Saying It Like It Is
On Ruins and Return,
Rachel Tzvia Back (104pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Circling the Square,
(88pp, £7.95, Anvil)
A Strange Arrangement: new & Selected Poems, C.J. Allen, (100pp, £8.95, Leafe)
About the Size of It,
Tom Disch (160pp, £9.95, Anvil)
Back was born in America in 1960 but has lived in Israel for the last
twenty-seven years. On Ruins & Return is her fourth collection of poems. And
a powerful set it is. She writes, with passion and sensitivity, mostly about
the landscapes and people of the Middle East and the horrors they continue to
be subjected to, while at the same time evincing an elegiac tenderness,
especially for children, and trying to find, among the seemingly unstoppable
and mind-numbing violence of that area, sources of spiritual
nourishment. The task of
fashioning poems out of such experience, without being polemical, is clearly
a daunting one. Back rises to the occasion magnificently. She manages to make
flowers grow in the desert and among the rubble of bombed-out houses. Hers
are haunting poems driven by a deep sense of a divisive history. The sensitivity reminds me of
Elizabeth Bishop, but an Elizabeth Bishop adopting Modernist methods of
writing - allowing the disposition of the lines on the page to determine the
manner in which poems should be read. The only punctuation marks you will
find is an occasional apostrophe and a colon; otherwise capital letters and
extra spaces between words are made (though not always) to fit the bill. This
at a practical level can make the business of reading sometimes difficult.
Now and then I found myself resentfully having to retrace steps to find out
where a poem was intending to take me. Obviously the techniques used are
intended to be functional but on the odd occasion line-breaks/enjambements
can seem arbitrary That aside, the general effect is of a kind of Rite of
Spring staccato, which
works extremely well for the many poems that have hard edges and are meant to
disturb. She uses what Kazim Ali, quoted on the back cover, calls 'open field
composition, multivocal address, polyvalent textures, and a particularly
disturbing fractured form of the couplet'.
Here's a taster: in soldiers on their knees in the sand Back remembers her grandfather collecting
his nail-clippings so they could be buried with him. 'The dream was of the
day/the dead would rise/ whole/in the next world': in contrast to this
soldiers on their knees
sifting and searching for body parts
do not think of next worlds
they think only of
their sons my sons
the setting sun
building tunnels and towers
in the sand
are to be posthumous collections, Circling the Square is Michael Hamburger's final book of
poems, his fifth since the publication of Collected Poems 1941 - 1994. He died on 7th June 2007 at the age
of eighty-three. Much to his chagrin, he was better known as a prestigious
translator of German poetry than as a poet - and a prolific one at that - in
his own right. It is not without irony that his poetry, according to the
Guardian obituary, is
more esteemed in Germany than here in Britain.
Part of the problem is that he feels like a poet still rooted in the fifties,
out of step with a contemporary world
against which he sets his face and frequently rails against ('the
murderous, bulldozing money') as superficial and commercialised:
How Paschal would have shuddered
At this infinitude not of lights in space
Nor Babel tower aspiring to any heaven
But information fungus of our making
That over the global surface spreads so fast...
He is not at his best in this vein. What he is good at is honestly recreating
some of the problems of growing old ('the days accelerate'), facing up to
Timor mortis? Too well
I have rehearsed the going,
Before the bombs fell learned
That loss of love not life was their undoing
Who young were numbed, conscripted to the hell
That turns to dusk each dawn -
But perhaps more than this, he is good at is a certain kind of English
bucolic. Trees, flowers, fruit, the rhythm of the seasons - his horticultural
prowess among the orchards of his East Anglian farmhouse - these make for a
more attractive and a more positive poetry:
The blizzard-borne snow
Forecast for a week, will it shine?
More prescient, soul has allowed
Primrose to flower, aconite, snowdrop,
From burial will resurrect them
Bodily, though they droop,
And inch by inch, this morning,
Watched, the rimed lawn turns green.
[from 'Late January Morning']
Stephen Romer has rightly pointed to a 'dividedness' in Hamburger: the man of
European culture, a cosmopolitan, and the nature poet of a conservative
traditional type. In this collection it is the work of latter that is the
Maple leaf-coloured from fallen foliage
Cock pheasants come out to forage
Among medlars frost-ripened, dropped from the tree.
From long occlusion sunbeams emerge
On to rime that reflects them,
Make a wake for
the deepened red
Of one lingering blossom, sparaxis
Limp at last, lying flat.
[from 'East Suffolk Lights, Late November]
Hamburger retreats grumpily into his garden bemoaning this 'junk age' and
'the maimed globe', C. J. Allen, as Eddie Wainwright has said in his review
for New Hope International Review of Allen's earlier collection, How Copenhagen Ended, 'seems to refuse to allow the drab
unsatisfactoriness of his world - largely a solitary world in which he is a
disenchanted observer rather than an eager participant - to bog him down in
misery'. Allen's forte is a wry, sometimes surreal wit; and one feels that
his view of the world has unsentimentalised street-level credibility to it.
He has been there; he knows; and he delivers what he knows intelligently and
entertainingly. I suspect readers will find more about what it means to live
now in England in Allen.
He is capable of disarming directness
I forgive everyone. I'm like
that. I don't gossip too much.
I'm a kind of hero. The moon
is like a big empty plate up there,
don't you think? No? Okay.
I'm a very democratic writer.
[from 'Poems of Universal Wisdom & Beauty']
as well as very subtle lyricism. For example in Radar Love he describes bats as being like 'bits
of midnight that had broken loose' which 'danced above our heads,/Enjoying
the resonance of our affection.' That's lovely.
A Strange Arrangement
is a New & Selected. Twenty-seven poems are taken from three earlier collections;
the new poems from 2006 go under the collective title The Hop. In this book Allen, though frequently
sardonic, doesn't give up trying to accept the conditions of ordinariness:
trees, no water sprites, no elves,
no knights on quests, no moats, no castles,
just a newsagent's and a public 'phone,
some swings, a bus shelter, a bowling green.
[from ' No Place Like It']
or, when piecing history together from bits of scattered mosaic, as in the
poem Mosaic, he says
'So we make/Amends, or try to', or in The Pottery Lighthouse where he considers his relationship
with his mother and the broken ceramic he has tried to hide from her all
Now I'm looking down the years that separate the three of us,
Mother, son and pottery lighthouse, the three of us -
And I'm trying to assess any signs of damage.
There are many pleasures to be had from this highly readable collection.
Tom Disch is
an American poet with an international reputation for writing science fiction
novels as well as for fine poetry. Interestingly, his first three collections
were originally published in England. Though he may squirm at the label, he
is known as a Formalist. The entry in The Oxford Companion to
says 'his approach to form is jubilant in the New York School manner'; and
there is plenty of evidence of this jubilant approach to form, as well as to
freer forms, in About the Size of It, his first collection in ten years. Like many American
poets, he has that enviable facility of anything-goes. You feel they are
exercising their democratic to speak out on whatever takes their fancy and to
be playful with it if they wish. Even in villanelles and sestinas, Disch has
that laid-back conversational ease that seems to treat you as a good guy to
talk to. His poems, in the words of William Carlos Williams, encourage the
reader to 'Share with us/share with us - it will be money/in your pockets.'
The poems have intellectual muscle and nothing is too small for seriously
playful contemplation. The first poem in the book muses on the dot on the
letter 'i', the second poem on capital 'A'. The first ends with positing how
we may be 'laid low by i'
Incredible, isn't it?
I love you and that's equally incredible,
Equally axiomatic. Shall we stop there,
Or proceed to the next coulisse down the road?
We'll stop there. I love you. That's it.
The second imagines an end-of-the-world 'shadowless /evening
all its mammoth bulk
condenses to a jot
no bigger than
the snug triangle
He is a well-read poet but one who wears his learning lightly; an
intellectual poet who has inventive fun with ideas; a wide-ranging extremely
versatile poet, not only in the forms he commands but in the styles he
exuberantly adopts from the splendid skit-manifesto 'Ritin', the first two verses of which run like
I figure 'ritin's like workin' a lathe
More like bobbins a-spinnin' out lace.
I figure 'ritin's a kind of a knack:
If ya got it, ya got it, if yer
don't yer a hack.
Now I am not braggin', jest speakin' out plain,
But most of the 'ritin' I see is insane.
The prose is all 'ritten for someone aged five,
And the poetry, dammit, there's none that's alive.
(we've all met our own versions of this fellow!) to poems where ideas bounce
off each other joyously:
A limb snaps, the hive is smashed, and the survivors
Buzz off to colonize another neck of the woods.
No nest is sacrosanct. Abandoned churches may serve
A while as discotheques. Steel towns may hope
To be retooled to serve the needs of foreign banks
Anxious to reinvest evaporating capital
Beyond the reach of ruin. But
The aftermath of desuetude. Rome,
What's left of it, falls to the Hun, and all
Its noble plumbing is undone.
and so on for another twenty-nine lines.
About the Size of It
is a rich experience. Poetry that, alleluia, is fully alive.
© Matt Simpson 2007