Aslant But Still Standing

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Beautifully produced by Nottingham’s Shoestring Press, Aslant contains fourteen poems – some about jazz, some not – some haunted by thoughts of mortality – in addition to a dozen photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling. Now Molly has made a neat little video, newly available on YouTube, in which my reading of two of the poems is juxtaposed with a selection of her photographs and just a touch of Thelonious Monk.

You can view it here …

“John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.

The photos by Molly E. Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art. They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.”
Robin Thomas: The High Window

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“Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

“This is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.”
Thomas Owens: London Grip

Aslant is available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk  or contacts@centralbooks.com
or, indeed, bookshops anywhere …

 

 

 

 

“After Corot”

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‘After Corot’ 1979-1982, Howard Hodgkin

AFTER COROT

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes;
reach & fall of your breathing

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

only wait
and the light breaks
white on the horizon
as a small boat painted red
hoves into view
and the land slips
another foot into the sea

untrammelled
blue seeps beneath
the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the slow rocking of the train
as it rounds the curve

your waking breath

the sea.

an ‘improved’ version of the poem in Bluer Than This, Smith/Doorstop, 1998

 

Fathers’ Day

My youngest daughter, Molly Ernestine, can be no stranger to regular readers of this blog, not least for her photographs, which, in addition to being posted here on occasion, are prominently featured alongside my poems in the recent Shoestring Press publication, Aslant. So, on Fathers’ Day, time, perhaps, to cast an eye towards my older children, Tom & Leanne, who shared their 50th birthday at the end of last year.

First, a little look back …

T & L Scooters

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and here, older now …

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MAKING MAPS
for Tom

Pushing up from Browning
through the Blackfeet Reservation
white crosses at the roadside
in fives and sixes now,
broken-down pick-ups
dead in the back yards
of broken shacks

We grin as ‘All Shook Up’
grinds out from the radio
lean our heads close and
sing as hard as we can

Driving through England
memory surprises me …

You made dams wherever we went
crouched patient over small streams
all the way from Castle to Iceberg
Lake, stopping time with your hands

When the deer breathed down
through the trees to the salt lick
at dusk I reckoned you’d earned it

Storms and rainbows
surrounded us. We drove
through three states,
three thousand miles
and love drove us fast together.

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… later still, Leanne in Paris …

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

It seems too much of a cliché,
almost, to tell it,
but there, up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there amongst the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:

I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
with some cute little kid
watching the sun go down –
as if it could ever happen.
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth,
when one minute after they
let you out into the world
you can see everyone else is lying.
You try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last
five minutes and I’ll tell you this:
I haven’t met a single person
since I was sixteen who wasn’t
a bitch underneath, and I just
haven’t the strength to stand
up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and a half, and one thing I’m
sure of, it isn’t sitting out
on a dumb porch into the middle
of nowhere staring into some
technicolour sunset!

She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her …

What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have
the ice cream as well, maybe
the chocolate sauce?

Seeing my face, she smiled.

Here they are, almost up to date …

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And lest you think she’s been forgotten, this is Molly and I enjoying another afternoon watching Notts County. Come on you Pies!

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Honeymoon

Tom & Helen

My parents, Tom and Helen – Thomas Herbert Harvey and Helen Barton White – were married in the St. Pancras Registrar’s Office, Highgate Road, London, on the 29th of August, 1936; the marriage, as the certificate testifies, being solemnized in the presence of their mothers, Alice Harvey and Louise Barton White. My father’s father – no knowing if he were present or not – is listed as John James Harvey, Railway Engine Driver, and my mother’s father as John Barton White, Dramatic Author (deceased). 

The certificate gives my father’s occupation as a commercial clerk, but lists my mother as a spinster without rank or profession, whereas I had always believed that she would already have been employed at Leonard’s, the dress shop in Kentish Town where she worked, initially as a salesgirl and later manager and buyer, until ill health finally forced her to retire. And there is one other anomaly, though it would not have been evident at the time: my father’s age is given as 30, my mother’s as 32, when she was, in fact, 35, the true date of her birth, 1901, not coming to light until she died.

In those early years of their marriage, the years before the war, it seems they went on holiday to the Continent – as they would have called it – on more than one occasion, beginning with a honeymoon in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, which is where, I believe, this photograph was taken.

Ostende

HONEYMOON

The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder,
set aside now in favour of pale slacks,
white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer;
sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera,
that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.

The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still,her voice small and clear
yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …

Now she sits with her arm resting
on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open,
waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing.
the world waiting …

Those carefree days before the war.

… from Aslant (Shoestring Press, Nottingham. 2019)

Poems for Nancy Nielsen

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Nancy Nielsen

The poet and environmentalist, Nancy Nielsen, died on May 23rd, 2016, after a lengthy period of declining health. Her partner for many years, Alan Brooks, has recently published a collection of poems, maybe someday, written during the last months of her illness and the two years following, and is putting together a collection of Nancy’s poems for future publication.

SomedayI was fortunate enough to visit Alan and Nancy a number of times in their secluded cabin on the shores of Straight Bay, in Lubec, Maine, and remember with pleasure evenings when, after supper, we sat around and read poems, our own and others’, and, if we were very lucky, Alan could be persuaded to fetch his guitar down from the attic and give us a song or two.  

Alan & Nancy
Alan & Nancy

 

 

What follows is a poem of Nancy’s, sent as a New Year card; a poem of mine, published in  a slightly different version in Out of Silence, and two poems of Alan’s from maybe sunday,

Uphill

 

The Light This Morning
for Nancy Nielsen

The light this morning is touching everything
the poet says, and I imagine you
standing tall again
no longer numbed or navvied
by pain,
letting loose the dogs
then stepping with them
into the pool of early morning,
the dew on the grass
fresh around your feet

I see you
walking in this early light
bending to your garden
setting things to rights,
these moments before
the day itself is up and going

A bird starts up from the trees
and you turn back towards the house
the cool of the kitchen
smell of coffee newly ground
the small clear crack of shell
as the eggs are loosed into the bowl
apples sliced straight into the butter
foaming ready in the pan
flour, a dusting of sugar, cinnamon:
Apple Schmarren

The taste of it;
the cabin encircled, almost, by trees;
the clearing into which we walked
and you walked out to greet us
the light around us touching everything

Your poet’s eye
your gaze
your stubborn hardiness and grace.

 

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Nancy and her dog, Skeeter

At Your Graveside

Even here
faint skirl of gulls from the flats –
ache of a yellowleg’s cry from the marsh:
end end end end end summer’s ending

The sky today holds everything
we ever asked of it.
Encircled by goldenrod,
late hydrangeas,

I say your name over and over –
you, who are now in this earth and of it.
Leaf shadows play
among first leaves falling.

Coyote Came In The Night

Coyote came in the night. I was gone.
Coyote, surely you know
we moved away years ago?
Surely you watched us leave –
felt our sadness –
saw us, a rare once in awhile,
return by day for an hour or two
and mostly me, alone, and then
and then, and then
only me alone?

She would have smiled, Coyote,
to see by first light that you’d visited –
come right to the back door –
and that you’d eaten of our fallen apples.
You sang to her often
and she called you Wise One,
Trickster, Brother,
sometimes even Friend.

Soon I will be here, Coyote,
both day and night. Come to me then
not as a tradesman or servant.
Our house is too humble for that.
Come to the front door as honoured guest.
Sing to me in the crisp nights of Fall
as a reveler, and in the longest nights
as a caroler singing
beyond this world’s grief
of joy.

 

 

 

Nancy and Alan in the garden, 2003 #2 copy
Nancy & Alan

“You Did It! You Did It!” Two poems for Roland Kirk

 

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A fascinating piece about Roland Kirk in Richard Williams’ always interesting blog, thebluemoment.com sent my back to these two poems of mine, which I used to read in and around Nottingham with a fine little band led by tenor player/flautist Mel Thorpe, the exchanges between voice and flute giving Mel the chance to give his best humming, whistling, growling impression of Kirk at his most fiery.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?

What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?
Would you say he was missing you?

 

YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!

It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St. Pancras Town Hall.
Nineteen sixty-four.

The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing “I’ve Got the World on a String”
in a high almost falsetto moan.

Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.

“You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!”

Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.

 

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Poem for World Poetry Day

THE U.S. BOTANICAL GARDENS WASHINGTON D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue
of that morning’s watering,
green hose resting
slack between the leaves.

We would come here, safe,
afternoons, and sit, not touching,
humidity in the 90s
and helicopters hovering
a block beyond the Hill.

Though you are here no longer
I reach out to touch your arm,
trace the sweat, the way it beads
around the curve of your skin

From the display of medicinal
herbs, I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart.

And when we meet, a year
from now, by chance, the
departure lounge at Heathrow,
the platform at Gare du Nord,
that harbour front café, and,
uncertain whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies
I have long carried, in the knowledge
that, nurtured, love flowers in the darkest place.

from ASLANT Poetry / John Harvey – Photography / Molly E. Boiling
(Shoestring Press, 2019)

You can see a selection of Molly’s photographs here …

February Poem : “What Would You Say?”

What would you say of a man who could play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
found, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

I wrote this, the nucleus of it, in the early 1990s, when I was a participant in the Community of Writers Poetry Week at Squaw Valley in Northern California; a residential seven days in which we were set the task of writing a new poem every day, said poem to be collected in the early hours of the following morning, so as to be workshopped in the group sessions which began around eleven, eleven thirty, under the guidance of one of the tutors – Sharon Olds or Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, perhaps, or Brenda Hillman. No lightweights at Squaw.

There was some discussion amongst the participants, I remember, about the fact that most of my poems were quite strongly tied to a narrative [not so surprising, given the day job] and why didn’t I take advantage of the situation and try to write something that, instead, centrally, of telling a story, was driven by language, words and the sounds of words?

I tried. Floundered and tried again. Finally managed, on my second visit to Squaw Valley, a five line poem called Out of Silence, which became the title poem in my New & Selected Poems some twenty years later. And before that, the poem above, which succeeds, I think, in being about sounds, about words; but which is also a kind of story. A mystery. A puzzle. A puzzle to which the answer, as anyone who follows jazz will know, is the blind, multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.

You can hear me reading the poem here, along with the band Second Nature, and with some marvellous flute playing by Mel Thorpe, giving it his best Roland Kirk.

Hopefully, and with a little patience, here goes …

It was 20 years ago today …

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Last Thursday, October 17th, a significant posse of poets gathered in the upstairs room of The Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia (once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and other notables) to celebrate the achievements of Slow Dancer Press and mark twenty years since it closed its metaphorical doors. They came, the poets, not just from the metropolis and various parts of the UK, but, in the case of the redoubtable Norbert Hirschhorn, from the further reaches of USA. Well, Minnesota.

The full line-up was as follows: Matthew Caley, Jill Dawson, Sue Dymoke, Rebecca Goss, Norbert Hirschhorn, Libby Houston, Peter Sansom, Ruth Valentine, Jackie Wills and Tamar Yoseloff. All read and reminisced a little, in a number of cases thanking Slow Dancer for publishing them at a crucial time in their writing lives. Liz Simcock sang and played and both Simon Armitage and Kirsty Gunn, sadly unable to attend, sent recorded messages.

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The assembled company of poets (those who didn’t have early trains to catch) From the left, Matthew Caley, Libby Houston, Ruth Valentine, Tamar Yoseloff, Yours Truly, Sue Dymoke, Norbert Hirschhorn, Rebecca Goss, Jackie Wills

The genesis of the press – which in its twenty years published 45 pamphlet collections, 13 books of poetry and 9 of fiction, in addition to 30 issues of Slow Dancer magazine [details here …. } – lay in the Arvon Foundation centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon, which was where I first met Slow Dancer’s co-founder and American editor, Alan Brooks, and the idea of publishing our own magazine was formed. It was also where I met the inimitable Libby Houston, who, both through her work and in person, was an early and lasting inspiration. How good it was to hear her reading again on Thursday!

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Libby reading; me listening. Photo: Sue Dymoke
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Liz Simcock. Photo: Sue Dymoke

Happy days!

‘Aslant’ in review …

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Aslant by John Harvey (poetry) and Molly E. Boiling (photography). £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524099

Review from THE HIGH WINDOW by Robin Thomas https://thehighwindowpress.com

John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.   Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:

soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass

It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged.  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.  Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.

Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’.  There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners.  Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:

… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance

Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable.  The poem ends with the two threads brought together:

[a] 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.

The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.

To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem.  In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:

the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas

There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:

then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.

It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.

There are many good things in these poems:  memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:

… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.

These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).

I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style.  Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.

The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art.  They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.