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Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

This is Jacket magazine,
an Internet-only quarterly literary review edited by John Tranter
The address of this page is

Samples of writing from

Perfect Bound magazine, 1976–1979

The texts selected from the seven issues of Perfect Bound magazine are presented here as they first appeared — with the exception of a few that have been corrected, and others lightly revised, as instructed by the authors in order to bring them up to date with their present states. We’d like to thank the individual contributors for permission to use their work again on the occasion of this retrospect.
      The excerpts are linked to Nate Dorward’s interview with editor Peter Robinson in this issue of Jacket; links in that interview bring you back to this page. And the links on this page titled ‘Go to interview’ take you back to the link that brought you here, in that interview; so you can skip back and forth between them, and not lose your way.
      The ‘Samples Contents list’ links immediately below take you to the samples in this file.
      This section of Jacket is about twenty-two printed pages long.
      For the use of the plus symbol, see this file.
      There is a photo, a bio note and links to dozens of pieces of writing by Peter Robinson on his Jacket Author Notes page.

Samples Contents list:

J. H. Prynne: The Land of Saint Martin
John James: After Christopher Wood
Peter Robinson: Veronica Forrest-Thomson: On the Periphery
Tom Raworth: Magnetic Water
John Matthias: After the Death of Chekhov
Rod Mengham: from Beds & Scrapings
John Wilkinson: Political Health
Aidan Semmens: The Strange Geometry
Adam Clarke-Williams: The Ambassadors: Raymond Williams in Cambridge, Christmas in Portsmouth.
Douglas Oliver: Fun House
Wendy Mulford: Chinese Postcard Sequence
J.H. Prynne: Reader’s Lockjaw
Pierre Reverdy: Poem
Denise Riley: A Nueva York
Peter Riley: Digest of the Poetical Works of Dora Oliver
Geoffrey Ward: It’s My Town (But I Had to Leave It)
Elaine Feinstein: Two Lyrics From ‘An England Sequence’
John Barrell: ‘A Lyrical Ballad’
Marcus Perryman: from Outposts
Peter Robinson: Looking Up
Gael Turnbull: The Borders Revisited
John Welch: Grieving Signal

J. H. Prynne

The Land of Saint Martin


Spill the dish his lip said,
at the side, this one, stop
and run and stop then. Was
the day wet when he set
to it, for his cheek the step
on top. Wish to wish inside,
the slip led to this. Within
and done, a life of silt.


In from the grain a neck shone,
a sandy shoe. Red or bad or wet
as needs be. The ache beyond
his other self, as you say he
will stay on for it. His rest
and arm will, too. Even the sky
is hard to see but leave, and see
and follow, and leave but see as well.


To be ill said his way to look
out, this may break what will
not mend. We know that. And
if not so it will not do, the life
is like as not. Under the roof is
over the floor; also true or lost.
I give my life for that, note well
how this is not enough.


Ready yet was the best; this
day took a white strip by
the shelf, at the back. You must
not fall over, the top is marked
with a nib. Yes it is. The chance
goes bit by bit across the air
and is changed, or entire, as
yet the time flies utterly.


More thread settles in. But sink
for it counts by one, quick to
meet the door and pass him. Not
lame, not hurt, all that too far
true. So far, after the dear one.
Why you look to me if brought
here now, or soon, and then wait
for one to one going on by.


It can be cold if you do, to
give way, open your eye.
The shelf is under what you
put there, the help is part
of the store. See it carried out
as we like no less. We are told
this. He gives a hand and falls
exactly, and before he must.


Leaf-leaf and sister speaks, we pick
any song up. Eat the last bit
you left over, you did. On the table
damage mounts. The tale starts
again and strikes. Any best week
is lost like that, we admit, life
long too much to stand. Too much
to find is so, this time round.


No more your name seems right,
it slows down, it won’t call, shading
the coat. Quite pale where you want
to give your word. Willing, without
end, at this point step off. Nothing
else showed at all. The same one
he tried to hold, up and down
and melt and then he did.

Collected in Poems (Edinburgh and London: Agneau 2, 1982) and Poems (second ed. South Fremantle, Australia: Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press; Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1999).

[go to interview, link 1,

Samples Contents list

John James

After Christopher Wood

it would be ordinary enough to live
in a room that balanced above

the sea’s implied presence
a soft draught of light taken in

by the half-open lips of pale green shutters
quenching the tender places

left in the flesh of the mouth

caused of a recurring breathlessness
caused of living in low places

and we could relax into that thing
we vaguely call ‘life’ whatever
the shade of dress in which it might present itself
and we could sprawl
and we could sprawl on a white bedcover
reading the Lives of the Poets
provided — and this indeed would be a provision of
our existence — that we brought nothing
mean or sordid into that place by virtue
of our mutually ridiculous appetites
whereby we are able to lose each other up to the last moment
when your fingers catch at my lips in a smile
and we do become dwellers in that glittering place
the towels white with orange borders
a kind of mortal incompatibility

Collected in Berlin Return (Matlock, London and Liverpool: Grosseteste, Ferry and Délires, 1983) and Collected Poems (Salt, forthcoming).

[go to interview, link 1a,
‘John James’]

Samples Contents list

Peter Robinson

Veronica Forrest-Thomson: On the Periphery

Veronica Forrest-Thomson published Language Games in 1971. Later she published Cordelia. Her death, after the 1975 Cambridge Poetry Festival, left Street Editions with a manuscript that constitutes her final volume. On the Periphery is a cycle of pieces, followed by ‘Last Poems’. The book will also include a memoir by J. H. Prynne.
      Her poetry is pre-eminently concerned with the problematic relationship between language, non-verbal phenomena and consciousness. In the preface to the book she writes:

I have argued elsewhere that this awfulness [the awfulness of the modern world] cannot be overcome with entire reference to the non-verbal world for the non-verbal world, like other deities, helps only those who help themselves. And what poetry gains from that world is gained through language, through the very languages that give us the world.

By such an account, consciousness is constituted in language and to transform the functional references in language is to transform consciousness, and hence the world. Any reference to a world outside consciousness or language is an appeal to the unthinkable, a mystifying abstraction. In ‘L’Effet du Réel’ she articulates in a highly conscious manner the interaction of such concepts as those mentioned above:

We construct an event out of, behind these shutters ‘people’
are sleeping.
and from an intersection between ‘the most perfect château of the transition period’     
and ‘a cricket on a ball of dung’. Our capacity
for indifference is truly astounding

If we are indifferent to the sources of consciousness and knowledge, the world is fixed in a number of dead metaphors or unsatisfactory attitudes:

So would you mind just standing in the café doorway
for a minute longer against the sun because I’m
writing a poem about intersections

The inference of this passage feels uncertain. Irony hovers in the request to a person like that of a painter to her model. To feel at ease in the world is to commandeer it, only to find it an uncooperative presence:

     Such savage triumph returns us to Maillezais.
The abbey stands still, without quotation marks.

Such intelligence prevents any recourse to the pathetic fallacy. The intelligence itself conveys us into a mesh of linguistic sleights-of-hand whose purpose is to disrupt the too easy and casual identification in the reader of ‘human interest’ or ‘the touchingly picturesque’. But since the interrelation of consciousness and world in language is rendered so disjunctive as to disengage the easy response, generosity and the unpremeditated seem also impossible:

Printed in natural colours, we find a way always
to deny the world; even its ‘aerial view’ from
‘the tower itself’

(‘An Arbitrary Leaf’)

The travesties committed upon human experience by casual mortification of perception in language are so overwhelming; the learned credulity of the eye is too indifferent, itself a denial. Following poems develop a manner of writing which relies heavily on language as a palimpsest of attitudes and learned response so as to undermine these:

Poetic diction performed for me two outstanding services:
in confirming that the subject I proposed treating
was a worthy one; and in feeding and clothing me
after I had, in a moment of abstraction, fallen
into Holme Fen Engine Ditch...

(‘Approaching the Library’)

And the most successful technique for subterranean mining is humour. It has the insistence of a bad joke brilliantly told so as to point up the serious underlying purpose:

Hail to thee blithe horse, bird thou never wert!
And breaking into a canter, I set off on the long road south
Which was to take me to so many strange places,
That room in Cambridge, that room in Cambridge, that room in Cambridge,       +
That room in Cambridge, this room in Cambridge,
The top of a castle in Provence and an aeroplane in mid-Atlantic.
Strange people, that lover, that lover, that lover, that lover.
Eyes that last I saw in lecture-rooms...


But such writing is clearly a strategy for the avoidance of one manner, though in itself another manner, and not the creation of a style. In the preface, Forrest-Thomson indicates the limitedness of such obliqueness:

Thus also, the last poem ‘Sonnet’ is the love poem I have tried throughout to write straight and have been held back from by these technical and sociological difficulties. For, as to theme, this book is the chart of three quests. The quest for a style already discussed, the quest for a subject other than the difficulty of writing, and the quest for another human being.

But here difficulty does arise for what she regards as writing straight is itself an acknowledgement of the hopelessness of the poem’s premise. And its quiet, delicate statement in the poem is summarized in her preface: ‘And, of course, being caught as a poetic fiction, as a real person he is gone.’ ‘Sonnet’ concludes:

So, accept the wish for the deed my dear.
Words were made to prevent us near.

If we do not accept the wish for the deed it is because her attitudes to the knowledge of reality and language seem incompatible with the wish itself. And it feels anti-climactic to find that the purpose of such determined interruption of discourse is simply this. But it also feels sad. The world is not affirmed, but its absence is apologized for and it is here that ghosts of the biography haunt the text.
      It may have been acknowledgement of this impasse that produced the energy to be felt in many of the ‘Last Poems’. In ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ and ‘Cordelia’, the humour that had been effectively used to disrupt easy responses is uppermost, and its insistence is combined with a self-generating manner reacting continuously to previous statement:

The moon is sinking, and the Pleiades,
Mid Night; and time runs on she said.
I lie alone. I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead.
Be my partner and you’ll never regret it.
Gods and poets ought to stick together;
They make a strong combination.

(‘The Garden of Proserpine’)

Also present is a good deal of direct statement of a kind which balances precariously between the effectively anguished and the embarrassing. But this precariousness only seems to add to the power of the poems, as does the nerve of some of her jokes:

March is the cruellest station
Taking on bullying men
And were you really afraid they would rape you?


For here the echo of T. S. Eliot allows access for her direct questioning of the relationship between real events linguistically implied and the consciousness of feelings that may or may not be in error, but which operate distinct from the assumed events. This mixture of humour and anxiety is finally very moving and I cannot but recommend it:

Spring surprised us, running through the market square
And we stopped in Prynne’s room in a shower of pain
And went on in sunlight into the University Library
And ate yogurt and talked for an hour.
You, You, grab the reins.
Drink as much as you can and love as much as you can
And work as much as you can
For you can’t do anything when you are dead.


Here you will not find perfectly wrought ‘artifices for eternity’. The need to disrupt language makes many of these works fragmentary or consciously flawed, seen from a more synthesizing and craftsmanly aspect. The whole volume constitutes an effort to resolve a problem that must confront anyone who finds the world a deeply affecting yet intangible chimera. And the rest is literature.


[go to interview, link 2,
On The Periphery review’]

Samples Contents list

Tom Raworth

Magnetic Water

glare burns of nothing very near in time
surfaces split and go their own ways
in the breeze of light      so too this image
lengthens nothing      i praise your light
against the night whose skin
glistens with moving cloudy white

those burns were of themselves the image
as was the breeze      one surface was of film
the character half drawn      one coloured
the night air bright with nothing but reflection

then from my death i felt that all must die
and holding in our time was black
and cold      that rocks glowed red
that trees which formerly i climbed
swayed from their roots
in one direction      i heard
me fumbling through the scores
of ancient scripts
as forces struggled for my arm
while thought as muscle lifted from the pool
as a silent waterspout whose touch
sucked out one convolution of my brain

the letters danced with changing shape
one two three four      all sound poured in
those several openings of the tube
flexed      doors on the air      no floors

empty we think we know what comes
lip readers of the slowed heart’s valve
don’t hear the music of those crystals set
in joints of syntax cry
love is our salve
believe us or we die

Collected in Common Sense (San Francisco: Zephyrus Image, 1976) and then in Tottering State: Selected and New Poems 1963–83 (Great Barrington, MA.: The Figures, 1984; later editions, London: Paladin, 1988; Oakland, CA.: O Books, 2000).

[go to interview, link 3,
‘Magnetic Water’]

Samples Contents list

John Matthias

After the Death of Chekhov

For Bob Hass

Anton Pavlovich has died
At Badenweiler, a spa
Where doctors had sent him,

A doctor, with his beautiful Olga.
They ship the body to Moscow
Where both of us wait at the station.

This is the difference between us:
You, with Chaliapin & Gorky,
Calm the disorderly crowd

And stick with your man: You
Go off in the proper direction
And weep at the grave of the poet,

While I get confused,
Follow a band of the Tzar’s
Which is playing a march

In the cortege of a general
Killed in the Japanese War.
Or, when the two coffins arrive

At the platform together,
One in a car labeled
Oysters, and you understand in

A flash which one is Chekhov’s,
This is the difference between us:
You return to your wife and honor

The dead by telling hilarious jokes
About Chaliapin & Gorki, while I am sent
To a spa in the car labeled Oysters.

Collected in Crossing (London: Anvil Press and Ohio: Swallow, 1979; Northern Summer: Selected Poems (Anvil and Swallow, 1984).

[go to interview, link 4,
‘After the Death of Chekhov’]

Samples Contents list

Rod Mengham

from Beds & Scrapings

Have you once spread the alarm

A throng of birds climbing my left side

They were bent on their task in a broken seam. She kept
my attention thrown slightly forward, as if before disaster
struck. What do you make of him? I could see nothing down his right trouser.

Now I am above the field they scratched on the trembling
body in their journey through the forest.

Fragments of its skin had built up


Rubbing the walls in the body. In fact his pounding
footsteps drifted down.

The span of the stockings folded. In the autumn she swept
back the door. The dark cradle it gave her head.

That bare. With shoulders bare. Later, all night in
winter or summer. They were the winds. Down the garden
with light, stretching both arms.

If the body were a single thrust of noise spilled in my
joy. A deafening day, until the breath has no man.

Collected in Unsung: New and Selected Poems (Salt,1996; 2nd edition, 2001).

[go to interview, link 5,
‘Beds & Scrapings’]

Samples Contents list

John Wilkinson

Political Health

Yesterday in Blackburn and my instinct
      Steals a march on me, the right
To work march marches at the double
      On the spot and I’ll be blamed!
They wear fluorescent armbands, their biceps
      Glow heroically in the dark

Run for a bath to flannel away your
      Destination, yuk! Some kind of millepede
Embedded in the soap, is that
      Fair, to always ask for simple soap
At the chemist, and I blanch, I can’t
      Resist, as their trusty right arm
Carries out the people’s verdict

But I peel away the sky like a price-sticker
      Never fear, I’ll learn you
On the witness stand as a property
      And coin of the belly politic
If I could get my rocks off, right now
      But I scratch up the cailloux de chausée

Collected in Oort’s Cloud. Earlier Poems (Cambridge: Barque and Honolulu: subpress, 1999). Reprinted with thanks to the publishers.

[go to interview, link 6,
‘Political Health’]

Samples Contents list

Aidan Semmens

The Strange Geometry

‘I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways.’

John Webster


Her dead white face
                                 is beauty,
bandied everywhere before him
as he roams this little globe,
                 between his crutches.
She is no ghost,
for time is,
not present or past.

                 he moves
among the arcane structures,
the complexes
laid down by men.

Where one man’s head
is arranged
                    at another’s foot,
he, wandering, must
seem a malignant growth,
with his callipers he goes
among and between,
the planet.


Swerving in continuum,
beyond and above.
a sphere is only
                  among asteroids,
continuously: or time is only
distance; movement
in relative


Stoppage or continuation,
                                             a going
hence or a coming hither, he
for climactic death. Night
strangely holds him,
but always
                   the earth turns again
to the sun,
                  and his numinous
visions must be dissipated,
sent back diseased
                                to whence they
           Should he select
a door,
             or wait for one
to swing
               open in his direction?


The strangest door
                                 is the one
that closes silently behind him,
leaving him
to find that all seems still
the same
                 about him.


[go to interview, link 7,
‘The Strange Geometry’]

Samples Contents list

Adam Clarke-Williams

The Ambassadors: Raymond Williams in Cambridge, Christmas in Portsmouth.

Note: to preserve the author’s specific interword spacing, this piece has been set in Courier, a monospaced typewriter face which this magazine ordinarily does not employ. — Jacket editor.

     His voice,
a dead match, carefully held,
from the margins of the body
     where he taught
embolism: theory as crust of blood
displaced down extensions of some high road
to that social heart, rapid flutter read as eyewash
in which it is resolved
speaking to the question of encountered options
defined by pressure, taking shape
however under fire

the password is withdrawn, a counter plot
in time or action at ‘the point’ of transfer
contracts that loss is
your increment of pleasure gone haywire
  and see the little coin that remained among us
  transmitted to distance
                        with no hope of return
produce the body
in place and separation
which lines converge, move off
the eye following
into the delicate, the unmotivated
space of absence,
on a slender thread
  where escapes are entangled
  the crystals of shifting hungers
:  One man
& His World nudged out
by remote control
                elbow room
for the range of his vision
Dead Beat    High Rise
an architecture for manoeuvres and the eye’s
turns the knuckle on
inert dependencies
under close attention
notch on the skyline, the new towers
overhead, sills
being white or
reflections, the fret works
its own autonomy system
a calling for function
in a triumph of perspective
that play for liberation is dependent on
the Stock Exchanges of the world economy

given what local outlet
beyond the clouds bank, overcast,
a graph of rising damp
on the far side
are city limits and
their drift against its walls
    stands of wood, houses
drawn along roads
humming in the wind
across the coign of vantage
    which discovers him
trampling at the compost
and back
        indoors and a cup of indian tea
swigging it off
a quantum of acceptable desire

Collected in Programme Notes (Cambridge: Lobby Press, 1978).

[go to interview, link 8,
‘The Ambassadors’]

Samples Contents list

Douglas Oliver

Fun House

A fiery blast of air with plenty of
vasodilation, droopy genitals still
in a mean slit, breasts fall flat.
Dads wait on one side. Fun.
Mums other and the kids hand each other
pluses and minuses furiously
while a distant river plays
under the town green. Lower into
the tunnel of distorting mirrors.
Wiggle woggle.
Emerge, conjugate,
where the cool breeze
and the whiteness of demons
join hand in hand
in the ancestry of marriage.


[go to interview, link 9,
‘Fun House’]

Samples Contents list

Wendy Mulford

Chinese Postcard Sequence

Note: to preserve the author’s specific interword spacing, this piece has been set in Courier, a monospaced typewriter face which this magazine ordinarily does not employ. — Jacket editor.

the land retained by patriarchate
   foregrounded in granite
   retreats, top left, the
           undifferentiated hills


(leave your pack behind)
entering the town
swayed by guardians
(after-image of the hills)
that pump’s in working order


beneath the Hoansu temple
a man in violet trousers & shirt
left side missing


a god is an ugly brute
some particles are showing
through the roar of writing
approach to narrow shadows


fine metal transects the sky with civic
purpose beyond the massive wall, the
punctuated foreground, passage to
black & white, the not


Of Western Tombs

Box on a plinth.
A decorated box.
Two roofs.
A gable.
Two corniches.
Two arched doorways.
Two sets of steps down to
Grass. Path. Three bridges. A thick screed
Of trees.


in another country    in crossed seasons
    another attempt
the ponies and carts are going to cross the parade ground
we were waiting for the militia to arrive
or was it
         just a case of marginal desire from a timeless window
supporting the unity of tree and roof line
against the tints of evening



disinterested cloud & and gestural buoyancy
under the canopy
the washing hangs out to dry
behind closed doors
bureaucracy prods the bales
oxen & carts wait wait patiently


desire spots the hills
courteous palaces at the water edge
boats don’t depart from the marble steps


the weight of their sayings in the brilliant sky



the rim of the pebble world
left your shoes at the low tide line
parasols & children protect


[go to interview, link 10,
‘Chinese Postcard Sequence’]

Samples Contents list

J.H. Prynne

Reader’s Lockjaw

At this stage deep in the social anxiety of holding on, the loser is required to want what he cannot have or can no longer keep; and the winner to enjoy keeping or taking what was not his; there is no merely natural possession. The set-up has to be the profile of a short history pushed on past the limits of impartial observation, so that the pluperfect can exert its jolts. Behaviour behind the face-saving of language must, nonetheless, be socially recognisable: we must know where we are. And so violence of primary confusion and resentment is displaced by a secondary, chosen coolness, to give accurate sarcasm its new place on both sides of hot, persecutory ambivalence. Noticeable and interesting trouble arises when the admitted depression of the loser is occupied with the wary sangfroid normal to one who takes back by pride or turned wit a synthetic freedom which had been confiscated by ‘consensus’. The gain is of course worthless in itself but the scathing normality is a new gem in the crown, blinding like flashes from the facets of a deep-set, multiple superstition. And yet that much is still hardly more than a basic trope of current requisition; not paranoiac or invert-millenarian but based, even so, in the steady production of hard feelings which service their own steady market.
      To realign into triangular format the contradictions of this dual schedule (give or take, say; punk or rastafarian) is at once to strike into dangers which are unstable right to the base and which are, potentially, much more brilliant. The subplot of crudely refined sexual ambition is played against the mimic security of pairing. Every flyover has its feet in what it causes. The contest is a joke with strictly no surplus. Thus an irony of intense, pragmatic conservatism about what’s at risk, weakly holding to ethnic serenity like a pig before pearls, flickers across the sarcasm of ridicule against what’s claimed in the apelike form of winnings, when the prizes are not to accept routine ironies of compensation and adjustment. The disguise is to want not to lose; the reality is not to get left holding a want you cannot steer (hypocritic detachment, say); and yet the black ice and overdrive of ‘the situation’ force thin wedges of comic fear into the trim, just being around in the sights as others see them.
      The pressure of such defensive forays into inner-city territory, each homing in acutely at the side of others and being jostled by them, makes for compound ironies which are truly sharpened and banal. Everything is laconic adaptation from second-hand, so that nothing has the freshness of mere dialectic; but the adaptation is disconcertingly trustworthy. The intelligence works in the impeccable half-tones of this exact banality, in what’s stunningly true about perception of breeding, sexual ambiguity, the buck rabbit at home in shredded newsprint and the colour images wavering from hostility to feckless dreams. A language to shadow this dazzling half-light has to be, and is, both pointed and let furnished, related to clearly marked tones of common speech but derived from placings to one side of that speech; not placed inside individual embarrassment or at the ticket barrier of a class station but not immune to either; not touching into ‘literary’ culture but admitting, even so, the pull of such de luxe ambition. And the diagnosis of elocution drained of ideas but full of their half-suppressed implications won’t assume any prior intellectual support since that would reduce to habit a register which has to assemble its wit from riff-raff intellectualism, education mostly a guise for provocative self-defence already failing to meet the rivalries pressed against it. Above all, there can be absolutely no lyrical decor or carib firings, as the repertoire of any such ‘creative’ effects would be generated by awareness turned from its data to the symptoms of its own distraction (as usual).
      The texts in question are in three bulletins by Paul St. Vincent: Lambchops (Omens , Leicester 1976); Philpot in the City (Curlew Press, Harrogate 1976); Lambchops In Disguise (Share Pubs., London 1976). Freedom of the rational will is larger than any freedom of action but only if the former is quick-witted and anticipates its punishment: Lambchops senior (who could be anyone but the reader) ‘rises from the canvas claiming / loser’s rights to predict the fight — / and dispute the verdict.’ Or Maureen: ‘Was it something in the air, please / God, that made strangers take / responsibility for past wrongs / they imagined her to have suffered.’ Or wasted Philpot himself: ‘has bought / the time his talent demanded, and talent / sneaked away leaving him exposed.’ In each case the exposure is an acute forfeiture of freedom, reclaimed by the sharp reprisals of their portraiture, as if in a game of survival where sanity is reason biting on its own defence. Lambchops holds down a job and, via his dad, is aptly punished for achieving that normality:

                                 These are penalties, boy

that you inherit — and that’s only just
the start of it. Now, the old man’s worth
a room all to himself, all the year

round. A bargain. And nine fingers left
to go. Or (as the English say) seven
fingers and two-sheet-metal-worker’s

thumbs. This is your change, dad, get it
right, get it right. Seven fingers and a hearing
aid — a lucky escape.

These mutilated genetics of the chainlinked enclosure, and the aphasic liberty to toil within its playful racket, prompt of course the advance to leisure, a new seriousness of doing nothing but stimulate the juices by effort of mimic squints at the half-time scoreboard: ‘But she’s a true double- / graduate and approaches the unknown / with skill and confidence.’
      All of this caustic play, like repartee in a beggar’s opera, is indeed the dry mock of a quite immodest enslavement, where choice is of what to imitate; how not to reserve any position tainted with mere resentment whilst shewing careful affection for the bribes of reason: ‘his needs, / his lovely T.V. shows, built on my level’ or ‘class-divisions like we’ve come to love / them’. The balance requires love and lovely to mean exactly what they say, with the saw-tooth of bitter levity just visible in his and my. Altogether terrific virtuosity is the cost demanded, nothing of straight farce or disgust, or even of blended litotes, because if the reader once skips ahead or aside faster than what he reads then the text is left stranded, with an attitude. And reading in this lower sump of the Northern Line is a remedial stunt, naturally, an interest ‘sharpened’ by middle age or a prostate operation: the choice of text or its very patois itself is how a culture defines its higher personality, safe beyond the reach of latecomers with talent. So, each piece of composition, exposed but guarded, attends closely to its popular range of local colour, the idiom assimilated exactly to that for which it functions as excuse: ‘here is / a nation primed for its purge.’ The excuses are smoothed onto the body like shampoo or vitamin E: almost a second skin, so close is the observed fit (win or lose, both glove-tight); and yet of course the head is a creole mistake, its thoughtful assents and evasions get the tone so exactly that they cross a line within the reader’s mind.
      The sense of humour is ‘a native lesson’ and is the name of that line; and the reader is always on the winning side, the inside, and these territories are scrupulously observed. Across the triangles of damaged behaviour out in the text this is often not so, and the agents of crypto-narrative are sometimes warned outright: ‘Be careful not to sound / like three people with a problem’. But their damage is what we notice and what he shews us, the seduction and bribery of fervent desire meshed with sheepish sorrow. The reader bites into sardonic half-heartedness and is nourished according to custom. But all the time there are skew insertions:

We’re not a thinking people
admit it. Or a feeling

people: we take things
as they come.

The coy solidarity of these pronouns was visible earlier in his and my; here they are eased into their natural places by the tonal appeal to commonplace which turns electric only when the terms of membership are up for inspection. But the reader’s daring, in his agreement to put a hostage across the line and keep a watchful path of retreat, slides into a threat to national grammar when the irony of not joining makes such a neat match with the semi-skilled nonchalance of the excluded. ‘Winning always turned into something else’ and thus a man ‘cushioned between pride and shame’ shews how close to a common way of life is reposing upon that cushion, swamped with mother’s milk.
      Whose way of life? Lambchops is ‘turned on / by women who ask rhetorical questions’ and he is himself careful to direct his own only at the reader — which requires training and a certain demotic fitness. But then, we are not our language: ‘the trail of black thoughts / singe and tear a path for him’ and it is not our path; it runs through his effort not to draw the writer across the line into the reverse image of the reader’s unwitting laziness. Too many cooks spoil the broth we say, should that verb be plural or singular, that depends on whether a cook is more or less than the too many by which ‘we’ determine how many. And if the broth is our register of nourishment then it cannot merely belong to the cooks, who are not people but ancillary to the needs of those whose membership they shadow.

‘What do you say after you say Hello?’

the book asks, on the front page; but
there are no pictures, and the new

student will have to read through
200 pages to find out.

Such line breaks like tea-breaks, vivid with conscience, imitate the rhythm of easy motion at home in its habitual forms, defusing the indignity of indignation by these graduated steps to parnassus. They shew a text winningly disguised as the history of natural losers, which transfered from writer to reader means ‘sounding just like what we like about ourselves’. Our sense of justice, that is, and pragmatic good humour, as if ‘a family man again recalled to duty.’ Because of course ‘we’, complicit across the transfer, share that to which the new student fearfully aspires: knowing control over a way of life. ‘Get wisdom, get understanding’ runs an earlier rule for membership and survival, ‘For the upright shall dwell in the land, and the perfect shall remain in it. But the wicked shall be cut off from the earth, and the transgressors shall be rooted out of it.’
      It is the arts of rooting and grafting, their acquired possibility, which have ‘turned tenants into Landlords in a decade’. The dividing line is electric and by these texts the reader is stretched across it; without cruelty but so as to share the secure, impossible tenure of a writer whose speech is either not ours or not his but whose ironies are trapped within our own unspeakable natures.


[go to interview, link 11,
‘Reader’s Lockjaw’]

Samples Contents list

Pierre Reverdy


The snow falls
And the sky’s grey
Over my head where the roof was set
The night
Where the shadow following me will go
Whose is it
A star or a swallow
At the corner of the window
The moon
And a brown-haired woman
It’s there
Somebody passes and doesn’t see me
I watch the iron gate turn
And the fire almost out which glows
For me alone
But there where I’m going it is deathly cold

(translated by Peter Robinson)

[go to interview, link 12,
‘Pierre Reverdy’]

Samples Contents list

Denise Riley

A Nueva York

‘In order to create life, it is merely necessary to advance in a straight line towards all that we love’

I would do it for you but not here
it is a matter of seasonal change, it
is slow & unconcerned with the particulars
of now and individual wilfulness
it regards autumn as one natural
grace to arrive, the humanity of it
deflected and no cries to be heard
even the private affections turned to
larger change. And with the change
the statement of the need to merely
head directly; the arrow does for a
harder sign. Indicate the clear lake
it is precise and we anticipate it
truly and already know by heart this
clearness, and engage. In this hour’s
ripening it is chill, it unnerves
me, it is suggestibility : but
verging on a fall, it is also to be
lived through, it exhausts. No era
changes palaces, old burr of swallows
lavender that prime spring I broke
through the abyss. Master I spoke
directly an arrow through me, ice?
questions come in fits a small pony
a name dragged across the sun eel-like
to me poor thing you think to be at the
centre skin of the royal worm, egg,
door of the world, they’d trail to all
parts for peace, just that, pushed up
close into one another to swap grand
secrets. Companions, doves of one wish,
mine, go straight ahead to where I’ll
find you, the man of dry vision hails his
ornaments yellow basilica red brook red
carp. Fear is marvellous and simultaneity,
this morning Paris this morning Saigon
the tombs swollen the mouth’s rock.
Between us we came down to the clear world
and went out together to observe the stars.

Collected in Dry Air, Virago Press, London 1985.

[go to interview, link 14a,
‘Denise Riley’]

Samples Contents list

Peter Riley

Digest of the Poetical Works of Dora Oliver

Passing through hurt memory like a cathedral
to become the sole guardian of a river vale; freshen
up stream, scrub trees etc: keep them off.
I fix on the spot. At once the sky is closer
than the cloud or caul night; the right of way
is simply where it’s safer even easier to go.

Called Honesty because the seeds are visible
not the roots and this is a song too, driven
through the dead a leaf for a nameplate: of
course we age each other, for between mother
and employer I drive us the strict gateway
marked Work Make Free and you know

as well as I it’s true unqualified all
the time, kingfisher’s motto and pain
under the wing, the undertaker’s oath.
So minutely true we are caught in it, here
in a valley head arrest. If you’d rather stay
on the open town or be buried in snow

then say so. For it’s only me, reaching a whole
army of foreign ghosts in a flash of gain -
it’s a single penny on the shore we both
stop to. The day contracts for a severe
winter so don’t knock down the walls, pay
your toll and get there late in filial glow.

Collected in Five New Poems (Durham: Pig Press, 1978).

[go to interview, link 13,
‘Digest of the Poetical Works of Dora Oliver’]

Samples Contents list

Geoffrey Ward

It’s My Town (But I Had to Leave It)

its parting shots a slewed corroboration scene
of worlds we lost when hoarfrost hit
the blackberries : electric light, that certain
something sailors take wastes ceiling time,
while snow from the berries climbs
in studious condensation up the handlebars.
Lines are left open in heart’s ease wavy
underwater villages, lovingly tuned to
banned erasures in the dream. Don’t
leave your bike in the fridge is the lesson
licks cloud graphs of a nonchalant four days :
contrafissures of anxiousness wrinkle out home thoughts
of déjà-vu, flakes of stale food, sleepy heart
lights flicker lakes of red to green excerebration,
foolishly restyled ‘ice’ houses of correction.
Death’s oyster leakage, choose to fail to blow to
soothe or smoked out

Collected in Comeuppance (Liverpool: Delires, 1980).

[go to interview, link 14,
‘It’s My Town (But I Had to Leave It)’]

Samples Contents list

Elaine Feinstein

Two Lyrics From ‘An England Sequence’


Forgotten, shabby and long time abandoned
      in stubbled fur, with broken
teeth like toggles, the old gods are leaving.
      They will no longer crack the
tarmac of the language, open generous
      rivers, heal our scoured thoughts.
They will only blink and move on, and
      tomorrow no-one will remember their songs,

unless they rise in warning, as when
      sudden planes speed overhead
crossing the sky with harsh accelerating
      screams. You may shiver then
to hear the music of the gods leaving.
      No more noble spirits here or
reckless hearts. This generation
      is waiting for the boy Octavius.
They don’t like losers.
      And the gods are leaving us.


Tonight our bodies lie unused like clothes flung
      over a bed. I can taste brown rain.
Flat land, wet land, I can feel your winter
      seeping into my blood like an old sickness.
This is your season of waiting and warm convalescence.
      Why am I feverish then? What are
these monsters in my head, yellow
      and surly as camels, old women
whose faces I recognize? They frighten me

more than the loneliness of being awake in the dark.
      And so I put on skinny leather wings and my
home-made cage of basket-wear and start
      my crazy flapping run. In this light
I must look like an old enthusiast in
      daguerrotype. These marshlands
      clog the feet. I know:
I may not rise, but all night long I run.

Collected as ‘England’, Badlands (London: Hutchinson, 1986) and ‘Aviation’, City Music (London: Hutchinson, 1990) and in Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1994).

[go to interview, link 15,
‘Two Lyrics From “An England Sequence”’]

Samples Contents list

John Barrell

A Lyrical Ballad

This phrase entered my head, as phrases will:
‘a cave whose mouth was carpeted with grass’ —
imagine my tongue on the rough dry wool,
my tongue searching for bits of chewed blade.

I lay in the grass, I pondered what it meant,
my chin barking against the cup of my palm
and eyes like a cow’s grazing, unblinking while
the fronds of torn skin fell over my wrist.

The way a poem grows is not as grass grows,
I thought, nor pushes it upward like the palm
against my downward chin; nor under my feet
as grass grows does it grow; nor like the palm.


[go to interview, link 15a]

Samples Contents list

Marcus Perryman

from Outposts

On the floor: black and white squares or parallel diagonals running across the floor. The walls are an interruption. No, they’re something else.

Looking down onto something or into something, like a city; the horizon is insignificant. Your left eye is in the west, right in the east. Any small movement will throw your glance across a continent, or over the edge of the bed, outwards.

From this floor you sift the view in your hands, when you can. There are other considerations. The houses opposite, and their rooftops, the few trees that grow out of the pavements; duck behind the shutters. If you’ve made your bed, lie in it.

The condensation on the window as she moved, made her face look older, or sad, or happy.

Closing in, some figures look delineated. A woman, whose back is turned, may be coming out of the station. But then the movement is away, over the tops of the buildings, as though you’d been misled, or made a mistake.

Go out, and you don’t remember the address. Come back, to not even a focal point.

You try to weigh things that do not have that sort of weight.

A long shot: the eyes are almost semi-circles. He turns his head, to fix a parameter out of his range of vision. Something on the left, a poster on the right. And so, you’d say, his inadequate sense of objects: that he needed them.

The light in the lift isn’t working: as you go past each floor, a flash from the buttons photographs the faces you are making in the mirror. Disappointment, making do, anger.

She took two steps forward to announce a simple faith. Then, down the Underground, a wall of advertisements dissolved. The lights dispersed and filtered out, before they coagulated.

She imagines how the carriage turns, by following the movements of the carriage in front.

The sun doesn’t rise and the stars don’t come out, in this controlled environment. If the sky is dark the whole town is a mass of stained blocks, as if the paint were running.

Make arrangements: a table, a cup. Close up, or stare into space.


[go to interview, link 16,
from Outposts’]

Samples Contents list

Peter Robinson

Looking Up

Then where the daylight settles
adhesively, its brightness
mingles with the breakfast things
which are egg and coffee cups,
pared apples, a wedge of bread.
The shopping, correspondence, bills
reassemble in possible series
and a weighted apple bough.
This place no longer
those inventories of objects
which used to depress me, you said.

And the small room for despair,
her eyes fixed on a patch of wall
just to the left of me, anywhere.
For among so much uncertainty
there are no questions. Cloud tails
flake above early white sheets
and they come to resemble one another.
It’s the plain familiarity
of each of them looks puzzling.
A polythene black question mark
bucks on lines beyond the roofs.
There were no answers, but no problem.
Variously the cirrus have refused them.

Collected in This Other Life (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1988).

[go to interview, link 17,
‘Looking Up’]

Samples Contents list

Gael Turnbull

The Borders Revisited

Those grasping men
best known for taking
their neighbours’ cows by moonlight
and for their endings
in defiant ignominy
kicking the air
at the snug end of a rope
knew what they wanted
if not how best to get it
and taught their sons
more care in calculation,
less trust in luck.

Today they sell clothes, groceries,
tend farms, keep schools —
still indifferent to opinion
but not over much.
Not over? No.
From the Kelso Road to Nisbet,
posted: seven-eighths of a mile —
as they watch their distance,
keeping their distance —
not so much wary
of what’s there beyond
but more aware, still foraging
across the enclosing hills, the seas,
for at least their share of the continents
or far off England.
Nearly all did well.

They do do well.
Not as their fathers did.
And just as well?
Or not? Well, well enough.
Enough to live to keep what they have got.

A revised version was collected in A Gathering of Poems, 1950–1980 (Anvil Press, 1983)

[go to interview, link 5a]

Samples Contents list

John Welch

Grieving Signal


Sky chill, the water my grimy child
And a great lack of ideas
I observed our way of keeping quiet

Where all the signs were true. Our grieving signal
Stuck in a thicket. Someone
Destroyed my story of too many colours

Pressing the switch marked Ecstacy.
The coloured snakes are my friends.
They touch the earth and sleep and listen.

Blue eggs are bits of the sky. The afternoon is too near.


Cars wake up for you. I cannot sleep,
Grow loose, the prickle of the flesh.
They’re spreading underneath the nail -

Miserable signs. Each village
Is manicured to a turn and resting
Each in its sep’rate vale,

The trees alive with sighs. In dream
We went past the curtain of refusal.
One by one we returned, pale and unsatisfied.


I’ll tell you a story. Moth flutters
Above the brightened pavement. Listen.
His huge fat body falls.

The traffic blew likewise along our roads.
Fat roses, bits of grit,
An institutional quiet, in which

Our lives are played. The switch of need.
Your breasts sank like two pillows.
Under a grey sky I spun the knife slowly.

Three o’clock news: the beasts are absent
Quartered away from their fields.
Amid a litter of biscuits we are afraid

Each striving for some significance.


And in the scheme of duty we return
To noon’s refusal, vowels; units of silence.
Once picked, the fennel quickly wilts.

I suck the stalk juice.
Animals’ bodies, printed out on roads
(In hundreds round here) hum with peace.


Noon’s business - herbal units.
A bridge ties the knot, beneath goes
Infernal sluggish glare.

A fractured state, then trees
Hurrying over the plain.
Across the field in waves light travels,

A twinge of blue in the sky.
Chastened by dust, a story
Such as sustained the wrapper, a gauntlet -

You plus me plus her in her
Cot and pen. Each midnight
My anger weds itself to a feast.

‘Snake Collar’ collected as ‘Grieving Signal’ in Out Walking (Anvil Press, 1984)

[go to interview, link 8a]

Samples Contents list

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