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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Clive Bush reviews

Myne. New and Selected Poems and Prose, 1976–2005
by Frances Presley

Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2006

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Leading off the path

Myne both selects and collects some thirty years of poetry (and some prose) by Frances Presley. The result is to establish her as one of the few really important and significant poets now writing in England. The collection is organised in reverse chronological order with current work at the beginning, Stone Settings (2004–2005), and the earliest collection, The Sex of Art which assembles poems from 1976 to 1984, at the end. This is an intelligent arrangement leading the reader from the immediate creative moment back to the diverse roots of the artist as a young woman.

The first thing to be said is that within the quietly energetic and subtle discourse the poems offer is that there exists an enormous range of theme and poetic experimentation. The ambition is Poundian in its scope though not in its relentless sketching of personal canon. It comes as no surprise to discover the early influence of Pound and in the best possible ways: detailed attention to form and diction, a sense of many possible poetic models, a fearless experimentation with line and rhythm, close attention to the music of the line, and an open, most un-British love of twentieth-century European developments in art, from Mallarmé to the Surrealists (in the early career it produced a thesis on Yves Bonnefoy). French and German phrases appear from time to time, affirming a sense of European interconnectedness of poetic task and culture. There are traces, too, of the twentieth-century American poetic experimental poets: a touch or two of their sense of the importance of locality and place, from geology to local history, first exploited by William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson (though a more immediate model, similarly influenced, might have been Allen Fisher), and the formal aesthetics of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school. But there is never a sense of the poetry being theory-driven nor a-priori justified by a fashionable gesture. Frances Presley works within and out from language itself, noting and transforming possible models. These may include treated texts, found poems, visual placings (very important these) of blocks or lines of text on the page, from widely spaced columns of single words to double columns of dense prosody hovering between formal poetic phrasing and quasi-narrative gesture. There are also snatches of conversations heard, moments of ordinary speech placed to discover the complex context of their only apparent simplicity; a context that may indicate political, social and gendered assumptions and unconscious orders. The tone may vary from humorous dry irony to real anger.

Deprecating display there is nonetheless a huge range of cultural reference in the work from Sir Thomas Browne to Marcus Garvey, from Bob Marley to Caravaggio, from the eighteenth-century French (military) architect the Marquis de Vauban to Sibylline Law, or from Colette to Sir Georg Solti. The moments create reference points of studied casualness, and may interrupt as well as generate a poetic argument. To be fully aware of the local is to be aware of its complex relation to a wider world. You see as you are said Blake, and the nature of the personal voice in Presley is richly informed and complex. If you can write poems about Breugel in Paterson, New Jersey you can think about Euclid in Minehead, Somerset.

And yet there is something supremely English and local about Frances Presley’s voice and poetic world. It is a political voice. It suggests the homely toughness of an English woman with her eyes wide open. Perhaps one can only define it obliquely. It suggests for me the Women’s Institute members who called the bluff of Tony Blair’s arrogant patronising silver-tongued hypocrisy when he addressed them in the last election, or the basic guts and decency of a Susan Woolfit navigating the coal-barges on the canals in the Second World War, beautifully told in her book, Idle Women; or, further back the political intransigence of a Mary Wollstonecraft challenging every cliché of the feminine mystique. A persona emerges whose panoramic sensibilities can complain of twentieth-century church hymns and read Jack London’s Martin Eden. You might find such a woman with hiking boots, an Ordnance Survey map, and a packed lunch on a rain-swept Devonian Tor, or looking after the rights of exploited women of varied ethnic backgrounds in a London slum. The feminist vision is insisted upon as purely a matter of operating fact, and throughout. Women, known and unknown, historical and contemporary, here find precedence and place. A strain of very English dissent also threads the thematics of the poetry. It is cool, witty, very intelligent, very un-rhetorical, not especially theoretical, and very stubborn.

In a tradition in which one would want to include a Spenser, a Blake or a Shelley, and within a modernist, even post-modernist thrust of poetic forms is then a direct political and social strain. This marks her off equally from the tendency to technical aesthetics and theory-driven academicism of some contemporary Americans, and some of the anti-intellectual British Radio-4 lumpen rhymesters and light lyricists.

It is the voice that emerges after intense looking that is so singular. The movement from inner to outer landscapes dialogues continuously in a shifting voice of different linguistic modalities. This is true whether she is looking at a landscape, an architectural site from ancient Church to stone circle, or even indeed a painting. Walking in the landscape is as foundational for her as it is for Thomas A. Clark whose poem In Praise of Walking is the classic site of a sensibility that engages with the world in a discourse of varied temporalities: historical, geological and ecological and all from a sense of the self in quiet motion. Her poem “April” (Myne) is a case in point. The precision of the path to be followed (Greenaleigh to Porlock Bay) and the immediate though generic moment (Friday. Good) becomes a locus of occasions:

these black shards
scattered on the field
where sheep and walkers go

piecing together
piece work

Ch Republic

Czech Republic

The opening lines have the lyrical terseness of something by Bunting and the varied thematics are skilfully held together paradoxically by the conceit of fracture, the incompleteness of the images and visual letters of brokenness. The variable foot of the rhythm denotes an uneasy movement forward. The “piece work” refers as much to the poet’s work as it does to the conditions of labour and the poet aligns herself with both. Orally “Czech (check--note and limit) Republic” suggests that the landscape experience is inscribed within a broad human politics that includes not only the res publica of the public discourse of power but the nature of the relations of things in general, sheep and walkers (from the pastorally symbolic to the economic).

Hence there is great complexity of rhythm, diction and theme in these apparently easily accessible lines, and the rest of the poem continues this complexity of occasions with equal force. Here the “sibilant” (voiceless alveolar sibilant) alliteration of “s” sounds almost cheekily aligns matter of very differing theme. While each line has two strong beats, they (except once) are entirely varied with different combinations of weak stresses.

remembering semtex
the shifting sense
the shifting S

Site of Special Scientific Interest
see today
sea pitched
sea level

The fractured narrative within the poem concerns the invasion of salt marsh into pasture, and we are led to question the relation of human to natural force. The final stanza is a reprise of the moment of walking but with a male companion and now the sheep are lambs:

sea birds
come skeeting home

walking back past lambs
he was talking ahead of me
about the Sibylline
lore and the ambiguity of
Sibylline law.

Between lore and law of course lies all the wayward contrariness of the poem’s theme. “Talking ahead” is clearly ambiguous, and given that Sibylline lore is refers to the Cumean Sibyl’s negotiation with Tarquin the mythical last King of Rome about the prophetic books, it is about the relations of wisdom and power tensed between a man and a woman. Sibylline law on the other hand recalls (for this writer at least) Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous essay of 1897 The Path of the Law in which he referred to the Sibylline oracles in a more general sense as an example of how the law should work, of how past decisions or precedents had to be recalled and re-imagined for present practice. It is also virtually a statement of Presley’s poetics as practiced here. One might only add the wry, virtually hidden oral pun on the phonetic law of sibilant and Sibylline lore/law.

This is a supreme moment of Presley’s art. There are many others in this book. The degree of apparent complexity and tone varies. The earlier poems tend to be more conversational, recollections of moments with family, with women friends and male lovers, adventures in France, Germany and Switzerland, but with always a complex thickening of meaning given to the smallest event.. The tone shifts from the wistful to the dryly ironic, from a dramatisation of a small moment of encounter from the street to the bedroom, to a fully-fledged ecstasis of a chosen painting. The later poems seem to be haunted with wider spaces. The landscape of Exmoor in its complex geographical and historical past is reimagined in the poet’s world of contemporary vision. Shearsman Books are to be congratulated for making this collection of a major contemporary English poet both readily available at a modest price and so attractive.