About Eyewear the blog

Eyewear THE BLOG is among the most read British poetry blogzines, getting more than 20,000 page-views a month. It began in 2005. The views expressed by Canadian-British 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.


Friday, 31 October 2014

Eyewear Publishing and B7 Media cordially invite you to a post-Broadcast and Paperback launch


Eyewear Publishing and B7 Media cordially invite you to a post-Broadcast and Paperback launch party for

 

THE BOY FROM ALEPPO WHO PAINTED THE WAR

 

Written by Sumia Sukkar

Dramatised for Radio by Richard Kurti & Bev Doyle

 

A B7 Production for BBC Radio 4

 

Saturday, 6-8pm, 8 November 2014

OXFAM SHOP, 91 MARLEYBONE HIGH STREET, LONDON, W1U 4RB

 

The event will include a reading by the Author, Sumia Sukkar, Book Signing and Q&A

 

Guest panellists:

 

Laura Guthrie, LAURA GUTHRIE, PHD RESEACRHER INTO AUTISM AND LITERATURE

Bev Doyle and Richard Kurti, RADIO Dramatists

Imran Ahmad, COMPOSER

Andrew Mark Sewell, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

Patrick Chapman, Producer

Fiona McAlpine, Director

 

As well as the following Cast members, who will be in attendance.

 

Adam > Farshid Rokey

Yasmine > Jalleh Alizadeh

Tariq > Amir El-Masry

Wasim > Adam El Hagar

Nabil > Ashraf Ejjbair      

Miss Basma > Abla George

 

 

Come hear how a novel by a young British woman, about an autistic teenager and his family in war-torn Syria, became a BBC Radio 4 dramatisation.  We will discuss radio plays, adaptation, direction, and, of course, the great novel that started the whole thing.

 


 

 

Dr Todd Swift

 

Director

Eyewear Publishing Ltd

Suite 38, 19-21 Crawford Street

Marylebone, London W1H 1PJ

United Kingdom

Saturday, 25 October 2014

14 Top Tracks of 2014 So Far

We are now well into the end game - very few major new LPs will be out after November before the Christmas rush - and with new albums (hence tracks) from Leonard CohenMichael Jackson, U2, Prince, Lana del Rey, Coldplay, Johnny Marr, Billy Idol, Morrissey, Neil Diamond, and Stevie Nicks - to name but a few - it has been a year of heavy-hitters and comebacks. I promise no Scott Walker appears below...

1. SIMPLE MINDS - 'Blindfolded'
Simple Minds have been trying to produce a single as compelling as their mid-80s work of genius for 30 years. This time, they seem to have succeeded.

2. MORRISSEY - 'Staircase at the University'
This has all the earnest hallmarks of impassioned yet steely late Smiths, and is easily his best song in a decade.

3. LANA DEL REY - 'Cruel World'
Haunting, post-modern, witty, moody, a great song.

4. MARK LANEGAN BAND - 'Harvest Home'
It's hard to imagine that there's a vocalist with more bourbon-inflected menace than anyone from Metallica or Queens of the Stone Age.  But Lanegan is the real deal - and this song has the nous of suicide-day Cobain for noirish-grunge rock kudos.

5. WE WERE EVERGREEN - 'False Start'
If you thought that insufferably fey wordplay and falsetto vocals were owned by Vampire Weekend, think again.  This witty extended mixed metaphor on track meets, cold war history, and a love affair is quite charming, in a year of lots of charming pop songs that have faded from view. I believe they mention the Marshall Plan.

6. SBTRKT, feat. Ezra Koenig - 'NEW DORP, NEW YORK'
Speaking of which, here comes Mr. Koenig himself, in a very bouncy, amazingly fun song, with a few very satisfying puns, and the phrases "baseball bats that never hit a home run" and "My girl got a city to run" - each rather haunting when juxtaposed with "gargoyles gargling oil".

7. THE WAR ON DRUGS - 'Red Eyes'
Likely to be on every critic's list of top ten LPs of the year, this is a masterpiece, and this track is arguably the most beautiful and uplifting of the lot.  It's hard to be lazy and soaring at once, but this effortless eagle swoop in azure air achieves that natural American grace.

8. ELLA HENDERSON - 'Ghost'
We have probably had enough of blue-eyed R & B retro tracks to last another century, but this one came along and seemed to out-Adele Adele.  Really great on the radio, and in the club. "I need something to wash out the pain". Yes, the tropes of giving up ghosts and haunting are as old as the New Testament, but it sounded fresh somehow.

9. SAM SMITH - 'Stay With Me'
Unless you are a heard-hearted kill-joy, you will at some stage have to succumb to this pop hit heroin shot.  It's clearly one of the singles of the year, and, with its emotional, curiously ambiguous examination of the needs of one night stands, hard to resist.

10. STEVIE NICKS - 'Twisted'
Who knew she had this in her?  The great-voiced one, who thinks "we are the demons in this place where the images are born" - channeling TS Eliot perhaps - has released an album of the year. It's a thrill to hear her sing this theological love song.

11. WILD BEASTS - 'Mecca'
Speaking of which, it doesn't get more religious love song than this one - a fragile, lyrical, and very intelligent examination of how "we move in desire" - "where the body goes the mind will follow soon after" - or is that the other way around? Very fine, complex, a great song. "We are lovers, cartwheeling" - almost has a Kate Bush rush there.

12. BANKS - 'Thread'
She has itches that scratch, and no filter. But she also has the hippest, coolest, grooviest way with a dark night of the soul pop track - dipped in sex, poetry and black velvet. "My words can come like a pistol". You go girl.

13. COUNTING CROWS - 'Possibility Days'
I hate myself for selecting this song (and thus leaving off Cohen and others) but let's face it, it is their best song in 20 years, and it really works, doing that epic overwrought piano ballad tumbling wordplay thing that no one does better. Corny but so are heartbreaks. "The worst part of a good day is knowing it's slipping away". A movie in 4 minutes, with about twenty memorable lines.

14. BAXTER DURY - 'Police'
A bizarre mix of jaunty Serge Gainsbourg Euro pop and cockney attitude, this foul-mouthed, hugely earworming tune evokes a whole world of boyfriends, trouble, and has a weird sublime moment at 2:10 where Baxter starts singing "ooh-la-ha-ha" and everything changes and becomes sweet, abstract, and odd.



Friday, 24 October 2014

THE DEAN SWIFT PRIZE FOR INDEPENDENT POETRY

 " We all behold with envious eyes
Our equal rais'd above our size.
Who would not at a crowded show
Stand high himself, keep others low?
I love my friend as well as you
But would not have him stop my view.
Then let him have the higher post:
I ask but for an inch at most. " - DEAN SWIFT


Eyewear Publishing Ltd is today announcing a new prize for the best POETRY BOOK COLLECTION PUBLISHED IN IRELAND OR THE UK IN ANY GIVEN YEAR.

This prize is to be judged by one sole INCORRUPTIBLE PERSON EACH YEAR - and, THAT BEING LIKELY HARD TO FIND - the NEXT BEST THING, DR TODD SWIFT, a relation of DEAN SWIFT COLLATERALLY.

DR SWIFT AND DEAN SWIFT share SEVERAL THINGS IN COMMON - they both are mad; they both possess genius; they both understand disappointment; they both have round faces; they both love Ireland more than the UK; they both write polemics; and both share the same last name.

HOW TO ENTER: POST ONE COPY OF ANY BOOK YOU WISH TO BE CONSIDERED to Dr Swift at the postal address YOU CAN LOCATE IF YOU CONTACT DR SWIFT BY EMAIL. SAID EMAIL IS info at eyewearpublishing dot com

 IT MUST ARRIVE NO LATER THAN December 1, 2014.

NO ENTRY FEE IS REQUIRED.

ALL BOOKS PUBLISHED IN 2014 ARE ELIGIBLE, IF PUBLISHED BY IRISH OR UK PRESSES.

POETS OR PUBLISHERS CAN ENTER.

The press MUST BE SMALL, INDEPENDENT AND/OR EXPERIMENTAL IN NATURE and design.

As it is IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL A PERSON WHETHER THEY ARE SMALL without their permission, ALL PUBLISHERS ARE WELCOME to enter.

A SHORTLIST will be made.  OF UP TO TEN BOOKS OF POETRY.

There will be  GREAT FUSS MADE OVER THIS LIST AT THIS BLOG.

The Award will be made in 2015, some time after DR SWIFT HAS RECOVERED FROM THE FESTIVITIES.

NO BRIBES, CRONYISM, FAVOURS, INDUCEMENTS, REWARDS, PROMISORY NOTES, SUAVE ADVANCES, HELTER-SKELTER SHENANIGANS, SWEATING PUFFERY, VENALITY, BESTIAL INTENT, LOATHSOME SELF-REGARD, HATRED OF WOMEN, HATRED OF PYGMIES, BLOODLUST, CANKEROUS MUTINEERING, OR other nonsense is permitted.

THIS PRIZE IS TO CONSIST OF FAME IN THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE PRIZE BEING ACCORDED.  THE PRIZE IS performative.  NO MONEY IS REQUIRED FOR THIS PRIZE.

Instead, give generously to the MAD and those WITH EYE PROBLEMS.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Who Is The PBS For?

The Poetry Book Society, founded more than 60 years ago by T.S. Eliot, at that time the world's most famous living poet-publisher-critic, has been issuing quarterly bulletins for decades, that promote certain poets and presses; and for a number of years now, they also host a major national prize, for ostensibly the best poetry book of the year - from the ten-strong shortlist is plucked a worthy winner.

To question this society is a bit like questioning the Monarchy - positions are hardened pretty much in line with how one feels about, and relates to, the "establishment" - in this case, the Poetry Establishment of the UK.

Of course, no dark-paneled X-Files room exists where such people meet - they meet in public, and we see them at gatherings, clustered in tiny groups of four or six - the top editors from Faber, Picador, laughing and nodding, as they speak to their world famous poets, from Ireland, the US and the UK. In Seamus Heaney's infamous phrase, this is the "inner circle".

If you don't think Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, Hugo Williams, David Harsent, Fiona Sampson, Ruth Padel, and a few dozen other poets published in the UK wield more critical and poetical clout than you, then either a) you are delusional or b) you are on that list already.

Now, this not to attack these poets, these editors, critics and publishers.  But it is to note that they tend to have influence - as judges, selectors, and so on.

And, there is a fair argument to be made that who is better placed to wield such influence than those poets who are the best?

Ah, but there lies the circular rub: the way these poets have solidifed their canonical status is open to examination and debate - or could be, in a more transparent system.

For, time and again, as has been shown by recent essays and analyses, key establishment poets have tended to select the work of a small group of peers, without widening the inner circle to admit others of arguably equal merit.

In short, year after year, certain poets, and presses, manage to place their collections in the top shortlists, creating, in the minds of many readers, and the media, an appearance of natural superiority.  This is an ideology - a false image, accepted because it satisfies the basic need for a hierarchy.

However, there is no good reason why, over almost the full history of the TS Eliot Prize, no small press ever won (and was rarely shortlisted); no avant-garde poet, either. It is clear to any critic or student of contemporary British poetry that much that is of most worth or interest published in the last 15 years, has been published by smaller presses - places like Nine Arches, KFS, Shoestring Press, Cinnamon, Eyewear, Salt, Penned in the Margins, Arc, Anvil, and various Irish presses. This without even mentioning the experimental presses run by linguistically innovative poets.

The usual arguments about market, and accessibility, are really besides the point.  Few poets see their work reach a wider conversation with society - and difficulty in the work is no reason for not shortlisting it.  We are meant to be poets, not panderers.

Over 3 years I have published 24 poetry collections, and sent them all dutifully in to the PBS - a few have been reviewed or mentioned as coming out - thank you - but that's table scraps - books that are Selected or Chosen or whatever, get thousands of orders.  Such orders are the difference between closure and survival for many presses. I have watched other presses like Salt equally publish books of genius, which sank like stones in terms of this PBS prize.

Now, the thing is - at least some of the books I sent in - such as by Simon Jarvis - are world class books, touched by genius.  But I might as well have been submitting a comic book scrawled in crayon.

I am not saying the TS Eliot Prize shortlist process is fixed.  No, that way leads to lawsuits and grumpy nonsense.  But it is almost as bad - it looks to be a closed shop.  And, if it isn't a closed shop, how open is it?

Look at the winners, look at the judges, look at the shortlists, and tell me this is a balanced and open shop.

The PBS oversees a false world view - one where there are maybe six or seven real poetry presses in the UK.  But the UK now has over 50 active presses - many small, local, struggling, but valid also. The poets published by these indie presses don't seem to be treated as if they were really part of the adult table - as if there was a glass wall of rain between them and the inner circle.

I expect lots of huffing and puffing - but the poetry establishment exists as a relaxed ad hoc group of about 20 or 30 people in the UK who benefit most from a closed shop. This group does and says very little to support and encourage small presses.  Indeed, many of them actively speak about their being "too much poetry being published" already.

The famous argument is that poetry's pie is so small, poets cannot easily welcome in others to grab a slice.  Such territoriality is a natural human instinct, and is of course at work everywhere - but it is dangerously rampant on this small island, it seems, especially.

I may have to close my small press in a year or two.  It is hard to get sales, and hard to get reviews.  You'd think the powers that be would go out of their ways to fit books from worthy smaller presses onto shortlists, from time to time, to help them sell books - after all, these lists are about marketing as much as anything - but the competition is fierce.  Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet - these are not disinterested parties - they apply for grants.  There is a question of resources. A shortlist slot for a small press, a review space for a small press - these things are noticed, and hierarchies shudder and complain.

The point is, why should those of us - call us the Poetry 99% - stand by and accept this state of affairs, cap in hand, for ever? What do we expect?  That miraculously some day our small presses, our indie books, our indie poems, will break through.  For what? Recognition? From who? The very establishment that barely acknowledges we share the same shelves, the same pages.

I am thinking of no longer submitting Eyewear books to the PBS in future.  Why bother?  It is a costly nuisance.  If poets want to be feted by that society, they should go get published by a Big 5 Press.  Indie publishing isn't going to win playing the games designed by the big presses for the big presses.

We need our own prizes, and our own willingness to accept our quality is not based on validation from these trumped up prizes.

We need to read and critique poetry with a far wider sense of what is at stake.  Poetry is not about being "a choice" or "selected" by some "big name". Poetry in the UK needs to break free of its reverence for the nonsense that the Poetry Society and PBS foist on us, in the name of what they claim is Poetry. It is Their Poetry. Not mine.

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, Canadian Hero

    Canada's heroic soldier, killed by a fanatic yesterday, was typically Canadian beneath his military garb - a family man, a reservist, a lover of nature, friend to animals, a bouncer, personal trainer - no baby-killer here, folks - just a good loyal Canadian 24-year-old guarding a monument honouring the war dead of WWI. His death is all the more tragic for being symbolic - he was killed for being a symbol, and was not seen for the human he was beneath his uniform. But as a symbol he must therefore also be... honoured, because he died defending Canada. Cpl. Nathan Cirillo should have all the honours a nation can offer given to him, and his family - out of respect and to defy his killer, who sought to crush him, as man, and symbol. Put this great Canadian son on a stamp, please. Name streets in every town after him. Name libraries after him. The Ottawa airport. Defy the killing with a symbolic spree of honour.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

CANADA'S DARK DAYS


In the last few days radicalised men have been attacking, and killing, Canadian soldiers and citizens on Canadian soil - first in Quebec then in Ontario today - connected to our highest ideals of good government and decency.  Canada, often thought of as dull, is anything but - but it has rarely seen such action on its own ground - though of course the land was wrested from various peoples in complex historical struggles over five or more centuries, including fending off Fenian raiders and Americans. Nor is this the most deadly attack with weapons - there was the massacre of the engineering students, there was the assasination of D'arcy Magee, the killing by RCMP of Metis, brutality during strikes, and various serial killers; there have been dramatic standoffs with native Canadians; there have been tanks rumbling in the streets of Montreal; FLQ letter bombs - but yet, despite this, and Canada's involvement in WWI and WWII, and the Korean War - nothing has quite prepared us for today.

If you have never visited Ottawa's Parliament Hill you won't understand - but it is a wide open, friendly, safe, dull, low-key place - and we are utterly proud of our beautiful parliament building, with its wooden library, its houses modelled on Westminster's, and the inherent accountable, decent, democratic, nature of Canadian governance.  Yes, we have had the sexy Pierre Trudeau - but all our other prime ministers have been hardworking squares, buttoned down, earnest, intelligent, mostly lacking in star power.  You visit Ottawa and you see Mounties, you visit Parliament, you see kids with little red leaves painted on their faces, you shop for a beaver tail snack in the mall, you maybe walk along the canal, go see a play or musical... and you feel safe. Canada's history is as flawed as any human history, but it is inarguably, over the past 100 years, one marked by more good than ill - in short, Canadians have done more good, added more to the sum of human experience, joy, and achievement, than they have taken away - through our artists, pianists, thinkers, poets, actors, musicians, comedians, film-makers, peace-keepers, doctors and environnmental campaigners.

Yes, we are increasingly bellicose; we pollute; we use resources; we have killed seals; we have not always done the right thing.

But there is no wiser, better, safer, gentler, less violent parliament in the world, none with a better record on health care, social justice, compassion for the sick and elderly, for overseas aid - Canada is a world beacon of decency, calm, good humour, friendliness, easy charm, laid back qualities of acceptance, multiculturalism, tolerance.

All blown away, by men killing our soldiers, our citizens, on our good ground.  I pray for my people.  I mourn the dead. And I vow to be steadfast.  Those who seek to undermine the Canadian model of society must be stopped in their tracks.  We will not be swayed. But Canada's face has been streaked today with a terrible scratch, slapped by a petty hand - a mark that shames not the wounded, but shows that the red of our flag is our blood that falls on the snowy sheet of our good large land.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

THE NEW BILLY IDOL ALBUM

Susan Sontag told us all we need to know about camp, and then we got to hear about it again, this time called the post-modern, and since then, with the digital mash-up world of timeless everything under the sun, it's become the "so bad it's good" meme. Well, regardless of Adorno, I love the new Billy Idol album, just out.

The thrill of nostalgia and horrified joy I feel at discovering the songs here are expertly tooled trash, no worse than his mastersong 'Flesh for Fantasy' - equally OTT, performative, queerly wild, uber-flamboyant rock-punk nonsense - can only be tempered by recognition that this is immaturity talking, this is a 48-year-old pudgy uni lecturer talking, a privileged white boy-man wanting to escape from the Ebola-ISIS-UKIP shitstorm raging in reality. And, that his voice is broken on so many late nights in rememberhimville, he might be 80, not from the 80s.  So what? He admits he was a druggie and preposterous.

There are so many pop-rock hits here it's as if Iggy Pop and Gary Numan had all agreed to work with Jon Bon Jovi, Jim Kerr and Trevor Horn to tool a rock-synth album of sheer swaggerring cheese.

Yes, when he says he needs you to save him now, when he complains of priests, and the law, mentions shooting up in bathrooms, says he was on MTV baby high as the moon, and shrieks like it is yet another good day for a white wedding, I can only assent. Is it bad? Maybe. Is it state of the art outrageous catchy 80s-era Billy Idol camp? Yes.  So, that wins for me. He is still around, still a king and queen of the underground. It is sort of touching. I dig your rebel sounds, Billy.

GUEST REVIEW: WILLIAMS ON SULEYMAN

Outside looking on is Chimene Suleyman’s debut collection and a fantastically well-crafted one at that.  Judging by the blurb and praise on the back of this book I was certain I was going to be able to rip this collection apart for its clumsy and eager nods to its influences; ‘The tall, glass monoliths are lonely as the characters who exist around them’. I thought I was dealing with a third rate Larkin cum Morrissey enthusiast; I was very wrong.

The poems in this book are witty, intimate, and direct; not bashful or pathetically comedic. Suleyman has managed to create a voice which is at home in the dangerous environment of the city and yet secretly envious of the suburbs and beyond ‘I hate the countryside, it’s designed badly’. But I did not find this voice self-loathing or melodramatic.  Further, I feel Suleyman has found her technique early on, and already I see the makings of an easily recognisable voice in contemporary poetry.   Of course those before mentioned influences are noticeable; I feel the movement in general may be a regular touchstone for Suleyman. 

Onto the poems.  The collection follows the story/stories of narrators living in the epicentre of Canary Wharf.  Throughout there are poems regarding lost love, work and family.  Suleyman’s strength is her ability to write penetratingly; when issues of racism or sexism appear in the book, they arise not from a clear detailing of a character’s personality but of subtle retelling of their actions.  In 'The Passenger' the backstory of a fellow commuter, a waitress and mother of two, is given the most apt touch.  The young woman is harassed by drunken male customers and one ringleader in particular ‘”I am sorry for my friends,” he points at suits and reaches for her breast’. The atmosphere is captured perfectly and Suleyman relents from exploring the perspective or personality of any other character further than their interactions with the hassled waitress.   There are antagonisms over race dealt with the same exceptional narrative; in ‘The Altercation’, (a poem presumably ending the ‘Boss’ sequence of poems), the narrator recalls what an argument was not about; ‘It was not entirely, because of his tone’. The poem ends with the obvious difference of opinion between narrator and antagonist ‘On a platform above Millwall stadium were minarets where you imagined them’.

Suleyman’s attention to detail is thorough throughout the book. In ‘Take the Time, Heron’ the surrounding cityscape is described in the most wonderful and familiar means Beside us, the perfect outlines of a glowstick town’.  The backdrop of the city in this book is never one of grandeur or reverence or even of disdain or resent, just the constant illumination we all recognise as if trees in a wood.  Suleyman may be one of the early voices to recognise man as part of nature, that means city included, and though one causes destruction to the other; boundaries are interwoven and overrun.

In short, this is a very strong body of work for a first collection. Suleyman captures big ideas in short vignettes without compromising any detail or direction of plot.  In the introduction to the book Suleyman writes ‘Aren’t we all lost and missing?’ The concept of this book therefore is to remind us of our collective existence in an environment we find both hostile and comforting.  Suleyman’s poems do just that. 

AG Williams is an editor at Eyewear publishing (intern post), and a frequent reviewer here at the blog.  He is a graduate of Durham, and a poet.

THE POET'S QUEST FOR GOD LAUNCH TO BE DELAYED UNTIL SPRING 2015

There is always sadness at the idea of delaying a major cultural work - but also, hope, and greater possibility. As readers of Eyewear's blog will know, I have long tried to discuss and consider poetry within the cultural contexts of popular music and film, among other artifacts of our time. Many albums and films are delayed by their producers and directors - by the artists involved - to get things right.

I had to consider the facts.  We lost most of our staff early in 2014, when our wealthy (and fickle) European patron suddenly announced he'd lost all his money on the stock market; and I spent the summer months reassembling a smaller freelance team; we're just now slowly back to speed, hampered of course by a very tight budget. The campaign to raise funds for this anthology was quite successful (although in the end it yielded less than anticipated) - but £4,000 barely covers the printing and layout costs for a 500 page hardcover anthology, let alone postage and launch and pr.

The main concern was editorial. For whatever reasons, a recent email of the PDF to contributors yielded replies indicating hundreds of typos and formatting errors - perhaps over a thousand.  Permissions remain tricky in a few cases.  The Intro is written, but biographies need to be edited.  And, last month I received several important poems I felt could and should be added.

Finally, this is not a Christian, even a religious book, per se - it is a questing one - and I felt that a spring launch was more open and apt, than the Christmas feast period, for its themes.

And, we had not yet managed to get the book into shops - with this added time, we can plan a better series of readings and launches, get it to the funders, into shops, and produce the world class and definitive book of over 400 poets, we want this to be.

If Eyewear Publishing Ltd was funded by an arts council, a millionaire, or was part of a larger publishing conglomerate, we could hire more editors and designers to make things happen sooner - but it is a small hardy band of rag-tag lovers of poetry and books and design - freelancers all, headed by me, a full-time lecturer, and full-time poet. As it is, we managed to publish 24 hardcover poetry books, four hardcover prose works, and two paperbacks - 30 editions in total - over the past 3 years! Not bad for a little press.

Since poetry does not sell well, we mainly survive on bank loans and some generous small gifts from crowdfunding. It is a labour of love. Labour takes time, let us love properly.  In the fullness of time. I apologise to any poets or pre-purchasers who feel disappointed. You will be glad to see how great the final product will look.

Wynn Wheldon's memories of Dannie Abse, the great Welsh poet who died recently

DANNIE ABSE
by Wynn Wheldon

I met Dannie Abse when I was very young.  He and his wife Joan were always guests at my parents’ Christmas Party.  Dad and Dannie had met at a reception given for an American war correspondent.  Dannie was just about to leave when my father, who was a stranger to Dannie, called over, “You Welsh Jew! Let me take you out to lunch”.  They went to a posh restaurant, where Dad ordered an avocado for Dannie, as he had never had one before. Dannie told me this story on three separate occasions, always with a chuckle. And Joan, it turned out, had been at LSE at around the same time as my mother.  So there were Connections.
Invariably, they would bring a book to the party, one of Joan’s anthologies or Dannie’s latest novel, collection or memoir.  He was spry and amused and intelligent and small and handsome; his characteristic demeanour was a kind of wry cheerfulness. He was, after all, a lifelong socialist.
He was also curious.  He had the doctor’s curiosity (he was a chest surgeon) and the poet’s curiosity, and these two curiosities complemented each other in his poetry.  The provable world hosted the improvable.  There was no subject beyond the range of his poetry.
I kept in touch with Dannie, sending him my own stuff from time to time.  He was always generous both with praise and criticism.  I saw him read occasionally.  He came to dinner and we talked about restaurants in the Finchley Road.
The last time I saw him read was at the T.S. Eliot awards do at the Festival Hall (his book, Speak, Old Parrot, was shortlisted and should perhaps have won.  He was thrilled to be on the list).  The reception was generous and warm.  It was impossible not to be fond of Dannie.  One of the poems he read was ‘Cats’, which I’m prepared to predict will become a popular favourite.  It isn’t his greatest poem, but it does what poetry does so well – turns the mundane into the universal, while at the same time being a portrait of the artist himself: who is – who was - a modest, funny, generous man, and a poet to remember. Look it up.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Guest Review: Willington on Spurrier

Alice Willington reviews
The Pilgrim’s Trail
by Frances Spurrier

The Pilgrim’s Trail is a short collection of 49 poems. Like the pamphlet form, it has benefitted from distillation; each poem here has sufficient weight and the collection is good enough for a reader to take the time to read and re-read it. Many of the poems examine the past, such as 'Commercial Road' and 'What finished the Romans in Britain', and in these it is as if the narrator is a visitor in a museum or a hall of statues; however what differentiates the poems is the degree to which the poetic persona begins to interact with the past being examined. A statue does actually come to life in 'The Return of Mrs Odysseus', when such interaction begins, 'as you beckon she unfolds herself – steps forward.' However, some of the ground occupied by Spurrier is not so much a dialogue with the past as a fight to the death to save life from the ghosts which would claim it.

In 'Sea Level', which was the poem I returned to again and again as I read the collection, the past is 'the suck and clutch of sand', and it is guarded by the screams of 'every damned tern and kittiwake', but the narrator, even as she nets her 'haul of memories', is trying desperately to stay alive:

                The churchyard is full of names, there are many ways to join them:
                 fishing Is one, drinking another, mourning a third.
                 I fish, I drink, I mourn, yet I am trying not to add my name to that eternity.

The image of screaming birds recurs in the poem 'Scene by the River'. Time has passed, from a mythic beginning in a garden 'with damson and apple', to a city of vodka, rags and rage. The image which also recurs is the image of powerful, uncontrollable water. The Thames in the poem is:

                 ……swollen with rain,
                flowing so fast even the swans are turning circles,
                paddling without purpose in the reckless current.

Water breaks into the home with violence; in 'The importance of boats and rainbows in exceptional circumstances'…. a “deluge” of rain pours into houses “with hilarity”; in 'Cuthbert loses his cool' ravens have torn the thatch off his roof and he can’t keep dry. Yet, in the title poem 'The Pilgrim’s Trail', the sea and the land are woven together as Aidan crosses the sand so that “all may pass”. The poem is expressing hope, but Aidan is moving swiftly because he can “hear the sea following him” and the tide is covering his trails. The fear of the sea, and the failure to come to accommodation with it is expressed again in a re-telling of the Selkie myth in 'Selkie'. For Spurrier, is the sea the world of the dead, the world of the past? In 'Elegy for Diabag', in which the poet tries to “solve the mystery/of belonging” and a ghost from the time of the clans appears, the road to the sea ends at Diabag, a hamlet which “grieves its loss of souls”


The hinterland of the past, and the world of the dead, is ground similar to the poems of Jamie McKendrick, but what characterises McKendrick is his laconic and humourous narrator. Wit sometimes surfaces in The Pilgrim’s Trail, as in 'What Tom said to the witch', and 'Cuthbert loses his cool', and when it does there is an increase in clarity of imagery and cohesion of slant rhyme. I wanted a lot more of this. In addition, one habit Spurrier should lose is that of using an explanatory single line to close ('Radiocarbon Dating' and 'Thought-weeds'), as it has the effect of dampening down the excellent sense of mystery achieved in these poems.

Alice Willington reviews regularly for Eyewear, and is a British poet.