Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Names of Stars - LA Johnson's Little Climates (Bull City Press, North Carolina)

There are always signs we chose not to see, California-born LA Johnson tells us in Little Climates, her myth-laden, elegantly poetic collection from Bull City Press, which blends dreamlike encounters and imagined animals with fields of foxtails, little rooms, scavenged bones and razor blades. Fitting together in a collage of understated narratives, the poems paint vivid pictures, simultaneously mysterious and coherent, like short stories with carefully laid out structures and plots, yet distinctly poetic and written in a fluent free verse style quite unique to their author - truly one of the most original books of poetry I have read all year.

Taken as a whole, the collection makes me feel like I am a passenger on some surreal car journey through the poet's native California, but a trip taken by night, as

In the Adobe Valley, early rabbitbrush
lines the freeway, we watch it burst into sight. 

 So often in Little Climates, the detail is in the omission, as in the opening lines, I never had quiet times in the kitchen (Epistimology) or the splendidly implicative We live in a house full of breakable things (Forecast) The poet's skill lies in juxtaposing of everyday images like these, and wonderfully stimulating choices of metaphor:

In the evening, the walls confine
the regular angers. We listen
to the kettle sing on the stove
that nobody bothers to stop. 

In the freezer, always, only the notion
of an icebox cake—its layers
softening to be like the real thing.
The icing, milk and smooth. 

Elsewhere, in the midst of domesticity, a watery enigma is floated, beautifully:

I dreamt tonight of a glass-bottomed boat
floating through a pine forest, needles pierced
above and below my reflection in the lake surface 

There are echoes of Ovid and Dante in the woodland metamorphoses of Shapeshifting:

Strange things click in the forest.
I feel the cold break in a tree hollow.
My body could be taken anywhere. 


Beneath an indifferent grove, I stagger
and filmy minerals take hold inside
my lungs. Deer wake in the night 

 The poem's deft sweep through its strange nocturnal forest enlivens the senses, in stanzas as sleek and image-laden as Haiku

i v. 

In tall grass, velvet-colored antlers
loom above a curved spine collapsed
with fever, hooves splayed in the dirt. 

and which recurs later in the book for a second visitation, as

Bats circle low in the air, cry
in the chimney. All evening I watch
their violent contours of longing. 

...the narrator embodying a liminal presence, transcending linear narrative into a state of pure poetry:

Lying in a field of wildflowers,
I fall asleep with wet hair. I dream
the names of stars, the myth of language 

The poems burn brightly in symbolic colours - yellow warning flags, blueblack clouds, and throughout the collection you have the irresistible sense of a poet who loves language and is unafraid of demonstrating this - and interweaving atmospheric, often deceptively serene, metaphors and imagery with the language of legend and folklore, as in the portentous Oar Fish,

Rarely seen, they are washing up
on shorelines from Catalina to Santa Cruz. 

Legend says the slime-covered, fatty beasts
mean bad luck, like the hundreds that beached 

themselves in Japan right before the tsunami. 

Deer weave in and out of these poems, portending deaths, punctuating journeys through the night or winding drives along roads that curve, play hide-and-seek with high beams, through a landscape of the American River / running parallel to us, icing over in late season.

Today, the two of us perform a funeral for a home—
we wreathe the doorway with lilies, carry
our possessions above our heads like caskets. 

We scatter the enviable parts of our lives
across the lawn: a radio, ceramic bowls, a sweater 

that never fit. Strangers stop by to look
at all our things. They offer us lemonade
and quarters, each one dressed in black. 

before the pent up bottle-neck of emotion compressed
within this startling suite of poems is finally given vent, unleashed in an unexpected, comedic, abrupt
moment of release, as, Then with hammers, we begin the destruction.



An edited version of this review will appear on Sabotage Reviews.

Winter Dreams and Candles - Janet Philo's Under-hedge Dapple (Three Drops Press)

Published by the innovative Three Drops press, Janet Philo's Under-hedge Dapple is a beautiful collection of 17 lush, bewitching poems inspired by alchemy, mythology, art and fairies, and oozes with an ingredient so often missing from today's British poetry - the love of language - as well as being beautifully illustrated by Kim McDemottroe.


Windfall apples;
silver slices clean
through sweet-stinking,
brown thumb-sinking,
cider-breath decay 

Thus the book begins, with the earthy, authentic imagery of Autumn Alchemy seeming to portend of deaths or ends, only to be succeeded by a seeping swathe of juicy colour:

Beetroot's wrinkled robe slips off;
inside she simmers,
all heart.
Her blood pools purple,
like the blackberry's perfidious smile, 

But it is a smile that is undulating with / curls of crawls of crawling worms, whose

juice laden load
implodes in mouths
of joshing fools,
taking summer home, 

Before the poem has reached its end, we have been treated to amethyst, indigo, winter dreams and even the Devil himself - and as if this delicious descent into a friendly Hell were not enough, the next poem segues into one of Antiquity's most harrowing legends. Cloud Woman is based, according to the footnote, on Ixion, a mortal who tried to seduce Hera, wife of Zeus. Zeus tempted Ixion with a cloud woman in the shape of Hera, then punished his transgression with eternal torment on a wheel of fire.

As she drifts out of reach, all form dispersed,
pricked by the heat of him, she drips through air;
her eyes are arctic-calved and polished bright
with tears that roll through empty space. 

The poems float through folklore, drift through winter mists and sleek bracken fronds / dripping green lifelines / of androgynous beauty, cast their lanterns over dragonflies, pumpkins, California poppies and awesome beasts charred in orange and black, a magical tapestry woven around the titular theme, where fairies dwell under hedgerow leaves, and smash / surface tension / on dew drop / perfection, and are pictured as Sloe-eyed and watchful:

they wait
for the sun spots
to scatter their wings with
shot-silk iridescence
stolen from nymphs 

 Under-hedge Dapple is a suite of poems tinted in Keatsian autumnal beauty, peopled by an impish cast of surreal presences - the Green Man, maori folklore, the poet's own alter-egos embodied by reflections on the art of Jackson Pollock:

Another me fell,
out of control,
into briars and blood
and blackberry stains,
printing red nettle weals
onto floral chintz
in patterns of pain. 

Another me fell
under cool bracken curls
to the earth-scented world
of autumn-crunch cushions
as rioting rainbows
dissolved into green. 

The poems traverse the globe, one moment bathed in Greek myth, or recounting the experience of working with an artist from New Zealand, the next planted firmly in the Midlands-born poet's adopted home town of Redcar, where:

February frost
pours from the nostrils
of Arctic white horses
tethered at the tideline,
broken on the sand. 

You are as likely to be enchanted by the hardy post-industrial landscapes of the Cleveland seafront, where Turbines, like stilt walkers, / stride to Seaton, as by the triumphant evocations of Louise Bourgeois' spider sculptures:

Freaky giant spiders
are mother-weavers,
spinning spiral webs and
mapping silent journeys. 

Do read Under-hedge Dapple. You will be entranced by pictures of the sea, delicately re-told stories from William Blake, tales of turbans seen for the first time by child's eyes, by birds and rainbows, sequins and beads, green dreams, candles, ebony elephants, and moonlight shining from the eyes of cats. You will encounter mermaids, myths, and magic, sacred spheres and sea birds, united in a poetry which is at once fantastical and rooted in a respect for the Earth and all her children

An edited version of this review will appear on the website Sabotage Reviews

These Lonely Places - The Forgotten Poetry of George Moor

George Moor is something of a forgotten poet.  I first discovered his writing in the Archives section of the Halifax Central Library, and indeed, this mysterious figure lived for some years, and died, in the Calder Valley, as we shall see.  Between them, Calderdale and Leeds library services stock most of his collections and  several of his novels in their Reference stock, and I've managed to find several of his books on the usual sites such as Amazon and ebay.  But other than that, a large gaping hole appears where, in my view, Moor's place in the public consciousness ought to be.

At Halifax, with the help of the industrious library staff, I was able to uncover a couple of 1950's newspaper cuttings, from the local Halifax press, praising his early fiction, tipping this promising author for big things, while further research has yielded up a few facts and figures about his life and work.  I want to share these, in the hope of gaining further recognition for this somewhat mysterious writer, which I believe is greatly deserved.

  Born on the 3rd May, 1927, Moor attended the Holt High School, in Liverpool. My research has uncovered only that his birthplace was Lancashire, but the few facts I've been able to gather about his youth do contain other Liverpudlian implications -  In 1945, when he was 18, he had a long poem broadcast on local radio, about the Liverpool Blitz. The earliest publications of his poems appear to have been in The Listener, when Moor was just 13.


In 1945, he went to Cambridge University where he studied English and German, and awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal for English verse. When he was 19 he was given the Oscar Blumenthal Prize by Poetry Magazine (Chicago) receiving a small award.The musicologist and composer Wilfred H. Mellers was a tutor at Downing College Cambridge during the same period that George Moor was a student in Cambridge.They collaborated on two works, with George Moor writing the words for a puppet masque and a chamber opera. After university he worked as a teacher in North Wales, then joined his family on their farm in the Yorkshire Dales. This farming life may well have influenced much of Moor's poetry - his best known work was a collection called The White Kid, in which a young man discovers a unicorn-like goat in a forest, who leads him to the girl he will eventually marry.

George Moor seems to have moved to the Calder Valley at some point in the early 1950's, eking a living from farming and writing at Hardcastle Crags.

This would have been around same time as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were known to stay in the area, and I find it tantalizing to speculate on if, how and where they might have met.   Certainly, although conforming to a regular rhyme scheme, Moor's poem about a moorland well, with its Biblical flowers, slightly sinister ravens, and spirit-imbued water, is not too huge a departure from the kinds of poetry each produced in response to the Crags.

A mirror chill with light
the morning well upon the moor
bright presence of shy water secretive,
wind-lit and pure,
the tack winds to it, sewn with gold-pricked broom,
mists rise around.
The mosses slope with starry flowers like pins
and sponge the ground.
The hunchbacked ravens wisely, quietly sit upon its posts,
and I rise and I tend near as one who serves a hall of ghosts,
kneeling to break the shining element,
reserved and fair,
brightening out of earth mysteriously,
it is like a prayer.

 There is in Moor's poetry a tangible sense of Yorkshire history, as in his 1946 poem, The Brontes

They found life hard, with so much to be wept
They in the end preferred to keep their tears
Charlotte adopted irony and kept
balancing clauses through the bitter years.

Anne, who was innocent,
made much of Sin-from-which-in-time-the-hand-of-God
had caught her,
Branwell managed life, if he had gin,
and there was left the last, unlovely daughter.

She on the moors, when flowers advertized
their blaze in spring, discovered earth was good,
and life's long anguish can and must be prized

as a sort of rapture, not quite understood.

Moor's poetic territory was varied, but covers a great deal of mythical and zoological ground, and one thing I have discovered is that snails crop up more than once, as indeed they do in my collection Little Creatures!  Here is George in 1946,

My nerves were fuses creeping snails of fire
My mind fecund and sprouting monstrous things-
Like rabbits twitching on electric wire
Or headless chickens with still trembling wings

and later, with the snail its self as focal point:

The Snail

Curled in a world of wet,
in the dewy grass
like an old brown finger asleep!

The light of my lamp
windows bright rain-beads from every water drop
as you wind and stir
like a noonday leaf.

Sensitive watery satin!
One almost envies
your soft-skinned pleasure or your dew-sweet blade.

But you wilt in the light,
tenderly twisting.
I leave you in the dark.

And whether describing the micro or the macro, his poetic lens brings a sense of place and industrial history sharply into focus

To the farms and neighbouring hills
ascends all day the sound of mills,
a distant noisy thud, resembling
a massive metal jelly, trembling.
In the valleys of the moors
wherever copious water pours,
sprawl with mill-sheds, black and dull
the towns that rose and thrive by wool,
industrial villages that lie
9 months beneath a drizzling sky.
Behind, the grim black moorlands, close
like a world's end where no road goes,
where Romans whistled in their day,
now in the wind wail spectral choirs
from the bare poles' singing wires,
a lonely file they kept before
sinking into every moor.

 Elsewhere, the influence of Coleridge is apparent:

While the frost works silently
its cold and glittering artistry
and icicles shine thin and bright,
long thawing through the silent night.

...and at times, one feels a sense of pure, lyrical delight, bringing beauty to the bleakest of landscapes:

A sky of hyacnthine frost
where, a feeble daytime ghost,
the moon's faint orb lurks dully white.
The frozen moor, in waning light,
lonely and dead on either hand,
appears more like a sea than land,
bounded by the vast bare sky.
On earth's dark breast the snowflakes lie
fresh fallen, new and cold with light
speckling the hills where hangs the light

In one of Moor's most powerful poems, a dad and lad set out one winter dawn to walk across the outskirts of Wigan. The poem, with its unsentimental depictions of a working class neighbourhood, reads at times more like a work of skillfully descriptive prose:

There was no-one in the street as they closed the door of the little house
among all the other little houses set in two rows,
looking strangely pathetic as the dawn light numbly shone in the knocker
and dappled with rose and apple the window, the curtain closed.

As the pair continue, we are given a glimpse of the escapism conjured up by the sight of railway lines, as The rails led flashingly into unknown free land.

 From a high vantage point, and in this poetic spirit of escape, the town of Wigan its self is seen through slightly awe-struck eyes, and in terms which lend a magical sparkle to items of everyday domesticity:

A low plain of roofs and spires
with the grey honey-hued coolers
rising like gigantic milk bottles.
As the dawn sky frostily shone and melted a million colours,
only one chimney wavering white smoke that trailed and thinned away over the moors,
seeming so real in the thin crystal light of the morning,
grey blue flashes where the mines had sunken of old,
and the earth was exhausted and sagging like a cake that had not come right.

It is like a child's view of a decrepit landscape, something DH Lawrence might have written in a light mood, where even the town's tiredness and industrial decay is lit by humour and an unexpected beauty.
This sense of wonder only grows, as further out into the country, and watches birds flying over a reservoir:

...the boy saw wild things flying and flaying
arrowing the fresh sky as they soared with weird cry,
ringed iridescent, blue and green, dark spiritual wailing forms

His heart yearned to be with them in these lonely places
that in the air he might go winging like a throb to the sun with them
as the boy in the story became a swan

This dreamlike peace is shattered when the reason for the excursion is made clear.  One by one, the father dispatches several birds, his gunshots echoing across the surrounding countryside.  Father and son take the long walk back home, and, in a bleak inversion of Seamus Heaney's 1966 poem Death of a Naturalist, his infant innocence is tarnished by the touch of the dead birds' loose, rubber-like necks.  For Heaney, his coming of age was triggered by an intimate experience of encountering nature; Moor's young subject feels his world turned upside down by the bruising realization of man's impact.  The reality of this avian death colours not only the child's consciousness of the non-human world, but of the world its self.  The sad, newly useless bodies flap in the bag over his shoulder:

 twisted and unlovely, like all things,
the smoking factories,
the crippled streets,
their street, too, as they came up,
it seemed small and hateful.

Such is the forgotten poetry of George Moor, a man whose literary legacy is as dim-remembered as the long-lost neighbourhoods whose lonely songs he wove upon the Northern melodies of his sad, lyrical verses, and whose life remains largely a mystery even in the towns and villages where he lived and wrote. 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Under the Moon's Cold Sheet - Poetry of Judith Wright

Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass
in a splendour of power, with a sound like thunder
shaking the orchards, waking
the young from a dream, scattering like glass
the old mens' sleep, laying
a black trail over the still bloom of the orchards;
the trains go north with guns.

(Judith Wright)

The Australian poet Judith Wright (1915-2000) was the author of many acclaimed collections, an environmentalist and advocate of Aboriginal rights, who won various awards for her work.  My previous post focused on a poem about a train journey by her countryman Kenneth Slessor, and here I want to look at two poems of Judith's which also centre around trains.  The Trains was written during World War Two, and has been interpreted as a reflection on the inevitability of conflict, the destructive forces underpinning human society, and the schism between young and old.  Thirty years later, the eponymous poem of Judith's 1978 collection Train Journey transposes a railway journey into somewhat different territory.


For Judith Wright, the sound of an approaching train recalls recalls the forgotten tiger, /
and leaps awake in its old panic riot;
as a primal mythology is awakened, as the imagery of tigers is invoked in suggestion of innate nature.  Repudiating rationalism in the face of instinct, the poet asks:

and how shall mind be sober,
since blood's red thread still binds us fast in history?

But this affirmation of the primal and instinctive is not celebratory. Recklessness, ruthlessness, and violence are anticipated by the metaphor.

Tiger, you walk through all our past and future,
troubling the children's sleep'; laying
a reeking trail across our dreams of orchards.


Not only is the picturesque imagery of sleep and dreams contrasted with the troublesome progress of the tiger, but his red-in-tooth-and-claw bloodiness clashes with the scenic neatness of orchards.  For all her zoological comparisons, the poet, after all, is describing the onslaught of technological advancement, in both vehicular and military terms.  Evoking a sense of casual, destructive haste, she reiterates the metaphor, reusing key words to lend a consistency not dissimilar to the revolutions of wheels thrusting over rails.

Racing on iron errands, the trains go by,
and over the white acres of our orchards
hurl their wild summoning cry, their animal cry….
the trains go north with guns. 

Judith Wright was born in New South Wales, grew up largely in Brisbane and Sydney, and was the daughter of Philip Wright, Chcnellor of New England University from 1943 to 1960.  Wright, born into a farming family in 1889, is described by the Australian Dictionary of Biography as Large in build and vision ... a proud man.
Perhaps, says the ADB, his greatest love was for the natural beauty of the New England gorge country. Following his strong campaign, the New England National Park, 34,600 acres (14,002 ha) of State forest, was gazetted in 1934. He was foundation chairman of the trust that administered it. Wright was a renowned benefactor, supported many progressive causes, and his daughter, who temporarily returned from her studies of English, Psychology and History in Sydney to help run the family farm in Armindale during the labour shortages of World War Two, shared his love of the land, with man's destructiveness against nature forming a major thematic concern in her poetry.

When I was there the thick hurling waters
had gone back to the river, the farms were almost drained.
Banished half-dead cattle searched the dune; it rained;
river and sea met with wild sound.

(From Flood Year, by Judith Wright)

There was a blazing quality of integrity about her," wrote Australian poet Robert Gray in Wright's obituary, She wrote about values, mourning the way land was being destroyed, the way people were being destroyed.


The poet's connection to her native landscape reverberates through her 1978 poem Train Journey, where:

Glassed with cold sleep and dazzled by the moon,

out of the confused hammering dark of the train
I looked and saw under the moon's cold sheet
your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart;

 It has been remembered of Judith Wright that she did not wish her poems to be interpreted in a nationalistic way - and such an interpretation is certainly far from the heart of her vitalistic, rousing poetry - through which there shines a deep love of land and heritage, channeled with respect and reverence for something deeper rooted than borders or ethnicity.  In Train Journey, as the poet's carriage goes tunneling through a moonlit night, she watches from the window, and records:

the small trees on their uncoloured slope

like poetry moved, articulate and sharp
and purposeful under the great dry flight of air,
under the crosswise currents of wind and star.

...and edges into a kind of invocation, reminiscent of the spiritual poetry of Kathleen Raine, beseeching the country to kindle a kind of light through the darkness of the night:

Clench down your strength, box-tree and ironbark.
Break with your violent root the virgin rock.
Draw from the flying dark its breath of dew
till the unliving come to life in you.

Judith Wright's fellow Australian poet Dorothy Porter wrote of how her work was "shining with meaning," and nowhere is that clearer than in the vital, illuminating Train Journey, where the brutality of motion, the violence of technology and the impenetrability of night, are gradually transfigured into familiarity, redemption, and peace.

Train Journey

Glassed with cold sleep and dazzled by the moon,
out of the confused hammering dark of the train
I looked and saw under the moon's cold sheet
your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart;
and the small trees on their uncoloured slope
like poetry moved, articulate and sharp
and purposeful under the great dry flight of air,
under the crosswise currents of wind and star.
Clench down your strength, box-tree and ironbark.
Break with your violent root the virgin rock.
Draw from the flying dark its breath of dew
till the unliving come to life in you.
Be over the blind rock a skin of sense,
under the barren height a slender dance...
I woke and saw the dark small trees that burn
suddenly into flowers more lovely that the white moon. 

The Dark Train - Travelling Through the Night with Kenneth Slessor

Much of my life is spent on trains or on railway platforms, so at times I naturally gravitate towards poetry relating to these settings.  I am also a night owl, who regrets the lack of a twenty four transport system in this country - though considering the yobbishness which plagues our trains in even daylight hours, perhaps this would not be such a good idea.  I am, though, used to traveling late, and well recognize the nocturnal depictions in The Night Ride, by Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971).

Pull up the blind, urges the narrator, blink out - all sounds are drugged; / the slow blowing of / passengers asleep;/ engines yawning; water in heavy drips.  The poem, which describes its author's observation of a group of soldiers entering the carriage on which he is riding through the night, begins, not with any sense of nocturnal stillness or moonlit eeriness, but a sense of clamour and hurry:

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;
Milk-tins in cold dented silver


Slessor's interest in the scene is mostly stoked by the arrival of Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station - a silhouetted cast of characters half-obscured by gaslight, whose "mysterious ends," and "private fates" are reflected on with obliquely:

one moment in the window, hooked over bags;
hurrying, unknown faces - boxes with strange labels -
all groping clumsily to mysterious ends,
out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates,
their echoes die
And the future's blank, foreboding page is suggested bleakly by the external scene, in which a darkened slideshow is underscored by subtly inserted sound effects: 

The dark train shakes and plunges;
bells cry out, the night-ride starts again.
Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,
pale, windy fields, the old roar and knock of the rails
melts in dull fury. Pull down the blind. Sleep. Sleep
Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside


 The sounds of motion dulled by the wintry elements, the vision of the train and its passengers transfigure a human journey and the search for destinations against a hostile landscape.  It is interesting to speculate on how, had the poet not encountered this unexpected collective of fellow travelers, The Night Ride might never have been written.  Was its composition prompted purely by their unexpected presence?  Or was there something in the poem's nocturnal setting, of watching a darkened world go by and sitting by a window reflecting on the transience of life, that was instinctive to its author?  To know something of Slessor's life is to appreciate something of the underlying "baggage" present in his poem.

Kenneth Slessor was born in New South Wales, the son of a Jewish mining engineer, whose Australian mother's family was of Hebridean origins.  The Slessor household was known for its bohemian liberality, and regularly hosted musicians and artistic gatherings.  The family spoke French at mealtimes, and the young Kenneth was encouraged to develop a European outlook, not to be negated by his love of country: at 17, his poem Jerusalem Set Free won the Victoria Prize for Patriotic Poetry.

Slessor would go on to win great acclaim and prizes for his poetry, and come to be regarded as perhaps the quintessential Australian poet of his age.  With a first class honours degree in English, and a successful career in journalism, he was appointed official war correspondent by the Commonwealth government in 1940, and his life and poetry were the subjects of several celebrated critical studies and biographies.  Yet one of the defining moments in Slessor's life came in 1927, the death by drowning of his friend Joe Lynch, an artist who died after falling into Sydney Harbour.  The thirty year old Lynch, whose most famous work, a sculpt called Satyr, was both praised, and damned as "pagan" by critics and contemporaries, was drawn to a hedonistic lifestyle.  The night he died, Lynch had been drinking with friends and was traveling with them back across the harbour, en-route to the house of cartoonist George Finey.  All the party, which did not include Kenneth Slessor, were carrying copious amounts of alcohol to be consumed later, but once on board the boat which was to convey them to their destination, Lynch removed to the rear of the deck, and without warning threw himself over the edge.  It is said that he was followed into the water by a friend, desperately trying to save his life, but resisted the attempt, and that was the end of Lynch, who was eventually found dead with two bottles of beer still stuffed into his pockets.
Slessor later recalled how Joe Lynch was prone to a nihilistic attitude, and remembered in an interview how “Joe was a devout nihilist and frequently (over a pint of Victoria Bitter) said that the only remedy to the world’s disease was to blow it up and start afresh.”  The unhappy artist's famous sculpt, cast in bronze forty years after his death, now faces the sea in which its sculptor drowned.

The sad death of Joe Lynch might have almost gone forgotten - another tragic statistic in the history of Sydney Harbour - even before the opening of the Harbour Bridge, suicides were numerous, with a further forty happening since the bridge was built in 1932 - were it not for Kenneth Slessor.  Perhaps Slessor's most famous poem is 1939's Five Bells, a meditation on the five ringing bells of ships, in which the death of his friend is remembered. Frequently anthologized, inspiring multiple contemporary songs and novels, and a mainstay of many on Australian school syllabuses, Slessor's  tribute to Joe Lynch is tender and respectful, and articulates the persistence of a grief which has not ebbed twelve years after the sculptor's death.

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand . . .
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.

How present, then, was this loss in Kenneth Slessor's mind as he sat on board the dark train, gazing beyond its watery windows into a black, cold distance?  We can only imagine now, more than half a century from when the poem was written, how deeply his years as a correspondent reporting on the horrors of World War Two were present in the poet's mind as he watched the anonymous soldiers boarding, bound on their journeys to mysterious, uncertain fates.  And we can only imagine how strongly the thought of his drowned friend might still have reverberated in his mind, as the train pulled in and out of stations, like a ship in a harbour, shaking and plunging through the night.  Bells cry out, he tells us in the poem, a line laced with knowing sadness, the night-ride starts again.

The Night Ride

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;
Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,
Pull up the blind, blink out - all sounds are drugged;
the slow blowing of passengers asleep;
engines yawning; water in heavy drips;
Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,
one moment in the window, hooked over bags;
hurrying, unknown faces - boxes with strange labels -
all groping clumsily to mysterious ends,
out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates,
their echoes die. The dark train shakes and plunges;
bells cry out, the night-ride starts again.
Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,
pale, windy fields, the old roar and knock of the rails
melts in dull fury. Pull down the blind. Sleep. Sleep
Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.
Gaslight and milk-cans. Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Poetry of Marko Vesovic

On 22nd November, former Bosnia Serb General Ratko Mladic was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against Humanity, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, bringing a degree of closure to a conflict which traumatized an entire region. The Balkan conflict of the 1990's stretched throughout my adolescence, a seemingly interminable tragedy played out nightly on the television news. The resolution of the conflict at the decade's end, and the subsequent removal from power of many of its architects  has enabled the area to develop and prosper, but this seemed all but unthinkable when the fighting was at its height, bringing to the political lexicon a range of macabre new terms, such as the chilling "ethnic cleansing," words which will forever be associated with the period's most infamous chapter, the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995, which occurred towards the close of the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

One man who lived through the war was the Montenegro-born poet, essayist, translator and academic Marko Vesovic, who was born in 1945, in the Montenegrin village of Pepe, arrived, via family connections, in Sarajevo in 1963, and has remained there ever since - first studying, now teaching, at the city's University.  Having translated Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Aleksandr Pushkin into Serbo-Croat, Vesovic is a member of the Serb Civic Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and by the 1990's had become one of the country's most respected poets.  But, having been born when one enormous war was at an end, he would endure three and half years of living amid conflict, and emerge from them as a fierce opponent of Nationalism, with a sense that the city of Sarajevo, as he recently told Bosnian journalist Sergio Paini, "has unfortunately changed forever."

American poet Chris Agree has described how,  Suffused with an ironic, Rabelaisian wit, Vešovic´s poetry both mocks an imperfect world and celebrates the enchantments of childhood memory with gentleness and ardour. A striking feature of his oeuvre is the huge arc of its perspectives: from intimate conversations with his dead mother, through the harsh splendours of Pape, to the overwhelming pressures of the Bosnian war. In a language that is both richly imagistic and formally dextrous, one encounters everywhere in Vešovic´s poetry the eternal dialogue between the tenderness and cruelty of existence.

Summa Summarum (Latin: All in All)
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience. (1)


Indeed, there is much insight - and wit - in the works of this talented, somewhat don-ish in appearance, at times contrary, poet - who is stopped on the street by admiring fans, yet whose sense of humour is self-deprecating, and who recently told a magazine that, on being offered the chance of taking political office in Bosnia,  I responded that my students would laugh when they heard that, because I'm not capable of putting a classroom in order, much less a country. I can't imagine myself in a situation where I am commanding, giving orders to anyone.

In the early 60's, Vesovic, like many rising stars of the Sarajevo poetry scene, made the acquaintance of a charismatic, imposing, ultimately murderous poet, lawyer, and, almost unbelievably, children's author, who would come to international recognition as a war criminal responsible for murdering any of Vesovic's own countrymen - Radovan Karadžić .  This former association and the shock with which Karadvic's culpability for genocide would wreak on Vesovic and others, would form a pivotal moment in his thinking and world view, but during the war its self, Vesovic turned his skill towards encouraging his fellow citizens to resist the military onslaught. On the Poetry International website, Chris Agee explains how During the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, Vešovic remained in the city and wrote over 100 essays for Oslobodenje ('Liberation'), Dani ('Days') and Slobodna Bosna ('Free Bosnia'). These writings, which exemplify the multi-ethnic defence of the Bosnian capital, were of immense importance to the morale of the city's besieged inhabitants. Vesovic also saw this material as a means of reaching out to many of his Serb contemporaries lured by the emotive, age-old tug of Serb Nationalism.  In 2014, Vesovic told Frontline magazine:
 I only know this - we were still hoping that the war would stop. As if a misunderstanding had happened - human consciousness could not possibly agree to evil, to a war. We thought it was entirely monstrous, that there was a war in Sarajevo, and Bosnia as a whole.
The poet's own experiences of military service clearly influenced his writing, which even when recalling times of long ago seems inevitably prophetic:

 I'm doing sentry duty.  At dawn.  Nearby is a house.  Actually,
a yellowish hovel.  Beside it--a poplar above a well.
The poplar is as tall, it somehow seems to me, as
the well is deep.  Above the house white smoke is unfolding
Like a baby's diapers.

In the house a child is crying. Long. For years already.

It seems: The shack would come down if the child fell silent.
Anything can come to mind when one is
Doing sentry duty. (2)

Later, I am reminded of Houseman's deceptively tranquil pastoral set among the balmy days immediately preceding World War 1, On the Idle Hill of Summer, as the calm before the storm is depicted in Mario Susko's skillful translation:

From a green meadow, wounded, was staring at the sky.
There was nothing for a million miles around.
Yes, miles, as if the immense void that
Roared around me was in fact the open sea.
Stark and boundless.   From everything, under the sky,
Only a blind starkness remained that roared brutally. (3)

I think the Houseman comparison may have been partly triggered by my coincidental recent reading of the journals of Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, and later the Peace Implementation Council's High Representative to Bosnia and Heregovina,  in which his own first visit to the soon to be battle-scarred countryside of Bosnia evokes a memory of the poem.  The diaries depict in painful detail the impact of the war on the civilians of Bosnia, and provide snapshots of everyday life - the unease of which is captured by Vesovic, in an atmospheric, and moving, invocation of Tolstoy's War and Peace:

I, too, like Prince Andrey, before death,
suddenly felt that there was nothing
In the world but that immeasurable distance
Above me, and the still more immeasurable distance,
Inside.  As if the soul was looking upon itself
From an immensity
powerfully healing.
Or as if it were looking on its pain after a million summers.
Pain turned into a white waterfall roaring like the spring of the Bosna.

I, too, like Prince Andrey, realized
that nothing matters more
than those distances that multiplied with lightning speed.
Seventy-seven immensities, the soul
drinking from each like from the seventy-seven fountains of home,
The world was, all around, ground to powder,
and looked like that
Ruddy column of dust that surges upward
When a shell smashes into someone's house in Sarajevo.  (4)

I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in one of the most bitter warzones of the Twentieth Century.  A library colleague, who served in a NATO peace-keeping unit during the Siege of Sarajevo, has described some of his experiences, but also talks about the "gallows humour" and resilient attitudes among the military.  This sort of thing is suggested by Vesovic in his lighter moments, as in his poem
in which a soldier in an unspecified conflict is depicted as having found a blouse among his kit, a reminder of some amorous adventure:

Suddenly, because of all this—the wine-colored west,
the new moon with horns, the woman’s tiny blouse whose
scent, like a thread, can lead you out of hell—
suddenly, because of this, I feel my soul relieved,
more at ease with the world. (5)


But lurking beneath any happiness or calm, is an ever-present murmur of disquiet, of anxiety, of fear:

It is a stillness and solitude when you listen to a baby bird’s feathers
Growing, when you listen to an elder tree
Sprouting from human absence amid the ramparts,
And when rocks start looking, for a moment,
Like gigantic layers of police files
With the fingerprints of millions of vanished beings
Whose murmur is heard anew.   (6)

See how even the rocks remind Vesovic of "layers of police files."  This is, after all a poet who lived for most of three decades under a Communist dictatorship.


But Marko Vesovic will be best remembered for his poetry decrying the effects of the war which followed Yugoslavia's break up.  Perhaps Vesovic's most famous poem is the stunningly simple Signature, describing an incident in which he and his infant daughter were returning home during a period of fighting:

 I'm running home with my little daughter –
again, shells have surprised us on the street.
Shells have, for centuries, been falling every day,
and every time they surprise us.

I'm hurrying her on with angry words:
transferring my rage from the Serb gunners
to a child awaited ten years.
Let me write my name, she tells me, as we pass
a patch of virgin snow in the park.
Instead of scolding her,
I—God knows why—let her forefinger
break the delicate whiteness,
and then, around the Cyrillic IVANA VEŠOVIC
my forefinger describes a circle,

Like in fairy-tales.   (7)

Looking back on the war today, Vesovic expresses little in the way of triumphalism.  Indeed, there is an element of the "stiff-upper-lip," or the militant machismo he has spoken of as inherent to his generation of Montenegrins:

We should lock it all up in the soul
and forget. But at least we shall, from now on
have a touch more self-respect, I hope,
like the fighter who takes a billion blows
but stays on his feet and his mangled face
in the mirror tells him who he really is.    (8)

Offering scant philosophy, Vesovic soberly attests that:

 We who passed through the siege of Sarajevo
shall, of course, gain nothing.
An experience that will serve no purpose:
as if you lost your arms and won a violin,
as Rasko would say. You can’t even tell
others about it. Can you reconstruct an ancient
jug from the lonely handle that made it to
our time?  
 To know how much you can bear, without
exploding—that is the only property that you
shall, if you survive, bring from this war,
endless like the handkerchief a magician pulls
out of his hat. This knowledge—a saber which
we shall not draw very often from the scabbard.
But at least I will keep my hand
on its hilt.    


Thankfully I have never experienced the kinds of horrors Vesovic and his generation lived through; nor, despite the current political and economic crises troubling Europe, is it likely that the Balkans will ever again face the anarchy and violence which characterized the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The book I am reading at the moment is an account of the crimes of, and subsequent hunt for, Serbian politician Radovan Karadžić - Nick Hawton's Europe's Most Wanted Man: the quest for Radovan Karadžić.  And it was his unlikely associations with this war criminal, currently serving a term of up to forty years for genocide and crimes against Humanity.  Remembering Karadzic as an egotistical presence on the 1960's literary scene, Vesovic has nonetheless explained how he and many of his fellow poets had an affection, or respect, for the future warmonger - who, while infamous for his role as a Serb Nationalist, was actually born in Vesovic's native Montenegro.  The friendship petered out in the early 1970's, when Karadzic was exposed as a spy for the Communist authorities by whom Vesovic had been reprimanded for some of his anti-government writings.  But even this betrayal did not overly taint Vesovic's view of his supposed friend: I'd rather have a have my own Montenegran inform against me, he told Frontline magazine, than someone from Bosnia who didn't know me at all, and he really knew me.

Over the years, Vesovic and his friends would watch their old associate assume national recognition through a political career, which did not surprise Vesovic in the slightest:

He's a born politician because of his absolute self-confidence. And because of his optimism. In my opinion, a politician is by definition a born optimist. He really did have these characteristics which would have made him a politician even in a different kind of time when butchering people and changing the borders wasn't a part of it. The point is, I have talked to his colleagues and I didn't know how to find the right description for him. But they did. He is a psychopath. You know, being a psychopath is a very dangerous illness.
In early 2012, Hague Tribunal prosecutors produced recorded evidence, in the form of audio recordings whereby Karadzic and others are heard authorizing mass slaughters, finally putting paid to any lingering revisionism propagated by their partisan supporters.  One of those for whom this evidence had an immense personal impact was Marko Vesovic:

The voice which said this shocked me. And it was forever engraved in my mind. Because for me, all I had known about Karadzic up to then, dissolved in one second. I only realized that it wasn't the same man; that weakling, that clay... He became someone who had control over the life and death of his own nation. 

With the chief protagonists of the Balkan slaughters now either dead or behind bars, the butchery of which Vesovic speaks is surely a thing of the past, and last week's the sentencing of Ratko Mladic does seem to indicate the closing of a chapter in the region's tragic history. But it is a chapter whose echoes resonate across the world today, and the age-old anxieties, emotions and pains bound up within its memory will never be erased.
Summa Summarum
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience.

Yet do not extol,
To the skies, your native land.
It ought to extol you.

Seen from this cloud
These meadows and fields
Are a stamp album;

And to the ant a smoke ring
Twirling from your cigarette
Is a whole new landscape!

And stop threatening for once
To return next time
To this handful of land without history
Only in the shape of a rider in bronze.

And before you leave
Stroke the bark of these trees
Which all the while have given you
Free lessons in standing tall!

1,10 -  Chris Agee
2,3,4, 7-Mario Susko 
5,6 -  Omer Hadžiselimović 
8-Zvonimir Radeljkovic
9 -  Zvonmir Radeljkovic

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A Spark Before Dark

This Saturday saw the third of my three readings devised to re-launch my pamphlet Little Creatures, at Legacy Art Gallery, Todmorden.
 The readings back in the summer have included, as documented elsewhere on this site, two other Calder Valley venues, The Blue Teapot vegetarian cafe, Mytholmroyd, and and the Fox and Goose, Hebden Bridge, and featured a wide range of poets from England, Ireland, Scotland, the USA and Israel.  The final reading took place at the onset of the Todmorden Lamplighter Festival, an illuminated street parade, and rather appropriately there were poems on the theme of lamplight on this final night.  This was especially significant as the subject of lamps happens to be the focus of a poem by one of the tour's previous guests, Atar Hadari.

Atar joined me last Tuesday to deliver readings from his 2013 Indigo Dreams collection Rembrandt's Bible, described by Calder Valley poet Char March as a dextrous and moving collection full of humour, tongue-in-cheek-ness, knowledge, superb imagery and beautiful ways in which they leave room for the reader and their interpretation.

Among poems about Biblical figures such as Samuel and Goliath, Moses, Maimonides, and settings as diverse as the Wailing Wall and contemporary Hebden Bridge, there are also deft snapshots of domestic life, family histories and remembered schoolday scenes.  One of these more personal stories is the gently powerful Lamp Gathering, which I first heard Atar recite at The Bookcase, Hebden Bridge, watching him deliver the poem against the glass backdrop of the shop's window, the spring night outside bathed in the crimson glow of street lamps.

I saw the first on top
of a book case, hiding, funereal
and black as a cenotaph
tucked behind my father's photo.  

The next was on the ledge
of the window and she showed it
- opening the tiny frame
in the heart that contained ten commandments.

 The poem develops into a dialogue between the narrator and his mother, who has begun collecting lamps found in junk shops as more and more Jews die / and their sons clear their house for scrap.  Perplexed, the poet ponders:

Why should she collect the lamps 
of the dead, who don't light their candles,
take them home instead and light
just her own one I could not say.

But she stands running her hands 
on the candle cups.  Her doctor mentioned:
"You can't just leave them.  Its a call."
And my mother agreed,

The sense of retrieval and conserving a past fading from the general consciousness is elucidated in the mother's reiteration:

"You can't leave them.  In shops
you have to rescue them."

...and the poem ends with a kind of conversion, the initially skeptical narrator now urging the reader:

If you find a lamp
please do not leave it-
somehow you'll find your way back
to when you were at home, and light was with someone
and a spark fell before dark.

At the third reading in the gallery on Saturday, Nuala Fagan was to visit the theme of lamplight with an as-yet unpublished, new poem, called Glow:

Electricity is a light that switches on things
that fly in the night
things that shift,
that tap
and breathe too close
is a reassuring miracle that keeps you alive
even after your heart has stopped

 As with Atar's poem, Glow illumines the personal and private through a prism of outwardly recognizable imagery, transfiguring the glow of electricity into a recollection of that time when the two of you / sat in the lamplight, and bringing to life the memory of light that:

lived on edges of china and brass
and on the contours of her hands
as they flickered in and out of the shadows.