After making a first selection of 20 books for The Library I found an old paperback of Denton Welch’s I Left My Grandfather’s House. It was 145 pages, but more importantly suggested the space of such books to be a proposition about geography, landscape, the reader-writer-walker’s entanglements in places, times and tenses, moods, unwanted conversations and ditches.
It was tragic too, both in the details of his life (Welch started writing after a road accident that led to his death aged 33) and in many observed details (the ‘large prune-velvet fish’ who don’t move ‘but only worked their gills and looked disillusioned’). I found a less melancholy proposition in Will Holder and Alex Waterman’s Yes, But Is It Edible? which quotes Gertrude Stein’s essay ‘Plays’: ‘the landscape not moving but always being in relation’.
Stein gives as an example how ‘the trees [are always in relation] to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail.’ It is a similar sensibility to the ‘composition by field’ of Charles Olson, although his attentions to Gloucester, Massachusetts in The Maximus Poems require not ‘tree’ and ‘hill’ but specific vocabularies of the locale and its associations, be it nasturtiums, accounts from Massachusetts Colony Records of 1633, local sites like the marshes of Walker’s Creek, or Egyptian Queen Tiy (all of which appear in the posthumously published third volume of Olson’s epic).
Olson stares from the cover of his Collected Prose in a photograph taken by Kenneth Irby, whose own collection, Catalpa, opens with its compendium of definitions and etymologies of ‘landscape’ from Olson, dictionaries, the botanist Edgar Anderson, geographer Carl Sauer, and landscape historian of the Great Plains James C. Malin. As Jed Rasula chronicled in his 2002 study This Compost, for Olson and Irby each new poem adds layers to a mulch of word, line and poem, the poet and poetry, emergent from what Rasula calls an ‘ecological imperative’.
The resultant poems in Catalpa have different emphases to field guides and academic monographs, although several books on this shelf offer a poetic version of such forms: Jonathan Williams’s Blues & Roots, Rue & Bluets uses techniques of Objectivist and concrete poetry to compile a portrait of the Appalachians through language seen and overheard hiking the trail, whilst Alison Knowles gathers recipes, tales, event scores and other bean lore onto the pages of A Bean Concordance. C. S. Giscombe’s Prairie Style offers a handbook of specifics and types (and types of specifics) with poems titled ‘I-70 Between Dayton and East Saint Louis, Westbound Lanes’ and ‘Vernacular Examples’ both placed in a section called ‘Nameless’.
Prairie Style shifts between scales, finding a syntax of line, sentence and paragraph formed by what Giscombe (in an interview with Mark Nowak on the Harriet blog) called the ‘whole slew of unsaids and relations’ that comprise a location. In Memory For Forgetfulness, Mahmoud Darwish recreates Beirut under siege during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, beginning with a detailed description of making a cup of coffee during an air raid. Here, internal and external, domestic habit and global politics, find new combinations consistent with Laird Hunt’s afterword to his debut The Paris Stories: ‘Not a book about Paris, I said. Not about.’
Moving along the shelf, in the short fictions of Joanna Walsh’s Fractals, our lives form affective landscapes into which the writer navigates as native and alien. Sarah Tripp’s You are of vital importance also has this micro logical gaze, attentive to the social relations of the artist, their residencies, exhibition openings and studio visits, whilst Mira Mattar and Michael Reid write 18 stories about animals to explore an attachment aptly summarised by their title Just Like A Human! (particularly that exclamation). René Char’s Hypnos, written during the occupation of Paris, offers one source for such works, with its fusion of story, poem, aphorism and reportage in dark times.
Be they fiction, poetry, or journal these texts evoke an etymology of essay as ‘try and attempt’. In Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, his apprenticeship reading essays by Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and James Baldwin informs a celebration of the essay form as ‘confiding, uncertain, solitary, free’ with its ‘unfinished feel, a tentative note’. Be the subject D’Ambrosio’s own family history, reading J. D. Salinger, or a response to 9/11, the essay offers both writer and reader ‘a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured.’
D’Ambrosio’s introduction connects prose style to the rhythm of breathing. Making essay(ing) physical and sculptural, then returning it to a state of printed matter, is Emma Cocker and Clare Thornton’s The Italic I, with its visual and textual lexicon of falling. Its accordion format applies such questions to the book object, how it is held and turned. The solid, purple hardcovers and one name per thick white page of Thomas A. Clark’s One Hundred Scottish Places, demonstrates how such alert physicality is also expressed through the codex.
As I wrote this, I was regularly walking up St. Martin’s Lane and along Charing Cross Road in London. Jeremy Reed’s Sooner or Later Frank also documents that territory, and although he met different people and went through different doors to myself, I appreciated some shared terra firma from which it was possible to view what was selected, ignored and metamorphosed, in an always combusting triangulation of self, poem and place.
In Reed’s ‘Meeting Jimmy Page at Amuti 23’, ‘a pink rip slashed over St. Martin’s Lane, / like cerise silk, the sounds mapped in his blood / coming up later with the sizzling thunder rain.’ This energy both longing and apocalyptic reminded me of Welch’s gloomy fish, but also Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Gramsci’s Ashes’ and his other poems from wandering the Rome hinterlands.
How all these workings with landscape might interact is suggested in stage directions for Heiner Müller’s Waterfront Wasteland/Medea Material/Landscape with Argonauts, whose three simultaneous parts offer up ‘a lake near Strausberg that is equally a muddy swimming pool in Beverly Hills, or the baths of a nerve clinic’ alongside a working peepshow and ‘a dead star on which a search party from another time, or from another space, hears a voice and finds a corpse’.
In Lia Na’ama ten Brink’s Toponym this became subarctic flora and nocturnal Peking cormorant fishermen (to pick just two from her book’s seductive assemblage of places and times via texts and images). But despite the diverse geographical, historical and cultural specifics of its extracts, the book as a whole builds to elude determined categories of place and identity, letting amorphous new formations be intuited through its meld of tones and textures.
On a first reading and looking I noted that whilst Welch, Williams, Irby and Pasolini make texts directly out of hikes, in Toponym the author is a gatherer and arranger of texts and images. Both Williams and Irby, however, work with appropriated text, and although less explicit there is a personal pulse and under-foot geography to be felt reading Toponym. What these two approaches share is clarified opening Philippe Jaccottet’s Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-79 to read its first entry: ‘Attachment to the self renders life more opaque’.
In the 345 pages that follow Jaccottet shows an ongoing commitment to the details of a landscape. As when he appreciates the haiku form as both ‘wings that prevent you from collapsing’ and ‘self-obliterating’, such fidelity is also valued for the possible associations and metamorphoses that follow. So Jaccottet writes: ‘Birds taking flight from trees shaken by the wind’ then follows up ‘Internal light, world, illuminated forest …’. Line two knits back into and beyond its predecessor, revealing a landscape to both that is material and immanent, variously determined and unexpected.
It suggests an abundance, yet 345 pages over 25 years is less than 14 pages a year, with white space surrounding each entry as well as ‘months of almost total silence, in near impossibility or incapacity.’ Jaccottet fears responding to the world only as it is useful in his writing, and this familiar dilemma of the writer has a particular nuance in relation to landscape and questions of its utility and value, conservation and destruction.
After a winter of despair in 1972, Jaccottet’s answer is ‘closing all books except for the book of things, the book of life lived, the concrete’. He turns his attention to ‘traces … lines inside me … courses … images that sink into the past or that float near me, around me’. Something similar happens with ideas, words, sentences, and images from all the books on this shelf, which surface and combine to articulate a landscape. Like Jaccottet’s writing this landscape is made of ‘Things noted down at random and almost lazily, without paying too much attention or stopping.’
© David Berridge 2015
© For the essay in this form, Akerman Daly 2015. First published on Akerman Daly website, The Library.
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