A Bumper Smokestack Review Part 1

Alan Morrison on

Clare Saponia –
The Oranges of Revolution
(144p; 2015)

John Berger – Collected Poems
(146 pp; 2015)

Berger
Saponia

Due to the sheer volume of collections sent me from Smokestack that have literally stacked up on my desk these past several months during which time I was unable to find time to review, I’m necessarily going to be as compendious as possible in discussing each title and unfortunately cannot expend the usual vast space I had hitherto on other collections. Hence this bulk review (although reviews will still vary in length). But I hope this will at least prove that word count isn’t everything in criticism.

Clare Saponia is a spirited and unapologetically political poet whose poetry I have come to know fairly well over the past few years, having previously read and reviewed her debut collection Copyrighting War and Other Business Sins (Olympia) on The Recusant. I’ve also become familiar with her very poised and serious-minded reading of her poems, her having been a committed contributor to the Caparison anti-austerity anthologies and their various public readings. I was delighted when I discovered that Saponia had found a fitting home for her second volume of poetry, under Andy Croft’s radical imprint, and The Oranges of Revolution certainly complements Smokestack’s ever-expanding list, not least in its brilliantly metaphorical title.

Saponia is one of the most polemically direct contemporary poets, but this feisty confrontational flavour to her oeuvre is never over-cooked, and her prosodic skilfulness supports the political points well. The Oranges of Revolution is split into five sections, each titled by a part of the orange –Skin, Pith, Flesh, Pips, Juice– thus structuring the book through synecdoche. Although this reviewer relishes Saponian polemic, he is most impressed by those poems in the collection which place more emphasis on metaphorical use of language.

‘Constructive Thinking’ is one such image-rich figurative poem displaying Saponia’s poetic confidence with descriptive tropes –here’s an excerpt:

There’s men now drinking tea
where the house stood yesterday
toasting to their very own fallen Acropolis
that snaps the Hackney skyline
clean as a chicken’s wishbone.
And with nothing to wish on

except a faint carcass of scaffolding
loosely strapped to the neighbouring terraces
like a braid of NHS dentures.

At the foot of the skeleton lies a confetti
of fish ‘n’ chip boxes
from the kebab house
across the road…

The trope, ‘that snaps the Hackney skyline/ clean as a chicken’s wishbone’, is particularly striking alliteratively, and is also one of many examples of Saponia’s use of gustatory metaphors.

Saponia has a rumbustious vocabulary that verbally bounds from the page with excitable alliterativeness, and, narratively speaking, an acidic, blackly comic touch, as in ‘Flatlag’:

...In its place is a cowpat of purpose-built,
self-contained pride: brown brick, brown shit. An offshoot
of Strangeways. Three teenagers hang out each afternoon
after school hours in mufti pretending they haven’t been
to school, peeved they have no Monday night party
to go to. Not here.

On the other side, lies an orgy of lifeless Victorian terraces
belonging to a colony of ex-hippies and failed artists we never see
beyond the spew of cockeyed, fluorescent drapes
they use to block out the sunlight….

There’s much anger in this poetry, fitting for its polemical purpose, and Saponia expresses it effectively, and manipulates it imaginatively, even if some might prefer a little less expletives (though these aren’t too frequent). ‘Tony’s Do-it-yourself Guide to the Joy of Revenge’ (Saponia’s poem titles never fail to surprise) again displays an assuredness at darkly satirical narrative verse:

Revenge has silent paws.
he leaves his spots on the bathroom cabinet
of a morning so as not to weigh him down

Like his appetite. He buys fresh flesh
every Friday from the local warmonger
after pretending not to listen to Woman’s Hour.
He follows a rigid regime: accountability for breakfast.
Blame for lunch. And a hearty portion of denial for dinner –
as part of a well-balanced diet. He wanks off
whenever Murray’s voice dives an octave.

The alliteration of that last line is particularly effective. Saponia’s poetry certainly has cojones; with a no-holds-barred vocabulary, satirical left-hook and propensity at thumping tubs (in the best sense), her polemical poems are pretty formidable. ‘Junk food for Jaws’ also packs a punch:

With dollars stamped all over you.
Shekels shackling you. Ballots buggered
and bent and bound for Barack, what are
the chances you’ll avoid the daggers in
Sharm el’ Shark?

Again, as one will observe, Saponia doesn’t shrink from employing the full gamut of Anglo-Saxon verbiage at its bluest. ‘Ironing out Iran’ is one of many examples of Saponia employing more forensically poetic language to make her point:

Like a lava of commandments
set down in invisible ink, casting
in stone

the felonious rules of bestiality
that fail to trace beyond
the thought…

carved into syncopated spine
with half-wits choosing the gaps
according to gossip and level of

gain.

This clipped poetic precision and honing of tone is impressive, as is the alliteration. Likewise, ‘Geneva Conventionalism’ starts off in fine polemical spirit, supported well by the image-based trajectory of the language:

When it’s a toss-up between
your minaret and mine, a cone
or a cross or a moon that hacks into the sky
of unlimited fears…

‘Illegal Illness’ effectively tackles the thorny topic –or near taboo– of the Tories’ remorseless administrative manslaughter of the sick and disabled via the notorious DWP-Atos-facilitated work capability assessments (which have seen over 91,000 claimants die in just four years!).

The intriguingly titled ‘Daisy Chain called History’ is one of the most polemically successful of Saponia’s poems, tackling ‘muscularly (neo-)liberal’ Western foreign interventionism, and contains some striking phrases:

Silenced personalities
trimmed into cornflower blue cloths,
then white, then sealed and mummified…

They’ve stamped their feet in
whilst only their voices are silenced,
bungled by outright contradiction:
terror on their front porch.

The polemic of the poem certainly packs a punch:

every secret is torn between rounds of Chinese whispers
and waterboard-aquatics:
privatising death just makes it all
that little bit more personal

from one day to another.

Another exceptional poem in this collection is ‘What we swallow’ (gustatory, again), which displays Saponia’s poetic assuredness through some highly impressive lyrical flourishes bristling with alliteration and sibilance:

I watched a building melt to the ground
in time to The Thin Ice

from the comfort of my sofa,

its outer glass garments
drizzling from wick to ramekin
like unwanted advent accessories.

Since when did this become
standard teatime viewing –

He leaves sinewy stains
about the inner-rim, the beaker
flaunting its ill-carved mindset;
a chlorinated, off-key Watusi
of bad salty waters

lost in screening

to egg-shell fine slithers
of kettle-lining.

This poem also demonstrates Saponia’s very visceral lyricism, which has, to some extent, a faintly Plathian quality in terms of its stripped-down imagery and symbolism. One can’t emphasize too much just how passionate and gutsy (or ‘ballsy’) Saponia’s uncompromisingly polemical poetry actually is. One might hope that, in time, this most un-introspective of poets may employ her considerable poetic equipment in a more personalised direction, since one senses Saponia has much in her persona and experiences which readers would appreciate exploring every bit as much as her macrocosmic polemics. The Oranges of Revolution is a further step up from her still impressive debut volume: it displays in abundance a rapidly maturing confidence in poetic form and control of tone, and certainly bodes much promise for future accomplishments.

From a younger polemical talent to a veteran: the polymath John Berger is universally known for his prolific career in literature, polemic, painting, criticism and filmmaking (cue his seminal BAFTA-award winning art series Ways of Seeing, 1972), and has been the recipient of such notable prizes as the Booker and James Tait Black Memorial. The publishing of his Collected Poems is therefore quite a coup for Smokestack. Berger, who currently lives in the French Alps, has produced a deeply figurative and lyrical oeuvre very clearly influenced by European poetics; indeed, what strikes one while reading his poetry is just how distinctly un-English it is in terms of style, tone and subject –much is composed in response to wars and holocausts, and it’s difficult to find so much as one poem in this 145-paged book which isn’t, in some sense, polemical. Nevertheless, the surface style and tone of most of the poems in this Collected is lyrical, and in many cases, in an imagistic/symbolist Lorcan sense –again, the potent Europeanism of Berger’s verse.

Berger’s poetry is simply dripping with aphorisms. Take such a verse as the following from the first poem in the book, ‘Words I’:

Her child sucks the long
white thread
of words to come.

This Collected is arranged out of chronological order, with varying dates italicised under the poems. ‘A Dream Which I Inscribed Verbatim’ is dated 1960 –here’s an alliterative, aphorismic excerpt:

O bite the lobe of his ear, they said
and draw the bolt of his life.

‘Orchard’ has a beautifully gauged and phrased descriptive flourish towards its close:

In the tangled shadows daisies
made me imagine
how a grain of sand might open
and white petals radiate
from the open yellowed grain

the late blossom on a tree
at the orchard’s edge
was the colour of my brain
white rose with flecks of light and blood

thoughts in a brain
stay invisible
hence words to reveal.

I thought:
every day this orchard
is part of
a gale.

At once I’m reminded here of ee cummings, William Carlos Williams and García Lorca.

Mortality, and, in particular, its premature-meeting –whether through death in war, or suicide– adumbrates most of Berger’s poetry. The close of ‘The Unsaid’ is particularly blunt in this regard:

Now both are dead
their last letters
lost in a pile:
both killed themselves
one with a gun
one in a canal.

Berger frequently tackles brutal subjects, and it is a testament to his great poetic skill that he can treat such grim themes with such lyrical grace. Indeed, there’s a real sense of redemption in Berger’s poems: the triumph of spirit and beauty over the atrocities of matter. ‘Viva Voce’ calls to mind Roman poetry, which was often highly polemical, not only the Stoic school, such as Horace, but even the Epicureans, such as Propertius or Catullus, and love poets (e.g. Ovid) of that ancient culture had a political propensity. Like the Roman poets, Berger couches his polemics in aphorisms –the first stanza here having something of Cicero’s rhetoric:

One who dreams deeply
of mountains
speaks next day
with the voice of a bureaucrat

Another whom nobody dares disturb
sleeping like a tank
parked in a square
will plead with the voice of a child
that he has never been disobedient

A third to overcome insomnia
imagines himself a beaver
and barks at meetings
in the name of necessity

He whose nightmares
are of history being unchangeable
will explain like a teacher
precisely what is needed
in order to progress

Into the ear of a poem
I write these riddles
never spoken
viva voce

One notes at this point some the fundaments of Berger’s prosodic aesthetic: only the first word of each verse is capitalised, and there is a notable absence of commas, the enjambments marking the breath/pause in-between the lines. The absence of commas, together with pared-down, sometimes sparsely phrased lines, seems to emphasise an almost prayer-like truth-seeking; a spiritual whittling down.

Berger’s aphorismic gifts are everywhere in evidence –here is another example, from ‘Story Tellers’:

Writing
crouched beside death
we are his secretaries

Here the distinctly thanatotic quality to writing, and to poetry in particular, is quite chillingly expressed. ‘Leavings’, one of Berger’s earlier poems (dated 1956/7), shows how the poet started out capitalising his lines (and using commas) –this is a beautifully judged poem and warrants excerpting in full:

Brightest guests have gone
Green furnishings are down,
Shadeless light condones
Black frost on window panes.

Where lovers and grasses
Spent their seeds
Over iron crevices
Ice now makes the beds.

Yet indulge no regret.
Mouse eye of robin,
Creeping silence,
These cautious lines,

Bear witness still
In their circumvention
To the constant
Tenancy of man.

It seems almost superficial to point out the wonderful use of alliteration, assonance and sibilance throughout this poem –but then many such techniques are serendipitous rather than calculated in poetry.

Again I’m reminded of the Roman verse-missive style in ‘Requiem’:

Green
unlike silver or red
I say to you Nella
is never still
green who waited
mineral ages
for the leaf
is the colour of their souls
and comes as gift.

Here Berger’s sparing phrasal style works wonders with images –again, a whittling down to rudiments. ‘Self-portrait 1914-18’ (dated 1970) is one of Berger’s less typical poems technically, in terms of its setting into three-lined verses (bar the final solitary line), and some slightly longer lines, quite a contrast to his more typical vers libre. At first sight it appears to be a semi-autobiographical poem, but chronologically-speaking it can’t be, since Berger was born in 1926, while the poem concludes in 1918. Berger was a post-World War I baby, too young to be one of the Thirties generation of writers and poets who were wracked by a sense of guilt at having not been mortally tested as their trench-veteran fathers (though many would of course find similar tests by the mid-Thirties, as volunteers in the non-conscripted Spanish Civil War, and then the Second World War). Yet Berger appears to depict his birth as if it had effectively happened during that last war. Perhaps the metaphorical conceit here is, indeed, related to the trench-spared ‘guilt’ of the Thirties generation, inclusive of those who were still children during that decade, such as Berger:

It seems now that I was so near to that war.
I was born eight years after it ended
When the General Strike had been defeated.

Yet I was born by Very Light and shrapnel
On duck boards
Among limbs without bodies.

I was born of the look of the dead
Swaddled in mustard gas
And fed in a dugout.

I was the groundless hope of survival
With mud between finger and thumb
Born near Abbeville.

I lived the first year of my life
Between the leaves of a pocket bible
Stuffed in a khaki haversack.

I lived the second year of my life
With three photos of a woman
Kept in a standard issue army paybook.

In the third year of my life
At 11am on November 11th 1918
I became all that was conceivable.

Before I could see
Before I could cry out
Before I could go hungry

I was the world fit for heroes to live in.

‘Trilling’ is an intriguing aphorismic poem:

The canary sings inside the eagle
and is mad.
The canary sings inside the cage
of the eagle’s breast.
The slow beat of the eagle’s wings
accelerated
flows like an incessant giggle
musically
from the canary’s quivering beak.
The canary trills highest
when the eagle kills.

‘Mostar’ contains some extremely effective description and alliteration –here’s an excerpt:

…she had fourteen pairs or more
on the balcony on the fifth floor
my finger wrapped in a scrap of rag
circling the tin of polish
balanced on the balustrade
I applied the black
to the little sides
the snub toe
the slender heel
whose tip was no longer than a dice…

So many of Berger’s tropes are exceptional in their spare lyricism –this, from ‘For Howe 1909-1985’:

know you
by the half smile of your reticence
and the space
of a pride
you hid in patched sleeves

‘Ypres’ almost recalls David Jones –though it is, presumably, depicting the Belgian location as a haunted scarred landscape in the modern day (much of which was shelled during the First World War). Here the use of alliteration and sense-impression is pitch perfect [Note: this following excerpt, as well as some others, should properly appear in variations of indented lines, but formatting this would be an exhausting process, so this editor's apologies]:

Base: fields whose mud is waterlogged
Perpendicular: thin larches
planted in rows
with broken
branches
Horizontal: brick walls the colour of
dead horses

Sinking: lower
and lower
houses with dark windows
Sometimes a wall is white-washed
A rectangle of dead lime
under the indifferent clouds
Chickens should have webbed feet here
At dusk drowned soldiers cross the fields to steal them
Through base
perpendicular
and horizontal
there is order:
the order of split wood
broken branches
walls the colour of dead horses
and roofs fallen in
There is no way out except across
Nothing reaches any heaven from here
Between earth and sky there is
a transparent canopy
plaited from cock crows
and the cries of soldiers

It’s a poem deeply evocative of the Great War.

Most poets have their pet-words which crop up ever so often throughout their oeuvres –Berger’s are mostly oral-based, regarding language and the organs of language, thus, ‘mouths’ and ‘tongues’ (‘wagons’ also appears a few times); there's a poetic focus on human communication, and, no less, the catastrophic consequences when this breaks down. ‘Expulsion’ is a potent poem apparently depicting that mighty Miltonic subject of ‘The Fall’ –here’s an excerpt:

Before,
when the two of them did not count
did they feel
a prickling behind the eyes
a thirst in the throat
for something other than
the perfume of infinite flowers
and the breath of immortal animals?
In their untrembling sleep
did the tips of their tongues
seek the bud of another taste
which was mortal and sweating?

‘Born 5/11/26’, titled by Berger’s own date of birth, contains perhaps my favourite of Berger’s aphorismic tropes: ‘no more thoughts of suicide/ than is normal in November’. It’s a piece strongly reminiscent of the work of García Lorca in its emphasis on symbol and image:

Redder every day
the leaves of the pear trees.
Tell me what is bleeding.
Not summer
for summer left early.
Not the village
for the village though drunk on its road
has not fallen.
Not my heart
for my heart bleeds no more
than the arnica flower.

Nobody has died this month
or been fortunate enough
to receive a foreign work-permit.
We fed with soup
let sleep in the barn
no more thoughts of suicide
than is normal in November.
Tell me what is bleeding
you who see in the dark.

Hands of the world
amputated by profit
bleed in
streets of bloodsheds.

That final masterful trope is almost as if John Pilger had suddenly taken to composing poems. Such a sparsely phrased aphorism is worthy of Alun Lewis. Indeed, ‘Jura Mountains’ also has a Lewisian feel to it, particularly in the following tropes:

…a blue he can never touch
if he lays a finger on the skin of this blue
he will touch the moment of his own conception…

and:

here words ricochet off the snow
as off gun metal

‘Rembrandt Self-Portrait’ is a brilliantly restrained poetic tribute to the almost supernaturally gifted Dutch painter:

The eyes from the face
two nights looking at the day
the universe of his mind
doubled by pity
nothing else can suffice.
Before a mirror
silent as a horseless road
he envisaged us
deaf dumb
returning overland
to look at him
in the dark.

The line ‘silent as a horseless road’ is particularly evocative. A tribute poem to 'Orlando Letelier 1932-1976', the socialist Chilean politician who was tragically assassinated by the agents of fascist upstart Pinochet, contains some wonderful lyrical flourishes:

what his assassins whisper to themselves
his voice could never have said
afraid of his belief
in history
they chose the day of his murder.

He has come
as the season turns
at the moment of the blood red rowanberry

This poem is dated 24 September 1976, so composed only three days after Letelier’s assassination; this demonstrates that Berger’s poetic antennae have ever been alert to current affairs, and lends some of his poems the quality of social document (something that Jack Lindsay, and even W.H. Auden, shared). The Lorcan influence comes through again in ‘Twentieth Century Storm’, which has some arresting tropes, some of which again evoke the First World War:

Lightning the scythe
is cutting down the rain.
Swathes of water

fall like the clothes
– o the great coats for parting
the great great coats
that never returned!
fall like the clothes
of the far away
on the sky’s empty field.

Each flower began
in the palm of a hand,
each petal
in origin
a gesture an action
a touching.

Put your garden to my cheek
your five fingered garden
in another city
to my cheek.

And then comes a striking haiku to close this effective piece:

The haycart
loaded with thunder
is trundling across the sky.

There is indeed, too, a deeply Oriental quality to some of Berger’s poems: rhetorically and aphoristically they recall the Chinese, and in seasonal and natural imagery, the Japanese. ‘Alpine Spring’ displays such aspects:

… the topmost branches of the plum trees
all are missing
are points of needles’ eyes
acupunctures of blossom…

towns besieged
tiny as the darling fingernails
of a baby whose mother has been raped then shot
acupunctures of white blossom
and the wooden planks of the barn
where the swallows nest
and the same wood as the cross
I’m scything the spring grass
on which Christ dies
amidst sunlit blossoms agape
at the blue sky.

Berger plays deftly with personification in ‘Rural Emigration’:

Mornings are mothers
bringing up their pastures
drying invisible sheets
across the orchard
and teasing the steaming rocks
with tales of sun and bed

Day after day
morning and evening coupled
grass and leaves grew up
and the drenched green catkins
fell from our walnut tree
like dead caterpillars

‘Memory of a Village Church’ begins with an imaginative gustatory image:

How to explain the world
with a rounded arch
cut like a melon
whose sweetness was a welcome?

Berger’s poems abound with highly memorable tropes and aphorisms. In ‘Their Railways’, we have ‘The blood of good-byes’. In ‘Far Away’:

Is the hand
that strikes the match
historic?

In the sequence ‘Eight Poems of Emigration’ we get ‘we eat off coffin lids’. Here is ‘II Earth’ in full:

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
and times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
extracted by hand

the church above the earth
arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

In ‘V Factory’ there is a striking figurative flourish:

there we built the night
as we lit the fire
lay down in it
pulled up the dark as blanket

‘VI Waterfront’ treats to us a bit of Bergerian surrealism:

my country
is a hide nailed to wood

the wind of my soul rushes

out of horizons
I make a hammock

in sleep
I suck birth village
touch my river’s curve

two black mackerel
pilot in
daybreak

gaff them sky gaff them

There’s some hypnotic poetic description in ‘VII Absence’, which also reminds one of T.S. Eliot in its slightly abstracted lyricism –here it is in full:

when the sun was no higher than the grass
jewels hung in the trees
and the terraces turned rose
between fluorescent lights along the ringroad
apartments hung their pietas

they are frying potatoes
a factory discharges its hands in woollen gloves
there is a hole in my thumb

the vines are not green
the vines are not here
the jewels
crushed in high voltage wires
will be worn by the dead
DANGER DE MORT

‘Troy’ is another faintly Eliot-esque lyrical piece with some memorable aphorisms:

The last day of the year
all cities have the right
to wear disguise….

This city invents for itself
a sky
unwinds it like a bale of cloth.

In a dream I found
a bird’s egg the blue of the sky.
Where the blue joins the roofs of the street
it rattles inaudibly.
My eyes see the sound.

Needless to say the alliteration and sibilance at work here is striking.

‘Separation’ is one of Berger’s longest poems –a fine lyrical piece, again, dripping with aphorisms, one of which is vaguely repeated throughout. It begins:

We with our vagrant language
we with our incorrigible accents
and another word for milk
we who come by train
and embrace on platforms
we and our wagons
we whose voice in our absence…

Alliteration is at play throughout, exceptionally:

We are experts in the presents
both wrapped ones
and the others left surreptitiously.

We are experts too in taking.
We take with us anniversaries
the shape of a fingernail
the silence of the child asleep
the taste of your celery
and your word for milk.

What in our single beds
do we know of poetry?

The latter trope is repeated throughout the poem, as is the ‘milk’ allusion. There’s something of early –pseudo-surrealist– Auden in these refrains:

We with our bad foreign news
and another word for milk
what in our single beds
do we know of poetry?

And:

we know as well as the scholars
what makes a language quiver.
Our freight.
The bringing together of what has been parted
makes a language quiver.
Across millennia and the village street
through tundra and forests
by farewells and bridges
towards the city of our child
everything must be carried.

We carry poetry
as the cattle trucks of the world
carry cattle.
Soon in the sidings
they will sluice them down.

This brilliant poem is dated 1984/5.

In ‘At Remaurian’ there’s a play on the theory of cause and effect (e.g. that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could cause certain rippling vibrations that might result in, say, a monsoon on some other part of the planet):

A butterfly disturbs a grain
The grain another
Till there is such friction in the dust
The sky spills its blue milk
On the stones that have conceived

A day is born

Down the precipitous gaze of its opened eyes
The trees are led.

Berger’s very precise and spare lyricism, his sheer phrasal confidence, is breathtaking:

Seen naked the day rises
Till its eyes can probe
Beyond the walls on which lizards tattooed
Beat the rate of my pulse
Through groves so ancient
No desire of mine
Can be separate from its origin
In the glance of a man
A millennium ago
Down erogenous slopes
Where poised boulders await
The staring
Behind a cataract of pleasure
Over hills as patient as the unconceived
To that horizon
Which miles moisten in their welcome
And sight divides.

And:

Cover me cover me
That I am spread as the whiteness of rock
And no ignorance remains in the light
When every organ
With its workings is displayed
Letting spermatozoa and egg
Be as evident to sight
As pairing butterflies
The glance of whose wings
It will then be too late
For this gazing sun
Ever to misinterpret.

And:

Since from my bough
My leaves then unfolded
And I pursued
With my tongue
The lineage of your wood.

All these excerpts from separate numeralled parts of the same poem-sequence –exceptional lyricism.

‘Ladder’, from the 1980s, shows the influence of Ted Hughes in its violent depiction of ‘a dead ewe’:

legs in the air
thin as the legs
of a kitchen chair
she strayed yesterday
ate too much lucerne
which fermenting
burst her stomach
the first snow
falls on her grey wool
a vole in the dark
systematically
eats the ear on the ground
at daybreak two crows
haphazardly peck
the gums of the teeth
her frosted eyes are open

But such Hughesian macabre is brought up short with some lyrical flourishes and transcendent imagery: ‘and two butterflies white/ like the notes of an accordion’.

‘Death of La Nan M.’ (subtitled ‘In Memory of Lauren Malgrand’) has something of Scandinavian poetry about it, specifically its quality of ‘Nordic gloom’ –it’s a wintry, funereal poem, and in its strong use of images and fairly sparse stanzas is reminiscent of –among other Swedish poets– Harry Martinson. Here are some choicest excerpts:

When she could no longer
prepare mash for the chickens
or peel potatoes
for the soup
she lost her appetite
even for bread
and scarcely ate

He was painting himself
black on the branches
to watch the crows

At night he reclined on each side
of the black fire
burning her bed
what she asked him was his opposite?
Milk he answered with appetite

This fine poem closes on a simply stunning image:

At her funeral
the village saw the soft snow
bury her
before the gravedigger

‘They Are The Last’ is rich with poetic tropes, as well as scientific aphorisms:

Put your ear to her flank
and you will hear
the tide of her four stomachs.
Her second, like a net,
has the name of a constellation:
Reticulum. Her third,
the Psalterium, is like
the pages of a book.

When she falls sick
and lacks the will to chew
her four stomachs fall
silent as a hive in winter.

‘I believe it’s completely feasible,’
said Bob Rust
of Iowa State University,
‘to specifically design
an animal for hamburger.’

Elsewhere
the animals of the poor
die with the poor
from protein insufficiency.

When fetched from the pastures
the cattle bring into the cool stable
the heat of the orchard
and the hot breath of wild garlic.

Yet the ewe
had already lambed
her permanence.

‘Snow’ includes the lovely verse which is in all senses –nature imagery, syllables– a haiku:

His white wings lie
discarded
on the green sky
whose stars are crocuses.

‘Bakar’ is a sharp miniature, closing on one of Berger’s less typical rangy lines:

The village which told stories
during the night of centuries
above the bay of the tuna
has fallen silent
astounded
by the news of the refinery
and its refrain
flaming continually
against the hills even on the days of funerals

The ‘f’-alliterative chiming of ‘fallen’, ‘refinery’, ‘refrain’, ‘flaming’ and ‘funerals’ is wonderfully done.

‘My Coney’, dated 1952, suggests Berger started out writing poetry with an almost fully-formed tone and voice –it’s an exquisitely phrased, gorgeously alliterative and sibilant lyric. Here are its closing lines:

Bird of whose folded wings
no normal ornithologist
can gauge the span,
Soothsayer whose fingerprints
chart an arabia
irredeemable as the phoenix,
Do not submit
to any corollary
but, my love, elude me still.

The short imagistic piece, ‘Hendrickye by Rembrandt’, deserves excerpting in full:

A necklace hangs loose across her breasts,
And between them lingers –
yet is it a lingering

and not an incessant arrival? –
the perfume of forever.
A perfume as old as sleep,
as familiar to the living as to the dead.

As in many cases in Berger’s poems, the alliteration hinges on ‘f’ and ‘g’ sounds.

‘My Honey’ has a surrealist charm:

The apple trees are barking
the beestings on my scalp
mark the rage of the swarm
hold, my honey, your sweetness.

While ‘The Leather of Love’ plays alliteratively on ‘g’, ‘p’ and ‘h’ sounds to an almost hypnotic effect:

Weathered as gate posts
by departures
and the white ghosts
of the gone,
wrapped in tarpaulins,
we talk of passion.
Our passion’s the saline
in which hides are hung
to make from a hinge of skin
the leather of love.

Quite simply, John Berger’s Collected Poems comprises some of the most exceptional figurative lyrical poems this reviewer has read by any English poet currently writing. This book is not so much a coup for Smokestack for the reputation of its author as a coup for the exceptional quality of the poems themselves. But if one must mention reputations, Berger is a refreshing and very rare –if not even singular– example of a famous name whose reputation might precede him but whose poems more properly should. This reviewer confesses he has not previously read any of Berger’s writing, so has come to this volume with a completely fresh eye, one which has not, therefore, been tainted by reputational expectations. This book is highly recommended, especially for admirers of European poetry, and, for once, a publication more than lives up to a reputation…

Alan Morrison © 2015