Saying It Like It Is

On Ruins and Return,
Rachel Tzvia Back (104pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Circling the Square,
Michael Hamburger (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)

Rachel Tzvia 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
            mothers watching
            soldiers on their knees
            sifting and searching for body parts
            do not think of next worlds
            they think only of
            lost worlds:
            their sons my sons
            the setting sun
            building tunnels and towers 
            in the sand

Unless there 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...
                                                [from 'Electronocuted']
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 inevitable death:
            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 -
                                                [from 'Towards Equanimity']
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 more attractive:
            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]

Where 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:
                                    No talking
            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 these years;
            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 Twentieth-Century Poetry 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
            of emptiness
            no bigger than
            the snug triangle
            again atop
            the letter
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 this:          

            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 generally decay's
            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