Posts Tagged ‘contemporary poetry’

It was late Thursday, an April night,
you were summoning the cat;
next day was work again; then all was quiet.
Look up, you said, alarming me, brought me
down to the garden, in a clatter.

The sky, you said, just look. It took time
to work its charm. How, I griped,
trying to understand, could I lie immobile
when the sky was alive and brimming with light?
And the silence of it unnerving.

A predominant red with purple undertones;
shafts of white, bars of light
processing through, like high tones
on satin curtains. The light blues and greens tight
in the weave, soaked up by streetlights.

A loom of light, a night shift without rest breaks,
warping from the north strong striations
and the dipped sun wefting from the west.
The studs and button-pins of stars, constellations.
A slow ripple across the width of sky.

A silk dressing-gown draped across, and the guest
gone off to sleep with the cat at her feet.

loom

d1

The time of dandelions is early afternoon
when half the world thinks of siesta,
and half pauses to take breath

and the nettles rest on their push through tarmac
and working fingers into hairline cracks
of concrete: when half the world
thinks How untidy these weeds,
and the other half
A mouthful of food

is the time of dandelions.
Their square-cut, overlapping petals
spreading from a centre
with a splayed-hands gesture,
become sun-bright,
a light amongst lights, that underlying leaves
brighten to yellow.

Early afternoon, and the dust a little restless
emphasising how still it is;
the vibrating of light’s wavelengths,
the faint tingling of nerves, raises them
to a gold colour –
when half the world
turns over to begin a new dream, and half
unwraps its gift, the night’s work,
exploring the finer points
of the underlying argument:

the greenery
that makes the gold glow.

d2

 

 

 

 

 

 

across the blue sky’s bald pate,
lit and then obscured.
It had been dark all day —
I had no windows like these.

Nine-thirty flexitime nears,
while high above the miles of clouds
gather, move huge weathers.
Their scale constantly changes
how we seem to scurry,
our smallness, and how huge
their slow masses.

We live our lives in words
all scurrying together;
vocabularies like clouds:
huge, full of everything
to sustain us.
So why, then,
the traffic chaos, empty shops,
this late for work, this rush-hour,
these stops?

I have sent words out,
scurrying little helpers,
to draw you back from harm,
with a busy tie-ing in
of reasons for continuing,
where breath fails, voices crack,
on the roof edge.

And I have stood there,
face to face with that wordless place —
it has nothing to say to us
that words can understand

On poems by Rutger Kopland and Kathleen Jamie

What follows is a brief discussion of use of interruptive image and of modes of address, in two seemingly disparate writers. There is much to be found in common between them.

Under the Apple Tree/Onder de appelboom

http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/4514/auto/UNDER-THE-APPLE-TREE

I came home, it was about
eight and remarkably
close for the time of year,
……………………………………………..

 

…………………….. once again became
too beautiful to be true, …………….
………………………………………………….

and later I heard the wings
of wild geese in the sky
heard how still and empty
it was becoming
……………………………………………..

Rutger Kopland, Under the Apple Tree/Onder de appleboom (Among Cattle/Onder het vee, 1966)

We scarcely notice the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, or the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? The past of a secure economy, of safe jobs, a stable society? This is a claim that plagued Rutger Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects. The emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass, via sound, to the house, and identified as the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but in consequence the mind is made open, the imagination engaged, by this ‘mental event’, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent.

Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’: an anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Now I want to look at Flashing Green Man by Kathleen Jamie: my apologies for the long excerpts, the text of the poem occurs nowhere online

Flashing Green Man

I regret the little time I make to consider
these adult days, …………………
…………………………………………………..
……………………………………… Under the multi’s

walking tall and bejewelled
across our dark land, I wait with the others:
thinking about supper and the grocer’s wife,
……………………………………………………..
………………………………. But these days I don’t much consider.

The green man flashed – he too refuged in cities –
and the traffic stilled for the shouting
news-vendor in his cap and scarf, for us
blethering people; and a sound
in the orange glow: a high kronk-honk
………………………………………………………..
…………………………….. But I stopped

on the rush hour pavement to watch
the skein’s arrow
cross the traffic-choked Marketgait,
and head for the glittering multi’s
tenth or twelth floor, where they banked
in the wind of these pivotal buildings
to pull themselves North to the Sidlaws:
and brash light from windows
……………………………………………………..

………………………………………………………
…… a pale-faced woman peeling potatoes

as her husband climbed the long stairs,
listened, smiled, and wiping the window
cupped her hands around her eyes
to acknowledge a sign
truer than the flashing green man
or directional arrows seen at a junction
where I watched the geese tilt
to make their turn, their beating wings
more precious than angels’ in the city lights.

Kathleen Jamie, The Queen of Sheba, Bloodaxe, 1994

Both poems employ long sentences that take up almost a whole long stanza; both do not employ much by way of commas, colons, semi-colons. The Kathleen Jamie much more than the Rutger Kopland. Why is this? What does the long sentence express in the poem? Because it is used for a reason. What, the lack of punctuation?

Rutger Kopland only uses the comma; this allows a sense of flow, of ongoing thought, of feeling uninterrupted by analysis, discursive thought, consideration.

The long sentence can be seen as a rhythmic device, except that my term ‘device’ devalues the way the writer orders his work in this instance. Both writers contribute to the effect of on-going life in the poems, of on-going life in tandem with reflection; that is, although the poem instances a brief period of time, the minutes of the event, it encapsulates a life period. The point being that life and reflection are portrayed as part and parcel of the same event, the event that that the poem enacts, and that is the poem. It is all thrown against a much bigger, wider screen where times passes and is enacted.

Try to imagine what each poem would be without the interruption of geese.

For Rutger Kopland the geese can be seen as a device for expressing (or discovering?) an emotional state beyond that posited by the poem to that point. Admittedly, tiredness combined with a sense of fulfilment/achievement, had brought Rutger Kopland to a delicate state where he found his cognisance of the evening as too beautiful to be true. I use the term ‘cognisance’ here because I think it is necessary to know something of the man to know the range of the poem.

The late Rudi H van den Hoofdakker was a neuroscientist, who specialized in sleep disorders, and the aging process in the elderly. He was, it has been said, ‘the least metaphysical of men’; he was also a pioneer of the use of ‘ordinary language’ in poetry. By this I mean he did not use terms, express concepts that were not available to common language use. And yet he strove continually to express deeper and deeper insights into the human condition using this limited palate. To read his (translated) poetry aloud is to never stumble over an overwrought, or extravagant image, never to sense any awkwardness due to incursion by uncharacteristic content. I have cited negative attributes; for the positive I would state the poems recommend themselves to us as owning an integrity, honesty even.

In Kathleen Jamie the geese are an interruption into the closed state the city represents, of the wilderness, the ‘natural’ world, from the world that covers major parts of the earth’s surface. Kathleen Jamie has travelled these places, remote, difficult, almost inaccessible. Her books bear this out.

In this poem we are prepared for this special interpretation of the geese, by the Green Man image, a rural image of the essence of wildness in this case translated into the city as an icon for Walk, that is, movement, vitality, if you will.

Without the geese the poem would still have been a very potent expression of the urban life. For some writers this would have been enough. For Kathleen Jamie, though, she has at least a dual vision. Like her fellow Scot, Norman MacCaig with his ‘binocular vision’ who identifies the smell of herring on an Edinburgh high street, or the incursion of Highland (Lochinver/Assynt) experience, memories, into city experience, Kathleen Jamie is aware of the importance to her of those outside places.

She identifies herself as a city dweller in the poem, and this, it could be argued, precipitates the crisis that the incursion of geese engenders. The geese in this case become for her agents of a wider life-experience. Yet it seems to be a gendered life-experience: the clerks tugging on their street clothes are set against the pale-faced woman peeling potatoes: the clerks are oblivious to the geese, although just as trammelled and trapped, whilst the woman, and there is no hint of an unhappy relationship, smiles and recognises something of an extra adjunct to life in the incursion and activity of the geese.

For Rutger Kopland the geese are the vehicle for acknowledging a greater intensity of feeling. In the poem he writes how the sound of the geese precipitated a sense of how still and empty/ it was becoming.

If we compare this stillness and emptiness with the immediately preceding sense of fullness we get a quick switch from full to emptiness, itself symptomatic of emotion without outlet, looping in itself, until anchored by the presence of the other person.

If we compare this sense of emptiness with the following by Kathleen Jamie we maybe can get a handle on the emotion.

Skeins o geese

http://www.versedaily.org/skeinogeese.shtml

Skeins o geese write a word
across the sky. …..
……………………………
The sky moves like cattle, lowin.

I’m as empty as stane, as fields
ploo’d but not sown, naked
an blin as a stane. …..
…………………………………
blin

tae a’ soon but geese ca’ing.

Wire twists lik archaic script
roon a gate. …………………
…………………………………..
………………………  The word whustles

ower high for ma senses. Awa.

…………………………………………………..
…………………………………………………..
………………………………………..

Whit dae birds write in the dark?
A word niver spoken or read.
the skeins turn hame,
on the wind’s dumb moan, a soun,
maybe human, bereft.

Kathleen Jamie, as above

Line 15 – that Awa’., should it be read as The word whustles/ ower high for ma senses and awa? Or is it a direct address: Awa with all that! In the latter case it could be said to serve a similar purpose to the retreat from the intensity of emotion in the Rutger Kopland poem. And as in the Rutger Kopland poem the emotive power of the piece is re-directed, first by disentangling from the past and then by calling upon the standard image for the going beyond language, custom, culture, into a common heritage of human experience, that of the human predicament of being faced with the ultimate full stop, our inevitable deaths.

Both writers have particular takes on use of language. I have mentioned Rutger Kopland’s ‘common language’; Kathleen Jamie intersperses standard English with lowland Scots, a lived language rather than a dictionary-enhanced language such as lallans. Kathleen Jamie’s lived Scots, particularly evident in Skeins o Geese, is also and emphatically a ‘common language’. Elsewhere in the book this poem is from, The Queen of Sheba, we have poems of recognition between people, of a (re-)discovered fellowship. This is at times wholly a gendered recognition, at others a recognition of common humanity. The identifying of herself as a city dweller, as in Flashing Green Man, is a part of this. The book also broadens out into the ‘other’ lands Kathleen Jamie constantly references. There we find recognition and fellowship amongst, and with, nomads and widely different cultural groups.

And where do the poems end, in relation to these interruptions of geese?

In Rutger Kopland the becoming is in the arrival of the partner, remarkably close, that is, it is a treasured relationship. With Rutger Kopland we never move beyond the self. This is what has contributed to his being called essentially a sane writer: he recognises that all our knowledge is the self’s knowledge, that we are always just people on the earth, amongst its variousness. In a later poem Self-portrait as a Horse the writer does not become the horse but is always aware that he is human, and can never enter the being of another, whether person, or creature. We can only know the world other than from the position of our self. In this we are all alike.

In Kathleen Jamie we become aware of the close proximity of the Sidlaw Hills to the city. This is a key feature of much Scottish writing, that city and ‘mountain’ are cheek by jowl. One is never without a glimpse, sighting, of ‘wilderness’ in one form or another. This dual vision, cited above, becomes a means for investigating the common bond in the variousness of human lives, in whatever terrain.

Rutger Kopland investigates a similar connection, but by emphasising the common humanity inherent in all, but from within.

Both poems chart a journey; in Kathleen Jamie this has the added resonance through her experience of nomadic peoples, and the apparently nomadic migrating geese in the city. The journey in Rutger Kopland is an entirely self-referential journey; maybe here we see the impact and legacy of the Calvinist tradition, the sole reliance on the self naked before God, without intercession from priest or saint. This is very much what we now take to be Martin Luther’s great vision. Historically it took many generations, twist and turns, interpretations etc to get to this, but the vision is strong enough for us in our unreligious time to glimpse: it is the existential moment. But in Rutger Kopland’s case brought back from the brink by the bonds of common humanity, of love for family, of duty, of responsibility to one’s community. And all accepted with varying degrees of willingness.

Rutger Kopland (1934-2012):

rk

Kathleen Jamie:
kj

seine3

In the apex of the barn gable an owl’s hole
perches on a stone head, and the head
stares out towards rectory trees
luring the valley between
to this bare, parched socket.

A pub sign, official designation,
rescued from the cellar of the reservoir;
the drowned village that bares its teeth
in the long hot summer.

A face uncomfortably blank like the blank
stare of the water; its wind-carved features,
brow, nose ridge, the deep eye-clefts;
straight mouth mean as a hill-winter.

A head tight to bursting
with indignations, straight-faced
with verticals and horizontals;
a labourer caricatured
by a neighbour fallen on easy times.

Too high in the barn
to be on equal terms with.

The head is brewing its word,
its kettle fired by the face’s
utter sobriety. A Viking
in his barn-ship wrecked
beside the ragged waters of the valley,
or Odin, caught out in trickery

tricking life from drudgery,
worth from existence, words
from the hinge of January.

.seine5

 

Rivington Village, Horwich, Bolton, Lancashire.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivington

KAREN SOLIE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

This is a pale shadow of the piece my computer ate and mangled beyond retrieval.

In my previous post on Karen Solie I made some errors, none more so than in my assessment of the long poem from Pigeon, and republished in The Living Option, her selected poems from 2013, Bloodaxe. The poem in question is Archive.
What is it about this poem? It is the masterly way she weaves, weaves and blends, many-layered subject matter into a whole unified poem.
James Pollock in his essay on Karen Solie, in Arc Poetry Magazine, 2010, writes of her Triple Vision. This, he asserts, is her ‘sardonic satire of contemporary human life’; ‘pastoral vision… clear-eyed respect for nature domesticated or otherwise’; ‘sympathy for other human beings’.

He also brings to our notice her deep and wide reading in literature, an allusiveness to other poetry. In Sturgeon from her first book, he notes how read aloud ‘you’ll hear a subtle but clearly audible undercurrent of Old English verse’ complete with ‘alliterative pairs and triplets.’ The ‘lost lure’ of the poem he reads as a direct reference to the Elizabeth Bishop poem The Fish.
He also notes that her poem Roger the Shrubber is a take on Andrew Marvell’s Damon the Mower.

Of her early poem Sturgeon, he notes, ‘the fish is Christlike, a “sin-eater” to whom people take their “guilts”’, and this brings me to another theme that runs throughout the books, that of a religious awareness. Jacob Pollock specifies it as a Catholic awareness.
She ends her books with brief notes on poem references, and so we get a direct quote from St Augustine in The Vandal Confesses (the note throws open the fields of reference wider, bringing in the Vandal raids in North Africa in which St Augustine perished, and so perhaps a suppressed greater antipathy to her more localised subject matter of the poem), and The Catholic Prayer for the Sick, in Payer for the Sick. In the latest book The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out, 2015, we have reference to the Nag Hammadi Gospels, via William James (in The Living Option).
And in Pigeon we have An Acolyte Reads The Cloud of Unknowing.
What I would like to point out here is that this is no passing ‘colouration’ for the poems, for instance, she really has read the books, and this last book is no mean feat. It is a lengthy and involved medieval religious tract. It demands of the reader, and those demands are time, and willingness to tangle with the arguments that explain the ways of god to man.
As with The Dream of the Rood in the Old English, and The Pearl in middle English (neither of which she references) we enact the experience as we read: they are to an extent sacramental poems, we engage with them, with the time taken to read, understand and appreciate them, as we interact with the arguments and events, and also imaginatively enact.

In a Catholic mass, or service, there is much activity: there are the processions of priests, their robes, the incense, the use of bells, hymns, prayers, much standing and sitting and responding. It is very busy. And as the celebrant engages with all these levels of ceremony, even the intellectual import of the readings, the message is being taken in at deeper levels. And that message is: one must celebrate God’s creation, the world; one must look for the best in man; one must be active in the world, and be aware in life.
We have here the weave of intents that James Pollack identifies in Karen Solie’s triple vision.
I hasten to add her satirical and at times scathing tone is another response to this Catholic background: all struggle with the message in their way, usually there is this element of attempted outright rejection.

The notes are not all so religious, thankfully, and we have direct reference to works by Walter Benjamin, Wittgenstein, J K Galbraith, Hellenistic philosophy, Shakespeare, and then we have references to The Band, R E M, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. There are the painter points too: Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, Turner.
James Pollock shows at length Karen Solie’s responses to other poets: Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey is one. Not all are parodies, because she does not hold one angle throughout a poem, they take in many voices, characters, angles and arguments not her own, and some in direct conflict with her own voice and concerns.

Another commentator (can I find it now? No.) wondered if her technique owed something to, or acknowledged, John Ashbery’s deft and skilful blending of voices and sources. Her conclusion was that Karen Solie’s poems are more like the experience of a car journey where multiple conversations weave in and out, where outside matters are always on the periphery, and sometimes intrude , where the driver’s knowledge of her environment ‘both domesticed and otherwise’ comes into play.
This is a pertinent comment, because it brings in that other under-theme of the books, the concern with time, and with the sacramental aspect intact.

And so we return to the long poem Archive, from Pigeon. What is about this poem? There is an omniscient narrator, and she narrates how a ‘she’ interacts with her environment. ‘She’ has to live and work in a city; this city is breached by a river, and work is on the other side, the journey on foot is made every day through a freezing winter. Her camera notes, and the person notes, and the narrator notes. We have the bridge, its history (is there really a workman entombed in the north pillar? Is there a reference here to the Bridge on the Drina?), and we have the city, and the apartment block where ‘she’ lives for the duration, all telescoping into the ‘she’. Women are being killed in the city; a woman student at the university commits suicide from the bridge. This is all part of the time of the poem, and the writer’s memories over a specific period.

With the other long poem in the latest book, we also have a engaging with time. Bitumen leads us  to the Alberta tar sands, their stratified historical records, and their modern uses.
Early in the poem she writes, ‘If I don’t come homeis my house in order?’ Already we engage with religious reference.
Bitumen begins and ends considering paintings by Turner. It begins with his magnificent clouds, and ends with his tremendous running seas; in between we transport from old world to new, from new world to modern world. ‘The West stands for relocation, the east/ for lost causes.’  Early on the poem lists, and we hear Anne Carson here, perhaps.

Time and space: ‘Meaning takes place in time.’ she writes, it is the revisionism of intent, purpose: we came West for the new world, and made it – not found it, note – and it is a matter of compromises: ‘Would you conspire to serve tourists in a fish restaurant/ the rest of your life? I thought not.’
Re-affirmation: ‘we’re guests, after all, not prisoners, right?’ receives no reply.
The last Turner paintings noted includes The Slave Ship, another major theme in New World history.

A reviewer wrote of the flat tone of her poems; we can hear it in these instances. What it is, is the voice imparting levels of communication: the ceremonial layered aspect, above.

Neither  question nor assertion makes sense/ when truth is a tone of voice,’ she writes in Interior. Truth is not rhetorical skill, nor is it communicated through rhetorical skill, it is not political, therefore. We can also draw from this that it is not in the province of classical philosophy either, then. She goes on in this poem: ‘As if I were a wall,/ a former life/ walks through me, each/ modest architectural feature/ an anthology of meanings to which paint/ has been applied. They don’t retain/ traces, that’s in thinking.

The tone of doubt, of questioning the known, the assertions and at times tomely manner, opens the door to the reader: we are all vulnerable in our way, we know this place she plots out.
She ends, ‘The gardener, after a time,/ feels the garden belongs to him,/ familiar objects extend/ his spirit….’. This poems, as James Pollock says of another poem, ‘instead of merely taking a side… contributes a genuine insight.’ As an historical, psychological, environmental and cultural observation this last line of the poem is an important point: it is what home means.

In a way this last book is slightly chilly, her mastery (what is the women’s equivalent phrase?) of technique and subject matter is superb, but the warmth is becoming lost.
I do admire her work, as you may have guessed, and read and re-read often; and long may it be so.

Karen Solie: ks

WHY IS THERE NOTHING RATHER THAN SOMETHING?

If there ever was something
then it was in this place, here

– We left it in the hall, we said
we didn’t know if it’d be use to you

If there ever was a place
it was just here, the space left

– We got smashed, stoned, then fell asleep
when we came down
it’s as though it never was

No, they said, you don’t understand
this is where everything was
Why is there nothing now

Why have you taken it all away
Where have you the locked the world up

Denial, pain, anger, blame,
indifference, disgust –

the bran-tub of passed-down characteristics
and not the prizes

They said
This is what is left behind

the memory-smell on hands of money, coin
wall-shapes of lost furniture
rumours of four walls and roof, bought, owned

no sense of  difference, of space,
or certainty in the mind