Author: North of Oxford

A journal of book reviews, commentary, essays and poetry.

up in the night by Edward L. Canavan

night
.
up in the night
.
use and advantage
.
eyes trained
on the inside track
.
a hunter of wandering reflections
as the leaves of life turn
.
it is best
to set the heart for the sun
.
so the darkness will subside
every now and again.
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ed
Edward L. Canavan is an American poet whose work has been published in The Opiate, Harbinger Asylum, Cholla Needles, as well as the January 2018 issue of North of Oxford. His first poetry collection entitled “Wreck Collection” was recently released by Cyberwit Press.    Edward currently resides in North Hollywood, California.
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Settlers by Eileen Tabios

owl
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Settlers
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Perhaps we understood
we were practicing
Paternalism
but thought it benign:
what was wrong
with building housing
for the owls?
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O the length of the pole
to raise that house
as high as many oaks
surrounding our home.
.
O the shine on
that roof of silver
corrugated steel.
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O the wooden pieces
layered like siding
against outside walls
for a rustic décor
we understood the owls
would ignore but still—
            we thought—
enhanced the landscape.
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But no owls knocked
on its doorless door.
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For years we would
interrupt our waiting
to loosen earth around
the pole for moving
the arched entrance
towards more of
sunset, then more
of dawn, in search
of the right angle
to entice the owls.
.
For years we’d search
the ground beneath
the “owl condo” for
crushed bones spat out
after their meals
of less romantic wildlife:
rats, mice, voles…
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For years Laura, who
was born and raised
in the area, watched us
silently (though we did
not notice her pursed lips)
.
until this morning
when I shared that
my husband and I
recently realized
we’d lived for two decades
in our house—“longer
than any other place.”
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Laura replied, “Want
to know why no owls
live in the place you built?”
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I made my eyes as wide
as those I’d seen on
internet pictures of owls.
.
“Those owl houses are for
barn owls. Your land
is inhabited by great horned
owls who eat barn owls.”
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My eyes widened further
.
as if I already knew that
the eyes of great horned owls
rank among the largest of
all terrestrial vertebrates.
.
As if I already knew that their
eyes are adapted for nocturnal
hunting to provide a wide,
almost completely binocular field
of view, a large corneal surface
and a predominantly rod retina.
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As if I already knew that instead of
turning its eyes, the owl must turn
its whole head. As if I already knew
that the great horned owl is capable
of rotating its neck 270 degrees.
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“Great horned owls live
atop trees and would never
enter the house you built
atop that skinny pole.”
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My eyes began to shrink
.
turning my gaze inward:
.
how much have we failed
to learn in the two decades
of living on this land
that has hosted
our most intimate sleeps?
.
What else should we know
that we failed to learn?
.
What else should we know?
.
I hear them in the distance
perched on treetops too high
for me to visit. Hoo hoo, bu-
bubu booh, who-hoo-ho-oo…
Their calls resist translation.
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1eileen tabios

Eileen R. Tabios has released about 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. In 2020 she will release a new poetry collection, Because I Love You, I Become War, and a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form that has been used by poets and artists around the world. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is available at Eileen R. Tabios

The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora by Tanya Ko Hong

the war
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Tanya Ko Hong’s heartbreaking collection of poems is all about bearing witness and the need to testify to a truth against all the forces of silence from both without and within that try to suppress its expression. This truth is all about treachery and betrayal. Interestingly, it is in the very last stanza of the final poem in the book, “At Tara Station in Dublin,” where we find an invitation to speak.  The speaker in the poem finds herself stranded in an Irish pub drinking coffee when she is approached by a “sweet-looking girl” who asks,
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not in Gaelic but in fluent English:
“Love! I am a hungry angel of the street.
Get me a McDonald’s hamburger and a cup of coffee,
and tell me a story of your star,
the land where you came from, please.”
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All the poems that precede this one are the story. So much of the horror of the story Tanya Ko Hung tells is suppressed – hence the title of the collection, because the war rages within the heart of the Korean woman.  These poems, then, are the cathartic expression of these cruel truths.
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There are so many forces that tell the Korean woman to be quiet, to “suck it up.” There are the long cultural expectations for Korean girls. The poem, “Asian Woman” begins:
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This is what you do with your life:
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Take what your father gives you
care, food, shelter
Learn to be wife
cook, sew, maintain your household
Obey orders, serve your family…
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In a word, the Asian woman is expected to submit. She also writes in “The Cost of Breath”:
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Nice girls don’t speak
their minds or
question men…
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In the three-part poem, “Look Back,” the speaker of the poem, who has immigrated to America, tells her daughter that the reason she came was for “better education, better opportunities, / and a better life,” which is only part of the truth of why she’d fled, and her daughter knows. “‘Oma, it’s so boring. All Asians in my class / have the same answers.’” “I didn’t want to look back,” the speaker confesses.  She goes on, “to survive, I learned / to pretend not to know.” Similarly, in “Mother Tongue,” she writes, “life’s not so bad / if you don’t pay attention.” Denial, then, is another force holding the Asian woman back.
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And besides, nobody will hear her anyway.  She writes in the title poem, “The War Still Within”:
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White man said
             No one listens to you
             No one sees
             Open your mouth
.
I said
               Go ahead
Cut and burn my tongue
You can’t set fire to my secrets
My other tongue
will speak
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Against all this, balance the need to tell the story of “the land where you came from.”  But it takes courage, fortitude. The brief aphoristic poem that begins the collection, “The Way to Cross the Desert,” reads:
.

Do not think about

the oasis.

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The truth that Tanya Ko Hong is compelled to tell involves the inhumane treatment of Korean women, their betrayal by their families and countrymen. The epigraph to the poem, “Asian Woman,” comes from Na Hye-sok, the twentieth century Korean feminist: “Isn’t it about time Chosŏn women lived like humans?”
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At the heart of this inhumanity is the legacy of the Comfort Women – Wianbu in Korean – the 200,000 Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. It wasn’t until 1991 that Hak Soon Kim came forward to denounce the Japanese. The horror had been suppressed for over three decades. In a stunning suite of poems entitled “Comfort Woman,” Tanya Ko Hong shows us the horror. In “1941, That Autumn”:
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They put a long stick between my legs –
Open up, open, Baka Chosengjing!
they rage, spraying
their sperm
the smell of
burning dog
burning life
.
In “1943, Shanghai, China”:
.
One night
a soldier asked all the girls
.
Who can do one hundred men?
.
I raised my hand
Soonja did not
.
The soldiers put her in boiling water
alive
and fed us
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The horror continues beyond the Japanese occupation.  The poem “Yang Kong Ju” about a Korean woman trying to survive in American occupied Korea starts:
.
Koreans called her
Yang kalbo
Yankee’s whore
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The fallout from all of this is the scorn and disdain of one’s countrymen, perhaps the most compelling reason to flee. “Tiki Boy” is a poem about a Korean woman who has an American G.I.’s son.
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The women said, You’re so pretty –
but when she wasn’t there:
That yang kalbo,
her lips look
like she’s eaten mice.
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We read the sad story of a homeless elderly woman in “Grandmother Talks of Camptowns” in which betrayal follows betrayal, first by the government, then by the children, the brother, the sister, the lover.
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In a footnote to the poem, “A Blonde Whispers Korean in My Ear,”  the poet writes, “As an immigrant of the Korean diaspora, I know what it feels like being invisible, voiceless and powerless.” Coming to America is not easy, either.  We read about the difficulties of the immigrant in poems like “Second Period,” about the classroom experience, and “American Dream,” which ends with the poignant question:
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Who am I to you,
America?
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The War Still Within is moving and enlightening at the same time, a compelling collection of poems.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

 

Paper Bells by Phan Nhiên Hạo (Translated by Hai-Dang Phan

paper_bells_1_530x

By Greg Bem

It rains morning to night
I still have enough to survive a hundred more years
so I’ll just lie down and sing
man’s forever song
about the infinite horizon
vast enough for countless cemeteries
don’t stress
we have a million lives

(from “Rainy Day Song,” page 1)

Through the mists and the murk of our global crisis, the current COVID-19 pandemic, a book of poetry arrives and may be able to inform and console, to demonstrate and guide. Paper Bells, a collection of poems written in Vietnamese by Phan Nhiên Hạo and translated into English by Hai-Dang Phan, is now available via The Song Cave. It is a collection rotating between storytelling and moments of rejuvenation that never loses its vision and momentum. The collection is a “selected” from his previous publications in  Vietnamese and the poems he has written since he arrived to the United States in the early 1990’s. Most of the works come from the Summer Radio (published in 2019 in Vietnamese), which followed the 2005 Linh Dinh-translated Nigh, Fish, and Charlie Parker. Overall a combination of older and newer works, Paper Bells as a collection contain variations on visions of survival and what it means to thrive after difficulty. They share what has long been of interest to Phan Nhiên Hạo: documenting the lived experience of a Vietnamese refugee and exiled poet who has sought and continues to seek that thriving through poetry.

Thematically in this collection, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s works move back and forth between microscopic and macroscopic worlds within Vietnam and within the United States. A prose poem near the end of the book reflects the worlds in the context of time and memory. The poet writes: “Once on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street I saw an old woman squatting against one of the high walls of the hospital, weeping, tears pouring out of her face like fresh juice squeezed from a sugar cane machine” (from “Saigon on a Good Day,” page 48). Many of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poems contain images like this: remarkable moments of interruption and awe spurred on by the anonymous world around us, or a world surreally distanced in time and space. This convergence of experience and identity find life within their center and unity. There is a sense of the allegory, of the symbolic story, of the world that opens and blossoms sending into breath, or is rung, like a bell, sending reverberations from poem to poem. These reverberations also feel like brutal logic, feel of an urgent commonsense, as in “Fragments,” which calls forward the nihilism of machines and weaponry: “A rusty gun is still capable of killing someone, / but a feeble mind can’t do shit” (page 39).

Indeed, from within their logical core, line by line, to their larger impressions as individual works, the poems feel linked, and delicate, and unpacking the book of a poet who has seen and felt many worlds, many difficulties, and many moments in between, takes time. Time ultimately informs the poetry itself, which often uses rain as a circumstantial image, an image of transformation, and, like an ellipses, an image of pause. Included in this collection is Phan Nhiên Hạo’s “Seattle Memory,” which uses a city familiar with rain to serve as pin for connecting and opening vast distances: “Day rains, stops, afternoon blazes and night comes late. Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat” (page 5). Lines like this one reveal the poet’s interest in juxtapositions. The self may exist now, but continues to exist in other forms and locations.

Examining location and presence through Paper Bells is extremely fulfilling. I write this review in social isolation, in a world that is “on lockdown,” this lens seems to only widen as I engage with Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry. When he writes of “man’s forever song” in the poem “Rainy Day Song” quoted above, I think about my own longitudinal story in space, in community, in life and being. Though different, as all stories are, I cannot help but think of the world that becomes cushioned by patience, compassion, and rest. I think also of Jennifer Cheng’s House A, and her time spent moving around the continental United States with her parents, who as immigrants explored and discovered (and rediscovered) identity, location, and stability.

While positivity and success tend to show up in many stories of survival, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s words are far from universally pleasant and straightforward. The poet here has crafted works founded in struggle that cannot be unbound from death and disruption. There is movement, flight, and escape, but a final sense of stability or rest seems impossible. Here we have a Catch-22, a schism that is profound and worth a dozen examinations: the poet’s commitment to rebirth, and the incessant loss of identity and heritage for that continued life. This poet figures this loss into his poetry in many ways. Typically, I examined loss in Paper Bells through the poet’s highlights of absurdity; they struck me as both feeling commonplace and containing multitudes of emotion:

the swampy city a breeding ground for mosquitoes
where breasts are squeezed in the beery halls until broken
and thrown into the bloody river with hyacinths

(from “Wash Your Hands,” page 31)

Phan Nhiên Hạo intercepts any sense of complacency with surprise, disorder, and decay. Nothing is perfect and rebirth will always come with a cost: again, the world is delicate and can be creased, and those creases are our memories.

Though dismal, the book is not a morass of challenge. Tension is alleviated; still, there is the rain. The rain that cleanses is also the rain that keeps us inside, keeps us at rest, keeps us centered to where our minds can transport through memory and commitment to our former selves, situations, and locations. And remain stable, fervent, integral.

As I read Phan Nhiên Hạo and think about his bus ride across the country, his time working as a delivery man and janitor, and the many other movements literal and symbolic contains in the poems and also described before and within this book’s incredible introduction, I think of the world within and beyond these poems. I refocus on COVID-19 and the crossing over from the poetry’s contained reality to the reality where the poetry is contained. While the spotlight on the virus does not equate to or replace war, oppression, and forced removal of peoples and cultures, I cannot help but think about the poet’s stories and how they seem relevant to our own shifting society. Much like Phan Nhiên Hạo demonstrates in Paper Bells, each of us can take the moments afforded to us to look at our own journey, our own stories, and the world’s rotations and rejuvenations. With that I ask, what are the greater implications of works like Paper Bells?

As long-time collaborator and translator Hai-Dang Phan puts it in the introduction: “The dissident politics of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry resound precisely at a historical moment when the United States and Vietnam are reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations, and in the cultural and literary sphere much of the talk is about peace and reconciliation” (page xi). This publication of Phan Nhiên Hạo works, as translated into a thorough, indefatigable contemporary English by Hai-Dang Phan, feels of the very present, of these very days which we can learn to breathe deep and relearn, as both necessity and opportunity, our entire selves. It also feels of the future, of what can be, and where being can take us, as individuals and as a collective.

You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/paper-bells-by-phan-nhien-h-o-translated-by-hai-dang-phan

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com.

 

 

Library Rain by Rustin Larson

library
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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Rustin Larson’s poetry volume, Library Rain, has 50 pages of poems that vary in length, style and subject matter. Many of the poems have been previously published in a wide variety of literary journals and other publications.   This volume has a good mix of Larson’s tightly focused and innovative images and literary skill.
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Larson, in his poem Man of The Future on pages four and five and first published in Saranac Review, focuses on a narrator who observes riders on a transit bus and gives them nicknames. One is named The Man of the Future and another is named Mrs. Rabbit. The two sit next to each other their thighs touching. Then, suddenly, they avoid each other. Larson ends this two-page seven stanza poem with:
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                                 I’m no genius. I’ve made plenty
                                 Of  mistakes.  If life gives you something,
                                 You take it, and you don’t ask any questions,
                                 And then when life takes it away
                                 Again,  then what?  There is no elegant way
                                 to put this.  If we’ve lived this far,
                                 We’ve become the future we once thought was distant.
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Life on the bus translates in figurative form, to a truth of gain and loss and time unexpectedly bringing the future to us too quickly.  Larson’s choice of place, a bus that carries people back and forth to work, also encapsulates the repetitive rhythm of a pentameter keeping time even as it moves forward.
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John Peterson of Wapsipinicon  Almanac says “Larson writes like an angel, but one who’s willing to work both sides of the street.” This can be seen in Larson’s poem Summer Vacation (The Iowa Source) on pages twenty-eight and twenty-nine. It is like many of Larson’s poems, a vignette in poetry. A young boy has his first sexual encounter with a girl and it is more fantasy than reality as others in the poem both congratulate and condemn the experience. The narrator of the poem presents the idea of someone who is there but not there as a reality check.  The following lines suggest our involvement in our own life plot.
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                              The miracle is that we each live a story
                              That really isn’t about us at all.
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The narrator comments that this is the plotline for every thing .I find this is a little on the negative side but also I hear the ring of truth to it.
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Many of Larson’s poems have this double edge to them with the common settings and place suggesting much more.  On page fifty, the poem, A Yet to Be Determined Painting, (Briar Cliff Review) has beautiful imagery but underneath the beauty, is broken machinery.
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                        Maple sees flickered down from the branches.
                       “We are replacements for butterflies,”
                        they said with their illusion of two wings.
                        They struck the boards of the deck
                        and then they just lay there broken machinery,
                        done, the pilot green, the current strong.
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These strong images encourage the reader to take a second look at nature and how it reflects on how one imagines life.
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The poems in this book are a pleasure to read and give the reader insight into the world around them. Larson’s complex inter mix of ideas and form work well throughout the book.
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.

A Fever For Colour

By Byron  Beynon

Portrait of J D Innes by Ian Strang

Portrait of Innes by Ian Strang (1913)

The Painter J D INNES (1887-1914): A brief introduction to his life and work

James Dickson Innes was born in Wales in 1887, the third son of John Innes (1853-1923) an accountant, and his wife Alice (1857-1942) who lived in the Carmarthenshire town of Llanelli.

The year 1887 appears to have been a fertile one for the birth of painters. Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), and LS Lowry (1887-1976) were all born in the same year as Innes. However, Innes did not have the luxury of living and painting into middle life let alone mature age. His life was tragically cut short, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 27. Nevertheless during a few short years, he produced several memorable paintings, rich in imagery with an exquisite harmony of colour, or as his friend John Fothergill (1876-1957) said, “he painted nature with the brilliance of stained glass.”

His grandfather Robert and his parents valued education and had a correct ethos towards the children. The grandfather had opened a school in Llanelli and was also secretary of the art class. His mother had been born in Lyon, France in 1857. She offered stability to the family. Her connection with France may have kindled the boy’s imagination and curiosity about her life there. I also believe the landscape of Wales; Carmarthenshire, Breconshire and Pembrokeshire awakened in him a sense of place, and a need to capture those landscapes creatively by sketching and painting.

Furnace Quarry Llanelli

The Furnace Quarry, Llanelli (1906)

Llanelli’s population in 1900 was approximately 36,000, an industrial town, it produced most of Britain’s output of copper. Although an industrial town it was in close proximity to unspoilt countryside and situated by the sea.

Innes attended Christ College, Brecon, before continuing his education at the School of Art, Carmarthen. He was inspired at first to follow JMW Turner’s footsteps (Turner had made five sketching and painting tours of Wales between 1792 and 1799), and travels through south Wales, visiting and painting Kidwelly, Carew and Chepstow castles, and Tintern Abbey. Innes would later visit north Wales; places such as Bala, Aberystwyth, Llanidloes and the Arenig mountain which became an important subject matter, obsessed by it, he acquired a passion for the mountain. A favourite story of Innes about the painter Turner was when a lady complained to Turner that she did not see in nature the colours Turner saw, he replied “and don’t you wish you could, Madam ?”

 

Innes seems to have been a delicate son, not as robust as his elder brothers, suffering bouts of ill-health. Undeterred, and with the support of his family, by the autumn of 1905, he was in London, studying at the Slade School of Art. He first lived at Wimbledon, but later moved to Cheyne Walk, and to Fitzroy street. It was an important period in his life, meeting fellow artists and contacts in the art world. He would meet early influences such as Walter Sickert (1860-1942), Augustus John (1878-1961), John Fothergill (1876-1957) and the Australian painter Derwent Lees (1884-1931). He also went on to exhibit his work at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea.

In 1908 he travelled to France with John Fothergill. He headed south to Bozouls, and then to Collioure, following the paths taken by Matisse and Derain who had been there a few years earlier in 1905. Innes’ work became influenced by the strong sunlight and his colours became bolder after he moved to the south of France. He would visit France several times, spending time at Collioure, the Pyrenees, Perpignan and Paris. Hilary Spurling in her biography of Matisse quoted a contemporary traveller taking the train from Perpignan at the beginning of the twentieth century “All of a sudden as you emerge on the crest of a hill from the rocky corridor, Collioure! Radiant with light on the curve of a small bay, hemmed in by the last burnt foothills of the mountains, a blaze of reds and ochres…..Is this still France, or already Africa, with its clumps of agave, and its palm trees dotted here and there among the garden?”

In 1912 Innes also travelled into Spain, south to Ronda, and the mountains of Andalusia, capturing in his work the light and colour of the landscapes he saw and experienced.

In the same year he briefly visited Coole Park, in Galway, Ireland. It was the home of Lady Gregory, born in 1852, who was a great friend and influence on the poet WB Yeats (1865-1939). During his stay there Innes painted The Lake at Coole Park, Co. Galway. There is a tree standing in the garden, known as the Autograph Tree, inscribed by Innes; it also has the initials of Yeats, Bernard Shaw and others.

Arenig North Wales

Arenig, North Wales (1913

Back in north Wales he developed an extraordinary passion for painting the Arenig Mountain. He was fascinated by it and painted it over and over again, just like Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) did with his Monte Sainte-Victoire. Innes developed a wonderful sense of colour, and painted Arenig from different viewpoints, in diverse lights and weather conditions. The mountain situated in the middle of the moorland between Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog is a natural landscape which Innes painted with great intensity. Augustus John who had spent time with Innes in north Wales, was amazed by the restless and creative energy that Innes had acquired for the mountain.

In February 1913 five of his paintings were selected for the prestigious International Armory Exhibition of Modern Art which toured New York, Chicago and Boston.

Sadly, during the last years of his short life, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. By the end of 1913 and early 1914 Innes was seriously ill, and after spending a brief time in Morocco and Tenerife, he was taken back to England. First to Brighton, where his mother took care of him, and then finally he was moved to a nursing home in Swanley in Kent. It was there that this skilled artist died on the 22nd of August 1914.

Town of Collioure

The Town of Collioure (1908)

Some of today’s critics believe that Innes’ work is the link between Turner’s experiments with light and colour and David Hockney’s work (b1937). The intense light of the south of France encouraged bolder and brighter colours, which his friend Fothergill thought was inspired by their stay in the town of Collioure with its “gemlike bay” and “fishing boats of antique build and scarlet sails;……and where his all-excelling sense of colour was awakened.”

Augustus John in a tribute later said, “His work will live when that of many happier and healthy men will have grown with the passing years cold, dull and lifeless.”

In 2014 the National Museum of Wales held an exhibition of his work, marking not only the centenery of his death but also to celebrate this gifted and prodigious artist, whose early death robbed Wales and the world of a great talent.

FOR FURTHER READING

James Dickson Innes 1887-1914 by John Hoole and Margaret Simons Lund Humphries (2013)

James Dickson Innes by John Fothergill Ariel Books on the Arts Faber &Faber (1946)

Matisse the Life by Hilary Spurling, Penguin Books (2009)

In Montmartre  Picasso, Matisse & Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe Fig Tree imprint of Penguin Books  (2014)

Post-Impressionism Royal Academy of Arts London 1979-80 catalogue published by

Weidenfeld & Nicolson London

The Great Bohemian The letters of Ida John Bloomsbury Publishing (2017)

Carmarthenshire The Concise History by Dylan Rees University of Wales Press (2006)

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Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales.  His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, Poetry Wales, Cyphers, San Pedro River Review, The London Magazine, The Worcester Review and the human right anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets).  He coordinated the Wales’ section of the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions).  He is currently working on a project with Dr Barry Plummer about the artist J D Innes

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The Outermost House by Henry Beston

outer

By Ray Greenblatt

The Outermost House is one of my favorite books. I have read many Nature works , but this one is unique. I have read about the ocean, its types of fishes, and the underwater geology, but this book is light on science. It focuses on the beach; that is partly why I came to live by the waters of the Chesapeake. This book speaks to me and for me because it uses poetic language. Beston is able to probe the vastness of the sea and the heavens.

Henry Beston (1888-1868) decided to live close to nature as Thoreau did at Walden. In 1928 he built a house right on the beach of Cape Cod. The Walden cabin was 10 X 16; Beston’s structure named the Fo’castle was 20 X 16.  He lived there for a year, recording the change of seasons. In 1929 he married the poet Elizabeth Coatsworth, to whom he was married for forty years. They then went on with their lives living on a farm in Maine.

The Beach

Since Beston writes in such an orderly manner, we shall simply follow his Table of Contents commenting on the richness of his observations. His first chapter truly focuses on the beach. “The flux and reflux of ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the splendour of autumn and the holiness of spring—all these were part of the great beach.”

Beston was especially aware of the light of the beach and the colors it revealed. “It has many colours: old ivory here, peat here, and here old ivory darkened and enriched with rust. At twilight, its rim lifted to the splendour in the west, the face of the wall becomes a substance of shadow and dark descending to the eternal unquiet of the sea; at dawn the sun rising out of the ocean gilds it with a level silence of light which thins and rises and vanishes into day.”  He is also apt to point out miniscule things as well.  “There is always something poetic and mysterious to me about these tracks in the pits of the dunes; they begin at nowhere, sometimes with the faint impression of an alighting wing, and vanish as suddenly into the trackless nowhere of the sky.”

Autumn, Ocean, and Birds

This chapter is dedicated to his observation of birds. He is fascinated by the migrations. “Now comes the sea fowl and the wild fowl to the beach from the lonely and darkening north, from the Arctic Ocean and the advancing pack, from the continental fragments and great empty islands that lie between the continents and the pole, from the tundra and the barrens, from the forests, from the bright lakes, from the nest-strewn crevices and ledges of Atlantic rocks no man has ever named or scaled.”

“Standing on the beach, fresh claw marks at my feet, I watch the lovely sight of the group instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive Pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions; I watch the spiraling flight, the momentary tilt of the white bellies, the alternate shows of the clustered, grayish backs.” He is even in awe of individual birds. “I wonder where it was that she forsook her familiar earth for the grey ocean, an ocean she perhaps had never seen. What a gesture of ancient faith and present courage such a flight is, what a defiance of circumstance and death—land wing and hostile sea, the fading land behind, the unknown and the distant articulate and imperious in the bright, aerial blood.”

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

The Headlong Wave

In this chapter Beston tries to interpret the sound of waves, something only a poet would attempt. “Hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid, now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.”

Midwinter

During midwinter Beston observes a variety of things. “To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimage of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline . . . We lose a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense and feeling for the sun. When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.”

The sun is obscured by a storm.  “With the turn of the tide came fury unbelievable. The great rhythm of its waters now at one with the rhythm of the wind, the ocean rose out of the night to attack the ancient rivalry of earth, hurling breaker after thundering breaker against the long bulwark of the sands. The Fo’castle, being low and strongly built, stood solid as a rock, but its walls thrummed in the gale. I could feel the vibration in the bricks of the chimney, and the dune beneath the house trembled incessantly with the onslaught of the surf.”

Strange sights were to greet him after the storm was over. “There crumbled out the blackened skeleton of an ancient wreck which the dunes had buried long ago. As the tide rose this ghost floated and lifted itself free, and then washed south close along the dunes. There was something inconceivably spectral in the sight of this dead hulk thus stirring from its grave and yielding its bones again to the fury of the gale.”

Winter Visitors

In an earlier chapter “Headlong Wave” Henry Beston attempted to capture the sounds of the surf. In this chapter he speaks of bird sounds. “Sometimes wings whistle by in the darkness. The sound of a pair of ‘whistler’ ducks on the wing is a lovely, mysterious sound at such a time. It is a sound made with wings, a clear, sibilant note which increases as the birds draw near, and dies away in the distance like a faint and whistling sigh.” “Turning toward the marsh, I saw a flock of geese flying over the meadows along the rift of dying, golden light, their great wings beating with a slow and solemn beauty, their musical, bell-like cry filling the lonely levels and the dark.”

However, this chapter excels in word landscapes as vivid as any painting. “There are patches of snow on the hay fields and the marshes, and, on the dunes, nests of snow held up off the ground by wiry spears of beach grass bent over and tangled into a cup.  Such little pictures as this last are often to be seen on the winter dunes; I pause to enjoy them, for they have the quality and delicacy of Japanese painting. There is a blueness in the air, a blue coldness on the moors, and across the sky to the south, a pale streamer of cloud smoking from its upper edge.”

Then he expands his vision. “There was the ocean in all weathers and at all tides, now grey and lonely and veiled in winter rain, now sun-bright, coldly green, and marbled with dissolving foam; there was the marsh with its great congresses, its little companies, its wandering groups, and little family gatherings of winter birds; there was the glory of the winter sky rolling out of the ocean over and across the dunes, constellation by constellation, lonely star by star.”

Lanterns on the Beach

The author describes the wrecks that occur every year off Cape Cod. One has to remember that in the 1920’s many sailing ships were still used for transport. “Rigging freezes, sails freeze and tear—of a sudden the long booming undertone of the surf sounds under the lee bow—a moment’s drift, the feel of surf twisting the keel of the vessel, then a jarring, thundering crash and the upward drive of the bar . . . Stranded vessels soon begin to break up. Wrecks drag and pound on the shoals, the waves thunder inboard, decks splinter and crack like wooden glass , timbers part, and the iron rods bend over like candles in a heat.”

Despite their urgency, flares even have their aesthetic qualities. “The signal burns and sputters, the smoke is blown away almost ere it is born; the glassy bellies of the advancing breakers turn to volutes of rosy black, the seething foam to a strange vermilion-pink. In the night and rain beyond the hole of light an answering bellow sounds, ship lights dim as the vessel changes her course, the red flare dies to a sizzling, empty cartridge, the great dark of the beach returns to the solitary dunes.”

The men who prevent many wrecks and try to save those in peril are the local surfmen. “Winter and summer they pass and repass, now through the midnight sleet and fury of a great northeaster, now through August quiet and the reddish-golden radiance of an old moon rising after midnight from the sea, now through a world of  rain shaken with heavy thunder and stabbed through and through with lightning.”

An Inland Stroll in Spring

Beston began to live on Cape Cod in the autumn. Now that winter is over, he remarks on the ever-returning fecundity of spring. “I began to reflect on Nature’s eagerness to sow life everywhere, to fill the planet with it, to crowd with it the earth, the air, and the sea. Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life, pouring life into the dead, life into life itself. That immense, overwhelming, relentless, burning ardency of Nature for the stir of life! And all these her creatures, even as these thwarted lives, what travail, what hunger and cold, what bruising and slow-killing struggle will they not endure to accomplish the earth’s purpose?”

Night on the Great Beach

Different aspects of darkness are considered. “For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars—pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.”

A mystery occurs on the night beach. “Every spatter was a crumb of phosphorescence; I walked in a dust of stars. Behind me, in my footprints, luminous patches burned. With the double-ebb moonlight and tide, the deepening brims of the pools took shape in smouldering, wet fire. So strangely did the luminous speckles smoulder and die and glow that it seemed as if some wind were passing, by whose breath they were kindled and extinguished. Occasional whole breakers of phosphorescence rolled in out of the vague sea—the whole wave one ghostly motion, one creamy light—and, breaking against the bar, flung up pale sprays of fire.”

The savior in the night is the lighthouse. “A star of light which waxes and wanes three mathematical times, now as a lovely pale of light behind the rounded   summits of the dunes. The changes in the atmosphere change the colour of the beam; it is now whitish, now flame golden, now golden red; it changes its form as well, from a star to a blare of light, from a blare of light to a cone of radiance sweeping a circumference of fog.”

The Year at High Tide

What stands out most in this chapter is the author’s sense of smell. “I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly ploughed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, the clovelike aroma of our wild Cape Cod pinks, the morning perfume of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows late on summer afternoons.”

Orion Rises on the Dunes

A very apt final statement made by Henry Beston is found in this concluding chapter. “The creation is still going on, that the creative forces are as great and as active today as they have ever been, and that tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world. Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will  be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.”

There were and always will be Nature writers—a most obvious statement that could be made about poets as well. They tell us about the state of the natural world that we are often unaware of or too busy to notice. Henry Beston’s book has a cosmic feeling—the sea and sky, the major characters, cannot be larger. That factor provides an energy that makes its reading so stimulating. Beston’s prose style is full of imagery that gives pungency and further aids in making the book mystically fly!.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Outermost-House-Year-Great-Beach/dp/080507368X

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Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.