Monday, 31 December 2018

Derek Mahon: 'Mythistorema'

At the end of 2018, I leave you with 'Mythistorema' by Derek Mahon (this is actually a 2017 poem, but who cares?) Mahon has also, this year, released Against the Clock (Gallery Press), which I look forward to reading: he's one of my most admired poets.

The title of 'Mythistorema' merges "myth" and "history", and for readers of poetry it may suggest the title of a sequence by George Seferis. To me, this poem was immediately and most powerfully a callback to what may be Mahon's greatest poem, 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford'. I then realised that a line from the Seferis sequence actually appears at the start of 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' ("Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels") - linking all of these poems together.

It's quite moving how the aging Mahon, resurrecting the opening image of the mine from 'A Disused Shed' into 'Mythistorema', climbs down into his own oeuvre and personal myths, his memory, and his life - then admitting as wryly as ever: "We try to grasp it but the past dies back/to a grainy line-up of old photographs." There was more pain and anger at the heart of 'A Disused Shed', which finally cries out against genocide, mass death and the failure of human endeavour. Here, Mahon seems to conclude more resignedly: "Now everyone/whispers together in the dim fields below".

Photo of asphodel by Ligurian Photoflora. Used under Creative Commons license

Rogue Strands: Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2018

I write this belatedly and on a different continent from the usual (well, not that different from the usual - I'm back in Victoria, BC on Canada's Vancouver Island, visiting my family.)

Anyway, this is to let you know that poet and blogger Matthew Stewart (who writes the Rogue Strands blog) kindly included me once again on his year-end list of Best UK Poetry Blogs, for 2018. I've made it on to this excellent list for a few years now - readers of UK poetry blogs, and hopefully poetry blog readers in a few other countries, know that this is a must-read or at least must-browse list. So I was very pleased to be included again. Of course, this should also serve as an incentive to blog a little more often than I've tended to do lately.

You can read the full lineup here:

Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Spindrift Pages: A Poetry Mystery

Tonight I thought I would share a mystery with my readers.

Back in 2012, or maybe 2011 - around when I first started writing The Stone and the Star - I somehow came across this blog, The Spindrift Pages. I don't know how this happened: I might have stumbled across it, or someone might have clicked through to my blog from it, or the blogger might have followed me.

15 posts appeared in 2011, 14 posts in 2012, and then they stopped in March 2012. Most of the posts are original poems. The blogger's name, at least on the blog profile, is Beetle Taylor (possibly a car name??) and they described themselves as "19 years old, between school and university, in the middle of nowhere, with endless supplies of books to read, thanks to thursday market. Hoping to write a poem a day (at the very least) for a year...and hoping that someone might read them!" I commented a few times, so we had some warm but very slight interaction.

The point that I am building up to is that the poems are absolutely remarkable. I think there's a little Sidney Keyes there, a little TS Eliot, a little Wallace Stevens: older but good influences, perhaps not the most original, but this poet was very young. They are authoritative, coolly observant, fond of light alliteration, beautifully shaped, and not facile in the least. I've returned to them a few times in subsequent years, reading a poem or two and wondering if the writer would come back. So far, no.

Assuming that the basic biographical details, at least, are correct, this poet is probably 26 now, and I sincerely hope they are still writing poetry. I have wondered if they started a blog under a different name or their real name, if they moved on to other things, or indeed if they are okay. I've also wondered if this could be someone I know online or in real life.

Do read and enjoy The Spindrift Pages, and if you have a clue to the mystery, let me know.

Photo: Auriga Spindrift by euphro. Used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Recent Publications: Modern Poetry In Translation & Sherlock Holmes Is Like...

I've recently had a couple of essays (or, a review and an essay) published in print, which for me at least is less common these days, and is always a special delight. (It's not as good for sharing widely, but it has a little extra gravitas and permanence.)

My review of a translation of Benjamin Fondane's Ulysses (translated by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, Syracuse University Press, 2017) appears in 'In a Winter City' (Modern Poetry in Translation, No. 3, 2018). I cannot deny that I am very excited about this. On social media I often see people talking about their "dream journals" for publication: Modern Poetry in Translation is mine. Hopefully I'll get one of my own translations in there some day. I also love Fondane, and it was a privilege to review this excellent translation from the original French. You can access a full table of contents, buy a print copy, subscribe to the journal (which I highly recommend) and read a few of the poems here, but the review and most of the issue is only available in print or by a digital subscription. The focus of this issue, which my review sits outside of, is Hungary and Ted Hughes. It's 20 years since Hughes died, and as one of the founders of MPT, he dreamed of a Hungarian issue but didn't edit one in his lifetime.

The essay is non-poetry, but I am also proud of it - and oddly enough, I managed to quote Ted Hughes in it. It's entitled 'Tinker Tailor Sherlockian Spy: George Smiley', and it appears in Sherlock Holmes Is Like, published by Wildside Press. Edited by Christopher Redmond, this book contains 60 essays comparing Sherlock Holmes and characters of fact and fiction ranging from Loki to The Beatles (and everyone between that you can think of). As I'm quite immersed in spy literature, especially John le Carré, these days, it was a natural choice to pick le Carré's master spy George Smiley for this commission, especially as le Carré has often spoken of the inspiration he found in the Sherlock Holmes stories from a young age. You can buy the book directly from the publisher or from the other usual outlets. Authors weren't paid, and royalties go to the Sherlockian charity The Beacon Society.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Interviews: 'my small press writing day' & 'Wombwell Rainbow Interviews'

I don't often get asked for interviews, partly because the world has thus far failed to recognise my coruscating genius (read: I haven't won anything to speak of, at least not recently, and have not even published a poetry collection yet.)

However, a couple of generous souls out there in poetry-world have recently been posting wide-ranging interviews on their blogs, with a variety of writers at varying points in their careers. I was delighted to recently appear in both of these interview series.

The first was 'my (small press) writing day' curated by rob mclennan, a Canadian writer who has published more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His main blog can be found here. The piece I wrote for him wasn't so much an interview as a description of my writing day. Since I don't really have a writing day, it went off at a tangent. You can read it here:

The second was part of the 'Wombwell Rainbow Interviews' series by UK poet and local historian Paul Brookes. This is more of an interview where I answered a series of questions about my reading and writing background and development. I really enjoyed answering the questions and they made me reflect on where I've come from (and although I included a lot, I now suspect I also left out quite a's never-ending.) You can read the interview here: 

Friday, 12 October 2018

New Poems Published in The Interpreter's House and Ink Sweat & Tears

I think that poem publications are much like buses in that often there are none for ages and then there are a few at once. Or at least two.

This week, my poem 'Healer' appeared in Ink Sweat & Tears, as part of their National Poetry Day feature (which they have a tradition of turning into National Poetry Week). The next day, my poem 'In Paris' was published in The Interpreter's House, which has just moved to a new online format.

I wrote 'Healer' a couple of years ago when I did a residency with the Poetry School and London Parks & Gardens Trust, in Cleary Garden, a historic public garden in the City of London. Although it was named after Fred Cleary, who campaigned for public spaces in the City, Cleary Garden was originally founded by Joseph Brandis, the subject of the poem. There aren't a lot of details about Brandis (that I'm aware of) but he was a member of the Cordwainers Company, and he did such a good job of transforming that particular bomb site into a garden that the Queen visited in 1949. The theme of this year's National Poetry Day was 'Change', so the poem was perfect for the Ink Sweat & Tears feature.

'In Paris' was written last year, after my last visit to Paris (a weekend meet-up with my brother). I've now been reading Paul Celan for over 20 years, and his importance in my writing and reading life can hardly be over-estimated. I've written a few poems more or less inspired by or dedicated to him, but this is definitely the one I'm happiest with. I always think of Celan in Paris, although, as the poem says, I've never gone as far as Pont Mirabeau (he lived nearby and is presumed to have jumped to his death from that bridge).

Photo: Cleary Garden, London. Taken by Clarissa Aykroyd

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Sidney Keyes: 'Europe's Prisoners'

Occasionally I read poems from past decades which seem extraordinarily present in our own time - to borrow a cliché, they seem like they've been ripped from today's headlines.

This poem by Sidney Keyes, who did not survive World War II, is one of them. Initially it made me think of the refugee crises of recent years, but there was much more, such as "the politicians with their stale/Visions and cheap flirtation with the past".

I realise I have been an infrequent blogger recently, and I completely failed to write about National Poetry Day on Thursday. I do hope that everyone had a bit of poetry in their day - and I will have a little more to add to that next week.


Never a day, never a day passes
But I remember them, their stoneblind faces
Beaten by arclights, their eyes turned inward
Seeking an answer and their passage homewards:

For being citizens of time, they never
Would learn the body's nationality.
Tortured for years now, they refuse to sever
Spirit from flesh or accept our callow century.

Not without hope, but lacking present solace,
The preacher knows the feel of nails and grace;
The singer snores; the orator's facile hands
Are fixed in a gesture no one understands.

Others escaped, yet paid for their betrayal:
Even the politicians with their stale
Visions and cheap flirtation with the past
Will not die any easier at the last.

The ones who took to garrets and consumption
In foreign cities, found a deeper dungeon
Than any Dachau. Free but still confined
The human lack of pity split their mind.

Whatever days, whatever seasons pass,
The prisoners must stare in pain's white face:
Until at last the courage they have learned
Shall burst the walls and overturn the world.

                                                           21 May 1941.

Photo: Fence and barbed wire by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Used under Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Adam Hall's Quiller Meets the Poems In My Head

In the past year, I started reading a series of books by Adam Hall (one of the pseudonyms of British author and playwright Elleston Trevor) about a spy known only as Quiller. Quiller is something of an enigma who also bares his mind's intricate workings to an uncomfortable degree: it's as though you're in his body, seeing through his eyes, and calculating the angle at which a very fast car is going to ricochet when it hits the guard rail.

The terse stream-of-consciousness poetry of Hall's writing, and the multiple layers of his central character, attracted me to this series even more than the undeniably exciting plots. A few books into the series, I read The Striker Portfolio (1968) and The Tango Briefing (1973) within a week. At this point, something both strange and familiar started to happen: the books went into my head and started talking to the other books, and poems, that I've stashed in there over the years.

In The Striker Portfolio, Quiller finds himself on the Frontier between West and East Germany, at night, following a man through a minefield. 'It was an eerie place,' he says, 'a landscape with dead figures: the posts leaning like gibbets and the web of the wire breaking the flat two-dimensional background into sections as if the whole scene were cardboard, a badly lighted stage. Perhaps it was difficult for him to believe in the unlikely: that a man was standing not far from him, thrown up from the waste of earth where armies had once passed, leaving their dead.'

When I read this, I suddenly flashed to the war poems of Keith Douglas: 'a landscape with dead figures' called up his poem 'Landscape with Figures 2':

On scrub and sand the dead men wriggle
in their dowdy clothes. They are mimes
who express silence and futile aims
enacting this prone and motionless struggle
at a queer angle to the scenery
crawling on the boards of the stage like walls
deaf to the one who opens his mouth and calls
silently. [...]

In The Tango Briefing, Quiller is sent to the Sahara (as usual, with minimal information) to investigate a plane crash. Preparing for his mission in the crumbling Auberge Yasmina, he notes 'a forecourt buried under the shade of rotting palms where I could hear rats running.' Later: 'The curved fronds of the palms hung piled against the minarets and the filigree of window-grilles, their tips burned brown by the heat of never-ending noons; in them I could hear rats rustling.' Amidst the nervous tension of these scenes, I found myself thinking of TS Eliot: 'I think we are in rats' alley/Where the dead men lost their bones' (The Waste Land), and the 'rats' feet over broken glass' of 'The Hollow Men'. Sent into the desert on a glider (an eerie voyage which made me think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's writings, particularly Vol de nuit) and isolated in an extraordinarily dangerous environment, Quiller has to seek a specific outcropping of rocks, his only point of reference...

[...] you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock) [...]

(TS Eliot, The Waste Land)

Does any of this mean anything, I wondered? Was Adam Hall reading Keith Douglas, TS Eliot or Saint-Exupéry? Was he alluding to them, consciously or otherwise? Maybe. Probably. Probably not. But what I realised as I flashed back and forth between the books I was reading and the poems I carry around with me was that this dialogue (for want of a better word) in my head was a strong indicator of how much the books were affecting me. Not all books will awaken these tenuous and uncertain echoes. I think it means that they've already entered one of my mind's inner rooms, where bits of literature meet and talk to each other. It's a compliment to all of the writers involved, and it's also a source of creativity, a catalyst, an opening into a further palace of doors.

Photo: Desert of Legend by Preston Rhea. Used under Creative Commons license