Thursday, 17 November 2011

Leader of the Pack: review of 'The Wolf' magazine

‘The Wolf’ is a literary magazine for new poetry edited by James Byrne out of London. Its tastes are truly international and the latest edition includes poetry translated from Italian, Arabic and Chinese. There is also poetry from the talented English-based (in all senses) Caribbean writer, Jonathan Morley.
In addition, there are well-written and scholarly reviews on , amongst others, Ashbery’s brilliant new version of Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’, Daljit Negra’s new collection and reading Ezra Pound (without avoiding his Fascism or trying to sever it from the mainstream of his work). A nice retro touch which reminds me of the little magazines of a quarter of a century ago, there are also some photos of an art installation using language as a raw material.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother to review a magazine, but I think the poetry in it, and the poetics this reflects, deserves to be more widely appreciated. Byrne seems to welcome poetry which draws on ideas and disrupts language through surreal shifts, concentrated rhetoric and metaphorical density. He likes the New York school (publishing the genuinely funny Ron Padgett and the somewhat pretentious, Robert Kelly) as well as a talented acolyte of Alan Ginsberg, Nina Zivancevic.
Her poem, ‘Under the Sign of Kybele’, begins:
I was: then a junky woman who
buried so many husbands
some of them poisoned by too
much light too much happiness too
much powder too little hope

It flies along inchoately, springing memorable phrases: ’some/of his wrinkles got onto your body they/made a lace pattern out of my memory’
These seem to suggest that this is an elegy of mixed emotions for past relationships: ‘I told you stay stay always that way in me’
Mad it may be, but it’s great to read something so unconstrained by writing group norms.
I’m also very attracted to the work of Carol Watts. Her poem, ‘Bay’, consists of a series of fragmentary cut up lines which force the reader to mull over word sounds and aural connections whilst being hit by visceral splinters of meaning.
The lineation has the effect of tearing at meanings, both in the sense of grasping for them and striking them down:
block the borrow pits
in silted mouth

care nothing spoken
without.

Language is clearly a concern, but the lines also represent the ebb and flow of emotion in sympathetic association (or perhaps more than that, something empathetic, unifying) with the bay of the title. The worse lines are ‘I stood on the jetty/ and loved you’, partly because this banal confession detracts from poem’s intensity, which tries to rope together the inner and the outer worlds through violent distortions in language (aka metaphysical poetry) :
Preternatural holding or/ half turned gesture// already letting go/to inroads//inundation.
However, the best lines in this edition of ‘The Wolf’, for me, are translations of the Chinese poet, Bei Dao
If death is love’s reason
then we love infidelity
love the defeated
whose eyes keep checking the time. (‘Concerning Eternity’)

I read the first two lines like this: death is love’s reason because it makes us understand the urgency of love, but because we fear death, we love infidelity (perhaps that’s why we can always be unfaithful even to those whom we love?) and love those who are defeated by time. Is this final love a universal or individual matter? Are we really talking about a development in the self from passion to compassion, from one to all? There are a lot of possibilities and this is what I find so absorbing. But the verse is much more than a conundrum hiding many possibilities. It is based on traditional means of expression (I wonder how this works in Chinese which was supposedly the source of the resolutely concrete particularity of the imagist style that allowed modernist poets to break with traditional poetic forms and tropes?). It begins with statement as metaphorical proposition and proceeds to examine it in unpredictable ways, ending in something concrete but also general. And who are the defeated? There is nothing in the rest of the poem to say which group of people this might be (if it is not a proxy for all of us). Uncertainty and instability of subject/ object is all the rage in ‘The Wolf’; it helps infuse the poems with an in-being life of their own.
This is poetry with a head as well as a heart and a life.
Overall, the values of ‘The Wolf’ seem to be internationalist ; it also welcomes the diversification and particularity of English, and it is openly – unfashionably – intellectual. Please support it!