3 Shearsman Poets

3 Shearsman Poets


Shearsman has an enviable track record: thirty years of consistently turning out work by some of the most interesting of contemporary UK and USA poets. The ebooks are inexpensive but admirably produced, their covers being a particular delight to anyone who cares for graphic design.

All three poems chosen are meditations. One is sharply observed, the others rambling, not ‘streams of consciousness’ so much as following thoughts wherever they may lead, without an obvious attempt to shape lines in any traditional way. Or so may seem, though in fact all pieces are carefully crafted.  Excerpts may make matters clearer.

The first poem is from the spring 2005 issue of the magazine, Alan Baker’s The World Seen from the Air.  The author lives in Nottingham, England and is managing editor of Leafe Press, assistant editor of Poetry Nottingham and editor of the arts and poetry webzine Litter. The World Seen from the Air is a long, somewhat repetitious poem, which can be read its entirety as a free pdf booklet at http://www.shearsman.com/archive/MagPDFs/62.pdf

The poem opens with:

To get used to the earth’s edge
and pale vertigo is   to lose

adds the double meaning:

not altogether

and continues with the familiar view from aircraft as we come in low enough to see the towns and cities spread out before us at dusk or nighttime:

the lights at night each little spark
and fugitive energy the evening sees
the cars like living things turned fossil
to fuel the night’s decline the day’s
displaced indifference

The key word here is ‘indifference’, which is repeated throughout the poem to emphasize the disconnected nature of contemporary life. We observe the other aircraft coming in like flights of geese, and our thought passes to the sea’s ‘inscrutability’ to cities with their individual inhabitants, small lives and cars:

dusk, and the aircraft stack like geese
coasting in to land on a thawed lake  the snows 

no longer, is a learned indifference, rather
an acceptance of the spread plains, the sea’s
inscrutability, the cities studded
as far as we can see
(there’s nowhere to rest my notebook)
to get used to the earth’s pale edge
is something not altogether lost as
(there’s no where to rest)
it lights each little spark and fugitive energy
the evening sees the cars see
the living things turned fossil
to fuel the night’s decline
the day’s indifference

At this point the sense becomes muddled (it’s not the cars that ‘see’ vegetable matter turn to petroleum, for example, and electricity doesn’t fuel a decline) but the lines continue (after mentions again of the geese and indifference) with:

what is between us
    is, lacking certainty,
the bowl of sleep
    at least of
time shared, time imagined

which introduces a section on leaves, water, seabirds and finally wind, equally disconnected:

or rest, and sky will enter in
our eyes, the wind our ears
as if we could master it only in
stillness, and that at best
or sky that will enter in
our eyes, and wind our teacher
the leaves in the haze of day,
cold water, breeze, a bowl
might mitigate the time spent
or imagined between us, sleep
a swift on the wing, or rest
might mitigate the cold
of earth, as alien, we have come
this distance, a sparrow’s flight
peopled with the strange, leaves,
cold water, churning flight

So the poem continues, for another 77 lines, restlessly turning similar thoughts round in the mind:  musings

Memory extends its current
in the late air,
different shades for different
depths and directions


sedge, willow and alder, a pair of kingfishers,
blue jewels, quick,
sedge, willow and alder, a pair of blue jewels
like kingfishers your eyes

and a little whimsy:

blow the wind southerly
 (I should have been a bird)

to end with an extended meditation on the nature of sight and memory:

As if it were
    brush strokes
or streaks of cloud half-visible
in what we called vision
   but now know better…

as mind bends to perspectives,
brush strokes, sleep, slowly
to the hum of engines, the
earth, I take it, tentative, and
encompassed by sleep,
a vision of sorts 

yet streaks of cloud known better
than the hum of engines
we need to talk, she said,
as the brush of sleep stroked
encompassed the bending vision,
 seas, the open shore, night

earth, I take it, tentative, and
encompassed by a vision of sorts

What do we make of all this? Exactly what the lines tell us. There is some metaphorical use of ‘bending’, where the mind accommodates to the scene through the distorting Perspex window, and to the earth itself extending to the curving horizon, but the poem is not (I think) an extended metaphor or allegory but a record of how life presents itself: stray thoughts in a travel-weary mind. We should note the quiet authority of the lines and their aesthetic shaping, indicating that these are anything but random jottings.

The second poem, Grimspound, is by Helen Foster, one of several sharply-glimpsed vignettes in the Summer 2004 Shearsman issue: http://www.shearsman.com/archive/MagPDFs/59.pdf

Grimspound is in Dartmoor, a wild moorland area in Devon strewn with granite tors and round circle relicts of Iron Age settlement:  The poem starts by peopling the landscape with its former inhabitants (The bitter grass wind blasts /away history):

Weighed down with granite
and collapsed sunsets
The leather men stalk
stilt legs through thick peat

Those inhabitants are imagined at their everyday tasks, murmuring, breathing and then reluctantly straggling off into the future:

They straggle towards the edge
of the land that beckons
Rolling the stone across
Looking back over their shoulders

The poem accomplishes its task admirably, with not a word wasted. Hard, short lines for lives that were similarly elemental.

The third, The dead do not hear us, is by Richard Burns and is in memoriam for the English poet Martin Booth (1944-2004).  The author now lives in Cambridge, and has several collections to his credit.  The poem may be read at: http://www.shearsman.com/archive/MagPDFs/59.pdf

The poem opens with the title line and announces that we are not Orpheus, i.e. cannot bring the dead back.

But the dead do not hear us, and we are not Orpheus.

Thereafter, for its 160–odd lines, the poem meditates on the randomness of death:

Was that singular man, crossing the street at that moment,
Run down? And that child, though curable, taken?

Which no one escapes:

The virgin of Lorraine or Toledo, the Jew from Vienna or Wrocław,
The schoolboy from Kragujevac, the noble Ethiopian,
The farmer outside Srebrenica, the librarian from Priština
However inconsequential the minutia of their lives:

Pain’s precise details, the registration of particulars –
Like most of us most of the time – an unwashed cup,
Shoelace left undone, unwatered plant on a windowsill,
Sunlight-painted patch in an angle of a wall –

Or the splendour of the setting:

Wherever we turn lurk the dead, waiting to surround us
With their barriers and blockades: like pillars, like monuments,
Like comfortless sentinels, they spread above, below
To the edges of our gazes; like cliff s towering sheer
From mountains under oceans to Himalayan precipices

Then the poem turns to the adequacy of response, or, rather, inadequacy.

I should like to speak with conviction but am condemned
To stammering. 

 We who are informed by such paucity of insights,
We who are not Shamans, Imams, Rabbis, Ministers,
We who have no certainty and possess absolutely
No greater authority bestowed or loaned from on high

Death is one of the great commonplaces, of course, and we want to know how well the theme has been handle on this occasion. With dignity, I think, and no reaching for unearned effects. Indeed the banality of death is brought home in the numbing repetition of examples, but there are lyrical episodes that help us through:

Between these gull-haunted, rock-dotted, island-strewn,
Wind-hammered, rain-battered, sun-beaten
Archipelagos they have already sailed, endlessly,

And the sheer mystery of the world around us:

Fluent in their clammy languages of indecipherable
Signs and shadows that are to us wholly insoluble
And may only be traced in such ideograms and glyphs
As flower forms, wind scents and bee murmurs, tickings
And clackings of cicadas against onsets of summer nights,
Or, over hazy hills, among orchards, fields and gardens,
In hazardous, hieratic, dervish movements of butterflies – 

Martin Booth is not mentioned in the poem, which is for everyman, observing that death is not particular 

                                                While, one by one
And as though magnetised, inexorably we are drawn
Painfully and slowly towards our final conditions –

Nor ennobling:

When our ends approach, shall we go on moving
At the same regulated, predetermined speed, like
Cargoes in holds of ships or products on a conveyor belt –

But perhaps, just perhaps, has a further dimension:

Only to find at that precise instant time forever stops
And space wraps itself tightly into a parcel that contains
Nothing but itself and shrinks and disappears altogether
From our own hands, and everything we have been vanishes
And consciousness itself of what we have been vanishes
And all we have imagined, believed, dreamed and aspired to,
Even touched and reached, really consisted of nothing?

Such poems are not easy to write, particularly with these long lines firmly holding together.

As with contemporary artworks, it is often difficult to say anything helpful about Postmodernist poetry, beyond noting the themes and devices used. As gallery owners say, ‘Sure, we can wrap them up in novel adjectives, and swathes of critical theory, but essentially you either like them or you don’t.’

I think we should. Anyone who writes has a mind filled with echoes, of the past, no doubt humming as well with the phrases of contemporaries. These poems avoid the second-hand, and if they sometimes seem antiseptic, it is our contemporary world they accurately reflect.

Relevant Website Pages

Postmodernist Poets.  http://www.textetc.com/modernist/postmodernists.html

Experimental Poetry. http://www.textetc.com/modernist/experimental-poetry.html


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