Saturday, 30 April 2016

Reliquaria by R. A. Villanueva

American poets in London have long made it a more interesting place to be.  There are many; some stay more or less forever, others come and go.  Some are also commentators and Ron Villanueva’s one of these.  I met him at the Troubadour a few months ago when we were both on a panel discussing the “I” in poetry.  By then I’d read enough of his poems to be sure I wanted the book. 

Reliquaria: it’s clear roughly what that means, something to do with relics and reliquaries… but exactly?  The word’s not in the Shorter OED or Lewis & Short (classical Latin); nor is it clearly defined online.  I got some clerical (not Catholic) help.  Independently we worked out that reliquarium is ecclesiastical Latin for a reliquary and may also stand for a place where relics (perhaps boxed in reliquaries) are kept – just as the house of a poem contains stanzas and lines and words, and a collection contains poems.  Reliquaria (plural) also makes you think of the things themselves that are left behind, whether bones or memories – things that appear in the poems.

So it’s a good title: you think you know where you are with it but then..?  Google it and the first page results are mostly the book!  

Going down a layer, poems have titles like ‘Vanitas’, ‘What the bones tell us’, ‘Fishheads’.  The book invites layered thinking as with the cemetery in ‘All Souls’ Day’, which starts:

Here see the city of makeshift things:
ramshackle balustrades, stopgap pipes,

clotheslines of staples and twine.
What surer proof of the risen Christ

than this tomb-stacked city,
its lungs of bamboo. Gravestone town of scaffolds

and cellophane. Smoke-heft of burnt plastic,
of tin, match-lit ranges of ash.

The poem’s as packed as the cemetery with details of the strange after-life of death.  The fullest lines bristle with consonants but also have assonance to give them music (eg. ramshackle, balustrades, stopgap; pipes, clotheslines, twine, Christ).  Between the couplets is much-needed space for the reader to walk, as between gravestones.  The looser second sentence offers space between the lists, a vowel-filled change of tone.  Words, syntax and line-ends all work together.  

The detail could also stand for an accumulation of heritage; Villanueva is Filipino American and this poem is (I think) set in the Philippines.  Tagalog words and phrases enter some poems along with fragments of family history.  In ‘Fish Heads’ the speaker’s mother

.. warns, Don’t waste what should be eaten. Reminds me
of every delicate gift we have thrown away: tilapia stomach
best soured with vinegar, milkfish liver to melt
against the dome of the mouth.

Such gifts, scorned by a younger generation not brought up to know the frugal past, could be metaphorical too. 

I like it when Americans do form because they do it (as everything) differently.  Villanueva has a rather lovely poem in a form that’s hard to do without making the average editor groan and think Oh no, another X.  Form can make a writer go to surprising places; here, it’s the work to disguise the form that does that.  Enough about the poem – no spoilers for a pleasurable discovery. 

He also has a sonnet crown, ‘Aftermath’, whose main theme is white racist violence and the associated dilemmas, memories, fear and other states of mind it brings:

I need you to know I’ve tried. To name ghosts,
to face them, dark as they are, slurred in with
the city’s glossed clots and fresh buttresses,

The thought and description is complex, concentrated and regretful, almost elegiac in tone.  The crown isn’t closed off as if to say: this story continues. 

Within the broad themes of life and death that run through Reliquaria, subject
Gunther van Hagens 'The Skin Man'
matter ranges from ancient Greek myth to Magellan, the Kill Sparrow War (China, late 1950’s) and life in modern New Jersey.  There’s much strangeness, often related to often deathly transformations: a rodent-poison that causes the body to kill itself by producing deadly levels of calcium; cancer; a plastinated cadaver; a journey to the ocean’s hadal zone.  Language often has gothic flourishes to match, sometimes with deliberate archaisms.  These occasionally, for me, tip over into bathos in the relatively few persona poems such as ‘On the sixth day, Ugolino thinks of his children’: “I… cannot father / more grief here among what remains alive, /knots itself round my waist..”  But the risk usually pays off as ‘Drifting towards the bottom, Jacques Picard recalls the sky’:

All around us seems an empire at the
height of its forces, a tuber of night
and ooze, bone fog and soot we come to love
because we can.

There’s a lot to be teased out of many of Reliquaria’s poems in repeated reading; for example ‘Swarm’ in which schoolboys in a biology dissection have “jury-rigged” a phallus on a crucifix. 

                     Transgressors, all of you,
           he said and closed the door behind him,
refusing to look at us or the thing
           that seemed to shimmer and twitch
with each frog’s reflex kick against our forceps.

Schoolboys, sex and death; religion; mockery and suffering; group solidarity; the visceral mystery, wonder and absurdity of the body; institutional behaviour…

The short lines and simple language of the final poem, ‘Mine will be a beautiful service’, show Villanueva’s versatility:

Pressed, chemical

I will look content,
but confused,

as when you watched me turn
in my sleep, dreaming

           of a Golgotha
in beeswax, a coffin

for swallows..

This is a favourite poem partly for its gentle humour and especially in part 2, where it becomes a love poem for the “you” it’s addressed to (the longer line length contributes to a change in tone):

          If you each day clutch
our pillows, press them to your face, pray
to take in some atom of me all
into the hollows of your chest, yes

I promise my ghost will find you
should you want someone else to love.

Reliquaria is published by University of Nebraska Press.  I've kept it around for several months now, enjoying rereads of various poems for their richness of language, form and metaphysical thought.  There’s an interview with Ron Villanueva here. 

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review 2014-16

There was originally a question mark at the end of this post’s title.  My expectation was that there would be both less poetry and less sexism than in previous years.  Also, I wondered if an audit of poetry reviews in the Guardian Review could still be relevant; now, having done the count, I’m quite glad I did.

Results and conclusion first:

* There's no improvement over time in the gender balance, none in the range of publishers represented and not much in the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic poets / reviewers.
* Under a third (31%) of the 45 collections reviewed are by women.  This figure is probably lower than the percentage of books by women published by the big poetry publishers (which was 39% from 2010-13).
* Under a third (31% again) of reviews were written by women.
* Both these figures are worse than last time – and both represent the average across all six years of this audit. 
* Collections by (I think) three BAME* poets are reviewed: 7%.  Slightly better than last time.
* Two reviews (I think) are by BAME reviewers: 4%.  Last time there didn’t appear to be any, so that’s progress.
* Publishers are unlikely to get their books reviewed unless they are one of the big six poetry publishers or another large publisher… or, this time,  Shearsman (hooray for that at least!).
* The number of poetry reviews continues to go down.
* Figures for the Saturday poem are much better than for the reviews.

* Conclusion: over the last six years, while the world of poetry changes around it, the Guardian Review has kept its poetry reviewing coverage much the same.  It seems to be stuck in a pattern of reviewing books by the big publishers.  This must be the biggest determinant of the results, but isn’t the only one.  It doesn’t appear to explain why the figure for women’s books reviewed is so low.  And of course it doesn’t explain at all the small number of female and BAME reviewers. 

Background to the audit:

This is the fifth audit I’ve done of reviews of poetry books in the Guardian Review, as a micro supplement to the US-based VIDA review which takes an annual look at representation of women (as both reviewers and reviewed, across all subjects) in literary publications.  I started out just looking at male/female representation but then extended the audit to include BAME poets / reviewers and which publishers’ books get reviewed.  This count was never quite in sync with VIDA so last year I decided to wait until now, to synchronise – VIDA’s count cameout yesterday. 

I’ll repeat the reasons for doing this, from an earlier audit:

Shouldn’t the Guardian’s Saturday Review be challenging literary hierarchies, not strengthening them?  In the case of poetry it is doing the latter.  Why do I care?  Because I read it every Saturday, enjoy most of it, but get regularly annoyed by the poetry reviews.  And because the Guardian is mainstream, reaching a far wider audience than any poetry magazine.  People whose acquaintance with contemporary poetry goes no further than skimming the Review’s reviews will have no idea of its diversity.

This may all be less relevant than it was when I did the first audit in 2011.  The Guardian’s coverage of poetry online has grown and is diverse.  There’s Carol Rumens’ poem of the week.  Last year there was the poem-a-day on climate change for Keep it in the Ground.  A list of items for March includes a podcast with Holly McNish and Luke Wright discussing political poetry, and a poem by the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh who is in prison in Saudi Arabia, until recently under sentence of death. 

It’s the coverage on paper, in the Review, that stays traditional.  I still read it and enjoy much of it, so I still care. 

This audit sticks to the same four categories as the last one and covers the 21 months since June 2014.  It was harder to do this time – on the Guardian website it’s no longer possible to search for poetry reviews.  One can search for poetry-related items, and reviews within this tend to be colour-coded grey.  But I may have both missed things and included one or two reviews that didn’t appear in print.  I’ve included a couple of pieces by writers about their own books: by Seamus Heaney on his Aeneid VI translation, and Karen Van Dyck on her anthology of new Greek poetry.

See the 2014 audit, here, to compare.  That audit also lists the results from previous years.

The 2014-16 audit:

A.  Books reviewed in the Guardian’s Saturday Review

31 books by men, 14 books by women.  That’s 69% and 31%.

Disappointing because the last audit showed some improvement, with women having written 37% of the books reviewed.

3 books by BAME poets, 2 women, 1 man.  That’s 7%.

Slightly better than last time’s figure of 5%, which represented two books.  It would be interesting to be able to compare this with the percentage of books by BAME poets published by the big six.

B.  Reviewers

34 reviews written by men, 15 by women.  That’s 69% and 31% again. 

Disappointing again; this reverses what appeared to be a slight but steady improvement over time.  In the last audit 34% of reviewers were female.

2 BAME reviewers, both women.  That’s 4%. 

At least better than last time, when there appeared to be no BAME reviewers.

(Discrepancies in numbers between A and B are because I’ve counted reviewers of anthologies but not the anthologies themselves.) 

C.  Publishers

Only five books reviewed were not published by the big six poetry publishers or another large one such as Penguin.  That’s 10%.  Of the smaller publishers Shearsman (see right) had 3 books reviewed, and Gallery and Nine Arches one each.  These figures fail to reflect what’s happening in poetry publishing today… there’s a whole world out there which it would be nice to see given some attention in the Review. 

D.  Saturday Poem

57 poems in total. 

32 poems by men and 25 by women.  That’s 56% and 44%.

6 by BAME poets, 5 of them women.  That’s 10.5%. 

This one was easy to search.   The gender breakdown seems more or less within normal variation (last time it was 50/50).    The last audit showed no BAME poets at all so this audit’s figure is a very positive change  (and interesting that the gender balance is reversed here).  Just over a quarter of the poems were out of books from small publishers. 

That’s it. 

* BAME figures are as accurate as I can make them but may not be entirely correct.

Monday, 29 February 2016

The lyric “I” – some thoughts in quotes

A few weeks ago there was a panel debate at the Troubadour about the “I” in poems, with Fiona Sampson, Ron Villanueva, Tim Liardet and me.   We discussed, of course, everything from self-exposure to self-invention to self-indulgence.  Beforehand I collected some quotes that helped me think about the subject – they don’t all address it directly.  It seems a shame to waste them, so here they are.  I think I actually read the first one out during the discussion; the rest stayed in my head. 

What is the source of our first suffering?  It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.  It began in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.
Gaston Bachelard, quoted in a lecture by Seamus Heaney. 

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
W B Yeats, Essays

Facts are very unimportant things, there to make you believe in the emotional content in a poem.
Anne Sexton (in a radio interview)

I must begin with first the illusion of an intention.  The poem begins to form from the first intention.  But the intention is already breaking into another.  The first intention begins me but of course continually shatters itself and is replaced by the child of the new collision…  The poem is more than the poet's intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know.  
W S Graham, Notes on a Poetry of Release

To write a poem is to work with change, to deal with a shape-shifter.
Kathleen Jamie, from Strong Words (Bloodaxe)

The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake;
It is myself that I remake.
                W B Yeats

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.  
TS Eliot, from The Sacred Wood (essays)
For the [American] Gurlesque poet, the use of the lyric “I” does not confess a self, but rather a raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that. Disjunctions in identity are not to be worked through or resolved but savored and tapped for their cultural power. 
Lara Glenum in Jacket

Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye. 
Elizabeth Bishop (in an unpublished talk. Thanks to Jacqui
Saphra for unearthing this quote.)

A short poem in which the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker expresses personal feelings.  
Poetry Foundation definition of lyric poetry

A highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers.               
Edward Hirsch on lyric poetry, Poetry Foundation website

The speaker is a device for making the invisible visible.
Princeton Encyclopaedia gloss on a definition of deconstruction

***   ***   *** 

To end, here’s a favourite haiku that seems relevant in 2016 when some blossom is past its best by the end of February.  Issa was talking about old-Japanese new year, of course, in early spring, and meant something completely different...  I think this translation should be read (or heard in the head) in an ironically grumpy elderly American male voice, to get the absolute most out of it. 

New Year’s Day –
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa (1763-1828), translated by Robert Hass