‘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  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.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.

 

Autumn Newsletter

EVENTS/READINGS

Inspire Poetry Festival
Monday, 23rd September, 7pm
Beeston Library
ASLANT BUT STILL STANDING … JOHN HARVEY AT 80

Tuesday, 24th September, 6.30pm
Worksop Library
POETRY CAFE WITH JOHN HARVEY AT 80: A CELEBRATION

Tickets for both events … www.inspireculture.org.uk/poetry-festival

Inspire

Lumen Poetry
Tuesday, 15th October, 7pm
Lumen, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RT
Shoestring Press Poets: John Harvey, Paul McLoughlin, Merryn Williams

Slow Dancer Press Anniversary Celebration
Thursday, 17th October, 7pm
The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place, London W1T 1JB
To mark 20 years since Slow Dancer Press ceased publication, an evening of readings by a selection of Slow Dancer poets – from Matthew Caley to Tamar Yoseloff with plenty more in between.

Space is limited and advanced booking strongly advised – all tickets are free.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/slow-dancer-press-20th-anniversary-celebration-tickets-70624312219

Murder Under the Mistletoe 2019
Thursday, 5th December, 6.30 – 8.00pm
Heffers, Cambridge
Festive drinks, readings by “a selection of hand-picked crime authors”, plus a quiz from Richard, Heffers’ crime fiction expert in residence.

https://heffersbookshop.business.site/posts/6168421664518806733?hl=en

PUBLICATIONS

BLUE WATCH
Troika Books, October 2019

An adventure story for 12-16 year olds (and others!) set during the London Blitz and dedicated to the memory of my father, who served in the Fire Brigade throughout WW2.

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Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.

This is how it begins …

As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that  robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.

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.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”

Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”

And he concludes his review thus …

… 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.

You can read Thomas Ovan’s review in full here …

And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from contacts@centralbooks.com.    or  from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk. You can even buy it on Amazon.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

On the Road Again …

Belated best wishes for the New Year with my first post of 2019 in the blog’s rather fine new livery.

After missing out on a number of book events last year, primarily for health reasons, I’m hoping to do better this year, starting with two occasions marking the paperback publication of Body & Soul. Again, a little belatedly, but none the worse for that.

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On the evening of Thursday, 31st January, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, North London, I shall be joined by Stella Duffy to talk about said Body & Soul, as well as Stella’s most recent publications, the suspense novel, The Hidden Room, and the Inspector Alleyn mystery, Money in the Morgue, which she completed after it was left unfinished by Alleyn’s creator, Ngaio Marsh.

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Then, on the following evening, I shall be flying solo at another of my favourite bookstores, Waterstone’s in Nottingham. Tickets for both of these events are available now.

http://www.owlbookshop.co.uk/events/john-harvey-stella-duffy/

https://www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-with-john-harvey/nottingham-60757

Move ahead to the spring and two events to launch the Shoestring Press publication of Aslant, which features both my poems and photographs by my daughter, Molly Ernestine Boiling. Any of you who’ve been following her work on http://whyernestine.tumblr.com will have a good idea of what to look forward to.

Molly and I will be at (speaking of favourite bookstores) Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on Thursday, 25th April, and at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden for Hylda Sims’ Fourth Friday, which will also feature the excellent singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.

Step forward just one week later and over the Bank Holiday weekend I’ll be up in the north-east at Newcastle Noir. The programme is yet to be officially announced, but it may well reveal that I’ll be paired in discussion with the formidable Norwegian author, Gunnar Staalesen.

Details of these events to follow.