Sunday, 27 February 2011

The King's Gift

I have a quick question about the bromance at the heart of The King's Speech.  Why did the King not ever grant Lionel Logue the Knighthood within his power to give?  It is true he made Logue a Commander (CVO) - however, the top two rankings include a knighthood of the order.  Perhaps rewarding a friend in this way would have been unseemly - but given that all the failed speech-doctors were knighted (according to the screenplay itself) the dramatic outcome should have been, surely, such public recognition / redemption.  Nor was Logue as poor as in the film (he lived in a large villa with dozens of rooms).  I also have a few continuity questions, particularly relating to chairs/ thrones in the Cathedral scene - at times there is one, at others two, within a few shots.  Finally, is it at all likely that the King would have really kept, for years, the recording of his voice, that finally, in the film, triggers his return to Logue?  And, if he could read perfectly while listening to loud music - why was this method never employed during the famous broadcasts?  I think Hooper's film is very good, but found it very much a play for voices (the radio play of 2008 is actually more moving), and, while Rush is magnificent, think a lot of it mannered, old-hat and slow-moving.  That being said, Logue's central sympathy, compassion and humour is admirable and I am glad he is receiving posthumous recognition on a wider scale for his good works.  The Social Network should win the Oscar tonight for best film, though - it is the Citizen Kane of our time.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Jay Landesman Has Died

Sad news.  Jay Landesman, writer and publisher, has died.  He is survived by, among others, his wife the poet and songwriter Fran, and his son the writer and film reviewer Cosmo.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: Howl

I saw Howl in Soho (London) tonight - perhaps one of the hippest places to catch such a film.  I went with a friend who is a performance poet, and we felt part of an occasion of sorts - but the response from the audience was muted.  I once read with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in Paris, at Shakespeare & Co., and Ginsberg was due to stay at my apartment in Montreal just before he died in 1997 - so I feel some affinity to these people (I dedicated Poetry Nation to Ginsberg).

Howl was an influence on my writing and way of life when I was growing up, thought not the dominant one - that would have been Harmonium and Life Studies.  Still, it is (pun intended) seminal.  Therefore, I was bound to be either blown away, or let down (puns intended).  I was both, in the eventuality.  Elements of the film deeply moved me - James Franco's impersonation of the poet is spot on, and his reading of the poem, and interview sequences are flawless recreations.  The period detail, and the sense of reliving a great cultural American moment are electrifying, and Franco/Ginsberg reveals a surprisingly original and sensitive perspective on poetics, and frankness, that reminds me of his central importance as a father of queer writing.

The trial sequence, with a handful of great actors - John Hamm, David Straitharn, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels - is a word-for-word reenactment drawn from courtroom transcripts - and as such is both authentic in its awkward period diction and at times frustrating - a dramatic reinterpretation would no doubt have refined the dramatic tension - but it is also moving and comic as the legal squares spar over the "necessity" of using vulgar and sexual language.  Sadly, the movie's downfall is in the grotesque and amateurish animation sequences, which over-literally interpret the poem's chief tropes - when they appear I shuddered, my heart sank - it may be the worst misstep I've seen in a released film.  A pity.

Despite that, the three other intercut worlds - 1955 reading, 1957 trial, and 1957 interview - are evocative and important.  Anyone who cares passionately about gay literature, America poetry, or obscenity trials will want to see this; for fans of The Beats or Ginsberg, or indeed James Franco, it will be essential.  For those wanting a hit of Hamm or that 50s vibe, I'd recommend caution; a later rental might be better.  It may not be as loud or wild as a howl, but it is more bang than whimper, still.  My last thought on this is that the poignant effect of Ginsberg's parents - his father the poet, his mother the lobotomised mental patient - loom large over his life, and are presiding spirits here - making the poet a more vulnerable and human figure than the iconography usually allows.  Angelheaded hipster, maybe - but this isn't a hagiography.

One last thought - Howl is often a terrible poem, it seems obvious from this film.  I didn't go in thinking that.  But it is also often astonishing, and its rhetorical power and surprise makes it the anti-Four Quartets - a musical composition on tradition and religion and place.  Ginsberg was a great coiner of words, phrases, images, and though he relies too heavily on the surrealist "of" trick, there's enough imagination in the mantra to make it work - but I can't imagine an audience of young people really listening intently to the whole thing cheering and grinning relentlessly.

Featured Poet: Mary-Jane Newton

Eyewear is very glad to welcome the Hong Kong poet Mary-Jane Newton (pictured) to its pages this gray London Friday.  Newton was born in Goa in 1983, and spent the first years of her life in India. She subsequently grew up in Germany and England. Her work has been published in literary journals and anthologies in Asia. Of Symbols Misused (Proverse Hong Kong), her first collection of poetry, is forthcoming shortly.  She is an editor at Oxford University Press.

Poem No 165

Wants to remain unknown, unwritten. Wants to cry hoarsely that this
is not the death it has deserved.

Would rather inject its host with poison
and turn pale and waxen, than assume shape, become ‘meaningful’, be forced
into a pattern strange and peregrine.

Would rather age and rot an unborn
virgin, be forgotten like an age-old monument.

Would rather drown in other
stories, tales and poems, or be hanged with rattling emotion.

Would rather
seek a private battle with its host, than be told, captured with words. Being
captured with words means to search for the cross on the map, and searching for
the cross on the map means to take the first step on a course inevitable. Broken,
blackened stumps of feet would scratch the paper, and a thrumming sound
would pump from every cranny, every letter. Marauding feet would rush.
The journey would unfold in a thousand winding courses. In every turn and
every syllable, change would brood like the dark twin of death.

Would rather
crumble into fragments, black and ominous and blurred by memory, rather shift
into a dream of greed and violence, or grow into a different being altogether.

Wants to pivot, tighten, growl in suicidal rage: ‘Go on then, stunt, distort and warp
me with your useless, little language!’

Wants to remain a secret, wants to remain



comes as if it was
today, this morning

Koi[2]-tailed eyes
and long, black hair
fool’s gold in a 


Xue-Li, water runs
(sun splashes)
on her back pearls
sighs for hunger,
licks her breast

but sadly dumb as bone
a sorry little simpleton
bobbing head on a stake
grunting gastric tubes
if only we could

tell by Koi-tailed
eyes the depth

of our
intellects ...

[1] Chinese female name, literally translated ‘pure as snow’
[2] Variety of the common carp. In Asia considered attractive, and often kept for decorative purposes.

poems by Mary-Jane Newton; republished with permission of the author.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Her Life Collected

Eyewear is glad to feature a poem from Sue Guiney's new collection of poems, Her Life Collected.  It will be reviewed here in the near future.

Born and raised in New York, Guiney has lived in London for  twenty years where she writes and teaches fiction, poetry and plays.  Her work has appeared in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Her first novel, Tangled Roots, was published in May ‘08. Her second, A Clash of Innocents, was chosen to be the first publication of the new imprint Ward Wood Publishing and was published in September, 2010.

Guiney is Artistic Director of the theatre arts charity which she founded in 2005 called CurvingRoad.

Vanishing Point

Like an old Hitchcock movie,
like an exercise in art history,
the line of long floorboards draws her eye.

At the end of the dining room, a window
is filled with trees. The restaurant is empty
and she is alone –

old enough not to be afraid,
old enough to know what to fear.

She’s already on dessert, a bottle of wine half drunk,
when two couples arrive. The women are pregnant;
they order sparkling water.
Their husbands are confident. They drink whiskey.

Looking at them makes her sad.
Their laughter is magnetic.

There was a time when she knew so much,
before the trickle of years drained out confidence
and she learned things she never wished to learn:
what you can count on, all that you can’t.
She stares as she asks for the bill.

Echoes of memories –
how to breathe, how to push –
carry her past their table to her home:

one graying woman walking
down a country road beyond
the trees, into the night,

poem reprinted with permission of the author


I didn't coin the phrase "psychofascism" - Reynolds in 1974 seems to have - and a few bloggers have used it since.  But I am one of the first to use it to describe the development of a new kind of leader - part-dictator, part-madman, such as we see in Libya, whose sole claim to power is that they claim power - the violent political version of the C-list celebrities famous for being famous.  Libya was of course an Italian colony.  Italo Balbo, afetr a violent pacification, put the Libyans under the jackboot of Il Duce.

The original fascist control of Libya was not insane - it was dictated by economics and an imperialist agenda.  However, and sadly, Mussolini's murderous fascism has now transformed - and colonialism does this - the liberator into a menace.  Libya has had an unusually bloody history, even by 20th century standards.

There is no likelihood of less blood in the sand any time soon.  Britain should intervene, perhaps with the Americans, and the EU, to aid the people seeking freedom.  At the least, weapons and food should be dropped into the Eastern Free Libyan zone.  Will this happen?  Probably not, unless the "genocide" becomes jaw-dropping.

[note: this post edited after a timely and informative comment, see below]

No Logos, or Howl About It

It isn't true that poets, neglected or little read in their own time, will be discovered later, or that poets find other poets, and are able to champion them and bring them to light, - at least as far as a wider general public is concerned.  My doctoral research into poets of the 1940s has shown me the reverse - that good poets tend to oblivion, unless they are thoroughly fortunate, in friends, in connections, and, mainly in media attention.  The new movie Howl confirms the trend - poets known to the public get recycled.

In Britain, the poets who usually get mentioned in the media are those who were, even during their lifetime, the media darlings - Ted Hughes, Larkin, Betjeman.  The launch today of a new book by Professor Greene on the life of Edith Sitwell also shows how tough it is to be remembered or respected - Sitwell was a modernist eccentric and genius, but now is marginal.  I think of Joan Murray (who I recently anthologised in a Carcanet book), selected by WH Auden to win the Yale prize for young poets, still out of print after decades (I hope to help reverse this).

Murray may return to coterie interest, but won't ever reach a mass audience.  The poets who have any chance of breaking through to mass consciousness must do so, not only by sheer talent (but talented they need be) - but require, along with the aforementioned luck, a curious convergence of history, politics, and - marketing.  I feel it likely that almost all contemporary "small press" poets, myself included, will be unread except by academics and the lone penperson, in sixty years.  In 100 years - forget about it.  Only those poets published by (in the UK) Faber and Faber, and perhaps a few other larger presses, have much of a shot at eluding oblivion.  And, while being published by Faber is a huge advantage (see how FT Prince's readership declined immediately as he was dropped from their list) even Lynette Roberts saw four decades of neglect having been a Faber poet (again, she was dropped by Eliot though).

So - what do poets write for?  Themselves it must be.  98% of all British poets get almost no readership now - while they are alive, doing readings, bustling about - and can't get on bookshop shelves.  Imagine their fate when they are dead and gone.  For any poet who has half an eye on posterity, of being read and valued beyond the grave, this is dispiriting.  Ian Hamilton's book that deals with this subject is a much-read.

I don't think technology will improve things.  The truth is, few readers of poetry are educated enough, or dedicated enough, to go beyond the obvious few dozen canonical figures, the "big names".  I mention this, because there is a general assumption, rather sanguine, that press-marketing and position is not somehow connected to literary reputation and valuation - but how could it not be, and when was it not?  At least since the 1920s, where and when one appears, in whose pages, has been a strong determinant.  The in-crowd stays in, more or less.  Go back to the Mavericks anthology.  Which of them beat the Movement poets in audience shares, to put it mildly.  All this to say, The Beats are known today because Ginsberg got onto the cover of Time magazine.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Christchurch in his mercy

Readers of Eyewear may cock an eyebrow at the title of this post - I am a struggling Catholic, after all.  However, today seems a bleak day in human history - by no means the worst, but one of those that marks the ways in which human suffering is accidentally and intentionally visited upon people, often innocent.  Exhibit A - the peaceful, decent and civilised city of Christchurch in New Zealand is shattered by an earthquake.  Exhibit B - the brutality in Libya.  Exhibit C - Iranian warships steaming into the Mediterranean for the first time in over 30 years.  Surely, war of some kind is at hand, in the Middle East - chaos looms.  Meanwhile, God, in his infinite wisdom, is apparently impassive as the horrors of history unfold.  It is up to each of us (with our souls) to try to fathom the impossible, the infinite.  Some days I am just, barely, able to glimpse the love of God working in the world.  It is, still, visible, in the kindness and compassion and creativity of so many humans; but too often rubbed out by nature's wild cruelty, and humanity's own madness.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Guest Review: Begnal On Walsh

by Catherine Walsh

Catherine Walsh’s 2009 long poem Optic Verve (Shearsman Books) is described in its own text at book’s end as “a commentary” – so what does that mean?  In the past, it has been assumed by some that experimental poets such as Walsh (a blurb on the back cover of the book describes Walsh as “Ireland’s most radical experimental woman poet”) are merely concerned with words as such than with socio-political engagement, but any fair reading of such writers suggests this is far from being the case (I’m thinking of contemporary poets like Caroline Bergvall, Sean Bonney, Susan Howe, and Mark Nowak as a few immediate examples, and the list could go on).  Of course, most readers familiar with these names already know this.  And it is not to say that Walsh is not concerned with words and language – she certainly is – but here it is a case of engagement with language and engagement with socio-political/philosophical concerns merging into the same concern.  On page 28, for example, Walsh observes, “words weight/ each affirmation/ a value/ among/ those    who venture/ out/ style     trans/ mutable     through/ language/ fails…”  In the opposite left-hand column (in many parts of this book there are two or more columns or concurrent trains of thought on the same page), she writes of “C18th rationalism,” before ending at “ideologies/ which were/ justifying/ oppression” – the idea being, I think, that oppressive ideologies are sometimes in fact embedded in language use, and that overcoming this implies questioning the ways in which we employ language and how it affects our capacity for independent thought and action.

Clearly, Walsh’s disruptions of linearity imply that she is consciously working against the Western cultural legacy of rationalism.  And perhaps in this lies the experimental/mainstream divide in contemporary poetry – the inability of some people to overcome their expectations of linear logical “sense,” as if even the prospect of this is anathema to them.  But so be it; Walsh is working in a different manner.  Page 54 is a sharp critique of “impositional narrative” (in fact, of narrative, she writes, “what other kind/ exists”?).  Her work is a rejection of “authority     absolutism/ logicity,” hegemonies that “place the countries of the world according/ to economic power     military/ power     academic power/ media power     /blah” – blah indeed.  Enough of this, she implies.  Yet it goes on; the poet is inevitably writing from a position of weakness when it comes to considerations of power.  So Walsh’s book is in one way a commentary on that state of being – it is a critique of Western society, but in the knowledge that there is very little that can be done beyond the act of poetry itself (and perhaps of commiseration with other marginalized people).  Walsh’s poetry wants to refocus the process of perception and of expression, and concomitantly, of conscious thought which is always based on grammar.

The poem begins with short segments that destabilize syntax but present perhaps the barest of images.  Ezra Pound said that an image should be “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  In Walsh’s work she is not so much concerned with complete “images” or pictures in the way that Pound posited them approximately 100 years ago.  Instead, this “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” is sometimes embodied in a single word, so that a short piece consisting of say 39 words (as in the opener) may pull in many such complexes: “bird better hurry/ yet meant should change/ in stare whatever pursue….”  And also contrary to Pound, a large part of Walsh’s work is abstract, so that while there is much here that is visual (it is, after all, titled Optic Verve), much else deals with philosophical linguistics as noted above, sometimes concerned with creating a kind of unique individual grammar.  Words that jump out at the reader in this early section include “change,” “chance,” “mind,” “difference,” “progress,” “time,” with the perspective their combination implies.  Perhaps not so much images, then, as ideograms, juxtaposed with each other, creating ever widening implications, ever widening series of interconnected ideas.

From page 20 onward there is a change, with the pieces becoming longer and sometimes more prose-like.  Elsewhere there are more intricate wordscapes, and often an interplay between the English language and both Spanish and Irish.  Irish becomes increasingly important as the book progresses and meshes with Walsh’s themes of Ireland’s present history in relation to its past.  Often, this sort of theme has been a hallmark of more “mainstream” Irish poets, yet another way that Walsh frustrates expectations.  There is a sense of lamentation for the ancient hill fort being destroyed in Ireland’s recent mad rush of property speculation and building, and an identification with the real people who lived at these places “possibly four and a half thousand years.”  It is not because of some misguided idealism, however, but because these were people not unlike us, who happened, living in the same place, to speak a whole other language than the one that has so recently been imposed on Ireland, people who also like us perhaps “wonder     when the/ night bright sky was cinemascope   inspiring awe/ showing stories as shape   light/ movement,” people who also wrote poetry.  (The poet, for Walsh, is a “painter of light” – the act of poetry and perception being linked with the word “light” throughout the book.)  But that’s not all – “we/ walked there,” Walsh specifies, ultimately identifying us (“we”) with these ancients who are nothing more or less than ourselves in a different time.  In a couple of places she is even more emphatic, asserting for example on page 122, “The learning process has perhaps irreparably changed the more traditional Gaelic modes of social interaction, particularly over the last ten years.  As if somebody were giving, throwing away, ancient heirlooms whose provenance alone made them interesting.”  She clarifies further a bit later, “These matters are not just within living memory or oral testament here in Ireland as in so many parts of the world, they are a crucial determining factor in how people choose to interact socially, what they aspire to attain, how they use language and how they view language.”  Something that some have previously handled in a maudlin way is thus here put forward as in a manifesto, part of an even larger manifesto of radical poetics.

So indeed this is a commentary.  Other, inter-related subjects of commentary in Optic Verve include Ireland’s “blame culture” (an update of “an béal bocht,” Walsh suggests), economic exploitation (“misinformed workers/ abused workers regimes running on/ the poverty of masses the/ ignorance of underdeveloped/ minds   fears…”), anti-Polish discrimination, the under-funding of the health system, media censorship in Ireland.  This book was published before the recent ceding of the Irish economy to the IMF, but much here seems to critique the mindset that led up to this current state of affairs.  This is an anti-colonialist poem expressed as a subversion of or resistance to colonialist strategies of thought control through language.  The sequence that could be called “ <\pomepleat>,” which is framed in html code (another form of language with its own political complications), is contrarily an ars poetica: “…life// these marks    we make/ hold in mind/ ear  heart  brain  for  you/ to take   us   to/ understand…”  The use of html code here sets the piece in the non-existent formatting of “pomepleat.”  Walsh thus imagines poetic uses even for the language of html, imbuing with the human what might in the hands of some be yet another arena for privilege and disenfranchisement.  Optic Verve, therefore, is the kind of commentary that inherently attacks coercive uses of language, seeking to place in their stead language that intensifies the process of perception, democratizing the present moment.

Michael S. Begnal’s new collection Future Blues is forthcoming this year from Salmon Poetry.  His previous collections include Ancestor Worship (Salmon, 2007) and Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005). He has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review, Notre Dame Review, and Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006). Most recently, he composed the Afterword to James Liddy’s posthumous collection Fest City (Arlen House, 2010).

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Blood In The Streets

The news from Benghazi is not good.  The West must do more to condemn this massacre, now, and try to persuade its curious ally from continuing down this murderous path.  It seems hard to imagine how BP will be able to justify ongoing business with such a pathological state.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Guest Review: Jones on Byrne

Joshua Jones reviews
by James Byrne

James Byrne’s second collection is intimidatingly vast. It veers between silencing clarity and semi-placeable intellect and image, relishes hinging between ‘mainstream’ and ‘innovative’/ ‘experimental’ stylistics. The intimation of a stable self flickers in and out of an ever-shifting linguistic world, encompassing the obscurely personal and the retroactive incorporation of intellectual/artistic history, constructing and reconstructing a present out of the past, ducking and diving between the two and spanning continents in single poems. Kinsella points out in the blurb that not for a moment does ‘the intellectual rigour [diminish] the vitality of the work... It sparkles with wit and irony’. I half-agree – Byrne can strike the reader with a phrase of image – “let me be able to conjure your best side,//to have some kind of grip on the intactness/of living, the way mirrors do” – yet there are numerous moments when the writing seems to be stumbling through its own density and compression. Nonetheless, I am more than willing to forgive this in a work that has as much ambition as Blood/Sugar does.

In the introduction to Voice Recognition (Bloodaxe, 2009) Byrne wrote (along with Clare Pollard) of our “era in which we must quickly understand our impact on this planet”, along with expressing the desire for poetry “to be a powerful antidote to the daily drone of advertising and political propaganda”. Ecopoetry Blood/Sugar is not, but it does indeed prove to be refreshing, if not antidotal, in light not only of the societal and political situation of the contemporary Western world but of the often droning nature of a contemporary poetry fed by the “MA conveyor-belt”. Byrne’s resolutely ‘difficult’ poetics, paired with an incorporation of a more ‘mainstream’ ethos (compare his work with other contemporary poets such as, say, Keston Sutherland) and an international subject matter, breaks free of the dominant British poetic culture that is often still rather insular and Movement-addled and confronts big issues and ideas with a scope unseen in a lot of recent UK poetry.

Despite the evident influence of Pound, there is very little deindividualisation here. The ‘I’ is welcome, if never quite allowed to become comfortable. In ‘Days of 1973’, obscure family history is utilised in a dissection of the historicity of one’s memories. The speaker immerses himself in old photographs, constructs as much as he recalls (“We rolled down the stairs – she and I – /three weeks from birth”), but in the process conveys a vision of the past far more effective than the average childhood reminiscence poem which seems to be plaguing UK lyric poetry at the moment[1]. Here there is no stasis, no stability. “If it cannot be translated as it was”, Byrne writes, “a ‘version’ empowers me”.

‘Days of 1973’ also provides us with a key into how Byrne’s poetry functions throughout this collection:

          To walk in the shadows of the forest
          is to invite further shadows.

          The light astonishes from every exit point.

His poetry, when it succeeds (which is more often than not), functions much like this. The reader is invited into a world of private language made public, a honed diction and beguiling clarity, which acknowledges the impossibility of a referent outside of itself but pushes towards it, and even if there is no “exit point” of absolute meaning one can take from the work, there are glimpses through which “[t]he light astonishes”.

Some of the best poems in the collection are the ekphratic pieces, taken mostly from photographs. In these, language is either the endpoint, a sensuous game of signifiance (as in those inspired by Gerhard Richter), or quite the opposite (Claude Cahun), in which metonymic visions of history are filtered through unknown ‘I’s.

In an early poem, ‘Apprentice Work’, in memoriam Peter Redgrove, Byrne writes:

          We apprentice poets need an innovator,
          ‘verbal haemoglobin’, not a casket key.
          I repeat the only rule you knew as mantra:

          everything is invitation.

It is possible that Byrne could be just that. His work displays the potential a truly hybrid poetry can have for lyrical innovation, international influence, political relevance and, perhaps most importantly, readerly pleasure[2]. It invites one into its private world, a world imbued with intersubjective observation, a world which is always gazing out of itself. And hopefully, it will invite more readers and writers to stray away from the safety of the conventional.

Joshua Jones published his debut collection, Thought Disorder, in 2010 with Knives Forks and Spoons Press. He edits the website Etcetera and is in the final year of his BA at UEA.

[1] A cursory glance through Identity Parade provides ample evidence for this.
[2] By which, I should point out, I do not mean ‘readerly’ (lisible) in the Barthesian sense.

Tax The Banks!

The news that Barclays has paid a 1% tax rate on a massive £6 billion profit, at a time when the poor and middle-class in Britain are being subjected to astonishingly severe ideological cuts is appalling.  Okay - but beyond the editorials - What Is To Be Done?  So long as the people of Britain allow the financial services industries-Tories-capitalism to dictate what's good for us, there is no hope.  We see the future - one with a two-tiered health service; minimal welfare; sold-off forests; little or no cultural funding - a Big Society where the Big own and run and enjoy the society, and the rest of us, underfoot, foot the bills.  I wonder when the British will radicalise sufficiently to speak out against this established unfairness - and topple it.

Ich Bin Ein Bahrainer

The West - in case we didn't know already and had never read Pilger, Chomsky or Said - has been playing a grand game in the Middle East for more than a century - one of divide and conquer and ultimately control.  At stake, as every kid can tell you, is oil and gas, the lifeblood of the capitalist energy-system.  Democracy has never been uppermost in terms of the realpolitik emanating from London and Washington.  Hence the Shah, Mubarak, Saddam, etc.  Real democracy is messy, and may even elect anti-Western (or yes, pro-Arabic, pro-Islam) parties to power.

You can't quite control democracies as well as dictatorships.  Hence, Bahrain, now.  This tiny kingdom is a key US ally in an Iranian zone - but is oppressive and brutal.  Its actions over the last few days of protest are equivalent to what happened in Tianenman Square.  This time, the outrage has been muted.  The problem with such state department cold-eyed pragmatism is that it is not invisible.  The world sees that the West is two-faced.  There seems one rule for some nations (allies) and one for the rest.  For both ethical, and also practical reasons such a Janus, jaundiced policy is unsustainable in the Facebook Age.  The West must either stand for "Freedom" or not.  If it supports freedom, then, it must help to stop the violence in Bahrain, and oppose it in no uncertain terms.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Featured Poet: Brian Turner

Eyewear is very glad to welcome American poet Brian Turner (pictured) to its pages this Friday - aptly enough, perhaps, as revolution continues to stir in the Middle East, the source of much of his most powerful material.  Turner is the author of two collections of poetry: Here, Bullet (Bloodaxe Books, 2007) and Phantom Noise (Bloodaxe Books, 2010).  For the second of these, he was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious poetry prize, The T.S. Eliot Prize.

Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000).

His poetry has been published in Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, and other journals. He's been awarded a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Weekend America, among others. He teaches at Sierra Nevada College.

Turner, compared by some to Keith Douglas, is the most significant and effective soldier-poet of the first decade of the 21st century writing in English, and therefore his work takes on an almost talismanic power, which the quality of the writing supports.  Given that the biggest story of the last ten years is 9/11-Iraq-Afghanistan-Egypt, and American responses to those iconic nouns, Turner should be read by anyone interested in the world as it is, and the world of poetic imagination, and reckoning.  His poem, "The Hurt Locker" was later the title to an Oscar-winning film.

Professor Suman Gupta writes in his important new study of Iraq invasion literature, Imagining Iraq, on Turner's Here, Bullet (published in America in 2005).  He says the poems articulate "an exquisite sensitivity to being a foreigner" in Iraq post-war.  Gupta notes how the book explores the metaphoric and linguistic implications of translation and its failure, and the violence which results.  He observes how Turner seemingly withholds judgement, the better to impact the reader.  It is, Gupta argues, a "poetry of alienation arising from the occupation experience". Turner will be reading for the Oxfam Poetry Series, London, in July 2011.  Can't wait.

The Mutanabbi Street Bombing
                                                      March 5, 2007

In the moment after the explosion, an old man
staggers in the cloud of dust and debris, hands
pressed hard against bleeding ears
as if to block out the noise of the world
at 11:40 a.m., the broken sounds of the wounded                     
rising around him, chawled and roughened by pain.

Buildings catch fire. Cafes.
Stationery shops. The Renaissance Bookstore.
A huge column of smoke, a black anvil head
pluming upward, fueled by the Kitah al-Aghani,
al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs, the elegies of Khansa,
the exile poetry of Youssef and al-Azzawi,
religious tracts, manifestos, translations
of Homer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Neruda—
these book leaves curl in the fire’s
blue-tipped heat, and the long centuries
handed down from one person to another, verse
by verse, rise over Baghdad.


As the weeks pass by, sunsets
deepen in color over the Pacific. Couples
lie in the spring fields of California,
drinking wine, making love in the lavender
dusk. There is a sweet, apple-roasted
smell of tobacco where they sleep.
They dream. Then wake to the dawn’s
early field of lupine—to discover themselves
dusted in ash, the poems of Sulma
and Sayyab in their hair, Sa’di on their eyebrows,
Hafiz and Rumi on their lips.

                                                         In memory of Mohammed Hayawi


VA Hospital Confessional

Each night is different. Each night the same.
Sometimes I pull the trigger. Sometimes I don’t.

When I pull the trigger, he often just stands there,
gesturing, as if saying, Aren’t you ashamed?

When I don’t, he douses himself
in gasoline, drowns himself in fire.                                 

A dog barks in the night’s illuminated green landscape
and the platoon sergeant orders me to shoot it.

Some nights I twitch and jerk in my sleep.
My lover has learned to face away.

She closes her eyes when I fuck her. I imagine
she’s far away and we don’t use the word love.

When she sleeps, helicopters
come in low over the date palms.

Men are bound on their knees, shivering
in the animal stall, long before dawn.

I whisper into their ears, saying,
Howlwin? Howlwin? —Meaning, —Mortars?Mortars?

Howl wind, motherfucker? Howl wind?
The milk cow stares with its huge brown eyes.

The milk cow wants to know
how I can do this to another human being.

I check the haystack in the corner
for a weapons cache. I check the sewage sump.

I tell no one, but sometimes late at night
I uncover rifles and bullets within me.

Other nights I drive through Baghdad.
Firebaugh. Bakersfield. Kettleman City.                          

Some nights I’m up in the hatch, shooting
a controlled pair into someone’s radiator.

Some nights I hear a woman screaming.
Others I shoot the crashing car.

When the boy brings us a platter of fruit,
I mistake cantaloupe for a human skull.

Sometimes the gunman fires into the house.
Sometimes the gunman fires at me.

Every night it’s different.
Every night the same.

Some nights I pull the trigger.
Some nights I burn him alive.

poems by Brian Turner; reprinted with permission of the poet

Guest Review: Brinton On Muckle

Ian Brinton reviews
by John Muckle

In the blurb on the back of this extraordinary novel Will Self suggests that one of John Muckle’s achievements as a writer lies in his ability to conjure up ‘this peculiar inter-zone between the behemoth of the city and the hinterland of the country’. That said, rest assured that this world is not that of the simple description however atmospheric and photographically accurate; we are more in a world that combines the moving sense of ‘thereness’ you might expect in the poetry of Charles Reznikoff when mixed with the phantasmagoric creations of Paul Auster and Iain Sinclair. Much of the novel seems to answer that well-worn Larkinesque quandary posed by Mr. Bleaney as he looks out of his window contemplating the extent to which the way we live ‘measures our own nature.’ The mundane repetition of expectations, the patterning of ourselves upon our surroundings, is there from the second paragraph:

Gladys and myself never spoke beyond this muffled hello. I spoke to her because she was the next-door neighbour and because she reminded me slightly of my mother. It’s even possible I reminded her of one of her own sons, but I won’t bore you with a lot of crap about how people are often reminded of things by other things which even they know are completely dissimilar to the things of which they’re being reminded. After all, what would it really prove except that some people’s frames of reference are limited, or that they can’t stop themselves trying to tease a bit of interest out of nothing?

The wry humour of cliché as Tony Guest suggests that Gladys reminds him of his mother is merged with the understandable sense that we all try to make sense of our lives by noting, selecting, correspondences. However, this is a novel of movement and the static world of sitting around on the sixth floor ‘listening to various sounds floating up from outside’ is juxtaposed with the dispatch-rider’s gliding through the traffic as he joins up different lines on the urban and suburban map.

The world of the Objectivists comes to mind as Muckle questions the nature of similes and imagism:

It was like—but it’s easy to compare things when what you really mean is simply that they’re out there, pushing in on you like the small smells and sheddings of someone your sharing a flat with, the rasp of your own neck against a new collar.

George Oppen was a great admirer of the work of Charles Reznikoff and often referred to the two lines from the 1934 poem, ‘Jerusalem the Golden’:

Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish. 

In a letter to his half-sister he wrote

Likely he [Rezi] could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.  

The importance of these details, this sense of objects, was emphasised even further when Oppen wrote about being wounded in the war and lying in ‘a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall’:

I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours…poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is. 

The delightful merging of this Objectivist world with the illusions and plotting of a Paul Auster novel and the geographical accuracy of Iain Sinclair is presented to us early on as Tony picks up a parcel from a Kensington basement and discovers that it is to be delivered to his neighbour Gladys:

I stood there not knowing what to do, nor whither which way to go; I wanted to go back straight away and explain there must be some mistake: it was a small rectangular old-fashioned brown parcel, tied up with string—and it was addressed to Gladys. My neighbour. Gladys. I rode away with it and for some reason I found myself trembling.

As though he is some character acting out moves within a gigantic game of chess reminiscent of Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ Tony is drawn into a web of intrigue and pursuit. The reality of this world is punctuated by flat-mate Bob’s dope-fused visionary writings and Tony’s awareness that memories are easy ‘but it can be difficult to know which has something to do with you and which doesn’t’.  One of the abiding images of this important novel which deals with the self relating to the constant moving and illusion of the city world is that of a nightmare Tony has of ‘Blind Terror’:

Mia Farrow staggering around in deep mud with her arms flailing, then banging on the rusty body of a wrecked car with a rusty silencer she picked up. A poor little blind girl in a panic, flailing away in the middle of a deserted breakers’ yard—crying out for help when there was no help to be had. The camera pulled back to reveal there was nobody and nothing for miles and miles.

As he questions himself as to why that image should be so frightening he concludes that it was because ‘it was much truer than most of them’ and that the nature of the trap was that ‘she was forced to trust what she already knew couldn’t be trusted’.  As a confirmation of our vision of urban and suburban wilderness Tony then recognises that what is worse is ‘that she didn’t know that there was no help, no solution of any kind to her main problem. In Blind Terror Mia Farrow was totally alone.’

As Tom Raworth puts it, ‘John Muckle’s window on that world is the one people will eventually look through’ and, as if in mocking derision of this very comment doped Bob’s latest bubble is of writing a book about his environment “—bury it in a time capsule, dig it up in about ten thousand years and see if it was still true.” To which Tony can only reply “But it’s not true now.”                         

Ian Brinton is a critic and writer who reviews regularly for Eyewear.  He is the editor of The Use of English and his most recent publications have been Contemporary Poetry since 1990 and A Manner of Utterance, The Poetry of J.H. Prynne.                                

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Eat Pray Love Spew

I had heard it was bad.  I rented it on DVD.  Hoping for it to be good-bad, as it were.  Not to be.  The film Eat Pray Love is a reason to launch war on America.  The smug, laughing, crying, meditating, utterly self-engrossed Julia Roberts, playing self-engrossed travel journalist Liz Gilbert, is insufferable.  To understand the vast gulf between Hollywood-American sensibility and that of, say, the developing and European worlds, watch this film.  Ms. Gilbert has a great job, handsome, charming husband, great friends, and a house in New York.  What she doesn't have is a sense of "herself".  Instead of reading books, or going to a therapist, or even expanding her horizons locally, she dumps her husband, and takes up with a stud of an actor, before dumping him to travel to Italy to gain weight eating (which she sees as liberating), then off to Asia to try and get some mystic insights.  Roberts never actually puts on weight, and her life lessons are vapid.  I threw shoes at my TV set.  Hemingway once observed that there was no way to escape one's self through travel.  Ms. Gilbert should have stayed at home and looked inward.  The depths afforded by wealth and opportunity are only off-set by the surfaces they project.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Let England Shake

PJ Harvey has often made great indie pop, and great experimental albums - but rarely both at once; a few times neither.  Let England Shake is her masterwork, and an early candidate for Album of 2011.  It is, firstly, strange - uncanny - even - and indeed, her unheimlich take on being at home is the purpose of this song cycle, which seeks to locate the roses and fogs of England amidst the carnage the nation's imperial aims have caused; England, for Harvey is a self-harmer.  Harvey's vocals here are falsetto, tremolo - weird - a bit Mercury Rev, a bit J Newsom.  The off-kilter retro stylings of the songs (including male backing singers that sound positively Lawrence Welk) lend a timeless, thrilling, unsettling quality - as if the inspiring soundtrack was The Singing Detective.

Writing of the bloodbath of World Wars - and using 'Strange Fruit' as a model (according to interviews) - Harvey seeks to work through the paradox of an England that is "drunken beatings" and lovely gardens, that is Suez, Iraq, and a lost childhood worth (possibly) dying for.  As such, it is a complicated, moving, upsetting, and supremely intelligent essay on nationhood, national pride, and artistic integrity.  At once firmly political, and yet aesthetically invigorating, this is modern work that stands comparison to the best British achievements, since 1945, in film, literature, or art.  Time to admit what many have long suspected - Harvey is not just a musical act - she is a serious artist - and this album is a work of genius, one that will be studied in all future investigations of this period.

Los Boys

The news that "Los 33" managed their outstanding feats of survival with the help of some Mary Jane, porn, and dreams of inflatable sex dolls, while certainly a bit rock and roll, does rather reduce their moral stature - or does it?  It does raise a troubling question - why do men, locked in darkness a mile below the crust, require depictions of raw sex to keep their spirits alive?  Is love not enough, as Depeche Mode once sang?  I cannot imagine 33 women requiring pornography in such a situation - can you?


Winter Tennis out of stock at!  Thanks Mike.  My sales report for 2011 will now make less soul-destroying reading!

Monday, 14 February 2011

A love poem by Todd Swift, from Mainstream Love Hotel

Ivo, Marianopolis, 1984

Like rain, desiring, the Cocteau Twins
return, bringing that cold sadness
again: sweet as a bare shoulder, lost
pain, an ice flavoured as your skin,
which was, summertime, the toast
of my tongue, trying to barely possess
your black boy-cut bangs as they ran
like water in mythic April showers –
you and your cherry Docs, alley-dancing,
your lips as untouched as the Rhodes
I forfeited for high style, laughing gas;
A. Alvarez mourns that no one reads I.A.
Richards anymore, but I do, and we did –
shivering, music like kisses: recollection. 

"You're making a fool of yourself and a fool of me"

There are many great love stories in literature - among my favourites are The Wind in The Willows, The Great Gatsby, Burmese Days, and The Idiot.  However, perhaps the most troubling, doomed (and realistic?) evocation of unrequited love that I have enjoyed is Maughm's Of Human Bondage.  It was also a great film in the 1930s.

"I have crossed oceans of time to find you..."

In terms of great films about, and of, love, we have Vertigo, In The Mood for Love, and Casablanca, Doctor Zhivago, An Officer and a Gentleman, at the apex; as well as odder, more troubling versions, such as Sophie's Choice and Silence of the Lambs.  I think my favourite remains Bram Stoker's Dracula, with the great immortal line "I have crossed oceans of time to find you...".

"I'll put us back together at heart..."

Great love songs are also, often, great heart-broken songs - and my favourite, from the 80s, is the Simple Minds classic, 'Don't You Forget About Me'.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Guest Review: Naomi on Fyfe and Shuttle

Understudies: New & Selected Poems
Sandgrain and Hourglass

If Understudies were two people, she’d be wearing a floral 50s frock and he’d be wearing a gabardine trench-coat. Both would smoke. She might have a Wyoming or Irish accent, he’d be Austrian or German. If I’ve conjured a film set, this is intentional. Anne-Marie Fyfe’s poems both reference cinema and – more importantly – are crammed with scanning shots, giving the reader both close-ups and a wider lens. Fyfe’s poems move back and forth in time and continent, from Britain and Ireland through central Europe to North America and beyond.

Understudies opens with a generous selection of new poems, including the filmic ‘Backlit Days’: ‘a woman knits in black and white/shaping a collar in flashback’; a fitting and highly moving homage to Elizabeth Bishop with ‘The Filling Station’; the tidal ‘Meteorology’, in which: ‘a dolls’/found voice-box floats, released, to the low horizon’; and from my favourite poem of the collection, ‘Ballad of the Corner Café’:

the last pegboard’s chrome hooks
lie on the faded window display’s
‘fifties holly-paper; a suffocating
wasp’s nest frets in the gusts
from a broken scullery pane;
a white rocking horse shivers in the yard.’

Poems from Fyfe’s three collections, Late Crossing (1999), Tickets from a Blank Window (2002) and The Ghost Twin (2005) constitute the second half of the book. Again, the selections are generous and I was interested to see how this poet’s work has developed since her earliest publication. While I’ve no quibbles with her first collection, for my taste, Fyfe’s poetry has continued to build in its range and depth over time. I rated a good number of poems in her last two collections, particularly from The Ghost Twin, including the Academi Prize Winner ‘Curacao Dusk’, and ‘Novgorod Sidings’, which was commended in the National Poetry Competition. Yet, for my money, many of the outstanding poems in Understudies are to be found among Fyfe’s most recent poetry, especially in her take on small (and big) town North America, which are delivered with a lingering shot of Noir.

Penelope Shuttle’s Sandgrain and Hourglass is a restless, wide-ranging book, full of wonderful, slightly surreal imagery. Consider, if you will, ‘London, Pregnant’: ‘every child/named in gratitude/for the passing tourist/pressed/into unexpected/spontaneous midwifery.’ Another favourite is ‘The Childhood of Snow’, in which the narrator:

‘visits restless lakes,
thoughtful mountains,’ [...]

‘flies round the earth five times,
like a swift, vanishing
into her own delight.’

Talking of delight, there’s often a toughness to Shuttle’s writing that is engaging. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Moon and Sea’:

‘She comes at her full
with a scorpion in her hand,
a knife at her breast, a price on her
            head, […]

arrives with her bibles that never speak of God,
            with her bitch unicorn,’ […].

This toughness complements (and occasionally contrasts with) the raw substance of grief (the main theme of Shuttle’s last collection, Redgrove’s Wife). Many of the grieving poems in Sandgrain and Hourglass are as fresh and surprising as they are moving, as in the (rather witty) ‘I Think It Will Happen Like This’, or the title poem, which opens: ‘Your summer wishes me well./My sunset rushes off without a word.’

In this new collection, Shuttle frequently takes on sorrow, even personifies it. With her celebrated verve, she calls on sorrow to ‘fend for herself’ (‘Sorrow at last’), or decides when sorrow may call; ‘my dealings with tears/have rules nowadays’ (‘In the Tate’). Sandgrain and Hourglass is ultimately an uplifting, highly-charged collection.

Katrina Naomi’s first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake was shortlisted for the 2010 London New Poetry Award.  She reviews regularly for Eyewear.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...