Alan Morrison on
Clare Saponia and Alan Britt
Copyrighting War and other Business Sins
by Clare Saponia
Alone In The Terrible Universe
by Alan Britt
Poems Sprung from Stolpersteine
Copyrighting War and other Business Sins
by Clare Saponia
(Olympia Publishers, 2011)
Clare Saponia has been a contributor to this webzine, and one of the 112 poets included in Emergency Verse via a sharply satirical piece; she is also a spirited reader of her work as I’ve witnessed on at least two occasions now. Saponia is one of the growing new breed of younger politically engaged poets, and has a gift for caustic satirical lyric and energetic and engaging polemical comment. Saponia is by no means tub-thumping mono-themed, one-issue poet, she covers a wide range of contemporary social and political topic, and always manages somehow, and admirably, to strike the right balance between impassioned protest and dialectical subtlety; displays a deft subtlety and nuance of expression but without ever diluting the political flame of her particular calling.
Her poetry often has a palpable compassionate anger, and in that regard she stands out quite starkly against the less politically engaged greater number of her peers. But there is no doubt that the subject of international conflict, the muddy little capitalist wars of tin-pot western post-empires flexing their ‘muscular’ neoliberal – or neocon – muscles across the sands of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and a subsequent indignant disbelief and moral outrage of a conscientious poetic objector is what most encapsulates Saponia’s calling, and it is a calling with all the hallmarks of work that will last.
Copyrighting War and other Business Sins is the no-holds-barred title of Saponia’s debut collection handsomely produced by the upcoming Olympia Publishers. Before commenting on some of the poems, I draw attention to Saponia’s eloquently composed prose Foreword, where she relates of when she first encountered the ‘dull bronze tiles’ strangely punctuating the streets of Berlin – where she lived and worked for a while – and acquired the German noun Stolperstein (stumbling block): these are apparently commemorative tiles detailing the names and personal details of all those Jews targeted and deported by the Nazis. This short piece of poetic prose is a beguiling introduction to the book as a whole, expressing in third person how Saponia’s particular ‘muse’ was first ignited; with admirable candour, she also touches on the inherent Anglo-Christian guilt as to the legacy of European Anti-Semitism:
The poems emerged by way of protest and in defence of humanity in Palestine, the narrator clearly torn between respecting survivors and victims of Hitler’s mass genocide programme and her loyalty to present day suffering: in Gaza, Lebanon…
But to Saponia’s poems. The book’s title is slightly deceptive as an ambitious number of political topics are covered throughout this book, albeit that of international warfare predominates. ‘Good Medicine’ is a biting comment on the slapdash pharmaceutical industry:
Everyone gets a pat on the back
or a bullet in the throat.
Being on medication only
entitles you to get your hands
on more drugs
until they take them away
or give you the wrong ones,
just to keep you on something
‘til they no longer want to keep
‘Ours’ demonstrates Saponia’s figurative gifts, almost to the point of the mildly cryptic, which immediately pits her poetry against any possible suggestions of agitprop or tub-thumpery, as this metaphorically sharp excerpt demonstrates:
There are eight-hundred and forty-
nine scars in my marmalade; I have
counted. They have simplified,
Each with a tale among the scramble,
Each alone before severance
with his lacerations.
This metaphor might be interpreted in many ways, an ambiguity no doubt in its favour if one takes the Empsonian view – though I detect perhaps a tinge of polemic on the difference between the principle and the implementation of ‘democracy’. ‘rapist’ is another figurative polemic, this time on money and the rapacious appetites of capitalism, and contains some striking tropes:
the wings of an icon but rarely stops
no remedy for money’s inhumanity.
It does its best to rush transience
to a halt.
Saponia is never afraid to experiment with phrase or aphorism, a poetic boldness which strengthens her political tone, as in ‘Gumption moults when it is/ shouted at’ (‘Yes-ing’), ‘the receiver sounds/ like a damp orchestra’ (‘To be arranged’), ‘There is a sundial in my mind and it/ points forwards in hyperbolic/ strides’, ‘slapping the tight, hide/ Lederhosen as if the animal/ inside is still being skinned’ (‘The Obvious’), ‘adverse to being too/ tropical/ that their hanging hair will/ stream red waterfalls,/ bottled for consumption’; and there are many more such flourishes as these throughout the book.
One of the most crystallised lyrics here is ‘In the Recap’, which I quote in full:
I can go back on this
peeling and transcending
these volumes of language,
the myths; everything we’ve said.
Saponia also has a subtle grasp for occasional rhyme, as in ‘Uniform’:
Those who fail you distance.
They’d only tarnish your grace,
be that grudge and guilt on
your conscience, be that
undyed mole on your face.
In ‘another theory of relativity’ Saponia displays some adept playfulness with the sounds of words, their aural associations, the alliterative trip, and a faint echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung-rhythm:
Cent, pennies, pesatos, pasta shells,
pus balls, impossibles. Invaluables.
Wheelbarrows of oil and oil-barrels
The title poem ‘Copyrighting War’ is another skilful compression of image and polemic, and I quote it in full:
Copyrighting the war and other business sins;
how many times over time have ethnic
terminations been carbon-copied with a new
heading; how many ways and attempts at
political monopoly duplicated, triplicated,
or lost count of? And where
Is there a copyright law for that?
To my mind there’s no doubt that this debut collection marks Clare Saponia out as one of the more imagistic and lyrically gifted of the burgeoning crop of younger political poets; she engages heart and mind, idea and ideal, polemic and poetic image remarkably well given the very fine balancing-act involved in the composition of poetry of protest – but Saponia strikes the right balance in this refreshingly engaged and engaging, and, above all, feisty volume. I look forward eagerly to her second collection.
Alone In The Terrible Universe by Alan Britt
(CypressBooks, USA, 2011)
Alan Britt is a prolific and long-standing polemical American poet, published in countless international journals – and also on the Recusant – and author of twelve collections including this latest, Alone With the Terrible Universe, glossily produced by the excellent and innovative CypressBooks and adorned with a classy horizontal/landscape cover replete with a stunning painting by José Rodeiro entitled ‘9/11’, which compositionally echoes Picasso’s Spanish Civil War statement, 'Guernica'. This volume comprises a selection of poems penned by Britt on and during nine months following the indelible atrocity of 9/11.
In Britt’s quite sparse but image-rich lyricism there is a definite affinity with ‘Red Wheelbarrow’-period William Carlos Williams, a form of microcosmic manifesto of the smallest and most focused moment, the drawing out of the macro from the most infinitesimal detail of object, colour, shape, tone, and the evocation of a mood or epiphany in vivid miniature (think also Williams’ plums in ‘This Is Just To Say’). ‘Return to Teaching’, which also cites another poet of the honed image-lyric, is a good example of this:
Today I go to write
Frederico García Lorca’s name
on a green chalkboard!
So, the proof of my madness
is the dust on the fingertips
from a luna moth’s struggling wings?
Anyway, today I go to write
Frederico García Lorca’s name
on a green chalkboard!
The mirroring of the first and third stanzas in a three-stanza verse gives a sense of circuitousness, enclosure, almost of immutability; it’s rather like a verse-equivalent of Hegelian dialectic but instead of ending with a synthesis, we have a thesis of image, an antithesis of speculation, and then come back to the initial thesis again – rather like a dialectic affirming Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’ (i.e. the means to wonder at something without rankling for an answer, to loosely paraphrase Keats); so the implication here is there is no answer, no closure to most aspects of life. It’s an interesting poetic form, possibly a Britt innovation, though there are echoes in it perhaps of some of Arthur Rimbaud’s looping poems beginning and ending on the same lyrical refrain, as in ‘Song of the Highest Tower’ which begins and ends with the brilliant ‘Idle youth/ Enslaved to everything,/ By being too sensitive/ I have wasted my life./ Ah! Let the time come/ When hearts are enamoured’. But here Britt, ambitiously, takes a more Carlos Williams’ compressed approach, opting only for three stanzas.
‘Pleasure Dome’ again echoes the WCW influence, even mentioning a ‘wheelbarrow’ at one point, though no doubt coincidental to its style; Britt’s sharp and precise descriptive gifts are in evidence with some painterly flourishes such as ‘tobacco-coloured twigs’ and
This happens to be the perfect maple
Since the main trunk lists
far to the right
creating a cool umbrella
of muscular green.
A gray and white cat
scampers through the damp waist
of late afternoon.
Such flourishes are so abundant throughout this image-laden collection it’s impossible to quote them all, but in ‘Anxious Autumn’ there is a deft display of rich metaphor and cut-glass sibilance and alliteration:
A bushy gray dog
laps the caws of crows
like ice ships
from the frozen horizon.
A young girl
steps from the 8th grade
to practice her diamond sensitive poems
for tomorrow’s Bat Mitzvahs.
The crows, black spearheads
threading wild forsythia.
‘Australian Shiraz’ also has some beguiling imagery:
Fruit flies attempt to romance
this shapely, brunette shiraz.
So I huddle
below early autumn fireflies
whose exhausted lime bodies
flicker momentary myths and naïve German fables.
Eventually, my severe gazes
send tracers of dotted green light
through night’s tin roof
dusted by glistening, cocktail-lounge stars.
Here Britt anchors the timelessness of nature in the present via quite daring modern juxtapositions as the last image above; it almost makes one think of a casually shirted Walt Whitman-like sage sat musing in the white spot-lit insomnia of an airport lounge. In some ways I’m slightly reminded of the dying poet ‘grandfather’ Nonno in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, who finally finishes his poem on his death-bed, which begins, as repeated throughout the play: ‘How calmly does the olive branch/ Observe the sky begin to blanch/ Without a cry, without a prayer/ With no betrayal of despair’ (at least he finds his lyrical closure unlike George Orwell’s Norman Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying! who can never get beyond his opening line’s descriptive fixation on poplar trees).
‘Autumn’, four musings stitched together by asterisks concludes native American Indian adumbrations:
Some flags that burned
red and white feathers
knotted against a herd
of flowing, blueblack
There’s plenty of word-play in Britt’s poetry, he frequently melds words and creates his own adjectives – ‘orangered’, ‘Africanized’, ‘yellowgreen’, ‘blueblack’ – and some Hopkinsesque compounds – ‘bruised-orange’, ‘scarab-eyed’, gold-speckled’, ‘thick-ridged’; there are also collocations throughout, combinations of words and sounds that recur, a little like leitmotivs, such as ‘tobacco-coloured’ (‘bruised strawberry/ and tobacco/ colored/ maple leaves’ is another example to one I’ve already quoted) – Britt’s very textural descriptions appeal to all the senses at once, as with the ‘wooden ambience’ of the ‘Australian Merlot’. ‘Maples’, ‘squirrels’ and ‘wine’ are images that feature frequently, the latter often used unusually in terms of descriptions of nature, particularly animals, as in ‘Hips of wine’ (‘Watching Two Squirrels’); the word ‘lusty’ appears more than once: ‘lusty maple’, and to describe, in ‘September 11, 2001’:
… Manhattan island, that lusty landscape
once Walt Whitman’s muscular dream of hope
now García Lorcá’s toxic nightmare.
But above all, Britt is a colourific poet, black (‘black water’, ‘black tarps’), green (‘green tomatoes’, ‘green thoughts’, ‘green and ivory/ teeth and tongues’, ‘green memory’) and yellow feature most predominantly, all naturalistic colours; there are some vivid compounds too: ‘bruised strawberry’, ‘splotched yellowgreen’, ‘dirty-blond’, ‘blue spruce’, and ‘carnation’ (the painter’s flesh-colour) features often; hair can burnish anything from ‘sullen brown’ to ‘blueblack’ to even ‘emerald’. Britt’s verse is rather magical as it seems to constantly reconstitute modern-day industrial and technological images to their organic originators, as if all man-made artifices had their design blueprints already mapped out in nature, as in the beautiful transmutation of ‘Blue supermarket bags’ into ‘tumbling … swarming … Portuguese man-of-war’. It’s a pan-metaphorical reminder that anything, no matter how artificial, is ultimately and inescapably drawn from nature’s own ingredients – one thinks, for instance, of glass from sand.
‘Solitude’ is another good example of Britt’s painterly, faintly Hopkins- even Whitman-esque delight in verbalism, vivid description, word-sound, and almost rhythmically sprung lines, muscular and musical:
Wine’s black hips slosh a pale, blood-stained carnation.
Napkins scattered like poker chips across the Formica table.
An ebony violin guides a blind and arthritic Peruvian jaguar
on a silken chain past our wheezy refrigerator.
Purists might argue that while Britt’s descriptions are quite exquisite, are they anything more than simply descriptions? Is there something in them for the mind as well as the eye to grab hold of? I would suggest that there is a form of sensory illumination, divorced from the intellect, more in-touch with feeling and instinct, that underpins much of Britt’s very impressionistic verse; in the same sense that there isn’t necessarily any particular narrative to many landscapes or still lives in visual art bar those which the observer projects into them through their own cosmos of associations. But Britt’s verses vary between beautiful sensory studies and figurative polemics – there is variety as much as there are many variations on binding images and scenes. One example of a fusing of this imagistic approach with a perceptible philosophical comment is the vividly thanatotic ‘Wednesday’:
The afternoon sun
drags her dirty-blond hair
across the kitchen table.
The late hour, a flock of starlings
blown like pepper
November circles the house
in a burning red costume
designed to fool death.
‘The Day After’ concludes on an inspired piece of naturalistic description:
Dusk doesn’t say a word
as she glances across
the yellow eyelashes
of flowing broccoli.
If part of the purpose of poetry is to enrich our visual perception into a more intense appreciation of the natural world, of creation, then Britt is at the vanguard of such ambition: Britt’s poetry is startlingly visual, so that the visualising-eye is engaged equally, if not at times more so than the reading-eye. ‘November Morning’, again, reaffirms Britt’s gift at fusing imaginative description with philosophical subtext:
The pink carnation,
dishevelled to one side,
of her face,
like an exotic bird
or terrestrial saint,
of dried blood
like exhausted mascara
dusting the petals
above her eyes.
Poems like this almost seem as if they should be put in a frame and hung on the wall as much as on a page. ‘Love Poem’ is, imagistically, a companion-piece to the above poem:
I inhale the carnation,
of intelligent rogue.
The latter line is a good example of Britt’s alliterative gifts, as exemplified mid-way through the stunning ‘November Love Poem’:
The harmonica is a young evangelist
in love with a gypsy.
The gypsy is a garter snake
with hair and fingernails
of green fire
devouring large, festive dreams.
All colours, started with bruised mango,
flow from the gypsy’s hungry lips.
There’s certainly the influence of Lorca, even Neruda, in poems such as these, but nevertheless their ultimate flavour and effect is distinctly Britt’s own.
‘December 2001’ displays an ambitiously high level of descriptive and imagistic confidence with phrases such as ‘December’s/ black throat’, and its final stanza is figuratively striking:
on the flesh
That final phrase moulds itself onto the consciousness with the rubbery grip of a supermarket bottle-lock; it hints at the tangible-based paganism that is the materialist religion we call ‘capitalism’. ‘October Dogs’ demonstrates Britt’s almost phantasmagorical, slightly surrealist imaginative ability to mix the senses, so that we have a very tangible and visual evocation of what here is essentially an aural description:
wander across fences
with antler barks
and splintered howls.
No subject is too mundane or diminutive for Britt’s imagistic wizadry to magic into something more spectacular, animistic and alive, as in ‘Barbequing, Christmas, 2011’:
like a Bolivian grandmother
shouldering clay jugs
from the river.
Britt has a finely-tuned ear for the clipped, onomatopoeically harmonic phrase: ‘She cinches her innocence/ At the hip’ (‘Dream that Includes a Painting by Michael Parkes’); ‘Their bitterness,/ sublime/ undressed my tongue’ (‘Capers’); ‘It’s autumn dusk,/ sunlight/ a slab of butter’ (‘Reisterstown, October, 2001’); ‘oozing/ like ocelots/ through the patio lattice’, ‘Saber teeth/ sunlight/ splinter the lattice’ (‘April Dusk’); ‘gaping wounds/ of a suffering Bartok violin’, ‘paints that sag/ below white shadows/ in the Louvre’ (‘Irony’). There are many more examples throughout.
Britt’s ambition is not confined to crystallised imagistic lyrics however: there are some longer poems included, such as ‘Green Oxygen’, which sustains itself exceptionally well in terms of image and narrative:
What about the wine
and Walt Whitman’s robust intellectuals
dented and bruised
beyond civil recognition?
‘March Dream’ is dedicated to Vaslav Nijinsky, the turn-of-the-last-century Ukrainian ballet genius who possessed almost supernatural talents of self-propulsion (legend has it he was able to land – or appear to – at a slower speed than that with which he launched himself in the air), aided apparently by an unusually long and muscular neck, bowing thighs, and, perhaps less convincingly, feet which had avian skeletal characteristics; but whose meteoric rise to fame catapulted him into a career-ending schizophrenia. Nijinsky is an ambitious subject for any poet (and one which I’m also attempting to do justice to in a poem for my next collection) but Britt seizes the moment of inspiration in a suitably refulgent, image-rich but abstracted evocation, which is also one of the longer poems in the book. Britt, perhaps unsurprisingly given his slightly surreal, particularised imagism, chooses not to compose any obvious biographic tribute or hagiographical narrative to Nijinsky himself, but to disorientate us into an abstracted phantasmagoria of natural and artificial imagery – though throughout there is a dislocated, even disembodied sense of the colours and pictures wheeling along the page that holds within it something of the choreographic enchantment of Nijinsky’s ballet magic:
When the wind
rips the flesh of sentimental blue
from the spectrum,
turning its inside
the colour of Irish whiskey.
from maple trees
leaving large, permanent stains
on my thighs.
Phantasmagorical indeed; naturalistic and, as the final stanza amply demonstrates in what is perhaps the only noticeable allusion to Nijinsky himself, in particular, to his self-choreographed performance in the Debussy-scored L'après-midi d'un faune:
the maple seed
inside my chest.
Certainly this poem has a surreal take on its theme, but in a sense, it seems justifiable to evoke Nijinsky, a human of highly developed ‘primal instincts’, through a tapestry of naturalistic imagery.
‘April Afternoon’ starts with this exquisite image-miniature:
Jacques’ vermillion collar
alerts the aureole
dazzling green overture.
‘Dark Matter’ is perhaps the most full-bodied – excuse the pun – of Britt’s wine-related poems, of which there are a fair few; this poem is threaded together with some beautifully poetic, surreal verses which one could imagine being written on wine-bottle labels to describe flavour combinations for connoisseurs of the grape:
He knows all the vowels of bamboo that click
in a green wind blowing through Magdalena’s voice
All the bassoons, oboes, and cellos
that orbit Magdalena’s humid hips
ah, create the irresistible pulse
of dark matter.
There is an astrological theme to this poem too, but from the first lines, ‘The poet/ sees the dark matter at the bottom/ of his wine glass’, one can presume it also morphs into a metaphorical medley related to the drinking of wine.
‘William Blake’ is another curious, quite surreal poem, which to my mind produces one of the most startling images in the book:
But Blake set the standard
to rise up
on their hind legs
and shred fate
flared like two golden jumping spiders
on a mango leaf.
It would be difficult to imagine Blake’s poetry being given a more distinctive and unexpected metaphorical tribute than that.
Alone With the Terrible Universe is, in parts, revelatory in terms of originality of image and description, lyrically sharp, highly imaginative, occasionally sublime, and perhaps most surprisingly given its nihilistic Sartre-esque title, exhilarating, witty and life-affirming. It is a collection which demands revisiting, in a similar way as one returns with rested eyes to re-engage with rich and colourful paintings; this is almost tangibly visual poetry, painterly in variations of gloss, acrylic and watercolour; there’s no doubting the intensely artistic eye of Alan Britt, but it is also one of a naturalist or nature-lover, of a poet who – like Gerard Manley Hopkins – cannot fail to see the irresistible magic of nature which sometimes appears too craftsmanly to be mere serendipity; though Britt’s pithy observational miniatures are not thinned with religiosity, they are adumbrated by a restless sense of wonder at the apparent ‘happenstance’ of creation, the ambiguities that open up everywhere we look, that at least appear, at times, as glimpses at some grand design. Britt’s sensibility is laced with an undercurrent of Blakean abstraction but this is infused muscularly with a more rugged and empirical corporeal engagement, and most particularly, a harmonious self-immersion in the natural world which more recalls Hopkins, Whitman, or Mark Twain; the ostensible stylistic similarities with William Carlos Williams which strike one on first reading are, on closer inspection, more the decorative sugar-lattices on top of richer and more sinewy consistencies brimming with active ingredients, live cultures of images and symbols, germs of richer perceptions. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2011