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.
long looping strands (Penelope Shuttle's Adventures With My Horse(1988))
Favourite lines? Well yes, those are easy to find.
snouts succulent,these sisters lie outspread, five cordial orchidsagainst mother's blushing pungent bulk,
As old as these nesting cloudsthat water-lily the void together,
... 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.
He lifts the clay in both handsand thuds it down on the wooden benchtop,... then pressing the weight of his spread handsdown on it; the air must be forced out.He grabs the clay up, throws it down,beats it with his fists again. He punchesand 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 outin 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.
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 stagethe lovers embrace between red curtainscaught on five gold rings;the soles of her feetand the tips of her toesare scarlet as some phoenixher red fingertips have held;across her face turned from himis the faintest veil;otherwise she is like himnaked to the waist,then swirled in big clinging pantsof crimson silk;his face as smooth and passionatea profile as sheon their red-curtained Indian couch,like sonneteers on a rose-patterned mattress;the two pearls hung in his pierced earquiver and her long looping strandsof pearls that fall from neck to waistand meet behind her back in a shining haltershiver 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 stillnessfor us to see how their watchful easebetween the curtains,their preliminaries and his handbeneath her elbowmirror the only way of solvingthe redness of those curtains,the treasure of pearls,of feeling the air lifted upon its golden ringsand rocking us;familiar to us, these loversat 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)
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,
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.
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.
Country songsMy man does his crying on a fast horse.I do my best dancing with strangers.The child screams through the momentof silent prayer, says “It’s a free country,”says “You and what army_.”_ You can’ttrespass on a river, you’re only inthe wrong when you step out of itinto this field. All false hopes translateto just beginnings. There was no graceof God. I went. No secret that the sun andmoon have always slept in separate beds.Gives some steel, steals some time andcalls it “borrowed,” bruises and calls it“something blue.” A red bird, a yellow bird,not in the same hour’s frame but closeenough for their color together to makea kind of ringing. I thought he broughtthe water from the spring but he’s stillbringing. I delegated. My job is waiting.Is drinking water. I’m learning to say“It’s a free country: this army, but not me.”
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 lathesin precision parts factories, I'm nearsighted andpsychopathic anyway.America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.(Allen Ginsburg, end of "America" (1956).)
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.
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)
|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:
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 sandstormgrit on windowless windowsill
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: http://www.dcpoetry.com/anthology/25 ).
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:
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.)
diatribe or troubled
glint atop the gangway
gate or plate
schlepped up on
“next to baroque mermaids” DA, 58
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.
|Anemone nemorosa. Frome, 19 March 2021.|
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  :
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 
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  ), 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 )
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 )
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.
our future children's skeins, carded.
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 pendentring of milky jade --I wear it strung on an old watch chain --meant for a baby's bracelet. Into itssmooth circletI can -- just -- fit a quincunx of fivefingertips. Cool on my palm it rests --the sinople eyeon a butterfly's wing. When I was bornshe 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 lateras a tourist.
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:
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 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.
Peter Philpott, Telling the Beads (2020)
where is there to go?everything fullutterly greenlie on the lawnwatch the swiftsyip, yip, yip
I'm of course a fully-signed up fan... See e.g. this piece about Peter Philpott's previous collection Wound Scar Memories (2017): http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.com/2018/03/in-and-around-peter-philpotts-wound.html .
But my obsession with Telling the Beads (2020) didn't kick in at once. It is, at first sight, a complicated sort of book. Peter supplies an engaging introduction that guides us through the various ingredients and formal features. Obscure Dark Age history, Brecht, the seasons, modern Stortford, modern poetry... It was all a bit too much to take in, so what happened was, I tried to read a bit, developed some questions, went back to the introduction, sighed, read a bit more, had new questions. . .
But gradually these short dips became longer and happier, I didn't need to consult the introduction any more, I felt habituated. And then the real reading began, and the real questions, the things the introduction can't answer.
Telling the Beads is a calendrical structure, beginning and ending in summer. Its contents are variously seasonal, contemporary, lyrical, autobiographical, philosophical; but there's also an underlying Dark-Age story about Unwin and his war-party. The book has illustrations sourced from Victorian popular histories. It proposes a kind of undogmatic polytheism in place of both theism and atheism (e.g. with reference to the goddesses in some of Bede's month-names).
Unwin's story has an ending, like Colin Clout's story in The Shepheardes Calendar, but in each case the poem is more than the story, and for its readers the invitation is patent, to just keep going round and round. (cf. Carol Watts' 2011 book Occasionals , another summer-to-summer poem.) I reckon I've walked the whole course of Telling the Beads three or four times now, and I'm not done yet. I'd like to run it.
The book is organized by months, the traditional Anglo-Saxon months reported by Bede. (There are extra intercalary days at Yule and Lithe (=midsummer).) Another input is Bertolt Brecht's 1927 poetry collection Die Hauspostille , whence comes the idea of a manual of piety that's hostile to orthodox religion. Telling the Beads plays with the idea of being a devotional book, and it really is a devotional book. Its subtitle is A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times after Bede & Brecht. (In other respects I don't see much Brecht here, but others may.)
Each month begins with a strophic head poem, with a coda (an intriguing "oracular sentence", and a skittish open-field poem). Then come the holy days for the month, a mix of poems and prose. These holy days mostly turn out to be ordinary days, which are extraordinary days. They are titled, e.g. "A Day for a Pleasant Walk in Gentle Rain" or (its predecessor) "A Day to Think on the Oppressions Caused by Organised Religions".
But apparently this arrangement still wasn't quite intricate enough for Peter's purposes. So, for instance, the third holy day in each month references Tove Jansson's illustrations to The Hobbit, as seen on his calendar in the kitchen. The number of holy days increases each month until Yule (from 3 to 8), then decreases to midsummer (8 back to 3).
What Peter doesn't fully disclose is the fixed pattern of the holy day sections, which are suffixed a to h. At its full extent (in Before Yule (6) and After Yule (7)): a is verse, b is prose (sometimes with diagrams), c is prose (the Tove Jansson one), d is verse, e is prose-verse-prose, f is epigraph-prose-verse-prose, g is prose, and h is a twelve-point list.
Nor does he disclose that things start to change, especially in the second half of the book. The a poems stop following the strophic form of their own head poem and instead begin echoing the forms of earlier months, running backwards: i.e. 7a has the strophic form of 6, 8a has the strophic form of 5, etc. This carries on until 12a, which you would expect to match 1 but actually matches 2, the same as 11a did. (Meanwhile 8f fails to contain any inset verse; "Unwin did not make song on this theme", it tells us.)
Something else, too. In the poems of the first three months the stanzas (or strophes) are elaborately matched line for line, by morphed vocabulary and meaning, an aspect of Peter's poetry that I've previously termed "phrase transformation". It's half an echo, half a dialogue. As an example, here's the head poem for Holy Month (3):
look! another time to startthis year has nothing but, solook at what it gives ussummer again (all brief)and a chance to dig inharvesting slow to makedue sacrifice to all the powersmanifold & circumambientlast brightness in the airit starts with us all togetheryou can say we begin with nothingexcept what the world now gives usinsects again & all small lifethronging where we digharvesting in the middle of decaypreparing what is due to livemany folded around uslost in the brightness of the airLet's just hold it togetherbegin again with nothingopen to what the world giveslife innumerable & delicatebursting out where we digharvest triumphs over decaypreparing some brief escapeour lives are folded in this worldlost within its final brief air
This resonance is still discernible in months 4 to 7, but only just. Then it's gone until Aretha Month (9) when we suddenly catch its elusive presence between two poems. In 11a it's there but restricted to the last line of each stanza. Finally (head poem of 12) it returns in something like its full effect.
In short, there's literally no end to discovering features if you want to, but you don't have to. It's like the book of nature.
Reading this poetry means experiencing a paradox, or rather many paradoxes.
The poems are both silly and wise, both simple and complex, both committed and uncommitted, both casual and engaged, both mundane and grand, both throwaway and crafted, both reverent and irreverent.
When I wrote about Wound Scar Memories I talked about this as the expression of the poet's character, the "Peter of the poems". But in Telling the Beads what seems more prominent is that these paradoxes are a way of staying true to a particular vision of life, a vision purged of idealism and authority but humble, credible and warm-hearted.
You can imagine that the word "now" might feature largely in poems so linked to specific times of year, and so it proves. Along with "this" and "here", it chimes through the book. But the word is less prominent in midsummer and almost absent in winter. Does this prove anything? I suppose not. But I feel that it's attentive to our common experience; that "now" correlates with times of the year when we're keenly aware of change: the earlier nightfall in August, the approach of winter in November, proper spring in April. And it's less prominent at those times of year when our main sense is of each day being much like the next.
Occurrences of "now" in Telling the Beads (I've ignored the prose. hp = head poem)
All the diffuse & varying thingsthe somewhere & the arbitrary constraintswhat is the use?not subtlenot some controlling grammar, nojust the inheritance again from arbitrary powerthat won't outlast our deaths there-fore shouldn't outlast our liveseven though the weather breeds submissionthis life can be amendedcakesmade of flower, eggs, milk & fruitsmall knots of resurrected sunlightcrunching against our teethno oneneeds that dying worthlessnessthis month is short as the sun returns
|Mud Cake Month|
Billy Mills on Telling the Beads:
Billy's post gives a better sense than mine of the succession of different materials, and it persuaded me to listen out for the individual character of the poems, though I dare say that's not very apparent.
Peter Riley has a brief notice on Telling the Beads here:
Two other posts about Telling the Beads: