Hearing Voices

In the House of Ladders
, Bill Lewis (Greenheart Press)
Agistri Notebook, Jay Ramsay (Knives Forks and Spoons)

I've not read any new poetry by Bill Lewis for some years and I was really pleased on approaching this recent collection of work to realise that he's 'still got it'. His deep interest in Latin America is now combined with a more international perspective and his poetry, while influenced by magic realism, retains a sharp analytic strain which works well with a more creative approach which is playful and imaginative. If some of the raw energy and anger in his early work has been stripped away there's still  great inventiveness in this material, aided by a sense of maturity which nevertheless retains a sense of fun.

Take the following poem, for example, which is short enough to quote in full:

     The Futurists

     A mob of modernists
     Manic for movement
     And Movements;
     Makers of so many
     Mad manifestos;

     Loco over locomotion:
     Railway tracks
     Bursting from their
     Ribs, revealing a lack
     Of heart in their art.

     Lusting after one
     Idiot ideology
     After another:
     Following red flags
     Liked doomed bulls,
     Then falling for
     Fascist falsehoods.

     Hating beauty but
     Making beautiful art
     By default.
     When I look at those
     Paintings it's like
     Hearing a tune I love
     With lyrics I detest.

It's a neat poem which expresses a viewpoint in witty language which is both clear and energetic, suggesting a lot more than you would think could be expressed in so few words. It's also a political poem which has emotional underpinnings and which while creating an aesthetic experience for an engaged reader, makes you think as well as feel.

In 'Rabbi' (for Leonard Cohen
), he encapsulates the dialectic in Cohen's work with an impressive brevity which finishes with the following couplet: 'So secular in its nature that / it is holier than any hymn'. His interest in various artforms - painting, film and music, for example - provides fuel for his poetry, as does an interest in dreams and the surreal:

     And still I tried
     To dial your number,
     But got instead
     Strange voices telling
     Me weather forecasts
     And cryptic messages
     Like those sent to the
     French Resistance
     Or from Death's car radio
     in Cocteau's Orphee.
          (from 'Dream Job')

Lewis' poetry is largely an affirmation, a secular hymn to 'the spiritual', filled with intriguing contradiction, unusual imagery and fuelled by a rhythmic surge which is often intense, sometimes gentle, always witty yet open to the world in all its outrageous complexity. He's a political writer too, something which is not always recognised and this is important because in a world where the gap between rich and poor is ever more apparent I often wonder about the value of art which fails to question the purely aesthetic. His work doesn't fit into any of the norms of what we might call the British Poetry Scene, partly because his heart is elsewhere and more international but also perhaps because of a certain strangeness in his phrasing and the breadth of his influence. The energy is still apparent:

     Green by default,
     Has no centre but
     Many hearts;
     I remember
     All those
                   red & black valentines.

     New York fills
     Me up like forty
     Cups of good
     Strong coffee and

     Shoves a paintbrush into
     My impatient hand.
            (from 'Cities')

There's a quotation from Lewis in the introduction to In the House of Ladders which goes thus:  “We were against art as an exercise in formulism. We believed that authenticity was more important than originality.” I want to argue with that apparent dialectic, partly perhaps because I'm feeling argumentative but hopefully also because I think matters are more complex than this suggests. In any case the use of the word 'authentic' in discussions about art is a loaded term which obfuscates more than it helps to explain and I'd probably want to replace the word 'formulism' with 'formalism' but you get the picture. That said, as I hope I've made clear in the above, I think Bill Lewis' poetry is of a very high standard and he's certainly the most interesting poet to have come out of the Medway scene. He's not a bad painter, either. The cover artwork is a rich mix of colour, texture, shape and typography and the book is illustrated throughout by Lewis' black and white woodcut-style images. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading this book and hope you will too.

You could say that Jay Ramsay's new collection from Knives Forks and Spoons press is a mix of travelogue and commentary on Heraclitus' paradoxical fragments. The first eighteen pieces - poems and short prose - are each prefaced by a fragment which is then 'responded to' in the here and now, based on a recent journey to Greece and the cyclades. So we get the following, by way of example:

     16. The oracle at Delphi neither hides or states, but gives signs

     And not the signs you'd expect. The joy of standing on the
     threshold of a Doric temple high in the sun, like a memory.
     A young cat's mesmeric eyes gazing up under you in a
     taverna of dark blue chairs and tables. The black iconic
     face of Christ in an annexe chapel in the new monastery
     that's like an embassy. A lovely young woman with long
     ringlets of hair, in a schoolgirl check dress, riding a scooter
     away into the light. And you txt: you have found your
     keypad voice again, and you are ready to speak.
          (from 'Heraclitus')

I can remember going to Delphi, many, many years ago, loaded with cultural expectation, entranced at being in a new country and somewhat overwhelmed by the heat which was drier than in England. Yet this was the long hot summer of '73 and I'd just spent six weeks working in a factory to get the money together to have a holiday, an adventure. Ramsay's reflections here are more concerned with a mixing of the moment and what Roselle Angwin has called 'the enduring', a philosophical/spiritual investigation which experiences the 'here and now' in a wider framework. Here we come to what I'll have to call a problem of interpretation because although Ramsay is coming from somewhere different to me in terms of 'belief', perhaps, I have to say that he's superb in capturing those transient moments which often relate to an 'inarticulate longing' which I can certainly respond to. Take these stanzas from 'Burning', for example:

     Tonight I am in solidarity
     with all those who long
     who cannot appease their longing
     and who sit up late with their drink or song
     wild-eyed and waiting
     for a deliverance that never comes.

     It is the music, our music
     that lingers on
     our fading coal
     in our heart's flowering
     that becomes everyone.

There's a concern in his poetry to find a redemption within the human condition, to suggest something more eternal which provides consolation and while I have some difficulty with this in the abstract I also find Ramsay convincing when he reads his work aloud. His quiet voice (both on the page and at a reading) may lack the dramatic dialectical impact of an earlier poet like Donne (wrestling with the secular and the sublime) but it's an encouraging sound which soothes and perhaps occasionally cajoles in a convincing manner:

     And then the sea is like the wind through corn or wheat,
     waving as it carves its mazy path, swept like hair from
     side to side careless of separation because it is all to phos,
     one light.
          (from 'Helios')

I can hear his voice as I read those lines. It's a long time since I've been in Greece and I think I need to go back.

    © Steve Spence 2014