July 3


(a) During E&D’s necessary recent pause, I came across a post at Ron Silliman’s site, and made a mental note to draw people’s attention to it. I have at last gotten around to doing so. It’s about how one approaches poetry which, for want of a better phrase, might be described as….. No, I’m going to get myself into a tangle even going there. But I think it’s an interesting piece.

Begin with what’s in front of you, what’s really there.

If the technology works, clicking here will take you there.
If it doesn't, you need Ron's post dated June 6th. (Oh, I just tried it. You have to scroll down because it's in the archive....)

(b) And (here comes a shameless example of advertising) the new issue of "The North" has in it my interview with American poet (and occasional playwright) Mark Halliday, which Mark and I somehow managed to do when I was at his home in Ohio last May. It is very good and very interesting. At least, we think so. "The North" isn't online, but details of how to get hold of it are here.



July 10


Review by Gareth Twose

Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir by David Herd (Carcanet £7.95)

The first thing to say about “Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir” is that it’s not about Peter Mandelson or, rather, that it is only indirectly about him. Mandelson does make a cameo appearance in a poem called “Peter’s Poem”, but he is more of an off-stage presence, alluded to, but never quite encountered. As such, the book is a post-modernist tease. Just as Mandelson is the king of spin, the master manipulator of messages, so this book is about the infinite malleability of meaning. Just as Mandelson’s politics is a triumph of style over substance, so this poetry is a kind of triumph of style over substance. Therefore, to accuse the book of having nothing to do with politics would be to miss the point: it’s overtly about the absence of a certain kind of politics. And the book suggests, with Wildean insouciance and élan, that aesthetics might be the new politics. This is its covert anti manifesto. After all, as “A Note on the Title” mischievously points out, one of Mandelson’s abiding legacies was the re-branding of the Labour party red flag as a rose, a rose, a rose.

In form, and here Herd is clearly indebted to the New York school of Ashbery et al., the book is a collage. It mixes prose of varied forms and free verse poetry. The poetry is interleaved with a one-act Japanese Noh play, letters and pseudo diary entries in post-it note form (à la Carlos Williams). At one point there is a quite astonishing prose explication of the physiological process of breathing, apparently factual, but which is poetic in its intensity. In typically post-modern fashion, the boundaries between fact and fiction are very blurry. At times, the book reads as a kind of history, a record of absurdly trivial ‘facts’ and events. At other times, the book reads as quite fantastic and surreal. If the book is, loosely speaking, some kind of autobiography, it is one which readily admits it is a charming fiction. Which is another way of saying the book is not really a memoir (in the same way that “Tristram Shandy” isn’t). It talks about whatever happens to fall into the poet’s field of vision at a given time. In other words, nothing in particular.

Yet there are some kinds of threads, admittedly frayed, holding this all together. There are questions in the heavily ironic “Disclaimer” at the book’s beginning that appear to be addressed, or at least flirted with, later on. The ghosts of themes emerge. For example, according to “Disclaimer” the key question, one we most owe it to ourselves to answer is: “What makes us happy?” An implied ‘answer’ to the question, half suggested by the book, seems to be enjoyment of the most trivial, simple and basic pleasures. Enjoyment of, say, the beauty of cherries, breathing itself. The value of breathing is revealed in the book, for example, via a two-page long, minutely detailed description of the whole process, of which the following is an extract:

The term respiratory system refers to those structures which are involved in the exchange of gases between the blood and the external environment (the world). Oxygen has to be absorbed into the blood because the body depends on it. Carbon dioxide has to go out into the world because, frankly, there is nowhere else for it to go. The respiratory system comprises the lungs, the series of passageways leading to the lungs, and the chest structures responsible for movement of air in and out of the lungs.

[You might, at this point, like to think about your own breathing for a moment. Is it steady? Can you rely on it? Are your chest structures as responsible as they might be? Are our passageways clear? Are your lungs capacious? Do you exchange successfully with the world?]

Insofar as this is very metaphorical, especially the witty questions at the end, this can be seen as a prose poem. Reality is de-familiarised via a technique akin to slow motion in film. What we most take for granted is represented as most miraculous; what is most natural suddenly appears to be nothing of the sort. The unconscious is made conscious. Another way of viewing this is as an old-fashioned affirmation of the commonplace, but one that occurs in shockingly post-modern form. Moments like these represent, or may represent, epiphanies.

But it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over assertion here, in that one can never be secure about interpretations of a book in which non-sequiturs, interruptions and parentheses are such a governing principle of composition, and where meaning is so readily subject to automatic deconstruction. The world of the book is one in which appearance and reality are fairly interchangeable (something Mandelson would understand only too well); in which life is represented as such a succession of accidents and random happenings that any attempt to look for a pattern is doomed to failure. In a typical poem, with its typically mock-heroic Shandean title, “In Which the Poet Speaks of Time Spent in America While Noting in Passing an Alimentary Complaint”, the speaker apparently situated in America recollects an incident that occurred when he lived in Europe. The walk down memory lane is not so much a walk as a maze or a trip, in the sense of falling:

…I left a building expecting rain – hours the city had been dogged by rain, all the talk was of how much rain – and I stepped outside and found the rain had stopped. And which in itself might not have proved sufficient, except that that morning I had woken up, from an adequate sleep, quite largely rested to the sound of a woman preparing food; or preparing something, and if not singing exactly, not not establishing a strong theme, from Strauss perhaps: Ariadne auf Naxos. Aware, apparently, that the light had changed.


But then not of course completely also.
It was food.
It probably wasn’t Strauss.
More settled somehow.
Not quite so keen to be splendid.
The way sometimes we say snow ‘settles’ on windows.
And sometimes doesn’t.
Except it wasn’t snow.

Here, we are in a world of multiple and unstable ironies. Ironic undermining follows ironic undermining to the extent that the underminings themselves become the norm. The original referent slides further and further from view as the apparently poignant memories are revealed to be completely unreliable. And yet, even with all the hesitations and qualifications, the reader does respond to the memory as if it is something worth recovering. The care the speaker is exercising in getting it right, even if it only proves he’s got it wrong, is surely a guarantee of something, isn’t it? It emerges that if nothing else, whatever the precise outline of the scene is, there is an emotional truth at the core of the experience: that the speaker was happy, if only momentarily.

This is lovely writing, too. The switch to short-lined free verse brings each alternative possibility, each alternative re-framing of the memory, into sharp focus. The switch to free verse also marks a move to a yet more interiorised presentation of reality. Suddenly, free direct thought is used to enact the butterfly movements of the speaker’s mind as he freely free-associates. One possibility, that the music he remembers was by Strauss, is rejected on the grounds that it was more “settled”. He re-describes the music, in an effort to be more accurate and precise, as “not quite so keen to be splendid”. Then he meditates quite beautifully on the meaning of “settle” used, metaphorically, as a verb: “The way sometimes we say snow ‘settles’ on windows.” A surreal, synaesthetic image of music floating through air and gently coming to rest, like snow, is momentarily conjured up and, then, subsequently undermined. As so often in this book, the detours, or the side alleys, are the point. Herd is here illustrating something, dare I say it, about life: that only change is permanent. (One of the questions in the Disclaimer, after all, is Does all that alters in fact persist?) Reality is quotidian and plural. This is embodied in the very form of the book.

Ultimately, the question of whether the book’s different parts add up to some kind of sum is one the book itself pre-empts. It might do. It almost does. It creates a kind of (w)hole. But what should be said is that for a debut collection, ‘Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir’ is immensely ambitious, smart and funny. In terms of formal experimentation alone, it leaves most mainstream UK books of poetry standing. It could be some kind of masterpiece. Detractors, of which I can imagine there may be many, may feel that the book is ultimately unsatisfying, a little empty; or, more cynically, that the book disappears up its own fundament. But it’s meant to. The book is nothing if not self﷓conscious. And that’s where the fun starts.

© Gareth Twose, 2005



July 15


A Subversive Triumph

The really rather fine Luke Kennard has a marvellous review of Dean Young’s “Elegy on Toy Piano” over at Stride, and there are (as usual) other interesting goodies there too.

A Ragged Edge


K.M.Dersley’s “The Ragged Edge” has for a while now been producing “magsheets” – “Lively pieces of prose: articles, stories or memoirs suitable to be read at a sitting – and often re-read.” They cost just £2 each, post free, or four bucks if you’re in the US or overseas. Past titles include things from Jim Burns, Gerald Locklin and Joan Jobe Smith. The newest one, just out, is a story by Doug Draime. My reproduction of this particular magsheet's cover is crap, incidentally, for which I apologise, but technology is only as good as the hand that fucks with it, I think.


A War of Worlds

I just saw “The War of the Worlds” – the 1960s version - for the goodness knows what number time, and also the new one, which has Tom Cruise’s fashionably dysfunctional family somehow surviving against the odds. And they are pretty big odds, too. I was kind of enjoying this new one, because it was satisfyingly grim and bleak, and visually it was pretty attractive. The way people get blown away is cool, although it's easy to remember it's Spielberg doing this. There's a kid in danger, for one thing. Then dad and delinquent son end up being reunited and hugging one another and, oh, I’m sorry if I spoiled it for you….

Global Frequency

7Much more fun is (or was) “Global Frequency”, a pilot of a TV series that never got off the ground and which has apparently been available on the Web for a little while. Warner Brothers passed up on the series, but the pilot already has a cult following, or so I hear. It’s based on graphic novels by Warren Ellis. I know little about graphic novels, and watching “Sin City” recently didn’t make me want to find out much more. But “Global Frequency” is kind of cool – it’s a sort of X-Files, really, but darker, and more knowingly arch and sexy. And sharp and funny, too. You have to have BitTorrent software and be into file sharing and downloading of dubious legality to get hold of it, sadly, and E&D cannot condone such nefarious activity. Much.


I've been reading again. Sometimes I wish I could just sit around and listen to The Bee Gee's first LP, but I can't. I'm driven to read poems. Yes, driven, like an ox thing to the market thing. Anyway, what I meant to say was, I have a review at Litter of Peter Gizzi's "Periplum and other poems" which is out from Salt. He's a good poet, and I'm a good reviewer. That's what Mrs Trellis of North Wales says, anyway.



Did I ever mention that drama is where it's at?

1Drama enthusiasts will be delighted to know that some new plays by the play writing team of Mark Halliday and Martin Stannard have just been published in The Indiana Review, which is based in, um, Indiana. It's the Summer 2005 issue, devoted to Collaboration and Collage. The plays are "Crystal Bride" (a cracker), "Inspiration" (inspiring) and "The Hawk and The Mask", which we're waiting for Hollywood types to start bidding for any day now. Of course, your local shop or newsagent may not stock The Indiana Review, but their website is here. Oh, and the issue illustrated here isn't the issue we're in: they don't have a picture of that one on their site yet so I couldn't steal it. Come on, lads, keep up. You're at an American University. You can't be that busy....

More Brilliants

But who knows anything? I've just downloaded 34 episodes of "The Itchy & Scratchy Show", so I'm not sure if my opinion counts for much any more. I may have lost whatever plot there was.



July 19


Review by Paul Sutton

Counting the Chimes, New and Selected Poems, 1975-2003 by John Mole (Peterloo Poets, £9)

Funny how some titles are predictable. “A Refulgence of Sunken Mirrors” could be another, or “A Blizzard of Fake Epiphanies”.

But the blurb on the back made me queasier, especially George Szirtes’:

“There are many poems here that might have appeared in earlier books [?!]…some of them are quite perfect encapsulations of a milieu which, as far as poetry is concerned, is Mole’s alone. It is less foreign ground for novelists, and in some ways such poems may be read as novels in miniature.”

With friends like these, who needs reviewers? Here’s Helen Dunmore:

“John Mole’s poems are beautifully formed things. His needle-sharp feeling for language feeds both his humour and his seriousness. Mole’s people make gardens, children, poems but their eyes are open and they see death camping a little nearer each night.”

In the midst of life we are in debt, etcetera. All those ready-made phrases – “needle-sharp”, “beautifully formed”, there must be a software package for them. Jesus, these people are from a crony emporium in Staffordshire, there’s a continental rupture between the breathless praise and Mole’s writing – observe the “feeling for language” and “technical brilliance” in this:

Passing the Parcel

While the music was playing she passed him the parcel
And he passed it back to her slowly at first
As if guessing its weight or perhaps just admiring
The shop-window gloss of its polka-dot wrapping
But faster then faster they thrust it between them
Away and way like a short-fused explosive

Until it was there in his hands and no music
Which meant that he had to begin to unwrap it
By layer and layer and layer and layer
But he took his time and she wasn’t watching
As if they had somehow decided already
The party was over and nothing was in it.

Mole has won Gregory and Cholmondeley awards (funded by Mr Chumley-Warner?), and been Poet-in-Residence in the City of London. Gosh, maybe this book will win the Cheesecake and Harry Lime prizes.

Yeah, cheap jokes; it’s more important to wonder what’s produced this writing – which is typical of so much “mainstream” work. To me, it’s the fatal completeness and balance, draining energy and interest. Self-satisfaction is the tone, anecdotage in that low-voltage, knackered “workshop” voice. One poem especially got me: “Travellers” has Mole on a train, castigating an angry “thug” in a suit for being irritated at some girl chewing carrots.

It’s probably a set-up anyway, but I’m with the suit here. At least he’s alive, ruffling the poet’s serenity. Good Lord, a poet is far too well-adjusted to get pissed off with ostentatious vegetable consumption. Maybe that’s the problem: lacking reactions that aren’t cleared by an internal “poetic” censor, they’re so bloody perfect, always on call to observe some scene and then serve it up as a parable for these degenerate times.

Doubtless it’s better not to be wound up by someone munching carrots (better still not to write about it). But all the poem does is tut; Mole doesn’t even seem to give a toss himself – it’s “good material” and he’s not angry, just smug. Mind you, imagine Mole had to sit next to some bloke chewing a kebab and ranting about immigration. Of course he’d give him both barrels then – at a distance. I can just see the poem, contrasting the egregious gourmand with his own sophisticated tastes.

Some of the pieces rise above the level I’ve been abusing, but they’re all so familiar – painting, travel, paeans to domesticity. It’s so flabby and complacent, never stopping to worry if it’s any reason to exist. That’s why we get this conceited insider-dealing guff about “practising his right art from the start” (Bernard O’Donoghue).

And how many more parasitical poems can be done about paintings? Art has become increasingly conceptual (for a reason) yet I can’t find any ideas here – except that we’re all going to die and nice things are better than nasty.

I guess people argue that Mole is readable and avoids obscurity. Not for me; I find it impossible to read such poetry. And this idea of “accessibility” is a con-job anyway, perpetrated by people who want funding. They imagine an audience of dunces awaiting enlightenment, whereas the “general readership” moved on years ago, somehow able to get by.

What a psychopath I am. But something’s gone very wrong, as many are now discussing. There’s an obsession with absent readership, so endless awards and back-slapping take their place. Far more damaging is the lack of any part in a wider artistic culture, which might force the writing to fight harder for its place and actually be interesting.

Of course, many British writers from Mole’s generation (e.g. Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher, Prynne, Peter Reading, John Barnie) have avoided this dead-end; and some are gaining in reputation all the time. But how many others missed out on the mutual gongs and vanished from view? I’ve researched John Mole on the net – he sounds a nice bloke and his poetry attests to impeccable liberal credentials and tastes. So what? The fact that this gets published with Arts Council funding says everything.

© Paul Sutton, 2005



July 23


2 “Time rolls his ceaseless course……” I’ve been reading Tregonning’s “Lives of Sir Walter Scott”, and have to confess I’ve been more than a little surprised by the number of fishing stories in it. Trout in The Fegg, perch in The Whye?, hembling in The Mough… they go on and on, and there’s only so much I can read about bait and mud on your boots before I want to get back to Sir Walter and his indoor affairs. They are pretty interesting, especially Chapter 14. That’s no way to treat a ferret, even a 19th century one.

Coincidentally, I received a letter a few days ago from my friend Philip Bauche. I say friend, but I’m stretching the meaning of the word almost to breaking point. I once let him use my name as a reference when he applied for a temporary job at a Wendy’s in Nebraska, and you wouldn’t believe the mail I now get from that cowboy world… “junk” would be too kind a word to describe it, although there’s been one exception. The letters I get from Mo are really nice. I just have doubts about the way she describes herself. Anyway, Bauche wrote to say he liked my poem “Fortune’s Bag Lady”, which was in a recent thing somewhere. Which would be good, but I’ve never written a poem called “Fortune’s Bag Lady”. At least, not that I remember. Is someone stealing my name? I once before had someone plagiarize my work. They took this great idea I had used in a poem – an image, I guess you’d say - and they took it and used it in their own poem, albeit less elegantly and way less gracefully. They also left out the wit. At the time I was very angry, “but with the morning cool reflection came.” It’s a weird feeling, though. Probably a bit like you feel after having your car stolen.

Which reminds me. The same day Bauche’s letter arrived, I’d been engrossed in my morning “toilet” at 6 a.m. when there was an almighty screeching and squealing of tyres outside, followed immediately by a scrunching and crunching of metal and plastic. I dashed outside, first making sure I was decent, and I was just in time to see a black guy sprinting for all he was worth up our road. And yes, that was a policeman sprinting in his wake. I looked around, and a black (driverless) Ford Focus was embedded in the side of our building, very well scrunched up, and with steam and things coming out of its orifices. A police car was pulled up behind it. Then another police car arrived. Then, much more spectacularly, another police car arrived, this time with a slamming on of brakes and a burning of rubber. It stopped right by me, and one of our upholders of law and order poked his head out of the 1driver’s window and asked me “which way did they go?”… I was thrilled. It was like being in an episode of "The Bill", or "Starsky and Hutch" . And yes, I did: I pointed, and said “They went that-a-way…” And the police car shot off with more burning rubber and screeching, and I went back indoors and continued with my morning toilet, making a mental note to let the landlord know that the building had been dented. It was all very exciting for about two and a half minutes.

Later that same day I popped into Waterstone’s for a book, but couldn’t find one. So I went to the Oxfam shop instead, and picked up a secondhand copy of Sir Montague Burl’s “An Englishman's Travels In China”. I intend going to China later in the year, and so I figured it would be a useful work of reference. And it would have been, if I’d been planning a trip in 1922. Whatever, it's a very nice book. The cover is mainly green.

“To all, to each! a fair good-night,
And pleasing dreams, and slumbers light.”



July 26


I'm really busy at the moment, because I'm in the middle of an intensive 5-week course learning how to teach English as a Foreign Language. As one of my fellow students puts it, we're so busy we have to plan in advance to have a --

actually, I won't repeat it, because it's sort of crude

but I just have time to point you towards Mipoesias, an online magazine where my good friend Paul Violi lurks, with a poem and a short interview. There are lots of other good and interesting people there, so go look, and I'll join you when I have time.



July 29


Review by Steven Waling

The Lores by Robert Sheppard (Reality Street, £7.50)

1Whenever I read contemporary non-mainstream, so-called avant garde poetry, at the back of my mind I have a rather unfortunate image. ELP. Rick Wakeman. "Tales from Topographic Oceans". Prog rock. Arrrrggggh!

I know it’s unfair, that the non-mainstream tradition that Robert Sheppard is working in, for instance, comes from the poetry of Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams, not from daft geeks dressing up in capes. Nevertheless, when you’re faced with a collection which is only one part of a larger design ("Twentieth Century Blues") which is trying to examine English history through 100 years, including the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the fight against fascism (as in "Bolt Holes"), Thatcherism etc. etc., I can’t help thinking of triple concept albums and long long long guitar solos. And drum solos: don’t forget the drum solos.

There is a further design in this book: there are 5040 words, which apparently is Plato’s ideal number, the poems themselves often have a certain number of words in each verse etc, and the poems themselves belong to further sub-divisions both within this book and carrying over to other books that are part of the overall uber-poem. All this seems incredibly complicated, but is there a point to it?

Well, yes, I suspect there is, and it’s to do with form. Though such a complicated system could so easily lead to bloat, in these poems, it’s as tough a set of formal limits as any traditional form could be. Just as the rules of a sonnet, if used well, lead to a highly-charged unit of energy, so these syntactic and word-number rules control Sheppard’s thoughts and concentrate their energy. My worry about it being a concept album of a book is largely unneccessary: there is no fat in this book, no pretentiousness but a proper seriousness and a deep awareness of the ideologies underlying the grim history of the 20th century.

But don’t expect normal syntax in these poems. Here, he takes the language of politics, of economics and puts it through the blender:

Fanatical beings refunction the banners
driven to exchange ritual policies
what’s inside you quiet embattled
slices bricks with quixotic custom
and practice against slogans a
thingy day in the nervy
90s the new erotics underfoot

(from "Book 10")

which I don’t quite understand myself: but I do get the image at the back of my mind of an individual in the midst of a lot of advertising slogans, economic policies, political ideologies etc, somehow trying to make his/her way through it. I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s something like that.

It’s the formal constraints in the poems that stop them from running away from themselves, but this is not easy poetry. It takes work to read it well, though it is useful to read poetry like this for its sound as well as its meaning. Though, frankly, the sound of this poem still comes across as rather grim and serious, as in "Book 1:Time Capsule":

The time capsule’s
contract with the
future, the Eugenics’
Court with its
injections, co-ops us
to a selective
history: as soon
as the population
is trafficking clatters
the shutters down
the laws of
motion beyond its
jurisdiction, unceased husks
in lightening streaks

The first line reminds me of Blue Peter burying time capsules in the Blue Peter garden, but then we’re into serious politics from the 1930’s: eugenics. I like that juxtaposition, but it’s the only trace of a smile in the whole collection. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection, and the human beings in it seem to be more of a mass than people, so I do wonder if it’s the best place to start reading "Twentieth Century Blues".

In the end, I find myself dissatisfied with this collection. The mood is sombre and grim throughout, almost like a post-modernist Geoffrey Hill, but although I’m interested in the techniques used, the poems don’t really move me. In the end, poetry, however well-organised, however much it conforms or does not conform to a particular theory of poetry or describes a political situation accurately, has to have some emotional contact with the reader. Even if you don’t understand the poem exactly, if the poem moves you, you will want to understand it. Otherwise, you may as well read a text-book.

Maybe I need to read more of "Twentieth Century Blues"; then it can be fitted into place and it would seem more real to me. At least there were no drum solos.

© Steven Waling 2005