Shearsman samplers

by Michael Peverett

I did buy some books. If you want to know, they were Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland (2009) and the nineteenth-century Galician poet Rosalía de Castro's Selected Poems, trans. Michael Smith (2007). Of course I am not writing about those now. (Maybe I will at some point, they are both exciting, food-for-thought, furrowed-brow kind of books, which is what I hoped for.)

I hope Tony Frazer will forgive me for posting instead about the poetry I looked at for free (i.e. the .PDF samplers). He may need to forgive me twice, first because frees don't make any money, and second because I notice that I'm apt to be a lot less reverential about writing that I personally haven't shelled out for.

Most of the samplers on Shearsman's vastly proliferous list contain the preamble, contents and the first few poems in the book. The only exceptions I’ve seen are where there was an obvious reason not to do this, e.g. in a book that offers an overview of a writer’s trajectory, it might be unrepresentative to quote the very earliest poems.

Not that this always happens. The idea of David Wevill’s Departures: Selected Poems (2003) was to bring us up to date with a poet who since his emigration to the US had gradually fallen from notice in the UK (and I admit, it was only because I'm reading a bio of Assia Wevill, once his wife, that my eye was drawn to it). But the sampler doesn’t tell us anything about what being brought up to date might be like; its selections are all from his first collection, Birth of a Shark (1964). But anyway, these poems are fascinating in their way – which is very Group, of course: the combination of violent expression with significant vagueness of application, the effect of Viking ornamentation in which writhing beasts are always swallowing each other... And for me the simultaneous perceptions, which I also get when I'm reading Thom Gunn, first that an extraordinary amount of craft has gone into making the verse, and second that for all this craft when the poem finishes the intended signification has been crammed into it, but hasn't quite fitted. E.g. the ending of Wevill's "My Father Sleeps":

                           And watching him thus
     Sprawled like a crooked frame of clothes
     In the sleep of sixty years, jaws firm,
     Breathing through the obstacle of his nose
     A stubborn air that is truth for him,
     I confront my plainest self. And feel
     In the slow hardening of my bones, a questioning
     Depth that his pride could never reveal;
     That in his sleep stirs its cruel beginning.

Can we agree that "its" refers back to "questioning depth"? Or perhaps to "my plainest self"? Or "his pride"? The last line claims something definite, we know this from the authoritative tone, but the only thing I really know about the definite something is that it's cruel. Nature is cruel. Love is cruel. Fathers and sons are cruel. And how could we not concede these facts? But something about the urgency of the revelation no longer strikes us. Fifty years is also cruel, to poetry. In a few more, perhaps, we'll come to see the point with renewed freshness of terror.

Some particularly switched-on poets have realized the significance of their book’s first few pages and thus more or less elevated the sampler into an independent form – kind of the same way that in the days before Revolver Side 1 Track 1 was always a single. It’s no accident that the first poem in Catherine Daly’s Vauxhall (and accordingly in the sampler to that book) is called “Sampler”... And perhaps this particular sampler is even more brilliant than its parent book is.

But the “first few pages” isn’t altogether a satisfactory equivalent to the kind of browsing you’d do in a bookshop, from either reader’s or publisher’s point of view. It’s true, if I was lucky enough to ever see these books in a bookshop, I probably would glance at the first few pages – but then I’d also flick through the rest of the book, see if it changes radically thereafter or it explores some quite different kind of territory later on. After all, some poetry-book openings, like Haydn first-movement introductions, positively relish their difference to what they introduce. But the sampler doesn’t tell us about this; we can only guess. From what I’ve seen in the reviews, both of Catherine Walsh’s books for Shearsman, City West (2005) and Optic Verve (2009), grow slowly out of arresting but distinctly bare beginnings. It’s great to be able to see those beginnings, but in both of them we don’t get very much further than blinking in the dark of dawn. These are books that need to be bought.

On the other hand, - another difference from the bookshop-browsing experience – the sampler does allow you, if you want to, to read its contents slowly and in detail. (If you happen to own the book, it hardly seems fair. Why should people be allowed to read,- for free, for God’s sake!! - , Daly’s “Peas / Peace”, or Elizabeth Bletsoe’s “Landscape from a Dream”?)

Anyhow, let’s allow ourselves....

And next up, Jeremy Reed again (see previous remarks). He's got a couple of newish collections here, Bona Drag from 2009 and Bona Vada from now. There was a period in my youth when I tried to keep up with Reed's publications, but we were constantly growing apart and I lost touch around Red-Haired Android (1992). So I don't know how this new poetry relates to what came immediately before it. The difference from '80s-era Reed that strikes me is a curious forthcomingness; in the past, no matter what Reed revealed about himself it was always part of the show. This is more like being inside the workshop; the locales are not diamond planets nor exotica poolsides but his own flat, his pin-up board, and the pavements of the West End; at the same time the poet is instantly recognizable. It's difficult to think of any poet who has such a trademark delivery.

     Magnolias collapse like a pink trifle,
     a mashed dessert, get flattened underfoot
     in cold abrasive thunder showers. I feel
     the planet air-pocket in spin
     like a plane thrown about by wind
     somewhere above the China sea,
     the passengers starting to crawl with sweat.

     ("Tipping Points")

OK, so it is epic diction by now (even if the main thing that's epic about the content is that there's forty books of it). Here, still as verdant as ever, are the same dependable verbs: hazing, detonating, satelliting. Reed has created an instrument that now effortlessly generates a kind of endless conversation poetry. It is not altogether a wide-open conversation, topic-wise. To qualify for entry into a Reed poem, there has to be lustre. Nothing is dull, commonplace, statistical or merely horrible. Consequently there's no direct access to the kind of grim, ugly things that get into e.g. John Wilkinson's poetry, though a similar dynamism thumps through that plane-scene. Glamour is to Reed what epiphany is to some other poets.

You want to read him fast, and in bulk: say, both of these samplers end to end. And if you do, a hurtling trajectory starts to course through your veins, and at a certain point the mad thought is sure to occur to you that in some sense this is the only poetry being written today, that what other people write isn't poetry at all. Disconcertingly, he constantly transgresses the invisible but tangible frontier that separates e.g. Keith Reid, Murray Lachlan Young or new rave Chris Gill from the "poetry world"; simulacra of poets, more perfect than the real thing. After that mad thought there's no way you can dismiss Reed as a simulacrum. But there's no school of Reed nor ever could be or should be. He's above all that. It's a unique and rather terrible gift.

I realize that once more I would like to hear him spin this delirium out of now.

Next, Giles Goodland, What the Things Sang (2009). I am cheating a bit here, because I already have the book. It's a big book, not so much in terms of pages, but definitely not one of those poetry books you can read in one sitting. The sampler contains the first three poems; one of them (“the words are deciding the next”) being a major one, longish and showing Goodland's method at something close to its most stretched and intense. Typically, as here, Goodland sets up a formal machine and starts it going. In this case, the idea is ... well, you’ll get the idea.

     leaves dance in the dust of time
     the work of the rose fills your limbs with dust
     the roses never wake
     I am fully awake in the sense mud can be wiped fully clean
     you live in the sense
     on the skin only bruises are alive
     sky is the bruise on the pond's skin
     the cloud is making the pond
     the moon's wrecking-ball fails to demolish the clouds
     the moon bursts on your finger
     inside my finger a crowd panics
     molecules idle inside a leaf
     a leaf comes under a definition
     a word struggles to fit its definition
     each word you make separates you
     sun spreads its syllable through the passages of each city
     no plant grows until it is named in sunlight

Atomically, Goodland is easy to understand; funny, gracious, wise. I imagine he’s one of the few non-mainstream poets who can win a poetry competition. And it does seem – I pause for thought – yes, it is - a strength that his work allows itself to intersect with word-constructions outside the alternative tradition. For instance, I stumbled on this “Goodland” poem yesterday.

     On the other side of the frost
     there is the colour of a bruise

     On the other side of the blackberry
     is the harvest of the moon

     On the other side of the voice
     is the absence of the waterfall

     On the other side of the ice
     is the half-satisfied sea

(selected stanzas from "'The World Has Passed'" in Penelope Shuttle's The Orchard Upstairs (1980)).

Yet the passing resemblance underlies a difference. (Whether it’s “a deeper difference” is one of the more pressing questions that arise along the way.) Shuttle, you feel sure, is working in science – regardless of whether it’s a subjective intuitive psycho-science, but you know, that’s the kind of thing it is. Or to use Aristotle’s terms, “physics”: an investigation of nature. But with Goodland’s book, the sheer luxuriant populousness of gnomic statements suggests something different; suggests a sort of architecture built out of gnomic statements whose content may be relatively unimportant; or may become relatively unimportant, as one finds new ways to read the text. Here we’re in the realm of metaphysics.

Yet content can’t be denied to such a beautiful insight as

     I am fully awake in the sense mud can be wiped fully clean

Nor indeed science to

     The glass to the water:
     only sand withstands the sea.

which is from “The map to the finger”, the first poem in the sampler. Surely, as I fancy, with some recollection of Peter Redgrove’s “On the Patio”; indeed my fancy insists that Goodland must have absorbed successive couplets from that poem:

     Because the rain eats everything except the glass
     Of spinning water that is clear down here

     But purple with rumbling depths above, and this cloud
     Is transferring its might into a glass

Because clouds, generally, are a big presence in What the Tings Snag; clouds doing things like transferring might into a glass. There’s a selection process going on here. I don’t mean just that there’s a lot about clouds, words, and poems; comparatively little about e.g. pretexts, nurses, or meeting a friend in a pub; though this is striking. But most poetry is like that, it’s difficult to be open to everything. What I mean is, when we hear about clouds, they’re always called “clouds”, never “stratocumulus” nor “vaporous cargoes of the dusk” nor indeed qualified as purple and rumbling like Redgrove’s thundercloud. Is Goodland even really interested in clouds, or is he more interested in the word “clouds” (with all that it implies about the people who share a world with it), or is he travelling along some other quite different conceptual framework in which “clouds” only labels an endpoint or a counter? There are 50 or so references to clouds in these pages to help you decide. And generally, I’ve ended up thinking that the answer is “all and some”, and maybe these three exclusives aren’t so opposed as they seem.

110 dense pages of nuggets is quite a feat of invention, but (like other composers of wisdom-literature) Goodland isn’t averse to a little discreet recycling. The heron that is a statue, the peach that earths us, and the little wordgame about “foam forms forth froth” - you have more than one chance to catch these good things. But not in identical circumstances; they are like bricks that can end up in very different structures. The potential, intrinsic problem with brick construction, poetically speaking, is lack of co-ordination. It’s beautiful, but sometimes I can hardly breathe in the rarefaction of this parataxis; in other words, it can be a bit of a list. I’m not just thinking of What the Things Sang (I couldn’t bear to correct my typo last time), I’m thinking of the book of Proverbs, and of the OE poem known as Maxims II (BM ms Cotton Tiberius Bi), and of a book Carmen once gave me called The World’s Worst Jokes.

Maybe that’s why my current favourite poem in What the Things Sang is “Self eludes me like a word...” :

...but knowledge furs in the brain’s kettle because water is hard however we weep behind the car and drive because people have heads they use to locate themselves with when they awaken even so God places me in the document because I’m an angel in relation to what existed before and each question is eventually answered by the weather because forms spend years practising shapes such as ‘tree rock cloud’ and you in fact the birds are laughing in code because we are language also ...

It’s a construction of four gigantic, somehow unconstruable, sentences whose syntax is eventually seen to be chosen for pattern and not for meaning. But even when this secret is out, the poem continues to behave, disconcertingly, as something much more than bricks, something like a sleepless night in which your skull hinges open and swallows someone else’s biography.

Coming back to the sampler, the same squint-eyed scrutiny – not too face-on – reveals “the words are deciding the next” as a meditation-experience, on an epic scale, about the word speaking and worlds being puffed into existence.

Goodbye to the age of things, someone wrote in The Guardian recently. Meaning CDs, books, pencil-boxes, board-games, clutter. In the new age we'll travel lighter. Perhaps it's in this context that Goodland's "things" are so undifferentiated: where are the commode, the chess-set, the knick-knack, the Black & Decker workbench and the Kenwood Chefette?

Shearsman has quite an impressive list of translations and the best way to view them is on this page:

For example, this is the only page on the site from which you can access the sampler of the Norwegian poet Hanne Bramness' Salt on the Eye: Selected Poems, trans. the author and Frances Presley (2007).

I can't really make up my mind about it from the sampler. This begins with a couple of poems from the early collection I sin tid (In her time, 1986). They are accumulative slow-building revelatory constructions like Tua Forsström’s, perhaps a little less aloof, and more post-Tranströmerian than Tranströmerian - I'm thinking Kjell Espmark. It's time to mention politics here. "Murder in Uppsala in June" is concerned with the plight of the Kurds (but the reference to Qamishli was written twenty years before the Qamishli massacre). A comparable alertness to history runs through "Stockholm Days", which refers to the 1535 painting in Stockholm cathedral known as the Vädersolstavlan. Oddly, but intentionally, the famous depiction of ice haloes above the watery city is reinterpreted as "distant orbits of stars". This description somehow takes that Stockholm into the present where it rises up as jumbled mist.

At this point the sampler shifts to a later collection, Salt på øyet (Salt on the eye, 2006), and the poems are so different that we wonder how she got from that to this. Old-world history has been replaced by sinister but domestic, historyless locales that suggest, merely negatively, Stephen King's America. Perhaps what continuity there is with "Stockholm Days" is the powerful undertow of dream. In "Terri's House" a squirming fusion of youth and age has an oppressive feeling of deadness; in another poem children try to rescue a drowning bungalow by hooking the doorknob, finally the chimney. And in this poem the room grows dark while sitting in the bath:

     the murmur from the water dies
     the bubbles of lather disappear
     remember how big the bar of soap felt in the hand
     how the hand strained to hold it?
     In the milky water soap fat floated like fish eyes
     caught all reflections in the gathering darkness

I might have bought it to find out more about what's really going on with it, it's the kind of book I do buy, but I've become choosy: when poems are in a language I can read a bit then I really feel the need for a bilingual translation. Perhaps that's wrong in this case: in these dream memories a kind of internationalism asserts itself, beyond nations and languages. I think this would extend my narrow idea of Nordic poetry. But that's why, on this occasion anyway, I went for the Rosalía de Castro book instead. (Maybe I'm in danger of growing more interested in languages than in poetry?)

Also by the same translation team, Lars Amund Vaage, Outside the Institution — Selected Poems (2010). Vaage's poems, the ones in the sampler anyhow, can almost be summed up by the first four-line poem:

     Behind the word there is shadow

     Behind the word there is shadow
     Behind the shadow a farm with house and trees
     Behind the trees a bright, green field
     thought cannot reach

The poems are constantly trying to take us through a door into another world; and, of course, this other inaccessible world has something to do with something lost long ago, or never quite found, some promise that still seems to exist just round the corner in those delusively fresh childhood memories. But my summary is a bit catty and reductive. The surprising power of these invocations delivers a different message: that to get there, into the Other World, is something of the first importance - task always neglected - first importance - ... It's the directness of purpose that I admire, that I recognize as something unusual. I ought to add that as the sampler ends we are moving slowly but steadily away from that opening poem. Vaage is mostly a novelist and his two poetry collections are structured almost as chapters in a novel. These sampler-poems come from his first collection, Det andre rommet (The other room, 2001) .

Talking of post-Tranströmerians.... Also on this page, - but there's no PDF sampler file to look at - , is Robin Fulton's Selected Poems of Kjell Espmark, published as long ago as 1985 - he's done other translations of Espmark since, notably in Five Swedish Poets (Norvik Press, 1997). Fulton's acquaintance with this bunch of poets, which also led to his Tranströmer translations, and to the recently-published and wonderful Harry Martinson selection(Chickweed Wintergreen - Bloodaxe, 2010), has spotlit one strand of Swedish poetry over the years - Fulton of course also translates from Norwegian and Danish -. Anyhow, the same kind of spotlighting that Johannes Göransson is doing now for Aase Berg, Johan Jönson, Ann Jäderlund, though the poetry is very different.

I'll leave the translations page in a minute. It's tough to. Just one more, perhaps... María Baranda, (a Mexican poet), Ficticia, trans. Joshua Edwards (2010 - the original collection was published in 2006), a "sea-haunted, book-length poem" according to Forrest Gander, lyrical and meditative. (By the way, Jeanette Winterson praised Forrest Gander's own As a Friend as "haunting and haunted". I thought you'd like to know that. I start to drift across the internet, vaguely in search of Gander, and run across Laura Mullen's interview with Rikki Ducornet in BOMB Magazine. Here I discover that LM is “haunted” by RD's stories, and that RD herself is “haunted” by the voices which become the seeds of her stories. I wonder idly if Yeats has an influence on that word "sea-haunted": That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.) Anyway, back to María Baranda. These first five poems create a psychic landscape that you are inside (perhaps this has something to do with the "you" of the poems).

     where fish throb with the calmness
     of a heart that’s on its own.

Sometimes you are left on your own like that, and sometimes not. Baranda makes an adventure out of these scenes, the stress-spot glows deep blue while you are able to sketch a scene of solitary confinement, then meetings are vertiginous.

     You cannot sing in another language.
     The tribes of Virgil’s dreams
     are for you a boundary,
     the unbroken dominion of permanence.
     You see them pass in line like cardboard soldiers,
     butterflies from high desert that unravel
     the lightning. Moons from other skies.
     A fish tells you about the depiction of a lonesome death.
     Someone without their own portion of dawn.
     You cover their nakedness.
     Such is happiness: to think that outside
     there is always the vertigo of some face
     that waits for us.

My extracts make it appear all a little too sheenily-beautiful (sea-haunted, perhaps). But that isn't totally respresentative; there are other words in this text : plastic, syphilis...

The poems in the sampler of Carrie Etter’s Divining for Starters are very different from the first poems I ever read by her, exceptionally accomplished evocations (I seem to recall, of nettles and childhood) that appeared more than once in the TLS a few years back. Nothing, to all appearance, could have been less "experimental" in spirit; Divining for Starters, by contrast, is elusively disjunctive. Nevertheless (speaking always of these first six poems) there are subtleties that reveal a continuity with the kind of traditional craftsmanship I saw before. Consider the way that, in "Prairie", the train's low horn transmutes, a few lines later, into the train's whistle; the slumberers in this poem are so detached from regular consciousness that events become elastic, they are not fixed in definition for more than a few seconds. Or consider how, in "McLean County Highway 39", the inter-stanzaic asterisks separate the poem into seven poemlets that insist on being read each in its own distinct occasion (despite the patent continuity of material), so the highway appears in glints with a feeling both of long miles between them, and of uneasy recapitulation of the same sense-data.

So the elaboration of technique is an admission of new fields more than it's a contradiction of old fields. These are still well-made poems, I don't sense an ideological shift away from that aspiration.

Resorting to the back cover, or at any rate the Shearsman site, we are told of "a series of poems focusing on our cultural obsession with creating beginnings and origins—a new day, a new chapter, a fresh start". See how that plays out in the first poem, which ends like this:

     divining for starters

     which stone drives the ripple

     going for circumference, provision, and jasmine

     another delicate startle

     on the rancid plateau

      ("Divining for starters 2")

The final line records the innovator's implicit judgment. A plateau, lofty and achieved as it may be, is nevertheless something rancid: we cannot rest on our laurels, innovation must be ceaseless. But the preceding line, with its weighted use of "another" (pejoratively suggesting "just another") implies a judgment the other way: innovation as mere habit. Which is what a startle is, when flocking birds or other prey animals intermittently scatter into flight whether there's a predator around or not. But that isn't all there is to it. The startle has evident evolutionary benefits: staying in practice, a defence against complacency, an attuned alertness. And "delicate" implies something crafted and with the purposiveness of art. Within these two lines, a complexity of tones amounts to an inner conversation.

Questions arise, though. If you lump together all fresh starts, viewing them as sociological or psychogical phenomenon, which is what you must do in a phrase that begins "our obsession with...", then aren't you for ever debarred from inhabiting any of those fresh starts from within; aren't you necessarily placing yourself in the, at best generous, outskirts where you can never really see the point of any specific fresh start?

But no, this is too summary an objection. Because at the same time as trying to take up this external overview Etter is herself involved in fresh starts, of which these poems are the obvious manifestations. What it does mean is that there's a critical focus. This is not someone just being an experimental poet, but someone conscious of writing experimentally, watching herself as she does so, knowing she could have written differently. Perhaps this is not exactly an unusual position, but the focus runs counter to e.g. the explicitly non-critical protocols of Writers Forum. I think this will be a fascinating path to track through the whole collection. Clearly, I've reached a point in my meditation when the limitations of the sampler-format have really become acute. After all, these things are meant to be limited.

Enough for the moment. This is a tiny fraction of what's on offer. I might do some more the next time I go shopping.

have a browse:

María Baranda: Ficticia
Elisabeth Bletsoe: Landscape from a Dream
Hanne Bramness: Salt on the Eye
Rosalía de Castro: Selected Poems
Catherine Daly: Vauxhall
Carrie Etter: Divining for Starters
Giles Goodland: What the Things Sang
Jeremy Reed: Bona Drag
Jeremy Reed: Bona Vada
Lisa Samuels: Tomorrowland
Lars Amund Vaage: Outside the Institution
Catherine Walsh: City West
Catherine Walsh: Optic Verve
David Wevill: Departures

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