Posts Tagged ‘contemporary writing’

Venus As A Bear, by Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet Press, 2018.
ISBN 978184105549.
Pbk £9.99

This book was a happy buy. A book to keep returning to, and the pleasure undiminished.

Part of the pleasure in reading poetry is perplexity, it has to challenge intellectually, viscerally, even culturally.
This last point is important because a large part of the pleasure, and the hook that brings me back time and again to this book, is the wide cultural landscape it covers.

Vahni Capildeo is from Trinidad, of old Indian heritage. Her references are evident in a cultural questionnaire she responded to: asked about influences in painting, music, the arts, writing, she gave these responses, in no particular order –Peter Minshull; Bhanu Kapil; Sharon Millar (her Whale House book); Sharmistha Moharty; Martin Carter.

She gave, in effect, creators and curators of the vibrant Trinidadian scene. There is a measure of self-consciousness here, choosing for the Western press people not of their heritage. There is also an exuberant celebration of alternative tradition in this response.

One reviewer began with her first poem in the book, Welcome, on the birth of new lambs (acknowledgements to their keepers, Selina Guinness and Colin Henderson).
The reviewer’s title informs us there is nothing trivial in this book – and so the phrase ‘funny fuzzy’ relays more than seems. It has an essential pictorial dimension – letter/font shapes replicate the seen/experienced: the lower case nn of young lambs on long spindly legs, that become sleeping shapes by their dam, in the zz.

What initially drew me to the book was the opening of the poem LEAVES/FEUILLES/FALLS homage Pierre de Ronsard, Ode a Cassandre

(i)   Qui                                          m’a


c’est                la vie

WordPress! I just cannot replicate the layout of these lines – I’ve tried all ways. WordPress!

Ok, I had been brushing up my school French before I came upon this passage, and so it chimed very nicely with my own concerns and interests.
It was the use of space, though, like a breath of fresh air after the blocks of print and narrow concerns of so many British poets. And also the sound values appealed to me, and still do.

So, from these two examples we begin to get some idea of the breadth of appeal of these poems – visual and auditory, but also concerns with translation, with relationships of the perceived to the known, felt, the plasticity of awareness.

Let’s look to Vahni Capildeo again: she came over from Trinidad to the UK to study at university. She gained her PhD in Norse/skaldic, and Translation Theory.
She has worked in academia, culture for development, with Commonwealth Writers, and even as an Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer.

So, do we need a background in, say, Cultural Theory – the Stuart Hall- Raymond Williams spat for example – to understand her work? No; it’d help, but….
Do we need experience of diaspora issues, then? No; it’d help.
Do we need to be academics? No,but it’d help.

It’d help because it’s always useful/essential to broaden and deepen one’s current knowledge.

What appeals about her work is that very breadth of cultural heritage, and it all was encapsulated for me in that, spatially aware, culturally and chronologically diverse, opening section of LEAVES/FEUILLES/FALLS.
Incidentally, did you spot the ee cummings reference? The falling leaf in the positioning of words and lines?

What appeals about her work is this multi-cognitive awareness that informs the crafting of her work. Each word is weighed, rang for sound, you might almost say chromatically tested for possible linkages to alternative structures and meanings.

Why Venus as a… bear? An obvious Bjork reference, ok, but also referencing other genders than the blurry two. Gender politics has enforced its own peculiar and special psychological dimensions; repression skews responses. To be aware, to write from the contemporary moment, is to take on the clamouring injustices of marginalised lives and experiences.

The book is arranged into seven sections: Creatures; Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis; Langues/Tongues; Sea Here; Some Things; Like… Like…; Music/Avant Toute Chose

You’ve got to love the exuberant humour and playfulness. They round out the poems.

Normally, I have a growl at this use of needlessly academic terms, like Ekphrasis. Here she uses it wryly, as if she was also aware of its overspending. It’s in that ‘Shameless Acts’ offsetting pretension.
Yup, I admit myself charmed.

‘No, no, no,’ he was thinking as he was waking.
‘Too early. Damn birds. Damn, damn.’
His protestations lacked the vigour to drive him up and doing. He pulled the covers over his head. But he lay there tense.
He knew; that was enough. Too much light. Too much… busyness. It was in the air. And it was stifling under his covers.
‘Someone turned on the heating? I’ll kill… the bills!’
But it wasn’t that. What it was, he knew, he had to shell-out for a new mattress. Sticking into his back again.
‘Memory foam. Not one one of these….with metal bits sticking up into you….’ But at least this got him up and dressed.
‘Something… was it King Albert? Edward? Someone who shoulda known better, died through … tetanus… septacemia… from a bed spring?’ And that had him washed and dressed, and presenting himself downstairs.

A cheer as he walked into the workshop. Sarky lot, he groused. He looked at their beaming, lively faces.
‘Come on granddad. Get this down you.’ A mug of strong tea. Too strong, His constitution… there’s a word from his younger days, when he had the gift o the gab…. Well, his stomach could no longer take it. They meant well. He looked at them again, felt a warmth for them. A part of him whipped out, ’Infectious.  Infectious good-will.’ And that part of him knew that bode ill.

And then they brought out the chair. The wheel-chair. He froze. That anger felt good, he felt better. Slightly. But he couldn’t sustain it. To his shame, and yet… relief, admit it… he slipped into it, as if into a made-to-measure suit.
He thought about it, his old wardrobe, those suits up there. Maybe he could donate them. The styles, well. They same it all comes round every twenty years or so. So….

They were all looking at him. Their young, eager, and innocent expressions. It was an unhurried, but expectant look. Does that look have a name? He no longer cared… cared to follow through, find the lost connections. Is youth an expression? It’s… an age… thing…..

‘Let him rest,’ they were saying, looking over to him. Benevolent, he thought, that’s it. That’s the word.
He’d slumped. They’d left him near a window, and it was too bright, too hot.
‘Has one o yous put the heating on?’ But he couldn’t get the tone right. It came out like a snarl. Had he upset them now? But the bills…!

‘Come on, old man.’ They were saying, gently, like to an old pet? No, there was respect in their faces, their manner. His students. And suddenly he felt proud of them.
‘Just this one last job, eh?’ ‘They wheeled him to the engine room, lifted his hands to the iron wheel.
‘Easy, now.’ they soothed, ‘Just one last slow, steady push. Then it’s all over, eh. Plenty of sleep.’
‘Those daisies don’t push up by themselves, Mr Winter.’

OAMENI ŞI MARIONETE/ MEN & PUPPETS by DANIEL DRAGOMIRESCU. Orizant Literar Contemporan, Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017

 This is a dual-language publication, produced by the excellent and indefatiguable Contemporary and Literary Horizon, of Romania. For their background, see:

Every so often a book comes along that makes you feel good to be alive. This is one of those.

The best books broaden and deepen our sense and understanding of the world. I was going to go on and write ‘and add destinations to our bucket list.’ But no, these best books have already taken us there; we feel we know the places, the people, with our hearts. The place? North-eastern and central Romania.

I feel privileged to have a copy of Men and Puppets, by Daniel Dragomirescu. The book is a collection of reminiscences, autobiographical snippets, and is well worth the time and effort in getting hold of. Elegantly presented, and on the whole, well translated, this is part of a series of books by Orizant Contemporan Literar. All are dual-language, and by writers from many countries.

Daniel Dragomirescu grew up in the north-eastern Vaslui region of Romania, in the 1950s and 60s. He writes of life from the inside; the autobiographical angle gives a necessarily limited view of the times, limited to one’s interests, activities, and to the villages and small towns of the time.

Big Politics, the State, the Eastern Bloc, are not words or concepts of everyday life. He does come up against them (A Meeting with Cerebrus); they are also, on another level, a basic part of that life. Yet they are everywhere, especially for the generations from before the War, his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. It is they who have to watch what they say.
We see the unquestioned fate of pre-War bourgeois families, in their disgrace (Sandals). All is accepted as a part of life. The State restrictions have their circumnavigations, but they can be suddenly enforced due to the arbitrariness and fickleness of officials (At the Nadovari Camp). But they are not ‘officials’, they are people one’s father might know from school, from ‘before’ – their fickleness is the fickleness of everybody, everywhere.
We read also a first-hand account of a devastating earthquake hitting Bucharest. People at their most vulnerable; we read also the hidden threats by people.

One of my favourite stories, Marilena, has its own ways of handling the hopes, passions and lost opportunities that are always with us. And this is one of the heartening aspects of the stories: how love, hope of love, arranged love that could grow into itself, are always a part of our lives, our world. These things are instantly recognisable, and they go to the core of who we are.

In the new Romania religion once again plays a major role.
This may surprise us, and yet, as Fish Borscht makes clear (to my mind the only story that doesn’t gel), religion never really went away. Even this story is full of the riches of the lived life, the times, the mind-set of the period.
The role of religion is a curious one; there are many expostulations to God, in the stories. These are post-Communist.
I wonder do they read as a little self-consciously apparent?
Are the stories part of the new movement to re-establish a continuous Romanian identity, that had just been interrupted for a time?

What becomes clear through the reading is the seamless identity we all wear and are part of: here we all are, with all our hopes, woes and lapses of understanding. The details may differ, but the responses are so very recognisable. And because we can identify, our hearts are also in these stories, as we respond to the same things they did.

The last chapter, Typewriter, brings the whole book into focus. I had begun to wonder at the book’s title, Men and Puppets. Well, here it was, spelled out.
I wrote, above, how the fickleness of officials is the fickleness of man; there is the fickleness of officials themselves, though. I also wrote of the State being just the background to people’s lives. So it was, but as they took on more responsibility, became adults, the State became a major interference in their lives. Take Ceausescu’s decree that all typewriters should be officially registered.
It smacks of a Nazi-era dictat, and it is little surprise we find a militia chief admiring Nazi-era tactics.
After the Fall of Ceausescu, the militia excuse themselves as puppets of the regime. Officials, militia, puppets, anything rather than just ordinary people.

Daniel Dragomirescu has a masterful technique. The use of the motif of his meeting with a stray dog in a cemetery, in A Meeting with Cerebrus, becomes the key for opening up the whole part of his life at that period. It is this mastery that is the secret, it works behind the scenes to bring the chapters to life.

A most enjoyable book, full of the fears, hopes, loves and doubts of lives.


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


Harold Nicholson, The Congress of Vienna. 1948

I’ve had this book for years; it was bought second-hand, when there were second-hand book shops, before the charity shops took on books and drove them out, and then Amazon sent them spinning into oblivion.
It’s a hard back; as I read the pages were still squeezed together – maybe it had never actually been read or even opened fully.

The Congress of Vienna was a favourite topic of mine when I was studying International Relations. And Harold Nicholson was a writer I respected, based on his earlier study of diplomacy .

Even so, as I read this book over November and December 2016 (one of my bed-time reads), it really brought home the extent of the huge shake-up, the major disruption to Europe as a whole, that Napoleon’s careering around the continent and beyond had created.

This disruption of nation, national territory, identity, continued up-till and after the Second World War: 130+ years.
We read here of the tragic fate of Poland under Napoleon, and then Tsar Alexander  1;  of the machinations behind the establishing of Prussia as a major force in central Europe; we learn the reality/meaning, of the extent of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
This latter is so ably expressed in the novels of Joseph Roth, his Radetzky March in particular, and the lovely novels of Stefan Zweig; or, say, Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb.

Harold Nicholson, in his 1948 book, The Congress of Vienna,wrote:

Nobody who has not actually watched statesmen dealing with each other can have any real idea of the immense part played in human affairs by such unavowable and often unrecognizable causes as lassitude, affability, personal affection or dislike, misunderstanding, deafness  or incomplete command of a foreign language, vanity, social engagements, interruptions and momentary states of health.

All these are conclusions drawn from events, observations, reports, letters. Nothing is made up.

Left field events in a novel I have always relished: the unexpected, something leaking in from a larger pattern, tie-ing the micro to the macro. The relativism that gives lives meaning.

And yet this excerpt above seems to suggest the opposite of a pattern? These notes by Harold Nicholson plot out how decisions skew, and how such skews are then accommodated, and produce the end result’s wobbling, teetering edifice. Time factor also comes in: this or that was meant as a stop-gap, and yet to alter it afterwards would be to endanger the whole. And so it remains.
And how the ad-hoc has more to say than the rationalised and reasoned. Decisions were made whilst fighting with the major and minor shifting, and conflicting, demands of others.
At an early point in the Congress, three major leaders had painfully thrashed out the basis for reasoned discussion of the whole Congress. Then  France’s new representative, Talleyrand, arrived. He quickly but expertly threw all into disarray simply by questioning the bases of their concepts: against who? France is no longer a threat; then who are the agreements being put up to contain?.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord:

What fascinates are the courage and psychology of these people: to walk in among the major powers, leaders, kings, emperors, and still hold one’s own. To hold one’s nerve, and one’s sanity.
Englands’ Castlereagh came home broken, and committed suicide some time afterwards.
Shelley may have hated him, but on a positive note he did insist on the Congress tackling the topic of Slavery.
He was very disparaging about the fate and status of Italy.
But then, everyone was about the Spanish representative, Marquis Pedro Gomez de Labrador, and tended to leave him out of everything.
Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh:


We can read in this the politics both real and imaginary that have so drawn people: The Game of Thrones is here, maybe most of the conflicts we see around us.

The main focus of attention of Stammers’ poetry in the first book is on the experience of the act of writing; his poems attempt to chart their own existence in space; that of their subject matter is maybe secondary to this. The experience of the act of writing is the source of the exuberance that is one of the most noticeable factors of the poems; it is also part of the experiencing of the self through the act of expression. And as we observe the process of the poems, which is what happens when we read them, then, as in quantum physics, we realize we are a part of what we observe; our enacting of the experience of the poem becomes part of our own myth as identifiable beings. So, with the event of writing the writing experience, is it possible that the two areas we interface are in fact further conjoined by our awareness of them in the act of writing?

I have no wish to put forward an entirely solipsistic slant to Stammers’ achievement here in his poems.

When we approach Interior Night we cannot help but notice a change in mood, in language-use. In terms of light and colour tones we encounter darker, more sombre colours. On reading Nightsweats in the Afternoon, we cannot but read it as another take, a darker, flipped, take on the earlier delightful House on the Beach of Panoramic Lounge Bar. In this latter book the role of language is undermined, the imagery and quotations that allow the elaborations, rhetorical flights, are questioned.

The poem The University recreates a self-enclosed, locked-in nightmare scenario; it is a world of seemingly real objects, but where the persona is only part-sensible: it is a dream landscape; these are all the qualities of the lucid dream. There is the seeming riddle of the subject of the poem that plays itself out twice (what Freud calls ‘repetition compulsion’), the constantly changing perspective, the changing uphill and downhill of the street to the shop; the colour schemes that tone down from brown to black. The poem has all the hallmark qualities of the half-awake dream state that enacts an unstated, unexplained complex event. It is a psychological memory that carries its own gestalt.

The earlier poem Ondine, opens with a take on a much-admired Pablo Neruda poem; the mannered style to the writing suggests to a certain extent the translatorese of the-poem-in-translation. Stammers constantly draws our attention to modes of verbal expression in this book, and how it perhaps has a conditioning effect on how we perceive the world. The subject matter, in this case alluding to a ballet, is of a water nymph whose song lures men to their death, and another classic Freudian concept. What Stammers does with the myth is investigate it from within, in this particular instance he takes up the central vehicle of the myth, the musical dimension: song, music, dance; he creates a typically Stammersian persona, and sees where it goes within the self- prison of its own existence.

In an early interview (Wolf Magazine), John Stammers commented that one the best pieces of luck in his writing career was to have Don Patterson for an editor, because he ‘doesn’t let him get away with anything’. Indeed, Patterson has joined that group of contemporary Scots poets whose commitment to poetics is strong and redoubtable: W N Herbert and Robert Crawford. This would imply that Stammer’s own use of poetics has thereby gone under close scrutiny. It is of a different order. Furthermore the Avenue (Stolen Love Behaviour) is a poem intent on sound. To read it aloud, read it for its patterns, is to trip the wire that sets it chiming; each metric foot has its own ring tone:  Platters of sea bass, gambas and trinkling glass/do nothing but vie with the C-sharp of Lambrettas/ that dopple off down the street to G.’ Each ‘a’ sound of those first two lines, although linking in the mind’s ear with assonantal patterns, to the actual ear each has its own weight and inflection. The London voice weighs vowels differently. The stand-out onomatopoeic word ‘trinkling’ with its ‘r’ and high ‘i’s revs into the memory of the high warbling sound of a Lambretta; its ‘r’ specifically introduced by the preceding sharp pull-up sound of ‘C-sharp’. The long sound of ‘C’ continues the other sound strand through these lines, the sibilance. It is amusing how Stammers modulates high C to the key of G here by way of the pulled-back rhythmic stress in ‘Lambrettas’.

In Black Dog the Freudian arena is further explored. Black Dog is the classic image of depression (see Churchill), and depression in Freudian terms is the symptom of a suppressed complex. We have a mannered use of language: … the shadows commence a faint unnerving undulation… where coolness and distance could almost characterize it as a quotation from a clinician’s notes of a patient’s (analysand’s) dream record. This in turn contrasts with the later easy, relaxed, chatty tone of: … sciency new conditioner….. But it must be remembered that this is a description of the … awful sheen… the shadows wear. It is as if both of these types of language-use are ways of approaching the same suppressed gestalt of the subject matter. As we follow the poem we see it act itself out, we see the narrator and the experience become one.  Similarly, in The House Sale, the persona is so very distinctly different from the Stammers of earlier poems; what is being enacted in this poem is an exploration of a dangerous, entrenched, state of mind. As this is an illustration rather than explanation of a state of mind/being, we readily accept the exaggerated aspects, attitudes, the reductive reasoning for what they are. Dead Alsatian… uses Martian distancing techniques, with their Hughesian undertones, for observing the concrete, the Real. Only, the real subject matter here is death; we have what is in effect a memento mori in miniature.

The Shrine of Proteus has a revealing prosody; the subject matter echoes Freud’s deep interest in classical myth, and its implications that play out in our daily lives. That is all very well, but it is what Stammers does with his subject matter is important, it is how it is written gives it its relevance. Structurally it is very interesting. The poem consists of nine stanzas, the first two of which have fifteen lines each, followed by a seven, an eleven, and then the last five of ten lines each. Metrically these lines pattern out roughly at eight iambics per line; but this is not the Stammers way: the line is the proper Stammers measure. Each line has its strong yet subtle internal audial patternings, whether by assonance or alliteration; it is usually a combination of both. It is tempting to say the line here is a breath-measure, but I don’t think it is so. The stanzas are built around polysyllabic patterns; the first stanza begins easily with a pocketful of small-change words, a jingling of copper and silver words, before we hit the larger denominations, the ‘barbarous’, ‘metaphysical’, ‘significance’, and ‘parodical’ before settling down again. Each stanza has its own variation. From line to line the pattern plays a variation on a basic sound-range. What this shifting does to the way we read the lines is important; this is particularly relevant in the last four lines of stanza nine, where the shift in level, tone, betokens a shift in perspective: we suddenly move from a fictionalised memory-tale, into something more sinister, psychological… Freudian. The form and range of perspectives, meanings, within the poem change; it is, in effect, protean.

Is it possible that, having said all this, in the volume Interior Night Stammers is attempting the Greek thing: catharsis? It is possible that by approaching the particular range of subject matter of the poems in this book, in this particular way, that Stammers is hoping to help us expose our underlying, suppressed, knowledge of the nature of the world around us: death, drugs, lust, fear… and so, to help us bring it out, see the world for what it is? What we do with that knowledge, is also of course, conditioned by the nature of the intent of that exposure.

I have name-checked quite a number of modern French writers in these pieces; can we go on and look for Irigary, Cixous, Kristeva? I have as yet not been able to locate any references. A previous reviewer of Stolen Love Behaviour commented to the effect that ‘Stammers says he is writing about love, passion. He can’t.’ At first I dismissed this as, ‘Well, when you look for only one (or two) definitions, or personal experiences, and then not find them… you know…! Well, need I say more!’ It was the dogmatic denial I reacted against. I think that maybe the mismatch here lies in that Stammers keeps strictly to an original-source Freudianism plus immediate interpreters for his life’s science, whilst the further French writers have produced critiques of Freud that at times dismantle both the efficacy of psycho-analysis, and of the Freudian conceptual framework. This then, is perhaps one other boundary of Stammers’ world.