Monday, 14 September 2020

Their trajectory was just large, part 2

Their trajectory was just large, part 2

In a previous blog, I discussed the fact that Salt had published about 90 debut books by British poets, between roughly 2003 and 2013, and that I didn’t even recognize the names of most of them. An unexplored realm. The subject is, sadly, my ignorance (and the vast extent of excellent new poetry) rather than the five poets I trawled up from a deep sea.
There is the question of whether Salt went down-market with their “novices” after pursuing a line of literary excellence in their first few years, albeit picking up poets in mid-career to do that. I selected five names at random out of 90 who made a debut with Salt in those years. They were Tapner, Rees, Hasler, Woodford, and Challenger.

Emily Hasler, Natural Histories (2011)
The announcement for Hasler’s 2018 book said “Emily Hasler's debut collection The Built Environment, published this month by Pavilion Poetry.” So at this point she was setting aside the pamphlet she did with Salt, as not being a real debut. OK. You can make a debut many times. If I say that X was making a debut, it may not actually be the very first debut they had made.
This isn’t a very good pamphlet. It’s striking that all the poems are on one theme (birds), but the delivery is superficial, if well-mannered.

Anna Woodford, Birdhouse

Birdhouse was Woodford’s first book, following pamphlets Party Piece (2009) Trailer (2007, Five Leaves) and The higgins’ Honeymoon (2001). I mention Five Leaves because it is the local radical bookshop here in Nottingham. Named after Nick Drake’s song Five Leaves Left, I think. A book Changing Room followed in 2018. I have misplaced my copy of ‘Birdhouse’ so this will have to remain pending.

Eleanor Rees, Andraste's Hair (2007)
This is fairly simple to describe, although a thematic description is difficult. The poems are long and drifting and come purely out of a mood. The tone is one of excitement, lyric suggestibility, anxiety, ideals soaring up and being threatened by reality. It is moving at a deep level and overcomes resistance. It reminds me of Keith Jafrate (cited in the foreword) and T Glynne Davies. Sorry – Rees is somehow Welsh but I don't think she is Welsh-speaking. The scene is Liverpool and the place is seen as a site of floods of aspiration and despair, alternately or simultaneously. I suppose a lot of the energy comes from the fact that the poems are not about the past, or familiar works of art, or an argument. They create their own space and sound. Here is a poem called ‘Night River’:

East to west, west to east,
wetness crawls

the promenade wall.
Oil and chemical, salt and tar:

the night is in my throat.

I consume distances
at the edge of the river,

three a.m., solitary
held only by the rain and the sky.

The wind’s touch is courageous.

The stars are stags,
antlers pointed at each new shore

sailors discover
far from here, in some sunny waters

I open to it like a mouth

and sense her shining
full height on the horizon,

as if the horizon is a ledge
she balances upon,

and hovering I rush to her,
her starriness, her electric pulses
that beckon, she widens:

I immerse myself in her thighs.
Her whiteness, her size.

I am her: the sea is a boat.
We ride until the dawn.

I don't know why it took me 13 years to discover this, although the scene is so blocked up that nothing is really surprising. Anyway, this is a real find, one for the special bookcase. Salt did really well to find this. I don't think you would classify it as ‘alternative’, but most English poets don’t write about emotions so this does belong in a realm of the unconventional and anti-academic.
Not really sure who Andraste is. Aha – Google says that when fleeing Boudicca invoked a Celtic war goddess named Andraste. Boudicca undoubtedly spoke a rather old form of Welsh, so this is part of being called Rees I suppose. Source is Dio Cassius. The poem ‘Andraste’s hair’ is another extended mythical poem with realist elements, the characters like humans but not really human.
Although subjectivity apparently belongs to all of us, in poetry it is also apparent that some people can’t do it. Rees has a sort of perfect pitch for writing subjectively. That might be felt as simplicity or simply as being talented. Not everyone can write subjectively. But, if you can’t write subjective poems, aren’t you in the wrong business?
In Welsh, wen is feminine and wyn is masculine. So if you say "Olwyn's Valley" (p.29), Olwyn means'wheel'. Olwen is a girl's name. Great poem, mind.

Melanie Challenger, Galatea. (2006)
I concede that I did actually know her name (although I had forgotten it). Challenger was in Identity Parade and was one of the best poets in that anthology. Galatea was the lady who was originally a statue carved by Pygmalion, the one that came to life. The style is literary and over-educated, lost in the worlds of antique texts. The question is whether this represents freedom, the freeing of language from irrelevant bonds, or a kind of idleness. The poems exclude an “I” figure, in a certain sense; they are constructed around a bizarre optical set-up, a studio arrangement which does not leave room for a personality as well. They are as if written on objects of a very particular shape, say a wrought-iron figure of eight, with everything eliminated except what clings to that curved surface. I am thinking of baroque paintings, especially baroque ceiling paintings, where everything is depicted from a precipitous, dramatic, and distorting angle. They are not literally like paintings, of course. But take this poem. A note on it says “In 1901, an experiment was conducted by Raymond Dodge and Thomas Cline to plot the motion of a person's gaze by attaching the flake of a mirror to a cornea”, and part of the poem (the poem ‘Galatea’ indeed) runs:

In the glory of limitless reflection, he gazes
Through a fraction of her caste
At the hilt of his beating mind; there it lies
In the dark like a trap in the heart-
Wood, reconstituting by memory the cold regent of the sky
To a Hall of Mirrors where, by a single shard
His image builds itself infinitely
To the insatiate small shards of him, cut by a vanity
That is itself and reins itself with pitiless patience.


So, sight itself is made visible – as beams that can be tracked on something (a sheet of paper). (Perhaps light-sensitive paper?) The words are caught in figures as the light is caught by the traps of the experimenter. Like baroque paintings, the poems describe extreme experiences. “cold regent of the night” must be the moon, so the light criss-crossing the mirrors is moonlight, and “vanity” is not a realistic description but an image to describe the moon’s casting of multiple reflections. (Is there a link between Versailles, where that Hall of Mirrors is found, and reconstitute reflecting constitution, the thing which the French absolute monarchy did not grant? Unclear. In such a monarchy the government does not reflect popular wishes.) Another part of this poem runs:

He was a god disbelieving his own ability
To be extinguished; anointed by the wounds
Of her kisses, he said I cannot die,
Blood from his mouth like briar-roses
Each with their own tiny voice,
He tried to silence them but the roses
Found their tongues, oh Kay, they said,
We have been in the earth where
The dead are.


Now the corpse of light converses from its graveyard
Of unmade bedclothes, culvert, clenched fist,
Teasing the mirage of daylight from the menisci
Of snowflakes – as if the looking-glass of the sky
Ruins itself to bathe us in a thousand fragments
Of the world-soul.

So the poem as a whole may be about a narcissistic lover, and this motivates the mirror imagery. There does not seem to be any great reason for these poems. They are temporary decors, even if large-scale and dramatic in context. They seem to be moving on stilts. So if light pouring from the sky breaks up as it falls, calling it a graveyard is disproportionate. Light does not really die or evoke mourning. This is actually a trick of the light. The paradox of having light die and be buried is dazzling but evokes no feelings and is of momentary validity. There is such a thing as desensitisation through weirdness. A strange angle of visibility reduces identification, or the feeling of reality. The poet is missing from the poems, but perhaps the idea is like saints’ lives, as shown in paintings: the events shown transcend the possibilities of a body, or a mental faculty, and are recorded solely for that reason. As miracles, they are available for anyone. They are impersonal in the same way as superhuman.
Anointing (as coronation?), wounds, kisses: these images hardly belong together in a real experience. The sentence is over the top. But it fits in with opera or Baroque or mannerist painting (or some poetry of the same era). These are big-scale forms of art, they lasted for centuries, many people like them (even if they don’t suit the most contemporary taste). I like them, actually. But the literature about Mannerism includes people saying how unnatural it is, how it is hyperbolic and bored by its subject material.

I have been thinking about originality. It is fair to say that these poems are unlike anything around them. That is almost unheard-of for the present crowded scene, and for a first book. All the comparisons I have proposed to myself are not credible as similar objects, or, especially, as ways of describing her poems in words. Richard Crashaw, maybe.
The great majority of her contemporaries have the rigid idea of writing in everyday language about everyday, personally relevant, events. That vote does not make the idea good or interesting. Challenger is following the opposite route – the one which leads to undiscovered territory.
An epigraph goes “We felt /a stone heart quicken, a deep fault made whole’, and this is presumably the moment of animation which made Galatea come alive, for the title.
I am worried about the word “caste” in the quote, it would make much more sense if it was “cast”, as in cast a reflection or a shadow. “a fraction of her cast”, from a flake of mirror, sounds like the set-up. I am not sure snowflakes have menisci. Meniskos means ‘little moon’ in Greek, so by transference a crescent shape. A meniscus is the surface of water in a tube, slightly curved, a crecsent shape. I don’t think this fits snowflakes.

addendum. A correspondent (anonymous of Hove) writes " ...as yes she is that bit different to anyone else in that fold and I did wonder at 'caste', thought it striking but having connotations she might not have meant.

Her very engagement with things like Galatea is refreshing, like someone drinking mango juice out of a Roman head. But better because there's an odd compulsion to use the classical language that tends not to use human engagement, narrative or indeed experimental form, yet of course enlarges the frame. Nothing like a few clasical statues to invoke some desert world of antiquity, brushed with myth, history and the rush of centuries past it.

I wonder if Challenger is simply trying to hype up 'cast' and not thinking it through. She seems too verbally aware for that. But her curious mix of baroquerie - and it is that, set in a de Chirico landscape - is as you say also liminal.

It's at the edge of human sympathy and seems a world constructed out of a ranging mechanicus of words, without personal pressure or a narrative drive discovering something of itself. It is in a word artificial, its construction I'd say isn't so much factitious as forced - from something genuine that's on steroids.

Do we go back to Hopkins' use of Parnassian poetry, a kind fo work that isn't poetry yet can only be written by true poets? Might be true of Challenger."

Victor Tapner, Flatlands (2010)
I have to admit that I know Tapner’s name, as I published a poem of his in Angel Exhaust 10 in 1994. I would guess he was born in the 1940s, anyway he is of an older generation than most of Salt’s debut poets. (Is it true to say “I” did this when the magazine was co-edited? I think that at the time I was the only one who was willing to devote time to reading submissions ‘off the mat’ so it is fair to say that I selected Tapner’s poem. Which was very good, actually.) I have a feeling that I didn’t like Tapner’s other typescript poems so much, but 25 years later my memory may be totally at fault. Tapner's website says that when he started on Flatlands he

“had little idea that I was embarking on a poetry project that would take the best part of seven years – more if you count late stragglers.
A cycle of poems in three ‘movements’ set in prehistoric East Anglia, Flatlands was published in September 2010, but, like the region’s terrain, its way was often marshy and fogbound. I’d been interested in the pre-Roman era long before the collection was conceived, and the first poems were really random pieces in search of a voice and style. It was when I started to visit sites such as Norfolk’s Grime’s Graves and the Flag Fen excavations in Cambridgeshire on a vague quest to find cohesion for those initial efforts that the idea of a structured sequence began to gel.
It was with such people in mind – early farmers, tribal warriors, villagers in their smoke-filled roundhouses - that the cycle started to find its narrative rhythm, and the idea developed of a stripped language that could speak for a time when there were no written records. [...] I had two main intentions: first, to try to dramatise the lives of these remote ancestors and, second, that the poems, in large part, could be read as metaphors of our own emotional existence.”
He describes his poem ‘Thames Idol’, as “essentially the poem that sets the overall metaphorical theme”. It refers to an object known as the Dagenham Idol, a battered pinewood figure that has been radiocarbon dated to around 2,500 BCE.

“Flag Fen, which spawned a small grouping of poems in the middle of the collection, is an impressive archaeological site with reconstructed roundhouses. At first glance the excavations are a mish-mash of sodden bits of wood being teased out of the mud. However, the timbers have revealed a hugely ambitious structure - a kilometre-long defended causeway built during the Bronze Age when farmers sought to protect their pastures from neighbouring groups as rising waters encroached on the land. [...]

Other poems witness a widow’s grief beside the funeral pyre of Iron Age king Addedomaros, whose burial site may have been the Lexden Tumulus in Essex; villagers of the Iceni tribe from the Norfolk/Suffolk region as they face a cruel winter; captured tribespeople on their way to be sold on the continental mainland as slaves.

The setting of the final poem, ‘Blackwater’, is an Essex estuary where the voices of the cycle, which at the start are embodied in the literally earthbound flint miners, now dissolve ‘out of sound’ into the sea and sky.”

This sounds like a great idea, but one which quite a few other people have thought was a good idea. The flat bit is because he is living in and writing about, an alluvial plain – the basin of the Great Ouse, roughly. The sites are in Essex, Bedfordshire, and what used to be Huntingdonshire (outside Peterborough). I am obliged, by the conventions, to point out that archaeology in the last 50 years has been interested by thinking about the gaps in the evidence and how we can possibly form a view on people in the deep past whose voices have been effectively lost and whose cognitive schemes and social lives were radically different from ours. It is fair to point out that Tapner has no interest in this – it would get in the way of what he is doing, in fact. He has a costume drama in mind, with a lot about landscapes rather than just human scenes. Empathy tends to cover up the gaps and reduce the invincible alienness of the past. I have mixed feelings about this – I find it quite reasonable to re-create scenes from the past using imagination and empathy, and also I think that is how everyone gets into archaeology in the first place. I admire poetry about ideas in archaeology, for example the poems within The White Stones which deal with deep time. When Prynne writes about (this in the related prose, not a poem, directly) the Mesolithic as having lasted for thousands of years longer than more recent phases, and as having been fundamentally nomadic, migratory, this is compelling. He was attacking the idea of continuity and settlement, and so the English mythology of The Imagined Village. This is good for your brain – when I read in one of Francis Pryor’s books (there are too many) about the recent discovery of Mesolithic huts, thus proving some kind of settlement, perhaps only for half the year, I had to re-think an aspect of Prynne’s version of nomadism. Tapner is not writing a poetry of ideas and this is an old-fashioned view of archaeology.

The stripped-down style belongs to the present day – the age of Hughes and Heaney. It is close to the objects which have survived from the past. It is not reasonable to suppose that Neolithic peasants spoke in a verbal style resembling “tough nature poetry” of the 1960s. So check this out, ‘Arrow Maker’:

I straighten hot hazel
scrape the nubs

fix white feathers
from a goose’s wing

with wax and sap
I bed the tang

nettle string binds
the slotted head

I run my finger
from tip to quill

sealed in the shaft
the cry of the kill

This bears out what Tapner says about bareness. But, it’s so evocative. The minimal verbal fabric opens onto a much larger reality, one of the imagination. The poems are like objects released by the earth's mouth after 3000 years, they are worn but authentic. The volume works like one poem – amazing generosity, wiping out any problems from flatness and bareness. (I believe the reference is to “steamed hazel”, you can straighten a shaft of hazel when it is hot.) The nubs of wood would slow the shaft down, in flight. The shaft screams like the animal it is going to penetrate. Tapner’s poetry is inspiring. The style is as he says, sparse – like the relics which he is looking at – but taken in quantity it is very evocative. He is working on a plane of the essential, a kind of darkness where every phrase sears your eyeball.

I have just been looking on-line at the archaeological paintings of Alan Sorrell – who turned dig sites into beautiful panoramas of life in 300 BC or whatever it was. I owe a permanent debt to his ability to turn the imagination into visual form. You can’t reduce archaeology to abstract ideas. (“Sorrell is principally remembered today as an illustrator of articles on archaeology for The Illustrated London News and books ranging from Roman Britain to The Holy Bible, (more than 15 books over a period of 40 years, the last Reconstructing the Past appearing posthumously in 1981) and for reconstruction drawings for the Ministry of Works – later English Heritage.” see alansorrell.com )

The books examined don’t confirm the idea that Salt were “dumbing down”. On the contrary, they leave me with the upsetting feeling that I should read all the 90 Salt debuts – something incompatible with my economic status but curiously attractive as a project. As an aside, I still feel that Salt should have done an anthology as a showcase for their poets – this would still be interesting. The excellent “Salt younger poets” (2011) is exclusively poets working towards a first volume – so excludes every published Salt poet by its definition! Amazing!
Does reading 5 books get me to the core of what Salt did? Hardly so. In the scene as a whole, the number of significant debuts over a 10-year period was probably several hundred. I can't keep up with all that highly charged activity and I don’t want to claim any expertise in the field.

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