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This review is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Cover of Neck of the Woods
Timothy HarrisQuality of Attention
Peter Makin, Neck of the Woods
Isobar Press, 2015
Peter Makin is the author of excellent critical books on Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting, as well as editor of Basil Bunting on Poetry, which collects two series of lectures delivered by Bunting (containing some of the best observations on rhythm in English poetry that I know). In his introduction to the latter, Makin quotes Pound’s definition of prosody as ‘the total articulation of the sound of a poem’, expresses his dislike of what he calls ‘the bastard form called the “iambic pentameter”’, and asserts, with Bunting, that it is rhythm that first of all gives coherence and ‘shape’ to a poem, anything that goes beyond this, such as the ostentatious patterning of sounds (alliteration, assonance, ‘the jingling sound of like endings’), being unnecessary decoration.

Striking metaphors and an excess of adjectives are also unnecessary decoration, and in that same introduction Makin draws attention to two remarks of Bunting: ‘Ford (Madox Ford) at his best names things and lets them evoke the emotion without mentioning it’; and ‘Adjectives mostly weaken the noun they stand with and poetry with too many of them loses its energy and its touch with the world we feel and see.’ Decoration of whatever kind blurs the focus, one might say, drawing attention from the object to virtuosity of execution or to feelings entertained, or advertised as being entertained, by the observer, and making the latter more important. Language should be thought of as, ideally, transparent, letting the world in its quiddity shine through. And verse that is written in this way, to quote from Makin’s Pound’s Cantos, ‘seems to demonstrate that emotion works by a negative law: mere absence of aggression, distortion, haste allows us to read into things (qualified only as to texture, shade and other exact physicality) powers that favour human well-being’.

Writing verse is seen, therefore, as a discipline which is as much ethical as it is artistic – or rather, the artistic and the ethical become one. I am not convinced that language, or any artistic medium, is transparent in the way Ford, Pound, and Bunting seem to have hoped it was, but what surely can be transmitted by the kind of verse they advocate is, as Makin suggests, not so much the world itself as an attentiveness to it, an attentiveness that because it is reticent and resolutely unsentimental can, like Rubens’s portraits of his children, be profoundly moving. It is the quality of the attention in Makin’s poems that make them so good.

Attentiveness is not something that exists independent of technique, rather it is created through technique, and it is by means of the care with which Makin’s poems are articulated that the quality of attention towards the objects named and described is created and emotion evoked. Attention is feeling. Makin is justly dissatisfied with the ideas of traditional prosodists and – to my and Donald Davie’s mind – less justly dissatisfied with the pentameter line (rather than with some of its users), but he has a profound, and properly physical, understanding of English prosody, traditional and modern, in Pound’s and Bunting’s sense of the term. It is an understanding that informs his admirable free verse, which has nothing of what one too often comes across: the slack progression, phrase by banal phrase, haltingly down the page, with occasional words set off in portentous isolation. Instead, there is lively movement shaped by syntax, line-length, spacing, variety of focus and register, and telling enjambment.

The twig knuckle being caught
lifts up a curl of clear water;
ancient of days.

A small pulse, irregular,
down this groove

arising from the play of water-flow
          round the leaves and the brown cedar-spray
as they sway
caught under water…

That is the opening of the title-poem, ‘Neck of the Woods’, which makes up the third of six sections in this collection. The other five sections are the autobiographical Life-Sketch;  Hagoromo (‘feather mantle’, after the folk-tale and Noh play); Percepticules (a collection of haiku-like perceptions); the miscellany  Shore-wrack ; and finally Ato (‘trace’ or ‘track’, whose Japanese character is homophonous with another character meaning ‘afterwards’), dedicated to Makin’s wife, Stella Irene Correa, who died in 1997. The collection gathers, we are informed, all the poems from the period 2000–2015 that the poet wishes to preserve.

The neck of the woods in which Makin has lived for many years is a mountain valley north of Kyoto. It is a place of many waters, visited by storms and typhoons; and water and its various movements fascinate the poet, and have always fascinated him, judging from the childhood memory of Lincolnshire that opens the collection:

Clean clearwater sand
out beyond the rubble and the shore-wrack

a thin stream
cutting its own bed as you diverted it
tiny sharp grains
on inside bends,
forking across plains

half a centimetre
in unmarked sand…

But in Hagoromo, the water is menacing and destructive, even as the poet seeks to create a Horatian monument to his wife quod non imber edax […]  possit diruere:

Under the thick sheet of water
ribbed, rushing
an eye of air

A scattering of thin silver cigarette foils
on the black ash, like paper to the touch now they’ve been burned.
On the heap of rice-straw mats; then the flood from the typhoon took them […]

Tears, too, are water. The attentiveness is underlain by loss, the particulars by the void, which is all in the end there is and ‘which is filled / with these things temporarily’. The sense of desolation in these poems is at times overpowering, and the more so because of the fineness, concentration, and liveliness of the perceptions:

The ink puckers the paper
at the knots where the brush turned,
pulling the strength in.

There is a splendid muscularity there, the lines seeming to reproduce in yet another medium the movement of the now-vanished hand and arm that is recorded on the paper – calligraphy, perhaps, or an ink-painting? (I have seen Japanese people standing before a landscape painting by Hasegawa Tohaku, rehearsing the movements the painter must have made.) For beyond, or under, the fascination with water, there is a fascination with movement of every kind, and with creating the physical feeling of these movements in the forms of verse. There is also a fascination with qualities of light, with colours, with smells, and with sounds: the cawing of crows, the ‘clear plop’ of the nightingale, the soughing ‘of a thousand trees, range to range, as the darkness closes’, ‘the little low beat’ that turns out to be the train to Kinosaki, ‘tiny waterpattering’, bamboos grinding against each other in the wind, the thwock of a mallet, the ‘deer-shriek’ …   And the water everywhere, the humidity, the oppressive closeness of the trees, the wild boars, the tanuki – one ends this collection feeling a profound intimacy with this densely wooded valley where the poet notices, in his Japanese Hippocrene,

Strange regularities
in the burrowing of the creatures
in the soft mud under the water
where I drink my drink for my
dead wife and wash my face. 

This review is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
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