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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clink

Moonbird, Blackrock, Co Dublin

peace or whatever comes closest, whatever’s left dawdling on the horizon

your full moon on the day before Christmas being Auden's (or, if Plath's, only in that execrable stuff you’ve been scribbling)

simmering family angers coming to boil in the bag

your middleaged familiar, Puff The Magic Dragon of Extinction, keeping to the back of the cave

the child giving the Thomas The TWank Engine and Lazy Town DVDs a rest and opting for Shaun The Sheep (or something similarly non-mind-contracting)

elastic flesh full of itchy surprises and flesh in tatters grating into the long sleep

spectacular kick-the-books-off-the-shelf sex or, if that is no longer on the menu, compassionate skin & tonic, whatever you’re wanting

the absent friends, the dead as doornails, the terminally lonely, the happily alone, the mastered by depression, the getting on with it, the coping, the coped with

tomorrow being less boring but not nearly as interesting as the Interesting Times we live in

nobody calling just now (maybe later)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Theatre of Poets: Green Jeans, Beer Mats & The People's Prick

Whitehouse bar Limerick

Puthwuth's last post was on the subject of readings. Not the common or garden readings where the question is (as Paul Durcan put it) "to clap weakly or weakly clap." No, rather those readings that stay in the memory because something goes awry. Ron Silliman, in his November 5th blog entry, also talks about readings. Last month he spotted a giant panda in his audience. He recollects an incident from the more distant past, where he witnessed:

"...Denise Levertov, the MC at a large, vastly overcrowded anti-war reading at Glide Church in San Francisco, getting genuinely hysterical onstage at the sight of The People’s Prick, an attendee who turn up in a six-foot tall bright pink terrycloth dildo costume. She threatened to shut the evening down on the spot and it took several of her peers to talk her down from this position, her own body visibly trembling with anger. She did not view this little bit of agitprop attendance – a direct antecedent, I suppose, of the panda who showed up at my reading last month in Ashland – in the spirit of women going topless at rock concerts, common enough at the time, but rather in the sense of the penis as an ever-present assault on women."

Great stuff: a new slant on Shakespeare's famous stage direction: Exit, followed by a panda (or penis).

Four incidents from my own experiences of giving poetry readings, the first two from The Foggy Dew pub, a popular venue for readings in the 1980s and 90s.

1.
As soon as I begin to read a sulky man in a denim jacket (perhaps angered by my West Brit accent) shouts: "Why don't you write a poem about Bobby Sands?" Another man (with a proper Dublin accent) asked why he doesn't write one himself, or if perhaps he would like to recite one? At that, the heckler heads for the door, his parting shot: "What are you, Fine Fail, Fine Gael or Sinn Fein?" My rather melodramatic reply: "I'm a human fucking being." The barman walks over to me with his hand out, grinning: "Good man! Good man!"

2.
A certain Dublin poet slurs and bellows his way through a huge wad of pomes, with no sign of letting anyone else take the stage. Another very drunk Dublin poet (well, if he isn't one he should be) tells him to shut up and sit down, then picks up a beer-mat and begins to read the back of it (about brewing, hops, copper vats, etc.) as if it's a poem, pausing meaningfully every so often. His timing is as perfect as an experienced stand-up comedian; the night suddenly turns into one of the best readings I've had the pleasure of attending.

3.
A poetry reading at IADT (or was it still called Dún Laoghaire School of Art and Design?) in the late 1980s or early 1990s, where I had recently worked as a life model, one of Quentin Crisp's 'naked civil servants'. I read to a fairly large group of students, a generous audience by the standards of most readings. I am confident that it is going well. The atmosphere seems easy-going, I crack a few jokes, there are no hecklers, the students ask some pertinent questions during the brief Q&A session afterwards. Before I leave, a couple of students approach me to say thanks or ask some final question. Finally, as I am in the corridor, one last smiling girl hands me a folded slip of paper, "a poem" she has written. I tell her I'll read it, and I do, when I get home. Though written as a short poem (I wish I'd kept it), it amounts to a series of criticisms: of my age (I was in my early 30s I think, already an old codger in her book), of my feeble attempts to ingratiate myself with the students by cracking limp, self-deprecating jokes, of my balding head and pathetic attire (my "green jeans", in particular, had offended her sense of sartorial elegance, perhaps justly). And I had thought her smile had been shy! Well, I think, fuck you very much, and I wish she had handed it to me earlier, so that I might have asked her to read it to the still-present audience of her peers, or I could have read it to them myself (either of which would probably have been a grave mistake).

4.
I am asked to give a reading in Dublin (I forget where, a LONG time ago). When I arrive, it becomes clear that I am a warm-up for a local rock band. The audience have had a few pints by this stage and are getting impatient. I become so pissed off with the heckling that I find myself shouting back at them (without quite realising what I am saying): "What do you want me to do, strip?"

"Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

Peter Sirr on his Cat Flap blog, recounted his experience of being hired by Dublin City Council to give a reading in St. Catherine's Park, off Thomas Street in Dublin:

"I was, though, a bit wary about reading in St Catherine's Park. Park is probably a bit of an exaggeration; it is in fact the graveyard at the rear of St Catherine's Church in Thomas St, with the entrance in Thomas Court – not by any means a major thoroughfare. I used to drop in with the mutt to give him a bit of greenery until I realised it seemed to be used exclusively by dealers and users. I find it hard to visualise it being packed with poetry lovers on a Wednesday lunchtime. And indeed there is no-one in the park except for one of the organisers and two sound technicians who have brought an impressive bank of equipment in their Dublin City Council truck, which sits in the middle of the park, taking up about a third of it. The podium and mike are set up and waiting. It's five minutes after the advertised time and there's still no-one. A woman comes in and sits at the other end of the park. This is briefly interpreted as the act of an audience member and there is the real possibility of delivering the reading to a single distant auditor, though the sound equipment will safely carry my voice all around the Liberties. The woman, however, proves not to have come in search of poetry and faced with the prospect of enduring some, promptly flees the park.

The users who were evicted when the sound men came to set are out there somewhere, waiting for us to leave. There is some talk of reading to the organiser, or reading, as it were, speculatively, in the hope that people in the area, magnetised by my amplified poems, will pour into the park. Em, don't think so. Eventually the effort is abandoned and the cheerful soundmen – 'it's all the same to us, we get paid anyway' – load up the truck, and we all drift off. Through Pimlico and The Coombe and back home."

The worst kind of audience isn’t hecklers, users, Pandas or giant sexual organs (indeed the latter two may be among the best). Nor is it, I think, the absence of any audience at all (Durcan wrote a great poem about the experience of giving a reading to an empty hall). No, the worst kind of audience is probably Jonathan Pryce and Tim Curry in that film The Ploughman's Lunch (remember?). Pryce is a grovelling, cold-hearted, ambitious little shit and Curry is his pal. They find themselves at a rather solemn poetry reading (presumably not a very good one) and cannot contain their mirth. They let it all hang out, sniggering then laughing uproariously, veritably rolling in the aisles. It's a very funny scene, as I remember it: the sorely puzzled expressions of the other people, including the poet, the sense of two utterly different worlds colliding. It hasn't happened to me yet. I hope that if it ever does I'll be able to handle it, either by joining in or decking the bastards.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Return of The Cat People

Toby in RETURN OF THE CAT PEOPLE 2

Toby is a tom-kitten: chocolate-grey, slightly fluffy, a bit yowly and attention-seeking in the mornings, given to sudden manic dashes, but otherwise sleeps most of the afternoon, and he doesn't seem to mind the wean too much. Most importantly, he's a people kitten. That is, he likes being stroked and making like a lap-cat.

My wife's brother saw him wandering around on a traffic island off the main Wexford road. When he pulled in and approached, the kitten ran away. He gave up after a little while, only to realise that the kitten was following him back to the car. So he gave the critter to my wife for her birthday. She is delighted. So am I. So is my mother. I like the name Toby, too, though it can get mixed up with the Toby from Thomas The Tank Engine, our son's current favourite (DVDs, toys, t-shirts, shoes, pyjamas...).

It is about 16 months now since I found my wife's cat Sophie stretched out by the side of the road. She was already past middle age (her 'grand climacteric') when she came here and she did well to survive a few years on this manic rat-run through the leafy suburbs. We're planning to keep Toby indoors for a while, till he grows up a little, and hopefully grows somewhat calmer, at which point we'll encourage him to use the back door (giving onto the the safe, weedy gardens), rather than the front, with its steps straight down onto the cars' sacrificial long, grey altar.

This may be the only time I post anything that could be said to belong to that greeting card genre, 'The cat poem', but this seems a fitting occasion. Here's four. The first two (of which only the second is 'about' a cat) are by me. 'A Familiar' is from my recent collection, The Sky Road:

A Familiar

Shadowy desire,
for ages now we’ve been keeping
a place for you. Are you dead?

No, I’m still here.
Feel and you’ll find me sleeping
at the end of your bed.


Pet Cat

Our fingertips know what to ask for.
After helping dress the day
in its familiar surfaces
(clothes, doorknob, steering wheel, bannister-rail...)
they need you like sleep.

Entering the flow of your fur –
tingly pure electric gift –
each short stroke
is an unconscious cadence shaped
by the rising angle of your tail.

Turned on, your idling motor
is the absolute sound of pleasure.

Show us how to trace the current,
teach us to purr.


Of the following two poems (both addressed to elderly cats), the first, by Edward Thomas, is probably the stronger. It is certainly the tougher. Its rural sourness is kin to the later (R.S.) Thomas's poems about the Welsh countryside; a poem about trees contains the injunction: "Cut them down". The cat in Edward Thomas's poem is a world away from cosy 'Old Possum's book; the drowned kittens remind me of Heaney's 'scraggy wee shits' and the 'god' in the final line sounds coldly ironic. But it's the final poem, by John Keats, that I am fondest of, even if it does border on the sentimental:

A Cat

She had a name among the children;
But no one loved though someone owned
Her, locked her out of doors at bedtime
And had her kittens duly drowned.

In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails.

I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.


To Mrs. Reynolds's Cat

Cat! who hast pass'd thy grand climacteric,
How many mice and rats hast in thy days
Destroy'd? -- How many tidbits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears -- but pr'ythee do not stick
Thy latent talons in me -- and upraise
Thy gentle mew -- and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists --
For all the wheezy asthma, -- and for all
Thy tail's tip is nick'd off -- and though the fists
Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
In youth thou enter'dst on glass-bottled wall.

"Pr'ythee do not stick thy latent talons in me!"

A great fuckoff line, no? An invitation to a list on a glass-bottled wall.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Duck's Tribunal

Liffey duck-fishers

Overheard on the radio. A Dublin woman in a vox pop about Bertie and the Mahon Tribunal: "If he fell into the Liffey he'd come out dry."

Monday, September 17, 2007

When A Pigeon Is Not A Pigeon

Pigeon, Old Bandstand, Dún Laoghaire

"Pigeons on the grass alas" wrote Gertrude Stein.

James Thurber wrote a retort to this in his little piece "There's An Owl In My Room". Here's a couple of extracts:

"It is neither just nor accurate to connect the word alas with pigeons. Pigeons are definitely not alas. They have nothing to do with alas and they have nothing to do with hooray (not even when you tie red, white, and blue ribbons on them and let them loose at band concerts); they have nothing to do with mercy me or isn't that fine, either. White rabbits, yes, and Scotch terriers, and blue-jays, and even hippopotamuses, but not pigeons. I happen to have studied pigeons very closely and carefully, and I have studied the effect, or rather the lack of effect, of pigeons very carefully. A number of pigeons alight from time to time on the sill of my hotel window when I am eating breakfast and staring out the window. They never alas me, they never make me feel alas; they never make me feel anything."

He goes on:

"From where I am sitting now I can look out the window and see a pigeon being a pigeon on the roof of the Harvard Club. No other thing can be less what it is not than a pigeon can, and Miss Stein, of all people, should understand that simple fact. Behind the pigeon I am looking at, a blank wall of tired gray bricks is stolidly trying to sleep off oblivion; underneath the pigeon the cloistered windows of the Harvard Club are staring in horrified bewilderment at something they have seen across the street. The pigeon is just there on the roof being a pigeon, having been, and being, a pigeon and, what is more, always going to be, too. Nothing could be simpler than that. If you read that sentence aloud you will instantly see what I mean. It is a simple description of a pigeon on a roof. It is only with an effort that I am conscious of the pigeon, but I am acutely aware of a great sulky red iron pipe that is creeping up the side of the building intent on sneaking up on a slightly tipsy chimney which is shouting its head off."

I empathise with Thurber, and I am of a like mind where pigeons are concerned, but I cannot agree with him (alas). I've come to realise that all things, pigeons included, are as alas as one finds them. I don't find much alas in pigeons, but a woman I worked with did; she hated them with all the spine-tingling horror most people reserve for hairy-jumpy spiders, bats and rats. She hated the arrogant way they assumed ownership of the streets and pavements, only lifting off at the last possible moment; the way their unclean wings whizzed past her ear. She told me how once she had had to hail a cab in a pigeon-infested area (Leicester Square, I think, where they used to be Legion). When a cab stopped she proceeded by waving her umbrella like a sword, shouting "Shoo! Shoo!" to clear the way. The smartass cabbie leaned out of his window and said: "Shoe? Sorry love, but that looks more like a brolly to me."

Sunday, September 09, 2007

'Prosperity' IS The Real Thing

'what you are'

I may come back later and add more, but I just wanted to put in a plug for the new Irish drama, 'Prosperity', which I watched last Monday. I was glad to see that the Saturday Irish Times gave it a thumbs up. Lenny Abrahamson (director) and Mark O’Halloran (writer) are the team who gave us 'Adam & Paul', the unfolding of a grim, blackly comic day in the life of two Dublin junkies. Beautifully written, directed, acted and edited, that film was remarkable for its quiet but relentless focus on the wanderings these two individuals. Yet, up till the very end, nothing remarkable happens; yet the whole adventure is remarkable, human in the fullest sense of the word.

My cousin, who edited 'Adam & Paul', alerted me to 'Prosperity', which she has also worked on. The first one-hour episode, like 'Adam & Paul', involved quite a bit of wandering. Subtitled 'Stacey' (the name of the main character, a teenaged mother), it follows her through her day; leaving her hostel with her baby, visiting the mall (where she gets chatted to by a friendly security man), meeting her edgy, scuzzy boyfriend Dean (the dad), getting a talking-to by her bitter but wiser sister, meeting a guy with a beat-up face ("walked into a door") who asks if he can 'borrow' one of her cans of beer... and so on.

But this run-through tells you next to nothing. The directing, script and acting are perfect. There is an unobstusiveness, a tact and clarity that make 'Prosperity' the freshest thing I have seen in ages.

It is uncomfortable to watch in places, such as the scene in the cafe where Dean kisses shy, introverted Stacey deeply and intimately for far too long. Whether this is to humiliate her or get her aroused enough that she will ask her sister to babysit for an hour so that he can fuck her, or both, is not clear. You recoil because you have been given enough time to feel Stacey's vulnerability, her carefully applied mask, a makeup of silence and indifference. But this is as things should be; we should be able to feel Stacey's discomfort here and elsewhere, such discomfort being very much a part of who she is.

Watching 'Prosperity', there is a sense of something refined, a dramatic clearing where the usual paraphernalia has been removed. The characters are given real space to move in, 3D space, living space. The framing and focus are absolutely right. There are many close-ups. We notice Stacey's jewellery, the new hair-clip she buys, which a girlfriend remarks on but which is, naturally, way off the boyfriend's radar (Dean probably wouldn't have noticed if she'd dyed her hair green).

The similarities with Ken Loach's films have been noted. Some might think it pretentious that one of the reviewers in the IT mentioned Joyce's Ulysses. But I believe it is perfectly apt: that leisurly, wandering pace, deep-focus space and time in which odd details crystalise. I was reminded of Beckett. There is the ear for demotic speech (and more importantly, demotic silence), which he and Joyce shared. There is the waiting, mirrored by the resignation waiting in the wings, the black comedy. I was also reminded of Robert Altman, especially the first film of his I saw, 'Nashville', those parallel lives converging but in no hurry to do so.

The first episode of 'Prosperity' is, truly, a work of art. I am looking forward to the next, on Monday, 9.30, RTE 2. You should be, too.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Sky Road Hits The Road

My second collection, 'The Sky Road'

My second collection of poetry, The Sky Road, was launched yesterday by my good friend, the poet Yvonne Cullen. Poetry Ireland organised the venue, the old Unitarian Church on St Stephen's Green in Dublin, a lovely, solid, cosy little church, with very nice stained glass windows. I noticed on the way in that someone had left out a number of glossy, well-produced pamphlets of The Gospel according to Mark; an auspicious sign.

The turnout was good (for a reading), the wine flowed freely, and I think most people enjoyed the event; at least I didn't detect any ominous symtoms, such as that dreaded sense of anticlimax, the uncertainty to (as Paul Durcan put it) "clap weakly or weakly clap." After the reading, Sam generously took the wean home to bed, and a crowd of us went to the hotel nearby for grub and booze (I ordered steak). My two ancient friends/cousins Pat and Dave, caught the LUAS (a kind of tram) with me back to Sandyford, though we got off too early and ended up walking in a persistent drizzle till we got hold of a taxi.

As with my first collection, Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Poetry and her designer Siobhán Hutson, accepted one of my own images for the cover. I am particularly pleased with this one (from a photo I shot nearly 15 years ago, of a couple asleep on a Wicklow bus). I believe Siobhán's design and choice of font is perfect.

The book is now available in Dublin bookstores (e.g. Books Upstairs on College Green) and on the Salmon website: HERE


Here's three poems from the collection:


Before And After
for Samantha and Simon


1

Watching sea and sky
darken and simplify,

I think of what’s now in hand –
the stubby, white plastic wand

you drew from your handbag to show
(in its recessed, thumbnail window)

two, clear-blue lines,
one light, one darkly defined:

a skipped heartbeat, a stone
out of sight, over the known

peaceable old horizon
I had rested my eyes on.


*

Now he is sounded, swept
into webbings of light,

restless, more and less real,
metaphors on a roll,

none clearer than the top
of his skull: oval, a raindrop

let go, falling on course,
eye to eye with the Earth

dreaming up sun, moon, stars
in its hammock of waters.


2

Stroking his forehead, I found it
by accident, that soft spot
under the skin, where the young bone
knits... knits... knits...

His lopsided, premature smile
is a quiver of pain. He is all
there, solid, a touchstone
in touch, a part of the main.


3

This is how I find he has nosed
his spreading taproot down
into my days.
I come to
in my old pose, at a window,
lightly swaying from foot
to foot,
as if nursing more
than a paperback (his warm bulk);
surprised to find our rock-
abye rhythm – the day itself,
gentled,
cradling my old head –
even in prose.



On My 100th Birthday
for Barry, Chris, Dave, Dom, Johnny, Pat, Ronan, T.P., Willy and the rest

There will be time for one
last night on the town,

a warm lounge branching off
a dark side-street

and later, much later, a fleet
of missed buses, unhitched lifts

(to one of those all-nighters
of our dreams),

leaving us, as we were,
not quite at a loss,

possessing our keyless chain
to the closing city,

its warren of locked doors
and washed-out stars –

as if we could sing ourselves sober
as if we could talk ourselves drunk


or, after all, make tracks
through the abandoned heart

of the dim-lit 70s,
as if that was the way – where was I?

My shout. And then we’ll go
get ready to make a start.



The Kiss

is wakening there in the roots of bright green moss

coppery cool, our soft hands parted for rumours
of newts, mud-backed, with sunrises on their bellies,
air flicking and flicking its dragonfly lures;

in the first big fear – Fire – I took in hand
with one fat yellow crayon, slowly, deliberately
scribbling the bland page to a big-mouthed roar;

in the lines of a first poem stumbling into my head
on a blood-hammering climb up a steep hill into the blue
sun: the small song of the beast that might love the impossible...

in the high of takeoff, cloud-wrapped tissuey light
of Dublin, tilting and shrinking, ungathered history
of rucked ashgreen, spilt houses, the lost thread of the road;

in Hubble’s random ‘grain of sand held at arm’s length’
blown to a three-page spread in the National Geographic,
a black beach grainy with old lights, starspawn, the firmament;

in the sure touch of certain rounded stones, Bray beach
blue with the last dark, clicking under my shoes,
and, Yes, the dancehall swirl of the first girl whose tongue tipped

my own, intimate, blown kiss at the cosmos.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

One Of The Houses

joyce plaque

ONE OF THE HOUSES
JAMES JOYCE LIVED IN,
ONCE

James Joyce ivy
on James Joyce plaque,
James Joyce pebbles
on James Joyce dash,
James Joyce knocker
on James Joyce door,
James Joyce dust
on James Joyce floor,
James Joyce windows
with James Joyce glass
waiting for James Joyce
clouds to pass.


Friday, April 27, 2007

The Shadow of The Witch

witch shadow

I turned 50 a couple of weeks ago. It was a bit like the fabled Millennium, and the fabled Y2K Bug that never bit; another number, milestone, speed limit, the busy flickering of ghostly symbols in a deserted station. The universe of numbers is just another kind of dream, since we keep waking to the perpetual present where they don't (can't) count. As Eliot put it:

'... the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm."

Or, perhaps more pertinently:

'Fifty today, old lad?
Well, that's not doing so bad:
All those years without
Being really buggered about.
The next fifty won't be so good,
True, but for now—touch wood—
You can eat and booze and the rest of it...'

from 'Ode To Me' by Kingsley Amis

I first came across this in a Penguin selection of Kingsley Amis's poems, which I'd bought in a bookshop near Charing Cross tube around 20 years ago. Far from his best poem, but the first few lines stayed with me for some reason (a few lines later the poem becomes a right-wing rant about 'The Soviet sphere' invading England like Mordor encroaching on The Shire).

The son, Martin, also wrote lines that stayed with me, the closing paragraph from his novel 'The Information', about a writer waking to middle age:

"The Man in the Moon is getting younger every year. Your watch knows exactly what time is doing to you: tsk, tsk, it says, every second of every day. Every morning we leave more in the bed, more of ourselves, as our bodies make their own preparations for reunion with the cosmos. Beware the aged critic with his hair of winebar sawdust. Beware the nun and the witchy buckles of her shoes. Beware the man at the callbox, with the suitcase: this man is you. The planesaw whines, whining for its planesaw mummy. And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night."

That "nun with witchy buckles"... Another incarnation of the woman on the creaky bicycle from 'The Wizard of Oz'. And the man in Amis's book is only FORTY!

For myself, I guess the Information is arriving alright, but in dribs and drabs: no revelationary torrents yet, thanks be to Nothing. I imagine few peoples' lives become as "clear" to them as Philip Larkin's "lading list". Sometimes birthdays can provide miniature clearings (or the illusion of clearings, which about amounts to the same thing). Ten years ago, I opened our front door and caught my first glimpse of the Hale-Bopp comet. Here's the poem I wrote about it:

A COMET AT 4 a.m.

One late last look
before bed, and there
it is, finally, a flared
slightly bigger star
plunging but held,
dissolving in the bluey dark
above sleepshut houses and gardens.
Brightest on April the first,
the day before I turn forty.
Birthday candle, fuse-light,
your failing exclamation mark
will work its way
to the back of the mind,
where I’ve let in these words, minutes
tailing from the earthly core
of a spring morning, here
on the doorstep.


Ten years later, the signs are less rueful. I am married to a wonderful woman and we have a beautiful little boy. Though we woke up Monday morning feeling crap (a stomach bug), we recovered somewhat by late afternoon. My wife brought me a little chocolate birthday cake with one candle and a balloon blazoned with the number in question. Our appetites hadn't recovered yet, but our son had fun blowing out the candle and playing with the balloon (and eating plenty of cake).

That evening we celebrated my birthday in style, with cousins and friends, in Layla, a great Turkish restaurant on Pembroke Street. Someone called for a speech, so I made one (about 10 words, amounting to "thanks everyone"). When they asked for a poem the only vaguely appropriate one I could think of (which I know by heart) was James Fenton's blackly funny 'God, A Poem'. I'm pretty sure this has been widely anthologised, but for those who haven't come across it, here's the opening stanzas:

"A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground."

So here I am, 50 and still aboveground. I am not yet at that point where, were I to drop dead, people might dust off the platitudes about me having had "a good innings", but I am long past the point where phrases like "so young!" could have any real meaning (no matter what people say about 50 being "the new 40").

Larkin has some resonant phrases for this time of life. In his poem 'The Old Fools' he mentions "extinction's alp", a familiar landmark that "stays in view wherever [younger people] go", but is hidden from the "old fools", since for them it has become "rising ground". Hopefully, I am not one of Larkin's ideal readers, those men "whose first heart attack is coming like Christmas." But I am now in the foothills of Heart Trouble and Cancer Country, even if the lie of the land doesn't seem that threatening. Strange. Death and I are now on speaking terms, though I don't share Emily Dickinson's or Stevie Smith's affection for what Hemmingway called "that old whore". I am in no great hurry to get back to where I am going. Anyway, what's to look forward to? The tunnel of light is here and now, not at the bricked-off end.

The contradictions are gathering, fast and thick. I want to keep living, as long as possible, yet I also want to keep at least a modicum of what makes living worth while: memory, reasonable mental and physical health...all the things you eventually forfeit for longevity, till all you're left with is enough small change to cross the river (sorry; the metaphors, also, are gathering fast and thick). Death or life? Provided extreme pain or depression doesn't make an appearance, there is no contest is there? And if there is a contest, a weighing up? As an old friend of mine once put it, “you might as well stick around for the lightshow.”

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Mask of Images

Woman in a bird mask


In his often-quoted introduction to Robert Frank’s series of photographs, ‘The Americans’, Jack Kerouac wrote:

'Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America on to film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world'.

“Sucked a sad poem..." I’m not sure I even like the phrase, but I’ve never forgotten it. And I am unlikely to forget the gist of the following passages, from Roland Barths’ 1980s book 'Camera Lucida' (Barths admits from the start that he is ‘not a photographer, not even an amateur one’):

‘We might say that photography is unclassifiable. Then I wondered what the source of this disorder might be.

The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid…’

‘Show your photographs to someone – he will immediately show you his: “Look, this is my brother; this is me as a child,” etc.; the photograph is never anything but an antiphon of “Look”, “See”, “Here it is”; it points a finger at certain vis-à-vis and cannot escape this pure, deictic language.’

‘The photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both… This fatality (no photograph without something or someone) involves Photography in the vast disorder of objects – of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other? Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language; but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.’

Sucking a sad [or noble] poem, or souring like neglected milk.

It is good to keep such opposing perspectives in mind. As much as we may be sucking sad (or occasionally happy) poems out of the world, we are also doing the opposite: blowing images into the world, each one another piece, another pixel of that ongoing, worldly collage. Were the final work ever assembled (on some Day of Aesthetic Judgment) it would no doubt already cover the planet. More likely, it would plaster the planet, in the way that a child plasters a balloon with gluey strips of newspaper that will harden into the mold for a papier-mâché mask.

Still, I keep taking photographs, more so than ever these days, with the digital Canon 10D I bought a couple of years ago (vastly outdated now of course, technology on its ever-accelerating treadmill).

What am I at anyway? Why add more images to the mask? The simplest answer is probably twofold: firstly, that this outlet, this means (for framing the world at every turn) is so tantalisingly available; secondly, that I have always been particularly obsessed with the visual; so that my writing is steeped in it. I could ask the same questions of my efforts at poetry. Why more images, metaphors, secular thanksgiving? Most of the stuff written by others and myself is mere wallpaper for our little, laboratory-bubbles of time; they will break on the surface (that calm, unshakable meniscus) without so much as a sigh.

Perhaps this all seems a little moribund and deflationary. Let me make clear that I love photography, almost as much as I love poetry. The first time I got a loan of someone's SLR in 1979 (while working as a KP in Captain America's Restaurant in Grafton Street) I was smitten. I held in my hands a device by which I could frame whatever came within the sphere of my way of looking, my slant, my 'eye'. John Berger (possibly quoting someone else) called photographs 'quotations from appearances', unlike paintings, which are 'translations'.

Photography has become wholly accessible now (to anyone in the First World, that is). We are all adept at pointing and snap/quoting. Does this make it any less exciting? Perhaps it does. But there is still ample room for delight: Mary Ellen Mark's travellers, Koudelka's gypsies and urban landscapes, Salgado's workers, Parr's tourists... For myself, I try to keep a line open to my initial thrill, that first, real buzz in Captain America's.

Can a photograph be a work of art? Even Barthes, for all his scepticism, admits that there is a photographic aesthetic; this is bound up of course in the essential quality of the photograph and its subject (Referent). As Barthes puts it: '...this stubborness of the Referent always being there would produce the essence I was looking for'. Yep. That's what photography is, a great buffalo wallow of referentiality.

Photography, like poetry in some respects (Barthes compares certain kinds of photographs to haiku), is about looking and memory, about the concentrated glance. In that sense, it is primal; we were framing moments of the world long before we had cameras or film.

And before humans happened along the world photographed itself, and keeps doing so, through any odd little hole (in a tree, a cave, a keyhole..): accidental pinhole cameras. Such as the one I was introduced to in the poem below; about a visit to my old friend's little terrace house in Glasthule, Co Dublin:

ART HOUSE
in memory of Trevor Scott

His hall was a narrow dark cubicle. “Do you see it?”
On one wall, a square of soft light – a postcard
cinema – was showing part of a door
and window, the redbrick terrace house from
across the street. Oh. I was inside a camera
obscura, a keyhole lightshow. On cue
an upside down girl in a lilac raincoat walked
past. And the secretive universe blinked.

I see. This is how things take in
each other, how the rays of day enter
a keyhole, dressing a dark, unadorned wall;
how the hinterland composes itself, for itself,
standing as it wants to stand, silent, unadjusted,
on its head, at the apple of its own eye.


(from my collection, 'The Sky Road', published by Salmon in May 2007).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On a minor / Major note

Major vs Minor

I recently got involved in a discussion on the subject of being, or wanting to be, a major writer. This itself was an offshoot of another subject, namely Reginald Shepherd's blog about his reasons for writing poetry: Why I Write. I withdrew when our comments seemed to be developing an accretion of misunderstandings. This was at least partly my fault, perhaps wholly so. I was too flippant. Who was I to presume to play the jester in another writer's court? And an articulate writer at that, someone with carefully considered things to say. Nevertheless, some of what I said still holds true for me. As Reginald noted, he and I have different viewpoints. His is perfectly valid, but I believe mine is too.

Like Shepherd, I too would like to think that what I write matters in some way, that it reaches people and (hopefully) moves them; that it might make a reader pause and catch his/her breath as some dormant experience is revitalised, seen anew. That's an exciting thought, that I could embody some essential part of human experience, detach and somehow reshape an eddy from the rushing confluence of life and language; make it real again, give it a coherent worldlet to breathe in. To me, that seems enough to aim for. When I come upon a poet who does this for me, such as Eamon Grennan, Eileán Ní Chúilleanáin or Yusef Komunyakaa, I never wonder whether I may be reading a major writer. Instead, I might (as Larkin put it) think: "That's marvelous, how is it done, could I do it?"

Anyway, I am a little mystified as to what, exactly, denotes a great or major poet or poem. A major poem is, I guess, one that pushes the envelope in some way; not only sitting like a "stone in the midst of all", but also continually broadcasting, sending ripples through the generations. Must a major poem be linguistically innovative, like 'The Wasteland'? I suppose Eliot's modernist enterprise must be major, though I do not understand that much of it, and I get impatient with poems requiring 'Notes'. I love the music of it though, the way it shifts its focus fluidly, like a living thing. I love 'The Four Quartets (more quietly enigmatic but wholly compelling and incantatory) for similar reasons, despite its religious overtones, its occasional high churchy sense of a persona-in-a-pulpit. I trust where these poems take me – their lines that whistle through my mind like a sinewy subway breeze – because they have the capacity to haunt.

I don't wonder very much about whether the poetry I am writing or reading is great. I prefer reading or writing the shorter forms, what one might call ‘suitcase poems’. If I am taken by a particular poem, I like to think that I might be able to carry it (a large part of it anyway) around in my head, like a good song, though of course this isn't by any means an obligatory requirement.

Andrew Motion recently declared that there were only four or five great poets of the 20th Century, one of them being Auden. Perhaps he’s right, but this sounds to me like the kind of sweeping, reductive statement that one often hears from writers trying too obviously to push some agenda. According to Eliot, "the really valuable part" of Andrew Marvell's oeuvre "consists of a very few poems". So should Marvell, or any poet who leaves only a handful of important poems, be considered a great / major poet? If Marvell had only left us one poem, 'To His Coy Mistress' say, would he deserve the title ‘Great’, and if not why not? What's so great about Greatness anyway? Something inside me (a little warning light) begins to blink when I hear a person or country being described as Great: Great Writer, Great Leader, Great Britain. Thatcher was probably a Great Woman, in the same way that World War 1 was The Great War.

Is Greatness the same as Majorness? Pound's 'Cantos' probably qualifies as major, but is it a great work? His imagist gems are the ones that stay in my head (not that my head is some kind of ideal repository). Geoffrey Hill might be a major contender; his work is certainly ambitious enough. 'Mercian Hymns' is marvelous. But it is his short lyrics, 'Ovid In The Third Reich' and 'September Song' for example, that impress me as perfect (or as near perfect as one can get). I believe Frost's 'Birches' and 'Bishop's 'The Art of Losing' and 'At The Fishhouses', are great poems, but are they Great or Major, and should anybody care?

As to whether I will ever be considered great or even good by posterity (whatever that may be), I never give much thought to it. I have my doubts that any of my work will survive, or even get reissued once after I'm gone, or that I even deserve to be remembered, though merit may not have all that much to do with it. I write out of compulsion; an image or half-phrase tugs at me and I follow it. Sometimes I get up to scribble a few lines in the early hours, but more often I find myself redrafting poems that suggest that they may, in time, be made craftworthy. For me, self-doubt is just part of the equipment, like ballast for the hot air balloonist.

Others need to have some ambitious goal in their sights, something not quite over the horizon, and I respect that; whatever floats their boats. But my empathy is reserved for writers like Thomas McGuane, who consider it healthy to embrace one's own insignificance. Here he is in a recent Guardian interview:

"I find it more consoling to think of myself as little than to think of myself as big. I think I've gotten that from animals, particularly dogs. Dogs live such a modest life and they don't live long, and the more you're around them, you kind of accept that. A lot of urban people who are intensely involved in human society seem furious that they're not bigger in the scheme of things." These are the sorts of people who ask, "What is nature for?" McGuane sighs. "Nature's not for anything."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Permeable or Impermeable

Inis Touch

I remember someone (it may have been one of Don Paterson's aphorisms) comparing a good poem to a kind of secret door in a rock-face; once you found the way in you were presented with an unexpected vista, a whole, roomy landscape you hadn't expected. Then you left the poem, without quite remembering the way in or out. I think I remember Heany talking about something similar, which he might have referred to (riffing on Larkin) as the "poem with a hole in it"; the poem with a certain 'extraness' that resists easy elucidation: once you try to break it down into its constituent parts the door (or the hole) vanishes.

That's one way of putting it, perhaps to close to cod-mysticism for its own good. My point is that I prefer poems with some permeability, that allow for a little absorption. I don’t mind if I am slowed by some surprising linguistic texture, so long as I am able to reach in and explore around it; and so long as its shape seems pertinent to the rest. I can certainly enjoy a poem whose meaning eludes me or at least "resists my intelligence"; I don't think Bishop's At The Fishhouses is 'easy' (not to me anyway), but I trust where it takes me. Its sensuous but exacting imagery has what Reginald Shepherd might call "palpable texture." So does Komunyakaa's Facing It. So does 'The Waste Land'. So do short stretches of The Cantos.

Some poems are all but impermeable though; deliberately flat, fragmented, disassembled then bodged together again with parts conspicuously missing. You can solve such poems in the way you can a crossword puzzle, if you're good at cryptic clues and allusions. But it seems a thankless task to me (I'll admit I'm crap at crosswords).

Auden (who sang the praises of the permeable limestone landscape) called poetry "memorable speech." I think great, or even just good, poems should have at least an element of this; they should resonate in the way that a good song or piece of music does. If they manage that I will forgive them much, including a good deal of impermeability.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

What One Note Holds: The Short Poem



How short can a poem be, if it is to remain a poem? The Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote a series of one-word poems (though the titles were often considerably longer). There are poems with no content, only titles, such as Don Paterson's 'On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him', or James Wright's 'In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems'.

I like those two, but often the 'litty' combination of brevity and levity falls far short of the mark set by the best comedians. Take Woody Allen's 'Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it' or 'I am at two with nature'. Then there's Groucho Marx's delightfully surreal 'Outside of a dog a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.'

Essentially, very short poems are not that different from other kinds; they work (or fail to work) for much the same reasons longer poems do. So a short poem, like any other, isn't a poem when it is ONLY a set-up for a punch line, a sentimental platitude or a statement (political or otherwise) that would be better served in prose.

But what should one make of the following?

IMAGE

Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.

Some would dispute that T.E. Hulme's couplet is in fact a poem. I think it is (and so did Larkin apparently, who included it in his Oxford anthology). For me, the poem manages a kind of magic, a cinematic, reverse-time-lapse effect, running history backwards, undressing all those gaunt, respectable old houses we've seen and momentarily wondered about, leaving civilization without its facade, but with a cocky, human note, almost the air of a song. Hulme wrote little poetry (his Complete Poetical Works when it was published in The New Age in 1912 consisted of five poems); so it is remarkable that he is acknowledged as the founder of the Imagist Movement, which had such an important influence on Pound.

Many approximations of haiku, tanka, epigrams etc. have as much substance as soap bubbles, and none of the buoyancy. But when very short lyrics work they can trigger what Tobias Wolff might call 'synaptic lightning', allowing the reader to enter a space as startlingly expansive as the interior of Dr. Who's Tardis. Pound has some fine examples, such as his 'And the days are not full enough':


And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
      Not shaking the grass


The kind of short poems that interest me are usually those with strikingly effective imagery, though there are exceptions, such as Oppen's 'There is the one word...'.

I've been reading Kuno Meyer's recently reissued 'Ancient Irish Poetry', which has a number of epigrams and short poems. Here's his translation of an anonymous poem from the 9th Century:

THE VIKING TERROR

Bitter is the wind tonight.
It tosses the ocean's white hair.
Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.


D.H. Lawrence wrote some memorable short lyrics. I took out my hefty Penguin edition of his Complete Poems, thinking I might discover many that were new to me (or that I had forgotten). I was a little disappointed to find only a few more short poems that held together for me, and to realise that many were rather dull. But I also came across some interesting things. The first paragraph of his introduction to his 1929 book, ‘Pansies’, is worth quoting:

“These poems are called ‘Pansies’ because they are rather ‘Pensées’ than anything else. Pascal or La Bruyère wrote their ‘Pensées’ in prose, but it has always seemed to me that a real thought, a single thought, not an argument, can only exist easily in verse, or in some poetic form. There is a didactic element about prose thoughts which makes them repellent, slightly bullying… We don’t want to be nagged at.”

Indeed; few people desire to be nagged at, or to read nagging poems. Lawrence wrote some remarkable poetry, especially about animals and plants. But he had very definite, often irritable and dogmatic, ideas about many things. Too often, the short poems are bursts of invective, flak from some war he seemed to be engaged in with certain kinds of English women and men; many amount to little more than framed Opinions. He acknowledges as much himself in the second paragraph:

“So I should wish these ‘Pansies’ to be taken as thoughts rather than anything else; casual thoughts that are true while they are true and irrelevant when the mood and circumstance changes. I should like them to be as fleeting as pansies, which wilt so soon, and are so fascinating with their varied faces.”

The weaker poems in ‘Pansies’ (and in Lawrence’s ‘Complete Poems’) are probably true enough to their time, though hardly less didactic or bullying than equivalent prose thoughts, and likely more pretentious. But the best of Lawrence’s short poems, just a couple of handfuls, are more than casual thoughts; these are perpetually fresh, classics of the genre.

So here is my nosegay:

THE WHITE HORSE

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.


THE RAINBOW

Even the rainbow has a body
made of the drizzling rain
and is an architecture of glistening atoms
built up, built up
yet you can't lay your hand on it,
nay, not even your mind.


SEA-WEED

Sea-weed sways and sways and swirls
as if swaying were its form of stillness;
and if it flushes against fierce rock
it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.


NIGHT

Now that the night is here
A new thing comes to pass, eyes close
And the animals curl down on the dear earth, to sleep.
But the limbs of man long to fold and close upon the living body
of another human being
In shut-eyed touch.


NOTHING TO SAVE

There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet.


LIZARD

A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sounding of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow! the right toss of a chin for you
and swirl of a tail!

If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.


NON-EXISTENCE

We don't exist unless we are deeply and sensually in touch
with that which can be touched but not known.


RELATIVITY

I like relativity and quantum theories
because I don't understand them
and they make me feel as if space shifted about like
a swan that can't settle,
refusing to sit still and be measured;
and as if the atom were an impulsive thing
always changing its mind.


LITTLE FISH

The tiny fish enjoy themselves
in the sea.
Quick little splinters of life,
their little lives are fun to them
in the sea.


Contemporary poets continue to be fascinated with making less more. Longley is obsessed with the short, imagistic lyric, and has written some memorable ones, Mahon too, and Heaney ('The dotted line my father's ashplant made...'). Muldoon's CRADEL SONG FOR ASHER is perhaps one of the greatest short lyrics of the century.

I've already written in an earlier blog about my recently deceased friend Anthony Glavin, who spent a couple of decades working on a long sequence of stunning 4-line poems, 'Living In Hiroshima'. If you're interested in seeing just how much it is possible to pack into such a small form, click on my entry for December 2006 and scroll down.

Here are four of my own shorter poems, the first two, DREAM ON and LIGHTBOX, are from my new collection, ‘The Sky Road’ (due from Salmon in April 2007). A 'lightbox' (from which I took the name of my blog), also called a roofbox, is the name given to the rectangular stone fanlight above the entrance to Megalithic passage tombs at Newgrange and elsewhere, angled to allow the rays of the sun to penetrate to the heart of the tomb.

The third poem, VANISHING POINT, is from my first book, 'Airborne':


DREAM ON

That little seal
of ownership, your fingerprint
on this mug of cold tea, after you're gone.


LIGHTBOX
(Newgrange)

Everyone should have one
dark hub for the dull day’s orbit:

stoneshouldered wings
where you bury the bones

of belief, and the redfaced sun,
to gain entrance, turns

a skeleton key.


VANISHING POINT

Simply staring
into the space ahead
is not enough; there is
the traffic of eyes to be met.


DARK MUTTER

Everything tends
to its own ends.


And my own haiku joke:

HAIKUISH

Haikush
Hash –
Ha
!

And finally, two from my recent collection, 'Fade Street', including my only one-line poem (or monostich):

NIGHT, WIND, DEAD LEAVES

rattle and hiss, the sound so high
it is almost a whistle,

their bodying sigh
the air of something more palpable

than passing by.



GHOST STORY

'Listen hard enough and you wake the dead.'

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Little Manifesto For Langpo

Dissatisfied Square Number 7

If the picture above reminds you of anything outside itself – or its=elf – forget it (unless, like Borges's Aleph, it reminds you of EVERYTHING outside itself)! Away with meanings and burdensome referentiality. These are just hangovers from our infantile need to web everything in language, a nasty thing really; how dare it mean anything! Why speak when you can grunt, and IF you can grunt why grunt? Better to sigh when a grunt is expected, to translate yawps into barbaric giggles. One should be miserly with words that mean anything other than their own little packets of breath; unless, of course, the packets are burst, like the inadaquate condoms they are, scattering spent meanings everywhere. The point is, to be mean with those words that THINK they know what they mean. To refashion Wallace Stevens's epigram: there is no wing like meanness.

Lithograph: 'Dissatisfied Square Number 7' by Camille Scott
© Camille Scott 2003

Monday, January 01, 2007