jacket pf Xavier Kalck's new selection of Anthony Barnett describes Miscanthus
long-overdue survey of his writing, providing an opportunity for new readers
to get to know his singular art'. There was already an edition collected by
the poet himself in 1987, The Resting Bell, but here we are now almost
another 20 years on. Andrew Duncan ( in 'Such that commonly each: A
Various Art and
the Cambridge Leisure Centre', Jacket, December 2002) points out that almost all the
poems included were written before 1975, although A Various Art includes selections from
Barnett's output up to 1985. Miscanthus provides a supplement to Barnett's representation
in A Various Art,
an update on The Resting Bell,
and could be invaluable as a one-book insight into a lengthy and substantial
output by a figure of some note.
Kalck's short introduction steers the reader, but with an almost immediate
oddly negative urging to disregard the terms 'hermetic' and 'minimalist',
which would surely spring readily to mind when scanning the poems. The
importance of 'speech and tongue', and 'The play of and with the facts of the
life of speech' which we are told about suggests to me that the experience of
the performance of these poems by the poet himself may be a crucial
supplement to the text upon the page, as on the page we are certainly for the
most part in the realm of 'less is more', or as Kalck likes to say via George
Oppen, 'a clarity in the sense of silence'. The minimal nature of much of the
poetry on the page, and the hermetic nature of too much of the content left
me wishing for a CD of the poetry to discover something of that which is
given by the poet in performance, as the poems on the page should perhaps be
understood as a score written by and for a word musician. The contents and
thematic of the poetry were often based in an observation of nature, in
particular a notable kind of horticultural fetish, and an evocation of
personal relations, often unclear but they seemed to me to often evoke a more
or less sublimated eroticism. The jacket tells us that in 2002 he was
visiting scholar at the centre for International Programmes, Meiji
University, Tokyo, which seems rather like a case of taking coals to
Newcastle in that the 'nature' in Barnett's poems seems entirely artificial
and culturally programmatic, so much like the elaborate concept of the
traditional Japanese cycle of year as employed in their traditional arts as a
universal and hermetic system of representation. There is an overall
orientalist ambience to the frequent minimal disposition on the page, like an
analogue of an eastern brush drawing, and a similarity to the haiku style of
description and evocation in compression - which may extend for pages. There
are political references or content in a few of the poems, but I could not
make much from these, the most extensive discourse being in the 1979 Quiet Facts no. 8:
either side, on either side.
I found 'Bramble and Ramble' from Anti-beauty of 1999 the most substantial
read bringing an exciting engagement with language, but I could never get
more than a page away from the stifling aestheticism of this poet. The three
poems in Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, is the Anthony Barnett I
prefer, where less is more and in a more intelligible context.
& Other Poems is
John Muckle's first poetry collection, and has enthusiastic jacket
endorsements from Terry Eagleton, John Berger and Will Self (please note, no
poets). He has already published two books of fiction, and this comes as no
surprise given that the texture and content of much of the poetry is of dense
The first section is a sequence presenting a dramatic series of encounters
and situations, with a strong feeling of an incipent radio drama. Voices are
occasionally present, dialogues, narrator interjections and descriptions, as
sense of reported speech and even note taking. Narrative clues of context are given in the opening poem's
title 'Caring For You' and its first stanza:
My new job
takes up more of my waking days
it seems an easy, useful thing to do
find Shane already up & risen
be washed. In your letter, good news
vocation! I really like the way you write.
I like the direct and engaging quality of the writing which is here and
throughout the book, there is a sudden and total immersion for the reader,
and I found it to be compulsive reading. However, as poetry I think it is
often not so successful, there is no inevitability in much of the writing
that it should be poetry, and many pages read as a kind of literature which
is simply at odds with common notions of prose should be. The cultural space
that is designated for poetry provides somewhere for many presentations of
language which simply do not find a home elsewhere, in both content and form,
it is a hallowed sanctuary for rarities, the excluded and un-categorisable.
The second section of the volume is the miscellany of thematics which are
dramatic presentations of the most lively and engaging characterisations,
some identifiable and some seemingly generic. These texts are without
exception a delight on the page and audible in great variety to the mind's
ear. Take the opening of a fine and typical example of these skilful
evocations and richness of narrative is 'Boys From The South Country':
when we buried grandad in the backyard
an annual reunion to worship his bones
beginnings of a clan structure emerged
melding or subdivision is anyone's guess.
There are some poems in this section with more structured lyrical
characteristics, making use of formal and repetitive elements, and a denser
imagery bringing a more distinct poetic ambience moving away from the
typically dramatic and novelistic. In 'Everything That Has Happened' the
first lines of the two stanzas are identical, and the nature imagery in
particular bringing a sense of the traditional love poem, a self-consciously
and explicitly artificial item of language. 'Koi: for Ken Smith' also
develops a stronger structure of artifice, combined with the facility of
apparently natural voice, this poem notable for its deceptive ease, the more
formed but apparently natural narrative. John Muckle's talent for dramatic
monologue finds its largest expression in the third section, which is the Firewriting
of the title, a
long imaginative homage to Walter Benjamin, cancelling his suicide and then
imagining a whole life for him which never was, with his ultimate home in
contemporary London. The poetic form on the page splits up the dramatic
monologue into units of meaning, giving an orchestration to the characterised
voice, leading the reader through modulations of mood and reflection, of the
exteriority of voice in the present moment of the narrative and the weaving
in and out of his thoughts past and the speculative.
those vivid, nasty emblem books
charnel house remains
floating box of severed symbols
in whose true
meanings were revealed, written and ordained
somewhat like the clues
in a plotless
pseudo-antiquarian detective book
some gallery of
stumps and stars
I wouldn't wish to be seen dead in."
I'll open a
window, dear. I don't know how they got in. I'm
not that far
gone. Could you kill the little fuckers for me?
That's favorite, if you wouldn't mind."
"Could you look
wardrobe there and pass me my dressing gown?
I swapped the
Paris silk for English wool.
so itchy here!"
It is a fine and fitting finale to this vigorously narrative book of big
imagination and a vivid gathering of people and places and times.
Purpose of the Gift
is a selection of Michael Smith's poetry spanning what would seem to be
around 40 years of writing. The edition does not supply dates or details of
previous publications for the individual poems and there is no supporting
prose, so it is of no use as an aid for a scholarly study of the progress and
development of this very considerable art.
This volume of around 150 page of poetry has a remarkably consistent feel to
it, I found it very much like reading a novel in verse. The world view of the
poet is primal, where birds and animals and humans make sound and coexist in
an elemental framework that is built and unbuilt at the same time. It is a
tragic and pessimistic world, full of savage beauty, filled with the more or
less inarticulate sounds of suffering and despair, and the physical world of the
elemental splendour of pain and passion and wounds, like Homer, but almost
entirely devoid of the heroic. The poetry commands a primordial authority,
and the poet's acknowledgement to Trevor Joyce is no surprise.
A sample of this world can be glimpsed in 'Lost Street':
old houses were falling into dust;
and the weeds
grew high as the houses fell,
and gaps in
their broken walls led into strange places.
Piles of red
dust burned in the sunlight.
blue pigeons, the purple weeds.
A girl's soft
laugh rounded the broken wall:
shards, old china, among the nettles.
city soil was black when you plucked
grass sods to
drown the drumming of the tin roof
of the rain
that always fell at the close of evening
listened quietly to the tense growth of sounds.
It was almost
enough to have stayed there forever,
or at least
till winter came and all was frozen.
The world evoked in the poems is relentless in its consistency, with regional
variations of climate between the poem's locations of Ireland or Spain but
little adjustment in tone or purpose. However, boundaries to its nature are
indicated, if strongly policed. In 'The Nice Dragon etc.', even children would
be disallowed the comfort of the pleasant, but the 'gentleness' of the
child's response in language provide a poetic boundary for the power of
brutality that governs the poet's world:
or snarling dog,
things we live among
won't go away
at the gentle word.
has such power
his wand of
for the soft
sway of words.
This is far and away my strongest recommendation of the three books reviewed,
with an outstanding vigour of poetic language and achievement. Michael
Smith's poems spring off the page to the reader with an inevitability. They
work with qualities and functions of language in such a way that the reading
mind encounters them with absolute certainty as poetry.
© Christine Kennedy 2005