skyscraper ghazals (Sheila E. Murphy, Michelle Greenblatt)

by Michael Peverett

Taking a break from Thomas Middleton and learning Swedish, I felt a sudden desire to read some modern poetry, and a name came into my mind: Sheila E. Murphy, a poet I've never read. Thus I found my way to the publisher Unlikely Books and their page for Ghazals 1-59 and Other Poems (2017) by Sheila E. Murphy and Michelle Greenblatt. It includes three of the ghazals and I found them so absorbing that I keep going back to them. 

I suppose it's OK to quote one of them here. 


You hurl stones without a glass house then
You mint coins for parallel tossing.

Factor of two intrudes upon faculty of rest,
A blue wedge between the dust of what is and what isn't.

As the furniture collapsed, we made bowlfuls of
Summer in a retrofit, just right for pin light.

Stalks of leeway green made sugar of
Bitter shoots of limestone flowerings.

The outcrop stone bordered the town like darkness around
Sand scraps in a chipped window repeating visuals.

Culpable beings safe from their mishandling of the incident
All crisscross tensile tulips with common shadings in the sea breeze.

Every eye blindly clatters and closes
During peppery late afternoons gone soon.

Coins wrinkle water when interrupting the smooth face
Of laketop burning at the parting of waters scarce.

In a trench of rubble she hid from him and his
Parameters defined without perfume and stock.

Climbed weight rooms crowd out the irascible;
While interludes charm the whole crown to sleep.

The chiseled space I left between us narrowed and
In small lone plum signs levels meshed to singular.

Caresses occur when souls leave keening to
The crowns of the trees, nestling leaves atop leaves.

The mute city expresses itself by
Tapping out Morse Code to reach the distance.

Amended sacrifice litters the daylight;
Nighttime stages herself in front of a crowd.

Those transatlantic puffs otherwise known as clouds
Hold moisture before letting go to rinse us clean.


One journey through the poem could begin with the letter C, the hard C-sound (except in the mute "city" but resumed in its capitalized "Code"). For instance in the sequence coin, crowd, crown, clouds ...

The poem annotates various exchanges through the medium of air: tossed coins, dust, light, perfumes, sand, litter, raindrops, morse code and the discomfort of peppery or bitter taints. 

So first this exchange medium of possible union, caress and gift; but also of possible imposition, intrusion, interruption and mishandling.

The poem begins with a responsibility-free dream image in which "You hurl stones without a glass house". Because the flying pellets, the messages or missiles are only transiting through, their relation to your own responsibility can be shrugged off.

In contrast are solid structures that occupy place and produce separation. The trench of rubble, weight rooms, mute city, chiseled space.  The poem registers a need to judge these standing obliterations of occupied space. But it would like to escape responsibility, to enjoy the common shadings of a breeze, to posit a world in which things happen without our agency: in which furniture collapses and caresses occur and eyes blindly clatter and close. 

It dreams of camping in the ruins. It says "we made bowlfuls" but it doesn't say "we made bowls". However the following line's "retrofit" comments sardonically on our powers of post-rationalization and re-framing: a line of questioning that begins with "Culpable beings safe from their mishandling" and continues through e.g. "amended sacrifice" and "stages herself". So the poem is both celebration and lament. 


Sheila E. Murphy, in a conversation with Thomas Fink, describes these poems as "pieces working in the American version of the ghazal". That seems right, the relation to the eastern ghazal tradition is quite distant: these poems are characterized by a space and regularity that recalls a modernist building.  Most traditional features are dropped. What does clearly derive from the eastern tradition is: a poem composed of couplets that are separate from each other, not just visually but in discontinuity of thought, image, story, locus. 

Is there any residual trace of the traditional subject matter of medieval Persian ghazals, e.g. "erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism"? (Quote from the Poetry Foundation glossary .) I do sense the shadow of it. 

Here, for comparison and contrast, is a ghazal by Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī, 1207 - 1273), in the English translation of Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz: the translation doesn't attempt to render formal features of  the Persian original e.g. refrain words and their rhymes. 

If there’s no trace of love in his heart
Cover him like an angry cloud over the moon

Dry tree, don’t grow in that garden,
Poor thing, left without the shade of a tree

Even if you’re a pearl, don’t separate from this love,
Love is your father and your family

In the world of lovers, a deadly sickness strikes
Each day more painful than the last

If you see the blush of love in someone’s face
Know that he is no longer merely mortal

If you see a reed-flute, bent by love, grab it
Squeeze the reed until you taste the sweetest sugar

Shams of Tabriz lures you into his trap
Don’t look left or right, you can’t resist.

Traditional ghazals are of varying length, between five and fifteen couplets. But Murphy and Greenblatt's ghazals are all the same length: fifteen couplets. (Apparently this particular regularity wasn't in their original plan, but it evolved.)

releasing authorship becomes almost inevitable

says Murphy about collaborative work (gently resisting an invitation to try to disentangle individual contributions). 

The lovely Murphy/Fink exchange makes us wish that Michelle Greenblatt could have been part of it too. She died before the collection was published, and its composition was interrupted by long periods when she was in too much pain to write. It puts another slant on a collection that, judging from the three ghazals I've read, voyages in regions far beyond personal testament. 


long looping strands (Penelope Shuttle's Adventures With My Horse(1988))

by Michael Peverett

Favourite lines? Well yes, those are easy to find.


snouts succulent,
these sisters lie outspread, five cordial orchids
against mother's blushing pungent bulk,

("Killiow Pigs")

Michelangelo's clouds:

As old as these nesting clouds
that water-lily the void together,

("God Dividing Light from Darkness")

Something the thief steals:

... the joy that bends you easily and makes you feel safe,


He dreams the fragmental stealth of my spirit.
He dreams my future, he dreams my past.
He dreams the breath of this bare room,
the chimney's old ache of blackened brick,
the ceiling a caul of faded paint,
the walls objecting to windows on principle,
doors opening and closing on an ardent future,
causing horror, fear, delight,
and all these dreams move in me like sex,
with little or no punishment or revenge.

("Draco, the Dreaming Snake")

Kneading clay:

He lifts the clay in both hands
and thuds it down on the wooden benchtop,
... then pressing the weight of his spread hands
down on it; the air must be forced out.
He grabs the clay up, throws it down,
beats it with his fists again. He punches
and pummels it, groaning and urging himself on;
it must be done;
this is not the gentle time.

With a wire he splices the clay in two, like cheese;
examines it for air bubbles.
Walloping the two halves together with a clap of laughter,
he wedges the clay, pushing the softest clay out
in convexing folds ....



No more books, I told myself, conscious that I'd already exceeded the forty cubic inches allotted for books in the van. But then I noticed Penelope Shuttle's Adventures with my Horse in a Frome charity shop (it was in the farming section) and I couldn’t resist revisiting it after thirty years.

This was her fourth poetry collection, published in 1988. (Her latest, Lyonesse, came out in June 2021; I'm eager to read it.)

I've probably mentioned before that Frome has a tenuous Penelope Shuttle connection. It was here, at the George Hotel, that she arranged to meet up with an intrigued Peter Redgrove (in about 1969, I think). They'd briefly crossed paths a year before, at an arts meeting near St Ives. But this was the real beginning of the marriage that would transform their work.

Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle: How we met (Independent, 15 August 1992)


But the poem that especially struck me this time was one I neglected first time around. I find I can't omit any of the lines. 

Lovers in a Picture

On a bed like an intimate stage
the lovers embrace between red curtains
caught on five gold rings;
the soles of her feet
and the tips of her toes
are scarlet as some phoenix
her red fingertips have held;
across her face turned from him
is the faintest veil;
otherwise she is like him
naked to the waist,
then swirled in big clinging pants
of crimson silk;
his face as smooth and passionate
a profile as she
on their red-curtained Indian couch,
like sonneteers on a rose-patterned mattress;
the two pearls hung in his pierced ear
quiver and her long looping strands
of pearls that fall from neck to waist
and meet behind her back in a shining halter
shiver with a similar suspense;
familiar to us, his leaning towards her,
his concentration and hope;
familiar to us, her mouth,
her small round kind breast;
familiar to us, her knees he kneels between,
familiar to us, his heart-beat, her breath;
they wait in stillness
for us to see how their watchful ease
between the curtains,
their preliminaries and his hand
beneath her elbow
mirror the only way of solving
the redness of those curtains,
the treasure of pearls,
of feeling the air lifted up
on its golden rings
and rocking us;

familiar to us, these lovers
at their work of guidance and love;

and night's kohl drawn across our own eyelids.

At the end of this gently unspooling sentence the curtains are drawn across. 

In the animized world of this poetry, the pictured lovers are as alive as the lovers who are viewing the picture. Sex always has an audience, because everything around us is alive (and not to mention the lovers themselves); this bepearled pair of lovers have dressed for the occasion. But nakedness is the essence. The argument of the poem is its movement from "similar" to "familiar"; what is more similar than his smooth and passionate skin to hers? Your knee, my knee; your kneeling, my kneeling. So that, by the end, it's the viewers who are involved in the curtains, in the concentration of "solving" and feeling the air lifted up. In their own act of sex, or in sympathetic identification, or in artistic contemplation, or in artistic creation, of a poem for instance? In this poem all the activities form a continuum that we might simply call being alive. 

Penelope Shuttle has said that the form of her poems is driven by breath, and that's especially apparent here, where the flow of the poem's breathing is contained into an expectation, into hope, into "watchful ease".

the earth claims color (Dora Malech)

by Michael Peverett

My mother does not trust
women without it.
What are they not hiding?
Renders the dead living

and the living more alive.
Everything I say sets
the clouds off blubbering
like they knew the pretty dead.

True, no mascara, no evidence.
Blue sky, blank face. Blank face,
a faithful liar, false bottom.
Sorrow, a rabbit harbored in the head.

The skin, a silly one-act, concurs.
At the carnival, each child's cheek becomes
a rainbow. God, grant me a brighter myself.
Each breath, a game called Live Forever.

I am small. Don't ask me to reconcile
one shadow with another. I admit—
paint the dead pink, it does not make
them sunrise. Paint the living blue,

it does not make them sky, or sea,
a berry, clapboard house, or dead.
God, leave us our costumes,
don't blow in our noses,

strip us to the underside of skin.
Even the earth claims color
once a year, dressed in red leaves
as the trees play Grieving.

(Poem by Dora Malech, published 2007. Poem Source ; one of eight Dora Malech poems (currently) on the Poetry Foundation site.)

It's a poem that both smiles and weeps. The spectrum of emotions is like the rainbows on the children's cheeks. 

I suppose "Makeup" classes as quite an early poem. Dora Malech has now published four full length collections:

Shore Ordered Ocean (2009)
Say So (2010)
Stet (2018)
Flourish (2020)

Yet her attention to subtleties of sound and form is already in evidence, in such little collocations as  "rabbit harbored" or "brighter myself". The reader becomes highly sensitized. The effect in the end is not elegiac, though there's the weight of an elegy within. More like questing, inquiring . . .

Here's some other Dora Malech poems I've come across online:

"Aleph, Bet"

"To the You of Ten Years Ago, Now"


Last meme down: to off our inner faith in
lit ions, amen (fin), fume of tore and throw,
stone hid unfelt, from “we” (from an “I” to an “I”).
Nil with rot, a minute off deforms an eon
of meat run low, no foment, a tired finish,
mere sunlit affair. Oh, to find moon, went
wet at dim. Afternoon sinner, hum if fool
is true of mow, of annihilated front-men,
stunt-man, of him, an indoor Eiffel Tower,
non-sonata writ mute. For me, no HD life. If
radio, some worn tune. Then, main lift-off:
off-line, not no raft, I swim out here. Damn
if’n I wasted no moment of hurt on a rifle.
Old “No room at the inn,” i.e., FU. Warn: stiff me
One time, shame on, off, until worn adrift.
Must we fail in one form to find another? 

 (Poem source: .)

One of three anagrammatic poems. In this one, all the lines are anagrams of each other.

To some, Stet (2018) appeared to be a step too far. 

Dora Malech is such an inquiring poet that she deserves inquiring readings: that is, off-message ones. For instance, Despy Boutris's interesting review of Stet, which takes up Tony Hoagland's questioning of "experimental" poetry and feels, while appreciating its ingenuity and artistry, that Stet is "insular".,-dora-malech-makes-her-entrance-into-experimental-poetry/ . I respect that conclusion, but I can't simply agree with it. I find a new world in constrained poems like this, a by no means uncommunicative or unsharing one. (Incidentally, these anagram poems remind me of Gale Nelson's magnificent This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (2011), which I wrote about here: . And yet the two poets create effects from their constrained approaches that are as notable for dissimilarity as for similarity.)

On the same topic, Andrew Wells reflects on the poem "THEN READING  IN THE GARDEN". He's apparently no fan of OuLiPo (whose aesthetic, he thinks, is too obedient to self-imposed constraints), but he responds more warmly to the formal procedures of Stet, characterizing it as rebellious rather than obedient: resistant to the dehumanizing structures of our time (e.g. Big Tech) and engaged with the constrained resources of the natural world.

The final line of "Stet" was quoted by Jane Lewty in the title of her 2017 collection: In One Form To Find Another. (Which I recently touched on here: .)

I imagine that this final line was the line that supplied the letter pool for all the others: in other words, the only line written without anagrammatic constraint. I'm all the more impressed that, in the poem's other lines, the poet manages to discover "no room at the inn" and "Eiffel Tower", or contrive "annihilated front-men" and "afternoon sinner". 

If I ever say, I don’t do X, Y, or Z, or I won’t do X, Y, or Z, I will soon be propelled to do exactly that. I find myself drawn to do just that thing.

From an interview by Marlo Starr with Dora Malech and Jane Lewty (2019):

Flourish has had lots of reviews and accolades. Here are four reviews that stood out for me:

John James*, diving very deep into some of the texts and bringing out some of their wonders:

(*US poet, author of The Milk Hours (2019) -- not the Cambridge poet John James (1939-2018).)

Jane Huffman, on what distinguishes Flourish from its predecessors, and on its political currents:

Shannon Nakai, acutely suggesting that one of the book's "answers" is about how language can't deliver the meanings we really need.

Michael Quinn's review has a perspective that lies beyond the poetry world; the emphases are refreshingly different:

Here's a poem from Flourish that I suppose illustrates what Dora Malech has called its conversational aspect. 

Country songs

My man does his crying on a fast horse.
I do my best dancing with strangers.
The child screams through the moment
of silent prayer, says “It’s a free country,”
says “You and what army_.”_ You can’t
trespass on a river, you’re only in
the wrong when you step out of it
into this field. All false hopes translate
to just beginnings. There was no grace
of God. I went. No secret that the sun and
moon have always slept in separate beds.
Gives some steel, steals some time and
calls it “borrowed,” bruises and calls it
“something blue.” A red bird, a yellow bird,
not in the same hour’s frame but close
enough for their color together to make
a kind of ringing. I thought he brought
the water from the spring but he’s still
bringing. I delegated. My job is waiting.
Is drinking water. I’m learning to say
“It’s a free country: this army, but not me.”

(Poem source. Published in The New Yorker (15 August 2011).)

As we read through the poem, its context pulses like a pupil, narrowing to the American (country songs, free country) and dilating to the extra-national: a viewpoint from which a "country" implies the political entity we call a nation state; a piece of land delimited by borders, where you may or may not have permission to be, and where citizenship involves assent to laws. When people use the expression "It's a free country", that's a jocular way of saying "No need to ask for permission, do whatever you like". It means the same thing as another expression we use (in the UK anyhow), "Knock yourself out". But the poem shows us that "free country" is really a contradiction in terms, that a modern country is always a system that administers constraints and exclusions. 

Well, I'm responding to only one aspect of a couple of lines. Maybe I could also propose that the lines about the birds and the spring water are about, respectively, the arbitrary framings and the fantasy-myths that are involved in the imaginary conception of a country. But with the reservation that the poem is probably about a whole lot of other things that I'm neglecting. 

(For what it's worth, Shannon Nakai and Michael Quinn seem to take this poem in a similar spirit.)

America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes
              in precision parts factories, I'm nearsighted and
              psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

(Allen Ginsburg, end of "America" (1956).)

(Interesting to compare this poem with "Cry Unto Country", from Stet. Dora Malech has said that the very different collections Stet and Flourish were composed alongside each other, the constraint of the former generating the volubility of the latter.)

I'm unwilling to leave this post without quoting another poem I've been admiring, though I do have a feeling I'm quoting a bit too much. I don't think this one is in any of the four collections listed above.


A real reader would find
the vowels expendable,
mere diacritic spoor
on a path worn right
to left by sacred sense,

but I still cling to handle
and doorknob, lurch
stone to stone without
seeing the stream, pick
at each spot until it scars—

paw print, dead-end road,
bullet hole, ball falling
down the stairs, distant
planet, dropped crutch—
I can’t even remember

their names, except shva,
which sticks somehow:
a dot on a dot like a colon
preceding explanation,
though it falls un-followed

here, un-sound or nearly,
deferral, demurral, rest or
restlessness, catch in
the throat at a question
I can’t begin to ask.

(Poem source.)

[Niqqud is one type of diacritic in Hebrew. I didn't know about it, so apologies if I say it wrong. But basically it's a system of mainly dots (hence "spoor", "stone to stone", "spot", "bullet-hole". . .) showing the vowel value that follows the annotated consonant. The niqqud system is now not used in many contexts, not least because some of the traditional niqqud values don't represent how the vowel is actually pronounced today, but are considered too hallowed to be changed.]

The poem evokes and eventually goes into the throat and makes the sounds of someone stumbling through an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar script. Like a toddler learning to walk, clinging to handles of doors and cupboards that might easily swing open and deposit us on our backsides.  I suppose the "question" connects up with Shannon Nakai's "answer" and with the word I kept using, "inquiring". I suppose the poem's a question about questions, with more than a glance at the Book of Job. 

Dora Malech also makes visual art. This one, I think, is called Safe Passage I. Image source: , where you can see lots of others too. 

Just published: Tim Allen's Peasant Tower

by Michael Peverett

Disengagement Books is delighted to announce the publication of Peasant Tower, Tim Allen's latest poetry book.

Peasant Tower is a book-length poem that ranges by public transport across chequerboard city centres. The aesthetics of Aragon, Queneau and X-Ray Spex collide to pierce stratiform mundanity with shafts of disorienting light. 

Peasant Tower by Tim Allen.
Published: 2021.
Pages: 50.
Price: £8.50 (UK) $12.10 (US) €10.00 (Europe) $15.40 (Australia) $14.60 (Canada)

Buy Peasant Tower here

Sample extract:

eggshell dates frock shop walk-in wrecking ball
passenger absently watches mid-air fuel change

unbaptised bee tumbles in through fire door
filing system has feelings just as the dirty peanut does

brown wine with a head wins plain grey pennant 
he does penance for coveting her pittance

what happened to him hasn’t happened in her notebook
on first name terms with happy history teachers

patriot larger than a country is smaller than this city
ceremonial matchstick archly complaining

film director stands out in swarm of snappers
litter on radar skittles behind vehicle

skis clutter up left luggage 
get your tongue around the yawn of an afternoon prayer

bums and faces but no overheads
stories in which young men’s wallets are cuckoo clocks

incinerator in church cellar
a bird with eleven feet gets accepted by the establishment

messing around with an extraction fan
emasculated by a dowsing stick

subeditor crosses out coincidences in crossword 
e.g. bus shelter in cathedral crypt

gull on its tod on refuse tip reads scorched love letter
vintage carnival route empty of the peanut

she stands back-to-front before a lost child
motorcycle sidecar carrying a demolished block of flats

(c) Tim Allen, 2021.

Steve Spence's review in Litter:

Billy Mills' review in Elliptical Movements:

Disengagement Books enquiries: please email michaelpeverett AT live DOT co DOT uk

immesurable divisions? (Jennifer K. Dick)

by Michael Peverett

Anemone nemorosa. Frome, 19 March 2021.

When we poetry readers move between different poems, there's a kind of leakage across our readings, they're not insulated. I came from thinking about Sir John Davies' 1599 poem Nosce Teipsum, a philosophical account of the soul, and my questions about the distinctness of personal identity seemed to proceed uninterrupted into the dramatically modern turbulence of what I picked up next:  

Place :
                Is a
                    in the means of

                A singlular
               locale [isn't/it?]

                                                    Are numbers of years spent
                                                    to account for :
               [opt out
               or into :]
                                                        divisions ?
That which is rent from one

In this movement

a cultural-linguistic
                                                   name     home
                                                   plane     schlept car
                                                   shipped to walk
                                                                                      --and then
locate the "exile" in "reconciliation"
of frontiers and calculable numbers
of words available in each of her tongues
un-cross-stitched from what one was / is          

the average
               stamp thumped on a block of papers
               declares her                        Hearing
                                                                          is in
                                           a quieter tone:       this
place of all echoes
                                           the palimpsestic

This is the beginning of the first of a group of five poems by Jennifer K. Dick in the anthology women: poetry: migration ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (theenk Books, 2017). My thoughts still ran on Sir John Davies' soul: is it both single and singular, or does it only appear single by being singular ("singlular")? Or single by virtue of appearing to be only in one place; but are places meaningfully distinct from the soul's perspective? 

But tonight I read the poem more as about migration, about humans in different places. (Jennifer K. Dick was born in Iowa and lives in Mulhouse (France).)

But still, there's a questioning of singleness and demarcation that's deeply ingrained in this text. Words aren't just words, they are activated words. They are constantly being marked as quotations, italicized, capitalized, parenthesized, question-marked, energetically spaced across the line, creatively misspelled, multilingual, and conversing with each other by meaning (meant, means), rhyming (meant, spent, rent) or partial repetition (schlept, shipped; exile, reconcile). Stop jogging my elbow while I'm trying to read! That's what I imagine a traditional reader protesting (and I still have that traditional reader buried inside somewhere). This writing interrupts the flow, it asks us how the word reached us, about intention and control. It says that words conceal as well as reveal. That, after all, reality is outside the words, we might need to look past them and not just through them. 

The quotations are from a book by Erín Mouré, so Jennifer's poems are building on a practice that´s already inclined to multivocality and multilingualism. Like when we build two towers of bricks and then try to put one on top of the other. It courts a collapse of what separates one from another or inside from outside. Which is a recurrent image in her poems. As here in the fourth poem,  

the lost, regurgitated sandstorm
grit on windowless windowsill

a poem that considers ruined buildings and Alzheimers and "wherein our particulars vanish..". 


Sure, you left the newspaper articles, fragments of
windows to be replaced, the beige sawdust coating the blackened
broken cement, the shattered café front.

from What holds the body, in a section that considers explosions as well as balancing on a tightrope (Sourced from here: ).

Some say that the first fundamental of primitive life was the cell wall. Only when there's separation can life exist, evolve, create. And that's how most of us think, most of the time. To write a poem you start with a new page or empty screen, you paint on a blank canvas, you make dinner when you've wiped down the sides, you begin to build a home by laying down a clean foundation. This is poetry that wonders what's at stake in these ideas of infection and apartheid, and whether we can think it differently. 

There's a good amount of Jennifer's poetry available online, and a good list on her website. Or rather, two lists:

Poems in English:
Poems in French:


I'm currently reading the long extract from Enclosure here:

I'm not sure if it's part of ENCLOSURES (2007), or part of Lilith: a novel in fragments (2019), or neither. It's grounded on Ovid's Echo and Narcissus: echoes and reflections and eyes. Here are two extracts:

She is within her                       a repetition,                       a mirror, silvered-over

                             surfacing,                       mirage

leaden,                                     lead,                                     to be leading

                                               Some part or point of
voice bleeding                          over,                                     into paper
                             scratches                against,                     she scrapes

This is like a gasp
                             she says
                                                She wants to say
                                                                                            to be saying


A sleight for stored eyes        a staff to unsever her deprived by thankless Athens
In her mind's lyre            in the wind's mire opposed to the twilight of her trial        perceptive
Rail        immediate        redolent        mind her eye or vigilance kept contagion
if this were catching     she should advise he keep a sharp        look heed ahead out the
mischievous signs "o mine tie, thine..." tapered to, knotted        were she but one-sighed or
willowlike a cypress-Cyclops mounting with aramisapians—if time should prove to be
so sure as seeking with half a fly-on-the-wall      peek though the needle      spin
her waifish body suddenly perceived heavily-handed         as a camel's two-thump inability
to pass through eyeing the spire of the storm         screen-hurricane periphery
casting a sheep's, a glad, an open   


aramisapians -- transforming Arimaspians, a legendary one-eyed tribe of northern Scythia. 


Two poems by Jennifer K. Dick on Jerome Rothenberg's Poems and Poetics blog. "Boundary" and "Timber Hitch" are from an in-progress project called Shelf Break that uses a lot of nautical terms. (Somewhat ironically for an Iowan, as she notes.)

Here's section 2 of "Timber Hitch": 

median of misconceptions
mesopelagic tropical
amoebic dysentery
diatribe or troubled
spindly motors,
mortar, cracks,
fissures, figments
glint atop the gangway
gate or plate
schlepped up on
deck the
chained the
hauled the
cratered cargo
ruinporn ornamentation
a lapsus
“next to baroque mermaids”                                DA, 58

["DA, 58" references a quote from a translation of Demosthenes Agrafiotis.]


But now those mermaids and the troubled Mmms of that opening are drifting this post and me off to another kind of mermaid, another melting of separation, the half-shark half-human Girl of Lisa Samuels' Tender Girl (Dusie, 2015). This current debate about definition and singleness has many aspects and many contributors.  

In the following extract Girl has found some books/barques.

Having decided, Girl moved there. She was clawed in time with barque masks. She collects herself for a while, herself several damp examples leaning on the pulpit by the end of the rented hall, and she would give them up next time she felt herself leaving town. But the hall was comforting, it was renewable and unlikely, her slapping feet from one end to the next. 

The hot wine drunk down her throat. To be alone and yet populated with exemplars was an aim she was learning to adopt alongside books with lists of names, one anchored to the next and the next, one heaving according to time, another according to license or locale, another simple alphabetic comforting. She had these by her strange eating, piece by piece, piled thin. The sniffing of the skins of the books taught her how to think and speak here. 

(Tender Girl, p. 46)

Anemone nemorosa. Frome, 19 March 2021.

Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa, Sw: Vitsippa). Throughout most of the British Isles (our only native Anemone). Throughout southern half of Sweden and more sporadically up to Jämtland. It also grows a long way up the Norwegian coast, about as far as Bodø. Anemone = windflower. Nemorosa = of the woods, shady places. 

The Swedish name Vitsippa means White Sippa. "Sippa" is a Swedish flower-name given to various attractive Anemone/Hepatica/Pulsatilla species in the Ranunculaceae, and also to the unrelated Dryas octopetala ("Fjällsippa") in the Rosaceae. The others are: 

Blåsippa (Blue Sippa): Hepatica or Liverleaf, Hepatica nobilis. Beloved early spring flower in most of Sweden. Not in British Isles except as garden escape. 
Gulsippa (Yellow Sippa): Yellow Anemone, Anemone ranunculoides. Uncommon from Skåne to Jämtland. Not in British Isles except as rare garden escape.
Tovsippa: (Tuft Sippa) Anemone sylvestris. Big white flowers, rare on Gotland and Öland. Not in British Isles.
Nipsippa: (River-erosion-sandbank Sippa) Pulsatilla patens. Rare in Gotland and Ångermanland. Not in British Isles. It occurs across Russia to Kamschatka and also in NW America (ssp. multifida).
Mosippa (Sand-heath Sippa): Pale Pasqueflower, Pulsatilla vernalis. Uncommon from Skåne to Jämtland. Not in British Isles.
Fältsippa (Field Sippa): Pulsatilla pratensis. Rare in S. and E. Sweden to Uppland. Not in British Isles.
Backsippa (Hill Sippa): Pasqueflower, Pulsatilla vulgaris. Uncommon from Skåne to Uppland, formerly more common. Uncommon in S. England, mostly Cotswolds/Chilterns.
Fjällsippa (Mountain Sippa): Mountain Avens, Dryas octopetala. Local in the fells, Jämtland and north. Very local in northern British Isles (e.g. the Burren, N. Wales, Scotland). 

permanent temporariness (Donna Stonecipher's Model City)

 by Michael Peverett

Finally tidying seven years of emails, I came across a forgotten Amazon token for £10 (I must have done a survey or something), and since it was about to expire, I hastily spent it on the first modern poetry book that came to mind. Well, not quite the first -- the first two or three turned out to be not available or too expensive -- but then I struck lucky with Donna Stonecipher's Model City (2015), so that's the gleaming new addition to my bookcase, and I'm very pleased with it. I can even forgive the square format, though it inconveniently sticks out of the shelf, stealing precious footprint from a room not over-blest with it. 

I'm a bit over half-way through reading it, and it certainly is a poetry book that I think most people would want to read in that straight-through just like a novel way -- not that the order of the poems necessarily matters, but there's just no obvious reason for doing anything else, because all the poems look very alike.  

Last time I wrote about Donna Stonecipher I quoted Model City [1] :

Today I wanted to quote another poem in full, so I looked about on the internet for one that was already out there, and came up with this: 

Model City [17]

It was like watching the city slowly powdered over with snow from your bedroom window, the molecular makeup of the city slowly altered through powdery intimations of ossification.


It was like watching the snow slowly powder over the construction site across the street, which will one day be a hotel, the snow filling in the space temporarily where one day there will be permanent temporariness.


It was like slowly coming to think of the snow as permanent, the construction site as permanent, the grand opening of the hotel permanently postponed, the spring postponed, the grand opening of the crocuses.


It was like feeling powdered over with snow oneself, as one is part of the city; apart from it, watching it from the window, to be sure; but a part of it, a powdered-over temporary part. 


The only time I was in Berlin, it was April and the city was snowy, not a powder but a soft wet snow that fell continually, and melted at nearly the same rate. 

The city in Model City is mainly Berlin, often recognizably Berlin, but that begs the question. These poems are about the city only in an indirect sense; what they are directly about is the imagined city, the conceived city, the contemplated city. It's a city seen from a musing, moony distance. As far as I've read, the contemplated city hasn't much traffic (though a delivery truck just turned up in Model City [42] ), or working life, or family life, or energy infrastructure or economics or laundry or day-care or markets. The poetry contemplates a stillness. It's drawn to empty real estate, blank billboards, clean sea-shells, historic bullet holes, snow-powdered construction sites in which no-one is doing any constructing. 

And yet for all the stillness in the poetry the city has its teeming crowds, its crowds busy and moving, as on escalators in a silent movie, inferred but unquestionably there. There's an inaudible buzz of chatter.

It was like standing in the midst of a city park with a friend who shows you that if you stare too long at the artificial waterfall, then look away, the waterfall will suddenly start to rush not down, but up. 

(from Model City [24])

It was like trying to find a café that was not a Starbucks or Balzac or Einstein in an unknown city known for its coffeehouses, and finally giving up and ordering a tall skinny latte with the familiar chaste mermaid on the cup.

(from Model City [30])

I wanted to illustrate this post with a photo from that time I visited Berlin (it was 2013, my stepdaughter Kyli was living there), but I couldn't track down those photos in my storage and began to wonder if I'd lost them all, those snowy Berlin buildings and just before that the loud fireworks in Valencia. 

It was like the start of a poem in the manner of a poet you've been immersed in for long enough to start expressing what you believe are your own thoughts in the manner of that poet. 

sinople eye (Sarah Howe's Loop of Jade)

by Michael Peverett 

Dame's Violet (Hesperis matronalis). Frome, 6 June 2021.

[A mainland European species grown in gardens for its flowers and fragrance. Often naturalized in the British Isles and in southern Sweden (Sw: Aftonviol, Trädgårdsnattviol).]

I've been reading Sarah Howe's 2015 poetry collection Loop of Jade. And, what seems to be incurred by that, doing a lot of reading round it too. These poems tend to point away from themselves, in many directions.

It's made me spend even longer than usual on Wikipedia, mugging up on e.g. vernier calipers ("Chinoiserie"), Pythagoras ("Pythagoras's Curtain"), Guandong ("Crossing from Guandong"), the Three Gorges Dam ("Yangtze"), junipers ("Night in Arizona"), exogamy and the Polanski movie Chinatown ("(h) the present classification").

Sometimes I ran across the very expression that is cast up in the poem: "neo-noir" for Polanski's film, and Pythagoras's akousmata illuminating the poem's strange word "acousmatic". Well, no surprise, Sarah Howe is an enthusiastic delver into Wikipedia herself. 


                                                        . . . I read
how the groom's family by Chinese tradition
should gift to her kinsmen a piglet, milk-fed . . .

when quite satisfied the bride's still intact.
I imagine your mother cranking the spit.
Crackling's coy, brittle russet then succulent fat --
that atavistic aroma make me salivate,

you physically sick. So as pet names go, Shikse's
not a bad fit. (I did play your Circean temptress . . .)
Wikipedia says it comes down from Leviticus,
how your God labelled creatures unclean to ingest . . .

This is most of the sonnet "(d) Sucking pigs"; I'd like to have quoted it all, but it's not online yet.  

I was OK on Circe and her swine because it was a story that drove a number of the Renaissance masques I wrote about recently
But I needed Menachem Kaiser's in-depth article "Is 'shiksa' an insult?", originally published in the L.A. Review of Books:
And I also needed Xu Bing's account of the performance piece that's mentioned towards the end of the poem:

The sonnet meditates on Sarah Howe's own marriage; her Chinese background, her husband's Jewish background. 

The information about the sucking pig is decontextualized; whatever the truth of this old custom (who did it, when), it's treated here more as a fancy than a fact. The poem plays with these gobbets of "information", combining them, allowing them to be symbolic and "speak volumes",  applying them like people trying on outfits. 

And yet the effect isn't playful. Our ethnic/national self-identities are constructed by us of precisely this kind of internalized stuff, sucked gobbets welcomed as prejudicial guides to life in ways they really aren't. 

A lot of the poems in Loop of Jade grow out of a painfully diligent search for connection with an elusive heritage (Sarah grew up in Hong Kong until she was eight; her mother was Chinese but being adopted had no family). 

But in this fretting sonnet there's a disgusted glimmering of recognition about how meaningless and divisive and harmful it all is. An insight that's too reductive, an insight on which no-one can finally rest. But an insight all the same. 


No less so is the poem "(l) Others", at least in its final tittering. 

our future children's skeins, carded. 

"Carded" implies a homogenization, a straightening out, of the at-least-four ethnic yarns in the future children's mix. But it's also a new beginning: the poem quotes Darwin, registering the wonderment of genesis or genetics: have been, and are being, evolved. There's a defiant celebration, too, in "They wouldn't escape by the Mischlinge Laws". 

And yet this poem registers a continuing hostility, too. There are always tyrannies around. If it's not our "blood" or our "race" or our "caste", is it the determinism inherent in science's impositions, is it the tribal and public control we seem unable to outgrow? 


A poetic so driven by the play of information must run up against questions of truth. Back in 2013 Sarah Howe discussed this in connection with false memories she had imported into a draft poem, "Loop of Jade" (in the published version, some are changed, some half-changed, some unchanged).

In another poem here, "(e) Sirens", she discusses with the same frankness her misinterpretation of Theordore Roethke's line in "Elegy for Jane"her sidelong pickerel smile. She had always thought of "pickerel" as a fish; now she "discovers" it must have meant a wading bird all along. 

As it happens I'm perfectly sure she was right the first time. "Pickerel" as a wading bird is, as far as I can see, a purely Scottish usage that Roethke wouldn't have known or considered for a moment. The enlightened Sarah's desperate attempt to make a meaningful smile out of a dunlin's "stretched beak" is an imaginative chimera (which, not coincidentally, is the topic of the poem that follows). [That Roethke's poem mentions several other birds is neither here nor there -- yes, it could suggest that "pickerel" is also a bird, but the observation works just as well as an argument against "pickerel" meaning yet another bird.]

But anyway, Sarah's poem has already laughed off its author's pubby "research", confesses it doesn't know whether Roethke's word is fish or fowl. It's not exactly a laughing poem though. A clutch of themes about the elusiveness of truth and meaning run like a central core through the collection. The discourse of the world, its endless glibness and filtering; its information that isn't; the way that, even when we're not being lied to, we still contrive to deceive ourselves. And the temptation to silence that comes from being over-sensitized to the falsity of discourse. Well, what good is silence? 

Greater Stitchwort (Rabelera holostea). Frome, 5 June 2021.

[The above scientific name was proposed in 2019, following some phylogenetic work. Up to then Greater Stitchwort had always been Stellaria holostea. Throughout British Isles. In Sweden it's quite common in the far south, but rare elsewhere (Sw: Buskstjärnblomma).]

It thuds into my chest, this pendent
ring of milky jade --
I wear it strung on an old watch chain --

meant for a baby's bracelet. Into its
smooth circlet
I can -- just -- fit a quincunx of five

fingertips. Cool on my palm it rests --
the sinople eye
on a butterfly's wing. When I was born

she took it across to Wong Tai Sin,
my mother's mother,
to have it blessed. I saw that place --

its joss-stick incensed mist, the fortune-
casting herd,
their fluttering, tree-tied pleas -- only later

as a tourist.

(from "Loop of Jade". You can see a longer extract here.)

This extract comes from towards the end of the poem. The poet's delivery is suddenly afflicted by a striking hesitancy that recalls something it talked about earlier, her mother's hesitations. As if we've finally reached a point loquacity can't touch, where little is reliable. 

Like Roethke's "pickerel", "sinople" is a word with contradictory definitions. It's a colour word but, like the word "livid", can refer to several very different colours. The OED examples for "sinople" are about equally split between green and rusty red. Actually, that kind of works here. The loop of jade itself is I suppose green, and within its circle the shadowed palm of the hand could be a sort of ferruginous shade. For after all, it's the combination of the two that resembles the eye on a butterfly's wing: both the demarcating ring, and the contrasting colour that fills it. (E.g. a Peacock butterfly or a Mountain Apollo.)

But if you think "sinople" might also have attracted the poet by its sino- prefix I think you'd be right. (Sinopoly is in fact the name of a couple of Chinese technical companies.) Sound plays quite an important role in these poems, in their awareness of and participation in semantic leakage. Think of the sequence sick-shikse-Wikipedia in the lines I quoted earlier. 

Perhaps "quincunx" is another example of this questing looseness. It ought to mean the pattern exemplified by the five on a dice: a central spot and four corner-spots. Try as I may, I don't see that you would shape your fingertips into a quincunx pattern to fit them into a ring. The fingertips are bound to be arranged more like five petals, I reckon. 

Saxifrage, garden cultivar. Frome, 5 June 2021.

[A cultivar of hybrid origin, I imagine. The leaves and tufted habit generally resemble Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), but it has more flowers on each stem than the wild plants -- comparable in that respect to Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata).] 

Dave Coates, in his useful post  on Loop of Jade, directed me to Sarah Howe's 2013 series of five meditative travel articles titled "To China" on the BestAmericanPoetry website; well worth reading for their own sake, and they are also (I thought) an indispensable companion to the poetry collection that followed. They're all listed here:

Martyn Crucefix on Loop of Jade:
Naomi on Loop of Jade:

Tim Allen: Three Phobias


I always take Ramipril on purpose hourly or between indecent ateliers. 

Blow up the bridges. Block the lane. Barricade the stairs. In the poky suntrap of an office that welcomes guests to the mansion teaching 60’s secretaries to type the gothic tales of cub-journalists Bob Dylan sits suffering chronic telephobia. He cannot change the tune but he can amend the lyrics which theoretically could go on forever in a never-ending tour of God’s waiting rooms. When the phone rings he picks up nervously and says hello this is the wild Rowans and buffeted bays of Connacht speaking.   

Blow up the bridges. Block the lane. Barricade the stairs. A horse drawn gig approaches in the valley and will soon climb the hill getting closer and closer so blow up the birds with the kiss of death and block the badgers with the medicines of moths and barricade the bats in the cellar with the final performances of George Melly and Mark. E. Smith but be sure to be long-gone by the time the physician comes in snorting and sweating more than his horse as he hands his hat to the maid and bounds up the stairs three at a time clutching his 


This bag is toxic silence but without the solace of leeches.
This bag is a Pandora’s box but without the nuclear deterrent. 
This bag is stuffed with Jack the Ripper magazines but without Gottfried Benn poems.

On arriving in the sickroom the Gladstone takes a deep breath then settles down on the deathbed with a self-satisfied sigh. It stays shut but a miniature portrait of the patient shakes inside its closed brass clasp. The Gladstone is tough inside and out. It’s tougher than you sick dead person. Steel lining lies snug around its compartments where nothing is left lagging in the cladding of rambling shrubbery except a decoy duck with shingles. The doc’s cough is bottled to preserve the room’s brambling bourgeois incoherencies without having to wait in triage picking at a jar of aspic entombing Renfield’s flies that preamble the rebirth of lanes trooping across humped bridges looking for the stairs during ambling country miles of extreme unction or to put it another way to cut open a long story in order to shorten a different one the bag does indeed burst with short stories cut from much longer ones.


I caught herring to harvest your oily pancake here on boat’s insidious altarpiece.

This would be a good morning to cheat the gods. A cold clear day in sun’s sharp shadow. The morning invites images it has no room for which is an omen of good fortune for as long as the gods are looking the other way towards the Jacobin plotters with their weekend flea market scholarships. An image not given elbow room is casual trade selling water features with a bit of foreign brio. Yea this stuff is complicated… as Pam Ayres said: I wish I’d looked after me hard parts.

The invitation is itself the rejection – symbiosis is horror.

The quayside is straight out of a novel. The boats are straight out of the night. After a hair-of-the-dog breakfast the glamour-puss and rough handsome fisherman curve in from the world of therapeutic visualisation to meet a little breathless on the harbour wall. This is the opportune moment for imagining that the day ahead will provide not just for need but for neediness. Some for example need Raymond Queneau. Others need Jacques Cousteau and crave conversation with the drowned witches who live in the row of cottages called Pen-Pal Street, a place where the term pebble dashed means what it says. The fact that the seawall has now become a drawbridge should not be a drawback any more than the scuttled shoes handbags and teeth decorating the aquarium are there for your own amusement, not for palaeontology. 

It’s alright being spare with the details but not positively mean with them. 

When I was small those cottages were worth a bag of chips. Now they equal a beached whale breaching dreams of Britany. Not Britain. And what if they were so-called literary dreams? A Catholic lad’s cultural allowance includes nicking poetic inventories to carry down the ladders and audited levels of pre-Cambrian language whirlwinded by puns through subterranean latitudes into an ecosphere of shrewd philosophical diversion, disabused washrooms and rusty nickelodeons, re-cranked. When dream becomes reality the realisation that the limits of each are the infinity of the other is a real blow so roll with it, bounce up into an uncommon market where the old writing skills can find a job filleting mythological creatures on a great communal slab of granite where generation after generation of toilers had seen out their days. 

There is no such thing as self-sacrifice.


In southern orbits peptides terrorise every red orchid pruned hoarded or built inside attachment.

The cemetery is narrow with just enough space for a path and a row of top-to-toe heaps. You enter by one gate and leave by the gate at the far end. That’s why I never caught you up. On every plot there is a blank headstone and to the left of the path a man-high hedge but I am not man-sized so could not see over but I didn’t need to because I knew what was there, the unnerving land of the living and the lots of the crawling wood eaters. On the right behind the graves is another wall but I had no idea what lay beyond it. I did guess though - allotments in which abandoned church organs provided shelter for various little animals through the day and the terminally ill through the night but now I know different. Now that my longed-for celebrity status has caught up with my life I’ve been taken on a tour.

In my first year at Teacher’s Training College in 1970 I lived on-site in a building named after Siegfried Sassoon who recognised me as a fellow poetic talent as did a cool chisel-faced lad called Paul. He dressed in rocker denims and said he had been in The Paramounts, the nascent Procol Harum. He liked me but was very unpopular with the others in the block who never spoke to him because he was an arrogant loner who didn’t give a fuck what they thought. Anyway, he pops-up here because he wrote a really interesting poem about a city in which the mindless and conforming population behave like a colony of ants. I’m not sure what Siegfried’s opinion was of Paul or his poem as he was years ahead of us both and Paul was two years ahead of me as well so I never caught up him with him either.

I returned from the tour with a renewed regard for the land of the living and found myself wearing their trainers. Their city is the largest psychiatric hospital on the planet and every term spent there is a mighty pillar of municipal vim crisscrossed with shafts and corridors and arrows pointing as only arrows can to the total care of the hospital canteen where zest is ground into the most inaccessibly tiny corner of every cake. Somebody has to make the advert for pest control so it might as well be Tony Blair soaked in citric acid and Keira Knightly. Blair’s minions have set-up a marquee as a makeshift chapel of scientology.

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