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.

 

Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

JesusDenis Johnson, poet, short story writer, and novelist died on the 24th of May.  Although his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke – sprawling, busy with moments of brilliance and confusing and difficult to grasp as the war itself – won the US National Book Award in 2007, for me his best work is to be found in his shorter fiction, Train Dreams (2002), set in the American West at the turn of the century, the fast and nourish Nobody Move (2009), and the collection of incendiary short stories for which I suspect he will always be best known, Jesus’ Son (1992), from which these short extracts are taken.

The Vine had no jukebox, but  real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse.’ I sobbed. She pour doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will  beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mending. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.

 

And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange colour I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fibre and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?
We put our clothes on, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.

And, finally, a poem …

PASSENGERS

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through those intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always those definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning – her languid flight of hair
travelling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die>

Sadly, not true.

Howard Hodgkin 1932 – 2017

I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.

It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a  question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?

Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.

Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …

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Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.

And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot

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After Corot

‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

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

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

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

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

James Schuyler Again …

… or you can’t keep a good poet down. I’ve blogged before about James Schuyler and the combination of pride and pleasure it gave me when Slow Dancer Press was the first to publish his Last Poems in their entirety in this country, together with an afterword by the British poet, Lee Harwood.

At the time of writing that, April 2015, I thought there were no more than a few copies of that edition remaining, but, lo and behold, in the long overdue act of clearing out one of the cupboards in the room I rather grandly refer to as my office, what should I find but a treasure trove of Last Poems. Thirty copies, to be exact.

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For those of you to whom Schuyler is little more than a name, one of the lesser lights perhaps of the New York Poetry scene that congregated around Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, this collection of late work – if read together with, say, the earlier, and quite wonderful, The Morning of the Poem – attests to the breadth and depth of his poetry, the meticulousness of his style.

The following comes from Harwood’s essay …

Schuyler was bemused and fascinated by the world.  Whether it was the “icy spaces” or “rain quilts the pond” (Rain) or describing the play of light on “a rainy April morning” in The Light Within, he looked and relished what he saw and the words he chose to describe what he saw. As he wrote more directly in the title poem of his earlier book A Few Days

“Let’s love today, the what we have now, this day, not
today or tomorrow or
yesterday, but this passing moment, that will
not come again”

It follows naturally from this that a reader of Schuyler’s poems nearly always finds himself or herself in the present.Not a narrow present, but one that includes asides, memories, double-takes, and all the vivid associations that pour into the brain in a few minutes. Reading one of James Schuyler’s poems often feels like looking over his shoulder as he writes. The process is open to view. In fact the “process” is very much part of the poem. It’s akin to listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and Beethoven’s piano sonatas too). The way Gould tentatively plays the notes, searching his way through the music, as though recreating Bach’s thinking and progress as Bach builds a piece. As though making it up as he goes along. It could go this way? or that? no, this way. In his poem Shadowy Room Schuyler touches on this.

“Perishable perfection
of Glenn Gould playing
Bach purls on, oblivious
of interruption, building
course on
course, harmonious
in all lights,
all weathers …”

Copies of Last Poems are available from Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH     Phone: 0115 8373097   Email: bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Remembering Hopper

Just a day late to celebrate the birth of Edward Hopper, July 22nd, 1882.

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Edward Hopper: Excursion into Philosophy , 1959

COUPLES

2. Excursion into Philosophy

He has been reading the Tractatus, Wittgenstein.
the footnotes made him laugh; the book open
in the bed, the blue divan. How to explain
the duality  of grief and joy, relief
and guilt. The way her breathing, as she lies
behind him, legs drawn up, exposed,
her back not quite touching his, touches his heart.
They’ve been together fifteen years
and he would like to leave it at that.
The sun burns low along the ripening wheat
that looks like the wheat in the painting by Van Gogh,
the  postcard she bought him that day in Portland, Maine,
and told him if he ever left her she would truly die.
He picks up his book and begins to read,
but sets it back, drawn to the window by the sun,
the sound of a meadow lark in the field.
The only signs in the morning they were there
will be her red hair, snagged at the corner
of the pillow; the slight impression, fading,
on the mattress where they lay.

From Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

Getting to Grips with Poetry

Chrissy Williams and I were guests last Thursday at Pighog Poetry’s monthly reading at the Redroaster Coffee House in Brighton. It was, I thought, a splendid evening, with no fewer that sixteen poets, under the watchful eye of organiser, Michaela Ridgeway, reading from the floor. The place was full, virtually standing room only, and Chrissy and I were both made to feel welcome and listened to with attentive enthusiasm. [You can feel it!] I closed my set with a new poem, Curve, written after going down to an exhibition of Bridget Riley’s paintings at Bexhill last year, and it was this that drew the most positive comments afterwards.

The poem has just been included in the Spring issue of London Grip’s online poetry magazine (which also includes work by Norbert Hirschhorn and Rob Etty amongst others) and you can link to it here http://londongrip.co.uk/2016/02/london-grip-new-poetry-spring-2016/

National Poetry Day

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Out of nowhere just the other day I started thinking about this movie in which a bearded Alan Bates plays an abstract painter, enjoying a painterly affair with Jill Clayburgh; I remember liking it at the time, even though part of me said perhaps it was a load of old technicolour tosh. Admitting to having not just enjoyed it, but seen it twice, certainly marked me down in the estimation of the one of my American Studies lecturers I most wanted to impress.

But back then I was more than a little in love with New York, with big, bold abstract canvasses, and, yes, of course, with Ms Clayburgh herself.

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So here’s an old poem for National Poetry Day.

REMEMBER ?

It was snowing in New York but that was Easter;
we walked past the rink where Clayburgh skated
in An Unmarried Woman, ate hot pretzels
and stood in line for pasta and clam sauce.

(can you still taste that?)

I can’t recall what I wanted for dessert
except the waiter said, “That’s disgusting!”
and refused to take my order.

Later we cruised the Village, hands
punched down into our pockets,
Kevin and I browsing the schedules
at the Bleecker Street Cinema
while you went next door into
the Magic Shoe Store and bought
a pair of bright scarlet boots

with wings

remember?

yes (you say) oh, yes

– from Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop) 2014

Birthday Poem for Howard Hodgkin

 

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After Corot

 ‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

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

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

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

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

This poem appeared in Bluer Than This (smith/doorstop, 1998) and, perhaps oddly [I imagine it didn’t tickle the editors’ fancy] failed to find a place in Out of Silence,  last year’s New & Selected (smith/doorstop, 2014). Shame, really.

But Happy Birthday, Sir Howard, 6th August 2015! Great work, sir! 83 years young.

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Lee Harwood: 6 June 1939 to 26 July, 2015

 

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I’m still in shock after hearing of Lee Harwood’s death yesterday. A friend for a good number of years, Lee was a singular and fine poet, one whose work synthesised the early influences of American writers of the New York School, John Ashbery in particular, and the European surrealism of Tristan Tzara, into something that somehow embraced the breadth of the world while maintaining, it seemed to me, something quintessentially British, English even, at its heart.

I first came across Lee’s work in Nottingham in 1975, when I bought a copy of his Fulcrum Press collection, The White Room, and went on to proudly publish two books of his poetry – In the Mists: Mountain Poems and Morning Light – and one book of prose – Dream Quilt: 30 Assorted Stories – with Slow Dancer Press.

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I was especially proud when, in 2013, being out of the country himself, Lee asked me to collect on his behalf one of that year’s Cholmondeley Awards, given to poets by the Society of Authors for their body of work and overall contribution to poetry. Of Lee, in the programme, it said the following:

His poetry is lyrical, humane, amused and precise; it is hospitable, but never superior. His active internationalism has had an influence on decades of British Poetry.

One of the last times Lee and I got together was in the autumn of last year, when we were both reading with John Lake’s band at the Ropetackle Arts Centre as part of the Shoreham Wordfest.
The only previous occasions Lee had read with jazz musicians, he told us, was back in New York in the 60s when he was a young poet in the company of some of the classiest bebop players of the day. Be that as it may, he read beautifully, clearly enjoying the manner in which the musicians responded to the particular rhythms of his poems, the band building some beautiful and appropriate architecture around two of his pieces, Brighton. October and Gorgeous – yet another Brighton Poem. 

This is the beginning of “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, one of the poems from The White Room, and one that, when I first read it, simply took my breath away …

As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you,
and cities apart, yet a roof grey with slates
or lead, the difference is little
and even you could say as much
through a foxtail of pain                      even you

And these are the final stanzas from “Sailing Westwards”, one of the poems in Lee’s last collection, The Orchid Boat, published by Enitharmon in 2014.

On the vast beach at Harlech
scattered with tellin shells and razor-shells,
dunes topped with marram grass behind me
and the dark blue grey mountains behind them,

and the flat silk sea spreads out in front of me,
over and far beyond the horizon.

Far beyond the horizon now, indeed.

Harwood pic

Jazz Journal Poetry Review

Jazz Journal – until recently the best-selling magazine at Foyles flagship shop (try saying that when you’ve had a few) in Charing Cross Road – has, for some time now, been generous towards my fiction, the Resnick series especially, in its review pages, and now said generosity has extended to poetry. Here’s Mark Gardner’s recent review of Out of Silence.

Known primarily for his series of 20 jazz-tinged novels, John Harvey is also an accomplished poet. This latest collection of verse draws from two previous collections, Ghosts of a Chance and Bluer Than This, besides including half a dozen new poems. More than a few of the contents have a strong jazz flavour, not least Blue Monk, Charlie Parker in Green Shoes, Chet Baker, Ghosts of a Chance and You Did It! You Did it!. The Chet Baker piece centres on the trumpeter’s last night. Was it suicide or accident when he fell to his death from a hotel window? Harvey gives a more imaginative explanation” “He knows this is one of those/rare days when he can truly fly.” Oklahoma Territory provides a picture of the tough life on the road. The new poems are about love, life and death: the capturing of lost moments which is what all poetry strives to do. Harvey never uses one word too many or one too few in his vista of insights.