Saturday, 28 September 2013


Autobiography of a lost soul

I thought to be recognised
knowing myself as special
as anyone has ever been
since the moon shone

on Caligula’s cruel breast
or later on the cane
of Chaplin; on the bent wing
of that aviatrix who went

down in the unspeaking sea;
all those who came before me
including that painter
of wild nights of blue disorder;

I vibrated with their frequency
or so I felt, self-grasping
and self-revelatory –
but sought out the lofty critics

eager to welcome evaluation,
to crown my greatness.
None stepped down to laurel
my brow.  I began to sense

there was no order or control
at the fashionable core of art,
and so, my new philosophy
was to go to God directly,

for union with such an authority
would confer an overwhelming
aura of utter dignity.
However natural

all the loneliness
of my unjoined genius,
I soon tired
of spiritual practices, turning

instead to cold love for hire,
tedious nights in parlours
spending long hours on games
of chance.  All because

no figure or force higher than
I was came forward
to ask me to the dance, posterity.
Then, I met a person, so fierce

and strong, I thought no more
of what a grave might say.
In her blessings a new song
came to dominate my mind,

in which brilliance was the sun,
and in the morning and the night
were all the needs of prize and play.

poem by Todd Swift, September 2013


Eyewear - which will be publishing a novel of his in early 2015 - is very glad to tonight present a new poem by the significant American poet, Alfred Corn.

 Common  Dwelling

Mornings, early, others make themselves
at differing levels heard and even felt,
at least, if you can guess the gist
of another life from sound alone.
Like the enviable neighbor couple
Who shift and stir less than an arm’s length
behind the headboard, their murmurs
sifting into consciousness
as though no sheetrock intervened.
It’s the sonic ambient for one last
underwater, shut-eye scenario,
which holds until the alarm starts prodding.

Downstairs, would that be a he or she
who in chilled gloom grinds french roast
for the day’s first espresso?
And not just once but vibrantly again
after what must be a caffeinated interval.
Alertness has its downside, though,
delivering this thought: the practice
of selfhood turns into addiction.

Heavy boots not muted by rugs clunk
about on the floor above. Months
of obstinate slogging guarantee
their pace would instantly anywhere
be recognized, if not the pacer.
Odd moments in the day he launches
his campaign with a ruckus that feels
coercive, sure, but on behalf of what?

No choice but to tune in when an amped-up
boom of heavy metal from across
the landing detonates after nightfall,
puffs of cover-up sandalwood incense
stealing in under the door. Nirvana:
who knew that howls would signal its arrival?

Hi’s or goodbye-I-love-you’s ring out
every time a door opens, then slams,
but the cocked ear can’t detect either
sequels or concluding flourishes.
Our hive’s improvisations amount
to a sound-track, hum and buzz
emerging from angular cells
hospitable to the general detachment.

Or think of it as a single body, limbs
and nerves sending bulletins
to the brain bent over its clipboard.
Overloaded, dutiful, the thing wonders
what to do with this daily repeated
and recklessly partial information.

poem by Alfred Corn; published online with permission of the author; copyright 2013.


Lesley Saunders reviews
Loudness by
Judy Brown

Judy Brown’s poetic (though not necessarily her person) thrives on missed footings, lost opportunities, failed relationships, metal fatigue, house-moves, getting pissed.  Her self-admonition – ‘Be more interesting’ – in the first stanza of the opening poem is entirely otiose (as one suspects she knows):  continuously interesting, thematically, rhetorically and psychologically, is what the book manages to be.
The impasses and embarrassments she finds or puts or imagines herself to be in – this is not poetry to be taken at the face value of confessional – are not only attentively, cleverly observed but also rendered with a deceptive straightforwardness that allows her to manoeuvre words into positions where they can do maximum damage to the reader’s expectations.   Here’s the beginning of ‘Dignity’:

Four am in a five star hotel.
The atrium drops beside you
like a turquoise mineshaft.

It goes on:

In the toilet you fall in love
with your own boozy sweetness.

And spirals down to this:

To be much less than you
should be.  In the taxi back, always

the same, hiccups worse than
sobs, your skirt rucked right up.
It feels like an obligation.

As in that poem, Brown has an evident talent for titles, using them to call attention to each poem’s unique existence (though in this collection we are in little danger of just sliding off one poem on to the next);  and/or to name what’s in or behind the poem without giving anything away about its nature:  ‘After the Decree Nisi’ opens with:

The one who cuts the cake is not allowed to choose

and segues through a TV news item about a man being arrested for videoing female runners taking their clothes off by the roadside, with the poet stopping to wonder if she can empathise with him:

I kind of get it – that he tried to make it his:

the way, beneath their numbered vests, the runners’
bodies flare and split to white against the trees;
the neatness of the moves they make to crouch

and piss, pull up, run on…

before the whole thing comes full circle:

And still I can’t decide –
whether I will cut or whether I will choose.

The poet (again, one makes no assumptions about Brown the person) is a frequenter of caf├ęs that serve burgers with ‘the condiment / still life of Daddies sauce’ on formica tables (‘The Trick of It’, ‘Freefall’, ‘Best Drink of the Day’);  of bars and pubs where ‘I sat in The George… riding the smooth Atlantic swell of the afternoon’ (‘Embittered, A Loner’);  of waiting rooms, hotel bedrooms, a helicopter and the top deck of a London bus.  Places of transit and casual contact, opportunities for having or hearing anonymous conversations, occasions for watching oneself and others: the stuff of poetry’s vocation.
 Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder whether these poems are not all, at one level, ‘about’ the act and art of writing poetry.  I do not mean this to sound as if the poems are either repetitious or solipsistic, up their own backsides in any way.  But take, for instance, the wonderful ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ that starts in medias res:

Later, I learned that someone might enter
a house where the smell of pork, burned-up,
contradicts the cold

– the way an incident of spontaneous combustion is introduced, reported, meditated on and finally turns into an almost-prayer for deliverance feels to me like something that, summoned by the lit match of Brown’s virtuosic imagination, flares ex nihilo into full being and then burns itself out again.
 ‘Thirst’ does the same kind of thing with the travelogue poem, transforming that staple of poetic subjects, the description of a remembered sojourn abroad (here, ‘Kowloon City’) into a self-reflexive consideration of how such memories get written – depending on what the recollecting eye records – and then over-written by ‘later weather’ that washes away all the names.  Instead of reaching for the exotic, stand-out aspects of being in a foreign country (and probably, like most such attempts, failing), Brown is content to note how they were ‘amazed at novelties of a minor kind – / fork-spoon-knife concertina’d in a leather case.’  The ‘he’ who was with the poet (presumably a lover) only briefly condenses out of the misty ‘we’:  apparently less memorable now than the stallholder who ‘kicked towards my sandals / a tiny snake escaping from the pak and bok.’  The poem enacts the way such trivial experiences make a habitation for themselves deep in our current dreams, so that ‘Sometimes I wake there…/ and I sit up here…’
 I think my favourite poem is ‘If You Smell Gas’, because of its wilful determination not to be trammelled by the conventional reading of routine instructions, but instead to find a way to conjure the genie out of an unprepossessing bottle:

IF YOU SMELL GAS, the devil is close. Do NOT smoke:
show some respect… Sniff again at the pipe’s crusty elbow.
Do NOT use naked flames.  They will not save you.
                                                                Do NOT
turn electrical switches on or off.  I run things now.

And I love the way Brown writes about sex, like a man but just like a woman – in ‘Idaho’, ‘The Expats’, ‘On the First Night in the Cottage You Said It Was a Mistake for Me to Buy’ and, here, in ‘The Swap’:

‘As the man sat on the steps…

I came alongside in muted shoes, just at the moment
he touched his balls, and the orange-red sluice

of sunset swelled to fill the end of Gleneagle Road
and he whispered a curse he had saved to celebrate this…’

This poet is no victim and picks her way, ‘fluorescent, / into the west’.  Any lasting wounds are self-inflicted, and crisply analysed:

I didn’t suss for years.  A decade’s passed
since I unpacked and put the Chinese lions
on the fireplace, stony-faced and facing me…

                                                       a finger
fits (and not pleasantly) between their teeth….

Ten years’ bad luck.  That daily dose of friendly fire.

(from ‘The Souvenirs’)

There’s a restless kind of shape-shifting going on in Brown’s poetry but in a good way – not pseudo-mysticism but the disciplined exercise of a fertile, ironic, troubled, sensuous imagination.


Monastery of the Moon
by Norbert Hirschhorn

Monastery of the Moon is written in the diasporic tradition of memory and displacement, it is about love and statelessness and the lack of distinction between the two. The collection takes place on a huge multinational and multicultural stage, where Hirschhorn plays out some of the appalling sufferings of man with a sensitivity always poised on the edge of its opposite, never once quashing the nagging anxiety of (non)belonging that the flesh is heir to in all matters of love and politics.

Two quotes from Monastery of the Moon encapsulate the book for me ‘homesick for places unvisited’ (Qaseeda – A Love Song) and ‘I’m lonely as a stone’ (My Thesaurus Amplifies ‘longing’)

There is a lovely streak of foreignness in the imagery, always on the verge of, but ultimately refusing to become familiar ‘Scimitar moon’ ‘curtains furled like gardenias’ ('Lebanon') ‘Outside,/a tropical squall/pummels rice rows/into green obeisance’ ('On a Guesthouse Veranda in Surakarta, Central Java'). The collection is perched precariously on the borderlands at all times.

There is a strong sense of scale and eventually circular movement in this collection, and it gives the impression of being as meticulously professional an object as a clockwork pocket watch. Hirschhorn is a very experienced poet and his experience certainly shows through, this third collection is masterfully written, highly polished, with excellent timing and impeccable sense of balance. The firmness of his style encourages the reader to put their trust completely in the poet, yet there is a wild, unpredictable streak that keeps the experience tantalizingly uncertain. This book speaks authority and well-roundedness, never chaotic, never over eager but constantly threatening to be. Reading it was like watching good contemporary dance.

The almost scientific achievement of this authority was perhaps what stood out most for me in this collection. The nature of its authority is exhaustively masculine, it is deeply rooted in a tradition of writing belonging to male greats and drawing on a deeply masculine style. In the second poem, 'Lebanon', we see nods to Eliot and Celan (‘April’s anemone’, ‘marguerite, friend of the night’) their presence does not dissipate throughout the collection. There is reference to Barthes (‘I exists only in the/moment one writes, I -’) classical allusions, folksiness to the colloquial. Even in the more urban poems there’s a wildness that reminds me of the mysterious deep hill poetry of Kerry Shawn Keys and an aggressive strength that makes me think of Ted Hughes. Something in the balanced madness reminds me of Rilke and the memorial nature of the poems makes them brother to those of George Szirtes. Monastery of the Moon is relentlessly, sternly well-written and well-rooted in its influences. While I was reading this book I described it to someone as a master class in a certain traditional kind of writing and because of that I find it slightly disconcerting. It’s almost too clean, too commanding, too in control, although that’s obviously not going to count for much against it. In fact, I think that this almost oppressive masculinity sits perfectly with the pervading sense of loneliness and alienation which is key to these poems.

As Monastery of the Moon shrinks from the global stage to the intimate stage of man and woman, or more accurately, one man and a number of different women who are failing to be The One Woman, it is hard to resist drawing the comparison between woman and country. While Hirschhorn’s love poems are accomplished and breathtakingly beautiful, the female is none-the-less an unwinnable territory, a country which will never be comprehended or for that matter conquered (‘how long will you say no to me?’ ‘I enter her as into glorious mystery’ 'Qaseeda – a Love Song'). The love poems are so voyeuristic, full of wounded ego and at times self-pity, perfectly appropriate to the horrible sensation of increasing age and impotency which often crops up as the subject of these poems. This colossal collection is as heart-rending as it is politically engaging, it is entirely pervaded by the hopeless, almost solipsistic baroness of an old man; the women, the children, are all perfectly written, masterfully designed pantomimes and puppets. This mastery avails nothing in the shadow of disaster and I think that is the point, in the case of both love and nationality. Crawling out of the debris and the never-ending crowds of refugees to Progress, is a poet in search of a wife/mother/country, whom he will never find to his dismay. It’s horrible and wonderful.

This shrinking from the global to the personal stage gives the collection a very pleasing movement, tying the poems in so well with the enigmatic title of the collection. By that, I mean that the poet’s appalling horror and appalling love for the world appears to drive naturally to a kind of hermitage, the desire for private worship cloistered from chaos, a worship of the Earth/Mother from the sanctuary of the Moon/Female, as if by drawing back, one could move closer to one’s home. You will see the problem(s) here. The impossibility of this hermitage is possibly the great tragedy of this collection and what makes it so deliciously galling.

Monastery of the Moon is an extraordinary expression of love, loneliness and exhaustion.  I can’t help wondering though if its masterfulness is also its slight imperfection. The poems were at their most intense just when they seemed about to down tool and wail in the rubble, but composure is always reined in by the right phrase, the right nudge back into place, caught by the net of the title. It’s a frustrating balancing act; but frustration is part of the pleasure. I wanted to see an explosion, but of course I was appropriately denied. The way Hirschhorn can guide the trajectory of the reader’s feelings is really quite admirable.

This is a formidable collection which makes the reader feel a stranger in their own country and in every country for that matter. The desolation in it is appalling but at the same time it contains a fierce love of live, making all aspects of life, catastrophic/peaceful/global/intimate as strange and exotic as a mango.

Catherine Woodward is a young British poet.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...