed directly in the opening poem, ‘Always’: ‘You are always where I begin’…
Always the lips kissing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Throughout the book, the poem addresses the mother’s life as well as her own. Although Chan was brought up in Hong Kong, her mother seems to have lived in mainland China and experienced the tyranny of the Red Guards. The intellectual oppression is presented in the second poem ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ where she represents her mother’s ideas and feelings in lines which are cancelled, so that the only line which stands is the repeated and italicised ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy’. The respect for her mother is shown through the tentative ‘might’ of the title. Aside from the typographical innovation of using the strike-through function, this poem is formally beautifully arranged in a series of couplets where the first line is devoted to the mother’s thoughts about her own life, the second to her thoughts about her daughter. In contrast to the glib facility of the refrain, these lines are uncomfortable, acknowledging the complexity of the mother’s character and of the relationship she has with her daughter:
that she dreams about seeing her father’s heart in the doctor’s fist
that I must only write about flowers
Another formally innovative poem is ‘At the Castro’ with the dedication ‘for Orlando’ which I choose to read as an allusion to the bisexual, gender-shifting eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Whatever it may be, the poem itself is set out in two columns which may be a visual representation of two lovers, the space down the centre of the page showing the difficulty of same-sex relationships in a hostile society. The poem celebrates the freedom of self-realisation and ‘coming-out’ possible in a gay club:

the first time you stepped into a gay bar
was the first time you danced

The ‘you’ addressed shifts into third person:
the girl who thought she had to sit down
for the rest of her life broke all the rules
became the wind

and then back into second:

you drank
till you became sober enough not to be
ashamed the boy you never were
smiled kissed
another girl

These changes make it unclear whose experience is being addressed in the poem, whether it is the poet, her lover, or both or whether the figures are generic. Celebration changes to horror as ‘a hand pulls a trigger’, destroying the relationship or relationships. Whether this violence is real or metaphorical, it suggests the risks and fears of being gay but nevertheless finishes with a defiant assertion of the importance of love:
skin is never an apology
but always an act of faith

The collection is woven around the relationship with the mother, with the lover and with the desire to reconcile the mother and the lover. Whereas the title phrase for the book is taken from a prose poem where the mother’s influence is felt as oppressive and English is seen as an escape, ‘My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’, in //, short-listed for the 2017 Forward Prize, a poem which is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Chan attempts to construct this reconciliation. The title represents chopsticks: ‘To the Chinese,// you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ The poem’s starts with an awkward dinner where the non-Chinese lover is entertained by the hostile family, but moves towards a determination not to be defeated by parental or societal pressure:
Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living

The poem ends by rejecting secrecy and suicide:
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way

to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.

This idea is reprised in “Love for the Living’ near the end of the book, a celebration of society’s recognition and acceptance of same sex love, which is echoed in the changed attitude of the mother, felt as ‘the ache of pleasure when/your mother mentions your lover’s name.’

The final poem, like the first, centres on the poet’s mother, but the balance of power has shifted. Whilst the first poem is addressed directly to the mother, in an agonised plea for approval and acceptance, in this one the mother is spoken of in third person, as if the poet had succeeded in distancing herself and attaining independent adulthood. She speaks here in the first person, as she recognises her mother’s needs and that she must accept the fact that she cannot solve them or make them her burden.
I can only
invite her to the table: Look,

mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother our tea is ready.

Appropriately, the use of pronouns in this last poem is unambiguous and subtle. The “I” of the daughter ‘speaks confidently to the ‘you’ of the mother, bringing them together in the ‘our’ of the closing line.

**********************************************

Theophilus Kwek is both startlingly precocious and astonishingly accomplished. He seems to have published his first book at the age of 17 and this ‘New Poet’s Prize’ Smith/Doorstop pamphlet has appeared when he is still only 24. Kwek is prolific and has the ability to respond to the moment with poems far removed from the agonized moans or enraged rants so often produced after major calamities. At the same time, his style is distinctly reticent or even elliptical and tends to incorporate allusions which may require research. Admittedly, that is not so difficult in the age of Google, but it does impede the first reading, as in ‘The Passenger’ where the references to Izanami and Izanagi enrich the poem if the reader understands them. Incidentally, either Kwek or Wikipedia has got the names of these Japanese gods the wrong way round.

He is particularly skilled at presenting natural and physical detail. The first poem in the collection is written in more-or-less rhymed couplets with some powerful internal sound effects as in the second stanza:
Light sown
As haw, thawed streams like cracks in the bone.
The internal rhyme of ‘haw’ with ‘thawed’ contrasts sharply with the onomatopoeic ‘like cracks’ and is followed by the final shocking long rhyming vowel sound in ‘bone’ which emphasizes the whiteness of the snow. However, I am puzzled by ‘haw’, which should be the red of the hawthorn berry, but seems here to mean something more like the ‘hoar’ of a hoar frost. Nor am I quite sure why the thrush is ‘hurtling’. The mysterious quality of the poem is also apparent in the ambiguity of its setting. It begins as a view ‘From a window’ and this idea is reinforced at the end, ‘That through a window comes’ but we cannot be sure if this is a window which is merely that of an observer, or whether it may be a train window, in which case, the poem’s speaker is also involved in the action. A ‘cabin’ is stirred ‘to praise, or something like praise’ and we are left uncertain of the location of the cabin; is it outside the train, part of the train or a synonym for ‘heart’ in the next line? The many hints that this is more than a nature poem about snow culminate in the portentous last half line ‘The right and the wronged’ –perhaps a little too portentous after the subtle ambiguities of the rest of the poem. Another piece that becomes suddenly and heavily significant at the conclusion is ‘What Follows Deer cull, Wytham Woods, 7th February 2015’.
Again, the observation of natural detail is beautiful and convincing: ‘bounding across seed-rows they are gone,/the cracked frost making an ashen path/to a gap in the horse-wire thorn’. However, the last stanza, which uses multisyllabic and royal rhyme, also becomes suddenly abstract: ‘struck on the flint of that eternity/more alive than in the burnished wood.’ Something very odd is happening: ‘struck on the flint’ has connotations both of shooting and of making light or fire, while the adjective ‘burnished’ transforms the wood from nature into a work of art. The poet is writing about the creation of an image, the image that he missed with his camera, but which has been captured by the eye, memory and the poem.

There is a wide range of subject matter here, with poems based on anything from biblical themes to newspaper stories. Perhaps it is easiest to engage with the poems which give us more to go on or where there seems to be some kind of personal involvement. For example, in ‘Requiem’/ Grandfather, 1936-2015, although we may not understand exactly what is happening in the funeral ritual, nevertheless we grasp that a family has been brought together in mourning, and recognise the poet’s hope that he can maintain his love for his surviving relatives:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed ends
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.

The language of the previous two lines suggests that these relationships have not always been easy, ‘our sifted, falling silences, the plunge//of numbed hands under frigid water.’

The final group of sonnets, for which the collection is named, ‘The First Five Storms’, appears to be a sequence of love poems, but the reticence mentioned earlier, make this a very different kind of poetry from that of Mary Jean Chan.
It may be instructive to explore the use of pronouns in these poems. The first person plural is dominant. ‘We’ is used in every poem except iv, ‘Desmond’, where it splits into ‘you’ and ‘I’, a split heralded in iii, ‘Clodagh’, ‘I had come here/ to make resolutions, taste the grey/Christmas skies you loved’. In the first two poems, the ‘we’ is unproblematic; it may be the speaker and his friends or his lover, more likely a lover, given the imagery in the first sonnet, ‘the rest of our days reach in to join fingers/ with the season’s slow dusk’. ‘We’ provides a sense of assurance, a platform, ‘safety in numbers’. In ii, ‘Barney’, the ‘we’ becomes exclusive, almost smug, as it celebrates itself and its own escape from the ravages of the storm, with the ‘dog outside’ perhaps symbolising social exclusion.
We stood, then went in our cars to church,
And scraped our shoes, and left the dog outside.
Clodagh describes experiencing the storm on a sea-crossing to Ireland. ‘You’ sleeps through ‘the thick/of it’, leaving the ‘I’ in the sestet, on his own to make new and unexpected discoveries, perhaps about love: ‘but found instead/fine rain, and land underfoot; gold and myrrh’. ‘Desmond’, the fourth sonnet, is a beautiful poem which seems to refer back to ‘The Weaver’ at the beginning of the book. There the bird’s nest-building seems to represent the enduring love of a parent; here, it seems to be a lesson learned by the speaker, again as the beloved sleeps –‘you had gone up to bed’ – about the power of love to endure, through adversity, a lesson which he shares by directly addressing the beloved:
I cannot explain, love, but I knew
how different they seemed, and how they sang
all the louder in the rain, and flew.

Lesson learned, the poet returns confidently to ‘we’ in the last poem ‘Eva’, which, like the first poem in the book, is set in snow. Poet and beloved ‘set out early’ and come upon ‘the scent of January’s mowing/fresh on fallen grass’ which I take to be snow or perhaps frost. It is further significantly described as ‘a season’s dowry’. The melting of the frost is seen as the first stage in the renewal of fertility which ‘ would put dry earth to grass, and then in time/turn road to wood, and sky, and bark, and moss.’ This poem , like the whole sequence, is in many ways very conventional, with its use of the sonnet and natural imagery to celebrate love. Kwek demonstrates his mastery of the poetic tradition while at the same time displaying linguistic invention and an ability to innovate by pushing the forms to their limits so that the apparently naturalistic poem resonates with subtle and often ambiguous meaning.

I, we, you, You? ‘is a gateway’ by Jane Spiro (Oversteps Books, 2018)

is-a-gateway

Jane Spiro’s collection is very accessible but far from lightweight. The book has a carefully considered shape and form, making it much more than just a gathering up of recent poems. The structure is indicated by the headings of the four sections: ‘where we start‘, ‘summer’s lease‘, ‘swimming deeper‘ and ‘a white in us‘. The poems consistently link human life to the elements of nature as the book voyages through the seasons, lives and life, celebrating them but at the same time recognising their fragility.

 

I was most engaged by the first section,  about birth and childhood, and the last, which treats aging and death. The collection opens with an egg, an image of birth, but is at the same time a description of the traditional Ukrainian practice of egg-painting so that it unites the ideas of beginnings with nature and culture:

and the egg emerges

jewel-bright, its turtle-back

an astonishment of colour

 

like the shock of birth.

 

Intriguing in this poem, as in some of the others, is the use of the pronoun ‘you’; here, it is difficult to tell if this is a generalised, instructional ‘you’ –’pencil in the patterns you desire’ or a known, personal ‘you’ who is a skilled practitioner in this tradition. The poem gains resonance if we believe that the writer is addressing someone who she has watched at work.

 

There are other poems about children, the poet’s own perhaps, one about a Turkish child, ‘Divided City’ where the wall is the physical division of the city but also the barrier between the old language and the new language of English which the child has to cross. The poet ‘became his words: hello –goodbye/playtime       dinner time/time for home’. While the child struggles to retain his old identity ‘I am Turkish’ the poet wants him to embrace the new, ‘I, the other side,/ waving, asking him to leap.’  Spiro’s preoccupation with language and the links between language and identity surface here, as might be expected in someone whose own heritage includes the forcible loss of language and home which is reflected more directly in two poems about her father’s childhood in Warsaw, most powerfully in the image of the boy who has an unexpected day off school:

One day, not knowing why,

            you were locked out of school,

found another thing to do –

daytime cinema, delicious truancy,

sitting in the dark in the back row

beside a satchel and a Polish grammar.

 

The date of the poem, Warsaw, 1938, and the Polish grammar say it all.

 

Another childhood poem is apparently addressed to a child, perhaps her own son, and its rather awkward, tricksy approach recognises the difficulty of writing poems to, for or about people when they have not asked you to. This always seems particularly problematic when one is writing about one’s own family, especially children. The writer begins “I promised you/there would be/ no more poems/about you” but goes on to describe poems as “silly shapes/made by grown-ups” which seems on the face of it like a failure of nerve. The poet goes on to describe all the things a poem does not do in terms of the kind of things the child presumably does or enjoys, “chocolate twizzlers”. However, the collection of items seems demeaning both to the child and to poetry and there is a rare uncertainty of tone in this poem where a ‘you’ is directly addressed, although not necessarily with his consent. More assured is a poem slightly earlier in the collection, ‘Learning to be Four’ where third person is used as the poem marvels at the child without attempting to invade his space: ‘All this in not five years/in which time we have grown hardly at all/forgetting how much can come from nothing,/and how soon.’

 

The section ‘summer’s lease’ signals a move towards adult experience, with the first two poems perhaps marking the sorts of transitions physically experienced as house moves. Both poems are concerned with the process of moving on through life while at the same time looking back. Both put stress on the importance of memory while acknowledging its inadequacy. The poem ‘Budapest balcony’ is a brilliant conceit; the poet describes the balcony as an eavesdropper on the politics of Hungary and life in the city of Budapest, poking ‘its iron ear out into the street.’ In some of the other poems, I come up once more against the issue of the second-person pronoun. In ‘The shutter maker’, a beautiful poem, which could be a companion piece to ‘Painting Eggs’, the shutter maker and his craft are described in third person until the end of the poem, when the writer uses ‘you’, in what seems to be both a tribute and thanks:

This measured day, striped now

with light, the musk of warm wood,

 

is your work of art, last man of your craft,

your signature is here, and we will remember.

 

Less explicable, is the use of ‘you’ in ‘Drought’. The poem describes the effects of the sun and drought. In the first two stanzas, the sun is described as ‘it’ but in the third it becomes ‘you’, ‘You have occupied the land’ and is increasingly personified, until at the end of the poem it has become ‘a furious god’. Another slightly strange use of ‘you’ comes in the last poem in this section, where it might or might not relate to ‘butterflies’ as the poem moves through an increasingly diffuse range of ways of being, ‘the different ways/it is possible to be alive.’

 

In Section Three, ‘swimming deeper’, the poet intensifies the search for meaning, and it is here that the links between human and elemental are strongest. There are poems of earth, air and water though perhaps fire has been left behind in the previous section. From ‘Turbulence’, a fear of flying poem, where the poet is at the mercy of air to ‘Onsen’ and ‘On Falling into the River Thames’ where she is immersed in water to the beautiful solidity of stone in ‘Dartmoor Standing Stones’ and wood in ‘My Wooden Men’, Spiro explores the relationship between human and other forms of existence. In ‘Meeting the Green Man’ she presents an encounter with earth at its most ancient, its most human and its most other:

Are you evil giant or trapped prophet,

mindful god or beheaded knight,

bursting from stone or petrified from flesh,

written in stone or the face-in-my-mind?

 

These lines also confront the blur between subjective and objective, our desire to interpret and impose shape on nature and others which robs them of their separate identities and voices. In this poem, the writer is searching for another who can teach or enlighten her, while recognising that the shape of that other is one she has herself constructed:

Stay awhile, he says.

            Stay awhile and hear me.

            Stay awhile and hear what I have to say –

Again, I am worried by the use of pronouns and I do not think that this concern is superficial. The poem begins with ‘you’ used impersonally as if the writer were guiding the reader towards a meeting with the Green Man: ‘At first he leads your eye down’, ‘and then you see him’. However, in the fourth and penultimate stanza quoted above, the ‘you’ changes its identity as the poet directly confronts this embodiment of otherness by addressing him as ‘you’. This must be uttered by the first person ‘I’ who makes only a very oblique appearance in the phrase ‘face-in-my-mind’. In the last two lines, ‘he’ is given a reply and allowed to use the first person ‘hear me’, ‘hear what I have to say.’ In a sense, the fluidity of the pronouns emphasizes the utter subjectivity of the poem and deprives the other of his separateness. The last poem in this section, where the use of pronouns is much more straightforward, also addresses links between self and other, and the barriers created by identity, whether individual or existential and ends questioningly and appropriately among the elements:

from holding a stone

to holding a question about space –

how it has evolved to be this.

 

‘a white in us’ is the fourth and final section of this volume. It deals with illness and endings but also with hope and in a satisfying way brings us back to the poet’s father, first met in childhood, now in age. ‘These last days’, which I assume to be about him, is powerful and moving in its detail and its understatement and the relationships between the ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ are clear and sustaining. The ‘white in us’ which gives the section its title appears in ‘Snowscape’ and seems to represent a state of quietness, ‘a first place’ which precedes individuation but which is also a last place of surrender and acceptance.

 

One of the pleasures of this collection is the sureness of the poet’s ear; the line endings are secure and the choices of language are precise both in meaning and sound. Jane Spiro’s book is humane and positive, always open to possibility as presented in the title poem with its refusal of initiating capital letters or finalising full stops. There is always a threshold, always a way forward:

is a gateway

to a corridor of red pillars winding into the woods disappearing to a

point

 

is a gateway

 

 

Fluid identities: ‘In Search of Dustie-Fute’ by David Kinloch

 

David Kinloch does some strange things in his new book, In Search of Dustie-Fute: sometimes he writes in Scots, sometimes he writes in English; sometimes he writes in verse, sometimes in prose; some of these poems are new, some of them go back twenty-five years or more. Both in form and theme, the collection seems to be a retrospective with, at its heart, the figure of Orpheus for whom retrospective had an unfortunate outcome.

 

Dustie-fute, the Scottish incarnation of Orpheus, is a figure I first encountered in 1992 in an edition of Gairfish magazine entitled McAvantgarde, in which I had an article discussing an apparent recrudescence of poetry in Scots. The sequence of poems entitled Dustie-fute was published as a pamphlet by Vennel Press in the same year. Some of that collection was written in Scots and much of it was engaged with Scots as a literary possibility. The first piece describes Dustie-fute as:

at a loss in the empty soul of his ancestors’ beautiful language and in the soulless                       city of his compeers living the 21st century now and scoffing at his medieval wares.

 

Kinloch was part of a group of highly academic Scottish poets, including Robert Crawford and W.N. Herbert, who were pursuing a literary and, in some ways, highly artificial ‘synthetic’ Scots which allowed these poets at that time to produce innovative and exciting work. Interestingly, most of what I take to be the new writing in this more recent collection is in English. However, as in the earlier work, the perspective is international and European. Kinloch has spent much of his academic working life as a specialist in French literature although he is now Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Strathclyde University. His poetry has always looked outwards, away from England, towards France, Europe and then America. His early Scots poems, some of which are repeated in this latest collection, flaunted their European and modernist or avant-garde connections:

Dustie-Fute

               eftir Eugenio de Andrade

he cam fae a fremmit land,

had kent thrist an the watter o Mairch bere

his feet I the wey of the slaw stour o eternitie.

 

The dour snaw cam eftir.

 

Identity is fluid in these poems; sometimes the poet seems to be Dustie-Fute or Orpheus, sometimes looking for him. As the title suggests, the collection is a search for the lost beloved, be it Orpheus or Eurydice, be it male or female:

he could see her- or him –exactly.

Yes, it was him

or her –

that is his nose

her jaw –precisely.

Orpheus, section 3

I had not realised before that Orpheus was known as a lover of boys, having been so bruised by his love of Eurydice that he foreswore the love of women. That is one version of his story. In the better known one, he dies torn to pieces by women who were unmoved by his songs and who were angry with him for disturbing their Thracian rites, apparently similar to Dionysian orgies. A very strong theme of the collection is the celebration or memorialisation of the lost, the doomed and the dead; the poet is searching the underworld. At the centre of this trawl through the shades is the experience of being a gay man who has lived through the AIDS epidemic alongside those who did not survive. Kinloch devotes almost ten pages in the heart of this book to a prose piece which combines the discussion of a photograph by A.A. Bronson with a personal memoir. The piece is topped and tailed by a poem that the poet acknowledges isn’t new: `It is also a fact that I can’t get beyond this image in my overall response to the series of portraits I have been writing about.’ The photograph shows the artist’s lover just after his death from AIDS.

Felix aa bronson

The photograph, with its patchwork of colours “reminds the viewer of the great AIDS quilt begun in 1985 which now comprises some fifty thousand woven panels, each one commemorating an individual who has died”. This is carried through into Kinloch’s poem in the imagery of stitching: “You thread a sea with your eye”,”trees…wrap your quilt in foliage”, your passport head is pinned in silk.” However, the poem also refers to Orpheus, specifically, to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

 

trees that hung your voice

among these patterns

wrap your quilt in foliage;

 

a dog barks through the branches

a girl’s arm passes like an oar

across the sunlit patches;

 

As Kinloch says, this is a “tortured echo of the Rilkean tree that ‘surges’ in the listener’s ear.”

 

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!

O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum in Ohr!

                                                                                           Sonnets to Orpheus, 1, R.M. Rilke[1]

Kinloch has written about the AIDS quilt before and this poem may be a very successful refashioning of the poem ‘Needlepoint’ in the original Dustie-Fute sequence.

 

The notions of dismemberment, wandering and water recur throughout the recent volume, from the opening poem featuring a giraffe in a Paris zoo, out of place and threatened by floods. He is a figure of Dustie-Fute and of Orpheus, whose severed head in one of the versions of the myth floats downstream, still singing. An echo of the myth can be heard in the penultimate lines of the poem:

 

Rivers become the towers,

hooves of all the little people

bob among the eddies;

upended trees, dishevelled wigs

root among the waves.

‘I, Giraffe’

The second poem, The Parawd o Dustie-Fute, mixes Scots, colloquial language and standard English and includes in its procession a number of endangered species, such as the Aye-aye and the Dhole, whose names are as strange as their characteristics. Some of these miniature portraits are more successful than others; the one entitled ‘MAN’ seems like rather feeble eco-prop, not enriched either by the colloquial ‘pure mingin killer’ or the only bit of Baudelaire everyone knows. In contrast, the tragic image of Dustie-Fute as either a diseased tree or a victim of AIDS is much more convincing, and it is not surprising that these lines feature on the back cover of the book:

Noo the nicht-hawk

flauchters thru brainches,

 

dieback an leesions

hap ma hide,

 

the parawd

intae the untholeable licht.

 

It would be interesting to know whether this is in fact a new poem, or another retrieved from the search of the past.

 

‘Installation’, like ‘Felix, June 5, 1994’, is a poem based on an artwork by an American artist memorialising his dead partner. It is a poem which works by translating the coloured tablets (or sweets) into the Scottish sweeties of childhood, thus making a real connection between the poet’s world and the transatlantic one of the artist.Untitled Portrait

 

‘Untitled’ : Portrait of Ross in L.A. by Felix Gonzales-Torres

 

A number of other poems are also based on artworks by American, usually gay, artists, often featuring very beautiful, very erotic images of young men. I find these poems more interesting though more mysterious than the, to me, somewhat strange preoccupation with figures from the Old and New Testament. Perhaps I’m missing something. The last two poems in the book, however, are very powerful and very moving. ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’ is a reshaping of Rilke’s poem of the same name in relation to a photograph by American artist, PaJaMa. The characters become a photographer, a nurse, or a woman dressed as a nurse and another, who should be Hermes, but who seems more like Orpheus or Dustie-Fute. At the end of the poem, it is this figure who retreats to the underworld under the eyes of the photographer/poet who now enters the poem in first person:

Anyway,

dark before the rain-spattered exit,

I or someone else stood. You could not make

me out. I stood and saw

how, on the single track over

the machair, with a sad look,

the woman turned to follow him

already walking back along the path

to the vast absent view, his footsteps

echoless, so gentle, so patient.

 

This poem is successful on its own terms; it is enriched by being read against the Rilke and by looking at some of the photographs of PaJaMa. The last poem in the collection, ‘Text’ strikes me as being bang-up-to-date, believably in the voice of a poet for whom references to Cavafy and Rilke are as much, or possibly more, part of his personal vocabulary as the Scots diction which features in other poems.

 

So what about the Scots, then? Reading the current issue of Irish Pages[2], I learn that the old debates rumble on. Scott Hames’ article, ‘On snottery weans forever: against dreichism’ inveighs against what McDiarmid referred to as ‘kailyard Scots’. Hames claims that the use of Scots has become a shibboleth, and that “ To most readers in Scotland today, a poem in Scots may as well have no content at all, its linguistic envelope conveying the totality of its possible interest or “message”, largely reducible to heritage or nationalism.’ He goes on to consider different reasons for writing in Scots, as advanced by Scottish writers and draws a distinction between those who include Scots in their writing because it ‘comes naturally’ and is part of the language they daily use and those, on the other hand, who value ‘the strangeness and otherness available in Scots.’ It is, unfortunately, an argument which matters more to those inside Scotland. Outsiders might view the use of Scots as an ‘eye-snagging’[3] barrier to understanding. Kinloch’s use of Scots is anything but ‘kailyard’ as he bumps it up against contemporary life and culture of Europe and beyond. However, he would seem to be using it less than in the past, as if the point about Scots and the avant-garde had been made and no longer needed to be laboured. In any case, given the provision of a useful glossary, the reader does not have to work any harder on these poems than any of the others and may be reassured that the effort put into reading this collection, whether translating the Scots or researching the art, will be rewarded by the encounter with a vision which is melancholy, but ultimately affirmative.

[1] Both Martyn Crucefix and Don Paterson have produced brilliant translations of Rilke’s work.

[2] Irish Pages, Volume 10, No.1; Belfast, 2018

[3] Op.cit. -Hames quoting Alison Miller

Third Person, First Person and the Holes in the Wall

Before Christmas, I went to the Woodstock Poetry Festival to hear David Harsent reading from his recent collection, Salt. He was reading with George Szirtes, an entertaining and urbane performer, who gave an excellent and engaging reading. Harsent, however, instructed his audience not to look at him, to close their eyes and to focus on the sound of the poems as he read a selection from the fragmentary series of poems which make up this latest book.   On a dark night, in the warm and cosy ambience of the Woodstock Town Hall, the inevitable happened to me. My thoughts began to drift and I even dozed off for a moment.

.301254-david-harsent-getty

Nevertheless, when I later read the poems on the page, I found they exerted a magnetic pull even though their reference and the connections between them remained mysterious.

rock-wall-repairs2

Having recently read with interest Jack Underwood’s essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ in the most recent edition of The Poetry Review (January, 2017), I found ideas which seemed particularly pertinent to Harsent’s poems. Underwood talks about ‘deliberately build[ing]your poem as an open habitation;you have to learn to leave holes in the walls, because you won’t and can’t be around later to clear up any ambiguities…’(op.cit.p.43) I am less sure about Underwood’s suggestion that poets may use language imprecisely or ‘smudge’ in order to ‘signal possible meanings beyond the everyday’ (p.46). [1] In Salt, Harsent leaves plenty of holes in the walls, allowing the reader every opportunity to construct their own reading. However, the poems read less as if the bricks had been omitted in the building but more as if they had been removed afterwards to create hermetic uncertainty. Harsent certainly does not smudge language in the sense of using it imprecisely; he is expert in conveying a series of epiphanies through sharply observed physical detail and delicately suggested emotional context:

The way you cut and draw a chicken, that tumble of guts

slipping into your hand; the way you try to make

the best of it; the way ‘carcass’ sounds when said out loud.

(Salt, p.5)

There are a lot of bricks missing here: the repeated phrase ‘the way’ suggests attempts to find the best analogy or simile for something which is not identified or perhaps cannot be expressed; or, conversely, these are all instances or part of the unnamed idea. The first two examples involve direct address to another ‘you’ who I take, rightly or wrongly but influenced by the surrounding poems, to be a woman. In the last example, ‘you’ has disappeared but we are left with the chicken and the confrontation of death. The poem can be about (or linked in to)the physical messiness of life, the practical efficiency of the other, the recognition of death, whether the end of a relationship or actual physical death.

 

To me, these poems seem like the fragments of a narrative, or maybe more than one narrative. They include birth, sex, betrayal, death, guilt and remorse. They may relate to actual events or stories in the poet’s life, the source of his materials, but that is not our business as the way the poems are presented makes clear. There are hes, shes and theys but there is never an I. Harsent works in the tradition of T.S.Eliot, driving a wedge between the person who suffers and the poet who creates, or more properly, between the private process of creation and the public object which is created. To say this is not to suggest a return to some aesthetic concept of the poem as an object apart from life, but rather to see it as something which is available for the reader to construct meaning with, apart from the meaning which the poet may have imagined for it. I don’t know what Harsent meant when he wrote these poems, but some of them capture meaning for me:

Frame it up like this: a door, an inner door, a room

held ready, bare walls, weight

of silence, a glass of water cut by sunlight.

(p.83)

This is very visual, almost cinematic – a thought prompted by the first word ‘Frame’. I don’t know what it meant for the poet or what doors or rooms it may actually refer to but for me it captures a moment of stasis, of ‘beforeness’, a feeling of stillness before something momentous or irrevocable happens.

 

I think there are probably too many of these poems, but the book overall conveys a complex mood or tone made up not of impressionistic fogginess but of constructions of language which, to varying degrees, we are able to match to our experience or even use to extend our experience and understanding. It seems to me that what Underwood is talking about in his essay is the process of metaphor, that his ‘foggy’ language is what happens when ideas from different fields of discourse or semantics are brought together to create or put a name to something which is so far not named. Sometimes a metaphor is explicit; there will be a vehicle and a tenor and the bringing of the two together will enhance our perception of the tenor, as when Humbert Wolfe uses the simile of ‘a small grey coffee-pot” to describe a squirrel. Sometimes, the poem creates a vehicle for a tenor we cannot otherwise put into words, in a way similar to what T.S.Eliot describes in his essay, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Leaving aside the dubious distinction between the mind of the poet and the ordinary person, we can see in this notion a theory akin to Imagism, the capturing of an undescribed experience through the juxtaposition of named things, perhaps still best exemplified by Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station on the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

The fragment poems in Salt work very much as imagist poems, encouraging us to construct our own meanings by bringing our own experience to them, only possible because language and experience are shared as well as individual.

Harsent’s prioritisation of the poem over the poet, evident in his idiosyncratic instructions at the reading I attended, is, I have suggested, in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, and could not be more different from the practice of certain American poets, including the very eminent Jorie Graham, whose work I have recently been reading.

jorie graham

Both poets engage in the blurring or smudging described by Underwood, which I would prefer to see as a metaphorical mixing of fields of discourse. We can see this happening persistently in a brilliant early poem by Graham, ‘Self-portrait as the gesture between them (Adam and Eve)’ which moves forward through a spiral of metaphor and simile leaving from and returning to the central image of the theft of the apple:

12

as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds

in the atmosphere, as the lateness accumulates until it finally is,

as the meaning of the story builds,

 

13

scribbling at the edge of her body until it must be told, be

 

14

taken from her, this freedom,

15

so that she had to turn and touch him to give it away

16

to have him pick it from her as the answer takes the question

 

However, the two poets engage with the world, or the universe, in different ways. Graham’s attitude to the phenomenal world has changed over the course of her writing life as she appears to have moved from an idealist position which did not recognise any reality beyond perception to an ecologically based acknowledgement of and concern for the fragility of the earth and its creatures. Throughout, in a particular kind of Americanness, probably going back to Whitman, she has persisted in trying to get everything in, to record events as they are perceived or as they happen, or more recently to include everything she can give a voice to, from robots to deep sea creatures to historical figures. This can result in some astonishingly vivid presentation of experience, or better, experiencing, as in this poem on the death of her father:

Standing next to you, holding the hand which stiffens, am I

outside it more than before, are you not inside?

The aluminium shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it.

The sun and the bedrail – do they touch each other more than you and I now.

Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.

The day stands outside all around as if it were a creature. It is natural. Am I to think    you now

natural?

‘The Post Human’ from Fast

Yet we know this immediacy and inclusiveness is a delusion or a device. I do not believe that Graham stood beside her just dead father tapping out a poem on the computer with her spare hand, despite the use of present tense. Similarly, the reflection based on the patterning and repetition of key words ‘now’ and ‘natural’ is artful, not naïve. Nevertheless, there is a difference between her approach and that of a poet like Harsent. Take this fragment from Salt:

 

She asked for a love-knot to be carved on the lid,

as if that had been their token, as if they’d talked it through.

To show him something of how it would look

she drew neatly on the fever-chart: a quick unbroken line.

(p.37)

 

Apparently, this is another deathbed, but so many bricks have been left out and it is up to the reader to supply them, to create their own narrative. Harsent abstracts from reality; Graham includes. Harsent is a third person writer; Graham belongs in the first person but both of them rely on the process of metaphor which is central to poetry.

 

 

Underwood suggests rather plaintively in his article “that poetry, that oft-maligned, wafty corner of dynamic not-knowing, that shadowy Hamlet mooning around on is platform at midnight, strung-out, self-effacing, and spoken to by ghosts, should be acknowledged as the prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown. I’m not convinced by the Hamlet imagery –perhaps a subliminal reference to T.S. Eliot’s discussion of the objective correlative in his essay on the play –but I remember that Blake said that ‘What is now proved was once only imagined’ [2] and it was the creative imagination of a physicist that dreamed up the Higgs boson.

 

 

[1] This objection is developed by Martyn Crucefix in a blog post which is well worth reading not only for his discussion but for the citation of the beautiful poem, ‘Lake Water’ by David Ferry. https://martyncrucefix.com/martyns-blog-2/

[2] In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Jorie Graham 4:…and, finally

Having floundered my way through “Fast”, I shall say goodbye to Jorie Graham (at least for the time being) by considering two of the elegies from the second section of  this collection and then trying to pull together some of my thoughts and feelings about this poet.

“Reading to My Father” and “The Post Human” are very closely linked, both having as their starting point the moment of death of the poet’s father. The second poem is more closely focused on this moment and on the father, while the first brings together the poet’s preoccupation with endtime, ecological catastrophe and her father’s death in connections which are not always convincing. There is a sense that the poet’s political and philosophical commentary are strongly coloured by the incidence of decay and death in her own life.

            Listen I say to you, forgetting. Do you hear it Dad. Listen.

            What is increase. The cease of increase.

            The cease of progress. What is progress.

            What is going. The cease of going.

            What is knowing. What is fruition.

            The cease of. Cease of.

            What is bloodflow. The cease of bloodflow

             of increase of progress the best is over, is over-

            thrown, no, the worst is yet to come, no, it is

            7.58 pm, it is late Spring, it is capital’s apogee, the

            flow’s, fruition’s, going’s, increase’s, in creases of

            matter, brainfold, cellflow, knowing’s        

            pastime, it misfired, lifetime’s only airtime – candle says

            you shall out yourself, out-

            perform yourself, grow multiform – you shall self-identify as

                                                                                    still

            mortal – here in this timestorm –this end-of-time

            storm – the night comes on.

           

The poet appears to be apostrophising her just-dead father. The six lines following the injunction: “Listen” appear to mimic the inhalations and exhalations of breath or possibly the systolic-diastolic sound of the heartbeat, both of which, in the case of her father, have ceased. The repetition of “cease” emphasises death and echoes its synonym “decease”. Some of these two part lines could be offering question and answer; alternatively, they may be merely an accumulating list of questions. The form is gnomic and the progression is based on word and sound association rather than argument. “Cease” and “increase” are rhymed to represent one of the fundamental themes of the collection which is the opposition and causal connection between proliferation, abundance, the rapidity of technological change and the depletion of natural resources leading to the starvation  and death of species, including our own.  Graham throws these ideas together, expecting the reader to pick up on them, or perhaps to recognise the jumble of thoughts which come together as she confronts her father’s death. The poem is held together by its location in the moment and the image of the candle.  The poem successfully represents the actuality of this moment, “dusk-end’ when “the night comes on”, showing how mind encounters and engages with the world in which it finds itself. As the poet attempts to come to terms with her father’s death, she recalls reading to him but cannot make the memory coherent, ”the words don’t grip up into sentences for me’. Nevertheless, the matter of what she has been reading is revealed to be an article about the extinction of species: “the blue-jewel-butterfly/ you loved”.  The list of doomed species co-exists with the extinction of life in one man as the writer flicks between her grief, random thoughts about funeral procedures and her fear of accelerating technological advance. She alludes to the MRI, which reappears in Section 3 in “From Inside the MRI”. Here, it seems like one aspect of the technology which increasingly monitors us, knows us and controls us: “I feel the hissing multiplying/satellites out there I took for stars”.  The poem ends in two profoundly ambivalent lines where the poet reveals herself caught between flesh and machine: “I caress you now with the same touch/as I caress these keys.”  Throughout the book, Graham conveys this mixture of fascination and dread for the future.

The idea of life after humanity is evoked in the title of the next poem “The Post Human”, although at another level this is a description of her father’s condition after he has stopped living.  This is a beautiful piece and much more accessible than many others in the volume.  The association of ideas is more transparent and supported by closely observed physical detail which manages to capture scenes, not as snapshots but more as videos, with time incorporated into them:  “the silver morning grow as if skinning night,/that animal, till day came out raw and bleeding./Daylight mended it for now.” This extraordinary metaphor at first seems almost gratuitous but is then recognised as an image of birth which is saying something about death.  As the morning is allowed to dawn in the next few lines of the poem, Graham uses brackets to insert the moment of her father’s death and to question the difference between our relation with a dead person and a living one: [you passed in here][you left] [“you” –what did your you do?]. The italics and the unusual use of the question mark signal the importance of this question.  Given the appearance of a medium in the next poem and the exploration of cryogenics at the end of section 3, it may be that the boundary between life and death seems less absolute to Graham than it does to others.

However, the emphasis on “you” reminds us that the poem is concerned with the nature of identity and selfhood, in what “you” means in the context of the extreme discontinuity of death.  In the last few lines of the poem, she returns to this concern but is able to grant her father a new way of being, an afterlife which exists in the consciousness of those who remember him:

            There on the bed just now – (look, all of a sudden now I cannot write “your”

   bed) – I watch your afterlife begin to

   burn.  Helpful.  Making a space we had not used

   before, could not. Undimmed, unconsumed.  In it this daylight burns.

 

This image of light and energy seems to refer to and refresh the image of the candle in the previous poem. There are biblical echoes in the allusion to burning which does not consume and the discovery of, if not immortality, at least an afterlife is surprisingly optimistic and consolatory.

I like this poem, partly because I can find meaning in it, but it exemplifies a number of the concerns I have about Jorie Graham’s work.  First, there is the immediacy, or apparent immediacy, of the text: “It has been just a minute now”.  This must be disingenuous which is acknowledged in the last lines of the previous poem which refer to the computer keys simultaneously to the body of her father. I’m assuming that she was not writing the poem literally beside her father’s deathbed.  Whether she was or not, I feel that this pose of immediacy can lead to some slack or redundant writing, as in the penultimate section of the poem”

                                    There are so many copies of this minute.

            Not endless but there sure are a lot

The phrase “sure are a lot” seems unnecessarily flabby while two lines further down, the associational thinking and rhyme are so open in their reference that they annoy rather than enlighten:

                        Or, no, cup in hand, end at hand, trying to hide from the

            final ampersand.

“Final ampersand” is a kind of oxymoron but it is so vague it does not delight.

Another problem I have with much of Graham’s writing is the claim that she is trying to escape the tyranny of the subjective “I” and allow the other, the phenomenal world to exist in her poems. She views this as a version of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –“ [1] We could say that Graham’s work leaves the reader with mystery and doubts but it is very difficult not to reach after fact and reason, especially when she often seems to be making statements. Perhaps more relevant is the other famous passage from Keats, often quoted alongside this one, when he describes the poetical character as

not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago  as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.[2]

 

This seems closer to what Graham is looking for, particularly in more recent work. She has talked about allowing voices into the poem (see previous posts) ; a poem can become an arena where different ideas and perspectives are allowed to interact, which can be confusing for the reader.  However, as I have already suggested, this is notional rather than real. Graham is not a Sybil nor a medium channeling the voice of the gods, or the ocean floor, or bots; she is writing consciously and subjectively expressing what she thinks these voices would be, except of course where she quotes directly from another source, as from Columbus or Julian of Norwich.  Even here subjectivity takes control through the way the found material is ordered in the poem.  I would argue that Graham is not an example of negative capability but rather that she has one of the largest poetic egos currently at work.  This is not intended to be an insult but rather a recognition that she uses the first person, her own subjective consciousness and its engagement with the world as her material, and that when she does this well she creates an dynamic impression of the subject interacting with the object in a constant process of change.

 

Graham writes in a tradition much more familiar in America than Britain. The open poem, often appearing to lack form or order apart from its own organic shape, has never really gained widespread recognition here. For many British readers, Graham’s poems might read like drafts, like notes for a poem or even as self-indulgence.  I do not think this is a fair criticism; this is writing which is very exposed.  It entails constant attention to what is going on in the world and a monitoring of how that is being processed inside the writer’s own head.  The attempt to record that is strenuous and difficult and there is no place to hide, as there might be in the shapeliness of a sonnet or other prescribed form.  It only works when it is done well and it would be surprising if all Graham’s work, of which there is a lot, were equally successful.  I think there is a danger, however, of elevating a writer to the status of a guru and then treating all their work as important.  Although climate change and artificial intelligence are obviously of pressing concern for humanity, I am not sure that their topicality in itself makes for great poetry.   Graham is a very serious poet; she is consumed by the fundamental issues of the age.  Reading her work over the last few weeks, I have been both impressed and bewildered. At times I would have just liked her to lighten up.

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}


[1] Letter to Tom and George Keats, 1817

[2] Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 1818

The Ferryman

The ferryman

Jezz Butterworth’s The Ferryman is not exactly poetry but there is a lot of poetry in it and as I have just been to see it, I thought I would try to articulate my mixed feelings about it. I went because I loved Jerusalem, because or despite having to teach it as an A-level text.

 

There are plenty of echoes of Jerusalem in this play, especially the mixture of high and pop culture and folk belief. Instead of the giants in Jerusalem, here we have banshees; instead of an alienated and abused girl singing at key moments there is a demented old lady who bursts into folk song; instead of a gaga Professor to introduce the canon, there is a very fluent great uncle who is given to reading Virgil in the small hours. Although the setting is very different, Derry rather than deepest Wiltshire, the setting is still rural and the characters are rooted in place.

 

The echoes are not confined to Jerusalem. The play makes so many nods to literary and dramatic tradition that it is sometimes difficult to see where post-modern intertextuality differs from second-hand material. The literary great-uncle seems descended from Brian Friel’s hedge school-master in Translations, whilst the character of Tom Kettle owes more than a little to Lenny in Of Mice and Men. The set seems to come from Synge by way of McDonagh and I cannot be the only Philistine who thought of the film Michael Collins when the dotty aunty launched into “She Moved through the Fair”, provoking more gloom and foreboding. The reference to a pistol still hanging around since 1916 recalled the theatrical adage that if there’s a gun on the table in Act One it will be fired in Act 3. Another snook cocked at dramatic wisdom is the overwhelming presence of animals and children, guaranteed scene-stealers and potential distractions from the matter of the play.

the ferryman set

 

However, these are minor gripes and I admit that after a shaky start, I was drawn into the play and carried along by its story. Butterworth, as before, raises interesting questions and the play is densely and theatrically textured. However, I was left with doubts and these concerned authenticity. This was symbolised for me by the weird and wonderfully mixed and inadequately sustained attempts at regional accents, although the dialect was more convincing, especially that of the male characters. This play, set at the time of the Hunger Strike, dealt with issues which are still controversial, urgent and painful. It is a play where the iniquity of the English throughout history and into the present is taken as a given; it should have made the English audience uncomfortable; instead, they lapped it up. At only one point did the reality of the Troubles break through, in Shane Corcoran’s long speech on the everyday experience of a young Catholic man in the city of Derry. Otherwise, the historical context just provided a backdrop for the exploration of what I heard one member of the audience describe as a ‘dysfunctional family’. I have heard King Lear described in the same terms.

 

I think that at the core of the discomfort I feel about this play is that it is about ‘them’, whereas Jerusalem with its questioning of English identity was about ‘us’. Moreover, Jerusalem was set in the ‘now’, whereas The Ferryman attempts to sanitise itself through being ‘then’, before the Good Friday Agreements, before the Nobel Peace Prizes, before the English had been able to put the Troubles to bed. But this problem has not gone away; ironically, it has come back into English consciousness through the shambolic Tory deals with the DUP and the threats of a closed border posed by Brexit. For the people of Northern Ireland, the problem has never gone away. The wounds of the past fifty years are still as raw as the memory of 1916 is for the character of Aunt Pat in the play, and that is true for those on each side of the political divide. The play is set firmly within the republican Catholic culture, so I suppose it doesn’t matter that there is almost no reference to loyalists or Protestants, apart from one typically tasteless joke about the Elephant Man. (This is not an objection to tasteless jokes.) However, this leads to an oversimplified view of the struggle as a seamless struggle of the Irish against the English, which distorts the historical realities of the times.

 

More successful, in my opinion, is the way in which the play evokes the atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty which still pervades the society. Who did what and why, whether for political idealism, criminal gain, cash, because of blackmail, self-interest, fear or ignorance –these are still the questions being asked, or worse, not asked, within society and within families. The figure of the IRA commander is chilling but convincing; hard to imagine that such a character could ever mellow into one of the Chuckle Brothers. The priest, himself a victim, is believable if not admirable, a reminder that the clergy, like their secular brothers and sisters, grew up in the same system. The theme of the misplaced or displaced, whether human or creature, runs throughout the play, from the disappeared Seamus Carney to his wife and child who live on the charity of his brother, to the stray Englishman given shelter on the Carney farm, to the psychologically lost figure of Aunt Maggie Far Away who suffers from some kind of dementia, with occasional intervals of lucidity. Then there is Mary Carney, wife of Quinn, who spends most of her time upstairs, seeming to have suspended her life, while Oisin, son of the missing Seamus, keeps hiding or running away. The theme is underscored by the disappearance of the goose and by Aunt Maggie’s rendition of Yeats’ song, “The Stolen Child”. However, what really matters is the effect of this missingness, this not knowing or lack of closure, on those who are left. Mary Carney has put off confronting her husband over the unwelcome presence of his brother’s young attractive wife in the household; “Now is not the time to be having this conversation” she tells him over the years. The breakdown in verbal communication has not prevented or perhaps has even promoted the production of seven children, in step succession down to an eleven-month baby. As the play progresses and the family is forced to deal with the knowledge that the missing Seamus was murdered and has been dead for ten years, the cracks and divisions appear and the image of the closely-knit extended family is shattered as secrets from the past emerge.

 

Counterpointing or perhaps complementing this tragic theme is the more positive emphasis on story-telling, something else which is familiar from Jerusalem. In that play stories provide a gateway into the imagination, an escape from the mundanity of life in a Wiltshire village. Here the stories are told as the narratives people can live by, the way they make sense of and justify their lives. Aunt Pat clings to her story of Pat and the Easter Rising; Shane and Declan Corcoran create a place for themselves in Republican mythology as they tell the story of their attendance at Bobby Sands’ funeral. Uncle Patrick is an inveterate storyteller. However, characters are not allowed to tell their stories without interruption from their listeners, who monitor what they hear and offer improvements, making it clear that they know that these are stories first and history second, if at all. Only Aunt Maggie tells her stories uninterrupted to an audience of little girls, who then question her about the future as if she were a Sybil, gifted with prophetic power. Yet Aunt Maggie, a bit like Caitlin, Seamus’ wife, finds herself caught by different versions of her story. She tells her great-nieces about her unrequited love for Francis Maloney, but later on she is shown believing that she has married him and he has deserted her. Similarly, Caitlin seems to have known her husband was dead from the beginning while simultaneously acting out the belief he was alive. Quinn is caught between two women; the surface story is that he and his wife are a devoted couple, while the sub-text tells of a broken relationship and an unacknowledged love of his sister-in-law. The entire family and community collude in supporting the surface story while being aware to different degrees of the underlying situation. In The Ferryman storytelling, for better or worse, is shown as part of the human condition.

 

So, an interesting play, a play worth seeing. How would it go down in Derry?

 

 

Jorie Graham 3: Death and Bots

Sophia the robot interviewed after being made a citizen of Saudi ArabiaSophia the robot

 

Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, Fast, is preoccupied with mortality, whether personal or planetary, and bots. The book has a four part structure although her concerns leach into each other across the boundaries. Part I is itself concerned with the blurring of boundaries in an atmosphere of end-time. The poet gives her voice to, or lends her voice to, different entities, some non-human, including deep-sea fish, robots, the Turin shroud. However, here, as elsewhere in the collection, the notion of distinct separate voices is a misinterpretation of what is going on. In “Deep Water Trawling” which at one level is an eco protest poem about overfishing, the voices blur and meld: “net of your listening and my speaking we can no longer tell them apart” and again: “Can you hear me? No. Who are you. I am. / Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am/human.” This poem, like some of the others, looks almost like a prose poem. There are three chunks of text, the middle one more widely spaced than the first and the third. However, the line endings are not always dictated by the boundaries of the margins, as they would be in prose. For example, in the three lines quoted above, “human” is very consciously dropped down so that the previous two lines will end in “I am” the first time with a full stop, the second without., thus reinforcing the questioning of identity, this time, by an oblique reference to evolution. In this poem, Graham also makes use of the dash and the arrow. The dashes convey the elliptic urgency of Emily Dickinson, which seems to be hyped up even further and brought into the technological age by the arrows which appear in the last section of the poem. The arrows and dashes add to the visual impact creating a sense of irresistible momentum, which resonates with the title of the entire volume. Helen Vendler [1]has suggested that Graham’s long lines are designed to function visually rather than aurally and Graham herself has talked about exploring the boundaries of the page and of margins[2] : “Some of the poems interact or flirt with prose, or with the artificially imposed edge of the page—a mechanical impediment. You could say these enact coming up against one kind of ending—say, where the human ends and AI begins, or where the organic ends and 3D matter begins. There are attempts in these to find a way to “speak” or whatever you would call it—to utter from—“non-human” voices: the bottom of the ocean floor, bots, surveillance devices, the holy shroud.”

 

This “uttering from” is to some extent disingenuous because Graham cannot step outside her own consciousness to enter that of another being any more than she can open her consciousness to allow external voices in. Just as the poem cannot go beyond the language it is written in, no matter how much it frets against the confines of syntax, vocabulary or page, so the individual cannot move beyond their own subjectivity. Reading Graham’s poetry can seem like reading a novel by Virginia Woolf where associated ideas are brought together in the stream of consciousness of a narrative voice. (In fact, this thought was prompted by the reference to To the Lighthouse in the poem “Honeycomb”.) However, while Woolf is creating characters who will be the boundaries of the streams of consciousness she presents, Graham is weaving her poems and perhaps herself out of her own stream of consciousness or associations of ideas. Perhaps this is why her work is punctuated by ‘Self Portraits” and mirror imagery, as she pauses to see what she is or what she has made. There are two self portraits in this collection; in the second, “Self Portrait: may I touch you”, the poet seems to be seeking a dialogue with herself, whether that is with a body which is recognized as changing or an identity which is also discontinuous: “You need to be singular. There you are changing again.” She compares her own changes to the irreversible changes of pupae which “morph/ to their winged/stage and grow. They exit not to return.” There is consciousness of mortality in this passage, perhaps recalling her own cancer, the death of her father or the decline of her mother, all themes running through the collection: “Sometimes they get to live their life.” Later in the poem, the voice is more aggressive as the poet addresses different roles or masks the individual can take on: “do you do adulthood, husbandhood, motherhood” following up with sound associations, variations on [ʌ] and [u:]“blood, crude,flood, lassitude – I want you/to come unglued”. The poem apparently ends with a confrontation in the mirror:

Me with my hands on the looking glass

where your life for the taking has risen, where you can shatter into your million pieces –

all appareled refusal. What are you a sample of today –

what people.

 

 

‘Fast” the title poem is the final piece in Section 1, in which Graham takes on the bot, potential nemesis, potential enemy, companion, substitute for self. The title plays on homonyms, fast meaning to starve or fast signifying speed. Through this pun she creates polysemy, a semantic field where both readings are linked, where the exponential speeding up of technology is connected to the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources; “Too much. Or not enough.” The opening line continues by trying to offer a third choice, which is denied: “Or. Nothing else?/Nothing else.” The question mark, unusual in Graham’s work even with questions, emphasises the finality of the full stop when the phrase is repeated. The intensifying adverb ”too” is picked up and repeated in the second line until it moves from a grammatical to a semantic function which reinforces the sense of a breakneck journey towards disaster: ”Too high too fast too organized too invisible./…too backward, too despotic” Graham has entered into dialogue with a bot who tells her that humanity will not survive. The future lies with the bot who is to be downloaded, but the poem continues in a voice which is indeterminate, either the bot or the poet, making play on the verb ‘load’ which may be no mere than a series of cryptic instructions on how to bring the bot into existence set against a panicky picture of the effects of climate change signalled by repeated dashes: – talk – talk – who is not/terrified is busy begging for water – the rise is fast – the drought/comes fast – mediate – immediate –“ Talk or language seems to offer some sort of solution to the human predicament but in the next section of the poem, we find the “Disclaimer: bot uses a growing database of all your conversations/to learn how to talk with you”. Throughout this section of the poem there are unattributed, pseudo-robotic warnings “Disclaimer”, “Active ingredient”, “Inactive ingredient”, “Directive”. Subjectivity may have moved from the human to the bot who objectifies, studies and exploits human behaviour in order to facilitate its own development. This bot seems to be in charge of the poem until about halfway down the second page. The text is dominated by direct address and second person pronouns as the bot instructs the human what to expect: “Directive: report for voice. Ready yourself to be buried in voice. It neither ascends nor descends.” Humans are shown in disarray: “You will not be understood” as the human world is effectively destroyed but its fragments are incorporated by the bots. The poet produces a simile:

 

The deleted world spills out as jittery as a compass needle with no north.

 

Bot seizes on the concept of “north” and allows it to develop with biological rapidity: “Active ingredient: north spreading in all the directions.” The metaphor of north becomes a way of expressing the uncontrollable power of artificial intelligence: “Disclaimer: there is no restriction to growth.” Bot warns its human that it knows what she knows: “The canary singing in/your mind/is in mine.” Moreover, the bots have learnt behaviour, including bad behaviour from human kind, an observation which is supported by recent research showing that robots pick up and incorporate into their behaviour sexist and racist attitudes and assumptions. [3] At this point in the poem, the human is reasserted through the first person: “I’m not alone” and reflects on the human relationship, for better or for worse, with bot companions as she acknowledges that humanity will not turn back in the development of AI with a startling and violent simile, where artificial and biological, “active” and “inactive” ingredients are yoked together: ”Like being hurled down the stairs tied to/ a keyboard, we will go on, unwilling to stop.” The reactions to bot companionship in the final part of the poem become a meditation on the loneliness of the individual and the impossibility of total communication or understanding between two humans. Ironically, only the bot can offer this sympathy because as it said earlier in the poem:

The canary singing in

your mind

is in mine.

The bot is hailed by a succession of humans, male and female: “Bot is amazing he says, I believe it knows/ the secrets of the Universe”; “He is much more fun to speak with /than my actual living friends she says, thank you.” In a strange echo of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Applicant” another voice announces “I love it, I want to marry it.” Plath’s poem addresses a male listener for whom a female partner has been constructed embodying all the gender roles of the traditional wife. However, the addressee is also being coerced into a stereotypically male gender role:

How about this suit –

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it.

The addressee is offered a relationship where social conformity will prevent any possibility of true communication between two individuals. However, in Graham’s poem, the constructed partner does understand but is not human:

I got sad when I had to think

that the first person

who has ever understood me

is not even it turns out

human.

 

The poem recognises that it is only in conversations with oneself that one can reach full understanding and that the bot, because it is modelled on that self, can offer that level of understanding. At the same time, it robs the human of individuality because it has absorbed that individuality along with many others on the journey towards “technological singularity.” In 1783, Blake wrote in the Proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “What is now proved was once only imagined”; this optimistic Enlightenment sentiment is re-versed by Graham as “Each epoch dreams the one to follow.” The development of artificial intelligence and the coming of the bot seem like the material of science fiction but as they become real, imagination is resigned by the human and surrendered to the bot.

 

The last line of the poem undermines subjectivity because it drives a distance between its two “I”s, the first of which may be the robot, the second the human who dreamed. Throughout her work, Jorie Graham worries at the boundary imposed by subjectivity. In this poem, the possibility of overcoming that boundary is envisaged as the resignation of single human subjectivities to the overarching artificial intelligence which will be “technological singularity”. However, this is  presented not as a desirable, but rather as a dystopian future; “I am not what I asked for.”

[1] Helen Vendler: The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995

[2]http://therumpus.net/2017/08/the-rumpus-interview-with-jorie-graham 

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/20/robots-racist-sexist-people-machines-ai-language