Category Archives: Poetry

Scaffolding – Poems

scafold

Scaffolding – Poems
By Elena Rivera
Princeton University Press – £13.95

tenderness passes by like mists in one’s head

                                                        (‘Nov. 24th (Finished Aug 3rd)

When I first stumbled upon the title of a book called Scaffolding, I have to admit to having my curiosity mighty piqued.

As the author of The Laughter of the Sphinx, Michael Palmer has since said, the book: ”represents a vibrant, exploratory addition to the venerable and diverse New York tradition of ‘city sonnets.”’ Although to what degree these eighty-two sonnets are wholly representative of one of the world’s greatest cities, is clearly paramount to readers objective, if not initial analysis and thought process of what New York fundamentally means.

It is in fact, polar to being: ”not ready to listen to one’s own nothing, ” the most grounded, albeit opaque sixth line of the poem ‘Dec. 4th (Revised N.D.).’

There again, it is some of this collection’s prime simplicity that tends to perhaps inadvertently home in the most. With such lines as:

”And when you least expect it it all comes back
I’m at a window elated by the sky
the moment where lights branched out and I was small”
(my italics)

and:

””by the fall of a shadow across the ground”
The ”pollution tolerant” Lindens and Oaks
witness our delusion, we work in the dark
(again, my italics)

one cannot help but feel lured in by something other – only to find that what ever that otherness is or was, punctuated by something we may have subliminally known all along. A poetic quality, which, for better or for worse, is what a certain amount of poetry is all about anyway.

That almost all of the poems are titled by date, eventually gets a tad wearing after a while; even if only from a premise of wanting a different vision from which to embark.

As is, these ”city sonnets” lean towards being far too mathematical – which to my mind at least, is a b-i-g shame. Reason being, some of Elena Rivera’s patterned randomness is truly beguiling:

”Clearly the idea of fairness was a sham
The failure of not being able to see

and most blindness turn to imitation not
being, the real fiction needs an audience”

The ‘real fiction’ does indeed need ”an audience,” and here’s hoping Rivera’s grows as a result hereof.

David Marx

C.K. Williams on Whitman

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C.K. Williams on Whitman
Princeton University Press

But which of us isn’t a similar jerry-built motion machine? Which of us doesn’t sometimes feel that we’re weird pop-ups of impulses, ambitions, desires, and dreams? But we don’t live in poems, even those of us who are poets; unlike Whitman, we plunge into our poems, but then we emerge: we are the makers of our poems – Whitman’s poems made him; he existed in them in a way he existed nowhere else.

Whether Marc Chagall or Jimi Hendrix. Sylvia Plath or Tom Waits – ought not a similar persuasion be applied to most true artists who essentially live both inside of and with their art? It’s hard to think of any of these artists, including Walt Whitman, in any other way, which, to varying degrees, is exactly what this fine little pocket book addresses.

That C.K. Williams on Whitman is deeply entrenched within the parameters of (fine) poetry, most certainly helps it along its way; and is therefore, all the more readable for it. As Robert Pinsky has written: ”This is the exuberant, true book of a poet, of two poets: a personal, illuminating, and beautiful demonstration of the truest reading.”

That it most definitely is.

From such musicality as:

The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and
shouted jokes and pelts of snowball…

to such colourful and kaleidoscopic revelation as: ”Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness.”

Phew., as a lover of poetry and the occasional analysis thereof: what more could one ask for?

David Marx

The Essential Goethe

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The Essential Goethe
Edited by Matthew Bell
Princeton University Press – £27.95

He was committed to empirical observation, but he disliked the mental and physical apparatus that accompanied science: contrived experimental conditions, doctrinaire theoretical models, and arid mathematical methods, as he saw them. His allergy to the formal scientific method limited his progress but also inspired some of his more interesting ideas.

The above, rather like much of this inviting and at times, complex anthology of one of Europe’s most influential thinkers and writers, reads like a modern day assimilation of the most acute comprehension. It’s as if Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, perhaps the most profound artist of the German Romantic period, were waxing lyrical only yesterday – for such is the translation, not to mention the interpretation of (t)his vast body of work.

And what an unquestionably vast, cohesive and pertinent body of work it continues to remain. As given its sheer dexterity and enormity, is what fundamentally accounts for the work itself successfully alluding to the fact that The Essential Goethe is a one-off.

A one-off, definitive representation like no other.

One of the prime reasons being, it provides English language readers with easier access than ever before, to the widest range of work by ”one of the greatest writers in world history.” Amid these 1007 pages, Goethe’s work as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and an autobiographer, is more than confidently and comprehensively revisited by Matthew Bell – himself a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College, London, whose previous books include Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology and Melancholia: The Western Malady.

As he has written in the book’s Introduction: ” The volume has been produced first and foremost with the general reader in mind, though we hope it will also prove useful for students of European and comparative literature, where Goethe is an important but often inaccessible figure. Readers will find many of Goethe’s canonical works here.”

Indeed, from ‘Selected Poems’ to the Shakespearianesque Egmont (translated by Michael Hamburger), from Faust. A Tragedy (translated by John R. Williams) to the second of Goethe’s novels, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; from ‘On Literature and Art’ (which includes ‘Shakespeare: A Tribute (1771),’ ‘Simple Imitation, Manner, Style (1789),’ ‘Response to a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1795),’ ‘Winckelmann and His Age (1805)’) to ‘On Philosophy and Science’ (which among others, includes ‘A ‘Study on Spinoza (c. 1785),’ ‘Observation on Morphology in General (c. 1795),’ ‘The Influence of Modern Philosophy (1817),’ ‘Colours in the Sky (1817-20),’ ‘Problems (1823),’ ‘Analysis and Synthesis (c. 1829)’ and ‘A More Intense Chemical Activity in Primordial Matter (1826)’); this utterly breath-taking appreciation, can only be described as something to behold, appreciate and what’s more, be inspired by.

Where else might one read: ”For all that he abhorred chaos, he knew it could be creative. For an opponent of the revolution, he invested a remarkable amount of creative energy into trying to come to terms with it. What alienated Goethe most from his fellow Germans was the advent of Napoleon, whom Goethe admired and the young generation of German nationalists demonized. But Goethe had long since abandoned any thoughts of German nationhood or even a unified national culture. After Italy, Europe and the wider world mattered more to him.”

Whether ‘drunk on exaltation’ or ‘brimming [with] tears’ amid ‘the mordant storm,’ the Frankfurt-Am-Main born Goethe, was a both a poet and a philosopher of pristine brilliance and, given the era, urgency; a facet I believe the opening quote of this review rather substantiates.

There again: ”Like his father, Goethe took academic study and scholarship very seriously, and both were avid art collectors. Goethe was well read in art history and aesthetics, philosophy, theology, and science. He firmly believed that any creative work, even the very direct and life-orientated poetry that is one of his hallmarks, had to be informed by ideas from these fields; in this broad sense he was a determinedly philosophical writer. This is the Goethe whom the reader will meet in these pages: a lover, a thinker, a scholar, a practical man, a controversialist, a writer of very diverse moods and urges.”

David Marx

The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,

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The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,
Volume I: 1898 – 1922 (Revised Edition)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
Faber and Faber – £35.00

As the English language becomes ever increasingly ingrained within the rancid fibre of acute simplistic-speak; signed, sealed, delivered and ultimately designed for a dumbed-down society of nothing other than moronic moguls – should it be at all surprising that the art of letter writing, essentially died decades ago?

Just so long as (hordes of) white males continue to replicate the switch-blade nuance of many a Camberwell gangsta, and their female equivalents, the saccharine, cloying annoyance of those (s)advertising carpets and/or motor-car-insurance as if on a penultimate edition of Strictly, then we may as well kiss the English language goodbye.

Indeed, the rich and varied language of the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Richard Burton et al, is moving ever further aside to make way for The Eastenders- Sun-Speak of folly induced, cretinous, turgid, wank, innit?

All the more reason to remind ourselves of how very potent and powerful, inspiring and influential (not to mention wondrous and majestic), language actually can be. And this revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Home in on almost any of these 817 pages (excluding List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Preface to the Revised Edition, Biographical Commentary, 1888-1922, Abbreviations & Sources, Editorial Notes, Glossary of Names, Index of Correspondents & Recipients along with a General Index), and one will be immediately reminded of what I write.

I would hasten to add that it might help if one is actually interested in the subject matter and the rather magnificent work(s) of T. S. Eliot; but to all intents and linguistic purposes, much of the language herein is of a f-a-r higher standard than that which would nowadays, be hurriedly dashed off by text.

Furthermore, it is surely an indicative sign of the times, that there are so many letters. There again, we are talking of someone who made (some of) their living by way of being an outstanding writer. There again, Valerie Eliot, has since 1988, continued to gather material from libraries and private sources in Britain and America for use in subsequent volumes. Of the correspondence that has come to light, a good many letters date from before 1923, so a revised edition of Volume One has been prepared to take account of approximately two hundred new items.

It might thus be said, that the new letters fill important gaps in the record, notably enlarging our understanding of the genesis and eventual publication of The Waste Land. Valuable, too, are letters from the earlier and least documented part of Eliot’s life, additional correspondence with family members in America along with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.

Assimilated together, they undoubtedly give a far more detailed picture of not only the poet’s engagements, friendships and daily movements in London during and after the First World War, but they also shed much light on that of his reading materials: ”I received last night by the post a package bearing a label which indicted that it came from the offices of The Dial. When opened, it was found to contain The House of Dust by Conrad Aiken, and nothing else. There was no enclosure or inscription to indicate why the volume was sent to me. It occurred to me that it might be intended for review; and if so, I fear it was a piece of naughtiness on your part at Conrad’s expense.”

Naturally, it might be said that it is with reference to quite possibly his greatest work, The Waste Land, that will invariably invoke and trigger the most enthusiasm among readers.

This, alongside his wanton debt to the equally brilliant poet, Ezra Pound, are mentioned throughout a number of letters in the final quarter of the book, with, as the letters flood by, ever increasingly clarity: ”My only regret (which may seem in the circumstances either ungracious or hypocritical) is that this award should come to me before it has been given to Pound. I feel that he deserves the recognition much more than I do, certainly ‘for his services to Letters’ and I feel that I ought to have been made to wait until after he had received this public testimony. In the manuscript of The Waste Land which I am sending you, you will see the evidence of his work, and I think that this manuscript is worth preserving in its present form solely for the reason that it is the only evidence of the difference which his criticism has made to this poem” (to John Quinn, September 21st 1922).

With exquisite letters written entirely in French by his friend, Jean Verdenal, there are also a number of doodlings and drawings by Eliot himself, that, along with two wonderful sections of black and white photographs; all in all account for The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, being the masterful tomb of regal recollection that it is.

David Marx

Man With Bombe Alaska

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Man With Bombe Alaska
By Kate Behrens
Two Rivers Press – £9.99

I came across Kate Behrens whilst studying the Future Learn course, Literature and Mental Health. She read out a poem called ‘Madonna Blue,’ segments of which at the time, I found laden with profound imagery that struck me as having evolved from something other.

Something beyond explanation, beyond painful:

Misfits on the tufts, stiff,
ant-bitten, we listen
as our battery-driven
Bach Violin Concertos
lift off. We have ptsd
undiagnosed, pencils,
paints, the up-rush when
Madonna blue accedes
Bach’s warping phrases.

That the poetess read it out loud, goes some way in reinforcing the thinking that poems read aloud, really do take on a whole different meaning; especially when they’re merely read off the page. Reason being, I have read and re-read the above lines, but am yet to be transported to the place I originally was – upon first hearing it.

‘Misfits on the tufts’ and ‘Bach’s warping phrases’ still home in, although the remaining seven lines remain a little stilted and disjointed – regardless of imagery.

Suffice to say, of the fifty-two poems throughout Man With Bombe Alaska, there are one or two that do endeavour to ever so quickly, encapsulate the hit and miss and hit and remain scenario of transient, poetic power.

I use the word transient, simply because, although there are lines of astonishing beauty:

on spines of orange lit snow (‘Relief)

where insolent skies gleam eyeball-white (‘We Tread Forwards’)

a birthplace of crippled pines (‘Christmas Ghost’)

I don’t remember every failure (‘Selective Memory’)

Asymmetrical lines
feed the heart salt truths (‘Some Things I Know Tonight’)

they remain nevertheless, one off, and somewhat isolated. Isolated within their own contextualised emphasis of pin-prick brilliance.

It’s a mighty shame most of Man With Bombe Alaska’s poems aren’t surrounded and substantiated with much, much more of the same.

David Marx

An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy

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An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy
By Bruce McRae
Cawing Crow Press LLC – £8.50/$13.00

A pawn shop loaning out midnight
and the musty quiet of tombs.
Where all that’s unwanted goes.
Where dreams die and rainbows end.
And something else, too, you can’t pit your finger on.
                                                                                                                                                                        ‘Lost Ticket’

And something else, too, you can’t put your finger on,” shivers amid the sublime possibility that it could just as well have been penned by the ever great, Ingmar Bergman. As its literary, life-like propensity for silence, along with an abundance of beauty and foregone conclusion, ensures it is a (life)line; far more capable of merely detonating the inner sanctum of long-forgotten bile, belief and betrayal.

Not to mention, faith.
Faith, as in the tiniest, of tiniest, humanistic umbilical cords which, ‘Unashamed in his nakedness,’ substantiates that poet and all round sage-like-being of profound, philosophical persuasion, Bruce McRae, still happens to believe in the human condition.

And all things that continue to sparkle amid the tableau of truth.

That’s right. And thank fucking fuck.
For where else within this increasingly dire and dishonest world of redundant humanity, this ‘swastika of smoking ashes,’ would one even have the audacity to reflect upon the ‘soul’s sweetened annihilation’? Facebook? The X-Factor? The (unfortunate) world according to that utter, out-and-out of very large cunts, Robert Mugabe?

From a mere absinthe induced acceptance of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and perhaps Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy traverses every appalling, yet beautifully lit abyss that ever was:

The actual second you said something
so profound it was impossible to comprehend.
Or I couldn’t understand because I hadn’t heard.
Or I’d heard, but I did not listen.

‘This Too Passes’

Like smoke, I mow down a hallway.
Like fog, I embrace the chill measure
of a life lived after death-in-life.
An ether, I am wholly spiritual in nature.

One of the lost. One of the living.

‘Haunted House’

Undeniably inherent throughout each of these eighty-two, rather magisterial poems (of which ‘It Is Our Nature,’ ‘Sonnet Despairing’ and ‘Lost Ticket’ are simply out-standing), is their all-round, uncompromising, regal resonance. They can and could after all, only have been written from a life lived. A heart pierced. A dream dashed. A tsunami of books read.

A soul drenched beneath a cornucopia of life’s sorrows.

As Charles Simic once said: ”Poetry is an orphan of silence,” and McRae knows this all    t-o-o well; which, for all intents and idiosyncratically inspired purposes, is something we need to be eternally grateful for.

So buy this book.
Read it.
Embrace it.
Totally devour it.
Absolutely love it.

David Marx.

The Country Of Lost Sons

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The Country of Lost Sons
By Jeffrey Thomson
Parlor Press – $14.00

In light of the recent hideous and pointless terrorist attack(s) in Paris, this book’s second poem ‘Design’ resonates with all the urgency and poignancy that such an act of indiscriminate, appalling cowardice might warrant:

with snow. It is written that the fulfillment
of the prophet is in the slaughter of the innocents,
streets swimming with black damask,
[…]

As is so oft the case with regards death; words, memory, love, and in the pertinent instance of this book review, poetry, is all that so many of us often have left. If we allow it.

And within the parameters of what these thirty-seven poems convey, we are neither let down nor disappointed, which Terence A. Hayes more than substantiates: ”In the midst of so many fast-talking contemporary poetry books comes Jeffrey Thomson’s lovely The Country of Lost Sons. Here is a book that chooses tender, meditative music over electric chatter. Here are the poems that tell us poetry can still explore and heal earnestly. More than praise, I want to offer gratitude for such an intimate book. After reading it, you will want to offer gratitude too.”

To openly bequeath gratitude, would surely suggest embracing the vision and the words that Thomson has herein bestowed.

So again, returning to ‘Design,’ one cannot help but
be somewhat slightly amazed by the trajectory of human (in)pertinence:

inconsolable women, In Breughel,
[…]
women raking the glaze-faced soldiers
[…]
like grief as a wet wind unravels

Equally so, the juxtaposition of such delicate, fraught benevolence in ‘November Conversation’

and violet, a delicate lemon
with black tears like the eyes
of dogs. The roadside blooms
and trembles in the cold wind.

Or the raw, unabashed power that is ‘Goodnight Nobody,’ a poem, so poignantly anchored within the terrible trauma of what was the Kosovo Crisis of the late nineteen-nineties:

”Outside this room the world is all Kosovo. Mass graves and the arms of children in the rubble. In Lastica, the radio correspondent reports, Serbian militias were looking for one special girl. The town beauty. Unable to get their hands on her, ”They took a 13 year old instead,” remarks NPR.

It’s the instead that gets me, really, the marking of of one life for another, that child taken and torn into beneath the wound-blue moon of her eye.”

Stunning? Harrowing? Beautiful?

It’s not really for me to decide; all I can do at best, is ponder upon, and hope to come to terms with the shimmering raw sadness that is The Country of Lost Sons.

David Marx