Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Review of Nigel Humphreys' OF MOMENT


by Nigel Humphreys

Arbor Vitae Press
ISBN 9780952567950


Nigel Humphreys’ of moment is an extraordinarily difficult book to review. Usually with poetry one can lift a pithy stanza or two to demonstrate some point or other, but with this one, it’s the whole poem or the entire sequence that’s required. This is the thing with poetry: if it’s done properly, it can’t be segmented and diced – one can’t present an elegantly turned phrase on a plate and expect it to represent the whole. I’ve opened the book at random on page 27 and have just re-read ‘leaving the scene’, an astonishingly beautiful poem in which Humphreys leaves behind the humour and wry observation that is much in evidence elsewhere and gives us instead a hauntingly beautiful poem that brings tears to the eyes without the reader ever knowing precisely how this has happened. I don’t want to analyse the poetic ‘tricks’ that have produced this effect. I might in a poetry workshop, true, but in a workshop it’s unfinished; it’s not ‘it’ until it’s ‘it’ – but in this collection, it most assuredly is ‘it’. The time for analysis is over. This is the time to savour the final result.

I’ve heard this poet read, so I know what he sounds like, but even so, I don’t hear these poems in his voice. Not precisely. The voice in my head might start as Humphreys’ but it quickly morphs into pure Richard Burton, which is handy as there are plenty of Burton’s recordings of poetry around, so anyone can look him up to see how he sounded and use that as an aural template. Burton’s voice works particularly well in the extended sequence that is the ‘Aberystwyth Odyssey’ – this is Humphreys at his most keenly observational and earthy. If you don’t know the town, you will by the end. This is a drunken romp, the pub crawl to end all pub crawls, but as our guide is Nigel Humphreys, typically enough the whole thing is written in cywyddau – a traditional metered and rhyming form that dates from the fourteenth century, if not earlier. Humphreys’ great gift with these ancient forms is to forget about being obsequious and grave in the presence of history, but rather to re-create the bawdy style that quite likely was the mainstay of the form when it was first popularised, and in this sequence he succeeds with a vengeance.

I love the London underground – for me, it’s a womblike place, full of childhood memories. For Humphreys, it’s emphatically not. The first poem of ‘The London Suite’ – City underground – gives a shivery different perspective, that’s shocking in its forthright observation of what’s really going on. Or is it? This is the thing with Humphreys’ poems. He takes you to one side and says, ‘You think you know this? Think again,’ and gives you a completely oblique and unexpected perspective that’s totally convincing while you’re in the world of the poem. Afterwards, you might think, ‘Hang on a minute. It’s not really like that. Is it?’ but by then it’s too late. You’ll never see the underground in quite the same way again.

Humphreys haunts art galleries, as I do. I’ve even been round a few with him, but I haven’t stood next to him in front of the specific artworks that have inspired some of the ekphrastic poems in this collection – despite this, I find we’ve both written about the same artworks. There is Poussin’s exquisite ‘Dance to the Music of Time’, for example, that turns up in the third of the Sisyphus poems in this collection, and which I think has much the same effect on Humphreys as it does on me. I’ve written it into a novel rather than a poem, but this painting cries out to be written more than almost any I’ve ever seen, and I was with Humphreys all the way in this poem. This makes it all the more surprising that another work we have both written about, ‘How it is’ by Miroslav Balka, affected us in such entirely different ways. I found it transcendental. Humphreys found it... and here I’m at a loss for words. You’ll have to read this utterly bleak poem for yourself. I remember talking to Humphreys about this artwork when it was first displayed in Tate Modern, and being interested in how he had a completely different take on it. That was some years ago, but I think it’s one of the most powerful artworks Tate Modern ever displayed, and the memory remains strong – now that I read his poem, I can see what he saw. He uses stark economy to produce the most chilling poem in the collection. Again, while I’m reading the poem, I am completely convinced. No question. It’s only later, as I recover, as I move onto different things that I remember how I saw this work of art. My own reactions.

However, one must not forget that Humphreys is also the funniest and most erudite of men. His mischievous take on the opening of Paradise Lost (‘Paradise Repossessed’) is an absolute joy. Scathingly incisive, this is a poem for our times like no other. Quite what John Milton would have made of it, I have no idea. Let’s just say he would have admired the craft.  

I’ve only touched on a very small number of poems in this magnificent collection. If I were to write about them all, this review would turn into an extended essay of thousands of words. You don’t want to read that – you want to read the collection. This one’s a keeper. Buy it.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Nigel Humphreys reviews 'Serpentine'

I'm absolutely delighted to present poet Nigel Humphreys' review of Serpentine. The thing about Nigel is he knows about writing, and he knows about art - so who better to cast his eye over this novel. I first met Nigel a few years ago, when the famous 'crack' was snaking across the floor of Tate Modern. We decided to take a look and were inspired - or I certainly was. A fictionalised version of this visit features in the first chapter of Serpentine. Recently I had the pleasure of going round the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy with Nigel. Perhaps the seeds of a new novel have just been sewn.

Here's Nigel's review.

Much paint is squeezed from tubes in Catherine Edmunds’ latest novel Serpentine, the outline is sure, its canvas painted with a sable brush, characters blocked in and the non-representational landscape of conflicting emotions hung. Victoria, a struggling artist, is passionate about her art, passionate about her men and between them there writhes a serpentine crack, partly symbolised by Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, a conceptual installation at Tate Modern in 2007. 

“‘Remember ‘Shibboleth?’ Victoria asks. ‘You have wounds, they fester, they never heal.’ The crack that ran through the heart of the building. It had been filled in . . . but the scar was still there.” 

Victoria carries the ghost of her Spanish affair with José as she tries to sculpt a relationship with antiques dealer Simon, a stranger who spilt coffee over her on a train. Yet not a stranger exactly since, it turns out, he’s known to John who is being divorced by Emma who lives in the north-east and a close friend of Victoria’s since art school. The narrative’s measured flow surprisingly allows us to swallow this coincidence without murmur as the action commutes between London and the North-east.

Victoria paints compulsively but her tragedy, if tragedy it is, is that her men don’t get her art, and therefore don’t get her. For Simon, Victoria’s abstract canvases are beyond his pedantry. Victoria paints her way through the novel in a to-and-fro of self-absorption – sometimes submissive, sometimes dominant, always impulsive. Her vitriolic relationship with a slightly unhinged Emma doesn’t help, but the women have all the fun. Unlike the bi-sexual José, Simon and John struggle for our interest at first and seem almost interchangeable. Are antiques dealers really that dull? Victoria’s initial prejudices against the profession soon change, and together with her we start to view the ‘sea of grey men’ as something very much more dynamic – dangerous even, when it comes to John.

At times the novel sets itself up as an apologist for Abstract art whereas Conceptual art in the novel is loud and symbolic. As well as Shibboleth, Miroslaw Balka’s How it is, also having its fifteen minutes of fame in the Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2010, suggests the necessity of groping in the dark inherent in Victoria’s perception of self, especially when it comes to her unco-ordinates of men.

The novel is a comfortable read, its narrative mixes prime colours of human relationships while commenting on the art world in broad strokes. Those who don’t paint get a telling glimpse of how the struggling painter makes ends meet by turning out postcard landscapes of city landmarks for a pittance. Life classes in back street studios, antiques fairs and a concert at Wigmore Hall, written so that we hear the music, create a convincing canvas for the craquelure of self-doubt which is the protagonist Victoria. Enjoyable.

Serpentine can be purchased from all the usual online stores, as well as the publisher's website here and direct from the author.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Review of Mandy Pannett's 'All the Invisibles'

SPM Publications  
ISBN: 978-0956810120

‘Best After Frost’ was chosen by the Inter Board Poetry Community as their poem of the year 2011, and quite right too. Medlars – who remembers medlars? More to the point, who will be able to forget this ‘smutty fruit’ after reading a garnet-red and delicious slurpy-slimy poem that sets the tone for an extraordinarily vivid collection. I would have been happy with a whole book of Pannett’s nature poetry, could have sat back in a comfy chair and read through one brilliant imagist poem after another, but it was not to be. By the second poem, I was having to start googling references. This was not a chore – this was a Good Thing. I will explain.  

Pannett breaks us in gently with the word. ‘psychopomp’. Great word, but I didn’t know what it meant so looked it up. The definition made perfect sense. Pannett could have used an easier word in her poem title, but why should she? Why dumb down? The chosen word is always precisely the right word, never the one that is better known but might not do the job so well. In ‘Psychopomp: a Guide’, Pannett explores the fine line that is the meeting place between the contemporary and the mythological. This theme runs through the entire collection. Ancient and modern – are we really so different from our ancestors? ‘Two For One’ is an age old tale of vengeance told in a contemporary setting, so any doubts that we’re somehow different is quickly dispelled. The ancients will have their say later in the collection, and they go far, far further back than I expected – but more on that later.

Pannett expects her readers to have a reasonable familiarity with concepts from the ancient times through the dark ages to the Renaissance and beyond. Unfortunately not all of us have her level of erudition, but we no longer need volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica weighing down our teak veneer wall units – we have Wikipedia – and even if we didn’t, the poems stand by themselves without the necessity to know all the references. Knowledge adds an angle, a colour – but it’s not essential. We can read about the traveller from the ship of fools as he explores dry land, and sense the irony because Pannett has made it clear and has no interest in veiling her message. You’d be hard pressed not to understand the poem even if you didn’t know the historical uses of the image. I became so used to looking stuff up that when I came to poems where I was sure I was missing references, I actually emailed the author for clues. As often as not, it turned out that the poem in question was exactly what it said it was and I didn’t need a Masters in Classics or anything else. Sometimes a hare in a field is just a hare in a field. One forgets.

One of the most intriguing offbeat facts I learned from this collection was that Catherine of Aragon brought sweet potatoes to England as part of her dowry. Pannett was not making this one up. I checked. And Henry VIII really did set a competition for growers in England, none of whom managed to cultivate the plant successfully. Out of this random historical fact, Pannett has built a powerful and unusual poem. In ‘Trust the Sun’, Odysseus makes his first appearance. He’ll be back – unless I’m misreading one of the poems, which is always possible. They are so rich in ideas, it’s easy to go off at a tangent and see tales that aren’t really there, but that’s an undeniable strength as it brings out the story-teller in the reader.

You think you know certain images, but you don’t, not really; not until you’ve viewed them through Pannett’s eyes. What if a horse in the Bayeux tapestry could speak? What indeed. The poor beast would suffer ‘bowels of blancmange’ before experiencing the terrible transitions of its brief history, assaulted by ‘arrows like blowflies’. And what is really going on in Millais’ painting of Isabella (she who loved a severed head) that arrived via Boccaccio and Keats and ended up dissected by Mandy Pannett’s pen? Everything is in precise Pre-Raphaelite sharp focus in the painting, and also in the poem, but here it’s at an oblique angle. There’s probably a doctoral thesis to be written exploring the difference in precision between words and pictures with specific reference to Isabella.  

In Durham Botanical Gardens there’s a block of marble engraved with Basil Bunting’s famous lines from Briggflatts: ‘Pens are too light. Take a chisel to write’. I thought of that line on reading ‘Mottoes on Sundials’, as well as the more obvious ‘Time is. Time was. Time is past’ which supposedly originates in Greene’s Elizabethan play ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’ despite sounding much older. Be that as it may, Pannett has found inspiration in the mottoes engraved on sundials. This is a lovely idea. She has taken each inscription and turned it into a poem. Aulus and Lucius built their sundial in Pompeii, so there is great resonance in the lines about voids in the ash – but Pompeii is never mentioned. I find this theme of taking scenes from antiquity and showing them from a different angle refreshing and beguiling.

In ‘Stopping a Bunghole’, I can’t help but feel we have the complete thoughts of Shakespeare (but mostly Hamlet) in one short poem. And why not. This is certainly one possible reading. Pannett never lays down strictures; never insists on a specific meaning. She gives you the best words in the best order, but after that it’s up to you, as should be the case with all literature.

I’m an art nut, so for me, personally, it’s the art poetry that does it; that makes me want to read and re-read. If you want to know how to seduce this particular reader, write about Dürer. I know the artist, now show me the man. This is precisely what Pannett does. Just as I’ve settled into the Renaissance, however, ‘A New Cartography’ comes along and I’m yanked back into the present; a present so removed from the past that this reads as sci-fi at first, but no – it’s contemporary. This is real. This is happening now. I’m back in the present and seconds later I’m addressing a ‘True Fly’ which unexpectedly takes me into DH Lawrence territory and made me think of his mosquito poem. Then, without warning, we jump back to ancient times with ‘Group of Eight’. Coincidentally, when I first read this poem I’d just been looking at Neanderthal cave paintings of seals looking weirdly like double helix DNA. There is something about cave art that ties us together across the millennia in a way words cannot. Language grows and changes. The owners of those eight hands wouldn’t speak any language we know, but we know what a bison looks like and we understand the concept of deer flying across the sky – we’ve never lost that sense of wonder, of the numinous in nature.

‘The Hurt of Man’ needs to be read with Sibelius playing in the background to get into the right mood. This one sent me scurrying off to find out who ploughed the field of vipers and to generally renew my woefully slight acquaintance with the ‘Kalevala’. I like poetry that says, ‘Look, here’s something that happened that you may have read about – go and read more’. I did, and I’m glad I did.

The poetry of the potential typo is represented in the lovely misreading poem, ‘The Starling Point’ where the dull little church of St Olave Hart Street is transformed by the idea of ‘a word / misread that ushers in rune-stones’, but just as the reader settles into this comfortable place, Pannett throws ‘Stunted’ into the mix, a searing poem of what happens when a child has to find some way to survive a cruel upbringing – one of the most powerful and unsettling images of the entire collection.

‘Later, All At Once’ is a wondrous bunch of snippets. No, snippets is too mean a word. A time-traveller’s compendium of moments? Yes, that’s closer. A veritable gallimaufry of images, all of them precise, every one crystal clear. Another clear image sings through in ‘Every Last Bell’. I’ve drawn that bridge with its ‘glittering vertebrae’. This falcon’s eye view of the City zooms in on what might not be immediately obvious, but is no doubt somebody’s prey. When reading this one I couldn’t help thinking of Macbeth and the bell that summons Duncan to heaven or hell. On the subject of sounds – I want to hear the reconstructed fossil’s chirp. Read the collection, and you will too, I promise.

Driftwood has so much more resonance than dust or clay. In ‘Woman-Tree’ I had to assume Pannett was channelling her Norse forebears, and if she hasn’t got any, that’s quite bizarre. Of course she’s got some. Must have. Without getting all Jungian about it, there’s a strong impression of collective memory at work here. Her ancestors could read this newly written poem and understand every word, every reference and every thought. Stories – we all have stories. We understand such things. William Shakespeare wrote many of them down for us, which is handy. ‘Titania’s Wood’ takes me straight to the 1935 Fritz Reinhardt version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare adaptations for the dangerous other-worldness with which he imbues the visuals. I’m convinced that while the cameras were pointing one way, this poem was happening somewhere else, very nearby.

There are so many more wonderful images in this collection. I wanted to list them all, but knew that would be impossible. Read the book instead, as that’s where you’ll find faces of foxes, whimsical looks at the heart, achingly sad poems, and others that make you remember how extraordinarily potent cheap music can be (thank you Noel Coward). Then clutch your birthstone and hope for salvation.

Or visit Room 44 at the National Gallery. I’m talking ‘Seurat, It’s a Long Sunday’ here. The Sunday picture is of course ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’. The picture on ‘the other side’ has to be ‘Bathers at Asnières’ from the description. The poem tells the reader to go north – the empty beach, I would guess, is ‘The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe’ and your boat can be tied up on the river bank (The Seine at Asnières). I tend to go even further north. I love Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s ‘Lake Keitele’, and if it’s not mentioned in so many words in the poem, it’s only because we’re concentrating on Seurat’s work. It’s still there. You can’t miss it. Go and have a look. Does the reader need to be familiar with this particular room in the gallery? I know these paintings so well, I find it impossible to do a ‘new’ reading of the poem, so I really have no idea.

After Seurat, we have Monet – his life in reverse through ‘A Suggestion of Leaves’, a beautifully conceived and executed poem, but before getting too comfortable with the French Impressionists, we’re yanked back in time again. Mesolithic morphs into Neolithic, but hindsight is unavailable to this stone age man. Is this progress? He can’t tell.

Why didn’t I know the paintings of Eric Ravilious? I do now. I read the poem, looked up the artist. Ah – a student of Paul Nash. I love Nash’s work. I’m taking so long looking at the paintings, I’ve forgotten about the poem. Go back to look at it. This is an artist I should explore further, but before I do that there are a few gentle poems and then suddenly we’re back to pre-history and crossing the land bridge that brought people from Siberia to America. ‘The Kelp Days’ is a stunning poem. Vivid and real and immediate. I’m not surprised to find it won first prize in the Wirral Festival of Firsts 2011.

Remember Odysseus? His father was Old Laertes. Did Odysseus dream of the artichokes and olive groves back on old Ithaca when he was far, far away? I certainly think Pannett dreams of the South Downs. That distinctive countryside pervades much of the collection, particularly the title poem, ‘All the Invisibles’. At this point the reader is nearly at the end of the book. Just a few more intriguing facts to learn ‘Ignatius of Antioch Looks for Stars’. He does? Okay, I’ll look him up, and also try to find the Peckham Rye reference and – good grief. In 1767, William Blake visited Peckham and had a vision of an angel in a tree. I didn’t know that. Oh yes – the poem. What was that about? I return... I’ve a feeling the music of the spheres is going to link this poem to the last: ‘Aeolian Rain’. Yes it does. Angels; this is all about angels – maybe. And everything else.

I’ve resisted talking about aspects of the poems that put one in mind of the collective unconscious or archaic remnants mostly because I don’t know enough about such concepts to say anything sensible, but if I did know about them, I’d be able to analyse this collection and explain its universality in a very technical way. As I don’t, I’m relieved to be able to suggest you read the book instead. I can guarantee that these poems are far more enlightening than any essay I might be able to write. Ideally, take the collection to an art gallery and read it there. You might suffer sensory overload, but it will be worth it.