REVIEWS - ISSUE 26
This last is from a long poem, the collection’s finale, in memory of
Clemente Soto Velez, the poet imprisoned with Albizu Campos in 1936 and
virtually unknown outside his native land. To the pleasure of his easy rhythms (
they echo the island’s music, the sensual sway of Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va),
evocative images, fascinating story-telling and expert poet’s nuance, Espada
adds a lesson in history which will introduce many readers to little-known
names, dates and events. In three sections, the first personal and familial, the
second geographical and atmospheric and the last historical and political, the
book ties the fate of the island to the poet’s ancestry and identity, the great
slow sweep of history forming the landscape in which the personal has to find
its locale; in so doing he prevents the intrusion of the harsh, haranguing voice
of tendentiousness, humanising his material as naturally as if he were writing
of matters without public import. He may be a new name to many British readers
but he’s well worth getting to know and here displays the disciplined talents
which have won him many awards and fellowships. He was born in New York but
Puerto Rico is in his blood, and anyway, as he points out in his introduction,
there are more Puerto Ricans in New York then any city in the world. The book is
a subtle plea, all the more powerful for the beauty and restraint of its
writing, for independence for the oldest colony in the world, a superb poetic
testimony to the unfortunate endurance of the colonizing mentality and the
inevitable resistance it engenders, it will itself endure through the loveliness
and truth of the writing.
Daniels purls subtle humour and gentle mockery into the atrocious catalogue of
ignorance and prejudice and over eleven pages leads us on a shocking yet
delightful and heartening journey through the labyrinth of dead-end attitudes
and, thankfully, breakthrough insights. One of the better known poets is
Adrienne Rich but she’s joined by twenty other women who rival her in skill,
insight and subtlety, having learned Emily Dickinson’s lesson: tell all the
truth but tell it slant/ success in circuit lie. Invidious to select only a few
, but in particular Anne Babson’s Vocabulary Test is a clever and penetrating
reflection on the dangerous assumptions of the education system, Nellie Wong’s
Praise Song For A Dead Girl in its calm and compassionate detachment brings into
focus the everyday evil of violence, Patricia Smith’s brilliantly disturbing
Skinhead explores the generation of neo-fascist mentality in the alienated young
and Linda McCarriston’s To Judge Faolain, , Dead Long Enough: A Summons is a
controlled j’accuse against the justice system’s failure to engage with the
needs and rights of women. Of course, in a book of over a hundred and fifty
pages and featuring such an array of writers, there is variation in quality and
interest, but there are no slack or slovenly poems, and the overall tenor -
concerned without being strident, committed, but to truth and justice rather
than to cause or ideology, and above all radiant in its belief in the power of
literature to illuminate, to enrich and to bring to every life a love of
disciplined language’s pleasure and revelation – makes it one of those
collections which sing to be revisited and which never lose their freshness. Jon
Andersen, whose marvellously witty If I Live is included, has done a first-rate
job in the editing and introduction and provided us with a view of the
extraordinary fecundity of the small gardens of American poetry. It would be
remiss too not to mention the inexhaustible energy and imagination of Andy Croft
of Smokestack who is turning his little press into one of the most courageous
and cutting edge in Britain.
This notion, part of the failed idea of progress, that today’s deaths are worth paying for tomorrow’s improvements, tends to sit close to a belief in teleology: as fate works itself out, even through terrible violence, we are moving towards what Christopher Lasch called the true and only heaven. The deluded arrogance of this position is the right to play god with human lives: some must be sacrificed so others can attain a putative benefit. Isn’t this what Blair believes about Iraq and Afghanistan ? There is no teleology. There is no true and only heaven. There is no pre-determined end to which we are inexorably advancing and every human life is of equal worth. If one thing has undermined the socialist project (the effort to make equal worth the organising principle of society) it is the terrible violence by which, in some of its manifestations, it has been pursued. Rattenbury is writing about Evan Walter’s 1932 painting which depicts a communist orator, arms outstretched, addressing an attentive assembly of the poor in the lee of smoking chimneys, a solitary policeman’s helmet visible ominously at the rear. The speaker’s torso, clad in red, barrels generously. Rattenbury was the son of Methodist missionaries and there is more than a passing similarity between a Methodist sermon and communist oratory: both appeal to emotion, to pity for our fallen state and aspiration to redemption. Both also move to action. In his writing, however, Rattenbury isn’t at all like this. There is nothing of those Biblical cadences so frequent in Lawrence which act like a goad to resistance. Rattenbury is more cerebral. His poems are structured out of thought and have, often, that collar-and-tie, almost seminar feel about them that is found in the work of poets like Peter Porter. He’s a very competent, readable poet whose skill with all the art’s resources is beyond doubt. He frequently rhymes, but subtly. He can switch angle with ease, one minute personal, the next publicly satirical. The poems collected here span sixty years. The last Ysbyty Goffa is about the closure of the hospital where he was treated for emphysema and embraces the experiences of four old, sick men. Its protest is direct:
yet it’s cleverly structured, evenly paced, witty and funny. Rattenbury is one
of those poets who doesn’t break new ground but enlists what has gone before to
elaborate a poetry marked by solid accomplishment and sound common sense.
It needs what comes before to raise it to its true level and isn’t great poetry, but it subverts the mentality dubbed post-modern which consists, to take one half of Philip Roth’s famous dictum, in everything goes and nothing matters. This attitude is in significant part a response to the failed attempts to find an alternative to our current economic and social arrangements. Its supposed justification is that at least it allows individuals to live as they like. In fact, it’s merely an excuse for bad behaviour. It puts licence in place of freedom. Betteridge believes the latter requires an objective recognition of necessity. The post-modern attitude sets subjectivity in the ascendant. When Betteridge combines this sensibility with the best of his writing, he’s very good. In May Day (In Parenthesis) for example, at the moment when a Matt McGinn song raises the crowd to joyful hope:
and later he elaborates:
This is as well-constructed as most of the highly-praised poetry of our time but it comes from an unusual perspective: adopting the means of our system to try to remedy its ills dooms us. The means of change must be as different as the society they seek to engender. Only by changing ourselves in the effort to change circumstances can we avoid worsening what we seek to improve. The leaders to whom we have leant our potency have let us down. What this implies is the opposite of the standard interpretation that radicalism can’t prevail, there is no alternative to the existing order and that though its excesses may be tempered, it has a tryst with eternity. Betteridge believes, in short, that we have not been radical enough. No trite retreat to an entrenched theoretical position, this is rather a rejection of the debased notion that such a position is enough. Betteridge’s view is that without a radical change in sensibility one injustice will be exchanged for another.
How does love find its place in the public realm ? All societies limit its reach according to their needs. Hence the constant puzzle: how could kindly fathers and loving mother support the Nazis or Stalin ? When love stops at the limits of your family. Betteridge is assaulting the limits to love in our society. Let its cultural extension be as wide as possible. The danger of this is a tilt into sentimentality but Betteridge’s language is strenuously guided into paths of true feeling. He has understood a simple truth: to overcome our problems we must break down the barriers to generous and tender feeling. Our society is built on the falsehood that aggressive selfishness will, through the intervention of a putative invisible hand, result in prosperity and harmony. We are in thrall to the illusion that self-seeking promotes the social good. Rather, Betteridge evokes, it is the pursuit of the social good which guarantees our personal well-being. Banal enough. But what is the social good ? Evolution has made us mind-readers. We know the difference between a real smile and a false one. We aren’t deficient in appreciating our well-being, we are tricked, cajoled and bullied into believing it has to be sacrificed or postponed or lessened in pursuit of some imagined Nirvana.
That’s excellently written and it opens, as does this remarkable collection as a
whole, the door to a new sensibility: if we want a society of co-operation,
camaraderie and social peace, then those qualities must inform everything we do.
That’s much harder than spouting theory, but much more effective.
His poetry is carved from this indirectness, the opposite of the lyrical expression of an identity which takes itself seriously and for granted. He is expert at taking away in one line what he gave in the previous. This is writing from the heart of uncertainty, a land where life is harsh, the capital city, Novosibirsk, “ill-suited to life” and the politics deadly.
This is a place where the drunks favour Eau de Cologne and the sense of waiting is universal. Samolyenko is in full command of his extraordinary technique. He writes a very clear, nailed-down poetry out of which arises a sense of unbearable alienation made bearable by absence of illusion. Igor Loshchilov shares some of Samolyenko’s qualities but he’s not so dry. Apparently simple and transparent in structure, his poems are full of dislocations which replicate a life without continuity other than uncertainty. He can be witty, as in Smokers’ Wives, which adopts an ostensibly objective stance to rework the myths of the addicted. This clever little poem, so seemingly insignificant, brings a wry smile as it evokes an entire culture and its essential desperation. Igor Davletshin begins:
That “this and that”, the casual imprecision, is a brisk way to evoke a sensibility haunted by hopelessness. The second poem begins:
touching in the same way on a sense of fatalism, a life lived without much possibility of making a difference. This defeat of decision and action is played down, treated almost as a fact of nature, but it permeates. Like Loshchilov, Davletshin deals in disjunctures whose short-circuits are metaphors for a sense of self constantly postponed. Maxim Ukolov inhabits the same sense of incompleteness:
He is very funny when he turns to mischievousness:
Just the fate you would expect. Viktor Ivaniv produces lines that throw you off the scent of reliable meaning:
This preference for non-sequitur or for confusion, like the non-western techniques of the previous four, is an oblique means of pointing up an absence. Ivaniv’s poems are structured as if to embrace a recognisably shared meaning, and indeed they do, but it is the meaning of a society sucked dry of meaning. The poetry gathered here is very different from current European or American practice: it partakes of a loss of orientation alien to cultures which define themselves as successful. None of these poets is writing about success of any kind. Present then in their work is the ancient sense of blind forces against whose work we must be vigilant but which will probably defeat us anyway. It’s reminiscent of Chekhov’s famous formulation: “There ought to be someone with a little hammer outside the door of every contented, happy person, constantly tapping away to remind him there are unhappy people in the world, and however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show its claws; misfortune will strike – illness, poverty, loss.” Russian conditions, geographical, climatic, economic, political have made impossible the over-confident assertion of self and belief that seeps into European and American poetry. In the West, doubt is a source of embarrassment. The celebration of superficial post-modernism which has been in the ascendant for some decades, looks foolish in comparison to the disillusioned clear-sightedness of this work. It reminds us that our belief that anything goes and nothing matters may soon deliver us into a condition in which nothing goes and everything matters.
by John Greening ISBN 978-1-904886-77-8
John Greening’s collection is built around his search for the Arctic camp where his father was stationed in 1942. Greening can put words together but much of this seems an exercise in poetry. Letter To My Father is typical: it’s knowing rather than searching and it tends to assume the emotions it’s trying to evoke. There’s too much reaching the reader through the poem rather than in it. Iceland and the Vaahall Camp will have no resonance for most readers. It’s in the writing they must find it, not in what preceded it. It’s a common failing to presume your emotional tenor when writing will, in some way, inevitably be conveyed to the reader. It won’t unless the words do the work. My feeling is that Greening was too close to his material to find the detachment to make it live for the reader.
THE REAL POEMS
There is one very good poem here: Sudden Infant Death. Whether or not written from personal experience, it is telling. Elliot writes several pieces about his mother and he likes rhyme and regular rhythm. Here and there the former clang and the scansion trips up. Like Greening, he doesn’t lack the ability to assemble words, but the collection doesn’t give off the feel a writer driven to desk and that occasional tone diminishes the energy.
THE SILVER REMBRANDT
Much of this is a novelistic story in poetry. The writing is always competent but Foley doesn’t always hit the accuracy of image that sets the mind alight. This, for example: Her fingers stagger over the quilt/ Like the knots on a small girl’s sampler. I have difficulty seeing fingers stagger and the accompanying simile doesn’t make the image any more vivid. It feels recherché. In order to work, an image needs to surprise by naturalness. Making the artificial seem natural is fundamental. Foley’s writing works when she confines herself to the straightforward but she doesn’t have a talent for metaphor and strains in its pursuit. *
In this twenty-one page pamphlet Murphy collects an assortment of pieces some of which cross-reference in subject, mainly flora. One poem stands out: The Book Of Mormon. It tells a little story and is rooted in the familiar. The rest are less anchored, tending more to abstraction. Murphy never writes badly. He is controlled and clear. Not all the poems, though, leave easily retrieved imprints and the longish Essays repeats, rather redundantly, les fleurs mauvaises after each couplet. A perfectly agreeable read but there’s little sense of urgency, necessity or inevitability in its writing
Subtitled (and other figures at the edge of an imagined war), this pamphlet’s architecture is built from a small cast of voices talking of shared or near-shared events. This linking of the poems is satisfying and each one can be read stand-alone or in terms of its connections creating a shifting effect which can open the way to a seepage of ideas. The writing is straightforward and unfussy if sometimes lacking rhythm and falling into a prosaic denotativnesss and the rhymes don’t always fulfil their promise of regularity. Armstrong is writing about well-documented, important events so the poems trigger knowledge and association. The best piece, because the most sinister and contemporary is From The Interrogation Notes. Perhaps, however, there’s an archness to the conceit behind the pamphlet which detracts from the appalling events it touches on. Such events require tragic or farcical means.