Monday, January 07, 2013

The Palm Beach Effect

You can now buy The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (edited by André Naffis-Sahely and Julian Stannard) from the CB Editions website. The publisher Charles Boyle explains why he published the book, which is a collection of essays, memoirs, poems and other items by a list of contributors stellar enough to send me into a blind panic at finding myself among them.

As CB says, Hofmann is for many (me included), one of 'no more than two or three that at a personal level really count'. When the solar system arrives at the star Vega and is annihilated, Hofmann's work will be amongst those miraculously saved, for the edification of the ghosts. Read this book to find out why – and read his own books too, of course.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Antony Rowland, I am a Magenta Stick

Antony Rowland, I am a Magenta Stick (Salt, 2012)

Antony Rowland's first book, The Land of Green Ginger, was an excitingly varied collection: there was a cartoonish humour, interest in family history and European history, travel and holidays, and a strange, dense style which did violence to syntax and vocabulary while seeming on the whole to be perfectly clear. I am a Magenta Stick continues all of that – and in that sense it's pretty much a continuation – but perhaps the elements are more integrated. The personal and public histories coincide; it still feels varied, but also coherent.

The 'Engrish' poems of the first book appear again here, compiled (really or purportedly) from miswritings by those for whom English is a second language; and there are several using a similar approach to a different sort of found text, online hotel reviews:

We found someone in our bathroom. That was weird.
The relaxation room was cold. The toaster
was trained by a parrot. No coasters
for the bell-captains. We found a beard

in our suitcase...

It goes almost without saying that many of the source texts are funny; what makes these into poems is, on the one hand, the play with lineation (most don't rhyme, unlike the one I've just quoted), and on the other, the way the sources are collated into a larger text with a poem-like trajectory of mood, tone and/or narrative.

There are poems about puddings, 'Sausages' and 'Gravy'; Rowland has pretty much cornered the market in historical-language-of-food poems. Neither of these rise to the heights of his masterpiece 'Pie', but they do show how almost any topic can be an occasion and opening for thinking about, say, the First World War, and how joyful a close and benevolent attention to the sound of words can be. 

Rowland's interest, if that's the right word, in the Holocaust is represented with some fine poems. In particular, there's the tension between needing to know about history and the danger of enjoying them. 'Serchio Bathing Party' visits the scene of Primo Levi's death ('our cameras flash in awkward reverence'), while 'The Fuhrerhauser', reprinted I think from his Knives, Forks and Spoons pamphlet, visits various death camps. There's something of Paul Celan, not just in the subject matter, but in the scrupulous refusal to editorialise; we're just given words, and the discomfort of bafflement is one of their effects that we won't be excused:

Why are you in 
a mystical corner, a roof
beached on its concrete?

Landscaped to perfection, 
the reserve peters
to a wood koy platform.

In lines we tortoise
the Clumber: children hand
each other, clasp roses...

At the imaginative centre of the book are the family history poems, or rather the poems which use family and wider public history as conduits to reach and illuminate each other. 'Elizabeth Frost', a kind of potted life-history of a servant (doesn't that sounds worthy and dull?) is one of the most wonderful poems I've read , a masterclass in sound and richness and narrative pace:

We come out of a smile round an altar
in a Dissenting chapel, allowed with a cap
every other Sunday, Elizabeth haltered

to a black dress for the family baths,
dressing, scouring, cooking, running with coals,
pulling cinders from hearths, tending laths... 

In a way the whole poem is a foudnation for the final image of the old woman 'dug/into Ganton Mount with a quota of stout,/a gill fetched every evening in a silver jug'. The image resonates in the lifetime the poem has conjured; it's miraculous. 

The book also has one of my favourite ever lines, describing a sloping cobbled street as 'steeped in leg-work'. Lovely. And Rowland has just won the Manchester Poetry Prize; read this book to see why.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tim Love, By All Means

By All Means is one of the first of the Hotwire imprint from Nine Arches Press; it’s a hundred pages, something like a novella’s worth of short stories. There are nine stories in all, and I’, inclined to put them into three groups: the artfully constructed personal histories, the metafiction-y ones, and the rest. What’s most striking though is what they share: eight and bit of them are written in the first person. I wonder how I feel about that; usually the narrators are distinct characters, but often they seem to be middle-aged men, so that you wonder if that’s a theme or if the narrators are all versions of the author grappling with versions of his own concerns (actually that’s probably two ways of saying the same thing).

My least favourite stories were the metafiction-y ones, which on the whole I felt didn’t put their cleverness enough to use: ‘Fractals’ is about making up a short story, blurring the boundaries between the two; ‘Method of Loci’ similarly imagines a meeting on a train, then interrogates its own imagining. It’s the sort of thing Borges did vertiginously, but the margin for error is tiny, and I’m afraid I didn’t feel much vertigo.

Much better were the pieces which left cleverness behind, and just told stories. The most straightforwardly realist story here, ‘The Big Climb’, depicts a father and son after the mother’s disappearance.  ‘Do you know where she is, Papa?’ ‘She’s having a holiday.’ It’s focused, retrained, and moving.

I liked best the personal history pieces, which usually throw us into a present moment and then unspool backwards to show the narrator’s past. The technique is complex but well controlled. ‘Olga, December ‘76’ starts off by seeming to be about the extrovert Olga, but gradually refocuses on the quieter narrator and his gradual drift and re-calibration from radical-dabbling youth to conservative middle age. It’s very good. I also liked ‘Doors and Windows’ and to a lesser extent ‘Late’, both of which have a broadly similar MO. ‘Dreams’ pushes the technique almost beyond narrative into personal-historical reflection, without quite achieving the satisfying resolution I wanted – it felt like a piece which needed and deserved a larger space in order to develop fully. But the ambition of showing how lives are knitted together, while eschewing the Big Meaning, is impressive and worth pursuing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

All the Bananas at large

A quick up date on All the Bananas I've Never Eaten, which is now out and available from Salt, Amazon, etc. You can read sample stories from the collection at Carrie Etter's Sudden Prose and Michelle McGrane's Peony Moon. There will be a launch event at the Lit & Phil on Newcastle on Wednesday 17 October, 7.30 start – a short reading, glass of wine, etc. Free entry. Please come!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Signs of life and another blog

It doesn't take a genius to work out that this blog has been pretty much dormant for a while now. That's not about to change, but I do have a spanking new Wordpress blog Writing and Walking to record the progress of my research project on the role of dog-walking in my creative writing practice. That should be a more active and interesting site.

Meanwhile I won't close this blog, but just use it for occasional on-walking-related items and me-me-me updates. Two of the latter:

An interview at Stride with Charles Whalley on my engagement with outsider art in the production of All the Rooms of Uncle's Head.

News that my collection of flash fiction, All the Bananas I've Never Eaten, has gone to press this week. My heart's throbbing like an octopus.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

'freedom borne out of containment'

Charles Whalley reviews All the Rooms of Uncle's Head at Sabotage Reviews.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Dickinson & Rilke at the OK Corral

This post grew out of a Facebook discussion on Mark Burnhope's page about Emily Dickinson, and specifically what it is about her that people rave about. It's cobbled together from my comments there, with more stuff added in. I'm sorry that I start by talking about Dickinson and end by talking about Rilke, just because Dickinson deserves the space to herself.

I think that there are just a few writers – Dickinson's one, and Rilke's another - whose poems are (usually empty) landscapes in which the abstractions become a bit more concrete and the concretions a bit more abstract. So that the poem becomes a heroic, metaphysical version of thought – one has the impression (rhetorical of course) that the poet is grappling with Reality rather than Surfaces. (Umpteen bad poets _want_ to give that impression, though...)

These poets' poems seem to me to take place in dreamlike or closed landscapes (same reason why the Western is a great vehicle for moral/metaphysical narratives - the empty stage), so there's only a distant connection with a 'real' landscape to be depicted. Of course it isn't as simple as that - some concrete purchase is always handy, to help the reader as much as anything. (We can't imagine that space in advance, so even if the poem's action is taking place in a non-space, it's useful to have it gestured at via the odd image, like a shoe, or a can of chicken soup.)

There's a great passage in Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity where he accuses Rilke of being a secular theologian:

Rilke... was one of the founders of the jargon [of authenticity]. For years every ambitious Privatdozent viewed it as an obligatory exercise to analyse that first elegy: 'All that was commission.' The line expresses the vague feeling that an unsayable element of experience wants something from the subject. This is similarly the case with the archaic torso of Apollo: 'Many stars expected you to feel them.' To that the poem adds the uncommittedness and vainness of such a feeling of command, especially when it expresses the poetic subject: 'But did you manage it?' Rilke absolutizes the word 'commission' under the shelter of aesthetic appearance... The fact that the neoromantic lyric sometimes behaves like the jargon, or at least timidly readies the way for it, should not lead us to look for the evil of the poetry simply in its form. It is not simply grounded, as a much too innocent view might maintain, in the mixture of poetry and prose [miaow!]... The evil, in the neoromantic lyric, consists in the fitting out of the words with a theological overtone, which is belied by the condition of the lonely and secular subject who is speaking there: religion as ornament.
Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (trans Tarnowksi & Will), pp68-9)

Adorno is pretty much a materialist, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he is hostile to the idea of religious or metaphysical realities and formulations.

But this argument does suggest a quite surprising link between that position and the principle that poetry ought to deal in concrete images and details, where the level of concretion equals vividness equals success – as if this foundation of modern poetry is uncomfortably related to an unthinking realism. (I don't mean that Adorno is an unthinking realist, but that many people behave as if material reality as it appears is all there is, without having as he did a philosophical position underpinning that.)

Also, notice that a subject who did not feel either lonely or secular might accept this reading without rejecting Rilke's mode of writing - if one _is_ religious, these religiose tones might be acceptable. I'm not sure if one can choose to be that, though – even a sociable, religious person might be a lonely and secular subject, historically speaking.

But, more generally, Adorno's point about pseudo-religious content in literature (and life) is a good one – if you) _don't _ believe something specific, what does it mean to speak of being 'spiritual'?

There's a lot in this line of argument, most of which I have only begun to explore here. Even if you love Rilke, once you have understood how his technique is pulling on some dusty old strings, then, even when you read and enjoy his work thereafter, it's hard not to be conscious of being manipulated. Am I really being hypnotised if I decide to play along with it?