A foray into installation art: I have been trying my acquisitive hand at viciously appropriating land, as part of the extremely idyllic LEAF (Little Ecological Arts Festival). The idea, partly thrust upon me by festival organiser Bruno Roubicek, was to do something generated by my phd project, partially on the enclosure of the commons around the end of the eighteenth century in England. It turns out that the festival space, the ridiculously lovely Albion Millennium Green in Forest Hill, is pretty much the only remaining scrap of Sydenham Common, itself a survivor of a much larger area of natural oak forest. As a result of this hasty research, I wrote a poetic information sheet to be taken from the installation, which also attempts to think through some of the lexis used in different parts of the UK for land appropriation before the term ‘enclosure’ became the norm. Some of these words are fanatastically evocative. The text is here: In Little Parcels
The use of the space itself was improvised: I arrived on Wednesday morning, was directed towards what was to be my bramble patch, given some rope, card, a black marker, stakes and assorted household miscellanea, and sort of made it up. Probably shouldn’t admit that. Does that count as a methodology? Oh, and I ended up reading the text one evening alongside linus slugg‘s bugs to cover for a delayed Welsh praise singer, too.
All photography by Bruno Roubicek
Very emocionado to see an article I wrote quite a while back now on one of my favourite poets, the late & missed Roger Langley, finally end up in PN Review. It’s about birds, the strange British obsession with watching them, how they’re represented and arranged in field books, the history of ornithological art and what any of that might have to some of Langley’s very fine birdy poetry. Think there’s a paywall on the site, but I’m happy to send my Word doc version of the text if anyone doesn’t subscribe and for some reason shares this pretty niche confluence of interests and actually wants to read the thing.
I have recently given up trying to convince WordPress it wants to format poems correctly. In lieu of which, here’s A Sheaf of Poems, some old, some new.
‘Vox-Box (text for voice & music)’ is a work-in-progress text written alongside and in collaboration with composer Roman Benedict and singer Chloe Schaaf from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as part of the rather fun Voiceworks programme. There’ll be a performance of all this year’s pieces at the scarily-grand Wigmore Hall on the 21st MAY….
This is a translation of a Son Jarocho tune by the contemporary Mexican Son band Son de Madera. Son Jarocho is a traditional style from the state of Veracruz. It’s a pretty loose translation semantically in places, as I wanted to try to render it in the phrasal idioms of English folk music while also retaining the original rhyme scheme. Also the penultimate line has a verb that is very difficult to hear, and no text of the lyrics seems to know what it’s meant to be (‘desvestir’, which people reckon it might be, could refer to the metaphorical baring of the soul, but in grammatical context still doesn’t make too much sense - suggestions please!), so I have approximated something that seems reasonable & not too noticeable.
Aunque yo por ti esté triste / no me matará al coraje // Although this sorrow is for you / my courage it will not kill (x2)
Olvido que ya no me aflije / yo proseguiré mi viaje // I’ll forget the harm you do me / my journey will go on (x2)
Al igual que el arrecife / no me rendirá tu oleaje // By your waves I won’t be covered / like the reef I’ll be standing still (x2)
Soy preso de este apostento / soló por quererte amar // I’m held prisoner in this room / only by my love for you (x2)
Oigo las olas del mar / que no cesan ni un momento // I hear the waves of the sea / and not for a second do they cease (x2)
Ni el tiempo ni la distancia / ni la ausencia de no verte // Neither for the absence long / nor the distance from you (x2)
Por ninguna circunstancia / yo he dejado de quererte // For no such reason / have I ceased to love you (x2)
A + B
Lo dulce de tu mirar / era como un mar en calma // The sweetness of your face / was like a sea asleep (x2)
El perfume que tu exhalas / me invitaba a navegar // The sweet smell you exude / tempted me to sail (x2)
Para hacerme naufragar / en el fondo de tu alma // Only for to wreck myself / in your soul’s deep (x2)
A + B
Un cuerpo se aleja triste / rumbo a las olas del mar // In the sad sea’s ways and waves / a body drifts along (x2)
Un pescador lo desviste(?) / Otro lo mira pasar // A fisherman sees it (sic) / another watches it pass (x2)
El horizonte no existe / ese ya es otro cantar / ese ya es otro cantar…. // And the horizon’s already gone / but that’s another song / but that’s another song…(x2)
B X mucho!
While studying Spanish I had a go at making some literary translations of five poems from English into Spanish (i.e. the wrong way around for a native English speaker!), which are below. The main difficulty was being kept to a restrictive literalness by lack of familiarity with Spanish idioms that would doubtless have sat better than the phrases I eventually used. I also decided to stick to a line-for-line sort of literalness, mainly to make it easier to keep track of, and such inflexibility brings limitations a proper translator wouldn’t be troubled by. As an exercise, however, it was a lot of fun and extremely addictive, and hopefully some of the lines sound passable.
‘The Second Coming’ translated with Annie over a very large jug of Mojito in El Cuartito. Thanks to Anna for her helpful comments.
W.B. Yeats, ‘When you are Old’
When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
‘Cuando seas Vieja’
Cuando seas vieja y canosa y llena de sueños
Y sueñes junto al fuego, baja este libro,
Y lee despacio, y sueña con la mirada suave
Que tus ojos tenían alguna vez, y de sus sombras profundas;
Cuantos amaban tus instantes de feliz gracia,
Y amaban tu belleza con amor falso o verdadero;
Pero un hombre amó el alma peregrina dentro de ti,
Y amó los dolores de tu cara cambiada.
Y bajándose al lado de las barras brillantes
Murmura, algo triste, como huyó el amor
Y caminó sobre las montañas en lo alto,
Y escondió su cara entre una multitud de estrellas.
W.B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I now
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
‘La Segunda Venida’
Girando y girando en la girada extendida
El halcón no puede oír al halconero;
Mera anarquía se libra sobre el mundo,
La marea oscurecida por la sangre es librada, en cada parte
La ceremonia de inocencia se ahoga;
A los mejores les hace falta toda convicción, mientras los peores
Están llenos de intensidad apasionada.
Sin duda alguna revelación está a mano;
Sin duda La Segunda Venida está a mano.
¡La Segunda Vendida! Apenas existen esas palabras
Cuando una imagen amplia de Spiritus Mundi
Molesta mi vista; dondequiera que sea en las arenas del desierto
Una forma con cuerpo de león y la cabeza de un hombre,
Una mirada blanca y despiadada como el sol,
Están moviéndose los muslos lentos, mientras rodeándola
Se tambalean sombras de los pajeros indignados del desierto.
Vuelve a caer la oscuridad, pero ahora yo sé
Que veinte siglos de sueño pedregoso
Fueron vejados hasta la pesadilla por una cuna se mecida,
¿Y qué bestia áspera, su hora venida por fin,
Deambula hacía Belén para nacer?
W.H. Auden, ‘Roman Wall Blues’
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve a lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring and I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
‘Muro Romano de Murrias’
Sobre el brezo sopla el viento mojado,
Tengo un piojo en la túnica y la gripe en la nariz.
El chubasco viene lloviznando del cielo,
Soy soldado del Muro, no sé por que.
La bruma trepa sobre la piedra gris y dura,
Mi chica está en Tungria; duermo solo.
Aulus va merodeando por su casa,
No me gustan sus modales, no me gusta su cara.
Piso es cristiano, el adora un pescado,
No habrían besos si él tuviera su deseo.
Ella me dio un anillo y me lo jugué;
Quiero a mi chica y quiero mi paga.
Cuando sea veterano sólo con un ojo
No haré nada más que mirar al cielo.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and huge roses.
De repente la sala estuvo rica y la gran ventana
Generaba nieve y rosas contra ella
Silenciosamente colateral e incompatible:
Mundo está más repentino que lo que imaginamos.
Mundo está más loco y más que lo que pensamos,
Incorregiblemente plural. Mondo y segmento
Una mandarina y escupo las pepitas y siento
La embriaguez de que las cosas sean varias.
Y el fuego flamea con un sonido burbujeante para mundo
Está más rencoroso y alegre de lo que se supone –
En la lengua en los ojos en las orejas en las palmas de tus manos –
Hay más que vidrio entre la nieve y rosas inmensas.
Philip Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history.
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
‘Una Tumba Arundel’
Lado a lado, las caras borrosas,
El conde y la condesa se yacen en piedra
Sus hábitos propios mostrados vagamente
Como armadura juntada, doblez atiesado
Y que sugestión del absurdo –
Los perritos debajo de los pies.
Tal sencillez del pre-barroco
Apenas envuelve el ojo, hasta que
Encuentra su guante de la mano izquierda, todavía
Abrochado y vacío en la otra; y
Se ve, con un sobresalto agudo y tierno,
La mano de él retirada, agarrando la mano de ella.
No pensarían acostarse tan largo tiempo.
Tal fidelidad en efigie
Era solo un detalle que los amigos verían:
La gracia dulce y comisionada de un escultor
Echada ayudando prolongar
Los nombres latinos alrededor de la base.
No adivinarían que tan largo en
Su viaje bocarriba y estacionario
El aire cambiaría en daño sin sonido,
Echaría a la tenencia vieja;
Que tan pronto los ojos sucesores empiezan
Mirar, no leer. Rígidamente
Persistían, enlazados, a través larguras y anchuras
De tiempo. La nieve cayó, sin fecha. La luz
Cada verano se agolpó sobre la grama. Una brillante
Hojarasca de aves cantoras regó sobre la misma
Tierra esparcida de huesos. Y por los senderos
Vino la gente alterada y sin fin,
Lavando a su identidad.
Ahora, incapaz en el hueco de
Una época sin heráldica, una artesa
De humo suspendido en madejas lentas
Sobre su fragmento de historia.
Solamente una actitud queda:
El tiempo los ha transfigurado en
Falsedad. La fidelidad petrificada
Apenas intentaron ha venido a ser
Su ultima blasón y probar
Nuestro casi-instinto casi verdad;
Lo que sobrevivirá de nosotros es el amor.
Found a cheap pensión in Malaga – go to stroke a small black cat in the lobby, but am stopped by a middle aged malagueño. ‘He doesn’t like to be touched. He’s crazy in the head (loco en la cabeza)’ [with international whirling single finger next to head]. The man, who might be as mad as the cat, goes on to explain his theory of human-animal relations. Sifting rapid and unfamiliar Spanish (I was later told by an Andalucían ‘we chew our words’, mangling the terminations), it is as follows:
21.03.12. Peaceful to wait at Campillos station, a mile or so out of town down a track, whose length is disguised by the effect its straightness produces, in the afternoon sun. Hundreds of sparrows very busy in negotiations between bare trees lining the tracks. The view to the right is agricultural, oddly-peaked hills and fields in various stages of cultivation, variously parched different browns. To the left the Sierra begins, imposing lumps of what looks like grit stone.
Left with four hours to kill in Bobadilla, after missing a connecting train. I ask the man behind the desk what there is to do, and his companion replies, shaking his head: ‘there is very little’ (hay pocas cosas). The ticket man corrects him, as befits the authority of his station: No. No hay nada. (‘there is nothing’). He is not quite right – an abandoned soap and olive oil factory is pleasingly gothic-industrial in its ruination.
31. 03.12. Recuerdos de la semana pasada/Memories of the last week:
Un viejo cantaba Flamenco a una chica guapa en el bar ‘Embrujado’. Ella se puso turbada.
Parading up the hill away from the church into Campillos old town for a Semana Santa warm up, brass band at our backs. Even this small town contains five such bands, each with their own club house and favoured bar. Ours, by luck, is La Coronación – hasta la muerte!
1. 04. 12. Domingo de Los Ramos (Palm Sunday), processions in Campillos and Cabra. In the latter, on tour with La Coronación, a Campillos band contracted to play for a Cabra Cofradía (devotional float used in Semana Santa processions). There are, it turns out, two main ways of carrying one (at least in Andalucía), the importance of method becoming evident only upon seeing one and realising quite how heavy they must be, built as they are of wood and metal, with ornamentation in silver and gold.
In Cabra, as in all Córdoba province, the Sevillian approach is taken: the biggest men carry the Cofradía on thick back parts of their necks, supported by sack cloths. They are obscured underneath the float by a black cloth, and have to work a good deal harder than those carrying the Cofradía on their shoulders, the style in Málaga and Granada provinces. Hidden from view apart from their feet, these men lug the Cofradía through increasingly narrow streets to the rhythm of the band. Their size is belied by the practiced dance-step their feet betray beneath the drapes, moving forwards for, say, five–ten minutes at a time before resting for as long again. Owing to the many pauses, the physical condition of the people carrying the Cofradía give the whole thing a stop-start rhythm, with peaks of motion and excitement alternating with the buying of snacks and searching for bathrooms in nearby bars.
Each time they heft the thing onto their backs the people immediately around them applaud the effort, and with good reason: the parade becomes something of an endurance test for everyone involved, lasting, all told, from 7pm until 1pm, a full six hours. I remember also the palpable release of tension as the Cofradía eased through the church’s portal, only just wide enough for it.
‘I’m very interested in obliviousness’, John Lanchester remarked early in yesterday evening’s conversation with Vicky Pryce about his latest novel, Capital. Obliviousness of various sorts, but primarily of the bankers and other wealthy Londoners who, circa 2005-6, seemed to evince a strangely a-historical blindness about what was to come. Lanchester claimed that he knew a collapse was inevitable, in some form or another – his prescience was such that he began his financial crisis novel fully three years before the events themselves began to unfold. And it is the oblivious that history will always judge most harshly, he says, a task commenced mid-crisis by his book Whoops!, something that had grown ‘like a benign tumour’ on his work as a novelist, occupying the space between finishing the first draft of Capital and editing it.
Lanchester is not, as he freely admits, an economist in any sense. But he is possessed of the ability to explain rather than obfuscate, to cut through economist-speak and ’tell the story’ of the crisis, which has a narrative shape. The talk drifted at this point towards analogy between the two worlds, finance and fiction, without labouring the connection. Too much detail will kill a novel as surely as too many numbers will bewilder the lay reader. ’You can do absolutely anything you want in fiction, but you can’t explain. Research can be a dangerous thing.’
Capital is a microcosm novel: one London street, Pepys road in Clapham, standing for the whole city. A mixture of diversity and unfriendliness highlights the paradox that London is an ‘open city’ (rather than a closed one – exactly what is meant by this distinction is unclear, but presumably an attitude towards immigration is part of it), and yet is atomised, having very little sense of community. We don’t know our neighbours, and this type of obliviousness constitutes a form of good manners.
The experience of coming to London from an elsewhere in pursuit of ‘the London dream’ makes a good subject for a novel – most of the residents of Pepys Road aren’t born Londoners – and it might also be a bit like writing, it is suggested. For Lanchester, born in Hamburg and growing up in Hong Kong, arriving in London as a young man made him in some sense an immigrant to the culture, despite his English citizenship. The link between this experience and his profession is not coincidental, he stressed: ‘Every writer I know has some displacement in their lives’.
At the heart of all this, though, is money, contained in Capital’s punning title along with the sense of the city with which it is so entwined. The interesting thing about wealth for Lanchester is that beyond a certain quantity it assumes an abstract, paradoxically immaterial character at odds with the materialism it permits. An index of value, but also a kind of passion which has a mystic, not-fully-understood allure, much like the global markets Whoops! attempts to clarify.
Finally, we are left with the cautiously optimistic notion that economically flat times might be in some ways more interesting than eras of affluent confidence. Periods of relative penury may be more significant in terms of the inner lives of ordinary people, Lanchester suggests, and valuable political and artistic creativity could be the result. Perhaps Capital marks a beginning of this intriguing new moment of British history.
Several Mondays ago I attended a conference at the Geological Society on Poetry and Geology: another example of the innovative cross-department work being done that bridges poetics and the earth/natural sciences. As someone with a pretty short attention span and a pathologically dilettantish interest in things I haven’t been remotely trained to do or write about, interdisciplinary study appeals.
Most emphasised was the importance of 19th Century contexts for thinking about the relationship between contemporary poetics and geology. From the middle of the century in England geology took off scientifically – Darwin, Lyell, Hutton – while also possessing great resonance as an idea that could be called in some sense ‘poetic’: the forceful rethinking deep, geological timescales impelled, especially though not exclusively in its obvious conflict with Biblical accounts of the earth’s age, appealed to writers due to its promise of an expansive relativism, a way of thinking not previously accessible.
In the 19th Century this insight may have been destabilising, but as the instrument of its revelation was scientific, and science controlled by man, it didn’t serve to fundamentally shift humanity’s perception of its own centrality: if anything the converse, confidence boosted by the perceived power of a new order of knowledge.
It is hard to detect the progenitors of modern planetary anxiety in such anthropocentricism, difficult to discern the radically displaced, unheimlich human subject as posited by J.H. Prynne (not discussed at this event). Prynne’s employment, in his early work, of the figure of ‘geological sublime’ seems to reach back further, to the Romantics, submerging their sense of nature’s hostile indifference within stratifications and bedrock, combining it with scientific discourses that are no longer a source of comfort. The seeming immovability and immutability of the mountain was for Wordsworth and Shelley the perfect metaphor for nature’s permanence and indifference to man; in Prynne the use of a geological time scale discomforts because it demonstrates even the mountain’s (relative) transience (see 1968’s The White Stones, and in particular ‘Concerning the Glacial Question, Reconsidered’).
There may have been a Victorian anticipation of such geomorphological fluidity in some lines from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, quoted by Bryan Lovell:
‘The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.’ (IM, CXXIII)
The effect is something like a time lapse film: the liquidity of these lines is itself something processual, unfinished, and far from human.
Of course, ‘geo’ leads us beyond the realm of the strictly geological, as Gordon Peters’ talk on Scotland’s Geopoetics Centre suggested. Starting from the highlands in Scotland’s North West – the oldest rocks in the world, or ‘oldest of the old’, in the words of Kenneth White – Peters unfolded his ‘theory-practice’; basically that intellectual and sensory apprehensions of the world should be brought together around the subject of the earth, as their focus. Behind the lecture, and indeed partially the conference, is poet/geologist Kenneth White, whose quote might serve as the day’s tagline: ‘where geology and poetry meet is not a line of scholarship but an immersion.’
Bryan Lovell, President of the Geological Society, gave an impassioned speech, the thrust of which was that ‘the scientists have lost the public argument’: the implication being that poets are needed to try and bring home the facts of climate change to people empathetically, or through form, or affect.
Finally, the best (only?) geology joke I’ve heard (though hopefully not the last):
‘So I was at an outdoor geology lecture in the North West of Scotland, and I moved a little away from the group, and the lecturer asked me, “what are you doing?”
“I’m sitting on the basalt”, I said.
“That’s gneiss”, he said.
Further flogging an ageing donkey: an article mined from several of the blogposts below appeared in the very new and very excellent Banner. The piece concerns Guatemalan history and politics, with a focus on the city of Xela and the language school Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco. PDF of the issue in print here; my article is pp. 27-29.