No 12 - Autumn 2007
Brains Working Through Their Blue Hats
Review of Tom Lowenstein, Gael Turnbull and R.F. Langley
Tom Lowenstein: Ancestors and Species: New & Selected Ethnographic Poetry. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005. 152 pp. ISBN 978-0-907562-74-0, £9.95 / US$16 pb.
Gael Turnbull: There Are Words: Collected Poems. Exeter: Shearsman, 2006. 490 pp. ISBN 978 0-907562-89-4, £18.95 / US$30 pb.
R. F. Langley. Journals. Exeter: Shearsman, 2006. 140 pp. ISBN 978-1-905700-00-4, ££9.95 / US$17 pb.
At present Geoffrey Hill and R. F. Langley are the poets whose work I most anticipate and most enjoy. One of the major processes of the last ten years has been the dawning realisation of what an important poet Langley is. There are singular problems in explaining his work, which are partly by-passed by reading these Journals, which not only draw on the same world of imagery as the poems but also have a more transparent nature. There are ways of remembering some-one's name, by association; how-ever, none of these three poets is closely related to any other poet. To fix their styles in mind, we have to create singular and new terms. With Langley, I can read his poetry, without having reached the point where I can explain it or give a guided tour of it. I can quote it.
Evarcha arcuata looks violent and imposing in the tube, although I
won't know who he is until I get home and look him up. I have not
seen such thickened, powerful femora and tibia before. They are deep
black, with the thinner part of the legs brown with black articulations.
He has a bronze face and a face-mask, ear to ear, as it were, which
consists of two or three lines of white hairs, the top line pulled up to
beneath his huge round anterior eyes. Above this the eyes themselves
have white spectacles around them. […] It's a face that reminds me of
the African ones on sale in that room off the courtyard of St
What this may be is an escape into a smaller dimension with unexplored possibilities and an unravished autonomy. Something else we hear a lot about is church decoration:
There is a double shadow on the whitewash behind each poppy-head
in the Bohun aisle. Trinities, says Jeremy. But no more flames come in,
and without them, the walls around have joined up and squared the
place. The three roofs, the chancel one, single beam, massive, the nave
and Bohun aisle ones, with purlins and wall plates, seal into a unity,
gather together overhead. […] The wet window, cut out in pure black
now, has geometric tracery, quatrefoils, also two bare, straight
transoms rather brutal in the side lights.
The beetle is arcuata, with arches, a pun which allows us to think of the formalism and rich colour both of flying beetles and of church decorationin one picture. The journal is made out of the same material as the poems, and so may lead us closer to them. Firm and ornate visual forms acting as models for ornate and firm verbal forms? It would be premature to speak with confidence.
Gael Turnbull (1928-2004), a Scottish-Canadian poet, may be known because he edited a short-lived magazine called Migrant at the end of the 1950s, which seemed to be a bus out of English convention into a new world of poetry. He was a figure of significance to Roy Fisher, as a friend and reader. However, Turnbull's poetry does not have much going for it. There is a deliberate flatness, a confinement to a narrow range of words, as if that represented authenticity. It is difficult to justify a book of almost 500 pages written within these confines. He did not have a point of view or a particular technique. He broke out twice, both times into long forms: Residues: Down the Sluice of Time (Grosseteste, 1976) and Twenty Words, Twenty Days (Migrant, 1966).
at ease on my back, dozing, I look up –
into a sky which becomes a
ground from which all pigment has been absorbed, leaving only a fine
dust, an indeterminate bleach –
a purity, of a sort –
then the air
fragmented by diesel engines, bulldozers and earthmovers, on an
adjacent hill, cutting roads, levelling terraces –
masticating the earth,
acromegalic locusts with rumplestiltskin secrets –
(from section IX)
The poem goes on to focus on a single pebble, in a sharp contrast of scale. The juxtaposition of these blocks of semi-prose makes something brilliant, where the restrictions of technique are thrown away to allow something complex and disinclined to run down into obviousness. For that extent of time, he wiped the squares off the board. I was curious to read Turnbull's poetry of the 1950s: a revolution was about to happen, he was one of its organisers, but the poems (at pp. 23 to 82) are unexciting. His distrust of abstraction and fine language is hard to separate from a similar distrust on the part of the Movement.
In retrospect, one of the most significant events of the 1980s was the publication of Tom Lowenstein's book Filibustering in Samsara. This bypassed all the politicised style moves of the time and found its way out into a poetry with awesome complexity, depth, and forward momentum. It is quite removed from any other poetry in this country: many people realised that in order to think about European society you had to get outside European imperatives and semantic fields, but this was a wish rather than an achieved state. Four poems from that volume appear also in Ancestors and Species. Coincidentally, the Viennese poet Ute Eisinger has just told me that she is translating one of them, “Labrys”, into German. Lowenstein is a field anthropologist, and the reality of Inuit and English cultures – the reality of their imaginaries, even – is the matter of these poems, the information which they narrate. The species of the title are the animals which appear throughout Inuit legends, figures from an animist culture living chiefly by hunting and fishing. He describes them in the drawings of Inuit children: “They breathed quietly on their pages / and out leaped back-lines of companion species, / bounding from the margins in spontaneous series: co-production, / fabulous, in nova … formas corpora.” The ancestors are reproductive principles, of changeable favours, who are responsible for the fertility of the prey species. Many of the poems are actually tellings of Inuit tales:
Just some of his equipment is disrupted.
The broad thin slate harpoon blade, with its owner's mark –
in five rhythmical cuts, a quadrangular caribou,
tail lifted, two legs visible – has snapped across the middle.
"The nest … the nest' the umialik whispers.
Wedged in the boat-frame lies his harpoon blade-box:
egg-shaped, the lid studded with a crystal,
and bound into place with braided sinew.
The harpooner extracts a fresh slate from the set of five,
and tamps down the shavings that pack the remainder.
(from “Ancient Land: Sacred Whale”)
It is the tangible basis, the world of things and neuromuscular routines in which our bodies live, which gives this transcendent poetry its stability. The impact of the work depends on its vast semantic space. We see the writer struggling to explain himself to inquisitive Inuit “ethnographical subjects”, and going through a scouring discipline of building a third stratum of concepts in which he can frame language to explain either culture to each. The gap between English and Eskimo is unimaginably vast, and this gives us the dimensions of Lowenstein's work, something unlike any other poetry:
In the middle distance, then, the last routines of purely local
with horizons uncorrupted and uncluttered:
but now on the skyline
there came cross-hatched structures, masted and then also funneled,
the scaffolding a-bristle, sketched in complicated silhouette
as though each rig were bird bone and sinew dried and lifted,
or disjointed from the meat part
in some planally disorganised arrangement,
a great wing flexing erect its exo-skeleton, and then as the ships closed,
they saw marvellous
hypertrophies of skinboat and fantastication,
alive, alone, aloof and curiously peopled,
heavy with stuff indefinably desirable,
but then abruptly gone in atmospheric summer shimmer
(“At Jabbertown, 1890”)
– where a coastal band in Alaska sees through the sea mist, their architecture distorted by atmospheric blur and possibly by alcohol, the ships built in shipyards, cognate with skin boats that go to sea but “hypertrophied”. In its brief nineteenth century whaling boom when Inuit and Whites were there in numbers, Jabbertown was built from whale ribs, ship timbers, and turves. Lowenstein, in the 1970s, was studying Inuit-speaking people whose social set-up derived from the boom and bust of Jabbertown. Labrys is the double axe which appears as a symbol of unknown value in the Minoan culture; a word from a language which may be Anatolian. In this poem, Lowenstein projects Inuit hunting back into the European Ice Age, imagining a social order ruled by women via the temple at Phaistos, on Crete, where Rhea was worshipped. Langley and Lowenstein are very difficult poets, whose work repays prolonged attention with splendid rewards. Neither one is a step towards the understanding of other poets. Neither was part of some intellectual fashion or generation.
- 10th Muse
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- Journal, The
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
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