It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


I love the smell of old paper in the morning

Inspired by Pornokitsch’s book porn post earlier today, I have decided to share some of the older, and perhaps less obviously the sort of books I would buy, books in my collection. And here they are…


I bought The Life and Works of Jahiz on abebooks after reading and enjoying Robert Irwin’s The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, but I’ve, er, never got around to reading it. It was published in 1969, so it’s not especially old – in fact, it’s younger than me. But I suspect very few people I know also possess a copy. (I see there’s a single copy for sale on Amazon… for £129.99.)


I’ve tried my hand at poetry, and a few of my attempts have been published, but I’ve found the poetry that appeals to me most is that of the 1930s and 1940s, such as by the Cairo poets. Here I have three collections by Terence Tiller: Reading a Medal (1957), Poems (1941) and The Inward Animal (1943); Richard Spender’s Collected Poems (1944); and John Jarmain’s Poems (1945). They were bought at antique fairs, on eBay, or from Abebooks.


And here are two poetry anthologies from that period. New Verse (1939) features photographs of the contributors at the end and appears to have been annotated in pencil by a previous owner. Poetry of the Present (1949) has a review slip in it, giving the exact publication date as April 28th 1949 and price as 10/6.


My favourite poet is probably Bernard Spencer, and here are a couple of hard-to-find chapbooks: The Twist in the Plotting (1960) and With Luck Lasting (1963).


I first came across the Cairo poets via the Lawrence Durrell connection. During WWII, there were two groups of poets and writers in Egypt – both serving in the armed forces and civilians. Durrell and Spencer were in the Personal Landscape group, centred around a journal with that title. The other group was called Salamander after its magazine, and later published three collections of poetry by armed forces personnel: Oasis (1943), Return to Oasis (1980) and From Oasis into Italy (1983). (I can’t find any copies of Oasis online to link to, unfortunately.)


Middle East Anthology of Prose and Verse (1946) is, er, exactly that. It includes Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others. The book lacking a dustjacket is Personal Landscape (1945), like Oasis above, an anthology drawn from the pages of the magazine of the same name, which includes, er, Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others.


From verse to prose – three novels from the 1930s and 1940s. Priddy Barrows (1944) is Jarmain’s only novel – he was killed in WWII. I wrote about it here. Copies of both Priddy Barrows and his poetry collection are, it seems, now impossible to find. At First Sight (1935) is Nicholas Monsarrat’s second novel, and This Is The Schoolroom (1939) is his fourth (but my copy is a 1947 reprint).


Finally, a couple of books about bathyscaphes. Seven Miles Down (1961) is the only book written specifically about the voyage of the Trieste to the floor of Challenger Deep in 1960. I wrote about it here. 2000 Fathoms Down covers descents in a bathyscaphe by the two authors during the 1940s and 1950s.

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Another visit to the Red Planet

Jupiter XXXVIII: Pasithee is now out and features six excellent short stories, and a small poem by Yours Truly. The poem is titled ‘Rainbow Mars’ and is chock full o’references to the Red Planet of fact, fiction and myth.

It’s worth getting hold of Jupiter. It’s published some very good fiction over the years, and has maintained an enviably regular publishing schedule.


Being poetical

Lawrence Durrell’s poetry doesn’t always work for me. I like the fact there’s plenty to unpack in them, though many of the references are often unfamiliar to me. Their chief attraction for me is the beauty of the language Durrell used. He had a knack of painting an image with just the right words. Here are a few examples from Selected Poems (1956):

Ten speechless knuckles lie along a knee
Among their veins, gone crooked over voyages,

‘A Rhodian Captain’

On charts they fall like lace,
Islands consuming in a sea
Born dense with its own blue:


Where minarets have twisted up like sugar
And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on


There is a metaphysical and mythological aspect to much of Durrell’s poetry – while he saw what was there with a painterly eye, he also described what could not be seen. And as a result his poetical portraits of places, and people, feel complete in a way many other poets have not managed. Durrell called this his “Heraldic Universe”: “that territory of experience in which the symbol exists … for every object in the known world there exists an ideogram”. He also said, “‘Art’ then is only the smoked glass through which we can look at the dangerous sun.” I like the sound of that.


In Which The Author Does His Verse…

This last year, I’ve had an occasional bash at writing poetry. I don’t think I’m any good, despite having read quite a bit of it recently (see here, for example; and here). What I – try to – write is science fiction poetry. Because, well, I like science fiction. And it’s as fit a subject for poetry as anything else.

So here’s one of my meagre efforts.

Observer Effect
As functional and contained as coffins,
ships hang like bats against the void
while captains haggle for air,
for fuel and supplies.
At rest but forever in motion,
they spin about the stars,
painted by the light of other suns.

A beacon flashes,
urgent in the void, as
one ship slips her mooring.
The gentle blown breath of her
manoeuvring thrusters, and she slides
easily and inevitably
from the station’s replenishing fold.

With illusory speed, she flees –
there are no visual cues against
the thrown cloth of black, vaster than empires,
and pierced by pinpoint furnaces which stare
unceasingly from the deep heavens.

she’s gone –
in pursuit of otherwheres,
I can see her destination,
a tiny dot of distant brightness.

I know she will be there much sooner
than the spent light of that remote sun
has taken to reach me.

If I could collect the photons from that distant star
and render the images the quanta encode…

I’d see the past as present:
dinosaurs thundering across a fetid Earth.

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They went with songs to the battle…

Today is Remembrance Day, so it seems entirely appropriate that I post a poem by John Jarmain.

Tel-el-Eisa is Jesus’ hill,
Or so they say:
There the bitter guns were never still,
Throwing up yellow plumes of sand by day
And piercing the night across.
There the desert telephone’s long lonely line expires,
Ends with a tangle of looping wires
And one last leaning cross.

Jarmain, a World War II poet, was killed by a mortar round in Normandy in 1944. His collection, Poems, was published posthumously in 1945. I now have a copy – bought from a seller on The collection’s back cover blurb describes Jarmain as having “an original vision and a lyric voice”, and I’d very much agree with that. There are some wonderful poems in the book and they deserve to be much better known.


War, and the Pity of War…

At the beginning of this year, I bought an anthology of World War II poetry on eBay, Return to Oasis: War Poems and Recollections from the Middle East 1940 – 1946, edited by Victor Selwyn, Erik de Mauny, Ian Fletcher, GS Fraser and John Waller, and published in 1980. Unfortunately, I’d misread the description of the book on eBay and thought it contained poetry by Lawrence Durrell, but in fact he only provided the introduction. Return to Oasis was based on Oasis, an anthology published in Cairo during World War II, and used the same criteria for inclusion: “the poet must have served in the Forces in the Middle East theatre of war in the 1940s and have written his or her poems at that time.”

So I received the book, flicked through it, realised I’d made a mistake, and stuck it up on my book-shelves. Where it languished unread until today.

There is a poetry forum moderated by Marion Arnott on Interaction, the T3A Publications board. One of its threads is about war poetry and, being an admirer of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry, I’ve posted to the thread. But everyone knows Owen’s poems, so today I decided to contribute something a little different to the discussion. Remembering the copy of Return to Oasis on my book-shelves, I got it down, opened it at random… and discovered John Jarmain.

Like Wilfred Owen, Jarmain did not survive the war which formed the subject of his poetry. Unlike Owen, he seems to have been completely, and criminally, forgotten – a single collection published posthumously in 1945, and a single small press reissue of that collection in 1998. On the strength of the four poems by John Jarmain published in Return to Oasis, he certainly deserves to be remembered. Here is one of those poems:

At a War Grave
No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.

So there you go. I’m now glad I “accidentally” bought Return to Oasis. And I think I might try and find myself a copy of Jarmain’s Poems from 1945. He also wrote a novel, Priddy Barrows, described as “with a Brontë-like atmosphere and a cast of vivid characters”. That sounds like it might be an interesting read, too…

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Some poems you fall in love with on first reading. Here’s the opening verse of one that did it for me recently:

Her sea limps up here twice a day
And sigh by leaden sigh deposes
Crude granite heft and sponges
Sucked smooth as foreheads and noses;
No footprints dove the labouring sand,
For terrene clays bake smooth
But coarse as a gipsy’s hand.

(‘Near Paphos’ by Lawrence Durrell)