No 169 - 2002
WAR AND PEACE: Editor’s Round Up
David Jones (Ed. Thomas Dilworth)
Enitharmon £12 (hardback)
Blind Man’s Buff
The Happy Dragons Press (no price listed)
Diana Syder (PBS recommendation)
Smith/Doorstop Books £6.95
Faber & Faber £12.99
Of Love and War: New and Selected
Robson Books £10.95
Kafka in Liverpool
Driftwood Publications £7.00
Friends getting married? Well, here’s a beautifully made little present for them: Wedding Poems, by David Jones, elegantly produced by Enitharmon. It has to be said that you only get ten pages of poetry for your money, ‘Prothalamion’ and ‘Epithalamion’, and although both are pleasing reading they won’t do anything for Jones’ reputation based on ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘In Parenthesis’ (war poems if ever there were). The bulk of the book is made up of interesting biographical information about Jones, and the friends who he was living with and who got married, which was the occasion of these poems. Then the story of how he failed to publish them, hoping probably to use Eric Gill’s press. And on the cover, an interesting wood engraving by Jones, which reminds us he was an artist as well as a poet.
The Happy Dragons Press New Garland Series has some interesting authors lined up, including Gerda Mayer, and has started its series with Blind Man’s Buff, a pamphlet by Edward Lowbury. Philosophically he uses his failing sight in old age to good purpose with a bunch of poems. Blind Man’s Buff ranges in quality but, as ever, some very good ones from Lowbury - the best perhaps ‘Unfinished Business’, where he ponders his demanding load of forms through the letterbox:
It’s surely for our best
That we can live and let
Some business go unfinished.
Wanda Barford writes about losing a partner. The collection is divided into three parts. The first part, is made up mostly of poems of grief and mourning, the second a set of new poems, and then finally some translations from other tongues. The grieving poems are tidily done but not particularly striking, whereas in the central section there are some very tough and interesting little poems, like the sinister Japanese one which I won’t give away.
‘Missing out the Paul Jones’ will amuse those who remember the dance, and there’s a poem lightly related to Stevie Smith:
How much you grieve
Wrapped in your cloak of loose-weave
On that stone in Naxos.
There are some ‘holocaust’ poems, which are also interesting - a narrative one describing Jews being removed from the Greek islands, and the best which is ‘Black Thomas’:
Thomas the tank engine’s face is black.
He’s been to hell, to hell and back,
swerving and swaying on a thin narrow track.
Translations are from all over and varied in quality. I like the Octavio Paz ‘Written in Green Ink’ best. A nice collection to have.
Diana Syder’s Maxwell’s Rainbow is a very strong collection. Syder writes comprehensively about science, and her subject matter - ignored by most poets writing in Britain today - alone would recommend the volume; not that there aren’t other topics tackled. A good one, for example, ‘Time of the Month’:
My breasts are melon. I’ve cut my finger,
burnt tonight’s tea and can’t string
two thoughts together coherently
- and there are also straight and good poems like ‘The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank’:
The telescope knows no sympathies,
must accept whatever labels I give it.
All it takes is twilight, shadows,
and I can fill the bowl with long dead pulsars,
globular clusters and star speed.
‘The Second Coming’ has some splendid advice to Jesus trying to give up God:
finding ways to celebrate space-time
and show their love for the laws of gravity,
the unbearable constants, also putting spirit
into a Theory of Mind, fleshing it out
and finding a sacred ecology of the heart
that understands grace in the light of DNA.
Syder gets the romance and the excitement of the new world out there, writing as the ultimate far-fetched chemist when she is on her own in deepest space, dancing past the stars. I enjoyed this collection very much. Strongly to be recommended.
Ambit doesn’t usually review prose, but here’s a novel in pictures. It’s Andrzej Klimowski’s The Secret, a surreal set of pictures with no words. Some of them were in Ambit and if, like me, you liked Klimowski’s skills as an illustrator, you’ll find this book fun, in a sinister sort of way.
Carcanet have reissued their Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes, which is indeed worth doing. Keyes was killed in 1943 but managed, in his twenty years, to display a gift which many would envy. There was a whole burst of poems he wrote in 1942, which show off his skills. ‘Anarchy’, as an anarchist, I like:
The walls were scrawled with moss. The trees
Grabbed at the sun like grey anemones.
At noon he met a girl whose body sang
Thin as a cricket, till his eardrums rang.
‘Remember Your Lovers’, a poem he actually drafted in an examination school at Oxford, is one of his best known:
Young men walking the open streets
Of death’s republic, remember your lovers.
Keyes is often described as a war poet, which of course he was not. Sadly, he was killed soon after he reached North Africa, known to have been drafting some poems at the time, which didn’t survive. So his poems only look towards war and death: one actually describes a ‘war’ poet. Sadly, too, as far as we know, he had no lover, so although his poetic skills are rightly to be recognised, the sad cut-off of his life denied him the experiences of love and war (infra vide).
The effervescent Tom Paulin has produced a book called The Invasion Handbook, not claiming of course to be a war poet, but clearly fascinated by the Second World War (Paulin was born in 1949). It’s a curious collage/collection. Hard to tell, sometimes, what is fiction and what is fact. Paulin’s notion in this Invasion Handbook is to cover events up to the Battle of Britain, which is almost the last poem in the book. He looks at events which lead up to the war but in doing so he spreads his web very very widely, so that we have an account of Orwell (‘Orwell in Hiding’), not actually in action, but nervously struggling to catch a train out of Barcelona at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The episodic nature of his collection is demonstrated in single pieces. Thus within, say, the text called ‘Weimar’ we get:
They teach Kant and live off the interest.
Mussolini arrived at the Quirinal Palace in a
crumpled black shirt, white spats and bowler
Of Berlin Goebbels said the spirit of the
asphalt democracy is piled high.
So what of the poems? The genuine Paulin poems. I think that he found the material overwhelming to write about, and perhaps therefore skipped out of really getting to it. The ‘Battle of Britain’ poem is an example, with a description of Air Marshall Dowding:
his mind moves over maps
- arrows airfields ackack radar
skirmish dogfight battle
if you’re alone go home
but he is alone
Descriptive stuff, really, and to get the emotion he breaks into an account which is surely factual, of how Flight Lieutanant J B Nicholson won his Victoria Cross. I like this way of writing a book, or an account, which combines history and fiction, but I think the way the poems are handled was not really fully thought-out. But worth a look, and of course feel free to disagree with me!
So then to a real war poet, and a real love poet too. Be warned, if you’re a Scannell addict and collect his work, there are not a great many new poems in this collection. But on the other hand, for an introduction, here’s a careful selection by the man who knows the work best. Scannell’s war poems go back beyond memory: “And I remember,/ Not the war I fought in/ But the one called Great/ Which ended in a sepia November/ Four years before my birth.”
But he was also writing with his own experience, most famously in ‘Walking Wounded’: “And then they came, the walking wounded,/ Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,/ Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair./ Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead,/ And eyes still drank the dark...//...And when heroic corpses/ Turn slowly in their decorated sleep/ And every ambulance has disappeared/ The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,/ And when recalled they must bear arms again.”
Scannell is contemptuous of the technical skills of some of his contemporaries but reminds us that he’s not just a formal poet; it is the subject matter that he crafts by “concentrating on the experience and its furnishing”. The war experience has gone on for Scannell so that in the next number of Ambit you will find a new war poem describing an episode at El Alamein. But happily there are all the lighter, elegant love poems, again technically adroit as in the villanelle ‘A Love Song’:
I’ve always been in love with you I swear.
‘Impossible,’ they say, yet it is true:
I speak with certainty, for I was there.
More easily into his love poems he can bring his sense of humour, which is in wicked form in ‘The Loving Game’, commemorating him giving up his life as a professional boxer. He can also write a full-throttle erotic poem:
She was half-dressed, or less than half.
Great voyeuristic trees outside
pressed their leaves against the glass,
slyly pushing, spreading wide.
A really splendid book with which Scannell celebrates his eightieth year.
So to our poetry editor Henry Graham’s new book. Graham’s wars are not physical conflicts, but rather an attempt to make sense of the urban landscape he inhabits, with the help of one of his heroes, Franz Kafka. Henry’s Kafka observes Liverpool as Kafka himself observed Prague: thus the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in Liverpool stand:
At each end of a street named Hope two
gods stand glowering at each other through
the festering air. Quieter now than in the past
when angry ignorant acolytes filled the
between with blood -
It’s not a very reassuring place, but it’s not without its humour. And Graham will drop from this elaborate language into the Liverpool demotic. Thus after walking Lime Street: “Dream and weep poor race of man, the way can’t be found/ you have lost it. I’ll say F. K. and then some.”
Graham avoids the flat diction of so many contemporary poets, and peoples his world with surreal legends: “Petrified crustaceans grasp emblazoned medallions/ amongst the abandoned slain”.
Max Ernst is there, peopling this surreal jardin. Like Scannell, Graham lightens the sinister urban landscape with people as in ‘Mal’, ‘The Seperations’ and ‘Liebestod’:
We discussed sexual death together dying
as ancient Capricorn wheeled above the
Missing your boisterous cleavage, two used
you said, I a laughing nipple between my
Graham’s very distinctive style disguises the variety of the subject matter of these poems. He ends with five cricketing poems, reminding us that his hands are: “held out for the catch/ that never came”.
A noble addition to the Graham corpus.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The