Friday, 14 September 2007

Shearsman @ Swedenborg Hall

The Shearsman series returned this month after its summer hiatus, with two poets I'd previously unheard of (not that that is difficult) - Scott Thurston and Ian Davidson. Both came across as very interesting page/process explorers on the whole, though with a political edge that worked extremely well, when employed.

Scott Thurston kicked off with a piece that drew parallels between the felling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad and Ozymandias; I enjoyed the execution much more than I'd expected, but most especially for the introductory quotation he read out about a leg from the statue worth £6000 being impounded by UK Customs for not having a valid bill of sale to accompany it.

But his work really began to solidify after this piece. I marked him down as a poet psychoanalysing himself at the page, in the moment of arriving at the creative space, just before genesis. And so the poems produced were often about producing poems. There was a lot of self-reflexivity in his work, a dash of the abstract - talk of spaces, blankness. Two significant quotes I half-recorded, both of which indicate recurring ideas:

"Emotions are the same in poetry as in real life"


"Showing up at the page with a sexual core burning"

Ian Davidson used his travel experiences in Greece, the Baltics, Wales and elsewhere as a way of pointing the pen at himself, his own body. And again, a strong political edge brought in through the locational history, such as the KGB in Riga, Latvia.

There was a sense of the names of things becoming detached by change and decay and a sense that political factors had a hand in this, or an inability to keep up with the meaning of things, as they decayed, while the words stayed the same.

This carried through to an emphasis on the physical - a deep understanding of the immediately physical - organs, senses, bodily decay and construction and so on. The introduction to his recent book, which I bought at the event, talks about how he actually took up smoking and quit repeatedly while writing and actually ended up hospitalised for a while with severe throat problems. Something warped, but also pioneering about this.

Similar to Thurston, he was a poet who described the act of creating poetry, but his approach was more tangible. He met words, on the page, but also acted in dialogue with them, with the writing process, even if the experience didn't answer him in speech. The idea that took hold of me best was that words had a sensory effect upon the poet in the moment of creation.

One of my favourite of his metaphors (and my favourite in recent times), was of walking between words almost blind, between their leaf rustle, brushed by their branches. I'm paraphrasing, but the effect was to put me in mind of the wardrobe to Narnia as a paralell for poetic genesis.

Anyway, a series well worth going to if you're in London. It's free, you get to sit under the unnerving gaze of a bust of Swedenborg himself:

"At the age of fifty-six he entered into a spiritual phase, in which he experienced dreams and visions. This culminated in a spiritual awakening, where he claimed he was appointed by the Lord to write a heavenly doctrine to reform Christianity. He claimed that the Lord had opened his eyes, so that from then on he could freely visit heaven and hell, and talk with angels, demons, and other spirits."

The choice of venue is oddball in a good way, as are a few of the poets I've seen there this year, although Christopher Middleton's visit earlier this year has left me with absolute faith in Tony Frazer's tastes. Next month Erín Moure is over from Canada. She's one of Shearsman's translators, but will read her own work.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Rapunzel of the North - George Ttoouli

Eleanor Rees, Andraste's Hair: Salt Publishing, £12.99 (ISBN 9781844713042)

I know it's completely unfair and it's no way to start a review, but do we really need another young urban poet writing about 'the city'? OK, sure, Liverpool's only famous for that band and those poets who cashed in, so it's high time someone else took a good go, but really?

Writing about the city is marginally better than writing about classical music forms, or botching a Dante or Iliad, or rabbiting on about (Australian) Shiraz, (Tesco's) French roules and referencing mythology to try and elevate what is obviously doggerel to the level of art. If it's done well, anything goes. But the number of poems I've read which use "the city" like it's instant endorsement for a tired big-theme-a-comin' style or license to drawl on for 70 pages like Edward Carpenter on ketamine and coke, really ought to be a lot smaller than it is.

But as usual, the disgruntled outcome from judging this book by its cover needs to be kicked to the kerb. I'll start with the obvious: who is Andraste and what's so hot about her hair?

The first thing to note is that the Celtic goddess Andraste was linked to a 'hare'. Boudicca and a hare. No sign of Andraste's hair in what I've read, though unfortunately I left my Larousse in the platform toilets in Liverpool, obviously. (But perhaps there was a sign of the hare, or perhaps Andraste, in Jane Holland's book. If anyone else gets there first, let me know.)

The poem of the book's title does what I'd have hoped all poems that reference some kind of classical mythology would do: it turns a contemporary story into a legend. This was something Cavafy was a master of. Tilting myths to his own ends, turning seemingly irrelevant arcana into allegories for his contemporary world. This perhaps explains the dead-ender of the hair vs hare. It's a pun, but really, would anyone in Liverpool care, when the poem's content is what matters. Three men burning a woman's hair in the forest and the insistent refrain at the start, "she let them" do it, giving the sense that a rape has taken place.

A subtle accumulation of vocabulary tints the setting - a phrase like "the area is cordoned off" repeated just once, lending the atmosphere a police-investigation tone, that carries through. Alongside is the woman's resistance - carrying the burnt remains of her hair to the river, "to spread in the warp of water." This is a new narrative joining a longer chain, a poet recording a history that she doesn't want forgotten.

The piece is carefully woven, like the whole collection, with recurring moments, the vicissitudes of signs to themes (to paraphrase Eco) that start to build up a picture of Eleanor Rees' Liverpool. And given the potency of this poem alone, the clear craft that's gone into it, pulling it down to only the necessary, it's only fair that I now try to push out all thoughts of stereotypical Scousers in shellsuits nicking car stereos, to focus on the poetry.

There is a powerful sense of time in the collection, with tenses changing to fit the poet's eye and memory. Some poems begin with a sense that something in the past needs to be recalled - "Later, houses know" (in 'Or snow'); or literally in 'Seams of Dust':
The pavement erupts and the past
- tail twitching -
rises from the cracks.

But really what strikes is the present tense used throughout - every incident, no matter how occasional the content might seem, is tackled in the lava of being. I can imagine Rees undergoing a form of self-hypnosis, struggling to get back to the spontaneous overflow of experience and re-live it, or rather, to not let these moments fade completely. At the same time, each memory is tied to a tradition, be it Celtic, classical, or the dynasty of White Goddesses to which Andraste has been associated with.

The content of the poems has a sense of importance, as though the poet were earnestly turning a model of the city around to show you something you'd missed. People run over by cars, lying in the road; moments of passion between lovers; hidden places, like Olwyn's Valley, the Mersey countryside; or the tarmacked streets turned strange and mythical. These have fingers pointed at them - an impersonal finger, but one that highlights the emotion in the scene by offering it to the reader to create - and the sheer beauty and strangeness depicted is enough to keep the eye fixed, as in 'A Nocturnal Opera':

Morning scold of dark
touches eyes shut dark

to see old dark waning.
All shades of dark,

frayed edge dark,
are now hollow head dark...

window flat glass dark

in the street dark
in flowerbed dark

in gutter, wheels,
parked car dark

The repetition is stretched but not exhausted, turning the city into a gothic journey into which the poet places her narrator, "barefoot, bra-less, / flung westward." The ensuing poem is worth the cover price alone, for the scope and freshness of its construction, though it does leave some of the shorter pieces looking like filler.

This particular urban city poet seems to be trying to escape from the city that people know. Hers is not the Liverpool of docks and the Beatles, not the European Capital of Culture. Andraste's Hair defines the city as Rees has experienced it - not the real experience, necessarily, but the emotional truth, the weight of tradition, and the range of facets presented build to a more authentic picture than the abstract constructions that many established poets were conjuring in their early writing.

Perhaps it's the need to know themselves that drives developing poets to look into their roots, to ground themselves in a landscape. I'm not going to tackle the whole 'writing and place' thing here, but more the sense of writing place as a starting point for material. Think, for example, of Roy Fisher's early work about Birmingham (too embarrassed to reference the place at first, his first collection was entitled simply 'City'), or Cavafy's Alexandria (although the city featured throughout his work).

But perhaps what I'm thinking more is that urban landscapes have been dominated by men - Hart Crane, Tony Harrison, the Beats; rural ones too have men like Ted Hughes and John Burnside standing astride them, but whereas I can name several women writing about rural scapes with great credibility - Penelope Shuttle, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Alice Oswald, for starters - I fall short on women tackling urban landscapes (Catherine Walsh being one obvious exception). Suggestions on a postcard - perhaps there's a reading list I'm not aware of.