Archive for January, 2008

four: Lynne Wycherley, North Flight

This week, another collection whose launch party I was lucky enough to attend, the year before last: Lynne Wycherley’s North Flight. I still remember clearly Lynne’s reading of two poems from the collection: the very first, ‘The Last Lighthouse’, and the sequence of three ‘Living by the Great North Road’. Reading ‘The Last Lighthouse’ for the first time since I heard it read over a year ago was quite something; the lines

as north as north can go,
nothing beyond
but a pig-iron heave,
a sky clawed bare by the cold

had wedged themselves in my head in some powerful way. I love poetry that creates an instant emotional or elemental response, on first hearing, without you being able to identify quite why.

I had this reaction – the sudden remembrance of those ones that I’d heard read, and the resonance on first reading those I hadn’t – throughout reading the collection; I sort of got on with it, felt like the poems resonated with me, in quite a different way than with the other books of poetry I’ve read so far this year. That sort of ‘ah’ feeling.

The collection is divided up into five sections, all of which work powerfully by themselves and as part of the larger work. I liked this; there was a sense of journey to the collection. In the same way that the poems of Rapture are all interlocking and speak to one theme, North Flight felt similar, though connected not by a relationship but by landscape. This sense of place – of particular places, and a particular relationship with those places – is probably a large part of why the collection resonated so much with me: I love poetry of the particular, the concrete. And I suppose too that I love the idea of the bleak landscapes (the Fens, the very north of the United Kingdom, Iceland) that she writes about, even without having visited many of them.

I also loved the tenderness of the poetic gaze in North Flight; I think these lines about John Clare‘s childhood, in ‘On Emmonsales Heath’, are beautiful –

Out he sails, a brown dot in ochre furze,
purple ling, a sprawl of bracken,
his hair ruffled like sparrow’s wings.
He parts the heath’s yellow book
and insects fly up in dizzy letters.

There are lots of different characters – John Clare appears a few times, as does Darwin and Herschel’s sister Caroline – which I liked. Some were unfamiliar, and made me want to find out more about them, but it didn’t feel as though that was necessary in order to understand and enjoy the poems.

Lots of favourites – probably too many to list, really. But other than those mentioned, I was struck by ‘The Boya Glacier’, ‘At the Year’s Turning’, ‘Darwin Waits for his Wife’, ‘Mother and Daughter by the North Sea’, ‘North Flight’, ‘Loch Eishort’, ‘Sea Walls’, ‘What Love would Build’ and ‘A Farmer near Vatnajokull’. Of these, ‘Sea Walls’ is probably my very favourite, mostly for its final line:-

Tonight: a night so clear
a blue frost burns the air.
It strips the stars naked,
its silence scours the hills

dissolves the sea-walls
we build around mystery, eggshells
of concrete and tempered steel,
the thimbles we hide in.

Now I too close curtains,
lock starlight in glass,
take shelter in ego’s small drop,
tabletop certainties

a lamp’s yellow glade
but even here, splitting
its star in a three-inch pot,
a primrose mouths immensities.

North Flight, Lynne Wycherley (Shoestring Press, 2006)

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three: Michael Schmidt, The Resurrection of the Body

Another fairly challenging collection this week, from publisher and poet Michael Schmidt, who is the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press and editor of PN Review (which has the nice tagline poesie sans frontieres). I heard him read a few of the poems from The Resurrection of the Body at the joint launch party he had with Elaine Feinstein for Talking to the Dead; I remember very vividly his reading the first poem of the collection, ‘Pangur Ban’. (An aside: I must try to get along to more poetry readings.)

As with last week’s Far From Sodom, I often felt rather lost, not quite following the action or really sure that I understood the meaning of what I was reading. However, unlike last week it seemed to matter less. The aesthetic, the rhythm, was much easier to pick up and to enjoy, and I think that with repeated readings (and perhaps a little research) the poems may disclose a little more. For some reason, too, I was happier with the opacity of many of the poems, willing to be caught up in the worlds they suggested without having to interrogate or pin down a particular meaning.

Many of Schmidt’s poems are quite long, and I relished their narrative, particularly in ‘The Resurrection of the Body’ and ‘Inordinate Desires’. Other favourites were ‘Pangur Ban’ (partly because the character of the cat Pangur Ban is a familiar one, from childhood stories such as this series), ‘Nine Witches’, ‘Furniture for a Ballad’, ‘Not Yet’ (wonderful), ‘Amphion’, ‘Victor Casasola, Photographer’, and this poem, ‘John Gilpin Eludes the Hunt’:-

Perhaps the saddle slipped,
Not cinched quite tight enough,
Or did he choose to slide
Under the horse as it ran
Away from the hunt and the fox
Whose swift red flare of a brush
Between the combs of wheat
Into the smoky wood
Drew off the lilting dogs,
Red coats and silly hats,
The gentry of the shire?

Whatever was the case
The roan horse rode him rough.
The man hugged its long neck
With both arms and his thighs
Clasped the belly tight.
The horse came out on top
And seemed to ride the man
Faster and further off.
Clattering stone and shale
It fled the hunt as if
The shire was on its tail
And it the vixen whose cub
Clung to her quaking heart.

Up the steep chalk cliff
It pummeled, above the sea
Looking not right or left
It sped, and the breakers broke
In time with its rasping breath.
Over the parching moor
It scattered fiery prints,
Onto a road that swerved
Along a river bank,
Always its head straight out,
And straight out its tail behind
And hung from the missile the man
Clenched tight with desire
Into the final stretch
Where the river borders a rise
Into a pasture field
And sheep and cattle wade
In buttercups and grass.

There with a whinny the horse
Halts. It trembles its mane.
Released from the thundering speed
Reluctantly the man
(John Gilpin is his name)
First with his tingling knees
Then untwining his arms
Gently lets go the horse.
He drops and rolls like a stone
Into the summer grass.
The horse lies down beside
And places its frothing head
Giant and full of love
Against the rider’s curve,
Against his cheek and his heart.
They lie in the sun and breathe.
Around them sheep and cattle
Nuzzle the sweet blades.

Far off somewhere a horn
Bleats, and the blood red fox
Is torn like an old coat
By hounds, and the hunt goes home.

The Resurrection of the Body, Michael Schmidt (Smith/Doorstop Books, 2007)

two: Inna Lisnianskaya, Far from Sodom

I was given this collection of poetry for Christmas last year, after it was recommended to me than none other than Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. So the fact that I’ve only finally finished reading it this week tells you a little bit about how I got on with it (i.e. not terribly well).

Really, my problem with it was that I didn’t feel as though I understood very much of it; I found it all rather oblique. I’m happy to admit that this is quite possibly my weakness, rather than that of the poetry, as I came to Far from Sodom from a position of complete ignorance, knowing very little about Inna Lisnianskaya and having read no Russian poetry before (and only very little Russian literature in general). And I’m not averse to poetry that makes you work hard (having complained a little last week that I found Rapture a little too easy/literal in places). But really, a lot of it was lost on me I think.

Here’s a little biographical information about Lisnianskaya:

Inna Lisnianskaya was born in Baku, in 1928. Her first publication was in 1948 and her first collection of poetry appeared in 1957. In 1960 Lisnianskaya moved to Moscow; several more books were published. After her participation in the Metropol Almanach, in 1979, her books were published only abroad (France and USA). In recent years she has published several more collections and appears regularly in all the leading Russian literary periodicals. Lisnianskaya was married to the poet Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin – Семен Израилевич Липкин (he died on March 2003, aged 91). (From Modern Poetry in Translation 20: Contemporary Russian Women Poets)

Far from Sodom is a selection that includes poems from the period 1967-2003, which perhaps makes it slightly less coherent, as a whole, than a usual collection would be. Despite feeling confused by much of it, I was moved by a number of poems: ‘No sweet oblivion’, ‘The dress’, ‘Christmas Eve’, ‘Lord, give him the strength’, ‘Destiny unwound its skein’ and ‘Do not cremate me after life’. There’s a real sweetness mixed in with some quite raw writing that really got under my skin, and some of the poems reminded me a little of Elaine Feinstein (who introduces Far From Sodom, and whose Talking to the Dead I wrote a little about here). Perhaps my favourite is ‘Will we recall’, which stayed lodged in my mind in the year-long gap between first picking up the book at the beginning of 2007 and finally finishing it this week:-

Will we recall
A few years hence
That winter’s light
Was melodious,

That the earth can hear
The glassy ‘lah’,
Through sleet and snow,
Of Bethlehem’s star?

And in a few years
Will we recall
In a silvery hour
The peel of dawn?

[To M. Petrovykh, 1972]

Far from Sodom, Inna Lisnianskaya (translated by Daniel Weissbort) (Arc Publications, 2005)

one: Carol Ann Duffy, Rapture

Carol Ann Duffy must be one of the best known, and most popular, of contemporary British poets, but I’ve not read a huge amount of her work: just The World’s Wife and a few poems here and there – the first, I think, was her classic ‘Warming her pearls’, which I remember writing an essay on at school, and then of course ‘Prayer’, which always comes high on lists of favourite contemporary poems (I love it). Perhaps when a poet is so well known you tend to assume you know her work without actually having read it.

I was given this, her seventh collection, for Christmas this year (thank you, Katharine). It’s a book-length love poem, with this as its epigram:

Now no discourse, except it be of Love;
Now I can break my fast, dine, sup, and sleep
Upon the very naked name of Love.

Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona (II, iv, 137-9)

I’m fascinated by how she might have written it – poem by poem, as the affair unfolded, or all together at once, as it ended, or after it had finished? That’s of course assuming that it is in fact the record of an actual love affair from beginning to end. But why do I assume that? It’s implied by the blurb on the back – ‘a moving act of personal testimony’, ‘a map of real love’ it says – but then poems can be real and truthful without necessarily being factual. And yet I find that I do assume that Rapture is an account of one specific love affair.

If that is the case, I wonder too how it must feel like to be on the other side of the book: to be the subject written about. What must it be like to read someone else’s rendering of the love you shared? Would permission have been asked? Would the person who was the subject even know it was about them? This review makes the point that ‘Rapture is intimate as a diary – except that it is free of particularity, of identifying characteristics about the lover, who could be anyone but is not quite everyone.’

Intriguing questions. I really enjoyed reading Rapture this week; it’s somehow beguiling to consciously read a collection of poetry from beginning to end, to see each poem as part of a coherent whole in a more concrete way than is usually the case.

I have to confess that I do sometimes find Duffy’s work a little too easy, for want of a better word. Sometimes it seems all surface and no depth; lacking in that kind of magic that makes poetry poetry (and which I find almost impossible to pin down). At times the poems in Rapture in particular seem a little teenage, or adolescent – but then perhaps that’s the nature of love. And the repetition of certain words and images – turquoise, trees, water, stars – had a numbing effect on me after a while. I feel a little nervous writing my criticisms, though, given that Rapture won the T.S. Eliot prize the year it was published…

But there are some real beauties in this collection, and I have a long list of favourites – ‘You’, ‘Name’, ‘Hour’, ‘Rapture’, ‘Fall’, ‘Finding the words’, ‘Presents’ (which would make a beautiful lyric for a song), ‘Night Marriage’, ‘Art’ and ‘Unloving’. If I had to choose my favourite out of these my favourite would probably be ‘Hour’:–

Love’s time’s beggar, but even a single hour,
bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich.
We find an hour together, spend it not on flowers
or wine, but the whole of the summer sky and a grass ditch.

For thousands of seconds we kiss; your hair
like treasure on the ground; the Midas light
turning your limbs to gold. Time slows, for here
we are millonaires, backhanding the night

so nothing dark will end our shining hour,
no jewel hold a candle to the cuckoo spit
hung from the blade of grass at your ear,
no chandelier or spotlight see you better lit

than here. Now. Time hates love, wants love poor,
but love spins gold, gold, gold from straw.

A good collection to start off a year of consciously reading one book of poetry a week. And I’ll definitely be looking up more Carol Ann Duffy in the future.

Rapture, Carol Ann Duffy (Picador, 2005)

January

I’m feeling both rather daunted and excited at the journey ahead: fifty-two poets, fifty-two books of poetry. That’s quite a lot. I guess we’ll see how I go… I’ve decided that I’m going to select each month’s poets in advance, at the beginning of the month, so here are January’s poets and their works:

Carol Ann Duffy, Rapture (Picador, 2005, winner of the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize)
Inna Lisnianskaya, Far from Sodom (translated by Daniel Weissbort) (Arc Publications, 2005)
Michael Schmidt, The Resurrection of the Body (Smith/Doorstop Books, 2007)
Lynne Wycherley, North Flight (Shoestring Press, 2006)
Nadine Brummer, Out of the Blue (Shoestring Press, 2006)