Monday, 28 January 2013


Aidan Andrew Dun. Unholyland. Hesperus Press

The title page says Unholyland: the Rambam. Hidden in the unlikely garb of a paperback with a black and red cover reminiscent of a 1970's socialist group report, this is a whole book in a sequence of modernist sonnets, a love story and a political story of history and music and young people in the Gaza Strip. It is a page-turner of a poem, a sustained narrative that stands up to the best of its kind, which is not a British poem but Eugene Onegin. The difference is that the plot of Unholyland has no unkindness except from the political situation, the ongoing flack of daily warfare.
    Aidan Andrew Dun is known as an extra-establishment (not disestablishment) poet of considerable power. His previous long poem Vale Royal, published some fifteen years ago, has been gaining credence and followers ever since. That poem, in trenchant but enigmatic tercets covering London and its poets, Keats, Blake, Chatterton etc, published with an attached CD in the early days of CDs in books, gave him enough reputation as poet and performer for us to hope for great things of him. There have been some intermediate books, and now this one, Unholyland.
    The poetry deals with a gripping story. Despite its small print and its 156 pages (twelve equal chapters of twenty-two sonnets each) I read it in a day, though with a poem like this, you have never finished when you have read it once. The background matter is highly difficult, with its exposition of Jewish history and its criticism of the manner in which Palestinian land was taken, the legacy of the revenge against nazism. There's a delicate balance for young people in these countries, where Tel Aviv has a youth culture of Palestinian Hiphop music and rap. After a quiet introduction explaining that his own grandmother ran a ballet company which she would not take to Israel, and treating us to the moral tale of a monk who resolved a dispute between a wedding party and a funeral procession on a bridge, Dun wades into this difficult setting with a poetic narrative of calm persuasiveness.
    His young hero Moss or Moshe who disguises himself to attend a legendary hiphop session in Palestine, and his friendships on the other side, with the inevitable attraction to the young woman performer, form the crux of the story, as the young friends drive about in cars to rendezvous, and attend an extraordinary youth music rave in an an unidentified but rather paradisical, Arabian-style underground location. The scene's very realistic, very druggy. The dangers are real.
    This unlikely scenario is carried off by utter confidence. Vale Royal for all its flamboyant achievement was a teeny bit showy. In Unholyland, everything that needs saying – and a lot needs saying – is said simply and with confidence.
    The sonnets connect a strict rhyme pattern which I believe is Pushkinian, with variable speech rhythms in often narrow lines, bringing many rhymes very close together and displaying an exceptional rhyming facility. Rhyming is something our poets rarely practice, something held to be suitable for comic or children's poems. Not since Byron have we had a really pro display. We have one here. With well over two hundred sonnets to choose from I can give you only fleeting examples. In one sonnet at random we have ebony and ribbony, outstretched and sandwiched, car and rapstar, and poison and passion. In another, porcelain and mane, crash-landing and outstanding, welcome and foursome, immense and quintessence. It's constant – and as simple as needed whenever. It is the flexible, simple language, in which the speaker is forever looking forward, that does it.
    Additionally it is very, very rare to have good rhyme with variable speech rhythms, rhythms that are almost free verse. Jon Silkin was doing some work on free verse and metrical verse: he'd have been interested in Unholyland.
    As opposed to the difficulties of the subject, the narrative is handled directly, with a wealth of detail enmeshed with the background, cultural references, and at times skyhigh fun, until the young, Beatrice-like girl figure meets the hero by pulling him from a burning car. She is a singer at the huge event. Each of them presents a rap, embedded in the poem, and at the end their romantic communion is interrupted by violent, bloody warfare from the skies.
    Unholyland is a highly satisfactory read, perhaps more so to people who read a lot of poetry and can pick up the parallels and intentions in the art of the longer poem. But it is also coherent in itself and does not assume additional knowledge either of history or poetry. The Introduction is well worth reading but will be skipped by many: the Notes at the end are dispensable but provide additional information on the music, Goa, the Rastafarians, and the various political and religious histories.
    The poem abounds in lines memorable in themselves. Balancing the felicitous narrative ease comes a sense that the poem was difficult to write but has been written successfully against the odds.
Politically the poem is interesting because it also seems to give hope to a hopeless political situation, by its very expression of that hopelessness, its questioning of it, and by its insistence on facing up to history. And if this is poetry that might make anything happen, this is not because it isn't pure poetry, in the sense that it is poetry that makes its own reality so that the world it is made from is actually less real than the world of the poem.
    Dun's seems to be the only new poetry from Hesperus Press, which publishes translations and reissues of standard poets such as Chaucer, Pushkin and Emily Bronte.

Publisher and poet

Sheila Wakefield. Limerance. Consett, Co. Durham: Talking Pen.

It's no secret that Sheila Wakefield worked in the motor trade before taking an M.A. in Creative Writing at Northumberland University. Her teachers might well have been aware she would write poems that worked – no unexplained rattlings, no missing screws – but could they have guessed that one day she might turn her pen on them? She does so in They

 … they want us to find our voice,
      but then try to silence it....

      they take our fees, our naivety,
      sensitivity, plagiarise our work...

      have they forgotten so quickly
      when they were just like us?

Yet there is absolutely no sense of hostility here. Sheila's work, like herself, is always up front. With a simple contemporary style and a strong eye, she slams home her points whatever her subject. Next Door begins with what sounds like a grumble about neighbours:

      next door she shouts a lot...
      next door the cockerels crow
      every three minutes...

but swiftly moves to environmental problems:

      next door mammoth machines create

      next door the opencast intrudes,

This is a book by an incisive, practical poet of the free verse school. Not a rhyme in sight. This is the poet who learned much from James Kirkup (who also originated in North-East England), and the poet who has published dozens of other poets in both North-East England and Scotland with her Red Squirrel press.
The poems are direct and outspoken, and sometimes not so much cynical as unillusioned. The poet links to the community in Twelve things I don't want to hear, After Connie Bensley
(...You would like me to 'just look' at a new car...) and 38 poems I never wrote After Linda France.
As well as the title poem, also a love poem, there are a couple of forthright poems about sexual encounters, in both of which a car features, one more incidentally than the other, and yet another poem that can only be described as a love poem to a BMW. Or there again...

       His cool silver metal
       cradles a heart of pure platinum, a chassis of steel...

       a hint of bravado,
       nestling in his catalytic converter.

    It is actually quite unusual for today's women poets to write about their relationships with men.
    Physically this is a neat, cheerfully unassuming pamphlet: red cover, cream paper, not cramped, and decorated with vaguely blown-up woodcuts. Published by Talking Pen rather than Sheila Wakefield's own press, Limerance is entirely readable, satisfying, deserved and dignified.

Friends and Translations

Arne Rautenberg. Snapdragon. Translated from the German by Ken Cockburn.
Lincoln: Caseroom
Gordon Jarvie. La Baudunais et autre poemes de Bretangne. Traduit de l'anglais (Ecosse)
par Jean-Yves Le Disez. Brest: Editions les Hauts-Fonds

There are advantages in parallel text translations. Firstly, you know the work hasn't been translated from the Penguin. Secondly, the reader can compare the texts. A drawback is that you only get half a book. So quite a small collection or sequence can be presented in the two languages between the covers of a full book.
Arne Rautenberg and Ken Cockburn's Snapdragon is one of the prettiest small books I have seen for a while. Cover designer Jantze Tullett has come up with a repeat and border pattern with related endpapers that truly welcome you into the book. It's the work of two poets who have an affinity of writing style. Sensitive, playful or serious, in Scotland you would say there was an Edwin Morgan influence.
the bird-clock sunrise 0.4.30 is a good example (Routenberg eschews caps) with a list of exact timings of different birdsong and whimsical comments as though by the birds, reminiscent of Richard Price's piece on birds – another poet who uses similar styles to these. More serious and to the reader more interesting is the series of double sonnets describing the author's memories connected with World War II. It is difficult not to wonder what Germans make of their nazi history. In these poems the memories have become fragmentary and general. They dare to be nastier in places:

       playing football with / skulls

       Everything fucked. Then; /A spruced-up, spring-cleaned city.

       textbooks are burning

There are wordlist poems and some one-words poems (with integral titles) which may not be very suitable for translating. twelve stitches consists of German compound words which cannot be one-worders in English even with hyphens, but they do show the German poet's stylistic interests.
There are also quite a number of exactly page length poems, of six or seven three line stanzas rather sparse in line length. If I expected to find something sickening in the war haiku and didn't, I found it here in a revolting story of a workman who set fire to rabbits. The rest of this series of poems also deal with tough characters in life. There is Deathwish Driver

     if you are in luck I drive by

and Stockman, who gets used to his awful smell.

    You manage because your own body
    simply absorbs the smell

ah! these people live in different flats, they are subtitled attic floor right, third floor right, etc. along with the garrulous idiot widow and the working girl.
My advice to this poet is, move house.
This is not a translation of a particular book by Rautenburg but a selection by the translator. Snapdragon is the translator's title.

The difference between Snapdragon and La Baudunais is that in the latter the original poems are in English, or, as the title page puts it, Scottish English. The parallel read is therefore different. The French verses are the translation.
It is interesting to see the phrase “not waving but drowning” make its way into the French. Of the eleven poems spanning twelve years of visits to the same area, the farewell poem including this quotation is easily the shortest. Of the rest, most are mid length, though one is divided into sections with dates – much like a diary (the first poem, In Brittany), and one is substantially longer (The day we saw the conger). The poems build up to a good understanding of the host countryside, and there is one poem, Lottery Winner? that is very appealing on the rejection of too many riches, linking into an old Breton prayer to connect the poem with the area. It is probably my favourite:

...I can't sleep in more than one bed
   or sit in more than one chair
   at a time...

  I remember the old Breton prayer...

...and day by day, a bowl of cider
   and a warm galette. Amen,
   amen to all of that.

The poems are a homage to the area. Even Belle, a neighbour's dog who sits alone 'like Greyfriars Bobby' desperate for a greeting from passers by, is part of the village, and the conger belongs to the waters of Brittany. The last poem, Night Flight, is wider in geographical scope as they fly north from Spain into France, but from the plane the poet is looking out for Brittany and Normandy. There's a real sense of home.
It is good that people who live there can read these poems in French, thanks to Le Disez' lively and pleasing translations, and a publisher in Brittany who has done poets and poems justice in an excellently produced book. The French translations have been given the right hand pages and strangely they are in a seriffed typeface while the Scottish poems are done in sans serif which makes them look a little plainer and the French slightly more decorative. But that doesn't matter.
Both these books are the result of a productive relationship between poet friends who are able to meet fairly easily across the linguistic borders.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Sci Fi Poetry Liftoff

Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary science fiction poems from the UK. ed. Russell Jones. Penned in the Margins £9.99.

A substantial trade paperback of 208 pages making a strong bid to take poetry out to the bigger Science Fiction audience. Unusually, both the Preface and Essay are well worth reading. Russell Jones' introduction is properly more practical and about the intention of the book.
In the preface, Alasdair Gray defines both the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost as science fiction – an original point indeed – and says we base today's science fiction on today's scientific view of the world.
Steve Sneyd, the doyen of Sic Fi poetry when it was a smaller clique comprising himself, Edwin Morgan and friends, is an inspired choice for the longish introductory essay, Wormholing into Elsewhere. Sneyd really knows his stuff. He has been more accustomed to the small press, sometimes the very small press, as he churned out leaflets and booklets published from his home in Huddersfield, in a manner reminiscent of Sheena Blackhall's activity in Aberdeen. Over the decades it is a sure way of becoming known. Sneyd has read everything relevant and pulls great fish out of the water. “Our new mythology is science fiction,” he quotes from Henigan. He considers the changing boundaries of Science Fiction, places it has already been, unbeknownst to ordinary poets, places it might end up.
With titling by Edwin Morgan running through the book, Morgan and Sneyd lead a wide range of contributors, all poets to professional standards, with a high proportion of previously published poems, but in books or journals that would probably not reach the SF readership.
The proportion of women contributors to men is smaller than one usually sees in current anthologies, though Pippa Goldschmidt, Kona Macphee, Claire Askew and others hold their own. Another noticeable feature is the strong Scottish contingent, which must reflect an editorial ear to the northern ground. There are even some nice pieces in Scots (Dr Wha and Intae the Ooter) from widely known novelist James Robertson, welcome because Scots is rarely seen in publications aimed at the whole UK.
Some of the poems are substantial and very well researched – correct detail being essential – e.g. the collaborative sequence Lost Worlds by Jane McKie, Andrew C Ferguson and Andrew J Wilson.
An important strand in such a book is poems which link SF imagination and astronomical research with more immediate human concerns or world political problems. Pippa Goldschmidt's From the Unofficial History of the European Southern Observatory in Chile does this very well.
Steve Sneyd's special personal language in his poems is worth clocking if you have not come across it before (perhaps you should have done). We have been happy to print poems from him in Poetry Scotland several times.
There are very many witty poems here, e.g. Kirston Irving's Supper – where
a boat of lush green paper on the plate
transposes to
aboard: a flash of green peppering the palate
and so on.
There is also good lyrical poetry, but wit rides stronger in the collection as a whole.
This book should be appreciated by any SF reader whether previously familiar with poetry or not (meaning usually not). Like Red Squirrel's successful Split Screen it reaches out to further audiences. An achievement and a milestone. We hope to see it prove poetry books can sell.

Eyewear Grows Up

Dangerous Cake. Elspeth Smith
Eighteen poems. Simon Jarvis.
both Eyewear Publishing, London, 2012.

Hardbacks with strong coloured covers, very nicely bound, good sized, and quite a lot of poetry in them, £12.99 each, these come a little above the usual cost of new contemporary poetry. They are very welcome both from a production point of view and by their widening of the London poetry perspective. Most of the poems are previously published, mainly in Canadian, American and North West England journals, which helps a new publisher by backing up his choices.
Simon Jarvis' book carries longer, chunkier poems such as are not always favoured by book publishers, so is far more substantial than the title Eighteen Poems suggests. Two of the poems indeed reach twelve pages without by any means dripping down the middle of the page. They're not narrative either, but reflective or philosophical, enjoying and filling their space with a width of imagination and memory. Another substantial poem, Persephone, is an essay in rhythm and meter and mostly in dactyls – it's catching.
Elspeth Smith's poems in Dangerous Cakes are generally much shorter. And what does the title mean? There are a number of domestic subjects, with titles like Parties, Tea – ah yes it is the final line in Sweet Things. The art of the ordinary, perhaps.
Elspeth Smith lives in Huddersfield, while Simon Jarvis is now a professor of Poetry at Cambridge. I have one whimsical question. Does this publisher oblige his authors to be photographed in specs? These two seem to be wearing identical pairs.
Encouraging and adventurous publishing by Todd Swift of the Eyewear website. More in the pipeline, I've heard.

How Renga Happen

How Ripples Happen. Larry Butler and Ratnadevi. Playspace Publications, 14 Garrioch Drive, Glasgow G20 8RS, £5

These nijuuin and ather renga are beautifully written and very well presented in a simple booklet, all of landscape/place in the west of Scotland. They make you want to visit Cuil in Ardnamurchan, Auchinrowan on Arran, and Culzean Castle, Ayr, far more effectively than the tourists board can manage. But they also bring the visits to you.

My favourite is the shorter iisute renga, back to back, made at Culzean Castle, a most extraordinary place on a cliff above sea, with a spacious semi-formal garden behind.

Even the difficulty of access is part of the picture:

absorbed writing this
we miss the last bus – too dark
now to walk the road

resting back to back we wait
for a friend to take us home.

The other two renga are equally fine, both winter stops over Christmas to New Year in successive years, quiet reflective times away from the crowds. more of the same (at Cuil), and how ripples happen (at Auchinrowan). Despite their similar wintry dates, in consecutive years, they are clearly distinguished experiences one from the other.

A mini renga, On the Way to Manchester, on the Pennine Express, is placed between these two winter poems, and noticeably engages more with the world:

no Foot and Mouth here –
war with Afghanistan on the front page,
we move to a warmer compartment.

Designed with a pleasing colour illustration by Ratnavdevi including winter pine trees and Buddhas, this makes a very acceptable souvenir of any of the locations, or a small present.