I found more time for reading about poetry than writing about it this week. Here are some extracts from articles that I enjoyed.
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s Writing the Camp is a debut of remarkable enquiry into the idea of the refugee camp, specifically the Baddawi camp in Lebanon where Qasmiyeh was once based with his family. With its exploration of lyric address, fragmented sequential passages and stretches of parablesque meditational prose, Qasmiyeh is comfortable writing through (but also resisting) various poetic forms. Adept as philosopher or poet, frequently amalgamating both, the texts here are tonally confident yet vulnerable. This is an open poetics, personal and speculative, confessional yet innovative. There’s a waft of Derrida in the more conceptual moments in considering Qasmiyeh’s central question: what is a refugee camp? The poet weaves in archival considerations in providing the impossible answer:
Only refugees can forever write the archive.
The camp owns the archive, not God.
For the archive not to fall apart, it weds the camp unceremoniously.
The question of a camp archive is also the question of the camp’s survival beyond speech.
(‘Refugees are dialectical beings’)
The writing is both disturbing and captivating and, where it chooses to be, furnished with poetic flourishes that transform what is observed into what is revealed:
The moon is the birthmark of the refugee.
His birth equates to the mauling of his entire body.
(‘A sudden utterance of the stranger’)
We walk, so we think, never in the absolute presence of one another, breathing the blindman’s stick.
(‘A soliloquy before time’)
What is novel in Newlyn’s ars poetica is that the book forgoes explanatory prose and is comprised entirely of short poems, and each of these takes some form or aspect of poetic technique as its subject, which the poet proceeds to define or demonstrate through its use in the poem. Here is an example in full (titled “Than-bauk”):
Caught in the wall,
this dry fallen leaf:
a brief trophy.
A than-bauk is an epigrammatic Burmese form that brings to mind the brevity of the more popular Japanese haiku. It comprises three lines of four syllables each. Its rhyme pattern jumps a syllable with each line, falling on the second syllable of the last line, the third syllable on the middle line and the fourth syllable on the first line. In a primer of verse, then, it is fair to wonder why Newlyn’s poem doesn’t read more like this: “Caught in the wall / this dry fall leaf: / a small trophy”. Excepting the incongruous Americanism (Newlyn grew up in Leeds), it would make for a more faithful and regular exemplar.
There is an endearing quality to the book, nonetheless – an effect of Newlyn’s gently instructive tone and her abiding love for the landscape she describes. The Craft of Poetry’s more than 100 poems are set in the North Yorkshire valley of Widdale, and the stream or beck in which Newlyn played as a child is the book’s core image and seemingly inexhaustible source of metaphor; its clear water, flowing through poem after poem, is channelled into explanations of any aspect of craft you might pluck from the contents page. “Everywhere you move / the beck’s sound shapes your sense / of where you are” (“Sound”); “Line-length brings shape as to a moving body / and the stream is held in check / by two banks of space” (“Line”); “In a simile, you see both banks of the beck / and the bridge between” (“Simile”).
In 1995 I organised a poetry reading and invited Donald Davie, who read in St John’s with Seamus Heaney and James Fenton. Davie informed me by letter that he wanted to meet at the Martyrs’ Memorial so I waited here, phoneless and expectant. I thought it was just a convenient meeting-point, but for him it was more. He put down his bags and bowed his head. A staunch protestant footsoldier, Davie talked about them as if we could still smell the burning. I make him sound fierce and maybe he was, but I was an atheist and I spent quite a large part of my twenties trying to be the sort of person I wasn’t in order to measure up to him. He was kind to me and encouraged me when there was no need to. I admired his work, and cared about him deeply. He read that night with amazing power. It was August, hot and sticky. I didn’t know it but he was dying. I was due to visit him in late September, but he died the week before in that unexpected-expected way of cancer sufferers. I sit on the steps of the Martyrs’ Memorial and have a memorial wait.