Monday, 29 April 2013

Postcards from Berlin 3

Sitting around in the Tiergarten, there were huge numbers of small birds, some residents, others presumably moving through on migration. Nuthatches were plentiful, singing from bare branches, squabbling with Great Tits over nest holes, and in this instance, foraging on the ground to within a few feet of my bench.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Postcards from Berlin 2

I love corvids, so it was good to see so many Hooded Crows - even in Scotland I've not seen that many in the past, having generally done most of my birding south and east of the Great Glen, which is the dividing line between Hooded and Carrion Crow (you also get hybrids there).

Friday, 26 April 2013

Two poems at And Other Poems...

I've got two poems up at Josephine Corcoran's wonderful And Other Poems blog today - she features a huge array of poets, including the likes of Alison Brackenbury, Bill Herbert, Carrie Etter, David Morley, Ian Duhig and Penelope Shuttle, with new content appearing on a very regular basis.

Both poems - The Mind's Skyline and The Dark Ages - will appear in my forthcoming Nine Arches collection, The Elephant Tests, of which more news in the next few weeks.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Postcards from Berlin

I spent a few days in Berlin last week, and arrived there just about the same time as spring did. The sun shone, the avenues and squares were crowded, and all in all it was a good time to sit at a pavement cafe with a beer, or to toddle from museum to museum.

Of course, I can't go anywhere without doing at least some birdwatching, and I'd heard all sorts of good things about Berlin, not the least being how easy it was to see Goshawks. Relatively easy, I mean - in this country, their locations are often closely guarded secrets, but in the German capital, there's thought to be up to 90 pairs, often nesting very close to buildings.

So, on the morning of my first full day, I started by looking in the Tiergarten. I'd had a quick look there the evening before, and the first thing that struck me was how wild it was for a city centre park. Instead, it feels like a chunk of forest dropped into the middle of the city, so the thought that it might harbour Goshawks, Buzzards and Wild Boar suddenly didn't seem so strange.

So, at 8.30am, I'd just crossed the road from the Brandenberg Gate, and was maybe 50 yards into the Tiergarten (in the photo above, just to the right of the trees on the right). A rusty-brown bird was rifling through the leaf litter a few yards to the right of the path, and even without binoculars it was obvious that it was a Nightingale.

This in itself is unusual - I don't think I've ever seen a Nightingale before without my attention first being drawn to it by its song. As I stood and watched, it fluttered to a low branch on a bush, and started singing, although in a more subdued, quieter fashion than you'd normally expect. 

When I eventually walked on a little way, I heard two more singing the same way, presumably in answer, and by the end of the morning I'd heard half a dozen or so throughout the park. I did catch up with a couple of Goshawks, too, but to be honest, the Nightingales would have been enough by themselves.

So much so that the next day, I couldn't resist having another look. This time, three near the Brandenberg Gate were in full voice, their songs audible from the far side of the road even over the traffic noise. It reminded me of this John Clare poem - I suspect the subdued singing was down to the birds having just arrived after their long migration.

I'll be posting more about the non-birding aspects of the trip soon, as well as a few more bird pics, but for now I'll just mention the one very slight disappointment about the Berlin Nightingales, discovering that their name in German is Nachtigall, nothing like as interesting as the Spanish name for the species, Ruisenor, literally, 'the noisy man'.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Poets as dragonflies

The weekly post at HappenStance's Unsuitable Blog is always worth reading, but here's a particularly good Odonata-themed one. Personally speaking, I'm just emerging after a few months of writing inactivity - probably still at the drying my wings in the sun stage.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Nine Arches Poetry Rodeo

I'm reading at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival on Saturday, as part of the Nine Arches Poetry Rodeo. It takes place from 2pm at Copa (admission is £5/£4), and involves two Gloucestershire-based Nine Arches poets, Daniel Sluman and Angela France, taking turns in an exchange of poems with myself and fellow Leicestershire poet Maria Taylor.

You can also hear Maria a little earlier at this, and I highly recommend that you do - her own book Melanchrini is superb, and her husband Jonathan will be reading from his new collection Musicolepsy.

There's lots, lots more too - the full programme for Saturday (and the rest of the festival) is here.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Holy Place, by John Dotson and Caroline Gill

Poet To Poet 5, The Seventh Quarry & Cross-Cultural Communications, 2012, £3.50 / $10
This is the fifth in a series of chapbooks published by Swansea-based The Seventh Quarry in partnership with their transatlantic counterparts – the idea is that each one pairs up a US writer with a British poet.

The first thing to say is that, although there’s a pleasing consistency of theme across the two halves, John Dotson and Caroline Gill approach their concerns in quite different ways, both in terms of their (surface) subject matter and style. At first glance, you might even be tempted to say that the pair fulfil certain cultural expectations in that respect – Dotson’s poems are more open-field, and use white space and varying line-lengths to good effect, while Gill’s are more traditional in form.

That works well to provide variety in what’s a large (52 pages) and thus thoroughly good value pamphlet, and it ensures that the afore-mentioned themes aren’t signposted or foregrounded too obviously – you’re left to discover what Dotson calls “unsuspected symmetries” for yourself, and the book’s all the more enjoyable for that.

Dotson’s strength is the ability to place the everyday, the scientific and the philosophical in close proximity, without being impenetrable or sounding pretentious, and he does this to best effect in poems such as the opener, Aurora Consurgens, and the splendid Trapezium, which attempts to “explain / my vocation as / trapeze artist” and ends with “the little boy body / of an old man / still at this / peculiar performing arts / business / more and less”.

Gill’s work is more obviously grounded in the flesh and blood of the natural world, although perhaps grounded is the wrong word to use, given how many birds and insects flit and soar their way through her work.

 The best poems here are when she combines this close observation of nature with a keen sensitivity to the history and landscape of Wales (and sometimes further afield). Preseli Blue, for example, eulogises “the stone that sings of hiraeth” in 16 well-honed lines, while Rhossili: Writing The Worm, is the highlight, metrically-surefooted and musical, and managing the always difficult balancing act of writing about writing. And she has a knack for suddenly shrinking the universal down to the utterly specific – Master Of Arts ends when “the only universe / was this great green / bush cricket”, leaving you with the feeling that the divine, rather than the devil, is in the details.

If there’s a weakness, it’s when one or other of the poets reaches too obviously for a moment of significance, but such slips are few and far between. More often they offer contrasting routes to the same destination, and it’s a journey that’s well worth making.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

New reviews at Sphinx

A new batch of reviews have been posted at Sphinx, with more to follow over the coming days. Here's my look at Brad Johnson's The Dichotomy Paradox, which I can heartily recommend, and as always with Sphinx, there are alternative reviews from Helen Evans and Matthew Stewart too.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Winter waders

In the absence of spring migrants locally, I'm birding vicariously on the internet this week. My Bird Watching colleague Mike Weedon was out on the Nene Washes on Tuesday night, and posted some interesting photos.

In the first, he snapped a Spotted Redshank in flight - the distinctive but very subtly drooped tip to the bill is visible.

In this pic, you can have fun trying to pick out the lone Lapwing among a flock of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits - it is there, honestly.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Ira Lightman: Two chapbooks

Phone In The Roll (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2011)
Mustard Tart As Lemon (Red Squirrel, 2011)

The first of these chapbooks takes at its starting point “experiments with voice to text apps on a smartphone”. It’s a neat idea, and one that I’m surprised I haven’t come across before, but I suppose the real test of such an intriguing writing process is the end result.

The first thing to say, then, is that in reading it, the process never felt intrusive. You might expect the texts to be frustratingly haphazard, but in fact this is as thematically coherent a pamphlet as you’re likely to come across. The theme, as often as not, is the difficulty of communication, in public, in private, and in relationships, and what’s lost or distorted between thought and expression. In short, the process here suits the subject matter entirely, and instantly ceases to be an end in itself.

It’s hard to quote from, because the effect is gradual and cumulative, with the experience of reading it at times being like listening in on a conversation several seats down a noisy train carriage. Here’s the start of The Dream, for example:

I will never have what? I want it. I want
children with the woman I go live with! Fuck, for sure.
Have the new love and have to wait. You love. Search.

Children I have already take from me number of hours everyday
a number of times in three weeks. There is no room
for both children to have a time they, anyway, have had.

As the reader, you have to do a certain amount of work to fill in gaps, but there are phrases that stay with you, and importantly you keep making connections between seemingly disparate snatches of text the deeper you get into the book.

Of course, the original input into the process is Lightman’s, but the point, I suspect, is that you’re always left wondering just how large a gap there is between intention and end product. Intriguing and invigorating, and well worth revisiting.

Mustard Tart As Lemon comes across, initially at least, as a more straightforward proposition, with narratives and especially threads of arguments easier to grasp. That’s not to say they aren’t sometimes ‘difficult’, though, in the best sense of the word, precisely because Lightman is unafraid to talk about and around ideas and emotions, both directly and more obliquely. Take this passage:

I’m learning from you
not to trust too soon,
to have the courage
to feel hurt.
When I’m interrupted
or neglected, me
I’ll ride along
with the other
story, forget
mine exists.
You resist
kidnap of attention,
turn to who you
become. Some
conversations they have
are bullshit, but
I wouldn’t
dare to let them know
I think so, as you show
you do, the
up on your earpiece,
simply looking down.

The cumulative effect of Lightman’s poetry is just as apparent here as in the other pamphlet – it’s not a criticism to say that many of the poems bleed into each other.

Lightman utilises the page to its fullest extent – indents and line-breaks are superbly used to pace the poems and achieve that effect of recording thought-processes as they happen, while long lines and, towards the end, concrete-type poems also make an appearance.

Most effective of all, perhaps, are the dual-column passages – the ambiguity created by being able to read down and/or across works well for a poet whose subject is often, as suggested above, the difficulties of communication, especially on a personal level.
Perhaps that subject isn't a particularly unusual one to come across, especially away from the mainstream of British poetry, but what makes Lightman consistently enjoyable and rewarding to read is that he's never deterred by the possibility of failure - for all the intrusion of technology and language into our relationships, he never loses sight of the human.