'The beetle runs into the future'
It’s been a terrible year, so I’m going to spend the last day of it by just writing about a few things that brought me joy, and challenged how I think, in the hope that they do the same for someone who reads this. I’ve never told anyone about R.F. Langley who hasn’t been grateful for the tip, so I’ll start with him. A poet often associated with the Cambridge School, Langley, who died in 2011, published relatively few works in his lifetime, and many of these with small or independent presses. These have been definitively collected in his Complete Poems (Carcanet, 2015), edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod. It’s a book which, as with the complete Bishop and Larkin, derives a curious authority from its smallness. I’ve been reading it habitually over the past year, as a reminder of the possibilities and rewards of precision in seeing and describing. It’s his later lyrics that I love the most, poems which are so exact the language they employ seems to warp and ripple under the pressure of the attention which drives them. His “Blues for Titania,” one of my favourite poems, is one of his most intricate and agile syntactical performances, and it bears comparison with the best work of Marianne Moore. Its 11-syllable lines seem on first glance deliberately imbalanced, one syllable too long or short—but one of Langley’s gifts is to endow the awkward or the hobbled with grace and fitness. Curiously truncated fragments and winding, reticulated sentences, passages of electric alacrity and of pooling, languid slowness, are all integrated in poems which have an eerie, almost charmed consistency of tone and effect. And running through them is an unfailingly inventive and surprising music. Just listen to this opening:
The beetle runs into the future. He takes
to his heels in an action so frantic its
flicker seems to possess the slowness of deep
water. He has been green. He will be so yet.
His memory ripples emeralds. The wasp
takes it easy. She unpicks her fabric of
yellow and black, which slips from her fingers to
land in the past, loop-holed, lacy, tossed off on
the wing. The beetle is needled right through on
The whole poem can be read, and Langley’s recording of it heard, at the Poetry Archive.
Another wonderful book I’ve been returning to is Mark Ford’s Nairobi, 1963, a pamphlet published by the newly-formed Periplum Press based at Plymouth University, who have also put out works by Peter Gizzi and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Ford’s poetic output has been as tantalisingly slow as those poets mentioned above—roughly a book a decade—so each new publication is something of an event. Since his hilarious first book, Landlocked, each volume has signalled a radical change in approach and tone. In Ford’s new work, the strenuously exact descriptive passages, fragmentary translations, dreams, memories and zany quips from which his patchworks are assembled are increasingly likely to fray at the seams, as signalled by the frequent ellipses:
Ay de mi – a pin-
prick of blood, scarcely
more than a pore
flaunting its friendship
with a vein; bright
as the flower
of the flame tree that stained
our drive, our lawn, and the roof
and bonnet of our white
red … in piercing, heat-
hazed dreams Tina
the Turkey, fattening for Christmas in the dust
of Kano, interrupts
her pecking to fix
me with a beady eye, to puff
her breast and shake
at me her scarlet
beak and wattles. ‘The worse
it is, the better,’ she cluck-clucks, sotto
voce, from somewhere
inside the labyrinth
of my skull . . .
I find this poetry so light and fresh and crisp and witty, and even a little jaunty; I love the way the language skips and hops effortlessly down these perilously narrow, jagged lines, like one of those Nubian ibexes featured on Planet Earth II (another of this year’s joys). But then there are these sudden vents of feeling that catch with a whooosh and take the breath away. The pamphlet also features a series of beautiful miniatures—elliptically drawn memories from Ford’s past in Nairobi, Oxford, Lagos, Hong Kong, and New York—which become somehow both odder and plainer the more they are examined, like absent-mindedly assembled napkin swans. “Chicago, 1969” sets out an irresistible stall for this irreducibly strange and singular poet:
America developed my commercial streak: I sold
Kool-Aid on our street corner, describing it
to neighbours and passers-by as ‘indescribably delicious’.
I moved to Scotland this year, and commute between Edinburgh and St. Andrews a few times a week on the train, which runs along the Fife Coast. When I’ve not been looking out of the window I’ve often been reading Denise Riley’s new book, Say Something Back. After prolonged exposure to these poems the landscape has begun to conduct itself in a distinctly Riley-esque idiom. I can see very clearly the unintended sea through the window of this passage:
Suspended in unsparing light
The sloping gull arrests its curl
The glassy sea is hardened waves
Its waters lean through shining air
Yet never crash but hold their arc
Hung rigidly in glaucous ropes
Muscled and gleaming.
Riley’s book takes its title from a passage from W.S. Graham’s poem “Implements in their Places,” which also serves as the book’s epigraph: “Do not think you have to say / Anything back. But you do / Say something back which I / Hear by the way I speak to you.” This is a devastating formulation of Say Something Back’s central purpose, which is, to put it awkwardly, to experience an ongoing dialogue with the dead through the continuation of a monologue shaped by their imagined presence. (Though with an important modulation: in Riley’s hands, Graham’s assertion seems more like a plea.) The central, celebrated poem of the collection, “A Part Song,” is an elegy for Riley’s son, who died in 2008. This poem is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is the wit and skill with which many voices from poetic history are arranged in unique configuration. Through its foregrounding of that synthetic process, the poem makes me preternaturally alert to my own responsiveness to it, and I get the weird feeling that the poem has somehow anticipated that future responsiveness and is already speaking back to it. I feel like I’m more in my body, more who I am, more situated in time, when I read her poems. These great lines from “Late March” do it:
This charged air has a keen and whitish feel
that stings a little, but has gaiety. So, human you,
I’ll hand you back to your own camouflage.
Finally, two books I brought back from a month in New York during the summer. Maureen N. McLane’s Mz N: the serial retains the intricate sonic patterning, punning slapstick and intimate address of her earlier work, but, in this verse-novel-memoir-sequence-I-don’t-know-what-it-is, she allows herself space to wander, ruminate and caustically scrutinise an array of spots of time, as well the woes of the present moment. This is conducted in a dazzling range of registers and rhythms, and packaged in some amazing visual forms: the long, billowy column that makes up “Mz N History of Philosophy,” for example, looks like it’s breathing. There is so much I would like to quote—including a wholly convincing manifesto for a return to both sonnets and bonnets (“Mz N embarks one day upon a sonnet / attracted by the knowledge that it's dead / extinct like dinosaur dodo or bonnet / long replaced by baseball caps on heads”)—but it’s these lines, which seem to float upwards out of the white space that surrounds them, that I’ve been going back to:
Having reached a floating state
of grace, surprised
she wants to die
can only get worse
receding below them as they climb
Ali Power’s A Poem for Record Keepers (Argos Books, 2016) is a long poem made up of short fragments, a journal or daybook with all dates and times removed, and one of the loneliest books I’ve ever read. Each of its forty-nine, seven-line sections has a kind of optional vertical density, but can also be skimmed lightly and semi-distractedly, since, to quote Edwin Denby (a figure these poems bring to mind) “Actual events are obscure / Though the observers appear clear.” The unusual, striking formal feature of the work is that each line is end-stopped. This starts out as rhythmically disruptive, and has odd effects on the inner ear as the lines are processed—each is given the chance to resonate, deeply or awkwardly or comically—but what’s really interesting is how frustrating, and eventually exhausting, this becomes. I find myself longing for the fluidity of a run-on line, for the stretching feeling of extended syntax, for something to break out of the pattern, to escape the terrible solitude of the enclosure. (I also start to feel the absence of the other, unanswering half of these semi-sonnets.) The lines act like they don’t know each other, even when they form part of a potentially continuous sentence; it’s like they’re sharing a commuter train. The cumulative pressure of each failed attempt to begin a dialogue drives the poem to ever more outlandish ice-breakers—in fact, it feels like a poem made up only of ice-breakers, or only of hurried sign-offs, and there’s never quite enough in each to fill the time you want to fill. It sometimes reminds me of reading the backs of cereal boxes, sometimes of Beckett. I’ll finish this last blog with one of these sections, which for me encapsulates some of the feelings and textures of this year. It’s bleak, hallucinatory, paranoid and sardonic, and at the last suddenly and precariously tender:
Was it curiosity or boredom that brought us here?
I ask because it’s summer.
And we’re always reorganizing our dreams.
A glistening ecosystem of Dairy Queens.
Not all women age so gracefully.
Oli Hazzard is the author of two books of poems, Between Two Windows (Carcanet, 2012) and Within Habit (Test Centre, 2014). He is a graduate student at the University of Oxford.