Sunday, 26 May 2013

Poet to Poet: New York, South Wales

The Holy Place, by John Dotson and Caroline Gill, is published in Wales and New York as part of the Poet to Poet project showcasing 2 poets in a single volume, one American and one from UK. I guess they could equally have done New York and Wales. There are five of these volumes so far. There is no suggestion of the poets actually collaborating, and one has to work hard to suss out the links between these two particular poets.

Caroline Gill's poems form the second half of the book. They are a first collection, apparently all previously published in magazines etc. They are well written in a rhythmic, substantial way, rhyme coming more often than not, the language well handled and the subjects direct. There's a sense of the sea and the outdoor world. It's all like a lovely long outdoor walk.
    I would like to single out the way she uses Scottish vocabulary so effectively in a poem called The Ceilidh Place, which gives a very strong impression of storytelling on Skye. The well known Ceilidh Place is in Ullapool, on the north west coast opposite Skye, but we can listen to the stories anywhere with lines like these:

    the crofter enters his neighbour's parlour,
    rests on the settle while divots smoulder:
    a plaintive skirl fills the room with stories.

Mainly it is the Welsh seaboard that holds central stage, but there are also poems about Norfolk and Cornwall and one set in Rome.
    The final poem, Velvet Shadows in Venice, neatly compares Ruskin's discussion with Canaletto's painting, a twist which makes it something more than a mere ekphrastic poem:

    John Ruskin felt that Venice was a clasp
    of gold to keep the sphere of earth intact:
    but Canaletto made his viewers gasp

Complex but clear, Caroline Gill's writing is never wrongfooted.

    If the title from John Dotson's work, The Holy Place, applies to Caroline's poems it must be in this sense of the love of being outdoors. What do these two poets give to each other? On the face of it, you might well ask if there is any reason not to divide this book in half, which would be a pity as it is a very nice little book.
    The aim appears to be to promote the poets to each other's poetry community, a sort of cultural exchange perhaps. It may be wrong to look for parallels between the two poets, yes one does so automatically, as when two poets are placed together in a poetry reading.
    After all, they share the book title. Caroline's poems are landscape and seascape poems rather than nature poems, and while she says she is a Christian in her author's notes, there is no hint of another world or of secondary meanings in any of her poems.
    The poems here by Dotson are not previously published, which tends to make them a sequence rather than a collection, though the poems are variously dated, the earliest 1993 . The title poem is so minimal I had to check it was not a epigraph. It goes:

    the holy place
    is secret

    because it is
    so close

His other poems are also sparse, in a wholly American idiom. They appear to be about “self”, something that doesn't worry Caroline Gill. Is this yet another take on religion? Dotson thinks that self is holy and he is looking for it in his observations of the world, the stars, the kitchen –

    there are the mixing bowls
    there the saucers

    and pain is only what
    falls through the drainer
    into thin air

    when all of a sudden
    you know what

    you cannot know
    is what
    you cannot
    How do you look

Dotson's longest poem here is Trapezium in which he reflects on Ferlighetti's 'poet like an acrobat' – a well enough known poem but I felt it should have been acknowledged. It's still in those short, dry, spare and sometimes despondent lines:

    and what was the truth
    of that curse was

    there was no curse

So I'm left reading a poet I wouldn't have found just now if I hadn't read Caroline Gill, while Dotson's poetry circle will read Caroline Gill whom they would not very likely have come across either. Perhaps that's the point of it. Perhaps other groupings in the new series work better, such as Nightwatch by Aeronwy Thomas and Maria Mazziotti Gillan. (Poor Aeronwy, she's almost always referred to as Aeronwy-Thomas-Dylan-Thomas'-daughter.)
    Or First and Last Things by JC Evans (no relation) and Annabelle Mosley.
    I'm puzzled. I like both poets' work, especially Caroline's but then she is closer to me, what with our South Wales connections and indeed the same university course, which totally irrelevantly was Classics in Newcastle, in the same building where Bill Herbert now teaches poetry and creative writing. Or is this totally irrelevant? A poet of similar background, the same education, the same gender, as against a guy from New York with a much different history? Maybe we all need to move beyond our comfort zones.

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