Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Recycling your single use cup at Stansted Airport


Bins in Stansted Airport Departures. Presumably that big open mouth in the centre goes straight to landfill, despite the word "Recycle" on the side. Happy to be proved wrong!

Pret A Manger, Stansted Airport Departure Lounge

All Pret A Manger's food and drinks are supplied in single use packaging (no crockery and no washing up, in other words).

I wonder what happens to the contents of their in-store bins? The company website is elusive on this point. So it all goes to landfill, I'm thinking.

[You can, however, drink coffee from crockery at Not Always Caviar, just opposite Pret.]

*



Monday, July 15, 2019

Birthplace

Paavo Haavikko spent boyhood summers at Kirkkonummi, west of Helsinki, and later bought this holiday home there.
[Image source: https://www.iltalehti.fi/uutiset/a/200810078385520 ]


And yet, we must have a word with happiness,
Build the house to catch the sun's light...

Before the lake freezes over you hear the horsemen
On their way to the forest, before the mountains grow
             dark in Bohemia,
The Bohemian mountains, the Bohemian forests,
Deep down to the forests of the Balkan,
Deep down into Balkan dust
Where pine, fir and willow rise out of the sand, a white
             bird perches
On the far side of the Danube, utters a pitiful cry. ...

How can we endure without falling silent when poems
        are shown to mean nothing...

listen, it's a time of drums,

       it's a time of drums,
drumming is a sound as if there were a hollow dumbness
       in front of the drums,
pure darkness that carries no sound

twice, no
seven times, the Black Regiment paraded here
        under their black flags,
and it's not the same, they paraded here but this is now
And only now the drum-sound has this to say:

Now is the time, now is the time before death,
Before the trees burst into flower,
The time of the drums,
And thus, even this golden decade has begun and is
            drawn to a close ....

The wood of the pine-tree, used with great care,
All the way from the Balkan forests to these woodlands,
            here
With care, the dampers are closed before dusk, to keep
            the heat in the stove,
How immutable this world is, terrifying, it is here, always
             here,
Only we move,
And I have to make up my mind what to do, what to begin ...

Oh I long for an end to changing, to stand where I am,
The soul is an empty space,
A field become too barren from too much tilling and reaping;

There are twelve of us here, of whom one is only half a
              man
And one of us only a pair of hands with a rifle ...

Now see us standing among the sunflowers, within the dusk,
Among the black, broken stems,
See us, twelve empty spaces where we stand
In the field of flowers.


*


Some lines (a bit less than half) from Paavo Haavikko's poem "Synnyinmaa", in the 1955 collection of the same name -- I've seen the title variously translated as Birthplace, Homeland, Fatherland, Native Soil. The forest in this poem is partly the Finland forest of childhood summers but the poem insists on tracing it down to Bohemia and the Balkans: just a decade earlier, this vast eastern European forest had been full of war-zones.

Most of the lines come from Anselm Hollo's translation in the Penguin Modern European Poets Haavikko/Tranströmer selection (1974), but I also took some lines from an extract I found in Herbert Lomas' Bloodaxe anthology Contemporary Finnish Poetry (1991) -- they are the uncapitalized ones, if you're curious.

I find Haavikko's poetry both exciting and worrying; sometimes more one than the other, but the two responses can't be separated from each other. Though a seminal Finnish modernist, Haavikko didn't have the usual kind of literary background; he never went to university but straight into real estate and forest management, and afterwards publishing. Trees, existence, love, death, history, power, economics, politics were some of his preoccupations. He was a sceptical humanist, critical alike of authoritarianism and liberalism. We live in a condition of permanent change, the world is real but too big to understand and attempts to control it are generally disastrous.



Marja-Liisa Vartio and Paavo Haavikko

[Image source: http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/1984/06/the-writers-dilemma/ .  Haavikko with his first wife, the writer Marja-Liisa Vartio. They were married from 1955 until Vartio's death in 1966.]


Paavo Haavikko (1931 - 2008)

"Ei ole hienompaa ääntä kuin kirjoituskoneen ääni. Kun tekstiä korjaa, näkee aikaisemman version. Tietokoneessa ensimmäinen, paras, lause katoaa. Se on vaikuttanut kirjoihin aika paljon. Tietokoneella on helppo kirjoittaa runoja tai mitä tahansa, mutta ne eivät ole välttämättä syntyneet ihmismielen luontaisen prosessin kautta.”

"There's no finer sound than the sound of a typewriter. When you correct the text, you see the previous version. On the computer, the first, best, phrase disappears. It has affected books a lot. It's easy for a computer to write poems or anything else, but they are not necessarily born through the natural process of the human mind."

(From an interview in the final year of Haavikko's life, when he had almost stopped reading or writing, but still checked the share prices on TV: https://suomenkuvalehti.fi/jutut/kulttuuri/han-muotokuvassa-paavo-haavikko/ .)

He was apt to consider himself an entrepreneur first and a writer second. Yet in the end he wrote almost 100 books. This National Biography of Finland article on Haavikko (in English) gives some idea of his many-sided production:

https://kansallisbiografia.fi/english/person/4828

And here's another biography, with additional details and a pretty complete list of the books.

http://authorscalendar.info/haavikko.htm

Most of Haavikko's many sides are rather inaccessible to readers of English. Translations have tended to focus on his poetry, especially the earlier poetry. So I don't have any knowledge of his plays or histories or memoirs, more's the pity. As time went by his poetry, initially lyrical (or metalyrical) graded into aphorisms. Haavikko's serial aphorisms aren't individually clinching or ingenious; indeed, they are often ambiguous, sarcastic, simplistic, or contrarian.


What I long for most is a circle and a square
   and a caterpillar track, and the day's rates too,
but not education.
   No one educates you for this,
neither first nor last.
   Because it can't be learned, one's got to
             know bang off.
All the tritenesses, like the way of all flesh,
   come true.
I hate goodbyes because
   world-without-end goodbye means
      meeting soon, over again.
The great system of conceptions, bankrupt
   and a booby, like the rest.
And above all maybe what one can't even be
             bothered to say.
      What's the use of haggling?

(from May, Perpetual / Toukokuu, Ikuinen (1988). Translation by Herbert Lomas.)

This is Herbert Lomas's translation, from Contemporary Finnish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1991). In the Introduction to this anthology Lomas has a little argument with Haavikko. The argument has many facets, but maybe, at bottom, there's a feeling of: What right has this successful Helsinki businessman to be so radically pessimistic about human existence and society? And yet, there's still that nagging conviction that Haavikko's work mines into something deep and real and important; at least there is with me.  

*

Some Haavikko poems online, in English translation:

http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/1984/06/poems-10/

Aphorisms, from No. That's to say, Yes (2006):

http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/2006/06/on-becoming-a-forest/




Paavo Haavikko


[Image source: https://prabook.com/web/mobile/#!profile/727644 ]

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Friday, July 12, 2019

broom-buoy

Stormigt hav. Ruskprick (August Strindberg, 1892)

[Image source: https://www.europeana.eu/portal/sv/explore/people/60469-august-strindberg.html ]

Today's unusual Swedish word. I was looking up kvast (which means broom) in my battered dictionary (Esselte Studium, 1983), and my eye fell on kvastprick : buoy (beacon) with broom . Hmm...

Well, here's one, in a stormy Strindberg seascape. As you can see, it's a kind of primitive buoy where the visible part looks like a broom. They were painted red. Maybe the most literal translation would be a "broom-marker". Prick means mark, spot, dot, speck; also a bull's-eye, and (in sport) a penalty point.

This kind of buoy was also called ruskprick, as in the title of Strindberg's painting. (Ruska means a bunch of twigs.)

Here's a wintry photo of one, by the photographer Gustaf Wilhelm Reimers (1885 - 1963).



[Image source: https://digitaltmuseum.se/021016877561/pa-som-ruskprick ]

These simple kvastprickar are anchored, not solidly fixed into the underwater rock. That's about the only thing I can understand about the diagram below (mariners may do better). It comes from the Svenska kalendern  for 1926  -- evidently a sort of annual of useful (or useless) information, like the Dunlop Book of Facts I used to leaf through as a child.


[Image source: http://runeberg.org/svenskaka/1926/0077.html ]



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Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The unrecounted storm

Emily in the garden

[Image source: https://chaucereditions.wordpress.com/1910s/1912-emily-underdown-the-gateway-to-chaucer/ ]


And how asseged was Ypolita,
The faire, hardy queene of Scithia;
And of the feste that was at hir weddynge,
And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge;

(The Knight's Tale, 23-26)

This is from Chaucer's (or rather, the Knight's) brief summary of a whole lot of material that he intends to pass by in order to focus on the story of Palamon and Arcite.

Dryden, paraphrasing Chaucer, has this:

The Town besieg'd, and how much Blood it cost
The Female Army, and th' Athenian Host ;
The Spousals of Hippolyta the Queen ;
What Tilts and Tourneys at the Feast were seen ;
The Storm at their Return, the Ladies Fear :

(Palamon and Arcite, I. 19-23)

Chaucer's source for the story was Boccaccio's Teseida. He reduced it mightily: The Knight's Tale is 2250 lines: the Teseida is 9896 lines, coincidentally (?) the same number as Virgil's Aeneid. But while Boccaccio recounts Theseus' Scythian adventure at some length, there is no tempest in the Teseida. It was Chaucer's own idea.

Why he included it we can only speculate. Probably there was no big significance, it just seemed like the right sort of story-element for a romance. Storms occurred e.g. in Arthurian romances, or in other Boccaccio stories, such as Cymon and Iphigenia; and of course in the most popular part of Virgil's epic, the story of Dido.

"At hir hoom-comynge" might seem to imply that the storm was raging at the very moment the newlyweds entered Athens, but we soon discover that they haven't quite arrived there yet. Maybe Chaucer envisioned a storm at sea towards the end of their return voyage from Scythia.

*

Dryden embellishes Chaucer's unrecounted storm with "the Ladies Fear". That additional detail might seem rather ill-chosen in this instance:  would this "hardy" warrior-queen and her sister be so stereotypically fearful? But Dryden is rightly registering a certain paradox. The Hippolyta we meet in The Knight's Tale is, whatever her warrior-queen past, now an impeccably royal consort; when she influences her husband it's not by challenging his authority but by the sweetly irresistible plea of feminine sensibility. As for the Emily who comes to do May's observance in the palace garden, there's nothing at all Amazon-like about her. Boccaccio had begun this transformation himself. Initially he presents her as having only a single breast, like all Amazon warrior-maidens, but as the Teseida proceeds he makes her into a portrait of his own real-life love and sheds all such martial details. In Chaucer's tale, Emily and Hippolyta are fair damsels in the mode of medieval romance.

So far as we know Boccaccio made up the central story (though a few details, mainly about Arcite, might derive from a Byzantine source). In his story, Emily's desire to remain a virgin is connected with her being an Amazon. Chaucer doesn't mention this, so it comes across as an attractive girlish freak, evidence of Emily's chaste-mindedness (and, most importantly, malleable to male authority when the time comes).

I don't want to be heavy-handed about what is, after all, a romance and a made-up one at that, but still, it's hard not to notice that The Knight's Tale begins with a man (Theseus) winning his bride (Hippolyta) by attacking her, and ends with a woman (Emily) being forced against her will to marry, following another violent contest -- though in this case the physical violence is at any rate between the men and not directed towards her. Chaucer himself isn't oblivious to the tensions within his tale, but later authors seem to amplify them.

*

Dryden brings out those tensions at once.

In Scythia with the Warriour Queen he strove,
Whom first by Force he conquer'd, then by Love ;

(Palamon and Arcite, I.7-8)

In 1700 it was hardly possible to use "Force" in the context of "Love" without making the reader think momentarily about rape.

As we saw earlier, his summary of the war with the Amazons involves the "Blood" of both sexes. Dryden isn't bothered about being tactful.

And he assigns quite new motives for Emily wanting to remain a virgin:

Like Death, thou know'st, I loath the Nuptial State,   }
And Man, the Tyrant of our Sex, I hate,                    }
A lowly Servant, but a lofty Mate.                            }
Where Love is Duty on the Female Side,
On theirs mere sensual Gust, and sought with surly Pride.

(Palamon and Arcite, III. 227-31)

Dryden was not intending feminist revisionism, he simply lived in a different age. Moving from Chaucer's tale to Dryden's is like moving from "chivalry" to (that related word) "cavalier". One could be staunchly a cavalier, but it could no longer be idealized in quite the same way as the earlier term. No longer shielded by religion, the modern exemplar of arms and gallantry and sexual conquest was now in the public domain, a topic of secular debate in which women's voices, too, were starting to be heard.

*

Theseus and Hippolyta, the model royal couple who tranquilly preside over A Midsummer Night's Dream (and later The Two Noble Kinsmen) were in effect the invention of Boccaccio and Chaucer. (We know of two lost Elizabethan plays about Palamon and Arcite, so it might have been one of those that was Shakespeare's direct source.) The ancient classical stories about Theseus and his Amazon dalliance (sometimes Hippolyta, sometimes Antiope) are far less tranquil: in some of them, Theseus kills his Amazon girl-friend, in others she tries to kill him. (After all, these myths had to fit in with the more famous story in which Theseus is married to Phaedra.) Shakespeare did have an inkling of this wilder substrate: he knew (from Plutarch) about Theseus' rape of Perigune.

Didst thou not lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravishèd ...

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, II.1.80-81)

And this sunniest of his comedies contains a few other shafts of this darker light. It's there from the start.

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries ...

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, I.1.17-18)



The tournament

[Image source: https://chaucereditions.wordpress.com/1910s/1912-emily-underdown-the-gateway-to-chaucer/ ]

*

The Knight's Tale goes back a long way with me... I encountered it, as a child, in a marvellously illustrated re-telling. Some of those illustrations are still vividly present to me: the rivals quarrelling in the tower while Emily wanders in the garden below; the bloody fight in the grove; the stricken Arcite lividly swaying on his horse. I'm disappointed that I couldn't find those images online: the ones here (from the useful chaucereditions site), come from a 1912 Gateway to Chaucer by Emily Underdown, "With Sixteen Coloured Plates and Numerous Marginal Illustrations after Drawings by Anne Anderson".

If I'm honest I don't think I've ever cared quite so much for the tale since. That child's version stuck to the story and its scenes of action, needing no further commentary. Chaucer begins like that, and no-one tells a story better. But he slows right down for the description of the temples, the young people's prayers, the gods' debate, Arcite's funeral rites, Theseus' philosophical musings...  Here were the great passages admired by my university teachers, the meditations on violence, fortune and misfortune, the vanity of this life and the mystery of death. A childish part of me still feels there's a heavy price to pay.


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Saturday, July 06, 2019

Orfeo's enterprise

Orfeo and Caronte



[Image source: https://petrareinhardt.com/stage_cinema/lorfeo/ . From a production by Opéra de Lausanne, October 2016.]




CORO di SPIRITI INFERNALI:

Nulla impresa per huom si tenta invano,
Né contro a lui più sà Natura armarse:
Ei de l'instabil piano
Arò gl'ondosi campi e'l seme sparse
Di sue fatiche, ond'aurea messe accolse.
Quinci, perché memoria
Vivesse di sua gloria,
La Fama a dir di lui sua lingua sciolse,
Ch'ei pose freno al mar con fragil legno,
Che sprezzò d'Austr' e d'Aquilon lo sdegno.

CHORUS of INFERNAL SPIRITS:

No enterprise by man is undertaken in vain,
nor can Nature further defend herself against him.
He has ploughed the waving fields
of the uneven plain and scattered the seed
of his labour, whence he has reaped golden harvests.
Wherefore, so that the memory
of his glory shall live,
Fame has loosened her tongue to speak of him
who tamed the sea with fragile barque
and mocked the fury of the winds of the north and south.

End of Act III of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607). Its hero has just succeeded in entering the infernal regions, after using his lyre to charm the watchful Caronte (Charon) to sleep. From the libretto by Alessandro Striggio.  [Translation source: https://www.opera-arias.com/monteverdi/l'-orfeo/libretto/english/ ]


*

And he held and went; air
whistled along the passageway;
Hold and go, hold and go.
his wood labour, that would have made
a battalion, his cornetto.

You lay both hands along the bow
as on a bannister, after a knee replacement,
and you think what is undertaken has
its scattered footprint, it can't fail.

Even on the unstable plain, which is built
over archaic landfill. If nature might
wear armour other than her own!

We and memory's noise of voices
have closed and opened, closed and opened
in the unjudging tide,
have fashioned such landmarks
that, to total and account for,
to look back, frightened by our own rumour,
to catch her fading on the sight....
-- Where does it leave us?



(MP)


*

The wordless autumn wind
puts people's grief
into words. They themselves cannot
do it, for it is existence
that grieves, a nothingness
inside us all that compels us
to torment, and be tormented,
and thus exist so
intensely that being
drowns out the grief. . .

(Gösta Ågren, from "The Return of Orpheus", in Hid (Coming Here), 1992, translation by David McDuff.)

*

Sinfonia: Nulla impresa per huom (John Eliot Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists)




[Post inspired by the I Fagiolini production of L'Orfeo at this year's York Early Music Festival (5th July 2019).]

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Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Signal Point




At 0730 I walked out of my door to begin a four day jaunt across England, and felt a rush of joy at the splendid weather, and at my lack of encumbrance. I just had a light backpack, most of it filled with a rolled-up hoodie. "... We walked off to look for America..."

We enjoy playing at poverty. But actually, my joyful lightness was down to expenditure. I had the blessing of someone else paying my travel costs, so I was taking the train. (The cost of train travel in the UK is prohibitive.) I'm staying with friends, so I'm relying on their generosity in the way of  food, towels and raingear, should this lovely weather change. Thanks to the powers of the smartphone, I don't feel compelled to lug around a library of physical books. Once I would have wanted a camera and a laptop, but now.... Even my tickets are weightless electronic entities. I do feel a bit jittery about leaving my guitar behind, but in other respects I really have everything.

Paul and Kathy, I'm sure, would have had a guitar with them, but the song mentions only a minimum of luggage: cigarettes, a raincoat, a magazine. It allows ... it even encourages ... the idea that its protagonists are fairly poor.

I've been learning the song, which is a most beautiful construction (and has stretched my guitar technique). The song had come back into my mind when I heard an extract (a Paul Simon solo rendition) on a recent edition of The Verb, Radio 3's weekly poetry show. The theme of the show was the word America and its imaginative connotations. Ian McMillan and his guests enthused about Simon's artistry and about the song's evocation of space and distance: "The moon rose over an open field..."

Only one of the guests was unwilling to collude in this love-feast, the personable Terrance Hayes, chuckling and politely embarrassed, but nonetheless devastating. He said he couldn't really focus on the song without thinking about the rare and strange circumstances in which he would ever encounter a song of that kind. It just wasn't part of his world. I forget the exact terms he used to characterize its audience, and I might be embroidering, but the implications seemed clear: the song was a fantasy for an earnest, dreamy, self-absorbed, predominantly white and middle class student audience. The song evoked hobo tropes (such as a paucity of possessions, and using low-cost modes of transport), but it had little to do with the experience of those many working people who have had no choice but to uproot and travel across that broad nation in search of a bare livelihood. I think Terrance Hayes' embarrassed chuckle meant more than that, too, but this was what I took away.

The focus on primary audience isn't wholly fair. Paul Simon's songs have engaged so many different audiences worldwide, and have spoken to so many individual circumstances. The vacuity of the pursuit imaged by "counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike", though it's touched so lightly, still poses an urgent and angry question fifty years on.

But still, a primary audience is unquestionably a big part of what any pop artefact comes to mean. And after all, the luxury of acknowledging that personal emptiness ("I'm empty and aching and I don't know why") might have operated in ways to actually counter social change; by exculpating the morally sensitive individual and venting the pressure of discomfort into the empty air.

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.


II. 1991

Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal

afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we

know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-

ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-

ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we

go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-

ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-

ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We

push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.

While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,

we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-

eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.


Source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55678/the-golden-shovel

A poem by Terrance Hayes, riffing off Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool".




So there's no recycling capability for the main waste item on station platforms. Even though recycling of plastic-bonded cardboard has existed for years and is offered by many (most?) councils. And even though you can make single-use cups without plastic, as the Coffee #1 chain do. Time for the railway companies to step up!

Leeds City Council shows how it should be done


Discounts on factory-farmed meat for W.H. Smith customers

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Friday, June 28, 2019

Rough Hawk's-beard (Crepis biennis)

Crepis biennis in summer breeze. Swindon, 28th June 2019.


Crepis biennis (En: Rough Hawk's-beard, Sw: Skånefibbla)

A new one on me, but probably I just haven't been paying attention. It's a sturdy biennial, much taller than the more common Beaked Hawksbeard (Crepis vesicaria) -- the three plants on my daily walk are all over a meter -- and flowering several weeks later. (It also lacks the latter's red colouring on the back of the florets.)

It's native on chalk in a rather restricted region of SE England (Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire), but is also an increasing introduction elsewhere, generally in man-made environments. Hence its appearance here, in Swindon.

It's more frequent in the south, rare and casual by the time you get to Scotland. (In Sweden it's common only in Skåne, casual elsewhere. Common throughout most of mainland Europe.)


Crepis biennis. Swindon, 28th June 2019.

Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019. 

This one is getting on for 1.5m tall.

Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.

The buds and involucres have a neat attractive appearance, with short patent hairs and phyllaries in two rows, the outer row somewhat spreading.

Clive Stace, for some doubtless very good reason, doesn't employ the term "involucre" in his New Flora of the British Isles, but I can't seem to lose the habit of using it as a collective term for the phyllaries (green bits!) that surround the capitulum (composite flower-head; the yellow part!).


Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.


Leaves and stem of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.

The plant is not as rough as the name led me to expect, but there are patent hairs on at least the leaf-edges and the midribs (above and below), and on the ridges of the stem.


Flower of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 23rd June 2019.



Developing seed-heads of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 2nd July 2019.



Developing seed-heads of Crepis biennis. Swindon, 2nd July 2019.

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Helon Habila: Measuring Time (2007)


Helon Habila in 2006



[Image source: http://talatu-carmen.blogspot.com/2007/01/interview-with-helon-habila-at.html ]


SPOILER ALERT!
Habila is a brilliant storyteller. I've no intention of recounting the plot, but I'm unusually conscious that even the small revelations in these notes have the potential to spoil the delicate unfolding that a first-time reader experiences...


KETI...

Helon Habila's first novel, Waiting for an Angel (2003), was set in Lagos. Measuring Time, however, is a totally provincial novel. The book is mainly located in a village called Keti in northern Nigeria. Keti is a fictional location. The state capital is mentioned regularly, though never named. You can get a sense of the general locale from other places named in the book: e.g. Jos, Bauchi, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano, and at one point Keti is revealed to be in the Gombe area (p. 240). (Gombe is evidently the unnamed state capital.) Habila himself was born in Kaltungo in Gombe state. It would be a mistake to pin Keti down to a single place -- that would set limits on the novel's tremendous scope -- but it's interesting that the colonialist Mr Graves died "attempting one more conquest: to climb the highest peak in Keti, the Kilang Peak, described in the Reverend Drinkwater's Brief History as a 'mountainous contour like a lion couchant'" (p. 267). That's surely an allusion to Kaltungo's impressive Kilang Hill (see photo below).

Measuring Time takes us back into remoter times (the sickly Mamo, after all, becomes a historian) but it's chiefly a novel about the very recent past: mostly, the 1990s. Mamo's stifling life in Keti is its crucible, but the novel looks a long way beyond Keti. For example, it's book-ended by local violence: attacks on Keti Igbo residents in the mid-1960s, prior to the Biafran war, and agitation between the Keti Christians and Muslims, brutally suppressed by the police, in the mid-1990s. But in between, we've read LaMamo's sombre accounts of fighting across the African continent, most horrifically in Liberia. Even here, LaMamo in his letter manages to say that he is sometimes reminded of home. His twin brother Mamo isn't very emotionally intuitive and perhaps never fathoms why LaMamo writes this to him. (Does he ever really understand Zara's sufferings or her decisions?) Later, he asks Bintou, "Was your home in Liberia a bit like this?" Her darkened recoil from his insensitive question is a quiet reminder that Keti cannot represent everywhere else, it cannot feel like home to everyone.

And Keti, at least, has survived. It has done so by assimilating culture from everything that comes into its orbit, whether the gods of the ancient Komda that the Keti peoples displaced, or the village play, The Coming, that recounts the arrival of its first Christian missionary, the Reverend Drinkwater. Mamo has inadvertently contributed to the latter artefact: himself an exemplary absorber of influences from outside: beginning in childhood with Wilbur Smith or Mills & Boon, later encountering Thoreau*, Plutarch, Okigbo, semiotics, etc. Keti is a mixture of peoples, languages, and religions; there are also modern affiliations (such as professions and political parties) alongside older ones like the traditional village rulers (the Mais). Measuring Time has a mostly disenchanted view of life in Keti but it has no idealism about cultural purity.  

[ "To them the play was not about Drinkwater and his 'conquest' of their culture by his culture, it was about their own survival. They were celebrating because they had had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs..." (p. 381). Those are Mamo's thoughts, and the book maintains a distance from them -- Mamo is often naïve and mistaken -- but I don't feel it rejects them. Something that other readers might wish to debate.]


*

Sometimes Asabar came to keep the twins company, he and LaMamo would kick a ball back and forth, taking turns to play goalie, but increasingly Asabar would turn up drunk, staggering and talking loudly about how unhappy he was. He had discovered the pleasures of alcohol. Auntie Marina would shake her head in disgust and give him a long sermon on the evils of drinking, and how all drinkers would end up in hellfire.

"But this is hell, Auntie . . . Life in this village is hell . . . Tell her, Mamo . . . sorry, not you . . . you are sick . . . but LaMamo, tell her how terrible . . . I am tired of going to the farm . . . and school . . . and . . ." And he'd go on and on. To stop him, Auntie Marina would disappear into the kitchen to return with a bowl of rice, or tuwo, and hand it to him.

"Stop! Stop!" she'd scream as he began to dip his dirty hands into the bowl, and make him wash his hands before eating.

"See how scrawny you are?" she would mutter as he gobbled down the food. "See what sin does to you?"

Lamang didn't seem bothered by his nephew's drinking. He had always treated Asabar with more levity than he did his own children. "It is youth," he'd say, "he will grow out of it."

(p. 36)

["tuwo" = cooked cornmeal.]

*

Lamang's lazy optimism is proved wrong: Asabar never stops drinking. The lovable Auntie Marina's hellfire sermon is no more effective. But the food epitomizes her: she makes survival possible, though her own life was damaged so early.

But there's a lot of waste of life in this picture of survival: that doesn't necessarily mean death, though it often does. Asabar is only one of the wasted lives. One of the many understatedly powerful moments in the later chapters is the unexpected reminder of Saraya, Lamang's beautiful early love of the opening pages; still alive, but her memory gone for some thirty years: just living on. To Zara she's an angel. For Mamo, still, there's some frozen bitterness from childhood. The wonderfully balanced ending leaves us to speculate on the prospects for these and other characters.

*

Auntie Marina is a more significant character than might appear. Our final glimpse of her, hoeing -- "Mamo wondered what she might be thinking as she stood motionless, staring at the weed and obviously not seeing it" (pp. 370-71) -- starts Mamo pondering, at a crucial juncture, about the complexity of other lives and their expression in gesture.  It's one of the book's central concerns, given Mamo's desire to write the true lives of individuals: to what extent can he, or anyone, understand them, even those he has spent all his life with?

Expressions are dynamic and beneath them the emotions are complicated. "Mamo's anger and relief and frustration vied to dominate his face" (p. 348-49). Habila is giving new philosophical relevance to an ancient literary trope, a cliché in Scott (usually involving the word "mingled") and an entertainment in Dickens, e.g. "[W]ith an expression of face in which a great number of opposite ingredients, such as mischief, cunning, triumph, and patient expectation, were all mixed up together in a kind of physiognomical punch, Miss Miggs composed herself to wait and listen..." (Barnaby Rudge, Ch. 9).

*

LaMamo was sprawled out in the sofa, singing loudly along to a Bongos Ikwe song on the radio. His mouth fell open when he saw Zara, and he sat up, looking at Mamo questioningly.

"My brother, LaMamo," Mamo said.

(p. 109)

*

This would have been in the early 1980s. LaMamo is listening to Bongos Ikwue, a popular recording artist from the Benue region in central Nigeria (born in Otukpo in 1942, attended school in Zaria).

This is one of his songs, "Still Searching":




*

The radio and books sustained him at night. He'd lie in the dark and listen to the voices from faraway Lagos or London or America or Germany discussing art or politics or architecture. There were also the late request programs when insomniacs like him would phone in with their marital woes, their sexual angst, their clinical depressions, and their congenital diseases. As he listened to the voices, with the moonlight coming in through the window, the loneliness didn't bite that sharply; he'd feel as if the people on the radio were seated beside him, together forming a community of misfits, freaks, and solitaries, desperately reaching out to touch flesh, to form a circle of empathy. His bed was a time ship, the radio was a component of it, moving him forward and backward in time, visiting history and people and places, until finally the announcer's voice lulled him to sleep. Sometimes he'd jerk awake again, the light through the window in his eyes and Beethoven's Fifth on the radio -- but it was not morning yet, it was only the false dawn and it would grow dark again. The real dawn was still hours away. It was at times like this that he'd look across the room to his brother's empty bed, and his eyes would fill with tears.

(pp. 140-41)


*

I've never seen the false dawn (zodiacal light, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust); in fact I had never even heard of it, except as a figurative expression. But then I live in a light-polluted town in the relatively far north. In rural areas near the equator it's a common phenomenon.

*

Measuring Time (2007) was Helon Habila's second novel. His fourth, Travellers, was published just a few days ago (June 2019). He has also written The Chibok Girls (2017), a non-fictional book about the Boko Haram kidnappings.

Some early reviews of Measuring Time:

Helen Oyeyemi (New Statesman):

https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2007/02/helon-habila-mamo-measuring

Giles Foden (Guardian):

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/feb/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview17

Hari Kunzru (New York Times):

https://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/books/review/Kunzru.t.html

*

Interview by Frank Bures:
https://www.pw.org/content/everything_follows_interview_helon_habila

(This is from 2003, when Habila had only just published his first book, but is fascinating for his vision of what a modern African novel might be.)



Kilang Hill, Kaltungo (Gombe State, Nigeria)

[Image source: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g312578-i92347823-Johannesburg_Greater_Johannesburg_Gauteng.html]


*

* Thoreau.

"You could finish writing your novel."

"Sometimes I feel like I have run out of things to say."

He stroked her head, then he quoted, "'The world is as new today as it was when first created, and what we have is not a shortage but a surfeit of things to say.'"

She sat up and looked at him.

"Herman Melville, or Thoreau, said that," Mamo said.

"It's so optimistic, so beautiful. I should write it down somewhere."

(p. 134)

Mamo is misquoting, if he's quoting at all.  It sounds like it could be Melville or Thoreau, or indeed lots of other people, but Google supplies nothing.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

some poems from Karin Boye's The Seven Deadly Sins




[Image source: https://www.svd.se/en-ny-dag-gryr-for-karin-boye ]


From The Seven Deadly Sins  and Other Posthumous Poems (1941)




The blossom Bitterness


Blossom blossom Bitterness,
how full you now appear
with ripe golden honey,
for all your bitter cheer.
How weighed down with your gifts,
which the almonds in the field,
so gentle and correctly dressed,
surely never yield.

Affliction and benediction:
each receives his own.
I cannot take life’s measure,
but I know that you were mine.
Your cup contained fire.
Your nectar was like gall.
Seven griefs you brewed for me,
and I drank them all.

Blossom blossom Bitterness,
how rich at last your freight
of warm golden honey,
which is like the sun’s light.
Faint with sweetness, here I stand
in all your gift’s brightness.
I will exult with Adam, and
with Job I’ll witness.



Blomman bitterhet


Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur står du nu så full
av guldmogen honung
för all din beskhets skull.
Hur dignar du av skänker,
som ängarnas mandelblomma
väl aldrig kunde bära,
den blidhyllta fromma.

Plåga och välsignelse --
var har väl sin.
Inte vet jag livets mått,
men vet att du blev min.
Din kalk var som eld.
Din saft var som galla.
Du bjöd sju bedrövelser,
och jag drack dem alla.

Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur blev du sist så rik
på varmgyllne honung,
som är solljuset lik.
Här står jag, matt av sötman
i din klarnade gåva.
Med Adam vill jag jubla.
Med Job vill jag lova.





To you


You my despairing and my strength,
you took away all my own life,
and since you had to have it all,
gave it me back a thousandfold.


Till dig


Du min förtvivlan och min kraft,
du tog allt eget liv jag haft,
och därför att du krävde allt
gav du tillbaka tusenfalt.





Never was the wood so joyful as now...


Never was the wood so joyful as now in the sun and the rain,
never so overflowing with wood-scents and wood-glitter,
never so free with the sweet solace I alone cannot obtain,
though I seek it and pray, but my grief is too bitter.

Drink in, my two eyes, the golden light that I myself don't see.
Breathe deeply in, my two lungs, the mist of wet moss.
I am a dead stone. Forget me and live for yourselves,
Pull in to your secret chambers everything, whatever you come across.

Inaccessible is the room where the day's crop gently ripens
from the shimmering, the scents and the breath of wind. When the moment arrives
a compacted splendour bursts its cell: rushes over me
keen and wild like a waterfall, the memory of my griefs.



Aldrig är skogen lycklig som nu...


Aldrig är skogen lycklig som nu i sol och regn,
aldrig så överflödande av fin lukt och glitter,
aldrig så lekfullt tröstande -- mig når den bara inte,
fast jag söker och ber.  Min smärta är för bitter.

Drick, mina ögon, guldljus som inte jag själv ser.
Andas djupt, mina lungor, den våta mossans ånga.
Jag är en död sten.  Glöm mig, lev för er,
samla i gömda kamrar allt ni lyckas fånga.

Oåtkomligt det rum, där dagens skörd ska mogna
mjuk av skimmer och doft och sus.  När stunden är inne
spränger en tätnad prakt sitt gömsle.  Över mig störtar
friskt och vilt som ett vattenfall ett smärtans minne.







Wild apple-tree


How is it possible?
How could it spring up, such lovely multiplicity,
such a fresh, fine and airy crown of flowers,
such a forest of wild, twisting branches,
such rugged bark, green with lichen,
the whole lot, all
from the same one little dark pip?
There it all lay –
stem, boughs, leaves and bark and bright flowers,
crowded together, within a heart-shape.

But we are the apple-tree’s reflection in the water.
From abundances without limit or bottom,
from our younger days’ airy, pale fruit-blossom,
from the hundred-ways forest of interwoven branches,
from the plain bark of an ordinary life,
we accumulate slowly,
till everything lies still, close, and sealed
within the heart’s core...
How is it possible?


Vildapel


Hur är det möjligt?
Hur spirade en sådan ljuvlig mångfald,
en sådan frisk och fin och luftig blomsky,
en sådan skog av vridna vilda grenar,
en sådan skrovlig bark med gröna lavar
alltsammans bara
ur en och samma lilla mörka kärna?
Där låg det, allt,
stam, grenar, blad och bark och lätta blommor,
hopträngt i hjärtgestalt.

Men vi är apelns spegelbild i vatten.
Ur rikedomar utan gräns och botten,
ur unga dagars lätta ljusa fruktblom,
ur hundra vägars skog av slingergrenar,
ur enkla barken av ett enkelt liv,
samlas vi långsamt,
tills allting ligger stilla, tätnat, slutet
inom en hjärtekärna...
Hur är det möjligt?







How can I tell...


How can I tell, if your voice is lovely.
I just know this, that it penetrates me
so deep it makes me tremble like a leaf
and rips me into shreds and detonates me.


What do I know about your skin, your limbs.
Just that it jolts me they belong to you,
so that for me there is no sleep and peace
till they are mine too.



Hur kan jag säga...


Hur kan jag säga om din röst är vacker.
Jag vet ju bara, att den genomtränger mig
och kommer mig att darra som ett löv
och trasar sönder mig och spränger mig.

Vad vet jag om din hud och dina lemmar.
Det bara skakar mig att de är dina,
så att för mig finns ingen sömn och vila,
tills de är mina.





Complete Swedish text of The Seven Deadly Sins (De sju dödssynderna):
http://www.karinboye.se/verk/dikter/diktsaml-de7dodssynd.shtml

[The Seven Deadly Sins was put together after Boye's death by Hjalmar Gullberg. The above link arranges the contents in a different sequence from the one normally seen, and there are a couple of extra poems too. I haven't yet found an explanation for this.]


English translations by me.


Karin Boye's memorial stone outside Alingsås

[Image source: https://www.vastsverige.com/alingsas/produkter/karin-boyes-minnessten/ ]

This is where Karin Boye's huddled body was discovered, by a local farmer, on 27th April 1941. She had walked out of her home in Alingsås, near Gothenburg, on 23rd April, carrying a lot of sleeping-pills and a bottle of water. The date of her death is usually given as 24th April.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Audubon visits Scott

Whooping Crane eating baby alligators



In winter 1826-1827 John James Audubon was in Edinburgh, trying to drum up interest in the gargantuan publishing venture that would produce The Birds of America, by hugely expensive subscription. (The book still breaks records in the auction houses.)

He put on a successful exhibition, which Sir Walter Scott declined to attend, though he later regretted it. "I wish I had gone to see his drawings; but I had heard so much about them that I resolved not to see them..." I sympathise. Maybe Scott had sensed Audubon's questionable honesty at a distance; if so, he was soon re-deceived. (I'm taking this information from John Chancellor's 1978 biography of Audubon, which makes no bones about its subject's unsympathetic character traits; indeed reading it, you end up feeling that maybe Audubon wasn't so bad after all, which was perhaps the intention. Incidentally, Audubon's Wikipedia entries contain no hint of such critical views.)

Anyway, in January 1827 Audubon visited Scott.
My eyes feasted on his countenance. I watched his movements as I would those of a celestial being..... [H]e had been at work writing on the 'life of Napoleon'. He writes close lines, rather curved as they go from left to right, and puts an immense deal on very little paper....
Scott evidently succumbed to the Audubon myth. This man had studied ornithology, he wrote,

by many a long wandering in the American forests. He is an American by naturalization, a Frenchman by birth; but less of a Frenchman than I have ever seen -- no dash, or glimmer, or shine about him, but great simplicity of manners and behaviour; slight in person, and plainly dressed; wears long hair, which time has not yet tinged; his countenance acute, handsome and interesting, but still simplicity is the predominant characteristic!

After a second visit a couple of days later, Scott added:

This sojourner in the desert has been in the woods for months together. He preferred associating with the Indians to the company of the Black Settlers; very justly, I daresay, for a civilized man of the lower order -- that is, the dregs of civilization -- when thrust back on the savage state becomes worse than a savage...

(quotations taken from John Chancellor, Audubon: A Biography (1978), pp. 133-134.)

This is quite uncomfortable for me to quote: I would much rather be showing Scott in a more sympathetic light.

As to the truth, Audubon (keen to make Europeans believe he was a true pioneer, which he wasn't) naturally played up his contacts with Native Americans, such as they were. And with Scott's ignorant assent he evidently disparaged the "Black Settlers".

Both men, no doubt, were racists to some degree; it was impossible they should be anything else at the time. (In Scott's voluminous fictions I can only think of one black character, the dumb and devoted Nubian slave of Richard the Lionheart in The Talisman -- who turns out, naturally, to be Prince Kenneth of Scotland in black-face.)

What Scott says here is confused and probably incoherent. It might appear to have no racist aspect:  merely, that is, a generalization about civilized dregs, the ethnicity of the settlers being neither here nor there -- but I think that interpretation would be wrong. For would Scott say exactly this about, for example, the white convicts who were being shipped to Australia? -- I doubt it. I think he was disturbed by black people and wilderness coming together, and this provokes the inappropriate word "savage": for after all to be a settler is not at all the same thing as to be "thrust back on the savage state". The black settlers were part of Euro-American civilization, not savagery.

(Of course I'm leaving aside the question whether "savage" and "civilized" are coherent descriptions: I don't believe they are. I believe all cultures, and all individuals, try to get by in the circumstances they find themselves in.)

But then this brings in another anxiety alongside the racist one: a class anxiety. The settlers were a part of the lowest of civilisation's lower orders, the "dregs" (in Scott's view). As former slaves they had not so much been honoured with Euro-American civilization as consumed and spat out by it. (I should think that any good qualities they possessed they acquired rather in spite of than because of that civilization's doubtful mercies.)

Scott and his huge audience were imaginatively drawn to the "true" savage, the aboriginal, whether in the form of Native Americans or "unspoiled" Highlanders: because these exotics lie outside the class system of our civilization. A gentleman need not be ashamed of such company. In fact, the savages are a positive relief from the constant anxieties of playing the gentlemanly role.

But poor settlers, black or white, were the kind of person whom one wished to avoid. For class consciousness, the mutual consciousness of a structural injustice in which the gentleman profits at the expense of the dregs, makes such relations uncomfortable. It was, of course, a large part of Scott's mission as novelist to portray this relation in its least uncomfortable aspects (e.g. in mutually respectful master-servant relationships; or at least in disrespect that is strictly limited; in "irrepressible" commentary from the lower orders; in Jenny Dennison and Andrew Fairservice and Flibbertygibbet...).

Scott wasn't all wrong, far from it. He knew his society, and the variety of its relations, in quite a lot of depth; his legal experience (like Fielding's) was invaluable. He would also have seen plentiful criminality, and sometimes savagery, among the under-classes. He didn't account for it the way that I would probably do, i.e. as the issue being with civilization itself. He needed another concept: I suppose, an innate potential within the human breast that was a bit like original sin and against which civilization must be perpetually on its guard.





*

There was no other way: before photography, a book of accurate pictures of wild birds could only be made by killing wild birds. Audubon killed a huge number, all he could bag. Sometimes he drew them while still wounded but alive; he knew how quickly the colours faded after death. He used wiring to put his dead models into "life-like" postures: not infrequently the result betrays the ghastliness of the method. Audubon's great work was a commoditization of nature on a grand scale. (But even so, Audubon sometimes reflected presciently on the implications of such huge slaughters of his time as the American bison and the passenger pigeon.)

In Florida...(I'm quoting from Chancellor, pp. 178-179):

He set out at sunrise one morning with four Negro servants 'in search of birds and adventures'. He wanted to kill twenty-five brown pelicans in order to draw a single male bird. Why he should have needed so many birds for a single drawing is curious. It was partly the fun of killing them at a time when people's thoughts had not turned towards conservation and partly for the sake of giving accurate anatomical descriptions of the species and their individual variations. His friends in England, MacGillivray in particular, were clamouring for as many specimens as possible.

In a thick shrubbery of mangrove, Audubon came across several hundred pelicans,

seated in comfortable harmony, as near each other as the strength of the boughs would allow. . . . I waded to the shore under cover of the rushes along it, saw the pelicans fast asleep, examined their countenances and deportment well and leisurely, and after all, levelled, fired my piece, and dropped two of the finest specimens I ever saw. I really believe I would have shot one hundred of there reverend sirs, had not a mistake taken place in the reloading of my gun.

On another occasion the pelicans were less fortunate: 'A discharge of artillery seldom produced more effect; the dead, the dying and the wounded, fell from the trees upon the water, while those unscathed flew screaming through the air in terror and dismay.' For Audubon birds were few in number if he shot less than a hundred per day.

He was particularly fascinated by the alligators and blazed away at them from the deck of the schooner for want of anything much better to shoot at ....  the brains of one leaped out of its head and exploded in mid-air.




John James Audubon, and Great White Heron













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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Donna Stonecipher

Painting by Kyli John

[Image source: Collision at the Herrick Gallery, Piccadilly (April 2019). Artist: https://www.instagram.com/kyli.john/ .]  



Model City [1]

It was like slowly becoming aware one winter that there are new buildings going up all over your city, and then realizing that every single one of them is a hotel.

*

It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence, as you lie in your bed at night, unable to sleep.

*

It was like the feeling of falling through the 'o' in 'hotel' as you almost fall asleep in your own bed, the bed that you own, caught at the last minute by ownership, the ownership of your wide-awake self.

*

It was like giving in to your ownership of yourself and going to the window, looking out at all the softly illuminated versions of the word 'hotel' announcing their shifting absences all over the city.



*


Donna Stonecipher is another poet I've discovered via the anthology women: poetry : migration, ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (2017). (DS: born in Seattle, lives in Berlin.)

I suppose it's OK to quote this poem in full, as it's already on the Internet at least twice. It's the first of the five in this anthology, and also the first in the Shearsman book Model Cities (2015): an elegant, romantic and comfortably sleepy prelude to a book in which "ownership of yourself" becomes questionable and in which the city comes to be seen as an accretion of commodities.  

There is plenty of Stonecipher's poetry on-line, and plenty of writing about her too. This is a detailed review, by Bonnie Costello, of her most recent book, Transaction Histories.

http://bostonreview.net/poetry/bonnie-costello-limits-cosmopolitanism

I particularly like the Berlin Lyrikline site, where you can read a number of Stonecipher's poems in English as well as in translations to other languages. (On the same site, she has also supplied some of the English translations of work by other poets.)

https://www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/transaction-history-3-13371

*

             1.
            He travelled to Japan but he didn’t see any geishas. He travelled to Kenya but he didn’t see any giraffes. When he opened the book, he was surprised to find inside it another book. After a bad night in room 536, the hotel pool swallowed him like a square blue mouth swallowing a sleeping pill.
  
            2.
            It is hard to rip up a photograph with a face in it. In the tiniest torn-up piece, the face is still intact. The face lies smiling up from the bottom of the wastebasket, and then smiles as it falls out of the garbage truck onto a lawn, and then smiles as it drifts slowly across the city back to your door.

             3.
            Young people from the less powerful country came over to study the language of the more powerful neighboring country. The questionnaire found that, within a small margin of error, such-and-such percentage of women prefer to be on their knees while performing such-and-such sexual acts.

              4.
            She felt like crying when she read in the paper that déjà vu was a chemical reaction in the body and not a magical window into existences previous and future at all. The oval mirror hanging by a black ribbon above the mantel reflected part of the dark sofa and the smile on the porcelain geisha lamp.



*

This comes from "Inlay 7 (Franz Kafka)", which later quotes that dedicated public servant in The Trial : "What you say sounds reasonable enough," said the man, "but I refuse to be bribed. I am here to whip people, and whip them I shall."

https://www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/inlay-7-franz-kafka-13372


the smile on the porcelain geisha lamp






Donna Stonecipher


[Image source: https://stadtsprachen.de/en/event/parataxe-presentation-the-dung-donna-stonecipher/ . At a reading with fellow Berlin poet Thế Dṻng in October 2018.]



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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Frank and Alexa's circle


This is another foray into the vacuums, tittle-tattle and misunderstood facts that constitutes family history (a topic I always listen to with fascination, but  never seem able to retain).

There was an intellectual circle in London in, let's say, around 1900. There were many such circles, of course, but I am interested in this one because it includes my great-grandparents: Edward (known as Frank) Plowright, a bank manager in Croydon, and his wife Alexandra (known as Alexa), née Porecky.

Alexa's father Alexander, born in 1814, had emigrated to England from Poland via Paris. He was variously recorded as "Médecin", umbrella-maker, "Inventor in Mechanics", "Commercial Agent in gold and silver leaf", "Trading in leaf gold"... We still have designs for paddle-wheels and umbrella-opening mechanisms.

In subsequent years family opinion was divided on whether Alexa was of Jewish extraction; Marjorie (her eldest daughter) always maintained it, but my grandmother Ruth always denied it. Most likely Marjorie was right. A record of Alexa's birth (6 December 1859, soon after her father moved to London) records her names as Sarah Sulamith. Doubtless Alexa was not a practising Jew by the time she married; she was perhaps a "free-thinker" more than anything. Ruth inherited Alexa's lovely jet-black hair, and in turn passed it down to my dad. (When I knew Ruth, she was a devout Christian, but I didn't realize that this was not an inheritance from her parents, but rather something she had inherited "upwards" from my father.)

The circle had two geographical centres: the Doughty Street area of Holborn (home of many writers, most famously Charles Dickens back in 1837-39), and Croydon, where Frank and Alexa gave at-homes. I have a vision of a house with a lovely large garden; my grandmother must have told me about it.

Its luminaries included the young composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (born in Holborn, lived in Croydon) and Ramsay MacDonald, co-founder of the Labour Party and subsequently Prime Minister. Chesterton and Shaw, among others, were said to be occasional passage migrants.

Alexa, an idealist and intellectual, corresponded with MacDonald about the Labour movement. She also received affectionate letters from the elderly Francis Espinasse, the "Nestor of Victorian journalism", author of Lancashire Worthies,  biographies of Voltaire and Renan, etc.

Frank and Alexa had six children:

Marjorie
Dickie (died in childhood)
Ruth (my grandmother)
Joan
Esther
Oliver (known as Bobby)

After six children Alexa didn't want any more. That might be one reason why Frank began a second family with a girl he met in a shoe-shop in Midhurst. Her name was Nell Azulay (a Sephardic Jewish surname, incidentally). Alexa, now needing her own income, began to work as a masseuse. A highly respectable kind of masseuse (probably best seen as kind of alternative health therapy); but in order to maintain the respectable air she needed to be safely married, so would not countenance a divorce. Hence Frank and Nell were unable to marry until Alexa's death.

All the girls were educated at home, except Esther, who was deemed "too much of a handful".

Ruth was musical. Like Coleridge-Taylor before her, she attended the Royal College of Music, as a violinist. As a child she knew Coleridge-Taylor well, and also remembered playing for Elgar and Delius.

Marjorie inherited her mother's intellectual passion. She was the only one of the siblings seriously interested in literature (accordingly, she was my dad's favourite aunt). She went from Catholicism to Unitarianism to Communism to atheism. She married "beneath her"; John Mantle, a Southampton working man and a Catholic, who already had two children by an earlier marriage (Pauline, who became a nun, and Jack, a posthumous VC -- he died, aged 23, heroically manning his anti-aircraft gun on HMS Foylebank in Portland Harbour on July 4, 1940).

Joan, who trained as a dancer, married a wealthy director of Woolworths, Howard Dear (Howard's brother was the film director Basil Dearden). Joan and Howard helped John Mantle in setting up his own shop, but he over-extended and went bankrupt. Later he was a cargo checker at Southampton docks.

Inevitably, I suppose, there was sometimes a perceptible distance between the better-off, smart, Londoners (Joan, Esther and Bobby) and the less well-off elder sisters they generously assisted, Marjorie and Ruth.  Ruth had married a fellow-musician, a cellist. They played in palm court orchestras. But the marriage broke down. Ruth raised her two boys as an impoverished single parent.

In later life Ruth was good friends with both Pauline the nun and "Auntie Nell" the former shoe-girl. In fact it was Nell who first invited Ruth and her young family to come and stay with her in Eastbourne.  Here Ruth settled, my dad grew up and, in due course, I was born.



Alexandra Porecky

Between the death of her father and her marriage to Frank, Alexa had a brief career as an actress. My only photo of her comes from this period. It shows her in a farce-comedy, Our Flat, which was played in Hastings in 1891. The critic of the Hastings and Bexhill Observer (August 22, 1891) observed that Miss Alexandra Porecky's role as Madame Volant "was especially well-sustained".

[Our Flat, written by Mrs H. Musgrave, was first performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, on 13 June 1889.]


Ramsay MacDonald (1866 - 1937), photo from the early 1900s


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramsay_MacDonald ]



Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912)


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Coleridge-Taylor ]




Around 1910. Frank and Alexa with (L-R) baby Esther, Ruth, Joan, Marjorie.


Around 1917. L-R: Ruth, a nanny (?), Esther, Marjorie, Frank, Alexa, Bobby, Joan.


A young Ruth Plowright (my grandmother)




Recital given by Ruth and her future husband at Croydon on 20 May 1922.  On the programme, in addition to Tchaikovsky, Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc, there was naturally some Coleridge-Taylor. Ruth ended the concert with his African Dance No IV (Op. 58). Prior to that, Roy had performed a piece called Réverie by "G. Coleridge-Taylor", with piano accompaniment by the composer. This was  the late Samuel's daughter, Gwendolyn Coleridge-Taylor, now nineteen. As "Gwen", she was a close friend of Ruth and Roy. (She had been composing since the age of 12. Later she preferred to use her second name, Avril.)


Gwendolyn Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903 - 1998)

[Image source: https://musictheoryexamplesbywomen.com/composers/avril-coleridge-taylor-1903-1998/ ]



Frank in later life (c. 1930).


Leading Seaman Jack Mantle (1917 - 1940)


[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Mantle ]


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: African Dance No. 4 in D minor:

https://youtu.be/rGINItWQf0o


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