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REVIEWS - ISSUE 26

SMOKESTACK REVIEWS
 



CRUCIFIXION IN THE PLAZA DE ARMAS
by Martin Espada
Smokestack Books
ISBN 978-0-9554028-1-4
£7.95

Puerto Rico ( rich port ) got its name from the Spaniards after Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage. The native Tainos offered Columbus and his men the gold nuggets from their rivers and from that moment on, were slaves. On 21st March 1937 nineteen people were killed and many injured in the Ponce massacre, a violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration in favour of the independence for which the people of the island have struggled through the centuries. The sad history of the colonization of the home of his forbears is Espada’s subject in this, his fifteenth book and the most recent since The Republic Of Poetry was shortlisted for the Pulitzer. His style is straightforward, clear and uncluttered yet full of memorable inventions and unusual images:

Again he smacked his welted neck
and tottered in his armor,
a tortoise straining to walk like a man…

feasting on rebel songs
cool on the tongue
as fruit syrup and ice,
multiplying in the dark
like cockroaches of liberation

Hands without irons become dragonflies,
red flowers train on our hats,
subversive angels flutter like pigeons from a rooftop,
this stripped and starving earth is not a grave.

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.



SEEDS OF FIRE
Contemporary Poetry from the other USA.
Smokestack Books
Edited by Jon Andersen
ISBN 978-0-9554028-2-1
£9.95


Literacy ought to bring a flourishing of voices but our culture is afflicted by systematic infantilisation and trivialisation as power seeks to keep its opponents silent. This, then, is a book to celebrate: fifty-three poets, many of them well published and some familiar names but for the most part, writers of undeserved obscurity all with something serious to say and the talent and discipline to say it memorably. This is not great, ground-breaking poetry, there is no Walt Whitman here, but there is what an educated culture should celebrate: a high level of literary accomplishment combined with a measured and clear-sighted vision of the major problems facing the contemporary world. There is some truly excellent work, Jim Daniels’s Time, Temperature, for example, a long poem dedicated to James Baldwin which rings the sorry changes on the racism that has blighted American life:

       My grandfather has his theories
       why they can’t take the cold
       can’t skate can’t swim
       why they can’t park their cars
       why grape’s their favourite colour

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.



SEVERAL FORMS OF SPEECH
by Arnold Rattenbury
ISBN 978-0-9548691-8-2
£7.95

To commit an act of violence is to be mistaken about our human status. Inevitable though it has been in human history, violence is the measure of our delusions. However ruthless the biological struggle for survival, we are social creatures. Our violence is unlike that of the hawk or the tiger: it is about power. No other species seeks to justify its violence, to weave an ideology which sublimates it. If the tiger could speak it would say simply: “I’m hungry.” Human violence is always hidden behind some saving excuse: they aren’t democratic or she was nagging too much. There is no excuse, because no human being is good enough to have power over another. To inflict violence is to assert your power and to believe you are justified. Even violence against injustice is deluded. The right to violence is arguably humanity’s greatest delusion. It may appear beyond redemption, but the earth was once thought the centre of the universe. Knowledge is a great solvent of delusions.

In, The Communist, one of the longer pieces in this collection, Rattenbury writes:

things would not gradually come better
but of a sudden, by violence
if needs must…

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:

The bastards are going to shut the place

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. 



GRANNY ALBYN’S COMPLAINT
by David Betteridge
ISBN 978-0-9554028-3-8
£7.95

This is David Betteridge’s first collection and a revelation. His sensibility combined with original insights are probably unique in English poetry. In Seed-Corn, for example, he writes:

Thoughts for the thinking shall not be let to slide;
values for our saving shall not be lightly held,
nor scorned;
books for the reading shall not be pulped
nor put in skips, nor thrown on fires
and burned.

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:

At once a sadness opened up in me

and later he elaborates:

At every turn; and from the start,
matching point by point the faults of those
whose hegemony we tried to end.
Their arrogance, their partiality, their evil choice
of means – we took them for ourselves.
Our leaders, whom too trustingly we let command
presumed too often in their mediate realms, god-like,
to rule; they dragged us down.

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.

In a rush, in a surge, in a leap of love,
my thoughts reach out -
if they were arms they would hug tight -
to gather time-sundered and far-distant friends.

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.

the anarch Progress forced its change,
lavishly and all-consumingly, on every land
and every suffering folk
that came within the blight and blessing
of its rule of smoke.

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.


PERMANENT WINTER
New Poetry From Siberia
Ed Yana Glembotskaya
& Oleg Burkov
ISBN 0-9548691-9-2
£7.95

Five poets from a remote part of Russia. Two dead, one of a drug overdose, the other in a car crash.  Modern tragedies.  Yuri Udin’s clear and informative introduction sets the writing in context, one little known to British readers. The first poet, Sergey Samolyenko sets a tone of knowing survivalism, subtly ironic and full of dark playfulness:

Last year I lived at the bottom of a bottle
In a country that doesn’t appear on any maps

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.

Who is that fool in the unbuttoned fish-fur-lined coat..
It could be anyone. A Siberian Everyman.
He must be drunk. He’s waiting for somebody, I reckon.

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:

in the context of winter
the correlation between this and that

That “this and that”, the casual imprecision, is a brisk way to evoke a sensibility haunted by hopelessness. The second poem begins:

everything turns out this way..

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:

I don’t remember myself at all

or

My poetry, unfortunately, is clear to everyone

He is very funny when he turns to mischievousness:

I like watching ballet
Through the sights of a crossbow

It’s a pity you forgot about me.
I’m stuck in the lost-property office.

Just the  fate you would expect. Viktor Ivaniv produces lines that throw you off the scent of reliable meaning:

But if there’s no partiality in the adverts
They won’t recognize me in the brothel.

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.

 

ICELAND SPAR

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
by Alistair Elliot ISBN 978-1-904886-71-6
 

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
by Kate Foley ISBN 978-1-904886-73-0
 

                        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.  *

 

ALLOTMENTS
by Michael Murphy ISBN 978 1 904886 81 5
 

                        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

 

MADAME NOIRE
by Peter Armstrong ISBN 978 1 904886 74 7
 

                        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.