Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees

The Lewknor Turn
, Anthony Mellors (Shearsman)
is that a bruise or a tattoo?, sean burn (Shearsman)
Lessways Least Scarce Among-poems 2002-2009 , Peter Larkin (Shearsman)

I've not read any of Anthony Mellors' critical writing though I did gist his 'memoir' in Cusp, which I found enjoyable and informative. It says on the back-cover blurb of The Lewknor Turn (the gnomic-sounding title seems typical of his oblique method) that Mellors' essays on late modernism attempt a fusion of classics, poetics and political economy. Much the same could be said about his poetry I think. This isn't 'easy' poetry but it is stimulating and I always enjoy reading material which embraces difficulty as long as I can find some way in or/and find an aesthetic response to the work even if there are frustrations involved in any attempt at analysis.

He is working in the field of poetry as political critique, allied to a lyrical sensuousness, where it isn't always easy to detect the tone and where you are constantly surprised by a mix of playfulness, dark humour, changes in register and an overall need to keep 'the show on the road'. I'm reminded variously of Tony Lopez, John Wilkinson, Jeremy Prynne and Drew Milne though he's not as high-wire scholarly-glamour as Milne can be and there's ultimately a more sober feel to his style and presentation. The mix of language register is rich and frequently attractive though which means there is plenty of pleasure available to the attentive reader even if you don't
always pick up on the political references or angles, as I'm sure I didn't.

The opening section 'bent out of shape', begins with a prose description in two versions, of an experience of swimming in a cave, somewhere in Greece. It's a strange piece, not typical and an intriguing way to begin this sort of book. This is followed by twenty four poems, each headed by the appropriate roman numeral, which have the feel of smoothed-out montage and which embrace puns, questions and a sense of intentional 'academic dryness' which is constantly undermined by an overall lack of sense or narrative cohesion. There is a constant feel of diversion, of 'going off on another tangent', of yet another 'aside', yet the writing retains a sense of control, which somehow suggests continuity and 'meaning' as in a traditional essay structure:

was Frank Moore? Spent the day worrying
     that I'd missed a bit, meaning the organized dance
     of a non-thesis. The sign said use drywipe pens only
     only the wipe wasn't dry and later a black nodule
     the colour of the seat turned out to be solid waste
     that wasn't solid and I was afraid. The final turn
     is towards Lewknor, rainbows in the streetlamps
     unfathomed for all their limpidity, readymade
      icons of a journey to the centre of the hearth.
          ('bent out of shape' XIV)

The title of the second section 'Homage to Rod McKuen' suggests satire and is made up of a series of shorter pieces. Take this example:
     Where have the curlews gone?
     the estuaries and the moors are bare
     of them, and no warmer climes
     claim them.

     Sitting in the mouth of my cave
     I watch 'ladies' trapped by the tide
     and think of simple things
     like panting hounds, attractive clams
     and the night's curfew.
          ('p 38')
These poems didn't really do a great deal for me and it's difficult to tell from their 'tone' exactly what Mellors is up to here. Either that or I'm being seriously dim and missing the point, which is quite possible.  Perhaps if they'd had a different title I'd have approached them differently.

I found 'Epigrams' more interesting. The untitled poem on page 62, comprising three stanzas, each having three lines, reminds me of Drew Milne's 'Night Night':

     on earthly branch
     under black stele
     up gentle ruth

     my wretched state
     the first to leave
     this weary night
     tossed brain
     fed with words
     note shrill

both playful, witty and lyrically taut. Likewise with the poem on page 55, where the mock profundity of the language suggests a joke that isn't a joke:

     Crisp though the sonic grid might seem
     beyond five decades of word salad
     rubbish mistranslates as radish.
     He that speaks in an unknown tongue
     edifies himself, spirit joined with voice
     without the mediation of meaning.

Read this through to yourself half a dozen times and it starts to make perfect sense! 'Crisp' links to 'salad' as 'rubbish' puns with 'radish'. Meaning, or communication, in its strict sense of imparting information, isn't the point here, there's a playful jesting going on as well as a relish in the use of language, of control and its loss. I'm not sure what Chomsky would make of this writing - it's far gone in its joyful excess and I'm aware that I'm beginning to contradict what I said earlier in this piece about sobriety. Nevertheless, it's great fun, even where it irks and irritates at the same time.

The final section - 'The Gordon Brown Sonnets' - comes with a prodigious set of endnotes which suggest origins and add to the scholarly nature of the enterprise, yet is undermined by its playful aleatory methods. Classical references jostle with notes towards the credit crunch as in 'Wet languor / will never destroy this fiscal Hydra' ('XXI'). Film references, as in that to Alec Guinness in
The Man in the White Suit ('XV'), neatly encapsulate a critique of our system of production and commerce, while there's an overall sense of matters coming to a head and at the same time a sincere lyrical yearning for a better way of living:

                    Who on this earth ignorant
     does not wonder at the motion of clouds
     and the captive songs that long for freedom?
          (from 'XIII')

There's also a surface glitziness which is very reminiscent of Tony Lopez's sonnet sequences, referred to here in ('IX') where we get - '...his offprint / of
Data Shadow by Tony Lopez / aslant and bookmarked on the sofa, / fully aware that the message is bleak.' The sequence overall is filled with attractive juxtapositions while pleasurable moments surface amid the economic critique and the learned commentaries and 'knowing' awareness of modernist poetical history. Its political suggestiveness is sophisticated while retaining a sheen of aesthetic pleasure, even as the imagery upends any notion of beauty with despoilment and bodily function. We are invited to be attracted at just the moment when the advertising of consumption is at its most effective and then have the techniques commented on in moments of pleasurable deconstruction.

     Today our customers know no better
     yet it's harder to make cheap cuts look like
     meaty diadems, and the market in
     thrush cream and stool softener tends to queer
     the mnemonic pitch. Breaking into song
     at least once a day keeps the crunch and snap
     of Anglo-Saxon from falling idle.
          (from 'The Gordon Brown Sonnets XXII')

The final page 'Two Gordon Brown Sonnets' could be a play on Edwin Morgan's
'Opening the Cage' and finishes with the wonderful lines - 'o Rabble Grating Puppet
Dear G., left the machine on spin and came away'.

Sean Burns' poetry has a sophistication 'on the page' that you don't always get with work that appears to be written for performance. His embracing of beat-poetry methods - I'm also thinking of Barry MacSweeney and Lloyd Robson here - creates a flow and energy which is scintillating yet which also makes you stop and think. He's as at home with the long line as with the short and there are blocks of text here which simply take away your breath with their dark, energy fuelled connections and disconnections. Take this extract from 'ravenswing (helvellyn)', a commentary on our relation to the lake district and to the natural world in general:
     an absence, its not a colour, it's a leaching, a bleaching away
     raven pearls the ten pence pale moon, bleached so far off, falling
     i too have fallen many times, have fucked up but above all i am
     don't belong to the canon of english, of literature, or a cannon of
     or some small-arms fire or bayonet or rpg or non-existent wmd of
     my north-words are simply me too in experiencing sadness, joy
     wondering what it is all about, wandering the north, finding how
     before owning our own labour, we own our voice, our voices, plural
     don't matter whether it's printed, spoke, signed, sung, danced
            txted, performed   ...
                      (from 'ravenswing
(helvellyn) - for jeremy hilton')

The long 'open field' poem, 'bastilles englan', prefaced by a quote from John Clare,
presents an autobiographical account of psychiatric 'disorder' and is an outsiders' tour de force, engaged, frenetic, thoughtful, excessive, yet controlled and effective in its fractured technique and methods. I'm thinking of Sean Bonney's early writing here and also of Ken Smith in
Fox Running:

     storms dark dancing - black thorns drop reign - larkness blue
     darkness sermons-dis - hedged thunder elides dis - the right
     knot, glides dis - burn us down yeah? - dis flood, dis glint,
     dis-edge -tender render land -asylumed ready frictions forbid
     forbid -steal gland dis

             just dis
                       (from 'bastilles englan')

There are many poets who attempt to work in an expressionistic, energy-fuelled, ranting form, embracing all and everything in the moment, a sort-of high-wire, chancy mode which more often than not leads to dismal results. It's not as easy as it sometimes looks but Burns is a master, combining a punk approach with a wide vocabulary and knowledge, assuming a critical, oppositional mode with expert panache and genuine anger and emotional energy. He can do reflective as well as emotionally up-front and his rhythmic dexterity is equally at home in celebration mode:
     outreaching to the broken last, trying to? not so much bridge as
     milky-span, toe the line, keep within channels, don't jerky-dance
     some magenta-bleed, eyes glide from hand, try some slammer,
     from crying out, winged, but then who is? and who is lidless sweat,
     ever kneeling, supplication in deep-sunk inhibiting machine
            (from 'liminal
( for dancer tim rubidge)')

Burns' work sits in an interesting position in the ongoing debate between the page and performance, between live reading and written material. His experimental methods seem to effectively embrace both the page and the stage and it's a real pleasure to encounter contemporary poetry which can do just that.

Peter Larkin is hardly a landscape writer in the conventional sense of the term. His engagement with our forests and woodland has more to do with process through time than with any transitory capturing of the moment. His attempt, via language, to give some sense of a 'non-human' projection of the 'natural world' is obviously thwarted by his own 'species limitation' but his work is intriguing, if difficult, and the sort of material more likely to be fruitfully experienced through a long immersion than by a mere surface encounter. The rhizome is as important as the notion of 'the horizon' in Larkin's work and I'm reminded both of Helen MacDonald's 'birds-eye' view of things and of Paul Nash's paintings which suggest a grammar of landscape, a sign-scape parallel to language and analogous perhaps to Larkin's somewhat 'archaeological' approach to nature.

This is a big book which demands a deeper approach than I'm able to give it here but I hope any signposting I can suggest will whet your appetite. Lessways Least Scarce is split into six sections: actual locations are mentioned at times but this isn't a book about place names and is more an investigation into the nature of language and how it can be differently used to engage with the 'out there' than it is with pictorial description or romantic evocation:

     Kernel slide has induced tensile rock towards a progressive brittleness of
     surround. As in shared forest, set of all recessful roofs, tree attachment
     will parse a syntax of surrender with excess remainder: the seat of nest in
     its wake.

                    Cushion sideways any
                    craning beyond
                    desertion, but still
                    an ex-sertion upon
                    impeccable rock
                                  Socket and tree-
                    crave, the drive
                    of horizon landward:
                     from deep nest
                    to referred mast
                            (from 'Stone Forest', 3)

Larkin's work is worth persevering with, I think. It's easy to be put off at the outset unless you have an immediate sympathy with or grasp of where he's coming from and as I said at the outset, immersion is a better approach than a surface engagement. He may not be 'for you' but you won't know that unless you're prepared to go with the flow for a while and let his writing do its work.
          Steve Spence 2013