It was a great pleasure to read at Poetry International on Saturday with Ilya Kaminksy and Raymond Antrobus. The event was British Sign Language interpreted (BSL) and Speech-to-Text transcribed (STT), and everyone at the Southbank made us feel incredibly welcome. Particularly inspiring was meeting with d/Deaf people who had seen the event and afterwards came by to the book signing table to share their stories. One woman I met got in touch to let me know she has decided to build her own blog site and start writing about her deafness after growing up in a household where conversations about her hearing never took place. This is what it is all about – sharing experiences, learning from each other and finding inspiration to be proud of who we are, and make the changes in our lives that we need to make.
Thanks to The New European and poetry editor, Briony Bax for publishing ‘My Country was a Party’. Let’s hope we can get the party restarted soon!
Issue 1 of the excellent new online magazine bath magg launches with a great selection of poets, including four poems from Vona Groarke and an interview. Check it out here. Couldn’t be happier that editors Joe Carrick-Varty and Mariah Whelan chose ‘Darling,’ to be in such great company. Looking forward to issue 2 already…
Very grateful to poetry editor Robert Selby for publishing two poems from A Map Towards Fluency on Wild Court site – King’s College London’s poetry website.
Below are two poems from Lisa Kelly’s debut collecton A Map Towards Fluency, recently published by Carcanet.
Oysters shucked. Poor man’s beef discarded down guts and out again to sea. Shells salvaged. Here, concentrated behind wire mesh, hard stuffing for this upholstered seat placed for musing on the river Colne. Quantities shipped on circuitous routes to sate Elizabethan London. The centre sucking resources in greedy gulps. Local beds, and locals lay wasted in leaner times. What now? Lean back on shells, characteristically flat, the flesh enjoyed by Romans firm and salty, a wet dream of these parts. Orgiastic oysters, slipping down, coming up, their stockmarket fortunes, bivalve biology, always two sides to prize apart: rich & poor, insider & outsider. Pearly junkets or gritty chronicles? Filter feeders, take it all in and sift through for dignitaries at the annual Oyster Feast by invitation only since Saint Dennis held his fair. Left out in the cold, sit back, digest world wars and viruses, how oyster numbers could not atone: oistre, ostreum, ostreon. Osteon, so close to bone.
Let them Leave Language to their Lonely Betters
after W. H. Auden’s ‘Their Lonely Betters’
This is not a poem about a robin or a blackbird for although I love birdsong, I’ve never heard a song I can say for certain came from that bush having looked quick enough to identify a thrush. Their names are withheld from their songs which fly freely about an ear that no longer longs to sort out this chirrup from that trill so I can distinguish this beak from that bill. This muddle of medley is an anthem of all and no proper name can answer each call which remains unrecorded in its own shade, undetonated by a signifier’s semantic grenade. Let them leave language to this lonely better who has struggled too long with nomenclature; let me sing my own song, and hear what I can, it will sound how it is – of robin, or of man.
The 2018 centenary year of Muriel Spark’s birth brought her considerable attention. In addition to a number of other new works inspired by Spark’s writing is this welcome collection from Blue Diode Press. The arrangement of the book into a chronological two-poets-per-novel scheme is particularly effective, enabling the reader to easily compare the varying approaches to the inspiration of Spark’s twenty-two novels. The range and depth of the collection means there are too many excellent poems to go into here – rather, those cited are representative of particular approaches, and are discussed as illustrative of such.
The first two poets take contrasting approaches to the source material. W. N. Herbert’s ‘The Muriels’ mines The Comforters to construct a comic but regretful narrative where all the female characters are named ‘Muriel’. Herbert relies on Spark’s novel as a point of departure to deftly outline the aftermath of a love affair (or ‘The Aberration in Aberfeldy’), as ‘not a passion but the furor of its passing’, a delightfully Sparkian phrase. In creating a story that expands beyond that of the book, Herbert nevertheless succeeds in capturing the novel’s anarchic narrative spirit.
In contrast to Herbert, Polly Atkin’s wonderful ‘Paper Pellets on a Saucer’ remains mostly within the novel’s narrative scope, only departing it to illustrate the questions of authorship and structure at the very core (and paradoxically at the very limits) of the novel, in the familiar-sounding lines:
The Typing Ghost has not recorded any lively details about this
The reason is The Typing Ghost doesn’t know how to describe this
I have an independent life.
Atkins takes the source text and successfully recomposes the way in which the novel questions its own construction, in a poem that also self-referentially questions the location of its own narrative position; it is skilfully managed.
Such narratorial positioning is intriguing to follow throughout the collection. For many this takes the form of inhabiting a Spark character or position within the novel of choice, and then writing outwardly from there. Others instead opt to position their narrators in the common space shared by the reader – on the outside, looking in to these novels – and write from there.
The cover of the book talks of an ‘extraordinary cacophony of voices’, and this verbal dissonance is captured by a number of the poets giving voice to secondary characters. In Loitering With Intent, Fleur Talbot states ‘I don’t go in for motives’, and in many cases neither does Spark, often presenting only the external speech of her characters. This leaves fertile ground for these poets to create inner lives for characters who reveal little or no such interiority in the original works.
Lisa Kelly’s ‘Pisseur de Copie’ is a case in point, joyously revealing the internal machinations of Hector Bartlett in a wonderfully designed inversion of narrative power. The ‘pisseur’ is afforded the main portion of the poem’s text, in which he reveals himself over and over as deaf to the words of Mrs Hawkins. Her replies take the form of footnotes, a brilliantly conceived and delivered structural ploy, denying Bartlett that which he most wants: the opportunity of engaging Mrs Hawkins in direct dialogue. By thus removing her from the main body of the poem, Kelly paradoxically (re)establishes Mrs Hawkins position of dominance over Bartlett by making her absence a presence, and through her repeated assertion of the title in answer to Bartlett’s questions.
Via Bartlett’s ironic self-revelation the poem exposes his oblivious motivations; despite his seeming not to have heard the ‘pisseur’ insult, he is deluded to the point of referring to it as the ‘term of endearment you insisted upon’. When he asks: ‘Do you think calling someone a bad name / can be a curse Nancy? Curse their career?’, it presents him as without self-reflection, and capable of greater folly and arrogance than even the novel suggests. It also challenges the idea that he did not hear the insult in the first place. Mrs Hawkins refrain-like repetition in the footnotes displays her frustration, but is by contrast restrained and to the point, precisely what Hector in his prose, and his speech, is not.
Amongst a number of contenders (particularly Not To Disturb), The Public Image is perhaps Spark’s most trenchant satire of fame, media, celebrity, and the effects felt by those in the centre – and on the periphery – of its spotlight. As with many Spark novels, it is also a searing depiction of the brittleness of the male ego when confronted with female success, which is the underpinning for Rishi Dastidar’s incisive ‘A Man of Theory on the Via Publica’. Brief couplets such as ‘“Annabel & Frederick” – / it never sounded right’, and ‘All drama is sharp. You got / stuck on the pointy end of hers’, ridicule Frederick with excoriating comic effect.
Where Dastidar’s narrator addresses Frederick, Andy Jackson’s ‘Lady Tiger’ speaks directly to Annabel, encapsulating the many dualities and seeming contradictions of Spark’s work:
You cultivate the tiger in your eyes,
encourage the paradox of abandon
and fidelity, often in a single glance,
recognising that in art there are no lies,
But Jackson then moves outside of the novel’s action to cite ‘a superinjunction on this poem’, with Annabel’s lawyers attempting to keep secret ‘the untruths you would see preserved’. The implication is that these untruths – Annabel’s public image – may well be the source of her ‘paradox of abandon and fidelity’, and the poem’s closing lines bring this contradictory, cyclical effect into sharp focus, with Annabel now ‘conspicuous in an age / where only the famous can truly disappear.’
The side-by-side placing of these two poems – one focusing on Annabel, the other Frederick – creates a chiaroscuro effect, illuminating and satirising our contemporary culture’s fascination and desire for fame by placing it alongside our shadowy appetite for gossip, and our complicity in the ensuing squalid spectacle. As Rishi Dastidar’s narrator asks: ‘Who needs a doctor or a best friend / when you can have a press officer?’ Addressed to Frederick, one cannot help but read these lines as directed also at our contemporary culture, and our role within it.
Dzifa Benson’s ‘Comme il Faut’ is full of wonderfully Sparkian phrases, with the students at College Sunrise categorised as ‘inmates of one state or another / and a blank set of careless intentions.’ The poem remains close to the tone and events of the novel, acknowledging the fragile mental condition of the protagonists through a repeated prison metaphor. And while it hints at aspects of the book’s comic elements, the overwhelming sense of the poem is one of pitch-perfect jaded isolation.
The closing poem of the collection, Matthew Caley’s ‘The Fern’, breaks free of the boundaries of the novel, taking the book’s opening line ‘You begin, by setting your scene –’ as a refrain on which to construct a shadowy meditation on lost innocence. It captures the novel’s ominous, voyeuristic sense of claustrophobia, of layers of looking, watching, spying and obsession, but untethers this from the comic tones of Nina’s comme il faut lessons, leaving a malevolent presence in danger of discovery, but for the noise of ‘a twig-crack / that might make him turn’. It is a bold finishing poem – reminding us of the malign undertones beneath the comic surfaces of Spark’s novels, re-emphasising The Finishing School’s concerns with jealousy and voyeurism, and magnifying them into the threat of something much worse.
Caley’s poem goes beyond the novel into another narrative space, in contrast to Benson’s ‘Comme il Faut’ which remains within the parameters of Spark’s original narrative. Yet both poems are intensely effective – illustrating that adherence to Spark’s original is neither a guarantee nor a requirement for success. As a result, the poems can be read with no knowledge of the novels, and the collection is all the better for it. Indeed, the other works here offer a coherent yet expansive take on the novels of Spark, full of the humour and jarringly effective imagery at which Spark herself specialised, where the absurd and surreal elements found in the Sparkian everyday are placed in close proximity with the numinous, and its often implied evocation of spiritual otherworldliness.
Blue Diode’s collection is an overwhelming success. In some cases the poems stay closer to the spirit of Spark’s firework intelligence the further behind they leave literal allusions to her novels. As a result, this is both a collection one can dip into, but also one which wonderfully complements the trajectory of Spark’s career. One imagines this is just as Spark would have liked it.
Spark: Poetry and Art Inspired by the Novels of Muriel Spark edited by Rob A. Mackenzie and Louise Peterkin is published by Blue Diode Publishing, 2018.
Very happy to be on this lovely list of books. Thanks to the London Review Bookshop for being such a wonderful bookseller, venue and supporter of poets and authors. Really is a beautiful place to hang out, sort of bookshop heaven.
Our Current Bestsellers
This week’s bestsellers.
A Map Towards Fluency, Lisa Kelly, Carcanet Press, 2019, pp.112, £8.99
A Few Interiors, Rowland Bagnell, Carcanet Press, 2019, pp.64, £8.99
——Carcanet’s latest publications include the innovative poetry of Lisa Kelly and Rowland Bagnall in their respective collections, A Map Towards Fluency and A Few Interiors. Kelly is deaf in her left ear, and some of the most compelling pieces are in “Orientation”, the third section of her book. The poems focus on the experiences of partial deafness, from being criticized for bad hearing, to celebrating the vibrant personalities of a group of sign language speakers. Bagnall’s collection meanwhile features a range of places, films, and art. His narrators often stand before famous paintings, and in “Ode on a Han Dynasty Urn” he uses the URL for the first photograph in Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” as an epigraph. The poem itself consists of one stanza of prose poetry, then two stanzas with some, and then more, words missing from the first, to mimic the shattering of the urn.
——Both poets also blend their cultural knowledge with their extensive understanding of the poetic form. The results are affecting: Kelly’s “Corona/Cuts” has repetitive lines stylistically inspired by John Donne:
—————————The globes four corners
a dream. Sons walk the next street, foreigners.
A dream, sons walk the next street, foreigners
share conversation, customs, cares, break bread
——These lines promise unity, and the healing that comes from awareness of others. The next stanza undoes this with quotes from a Guardian article in which teens give their reasons for carrying knives:
To protect myself against my father.
My dad was stabbed to death when I was three.
I will stab them first.
——Family structures are undermined and destroyed, leaving no hope for peace between different communities. Kelly’s repetitive structure becomes a reflection of the claustrophobia of lives affected by knife violence.
——Rowland also makes brilliant use of his sources. “Tangerine” borrows lines from Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” about the passage of time for artists, and describes the characters’ plans for the future in the last shot of The Graduate: “brief // and out of focus”. The references reveal the narrator’s wandering consciousness, and they mimic the narrator’s isolation from a significant other at the poem’s conclusion:
you are here
but now you’re going and the days go by
and I am on my own and
——These last lines borrow from the “going” repeated in O’Hara’s poem, but the incomplete sentence reminds us that this poem is more than an allusion. Bagnall’s narrator is ongoing in spite of the weight of cultural references.
——Kelly and Bagnall’s poems are informed and thematically complex, but they are also fascinated by language itself. The last stanza of “Corona/Cuts” is a list of slang terms for knife, and the narrator of “Tangerine” makes a list of words that come to mind in the supermarket. Kelly and Bagnall’s appreciation of words ensures their poetry is not all dedicated to high culture; they also discuss themes as universal as breakups. Kelly’s “Life Model” explores self-love after a boyfriend’s judgement, and Bagnall’s “Sonnet” slowly admits the stagnation of a relationship. These are poets who love every aspect of writing poetry: the language which forms it, the literature which precedes it, the art which inspires it, and the lives which make it personal and accessible.
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