Attention Span 2012 | Scott Thurston
Dante Alighieri, trans. Allen Mandelbaum | The Divine Comedy | Knopf | 1995
I took some advice from poet friends who know their Dante before selecting this version. It lacks a parallel text, which would normally have put me off, but the translation came highly recommended, and I can see why. Reading this famous work put a lot of literary-cultural questions in context for me, as well as raising a whole bunch of new ones. It’s clear to see why the Inferno has retained its appeal over the centuries: even the Botticelli illustrations with which this edition is furnished lose something of their inventiveness when faced with the more abstract prospects of the Paradiso – although I found the interweaving of the moral arguments and scientific imagery in this section utterly compelling.
Ernst Bloch, trans. Anthony A. Nassar | Traces | Stanford | 2006
This book opens with a section entitled ‘Not Enough’, which reads in its entirety: ‘One is alone with oneself. Together with others, most are alone even without themselves. One has to get out of both.’ This sets the tone for an extraordinary sequence of prose vignettes which take various stories and anecdotes as the starting point for philosophical reflections. Divided into ‘Situation’, ‘Fate’, ‘Existence’, and ‘Things’, this is really rigorous, uncompromising thinking: ‘our Here and Now tastes bad without activity, not least because it could be so superb, and isn’t’. But there is still a reaching for Utopia, however distant: ‘the traces of the so-called Ultimate, indeed even of a hospitable Becoming, are themselves just the imprints of a Going that must still be gone into the New.’
David Toms | Soma / Sema | The Knives Forks and Spoons Press | 2011
I was asked to blurb this pamphlet from a young Irish poet and historian whom I met in Cork in 2010. It issues from the prolific Knives Forks and Spoons Press, based in Newton-le-Willows—equidistant between Liverpool and Manchester. This is David’s second pamphlet from the press, but it impressed me with its formally-diverse territory, full of haptic and visual elements. The recombined found-texts of ‘A Brief History of Ireland—Version #136’ are a highlight, but I was also struck by the subtle discriminations in this writing: ‘what if I find complicity / Complementary?’; ‘the difference / Between freedoms / And mere:: / Feeling’.
Francis Crot | HAX | Punch | 2011
I just recently finished reading this on a train up to Edinburgh where I stayed with its ‘author’—the irrepressible Jow Lindsay. It’s a work which takes its cue from a line in a poem by Sean Bonney and offers a narrative imagining of a civil war taking place between the London boroughs of Hackney and the City. The prose here is vivid and condensed : ‘In the Algae Room, Aldgate, the Strategy and Solidarity Working Group has begun to explore the issue of the battalion of hairdressers slaughtered in the early morning, their corpses dumped on Holborn Circus, in a safe and uninhibited environment.’ What further animates the work is the inclusion of beautifully reproduced fragments of draft and collage material in type and computer-face and handwriting, chaotically dispersed across the pages. A wild and unusual book.
John Rowan | Personification: Using the Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy and Counselling | Routledge | 2010
Rowan recently appeared in a documentary about Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum press directed by Steve Willey (The Sound of Writers Forum—look for it online), having participated in the WF workshops and published with the press since the 1950s. He is a prolific writer in the fields of counselling and psychotherapy, but I’m particularly interested in his work in transpersonal psychology. I got hold of this book to find out more about the idea of sub-personalities, and have since been harbouring a pet theory relating them to the kinds of things poets talk about when they translate poetry or write using personae—a kind of expansion on Rimbaud’s ‘je est une autre.’ Rowan writes in a refreshingly un-academic, if rigorous, way and this book is enlivened by his outspoken and no-nonsense approach.
Mark E. Smith & Mick Middles | The Fall | Omnibus | 2008
A chance encounter with this alternative rock book in Salford Art Museum has sent me on a journey of re-encountering what I’ve discovered is still my favourite band in the world! I started listening to The Fall in 1989 when I first heard them on John Peel’s radio show and got seriously hooked—the first band I joined shortly afterwards had five Fall cover versions in its repertoire, with me on vocals! I’ve more or less kept pace with them ever since, although I’d only bought one album in the last eight years or so. Interestingly Middles recognises this phenomenon among Fall fans: ‘Long-term Fall fans often tell of ‘dark years’, more often than not following a marriage or a period in exile, when their lives were not punctuated by the release of new Fall product.’ Middles’ view is that you have to be there: ‘if an album is missed, it is best to be allowed to drift into some individual abyss.’ For myself, I’ve been filling in some gaps. This sprawling, eccentric but very readable book has a great interview with MES’s mum amongst other gems. The most unlikely disclosure in the book? I think that has to be: ‘I would start speaking Russian in Rhyl.’
Eléna Rivera | The Perforated Map | Shearsman | 2011
I had the pleasure of reading alongside Rivera at the ‘Blue Bus’ series when she came to London in April this year. She then read for us at The Other Room in Manchester two days later, where we performed a short collaborative poem we’d been working on. Rivera is a true internationalist, having been born in Mexico, brought up in Paris and now living in New York City. This book exhibits the intellectual complexity of poetry written under the sign of contemporary French poetics, but it also roots itself in the quotidian, whilst maintaining a sharp political edge:
Disregarded the need for words
in a book tangled threads and smells
of paper and private pictures
arrests development, tagged
on city walls
It’s also a book very much concerned with an embodied poetics: ‘“Just as thought is written on the body.”’ Every six pages one finds the most discrete and subtle of conceptual gestures—an almost invisible perforation running down the middle of the page, top to bottom.
Saint Augustine, trans. Henry Chadwick | Confessions | Oxford | 1998
I’ve been meaning to read this since it came up in my interview with Jennifer Moxley three years ago—and I have to confess I’ve not finished it yet! But it is an extraordinary piece of writing. The quality of Augustine’s thought is compellingly modern in places in the way it seems alert to, and deconstructive of, binary thinking: ‘this argument will prove untrue their usual assertion that one is good, the other bad.’ He writes with extraordinary candour and the rigour of his critiques of Manichee theosophy and of Neoplatonism are fascinating. What also interests me is his vivid evocation of the ethics made possible by the structure of Christian faith.
Anne Tardos | Both Poems | Roof | 2011
I’m halfway through this book which comprises two long, formally-constrained pieces. ‘Pronounce’ offers a not-quite A-Z of short poems each driven by a single pronoun (All, Another, Anything etc.), using material gathered from various sources—the form and the title echoing Jackson Mac Low’s The Pronouns (see below)—whilst ‘Nine 1-63’ offers nine-line poems of nine words a line. What I love about this work is the productive tension that emerges between the technique and the material going into it—work often so personal it becomes impersonal: ‘I paint my identity in a light that elevates me above the mean cravings I’m subject to’ (‘Myself’); ‘my role as a form is to seek other forms’ (‘My’); ‘everyone is potentially everyone else’ (‘Everyone / Everybody’). And what’s not to love about a book which contains a picture of a ‘slumbering kangaroo who is into wordless thinking’?!
Jackson Mac Low | The Pronouns | Station Hill | 1979
I recently acquired an edition of this important work by Mac Low as part of my researches into the relationship between innovative poetry and dance/movement, which will bring me to New York this September to see a new performance of this piece organised by Mac Low’s daughter Clarinda at Danspace Project. These are remarkable texts which are highly formal, yet combine a range of gestures in their ostensible instructions to dancers: ‘Each gives a simple form to a bridge’; ‘each is letting complex impulses make something’; ‘each gives the neck a knifing or comes to give a parallel meal, beautiful and shocking.’ Whilst it’s possible to get a lot out of these texts on the page, they are not really to be treated as poems, but as ‘dances’, ‘dance-poems’ or ‘dance-instruction-poems’. There are some photographs by Peter Moore of a 1965 performance which helps a little to visualise the possibilities, but, as I’m learning with trying to write on the performances of Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers, you really have to be there. And so I will!
Scott Thurston’s books include Reverses Heart’s Reassembly (Veer Books, 2011), Of Being Circular (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2010), Internal Rhyme (Shearsman, 2010), Momentum (Shearsman, 2008), and Hold (Shearsman, 2006). He edits The Radiator, a little magazine of poetics, and co-edits The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. Scott lectures at the University of Salford, UK and has published widely on innovative poetry, including a recent book of interviews Talking Poetics (Shearsman, 2011) which includes conversations with Karen Mac Cormack, Jennifer Moxley, Caroline Bergvall and Andrea Brady.