Saturday, 30 April 2011

Vincent Price | Film+Television+Radio | Art in the Blood

"Someone called actors 'sculptors in snow'. Very apt. In the end, it's all nothing." - Vincent Price

What a voice! Never mind that tall wide frame and that diabolic brow, what a voice! Vinegary and pointed, loaded with promise, it's the sound of the Snake in Eden.

Earlier this week, Phil Brown wrote of Price's magnificent readings of Poe. I offer this piece as an addendum, a glimpse of the other Vincent, before Corman and before Tim Burton. My Price is the Price of the '40s and the '50s, the smooth operator so often on the verge of hysteria. Look at his vapid gigolo in Laura (1944), clinging onto Judith Anderson after Dana Andrews has gut-punched him. Or his Shakespearean ham in His Kind of Woman (1951), baffling Bob Mitchum by complaining, "Alas! Why must I be plagued by yammering magpies on the eve of battle?" And was there ever an actor more suited to playing Cardinal Richelieu (1948), sneering haughtily at Gene Kelly's D'Artagnan?

Physically, Price called the opening of The Maltese Falcon to mind: "Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curled back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."

Temperamentally, however, Price was more the heir to George Sanders than to Bogie. Both were cultured and sardonic, and both had played Leslie Charteris' gentlemen adventurer The Saint, Sanders onscreen for RKO, Price for NBC Radio. Price's broadcasts as Simon Templar are breezy and fun, and he handles tough-guy dialogue with just the right sense of self-mockery. And even in these pulpy programmers, we get a glimpse of the man within - each episode ends with a small message from Price the actor, often addressing social concerns of the day. Bob Glickstein draws attention to the coda to Author of Murder in which Price speaks out against the "venom of racial and religious hatred" in '50s America.

While onscreen Price often played vulgarians (see 1950's Champagne for Caesar, in which he menaces the eminently civilised Ronald Colman), offscreen he was that rarest of things, an intellectual film star. Like Edward G. Robinson, he was a great art collector and was passionate about the humanities. In 1951, he donated 90 pieces from his collection, setting up the first 'teaching art collection' in an American community college.

I'll close with two favourite moments of Price ephemera. The first is an unsuccessful pilot entitled Collector's Item (1958), that teamed him with Peter Lorre as crime-fighting antique dealers. Yes, long before Lovejoy, Price and Lorre were risking life and limb in the pursuit of objets d'art. It's a crime that the studio nixed further episodes. Thankfully, the pilot lives on via Youtube!

Lastly, a scene that makes use not just of Price's voice, but of his singing voice. His Professor Rattigan is vain, devious and terrifying. And, despite all that other great work, it's his contribution to Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986) that most strongly rebuffs the rather despondent claim that "In the end, it's all nothing." As with George Sanders and Shere Khan, as long as children watch Disney films, that voice will survive in memory. And perhaps they'll seek out further works by Vincent Price. That's something.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Wider Reading | The Royal Wedding Playlist, an analysis

* By which I refer to Prince Charles’ (for young William and his petit-bourgeois arriviste succubus bride are music-illiterate barbarians, we are led to believe) tracklisting for the wedding ceremony, rather than Prince Harry’s tracklisting for the Buckingham Palace disco, which just isn’t important at all. *

The principal lessons what we learnt from this morning’s ceremony’s medley can, and have already, been summarised thus: Prince Charles’ music taste makes the racist character from Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club's passion for Ralph Vaughan Williams look positively culturally adventurous, what with its apparent refusal to acknowledge a musical tradition even existing outside of the United Kingdom. That being said, the presence of so much 20th Century music (Britten, Elgar and the much less ubiquitous Percy Whitlock, whose Organ Sonata in C Minor was heard just before all the opening processionals etc. began) was, from Charlie CONTEMPORARY = EVIL Windsor, pretty out there I guess. The decision to frame the service with two Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (or maybe it’s Hastings Hubert Parry) belters, ‘I was glad when they said unto me’ and ‘Blest pair of sirens’ was a pretty good one. The custom-built fanfares were pretty rad. And so on.

And so I am, instead, with this briefest of analyses of the Royal Wedding Playlist, going to focus on one thing, and one thing only – a subject not so much close to my heart as embedded in it against my will, like a pretty, pretty splinter, thanks to a childhood spent singing in a church choir. Singing, that is, this ghastly arrangement of the already vile ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ pretty much every other week.

I refer, of course, to John Milford Rutter, CBE, schoolmate of Tavener, founder of the Cambridge Singers, controversially agnostic purveyor of the most successful, and least ambitious, choral music of the 20th century. An Einaudi for god-fearing choir folk, basically.

So anyway, Rutter composed an anthem especially for today’s service, a stirringly conventional composite of three or four psalms (starting with 118) that sounded like nothing so much as something that a big-lunged innocent would weepingly bellow at a studio audience whilst handing Andrew Lloyd WorstFaceEver a pair of twinkling kitten heels for him to fondle, sympathetically, whilst pissing all over 19 wide-eyed young ladies’ (utterly misguided) hopes and dreams. Actually, I exaggerate. There was one thing ‘This is the day that the Lord hath made’ sounded a bit more like than that. Namely, EVERYTHING ELSE THAT JOHN RUTTER HAS EVER WRITTEN.

I was sitting with my parents, father making the customary lewd remarks about Pippa Middleton, when the familiar strains of a Rutter arrangement arpeggioed their way into our consciousnesses. We were all certain we recognised it. Mother even said something along the lines of, ‘I wonder why they didn’t get him to compose something especially for the service.’ And then Huw Edwards announced that what we were hearing was commissioned as a wedding present for Willz and his bit of rough. And it wasn’t long before words like ‘charlatan’ and ‘mountebank’ were being thrown around in between sips of Prosecco, like so much accusatory confetti.

Rutter’s audacity is, was extraordinary, nothing less. Consider ‘This is the day that the lord has made’, which you can listen to/watch here (and please, for my sake, note in passing the bewildering similarity between chancellor and choirman at 3:09). And then reflect on the fact that the first part of this NEW WORK sounded, sounds exactly like this:

Whilst the second part sounds very much like this:

And the third part sounds even more like this:

And all three parts sound precisely like this:

And this, on the marriage-day of a future king of England – supposedly commissioned especially for it, indeed. Apparently 57 wedding-related arrests were made this morning. I hope at least one of them was in response to this blatant, fraudulent act of originality-failure. John Rutter should have been banned from the Abbey, not those poor, defenceless anarchists you keep on hearing about.


Monday, 25 April 2011

Vincent Price | Poetry | Symbiosis

"There is a wonderful, simple conversation encoded in all poems worthy of the name: 'You've felt this, too, haven't you?'"
- Carol Rumens

"I don't want to read about some of these actresses who are around today. They sound like my niece in Scarsdale. I love my nice in Scarsdale, but I won't buy tickets to see her act."
- Vincent Price

Poetry and theatre have always endured an uneasy symbiotic relationship. Poets and philosophers are always returning to the ramifications of Shakespeare’s pivotal proclamation that ‘all the world’s a stage’, examining the extent to which we can ever cease to play roles as we flit around the elements of our fragmented psyches.

This principle has overshadowed the work of Hugo Williams, himself the son of an actor, throughout his work. From one of his earliest poems, The Actor,

‘Sent by his agency to this bright
Box, all his lines straight, knew
Where to die, but was not quite

Sure who he was…’ (1965)

to his most recent work, such as West End Twilight,

‘Reflections shimmer back and forth
as we watch Hugo Williams strolling through
the long twilight of upper-middle-class
light comedy, arm in arm with his son’ (2009).

A poet who goes one step further in interrogating the role of theatricality and persona in poetry is Owen Sheers, who preludes his second collection, Skirrid Hill, with a fascinating short piece called ‘Last Act’:

‘The previous scenes stacked in the wings
and at the centre, under the spotlight,
the actor, bowing as himself
for the first time all night’.

For me, this is an ingenious way to begin a collection, as it poses a manifesto of sorts as to what poetry, in Sheers’ eyes, is. Whilst he acknowledges the multitude of personae occupied by any person in a lifespan, he suggests that his collection is ‘the first time’ for us to catch a glimpse of the man without his stage makeup, costume and dramatic conceit.

Contrary to what we may expect, this is not an indication of Sheers’ poetry lacking theatricality. Lines such as

‘Cut to us, an overhead show, early morning.
Lying in bed, foetus curled,
back to naked back.’
(from Four Movements in the Scale of Two)


‘the way he offers the seat,
his practiced look of concern and the slow pace of his voice.’
(from Amazon)

show us that Sheers may have stepped before the audience as himself for the first time, but any ‘self’ is still unavoidably a performance.

This concept is further complicated when we bring in the notion of poetry performed by actors. Paul Scofield’s fine performance of Eliot’s Four Quartets is a beautiful medium for a poem founded on opacity and disjointed aspects of the soul, but does it move us farther from the poem’s honesty? We are not listening to Eliot as such, but rather an actor’s inference of Eliot’s intentions, with speculation on appropriate emphases and pace.

It is a sort of poetic refraction, if you can remember back to your days in the science lab, casting white light through a prism and seeing it broken into its composite spectrum as it is slowed down by the medium. And this ‘prismic effect’ is only in the case of sensitive, intelligent readers such as Scofield who allow the original light of the poem to emerge from the other side. It is far more common to see actors entirely mismanage the delivery of a piece through mis-reading which leaves the audience with something entirely unintended by the poet.

And so it is that the roles played by the poet and the roles played by the performer create an unavoidable background noise through which poems must fight before they arrive wearily at an audience’s ears.

An actor who illustrates the symbiosis perfectly is the great Vincent Price. It is difficult to speak of Price for any length of time without touching upon his relationship with the poet and novelist, Edgar Allen Poe. Price starred in several highly successful adaptations of Poe’s writing, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Price’s finest performance in an adaptation of Poe’s work however, is in the 1972 television special An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe, in which he delivers four of the writer’s short stories as a series of dramatic monologues.

Along with his reading of the absurdly over-quoted (thanks in part to The Simpsons) The Raven, Price’s relationship with the work of Poe is entirely congruent with his public image and the nature of his oeuvre. Poe wrote doleful, gothic literature of lonely men turned cold and diabolical by the passing of lost loves. Price’s career thrived in such roles and so, when called upon to act out a dramatisation of Poe’s work, he often drifted further towards the self-parody that characterises his appearances on Alice Cooper’s Black Widow and Edward Scissorhands.

Like so many actors of such an idiosyncratic nature, Price knew that his audience were more concerned with his ongoing relationship with the role of ‘dastardly loner’ than witnessing any real widening of his dramatic boundaries. For this reason, I do not engage with his Edgar Allen Poe work as anything other than competent entertainment.

There is evidence to suggest however, that Price was both a sensitive and cerebral reader of poetry when he was freed from the constraints of being ‘Vincent the Villain’. This evidence exists in a recording made by Price in 1956 of him reading the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which can be listened to in its entirety here.

Shelley is just as steeped in gothic myth as Poe, but one gets the impression, when listening to Price’s reading of Shelley’s work, that he is not simply engaging with the poetry as ‘Vincent Price – Gothic Commodity’, but rather delivering the words as an earnest character actor.

Perhaps this is because Price is only beginning to become synonymous with horror at this point in the career, or perhaps he is simply aware that the audience for a Shelley-LP is going to want more than villainous hammery, but what we get when we listen to this recording is something far more vulnerable and honest than we get at almost any other point in his career.

This is best witnessed in Price’s reading of Shelley’s, Adonais. Over the thirty minutes of this memorial piece at the passing of John Keats, Price has all the issues of mortality, eroding faith and despair that he turned into such complacent ‘Price-ness’ in his readings of Poe. Yet here, in his engagement with Shelley, we see something far more delicate and nuanced.

We see Price’s exploration of all elements of the grieving process, never overplaying or working against Shelley’s original masterpiece, but rather treated with all the variations of a musical score, with its dramatic crescendos, ritardandos, legatos and cadences. As Price gasps the words ‘No more let Life divide that which Death can draw together’, his archetypal public perception is nowhere to be seen, but rather we hear a man at his most human, his most vulnerable, furthest from a detectable persona.

Poetry’s relationship with actors can often produce terrible, crass and unhelpful results, as the poet’s words are designed to contain enough innate drama to supersede any overzealous reading. Sometimes however, the symbiosis between page and stage hits an equilibrium that will stop you in the street and make you turn up your headphones, or close all the windows in your house so that there can be no disruption to the irreplaceable feeling of the best words in the best order played out upon the finest instrument.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Vincent Price | Introduction | VP & Kermit

Friday, 22 April 2011

Sea | Chapbook | Vol LI, Patterns of Decay by Claire Trévien

Vol LI, Patterns of Decay

Claire Trévien (22.4.11)


Claire Trévien was born in 1985 and is a poet, academic and literary translator. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies including  Under The RadarInk Sweat & TearsPoetry Salzburg ReviewThe Warwick Review and Nth Position.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Sea | Fiction | Tohu Wa-Bohu

After Olorun had brought forth the many orisha, they lived together in heaven. Below them was only the sea...after some time, Obatala grew weary of looking down over the grey waters; he found them monotonous and depressing.

In this creation myth of South-West Nigeria, Obatala is told by Orunmila to gather together a gold chain, a snail's shell filled with sand, a palm nut, a chicken and a cat. With MacGyver-esque ingenuity, Obatala climbs down from heaven on the gold chain, scattering the sand about from the snail's shell to create land, then releases the chicken to scrape about in the sand and form contours. Finally, he plants the palm nut, turning it into a tree, and lives bneath the tree with the cat (who was apparently only ever included in Orunmila's list as a future companion for Obatala). In another, gloomier version of the tale, Odudwa steals the land-creating materials from a drunken Obatala and does it all himself, dooming the earth to stewardship under a thief and usurper. If Obatala had only stayed sober, the myth specifies, our world would have been formed by him and there would have been no wars or catastrophes.

Release the chicken! ...What, that meme isn't funny again yet?

The people of Dahomey, from near Benin, buck the logical trend of putting the sea at the very beginning of creation, perhaps appropriately for a kingdom of fishermen; Mawu the female creator actually invented the sea to help keep her constant friend, Aido-Hwedo, an enormous serpent, cool as they formed the world.

Mawu and Aido-Hwedo, fantastic as they are, are going to have to be ignored for our purposes today, because they go against the basic (and probably truistic) theory I'd like to explore; the notion of the sea as eternal, primordial, an element of chaos, and in some way maternal* - as if our myths and legends can, on occasion, echo the idea that we may have risen up out of the sea - that the ocean itself, in spite of the horrifying monsters, storms and endless depths, may be our true home.

It's a symbol that finds its purest anthropomorphic expression in the figure of Tiamat, the Babylonian ocean mother-goddess (who, however, gets sold short by the myth, which lets her act as the creative force but gives 'firsts' to Apsu, a male freshwater god - the little-documented Sumerian version of Tiamat, Nammu, is allowed to be both the primordial deity and the creative one). Tiamat, frequently portrayed as a monstrous serpent or dragon, is nevertheless mother of all, the chaos which is not in opposition to order but actively and purposefully creating it. This being a pretty standard creation myth, Tiamat is of course brutally murdered by a masculine god by the name of Anu, then dismembered, the various pieces being used in the classic resurrectional sense to create land and sky.

She actually looks a little like a chicken. Have we underestimated the chicken's place in psycho-mythology?

Typical of Hemingway, then, that he should write of the man heroically (and ineffectually) attempting to tame the feminine sea in The Old Man And The Sea. And typical of Lovecraft, that it should be Father Dagon (originally a fertility god and nothing to do with the sea whatsoever) who dominates affairs and not, far more appropriately, a feminine creature. His The Shadow Over Innsmouth, however, created partly as a reaction against inter-racial relationships, does also include a Mother Hydra who was presumably influenced by Tiamat; it also deals, fascinatingly, with the notion of our watery heritage, its protagonist being at first repelled by the amphibian Deep Ones and later coming to realise that...drum roll...he carries Deep One ancestry himself.

With the racial content of the piece, I think we can probably do a little better than simply see the twist as a plot device that gazes back on man's dark past, in the manner of The Rats In The Walls. There is a serious racial neurosis and confusion running deep through Shadow - whereas other works like At The Mountains Of Madness use two different alien species to attempt to draw a distinction between the 'master race' Old Ones and the 'slave race' Shoggoth, Shadow seems to accept the fact that all of life, including that which Lovecraft finds repulsive, comes from a common aquatic source and so no distinction can be made. "Mother Hydra an' Father Dagon, what we all come from onct." The marriage of these two gods is itself an inter-racial sexual act, as that phrasing makes explicitly clear - Absu the freshwater god and Tiamat the saltwater goddess, who meet in a "mixing of the waters." Lovecraft seems to see this as an unnatural pollution - the Babylonian myth, far more intriguingly, suggests that the mingling of different elements is the catalyst for creation...itself as pure an alchemical concept as, I don't know, order being formed out of primordial chaos.

The protagonist of The Shadow Over Innsmouth comes to the understanding that he and the Deep Ones (and, therefore all creatures) are kin, equal children of the marriage of Dagon and Hydra. Lovecraft presents this as a nightmare, but the fact that he acknowledges it at all is significant. No matter how horrific he finds the concept, he does at least come to see man's collective true, chaotic home as cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

*As elsewhere across the world, symbolic mothers don't often fare too well in African myths. Another story has the creator god raping the earth (tearing away her clitoris in the form of a termite mound). The offspring, a white fox trickster figure, then rapes her as well, bringing spirits and magic into the world. Finally, two watery brothers have sex with her to soothe her pain. Charming.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sea | Poetry | Not About What It Is About

Poetry's perception in the modern world is often influenced by the internet's lack of filtration. This is never highlighted more potently than when a high-profile tragedy sweeps the media. When Oscar Wilde quipped that 'all bad poetry is sincere', he may well have been thinking of the sort of earnest glibness one finds at websites like 9-11 Heroes and whatever Donna McCord thought she was doing here.

There are many reasons for why these poems fail as pieces of art. It is partly because they are written in a rush to be current, it is partly because they are too emotionally engaged to be aesthetically measured, but it is mostly because these sorts of poems are written by people who are not in the habit of reading poetry. As a result, we often get rhyming chunks of crassness that feel like Dr. Seuss' Guide to National Tragedy.

"So as hurricanes go, Katrina was tough." Was it really, Donna?

Beyond the poetaster's compulsion to rhyme however, there is also the sense that, when writers try to engage artistically with something that they have only seen news footage of, their only recourse is to reach for metaphors. Metaphors like "then you slithered away on the belly of the night, lapping at the shore while licking your greedy fingers" (source).

The problem with this is, even in the most adept of hands, metaphor will rarely work in describing a national tragedy, because there are practically no vehicles big enough to carry the tenor. This is particularly prevalent when describing the sea - a subject which has dominated English poetry since the dawn of our language, a language which has received the majority of its influences from sea-arrivals. Discussing the sea appropriately is especially important in a year where humans have done unprecedented damage to it, and it has done unprecedented damage to humans.

This is why, for someone like me, the only way to write about such tragedies is to not write about them. This is not the same as ignoring them, but as writers we must train our empathetic scope to engage with the things that are conceivably within our imaginative realm before we go hurtling towards disrespectfully dealing with things we have only heard of in passing. 

To this end, I have attempted to demonstrate my point by writing a poem about something that it is not about. In that aim, I may have failed, and it is for you to comment upon yourselves, it's a free net after all. What I do hope to provide however, is a starting point for a discussion about how poets are to engage with issues that transcend linguistic cleverness.

Los Ausentes
March 11th 2011

'Being here, it is just impossible for us to imagine what it was like.'
Connie Sellecca

Joe Buttafuoco
contemplates breaking his birthday tradition of visiting the birthplace of Dee Snyder. Joey’s letterbox breaks even this morning between colourful cards and zealous death threats.

Nina Hagen
wakes; her manager has filled her room with exactly fifty six red balloons. She no longer bothers counting them. Somebody has sent her a hand knitted zeppelin.

and Deng spend the day at home with beautiful Grace and delicate Chloe. The family as one work on a Hokusai jigsaw puzzle.

Frau Schill
spends the day away from the window television unplugged photographs coaxed from loft boxes telephone bleating, upturned at the table.

Jesus Ramirez
counts every olive tree in the bosque del recuerdo stopping just short of two hundred, deaf to the troubled trickle of the memorial’s moat.

arrive early the tang of cheap caffeine wincing through a protracted morning briefing and having missed breakfast I know this will be a bad day.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Sea | Wider Sailing | The Love Ditty of an 'eartsick Pirate

I have been looking forward to our sea-themed week for some time now, mainly because it gives me an excuse to link to one of my favourite things that exists. If you have not read this already then you are in for a real treat.

Some while ago now, the multi-talented blogger and poet, Katy Evans-Bush, who is known to many as Baroque in Hackney, contributed a complete re-write of T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, translated into pirate-speak.

It opens thus:

"It’s time we be goin’, me hearty, avast!
When the night’s nailed up its colours to its mast
Like some swab loaded to the gun’les ’n’ lashed to the plank;
Arr, make our way by th’ ghosty ports o’ call,
The bloody Triangle,
Quietin’ the parrots, kippin’ in dens of iniquity,
Where the scraps o’ the earth mixes with the scrapin’s o’ the sea:
Down alleys where ye argues if ye durst:
The forebodin’ of th’ accursed:
An’ all to get ye to the point of a certain little matter …
Nay, never ask what it may be,
There be a gentleman I’d like ye to see."

It is truly spellbinding to see how well this poetic conceit lasts for the entire length of Eliot's rather long poem. Its strength is in the way that Evans-Bush is inventive with both the lexicon and the syntax of the cartoon pirate. To read the entire thing over at Horizon Review, click here.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Sea | Introduction | Finding Nemo

"Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Imagine what would happen if they controlled machines such as this submarine boat. Far better that they think there's a monster and hunt me with harpoons."

Captain Nemo, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954

Monday, 18 April 2011

L | Commentary | When We Were Kings, by Declan Ryan

whales swam in our rivers, stranded
and hours from death, or arriving
at it. They were lost, as we are, branded

with an exile’s stamp. Neither thriving
nor heartsick yet, their eyes unable
to adjust to foreign light, striving

for home in a manner their fable-
thirsty rescuers distrusted. Citizens
conversed over breakfast tables

about these lost monsters: impatience
barely concealed as to why these whales
in particular were news-worthy, friends

all of a sudden to the sea-shy, hailed
as martyrs of a sort. The fact remained:
it was in our rivers they had failed.

Declan Ryan

What is it about Leviathan? His size; his inconsolable clicking-cry; his heavy somnambulism; the flirting bold whiteness of his back and the giant slap of his tail; his being closer to a god than we can ever hope to be?

Five years ago in the post-Christmas fug and fog of a brown, wet, January, a female Bottlenose Whale found her way up the Thames Estuary, to central London. All seven tonnes of her was there to marvel at; to wonder at; and the very bottoms of the deepest oceans were startlingly surface-borne. Eight authorities, thousands of spectators, and over a hundred news cameras witnessed the attempted rescue, and subsequent violent death of The Whale. And across the newspapers on January 22nd obituaries; farewells; and eponymous, hyperbolic goodbyes. The cause of death was combination dehydration, kidney failure, muscle damage, loss of blood; and this bizarre additional fact: The Whale suffered from severe skeletal-arthritis (it seems Pinocchio’s asthmatic whale wasn’t far off the mark after all). And throughout all this she won no nicknames, remaining The Whale, until her end. What name to give these creatures of the deep, these mammoth objects from beyond the possibility of our bodies? These “lost monsters” these “martyrs” from another world?

“Ali BUMBAYE, Ali BUMBAYE, Ali BUMBAYE”. With odds on of 8-1 to win (because Forman was a sure bet; the hardest hitter in heavyweight; a monster man) Ali, already in his 30’s, took to the ring in Kinshasa’s pre-dawn (so the Americans could watch in the comfort of their afternoons), to fight to regain [HIS] the title Heavyweight Champion of The World. He was an old man, “neither thriving/ nor heartsick yet” but certainly “stranded” and “striving for home in a manner ….distrusted”. Ali took Forman’s jabs and punches for three solid rounds; barely lifting a finger in response, sleeping on the ropes; and then a wink to camera somewhere in the fifth and all Hell in the eighth, and Forman’s on the floor. And the heavens in Kinshasa opened; and God sent a second flood. This was the third time Mohammed Ali lifted the title.

Two paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned Moby Dick or Declan Ryan. Shame on me. But here’s the thing. Ryan’s poem “When We Were Kings” is an eight-rounder, and its readers deserve this pre-amble. Ryan, to my mind, is a rope-a-dope poet; a poet who gives you a story to grab hold of on your first read, then the second time, and the third it’s the same; and then there’s this lyrical wink, and BANG, the poem fights back. This is a poem about whales, isn’t it? This is a poem about boxing isn’t it? This is a poem about the fallibility of the human-physical and the abundant stupidity of the human-spiritual, isn’t it? This is a poem that deserves to be read out loud, from a poet who champions live poetry, living poetry, poetry that fights back. But this is also a poem that aches, and tugs whilst sideswiping you with the cheeky and mythological. There are “monsters” at the “breakfast tables”, exposed to “foreign light, striving for home”. There is an exquisite stillness that Ryan captures in the “hours from death”, and a desperation concealed as petty-hatred in ”exile’s stamp”, and the strong sibilant-song of the whale that runs, sonically, throughout. Declan Ryan, like Tom Waits, straddles the boundaries between poetry and lyrics, between gritty and melodic, between our world and theirs. There is the subtle five-layer story-telling of Hugo Williams, the image-expanse and verbal economy of Cormac McCarthy, and the pedestrian whimsical guilt of Hughes. This is not poetry that will stay on the ropes for long.

The poem itself carries the title of (arguably) the greatest sports movie/documentary ever made, When We Were Kings, charting the (not arguably) greatest fight in recorded history (barring possibly David and Goliath). And its five, three-line stanzas are the linear shape of that fight: against the ropes for one, two, three, and a wink in the fifth. For me, this poem is one great wink, one nod towards the Leviathan, the unknown, The Great White Whale (let’s not get into semantics of colour here) of Captain Ahab, the obsession of Philip Hoare, the extraordinary being which ordered the silence and rapture of David Attenborough, the cetacean that Louis Armstrong (among others!) sings mistook Jonah for a fish, the “giant Dog-fish…more than a kilometre long” that swallows Pinocchio whole. But more than this, this is the man, Ali, and The Whale who could “float like a butterfly” on the surface, bringing everything up from the darkest depths for all the world to see. But these floating butterflies, as Melville says, are nothing more than “subtle deceits” :

not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; … and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

There is something apologetic in Ryan’s work. Something that suggests he is languaged from a greater truth (not necessarily purporting to understand it), but carrying it nonetheless, and pitying us as we pity The Whale, and Ali the boxer, both creatures of seeming infinite power, who we loved to hate, and hated to love because of their extraordinary one-ness, their (understandable) seeming arrogance at being themselves.

Quite simply Declan Ryan has produced an astonishing poem. One that conceals beneath an economy of words the sheer power of its musculature; and because of that, its slyness, its wink, and its knock-out blow: its final line. “The fact remains:/ it was in our rivers they had failed.” Is this a fact of which to be proud? The craftiness of men outwitting the natural geography of the whale? Ali’s final fighting years, one punch too many, one fight too far. Or is this our failure? Our pitiful ridiculousness? Our “impatience” our “breakfast table[s]” chat? Is it our fault that Ali, with his ‘sting like a bee’ is now bent double, crippled by his own life? Or that The Whale, in search of the ocean, found her bones had seized and fused, and she could no longer swim?

But there is one great hope: the great rains after the fight, a clear air, and a forgiving god. It is the “sea-shy”. There will be other George Formans, other Captain Ahabs: but there too will be Ismaels, and Philip Hoares, and those who protect the Leviathans on earth and in the oceans, by being too frightened to touch. And there will be Declan Ryan, mapping out the ridiculousness of it all, probing the secrets of these alien “friends”, gently verbalizing the unknown, the unknowing; and the great vast rope-a-dope wink of The Boxer and The Whale.

My apologies to Declan for cutting up his poem. I like it very, very much. And a note on Katie Warner’s illustration. A beautiful rendering of the Whale’s Wink, in the soft-worn shadows of sea-pebbles washed up.

Rowan Rutter
Theatre Editor

Friday, 15 April 2011

L | Commentary | Ralfo's Brother, by Jack Underwood

Somebody shouted he was in the tree,
so we blasted and he fell like an ape.
His hand smudged at his lapel,
a hole above the knee was gulping.

A leaf settled on his head and he said
“I wish my brother Ralfo was here,
with his rough wood knuckles
and landlord’s voice. By god he’d set you!”

After the perimeter checks and the parakeets
were packed back in the trees,
the jungle lay down to sleep
in green mist. A lone Baboon kept watch.

Ralfo took root, grew from the earth,
tore through the floor of my tent:
his eyebrows were tensed like a slingshot,
his nostrils wide as his eyes!


One of my favourite stanzas in Jack Underwood’s Faber New Poets pamphlet also centres on a tree (or multiple trees, anyway):

But he remembered the panther enclosure
where he had waited for thirty minutes,
staring up at a dark hut hidden in trees.
Suppose there was no panther.
            From ‘Theology’

To write off that last line as straightforward bathos, a punchline, would be to do it a considerable disservice, I think – its construction is much more original than that, much more strange. Throughout the preceding lines ‘Theology’ has been tritely efficient and not much else. It describes a visit to the zoo, ‘a good day’ because of a bird with an ‘anvil head’ and ‘slinking lizards’ amongst (we presume) other things. It represents, in many ways, a distillation of several extremely irritating but alas, increasingly prevalent poetic ‘techniques’ – self-aware prosaicness, metaphor emphasising the futility of metaphor, ‘meaningful’ simplicity. But then that last line pounces, five open-ended words sounding exactly like something that somebody would actually say, fenced within a single self-contained sentence-line, emphasising that there is so much within idiomatic, real language that is useful for poetry. More useful, indeed, than ‘poetic’ construction. And more capable of stopping the flow of the flatly mediocre than any supposedly shimmering fragment of imagery.

Actually, perhaps punchline is the right word – providing the punch is correctly identified as a stylistic construction, the sound of a poem physically knocking itself out, rather than a narrative ‘twist’.

As clichéd as it is, the vast majority of poets would probably tell you, if pushed, that one of the principal motivations for writing poetry is still (will always be) the desire to make language new, to make it do unprecedented things. Jack Underwood succeeds, where many, many other poets largely fail, by finding the potential for linguistic strangeness in the most banal, written-off places. The surprisingly eloquent child-voice. Ambiguous ‘he’s and ‘I’s. The exclamation mark.

All three find their way into ‘Ralfo’s Brother’. In a sizeable majority of cases (including Wolf Hall, not that that’s especially relevant here) I find the use of a self-consciously ambiguous ‘he’ and ‘I’ to be gratingly false, grimly writerly, but here it elegantly frames Ralfo, whose presence is almost entirely dependent upon the singularity of his name. It is also pre-empted by the fact that, Withnail and I-like, the poem is entitled ‘Ralfo’s Brother’ rather than merely ‘Ralfo’, a fact that makes the 'real' subject of the poem (narrator, brother or Ralfo himself?) a rather enjoyable knot before it’s even started.

I think ‘rough wood knuckles / and landlord’s voice’ is wonderful as well, a flash of eloquence that has just enough tactile, genuinely descriptive truth within in to be a viable child’s outburst, whilst still displaying a linguistic energy that justifies the brother, and not Ralfo himself, being the initial focus. Half victim, half different, faerie-like perhaps. A carefully constructed balancing act – the ‘gulping’ knee and the leaf on head similarly.

Like ‘Theology’ though, this poem wouldn’t amount to much without its closing line, a sudden spurt of emphasis that leaves one happily bewildered as to why it is being emphasised at all – for all three of the other lines in its stanza are potentially more emphatic, more threatening – whilst making perfect sense in a Beano, cartoon angry bull, old fashioned schoolboy imagery kind of a way. It is a line that made me completely reassess the potential of the exclamation mark, usually the serious writer’s nemesis, because of what its connotative baggage can bring to a sentence that isn’t expecting it. Is it neatly ironic? Is it an admirably honest attempt at melodrama? And to finish a poem with it? Imagine if the final line of a novel you’d seriously engaged with concluded with an exclamation mark! You’d be completely fucking appalled.

Jack Underwood draws attention to the unique linguistic experimentalisms, strangenesses and, yes, sillinesses that are available to the poet – specifically, the poet – in a way that I haven’t come across since reading Glyn Maxwell’s debut collection, Tale of the Mayor’s Son. I’ve included a couple of excellent stanzas from that collection below because I see absolutely no reason not to. I’d love to see Jack write a poem as long as ‘Tale of a Chocolate Egg’, see what happens after the exclamation mark.


…he went unbreakfasted
in a quiet room of feasible breakfasts.

There was a silver lining. There were some
seventy-five teabags he could use.
He used one, took it black, and used the lemon.

‘I’m having lemon tea,’ he said, truly.
            From ‘Tale of a Chocolate Egg’

It’s just the same to look at, like my book
with the straw witch on page 9, the frightener!
It doesn’t frighten me, but nothing does.
            From ‘Farm Close’

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

L | Commentary | Roddy Lumsden

“The elderly schoolmasters and piano-teachers are dust, 
and the leaves of the piano primer were eaten, note by note, by dust.”
Chris McCully, Dust

“Not here, the darkness in this twittering world.”
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Note: I have not reproduced Lumsden's poems in this article, but they can be found by clicking here.

Those who admire Lumsden’s work, but know little of his life, may be interested to know that he used to make his money from pub quiz machines. This is an interesting fact about a man who was once financially reliant on interesting facts. It is not the image of a man, stood alone, plying pound coins from the cold dead grasp of a machine that fascinates us though – it is the gestalt effect of the myriad anecdotes that lead the man to his wealth of tidbits.

In fact, Danny Boyle rather smugly turned this concept into one of the most successful films of all time in Slumdog Millionaire. A knowledgeable man is an admirable thing, but it is the tales of this knowledge-acquisition that leaves us spellbound.

This is the premise for Lumsden’s poems, Olivier and A Localised History of Dry Precipitation; the man of facts begins to map out snippets of autobiography behind a façade of trivia. Olivier opens with a misdirection, a clarification and a parenthetical anecdote, the role of the raconteur firmly established from the off:

‘He married eighty three times, eighty of them in the West
End run of The Good Husband (by playwright Alexander
Morris, who later shot himself and his chocolate Lab – ‘une
bufe brune’, which survived – in the Place de la Bastille).’

Lumsden paints a portrait of an actor at his most idiosyncratic and human in a way that transcends the digital generation’s need for its icons to bare bullet-pointed plot points in lives defined by their most public moments:

“He considered calling all his children after the heroines
from the novels of Colette, but had only sons.”

But the pay-off of the poem is in its restraint – for any such anecdotes require verifiable sources. Lumsden provides this in the penultimate line with the centrifugal clause ‘he told my father’. Following this is Olivier’s only chance to speak for himself in the poem, yet we scarcely care because it is the father, not the celebrity, that we now yearn to hear of.

As I have already stated however, this poem finds its basis in misdirection – one gets so swept up in the acquisition of anecdotes and new information that we scarcely think to question who the titular ‘Olivier’ is or, as he later calls himself, ‘Mr. Oliver’. It soon becomes clear that we are not dealing with the same man who married Vivien Leigh, so who is it? Is it a friend of the poet’s father, or is it a re-imagined version of Laurence Olivier, told through vivid, yet apocryphal accounts?

Such questions carry over to A Localised History of Dry Precipitation, the poet’s account of his father’s fascination with dust particles. In the poem, Lumsden draws implied parallels between the amateur scientific, investigatory work of a father figure and his own career as a writer:

‘Such elegance of
phrase, such turns in which, we must assume, his
best self lives on.’

When Lumsden sent this poem to Silkworms Ink for our 50th Chapbook, he was very clear that it absolutely had to be justified (ie. the left hand and right hand edges of the text needed to be a straight line. Word processors achieve this illusion by making minute adjustments to the spaces between words... to illustrate, this paragraph and the next one are justified).

There are a number of potential reasons for this structural choice – the one I would plump for, however, is our old friend, misdirection. Justifying a poem with tight margins, marooned in the middle of a page, creates the illusion of impenetrability and the idea that all the elements are somehow perfectly aligned. On closer inspection however, we literally spot the gaps.

Which has me thinking that maybe left-right justification should be more prevalent in modern poetry than it currently is. Does it not serve the same purpose as rhyme, but on a visual level? In both rhyme and left-right justification, the poet is creating the illusion that things are congruent, that they are equivalent, that they are comparable. The façade of order; poetry. I digress.

By the time we have read of an ‘Olivier’ who is not what he seems, we instinctively distrust our narrator and look to distil the truths from the fiction – not that we can only enjoy poetry as autobiography, but these poems are laced with so many fascinating facts that we yearn desperately for them to be real. Luckily, the sections on the derivation of ‘abacus’ and ‘khaki’ were bang on the money.

Truthful or otherwise, this poem represents the best of Lumsden’s ability as a tentative conjurer of scenes. I have read the following six lines around fifty times since we issued our 50th Chapbook on Wednesday; there is something mesmerising in the way that Lumsden’s attention to detail sucks the reader into the father’s attention to detail in the poem in some beautiful meta mise-en-abyme:

‘close, the micrometer’s divinings, a sweep for
fragments and filings on the unused kitchen
worktop, a licked finger cosseting the length of a
tabletop, a welcome mat flipped and shaken above
an underlit screen.’

One imagines that Lumsden’s experience of quiz machines has been a defining force in his approach to writing poems (as well as the quizzes he now writes for others). Like quizzes, his poems wilfully mislead, they challenge us and force us to question long-held truths, yet never at the expense of us having a good time.

All of Lumsden’s poems featured on this site are taken from his forthcoming collection, Terrific Melancholy, which I eagerly look forward to reading and can be pre-ordered here.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor