Monday, 31 March 2008

Review: Vampire Weekend

Pop isn't poetry - but sometimes it is almost better. Music composed and performed by (usually) young people in their teens and 20s, exuberantly dedicated to the zest of the moment, expressed in contemporary style and diction - well, that can be great fun, can lift the spirits, like a spring day that's actually hot. Sure, it melts on its own ephemeral going, to be Frostian; its slim grasp of tradition can make its magpie veerings as infuriating as thrilling. But when a band gets it right, well, it feels blissful, it feels sweet to be alive. It feels "like young". Vampire Weekend, measured in such terms (and why shouldn't criticism also be about joyful reception?) is one of the greatest first records of all time. Okay, until next week. But this week, in London, listening to these 11 songs of pure pop perfection, I feel like Larkin Hearing The Beatles in '63 - this sounds fresh, smart, and totally alive to its own wonky intentions.

First, let's admit that Vampire Weekend, the band, draw on any number of inspirations here - namely, Graceland (and the African sounds that was based on), The Strokes, The Killers, Ska, and, of course, Herman's Hermits - as well as a clutch of other smart, sassy campus-based groups of yore. But whereas snot-nosed youth usually aims to be smart and often is smart-assed, Vampire Weekend has caught the Simon and Garfunkel vibe truly - these songs are as genuinely touching as they are clever. But not just clever - wittily constrained in intriguing verbal ways that should appeal to poets - and everyone else. Infamously, most of the songs refer to military battles, or history, obliquely.

The cryptic lyrics (making The Shins seem transparent) coin phrase after phrase that delights and lodges in the brain, as in "the pin-striped men of morning". The great "M79" already has bloggers asking what "sing in praise of Jackson Crowter" means. Who Is John Galt? indeed. Other songs express suspicion of the "Oxford comma"; and the opening track opens with a "Mansard Roof". Infectious pop has rarely been so effortlessly erudite - it's like sipping lemonade with Buckminster Fuller on a blue July day. For now, I love this East Coast band. It'll be hard to find a better CD in 2008. Poetry should seek, more often, to play such sweet, fun, smart, upbeat notes.

Poetry Is A Way Of Life

I teach creative writing, and believe firmly (unlike some such teachers) that many aspects of writing can be taught - especially the forms and conventions that poets need to know (of) in order to master their craft. However, today, a tutorial got me to thinking. The student said they "didn't want to be a poet, just learn how to write poetry". Well and good - modest, even, you might think. And, in England, it is common for serious, published poets to say (at least in print interviews) they don't call themselves poets. Still, I prefer my priests ordained, and my surgeons to be professional. More to the point: poetry is a calling, a vocation, a way of life. It is possible (it might even be a good thing) to quickly train "non-poets" to learn to recognise, and compose in, a variety of traditional forms (The Sonnet, for example). What is harder to teach is "the vision thing".

I don't believe poets need to have a prophetic message - but they should have a poetics, a reason to want to work with language, and, especially, love. Love is often ignored in aesthetics, but a poet who does not love poetry (or poems), is unlikely to create work of lasting interest, even beauty. Now, there may be some measure of antagonism, too ("wrestling with the materials" and so on) - but I feel someone approaching poetry, to learn its "trade", needs to be at least interested in reading poetry by other poets. But, further, should be willing to enter a lifetime engagement with the canon(s), the writing, the editing, the work, involved. Teachers can guide their students to this appreciation of the depths of poetry, while also reminding them of more practical aspects of the genre. There is something in contemporary society that doesn't love a poem, though. I call this The Celebrity Chef Problem. Everyone who has a skill aspires to promote it on TV, these days, in the UK.

Poets should resist this urge. Poetry can reach a wider audience, but on its own terms. Chefs can easily present their recipes to a public, but cooking (foodies, forgive me) is not enough to feed the soul. Poetry can be a way of life - but not in a "take it or leave it" consumerist society that thinks one can treat the art of poetry as one can pottery, or gardening - admirable activities, suited for being a hobby, but not, finally, fully directed at testing the limits of experience, and of wisdom.

This sounds elitist, but isn't - the best way to excite interest in poetry among all kinds of people is to let them realise not how "difficult" it is ("difficult" fails to encompass how profound the act of poetry is, can be) - but how engaged it is. There's a fear of "religion", of "commitment", of "fanaticism" in today's society - a fear fostered by a commodity-based society that wishes brand loyalties to be fluid, and flexible ("new and improved") - well, unfortunately, poetry is, like some kinds of philosophy, some kinds of religion, a total immersion in something other than the self: it is a commitment to reading serious, good poetry from all times, in all languages (tradition), and to pushing the limits of one's own verbal expressiveness. Poetry is not a half-pregnant art. Poetry is life, as big as life. If one wishes to be a gladiator, strap on the armour, and face the lions.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Poem by Mark Yakich

Eyewear, poised on the brink of British Summer Time, is pleased to welcome Mark Yakich (pictured). Yakich has worked in the European Parliament and has degrees in political science, West European studies, and poetry - always a promising mix. He is the author of Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (National Poetry Series, Penguin 2004) and The Making of Collateral Beauty (Snowbound Chapbook Award, Tupelo 2006).

His latest collection, The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine, was released this week by Penguin, so it seemed like a particularly apt moment to feature his writing. Mark lives in New Orleans.

Ecclesiastes, reduced to

The telescope ascends
And I am buried here in the middle

Of some damn book the observatory
At the top of the hill contains

Its bubble of certainty I look up
And feel like a weed a wind slips through

My hair and I don’t feel it but I know
It’s there and there’s no

Need anymore
To believe in the stars

poem by Mark Yakich

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Guest Review: Wilkinson on Smith and Johnston

Ben Wilkinson reviews
Kairos by Barbara Smith
The Oracle Room by Fred Johnston

In recent years, perhaps unsurprisingly, many new Irish and northern Irish poets have started to emerge: Colette Bryce, Nick Laird, Leontia Flynn, Alan Gillis, Justin Quinn, Caitriona O'Reilly, and Kevin Higgins, to name but a few prominent examples. The next generation, then, seem naturally intent on setting about developing from and upon the work of their much lauded precursors, including such luminous talents at Derek Mahon, Ciaran Carson, Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon, and of course, Seamus Heaney. But for a new poet, is such a rich heritage both a blessing and a curse? For while on the one hand it may be encouraging to have such a stock of successful work, predecessors and able contemporaries to draw upon, on the other, does it not make the challenge of claiming a poetic terrain and originality of one's own all the more difficult?

Kairos, Barbara Smith's first full collection, is a quiet sort of book, focusing as it does on the everyday, the familial and the domestic. Early on, the sonnet "Roosters" sets a recurrent scene with its nostalgic memories of the poet's grandmother preparing potatoes, describing how she "used to soak the spuds / making it easy to peel them later […] / humming all the while / a medley of Moore's Almanac Songs." Here, the turn in the sonnet (revealing a close understanding and deft use of the form) brings the scene to the present: the poet, now "steeping [his or her] potatoes", describes the Irish Roosters as "scaly and red", as opposed to the grandmother's "soft Queens", as he or she "split[s] them with a long, broad knife, / rins[ing] them down and leav[ing] them by for dinner."

While the poem may be quiet and unassuming at first, then, seeming to offer little more than a pleasant domestic scene, Smith works in well-crafted images to mark a tension and a distance between narrator and grandmother: the latter is mute apart from her reserved "humming", and the former can only recall her through a quiet domestic chore. Was the relationship between the two a happy one or not? The suggestions are subtle: the "long scars" of the Roosters, the "broad knife", the red Irish potatoes as opposed to the soft, English Queens. There is a division: perhaps personal, perhaps generational, perhaps partisan, but the poem seems reluctant to reveal it and, quite rewardingly, the reader must work for it.

"Roosters" is the strongest of a number of poems that take cooking and domestic chores as starting points from which to explore wider and weightier personal and emotional issues. "Watery Prophecy'' and ''Mrs Mop Sings the Blues'', for example, are similar poems which work well as songs of domestic tension and extended metaphors for rebirth and renewal, as in the latter's ''things that I no longer need, or those that went astray – / largely like the thoughts in my own mind.'' But unfortunately, pieces such as ''Sang Réal'' and ''The Garden of Earthly Delights'' carry themselves off with less imaginative flair.

In fact, it must be said that Kairos is a slightly baggy collection: there are a rich variety of poems within its pages, but like too many cooks spoiling the broth, a small number of weaker poems could have been axed by a less compromising and more demanding editor, making for a more honed and impressive end result. ''S.O.S'' would definitely remain a keeper: a succinct, rhythmical and well-executed weighing up of the virtual against the genuine that ends with the resonant consolations of the ''valid, sticky'' world we inhabit.

So too with ''Namesake'', where a touching poem about pregnancy and childbirth is delivered with an impressive economy of sentiment. Religion is also approached with craft, care and intelligence: ''Jesus!'' is a bold and imaginative poem that shocks with its stark, electrified images. Overall, then, Smith is a talented poet, and Kairos lives up to its ancient Greek title, delivering poems that exploit seemingly ordinary and everyday moments for all of their emotional, social, and often near-magical complexities. Her future work will definitely be worth looking out for.

And so from an emerging Irish poet to a somewhat more established one.

Fred Johnston's new collection, The Oracle Room, is the latest publication in a prolific writing career, what with four novels and eight previous poetry collections behind him. Beautifully produced by Wales-based Cinnamon Press and comprising of nearly 100 pages of varied and abundant writing, it's not bad value either. The collection opens with the impressive ''Love in Those Days'', a short poem which seems to offer a lament for the present, and a yearning for an older, more innocent era that has come to pass: ''Before the coming of the condom, / When sex was being careful''. Here is a world, and perhaps in particular, an Ireland, where ''an Indian restaurant was a new thing'', with ''decent mad cafés where / […] Gays held hands under tables.'' But then in these quiet images, and in the ''decent[ness]'' of ''sex being careful'', the poet also subtly and carefully reveals a certain ''mad[ness]'': a world where abuse and suffering are masked and silenced.

Yes, the contemporary world has its flaws and imperfections, the poem seems to say, but we can at least take solace in our freedoms: a society in which we are not afraid to ''call [something] beautiful'', even (with its potent metaphorical implications) ''as a lick of candelight shape[s] / a flawless icon''.

But while Johnston may often offer the reader such ambiguous readings of contemporary society and culture, he is also a poet very much dedicated to tackling political issues head-on. ''Today's Mystery Voice'', for example, makes for a haunting and paranoiac exploration of personal identity, adopting the seemingly harmless subject of a call-in radio competition and investing it with a sinister undertone.

''Lines Written after a Poetry Festival'' is also arresting, less for any ominous tones and more for its being a sort of indignant cri de coeur, criticising contemporary poets who refuse to engage with the politics of the era: ''Bomb them back to the stone age, / It's all the same to us'', writes Johnston of the Iraq war, ''The wretched don't read poetry / So what's the bloody fuss?''

Unfortunately, this isn't one of Johnston better poems. In fact, like most poets writing a ''political poem'' (of course, there's a whole other discussion bubbling under the surface here as to whether any poem can avoid its being political in at least some way, but that aside) he tends to work better when he deals with such issues in a more oblique fashion, letting the reader reach their own conclusions.

After all, the good political poem is more to do with making the reader think than with telling them what to think. And lines such as ''My middle name is Silence, / Now that the boozing's done, / The screwing and back-slapping, / The harmless poetical fun'' aren't going to achieve that, being less thought-provoking than they are needlessly grim and embittered. Much better when, as in the affecting ''Protest'', Johnston successfully veils such political implications and agendas with an everydayness, an ordinariness, or better still, something beyond the divisions and factions of the political arena: ''A refugee in his own heart: they smoked, / Tired, stocked the blackening branches, / He waited for her to wage love, not war.''

Politics aside, however, and there are many other notable highlights in The Oracle Room. Gerry McDonnell's back cover blurb endorsement, describing Johnston's poetry as ''magical, honed [and] imaginative'', rings true in ''To Winter'' and ''Looking Out'', with the former's vivid imagery and subtle nod to Robert Frost (a not-new gesture for Irish poets, it must be said), and the latter's descriptions of ''the sea / Ag[ing] like any man'' as the poet muses over his vocation, the masterly control of the poem's rhyme scheme serving to enhance its quietly dramatic scenes.

Furthermore, ''Rendition'', perhaps the strongest poem in the collection, is a strange yet illuminating love poem, finding as it does a strained intimacy in an unlikely sort of place: the narrator's wife ''bend[ing] to fix [her] shoe / [as her] spine cracks, […] something slips, / [her] face […] scrutinising [his] for a flicker / Of light, a sign that [he] is some sort of loving man.'' It is in these moments, then, that Johnston's poetry is most fully realised: subtle, sensitive, carefully crafted and succinctly delivered, often meriting repeated further readings. In fact, it would seem that, like Smith, Johnston is most impressive when investing the ordinary and the everyday with a startling significance and luminosity, a longstanding and rewarding tradition evident in much, perhaps most, contemporary Irish poetry.

He certainly leaves the reader with a great deal to muse over, and while Nessa O'Mahony's statement that Johnston's work ''constantly challenges our cosy assumptions about what poetry is'' may be a tad hyperbolic, he is nonetheless a talented poet in pursuit of new ideas and subject matters, and for that reason, well worth reading.

Ben Wilkinson's poems have appeared in publications including Poetry Review, Orbis, The Frogmore Papers, Magma and the TLS. His reviews have appeared on Eyewear previously, as well as on The Poem and in The Stinging Fly, and he has begun writing critical perspectives of contemporary poets for the British Council's Contemporary Writers website. His first pamphlet of poems will be published by Tall-Lighthouse in November, 2008.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Dublin Arid Port (For Poetry)

When one arrives at Dublin airport, one is (rightly) met by poetry - lines of Heaney's. It seems fitting, somehow, to be so welcomed to Ireland - a land that tends to be thought of as particularly welcoming to poets. However, as one leaves Ireland, by way of its Dublin airport, a different vision is presented (a sort of back of the hand slap to any poetry lovers): resident booksellers, Hughes & Hughes, that famous chain, has a flagship bookshop at the airport, that currently has a (new) policy, of SELLING NO POETRY BOOKS. Nada. None. Zip.

I searched, today, high and low, among the Aherns, Kings, the Lees, the Orwells, the Ludlums, the Reichs, the candybars, and the books on leadership and macroeconomics and war, the lads mags, the chicklit, the still water, and in all that vast space, there was Irish Fiction, but no Irish Poetry. That's more than odd. It is borderline idiotic. No, strike that. It is idiotic.

The thousands who fly home to America, to England, to wherever, who pass through this place, must sometimes hunger (a little) for a poem here or there - maybe some Mahon, some Muldoon, some Boland. A little Yeats perhaps? They've seen the place, now maybe they want to take home some of the poetry - if even only a naff anthology. So, it is idiotic from a bottom line perspective (one shelf of poetry, prominently placed, would move books) - but also sad. Sad, and indicative.

Who is the buyer for Hughes & Hughes? Who thought stocking Zero Poetry at the last point before departure was a Good Thing? People fly every day, thirsting for poems to soothe them at 35,000 feet. I spoke to the manager, and he was very helpful and polite. He agreed it was a mistake, and that poetry would indeed "fly off the shelves" if stocked. He has promised to revisit the No Poetry Policy at Hughes & Hughes at Dublin Airport. Poetry Travellers, do keep me updated.

Lilburn and Mooney Get Reviewed

My review of two Canadian poets worth reading, Tim Lilburn, and Jacob McArthur Mooney, was published recently in The Globe and Mail, here.

Frankenstein Politics

There's been much derision, and some serious debate, in the UK, recently, surrounding the possibility that Catholic MPs might be "required" to vote against a three-line whip. It bears repeating that a politician ought to be a human being with a (moral) conscience, as well as a spin machine - and, if so, that conscience may (though not should) be guided by religious conviction.

In England, a basically Godless society ruled by Big Business and Big Science (those happy, pragmatic twins birthed by Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Adam Smith), with Big Media a distant popular third, religious belief is usually synonymous with irrational lunacy. Actually, a respect for the Gods is an ancient, and wise, position. As The Enchiridion says, "As to piety toward The Gods you must know that this is the chief thing, to have right opinions about them, to think they exist, and that they administer the All well and justly".

It is possible to follow one's religious faith and also be an intelligent, moderate person, and even an MP. It is therefore good news that Gordon Brown is allowing the vote, in some instances, to be free. As to whether hybrid creations of human and animal should be concocted in labs for human medical good, Eyewear is going to remain agnostic, for now.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Little Criminals

Congratulations to Montreal writer Heather O'Neill for being shortlisted for the Orange Prize, for her brilliant novel. O'Neill is also a poet (a collection was published with small, vibrant Montreal press DC Books) and used to perform her work at the poetry cabarets I ran in the mid-90s. Is this one of the books that Lily Allen championed?

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Going to HAL

It's been a bad few days for those who love British cinema. Arthur C. Clarke has died. Among other things, he co-wrote the screenplay (and the book) with Stanley Kubrick, of the most significant science fiction film of the 20th century (including Star Wars): 2001: A Space Odyssey, still considered by most critics to be one of the ten best films ever made (see the 2002 Sight & Sound poll). It is surely one of the slowest moving, and hardest to easily comprehend. It was first shown almost forty years ago (in April 1968), having been filmed in England (Kubrick loathed flying).

Often considered visionary for its concerns, the film's key scenes are those in which the intelligent, speaking computer HAL disintegrates vocally and intellectually during a tense cat-and-mouse game between man and machine; Canadian actor Douglas Rain provided the computer's unforgettably unsettling voice. Clarke himself was a professional visionary, as well as being somewhat controversial, for a number of reasons. It will be intriguing to see what becomes of his work, and reputation, now that he has died. Or is he simply in a strange white room somewhere, about to be born?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Anthony Minghella Has Died

Sad and shocking news - one of Britain's leading film directors, Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella - has died suddenly at the age of 54. Minghella's best work was arguably in the 90s, and in The English Patient he managed to create a film of enduring exoticism and romance to rival the epics of David Lean. His Talented Mr. Ripley was icy and glamorous, and is still so ambiguous and unsettling it has yet to be fully measured and appreciated; it provided an early launch pad for Jude Law (who was never better than in this movie), and showcased Venice wonderfully. This is a tragic loss for Western cinema - it was expected, and hoped, that at some point the writer-director would create yet another masterpiece. As it is, we have a few very fine films from the man.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Guest Review: Smith On Pugh and Williamson

Barbara Smith reviews
Relinquish by Meryl Pugh
Prussia Cove by Patrick Williamson

What is poetry? If you are involved in the business of poetry you will be asked time and again to define it. Lately, the best effort at defining poetry I have seen is in The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry: "an arrangement of words containing possibilities." That definition is loose enough to permit that each of us has a bearing in the perception of poetry’s capacities, but tight enough to allow that poetry is qualities of language in a special amalgam that separates it from its cousin, prose.

With that quotation as guidance, I look for possibilities in poetry that aren’t static like pinned butterflies in a Victorian lepidopterist’s cabinet tray. Poems should point towards something that the reader equally works towards gleaning, as well as demonstrating the sureness of craft. Two poetry pamphlets received recently, I think, demonstrate two poets approaching that point in their careers: Relinquish, by Meryl Pugh and Prussia Cove, by Patrick Williamson.

Relinquish shows a sheer delight in words and their possibilities in as many arrangements as you could possibly think of. Pugh really enjoys playing with sound as much as with form. Many of the poems are crying out to be heard aloud, such as this extract from "The Vault": "Vault: volver – volutum – to roll / A cavern. A chamber of interment. / A covered drain or sewer. The inside / of a steel furnace. But also: a gymnast’s leap, / to turn."

What music there is in the soft ‘v’ sounds morphing into the harsher consonants. Not only does Pugh play with sounds inherited and inveigled from other languages, but also breaks the lines just so to anticipate the crescendo to each and every ‘turn,’ in lines that fold in and out like the folds in a blanket waiting to be shook out.

Pugh’s sense of humour combines well with a "distancing trick" in the "Alien" sequence of poems, reflecting a calm objective study of Other as well as exploring how we can renew the point of view of the poem. In Craig Raine’s Martian day it was a new thing to make the ordinary extraordinary by carefully choosing language to renew the act of seeing and recording. Pugh slants this idea giving it fresh impetus: the ‘strange’ behaviour of the subject that has become normalised for the onlooker becomes refreshed for the observer and the reader, making it newly strange again.

In "How Do I Know She’s an Alien" one of the answers to the title’s question is simply: "Because she observes me with the curiosity / I reserve for centipedes."

This has the effect of making our skin crawl in anticipation of what is to come. The horror factor that can be eked out of something as banal as wearing false nails becomes a brand new observance of ourselves in "The Alien’s Fingernails": "When they fall off, they make a sound / like the pods of peas opening // and her real nails/ are crusty and unearthed."

For me this harks back to the B-movies of science fiction, with people who are invested with that tension-inducing aspect of alien domination (usually just about the climax of the movie). Fear drives the narrative of this sequence on further, when "The Alien Takes a Walk" and the fear is realised: "I heard her call and something answer, saw / the investigating tongues of shrews, // the eager snouts of voles reach out. / They heard the whine, pulled back their heads. Too late. // The next time I looked, she’d made a clearing. / Burnt rodents like small logs. The water boiling."

There’s something of the Baba Yaga mythology of the cauldron and the witch entwined within this poem, underscored by subtle slant rhymes. Closure comes in the last of the sequence, "Getting Free of the Alien," where we realise what has seemed a sequence about being distant from something in order to observe it, was in fact very strong emotional reining or paring back in order to best present a very difficult subject: "... No more singed hair or speaking calmly / or lowering my voice or staying silent. // No more freezing my arse off, nights, / straining to see what she swore was up there, / invisible to radar."

This poem is the key to the others in the sequence and will prompt a re-read, which of course is the best praise poems can ever draw.

Prussia Cove by Patrick Williamson works more on the impression that place leaves with us: when the sea seeps into every part of existence informing his work. It is difficult to write poetry of place that will still resonate with the reader unfamiliar with the places invoked. That is why the possibilities of words here must work much harder to draw in the reader. Williamson does this by allowing the sea to combine human and elemental characteristics, finely observed as in the title poem of the pamphlet, "Prussia Cove": "The preventatives will never catch us coves / stumbling up our wagon rutted rock / as the moonstone plucks at waves / washing our feet with each turn of the tide."

This poem gives us not only sense of place in the trick of "cove" - but tips a sly wink at Cornish characters that might have lured ships to the rocks in bygone days, without losing the subtle strain. Williamson uses this sea-sound nuance again in "Safe Passage" where he blends sea rhythms and body rhythms together: "...the metronome beating / as the boats rock in counter yaw – curves / carried like your heart pulses under skin..."

The series of dashes on every second line add a stop-start breathless quality underscoring that meaning that you’re getting to, but not quite, without allowing the poem to become trite and allowing the reveal to come quietly in the last line.

"Maestro" is Williamson turning the spot-lamp on someone who seems to be part boatman, part musician, part magician, part shaman, by weaving a gypsy, Celtic wildness into the poem: "Swoop, then pounce like a hawk, / pluck each inner eye, stoke the fire / unsplint limbs so the energy lines flow – / and music slides into cracks of molten lava, / settling pliant vessels ablaze, only then // will waves plunge onto the rocks..."

The poem is almost unreadable as to who this person might be: with so many suggested personas all whirled together in the mix, it comes across as language driven almost to the point of desertion of sense. Yet the more you re-read, the more sense it appears to make, catching us at that point in a storm – of words, sea, music, medicine – you must decide which sense to trust.

Relinquish and Prussia Cove both reveal dexterity with language that disguises how hard both poets have laboured to gain this potential. Although the work of both poets strains in different directions, quite startling ones at times, I find that the poetry seems to elude and yet simultaneously respond to the possibilities of the words within their work: a fine-tuned high wire balancing act indeed. My own preferences would lean towards Pugh’s poetry, but I am glad to have acquainted myself with Williamson’s work, too.

Barbara Smith was born in Dublin in 1967. Her first full collection, Kairos, was recently published.

Poem On St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In honour of the occasion, Eyewear invited Galway-based Irish poet Kevin Higgins (pictured) to provide a poem for this poetry-inclined blog.

He did, and it is below.

Quality of Life
after Charles Simic

Today Polish waiters bring us more soup
than we’re able for.

But I was happier then.

When I asked for soup
I’d get a bowl with
nothing in it.

We’d sit there for years,
our heads full of smiley, Irish thoughts,
gazing into our bowls
with nothing in them.

Each night we’d sing our anthem
“For these bowls with nothing in them,
may we be truly grateful”,
and mean every word.

Saying ‘Thank you’ was big.
We spent our whole lives doing it.

Not like now.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Nix This In China

China has a problem that the world needs to help it solve. Or rather, call it a dilemma. They want two things presently, and in terms of cake, and eating it, it won't wash: on the one hand, they want to present a smooth-running impressive Olympic Games. On the other, they want to violently crush all (even peaceful) protest, including in Tibet.

This isn't a matter of Western values being imposed - the Dalai Lama has spoken out about this latest spate of killing, and he is hardly a Western liberal, though he is friends with some. Instead, this is matter of some concern, for a great nation, with an immense history, and a genius for slow but gradual improvement. China needs to speed up its openness to free expression, and slow down its automatic hand that punishes whatever threatens its perceived best interests. Otherwise, the Tibetan crisis could easily derail its Olympics.

The Nazi Olympics in Berlin, which was a horrific travesty, had some dissent in the shape of great African-American athletes like Jesse Owens, who humiliated the Aryan dream. But while that Games was dark, and compromised, China's could become as, or more, morally fraught. And, if so, teams and nations may be pressured to stay away. My grandfather Ian Hume was a leading figure in the 1976 Montreal Games, and I was raised to love and support them, as the hopefully apolitical meeting of peace and physical beauty they can be - but it is hard to picture a subtle and morally uplifting Chinese Olympics held during massive murderous crackdowns. The rings themselves would snap apart.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Winter Tennis Gets Another Review

My fourth full Canadian poetry book, from DC Books, Winter Tennis (2007) has just received another review (at NPR).

Poem by L.K Holt

Eyewear is very glad to welcome L.K. Holt (pictured) this Friday. Holt is one of the more impressive of the younger poets to emerge from Australia recently.

Holt lives in Melbourne where she was born in 1982. Her childhood and growing up were mainly spent in Adelaide. She is a graduate in History from the University of Melbourne.

Holt's collection, Stories of Bird, was published in 2005 as part of a Poets Union (NSW) Emerging Writers' Fellowship. Her "Self-Portrait with Red Bird" won the 2005 Woorilla Prize. Her poems can be found in journals such softblow, Nthposition, Meanjin, Verandah, Poetrix and My Perfect Diary.

Her latest collection, Man Wolf Man, from John Leonard Press, was published in 2007.

The Ontological Whore

The witch stole three penises at the Devil’s order:
she kept them in a bird-nest and like babies they squirmed for her.
That morning she pissed on the Book in her Sunday best
then told a neighbour that her consecrated wafer was baked

god. She met with the Devil in her midnight leisure.
He only entered her with God’s permission: a peep-show
for His vicarious pleasure. (The Devil himself is a work
of God, a boastful self-portrait of the man He wishes He was).

Her opening was the very point of contact between Hell and men,
between death and life; the pain of a two-worldly pivot inside of her
not surprising then. Apparently the Devil was more man than man
and devil-flesh was cold but soft like new-death! The theologians sat

as disciples at her feet, begging for the story again. They loved
her as the Devil’s whore: she proved he was corporeal,
the real thing. Which proved, antithetically, the sweet body
of God’s son, and his Word that billowed her skirts as she hung.

poem by L.K. Holt

What do British contemporary poets believe?

As an aside to my last post, let me pose a simple, yet essential, question: what do leading British contemporary poets believe? How often in recent years, and days, have leading poetic figures stepped forward to pronounce on the value of craft, and the tradition. Well and good: but as T.S. Eliot (whose name these leading poets invoke when they accept his prize) argued, poetry is not enough, culture is not enough, finally, without the addition of some belief, some values, at its core.

These constant calls for "craft" assume that most British poets are somehow sloppy open form amateurs - nothing could be less so - indeed, the average published British poet currently displays more sense of form and craft per square inch than at any other time in English history - not even The Georgians, or The Victorians, were such masters of the sonnet. Nor is there much free verse these days - the majority of English poets refer to some form of syllabic line, at least. As for Tradition - every second poet now reads (and translates) Dante, or Rilke, or Homer. 21st century British poetry is nearly as lettered and erudite as Pope on a good day.

The reading public may be ignorant, but not the poets - and there are more educated, literate people now that at any other time in human history. So, let us set aside the prerequisites, that we have read the Greats, and we can manage a sestina, and have some sense of music and diction - let us agree we are, indeed, poets, and not mere poseurs. What do we say with our words, what do we believe?

Can the poem's demands be all we speak? That would be mere trite formalism, not even formalism, but a tautology. What does a poem demand we speak? What do we speak, when language speaks through us? There are so few determined critics of contemporary British poetry, developing sustained readings of the leading poets (mainstream and otherwise), it is hard to locate an analysis, for instance, of what poets think. Not their poetic position. Their beliefs. Not ideas - but informing principles, that guide the work forward, maybe a vision. Beyond the music, what meaning in the words - or does Muldoon simply be?

We knew what Eliot, or Auden, felt, and believed, at various stages of their development - as silly as it might have been. Their work's surface, to echo Eliot on Tennyson, glimpsed depths within, which reflected the age they lived through. Can a poem be merely a mnemonic for mnemonics's sake? Is it enough that a poem tell us that evolution proceeds, that sex happens, that a moment's experience glitters like frost? The small memorable lyric, to escape being a tautological cult in itself, must stand for something in a wider system, mustn't it? - it must signify beyond the well-wrought fact of its creation.

Has the secularisation of the British poem reached so far, though, that mastery is all? Before we accept where the masters of contemporary mainstream English poetry, in their mid to late 40s, their 50s, lead us, may we not pause to reflect on what it is they hope to achieve, with their competent abilities to deploy poetic language? We suspect they resist innovation, or foreign models in style and diction, and seek comfort in classical models; we see they worship "words", rooted in locality. What words, and why these words, now? Do they resist, or enforce, any powers at large? Whenever a school of poetry attains to a level of critical or poetic hegemony, it must pause to ask itself what its tenets are, its values, or it will evaporate under the weight of its own false promise. These masters who step forward with furrowed brows, as if freighted with purpose and immense truths - what do they know, what do we need to know of them? Maybe it is all simply about poetry being important. Ah, but whose poems, and when?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Frances Leviston and the Magnificent Seven

North American poetry cannot imagine how conservative and traditional most mainstream English poets are - though perhaps this makes sense, given the fact that the English poetic tradition is both long and unusually impressive, solid grounding on which to stake commonsense claims. To try to get a sense of how stolid most poetic thinking in the UK is now, read the opinion piece in today's Guardian by UK poet Frances Leviston, a new Picador poet, whose work is affiliated with that of Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, and others of that serious group. It is worth noting (and I think, for instance, a poet-critic like Ron Silliman wouldn't bother) that the above-mentioned are good, intelligent poets, who know a lot about verse, and craft.

Some of their work is very fine, and contributes to a genuine line of English poetry, that extends from Thomas Hardy, through Ted Hughes down to the present. Since there has never really been post-modern poetry in Britain (they had pop music instead to do that for them), the two camps that often bicker are either modernists or anti-modernists - and both are solidly based (ironically) in sober tenets that look nicked from Eliot's notebooks - impersonality, complexity, irony. What British poetry prefers is tone. It is very nuanced, this British ear, and it responds poorly to what it feels is a too-disordered shifting in levels of tone and diction in much contemporary North American poetry. Traditional English poetry knows its place. It is about place, and placing the voice in a location. This is what marks its strength, its focus - and Seamus Heaney is the king of this lyric realm, where much impressive work is done. Fine and dandy - but it makes for an often incurious time.

Perhaps North American poetry searches too much, and misses out on the beauty of knowing where to root one's language - usually in forms that come from a tradition. Still, I find that some of Leviston's claims in her piece (which seems to have been written in order to generate interest in the current 7-part pamphlet series to which she refers) are ones that I must disagree with, respectfully. Chiefly, I must question what it is she means when she writes that she believes in "putting the considerations of the poem before personal feelings, politics, religion or gender."

This is precisely the sort of empiricist thinking that avoids "Theory" like it was the Bubonic Plague. It is also very old school Eliot, if even that. What are "the considerations of the poem"? I imagine they would be ones that would be hermetically-sealed, in New Critical fashion, from history, ideology, language, sexuality, or other influences. Leviston supplies us with a list of things that come second, after the "poem" (as a Utopian, idealised object): personal feelings, politics, religion, gender.

This is frankly preposterous, and I am not sure even Frances Leviston could write a poem that resisted the influences she lists - and who would want to? Naturally, poets wish to avoid sentimentality, political rhetoric, fundamentalist dogma, and sexism - but let us not conflate those evils with sentiment, commitment, faith, or an awareness of one's self and body. I do not think it is possible to keep "personal feelings, politics, religion or gender" out of a poem - and few great poets do, or did. When one thinks of Donne, or Hopkins, or, indeed, T.S. Eliot, one thinks, also, of their faith. Whitman and Lawrence are aware of their body, both sexual and politic. Belief is part of poetry. Of course poets must place their poetry first - that is, after all, their duty and their job - but the debate is as to what, exactly, defines their sense of what "their poetry" can fit into its web, its space. One doesn't have to be Foucault or Lacan or Cicoux or Kristeva or Marx to suspect that the pleasures and problems of generating texts (poems) will involve feeling, and politics.

However, in Britain, today, there is deep suspicion of poetry that is too "political" - witness the critiques (often savage) of my anthology, 100 Poets Against The War. Though most of the poems in it were well-written, the very taint of an "agenda" marked them as suspect. Well, I happen to think that all poets, and poems, have agendas, and what's wrong with that? Only politicians and judges claim to be neutral and objective, and they tend not to be, either. I know poets - thousands of them over decades - and I have never met one who wasn't, in some way, interestingly skewed in some original or eccentric direction, and likely opinionated, especially about poetics; and, of course, to say poetry should not have politics in it is a political statement. But not in Britain, where a very naturalistic, organic myth still stands (drawn from Wordsworth) that suggests a poem is a pure thing, almost a Lockean contract, signed between an individual mind and Nature. It is a pure, perfect, and reasonable relationship, and the poem flows naturally from that.

The problem is, no one writes like that, least of all the brilliantly polluted sensibility of Sylvia Plath, whose work is so powerful precisely because it never had to choose between Tradition and Talent - or between form and content, or craft and what she needed to express. Feeling and thought fused seamlessly in her work, as it does in the work of all geniuses, not so that either is supplanted or obscured. A true poet can balance the demands of the poem with any and all other pressures on them - indeed, it is these other pressures (sex, God, love, etc.) that, as they impinge exert the force that drives the creative act of composition forward. Leviston writes as if it was as easy as pie to set aside all the things that might ruffle a poem's feathers - far from it - it is art's full struggle, and out of it is born great beauty. Now, I may have misread her, in which case I hope she will let me know.

As for the idea that the canon is formed of the best poets, regardless of gender - well, no. Canon formation is too big a topic for today, but it is well-known that many forces combine to determine who is (variously, in time) included and excluded, and nothing as simple as "the best" can be the deciding factor - if only because (as Plath's reception suggests) the idea of taste and thus the "best" changes. In Britain, perhaps, too slowly.

Reversal of Fortune

Eliot Spitzer's sudden downfall (one almost unparallelled in modern American history) raises issues no thinking person should avoid. On the one hand, he appears the classic Tartuffe - hypocritically representing exactly that which he secretly despises, even undermines - bourgeois law and morality - on the other, perhaps a deeply, sadly flawed human being, struggling with desires most humans are familiar with. It is both symbolically perfect, and exceptionally sensational that the lawman who broke high-class sex rings used them himself - but it is hardly, on reflection, either peculiar, or even extraordinarily wicked.

Eyewear feels Spitzer was right to resign because of his lack of judgement (surely such vices are not compatible with his occupation) - but not because of any moral lapse. That is for him, his family, and his faith to work out, out of the public eye. In the meantime, is Western society placing too much pressure on the lawman, the public official, indeed, each of the public masks worn to meet and great the long day?

We snicker when a Britney snaps, we sigh when a Ledger sleeps - yet are we not all able to? All too often, the braying media calls for the blood of those in high office who stoop to low deeds (Clinton, Bill). What we are not able to sound out is the mettle of the men and women who finally, tested to full strain, break and release. Perhaps Spitzer, for instance, held himself, and values of law and order, to such standards he could not but crack. Is that pitiable? Maybe. Is that laughable? No. Freud noted, long ago but it could be yesterday, how the energy expended in our work contains, or suppresses, the more animal drives that rustle within each breast.

As a society that consumes constant images of excess and carnality in all media, we should wonder more at what it means to try to stem such floods, and what price such flimsy barricades pay, when the levee finally breaks. Was Lear right to say let copulation thrive, or was his heath blasted, or both?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The Big Seven

Speaking of "the canon" and modern poetry - The Guardian is publishing seven pamphlet inserts this week, starting today. They've selected seven poets: Sassoon, Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Plath, Hughes and Heaney. Now, the first thing to say is, this is a good group - almost all would make most people's top 10 or 20 list of significant poets from 1908-2008. Clearly, the emphasis is on British poetry, and also on the second half of the twentieth century (just).

What is worth noting (though Eyewear in principle supports the mass distribution of poetry to newspaper readers at all times) is that this is completely a list taken from Faber and Faber's stable of poets. Now, they also publish Frost, Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens, in the UK, so Faber's top ten would still have been very admirable. And one might have added Lowell, Moore, Berryman and even Thomas Hardy, and they'd have been Faber, too. Ditto for W.S. Graham. Yeats seems curiously missing here - isn't he the greatest 20th century poet? Where is Hart Crane, or Langston Hughes? Other women, besides the iconic Plath? Post-colonial "voices"? An Australian, an Indian, a Canadian...

It might have been refreshing, and more open-minded, if the pamphlets had been compiled with several other publishers too, therefore leaving a little more room for something (even slightly) surprising (this list confirms, rather than enlarges, what people already think they know about modern poetry). For instance, John Ashbery or Frank O'Hara might have been included, or a contemporary poet like Riley, or Prynne. That is, drawing on the excellent catalogues from Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and smaller presses - where some major poetry has and does appear.

This series is informative, and welcome - but it also says more than it perhaps intends about the current state of the "canon" for British poetry readers: it is solid, safe, traditional - and all-too-willing to overlook whatever is not exceptionally mainstream; little place for the maverick, or the marginal. That being said, these are all poets to love, and let's have more of them.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Guest Review: McLoughlin On Sato

Nigel McLoughlin reviews
by Aleah Sato

Aleah Sato's (pictured) debut collection pulsates with all-pervasive darkness and the uncanny. The book itself is divided into two parts: Girls Vanishing and Illumine and at 53 poems it reads as a lot more substantial than it looks – largely due to the wide page format holding two columns of poetry per page in many cases.

The reader is never allowed to settle in this collection: the viewpoint changes from character to character, poem to poem, and it builds up to a compendium of female voices, each of whom speak to us of some dark element that paternalistic society demands they repress. There is a razor-like edginess to much of the poetry in this book. There is a sense of the unheimlich in the poems, because the characters are the dark sides of wives and mothers, subverting the whole notion of home-making and the homely, and which unsettle the reader with their honesty. There is a wide spread of character tackled: Eve, witches, mothers who are horrified by the process of birth, women who are repulsed by their own offspring. There is the wife who has been bought by her husband for six traps, and who now contemplates his murder. The domestic is subverted all through the collection, nothing is comfortable, and nothing is allowed to settle.

She pulls the blade from behind
the knotting and touches it. The moose head
smiles. They wait
for the hunter to retire.

("the longest winter" p.53)

The poems often balance on the point at which that which has been repressed comes to the surface and the consequences of that return. These women are feral, hard and often monstrous.

Dog fight women
who snarl and bite all the rest of the bitches
off the prime rib

("Peep Show" p.42)

She is made of tears
and afterbirth
and snow.
She sleeps near the door of every home
and waits for the wilting.

("Evil Mother" p.17)

There are a number of cross connections within the collection – the age 22 seems to be significant in a number of poems, images of blood, bleeding, menstruation, monstrous births and afterbirth, and 'bags of blood' recur throughout the poems with great regularity and help add to the general feel of menace, threat, monstrosity and the uncanny. The characters Sato creates connive, refuse to nurture, and refuse to act the part men demand of them, preferring the part of Lilith, the tempter, or the witch. They take joy and pride in playing out these roles.

The baddest of the bad
know me
girl du jour
leaving her trail of
deep azure

("medea and me" p.35)

The collection is not all doom and seriousness; there are some nice comic touches. The humour is black (or bloody in some cases) as you might expect, but it does much to lift the collection out of its seriousness while still keeping the threat.

on the radio
nothing but Partridge Family
at the hardware store
the only color of paint left

("when things go from bad to worse" p.50)

On the downside, there are some poems which just don't cut it, when the language falls flat; one or two could have been left out of the book with no detriment to the collection.

You've traded in the seventh
for a cheap shot at my

Go for broke!

Have at it…

("What a sham" p.59)

Her line breaks are puzzling in places and one is unsure as to why the line is broken at that point (after 'of' or 'my' in examples above and various others). The effect is largely to weaken both lines.

I think the eye of a good, strong editor has been sorely missed. That said, I'm not going to let a minor few gripes colour my perception of the book too much. It's largely successful, for a first collection it's quite achieved, especially these days when many first collections are dominated by self-obsession with the poet's own 'interesting' life. It's nice to see a new poet speak from positions outside their own experience and attempt to re-imagine him or herself in and as 'the other'. I think Sato deserves to be taken up by a larger press, and I'm sure she'd benefit from the third-party editorial process such a press would be capable of providing.

Nigel McLoughlin is an Irish poet, anthologist, and university lecturer currently based in the UK. His most recent collection, Dissonances (2007), was reviewed at Eyewear.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

1,500,000 Fans Can't Be Wrong

There is a scene in Control which must be the funniest moment in a movie about a suicidal epileptic nihlistic musician. His manager comments to his depressive friend, "at least you're not the lead singer of The Fall". Ron Silliman can always take comfort in not being part of "Official Verse Culture", though as his famous blog wittily (?) observes, his cohort, Language poet Charles Bernstein seems to have been ushered into that frame recently. Silliman's Blog recently reached the "over a million burgers served" moment refered to in the title of this post. That's good for poetry, and good for the blogosphere. Bravo.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Sean O'Brien Is Right

Eyewear sometimes questions the serious masters of contemporary British poetry because they care about poetry as do I, and so some poetic and aesthetic differences emerge. But make no mistake, reader - any and all poets seriously committed to poetry are, ultimately, allies, no matter how challenging this might feel, or seem. Allies against societal indifference to the poetic. Too often, poetic coteries, schools, and clubs wrestle among themselves, without looking up at the audience (to see there is no audience). Poets are bloodied sad gladiators in a vacated arena. So, thumbs up for Sean O'Brien, who, in today's Guardian, argues for a poetic canon, and for poetry to be regarded as important in the 21st century - not despite its challenges, but because of them. I could quibble with aspects of this article (and in future, might) - for instance, I feel much more could be done to encourage younger writers and readers by trying harder to incorporate their experiences of music, image, and diction (their lives directly intersecting with a digital 24/7 field of entertainment) - so that mass and high culture could find common ground, in poetic speech that resonates, without losing its sense of Tradition (as Eliot himself sought, and achieved, in "Prufrock"). However, I'll stop here, because the main point is, O'Brien is, at least here and today, the champion of all poets, who deserve to be recognised and read for the difficult, testing work they do, against so many odds. Eyewear therefore salutes him.

Interview With The Poet

As Eyewear has said often, the Internet is the place where younger poets and poetry readers tend to flock. I have an interview just up at Pomegranate, a new, exciting UK literary site that skews to the poets of the future.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Poem by Camellia Stafford

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Camellia Stafford (pictured) to its pages this Friday. She is one of the younger London poets now emerging who is worth reading and attending to.

Stafford was born in Warwickshire. She studied English Literature and Language at King's College London, and has an MA in Art History from the world-famous Courtauld Institute of Art.

She received a commendation in New Writing Ventures 2006. Her poetry has appeared online at Limelight. She has published a collection with Tall-Lighthouse, in the pilot series overseen by Roddy Lumsden, Another pretty colour, another break for air.

As befits a poet who has studied the visual, her work is sensuous, peppered with images, and enriched with colour. I look forward to her next collection.

Before a mirror, I kneel to tend my face

Cache of gloss and brushes, gel and cake,
my make-up bag, ritually unzipped reveals
silver encasements. Each bares use marks,
fingerprints of peachy foundation stippled
with tinct dusts, clouding the metallic shell.

Squat, in front of a cloudless looking-glass,
I vanish capricious shadows with a solution
of flesh, reliable in hue, coverage and set
by the powder pad's sweeps and presses
into every pore, tier and recess of my face.

Mantled with blusher, a silken brush swirls,
its powder blossoms flower on my cheeks.
Sponge applicator plunged through lustred
cream, strokes lips into a pearlescent glaze.
Candies perfume the next breath's confetti.

Possibilities of colour volunteer my eyes.
Lidded chamber of rose and aquamarine
shades tempt me with matte and shimmer.
I twirl my finger in their haloes applying
one, then another from the palette's rosary.

Faber Rebooted

Stephen Page, publisher and chief Executive of Faber and Faber, has begun to see the digital light - or at least, some of its glow. While his brief article in The Guardian is hardly evangelical, it does seem to represent a conversion, for mainstream British publishing, away from a model that ignores social networking on the Internet, to one which seeks to grab hold of that platform, and haul bricks and mortar publishing, paper and all, into the 21st century. Eyewear has been arguing, in these unpapered but lettered pages, for just such a decision, for some time now, and welcomes Page's moves, to an extent.

However, if one reads closely, one will see that what is being proposed is not precisely an e-celebration. Rather, Faber is proposing to basically do what Salt Publishing already does - the "build it and they will come" approach, where a site offers cool things, around the books for sale (podcasts, and so on). This is not new; nor is the print-on-demand idea - many often smaller publishers already use this technology. Page risks appearing cynical if, as he suggests, the idea is to employ the energy and specialised interests of the web-world, in order to target more buyers. Publishing in the UK, as Eyewear has also suggested here, continues to miss the point of the literary Internet - that it thrives best when it is not simply, or even at all, about selling (though Amazon does that superbly). Wired and browsing readers with their own niche sites and interests, and the blogosphere, may resist being too-clearly targeted. However, as Faber is a business, some allowances can be made for the profit motive.

Still, as long as the editorial ethos of Faber remains relatively limited in scope, say in its poetry list, it will hardly be able to convincingly win over the younger generations who exist in cyberspace as much as anywhere. In other words: Faber's leap into Net-works should co-exist with a new leap into more innovative, democratic, and global editorial selections, for their poetry. You may have a cool new delivery system for your content, but so what, if the writing isn't, as it were, on the wall? There are dozens of very fine younger and emerging UK poets that Faber might've snapped up (let alone Indian, Canadian and American ones). Salt and Bloodaxe and Carcanet (and so on) have got there first. The "vision thing" isn't just a little machine for selling books. Page needs to get new poets on his pages.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Gary Gygax Has Died

It is rare to be the creator of a new genre. Dungeons & Dragons was co-created by one Gary Gygax - and it was part-game, part-fantasy novel (or series of novels), and part, frankly, ambitiously-imagined (if sometimes derivative) alternate world. His work was hugely influential - often despised as (especially before video games took over as enemy number one) the instigator of teenage murder, suicide or derangement; or at least, nerdy alienation - and then again loved by millions. D & D clearly proved the worth of the fantasy market, and is as responsible as Tolkien for its continued popularity, in later film and book incarnations (including Rowling). Anyone who has had a Palladin or Elf confront a many-eyed gelatinous monster in a dank corridor will know the thrill (and perplexing complexity) of those many-sided dice, those well-thumbed books. He will be missed, his game will live on.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The London Magazine and Canadian Poets

The London Magazine was not properly supported by the Arts Council recently, which was a shame, given its storied past, and impressive cultural credentials. Fortunately, an intrepid band has gathered to keep it going. I have edited a special and very brief feature on the rising generation of 21st century Canadian poets, dubbed Minus 50, for its latest incarnation (the December 2007/January 2008 issue), which will be celebrated at The Troubadour next Monday, March 10. There are about 30-40 Canadian poets born since 1960 or so that are worth reading, and a larger anthology would try to represent more of them (such as Carmine Starnino, Ray Hsu, Joe Denham, Lisa Pasold, David O'Meara, Louise Bak, etc.) but the nine I selected, in this instance, were Elizabeth Bachinsky, George Murray, Steven Heighton, Stephanie Bolster, Jason Camlot, David McGimpsey, Mike Kavanagh, Sina Queyras and John Stiles; I felt this various and transcontinental clutch of talented, lively poets showcases the ways in which new Canadian poetry can veer between pop culture, experiment, and the Tradition, with ease. Do find yourself a copy of this issue, and support Canuck Poets.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Hedda Gabler

The work of German director Thomas Ostermeier has long been on the radar of Eyewear - no other European theatre company seems so au courant, and yet thrillingly-engaged with the classical, as his. Hedda Gabler (seen at the Barbican last night, and reviewed in rather lukewarm fashion for instance here by the British press) was simply a pleasure, for 120 minutes or so.

The production highlights the way that film can be looped back to bleed mood and texture to theatre, and generate a hyper-real, if cinematic, event. Gabbler, as superbly played by Ms. Schüttler, is a sly, restless, bored boyish coquette with great legs, stylish sailor outfit, and a deranged sense of being and nothingness.

Ibsen, the master builder who created her in 1890 (that is, 118 years ago) must be credited with outdoing Freud, let alone Film Noir (thus, out-Tarantinoing Tarantino), in conceiving of the Ur-femme fatale. Girl Plays With Guns, Girl Points Gun At Man, Girl Gives Gun To Man, Girl Blows Her Brains Out could be the four-act structure.

By slivering this down to six characters, with five central performances (and several permutations of triangle) the new version, updating manuscripts to text on laptops, and set in a modern "Koenig House", is about as eerily shallow, shimmering and chlorinated as an Easton Ellis pool - in fact, the less-than-zero logic of the look should have actually set the play in Los Angeles (Hedda as Britney) - for her chilling absence of ultimate purpose (if not design) is somewhat perplexing. If anything, this would have explained the Beach Boys Pet Sounds soundtrack, if not the September rain glistening like radiant loss, or desire, on the great picture windows overlooking total darkness, even during the "day".

What does come across, brilliantly, is how deviant, cruel, and playful she is, in her many manipulations - outdoing Briony of Atonement in a second - Gabler toys with pistols, sex, and The Future (as an academic and actual subject). She writes her own book of destiny - one that makes self-destruction "beautiful" - as she summons the total courage to make her own murder a grand project that removes her from the sex, and society, of those who merely want to create, or possess, or know.

Gabler will always be both an enigma (she is unknowable, as Lear is, in her negations), and a symbol - the negation of the negation - an Hegelian angel, slumming in the lap of store-bought luxury - wanting what is on the other side of night, the screen, glass - The Real. Her terrible energy and supple erotic dalliance with murder and existence makes her a vitally 20th century fox - hunting for something Ibsen could never find. This new production suggests she will run long into our century - lost in its own Digital Decor and Dullness - sadly, madly, too.

THE BEST OF 2017...

Aim High, more often Year-end Best of lists are invidious, and, also, these days, ubiquitous, to the point of madness. But we have love...