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  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.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

 

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

Art Chroncicles: Killed Negatives & the F.S.A.

Lange

Much as, for many people, Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, epitomises the suffering and endurance of the American heartland during the Great Depression, so this and other photographs that Lange took when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration in the 30s have come to be more or less fully representative of her career. This despite the fact that half a lifetime and more than half of that career were ahead of her.

After working for the FSA, she was hired by the War Location Authority to document the internment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbour and then collaborated with Ansel Adams in documenting the lives of shipyard workers, men and, increasingly, women, who had moved to California to work in the booming wartime shipping industry in the final years of WW2. In the 1950s. together with her writer-son, Daniel Dixon, she produced an in-depth portrait of rural life in Ireland, before returning to America and working on photo essays dealing with inequalities in the justice system and the effects of large-scale government land projects on local communities.

Lange died in 1965 at the age of seventy, just a few months before a retrospective exhibition of her work opened at MOMA in New York. She wrote the following as a postscript to the show …

I would like to add a line to encourage persons interested in using a camera to concern themselves with making photographs of the life which surrounds them, to raise his [or her] sights to include what’s going on about us, to the camera to show this awareness.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing [in conjunction with Vanessa Winchip: And Time Folds] is at the Barbican until September 2nd. And, running until August 26, there is a very  interesting exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which gives considerable insight into how Lange and the other photographers employed by the F.S.A. – Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott et al – were directed, encouraged and generally managed by Roy E. Stryker, who worked for the Farm Security Administration as Chief of the Historical Section of the Division of Information.

As Stryker later described himself …

I’m the guy who sat in the middle … I kept the store … My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan … I was one-half editor, one-half papa, one-half hell-raiser, one-half publishing agent, and occasionally psychoanalyst without portfolio.

He may not have had a plan when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his tenure, but, if indeed that were the case, one soon became clear. Arthur Rothstein, the first of Stryker’s hirings, was left in little doubt …

It was our job to document the problems of the depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

Here’s an extract from a letter Stryker sent to another photographer, Jack Delano …

Please watch out for autumn pictures, as calls are beginning to come in for them and we are short. These should be rather the symbol of Autumn … cornfields, pumpkins … Emphasize the idea of abundance – the ‘horn of plenty’ – and pour maple syrup over it – you know, mix well with white clouds and put on a sky-blue platter. I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but to hell with it. Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler on our doorstep? You are nothing but camera fodder to me.

As becomes clear from the photographs and letters on display at the Whitechapel, Stryker was quick to dismiss a photo that, to his mind, didn’t reinforce the impression of America in the Depression that he was after, just as he would discard an image he considered to be inadequately  focussed or badly framed. These – and this is reflected in the name of the show – he ‘killed’ by punching holes through the negative – an act which Dorothea Lange considered an act of vandalism, but that didn’t stop him. Any more than it stopped him sending strongly-worded letters to his men and women in the field, criticising them for what he perceived as their lack of technical skill. And one of the pleasures of the exhibition is deciding on which grounds – poetical, artistic or technical – Styrker had decided to make his cull.

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NB . The Stryker and Rothstein quotes come from Paul Hendrickson’s excellent book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott [Knopf, 1992] Currently out of print but ready available and, as is the case with all of Hendrickson’s  books, well worth reading.

 

Robert Frank: The Americans, 1

I’ve just spent an enjoyable week at the Courtauld Gallery Summer School, following, along with a small group of other students, a programme devised and taught by Tim Satterthwaite, Living Cities: The photography of Urban Life in Europe and America, 1920-1989. Modernism to street photography; art photography to social documentary. Fascinating stuff – and centrally placed, Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans.

Not least for its fine and freewheeling introduction by Jack Kerouac, The Americans has long been one of my favourite books of photographs, three of the images – Ranch Market, Hollywood: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina & Crosses at the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91, Idaho – the subject of a short sequence of pieces which appeared in my 1998 Smith/Doorstop collection, Bluer Than This.

Here’s one …

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Robert Frank: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina

Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina.

They don’t want me to hold this child. All them righteous brothers with the anger and their shades. Sisters, too. Wave placards in my face and shout and spit and sound their horns. One of them come right up to me, sanding here with this precious boy in my arms, and says, “Sister, can’t you see that’s the Devil’s child?” Well, I ain’t his sister, nor about to be, ain’t got no sister ‘cept Merilee, and she passed on having her third. No, if there’s anything I am, it’s this child’s mother, near as can be, doing everything for him his own mother don’t do. ‘Sides, you just have to look in this sweet baby’s face to know he ain’t no Devil. See that sweet little angel mouth, way that skin shine so white and flawless like a doll’s; and his eyes, how they stare out at you, never looking away, not blinking, like they already owned the world.