By Tiny Twisting Ways by Ian Davidson (Aquifer Press, 2021): Brightwork by Suzannah V. Evans (Guillemot Press, 2021): Second Memory by Pratyusha & Alycia Pirmohamed (Guillemot Press, 2021)
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
It might be interesting to speculate what answer in the spring of 1956 Charles Tomlinson might have given to the question concerning where poetry came from. He might well have been prompted to respond by offering a form of words on a blank page creating the poem he wrote at that time in which waves are ‘Launched into an opposing wind’ before hanging ‘Grappled beneath the onrush.’ The title he gave to the poem was ‘The Atlantic’ and as a wave withdraws down the sand and pebbles it
leaves, like the after-image
Released from the floor of a now different mind,
A quick gold, dyeing the uncovering beach
He most certainly would have shared this understanding with the lines from Ian Davidson’s opening to his recently published collection from Aquifer Press, By Tiny Twisting Ways, in which ‘deep water as / a wave’
curls and lands, wiping its face
in a surface of sand, its
expression fleeting as a
ready to make an entrance. Wave
upon wave gathering then
returning, altered, every
Davidson stands upon the wind-whipped beaches of County Mayo staring out across an ocean towards the port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, from which Charles Olson might himself have recalled one of his own notebook comments from 1942 which had told us that ‘The substance of life is change. I expect and accept change.’ Seven years later of course he was to write ‘The Kingfishers’, a poem that perhaps announced a New World of contemporary verse, and in the fifth of Davidson’s ‘Lumps and Bumps’ section of this new volume it is with a tone of clarity and precision that he asserts:
nothing stays the same except
the steady state of change and
the order of mass.
When he published his book about Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry in 2007 Ian Davidson had put forward the view that early Cubist and collagist techniques not only expressed bewilderment at the loss of moral and ethical certainties but also created ‘free’ space ‘in which new ideas could be developed and explored through the combination of ideas and objects otherwise held apart.’ This focus upon object and idea offered an echo of Olson’s ‘Human Universe’ essay (Origin IV, 1951-2) in which he had suggested that ‘a thing, any thing, impinges on us by a more important fact, its self-existence…the very character of it which calls our attention to it, which wants us to know more about it, its particularity.’ In a way that Olson would have recognised immediately movement becomes stasis for a moment in Davidson’s use of old Welsh and Irish syllabic lines and, as Zoe Skoulding suggests in the blurb on the back of this hauntingly beautiful collection, the particularity of this held moment has the effect of ‘brilliantly wrongfooting illusions of power and transparency.’ In these poems ‘Wind arrives as a solid / block’ and seaweed which ‘has broken deep / undersea’ is ‘blown ashore / still clinging to shattered stone.’ What Davidson presents us with is the very opposite of what Ruskin had complained about concerning the Flemish painters in the first volume of his Modern Painters:
A peculiar studiousness infected all accident; bricks fell out methodically, windows opened and shut by rule; stones were chipped at regular intervals; everything that happened seemed to have been expected before; and above all, the street had been washed and the houses dusted expressly to be painted in their best.
In Davidson’s poetry
is ever quite the same, no
two strands lie precisely in
the same place once the wind has
us up and held us laughing
As we are told in the second section of By Tiny Twisting Ways the form the poet has chosen for his writing ‘includes metrical patterns from Ancient Irish, particularly a seventh syllable quantitative line’ the effect of which was to provide ‘an unsettled rhythm, never able to finally assert itself.’
The dedication at the opening of this sequence of poems and prose is for Elizabeth, ‘who survived the cancer’ described in the work and it is for ‘my neighbours in County Mayo, who kept their candles lit.’ In the words of Kelvin Corcoran a precise mythology and history of Ireland’s Atlantic facing coast is bound within these covers and there, ‘wrapped around an account of surviving cancer three evocative concerns hold sway; the climate, hagiography and the origins of poetry itself.’ For Ian Davidson poetry is formed ‘in the alchemy of / conversion.’
Underfall Yard is a working boatyard in the heart of Bristol and since the creation of the Floating Harbour in 1809 it has been of central importance to its operation and maintenance. The river Avon is the bearer of much silt which it deposits as the water enters the Floating Harbour and the effect of this silting is to reduce the depth of the channel and hinder the navigation for ships. In the 1830s Brunel put forward a suggestion for the development of the original sluices and for the introduction of dredgers. The present-day system as evoked by Susannah Evans’s Brightwork was installed in the 1880s and the Guillemot Press edition of her poems appeared early this year. It is a restless book of short pieces of poetry and prose ebbing and flowing with a constant movement as words find their settled place for a moment on the page:
As the rain slips in, sluicing over silt and sawdust in the harbour, I think of slippages, how your name could slip to skidway, or siltway, or saltway, or softway, or tiltway. I’ve seen you slide into the water, lowering yourself with an easy song, a sweet whining, a slow clanking; I’ve seen your wooden posts sink deeper like fins.
These poems were written during Evans’s poetry residency at Underfall Yard and whilst they ‘weave a space in the river’, looking outwards to sea, they also look southwards across France to the Occitan world of Montpellier and Nîmes, the early home of that master of particularity, Francis Ponge. Brightwork includes four poems translated from Ponge’s Le parti pris des choses, his 1942 evocation of the particular, and it ends with a quotation from ‘Pluie’ to remind us of the constant orchestra of movement which composes a world ‘sans monotonie, non sans délicatesse.’
In his 1966 essay ‘Silence and the Poet’, George Steiner had suggested that a poet ‘has made of speech a dam against oblivion’ and that ‘death blunts its sharp teeth upon his word’; the concern Evans has with the world of sound echoes the lasting truth of this as she writes about the building of boats:
The language is worked into the wood as they move,
mahogany murmuring with the sound of canvas,
carlins, clinker, coaming, cradle, crook,
taking on the shine of seam, scuppering, in place of varnish,
settling down into the hull of the yacht soothed
by the words starboard, spiling batten, shutter plank.
The alliterative murmur of wood is juxtaposed with the freshness of movement in the repeated ‘c’s of lines two and three and the compound words of the last line offer a soothing sound of settled movement which complements Steiner’s suggestion that two forces, music and language, ‘meet in the human voice when it sings.’ The stilling of sound in a poem is caught for us not only here in the boatyard but also in Evans’s translation of Ponge’s ‘Rain’:
When the spring relaxes, certain cogs continue to function a little, turning more and more slowly, then the whole machinery stops. Then as soon as the sun reappears, everything is eclipsed, the brilliant apparatus evaporates: it has rained.
Although Ponge’s remarkably evocative realisation of rain concludes with the sunshine swiftly followed by ‘le brillant appareil s’évapore’ the print on the page is testimony to what was there before.
It requires no great leap of the imagination to move from this thought to one of the opening phrases from another beautifully produced publication from Guillemot Press, the small independent concern one of whose claims is to provide readers with ‘new ways of looking at where we are and who we are.’
Second Memory by Pratyusha & Alycia Pirmohamed opens with a connectedness between the Now and the Then, the evocation of which is hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity:
I learn to pull the signified from the mouths of other women who once looked like me. I learn to pour water from one vase into another heirloom.
A little like Davidson’s seaweed clinging to shattered stone here ‘There is the slight residue of / before’ and the need to learn ‘how to translate the past’ is then woven into a sense of deciphering oneself in order to reach a position of clarity. The quiet tone of patient observation in Second Memory is a reminder of the open mouth of Orpheus whose unquenchable music outlives both death and decapitation.
From a visit to Dar es Salaam in 2019 the writers become aware that there was so much among the vines that was ‘like desirable, clean knowledge’ and that ‘So much sound comes from a wide open mouth: an amaryllis: a tear on the page.’ One of the enduring qualities of Second Memory is its ability to remind us that poetic language can lead us home to where we have not yet been and the short quotation from the writer and academic Billy-Ray Belcourt from the Driftpile Cree Nation in Canada occupies an appropriately distinct place on a full blank page which is itself preceded by a full blank page:
It is there, in the neighbourhood of experience, that my childhood home is nowhere to be found.
Language inevitably falls short of presence and as Geoff Ward once suggested words can both describe and evoke whilst never actually being the thing, feeling or concept to which they refer. Pratyusha & Alycia Pirmohamed (connected by a symbol rather than a word) are fully aware of this and go on to suggest ‘I love metaphor for its carcass, marked by love and love’s descendent, the latter of which must sustain the forty day journey.’ From the open mouth there issues the play of words:
Too alike, two alike, they are the source of ritual, of concurrence.
In their different ways these three publications from two outstanding small presses offer us what Charles Tomlinson had observed in the last lines of that ‘Atlantic’ poem sixty-five years ago:
That which we were,
Confronted by all that we are not,
Grasps in subservience its replenishment.