Jim Goar - Seoul Bus Poems. I might review this, I like it. I also went to the ezine that he edits, which is called "past simple"
, and I read some of that, mainly the British-writers number. Out of what I browsed there it was Sean Bonney's contributions (not for the first time) that stood out for me. And in the most recent issue there's some Danish and Polish things that I enjoyed a lot. It's a top ezine.
John Gimblett's review in Stride talked about how Seoul Bus Poems took him into a "calmer personal space" and that was what I experienced too. Though I'd put it more materially, compare it to a kind of brain cleanser. These first impressions aren't always that important, but I suppose the question arises with a book like this, how many people will feel that there's anything more to be got out of a second reading: hasn't it delivered its cleansing effect fully and completely at first read, has it anything else to give me? Better to say "Cool. Highly recommended." and move straight on to the next book? A lot of good modern poetry is like that, it's a one-shot package.
I suppose I've read all these poems about twenty times, so let's see.
There's a beautiful transparency about the title. We're told, upfront, that many of the poems were begun on bus journeys; but Goar's untitled poems don't generally evoke the bus; it's only the poem's structure - or its pace, if that's a different thing - that derives from the bus-journey. Public transport and modern urban poetry have had a long association; you don't have to drive, and a lazy lulling sort of disjunction, the disjunction of urban life, infuses the writing.
And in a way, though they are not saying poems, you already know what the poems say, just as you would do with an Elizabethan sonnet sequence. Goar is a young poet with a sense of humour, he doesn't think his life is especially important, he sometimes forgets to shave, writing poetry is not a problematic activity, and the book ends with love and sleep, - for instance. They are not saying poems, but the autobiographical element has the same transparency as the title.
The blood will come and go
as children will go
out of the hamlet by a flute
played once upon a time
for style is straight or slightly bent
souls follow crumbs to the hut
where the oven is with tasty children
wrung dry of echoes the town falls silent
hails never weaken corn
shrugged and lost its yellow its
green a fire consumed
our houses of redemption
I wanted to choose a "typical" poem - that is what a reviewer ought to quote - but now I'm afflicted by doubts about whether this is
a typical poem or not. In some ways it is. Most of the poems have a four-square look and are about this length; those that aren't are splatter-poems, you know, the ones where single words or phrases are placed all over the page, - the sort I try to get out of quoting, if I can, because the formatting is too much like hard work. It's one form or the other, nothing in between, and that has quite an interesting effect.
Jim Goar has a way of repeating words in more than one poem - my list of these repeats goes: dice, shrug, crumbs, blue, lemon, prancer, corn, bananas, shave, widow, crane, crow, table, chameleon, bell, trash, fist, bones, gin, knee, echo, leaves, toe, frozen, snow, eye, weep. All rather simple, colourful words, headings from a children's encyclopaedia. In this poem you can see four of those words: crumbs, echoes, corn, shrugged. The words begin to seem like dominoes patterned together. The opposite of a descriptive poetry of percepts. And looking into this poem specifically, there is a pattern of habitation-words - (hamlet, huts, town, houses) whose relation to each other is not obvious and may not exist at all. (Prancer, if you don't know, is the name of one of Santa's reindeers.)
This use of animal-words as tokens is also a feature of Goar's chapbook Whole Milk
. It's not just about exact word repetitions. Here the egg of one poem ("Turn the egg over") becomes the bird-extravaganza of the next ("A pigeon broke its neck") and points obliquely, via a goose or two, into the sketchy short story of the next ("a twist a turn"). [NB "dirty Hanes" in that last poem = crew socks.]
But I don't want to talk about this only structurally. There is a pervasive atmosphere (OK, so you don't often hear "atmosphere" used as a technical term in poetry reviews!) of Seoul; and of being in a foreign city: as wide-eyed as you would wish to be (and Jim Goar is), it is still foreign. I want to find a political meaning for this - something about poetry for a semi-globalized world. I might not be able to. But if a book like this isn't
political? - That's an issue isn't it?
Let's carry on. The way I see it is there a connection between the previous two paras. The connection, if you like, is the inadequacy of words to describe things: in particular, the inadequacy of English words to describe the experience of a city outside the English-speaking zone. One is inevitably tongue-tied. A few things mean something to you, but a lot of things don't. The world is more tangibly incomprehensible, and in an odd way simpler: because what is incomprehensible is not seen as having any features - is not well-seen at all - it is a billboard with no interpretable writing on it, a building with no known function or architecture. Things begin to assume merely childlike, unspecific shapes. Vocabulary becomes numb and fluffy. You can't call the building something culturally specific like a tanyard or a tollbooth or an orangery; you're not in the culture; you have to just call it a building.
But that's about foreignness. However we're semi-globalized now, and Seoul isn't by any means entirely foreign. International brands and commerce and technology create a lot of familiarity to counter-balance the foreignness. The streets are (culturally speaking) half-lit. To get an idea of what that means, you couldn't do better than read about Loren Goodman's visit to Costco
. Increasingly, this is a paradigmatic experience for many people. And Goar's book seems to me to be poetry from that space. (Goar is a US poet who now lives in Norwich, which is another foreign spot.)
I got this book because I signed up for the Reality Street supporters thing. That was a no-brainer because I already knew I was going to buy Richard Makin's Dwelling, so I got the other vols almost free. We're still waiting for Dwelling, but the other volumes , Goar aside, were Bill Griffith's Early Poems - a totally crucial book if you're in any way involved with modern UK poetry - oh no, that makes it sound so boring, but you won't be bored - , and Fanny Howe's Emergence, small collection of what used to be called "fugitive" pieces. The only thing I thoroughly like about the latter volume is David Miller's and Ken Edward's jacket design. I'm not there with the poetry at all. Whatever, I like not liking it. Being a Reality Street Supporter is really a lot of fun.
David Harsent, Mr Punch
(1984). Finished this last night. Poems about Punch, often in a modern domestic context. Obviously a violence-against-women collection, but that's just the surface. So you are on unsteady moral ground from the off, because how can violence against women ever be just a surface? and some of these bruised and battered lines are so beautiful. Harsent cuts a lot deeper (unfortunate metaphor) than many mainstream writers (or p-a writers, come to that), and I'm not surprised that Andrew Duncan singled him out for attention.
[You may not know, I certainly didn't, that David Harsent is also the crime authors Jack Curtis and David Lawrence, and (in the name of the latter) a prolific screenwriter for The Bill
, Holby City
, and Midsomer Murders
e.g. the episode "Blood In The Saddle": "Ford Florey is a town with a Wild West Society and many grudges. During a Wild West show at the local fayre, the witch on the 'Dunk the Witch' stall is well and truly dunked. Laughter turns to horror when she doesn't get up and the water in the tank starts to turn red. Barnaby and Jones need to be quick on the draw to track down the murderer." A series currently in the news because of an inflammatory Radio Times interview with the producer Brian True-May, who praised its distinctly (and, it now seems, intentionally) whites-only vision of rural England... the subsequent media furore has made the story bigger than when it started, the most unpleasant development being the opportunity seized by the xenophobic Daily Express to see if it can't harden the opinions of Middle-England into something even nearer than they already are to the grand days of apartheid
("Midsomer Race Row: 99% of viewers insist the TV show should stay white"). I am greatly in favour of poets being involved in the monuments of popular culture, but it could be time to walk away from this one. - note added Mar 2011.]
George Eliot, Silas Marner
. Audio book, read (brilliantly) by Andrew Sachs, though you would probably not admit all his voices in the Rainbow as pure Warwickshire. That there is already simplification of humanity in the ever-neutral Mr Snell and the ever-combative Mr Dowlas is justification. The slight difficulty in the novelist's approach is when the novelist's justifiable simplification becomes something that the characters themselves notice - as when the villagers, not unreasonably, suggest that so very timely a robbery as Dunsey's implies some preternatural power at work. The element of play in the fable is a way of seeing. Of seeing what, as Leslie Stephen remarked, a philanthropist or any other such public person wouldn't be able to see. The question about simplification arises again over Eppie's destiny. Of course we side hotly with the already settled relations of Silas, Eppie, Dolly and Aaron - why should their idyll be disturbed, these thrifty and wise working people? Well, because, as the novel itself has abundantly told us, they must remain for ever ignorant, unblessed by e.g. the author's own fluency in half-a-dozen languages; or because husbands like Ben Winthrop will spend their evenings in the Rainbow, and why wouldn't his own son Aaron? OK, you may think, but what worthwhile enlargement of Eppie's mind would the Casses supply, anyway? But wouldn't Eppie herself always think about this road not taken? These questions are not intended to be mean-spirited, they are what George Eliot's own tough-mindedness, coolly imbibed throughout the course of the book, are bound to provoke. Perhaps it's because
we know that she knows, that this happiest of all endings is poignantly accepted.
Though the central message of love and community shines clearly, the behaviour of the older characters (not Eppie or Aaron) remains vexed and complicated. I'm thinking about the tree principals in the offer-scene. I just talked about Silas' need-love: what that leads to here is the lovely relationship between Silas and Eppie: what it could just as easily lead to is the tragic dysfunctionalism of the relationship between Nell and her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop
. Godfrey Cass's faults are underlined by the author of course, his comments in the offer-scene detestable (e.g. about Eppie marrying a low labouring fellow), but still it seems to me that he is more aware than anyone else in the room about what's on offer and what's at stake - socially, materially, and more than materially. Nancy Lameter is admirable to us (when it's too late) for her easy forgiveness of what Godfrey supposed she would not forgive. And not just for that moment, either. Yet what to make of the author's insistent praise for her, when it has to do battle against our awareness of Nancy's capacity for being maddening: her severe and arbitrary notions of providence, her moral tyranny over an elder sister who has to dress like her and a husband who is not allowed to adopt children because Nancy thinks it isn't God's will, her attempt to persuade Eppie on the grounds of duty to the natural parent who has finally acknowledged her? You have to think that G.Eliot's admiring comparisons of Nancy's "wisdom" with other worthies more informed than herself are intended as ironic and a part of the book's ongoing critique of ALL such creeds and customs at whatever level of society.
Because although Silas Marner
is in some ways a safe conservative vision, for example idyllicising aspects of a rural life that are totally unlike what GE herself would find tolerable, it nevertheless does conduct a running-battle with religion and tradition. Structurally the first half of the book is fantastic but the book drops in intensity once the redeeming miracle of the child has come to Silas. On a first reading we are, just about, sustained through the quiet domestic pages with Eppie by anticipating well-meant disruption from Godrey, or ill-meant disruption from Dunsey. On a second reading these pleasing terrors are absent and the result is just a bit dull, in a nice way. The first thing that strikes you about GE is what unique gifts she brings to novel-writing - the promise, indeed the fact, of going deeper and further than any other British novelist of her century (or later?). Yet she never wrote a novel that doesn't frustrate me.
Ménie Muriel Dowie, Gallia
. New Woman novel of 1896, really good and interesting. I'm not sure if I wasn't even more interested in the author's life, though. She was a young explorer/writer whose book about her solo travels through Ruthenia made her an instant celeb, glitteringly married another explorer and travelled extensively, three well-received controversial novels, but published nothing after the age of 35, when she was divorced for adultery. She was unable to see her son until adulthood. She became a noted cow-breeder. She finally left her second explorer-husband, a violent drunk. Her son was killed during WWII and she died soon after, of a broken heart I believe. "Call no person happy until they are dead", as the Greeks used to say.
John Grisham, The Associate. "Nothing grips like Grisham" is the motto. But what impressed me about the book wasn't its grip, particularly. His stifling account of mega-corporate law (and the constant exhaustion of the associates) is what stays with me. The plot is really remarkably casual. From the moment that the hero, being blackmailed by mysterious all-powerful evil people, starts covert operations against them, we wait with pleasure and a little terror for the counter-operation, the slapdown that is certain to come. But it never does. The bad guys are simply caught cold and run for cover. And the hero, now honest with his father and the law, no longer even fears them. So it's more of a bildungsroman than a thriller. I was amused that the ultra-high-security custombuilt computers full of military secrets were in the end found crackable due to having an almost-hidden USB port discreetly placed near the power outlet.
Selma Lagerlöf, The Wonderful (and Further) Adventures of Nils, read in Sweden. Now, as in my childhood, in a translation which I suppose must be Velma Swanston Howard's adapted for a British audience and to a certain extent re-Swedishized - e.g. "Westbottom" became "Västerbotten" again. Impossible to be objective about this imaginative patchwork, which structures vast areas of my own brain.
Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landsacape from a dream, which I reviewed in Intercapillary Space
Lawrence Upton, Wire Sculptures (2003) - on every page, that authority of being no mere poet. It makes me think I too would like to write poetry on those terms - not needing to make it poetic but only what it is, when you are out there and own your own tools.
Jeremy Reed, Selected Poems (Penguin). This is from the period in the 80s when he came in from the cold, though he didn't stay.
Two (buoys) I see wintering
at grass in a shipping yard,
veterans of long wars,
their grizzled tonsures hard
with resilience, awaiting
new paint, their cyclopean
eyeballs gone rusty from staring
unlidded at the ocean.
Judgments of this period are inevitably flecked with judgments of the political shift (in poetry terms). Setting that aside, so far as it's possible, this poetry continues to amaze me.
"Winter Mullet" (from Nero
, 1985) has the author solitarily fishing the warm outflows of a power station and it climaxes in a truly outré simile:
I stay on, the cold chaps my fingers red,
its pimpling's like dried beads of black hemlock,
the fish have tightened now into a head,...
OK, so hemlock (Conium maculatum
) is a common umbelliferous plant with a mousey smell and wine-spotted stems, highly toxic and evidently the source of the poison that was used to execute Socrates. (See
Enid Bloch's essay
Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?
. It can also be used therapeutically, but hardly ever is because of the low therapeutic index.
Black hemlock is an alternative name for mountain hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana
, a decorative tree of no great utility from the snowlines of the Rockies. The hemlocks are a genus of mostly New World coniferous trees that gained their name from a supposed resemblance of the scent of the foliage to hemlock.
It's from another of these, the Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis
), that the substance "black hemlock" (hemlock pitch, Pix Canadensis
) used by perfumers and herbalists is made - it's made from the resin.
The name, of course, is replete with darkly glamorous potential. Thus Linda Pilkington's Ormande Jayne fragrance Ormande Woman uses black hemlock as one of its materials, and her publicity positively encourages a confusion with "Socrates' chosen poison". Likewise Boudicca's Wode is advertised as containing an extract of Queen Boadicea's death-potion. It's from here that the phrase "black hemlock" has slipped into popular culture, re-emerging in that popular piece of costume jewellery for Goths, the black hemlock poison ring, a large black crystal hingeing to reveal a secret compartment beneath it. It even turns up in footy talk, in this surprising demonstration of why Seneca was a Southampton supporter and all Saints fans are Stoics
(red blood, white toga, black hemlock - get it?).
That artificial injection of West End glam seems entirely appropriate to Reed's poetry but what does he mean specifically? He must be referring to the herbalist's resinous substance, his numbed fingers feeling when they touch each other like they are touching, not each other, but something alien between them, while the poet takes on the semi-comatose trance of the fish themselves and is caught in shock by a man's torchbeam. But this simile is more important for its effect in focussing attention on the poet's conflicted performance than for its descriptive meaning. And though his swarming winter mullet are nearly as memorable as the lashing conger eel (in another of these poems), it's the performance that is mainly what I think is fascinating about the mainstream Reed.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Stolen Apples 1972. (his-own-choice selection translated by various US poets of "the first rank"). More controversial populism that I thoroughly enjoy. What I'm enjoying is a sort of welling out, the simplicity of it all, the poet's idea of himself, and a warm invitation to come on in, the water's lovely.
The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers. Well, it is
their best album, even though it's also the most playable. (Hmm, bit of a theme developing here.) And a certain pleasure in its own arch fakery is inseparable from that. Attempts to ground judgement of the Stones in a moral solidity that is somehow attached to Keith and correspondingly denied to Mick - that's something I was a year or two too young to ever understand - for me the compromised nature of the enterprise was a key to it, kept the music secure from other British tendencies of earnestness and pomp.
Sara Wheeler, Terra Incognita. Travel book about Antarctica. Undeniably, I'm enjoying this, though I've got mixed feelings about the recent sort of travel book that mixes personal reportage with a lot of chattily recounting history, as if the impressions were only collected in order to frame library research. What the papers love to admire. Bruce Chatwin's got a lot to answer for.
Bill Oddie, Gripping Yarns. This is in fact (though not in origin) the book you've been waiting for ever since the Little Black Bird Book. Nature as a hobby for grown men acting like boys, with rather awesome expertise. The same kind of way in which enthusiasts write about rock-climbing or urban exploring.
Arthur Court, From Seedtime to Harvest and A Farmer's Diary. Books by a local dairy farmer for a local audience. George Henderson's The Farming Ladder is inevitably recalled as the apogee of farming autobiography; Court has no heroism or fierceness, was a more civic spirit altogether, a stalwart of amateur dramatics and later local TV - his account only rising briefly to expose deep-buried emotion when his herd had to be slaughtered during a foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Charlotte Bronte, Angrian novelettes and The Professor
. This is as far as I've got in my plan of reading all her books in sequence. One of the strangest things about her was that after the immense output of Angrian novelettes (I have only read the last five) she went seven years without writing anything except a few poems before embarking on the Professor (probably not really true, doubtless there were destroyed abortive novels). Michael Mason in a very awkward introduction to a Penguin Jane Eyre argues against the temptation to link the Angrian works with what came later, apparently because he's worried that critics have always been a bit sniffy about Jane Eyre and this just plays into their hands. But the result is a vacuum, I think; it can't be right to discipline Bronte's novels into something befitting a sober tradition. Anyway. The Professor
is a pretty good book, and it does makes me appreciate anew what it's possible to do in a novel that you can't do in a novelette, but it definitely isn't a revelation like e.g. Stancliffe's Hotel
. I've started Jane Eyre
now: Mr Rochester seems to me very Angrian indeed.
Bodil Malmsten, Mitt Första Liv (2004). Book about her childhood and youth, read because we passed close to Bjärme on the way to the fells. I have nothing objective to say about this, being merely delighted at my near-ability to read it without using the dictionary more than once or twice per page.
Gwendoline Butler, Coffin's Game
(1997). Police investigation whodunnit kind of book, listened to as audio-book. Perhaps the last ever book to portray a "modern" London that is entirely white. OK, I admit it, there is a single mention of "ethnic troubles" in Swinehouse - just those two words. Otherwise, the only foreigners we glancingly encounter are a senior French policeman, an American FD, and a South African doctor (white). This is part of a long series of Coffin novels which are set in the "Second City", an imaginary slice of East London which has its own police force (apparently, this was based on an idea floated by David Owen back in the 80s). Mobile phones, word processors and AIDS have entered its pages, but the only industry in the second city is such immemorial pursuits as theatres, docks, shipping, prostitution and a coffin-maker. In case you haven't grasped it yet, the second city's modern trappings hide a substructure of pure 1930s Agatha Christie vintage. And to understand this book you need to understand that it's really about the life of its audience, domestic and suburban. A pet dog and a house mouse are important. The strongest scene, easily, is when Coffin's wife, who's gone missing, suddenly turns up again, and they're both so angry (yet relieved) that they can't help but attack each other. There's an odd social-ethical feature, which is also in Christie - the characters come across as incredibly cynical and judgmental. I'm talking about the innocent characters. While some of this is explainable by the author toying with the readers (we of course don't know who is innocent), I can't help thinking that a certain amount of cynicism is indeed commended. This particular ideal of humanity involves "realism", sharpness, wit, a contempt for any nonsense and pride in people not being able to pull the wool over our eyes. And while I'm unpleasantly struck by it, I can't deny that it involves taking a very acute interest in the personal lives of those around us. On the other hand, an ideal of sensitive non-intrusiveness, such as I'm more inclined to cultivate, can conceal both timidity and indifference.
I'm really pleased that Howard Jacobson won the Man/Booker Prize. I examine this feeling. After all I think poetry prizes are meaningless. But if you're a mainstream novelist like HJ, it makes a difference. I suppose what I'm really pleased about is that a whole new bunch of readers will now discover and relish books that I've previously discovered and relished (Redback
, Coming from Behind
) - before it's too late. The thing about novels is they date really quickly and then go into the doldrums for about fifty years, during which they're unread and almost unreadable. That's where Angus Wilson is right now. There's some egotism in this - in fact some loneliness. As we grow older we become fearfully aware of how most of the colleagues and friends we mix with every day, those that are twenty or thirty years younger, have never even heard
of most of the things we've given our hearts to. So when even a minor presence in my life (like HJ) comes back into the spotlight, I feel a certain pleasure, the same thing that eventually makes people read obits. To assure themselves that what they remember as life really did happen, they did live.
(updated at various times, to March 2011)
Labels: Charlotte Brontë, David Harsent, George Eliot, Gwendoline Butler, Howard Jacobson, Jeremy Reed, Jim Goar, John Grisham, Lawrence Upton, Ménie Muriel Dowie, Sean Bonney