Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Robert Leeson, a man of his word: (brief personal memoir and Guardian obituary)

In the 1970's in London, the feminist-Marxist writer and translator, Cathy Porter, author of the definitive biography of Alexandra Kollontai, put me on to Robert Leeson, who was then serving as the Features Editor of Morning Star, the daily Communist newspaper of Great Britain. Although I was not of that political persuasion, Mr. Leeson offered me the post of poetry reviewer. He said he would never change a word of what I submitted and that he would never ask me to review any book I preferred not to. After I had written on George Oppen's Selected Poems, published by Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press, Iain Sinclair's ground breaking "Lud Heat", Linton Kwesi Johnson's first book, "Dread Beat and Blood", Farida Majid's translations of poets of Bangaldesh, "Take Me Home, Rickshaw" published by her Salamander press, and other innovative works ignored by the British establishment, and usually printed in limited editions by small presses, Bob Leeson was put under in-house pressure to get rid of me due to complaints by Communist poets that their books were not being reviewed. But Mr. Leeson was a man of his word and never asked me to change my brief essays or to write reviews in praise of the usual suspects. I respected and admired his integrity and "grace under pressure" enormously, and although I did not know him well, I was saddened to read of his passing.

> Colin Chambers
> Wednesday 20 November 2013
> The Guardian
> http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/20/robert-leeson-obituary
> ----
> My friend and former colleague Robert Leeson, who has
> died aged 85, was a powerful force for change in
> children's books in the 1970s and 80s, as a critic,
> campaigner and creator. The author of more than 70 titles,
> he championed robust storytelling free of the scars of
> class, gender and race bias that bedevilled conventional
> children's literature at the time.Born in
> Barnton, Cheshire, the youngest of four children, Bob joined
> his local paper on leaving school before national service
> took him into the army and to Egypt, where he edited a
> clandestine Nissen hut newspaper. It was not surprising
> that, as a communist whose passion was writing, he continued
> as a journalist, post-army, on the Daily Worker and its
> successor the Morning Star, for which he served as a
> broad-minded and knowledgable literary editor, as well as a
> witty feature writer.He achieved his ambition of
> becoming a full-time writer when he was in his 40s.
> Alongside fascinating studies in trade union history, he
> crafted an impressive array of adventures for younger
> audiences, criss-crossing genres and historical periods,
> from a splendid trilogy set in the late 16th/17th centuries
> to sci-fi tales and The Third-Class Genie (1975), in which the
> eponymous hero lives in a beer can and ends up pursued as an
> illegal immigrant.Bob's fertile output included
> five novels inspired by the characters in the BBC TV series
> Grange Hill, beginning with Grange Hill Rules, OK? (1980). His imaginative
> creation of different milieus was fed by countless visits he
> made to schools, aimed at fostering in his youthful
> listeners the same love of writing and reading that drove
> him.As chair of the Writers'
> Guild's books committee in the early 1980s, he
> played a vital part in negotiating minimum terms agreements
> with leading British publishers and in 1985 he was elected
> chair of the guild itself. Also in 1985, he won the Eleanor Farjeon award for distinguished service
> to the world of British children's books.Bob had
> a marvellous and wicked sense of humour (which he used like
> a harpoon to prick pomposity) and the densely detailed
> erudition common among autodidacts. He kept writing until
> the end, self-publishing regular volumes of poems
> illustrated by his Norwegian wife, Gunvor, whom he met in
> Budapest in 1952 and married two years later in
> Oslo.He is survived by Gunvor and their two children,
> Fred and Christine.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Antonio de Cairu

Antonio de Cairu, a Portuguese writer and poet who died last year, was from Alverca,  a small town not far from Lisbon, where Dr. Antonio Lobo Antunes, Portugal's most outstanding living writer, one year older than de Cairu, also had lived.

In Lobo Antunes' great book of cronicas, The Fat Man and Infinity translated by Margaret Jull Costa, there is a touching short piece  ("Alverca 1970") of Antunes, just out of medical school, attending to his mother's dying and death in his parents' home in Alverca.

de Cairu, a performance artist whose first book was a book of poetry issued in 1965 titled Isa (his sister's name), owned a saloon bar/coffee shop in Alverca, and his posthumously published novel, The Breath of Olive Trees, opens with the fictionalized tale of why he left Portugal.

He receives a letter from "Maria Manuela":

"I have a father who no longer wants me, after having spent money on an education which produced no positive results; a father who spies on people in coffee bars and who reports their political ideals to the Government; a father who beats my mother as my mother beats my grandmother.  I have a little 'Byron' in my belly - in my dreams.  I await only my Poet to complete my fulfillment.  All I need is a night with you - if you will not accept this need, my father will confirm his report on your political views."

de Cairu continues:

"I am alone in a cell filled with silence and anger.  Silence brings the stability of one's thoughts - but in confinement, silence can also bring a clarity to the memory of past mistakes and the cruelty of mental torment over life's unresolved issues.  In a free space, such torments would magically vanish.  Life has a method of fading the past in order to make room for the future, but in a small cell such as this, torments will multiply and reduce a man's life to a humble and fragile existence."

de Cairu lived as an openly gay man during the time of the dictatorships in Portugal.  It is the fifth of October 1969, the day of his court case "a year after Marcelo Caetano succeeded the dictator Salazar as prime minister; when international criticism is breathing discontent among Portuguese mothers, forcing the government to abandon the Portuguese colonies; when in France the first shanty towns are beginning to appear, filled with Portuguese youngsters who have fled there to escape their military service, exchanging their original skills for slavery; when tinned sardines have started to appear in English shops as food for cats; when Mateus has started to embellish the tables of Europe owing to the ingenious design of the bottle and the label; when Portuguese footballer Eusebio has brought to the attention of Europe that a nation called Portugal is not a part of Spain and when I awaken on this fateful day, the fifth of October 1969, I am convinced that Portugal is a little garden planted along the shore of the Western part of Europe and that I am not a victim of a Fascist regime."

The Nobel laureate, the late Jose Saramago, wrote in his native Portuguese, and Lobo Antunes, writes in Portuguese, but de Cairu, who flees to England, (first to Bristol for a decade, then later in life to London) chooses to write his two novels, the first being The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees, in English, his second language.  Of his Portuguese modernist literary predecessors, it was only Pessoa, in his first two slim volumes of self-published poetry, who chose to write in English.  Pessoa is always insistent on the "specificity" of the Portuguese, the language, the people, the country, and de Cairu's English is a Portuguese English in the same way as there is an American English, East Indian English, West Indies English, and Antipodean English.

His first book in English prose, "The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees" was revised by Simon Stanley in the posthumous edition and he also writes a brief Introduction.  The use of idiomatic English and sentence structure is thus corrected. I don't see much loss at least of tone in the 2011 edition, published a decade after the first edition, although the flow of the unedited edition is not simply more "charming" but also more revealing of the writer's struggle with narrative.  Ian J. Breen does the quite lovely and appropriate cover illustrations for both books.

However, it is unlikely that de Cairu, writing in English, will receive any posthumous celebration in the immediate future, perhaps primarily because his two novels, The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees, and The Breath of Olive Trees are published by a subsidy press, Bright Pen Books, who took over the reissue of Cherry Trees in 2011 after the original subsidy press publisher, Minerva Books, went belly-up.  It's become (almost?) respectable now to publish with what used to be called "vanity press" in an "e" format, and some, like Bright Pen, produce handsome print editions as well, and distribute through Amazon, and the other usual suspects.

It is inaccurate in some way for me to call them novels, although "Olive Trees" is less surrealistic, more sombre in tone, and the flow of language is tightened  some so that it is properly appropriate when disclosing political issues in Portugal and their effects on the psyche of the people. Although de Cairu resettled in England, saudade (and the end of dictatorship) continually draws him back to his native land, which he had left after his protagonist-narrator's remission from prison, saying goodbye to his friends and returning home a last time to see his mother.

"I move towards the head of the bed and I sit on its edge and then I kiss my mother's sweltering forehead as if trying to alleviate the pain.  She used to do the same for me when I was younger.
'Mommy is going to kiss your head and the pain will go.'
She doesn't say anything.  There is nothing to say.
Our eyes, fixed upon each other, are more than words.
Mothers can read their sons' feelings only with their eyes and heart.
'I am sorry, Mother, I had to return,' I say.
'I know, my son, I know,' she replies with tears rolling down her face."

"Life" de Cairu writes, "might be acceptable if only we knew the meaning of it."  These books are memoirs with meta-narrative, and Pessoa's "The Book of Disquietude" is clearly an avatar, an analogue, as is perhaps the writing of Mario De Sa-Carneiro, friend and colleague of Pessoa, who killed himself in Paris at age 26.  However, it is the leitmotif of homo-eroticism in both de Cairu's books, often explicit in description of sexual acts, which makes me think of the Rupert Brooke - James Strachey correspondence, or of Denton Welch, or even of John Wieners's poetry, especially in Hotel Wentley.  de Cairu makes use of the epistolary style, and also includes poems as a part of the unfolding story.  In "Cherry Trees" he thinks of the book he is writing (which he leaves behind until his return to Bristol) as the anchor which will draw him away from Portugal despite passionate love trysts there and the nostalgia for the cafe life.  He returns to England, to Bristol and to Edward, the character in the book who loves cherry trees and who, in the best Pessoan tradition, writes a short "Foreward" to the book. With the strange English customs and language having been assimilated, de Cairu, in the second text, "Olive Trees" looks clearly at post-dictatorial Portugal and his own life in relation to it, and notes:

"As before, we try to extend the evening, and in this way annoying the cafe's owner, who is anxiously trying to close up for a well-deserved rest after a hard working day.

We have no sense of time with so much to say and so much to hold.

As in the old times, the night is ours; but for me, not for too much longer."

The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees and The Breath of Olive Trees are published in England by Bright Pen Books.

My weblog post on Fernando Pessoa is on the first "omoo" :  www.iprefernotto.blogspot.com   (November 26, 2005).

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In excellent company...

4 of my poems written 40 years ago (it all goes so quickly) newly posted online @ www.poetrymagazines.org.uk in Poetry Review (editor: Eric Mottram), numbers 3 and 4 (double issue) - 1976/77.    

and on that same site, (www.poetrymagazines.org.uk),  poetry and prose in Fire,
numbers 26, 17, 12, 11, 9, and "guest editorial" in #8. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Re:Takes On Ed Dorn

Wikipedia notes that Aklavik wasn't incorporated into a hamlet until 1974.  Dorn's lead-off poem in "The North Atlantic Turbine" - quite rightly called a "great poem" by Iain Sinclair in his review of the new Collected (LRB, 11 April, "Collected Poems" by Edward Dorn) was written prophetically prior to that, since Turbine was published in 1967 by Fulcrum Press. 
Sinclair also writes of a time and place, when Compendium Books was still there in the now swarmed over Camden Town.  Mike Hart, a mutual friend, is mentioned, and the shadow of Nick Kimberly.  And the world of poets publishing poets in Limited Editions. 
Peter Riley's two-part article in his "Fortnightly Review" overview of Dorn's work, correctly, in my opinion, notes that "Recollections of Gran Apacheria" is the apex of Dorn's achievement, another truly great poem, although personally I also love some of the early lyrics like "The Air of June Sings" and "The Rick of Green Wood" and "Like A Message On Sunday" and "Vaquero"....However, Riley goes on to denigrate Turbine (the title poem in particular) as if Dorn had no right to criticize things English, and he finds Dorn's forays into world politics to be a wrong turning foreshadowing misanthropy.  But then Riley has never lived in "the belly of the beast".
In both articles, Iain's much stronger in his praise of Dorn, it is argued that "Gunslinger" set out be be comedic.  I believe this is not so.  That tone became prevalent more in "The Winterbook", and then after, when cocaine sets in.  True, the talking horse (no doubt inspired by the smoke and the old American TV series "Ed, The Talking Horse"), and the Canterbury-like group assembling prepare one for mock-epic, but the tone is post-Zizekian if you will; back then when first published, I found it totally de-familiarizing. It is not only serious, despite its mixed tone, it is the first poem I know to have made discourse shifts, an insistent epistomological and cosmological changing of gears, sometimes within the line itself and the contiguous words, an integral part of a "spiritual address", which Dorn said "The North Atlantic Turbine" (a crucial book) had freed him up for.  It is in Turbine that his Gunslinger makes his first appearance:
"This is for your sadly missing heart....
it is the girl you left
in Juarez,  the blank
political days press her now
in the narrow alleys
or in the confines of the river town
her dress is torn
by the misadventure of
               her gothic search
my mare lathers with tedium
her hooves are dry
Look they are covered with the alkali
of the enormous space
between here and formerly.
And why do you have a female horse
Gunslinger?  I asked.  Don't move
he replied
the sun sits deliberately
on the rim of the sierra" 
It reminds one of early Godard (Band of Outsiders), and it was, to use Ralph Maud's term "archaic postmodern" referring to Olson.  It was a new mode of poetic composition in a way, but "The Winterbook" begins its descent into satire from a loftier plane into the comic mode Riley and Sinclair say was its original intent.  I think the aim was higher.  He wanted to be "a classical poet" he had said, not "neo-classic" - though Byron too loved the eighteenth century poets, and attacked Keats for his dissing of them ("they swayed back and forth upon a rocking horse / and called it Pegasus").  As Tom Clark, in his biography of Dorn, "A World Of Difference"  perceptively writes of "The Cycle" interrupting what was becoming of the epic turned mock:
"Dorn extends the range of his symbolism into an area very close to moral allegory.  The extension is consistent with his working principles in the poem, which differs from his previous efforts in the multivalent density of the referential field it activates...." (p. 113). 
And here is the opening of Book 2:
          "This tapestry moves
as the morning lights up.
And they who are in it move
and love its moving
from sleep to Idea
born on the breathing
of a distant harmonium, To See
is their desire
as they wander estranged"
In the later work: the sardonic aphorisms of "Abhorrences" and the under-rated "Languedoc Variorum" and the final poems of "Chemo Sabe" "spectacular rewards" as Sinclair writes, "are offered...as the strategic shifts and heretical inspirations of the poet's long career are revealed.  First, his courage. Then his persistence....Dorn refined his ability to articulate a precise report from wherever he stood.  He mastered a 'terrific actualism'."
Yes, he has moved from some beautiful early poems (almost Frostian at times), to original authentic voice, innovative and enduring, a lasting achievement. 

(Bill Sherman, April 6th/7th 2013)   


Friday, March 8, 2013

Harry Musick (1946 - 2013)

Harry M. Musick, book and flea market maven, student of philosophy, U.S. Marine, author of just one published chapbook of prose and poetry: "Poems For The Abnormal Mind" (Soap Box Publishing, Stamford Connecticut, 1978).  Here are three excerpts:

     The nights were cold, and the moon left shadows of forthcoming danger.  Lurking in the darkness half starved animals waited silently for their prey.  Howls from dying beasts saturated the silence.  Fits of laughter echoed from the mouths of mindless men.

     The mortal chose to sit on the mountain for eternity.  He composed songs.  He sang to the goddess.  The music with a magic melody drifted to earth, compelling other mortals to conquer other peaks only to find that nothing existed but their own madness.

a river of blood
of human infamy
through a forest
with black
leafless trees
toward the dark,
             the starless heavens,
sprouting branches
from a scarlet sea.
Each tree
            a huge bulk
                            of stone
bled its guts
upon the foam
                   which bubbled


Kiss me softly gentle wind;
I am sighing.
Tales from a painful heart
Keep my loves from dying.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

poem by Anselm Hollo (1934 - 2013)

Buffalo Limited Edition Fortune Cookie

Comrade Lenin's watch: always ten minutes fast
SeƱor Buddha had no watch at all
 just sat there watching the sky evolve
he too gone now like Mr. Edward Hopper
and yesterday's grasshopper
         so do not ask for whom the car honks
watch out for that bicyclist whirring near
 early & late     
remember those whom you hold dear

first published in intent. Letter of Talk, Thinking, & Document
(vol. 3 No. 2 & 3, Summer/Fall 1991)
edited John Clarke

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dafydd Ap Gwilym

Dafydd ap Gwilym, slightly older than Chaucer, melded the tradition of courtly love poetry with innovation to traditional Welsh meter and rhyme.  Rachel Bromwich had written: "It is a general belief that poetry is untranslatable except at a cost of so great a loss as to call in question the reasons for ever attempting it.  Dafydd ap Gwilym's poetry is an extreme example of the validity of this interdiction, since his awdlau and cywyddau made their primary appeal to the ears of the original audiences: rarely - if ever - did these audiences see his poems in writing."  (Dafydd Ap Gwilym: A Selection Of Poems, Gomer Press, Llandysul, Dyfed, 1982).  Not to enter into a controversy about translation, especially since I believe it can be an invaluable labor of love, but medieval Welsh poetry is simply not possible to translate literally into a poetry in English.  And English was the oppressor's language - Dafydd having lived in the 14th century, "between the fall of Llywelyn and the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dwr." ("The Story of Dafydd ap Gwilym" by Gwyn Thomas with Illustrations by Margaret Jones - published by Y Lolfa, Talybont, 2004).  Of course one could attempt what Pound did in "Cathay" or what Blackburn did with "El Cid" or what Logue did with Homer.... There are some translations on the web,  published by The Swansea Project.   

He was the greatest, certainly the most well-known, medieval Welsh poet, though perhaps there are those who regard his colleague, friend and rival in the composition of cynghanedd and cywdd, Gruffudd Gryg, as his equal.   

Much of his poetry concerns love's frustrations; often the poems are self-deprecating, even sardonic; however, his irony is sometimes imbued with the beauty of the natural world, the forests of Wales, and the birds and beasts who live there, and his work uses racy and erotic language within the internal rhymes, stress, assonance, and alliterations of the cynghanedd, or harmony, as Dr. Bromwich had noted in her exceptional text: "Cynghanedd was an organic growth which like the cywydd itself, became permanently stablilized in its lasting form in the 14th century.  It had evolved slowly over the previous two centuries in the long lines of nine or ten or twelve syllables in the awdlau composed by the court poets who were Dafydd's predecessors."  She modestly asserts that her translations should be regarded as prose. 

Here are two very brief excerpts from her 1982 book (with an Introduction by Thomas Parry), which features the Welsh, interfacing.

from: The Girls of Llanbadarn  ("Merched Llanbadarn")

I am distraught with passion:
a plague on all the parish girls!
because I never - violation of trysts -
was able to win even one of them,
no maiden - a gentle request -
nor little maid, nor hag, nor wife.

What bashfulness is this, what mischief?
How have I failed, that they'll have none of me?
What harm, to lass with slender brows,
to meet me in the forest's thick-set dark?
No cause of shame to her
to see me in my leafy lair.


And when I have long surveyed
across my feathers, the people of my parish
one sweet tender lass will say
to her companion, lively, famous, wise:

"That grey-faced flirt of a boy
wearing in his head his sister's hair,
lascivious is the look he has,
he has a side-long glance, he must know mischief well."

"Is that how it is with him?"
the other by her side replies,
"He'll get no answer while the world endures,
to the devil with him, stupid thing!"

Shocking to me was the bright girls's curse,
a trifling payment for distracting love.
Needs must that I contrive to cease
this habit, with its tantalizing dreams.
It is imperative that I become
a hermit - job for a dejected man.
Because of ever looking - awful lesson -
over my shoulder, an image of distress,
it has befallen me, though poetry's friend,
to go wry-headed, without any mate.

And, in much the same vein, (but with angry final quatrain) from "Cyngor y Biogen" or "The Magpie's Advice"

I, the poet of a lissom girl
in the greenwood, joyful enough
yet weary-hearted from remembering her;
my spirit being refreshed within
for sheer joy of seeing the trees
with vital force, having donned new clothes
and the shoots of vine and wheat
after the sun-shot rain and dew,
and the green leaves, on the valley's brow,
and the thorn-tree, fresh, white-nosed.
By Heaven, there was also
the Magpie, most cunning bird in the world
building - lovely stratagem -
in the tangled crest of the thicket's core
an ambitious tenement of leaves and clay and lime,
and her mate was helping her.


The Magpie muttered - indictment of my anguish -
proud, sharp-beaked, upon a thorn-bush:
"Great is your fuss, a vain and bitter chant,
old man, all by yourself,
better it were for you, by Mary of eloquent fame,
to be beside the fire, you grey old man,
rather than here, amidst the dew and rain,
in the greenwood, in a chilly shower."

"Shut up, and leave me here in peace
if only for an hour, until my tryst.
It is my passion for a lovely, faithful girl
that causes me this tumult."

"It is but vain for you, servant of passion,
despicable grey old man, half imbecile;
-a foolish sign of the labour of love -
to rave about a sparkling girl."


"You Magpie, black your head,
help me, if you are so wise,
and give me the best advice
that you may know for my sore sickness."

"I would impart to you sound advice
before May comes, and do it, if you will.
You have no right, poet, to the handsome girl:
there is for you but one advice
since you are so deep in verses, become a hermit,
alas, you foolish man!  and love no more."

By my faith, God witness it,
if ever yet I see a Magpie's nest
from this time on, she will not have
God knows, either egg or fledgeling.