HOME  UP 

REVIEWS - ISSUE 25

 

VOICES FROM THE LAND OF TREES

                        by Abigail A. Zammit

                        Smokestack Books

                        ISBN 0 9551061 8 4

                        £7.95

 

                        A Maltese writer who spent some time in Guatemala in 2003, Zammit has taken the thirty-six years of civil war in that unfortunate country as the inspiration for her first collection. The book saw the light of day because Zammit was at a reading by Andy Croft. She offered him the manuscript which he reluctantly accepted, as editors do in such circumstances. He read it and realized its excellence. Funny how things find a home. The structure of the book is very intelligent and appealing: she writes poems in many different voices ( as the title indicates ) which build into a picture of the land, its people and the conflicting values which brought such misery and suffering. The success of the collection lies in the comprehensiveness and vividness of the picture of the country and its conflict it leaves in the mind. She does this with great subtlety. The poems are put together from simple language and are for the most part understated. Zammit has learnt the lessons of restraint from the masterly practitioners of modern poetry and never gets a word out of place. She manages to capture too the rhythms of emotion. Her tone can evoke the pain of the bereaved on one page and the brutality of the military dictators on the next. Remarkable too that treating such a highly political subject, the collection contains no self-conscious political reasoning. She is prepared to let people speak for themselves and she does so with acute respect. The effect is to humanize a period and set of events in which the worst in humanity was on display every day. The book creates, in equal measure, compassion for the victims of repression and exploitation and horror at the extremes of violence and manipulation of the powerful. It is a testament not only to Zammitís great skill as a poet but also to her extraordinary sensitivity, bravery and generosity.

 

*

 

                        LAYING SOMETHING DOWN:POEMS 1962-2007

                        by Jim Burns

                        Shoestring Press

                        ISBN 13:978 1 904886 49 5

                        £11.85 

                        Because he has an interest in the Beats, Jim Burns is sometimes described as a Beat poet. Ridiculous. Heís a Preston poet. The town is in the rhythms of his work and in the wry, self-deprecating, dark humour that pervades it. That stoical, ironic, just-when-you-thought-it-couldnít-get-any-worse-look-what-happens mentality is the stock-in-trade of Prestonís long-suffering lower orders. Burnsís essential poetic technique too: using the objectively disciplined structure of poetry to give expression to a highly subjective view of things, is very typical of the town and class he comes from. People without money, power, status or influence tend to set great store by the personal. What else can they do ? They also tend to admire the practical. Someone who can watch the kids while you nip to the shops is much more use than an educational psychologist. A friend of mine who has a powerful and exalted position in the world of psychology tells a nice story: he asked a group of clients, all social security claimants, which they would prefer, a social worker or a free bus pass. They all chose the latter. Burns is personal and practical and it makes him great company.

                        One caveat, however, to begin. Towards the end of this collection thereís a poem called What I Want. One of the things he wants is to see his last poems in a magazine not on ďsomething called the Internet.Ē I would say this points to the limitations of Burnsís approach. For the young, to whom the Internet is as familiar as a bus, the idea of ďsomething called the InternetĒ is as quaint as thinking of the wireless as ďnew fangledĒ. Itís only technology. Ironically, a good helping of Burnsís writing is on this magazineís website. Recently, Google set up a link to his essay on Anatole Broyard. The result was hundreds of visits. Now, youíd have to be batty to prefer reading on the screen to the page, but everything on our site can be downloaded and if you can use Publisher ( I canít) you can turn what you download into a little book. The Internet and the page donít exclude one another. And the Web is a superb resource if itís used intelligently. This is the problem, or perhaps merely the limitation, of the resolutely subjective mode. Burns belongs to a past

without computers. But his personal response to them is wide of the objective mark. It is merely his dismissal. The poem is about what he wants, of course, but sometimes our desires mislead us. Viewed objectively, the Internet is a boon. All you have to do to get hold of some of Burnsís best essays is to go to the PP site and download them, free. Thatís pretty good, isnít it ? 

                        Burnsís poems work, then, by sticking close to the personal. He canít go wrong when heís talking about his own experience. Right from the start he knew what he wanted: a simple style, a poem that tells a story, no fireworks, no show, and, with a bit of luck, writing that will touch on everybodyís experience. This is the great virtue of his work: that by concentrating on the personal, he gets beyond it. Aria, for example, begins: 

                                                My mother always loved opera,
                                                not that she ever got to see one  

a nice way of making the social comment, without making it. Burns is a master at this, something else typical of his origins: when a stray remark of the wrong kind can lead to the loss of your job, you learn to be oblique and downbeat. His voice is that of Everyman, the bloke on the bus, the woman in the factory, the kid on the park, the old man on his death bed. But Burns is extraordinarily well-read. His erudition would put most professors to shame, yet thereís not a hint of the self-consciously educated professional in his work. Heís just a chap whoís read lots of books. That attitude is virtually extinct today. The aspirational, educated writer wants everyone to know he or she has a degree or two, rubs shoulders with the right editors, moves in the best intellectual circles, is reviewed in the desirable pages. Some modern writing drips with hints of all this. Burnsís voice comes from the streets and the cultural references in his work seem natural and unpretentious, though if you gathered them  together theyíd reveal a remarkable breadth of knowledge. 

                        Burns was in his mid-twenties when the first poems in this book appeared and is now in his early seventies, so they span a good deal of both experience and history. As you read, you get the sense of how the world that made him has changed. Some of the poems tell of how he wanted it to change, even to play a small part in changing it, but it has changed in ways which make him as wryly suspicious as ever of those in charge. As he says in Change, ďthe driving seat is always squareĒ. Yet the marvellous feeling you take away from this book is that he never lost either his sense of perspective or humour. Some of the poems are hilarious and very many of them make you smile. In an odd way, heís reminiscent of the other Burns. The Scottish genius too was highly personal, down-to-earth and used strict poetic form to convey warmth and friendliness. From the work of both you get the sense of a man who has lived and done his best in bad times, who disdains the fools and bastards who run the world and ruin othersí lives, and who, in spite of all the blows life can deliver, was determined to work steadily and to write well.  

                        Burns has never been taken up by a big press nor has he won lots of prizes. Heís not a fashionable writer. He belongs to a world that will soon have gone forever, but here he records what it was like to live in that world, not as a ďmover and shakerĒ, but as the majority had to: getting by, making and mending, keeping going, taking it on the chin, never letting the bastards grind you down. This is a remarkable testimony and a thoroughly loveable and memorable collection. When you read the kind of tosh that is winning the Forward prize, you shake your head in disbelief that something as fine as this is overlooked.  

                        The cover has a photograph of the poet laying a single flower at the Mur des Federes in Pere Lachaise. Burns is a great lover of Paris, the birthplace of the bohemianism whose values - modesty of material means, camaraderie and lack of conventional ambition - are close to his own. Fitting that he should be pictured paying tribute to those shot down by the guns of property, ignorance and arrogance seeing heís never had any wealth other than learning, poetry, music, love and friendship and the work, like the man, is so delightfully modest.

 

*

                        ANOTHER PLACE

                        by Mike Barlow

                        Salt Publishing

                        ISBN 978-1-84471-397-4

                        £8.99

 

            Mike Barlowís second collection sees him rising to his full stature. Living On The Difference was a fine book, but here Barlow really discovers his confidence and allows his rare imagination full rein. Needless to say, the construction of the poems is excellent. There are only tiny lapses, like in the first line of The Third Wife in which a slightly wobbly ambiguity gives pause, but thatís to be churlish. Barlow has worked hard to ensure his lines fit perfectly and every word is doing its work. Itís a delight to read poems so superbly put together. Even better though is the gradual discovery of his curious and engaging imaginative world. Poem by poem this collection invites you into his odd way of experiencing things. Odd in the best sense. Everything he encounters it transformed by assimilation into his imaginative universe, a place of magic, wonder, joy, amazement, love and continual freshness. His effort is to make this highly personal encounter with reality readily accessible without becoming obvious or trite. He succeeds brilliantly. The poems are full of a sense of the ordinary effortlessly made unusual. The apparent effortlessness, of course, is sweated over. Some collections leave you with the sense they are just that: sixty or so miscellaneous pieces. This is a collection which pulls together as you read it to leave you with that feeling of inevitability and of a unique sensibility which are the hallmarks of great books. Barlow has studied intently how modern poetry works and gone about to be expert at it, but in doing so he has transcended it. Out of the commonplace practice of contemporary poetry he has shaped something utterly unlike the work of any other present-day writer. This is originality of the very best kind: unforced, unobtrusive, unselfconscious. Iím pleased to say Penniless Press was publishing Barlow when he was unknown. Itís what little mags are for. Now he wins prizes and is sought after. All to the good, but he doesnít need the prizes, the work speaks for itself. Itís lovely too that Barlow came to poetry quite late and so flies in the face of clichťd metropolitan careerism. There is nothing about his practice of that thrusting, look-at-meism so detectable in the work of the bright young things who come out of public schools or down from Oxbridge determined to garner the glittering prizes they assume were made for them. He worked for decades in the public sector. It makes a

difference. Heís a real poet. A real artist. And this is an unforgettable collection.

 

*

 

                        BLOODAXE POETRY INTRODUCTIONS 3

                        Ed Neil Astley

                        ISBN 978-1-852245-767-6

                        £7.95

 

 

                        Neil Astley has chosen well: Jack Gilbert, Jane Hirshfield, Galway Kinnell and W.S.Merwin. All four are excellent poets and the selections included here give a real feel of the essence of their practice and vision. Jack Gilbert is described on the cover as an ďoutsiderĒ. Theyíre usually interesting, and so it turns out. In the introduction to his section, heís quoted: 

         ďMost poets in America today are concerned with their career as poets far more than with their poetry.Ē

In the transcripts of interviews he provides more evidence of a clear-sighted, demystifying perspective on writers and writing. The same clarity, straightforward-ness and unease with the status quo are present in the poems. Thereís a lovely piece called Failing and Flying, about Icarus, in which he writes:

                                                                        But anything
                                    worth doing is worth doing badly. 

Itís an important idea in a culture hooked on success and results, haunted by an anxiety over failure which turns people into preening phoneys and prevents them from trying things out, in pursuit, not of success, but of a richer life. Gilbert is always writing about important things. His work stands against both that ďacademicĒ poetry he shrugs at, competent but irrelevant, and the throw-it-at-the-wall sloppiness of poetry which addresses serious issues but shows little discipline. In his own practice, Gilbert avoids both well-structured emptiness and chaotic well-meaning. He achieves a rare effect: the ability to say important, almost aphoristic things in a way that is never over-direct and which has weight without seeming intrusive or ponderous: 

                                                                        To make injustice the only
                        measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. 

A total outsider in American poetry he may be, but an excellent writer all the same.  

                        Jane Hirshfield quotes Chekhovís famous dictum: 

                        ďIf you wish to move your reader, you must write more coldly.Ē 

Excellent advice which she applies consistently. The blurb says sheís ďa visionary writer whose poems ask nothing less than what it is to be humanĒ but that seems woolly and exaggerated. Her poems are specific, rooted, inserted in a recognisable reality. Some of them have that power to lodge in the mind or to draw you back to re-read which the best writing always displays.  

                        Galway Kinnell is a first-rate writer who uses the non-human world as a means of locating humanity, of illuminating our status and condition. He says of himself that he doesnít think heís a ďnatureĒ poet. His approach to the non-human is by no means traditional. Itís an amalgam of awe and something that might be called existential suspicion. The natural world gave rise to us yet we are a problem within it, a problem to ourselves, and the only such species. If this makes Kinnell sound like a poet who lards his work with philosophy, nothing could be further from the truth. His intellectual effects are achieved askance. Like his admired Emily Dickinson, he believes we shouldĒ Tell all the truth but tell it slantĒ. By astute accumulation of simple lines, he elaborates complex effects which open before you as imperceptibly as a flower. He is a thoroughly unforgettable and unmissable poet. 

                 As for W. S. Merwin, a review of his selected poems follows in these pages. Suffice it to say her that, like Kinnell, he has secured a lasting place in world literature. 

                  For the experienced reader or the novice, this is a superb collection which intelligently takes you to the heart of the work of four remarkable Americans. Letís hope Neil Astley edits many more like this.

 

            

                        THE INVENTION OF ZERO

                        by Chris Greenhalgh

                        Bloodaxe    ISBN 978-1-85224-773-7                        £7.95 

                        The title and lead poem make you expect a collection that will explore some of the jaw-dropping facts about the universe; but after the appetizing quotation from Updike, There is infinitely more nothing in the universe than anything else and the first poem which begins with a play on a law of physics (Nature adores a vacuum) the book turns into something miscellaneous: a few portraits of famous folk, a couple of jokes and thirty-four pages of short prose. Very short prose is very difficult to do well. It may be that the poem, the short poem at least, that can be read in few minutes and memorized with a little effort, owes its existence partly to this extraordinary difficulty. Long prose lets you make mistakes. You can be as careless as Dickens or Dostoyevsky and get away with it. Short prose requires precision. Many of the prose pieces here donít rise to that tightness which makes the form work. Some of them seem like free-floating paragraphs that have lost their way. I think also that the structure of the collection is unbalanced. The prose tips significance in its direction which tends to make the few poems at the start seem a little redundant, but the prose itself doesnít have the power to hold the attention. Throughout the book there is a slight hint of a writer struggling for material. Portrait de Femmes, for example, which is competently written tells four little tales about women, including the famous one in which Joinville sent the three-word note to the actress Rachel and she responded with equal brevity, wit and cheek. Itís an interesting little anecdote, but pretty well-known. Why turn it into a poem? The searching for material leads to some of the poems being underwritten. The style is simple and clear, but some of the pieces are too simple. Simplicity shouldnít be facile. Overall, this book has the feel of something produced for the sake of remaining visible. Arenít there times when what a writer really needs to do is disappear ?

 

*

 

                       

                        SOUL FOOD

                        Eds Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce

                        ISBN 978-1-85224-766-9

                        £7.99 

                        Anthologies of this kind are a delight because thereíll always be a handful of poems you want to go back to and however heavy the poetry on your shelves thereís sure to be one or two things you donít have that youíre pleased to get. The book is divided into nine sections. Iím not sure it makes much difference or sense. I suppose a little bundle of poems by religious folk under the rubric Talking To God, at least lets you know  they all have a more or less common origin. Itís a good idea, of course, to organise the poems in some way but sections entitled Knowing Yourself and Inner Light smack slightly of the self-help manual. That aside, this is a superb collection. Not all the poems will be to every readerís taste, but thatís the point. There are writers missing of course: no Robbie Burns, no Byron, no Prevert. You could make a long list. And one or two of the inclusions might make you wince. Iím not sure why itís called soul food nor why the subtitle suggests it needs to be read by people with starved minds. Is Bloodaxe tilting to some New Age etherealism ? But lots of the poems are good. My mind isnít starved and I donít believe I have a soul, just a brain with a hundred billion neurons, but Iím glad to have this collection and will go back to it over and over for those poems I donít have anywhere else.

 

*

 

                        SELECTED POEMS

                        by W.S.Merwin

                        Bloodaxe

                        ISBN 978-1-85224-769-0 

                        The poems assembled here were published between 1952 and 2007, a lengthy period which provides a shape to the poetís output. In truth, Merwin hasnít changed much in his essential style over those years. Consistency from book to book is what we expect and marks out the writer who has found his or her ďvoiceĒ. All the same, some essential writers show great differences in their work over a long period: thereís a great difference between Dubliners and Ulysses and a pretty big distance between Loveís Labourís Lost and The Tempest. Perhaps consistency of voice isnít quite the hallmark we take it to be.  

                        Merwin is a gentle poet. He never raises his voice or goes for spectacular effects, but this doesnít mean he stays on safe territory. He isnít a polite poet in his subject matter or vision. On the contrary, throughout this collection he attends to the serious issues of the time but his skill and subtlety lie in a style at once simple, direct and demanding and an ability to focus on and evoke the sensual details of life which give a rich and deep sense of reality to his work. You might say itís the application of William Carlos Williamsís doctrine of no ideas but in things. That wouldnít be wide of the mark but Merwin isnít derivative. In his best poems, and most of the work here is of the highest standard, he leads you carefully from the familiar and comfortable into a territory far more uncertain and threatening. His insistent intention seems to be to make us aware of how close to one another are realms we sometimes, in our careless way of thinking, take to be very distant. Thereís a poem from 1996, for example, called The Red which begins: 

                        It was summer a bright day in summer and the path kept
                                    narrowing as`it led under the oaks 

This might be the beginning of a pleasant recollection, something personal but touching on the common experience of lazy enjoyment. Yet the final lines of the poem are these: 

            old people most of them as the dates indicated
                     men and women and with them children they had been
            ordered in German to that spot where they were
                        shot then the Germans set fire to the buildings
            with the animas inside and when they had finished
                        they went off down the lane and the fires burned on
            and the smoke filled the summer twilight and then the warm night 

Merwin is excellent at summoning up that sense of bewilderment before our condition and history which truly lies behind the posturing certainties of many politicians, religious leaders, purveyors of solutions of all kinds. He knows that staring bouche-bee at the facts of our brutality as well as of our tenderness, is more honest than claiming to understand and have remedies. In its quiet way, his work dismisses all the noisy pseudo verities of the modern world: Progress, the Market, disembodied History. His work is a question, but a beautiful, intelligent, cultured, thoughtful and generous one. He has won all kinds of awards. What do they matter when you can write like this ?

 

*

 

                        JEAN RHYS AFTERWORDS

                        by Alexis Lykiard

                        ISBN-13 978 1 904886 34 1

                        Shoestring Press

                        £8.95

                         Alexis Lykiardís Jean Rhys Revisited with its suggestive title of return to a previously familiar arena as well as the return of a kindred spirit, was published in 2000 and well rightly well-received. This subsequent volume is a series of additions, observations, arguments, reminiscences but all the better for it. Lykiard is an enthusiast both for Rhys the writer and Rhys the woman. This is, of course, dangerous. It risks a stride away from objectivity and a  descent into special-pleading. Fortunately, Lykiard is far too astute to make such a mistake and manages to combine enthusiasm and affection with high critical discipline and grounded literary appreciation. For lovers of Rhysís work this is an essential book, but for anyone with an interest in literature it provides a fascinating example of how writers can inspire and uphold one another. Certainly, in these pages Lykiardís enormous gratitude to the older writer for her interest in him as a struggling pretender  is as great as that for her personal friendship. There is little more compelling than a writer enthusiastic for another but thereís much more to this than Rhys and Lykiardís enthusiasm. The book is full of fascinating detail, the relationship between Robert McAlmon and R.C.Dunning for example. Inevitably in gathering more material about Rhys and reflecting on it, Lykiard pulls in a fairly large cast of literary characters, and others, which provides for a rich fare of anecdote and observation. I wonder if Lykiard has now finished writing about Rhys ? I suspect not, and if what follows is as well-written, as modestly erudite and as attractive in tone as this, may it appear soon.

 

*

                       

                        JUDGING BY DISAPPEARANCES

                        by Alexis Lykiard

                        Bluechrome

                        ISBN 978-1-906061-24-1

                        £7.99 

                        Alexis Lykiard made his name as a novelist but these days heís  known and admired principally as a poet. Perhaps the novels will be reissued some day, but for the time being the poems flow. His work has a political edge and is sometimes direct about a particular outrage or injustice, but it isnít by any means exclusively political: one of the most delightful poems here, for example, is the clever and amusing Optical Effusion. I suppose poems like this one reveal why Lykiard insists on being political: because life could be so much better, we are so close to making it so much better yet we are dragged down by the manipulations of the powerful. Donít imagine this is a ranting, lapel-grabber of a book, though. Itís varied, full of different moods and above all the work of a writer whose style is quite unlike that of his contemporaries. He likes to rhyme and he likes his rhymes to be intriguing, he likes to create labyrinths of meaning, he never tries for an easy effect but is determined that the reader should read seriously ( even when the poem is fun). This sets him apart from the majority of modern poets who have chosen the prevalent simple, limpid, demotic style and are content to do, more or less, what everyone, more or less, is doing. Of course, Lykiard has been writing a long time and some of his influences pre-date the move to the standard-simple style, which gives his work a long-game feel. Combined with the span of time are his wide cultural reach and his delight in turning a subject slowly in the spotlight of his intelligence. Many of the pieces have that feel and reading them gives the sense of an encounter with a rare and individual intellect and sensibility. He is a consummately skilled poet who makes some fiendishly difficult poetic tricks look easy. The back cover carries a quotation from The Sun which sees his work as ďfilthyĒ. Filth like this we need to stand against the cynicism and crassness of much mass culture. Lykiard has kept faith with the best in the human mind and his reward is that he is one of our most courageous and distinctive poets. Sun readers should buy this ďfilthĒ, within it they will discover a clean conscience.

 

 

                        GHOST WRITER

                        by Andy Croft

                        Five Leaves

                        ISBN 978-1-905512-38-6

                        £7.99

 

                        Andy Croft is the author of a neglected biography of the neglected communist poet Randall Swingler. He spent years writing the book and longer finding a publisher. Tod Prince, the protagonist of this long narrative poem in Pushkin stanzas , is writing the biography of a minor 1930s communist poet, Rex Dedman. The story follows the shape of Hamlet. Croft, to his credit, goes out of his way to be unfashionable. The Pushkin stanza is a tough discipline ( for both writer and reader) and quite out of keeping with the customary forms of contemporary writing. The story told here features a cast of lefties, bohemians, supporters of lost causes Ė personal or political. Itís hard to think of a book further from the poetic mainstream. It would give the judges of the Forward Prize a fit of the vapours. But itís great fun. Croft is too astute to try to make such a poem serious in its conception, though itís serious enough in what it touches on. The writing is excellent and occasionally, through the restraint of forcing an idea into the form, comes up with something really memorable: 

                                    If painís to be truthís only measure
                                    Dishonesty must be a pleasure. 

For the most part, the language is working hard to drive the narrative, while at the same time setting up a web of associations and allusions which arise from the poem barely perceptibly and nestle in the mind. In this way, the poem is a combination of a surface which appears obvious and fairly predictable and a much more subtle figurative, almost ghostly presence, whose purpose is to haunt long after the initial fun has paled. There are many points at which you will laugh out loud, something pretty rare in reading modern poetry, and the thing rolls along so pleasantly youíll find yourself getting to the end of it hardly noticing youíve turned the pages. Itís a splendid, funny, clever, witty read which seems to me to point to the narrow range of todayís publishing. Iím sure a big publisher would run a mile from something like this. All the more reason to congratulate Five Leaves. Iím pleased to say that part of the poem was up on the Penniless Press website for a while. I hope people who read it there will buy the book. Itíll cheer you up, make you laugh and think and it blows a hole through the conventional notion of a mode of modern writing to which everyone should adhere. 

 

*

 

                        MISSING THE BOAT

                        by John Daniel

                        Etruscan

                        ISBN 1-901 53862 1      978 1 901 538 625

                        £7.50 

                        John Daniel has been writing for a long time. He is a poet, prose writer and journalist. The poems collected here are written in a clear, unfussy style. Some of them tell little stories full of wry details, like that of the poet losing his hat on the underground. They all come at reality askance and usually make you smile. Daniel has the skill to touch on serious matters obliquely and to open up a field of perception without seeming to do anything but comment on the banal. There is a lovely piece about coming to terms with the mobile phone as a member of that generation for which phones were black, heavy, attached by wires and required you to push buttons A or B in public boxes. He pokes a little gentle fun at himself and in so doing points up the ironies of technological innovation and ageing. He is altogether pleasant,  intelligent  and well-read company and when he wants to make a point, as in Special Delivery, he does so through an absurd humour which humanizes. The Broken Gate Cafť, a poem of only four lines is typical of his ability to say much succinctly and modestly, and itís very funny too. A delightful collection.

 

*

 

                       

                        TRANSFUSION

                        by Tom Pow

                        Shoestring

                        ISBN 13 978 1 904886 54 9

                        £5.00

 

                        Tom Pow is a skilled writer. He can be precise and visual and at his best brings alive the sensuous reality of his subject. Readers with an interest in boxing may thoroughly enjoy this book. Itís a celebration of Muhammed Ali and Nelson Mandela. I find boxing boring. Iím one of those who thinks that two grown men aiming blows at one anotherís heads with brain damage being the possible outcome shouldnít come under the heading of sport. I admire Mandela, who was, of course, a terrorist. Terrorism is what happens when the poor or dispossessed have no alternative. The rich and powerful are usually to blame. So thereís good writing here, but itís a book whose effect depends on a liking for boxing and an admiration of Ali.

 

*

  

                        FORGETTING TO COME IN

                        by Paul McLoughlin

                        Shoestring

                        ISBN 1 904886 52 5

                        £8.95 

                        This is McLoughlinís first collection. Heís a friendly voice who touches on many subjects. Some of the poems work through recognition: jazz fans will instantly respond to the references to some of the greats of the music. This tends to leave out those who donít know the music but thereís enough which refers to common experience to allow most readers to find something which appeals. The writing is always steady and his clear, uncluttered style is readable and sometimes memorable. Well worth a read.

 

 

                        SHUTDOWN FORTNIGHT

                        by John Harrison

                        Mudfog

                        ISBN 1-899503-75-7

                        £3.50

                        Andy Croft says of John Harrison that heís ďmore Fred Voss than Fred VossĒ. He has the same focus as the American: the absurdities of work, the killing routine of everyday life when itís organised around making a living in an exploitative economy, the resilient sensibility needed to cope with getting by at the bottom end. Harrison writes in an understated way in keeping with his perspective on his subject matter. He is often funny, in a downbeat way. Thereís no straining after effect nor any self-conscious attempt to take his place as a poet of significance. All the same, it is significant that he chooses to write about these things in this way. A short pamphlet which can easily be read at one sitting. Very good. 

*

 

                        KINO

                        by Nikola Vaptsarov

                        Smokestack

                        ISBN 0-9554023-0-8

                        £7.95 

                        Vaptsarov was born on 1909 and published only one book, Motor Songs. He was executed in 1942 for his role in the Bulgarian resistance. His work has now been translated into more than fifty languages and he is acknowledged by many as a major  European voice. This collection, another in the Smokestack series introducing British readers to a range of European writers, is edited and introduced by Georgi Gospodinov and dedicated to Kalina Filipova who worked on it but was tragically killed in a road accident before it was completed. Vaptsarov was a political radical, which presents a difficulty: you have to try to read the poems as poems in spite of what you know about his commitments and his thinking. Hereís an example of him writing quite outside his political concerns:

           

                        Sometimes Iíll come home in your dreams,
                        and sit and watch you as you sleep:
                        Just leave the door upon the latch,
                        then in the darkness I will keep 

                        my soft and silent bedside watch,
                        an unexpected guest, and when
                        my eyes have drunk their fill of you,
                        Iíll kiss you, then Iíll go again.
 

This is enough to reveal how good a poet he is. He can write a simple little lyric or expand in free verse. Heís as sure-footed when heís treating public themes as when heís being intimate. Our time begins: 

                        Machines
                                       and steel,
 

                                                            machines
                        and oil
                                    and dirt and smoke  

Vaptsarov understands how the layout of the words on the page makes a first and telling impression on the reader. And as this example shows, he can achieve compelling effects through simple words. He has a true poetís sensibility and vision, the indispensable elements which no amount of diligent imitation can compensate for. Itís the perfection of the fit between what is sensed and thought and the way its expressed which makes this collection of the highest standard. Vaptsarov has been compared to Neruda, Vallejo, Ritsos. Rightly so. Itís easy to see how close he is to Vallejo, for example, both in sensibility and in the controlled passion of his execution. The great poets of twentieth century Britain are nothing like this. Even the poets identified with the left tend, in truth, to be more populist than fatal. Vaptsarov has that fatality, that inevitability that sings through all great writing. His sensibility is that of the highly intelligent, cultured, sensitive man born in a small country caught in the midst of the power games of the great powers ( his birthplace was Bansko in Macedonia ). His family wasnít poor, far from it. His father was a well-heeled, well-known revolutionary. Something of a domestic despot, Vaptsarov avoided his influence by taking his cue from his more sensitive and cultured mother, Elena. His native intelligence pushed in the direction of literature and theatre by her, when Europe was caught between fascism and communism, Vaptsarov, whoíd already aligned himself with the workersímovement, gave his support to the left through his writing as well as his activism. Thereís a deep suspicion in Britain, especially in England, that such a move spells the end of literature. We are convinced our great writers are above politics. Yet not until the twentieth century did the majority get the education which would allow them to play a real role in literature, and the response of the culture has been to divert literacy into byways of triviality and irrelevance. The circumstances of Bulgaria at the time of the Second World War forced Vaptsarov to be much more explicit in his affiliations. Perhaps we have far less choice than we like to imagine. Which English writer, for example, would have chosen to wish for the defeat of the RAF in the Battle of Britain ? Vaptsarovís achievement is that he kept his poetic head and produced work of outstanding quality in spite of the limitations of a time of severe crisis. He didnít have to seek out his subject matter, it imposed itself. He didnít write occasional verse or the poetry of the terminally bored, he rose to the demands of the moment and out of them produced lasting work. The very opposite of the poetry of pusillanimity and narcissism. 

                        This is an outstanding collection. Who else but Smokestack would have published it ? Andy Croft is doing an excellent job in bringing work as fascinating as this to a British audience. It isnít all that long ago that the British establishment wrinkled its nose at anything foreign which was treated as potentially dubious in both literary and moral terms. Little by little that old and purblind insularity is being broken down. We are recognising that literature is world literature. And Vaptsarov deserves his place within it.