Pathos of the Once Organic: JL Williams’ “Locust and Marlin”

"Locust and Marlin" by JL Williams

“Locust and Marlin” by JL Williams

Myths are our most basic stories. They attract us in, reach far back in time. For JL Williams, New-Jersey-born, but living in Edinburgh for over a decade, they are a key part of her work. Indeed, many of the poems in her first collection, Condition of Fire (2011) are drawn from that great history-of-the-world-through-myth that is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her second collection, Locust and Marlin (2014) is similar and different from her first book: it feels like a deepening, a development and a moving forward from that book.

Like Ovid, like Condition of Fire, Locust and Marlin is full of animals. Most obviously, this is in the title, and indeed on the cover. The marlin recurs in a poem about the poet’s father; the locust—and it’s worth remembering that the grasshopper metamorphoses into the locust, echoing her first book—in an epigraph from the Book of Revelation, in that same father-poem and in the strange apocalyptic sonnet, “Locust King”, which may, or may not, also be a love song. There are others, like the mysterious and striking heron that opens and closes the book. The first poem, “Heron”, in particular, is a seven-line tour-de-force that begins:

Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.

Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.

The word “imagine” opens the book as a liminal space and from the start, it tries to do the impossible, to describe something beyond the powers of description. After all, silence is not physical, it cannot literally have wings; and space cannot be practicably demarcated by the absence of sound. But the metaphor works so well: this paradoxical description creates a ghost-like figure of the heron that is present, unobserved, undetectable, an object of meditation, in its liminal habitat between water, earth and sky. And like so much in the book, it hints at, does not directly describe, implies.

This in-between space, these things in flux is similar territory to Condition of Fire. There are poems of transformation, like “Flutter”, that begins “They broke upon her ribcage / to let out the birds.” But this isn’t a retreading of Ovid: there is a “they” behind the evident violence that occurs in a number of the poems—this calls to mind fables, stories of witches. And the same poem contains multiple, cyclical transformations.

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Kitsch and Linguistic Tricks: Paul Stephenson’s “Those People”

“These People” by Paul Stephenson

There is a well-known story about W. H. Auden (I came across it in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) and a conversation he had with a boy who said he wanted to be a poet because he had lots to say. The moral, or perhaps the punch line, is in Auden’s frustration at why the boy wants to be a poet: the most important thing is playing with words. Paul Stephenson, in his pamphlet Those People, seems to be following Auden’s advice. The first thing you notice about the poems here is the nimble use of language.

This is immediately obvious in the pamphlet’s found or overheard poems. There is a page-long list of questions called, appropriately enough, ‘Do You Have Any Questions?’. This is the last question before an exam begins in British schools and what follows is a vertigo-inducing compendium of questions, as if there all the thoughts going through someone’s head in the split seconds before the exam really begins. In ‘Gare du Midi’, Stephenson collects phrases overhead (and some thought, I think) at the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The title repeats that of Auden’s political pre-World War Two poem of the arrival of an insidious briefcase, but today the station is full of the worries of travellers and tourists, as well as the anxiety of some of not being let into the UK.

Other poems play around with language even more, and most especially with sound. In ‘Wake Up And’, Stephenson takes the cliché wake up and smell the coffee and works through the phonetic implications of coffee—coughing and cacophony are just the first two. In a lot of ways, the poem seems similar to the aleatory N+7 practice of the Oulipo group, but it is more wilful. Mostly the sequence of words follows phonetics rather than the alphabet: there is a stanza of words beginning with k and a great couplet in “wake up and smell Cavafy / wake up and smell Cefalonia”. Depending on how you pronounce the c, these are not only close phonetically, but geographically as well: Cephalonia lies next to Ithaca, the name and destination of Cavafy’s most famous poem. For the reader, it feels like having a window into a process of free association.

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On Mariano Marovatto and His “Casa”

“Casa” by Mariano Marovatto

The book is named House and many of the poems are set there, but it is hardly homely. Houses are concrete, present, but this is more about absence. In Portuguese Casa can mean house or home; in English it feels right for the title to be about the solid material of walls, bookcases, tables—the house—, rather than the emotional presence, the non-absence of the home.

The book is divided into two sequences of unnamed poems. The first, “O mundo cabe na gaveta” (“The World Fits in a Drawer”), subtly hints; something is wrong. The second, “Acordar amanhã” (“Wake Up Tomorrow”) is more direct; someone is gone:

if we had a baby
you love dogs
if we ate a peach
you seem like autumn
I’ve just chewed autumn.

This is from the first poem of that sequence. On first glance, it seems to divide into two halves of if… then… that break down on a closer look. The first two lines here feel verbatim: it’s one of those unconnected hypotheticals of break-up. The second two feel closer: peaches come in autumn both in Brazil and Europe. But you can’t eat a peach in a poem without a nod (and not the first among contemporary poets linked to Rio, both Matilde Campilho and Ismar Tirelli Neto have nods in the same direction) to Eliot’s Prufrock and, by extension, the not-daring and sexual frustration of that poem. And “chew” (“mastigar”) is from the right semantic area of a fair amount of sexual metaphor, but it’s also so wrong. Something is not right here.

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Every Man Is an Urgent Island: Ismar Tirelli Neto’s Os Ilhados

“Os Ilhados” by Ismar Tirelli Neto

Outside—and to a fair extent, inside—Brazil, the postcarded stereotype is one of gregarious sun-kissed beauty. Reality, as always, is more complex, but even so, maybe it would be a surprise to outsiders to come across the title of Rio poet, Ismar Tirelli Neto’s third collection, Os ilhados (something along the lines of The Isolates in English). After his other two collections, Syncronoscópio (Synchronoscope) and Ramerrão (Routine), it feels like a break or maturing of style (there are some translations of earlier work here at Jacket2 and Poets at Work, where Furore is from this book; the translations from here on in are mine).

You can see this difference even at first glance: nearly half of the collection is made up of prose poems. These read like fragmentary portraits or monologues of loneliness or disconnection that have a cumulative effect over the course of the book. Like in his previous collections, there are touches of the absurd or grotesque—a narrator with his family in a hotel for two years and who gets trapped in a revolving door, or how do you live with a mother who has been quite literally on fire for months? But there is something that feels more urgent about many of these poems. One of the best, ‘Quei giorni insieme a te’, describes the murder of the village witch with sticks and chains. The title, and the content, is from a song by the Italian singer Ornella Vanoni from the soundtrack of the 1972 thriller Non si sevizia un paperino. In the film, the music is juxtaposed with the murder and the poem makes the same juxtaposition with vivid detail that ends:

she does not stop hauling
herself out of the graveyard
the village witch
leaps up the small slope,
the melody falls with force,
but as soon as she reaches
the road, the violins
recoil at the sight of hands,
of fingers cut with branches
and grimy (as everything was
once) with earth and blood
and the song—
the song
is as it says.

But this doesn’t just repeat what happens in the film: the poem expands it out, universalizing it to seem it could be about any murder of an outcast (and there are plenty in Brazil). There are no indicators of time or space apart from the references to the song at the opening and close of the poem. And, indeed, there’s also no time to locate it anywhere: apart from the first few words, the poem is a continuous sentence and its short lines convey a breathless urgency. Then in describing the violins as “recoiling” and the song doing what it does, these final lines draw attention to the grotesqueness of the unhappy love song alongside a bloody murder. In doing that, it also shows its empathy.

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Transatlantic, Fraternal: Matilde Campilho’s “Jóquei”

joqueiIt is rare to find the words “best-selling” and “poetry” inhabiting the same sentence—even in Brazil, “a country where poets are taken seriously” according to the New York Times. So great was this deviation from the script, that at the launch of Matilde Campilho’s first collection Jóquei last week in Rio, talk among readers, the moderator was of that thing that happened—whisper it, a poetry book was number 1 in sales at the Flip, Brazil’s biggest literary festival. Whether the New York Times is right, but anyway, it’s worth repeating: Matilde Campilho’s Jóquei was the best-selling book at Flip.

Campilho is Portuguese, but with a strong connection to Rio de Janeiro—she lived here in between 2010 and 2013, she began writing here, she was surrounded by local poets at the mic. I know next to nothing about contemporary Portuguese writing (the connection between Portuguese and Brazilian letters is not as straight-forward as it might seem from outside the Lusosphere—the publishers are different like in English or Spanish, there are spelling differences perhaps more extreme than English, bookshops divide their shelves between Brazilian and international fiction and poetry…), but her work feels quite Brazilian, or at least cured in Brazil. This is for more than the geographical location of many of the poems: there is a freshness and lightness of touch, strong both in the prose poems and the short-lined unpunctuated free verse, that comes partly from lines or sentences are often equal to breath or thought.

The book has two overt artes poeticae, which are both real defences of poetry as an art form. From the start of the first, ‘Prince in the Rose Garden’, it comes at the reader with demands: “Listen here / this is a poem / it doesn’t talk about love / it doesn’t talk about blue / scarves…” (my translations). This is poetry that knows what it wants and isn’t afraid to ask. And what does poetry want? Contradictory things. The second poem, ‘Extinct Principality’ begins: “This is a poem / it talks about love / or fear of love / It talks about death / or the end of the amalgam / face voice soul and scent / that is death / This is a poem / be afraid”. I don’t like being bossed about, but there’s something so enjoyable being told what to do by these poems.

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Non-Place and Place: “Remnants of Another Age” by Nikola Madzirov

Nikola Madzirov was born in Strumica in south-eastern Macedonia in 1973 and over the past few years has come to be recognized as “one of the most powerful voices in contemporary European poetry”, according to the blurb of Bloodaxe’s collection of his work, Remnants of Another Age. That might sound bombastic, but they may be right.

The book, which comes as a bilingual Macedonian-English edition (more on this later), has some breathtaking lines, like these in “Everything Is a Caress”:

The snow was folding its wings
over the hills, I was laying my palms
over your body like a tape measure
which unfolds only along the length
of other things.

The repetition of “folding” links the simile of the tape measure, which fulfils its purpose as it unfolds, not just to the speaker’s hands, but also to the snow, which too is nothing, until it falls on other things. Read more of this post

Julio Cortázar’s All Fires the Fire

By Rob Packer

Cortázar's "Todos los fuegos el fuego"

Julio Cortázar’s reputation precedes him and the blurb for his collected short stories says no less than: “You must read Cortázar. Always. (Hay que leer Cortázar. Siempre.)” Now, this is the kind of praise you end up reading a lot of on book covers, but it’s hard not to agree with this hyperbole after reading any one of the stories in All Fires the Fire (Todos los fuegos el fuego). Each of these eight stories is pretty much perfect.

The premises of these stories sometimes seem so familiar; after all, who hasn’t been transfixed by a particularly beautiful island seen from a plane (‘La isla a mediodía’), or thought of hiding some shocking piece of news from a sick relative (‘La salud de los enfermos’)? What Cortázar does is to take the situation to its logical conclusion and beyond, as the family ties itself up in increasingly horrific and grotesque lies to hide the original untruth. It’s this combination of familiarity and the uncanny that makes these stories genuinely affecting.

My two favourite stories, though, are the two that bookend the collection: ‘Autopista del sur’ and ‘El otro cielo’. In the first, Cortázar describes a traffic jam on the autoroute into Paris that climaxes at almost apocalyptic proportions, while a recognizable society forms itself and the drivers’ identities are completely subsumed into their vehicles. In the last, ‘El otro cielo’ (reminiscent of Hopscotch (Rayuela), Cortázar’s most famous novel), the narrator mixes flâneur-like walks through a snowy Paris with escapism, nostalgia and Buenos Aires (no spoilers).

In English, Cortázar is often thought of as the writer of the story that inspired Antonioni’s 1966 film of Swinging London, Blow-Up—check the meagre selection of works available in English translation if you don’t believe me. For an author as complex, influential and enjoyable as Cortázar, this doesn’t even begin to do him justice and I’d recommend looking up anything of his you can find.

Black Swan

By Rob Packer

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan

I went to see Black Swan yesterday and thought it worked really well as an exploration of an insanity built up by years of pressure—even if the climax making half the audience roar with laughter. The film takes place around a New York production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Natalie Portman playing the insecure ballerina, Nina. While auditioning for the role, Nina’s innocence is borne out in her depiction of the White Swan, but the more overt sensuality of the Black Swan escapes her and she is only cast at the last moment by ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell) after he tries to kiss her and she bites him on the lip. At the same time, Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives at the company and becomes both Nina’s friend and rival for the lead role.

The film’s most constant motif is the doppelgänger, most obviously in the ballet world as the White and Black Swans and the understudy, or alternate as they say in the film; and in Nina’s catching glimpses of herself passing her doubles by on the street, the subway or the stage. But the doppelgänger theme goes deeper: from the beginning of the film the light greys and pinks of Portman’s clothes are contrasted with the darker hues clothing Lily and Nina’s mother, and Nina even seems to become a doppelgänger of herself when her image in a mirror stays still while she moves and scratches itself.

Nina’s mother is equally insecure, almost throwing away a cake to celebrate when her daughter gets the starring role. As the film progresses it becomes obvious that a bedroom full of cuddly toys and a ballerina musical box are there to enforce an extended childhood on Nina, the daughter whose birth meant that her mother’s own ballet career was cut short: Nina is obviously under pressure to succeed where her mother failed. And she seems to have been successful when at one point Thomas asks Nina if she’s a virgin, and the theme of youth (or pseudo-virginity) continues in the story of Beth (Winona Ryder), who Thomas appears to have forced into retirement.

The youthful body of a ballerina is also a frail one, and Nina’s fragility almost seems brittle as the camera focuses on toes bloody from dancing, Nina’s nervous and constant scratching her back and Thomas’ almost grotesquely large hands against a ballerina’s body. The physical trials of the ballerina mix with Nina’s own insecurities in hallucinatory sequences where her toes have fused together or she collapses as her legs snap.

Compared to Nina, Lily is her opposite: extroverted, sensual, ambitious, she is the Black Swan to match Nina’s innocence. She plays such an important part in Nina’s paranoia and hallucinations to the extent that I started to wonder whether she was “real” or the alter ego of Nina’s psychosis. As Nina comes closer to Lily and starts to act out her irrational side—reminding me the irrational Dämonische of Goethe or Thomas Mann that I came across studying German Literature at university—she comes to master the Black Swan and her portrayal at opening night draws rapturous applause from the audience, but the film’s ambiguous ending seems to say that Nina can’t control having a Black and White Swan persona within her at the same time.

Black Swan is a disturbing, but fantastic film. It combines the real with hallucinations in such a way that you leave the cinema confused and turning over in your head what was real and what was hallucination.

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