“Go Quotiently”: Contemporary British Poetry from Shearsman

G. C. Waldrep

The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry. Edited by Harriet Tarlo. Bristol, England: Shearsman Books Ltd., 2011. 180 pages. $20.00.

Landscape from a Dream. By Elisabeth Bletsoe. Bristol, England: Shearsman Books Ltd., 2008. 84 pages. $15.00.

Leaves of Field. By Peter Larkin. Bristol, England: Shearsman Books Ltd., 2006. 116 pages. $15.00.

The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape PoetryTo read much contemporary British verse is—for an American poet—a dreary, disheartening affair. Vast swaths of careful prosody retailed by the major houses (especially Faber) run the gamut from the quotidian to the banal by way of the Minor Epiphany—which in practice is virtually indistinguishable from the Minor Disappointment—and the occasional turn of Audenesque wit, deprived of Auden’s wild and unpredictable ear. One may make subtle allowances for voice and craft, but for those of us steeped in any of the major Modernist inheritances—Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Pound, Stein—it is a disquieting panorama at best. “It’s not as if younger British poets have rejected Modernism per se,” an expat friend in London explained to me some time ago, “it’s more as if Modernism never happened.”

It is tempting to reread Basil Bunting, Alice Oswald, and/or Geoffrey Hill and call it a day, albeit a long one.

What a relief and joy, then, to find an anthology like Harriet Tarlo’s The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, released earlier this year by Shearsman, the small Exeter-based publisher. While only a few of the sixteen poets represented in Tarlo’s generous volume seem “radical” in a formal sense—to an attentive American reader—their work collectively fulfills most other available denotative and connotative definitions of that difficult word, drawing amply on (while renovating and extending) the shared Modernist traditions of which they partake.

Tarlo says of her poets that “this is located writing” (13; emphasis mine)—inscription and parascription that both pierces and figures a living world beyond the human. In Tarlo’s view, “landscape” is an active compound, the “scape” of it permitting and bodying forth “interventionist human engagement” (7), the poet’s hand and eye at work among other forces. While there is, as Tarlo acknowledges, conceptual overlap between the work represented here and what has recently come to be called ecopoetics, these poets define “interventionist,” “human,” and “engagement” in their own wildly varying terms. The anthology is a feast. The poets are nearly all unknown in the United States; they deserve audiences here.

“Give me a poetry of observed relationship” (22) writes Colin Simms, consciously or unconsciously echoing George Oppen’s call for “a limited, limiting clarity.” Simms’s own expansive verse recalls Duncan and Olson, with nods to Whitman in lines like “I am a chainsaw of the woods that you        can sing.” Thomas A. Clark, in contrast, purveys a minimalism comparable to the lichens he writes about in “The Grey Fold,” “a delicate yellow / prepared by green / nourished on rock / in a salt wind” (42). Even more minimalist is the beguiling work of Frances Presley. Here is the first stanza (if one may call it that) of “White Ladder,” from a long sequence of work excavating prehistoric megaliths:

  entirely chance
  cold spring
  short grass
  double row
  quartz stones
  sandstone slabs (78)

Shades of the I Ching, yet wholly of the sparse landscape Presley chronicles. Presley’s work sleights the relationship between landscape and language, each deploying (or deployed) as markers for the human eye. Or ear, as in the stuttering dénouement of “June / on North hill / blind drawing”:

sur     sur     sur     sur
sur     surring

su            su            su            rus (76)

Like many of the poets represented in this anthology, maximalist or minimalist to the American sensibility, Presley’s ear is keen. “[C]orn or finding spaces / to insert a body a core as if / in sand  cupped corn crushed / sinking body  singing cornflower / at the end of summer corn  o tone” reads the opening stanza of “c;” she writes in an undulating abecedarian.

To borrow from another poet in the anthology, Tony Baker, the strength of this anthology is each poet’s recognition that “it won’t cohere” (84). What poetry needs, in relation to what we call the environment (it is really only our environment), is an incohering vision, a formal apprehension that both enables and constrains the poet’s position within systems and processes larger than he or she can be, systems inside of which empathy and desire (or lust—even, perhaps especially, destructive lust) may be recognized, enacted, evoked. The moments that have remained with me from this anthology are those that somehow fuse the twinned heritances of language and environment within striking new forms, as Baker does in this short section from his cycle Binding Affinities:

  (voice 1) (voice 2)
     
  a long way including property
  my soul is in section two
              haul away boys & bring her down
     
  a friend & what financial tips
  my soul is at the touch of
              haul away boys & bring her down
     
  hill & cithern thinking big
  us a song including property
              haul away boys & bring her down
     
  Jesus, Moses said the wren
  us a song make their priority
              haul away boys & bring her down (89)

“If having come so far we shall have / Song // Let it be small enough,” Oppen finally allowed. These are the songs he wanted, “small enough” in their clarity, expansive in their music and vision: “magnitudes of adjustment,” in the perfect phrase of Carol Watts (115).

Landscape from a DreamElisabeth Bletsoe is one of the younger poets included in The Ground Aslant, and her most recent collection, Landscape from a Dream—also from Shearsman—marks her most mature volume to date. “intelligence    lies / at the edge of the body /     in the skin / along the littoral / feeling” (9), Bletsoe avers in the first, eponymous lyric in this collection, and it’s this edge—more precisely, this “littoral feeling”—that animates Bletsoe’s strongest poems. At one point she refers to the body’s temporary scarifying as “dermographics” (12), which could surely be an alternate term for the particular inscriptions she commits to the body’s memory.

Bletsoe’s diction is always rich and frequently arcane: she caresses words and phrases like “marbrine,” “septarian,” “scrobiculate,” “sero-purulant,” “sequelae,” “idiolalia,” even “ametrine laminate” (and more—these just from the collection’s first ten pages) as she deploys them. And if she commits an almost wholly inscrutable riff—“anastomose in a tholian / web” comes to mind—both the music and the affective sense of the language forgive her. What follows that “tholian web” is “a small boat / carrying the sound of your / heart’s engine” (10). Similarly, “punctuate / insectivora at the surface tension” is followed by the plain “stench of wet cow” (26). Bletsoe is not afraid of her formidable intelligence, nor is she afraid to link the fruits of that intelligence (in language) with affective figure or direct sensual appeal.

Bletsoe’s central concern is how the body is simultaneously both a metaphor (a figure, literally) and a literal (pun on littoral), sensual reality. This generative dis-ease pervades the mid-length lyrics that constitute the bedrock of this collection, cycles on such varied subjects as pre-Christian fertility rituals (“Ooser”), the Gawain narrative (“Gawain’s Journey”), and “The Separable Soul.” Two nearly-adjacent excerpts from “The Separable Soul” give a fair idea of Bletsoe’s fluid idiom:

to discover your cipher that
            I envisioned as
underwriting the disjuncted chancel, this
footprint of a drowned house,
            the seagrass meadows
“dotted with pulpy creatures
            reflecting
a silvery & spangled radiance
                                    upwards”

*

exploring the contextures of this
            erotomania
                        (a nail in the vertex)
the exquisite salting of wounds (42)

As pleasurable as these lyrics are, a different sort of delight manifests in “Birds of the Sherborne Missal,” a (mostly) prose poem sequence investigating illuminated figures in the margins of a fifteenth-century monastic manuscript. Each entry in the sequence is composed of title, prose address, and lyric envoi. Here is the first:

Unnamed, identified as Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
for Suzanne

Days of brief transparency, viewed through a window of ice, lifted. Powdered across the lane. Having a porous cuttle texture as if drawn “using a thin & rather scratchy nib.” A stricter regimen being currently observed, blood temporarily withdraws. Lenthay Copse smokily obscure. Brittle scrapiness of reeds, bones packed tight with air. Fish-spine delicate. A tenebrous rustle, like the breathing of books. Fields growing nothing but stones, bone white, buff white, ivory white, carved by the river Yeo, formerly the Gifle or forked one. Abounding in small flocks among the alders; a c’irm or charm indicating a tinnitus of small bells, blended, a continual weaving of waters. Angel speaks with multitudinous voice. “Thistle-tweaker,” a conflation of thorns with the scarlet forehead becomes the iconography of crucifixion myth, ousting earlier fertile goddess affinities. Its nest a vaginal metaphor; a labyrinth of tender intricacies. Lucina, caged by the fingers of holy infants.

                                                sparkling up from
                                                the dried burdock heads, “a shrill
                                                piping of plenty” (49)

If the heartbreak of language, the body (never mind the Other), and the exterior, phenomenological world is their ultimate resistance to interpretation or fixed meaning, Bletsoe will dwell in seams and raphes: in sketches of native birds half a millennium old, speaking outward both to an ancient text and to their live, actual descendants in the neighborhood.

Bletsoe’s verse is, ultimately, a poetry of neighborhood; she closes each poem with a brief description not of the circumstances of its drafting, nor a date, but rather its place of origin: “Abbotsbury swannery,” “walking from Cerne to Evershot,” “Egdon Heath, now Puddletown Forest.” What constitutes “neighborhood”—as raphe, seam, jointure—is her true inquiry, whether the site of that coming together lies inside or outside the poet’s human body.

Leaves of FieldPeter Larkin has been writing in his hermetic, idiosyncratic way since the 1970s and publishing (mostly in chapbooks) since at least 1983. His full-length Terrain Seed Scarcity (Salt, 2001) is simply one of the very few contemporary masterworks in English verse, on par with other single volumes whose titles remain synonymous with achievement and innovation in the art: Crane’s Bridge, Lowell’s Life Studies, Berryman’s Dream Songs, Plath’s Ariel, Hejinian’s My Life. Unfortunately, Amazon.com suggests the book is out of print (“new from . . . $2,745.00”!), and there’s no evidence of it at all at Small Press Distribution. It can, in fact, be obtained with relative ease directly from Salt’s website (www.saltpublishing.com). It is a stunning collection that completely uproots and re-establishes nature writing in English in one blow.

Larkin’s follow-up to Terrain Seed Scarcity, Leaves of Field, is more stately—more cohesive, and also more measured, in every sense of that word—but it remains of a piece with the earlier volume. Larkin’s vision is deeply, even compassionately (if this is possible) inhuman; he comes closest to apprehending the natural world on its own terms, yet somehow in human language. His forward to Leaves of Field (one imagines an editor coaxed it out of him) attempts to position the verse from a human perspective but then swiftly ramifies in ways consistent with the verse itself:

How does, once supposed, the standing tree emerge from a more primary field of leaves? This isn’t to keep trunk and branches always sliding, always afloat: on the contrary, it is field which launches touch-down, lays up or overlays what is driven down to earth. These selvages of field generate horizons once on the earth. What happens, then, when a field becomes leaves? A whole tree gets to be laid out across what is canopy or veil, whose unwoven imbrications revive vertical fallout, which is what can stand. . . . (9)

Two additional paragraphs comprise this “Prefatory Note,” but they move similarly, as one might imagine an oak in a mid-force gale. “This penetration through field spares nothing of the horizontal as privileged and speculative assembler apart from that initial suspensive hooding, a ubiquitous secondary, however seasonal and intermittent, which concedes elated primary locating to a vertical clutch of ground dilated (by field overhang) until dislateral.” This is formidable writing, formidable not just because of its intelligence, not just because of its complex music (cf. Geoffrey Hill at his knottiest), but also and primarily because the point of view slips swiftly, effortlessly, even insidiously from the human to that of the field itself.

Field and forest, leaf and limb: Larkin’s vision is of imbricating arrays, enabled and made tangent by biological and meteorological processes. That the human—the human intelligence, the perceiving eye of the poet—happens to be one of these processes seems almost an afterthought, a footnote in a larger drama the poet has somehow translated from a language stones use. The reader is eavesdropping on something that is not exactly inhuman but is, perhaps, a-human. Most of this is prose, occasionally interspersed with brief inflorescences of verse. Here is Larkin on the autumnal changes (and yes, the length and density of the prose paragraph are necessary, to convey Larkin’s fidelity to spacious, overlapping wholes):

Now leaves filter us towards spire getting out the tree, spill its frame from harness onto a common plate of reception. Surface-to-ground, by hovering it for ground not to be another ground of it, but how depth can be overlaid at it, by the distance into stem, eventual starter instant of the trunk. Not the whole tree hoves towards, but outcomes its towarding. Sinews give-for as gauze of difference, covering what might be in season to be covered pulls on upright some of the available unlaterals below. How a field of leaves is outright, offers what is spanning a world slack in net to a piece of its wedged possibility, pierced and spun by the ligaments which raise over it. Certain that vertical locality is granule of attachment once leafed to this groundling. Such penetrative extrudings are clumber sharpening on tree, seeming tackle of skirts of confine, foldless pulse-crannies of field. Leaf-mass in very propensity to emit staddle on the wealth burden trunk-to-tree itself undercomes. In the throe of particle over leaf, tune the quotient of shelter in waves of granular, the pickets of scaly vertical chafer. Veil which is gauze billowing so over-edged its cell-to-cell, to gaze all earth until it is pillared from every hang. Leaves freeze-frame blanket without meshing the cellular warmth. Cellulated pastes are how the awning makes shards of, smears tree with vertical axis. Reflectance canopy for fielding oblique entropy, floating leaf turns this beam on its bore, precipitates a basal rosette. Choice of leaf made out to a far number of tree pieces, that leaves in this filigree swaddle then unmeddle inter-idle zones beset with apparatus for tree. An entire sheaf of measured diverse severities whose fitness components were never leaf-rollers unless oblong band is to bind apex in previous histories of support. Simulate a whole-canopy synthesis in co-occurring, leafage down to the tree it begets, to get a tree up from armourless ground. Not a field sprain but won’t batch up to this spread: vanes find tree jacket by spooling the air taken in links to sought. A ductility of non-reprisals, each swathe of leaves is case by case overlying intent, the tree’s own ectogenous cartouche unhollowing itself.  (35-36)

At first it’s as if Gertrude Stein had a secret brother and he became a national park ranger somewhere in eastern Oregon. But while Stein made language conform to the synaptic function of her own intelligence, Larkin is less interested in that intelligence than he is in the motions it ascribes. Sustained attention is Larkin’s ministry—attention to phenomena that do not, in traditional lyric terms, warrant it, or not to this degree.

To read Larkin for any length of time—even the single section quoted above—is to participate in this sustained attention, to immerse oneself. As a reader, I find myself clutching at bright bits: “a piece of its wedged possibility, pierced and spun by the ligaments” (not so much raised within the space as raising it themselves, defining the space); the carpet of leaves aloft as a “veil” that is “pillared from every hang”; the leaves as “filigree swaddle”; “a ductility of non-reprisals.” “Tune the quotient of shelter”: for my money, the entire paragraph, unspeakably dense as it is, is worth it for this phrase alone. It’s that bright, perfect maple leaf one plucks from the meadow of dark and shredding discards in early November, for no reason other than that it has caught your eye in what you think of as its beauty.

What you think of as its beauty: this is the rub, the crux of Larkin’s refusal, his granitic resistance to the pathetic fallacy and all its inheritances, Romanticism and the rest. If Leaves of Field can be faulted, the fault lies in the reduced amount of white space, which served in Terrain Seed Scarcity as clearings, resting places for the human apprehension. Perhaps Larkin came to see those breaks as too intrusive, too intentional, too much a bewraying of the I? In two of the latterly movements of Leaves of Field, Larkin intersperses lineated verse amidst such prose observations, and the results can be quietly breathtaking:

holly trees tell winter food
stunted by the wild
sheltered at a shunned gate
in cleft of steading =
a history of openness (82)

*

apartness of the finder-mover
trying to fit a gnarled space
to a green share
your belonging protocols
as you stole along (105)

Larkin’s is the most radically decentered poetry of ecological apprehension and conscience—“a blown world perpetually recruited along a glade in local breath” (108)—that we have in English, and if it is also among the most estrangingly beautiful, that is no accident. Larkin’s verse rides its Modernist inheritances through and past what we now (and perhaps too easily) think of as postmodernism, fetching up on some farther, stranger shore. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but everyone’s taste is not its concern. “Go quotiently,” Larkin advises elsewhere in Leaves of Field: “open woods are near you / sheer of your full cycle.” (94)

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