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 

Monday 23 July 2018

Seamus Heaney: 'Miracle'

I was recently reading the accounts in Luke 5:17-26 and Mark 2:1-12 describing how Jesus healed a paralyzed man after he had been lowered through a gap in the roof of the house. I was reminded of the poem 'Miracle' by Seamus Heaney, inspired by these accounts, which appeared in Human Chain, Heaney's last collection in 2010. Heaney also referenced this event in 'The Skylight', part of his 'Glanmore Revisited' sequence.

'Miracle' was, I think, my favourite poem from Human Chain. It can be read from either a spiritual or a secular perspective, as it describes a miraculous occurrence, but focuses on the friends of the suffering man and all that they do to help him. Their "slight lightheadedness", caused both by their physical exertions and by the wonder of what they've witnessed, is so human. The poem is partly a tribute to Heaney's own friends who helped him after he suffered a stroke in 2006, and it reminded me that in small or large ways, we can play our own part for good and help to make things greater than ourselves come about.

Photo: Ramp up to the Rafters by Paul Sableman. Used under Creative Commons license 

Sunday 22 July 2018

Rodin and Rilke at the British Museum

I went to the Rodin and the art of ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum (on until 29 July). It's almost impossible to go wrong with an exhibition like this: it's Rodin, it's classical Greek art, it's Rodin's history with the British Museum...what's not to like? To my surprise, I also found that the words of Rainer Maria Rilke were everywhere.

Rilke went to Paris in 1902 to write a monograph on Rodin, and subsequently became his secretary for a time and his friend. (You can read a fascinating excerpt from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett, here.) All over the exhibition, writeups on the artwork were accompanied by Rilke's words on Rodin, often on the specific piece. Sometimes they made up the entirety of the writeup: this was especially moving where Rilke had written about the intensely emotional The Burghers of Calais. No one, it seems, has been able to improve on Rilke's words. This increased immeasurably my enjoyment of an already marvelous exhibition.

Here's what Rilke said on the figure of Pierre de Wissant in The Burghers of Calais:

He created the vague gesture of the man 'passing through life'... As he advances he turns back, not to the town, not to the weeping people, nor to those accompanying him. He turns back to himself ... his hand opens in the air and lets something go, somewhat in the way in which we set free a bird. He is taking leave of all uncertainty, of all happiness still unrealised... This figure, if placed by itself in some old shady garden, would make a monument for all who have died young. (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902. Translator not named)

Thursday 19 July 2018

Poem review + recent translation at the PTC

A thoughtful review of my poem 'Carousel', recently published by Strange Horizons, appeared on Charles Payseur's Quick Sip Reviews, and you can read it here:

In translation news, I joined the Poetry Translation Centre workshop a few weeks ago to help translate an Arabic prose poem, 'Savannah' by Amjad Nasser. I was really pleased that a few sixth-formers (that's high school...ish...for the North Americans) joined the workshop with their teacher, made interesting contributions, and evidently enjoyed it.

Monday 25 June 2018

New Poem Published: 'Carousel' in Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, an American journal of speculative fiction and poetry, has published my poem 'Carousel', which I wrote a few years ago. It's always good when a poem finally finds a home.

You can read 'Carousel' here:

And here you can listen to a quick podcast about the poem:

The podcast consists of an introduction by editor Ciro Faienza, a few comments from me about the inspiration for the poem, and finally, my reading of the poem.

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Saturday 9 June 2018

Keith Douglas: 'Aristocrats' and Unicorns, Almost

Keith Douglas died on this day in 1944.

The Welsh poet, novelist and playwright Owen Sheers wrote a one-man play based on Douglas' life, Unicorns, Almost, some years ago and it premiered last month in Hay-on-Wye. I wasn't able to get to Hay, so I'm hoping that the play will be shown in London at some point.

You can now purchase the playscript from Faber, here:

Here is the Guardian's review of the play:

And here is Keith Douglas' poem 'Aristocrats', from which the title of the play was taken. In it, Douglas takes a very cold look beyond the myths of war's glories.

ARISTOCRATS (Keith Douglas)

The noble horse with courage in his eye,
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.

Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88;
it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance.
I saw him crawling on the sand, he said
It's most unfair, they've shot my foot off.

How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?
Unicorns, almost,
for they are fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.

These plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves,
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear, but a hunting horn.

                                                                         Tunisia 1943

Sunday 20 May 2018

Keith Douglas: 'Enfidaville'

It has been a while since I've posted anything by Keith Douglas. Tonight I fell upon his poem 'Enfidaville', written in May 1943 - 75 years ago this month. It describes the aftermath of the Tunisian Campaign in the Second World War, in which Douglas took part.

Somewhat similar to his poem 'Mersa', 'Enfidaville' is, I think, less detached and more in-the-moment. Acknowledging "the pain this town holds", the speaker invests everything he sees with the aftermath of traumatic events: "the daylight coming in from the fields/like a labourer, tired and sad", "the ghosts tugging at doorhandles". When the speaker says of the town's cautiously returning inhabitants: "Who would not love them at this minute?", he seems to wryly acknowledge the uselessness of that question in the face of the destruction he has been part of. And he looks into "the blue eyes of the images in the church", perhaps sensing that they reproach him, or perhaps finding only emptiness and absence in those eyes.

ENFIDAVILLE (Keith Douglas)

In the church fallen like dancers
lie the Virgin and St Therèse
on little pillows of dust.
The detonations of the last few days
tore down the ornamental plasters
shivered the hands of Christ.

The men and women who moved like candles
in and out of the houses and the streets
are all gone. The white houses are bare
black cages. No one is left to greet
the ghosts tugging at doorhandles
opening doors that are not there.

Now the daylight coming in from the fields
like a labourer, tired and sad,
is peering about among the wreckage, goes
past some corners as though with averted head
not looking at the pain this town holds,
seeing no one move behind the windows.

But already they are coming back; to search 
like ants, poking in the débris, finding in it
a bed or a piano and carrying it out.
Who would not love them at this minute?
I seem again to meet
the blue eyes of the images in the church.

                                        [? Tunisia, May 1943]

Image: Signpost on road to Enfidaville, 1943. By M.D. Elias 

Monday 7 May 2018

Osip Mandelstam: 'The Admiralty'

This poem, 'The Admiralty' by Osip Mandelstam, appeared a few years ago as a Guardian Poem of the Week in a translation by Yuri Drobyshev and Carol Rumens. It describes the Admiralty building in St Petersburg, Russia.

Carol Rumens' comments on her work with Yuri Drobyshev, and on the poem, are as always very much worth reading, particularly because Mandelstam is a complex poet who apparently is insanely hard to translate well (although a lot of people have tried - this always makes me, a non-Russian-speaker, a little nervous when I read his work in translation.)

What I've found in my somewhat intermittent reading of Mandelstam over the years is that his poems typically have an extremely concrete, physical focus (like a close-up, almost through a microscope) which then explodes into a constellation of observations (whether temporal or more philosophical). In this poem, Mandelstam cleverly gives the authority of a "demi-god" to human craftsmen, including the ability to transcend space and time.

I visited St Petersburg, then Leningrad, in 1985. It was summer, my family was on a side trip of a few days from Finland, and I would have been either almost six years old or just turned six. It's rather mysterious to me now to think that I visited Soviet Russia a few years before the end of the USSR (when I read the recent biography of John le Carré by Adam Sisman, I realised that I travelled there before le Carré ever did).

While I was a fairly well-informed kindergartner, I don't think I knew much about Russia or its history. It seems, though, that my parents had grasped the effect that travel can have on a growing mind. I didn't know that some day I would read Mandelstam, or that more than 30 years later I still wouldn't have returned to Russia. I don't remember if we saw the Admiralty building. What I remember are images from somewhere between dream and reality, which I have carried with me my whole life since: the customs officer at the Finland-Russia border, a young man probably no more than 20 years old, smiling down at me as my parents lifted me up; the Winter Palace, carved from an iceberg and stranded on the edge of a square the size of a planet; crowds on a street and a kvass machine; the cake-yellow Summer Palace and a trick fountain in the shape of a little dog; a white cat delicately carrying a fish along the street; an oppressive red velvet dining room at the Hotel Evropeiskaya (yes, we actually stayed there on a package tour); hockey-playing bears at the circus on ice; a city outside of darkness, sailing on the edge of a world vaster than anything I knew.

Photo: Admiralty, St Petersburg by Dominic Sayers. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Terrance Hayes: American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin

American poet Terrance Hayes has been one of my favourite discoveries of recent years. His poetry explores themes of masculinity, parenthood, black and American identity, in verse that is warm, energetic and intensely interested in form. For the centenary of Gwendolyn Brooks, he devised a new poetic form, the Golden Shovel, which resulted in an anthology of the same name dedicated to Brooks and using the form.

Hayes' next collection will be American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, to be released in June. A number of these poems - all bearing the same title, 'American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin' - have appeared over the past year in online journals, and I have felt a thrill of excitement every time I have seen a new one. I was at the London launch of The Golden Shovel anthology, where many of the contributors and editors appeared, including Patricia Smith, Malika Booker and others.  Terrance Hayes read some of the 'American Sonnets', and the atmosphere was electrifying (this time the cliché is definitely appropriate).

Here are just a few of the 'American Sonnets', which are even more varied than this selection suggests. I'm pretty sure this is going to be one of the best collections of 2018, if not the decade.

Terrance Hayes photo courtesy of Blue Flower Arts

Saturday 21 April 2018

London Book Fair 2018

In the spirit of non-posts after a long time without posting at all, I hereby bring you a bunch of photos from London Book Fair 2018, at Olympia, which was last week. As always, it was a very fun work day.

The regional focus this year was on the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I didn't get a chance to do much that was poetry-related, but it's good to see what is happening in book-world.

The last picture is indeed me, and the picture just before it...well, that's kind of me too.

I promise that actual poetry entries will resume very soon.

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Helen Dunmore: 'Convolvulus'

Helen Dunmore (left), 2014. Photo by summonedbyfells. Used under Creative Common license

Helen Dunmore, the British poet and novelist who died last year at the age of 64, recently won not only the 2017 Costa Poetry award for her final poetry collection Inside the Wave, but also the overall Costa Book of the Year award.

So far I've read relatively few poems from Inside the Wave or her other works, which probably makes this post a little premature. From what I have read, though, her poems seem to me balanced, spare but vivid, a personal voice aware of the wider world. I was somewhat reminded of the poetry of Sarah Maguire, who also died last year at around the same age. I'm also looking forward to reading Dunmore's novel Exposure and perhaps others.

Dunmore's poem 'Convolvulus', published in 2004, is one that I read recently and have often thought of since. In the symbology of flowers, the convolvulus can represent extinguished hopes and death. It is also a plant which can act as a weed and choke out others. The poem thus becomes a thought-provoking and disturbing meditation on hope (a flower that continues to bloom), but also the permanence of death and the repeated dashing of hopes throughout human history. The flower is resilient: this is both a source of optimism and despair. "Crushed, they breathe out their honey, and slowly/come back to themselves in the balm of the night". Humans cannot regain life or hope so easily, certainly not in the face of violence.

It is very telling that the speaker first says "where we say bombs, there will be nothing/until we turn to reconstruction" (the war will stop, the ceasefire will hold) but later acknowledges "Where we say bombs, there will be bombs". The poem ends with the recurring threat of violence in "the shadow of planes" over the sea, which reminded me irresistibly of how I felt when I saw the first plane after 9/11, days later, over a beach near my home on Vancouver Island.

'Convolvulus' reminded me of 'Desert Flowers' by Keith Douglas, a favourite poem: these two poems share the themes of war and the ambiguity of the flower imagery. I also thought that both Douglas and Dunmore seem curiously outside of time. Douglas has dated relatively little considering that he was writing in the 1930s and '40s, and Dunmore seems unlikely to become dated in any kind of hurry.

Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has just written a touching tribute to Helen Dunmore which you can read here:

Sunday 4 February 2018

Philip Levine: 'The Second Going'

On the list of poems which have haunted me and refuse to leave, this is a recent addition: 'The Second Going' by Philip Levine.

Philip Levine, who was the US Poet Laureate in 2011-2012, died in 2015 at the age of 87. This poem appeared in 2017 in The Golden Shovel, an anthology in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks (who was also a US Poet Laureate, and the first African-American woman to receive that honour.) The "golden shovel" poetic form was devised by Terrance Hayes and it uses each word of a line of poetry, in order, to form the last word of each line in the new poem. The line which inspired 'The Second Going', "The only sanity is a cup of tea", appears in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem 'Boy Breaking Glass'.

'The Second Going' is a beautiful example of one of my own favourite poetic "forms" (if it can be called that): the very short poem. In just eight lines, this poem says so much.

My own reading of it is rather dark. I see this as an end-of-life poem, which it may literally have been for Philip Levine, as he died in 2015 and the poem must have been commissioned for the 2017 anthology. Even the poem's shape, appearing as a descending staircase, suggests an ending. The poem's opening, "Again the/day begins", has a weariness about it, and "mercy" (in the final line) is a word I identify with assisted death or, at least, death after an exhausting illness. A sad poem, then, but also an illuminating one, like the strange clarity that can come after being awake for "long nights & absent dawns".

Photo: 'night' by Steve Johnson. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday 30 January 2018

In memory of Ursula Le Guin, 1929-2018

The novelist, essayist and poet Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago, on 22 January. She was 88.

There are so many things I could say about Le Guin. I remember seeing A Wizard of Earthsea in the library when I was young, and being a little frightened by the cover art. Later, I remember reading it on a long train trip in Finland, perhaps at the age of nine or ten. I also remember a certain remote, awed feeling about her name. Ursula Le Guin: it was like one of the characters in her books, perhaps a powerful and beautiful queen, and I think I suspected for a long time that it was a pen name.

Unlike with Watership Down, or even to a certain extent with Tolkien, I don't remember any coup de foudre moment with Le Guin's writing. My brother and I loved the first two Earthsea books - I think for some time we were especially keen on The Tombs of Atuan - but we found The Farthest Shore dull. Much later, I've realised it's one of her most beautiful and profound books. That says something about my relationship with Le Guin's writing: her books have been a part of my life for a very long time, indeed for most of it, but it was more of a slow burn.

It would be incorrect to say that I loved everything I ever read by Le Guin (and I haven't read all of her work, which gives me some relief now that she is gone). I love much of it, and admire all of it. She has been around for most of my artistic/literary/life development, but my awareness of her work has expanded gradually over the years. I enjoyed fantasy literature in childhood, so Earthsea was the logical place to begin. I'm not sure when I became aware that she was probably even more famous as a science fiction writer, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, among others. I suspect that for a long time, I was guilty of doing what she eventually taught me not to do: I pigeonholed her as a sci-fi/fantasy writer, as good as I knew her to be. In recent years I have realised that she was one of the greatest writers of our time - full stop. I now think of her as having left us one of the finest bodies of work from the 20th and 21st centuries. She was the author of magnificent literature, who happened to be working mainly in speculative fiction, and who was so often marginalised for it (and often for her gender, too) when her genius should have been shouted from the rooftops.

Genre fiction often gets shoved aside as mere entertainment. Le Guin's work was entertaining, but I never went to her other worlds merely to be entertained. I went to Earthsea or Anarres or the Western Shore or Orsinia in order to think, to meditate, to explore, to shake things loose in my mind. Her sense of humour is underrated and frequently present, but really, a profound seriousness runs through her writing and it demands that readers approach it seriously. In the days following her death, I've read many superb articles by people who knew her and/or were deeply influenced by her work. Many people have, one way or another, claimed her ideas on feminism, gender, politics and so forth. I have no desire to claim her ideas; in fact, I know that she and I would have disagreed on many things. But although she was a writer whose convictions shine through strongly, even overtly at times, in all of her writing, I found a freedom within her books as well. Her books didn't try to force agreement, which many less subtle and powerful writers have done, especially in recent years. They did, however, call on me to engage deeply with the text and to use my mind, to think about agreement, disagreement, compromise, changing one's mind or holding fast to one's convictions. She also treasured love and the small things which make up a life and its relationships.

As otherworldly as her writing is, there's also something extremely tangible and tactile about it. Even in her prose, her craft held many lessons for poets, in its spareness and meticulous choice of every word. She is not a writer for whom I would use the word "effortless". The craftwork in her writing is extremely evident, as it would be when looking at a beautiful piece of pottery, or a painstakingly worked statue. Many of her characters do such work, or jobs which are seemingly humble. She showed respect for all of it. Some years ago I visited Okinawa, and my friends bought me a stunningly beautiful pottery mug, dark-glazed, depicting a fish. It is pure Le Guin (and so was that world of Okinawa, its little islands, grey winds, bright waves and dark palms). When I still lived in my hometown of Victoria, Canada, I would sometimes see the work of sculptor Maarten Schaddelee, who carved flowing dolphins, sea creatures and waves, often out of highly polished wood. These too were "Le Guin" works of art to me. And it's appropriate that they came from either side of the Pacific Rim, because Le Guin lived in Portland, Oregon for much of her life, after growing up in California. There is a definite Pacific Northwest and West Coast air to so much of her work, which also brought me closer to it.

I have sometimes been known to say that I'm a bit under-read when it comes to the Great American Novel. Well, Ursula Le Guin was the great American novelist. It doesn't have to be a man or the author of Gravity's Rainbow or Portnoy's Complaint. When the writing is this good, when the thoughts are this expansive, the great American novelist can and should be a woman writing science fiction and fantasy. Like so many of her readers, I am deeply sad that she is gone, but slightly comforted that I haven't read all of her work yet - including much of her poetry, which many consider underrated. She could no longer work on another novel in the last few years, but she still had poetry. In one of the many articles written in the last few days, Zoë Carpenter, who had known her, wrote: "She told me it was important that I read her poems in order to understand her current preoccupations, her attempt to 'report from the frontier' of old age." I'll reread her novels and will move on gratefully to the poetry while I remember this extraordinary woman.

Photo of Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch (Oregon State University). Used under Creative Commons License