Sunday 30 August 2009

Simon Turner - Close Encounters (2) - David Gascoyne, 'The Very Image'

I must admit to having been slightly obsessed with this poem since I first read it years ago (context unknown). Apparently, you can judge how much someone loves a book by the numbers of editions they have in their house (Ulysses: 6; The Divine Comedy: I've lost track; Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book: 0), and I think much the same rule applies to individual poems. 'The Very Image' is printed in at least four texts I own, including Gascoyne's selected, and an excellent Penguin anthology entitled English and American Surrealist Poetry, which does exactly what it says on the tin, more or less; so that should give you some indication of how much esteem I hold this poem in (or the degree of my manic hoarding disorder, your call).

Anyway, the reason I want to discuss this poem here and now - aside from proving my co-editor wrong about my status as some kind of nascent hermit - is because I find it interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I think it is one of Gascoyne's strongest Surrealist poems, and one of the best examples of linguistic Surrealism produced by the English Surrealist group. Secondly, I think the poem has great value as being in some ways indicative of the English Surrealist group's poetics as a whole, though I'll get on to that shortly.

'The Very Image's' greatest strength is its simplicity. It's built in five line stanzas, each on containing a single image. Here's the opening:

An image of my grandmother
her head appearing upside-down upon a cloud
the cloud transfixed on the steeple
of a deserted railway station
far away

There is a distinct 'purity of diction' (to borrow Donald Davie's phrase) on display here, and the connection to Davie is an instructive one. One of the Movement's main bugbears was, of course, Modernism (though how much of that was literary leg-pulling is up for debate, and Davie's own unceasing aesthetic support for Pound and Bunting rather complicates the picture), but their real ire was saved for Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalypse crowd (including Nicholas Moore, Henry Treece, George Barker, and Norman McCaig for a short while). One of the primary well-springs of the New Apocalyptic aesthetic was, of course, Surrealism, and Gascoyne's Surrealist poems in many regards pre-empt the Apocalyptic project. 'The Very Image' is striking precisely because it forgoes the apocalyptic (small-a) tone that dominates in other poems of his, such as 'And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis', favouring instead a rhetoric almost of plain statement, which is much more effective in allowing the startling images to show through.

The poem is dedicated to René Magritte, the Belgian artists whose paintings, alongside those of Dali, have become a visual shorthand, via poster prints of his most famous works, of what Surrealism is supposedly all about. In the process, his paintings have lost much of their capacity for strangeness: we come to a Magritte thinking we already know the score. Gascoyne's poem succeeds in making Magritte strange again, creating a series of uncanny and vertigo-inducing images through the plainest of means:

An image of an aeroplane
the propeller is rashers of bacon
the wings are of reinforced lard
the tail is made of paperclips
the pilot is a wasp

Which brings me on to my second point. Whilst the visual heritage of Surrealism enjoys a great deal of popular success - however much that success has stripped its greatest practitioners of the capacity to shock and appall - the literary possibilities of Surrealism have either been relegated to the status of a cult, with writers such as Gascoyne enjoying a small but committed readership, or the processes which gave birth to classics like The Magnetic Fields and Paris Peasant have been watered down by several generations of 'soft' Surrealists. It is strange, then, that many of the great writers seem to pre-empt their own redundancy, as the visual is repeatedly given precedence over the written, the linguistic, in many of the great theoretical texts of Surrealism. Basically, these lads were bare obsessed with eyes, with what the eye could produce imaginatively: language was only valuable insofar as it coulld produce new images for the mind's eye to confront.

Gascoyne's poem, however, seems to be rather more ambivalent. Yes, it's dedicated to Magritte, yes, it's entitled 'The Very Image', but the poem's effects - that of accumulation, whereby the image only makes 'sense' (or rather, feels complete) once each individual stanza is over - are chiefly linguistic in character. The shock of learning that the pilot of the insane plane in the quotation above is a wasp is only possible, I would argue, in a written text: a visual text could not withhold information in this way. Likewise, in the poem's final stanza, the reader is confronted with new information which alters all that has gone before:

And all these images
and many others
are arranged like waxworks
in model birdcages
about six inches high

What begins, then, as a hymn to a great painter becomes, to my mind, a celebration of the almost godlike capacity of the poet to control the reader's perceptions, finally belittling the images he has created in the foregoing stanzas.

Saturday 29 August 2009

Two Poems by Carrie Etter

Divining for Starters (67)

in the suppressed gesture

of desire, if only to

gazes join, more wire than bridge

soft under the chin

as if to transcend by travel

fingertip fingertip

Divining for Starters (71)

in the quick of my wine

and trampling of sentiment

crucible of unrequited

walk down and down

nothing left to say

or there’s no appeasing

tentative on the ice

beauty I’d have beauty

quick into dearth

the steep pitch

proclivity predilection intention

make of it mi fabbro


After nineteen years in Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter moved to southern California, and thirteen years later, to England. Her poems and reviews have appeared widely in the UK and US, in such magazines as The New Republic, New Welsh Review, PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, The Rialto, Stand, and TLS, and her first collection, The Tethers, was published by Seren Books in June. In September Oystercatcher Press will bring out her pamphlet, The Son, which draws on the book manuscript Imagined Sons. Forthcoming works include Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets, of which she is editor (March, 2010), and her second book, Divining for Starters (2011), both with Shearsman Books.

Friday 28 August 2009

More news...

Brief August hiatus drawing to a close, and there's a small backlog of notices to catch up on. (Interesting how I first wrote "backloaf of notices", as if I've also not been eating most of this month. Or it might have something to do with watching Meat Loaf Aday in the excellent Masters of Horror film by Dario Argento, 'Pelts', just yesterday.) Warning: some shameless self-promotion ahead (which I'm taking full liberty/responsibility for, given Simon's currently net-hermetic lifestyle).

- Tears in the Fence 50th issue bash. One of the events of the year, not least because I'll be reading with James Wilkes (who I'll be co-launching my penned in the margins debut with in mid-November). It's a great magazine, well worth the subscription.

- Nine Arches Press have just announced BookSwarm. Some great forthcoming titles mean a subscription to their publications won't be amiss: David Morley, Peter Carpenter, Matt Nunn (short stories and poetry forthcoming) all have pamphlets/full length collections due. (As does the other G&P editor, Simon Turner, some time in the future, though who knows when, given his hermit status. And possibly me too, in summer 2010, though I may well drop out of society before that date, what with Simon's example being so enticing. If anyone knows of any shacks in the woods we can use, please email at the usual address.)

- Pomegranate is on the scout for new submissions for issue 9: MASQUE. Deadline 14th September, open to poets under 30, anywhere in the world.

- Emily Hasler, who the editors are both a fan of, won second prize in the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition, with her poem 'Wet Season'. (PDF on the website, which is currently inaccessible.)

- Baroness have a track from their forthcoming album up at their myspace page, which the editors are very taken with.

- Beauty in the Disregarded is having a closing party on Thursday 3rd September, 18.30-20.30, in which the full display of found objects donated by the public will also be on show.

- The Salon IV took place last Friday and some work from the gathering is on show / going up soon at Introducing Art and Thane Salon websites.

- And a very interesting bit of reading over at the ICA Bookshop blog, on poetry sections in bookshops. (Spotted via Jacob Sam-La Rose's facebook feeds - ta.) It went up in early July, and the Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. show is pretty much over now. And it's a shame that they only committed to stocking experimental books for the duration of the show. That's what, one month in how many years of bookselling?

- And Tom Chivers is reading tomorrow at The Sampler, with Helen Mort and Moniza Alvi, in case you're at a loose end. This editor booked a ticket for Frightfest long ago, so will have to miss it. Though Tom's The Terrors might make appropriate reading in advance.

Monday 17 August 2009

Beauty in the Disregarded

Walking through Earlsdon, Coventry on a sunny summer afternoon over the next three weeks, you may well stumble over this shed, sitting in the courtyard of Earlsdon Primary School. Not, as you might expect, part of the school's summer renovation works. It's an art gallery.

The shed was originally one of three used in Bob and Roberta Smith's exhibition of found objects,at the Mead Gallery in Warwick Arts Centre back in early spring. The sheds were donated to artist collectives to use in their local communities in some way.

Conceived by Martin Green
and Lorsen Camps, the exhibition showcases a range of objects found during their forages, objects that capture a sense of the detritus of your average urban commute, with a dash of beach holiday thrown in. The arrangement here is what makes for the magic: an editorial eye that searches for the numinous in the otherwise mundane.

Primarily the arrangements use a combination of minimalist modulation and colour sequencing to focus the eye. I was particularly taken by the wall of near-white objects, which didn't show too well on my phone-camera in the bright sunlight.

Individual objects appear to blend into the shapes and sequences around them.

I was particularly taken by the array of plastic ice-cream spatulas, possibly beach-gathered or from sunnier times than Coventry's seen lately. Lorsen mentioned that most of the objects were discovered in the past few months, since getting the shed.

I found myself at first ignoring the individual objects - nouns blurring into a sequence of colour, like the parts of an engine. Looking closer, some of the objects become narratives - the straw tied into a knot, or the battered urban footballs, kicked skinless, offering a sprawl of Saturday morning five-a-sides.

Anyway, go see for yourself.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Counter-attack - Gists and Piths on Duffy's anthology of war poetry

After a recent period of rest and meditation, Gists and Piths returns with its first attempt at a podcast. Early responses have been positive, but people could well have been responding to the wild look in the Editors' eyes whenever we ask for an opinion.

Just to provide some context: George and I were responding to an article which appeared in the Guardian on Saturday 25th of July. Entitled 'Exit Wounds', it took the form of a micro-anthology assembled by Carol Ann Duffy, with new work by luminaries such as Sean O'Brien, Jane Weir, Robert Minhinnick and Paul Muldoon being gathered together under the rubric of 'the new war poetry'. The podcast itself covers in depth the reasons why we felt the need to respond, but in short our primary objections were as follows:

1. An absence of critical depth in Duffy's introductory remarks, in which a blindness to the distinction between combatant and non-combatant poetry was apparent. The list was rather Brit-centric, to put it politely, and none of the poets have any connection whatsoever to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which they are 'responding' to. When we have the work of Brian Turner or Dunya Mikhail to look to, these poems are a total irrelevance.

2. The rather poor quality of most of the poems. The vast majority of these poems seem to fall back on the ready-made language of cliche to get their points across. Compare this with the brute specificity of soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen, Keith Douglas or Bruce Weigl, and their shortcomings become painfully apparent.

3. The sense of cultural authority that seems to cling to this collection, as though this were a definitive poetic approach to modern combat. Even if we restrict the field to non-combatant poetry, anyone who has read recent work by Robert Sheppard (Warrant Error), Chris McCabe (Zeppelins) or Eliot Weinberger (What I Heard About Iraq) will know that this is not true.

We chose the podcast form for its speed, though ironically the editing process has dragged on, meaning that this appears somewhat later than planned. Hopefully, it is not already wildly out of date.

Some other links that might be of interest:

Andrew Motion talking about war poetry (very interesting, considering the issues seriously and intelligently, filling the huge critical gaps that were missing from 'Exit Wounds')

An excellent response from Delirium's Library

Duffy's own poetic response to the death of WW1 veteran Henry Allingham. The poem itself isn't exactly 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' (it's cliche-riddled, and the poetic conceit is Vonnegut via Amis) but it's the fawning, uncritical nature of the accompanying article that really sticks in the craw.

Perdika Press, who have just published Jacqui Rowe's excellent translations of Apollinaire, which are cited in the podcast.


The poem by Chris McCabe in Zeppelins mentioned in the podcast is not called, 'Guantánamo'; in fact we meant to refer to his poem, 'Abu Ghraib'. We may have confused his poem with Jorie Graham's poem, 'Guantánamo', from her collection Sea Change.