Archive for February, 2008

eight: Saul Williams, She

So I’m in the middle of a Saul Williams double bill this week as recognition of the fact that I’m going to see him perform his new album, Niggy Tardust, tomorrow night. I’m fantastically excited: he’s my absolute favourite slam poet, and the one time I’ve seen him before he was mesmerising.
The fact that I’m more familiar with Saul Williams as a performer (listening to his albums, watching the films he’s been in) made reading She this week different to the other books I’ve read so far. I found it was much easier to read if I was consciously hearing the words in my head, in Saul Williams’ voice, imagining how he would be speaking them. Partly because of this, partly because of the style of the writing, the link between poetry and rhythm seemed very direct. (I don’t often read poetry aloud to myself, or even try to hear it in my head.)
I’m not all that familiar with performance/slam poetry but there was a lot of word play and punning in She, which I think is characteristic. This is typical:

i drew her
like a bath
then sat and soaked
watching the bubbles
as a ring
around the tub
gave us the age
of trees

I can’t pull out a list of favourites this week as none of them have titles. But this one reached out and grabbed me, probably partly because it was familiar as part of the lyrics of ‘Fearless’, on Amethyst Rock Star:
she had nothing
but time on her hands:
silver rings, turquoise stones
and purple nails
i rubbed my thumb
across her palm:
a featherbed
where slept a psalm
yea, though i walk
i used to fly
and now we dance
i watched
my toenails blacken
and walked a deadened trance
until she woke me
with the knife edge
of her glance
i have the scars to prove
the clock strikes
with her hands
Click here for a taste of Saul Williams performing. I can’t wait for tomorrow…

seven: Gillian Allnutt, Lintel

First of all, thanks to Matthew for help with the re-design. (I particularly love the effect we created on the header image.)
Second, apologies for the long delay in posting last week’s collection. I was away for a long weekend, and didn’t manage to make the time earlier on this week. I have to say I felt rather anxious to have lost my Sunday evening routine.
So, Lintel. This was another gift, from my aunt Margaret, who was a schoolfriend of Gillian Allnutt‘s. And I might as well be blunt about what I thought of it: it was stunning. I found the whole collection had a sparse lyricism and an emotional landscape that was totally compelling.
It felt similar to Lynne Wycherley’s North Flight in the characters, both real and imagined, that populate the pieces, and also in its being grouped into sections. And a similar sort of toughness, although to a greater degree I think. Like Carol Ann Duffy, Allnutt packs a huge amount into a very few, seemingly spare words. Here are the last two lines of ‘Sarah’s Laughter’, one of my favourite poems in the collection:

It’s hidden, the hurt, like a hard little bird in the tent
of her heart. She’s tended it.

That, to me, is poetry. So absolutely economical and so devastatingly resonant with meaning; where the effect is so well wrought that you can’t seem to explain why it works so well.
Speaking of Carol Ann Duffy, last week’s reading totally changed my mind about her stature as a poet. It’s not like I was really questioning it in my very first post; I just didn’t quite get the tone of a fair bit of Rapture. It was a combination of reading this collection last week – perhaps because Allnutt’s work seemed to me to chime with Duffy’s – and also going back to Rapture to (predictably enough) find a poem to send as a valentine, that made me reassess. Opening the collection again I somehow saw just how good it was. Perhaps just the practice of reading poetry tunes you to it, in the way that the more you listen to music the better your ear for it becomes? I don’t know. But Rapture really is brilliant; I can see that now.
Lots of favourites in this collection, although it almost seems a shame to pluck out just a few, as really I loved the way they all worked together. But I’ll nonetheless choose as my highlights ‘Anchorage’, ‘Awkward things (1)’ and ‘Awkward things (2)’, ‘Arvo Part in concert, Durham Cathedral, November 1998’, ‘Meditation’, ‘Held to’ and ‘Things that are early’. ‘The Road Home’ is destined to become a very favourite poem, I think – one to learn by heart –

It is the road to God
that matters now, the ragged road, the wood.

And if you will, drop pebbles here and there
like Hansel, Gretel, right where

they’ll shine
in the wilful light of the moon.

You won’t be going back to the hut
where father, mother plot

the cul de sac of the world
in a field

that’s permanently full
of people

looking for a festival
of literature, a fairy tale,

a feathered
nest of brothers, sisters. Would

that first world, bared now to the word
God, wade

with you, through wood, into the weald and weather
of the stars?

six: T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

All the poetry I read in January was published in the last few years (although most of Inna Lisnianskaya‘s collection was written before the turn of the millennium), so I’ve been feeling the need to read something that’s not contemporary: from the first half of the twentieth century, for preference. The only unread single-volume collection I had on my shelves that fell into this category was T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats, which didn’t quite satisfy my thirst but was good to read nonetheless.

Most of the poems are familiar, either from school poetry collections or through the musical Cats (which I’ve not seen but, like lots of things, have unconsciously absorbed all the same). They were written for Eliot’s godchildren, and their adaptation for the stage is no doubt a contributory factor for the financial significance of the annual T.S. Eliot Prize. It was good fun, but like I said, not quite what I was after; and I was quite confused by the unwieldy rhythm of some of the lines. ‘The Naming of Cats’, ‘The Song of the Jellicles’ and ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ are my favourites:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family’s in bed and asleep,
She slips down the stairs to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice –
Their behaviour’s not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teaches them music, crocheting and tatting.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or in the sun or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure ist is due to irregular diet
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets straight to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse-cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that’s smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment,
So she’s formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do –
And she’s even created a Beetles’ Tattoo.

So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers –
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears.

Thinking about wanting to read more twentieth-century (and earlier) poetry: how to do it, in this book a week approach? Most poets’ work is collected into larger volumes, and I’m quite enjoying the idea of reading single collections at a time (aside from the fact that it would be harder work to read a poet’s entire output in just a week…)

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot (Faber & Faber, 1962)


I really enjoyed January’s experiment in reading poetry. Not only was it good to read poetry in a way that I haven’t really done before – that is, a lot more intently, in the way that you focus on reading prose from beginning to end, rather than dipping in and out – but each collection was enjoyable and stimulating (though some a little tougher than others).

An unexpected pleasure has been the new-found rhythm of reading poetry: I’ve designated travelling to work in the mornings poetry time (as opposed to all the other reading that I’ve continued, obviously), and there’s something very pleasing about having this little ritual now. How you read poetry is very different to how you read prose, and I’ve really savoured the almost meditative nature of reading just five or six poems, as slowly as I like, on the tube in the mornings. I highly recommend it.

So, February’s poetry:

T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (Faber & Faber, 1962)
Gillian Allnutt, Lintel (Bloodaxe Books, 2001)
Saul Williams, She (MTV Books, 1999)
Saul Williams, Said the Shotgun to the Head (MTV Books, 2003)

five: Nadine Brummer, Out of the Blue

Apologies for the tardy update: a weekend away left me with no time to write last night.

Last week’s collection was the final book on my shelves that I bought at a book launch (which I guess is the signal that I need to start going to more – or at least more poetry readings in general). Nadine Brummer’s Out of the Blue shared a launch with Lynne Wycherley’s North Flight, which I read last week. However, unlike Lynne Wycherley’s poetry, I seemed to have no recollection of any of Out of the Blue, which makes me sad; part of the pleasure of having heard poems read aloud by the author is then going back and reading them.

Much of Out of the Blue has quite a wry humour to it, which I like. I thought it was similar to Far From Sodom in this, along with a certain obliqueness (although in this case a little more comprehensible). It also felt a lot less consciously poetic than a lot of what I’ve read recently – in particular Lynne Wycherley’s writing – and perhaps this has something to do with no one or two poems wedging themselves into my mind?

Favourite poems were ‘Red’, ‘The Hare’, ‘Hydrangea Summer’ and this wistful (dark?) piece:

“What is it in our past that we keep trying to recover?”
John Updike

Freedom, of course, escape
from the memory-trap.
Ask anyone what they remember
first, and see them shiver
with animation, or else give
a wry smile and a dismissive
“I can’t remember a thing
before I was ten” as if
people who do, tell lies.
Maybe it’s they who deny
or block out. Something snapped
at their nerves’ synapses,
something broke down, perhaps
walls round Eden when the asp
reversed the world of wholeness,
the globality of breast’s
confusion. There was the descent
into self. We may want to recover
the bliss of not being other
but find this or that fragment,
a pearly neck, the scent
of a burning bay-tree, maybe,
of the look of one’s own doll-baby
in a hand-me-down pram;
first taste of raspberry jam;
wallpaper shuffling alive
at night. It’s hard to believe
that, aged two, I was thrust
into a hole, feet first,
to stand in a square box,
a version of stocks,
a home-made playpen
that held me safe but held me in.
I keep trying to recover,
out of my past, not love
exactly, but arms lifting me
out, and holding onto me
then letting go. Something like that
must have happened, mustn’t it?
No-one would leave a child
boxed in forever.

Out of the Blue, Nadine Brummer (Shoestring Press 2006)