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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Griffiths

Attention Span 2010 – Keith Tuma

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Tom Leonard | Outside the Narrative | Etruscan | 2009

Outside the Narrative includes all that Tom Leonard wants to keep of his poems written between 1965 and 2009. Readers wanting to know what he left out will also need his earlier volumes of selected poems, Intimate Voices and access to the silence; this is the most beautifully designed of the three books, its fonts especially. The other week on the UKPoetry listserv Keston Sutherland wondered if “Tom Leonard’s work [is] one of the only great contributions to the European realist tradition that we have in British poetry of the past 50 years.” Robin Purves chimed in with a word on behalf of the influence of William Carlos Williams, praising the poetry’s “patient, accurate notation of phonetic detail” and Leonard’s “meticulous placing of phrases on the page” as these combine to “give each voice a presence with a quality I can only describe as unarguable.” Malcolm Phillips remembered his mother reading Leonard’s poems aloud at dinner and laughing, which led me to wonder how much poetry gets read at the dinner table these days. I have been practicing this one, a section from Leonard’s “Ghostie Men” sequence, in case I get a chance somewhere:

baa baa black sheep
have you any wool
yes sir yes sir
three bags full

one for thi master
n anuthir wan fur thi master
n wan fur thi fuckin church

Clark Coolidge | The Act of Providence | Combo | 2010

If you were the manager of the World League of Poetry, would you trade J. H. Prynne for Clark Coolidge and a Webster’s to be named later? This latest book by Coolidge is tremendous fun, a book of American prosodies, beginning in its first several sections with variations on Whitmanian sprung anaphora as bebopped by Ginsberg and others, here spritzed with a Coolidge twist—the phrasal echoes heavy, the nouns changed. That’s before the poem practically explodes in section 11, “A Chronology.” Suddenly, and only for a moment, you’re in some strange chronicle thinking maybe this is an epic poem after all, like Paterson or something, except that they haven’t made epic poems like this until now. Then you see that Coolidge has still more hat to chinchilla: Professor Providence has not yet begun his dialogues with Providence. All of which is to say—duh—this poem keeps on surprising. On the evidence of one remark in Coolidge’s Jacket interview with Tom Orange, Coolidge seems to have been working on it since 1996. Would it make a difference if I knew his hometown better or more about King Philip’s War (1675-1676) and that kind of history? Probably, but this is Providence “intuited,” as the poem says at one point. Photographs are included, one of a book or magazine open to a chapter called “Poetry,” where at the bottom of the page on the left I can make out “I wish poets could be clearer, shouted my wife angrily from the next room.” A few lines from the first section, where the poet is warming up:

Providence is missing a lad
Providence is short a load
Providence sloshes tacks like the cogs melt in rootbeer
I have a livid fear of lights by the end of Westminster Road

. . .

I celebrate the something out of too much tobacco
Providence stands and wins then slips and deuterium
Here comes the sun, it’s its duty

In section six Coolidge pauses to say—”Providence silliness taking over the poem”—which is just right at that moment in the poem. I steamed on, as I hadn’t had such a good time since On the Nameways. Two lines for dinner recitation: “Poets are lost in the cold but keep yacking / yadda yadda and fry the rest.”

Bill Griffiths | Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80) | Reality Street | 2010

Alan Halsey and Ken Edwards have done us all a big favor by assembling the early poems of the late, great Bill Griffiths. By all accounts this task was not easy, given the poet’s habit of revisiting material and the sheer size of his work—think Hugh MacDiarmid maybe, though Griffiths has a richer sense of humor. It made sense some years ago when etruscan books put poems by Griffiths beside poems by Tom Leonard and Tom Raworth. Of the three poets, Griffiths is likely to make for the most challenging reading for Americans. Anarchist and classical pianist, publisher, translator of Old English, scholar of North East dialects, a legendary figure among the British avant-garde, Griffiths created “a body of work second to none in its formal enterprise and necessary aggression against what this country has become, a deteriorated tyranny, both economically and culturally.” That’s Eric Mottram writing in 1983, as reprinted in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths, a useful volume for glossing a few of the poet’s many concerns, first among which might be the law, as a friend said to me some years ago. The volume’s highlights include the sequences Cycles and War W / Windsor, but it is consistently mind-boggling from first to last, not even close to any writing I know for its idioms and frames of reference. Peter Middleton has written about the first poem in the Cycles sequence, which opens “Ictus! / as I ain’t like ever to be still but / kaleidoscope, / lock and knock my sleeping.” And here’s the opening of “Mandrake Song”:

who, obscene hey?

you’re in my fairground yep

I bawl
about
about about by my navel

I oped
Both Eyes

it groweth in the greas
ov dangled men

There’s a good review of the book by Tony Baker at Jacket.

Hoa Nguyen | Hecate Lochia | Hot Whiskey | 2009

There are a couple of thoughtful reviews of this book up on the web, too, one by John Latta, who might be the best close reader of the poetry bloggers I read. I don’t have more to say about Nguyen’s “sparse (sprawl’d), notational, constellatory, measured” writing as it is grounded in domestic and daily life and “liable to jut off anywhere,” or about her work’s precursors (Mayer, Notley, Whalen, others), or the care with which what appears as “notational” is composed, the eclectic “myth-hints” of her poems, or anything else, unless it’s to say that Nguyen can also be funny, as she is toward the end of this book’s final poem: “Make afterlife banknotes / for your ancestors and burn them / in an impressive wad.” She’s not afraid of statement, of offering practical wisdom, so the light touch helps. I found reading the book immensely reassuring—calming, as if Nguyen sees the same horrible news we all see and wants to write about it but won’t always, won’t obsess and let it altogether dominate her life. She has found a way to carry on because she must, which might mean there’s hope for the rest of us. Here’s a poem with a final couplet that underscores Latta’s point about the precision of this writing—its last word is perfectly placed:

Washington

Washington (George) is not in
This poem         powdered wig powdery
And anyway who chops down a fruit
Tree       (idiots)
My sense of
History lies        We buy things
::::chicken wings:::::butter::::

Yesterday Dave took away
My office            my boss         Saturday

Tom Raworth | Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems | Carcanet | 2010

The old poems are poems lost or forgotten when the Carcanet collected poems was assembled in 2003, mostly poems from Pleasant Butter (1972). And the old couldn’t be newer, “Breeding the Arsenic-Proof Baby” about hearing about China, “Into the Wild Blue Yonder” opening with two lines—”prisoner / christmas”—that might have been occasioned by news about—what prisoner swap would have it been? The new poems are from Caller and Let Baby Fall with a few more added. Excerpts for the reader’s guide to blinking mind: “sometimes a fragment of language / illuminates a world not consistently round / breathing its air” [from “Baggage Claim (a slugging welterweight natural)”] and “where do they go / these things we know we know” [“Title Forgotten”]. Also an errata list for the collected poems. “Nothing wasted” here, as usual.

Francis Crot (aka Jow Lindsay) | Pressure in Cheshire | Veer | 2009

On the evidence of the poems I’ve seen, Jow Lindsay has pushed about as near to Renaissance lyric as any of the younger poets in England: Thomas Wyatt, here’s your trousers. He’s a love poet in the first of three texts included in this little book, though the text is not poetry but prose fiction, with a plot even. It concerns Arthur House trying to get across a police line to the 7-Eleven while hoping he won’t be killed—crushed—by a woman jumping off the bridge. That’s part of it anyway. Arthur works little at his corporate job. He’s been offered a promotion he doesn’t want and regularly pongs insults with co-workers, one of them apparently the lover of the officer holding back the crowd. The story is more or less told by Arthur (with what is likely treated found material cut in) and addressed to his recently estranged lover—he’s said something stupid. The story moves fast without really moving, “unfolding certain diverse speeches in the canting tongue” as the prefatory note has it. It contains some of the best prose I read all year. The second piece in the book crashes poetry and poetry gossip into language about the disbursement of foreign aid (conditional aid). I was briefly reminded of Prynne’s Plant Time Manifold transcripts, which Lindsay has written about in Quid 17. The third text is out of Sir Thomas Pope Blount, with bits cut in from elsewhere, “Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross” and other sources: I haven’t parsed it sufficiently to see what’s worked up and how. It’s Blount on the spewing of volcanoes, words, and thoughts; the word “bowels” recurs: “The truth is, its cities are built upon ruins, and its fields and countries stand upon broken arches and vaults, and so does the greatest part of the outward part of the globe, and therefore it is no wonder if it be often shaken.” I think this was written before the top blew off Iceland.

Barbara Claire Freeman | Incivilities | Counterpath | 2010

One of the two blurbs is by Judith Butler, which caught my eye: I’m not sure I’ve seen Butler blurb poetry previously. She says the poems “range in form and style” and “participate in an austerity, a political edge, and what one poem calls ‘abbreviated violence.’” Four of the poems are called “georgics.” There’s a welcome earnestness throughout, even a hint of “solemnity”—to borrow a word from the first poem, titled “The Second Inaugural.” Freeman samples political rhetoric (of Washington and Lincoln) and her writing in places takes on some of its characteristics. Butler is right that her forms are various, and her line, but this is writing that knows about the prose virtues Pound wrote about long ago. The three-poem sequence “Incivilities” especially held my attention. It might have been written as the stock market was crashing in October 2008: “Then shall they be cut: the sovereign debt, the wailer, // the whistler, the sloped yield curve, the rearing traveler. . . .”

Elizabeth Arnold | Effacement | Flood | 2010

One of the poems in this book-length sequence describes summer-long radiation treatments for breast cancer and does so matter-of-factly, in seven short lines. Emotions attending mastectomy and reconstructive surgery are on view throughout the sequence, but what impresses is the way Arnold looks outward to situate her experience. The book is charged with compact, unpretentious, smart reflection on body and mind, and not only on varieties of damage and “effacement” but also on surgical and emotional repair. The poem uses diverse materials to think with—Phillip Johnson’s glass house, passages from David Jones and Dante, case studies of surgery, studies of the fish of the hadal depths, the war drawings and letters of Henry Tonks, more. In some ways I was reminded of the longer poems of Frank Bidart, without the theater.

Frederick Farryl Goodwin | Buber’s Bag Man | The Gig | 2010

This is a chapbook containing eighteen poems and a final fragment (“To light up posthumously, / leeke a word”). Three texts are prose, or poetry and prose—imagine Rimbaud with a sense of humor. A few lines from “The Bouncer”: “I was caught up in a maze of Oscar Kokochkas. The Ger man s / w/ their potato mashers to the head. I swooned in small barbaric rooms.” Words fall apart, or rather their letters migrate, attaching to and forming other words, or simply mangling them. The self is much the same, on the edge of disintegration but also somehow spirited and genuine and funny. I take it that Goodwin must have worked as a bouncer at some point: “I felt like a cuckoo clock with its cuckoo guts cut out.”

K. Silem Mohammad | Sonnagrams 1-20 | Slack Buddha | 2009

The compositional process is explained by a note in the back: “I feed Shakespeare’s sonnets one line at a time into an anagram engine, thus generating a new group of words from each line, which I then paste into a Microsoft Word document. This initial textual output gives me a bank of raw material that is quantitatively equivalent to Shakespeare’s poem at the most basic linguistic level: the letter. At the same time, it sufficiently alters the lexical structure of the original poem so that I am not overtly influenced by Shakespeare’s semantic content. I click and drag the text generated by the anagram engine by letter until I am able to rework it into a new sonnet in iambic pentameter, with the English rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The letters that are inevitably left over are used to make a title.” The resulting pentameter thumps a bit at times, the syntax bending for it, but it’s an interesting experiment to be sure, given the source material. Leftover letters being allowed for the title makes for a lot of wiggle room. Some of the poems are funny in the way light verse can be funny: we could use more of that. I laughed when I heard Mohammad read them aloud; his timing and deep bass tones had the whole room in stitches.

Lisa Samuels | Throe | Oystercatcher | 2009

Samuels’ Tomorrowland, a book-length poem about New Zealand and “bodily transit and colonial forgetting” (to quote from the publisher’s description) also appeared (from Shearsman) in 2009, and it’s in a stack of poetry books and chapbooks I read with interest this year and thought I might include among my eleven, but now I’ve run out of room. I thought I’d list this one and Mohammad’s book above to support chapbook publishers, Oystercatcher one of the best of these in the UK as Slack Buddha is in the USA. Not to forget a-bend press and Tinfish, Wild Honey active again, Punch Press, Ugly Duckling, Critical Documents, and many others. Throe is twelve shorter poems. I won’t try to characterize them except to say that the first poem has some very funny lines (“I have heard that story before. She lifts her leg and / it’s a social occasion”). Funny is obviously one thing I’ve been looking for this year. You can read the whole poem at Jacket.

More Keith Tuma here. His Attention Span for 2009. Back to directory.

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