Like Wine Through Water

Mass Graves: City of Now, Daniele Pantano
(56pp, £7.00 The Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Convergence & Conversion: Ekphrastic Poems
, Neil Ellman
(19pp, £5.00, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Mass Graves: City of Now, is the second excerpt from Daniele Pantano's Mass Graves: A Confession project. There is much here to admire in Pantano's startling evocations of immorality, physical violence and questioning of reader/viewer complicity in art forms portraying these destructive tendencies. The various materials, fragments, that Pantano uses, inform each other and combine to create a disturbing mindscape in which physical and sexual violence is enacted upon women and children. Art, seen here as receptacle for this immorality and violence, becomes linked with these acts of violence, drawing attention to art as being created out of disturbed minds/experiences and further questioning the voyeuristic nature of the reader/viewer. Unsurprisingly this content makes for a haunting read. But form is as important as content here too and in his use of a variety of experimental forms through the five sections of this book, Pantano imbues the work with energy and builds tension as he takes us through a succession of disturbing places, experiences and states of mind, starting with the discordant cat's wail, through to the sinister interview with a killer in the final section of this book.

The first section 'From III' opens with the poem 'Katzenjammer' (p.11). Pantano is well regarded as a translator of Swiss and German literature. The use of German and English throughout City of Now
plays with perception through language and adds to the disorienting effect (for those who don't have those languages) and shifting ways of thinking. I had to look up translation for the German word 'Katzenjammer' my search returned: 'cat's wail/discordant sound/depression or bewilderment in reference to a hangover'. The generation of multiple definitions demonstrates how meaning here becomes extended when engaging with multiple languages and how shifting to another language can create shifts in thinking. But which definition to go with? To add a little background Pantano has revealed that 'at least superficially, the book is about the brutal murder of one of Egon Schiele's girl models'. If you take the three lines of the first poem 'Katzenjammer',

   Nothing you need to know is still missing. The desired principle
   in your hands you ought to chase right now.

   On one page you don't remember writing 'I don't remember.'

My first impression is that here we are encountering the murderer, perhaps experiencing amnesia, creating a confession of an act of madness erased? However the address to the 'you', that unnamed third person, also addresses us, as readers, being drawn in to the poem and the acts within it. And of course that cat's wail evokes the cry of the woman murdered.

Pantano effectively draws the reader in to these poems and is present himself in the next poem, 'The Fatalists' (p.12), in which we encounter Pantano attempting to soothe the nightmare of his daughter's 'bad thoughts', using lines written by his daughter. This use of collage effects a bonding between father and daughter, though he admits 'But who is he to tell her to think of something / Beautiful . . . who is he to tell her that everything is going to be fine?' (p.12).

Indeed. In the second section 'bad thoughts' escalate and can not be escaped from. In 'From V', violence is enacted upon children, artwork is shown as product of disturbed minds, as object minus creator, as being a byproduct of the cruelties of war. It is no wonder Pantano can not insist on a trouble free existence for his daughter. In 'A Further Reading of Urs Alleman's Babyfucker
(with dripping faucet)' (p.17) Pantano's treatment of this novel disrupts the narrative, but the language retains its disturbing effect, albeit less coherent, less explicit and by implication created more in the mind of the reader. Presented with the largely disparate language 'fuck burst been in a stuffed I into babies' (p.18) just what do we, as readers, create out of this content? Perhaps a clue lies in the effect of the lists of artworks in 'Six Obstacles' (p.25) which make art becomes a physical object, depersonalised, detached from its creator and its creative aspect.

'From III' evidences preoccupations with act of translation. 'Waldau Lunatic Asylum (Partially Translated Catalogue of Responses)' (p.31) and 'Some First Lines (From His Notebooks, #14, University of Zurich) (p.38) and 'From His Paris Notebooks, #4' (p.41) are both sub-titled as being 'Translated from the original German)'. In this disturbing mindscape Pantano highlights the importance of having access to the original language, to words unfiltered by others who may have sanitised or corrupted meaning in their own efforts at making translations of these notebooks. Here is a warning to be suspicious of words not only in hands of any previous translator but also in hand of the original author whose intentions may be other than relating a straightforward reality especially when it is overtly violent or sexually explicit. In 'Some First Lines...' one entry is untitled and undated, 'We maneuvered her into an abandoned house...she was ten years old.' (p.) In the light of the previous acts of physical and sexual violence enacted upon children it becomes difficult to not see this 'maneuvering' of a child into an isolated place by this 'He' who could be a killer, as having sinister intentions and being dangerous to this child. However, this is not certain and the question is, to what extent are our minds creating these sinister acts? Is our first thought always the bad thought?

In 'From XV', 'Guestbook' (p.76) entries are put in speech marks and have two capital letters in brackets after each entry. These are taken to be initials, but not whole name, indicating an act of concealment, wanting to own (partial signature) and conceal identity of the author of these strange statements perhaps belying the fear of being labeled as insane. This raises the question of authorial responsibility and integrity. If such writings are the creations of truly disturbed minds what are the implications of these being viewed by society, what effect could art made by those of a disturbed mind have on the minds of others? Again, in 'City of Now' (p.52) the finger is pointed at us, the reader,

   ...Bestiality, does she, determined,
   Absorbed, think and connect us
   Larger than a common grave,
   The dark trying of her fingers,
   Counting these pages?

Which brings us to the final section 'From LXXX' '†berrogue: An Interview' in which 'something more akin to Alex's good old 'ultra-violence,' / something much more disturbing and toxic.' is what is cooly stated to be sought by the interviewee (p.55).

Once encountered this book will not leave the mind and considering its preoccupations, it shouldn't, but this book of 'bad thoughts' wants to remind us of the possibility of other ways of thinking. To return to one line from 'The Fatalists', Pantano's collaboration with his daughter, 'Nature is a disc that never stops spinning, Daddy. He wants her to prove it.' (p.12). Pantano's material speaks for itself and needs to be heard.

Neil Ellman's Convergence & Conversion: Ekphrastic Poems is a slimmer volume, also from Knives Forks Spoons Press, containing 15 short poems. As it says on the tin, these poems are linked to artworks which they are titled after and Ellman gives the artist and medium of art form as subtitle to each poem. These are surrealist/expressionist works of art and in response Ellman does not simply describe each painting or sculpture, he blends description of the artwork with more abstract ideas or impressions to varying degrees in these poems. Acts of creation are at work here in this interplay between language and visual art as Ellman takes aspects of the original piece of art and transposes it to his own medium of words on the page.

To begin with I read these poems independently from the art works. Some poems are more directly imagistic, effecting a spatial representation of the art work on the page as in Cubi X (p.15) 'an old man / bleeding grey / clothed in gray / disconsolate age'. The short lines slow the pace allowing the reader to absorb the visual and abstract impressions. Ellman experiments with lineation to make use of the space of the page perhaps in homage to each poem's 'parent' sculptures or paintings and adds a visual dimension to the poems. 'Ciphers... '(p.16) makes use of more abstract language so that the poem hinges on the concrete images of 'eyes' and 'stars'. There is a sense of movement on the page here. Action is created by Ellman's use of lineation which falls into two columns running down the page. Year After Year (p.17) gives a sense of language re-enacting the spatiality of the art work using dimensions of time and place,

   here      wherever      here      is
                              or not
          where      ostrich feathers      lay out
                   to dry...

Such economy and use of simple language runs through Ellman's poems. In 'The End of Everything' (p.8), the lines, 'sparks fly / as an old engine / billion of light years / sputtering', remind me of William Carlos Williams's 'Red Wheelbarrow' in the effectiveness of simple language to evoke a vivid image.

Of course after reading through the poems independently I looked up each artwork, most were available online. Reading the poem alongside the art work involves the reader/viewer in a further act of creation and adds another dimension, further to the poem and the art work as discrete entities. In the case of 'K.51' (p.14) Ellman's poem follows Frank Stella's sculpture that followed Domenico Scarlatti's music, creating a triple layering of inspiration and response.

Ellman's 'conversion and convergence' act on each art work in a responsive and respectful personal engagement with these works of art which brings them in poem form to the reader. Interestingly, there is also a reversal of the creative process here in that the reader comes to the poem first, then becomes aware of the art work which has created it. Unless of course you already know these pieces of art. But that's another story of creation or should that be poem...

      © Joanne Ashcroft 2012