You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Poetry’ category.

Head west across the Delaware. You’ll see

a sign that reads: America Starts Here!

It rambles on to Sacramento, free

and brave, but takes a little detour near

Columbus to avoid Chicago – Ski

the Poconos! and Have Another Beer –

the billboards foliating fore and aft,

and every Huckleberry has his raft.

There’s something very communal, but also cloying, about poetry reading nights. I used to attend a weekly session in Dublin’s The Stag’s Head with quickly scribbled verse, that when I wasn’t on the bad side of the organiser (long story) would win me a free pint of red ale.

If writing for booze doesn’t sum up the college poetry scene that I was involved in, I cannot think of a better description.

I say cloying because much of what was performed in that basement bar area was fairly mediocre, but we all clapped loudly, especially if a newcomer was standing before us for the first time. By the same token the atmosphere was kindly, supportive, I was rarely aware of any competitive bickering and having attended a few book launches for well-known published Irish poets – refreshingly free of affectation.

Rick Mullin’s poem evokes the spirit of an open mic poetry evening, with its cantos divided up between different performers on a stage eulogising the life of Herbert Huncke. We visit the life of the (in)famous Beat poet, meet the famous literary figures and New York artistic scenes that he became swept up in. There are sustained riffs on the work of William Burroughs, an associate of his, as well as a style of writing credited to Thomas Pynchon (a man who enjoys inverting history in eye-popping ways).

In that regard Huncke’s life is used as a model for the influences and historical forces of America itself. The Beat poets raged against and satirised the American Dream. ‘Manifest Destiny’, has escaped the dreamers and they were left at the bottom staring upward. No wonder a paranoaic, conspiratorial tone entered their writings. The firebrand language of Paine, the revolutionary promise of George Washington, abducted and besmirched by the new ruling classes of America. Rick Mullin has the twinned symbols of corruption, Mickey Mouse and Rudy Giuliani, haunt the poem’s cantos, reappearing throughout the life of Huncke himself.

And a kid’s been trailing him all afternoon.

A schoolboy in a Catholic uniform

whose head looks like a carnival balloon

that’s prematurely balding. Not the norm

for even Catholic tikes. Well, pretty soon

the child is offering a light. Reform

school etiquette – the contrasts are uncanny.

“So, what’s your name, kid?” ‘Rudy Giuliani.”

Amusingly he also announces –

And drop the politics, for Jesus sake.

It mixes with the arts the way that rock

gets on with scissors – scissors tends to break.

We skip and jump from War of Independence to America’s jazz era and then forward again briefly to dwell upon a post-9/11 New York, but for the most part no vision of the future is offered. Huncke is absorbed into the canon of American letters, this beatnik junkie become a symbol for an idea of the nation, or perhaps just 42nd Street, that has been lost. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ghosts now too, though Mullin dedicates some verses to memory of Joan Vollmer. Her murder an accident. Burroughs saved from a Mexican jail thanks to family influence. It is worth remembering that these heroes (Mullin rejects the term – ‘There’s a hand we over-play’) were for the most part educated, middle-class and privileged. Their free-form verse often indulged in esoterica, a rebellion not so much against their class, but their elders. Yet today all mysteries can be solved with a trip online –

And so I went. To Wikipedia

to bone up on the luminary thief

and prostitute…whose online media

runs viral with a hypertext relief

that lights full paragraphs.

In a sense Mullin’s poem can be seen as an attempt to restore that mystery, the fugue of names, places and associations intended to pique an interest that can be so dismissively sated by a simple hyperlink. For that he should be commended. He also captures the feel of a poetry performance. To see Mullin’s words be read rather than read them strikes me as the preferable condition to receive them in.

So mission accomplished. I would know more about the man Huncke, as well as look forward to a less biographical work by Mullin himself.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishers for my copy of this edition.

He tells you, in the sombrest notes,

If poets want to get their oats,

The first step is to slit their throats.

The way to divide

The sheep of poetry from the goats

Is suicide.

When Stephanie saw me crack the spine on this collection of poetry, she queried whether any poem could be cited as definitively great. As verse (free or otherwise) is the product of the inner-world of the poet it is both subjective in its construction and reception.

When challenged the first poem that sprang to mind was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

But is my appreciation of that poem due to its inherent quality, or because I have fond memories of my teacher Dennis Craven reciting those lines in 1998? Nostalgia creeps in, the associative quality of poetry merges with the personality of the reader and we end up with a poem having, in effect, reconstituted it to have a more personal meaning.

James Fenton’s career as a foreign correspondent and political journalist for a number of British newspapers informs his writing. In this collection he recounts in verse experiences he had in post-war Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and then his return to England, his perspective on his home country forever altered by what he witnessed.

Children in Exile describes the slow release of young emigrants who have escaped Pol Pot’s regime from the memories and nightmares of the country they left behind. One startling image is of a child who dreams of “Jesus with a gun”, an image of a newfound protector that he has learned of from his American rescuers informed by his understanding of what is required to save a life. These children’s education is of a bloodier sort than their Western counterparts: “Students of calamity, graduates of famine […] They have learnt much. There is much more to learn. Each heart bears a diploma like a scar”.

Fenton is writing journalism through verse, transforming coldly objective prose into more emotional material, where he has free reign to give vent to righteous anger. In a Notebook uses a comparison between traditional poetry, with its dropped hints and suggestive language, italicised to contrast it with the opposing page which repeats the content, but revisits the ephemeral beauty described with harsh reality:

And I’m afraid, reading this passage now,

That everything I knew has been destroyed

In a Notebook provides a valuable insight into Fenton’s project. A self-conscious note is present, highlighting the concern as to whether poetry is possible in relation to such atrocities. I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s famous quote “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.

Fenton’s perspective on England itself has been heavily influenced by what he has witnessed. My opening quote is taken from Letter to John Fuller, challenging a rival poet to exchange the pretence of a tortured poet for real torture and suffering. The primacy of a published poet’s anguished musings loses some of its power when contrasted with the suffering of starving children, victims of oppression, or even the homeless who eke out their existence on the streets of Western cities. Our assumption in the benevolence of the Almighty is also rejected, as to Fenton’s mind there is not a lot of evidence to support it:

I didn’t exist at Creation,

I didn’t exist at the Flood,

And I won’t be around for Salvation

[…]

I’m a crude existential malpractice

And you are a diet of worms.

Throughout this collection Fenton supplies some wonderful combinations of language. I was particularly struck by the phrase “the eloquence of young cemeteries. To answer Stephanie’s challenge though, is it great poetry? I am not sure.

I think it is very good writing, but for me poetry is consistent in its meaning. The associations, wordplay and poetical structure are all meant to convey a continuous thematic thread from beginning to conclusion. With many of the poems here I felt as if meaning surfaced and then dived beneath the musings on war and death, like an elusive submarine plumbing treacherous waters. The uncertainty as to whether the poetical format suits these missives leaves the overall project unsteady at times, fitfully brilliant with occasional dips into  confusion.

Somebody enquires: Are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pusuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analyzed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.

A few months before Stephanie and I were married we travelled to Foggy London Town to choose a wedding dress for the big day. While there, we looked up an old friend for lunch. I remember at one point we were discussing our reasons for wanting to move to Australia. We had lived together in Sydney already for a year and so thought it only fair to do the same in Dublin. In addition, we felt it was important for my family to get to know the woman I had chosen to marry. Given the distances between our respective families, the normal routine would not be possible. As it was my parents only met Stephanie’s on the day of the wedding itself.

The course of international romance never runs smoothly.

At any rate, we were chatting away about our future prospects when I mentioned that one of the reasons we were leaving Ireland was because in Australia we could actually see ourselves having a future. My home was swept up in economic turmoil, wasteful political in-fighting and a general apathy on the part of the public in what was happening to the country, despite the growing mountain of debt. Our friend was greatly surprised at this. Aren’t the Irish rebels, she said, coming from a culture defined by its fight for independence and resistance against the British occupation? Weren’t we taught as children to admire men like Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell and Michael Collins?

Well yes and no, came the reply. We talk a good game, but when it comes to politics the Irish turn a blind eye to the decisions that have the biggest impact on public life. There would be a lot of complaining, certainly, but little in the way of grass-roots political action. Those protesters that did persist in Ireland, such as the anti-Shell protests in Corrib, tended to be dismissed as crusty hippies.

So here I am watching the news from home, hearing about how the IMF have begun to assess the economic mismanagement of my country, the refusal of our leaders to accept any responsibility and the rising calls for a change of government. Too late, too late, the writing was on the wall years ago.

This collection of essays by John Berger focuses on the global political inarticulacy of responses to the illegal invasion of Iraq by Western nations and their allies; the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about the poverty ordinary Americans suffered; the encroachment of Israeli forces on Palestinian settlements; and the hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s reaction to the tragic London bombings.

Statesmen pitch the rhetoric while ordinary people across the world separated from us by geography, class and war suffer. What is worse, we all know their stories. There is this sense of impotence or apathy that pervades the coverage of these events, as if nothing is to be done and so we simply change the channel.

Berger’s intermingles poetry and politics, to highlight just how isolated from common feeling the political process has become. The show of sincerity has replaced the need for any statesman to tell the truth. Propaganda has replaced the need for argument. The Twentieth Century has been a time of great opportunity, as well as loss: Our century was one of unprecedented massacres, yet the future it imagined (and sometimes fought for) proposed fraternity. Very few earlier centuries made such a proposal.

Discussions of Paulo Passolini, Emily Dickinson, Francis Bacon and Lars Von Trier are used by Berger to regain that sense of emotion and creativity abandoned by modern politics. Government has become the plaything of corporate interests and as such, has lost any claim on ideals of how we should live.

To take in what is happening, an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the ‘fields’, which are institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political.

This is a powerful collection of essays, strongly recommended.

 

 

Perhaps we would be justified by proclaiming that the Centre writes straight on crooked lines, and what it takes away with one hand, it gives with the other, If I remember rightly, that business about crooked lines and writing straight used to be said about God, remarked Cipriano Algo, Nowadays, it comes to pretty much the same thing

I went to a preview of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later at the Dublin Horrorthon, for Halloween 2002. As the producers were trying to build up positive word of mouth for this pseudo-zombie pic – and it is instructive to remember that the current horror glut had not yet washed up on the shores of the mainstream – the screening I attended was followed by a Q&A session featuring the director and stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. One member of the audience commented that the film reminded her of a novel by José Saramago.

I had never heard of the book before, so this proved to be my introduction to the Portuguese author. The novel Blindness does have broad similarities to Boyle’s film. A mysterious ailment causes the collapse of society, although in Saramago’s tale marauding zombies are not the cause, with the entire population of an unnamed country suddenly losing their sight. The novel has a sequel of sorts in Seeing, a political satire that is essential reading and not dependent on the previous book, although it does reveal the fate of the previous book’s protagonists.

Today’s book is once again a satire of sorts predicated on a surreal hook. Cipriano Algo is a potter whose business is dependent on the nearby monolithic Centre, a commercial/residential complex. Living in the shadow of the Centre, not only is Cipriano just barely making enough money from selling clay pottery to its residents, he is legally forbidden from selling his wares to anyone else.

The small business is run by Cipriano and his daughter Marta, whose husband Marçal enjoys an uneasy relationship with his father-in-law. Partly this is due to the young couple intending to move to the Centre, where Marçal works as a security guard. Cipriano resents that his daughter will eventually be pulled away from him by the Centre. Disaster strikes when his goods are finally rejected by the head of the buying department, with insult added to injury by the order to remove the surplus stock of clay crockery from storage.

Desperate to attempt to stay in business, Cipriano and Marta attempt to innovate by producing clay figurines instead. The Centre agrees to accept an initial order on a provisional basis, with the buying department head secretly enjoying the philosophical badinage he engages in with the quick-witted, but humble potter. Another addition is made to the small family by the arrival of a dog, named Found by Cipriano, who inserts himself into the lives of the struggling artisans. Meanwhile Marçal feels increasingly pressurized to achieve a promotion so he can earn the right to live in the Centre with Marta and Cipriano discovers a second chance at love with the widow Isaura.

Once again Saramago delivers an amazing combination of political satire, absurdism and philosophical inquiry. The callousness of the Centre towards desperate labourers such as Cipriano is masked by false niceties, symbolizing the double-edged sword of consumer culture. Issues of family loyalty are also dealt with, as Marçal finds himself goaded by his resentful father-in-law on one side and then being criticized sharply by his own parents for not agreeing to allow them to live with him in his promised future apartment in the Centre. Saramago also in a wonderful feint introduces us to the thought processes of the dog Found and its gratitude to the Algo family for taking him into their home.

Beneath all of the above, we also have several allusions to Plato’s parable about the Cave and the nature of reality. Saramago, I feel, was one of the most incredible literary stylists of the late twentieth century. Sadly the author passed away recently, but he was always fearless in describing thoughts and ideas that proved too controversial for his Catholic homeland. Reading his pages can sometimes feel like staring at a morass of words, with run-on sentences and absent punctuation increasing the feeling of alientation. Should the reader persevere, however, a natural flow to the language Saramago uses emerges, almost like poetry.

An incredible book, by an incredible literary visionary. Need I say it is strongly recommended? I thought not.

“Georgian Dublin”, rots in constant damp,

The way it always has, I guess – although

Only weeks have passed since I moved in,

And I’m in no position yet to know

The letter from the flashy postage stamp;

Which decay comes from without – which from within.

One of the categories I created for tagging purposes on this blog is ‘Poetry’, but sadly I have not reviewed much for the site. This is a shame, as there was a time I loved reading poems. My dad often describes poetry as ‘condensed thought’, an idea captured in verse with an exactness that can elude prose writing.

The poet is also a role more suited to an outsider than a novelist, as s/he in transcribing thought and action to verse is already describing the world in a skewed fashion. That perspective lends itself to the estranged observer, a narrator who questions what he sees far more readily. The scene is not set for the slow unravelling of plot, it is an eruption, a sudden reveal of intimate feelings that would go unsaid otherwise.

I am also curious as to why there is not more well-known poetry derived from an urban setting. So many of us spend each and every day living, working, socializing within the concrete and glass borders of cities. Surely there is plenty of material there for a poet, however, poetry today carries a nostalgic cachet, with ‘poetry lovers’, insisting on the bucolic poems of yesteryear over the urbanised sprawl. Cities have been occupied by prose stylists, let the poets labour in the golden fields of memory.

Quincy R. Lehr’s poems situate themselves directly within the city landscape. There are repeated themes of urban alienation, the suddenness of violence, the isolation of people trapped together in close spaces, with the poet just another anonymous face in the multitude. Why there is No Socialism in the United States of America neatly encapsulates the malaise that sets in on a late night on the town, with fellow commuters eyeing each other suspiciously, constantly aware of the threat posed by ‘strangers’. In New York everyone’s a stranger –

Each one of us was tired, pissed-off, and bored,

Angry at the hour and with those pricks –

That fat-assed bitch, who muttered at a cell phone,

That rat-faced airline worker at the front,

That punk-ass hoodlum, glaring at his feet,

That stuck-up twat, that sad-eyed brown-haired schmuck

Gawking at New York’s predawn, backlit blackness.

The anger that comes with this anonymity is coupled with Lehr’s own frustrations with adult life, the precarious negotiations of romance and the expectation of matrimony, as well as coming face to face with the vision of his father’s self sapped by cancer. The ugly inevitability of death throws the idealism of youth into question; all the poet’s adolescent dreams and plans seemed to have fluttered away like dry leaves caught in a gust of wind. Sex and life seem like traps, chipping away at anything individual, or distinct about the person who dreamed once about what waits in the future.

Lines For My Father addresses this disillusionment with the promises of a better life that come with youth, promises that in their heedless enthusiasm can set the older generation and its offspring at each other’s throats. When younger the poet expressed contempt for the “Ambitions of an ordinary size” of his parent, but concludes that he and his peers are even worse off, “we’re no happier than you, and can’t quite seem to sit for tests that you had failed”.

Drink and eager lust are engines for youthful action and reflecting back on them can cause embarrassment, yet those were the times the poet felt most alive, when he was “A bookworm almost trying to be mean”. In rejecting the symbols of the past, the young fail to learn how to live in the present, instead relying on pretension, shows of quick wit, or aggression.

The lonely city lives captured by Lehr, with the spirited arguments of drunks whose voices are already cracked by tobacco inhalation and broken relationships that fade in the memory (where therapy fails, a friend’s invite to watch Dario Argento giallo flicks succeeds!) display a certain kind of beauty, reminiscent of Beaudelaire’s inverted elegy to his city in Le Spleen de Paris. There’s a honesty to the ugliness on display that makes the imagery delicate and precious. Recommended.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for the review copy.

This book we proudly delicate, to Aussies overseas,

You’re trying to make a safer world, for all our families

Last Saturday I read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, which featured an astonishing vision of a Hades dedicated to Australian Diggers who lost their lives during World War One. This book features a collection of poems, stories and memories of home, intended to lift the spirit of Australian service personnel working overseas.

That said my favourite story in the collection is Melanie Harris’ Loon Kitten Stories, which has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan, but does feature a determined kitten named Sarge. This simple tale of the author and her flatmates attempting to break in a fiendishly intelligent feline manages to raise a smile and remind the reader that sometimes the simplest things in life can lift the spirit. A year in the life of one frustrated cat owner becomes an epic story of human versus ball of fur and claws. It is a sweetly endearing comic tale.

Swede by Sergeant Grant Teeboon also is concerned with the furry kind, a police dog in this instance, who takes a distinct dislike to Margaret Thatcher. Then Allan Goode’s Mateship defines that most quintessential of Australian qualities by comparing it to the relationship between two puppies.

For the most part though the book features poems and stories from service personnel telling of difficult experiences in distant lands; with families and loved ones waiting for them at home. It is also a book about Australia and Australian pride, about why the Diggers are so well regarded.

Broken into a series of different sections, some dedicated to humour, even romance, the book reminds us that these are men and women who have left so much behind. It also serves to remind them what is waiting for them when they return. Not everyone agrees on the case for war and certain pieces express the anger of those fighting for a cause they are not convinced is a worthy one. Nevertheless once committed the Diggers will not refuse to serve.

In addition to the intimate thoughts expressed in verse and prose, Postcards from Home also features art and photography dedicated to the sights of Australia. Carlo Travato’s illustrations feature throughout the book, but his drawings of quotidian objects are startlingly detailed. There are also photos of some ordinary things, such as a mother possum with its child. Some contrast the familiar sight of Sydney bay with a certain animal in shot. Another comical image has a rather confused Santa Claus stuck halfway up a post.

A sudden change of tone is offered by Kris Farrant, a Canberra based musician who submitted a series of poems taking their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. At first I was surprised, after all I am very familiar with the line That is not dead which can eternally lie, but I have always considered that New England writer to be something of a cult concern. However, it just goes to show how home itself is a collection of memories and things that are not fixed in the soil of Australia. R.A. Dee’s Charmers is a humourous, yet quirkily romantic tale, without a single squamous in sight (and thank Cthulu for that, a Lovecraft romance is not something I would like to read). Both writers offer contrasting views on life at home….alright not so much with the Cthulu, but you can read Lovecraft at home! They might discourage that in the armed services.

This is a book dedicated to a good cause and is quite a heartfelt at that. Many thanks to Odyssey Books for the review copy.

It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.

The magical book is a recurring trope in fantasy and horror fiction. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story are two sides of the same coin, both describing a powerful tome that can contain whole worlds (the one a gateway to madness, the other escape from the cruelties of the ‘real world’). It is possible that this symbol of a book that is far more than a book is a reaction to the cultural perception of the Christian Bible, which is said to contain the word of God Himself – and is therefore far more than just a book. In recent years the trope has become almost a cliché. Everything from The Care Bears Movie to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (and even Nicholas Gurewitch’s wicked Perry Bible Fellowship) have riffed on the notion of an ageless book that has magical properties. Before any of these, however, there was Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

The titular book is never fully described, yet carries a dire reputation. Chambers features it within several stories in this collection, with the fateful encounter between a protagonist and The King in Yellow acting as a catalyst for the onset of madness. The title refers to a malevolent god, described as wearing a ‘Pallid Mask’ whose realm borders our own. The publication of the book is seen as an initial sortie, a sign of an inevitable assault on our world itself.

As an ex-patriate American art student in Paris, Chambers became enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle of his fellow students. The protagonists of his stories are therefore also often artists and Americans, speaking French with a degree of fluency afforded to the well-educated upper class, but also vulnerable to flights of fancy that lead to the disintegration of reason.

Interestingly the first story of the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, is set in a projected future 1920’s New York. America has instituted tighter immigration controls, Europe is under the sway of Russia and legalised Lethal Chambers have been opened (is one of Sarah Palin’s advisors a Robert Chambers fan?). The protagonist Castaigne is a young man who after suffering a fall from a horse was committed to an asylum, mistakenly he believes. There, fittingly, he encounters a copy of The King in Yellow. Following his release he encounters a fellow devotee, Mr Wilde, who explains how his own future and that of the American nation itself, is bound to the vision of the book.

With each following story Chambers quotes from the opening chapter of The King in Yellow, revealing little of its content beyond names and places described featured out of context. The seeming innocuousness of such references – Carcosa, the Lake of Hali, the Pallid Mask, Hastur – disguises the true danger of reading the book, after which madness, and oftentimes death, is the inevitable result.

The Mask and The Yellow Sign both feature Americans abroad in Europe, enjoying the pursuit of artistic ideals. However, the stories end very differently, with the former’s protagonists enduring much suffering, but eventually discovering a curious kind of happiness. The latter, however, is a ghoulish tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Unlike in Lovecraft’s fiction, with its indiscriminate Outer Gods crushing the sanity of unwary explorers, Chambers seems to be suggesting that the King in Yellow subjugates with his dreadful yoke only those who deserve to be damned. Retreating to holy ground, such as a church, or hiding indoors provides no sanctuary from his touch.

The remaining stories are divided between more traditional ghost stories such as The Demoiselle d’Ys and romances, as well as a story of a besieged Paris in a future Franco-Prussian conflict. Chambers consistently writes with a beautifully descriptive manner, typical of his training as an artist.

A milestone in American horror fiction.

Join me at The Momus Report

Vote For Me!

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share