Friday, August 25, 2006

The Twittering Machinist

Times Square, Sydney

I recently found my old copy of The Diaries Of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (University of California Press, 1968). Opening the book at random, I found these two marvellous entries:

954. Dream: I asked the geishas only for a little music and some “of the tea that serves as a manifold substitute for all the geishas of the world.”
At the slightest temptation I heard a soft knocking. When I followed the knocking, a small sprite stretched out his tiny hand to me and led me gently upward into his region.
There, things fell up, not down. A light breakfast, including eggs, was appetisingly laid out on the ceiling.

956. What the war meant to me was at first something largely physical: that blood flowed near by. That one’s own body could be in danger, without which there is no soul! The reservists in Munich, singing foolishly. The wreathed victims. The first sleeve turned up at the elbow, the safety pin on it. The one long leg, clad in Bavarian blue, taking huge strides between two crutches. The actualization of the letter of the history book. The coming to life of the pages of old picture books. Even though no Napoleon appeared, but merely a lot of Napoleonettos. The whole business had as much sense to it as a wad of dung on a shoe heel.

These are diary entries on two completely different subjects, a seemingly pleasant dream and memories of the First World War (in which Klee was a Private). They are united by the delicacy and meticulousness of Klee's description, his eye for the surreal, eidetic image. Nothing is over-explained; the sensory details are given without embellishment and the effect is both mysterious and utterly down to earth, much like Klee's paintings and drawings.

There are many of these that stay in my memory. One of the first I encountered (in a book) was The Twittering Machine, a sketchy cartoon depicting some kind of organic-mechanical apparatus involving birdlike heads and a winch. I am reminded of street organs, birds on a wire, and (out of my personal rag and bone shop) Yeats’s Byzantine bird ‘of hammered gold and gold enamelling’. That’s part of the Klee magic, that his seemingly artless (or childlike) paintings and drawings set off so many artful associations and allusions.

Of course, anything bobbing up in the usually muddy, everyday flow can trigger associations, memories, images and so on. But with Klee’s art, as with the art of many masters, one has the sensation of being guided, persuaded ever so gently. The titles of his paintings lend a hand in this process: ‘Head of Man (Going Senile)’, ‘Ancient Sound’, ‘Fish Magic’, ‘Furnished Arctic’…

Klee’s work can be utterly delicate, fine as a butterfly’s wing, like the layered abstraction of ‘Highways And Byways’, or comprised of a handful of bold, dark strokes, like the simple, picassoesque ‘Tennis Player’. It often involves landscapes and/or figures (or perhaps just one face), usually only partly representative of humans, sometimes more animal or plant (but again only partly representative) or sometimes more of the realm of pure design, like many of Miro’s paintings. The distortions (to figures, landscapes, animals etc.) are never grotesque – unless grotesqueness is called for – and never so violent that one refuses to assimilate them. In his encouragingly slim book, 'On Modern Art', Klee puts it succinctly: 'I do not wish to represent man as he is, but as he might be.' The same goes for the flora (branches and leaves especially) and fauna (Klee has a particular fondness for snakes, birds and fish, creatures that carry a free-floating, give-or-take symbolism and whose lines and shapes translate naturally to outlines and flattened, appliqué designs).

Everything in a Klee painting or drawing is of a piece with that painting or drawing, that worldlet. Klee's works are almost always perfectly balanced meeting places for abstract and figurative, process and depiction, and many of the canvasses are framed to display their fraying edges, the shorelines of their illusions.

One of the more abstract paintings (the wonderfully titled ‘Ancient Sound’) is composed of rough but precise squares of colour, grey-green, earth-dark and black near the edges, jade, orange, vanilla and pale yellow at the centre, all tilting very slightly to the right. Were the squares more hard and symmetrical, more graphic, one could be looking at a digital image, pixelated but almost in focus, an emerging mountain or cave perhaps. But the painting is much more organic and earthy, and the thready texture of the canvas is clearly visible, part of the orchestrated effect. The first time I saw a reproduction of this painting I immediately thought of music, brassy, organ-deep notes (like the four window-shattering snorts from the big flying saucer in Close Encounters). I tried once to write a poem about this and failed dismally, one more example of what one friend called ‘giggling at laughing’.

Suffice to say Klee’s landscapes, creatures, still lives or abstracts are perpetually fresh, recognisable as pristine manifestations of Klee-world, or Cloverworld: Klee is apparently German for clover. I learnt that interesting little fact from Tom Paulin's brilliant poem about Klee's period in the army, when he 'endured "horribly boring guard duty" at the gasoline cellar' on an airfield. Klee apparently passed the time by laying out a garden between the runways, where regularly crashed biplanes provided him with an unlikely bonus. As Paulin puts it: 'maybe the pilots annoyed him?/ those unlovely aristos / who never knew they were flying / primed blank canvases / onto his beautiful airfield.' (from 'Walking The Line', Faber).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Hay Moon with Mower

Arklow bypass

Some weeks ago I drove home late, from celebrating my son's second birthday with my wife's family at their home in Wexford. It had been a beautiful day, and the party had been more than satisfactory. He had clearly enjoyed being the centre of the universe, had even managed to help blow out the candle (in the shape of a large white 2). I left before it got dark.

On my way back to Dublin, I slowed on the Arklow bypass, pulling in as close as I could to the grassy verge. I had been drawn by the spectacle of a full, unusually large moon, a drop of reddish-gold in the clear twilight, balanced above the twinkling little town with its regulation church spire. It was one of those déjà vu arrangements, familiar, heavily perfumed with nostalgia. I had my camera with me, and so, like a dutiful pixel-pixie, I stepped across the whizzing road, buffetted by passing traffic, and shot a few frames.

That postcard landscape, secured by its large, shiny drawing-pin, should be the last thing I remember from that day. But the evening had something else in store.

Some 20 minutes later, as I pulled up outside our house in south Dublin, I saw something that knocked the breath out of me. An unmistakably dead black cat was sprawled on the pavement on the other side of the road, its head lolling over the edge. Though I hoped it wasn’t Sophie, my wife’s cat for some 11 years, I was almost certain it was. When I entered the house, my mother confirmed that the cat had been missing for some hours.

There was something else I needed to check. Some months back, another black cat, very similar in size and shape to ours, had appeared at the window one day, obviously looking for Sophie. We assumed it was a tom, Sophie’s ‘boyfriend’, though ‘he’ might well have been female. Also, Sophie was neutered. The new caller seemed to provoke as much aggro as curiosity, but curiosity there undoubtedly was; Sophie kept watch for him. Though he had prowled around the house regularly for a good few months, I hadn’t seen him for weeks. My cousin, who lives downstairs, had said she’d seen him about a fortnight ago with a nasty wound on his side, perhaps from one of the raucous ‘lists’ I’d sometimes been woken by (they seemed to favour a spot almost directly below our bedroom window). If the dead cat was Sophie’s body-double, I knew just one distinguishing feature that set them apart: Sophie’s eyes were leaf-green, his were gold.

As I approached, holding a large torch, I noticed how undamaged the cat was, the thick and luxuriant tail lying straight, only the dead-stillness and awkward angle of the head marking it as a clearly lifeless animal. The eyes were open, but when I clicked the light in them I still couldn’t really tell if they were gold, greengold or green. Perhaps my disturbed frame of mind had something to do with this, or perhaps it was the yellowy torchlight, so much less reliable than daylight. In any case, I had already felt the kick of that sour little foetus (dread) in my stomach. I knew which cat this was.

We had thought Sophie ‘street-smart’, since, prior to coming here, she had lived in my wife’s town house in the middle of Dublin for many years. But that house had been in a fairly quiet cul-de-sac, not like at all like this road, a perpetual rat-run of impatient traffic. Also, being almost jet-black wouldn’t have helped.

I was surprised at how upset I felt. Partly, it was the contrast between that incident and the rest of what should have been a perfect day. Partly it was a superstitious dread of this death having occurred on my son’s birthday (till I remembered that his actual birthday was the following day). I also dreaded telling my wife, who would now be in bed in Wexford.

I phoned her, and she took it better than I had expected. She made one request, that I bury her cat before she return home the following evening. I promised to do this, and fetched a satisfyingly heavy spade from the coalhouse under the front steps.

Our little communal garden supports a tiny, ailing lawn and two towering, shaggy cypresses, (like the lungs of a light-gulping giant), actually taller than the tall old Victorian house where we have our apartment. I kept as far from these monsters as I could. Even so, my savage jabs did nothing but make pathetic little dents in the root-webbed, stony soil. I might have been trying to dig through permafrost. In desperation I actually considered stowing the cat (now in her bin-liner body-bag) in the boot of the car and driving around till I found more yielding earth, perhaps in Deerpark Wood, just up the road.

This was ridiculous. I was tired and being over-dramatic, straying from the sensible path (that would no doubt emerge next morning), into some Gothic-sentimental byroad, ‘risking enchantment’. I put the job on hold and, sure enough, a solution was found the following day, when I phoned a local vet who provided a cremation service for a reasonable fee. When I called round, he and his assistant were concerned and sympathetic, like conscientious priests; they all but asked if I had special wishes or last requests for our cat.

Sophie’s abrupt demise reminded me of Larkin’s moving, unsentimental little poem, ‘The Mower’ (about a hedgehog killed by a lawnmower): ‘Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world / Unmendably. Burial was no good. / Next day I got up and it did not.’ It also reminded me of something I had been working on, about an incident both similar yet sharply different, that had happened about a decade ago in the same location:


I followed smell of the rot, thick and ropy,
to its source, wedged in a dark corner
behind some mouldy logs: a fox

stiff and solid as wood.
Sick, I guessed, tugged by that need
that crumples us on the bathroom tiles,

it had slithered under the warped door,
wrapped itself in its tail’s
threadbare stole, shivered down,

down, through sleep’s den,
into our common ground.