A Bumper Smokestack Review Part 1

 

Alan Morrison on

 

Clare Saponia –

The Oranges of Revolution 

(144p; 2015)

 

John Berger – Collected Poems 

(146 pp; 2015)

Saponia Berger

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