Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kind Of An Odd Moment


I salute Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at Bush during a press conference. That is, I salute the strength and clarity of his gesture (his politics may be another matter altogether).

In any case, Bush didn't seem particularly fazed. Looking only mildly alarmed in the clip I saw, he ducked nimbly and came out wise-cracking: "I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole." Ho ho! And (to the rest of the assembled reporters): "You were more concerned than I was. I was watching your faces." And then of course: "I'm pretty good at ducking, as most of you know," [adding quickly]"I'm talking about ducking your questions." Bush elaborated further: "I mean, it was just a bizarre moment, but I've had other bizarre moments in the presidency. I remember when Hu Jintao was here. Remember? We had the big event? He's speaking, and all of a sudden I hear this noise — had no earthly idea what was taking place, but it was the Falun Gong woman screaming at the top of her lungs (near the ceremony on the White House lawn). It was kind of an odd moment."

I wouldn't call the Muntazer al-Zaidi's protest a bizarre moment, nowhere near as bizarre as GWB's presidency. An odd moment? Yes, an oddly eloquent moment, a moment of unusual clarification, further elucidated by his shout, which apparently translates as: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog!" In other words: Shoo!

Muntazer al-Zaidi is now apparently being hailed as a hero in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City, where thousands took to the streets on Monday, chanting, "Bush, Bush, listen well: Two shoes on your head." It has a ring to it, doesn't it?

Bush has claimed that he "didn't feel the least bit threatened by" the incident. This may be true. Mailer has described Bush (accurately, I believe) as someone "who has never been embarrassed by himself." Perhaps Bush is simply too unimaginative to feel either embarrassment or, most of the time, fear. No wonder the other journalists looked "concerned". They may have had faster brains, and been able to compute the possibility that a shoe in such circumstances may not be simply a shoe, a whole shoe and nothing but a shoe; they may have recalled Richard Colvin Reid (or Abdul Raheem) who was tackled on board an airplane in 2002 while attempting to ignite his heel (which was stuffed with plastic explosives).

Apparently shoe-throwing (and/or showing someone the sole of your shoe) is a sign of "extreme disrespect" in the Middle East. Makes sense to me. Now, if only we could persuade everyone with a grievance (in Iraq, Afghanistan etc.) to settle all with their shoes. A new tactic for the new year: Socks And Awe.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Not Just Another Goodnight

Back Yard, Southside Dublin

It is now 1.20 a.m. I wish I could stay up into the small hours to watch the results come in. But I have to get up early (7.30 is early by my standards) and I don't want to be exhausted going in to teach my weekly poetry workshop in the IWC on Parnell Square. Exit polls look VERY promising so far.

Lest we forget, here are the (slightly tweaked) words of that anonymous "senior advisor", speaking from the midst of Fortress W, reconstituted as a 'found poem' (or a lost one):


We're an empire now and then.
We acted.
We created our own
and while you were studying that
as you will,
we mislaid the second act
to create other new
realities, which you
could study too.

Tomorrow, things will be different. America (and thereby the rest of us) will have a new reality. One of those horribly vague, politician-friendly abstract nouns, Hope, has become something small and real: a sweaty palm, with two fingers strained into an X.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Reality Street Book Of Sonnets

To The Cloud Garden

I was delighted to receive a note to collect a parcel last week (parcels are almost always welcome). I guessed it was The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (edited by Jeff Hilson) which Ron Silliman had blogged about a couple of weeks ago, and which I had subsequently ordered from Alibris. But I was surprised that it got here so quickly, barely a week after I ordered it.

As I suspected, I will probably find most of it unreadable, since it is chock-full of the kinds of poets who are horrified by more than a slim whiff of 'referentiality'. So, for example, there is a good helping of "visual sonnets", some of which are clearly abstract paintings/sketches (so one wonders why they would wish to be anything else) and others which are painstaking assortments of words/letters, sometimes in different fonts, like a child playing vacant games of scrabble with nobody.

David Miller's three 'visual sonnets' ('Untitled', naturally) are composed of a series of loose, horizontal brush-strokes, like stand-ins for text. Hilson remarks on their "affinities with Chinese brush-painting" in his introduction (they remind me of Pound's self-censored lines in The Cantos). No harm in allusions, intended or otherwise, to Chinese art, Pound or, for that matter, the sonnet. If I found these in a gallery I could take or leave the sonnet reference, as a witticism perhaps, while judging the paintings on their own merit as visual artworks. But in a supposedly ground-breaking anthology, whose serious introduction makes clear Hilson's poetic/political bias, I trust I am being asked to consider these works as "linguistically innovative" sonnets, despite the absence of anything vaguely linguistic. I'm reminded of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's one-legged Tarzan sketch: "Need I say with overmuch emphasis that it is in the leg [i.e. text] division that [these] are deficient?"

But I am always curious as to what the advance-rear-guard is up to. After all, the efforts of its practitioners present a kind of funhouse mirror to what my kind are slogging away at, poor benighted fools that we are (imagining that poetry has some primal allegiance to meaning/song: pathetic really). Also, I remain fascinated by the sonnet, and the way different poets work with it, or against it.

So far, I have only leafed through the anthology, but already I have found four which may well prove to be my favourites (if only because they set out their stalls so clearly). Two of these, by Ron Padgett, simply repeat the first line, without variation, 13 times. In the case of the first sonnet, the title, 'Nothing In That Drawer', is also the first line, so there you have it. Or do you? Well, it does make a different impression if you see the whole sonnet printed on the page, like a stack of empty drawers, so here's the first nine lines, including the title, just prior to the turn (the drawers with the Emperor's invisible spare socks, underwear and porn mags):

Nothing in That Drawer

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

The second,'Sonnet/Homage To Andy Warhol', is harder to quote from properly. As I have said, it replicates the first line 14 times. This should give you an idea what it looks like on the page:

Sonnet/Homage To Andy Warhol


Behold: the sleeping sonnet (Warhol's seven and a half hour film, 'Empire', might well induce this state). I am afraid my quote may contain typos, as I find it very difficult to count the actual number of zeds in the original, so there may be a few too many, or too few. My apologies to the author.

I also enjoyed the two prose-sonnets by Harryette Mullen. As with Padgett's, this was partly because I was able to comprehend them, or at least tell where they derived their original structure from. They are both variations, riffs on one of Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady' sonnets (my favourite as it happens):

Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

And here are the first seven lines from one of Mullen's sonnets, called, appropriately,

Dim Lady

My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at
Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her
racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater
Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in
Shakey's Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I
see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is
more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes.[quote ends]

Both of Mullen's sonnets are twelve lines (or eleven and a bit), perhaps because the long prose sentences bulk out the form so much. Apart from Shakespeare’s sonnet, her variations were apparently influenced by the Oulipo method. Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Potential Literature Workshop. Among a number of procedures developed by the Oulipo school is the “S+7” method, where each noun in a given text, such as a poem, is substituted by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary. Mullen has taken the idea of substitution, but, rather than adhering to the dictionary, seems to have carefully chosen many of her own words and phrases for comic effect, perhaps lifting a few of them from ads, etc. Both sonnets are from her recent collection, ‘Sleeping With The Dictionary’. Her second, 'Variations On A Theme Park', carries the comic deconstruction (or demolition) further. It begins with the lines: "My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar. Colorado is far less / rusty than Walt's lyric riddles..." and continues into a traffic pileup of images and metaphors, some of which may make more sense to American audiences. However, the sense of humour is maintained, partly because the narrative skeleton remains intact: we know where she is going, but we want to go there anyway, if only to see how see how wild and unwieldy it gets. Unlike many of the other sonnets in this anthology, both of Mullen's made me grin, something I will always salute.

So this is one book I'll be returning to again, and again. Who knows what I might find in there? There might even be sonnets that I like enough to commit to memory (ignoring their vociferous protests).

By the way, the photograph above is, in case you hadn't guessed, a sonnet: a vispo Shakespearian – note the rhyming couplet.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Shark In The Machine

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Lungs of the Attention-Seeking Toddler (No. 1)

Under the title Confrontation, Apropos Damien, George Szirtes recently discussed Damien Hirst on his blog, in the light of the recent Sotheby’s auction. I agree with much of what he said, but not everything, and I am grateful to him for making me think harder about my attitude to Hirst and the YBA phenomenon. So I have taken some of his remarks as an entry point for a little meditation on the cuddly wide boy and what his work means, or doesn’t.


George writes that Hirst’s Shark “is startling … like a demon in Bosch, or even Michelangelo. Or the dog in Goya.” He goes on to say: “I am not comparing the shark to Goya… in terms of value but in terms of psychological location. Not that Goya's remarkable painting is anywhere near his greatest work... it is rather, stripped down vision and confrontation...Hirst's shark is a similar kind of confrontation.

...Confrontation is... a proper area for art. There is a process of reorientation within the world that is the natural product of all substantial art. It is like the discovery of a room in the soul that did not exist before and from whose windows everything looks different. That view - that difference - is something you have, thenceforth, to take into account."

But then, as George says, "there is a catch to the idea of confrontation... Confrontation as convention - the frayed and boring formula of the artist "challenging" the viewer - is so much rubbish unless the artist himself or herself is equally confronted and challenged."

And the artist cannot "challenge from a position of superiority, in didactic fashion. That old call to the artist - épater le bourgeois! - is pointless unless the artist too is scandalised. The 'bourgeois' is so used by now to being "challenged" that he finds it cosy. You don't confront or challenge a dog by feeding it...

...Hirst's first works were genuinely confrontational, not through aura, through what one knew, was told, or expected of them, but because they acted that way as physical objects. But you can't keep doing that in the same way. Not all the irony in the world can bring about that reorientation. What you have left to play with is aura. Aura and money. And so you carry making the two the same thing till you can no longer tell the difference between them.”


I think there is more than one catch for any confrontational object that aspires to being a work of art. Hirst’s shark may have been startling once upon a time, though it has always seemed rather old hat to me, a sad little echo of Duchamp, Warhol, Beuys, 'International Yves Klein Blue'... Perhaps it is apt to compare it to Goya’s dog (or a demon from Bosch or Michelangelo) in terms of “psychological location” as “a process of reorientation within the world”, though I have my doubts. Certainly the dog and the demons (many of them fish-demons by the way) instill a strong sense of dislocation, and perhaps the shark does this too.

But is this kind of confrontation/displacement enough? While I accept that the shark may be startling, I have difficulty believing that it really opens "a room in the soul that did not exist before". Is it really that different from something one might come across in a waxwork museum or sideshow? Of course, I realise that its being in a gallery-space is part of its essential quiddity, its raison d'etre, but again, is that enough? We encounter many startling things in the course of a life, things on a par with and far exceeding the shark in their ability to startle or shock. But these encounters do not present us with reflective, coherent worldlets, nor do we expect them to. That experience is reserved for art, and works of art should be required to deliver it.

I agree that great art has often been confrontational (though I think humility is an underrated virtue in artists). As George says, confrontation is “a proper area for art”. Mere staged confrontation though, without any distillation or engagement, is not art. It is not even in the same arena. It pushes just one button, twangs one, threadbare chord. If a person has any imagination at all, it is the easiest thing in the world to dream up a confrontational work, a semi-shocking installation or what used to be called “a happening”. In fact, I can think of one Hirst himself might put together, as a properly confrontational terminus to his dead animal series. He could simply exhibit himself, inside a large glass tank, naked on Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, literally doing what his entire oeuvre, up till then, had only accomplished figuratively.

In contrast to Hirst’s shark, neither the demons nor the dog are merely confrontational. Take the demons in Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. They are part of a complex and ingenious tableaux, an imagining of the late Medieval machinery of Hell. They are nightmarish, allusive, hallucinatory and blackly comic (Bruegel’s are even more so), eddies from the muddy swirl, our irrepressible, writhing mortality; as Milosz puts it: 'If not for the existence of Earth, would there be a Hell?'. The demons are also exciting, possibly the Medieval equivalent of a good horror flick (the Exorcist or Alien of its day). It is difficult to know what a person in the Netherlands of the 15th Century might have felt when confronted by them. What they do retain is an undeniable power, and their busyness and cruelty (and distortions and deformities) have a contemporary resonance.

Goya’s dog is something else entirely. It is from part of a series of murals called ‘The Black Paintings’, which Goya apparently painted on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo (‘House of the Deaf Man’), a country house outside Madrid he occupied in the early 1820's. Curiously, Goya was in fact stone deaf by this stage.

The murals are, I believe, badly damaged. There may be essential parts missing, lost when they were removed from the walls, mounted and framed for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, after which they were donated to the Prado. Furthermore, their provenance is now seriously being questioned, with Goya’s son Javier (who occupied the house after his father died) being put forward as the one who may have actually painted the murals.

As it is (as far as I can judge from the reproductions), the dog painting emanates a kind of desolation: the trusting creature is emerging (from earth or water or simply abstract paint) into a kind of scorched emptiness, putting its nose above the parapet into – what? Nothingness? Hell? George Szirtes' “potent bareness”?

It is almost inevitable that we will read too much into such an image. We are approaching it post Beckett, with the existential floodlights blazing. What is remarkable to me is how much expression Goya (or whoever) was able to put into such a tiny profile, almost a silhouette: a dog’s dark head, its one (bewildered? terrified?) eye. The image has a mystery, horror and compassion way out of Hirst’s league. Whatever this singular vision means, if it is supposed to be viewed as part of the ‘Black’ series or was even visited and contemplated by anyone other than Goya while he was alive, it is clear to me that it has been filtered, and has come through the wringer of a unique imagination.

What the demons and the dog have in common is an engagement with the human predicament. They are in it, along with us, up to their eyes. Far from merely being ironic/confrontational displacements or quasi-surreal gestures, they are, in their own contexts, utterly real. And a measure of this reality, this engagement, is something necessary to all works of art, minor, good or great. I do not think Hirst’s shark possesses this. It is a coldly removed installation, similar to his recent diamond-studded skull, as impersonal as the money it generates.

Then, there is that title: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living’. I am not sure whether we are meant to attach this title to the shark as a deadly serious ‘message’, smirking ‘irony’ or both. In any case, when I think of the shark, that ridiculously pompous sentence keeps replaying itself like a jingle: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Silence In the Lungs of the Attention-Seeking Toddler’. It seems to me like a thoroughly dead giveaway, a little window into Hirst’s tiny imagination and gargantuan ego, as po-faced as the other, more recent and more twee: ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.’

What Hirst’s dead animal installations say to me, overwhelmingly, is: Look at the one that didn’t get away! Look at what I’ve imprisoned! Look at my acquisitions! Is it really likely that Hirst was challenged or confronted (much less scandalised) by whatever inspired his tanked shark? I strongly suspect that the idea of the shark, Hirst’s overwhelming desire to make a big splash, looms far larger than the thing’s mere physical presence, startling though this may be. It’s the audacity of it, the bigness and the brashness. And behind this is Hirst’s complacent voice, somewhat distracted, already moving the punters on to the next sensational exhibit. Hirst is really little more than a collector of novelties. He couldn’t give a toss what these ‘mean’, other than how this might increase his notoriety and (obviously) wealth. I have heard him in interviews. His crassness is painful to listen to and has much in common with that of the speaker in Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:
…..Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me. [my italics]

“Aura and money”, as George says. There, I completely agree with him. Rather than opening windows in most people's souls, I think Hirst's shark (along with his other gimmicks) opens windows of opportunity for the more egotistical, wannabe dilettantes, in exactly the same way that the Big Brother fishtank became THE destination for a hoard of DIY celebs. A direct line to the inner-infant scream: Meeee!!! All you need do is to tune in and 'get it.'

Discussion continued HERE

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reginald Shepherd 1963-2008

I was stunned to hear that Reginald Shepherd has just died, though he had been gravely ill for some time, and had even written about it in some detail on his blog.

He was an extraordinary poet and critic, his blog always a real pleasure to read. After an argument on the net, stemming from a misunderstanding, we made up and became friends, exchanging emails on a fairly regular basis. I will miss him.

In a post titled 'Why I Write' Reginald stated 'I write because I would like to live forever'. I have come to appreciate the braveness and honesty of that declaration, a shout, a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the inevitable. And now that inevitable has arrived, tragically early (he was 6 years younger than me, and probably had a great deal more to say).

If you have not encountered Reginald's poetry or prose, here is the first part of YOU, THEREFORE, addressed to his partner Robert Philen:

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name...

You can read the poem in full here:


The poet and critic Katy Evans-Bush kindly informed me of his death this evening, though I had already come across the news a little earlier on Andrew J. Sheilds blog.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A Note On The Weather

howth & rainbow 3

howth & rainbow 2

Amazing clearing in the weather this evening.

Looking out to sea from the railway bridge in Blackrock, I watched a rainbow build itself from a feint section, a pillar levitating just beyond Howth Head. Or rather, I did not watch it grow, but each time I glanced back at it it had strengthened, till it claimed an enormous wedge of sky, the air charged with grainy bluegoldgrey. The deepening richness was musical, steepening chords, a glissando, a choir.

Other people had stopped on the bridge to watch: a woman with a labrador, another man with a camera, the woman in the knitted cap in the photo, who turned to me as I was leaving and said: "It's like a compensation." So it is.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Led By The No(se)

The two posters above say it all: portals for a herd of lead-booted, goose-stepping ironies. Only a moron would miss the contradiction.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama And The Balking Heads

Well, they weren't really balking. But one of them saw fit to report that someone (an MP? a spokesperson for the government?) had grumbled that they would love to know what Barack Obama thinks of the rest of the world "but nobody seems to know." Not the point, people. The point is, he THINKS!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Photographing Clouds

Cloud Crossing, Blackrock

Is to pretend to corner, square
a bulge on the breeze, to put your finger on
something you can’t, contour
of an answer.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Above Gullfoss Waterfall

road closed

Put these together.
A flimsy yellow/red barrier
half-blocking the one road into the interior.

This is lowered, the guide tells us, for most of the year.
Beside it, like a stark-shadowed spear
a triangled exclamation mark stands on a pole.

What it adds to: almost the whole
country closed off. Turn left, squint over there:
a black ridge smoothed and blanked: claws of a glacier.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

How Odd Are You?

Original Met Anti-Odd Ad Above is a new poster from the Metropolitan Police, warning the public to watch for 'odd' photographers; part of their counter-terrorist campaign (two other posters with matching graphics focus on houses and mobile phones). Below are two parodies of it, one by LOLcat, the other by an unknown artist.
LOLcat's Londonmeowing


I'm sure there must be many more by now. The poster is MADE for piss-taking, a rich platter for visual gags and stand-up comics. Note the sombre green/brown and scary blood red. I bet the designers toyed with the idea of having grey/green or white backround, with that one 'odd' camera highlighted in red. But the overwhelming flood of dark red is much more effective, more alarming, more visceral: the colour of 'carnage'.

Notice also the choice of that word 'odd' . A more obvious, and appropriate, choice would have been 'suspicious'. Odd? A huge swarm of snappers (from the millions of kids flashing their mobiles to the standing army of semi-pros fiddlings with their digital SLRs) would appear odder than odd socks if you paused to scrutinise them. But it seems the Met wishes to cast, far and wide, a truly gross net.

The campaign is reminiscent of WW2: 'Careless Words Cost Lives' etc. Also Orwell's 1984 of course The Big Sibling is watching (watching the watchers in this case). Yes. We know. CCTV is everywhere, and is instrumental in catching the odd murderous little scumbag. And okay, maybe a raised public awareness, an extra vigilance, is called for when dealing with certain politically brainwashed lowlives. The problem is simple. Almost everyone has a camera, and a good many are inclined to more sophisticated compositions than tourist monoliths/landscapes or group shots of grinning pals. In other words, many people now gravitate to the 'odd' shot, though even the oddest has more than likely already been snapped to extinction (i.e. ordinariness). There really isn't all that much Odd left. Will the operators take that into consideration when they get those calls? Will the police? They may be forced to. If people react as hysterically as those posters urge them to, the poor old Met will be swamped.

Here are just a tiny fraction of the decidedly ODD photos I took, and the phonecalls they might have generated if such a campaign took off over here:

Behind Idrone Tce Blackrock
He's in the alley behind our house. I don't know what he's up to. No, wait. He's taking a photograph of...a lamp post! Please get here quick!

man Westland Row DART station
There he is Guard. He's still at it, taking photos behind that poor man's back. Or maybe he's an undercover cop. That man is acting a bit odd, come to think of it. What's in that briefcase?

Self Portrait With Hotel Guest
I'm just walking past him now. He hasn't shifted. He's photographing people in our lobby mirror. He is definitely shifty. Bald little bastard. With an odd shoulder bag. I'd strip search him immediately, though he'd probably enjoy it by the look of him.

Mt Merrion Church, Dublin
Is that the Emergency service? There is a man with a camera in the parking lot. He's taking photos of our church! No, he isn't bothering anyone. It's well after the last service. But look at the time! It's dark and cold, and he's standing there in a parking lot. He can't be a normal tourist, not by the cut of him. Ordinary photographers don't act like this. Do they?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

High On Clouds: Dublin / Reykjavik

Finally piercing it, the sphagnum-grey, heading for the sun's blue romper room
above Ireland

Over Scotland
tilted into the shine
specked by black
keyhole islands
edge of Scotland

sea-mauled edge, salt
bite of a bay, rime
of a town
landing in Icelan

puckers and long fissures
cooked scar tissue
tipp-exed with snow, roads
that might actually get somewhere
Over Iceland

Thursday, April 24, 2008


I had never heard of this term till yesterday (it sounds rather sinister and Big Brotherish), but I have now been blogtagged by the Divine Ms Baroque (she who must be obeyed). All I have to do is reveal six random things about myself. Since this may be my one and only celebrity-style request, it would be churlish to refuse. So here are the six, illustrated:

1. My Other Genre
Allen the Alien
Alien is one of my favourite movies. I love a good ghost, horror or sci-fi flick.

2. Reshuffle
runner on the East Pier, Dun Laoghaire
After a four year hiatus, I've finally resumed running/fast walking, and have suddenly discovered what the iPod Shuffle my wife gave me as a birthday present over a year ago is REALLY for: Bowie, Bach, Santana, Tori Amos, Négresses Vertes... I'm rediscovering them all.

3. Hairy
passport & cat
I used to have VERY long hair, right down to my waist
(now it's the Roddy Doyle look, what Billy Connolly called 'the Millennium Comb-over').

4. Superstition
Gutter Grate
There is one particular drain-cover I drive over nearly every morning. If I can get it to make a satisfying 'clunk' I tell myself the day will end on a happy note.

5. Clouds
Iona Tce. Blackrock, Dublin
If there was a vacancy for a cloudwatcher (a vacancy for vacancy) I'd fit the bill.

6. Tartness!
Lemon Light
When I finish a G&T I eat the lemon.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Handholds 2

Searching through Skip, off Dame Street, Dublin

There: the voices thrown
from Thingmote’s mound

Here: moved earth, the grind
of gears on Nassau Street

There: what netted the names
in the maps’ blood vessels

Here: names to be given:
Skateboard Alley, Fr. Noise Quay,
Out Of Our Heads Walk…

There: Pale walls, the beerbarrel
clatter of weaponry

Here: a soiled pink blanket
in a doorway, a nation at the gates,
real estate

There: footholds, the splash of feet
on the hurdle ford

Here: old ladders in a skip,
new holds, rungs in the air

from a sequence, HANDHOLDS

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Night Chorus

Moonbird 2

I have occasionally heard the odd bird calling at night, but hadn't thought much about it. I was originally a nightbird myself, and right into my early 30s would frequently stay up till dawn, taking strolls around shuttered Dublin or pitch dark Bray Head with similarly inclined friends, chatting into the small hours about all kinds of wonderful nothings. So far as I know, the avian world might have room for its own oddballs, delinquents, perverts etc.

According to the New Scientist, what I have been hearing may be the early signs of an evolutionary shift, as birds species begin to adapt to urban living by singing at night. Apparently, their little voices tend to get drowned by the persistent human cacophony: especially the grey zooshing of early rush-hour traffic. Birds are also altering their calls, singing louder to be heard above the din.

Has anyone heard it yet, the Night Chorus? Patience; the musicians are tuning their instruments.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cultural ID


makes me think of my dark
overgrown little back garden,

more moss than grass, the granite wall
shawled in ivy. Enough space

for the washing to do its line-dance
and, slendering upwards,

a tall-storied old ash
keeping time with time.

'Well, that was one way of putting it, hopefully not too obliquely or in too much of 'a worn-out poetical fashion'. I went into more detail on the Poets On Fire forum, when they were discussing 'Englishness' a while back:

Welsh, Irish, English, Celt... I don't think it's really a question of whether such things exist, but rather what they might mean. In a very real sense I believe we are all mongrels, but some of us (such as myself) more so than others.

My mother was born in Belfast but grew up in Burnham on Sea. I was born in London but brought up in middleclass Dublin. My father was Canadian. My wife is part-Jewish. I have lived for periods in the city of my birth (which I have a great affection for), but never doing anything particularly useful, much less cultural: living in crowded lodgings in Golders Green on the dole, or in squats in Camberwell (which was interesting, actually). I have an English brother and quite a few English cousins. I suppose my cultural ID is more Irish than English, though I carried two passports for a while. I like having one foot (or little toe) in the Big Sister island. After all, I speak the lingo; Béarla is my mother tongue.

Perhaps because of my own comfortably muddled roots, I can only understand peoples' anxiety about their cultural background theoretically. I can't get even mildly worried about whether I am more Irish than British or vice versa. I don't think this makes me a better-adjusted human being; I have plenty of other shortcomings, and I am very curious about my family trees' tangled roots. I just find that any tendency to 'national pride' is mitigated by my awareness of how anyone's birth is, in the end, an accident of geography. This latter fact seems to me a bigger and perhaps more important truth. I was delighted to discover I had an English brother, but I'd have been delighted if he was Irish, Jewish, Canadian or Eskimo.

It can be interesting to try to pick through national characteristics. I remember reading Dervla Murphy's 'Wheels Within Wheels', in which she described how her staunchly law-abiding parents took in a young IRA man on the run and provided him with a safe house. She considered subversion and distrust of authority an Irish, as opposed to British, characteristic. It probably was then, in the early half of the last century. But is it still? I don't know. I can sympathise with immigrants, who are understandably insecure, being defensive about their cultural background, (though NOT when that defensiveness becomes offensive and aggressive). But I find it a little strange when well-rooted people metamorphose into flag wavers and drum beaters or attempt to pestle blood and soil into some magical mystery paste.

Louis MacNeice ruminated on Ireland and his Irishness (or lack of it) in various passages in his prose and poems. Here's excerpts from section XVI of his Autumn Journal, published in 1938:

Drums on the haycock, drums on the harvest, black
Drums in the night shaking the windows:
King William is riding his white horse back
To the Boyne on a banner,
Thousands of banners, thousands of white
Horses, thousands of Williams
Waving thousands of swords and ready to fight
Till the blue sea turns to orange.
Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an under-water belfry.
Why do we like being Irish? Partly because
It gives us a hold on the sentimental English,
As members of a world that never was,
Baptised with fairy water...'


'Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?
The blots on the page are so black
That they cannot be covered with shamrock.
I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children's sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:*
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?
Her mountains are still blue, her rivers flow
Bubbling over the boulders.
She is both a bore and a bitch;
Better close the horizon,
Send her no more fantasy, no more longings which
Are under a fatal tariff.
For common sense is the vogue
And she gives her children neither sense nor money
Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
And a faggot of useless memories.'

This was written out of a very different world, of course, in which McNeice could speak of a North

'...veneered with the grime of Glasgow,
Thousands of men whom nobody will employ
Standing at the corners, coughing.
And the street-children play on the wet
Pavement - hopscotch or marbles;
And each rich family boasts a sagging tennis-net
On a spongy lawn beside a dripping shrubbery.'

Were the English all that sentimental? Not when it came down to the brass and bloody tacks; not when they became impatient. These days the street children will have found other things to amuse themselves with, and the rich families other things to boast of than sagging tennis nets.

But certainly there was a truth in MacNeice's lines, stated more boldly than many mid 20th Century Irish writers would have dared. Some of that truth is still relevant and applies to many of the Irish, here and elsewhere, myself included (I never had much of a brogue, but I had some of the gestures alright, and still do).

As for Paddy's Day, I haven't attended the Parade in I don't know how long. Last year was apparently a fiasco, with herds of hyper-aggressive shitfaced young ones terrorising the more docile crowds. So I'll take a back seat as usual. Let the revels get underway with a vengeance, let the poleaxed teenagers piss in the streets, let them turn the clouds to broccoli, the beer to bile; let St. Patrick Adze-Head Moses part the waters of a kelly-green Chicago River for his bogwood chariot drawn by twenty purple and emerald donkeys braying 'Be it so! Be it so!'

Odi atque amo: translates (apparently) as 'to be in love with is also to hate'or 'I hate you and love you'.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Antichrist Given The Green Light


The Antichrist may well be “a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist” according to Cardinal Giacomo Biffi (pronounced Beefy?), who has been chosen by Pope Benedict XVI to deliver this year’s Lenten meditations to the Vatican hierarchy. The Cardinal believes that Christianity stands for “absolute values, such as goodness, truth, beauty”. If “relative values” such as “solidarity, love of peace and respect for nature” became absolute, they would encourage “idolatry” and “put obstacles in the way of salvation.”

So the likes of Trevor Sargent and John Gormley are Golden Calves, drawing the faithful down the cindery path to damnation. Think of all those wind turbines popping up in the landscape, each one a travesty of the true cross. And all our little efforts at Greeness (recycling paper, keeping a compost bin etc.) are incremental pieces of the greater 'Absolute Evil'. How can a respect for nature become absolute? Depends on what you mean by 'nature' I guess; as it depends, in a label like 'family values', what you mean by family. I wonder what absolute goodness looks like when it's at home, apart from the Pope that is. Would the Cardinal's absolute truth and beauty be similar to Keats's? Is that all we need to know? Roll on that old red wheelbarrow, on which so much depends, endlessly.

I enjoy these kinds of warnings though, the voice of doom that gives everything a loooong shadow. In a similar vein, I enjoy a good horror story, the kind where we might find the unwary city slicker taking a wrong turning through middle America, tuning in to the voice of some lean, hollowed out preacher spitting hellfire; or coming across those Wayside Sermon posters you see up North, as in the photo above, taken near Bangor.

Apparently, according to a Vatican source, Cardinal Biffi may have been chosen because his “verbal fireworks” would keep his listeners awake. I can see it: the sleepy cardinals of the Vatican hierarchy shuffling in to listen to their Lenten meditations, one of them nudging his neighbor: 'Hey, cheer up, I hear old Biffer is going to give a killer sermon tonight, Abortionists, filthy pacifists and homosexuals, and his favourite, the Satanic ecumenists... should be worth staying awake for.' Straight out of Fellini's Roma (remember the Vatican fashion catwalk?). And who can grudge them their bit of fun?

I suspect the next Antichrist will be a poet, the next Heaney maybe. We'll be able to spot him (or her) though. Unlike Les Murray's, each book will be dedicated to the other guy. It won't be TOO obvious: 'To the greater glory of Stan' perhaps or simply 'For Lucy'. Keep watching this space.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bloggers' Night Out

Irish Blog Awards Alexander Hotel

Since my very own Skyroad was shortlisted in the photoblog category, my wife and I registered to attend the Irish Blog Awards, held in the bowels of The Alexander Hotel. Sam put on her finery, so I dressed in what passes for mine, the good blue jacket and black shirt. We needn't have bothered. Though many had dolled themselves up, code was decidedly casual. Most of those attending were about half my age. It reminded me of a student gig, the kind of thing I'd have queued for at UCD about a thousand years ago.

A wide, long conference room, with two screens, one halfway down to make sure the people at the back got a look. Onto these were projected the Blog Awards logo set on a blown-up webpage. We assumed that they would be displaying excerpts from people's blogs on these screens, but no. Oddly, (it seemed to me) we were treated to large snippets of GW Bush, taken from some press conference or other. His voice had been painstakingly dubbed into making dumb comments (Bushisms) that related to the different blog categories, interludes which served as intros to the announcement of the winners and the presentation of prizes (a trophy, a DVD player and bottle of Champers for each winner).

Since Twenty Major, for the third time, won in two categories (‘Most Humorous Post’ and 'Best Irish Blog'), I finally got a glimpse of him: a fine strapping lad, as I might have guessed. He has paid tribute to the event and its organisers on his blog, in a post that is, unusually for him, an expletive-free zone.

We left relatively early, but, altogether, it was an interesting night, and I was very pleased to get shortlisted, to know that some people (other than photographers on the Blipfoto site) have actually looked at my photojournal.

The Irish Blog Awards have been running for three years now. Apparently, although Ireland hasn't yet shown a great interest in blogging, the audience for these awards has been growing rapidly each year; the large conference room certainly seemed reasonably crowded (50% more than last year according to Twenty Major).

Given that practically every young person now has a Facebook page or some kind of online profile, I wonder how long it will be before the Irish Blog Awards bursts out of its enthusiastic youthful shell and becomes something very different, with more razzmatazz and louder media coverage, some kind of bloggers' equivalent to the Oscars, and if, when it eventually does, how this will affect the blogs themselves. Will some of the raw energy and inventiveness be lost? Maybe not; maybe, in fact the opposite: people who are oddly snotty about blogging will finally see that there is just as much (if not more) quality reportage, criticism, political analysis, humour, photography etc. etc. as can be found on the other media-tentacles.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Goggle Time

Long Haul

From a Q&A 'therapy' session in the Daily Telegraph:

Kate Weinberg: Name something or someone you truly believe in.

Simon Armitage: The Ordnance Survey.

Kate Weinberg: Who, in the whole of history, would you most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight?

Simon Armitage: Icarus. Just for the look on his face when the sun starts coming up.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Foundation Year, Dún Laoghaire, 1974

My Scream, Foundation Year, Dún Laoghaire, 1974

Faces with mouths agape, gorged
on shadow, the self portraits were a scream –
the minimalist wire tree (one branch for all)
“…the absolute spit of De Gaulle.”

Friday, January 11, 2008

Where I'm Coming From

Costa Caleta, Fuertoventura

A week in Costa Caleta, Fuerteventura (the Canary Island shaped like a Kentucky fried chicken leg).

We had decided to take a break and get out of the country when we got the chance, so just three weeks ago we quickly booked this short break. It was ages since I had gone on one of these family, make-like-a-basking-lizard holidays, never with my most recent family, my wife and three year old son. It was his first flight. Despite his abhorrence of loud whooshing noises, he coped remarkably well with being pinned in a giant hair dryer for four hours. A portable DVD player and Shaun the Sheep helped (also his Thomas The Tank Engine stickers):
Thomas on Cloud 9

A week is short, especially given the disparity between Fuerteventura (just 60 miles from the Sahara) and my wintery home planet. Finding myself landed in that sunny, t-shirted, Croced and shorted otherwhere, I might have come by (slightly banjaxed) transporter; my quantum-entangled atoms barely had time to shimmer themselves back into their old constellation before the episode finished and I was back in my old, unenterprising existence.

Fuerteventuro Airport
Airport, Fuertoventura

We rented a car and spent four days traveling all over the island. Wonderfully strange, yet strangely familiar too. Little vegation, apart from scrub and palms of all shapes and sizes, fat and stumpy or tall as five story buildings. Volcanoes were active on the island as recently as the 19th Century, when they decimated its grain production. Parts of the midlands are like a heated-up Connemmara crossed with Mars, potholed roads branching into what seems like Bord Na Móna bogland but is actually chocolate-brown lava-rock, assembled in places into orange-lichened drystone walls, mammary hills (some with perfect nipples), slumped and humped mountain ranges (couchant and zoomorphic as the Twelve Bens) rising above clinker and ash deserts. All looking pristine and newly baked, fresh from the the geological kiln.

On the wild South West coast we pulled into the little seaside village of Ajuy and dined on grilled squid and filleted sea bream on the bone (chips and the all-important ketchup for him); beside huge, whumping Hokusai waves creaming on gritty black sand. We then went looking for the ten-year old wreck of the American Star. We never found it, but we did manage to locate its remote (but much-visited) cove, Playa de Garcey, at the end of a long, stony track. Again, that black, volcanic sand, deserted but pocked with many footprints; wedges of craggy rock, even louder, more furious, unrolling, wrecking-ball waves, the air blurry with spray.

Then up north, past industrial-looking Puerto del Rosario, we found the white Saharan beaches of Corralejo, with their wedding cake hotels, reminding me of the holidays I took with my mother and grandparents in the archaeologically distant 1970s.

Here are some of the photographs, many taken from the car (I wasn't driving).

Geological Breast, Near Morros Altos (or somewhere thereabouts)
Geological Breast, Fuertoventura

Down South, Morro Jable
Fuertoventura south

Sunset, Beyond Morro Jable
Sunset , Fuertoventura South

Heading Back North West (probably from La Pared)
Fuertoventura South East

Playa de Garcey

South West (somewhere)
Fuertoventura South East

Somewhere Between Somewhere And Somewhere Else

North: Near Corralejo
Near Corralejo

Heading Back South: Sunset Near Puerto Del Rosario