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PN Review 275
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This item is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

News & Notes
John Weir •  Roger Hickin writes: It was a lucky day for the New Zealand poet James K. Baxter when a young poet who was training for the priesthood wrote to him in 1959. The two soon struck up a close friendship and when Baxter died at the age of forty-six in 1972, it was Father John Weir who became the tireless and meticulous editor of major collections of Baxter’s writings, a task which would occupy him for the next fifty years.

Under Weir’s editorship three volumes of previously uncollected and unpublished Baxter poems appeared in the 1970s, followed by the first Collected Poems in 1979, the multiple-volume editions of Complete Prose in 2015, Letters of a Poet in 2019, Complete Poems in 2022 and The Selected Poems in 2023 – the last a definitive selection made from the more than three thousand poems that comprise Baxter’s literary legacy.

Weir’s own poetry was published in four collections between 1963 and 1983: The Sudden Sun, The Iron Bush, A Warning against Water-Drinkers and Treading Water, as well as a final collection, Sparks among the Stubble (2021). Unlike Baxter, who was always a monologist, Weir was an engaging and generous conversationalist. He was a kind man with a formidable intellect, whose as yet unpublished monographs on Gerald Manley Hopkins and Lewis Carroll combine exceptional scholarship and acute poetic insight.

John Weir was born in Nelson on 25 April 1935 and died in Christchurch on 27 December 2023.

This was one of his last poems:
It’s alright if
It’s alright if
the morning rose doesn’t shimmer
at the window
to be viewed intently
or if the same wind that stirs just now
among the dark pines that fight
their customary rearguard action
later humphs and fusses over
strutting roosters in backyards
and private vestments and socks hanging
on lines that stretch from
the Golden Age of Queen Victoria till now
or if the white waterfall
pouring silently over the edge of the world
disposes of some who lingered once
at the tipping-point of now
only to become grafted to the veins
that blush from somewhere to
our always on the point of faltering hearts.

It’s alright if
such things happen because
how could it be otherwise?
David Ferry •  Greg Miller writes: David Ferry died on 5 November, in Lexington, Massachusetts, at the age of ninety-nine. Ferry’s most prolific period as a poet came after he retired from Wellesley College at the age of sixty-five; he published two books of poetry before, and five after. Ferry won the National Book Award in 1986 at the age of eighty-six for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations (1999) won the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Bingham Poetry Prize and the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress. Alan Shapiro, in his preface to this book of new and selected poems, writes that Ferry ‘is one of those rare poets who seems, as we see his poetry working out its concerns, to grow younger and wiser at the same time. He is a great poet and this is a great book.’ Some Things I Said, Ferry’s final book of poems, will be published in December. Many consider Ferry’s translation of the epic Gilgamesh the best of our time; he also translated Horace’s Odes and Virgil’s Eclogues, Georgics and the Aeneid. Born in Orange, New Jersey on 5 March 1924, Ferry was married to the critic Anne Ferry until her death in 2006; she wrote seven books of criticism, including The Title to the Poem, awarded the Christian Gauss Prize. (Ferry credited his wife for the titles of most of his books.) Ferry’s most memorable lyrics focus unflinchingly and without sentimentality on the dispossessed. The poems bespeak the man’s profound humanity.

The last poem in Dwelling Place went uncollected: ‘Envoi’:
Let these not be the black, imaginary
flowers of hell, nihilotropic,
turning their iron faces toward
no light but the light of the dead letter.
Refaat Alareer •  In the Bookseller of 12 December 2023, Ra Page of Comma Press paid tribute to the Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer, killed in an air strike on Gaza City the week before. ‘Alareer was a professor of comparative literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and a founding collaborator for We Are Not Numbers (WANN), a storytelling project through which international writers mentor young Palestinians to “tell the stories behind the numbers of Palestinians in the news”. He edited Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine (Just World Books) and had been working with Comma Press on a superhero project, as well as a project with the Washington Post to build a collective literary “memory map” to commemorate lost places in the Strip.’ Page described the poet as ‘Above all else, […] generous. He always championed others, ahead of himself. He was a great writer, but his mission was to support and give a platform to others. We had the honour of spending a lot of time with him in Gaza last year, driving around in his funny little car – definitely the smallest, most peculiar car in Gaza – listening to audiobooks and podcasts on his sound system, and trying to translate hilarious Palestinian idioms into English rhyming couplets. He was gracious, gentle, patient and funny. He had a wicked sense of humour and no fear of the perpetrators of lies and double-speech, two attributes that might have got him killed. […] Refaat’s legacy will be the way he has exposed the lunacy of this age. People are more concerned about “performing” an empty morality than actually being moral.’

Pam Bailey, co-founder of WANN, said: ‘When I set out to find the best writing coach in Gaza to join We Are Not Numbers, Refaat was universally called out by both students and graduates. He was tough, but kind; strict, but flexible. Above all, he was fiercely passionate about preserving Palestinian culture and sharing it with the world through the power of the word and, as he said in his last poem, the teacher’s “marker”.’

Benjamin Zephaniah •  Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah, who died at sixty-five, identified himself as a ‘writer, lyricist, musician and naughty boy’. As a boy, one of eight siblings born of a Jamaican nurse and Bajan postman, he suffered from paternal violence and a deeply unsettled upbringing. He was humorous, insubordinate, angry. There was time spent in detention and jail. Zephaniah  wrote and performed his way out and up, working with his communities and making his way to the big smoke where he began to find success and wider connection.

His rhyming can remind us of the Irish-born Scottish master of public performance, an entertainer in his own day with bold public themes and convictions, William Topaz McGonagall, in its performative abandon and some of its effects, but in Zephaniah’s case this was self-conscious and deliberate. He was born in Birmingham, and his written, spoken and performed language had the inflections of his birthplace enhanced with other accents and tones, primarily Caribbean to which he was entitled. He knew Hindi, Mandarin and Urdu and spoke up for other now British languages.

Zephaniah  became a darling of parts of the establishment, in part because of his outspokenness, his dreadlocks and his engaging contrariness. A BBC poll discovered that he was the third favourite poet ‘of all time’ in Britain, and he became an honorary fellow of the British Academy and was mooted as a possible poet laureate. He might have been the Oxford Professor of Poetry if it hadn’t been for Seamus Heaney. Zephaniah  collected over fifteen honorary doctorates, even more than Dame Edith Sitwell. But he famously refused an OBE in 2003. ‘I am profoundly anti-Empire’, he declared to Mr Blair and Mrs Queen. In PN Review we published a harsh letter from James Sutherland-Smith: ‘I was surprised by your approval of Benjamin Zephaniah’s refusal of the OBE (PNR 155). Perhaps I’ve become irremediably cynical, but it seemed to me that the gesture was of benefit to Benjamin Zephaniah only, the restatement of an easily won cliché by somebody who is a cliché himself. No doubt his agent is well pleased, if I may use an ancient intensifier. Zephaniah has undertaken workshops and visits outside Britain as a British Council writer-in-residence. The British Council, it is pertinent to restate, received a royal charter and coat of arms from King George VI and receives money from Parliament, which constitutionally is approved by the reigning monarch. So, Zephaniah may have refused a medal from Her Majesty the Queen, but he has definitely accepted her shilling.’

The Black Writers’ Guild, which he helped to found, praised this ‘titan of British literature’. For many writers from a variety of communities he was an enabling example, a changer of a status quo. In 1980, Page One Books, a co-operative, published his Pen Rhythm. Zephaniah established a national platform by means of Channel 4. Publications (novels, plays and other writings) and performances around the country and indeed the world followed. Nelson Mandela invited Zephaniah to lead a concert at the Royal Albert Hall when he paid his first state visit to Britain in 1996.

He loved the freedom he gained from books. ‘You can go anywhere you like, and if there’s a destination you want to go to and you can’t see it, create it. Write it. Tell your story.’ Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, noted how ‘His poems packed a punch for social justice’. His death was the occasion for dozens of obituaries, tributes and a celebration of the difference his example had made to British culture.

Seven years for poems •  On 29 December Al Jazeera reported on the detention and sentencing of two Russian poets charged with ‘undermining national security’ by reciting poems against the Russian war on the Ukraine. Artyom Kamardin, thirty-three, and Yegor Shtovba, twenty-three, will spend long spells in prison. Their recitation took place during an anti-mobilisation protest. The Kremlin has not let up on its prosecution of dissent. Kamardin will serve seven years in jail. He read at a demonstration after Putin mobilised 300,000 reservists when Russia was back-footed in 2022. The move was greeted by widespread opposition which was quickly stifled. Kamardin’s offending poem was entitled ‘Kill me, militia man!’ and ended, Al Jazeera said, ‘“Glory to Kievan Rus, Novorossiya – suck!” – using the historic terms for Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and a term from days of the Russian Empire that Moscow uses for the area of southeastern Ukraine it is trying to annex, respectively’. Days after the event, Amnesty International reports, ‘police beat and violated Kamardin with a dumbbell before forcing [Alexandra] Popova [his then girlfriend, now wife] to watch a video of the act. She also claimed that police super-glued stickers to her face and threatened to rape her. A clip later circulated on Telegram of the bruised and battered Kamardin apologising for his words.’ Popova shouted ‘Shame!’ when the verdict was announced and was ushered out of the courtroom by bailiffs. ‘It is a very harsh sentence. Seven years for poems, for a non-violent crime’, she told the AFP news agency, before being taken away by police officers.

A lift on the horizon •  The celebrated, beautiful Portico Library in Manchester proudly announced that it ‘has been awarded a development grant by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to develop detailed plans to transform the unique historic library and secure its future by creating an accessible and sustainable space for arts, books, food, learning and history for Manchester’s residents and visitors. Finally, a lift is on the horizon!’ The process will take two years and may result in a transformation of one of the more iconic but neglected Victorian treasures of Manchester into a new kind of reading hub. ‘There are lots of opportunities ahead and we’re really looking forward to collaborating further, sharing ideas and working together to make the Portico a more accessible space – technically, creatively and intellectually.’

Het Onderwater Cabaret •  Sonja Anderson reported in the Smithsonian Magazine (9 January) on Curt Bloch’s almost invisible and very nearly erased editorial achievements in creating ninety-five issues of the satirical magazine Het Onderwater Cabaret while hiding from the Nazis in an attic. An exhibition of his little-known wartime publications is going on display in Berlin from February through May at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

‘For two years during World War II, a Jewish lawyer named Curt Bloch lived in an attic in the Netherlands, hiding from the Nazis. He received water, food and essentials from his hosts, as did thousands of other Jews hidden in similar circumstances. But Bloch’s protectors also provided him with newspapers, pens, glue and other supplies. Each week, he used those materials to create a new issue of his own satirical magazine.’ The title of the exhibition, My Verses Are Like Dynamite, is hardly an exaggeration in terms of the risks they took and the radical joy they must have provided their isolated readers. Anderson writes, ‘Bloch’s work was previously “almost completely unknown,” as curator Aubrey Pomerance tells the New York Times’ Nina Siegal. “The overwhelming majority of writings that were created in hiding were destroyed. If they weren’t, they’ve come to the public attention before now. So, it’s tremendously exciting.”’ In the mixture of irreverent art, poetry and song the issues open a row of vivid windows on a merciless period. The final issue of Het Onderwater Cabaret is dated 3 April 1945.

This item is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

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