About Eyewear the blog

Eyewear THE BLOG is the most read British poetry blogzine, getting more than 20,000 page-views a month. It began in 2005. The views expressed by editor Todd Swift are not necessarily shared by the contributing poets and reviewers, and vice versa. Eyewear blog is archived by The British Library. Any material on this blog infringing copyright will be removed upon request.


Sunday, 27 July 2014

SUMMERTIME GLADNESS


Eyewear is going fishing, and won't be posting here at the blog until end of the summer. Don't cry, dear reader - you have over 20 Eyewear titles to read in the meantime and 3,250 (!) previous posts stretching back over 9 years to peruse, revisit, savour, or discover for the first time. Have a good summer, despite the incipient madness of a violent and often cruel world.  We make our heavens and hells here on earth.

Todd Swift, this blog's editor, despite his human troubles, quirks, and challenges, seeks to promote poetry, publish good writing, and write some things of value himself - why?  Because a world with a new-arrived book or poem in it is always a better world than the moment before (even if the book or poem is itself problematic), because the alternative is far worse - a world where new books and poems do not keep arriving for us.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

new poem by todd swift

Ballad of the Non-payment

What we see is burning planes
the compost of sad old refrains
no song collects human remains.

A poem is what is tossed aside
by any reader who aims to glide
above rhyme for a novel ride;

I have some wisdom left apart
for my children never came to start
the acting father in me, so smart

I somehow learned to uncreate
the brood I thought would inundate
our gardens with their fortunate

water pistols aimed at trees;
I've some words to give freely;
these are words like shooting sprees:

there is no God but the god you leave;
there is no loss but that you grieve;
and it is better to love than live;

though living is what love requires;
the world dampens love’s true fires;
for truth and love are not the spires

on which our global good is built;
we rise to worship all that’s gilt;
we mourn fewer than get killed;

if I could warn I’d remove all doubt:
it is better not to write a lot;
and if you do, try not to shout;

they can hear you even though
you never speak above a slow
mourning whimper, asking how

they know you are so beautiful
and yet they’ve had their fill
before they’ve had any at all.

It isn’t lasting but it is the fate
to arrive too early, stay too late
and lean against a burning gate

that soon, low ash, will topple you
for being no more than evening dew;
the night has little else to do

with poems, poets, those who think
their meanings and language sink
ships or move the world to a brink;

the day has even less time for us;
we, to creation, being most useless;
our dry course, and longing curse.

Be a doctor, lawyer, good with sums;
bang pots, pans and goat-skin drums;
garden with a prudent thumb;

no green accrues, no gold arrives,
by writing into being what never lives;
the poet dies each time she gives.

A poet dies because she pays a tax
for which no ruler has ever asked;
she tithes and tithes away the mask

until her body, mind and spirit lie
upon a floor of spilled grain and flies;
but threshes those who aspire to try

enumerating stars, molecules, the ant
across the lintel or the pouring sand;
to count out the illegible plan

nature’s claws, mad Zeus’s design;
refrain, resign, diplomatically decline;
the word’s unwanted in the anodyne.

Knock back a quick one, salute the bar;
where you are going is not that far;
you’ll soon close shut the one true door.

poem by Todd Swift
July 22, 2014; revised July 26.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

ZULU FIFTY YEARS ON

I was always afraid to see Zulu, the British war film "introducing" Michael Caine, which was a big hit the summer of 1964 - I thought it might be bloody, jingoistic, and awkwardly racist. And this despite the fact many movie lists feature it as one of the great films. As a film buff, what was I doing, avoiding it.

So, last night, I finally watched it.

Bloody hell, what a movie.  What a complex, haunting, terrifying, beautiful, horrific, great scream it from the roofs movie.  One of the best I've ever seen, easily now in my top ten.

Why?

Well, firstly, politically, it doesn't go far enough, but, for its time, it's remarkably balanced. The "villains" of the film, the Zulus, are really more like antagonists - but never are they depicted as less than noble, brave, brilliant. I have seen critics say they should have been given more of a voice, less of a communal mass identity, but the point of the film is to recreate an actual military battle, which was - despite and because of its offencive imperialist nature - terrifying. Meanwhile the colonialists, preachers, and British soldiers, humanised as they are, express, in their faces, their eyes, and sometimes their words, a revisionism already - questioning what they are there for, and why they should be killing people to defend a land that isn't theirs.

More to the point - the film's build up of impending doom, and then action sequences, are the most thrilling and dreadful I'd ever seen. I now understand why the film has so influenced the whole Zombie cultural phenomenon - because the only way to recreate the sense of utter horror as a vast human wave descends to crush you - without wading into uncomfortable politics, is to make the Zulus zombies.

But, see above - the Zulus are not mindless, not dead, and not simply motivated by some nameless unspeakable hunger - they are driven by the justified desire to see the occupying British forces thrown out of their country. They have right, and might, on their side - and, if they had had more rifles, they might have fended off the British troops.  As it is, by the time the Anglo-Zulu wars were done, tens of thousands of their people had died, defending a nation that the British stole from them, to give, finally, to the Boers.  Mostly due to diamonds, I should add.

So, yes - the red coated British soldiers are, broadly speaking, utterly in the wrong, the true villains of the piece.

However, as the film reminds us, they were also men who, oftener than not, didn't want to be there (the Welsh farmer who sings for instance, or Hook, the thief and rebel, or Chard, the bridge building engineer).

Regardless of the historical setting, the film unfolds almost entirely, except for the framing narration by Richard Burton, which is pompous and of its time - as a real time exercise in mounting horror - as the very small, mostly injured garrison, of 150 troops at the remote mountain station - realise that the Zulu warriors are marching to destroy them - 4,000 Zulu warriors - led by a tactical mastermind, their King.

And, you are there with them.  What do you do?

Well, some run away, or leave (including the cavalry, one of the cinema's finest downbeat moments), get drunk, rave, - but, in a manner that was borrowed by Robert Redford in All Is Lost (a film that is Zulu with the sea as the warriors) - most of the 150 remain stoic, calm, and professional, and set about preparing for the worst.

Here is where the film becomes the existential masterwork it really is - for the feeble bulwarks, the few sandbags, the plan to move to the redoubt - are all as nothing against the oncoming doom - and yet, still, for the most part, the weary and increasingly terrified men, engineer and plod and button up their uniforms, and - yes, die - many horribly.

It is terrible to see the warriors shot down in their hundreds by the British rifles - and it is terrible to see Zulu spears also kill - and the killing itself is dreadful, and sad, and one realises the carnage is, from one angle, senseless.

But war has an awful logic, and the logic runs like this - why are they coming to kill us, Sergeant?  Because, we are the ones here.

And, if 4,000 people are coming to kill you, what do you do?  If you are the preacher, you do not fight, you leave. If you were a British soldier or officer in the 1870s, you stood your ground, to fight. To not would be to be shot as a traitor.

The film is beautifully shot - and the isolation and weakness of the British position, those few red coats - is hugely evocative.  This is, of course, the best British Western ever filmed - and since it explores class, power, war, religion, bravery, duty, fear, death, and race, unflinchingly, it earns a dignity that so few other war films do.  And, finally, the film is about dignity, torn from the wound of war. I wonder what you think.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

DISSECTING DIRECTING HERBERT WHITE, THE PATIENT ETHERISED ON THE TABLE

It would be too easy to conclude that James Franco's new collection of poetry and prose, from Faber, Directing Herbert White, is the weakest book of poetry they have ever published, though one would have to go back to, arguably de la Mare, to find an equal. Simply put, most of the poetry in the book is so flat that one is forced to conclude that some kind of post-modern hoax is being perpetrated, the kind of thing that, from time to time, Hollywood actors get up to in their vanity project phases.

Dismissing Franco, who is, after all, a good actor, a handsome young man, a rich and famous American, and a student and promoter of poetry, might smack of envy, or sour grapes.  After all, very few humans alive are currently as fortunate as he, in terms of health, wealth, looks, and opportunity. He is, in the secular and gross way of celebrity, blessed - or cursed, as he would like us to think, too.  Using the persona of Lohan, the doomed actress, he is prepared for any mockery in advance, noting that blogs do not master him, and basically the rich and famous have the sex and bungalows the rest of us can only dream about. And, from my few dealings with him by email, he is a nice and helpful guy.

Choosing heroes like The Smiths, Brando, James Dean, and Frank Bidart, Franco's world is pop-cultishly blank and unsubtle, but not without interest - for he writes of some experiences that most of us, even poets, or especially poets, won't have, like acting in major motion pictures, and living in expensive, hip hotels for years on end. A mood is generated, of waste, arrogance, and a festering artifice of immortality which movies seem to donate to those who find themselves enambered therein. It's all very Sunset Boulevard.

Franco is not the first actor to write poetry - surely the greatest poet in English, our immortal Will, was an actor.  Nor is Franco the first rich, famous or desired man to pen verse - Byron was more celebrated than Franco, in his day. Nor is he the first young American to be published by Faber, either - that would be Eliot or Pound. So he is not as rare as he might at first appear, or as preposterous.  Yet, his poetry cannot stand up to those forebears.

Not that it tries, either.

Despite the many many famous friends and mentors he mentions in the book, his poetry seems to resist either the music of the traditional lyric, or the post-structural linguistic innovations of the conceptualists. He writes in a deadpan, flat, banal, and generally plain spoken free verse, of statement, and line break, where portentous meaning is derived from every act of enjambment.

Don't get me wrong.  I like the book, in many ways.  I too, for example, have written poems about The Smiths, movies, Hollywood, and materialism, sometimes assaying a free verse style, and creepy personae.  Of course, I did this in 1999, 15 years ago, and my Budavox is a better work - more shocking, perverse, witty, allusive, complex, and, for the time, visionary.

But the reason it is a better book is subtle - it is because I was not then, and am not now, really a movie star.

Poets, to rise to their highest calling, cannot be entangled in another vocation - at some stage, and the word is intentional - their poetry must imagine, must envision, and enact, a world their work brings into being, a more-than-mimetic making, which is what poeisis is.

Yeats, as in all things, is the benchmark.  His occult powers of generation are staggering, and he became a Mage - because he believed in, yielded to, and in turn channeled, the powers of rhyme, and metre, and verse.  He embodied, he became, poetry.

Yeats did this by becoming a god.  Or thinking of becoming a god.

James Franco, sadly for him, is already a kind of god, for he is a famous star.  His imagination is embedded in a world he already surveys and in many ways dominates.  He is a master of the ultra-hip bungalows of the super-famous and sexy. He has the keys to many doors of experience and satiation.  He can sleep with any one of a thousand men or women tonight - less limited in reality, his powers of poetry are more limited in compensation.

Franco can become a far better poet.  He could even become a genuine, potentially serious, poet, one to be reckoned with.  Yet first he must renounce his ego, and his fame, and go into retreat.  This is what Leonard Cohen did, for years, and it served him well.

Franco's book, despite its dire and uninviting title, is a good book to read - it is entertaining, eye-opening, often funny, and even a bit gossipy, bitchy, cheap, trashy and daring.  It is a book almost no British poet could write, except maybe Joe Dunthorne - and so it needs to be welcome on these shores for all its problems and challenges.  It is a book that affronts us, because we know 100 great American poets that do not have publishers in the UK, and we know they are not actors and never will have books here.  But Franco cannot be dismissed as being simply the child of good fortune.  He is lucky, and he doesn't on the face of it deserve a Faber book.  But if this book had been published by a smaller press, already, the modest impulse would have set the work off better. It isn't bad poetry, per se - it is simply non-canonical, and we read Faber books as if they are canon-forming.

As such, we can conclude, it is not like when Wallace Stevens, or Frost, were first published in London.  But this book challenges what we think popular poetry is and does, far more than any ten books from Cambridge or UEA, and as such, it is a bitch-slap to our pretensions and our critical senses, made infuriatingly lively by its arrogant and assured provenance.  In short, we must read it, before we can toss it aside.  And so, Franco has already won.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

OUTRAGE

The downing of a Malaysian passenger jet a few hours ago, over rebel-dominated Ukraine's airspace, is a terrible loss of life - 295 souls, apparently, including a full complement of 15 staff. It is also an act of war, and a moral outrage.  Our prayers go out to the families of those lost, and any survivors, if there are, mercifully any. The possibility of it being a coincidence, in a corridor that has seen military jets downed recently, is slim.  It seems odd that a civilian airliner was routed over such disputed space, but perhaps the assumption was this was a civilised theatre.  It is not, anymore.

America is weak at the moment, horribly so.  Firstly Mr Obama, the weakest American President in memory, refrains from reminding Israel (our democratic partner in the Middle East in many things) of the immediate and lasting need to avoid killing women, children, and innocent men in Gaza in any manner that has impact; he does nothing in Iraq, less in Syria; lets China bully its region; cannot reign in North Korea; and sees Ukraine falling into the hands of its enemies.  Mr Obama needs to resign or step up to the plate.  His pay grade requires leadership, resolve, and, if necessary, force, deployed intelligently.

Gaza needs to have a ceasefire that holds; Ukraine's borders, including its airspace, need to be defended; and, across the globe, a sense of order and lawfulness needs to prevail.  Barring that, we could conclude the world, currently marking the centenary of WW1, and about to celebrate the 70th anniversary of V-Day in 2015, is, seemingly as always, on the brink of yet more suffering.  As Morrissey reminds us on his best album in 20 years, we are not very humane, us humans. We kill animals, each other, and ruin the planet.  Outrageous behaviour, indeed.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

RAW POWER IN 1986

One of the best memories of my college years - I was educated at a private college run by nuns - was a summer house party hosted by Adam Frank - we were around 19, and we were drinking gin and tonics, and later Margaritas.  Adam has since become a brilliant professor.  We were into A.J. Ayer, Colin Wilson, Brecht, Kafka, Welles, Freud, Wilde and, Iggy Pop

Raw Power was playing - on a turn table I believe - and I had never heard it before.  Adam was wearing a bow tie and his goofy glasses - he was tall, with curly hair, and very funny, and smart.  Also in attendance were our friends the impossibly tall, erudite and charming Misha Glouberman (soon off to Harvard), Marcy Goldberg (so slinky and clever, a secret crush of mine), Douglas Barrett, a slim, blond physical and intellectual comedian, action-packed, manic, sexually exploratory, possibly blood-stained from previous antics, and my boyfriend at the time, sort of - our Cassady.  The poet, at the time an enigmatic petite red-lipped black-clad Goth, China-plate pale, Joy Division girl Susan Briscoe, was also there, and perhaps languid, Armani-casual Fabio Bagnara, now an Italian architect, then a handsome young playboy with film star looks but a shy bookish manner belying his desirability.

There were perhaps a few others - young men and women, intellectuals on the cusp, in a hot Montreal summer, August, at a pleasant suburban home, getting drunk some afternoon, with 'Your Pretty Face is Going To Hell' playing.  I loved that irony - the mix of Kleist and punk, decorum and style, and latent youthful exuberance.  We were in love then, with the idea of ourselves as on the brink of moving on - and soon, we all would leave Quebec, more or less (Susan has stayed, and forged a literary career there). I recall us later in the day sitting on the grass in the backyard, tipsy, eroticised, talking for hours, about ideas.  The lustre of thought, youth, desire, possibility, and the anarchic power of Pop limning those hours, forever, as signal times.  I was rarely ever again so among my kind, so pleased, so full of an occasion's lazy greatness. I hope they are still alive. I have not seen some of them for 25 years or more. 'Come and take me... I am alive.... Penetration'...

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK 33 YEARS LATER


The first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I had recently turned 15. I had lined up at 7 am in the morning, outside The Imperial cinema, in Montreal's East End, with my best friend of the time, Timmy. It was June, 1981, and we knew nothing of the movie, its many plot twists, its future classic status.  We only knew it starred Harrison Ford, who we had loved as Hans Solo, and was created by George Lucas and Spielberg.

There was, of course, no Internet back then, no social media, so buzz was from radio and newspapers, and, as we were young teens, from school gossip.  There had been a big pr push, some billboards, but we were rather innocent.  We entered the cinema around noon, about 33 years ago, to see the first showing in Quebec, bought our popcorn and soda pop, and then quickly became amazed.

I watched Raiders again last night on TV, for the first time in maybe ten years - hell, maybe 20.  I've seen the sequels a few times since, as well.  I recalled the film fondly, but a new viewing astonished me.  Very few things from one's youth remain the same 33 years later. However, this movie, if anything, is funnier, smarter, more stylish, clever, well-plotted and subtle, than I recall.

Karen Allen as Ms Ravenwood is sexier, more nuanced, and Ford is more handsome, complex, and disturbing. Even the smaller roles are handled expertly, and overall there is genuine sense of reverence for the subject matters of history, time, religion, and God. Indeed, given the theme of a Jewish God's revenge against evil empire set in Egypt, the treatment of the Muslim characters is even-handed, not jingoistic, since Indie's best friend in Cairo is a good man, and it is Muslim children who save Indie in a key scene. Hitler is clearly contrasted with the Pharaohs who enslaved the Chosen People, and there is a sense the collaborating Frenchman is prefiguring the Vichy-water subplot in Casbalanca. Denholm Elliot, always a gentle, intelligent character actor, is very fine here; and who can forget the creepy Nazi torturer in his black fedora, in homage to Lorre?

At the time, we marvelled at the breakneck speed of events, the set pieces (the drinking game in Nepal, Indie shooting the man with the sword, the "bad dates" monkey scene, the Nazi with the burnt hand,  the bald German boxing airman and the plane rotors, the Ark being hidden at the end in a warehouse), the great sound effects, and the humour and derring-do.

However, this time around I was able to admire the direction's pacing - how the bravura opening sequence is then followed by a slow expositional scene with the government agents and Indie at his college - Speilberg learned from Hitchcock's Vertigo here. Indeed, Raiders wears its loved of cinema on its leather sleeve, as we know - without Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Lawrence of Arabia, and numerous cliff-hanger reels of the 30s and 40s, it would not have been made.

What impresses me no end in 2014, however, is that this film has solidly taken its place alongside Kane and Casablanca, in my mind, as one of the very greatest of American films - its sense of dramatic beats, comedy, romance, and action has never been rivalled. Belloq's speech about planting a cheap watch in the sand and eventually seeing it cherished as priceless is also true of cinema.  Raiders - never cheap - has appeared however as the supremely well-made roller-coaster to end all summer films.  I am still thrilled the young man I was got to see it on its first day, all those summers ago.

Monday, 14 July 2014

GREAT REVIEW FOR AN EYEWEAR BOOK AND THE EYEWEAR DESIGN FROM KIRSTEN IRVING!

One of the best of younger British poets, Kirsten Irving, who knows a thing or two about book design as well, ends her fresh review of Tree Language as follows:

"Let’s talk about production. Hardback, elegantly typeset on off-white, tasty shades of chocolate and raspberry (or blood and clotting) with complementary endpapers. There’s clearly a crack crew working on the Eyewear look. Designer Edwin Smet’s clean, expressive style is a fundamental part of the distinctive Eyewear house look. Using only lines and shapes which resemble paper cut-outs, he has for other titles conjured a Rottweiler, moonlight, weather phenomena and the outline of a stranger.

If you’re big on irony and detached cool, it’s most definitely not for you, but if you want poetry that dives in with a small, keen dagger, enjoy. As a collection, Tree Language is so dense, well-meshed and infused with spiced notes there’s almost too much to say. Subverting the kinds of themes that so often garner major prizes, this collection is determined to speak its own language."