Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Strange, Fractured and Incomplete Narratives: The Poetry of Lee Harwood

Selected Poems
Lee Harwood

Not The Full Story: Six Interviews by Kelvin Corcoran
Lee Harwood

Published by Shearsman Books

Reviewed by Liz Kirby

“As your eyes are blue
you move me—and the thought of you—
I imitate you.
and cities apart.
when the river beneath your window
was as much as I dream of. loose change and
your shirt on top of a chest-of-drawers…”

When Lee Harwood fell in love with John Ashbery in the New York of the mid 1960s, he also fell for the American avant-garde. When he read, loved, and translated the surrealist, Tristan Tzara, he helped to forge a connection between American and European traditions. The excitement and experimentation of London in the early sixties had perhaps been the perfect preparation. He brought these elements together and added gentleness, understatement and a fascination with stories: creating a poetry of strange, incomplete and fractured narratives.

These poems are like a glass bowl, that has shattered yet somehow held its shape perfectly. Harwood’s language is run through with cracks, breaks and discontinuities. It is grammatically inventive. The use of punctuation is very personal and surprising. Often the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is unclear. And it is these very ‘flaws’ that create a shape able to both contain and spill over.

Take the long dashes in the opening of AS YOUR EYES ARE BLUE. They contrast with the short workaday ones used in ‘chest-of-drawers’. The choice is foregrounded. It is a deliberate gesture, suggesting reflection; an inner or other voice dwelling on the beloved

“—and the thought of you—“
The phrase pauses, lingering.

Harwood turns to political and historical subjects with the same light, searing touch. DREAMS OF ARMENIA juxtaposes factual lists with poised and heartbroken fragments of imagery and loving accounts of ancient history:
“…. forced marches, rape, starvation, robbery. Children, men, women, the old and sick.
They would do this to you my love
And to our son.”

The blurring of identity, and fragmentation of history into splinters of mirror glass reaches a climax. Every loss, every violence, every moment of love could be ‘me’, could be ‘you’.
This book illustrates the achievements of four decades. It represents ten collections, including a stunning series of ‘notebooks’ about an adulterous transatlantic affair, called The long black veil that ends with the words “lie naked upon the bed” encompassing every possible meaning of those five words in a shimmering image of love, deceit, loss and joy.

In these poems binaries of all kinds melt into one another and always it is the particular, irreducible details that remain. The tender description of the lover’s shirt. Shearsman have also produced a companion volume in Not the Full Story. It is a series of interviews with the poet, following the chronology of the Selected Poems. As Kelvin Corcoran comments ‘on occasion a poet might be persuaded to talk about the work….’ Harwood is diffident about doing so and sometimes Corcoran’s interventions seem to overwhelm his tentative comments, though the book does go some way in providing context for the work. In the last section Harwood says “It doesn’t matter that it’s left unfinished, finished doesn’t exist”.

Liz Kirby is a poet who is currently battling to complete a novel. She has poetry, prose and reviews in a wide range of magazines and journals, such as Skald, Famous Reporter, and (forthcoming) Poetry Wales. Officially a bitch, she has a story in the Crocus Books anthology Bitch Lit. She shares her home in Hebden Bridge with Leonidis the Prince of Sparta (a small cat).


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Review: Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Lost Girls
Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Published by Top Shelf Comix

Reviewed by Karl Barry

Originally released in the US in 2006, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s oversized three-part graphic novel LOST GIRLS has this year been released in the UK. The book imagines the fantastical meeting of three of literature’s most enduring young female characters: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from Kansas and Wendy from Peter Pan. It’s because of the inclusion of JM Barrie’s characters that the books release has been delayed (as the copyright to Peter Pan lapsed at the end of 2007).

The year is 1913 and the now adult “girls” meet by chance at an expensive Austrian hotel, the Hotel Himmelgarten. Alice is a middle-aged overtly-lesbian lady of society; Wendy is a withdrawn wife living in a passionless marriage; and Dorothy a sexually intrepid young lady out to see the world. Over several days, the women have a number of erotic adventures with each other, as well as with the other guests and staff of the hotel. Amidst uninhibited sexual sessions, the women retell stories of their adolescence reimagining the events from the original children’s books tales as instances of profound and dramatic sexual awakening. Their stories fearlessly, unashamedly explore the variegated depths of sexuality in lushly rendered graphic detail.

Involving beloved children’s books characters frankly and explicitly in situations involving homosexuality, S&M, rape, incest and bestiality is understandably controversial. Far from depicting such activities for shock value, Moore and Gebbie treat their central female characters with deep sympathy, presenting them as intensely real individuals who recount their sexual histories and impulsively act on their physical desires to explore the many depths and complexities of female sexuality. The stories also draw upon the rich history of erotic literature, presenting pastiches of some famous pornographic works in an imaginary collection entitled The White Book conveniently included in each guest’s hotel room.

Each woman’s frank confessions allow her to confront the meaning and impact of her erotic awakening as well as stir the others to a frenzy of sexual excitement. They are then able to plunder the previously unexplored depths of their desires. In particular, Alice’s determined exploration of her adolescent experiences in an all-girls school and subservience to the headmistress (a re-imagined queen of hearts) with her Sapphic group of married society ladies lead her to assert herself as a now confident (if slightly predatory) lesbian.

The women’s sensuous exploration of each other’s bodies lead to a multitude of delights and exciting discoveries. Though focusing specifically on female sexuality, the book doesn’t neglect to include a good dose of male-on-male action. Wendy’s stuffy husband has an intense encounter with a foot-fetishist soldier who Dorothy is having an affair with. Peter Pan rents himself to a fearsome Captain Hook. Bell boys toss each other off.

It’s the authors’ intention to raise the artistic and literary quality of pornography. Told over three books with a surprisingly sober ending, LOST GIRLS manages to dare you out of your comfort zones and make you really think about sexuality in a complex way. Richly designed and lavishly rendered, this expensive book is a treasure which boldly, intelligently and radically plunders the darkest corners of desire to produce a space where everything is allowed and everything has important consequences.