Films, Books, Music of 2022

FILMS OF 2022

FAVOURITES IN ORDER OF VIEWING

The Lost Daughter : Maggie Gyllenhaal
Belfast : Kenneth Branagh
Parallel Mothers : Pedro Almodovar
The Quiet Girl : Colm Bairéad
Hit the Road : Panah Panahi
Emily : Frances O’Connor
Decision to Leave : Park Chan-wook
She Said : Maria Schrader

MOST OVERRATED

Aftersun : Charlotte Wells

BOOKS OF 2022

For whatever reasons, I’ve done a lot of re-reading this year – Liz Moore, Jamie Harrison, Maile Meloy, Joan Didion – but the one big find for me, spurred on by an interview in the Summer 2022 issue of The Paris Review, was the American writer, Sigrid Nunez. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed four books so far …

What Are You Going Through
The Last of Her Kind
The Friend
A Feather on the Breath of God

And am eagerly awaiting delivery of Sempre Susan, her book about Susan Sontag.

Also outstanding were two novels by Claire Keegan …

Foster
Small Things Like These

and Ruth and Pen by Emilie Pine

POETRY

As I get back into writing poetry, I find – surprise, surprise – that I’m reading it more. (Works both ways).

Collections I’ve especially enjoyed include …

Wasn’t That a Time? : Jim Burns
A Reader’s Guide to Time : Rebecca Cullen
Notes on Water : Amanda Dalton
American Sonnets for My Past & Future Assassins : Terrance Hayes
Larder : Rhona McAdam

and, the one I’ve returned to most …

Lanyard : Peter Sansom

MUSIC

Randall Goosby playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with the LPO under Alpesh Chauhan – and encoring with a Louisiana Blues Strut. Royal Festival Hall.

Celebrating Mingus: Guy Barker Big Band & the BBC Concert Orchestra : Queen Elizabeth Hall.

LPO/Jurowski : Mahler 9th Symphony – Final Rehearsal, Royal Festival Hall.

LSO/Noseda : Shostakovich 11th Symphony, the Barbican.

Joanna MacGregor: Jazz Inflections : LSO St. Luke’s

Two Pianos, Eight Hands : Fitkin, Hammond, Stott, Wall : Queen Elizabeth Hall

Jo Harrop singing Fine & Mellow with the Paul Edis Trio : Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham.

Paul Edis Trio : Jazz at the Oxford, Kentish Town

Perville Bévort & Bévort 3 : Pizza Express, Soho

London Jazz Orchestra : The Vortex

REMEMBERING MONK’S BIRTHDAY …

October 10th, 1917; Rocky Mount, North Carolina, USA

MONK AT THE FIVE SPOT 

They’ve all been here to see him: Ginsburg,
Mailer; poets, painters, other musicians;
Larry Rivers and his crowd
jammed into a table at the back,
Frank O’Hara in earnest conversation,
oblivious of the fact that Monk,
dark glasses shielding his eyes,
is starting to rock back and forth
at the piano, feeling for a rhythm 
in the bottom hand, while the right 
finds angles of its own …

Blue Monk, ‘Round Midnight,
Epistrophy; Ruby, My Dear.

And all this time, head down, horn hooked
over his shoulder, John Coltrane waits,
biding his time, as Monk launches himself
into a jinking solo, which skips and leaps
and builds into an angular arpeggio
that calls to mind a man stumbling headlong 
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, 
not falling but saving himself with an upward swoop 
and final double-handed chord, 
so sudden, so emphatic, that the crowd, 
almost as one, catches its breath 
and even Frank O’Hara is stunned into silence.

I Mean You. The 5 Spot, New York City,
September, 1957

  • from ‘Aslant‘, Shoestring Press, 2019 (Revised)

Three Poems for National Poetry Day

One oldish one, two newer … Please read and enjoy …

Failed Sonnet Home

The windowboxes outside the Clocktower Café 
are delerious with bloom. Cappuccino with 
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin. 
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla 
from the pines. And you. You know the other day 
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van 
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle 
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast 
we shared before you drove me to the train. 
How far we are away! Crimson columbine, 
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye – 
one thing you learn here: how little soil 
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

– from Out of Silence, 2014

Early Autumn

The first leaves curl inwards
tinged with brown;
first conkers on the ground

Getz’s saxophone winds its way
sinuous and not a little cold
around the sinews of the tune

We stamp our feet
reach for that extra layer
look upwards in search of the sun

– from Summer Notebook, 2021

Another Heath Poem

Just shy of noon and under a lowering sky,
I sit watching the wind
twist the meadow grass this way and that
and think of the passing of years 
and the suppleness of the earth beneath

The only sounds, a distant plane
and, deep in the tree line,
a raucous argument of crows.

– from Summer Notebook, 2021

New York, New York …

Sometime back in the early ’80s, and by then well into my 40s, I took my first ever trip in a plane: Transatlantic, London to New York. The reason, to link up again with my friend, Kevin – Kevin McDermott – whom I’d met when we were both studying for an MA in American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

At that time Kevin had a small – just how small, I was to discover – apartment in Midtown Manhattan. East 49th Street. Home at various times, the street not the apartment, to Frank O’Hara, Stephen Sondheim and Katherine Hepburn. Rumour had it – more than rumour – that Kate, if you’ll excuse the familiarity, still lived there and could be seen, by patient onlookers, entering or exiting her front door.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay?” I must have said.
Kevin, then as now – he and his wife, Mish, recently hosted our daughter, Molly Ernestine, on her first visit to the city – was generously welcoming.

My bed on those early visits – a decade later Kevin moved to a larger apartment on the upper East Side – was perched narrowly high above what I think must have been some kind of closet; comfortable enough once I’d recovered from the fear of turning over and crashing to the ground. Pigeons congregated noisily outside the small window opposite. Warm evenings we went up and sat on the roof. It was like living inside a Drifters’ hit record from 1964.

Days, I would wander sometimes on my own, drawn, perhaps inevitably, to Greenwich Village and the astonishment of finding myself following in Frank O’Hara’s footsteps …

The rain is falling,
lightly
the way it did for Frank
when he stepped out onto the sidewalk
that would take him to St. Mark’s Place;
Camels, two packs, in his pockets,
a notebook; nothing more on his mind
than a quick espresso on Bleecker or MacDougal,
meeting maybe Grace or Jane …
*

Together, Kevin and I watched old black and white movies in repertory cinemas, walked around Chinatown and Little Italy – I still have a card from Osteria Romana on Grand Street – listened to live music at the Lone Star Café. Kevin remembers seeing Asleep at the Wheel; I recall a splinter group from The Band. And, perhaps most memorable for both of us, a memorial evening for Gram Parsons, from which Kevin, he told me recently, vividly remembers an unaccompanied performance by Tracy Nelson of ‘Down So Low’, that still gives him chills.

It seems, in retrospect, that almost wherever we went, the evening ended with a long, slow walk back to Midtown, the city still busy around us. Perhaps some of that is captured in the title poem from The Old Postcard Trick, a Slow Dancer pamphlet subtitled Poems & Photographs, New York, 1984.

  • from Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara) in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, 2014.

Poetry progress : from Sheepwash to the Sierra Nevada

The hot summer of ’76, the one everyone remembers; the summer, in the short life of my fictional private eye, Scott Mitchell, between Amphetamines and Pearls and The Geranium Kiss; the summer I drove my green Citroen 2CV down to the south west, to Totleigh Barton, a sixteenth century manor house close to the village of Sheepwash and the River Torridge that was the Arvon Foundation’s first residential writing centre; a week in which to get to know one’s fellow students, share the cooking, lean on the tutors for advice and swop pulp fiction for poetry.

I arrived before most students on the first day and combing the house for the best of the shared bedrooms still available, I came across one in which the occupant, having claimed his space, had set out the small library of books he’d brought with him in a neat line. I can’t remember now what they were, but one quick glance was enough to suggest their owner might be an interesting person with whom to share.

Alan Brooks turned out to be an American temporarily living in London, a rural conservationist and a fine poet, someone who has remained a good and close friend. It was with Alan that the idea for Slow Dancer magazine was formed; Alan, after his return to Downest Maine, who became the magazine’s US Editor through its thirty issues.

The covers of the first few – designed by Nadia Stern – will give an idea of the range of poets we were publishing in these early years.

Just as it’s easy to look back on that meeting with Alan Brooks as being of singular importance in that part of my life concerned with the writing and publishing of poetry, so I can point to my attendance in 1993 and again in 1995 at the Community of Writers poetry programme at Olympic Valley – Squaw Valley as it was then called – in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada, as being of great significance on both counts. In terms of my writing, through example and through suggestion and discussion, I was encouraged to vary the style in which I’d been writing, experiment a little, enjoy the feel of language, rhythm, find subjects in the natural world. In the afternoons we would listen to the staff poets such as Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman reading and talking about their poetry, and it was Robert Hass’s work which affected me most strongly. I can still remember the first occasion on which I heard him read – poems which moved seamlessly between the abstract and the deeply personal, which incorporated philosophical ideas alongside close observations of the natural world, while taking in references to the films of Kurosawa and the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. All of this without missing a beat or losing for a moment the listener’s attention.

The mornings were spent in small workshop sessions headed by those same poets, during which we would read and discuss the poems we had somehow found space and time to write the previous day. Every day. Poems that you left outside the door to be collected in the early hours and photocopied in time for the morning seminar. I doubt I’ve been much happier.

The Community of Writers has recently published Why to These Rocks, an anthology of poems written over a period of 50 years by staff and participant poets and edited by Lisa Alvarez, in which I’m proud to have a short poem – just five lines – Out of Silence – which I think, short as it is, captures something of the essence of the time I spent so happily far from home.

Out of Silence

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth.

The red woodpecker testily chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015.

I first came across Lee Harwood’s work in the 19th of the excellent Penguin Modern Poets series, purchased in 1971 when I was teaching English and Drama in Andover, Hampshire, and just beginning to send a little work of my own off to small magazines. Sandwiching, as it did, Lee’s poetry between that of the American John Ashbery – along with Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, the best known of the New York Poets – and the British, but, like Lee, quite strongly American influenced, Tom Raworth, the selection opened me up to a new set of influences, a new range of possibilities.

From Andover, via Stevenage, to Nottingham, source of my first Harwood collection, The White Room, which combined some of the major poems from Penguin Modern Poets – “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, “Landscape with 3 People”, “When the Geography Was Fixed” – with many others quite new to me and equally beguiling. Poems with stanzas underlined, scribbled down in notebooks, poems asterisked and starred, committed to memory. Poems I hamfistedly used as models, ending up with so many poor imitations. So much so that when I went as a participant to my first ever Arvon poetry writing course at Totleigh Barton in Devon – driving down from Nottingham in the midst of that amazing hot summer of ’76 in my green Citroen 2CV – the work I presented to the tutors at our first meeting must have read like the discards from Lee’s waste paper basket.

Without ever, I think, losing it altogether, that influence lessened with time. Truer to say, perhaps, I found a way of aligning it with that of Frank O’Hara, the two voices strongest at the back of my mind, until that day in 1993 when I first heard Robert Hass reading his poetry – but that’s another story.

I met Lee and we became friends …

Walking with Lee along the front by the sea,
ruins of the old West Pier, shift and change
of house fronts between Brighton and Hove.
Small cups of coffee, thick and black; we go out
for focaccia and cheese and bring them back

… and I was proud to publish three collections of his work with Slow Dancer Press: Dream Quilt – 30 Assorted Stories (1985); In the Mists – Mountain Poems (1993); Morning Light (1998).

Here is one of my favourites of Lee’s poems, “Gilded White”, the opening poem in Morning Light.

The last time I saw Lee we were both reading with John Lake’s jazz quartet at a small festival in Shoreham, not far along the south coast from where he lived. If there had to be a last time, I’m happy this was it, Lee’s voice soft yet clear over the shifting rhythms of the music, so clearly, so identifiably his.

In the September after Lee’s death, I was proud to be invited to read alongside Tom Raworth and others in a celebration of his life and work.

Tom Raworth

Poem : “Leaving Day”

LEAVING DAY

I’m reading a new book of poems by Ruth Valentine
while behind me, though the open window,
wide open because of the heat,
the head of the local comp across the street
hands out prizes for Art, Drama & Design
and the students applaud enthusiastically,
with the occasional whoop and holler,
the sound underscored by the low, spaced
sounds of Morton Feldman’s ‘Two Pianos’
on the stereo.

The poems are fine and spare,
controlled in their sense of loss and pain.
The applause rises to a crescendo.
This music, reads the sleeve note,
is intended to be quiet and is best played
at a low volume

A small group of the students is singing,
sad, perhaps, or happy to be on the point of leaving;
and overhead young swifts dart and sway,
performing parabolas in the heavy air,
testing their wings for what lies ahead.

Wednesday, 21st July, 2021 2.27pm

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life