Sunday 30 September 2012

January 2008 Ben Mazer


Ben Mazer

Published by Dark Sky Books.

Reviewed by: Ann Fallon.

There is something very arresting and disarming about the poetic voice in January 2008. Encountering it is like encountering King Lear’s wise fool as he shatters sense and nonsense and reassembles from the pieces, new insights into the heart and vulnerability of a human being. In one of the smallest fragments in the book Mazer tells us that ‘My poem is a huge poem shooting through my head / because my friend, a poet, shot himself dead’ and January 2008 is a single poem, despite the layout which might indicate otherwise. In over one hundred and forty pages, and almost as many poetic fragments, only twelve of which are named, the poem loops back and comments upon itself, repeating phrases and interrogating it’s own truths by exploring different emphasis. Two of the fragments are repeated in full, the first with the same line breaks, on pages 84 and 102 and the second with different line breaks on pages 110 and 111. This second set of repetitions appears face to face in the book, and encapsulates how Mazer’s mind continues to return again and again to the memory of his friend.  

The stroke and subsequent suicide of his friend Landis Everson in 2007, coming only a year after his public recognition in the form of the first Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Foundation, affected Mazer profoundly. Throughout his recovery from this episode he continued to write the poetic fragments which make up January 2008, although he tells us that he has no recollection of them and that they survived intact only because he sent copies to his friend Stephen Sturgeon.  What is astonishing is that despite the trauma which backlights them, despite their repetitions, childlike riddles and rhyming schemes, a strong poetic confidence and integrity  is maintained, an integrity which seems to have been nurtured over years of study, writing and editing.   Throughout the book the images which recur are those of fragmentation, of the sea, rain and wind, of the town, of the instability of time, the desire to know what can be known, and ultimately the possibility or otherwise of love.
The images of the sea and the rain in the repeated sections above, when combined with images of the ‘stable fish’or the tramps who ‘sit and fish through ice-holes on the lake’and the ‘mythic predecessors [who] left their plans in loach museums’(loach museums being fish museums) cannot fail to recall images of the Fisher King in all of its many ancient and modern retellings. From its first written record in the 12th century, to TS Eliot’s early 20th century references to the myth in The Waste Land, and to the 1991 Terry Gilliam film, the image of the Fisher King has retained its archetypal significance throughout the centuries. The myth combines a powerful psychoanalytic message, as well as images of Christ, symbols of sexual anxiety and a metaphor for the decay of societies and civilisations.
The fragmentation of time and imagery which occurs throughout the book, where we are often not certain where memory has overtaken the present moment, recalls the ability of myth to be ever present and relevant in our subconscious and to describe the route which must be taken through the important turning points of our lives.  Mazer’s ‘mythic predecessors left their plans in loach museums’ and for him myth delivers, not the experience or the memory of pain, but a ‘vatic numbness’ ,  the foretold sadness and poverty of broken lives. His knowledge of myth as well as his particularly broken experience allows him to see the world, or Love or Christ

‘…. shin[ing] prismatically in shards of ice
that goes unnoticed otherwise, in view
to the strange traveller who on rain steps
past libraries of the wolves and hounds,
buried in darkness, family or spring’.

His ‘strange traveller’, conscious of the ‘libraries’ and of the imagery of myth, of the ‘darkness, family or spring’ is the conduit for the images in the poem. Seen through his eyes we are asked to look at the world through shards which may be temporarily out of place, but which with time accurately reflect not only his own experience, but the multiple facets , the fractured nature and lack of certainties of our modern life. The poem becomes therefore part of a new generation of poems, strange, sometimes difficult and demanding, but ultimately rewarding. Initially, January 2008 is unnerving because it seems to defy our need to make sense of the words and makes us aware that we don’t have the right questions. On second or subsequent readings however, we have gained a perspective which allows us to stand back from the individual fragments and to make sense of this particular poetic voice, a perspective which might be understood in terms of the cubist art or ‘cubes of words’ which Mazer refers to on p38:-

Picasso and Braque stripped off the top of talk
and sent each sidewise to the other down color
and under line into seeing. Cubes of words
replaced the pigments on their pallets
whey they painted, went to town.
Town came to them. The towns of ports and cities.
And splintered in the brilliance of morning.
Braque went down to Picasso and his brush asked
what color is it that I must already visit?
Picasso painted the town, tone and town.
Both painted portraits of Kahnweiler.

As in a cubist painting, the portrait or story behind January 2008 is self consciously fragmented defying a realistic representation. Mazer’s  ‘cubes of words’ are not static and incorporate both myth and memory into his imagery which continues to deliver shards of images like the ‘shards of pictures on a screen that never stops playing movies like each other’. Often his memories provide relief from the reality of his grief, projecting an ‘amber incandescence into the ductile leaning that the heart misses’  or ‘attenuat[ing] the senses till all is still, and real, examining the buckle calendars, the rounded edges of former prophecies, an island of peace'.  But the relief is temporary and the sense-defying grief returns, splintering sentences, requiring ‘Cookies and Lamictal’, to alleviate the depression and misery.
Cookies and Lamictal
The undershirt of my imagination stinks
with always persuading sheerly by tone
the remembered dipsticks of our latter winter
when to atone for me you went alone
to veering vetters of the current cutter.
I want to see, want to see Tyrone
Power play Philip Marlow.
Cut straight to the bone
I am not write. Won’t be this winter.

So much reminds him of his dead friend, that he cannot escape the reality of the loss. Images which Everson had used recur in Mazer’s book, showing that he is consciously continuing a conversation with his friend, quoting his poems and continuing to make Everson known to the public.  Rain as an image has a particular significance for Mazer because it connects him to Everson’s poem ‘Old Rain’ in which Everson writes

… that seen through new tears
old rain walks up and down
in the trees
just around the corner
from what happened before.’ 

This ubiquitous connection, the old rain, the new tears and the on going sorrow, present everywhere in January 2008 openly explores what the death of Everson means to him. He locates his grief within the time and geographical frames of the book and the narrow gables which held him, aware that such a time of grief and sorrow, even the mention of the prescribed drug Lamictal, holds the danger of defining him or confining him within a narrow definition, when he writes that:

My love breathes through its walls to you.
I can’t replace the rocks and earth because
They for me now truly are you…..

…. The rains make trouble for the older rains,
beating their tones into sanguinity….
The older books – Yeats, Frost – still mostly care and
Touch me in the place where I am one
With all of dream and love these twenty years.
The narrow gables inside still define
The people who have slept inside these rooms
Or on the window seat have sat and wept.

But instead of being defined by his grief, the success of the poems define Mazer as a strong artist and resurrects important questions about the ability of art to transcend suffering. More a potential consequence rather than an answer to Job, Art, the story of Job itself, the drama of Beckett and poetry of Plath, and of Mazer, show that even at our darkest moments we are capable of expressing our broken state beautifully.  January 2008 can therefore stand as a challenge to us to choose which story to create from our own suffering. Do we become like Hecuba and die howling and pitied even by the gods, or like Job who maintains a connection with his religion and is ultimately rewarded through divine intervention, or Oedipus, whose dignity in the face of his destiny, raises the possibility of what a human being can aspire to be? I kid you not, Mazer’s book, including its brokenness, its childlike riddles and rhymes, will demand that you ask these questions of yourself.
Read it through once without trying to analyse everything and allow the rhythms and word play to have their time with your subconscious.  There are shadows where guilt and self-effacement sometimes linger. There are mentions of ‘Yeats, Frost’, ‘Dante’ and ‘Shakespeare’ and echo chambers in which many other poets such as Dickinson, Plath, Beckett and of course Everson, gather. But from the shadows and echo chambers emerges a haunting, vibrant work which demands a lot from its reader and is completely confident that the reader is capable of delivering. 

Such an unusual poem warrants an unusual approach and in my own attempt not to be blindsided by the uniqueness of the images I fed the entire book into a word cloud to determine which words recurred most often. What I discovered surprised me somewhat but also explained why Mazer’s voice here is so arresting. In the following image only the one hundred words which recur most frequently in the book appear, and indicates that in this book, the possibility of ‘love’ dominates.

Despite the sadness, anger and trauma which appear to motivate and inform Mazer’s poem,  January 2008 retains an approachability because ultimately it depends for its transformative powers upon the possibility of love.  Just as Nietzsche’s philosophical enquiries demanded that the foundation of ethical life be peeled back, examined and recognised as a naked will to power the stark experience behind January 2008 seems to have demanded the peeling back and interrogation of what we regard as conventional linguistic and poetic protocol. The ‘bullet report’ which announced the suicide of Landis Everson also announced the death of conventional poetic protocol but could not claim the death of poetry for Mazer. What motivates him through this personal wasteland is also a will to power, but not in any superficial sense. What this word cloud indicates is that his will to power is a will to love, a way of forgiving his friend and himself for the failure in love and a route forward into a future.  January 2008 embodies what Mazer describes in his Prologue as the ‘single flash exposures’ which are

…. the art
of memory in the museum of
decisions in December of the heart
where the new year ascribes to love.

 It is a challenging poem, very demanding but exponentially rewarding. It defies the modern tendency towards sound bites and easy images which we are told is required by todays readers. Ultimately it  confirms what William Carlos Williams tells us when he says that  'It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there'. 

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Jewel - Peadar O'Donoghue.


by Peadar O'Donoghue.

Published by Salmon Press, 2012.


Peadar O'Donoghue's first book of poetry, Jewel, is remarkable for its variety, for its playfulness and for its skillfullness. His poems are angry and compassionate, formal and informal and challenging in the way that the best punk art is challenging. He plays easily with traditional forms using and subverting  them to suit what each particular poem requires and engages with a wide community of poets, musicians and visual artists. 'Jewel' is published in his middle age and there is a sense of his looking back over his earlier life, appreciating it, honouring it, but also preparing himself to move on to a newer phase. The past is a place of innocence, betrayal and loss.  Love skirmishes throughout the book before appearing to settle upon him, and his final poem also points to the presence of hope.  

I will look briefly at three of his poems, not only because they have become favourites of mine, but also because I think they will give a good indication of the breadth of experience and reference in Jewel.


Johannes Greenberg's Nude with Masks (1931)

Even as I waited for the light in her eyes, 
my stare was drawn, weak, to
the bronze of her flesh - 
another mask. 
I had seen her nude before, but never naked,
and as she pulled away,
I took my only chance,
traded truth for lies,
and cloths for heaven.

As the title suggests, the subject of this poem is a painting by Johannes Greenberg, currently on permanent exhibition in the Kumu Museum in Tallinn. It is a stunning painting, in which a female nude holds a mask which reflects the faces of the figures around her, rather than her own image. Peadar includes himself among those viewers or critics, indicted by the painting, who see their own reflections rather than the realities beneath.

The poem pivots around the central line 'I had seen her nude before, but never naked'. The four lines preceding this outline the standard reaction to viewing nudes, where the gaze is directed to the surface skin tone, to colour, and to how the role of the critic blurs with that of voyeur.  The final four lines show the effect which the painting has produced on O'Donoghue. He has 'traded truth for lies', and can now see the woman rather than just the nude. He has, consequentially, gained the potential to become an artist himself, indicated by his reference to Yeats in the final words of the poem,  'cloths for heaven'.  It becomes therefore a poem about the ability of art to transform our vision, to break down cliched interpretations  and to connect with the substance beneath.

It opens up a dialogue with the wider arts world which, as we shall see, is continued throughout many of the poems in Jewel. Reading the poem made me curious to see the painting referred to because while the poem is strong enough to stand on its own, it is interesting to understand the nature of the dialogue between the poet and the artist. In the absence of a copyright free image, this rough black and white sketch begins to illustrate Greenberg's intention.

With Scant Regard for Wordsworth

The ideology of the punk movement revolves around rebellion, anti-authorianism, individualism, and free thought, and punk artists involve themselves in direct action, in protest and sometimes in vandalism. Using these criteria, With Scant Regard for Wordsworth is a punk poem by Peadar O'Donoghue.

With Scant Regard for Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a Cavan camel
that floats on high o'er dung and ghost estate,
when all at once I saw a crowd,
a host, of golden speculators ignoring
beside the lake, a naysayer among trees,
fluttering and pissing in the breeze.

Impoverished as the stars that shine
surviving on Mars Bars and Milky Way,
hands stretched in never-ending line 
along the margin of the dole Q:
ten thousand saw I at a glance,
hanging their heads in deathly trance.

The speculators beside them danced;
threw mocking waves in glee:
a poet could not but be any less use,
in such impotent company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
how us to our knees their wealth had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
in pissed or in petulant mood,
they flash upon that inward eye
which is the bane of solitude;
and then my heart with hatred fills,
for their greed among the daffodils.

The vandalism here involves the appropriation of the Romantic poem and the use of the phrase 'scant regard' in relation to Wordsworth, a phrase subsequently contradicted by O'Donoghue.  The poem opens up a dialogue with Wordsworth and reinterprets his famous poem, making it a perfect catalyst for O'Donoghue's rage against the greed which he sees on his journey through the Irish cultural landscape. As such it is as a complement to the older poet, insisting that we refer back to Wordsworth in order to understand the point which is being made about modern values. Wordsworth's deification of nature has been replaced by our deification of bankers, property developers, and established canons of literature.

As is typical of a punk poem, anti-establishmentarianism drips from each verse, and here culminates in the final lines 'then my heart with hatred fills, for their greed among the daffodils', lines which Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten might easily have taunted us with. Its target is not Wordsworth, but the so-called 'developers' who ransack the countryside, bequeathing ghost estates, poverty and mass unemployment.

It questions the relevance of poetry in the lines 'a poet could not but be any less use,  in such impotent company' but the punk protest of the entire poem answers this, showing itself to be relevant and a voice for the silent majority, the 'impoverished'.

In With Scant Regard for Wordsworth, O'Donoghue communicates a beautifully controlled rage, which will hook readers with its comic reinterpretation, but which should remain long after the laughter has died.

The final poem which I chose to look briefly at is:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrea with word associated inertia and the certainty of confusion.

Here O'Donoghue shows a highly developed awareness of tradition, while still managing to be true to his rebellious instinct. T S Eliot says that the mature poet steals, while the immature poet borrows. In this poem the poet names, steals and subverts the famous 1919 war poem by Canadian John McCrea; his extensive use of it makes it necessary to quote the original in full.

In Flanders Fields  - John McCrea

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, 
And now we lie,

In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
 In Flanders fields.

There has been a lot of discussion over the last century about whether this poem is pro or anti war. The pro-war argument needs no clarification while the anti-war argument comes from the rondeau structure and the cyclical nature of the poem. It continues back into itself and so the poem may show the futility of war and how it leads on to more killing, especially when we look at the line  'And now we lie' which may refer either to the resting place of the dead soldiers or to the veracity or wisdom of their call. O'Donoghue subverts the strict fifteen-line structure of the rondeau and creates instead a sonnet sequence, with two broken and a final unbroken sonnet, which explore the loss of innocence.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrea with word Associated Inertia and the Certainty of Confusion.

The loss of control
(poppies grow, do poppies still grow?)
And there was a gene, is there a gene?
twenty-four hours without a drink
would be a personal best -
Georgie Best, I spent a childhood in adoration.
In the aim of the father and the son and the holy spirit,
uisce beatha.

Would water by any other name taste as sweet?
And I supported Northern Ireland
because of him, a prize Plastic Paddy in Noddy Land
odd cod fish without blessed water.
And I wore his cheap plastic football boots,
so I could bleed for him.

In the original poem by McCrea the lives of young men, still living and able to fight, are at stake. Do they listen to the dead who 'lie  in Flanders Fields' or not? In O'Donoghue's poem we get the sense that the life at stake here is his own. His 'personal best', a day of sobriety, reminds him of his childhood hero, Georgie Best, who also had to battle with addiction. In the first fourteen-line section, the volta or turn, comes on the ninth line, signaling a reference to the Petrarchan sonnet form. This reinforces the sense of idealization in the earlier phrase ‘Georgie Best, I spent a childhood in adoration’. And yet the volta itself brings Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, into the mix, foreshadowing tragedy and also that the feelings he has for his idol are changing and become more worldly wise. Not yet worldly enough however to prevent him from wearing ‘cheap plastic football boots, so I could bleed for himand linking Peadar’s experience to the young boys and men who died in Flanders fields.

The second sonnet within Peadar’s complex poem then introduces the first stanza from McCrea, with only the addition of brackets and the words (And then….).  

(And then In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The Larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.)

The Messiah (a lifetime too late),
yards from me walking with Rodney Marsh,
his angel Gabriel,
and I left the van and I ran
while car horns and human glares
blared, I didn't care,
it was after the bomb
and I had lived though
still my ears rang with racist taunts.

The Messiah here 'a lifetime too late' might be a reference to George Best walking with his old drinking buddy Rodney Marsh, and to and the 2008 painting of the footballer as the messiah. The painting sparked a debate about the role of art, one which continues into O'Donoghue's poetry. But it also reminds him of the Northern Irish conflict, with it's supposedly religious aspect and the accompanying IRA bombings in England,  for which the Irish living in England paid the price in terms of social exclusion.

The third section of the poem is where the source of the trauma is revealed. Not just a horrific bombing, but a close up of the reality of violent death, of flesh in the rain.

I ran like I had run from school,
there he was in the flesh and rain,
my childhood unwound in every step,
reality tore at my lungs till within ten feet
this lifetime facade fell like scales
from my eyes.
I looked; and saw; and
turned away.
(To you from failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We all die and this too shall pass
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
will always grow in Flanders fields.)

In the last six lines O'Donoghue quotes extensively, but with important changes, from McCrea's final verse. The imperative to 'Take up our quarrel with the foe' of the original is gone and there is the addition of the phrase 'will always grow' in the final line. McCrea's rondeau is told from the point of view of the dead and in the final section of O'Donoghue's poem we get a sense that there is instead a rebirth. He acknowledges the cyclical process and futility of violence, but is not keen to echo the call for it because he is more fully alive to the reality of destruction, of his own life, and of the lives of those who die. 

This poem, like many in the collection, is complex and insightful. Jewel is a first collection, but feels like the work of a more experienced poet.   O'Donoghue has a lifetime of experience to call upon giving him a wide range of themes, and an ability to play with whatever form each poem needs. His anger is expressed through humour, wordplay and through a well needed punk sensibility and there is the feeling of it also giving way to allow space for a new direction for the poet. 'Dinner with Her Ex' is one of his poems which will make you laugh out loud, and when you have finished laughing should make you question what poetry is, or is meant to do. It reminded me that just when I think I have a definition for art, something comes along to challenge that definition. I cannot say that Jewel is a perfect book, simply because there are poems which I do not understand, and references which I found hard to track down. What I can say is that it contains many stunning poems and that it is a book which makes me excited to see where O'Donoghue is going to go from here. 

Review by Ann Fallon.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Fireproof and Other Stories - Celeste Auge

Fireproof and Other Stories by Irish-Canadian Celeste Auge, recently published by Doire Press.  

The title ‘Fireproof’ is taken from the title of the final poem in Auge’s previous book of poetry and deliberately links her work and development as an artist.  It conjures up the image of the Phoenix, which is also the middle name her first protagonist, Mary Phoenix Lebel, a character who seems to share in the autobiography of the writer.

The feeling of, or need for, rebirth, runs throughout these emotionally complex short stories. While each stands alone, they are united by their focus on the turning points of the characters lives and by Auge’s deft and understated treatment of these crises. From the realization of a need to escape a stultifying relationship in ‘Touching Fences’, to the need to reclaim her pre-motherhood confidence in ‘DeeDee and the Sorrows', Auge’s characters show us that there is a lot at stake. She catches their strengths and weaknesses and portrays them with honesty in their dissatisfactions and failures. Her rapidly drawn portraits and deep empathy heighten our awareness of how easy it is to get things wrong and to waste an entire life, and pose a very subtle challenge to the reader not to give up, not to get caught in compromise. This existential challenge, coupled with her understanding and empathy, is reminiscent of Chekov and like Chekov she delivers the occasional flash of dark humour. The protagonist of ‘Quick Reaction Force’ for example, a lonely aging woman, could have been an Alan Bennet ‘Poison Pen’ character, but turns darker and more comically proactive. 

Perhaps Auge’s abilities as a poet have added to this sureness in her short stories, have helped to control the pace of each story, its tone, length and form.  In ‘Seizures’ for example the protagonist has to consider how to cope with the fact that her dog will soon have to be put down. She lists the euphemisms commonly used to refer to death and as the list grows, it takes on a gravity which each phrase lacks by itself. Through the length of almost half a page the list begins to mesmerise until it finally gives way to the realization that no words will ever express the reality of the loss she is facing.  It is a gentle story of an older woman recognizing her growing decrepitude and delivers an almost haiku-like serenity in its retrospective compassion. These poetic sensibilities are then further enhanced by the ability to render strong visual images, making the stories ideal material for adaptation to the screen.

Auge offers a number of characters who are artists in some way - singers, writers, characters with a love of language and stories - which makes them outsiders in their practically minded communities and families. However, the mix of autobiography in the first story, combined with the fact that the second story’s protagonist is a writer might be an obstacle for the reader. It was not until I had read further into the book that the suspicion that the collection could be read as a ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ was dismissed. Fireproof may indeed be a kuntlesrroman, portraying the development of the artist but, just as Joyce does in Ulysses, Auge quickly leaves behind the single point of view, offering a refreshing variety of voices. 

Seven of the sixteen stories have already won awards such as the Cuirt Festival of Literature ‘New Writing’ Prize, and the Irish Writers’ Centre ‘Lonely Voice’ competition, and been commended for the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition.  Of the remaining stories, ‘Seizures’, ‘Ghost Girl’ and ‘Rising Slowly’ struck me as particularly moving, shocking and comic in turns.

Connections between Canada and Ireland are already strong, with over 3.9 million Canadians claiming Irish descent. The publication of this book will surely help to strengthen those cultural connections. Celeste Auge is a very gifted writer, and one which both Canada and Ireland can be very proud of. Fireproof is a remarkably strong debut into the world of short stories and will begin to build what is undoubtedly going to be a strong readership for the author.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Griswold by Arnold Thomas Fanning



Arnold Thomas Fanning.

The world changed when the twin towers disappeared form the New York City skyline. For two Irish illegal immigrants, Taidhg and Hed, this is painfully true. they had 'good jobs' in those towers - they cleaned the windows; now they are living in a squalid room with no income. Since 9/11 'things have tightened up' and it is almost impossible for an illegal to get work.

Griswold is a dark play, and in the darkness lies the humour. The relationship between Taidh and Hed is tender and savage by turns.  When Taidgh refers to a 'skip' Hed corrects him: 'Over here, it's a dumpster.' A 'lift' is an 'elevator' and so it goes throughout the play. Taidhg is the tougher of the two, refusing to integrate and determined to take what he can, and if he is going to stay he has no intention of merely surviving. 'I didn't come here to be poor.' Hed knows that survival means assimilation. He has been traumatised by 9/11 but when he is forced to break out of his shell he also wants to make something of himself. What, or who, that something might be is flexible.

It is a shame that Dublin's Focus Theatre had to close its venue in Pembroke Place, but it is heart lifting to see the company continue the quality of work produced by its founder, Deirdre O'Connell. The New Theatre is well suited to the kind of work this company specialises in. This production was beautifully directed by Joe Devlin, and the acting by Shane Gately and Patrick O'Donnell was riveting.

Reviewed by: Seamus Gallagher.