Friday, April 03, 2020


I first came across semlor, that is, Swedish Lenten buns filled with marzipan and cream, in Dubai. It was March 2015, we were on the return leg from Australia. We stayed for a few days in a cheap hotel at the less developed end of Dubai Marina. The room was a suite, it was huge. In the dim stairwell we admired a gecko -- the yellow-bellied house gecko, probably.

When we dropped down into the Marina, the shop under the aparthotel was, of all things, a Swedish patisserie. It looked like they must cater mostly for big offices and hotels across Dubai, they were surprised to see a customer walk in off the street. And basically they were baking lots and lots of semlor. (All the staff were from India, I didn't see anyone who spoke Swedish.)

[Image source: ]

Having only ever been a summer visitor to my second homeland, I had never come across semlor. If they are anything to go by, then Lent Swedish-style is a long way from fasting.

Semlor didn't seem a very appropriate snack for a pleasant 25 degrees C on Dubai Marina, so I bought a punschroll, familiarly known as a dammsugare ("vacuum cleaner)" -- another marzipan cake, but without the fresh cream.

[Image source: ]

This one turned out to be a highly superior version.

Then we set off looking for lunch proper, which I seem to remember ended up being a fillet of salmon. We were a bit jet-lagged.

(But now I think more about it, I may be importing the superior punschroll into this story from another out-of-the-way Swedish bakery that I once visited in North Yorkshire.)


I regretted that I should go from the garden of the world empty-handed to my friends, and reflected: "Travellers bring sugar-candy from Egypt as a present to their friends. Although I have no candy, yet have I words that are sweeter. The sugar that I bring is not that which is eaten, but what knowers of truth take away with respect". (Saadi's Bustan, "On the Reason for the Writing of the Book"). 


SAT 14th March.

Got up in spacious new apartment at Pearl Marina (discovered balcony late last night). Came down to south end of Marina, looked at Nordic Crown Café then went to eat at Canvas -- delish and cheap, good menu -- while chasing sun from table to table. Sky blue & fresh.

Met up with Jazmin n Colin and taxid to Al Barsha Pond Park where there's a weekly food market. Ate lovely org red & yellow tomatoes under tent of lights, Indian mug and Anatolian beach towel & cinnamon scrub soap & mug mats -- sort of appliqué

Laura cooling down at Starbucks, JBR Mall. Laura had henna tattoo on her hand

administrative      idary    إداري

God I could do with a run round the block now . I'm not going down to the stupid beach . I didn't mean that, lovely beach


A wind blows rippling among
    the palm thorns.
croak in the plane
talks plainly of a
      better past
& a lizard races
   in the room
where they put the
   packing cases.
To know the sea
   you must be by the
or on it, to row upon
  the sea's


Not sure what I was reading by this stage. I'd finished Xenophon's Anabasis on the plane from Perth. Probably Robert Gray (Australian poet), Dodie Smith or a guide to Dubai. Probably I was just swimming in the lyricism of being here.

I had a small guitar with me. Laura played the harmonica. I was playing Wide Open Road, the Triffids song.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

the corner of devotion

Saadi in the rose garden, from a Mughal manuscript of the Gulistan, c. 1645

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

I heard a padshah giving orders to kill a prisoner. The helpless
fellow began to insult the king on that occasion of despair, with
the tongue he had, and to use foul expressions according to the

Who washes his hands of life
Says whatever he has in his heart.

When a man is in despair his tongue becomes long and he is like a
vanquished cat assailing a dog.

In time of need, when flight is no more possible,
The hand grasps the point of the sharp sword.

When the king asked what he was saying, a good-natured vezierr replied, 'My lord, he says: Those who bridle their anger and forgive men:  for Allah loveth the beneficent.' The king, moved with pity, forebore taking his life but another
vezier, the antagonist of the former, said: 'Men of our rank ought to speak nothing but the truth in the presence of padshahs. This
fellow has insulted the king and spoken unbecomingly.' The king, being displeased with these words, said: 'That lie was more acceptable to me than this truth thou hast uttered because the former proceeded from
a conciliatory disposition and the latter from malignity; and wise men have said: "A falsehood resulting in conciliation is better than a truth producing trouble."'

He whom the shah follows in what he says,
It is a pity if he speaks anything but what is good.

The following inscription was upon the portico of the hall of

O brother, the world remains with no one.
Bind the heart to the Creator, it is enough.
Rely not upon possessions and this world
Because it has cherished many like thee and slain them.
When the pure soul is about to depart,
What boots it if one dies on a throne or on the ground?

[Sourced from PoemHunter. Unknown translation of the first story in the Gulistan (The Flower Garden or Rose Garden).]

The Story of How Tukla was Rebuked by a Devotee

Tukla, king of Persia, once visited a devotee and said, "Fruitless have been my years. None but the beggar carries riches from the world when earthly dignities are past. Hence, would I now sit in the corner of devotion that I might usefully employ the few short days that yet remain to me."

The devotee was angered at these words.

"Enough!" he cried. "Religion consists alone in the service of the people; it finds no place in the prayer-beads, or prayer-rug, or tattered garment. Be a king in sovereignty and a devotee in purity of morals. Action, not words, is demanded by religion, for words without action are void of substance."


A story illustrative of doing good to the evil

A woman said to her husband, "Do not again buy bread from the baker in this street. make thy purchases in the market, for this man shows wheat and sells barley, and he has no customers but a swarm of flies."

"O, light of my life," the husband answered, "pay no heed to his trickery. In the hope of our custom has he settled in this place, and not humane would it be to deprive him of his profits."

Follow the path of the righteous, and, if thou stand upon thy feet, stretch out thy hand to them that are fallen.

[Source: Iran Chamber Society, the Bostan of Saadi , a complete (I think) anonymous translation of Saadi's Bostan or Bustan (The Orchard).]

Saadi, or Sa'di, or Saadi of Shiraz (1210 - c.1291 AD).  (Capital of Fars province, in the southern part of modern-day Iran.)
"Saadi" was his pen name. His real name was Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī.

Saadi's writing was first translated into a western language by the orientalist André du Ryer in 1634. He became well-known in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire was so fervent an admirer that he was sometimes nicknamed Saadi by his friends. (Voltaire may have intended the fictional "Sadi" who writes the Dedication to Zadig to be the historical Saadi, though the date he gives is outside Saadi's lifetime (AH 837 = about 1433-1434 AD).)

I came to Saadi via Balzac, talking about Félix's "flower symphonies" in The Lily of the Valley:

She would ever return to them, and feast upon them, she would answer all the thoughts I had placed in them when, in order to accept them she raised her head from her tapestry frame, with: "Good Heavens, how beautiful that is!" You will understand this delicious correspondence from a detailed account of a bouquet, as after a fragment of poetry you would understand Saadi.   (p. 145)
Balzac mentions Saadi at least once more, in The Girl with the Golden Eyes.
She was an Oriental poem, in which shone the sun that Saadi, that Hafiz, have set in their pulsing strophes. Only, neither the rhythm of Saadi, nor that of Pindar, could have expressed the ecstasy—full of confusion and stupefaction—which seized the delicious girl when the error in which an iron hand had caused her to live was at an end.

Balzac's expressions seem to imply acquaintance with Saadi's lyric poetry. Perhaps he was exaggerating, or perhaps French is better served than English in this respect. Saadi wrote four books of ghazals, but I haven't tracked down any translations. *

Wikipedia lists some other western Saadi fans in that orientalist era: Hegel, Pushkin, La Fontaine, Benjamin Franklin, Emerson.  (Post written, rather appropriately, while listening to Rameau's Les Indes Galantes !)


* However, The Delphi Press Collected Works of Saadi (Kindle only) is irresistible at £1.49: it contains the Bustan (composed in epic metre, translated into prose by A. Hart Edwards for the Wisdom of the East series in 1911), Pand Namah (The Scroll of Wisdom, a short collection of moral poems, translated into verse lines with no particular meter by Arthur N. Wollaston, Wisdom of the East, 1906) and Gulistan (prose translated into prose by James Ross, probably around the same date).

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

opulent sobriety

Schmitt's Cherry. Bridgemead, Swindon, 28th March 2020

I intended failing to mention Covid-19 on this blog, à la Louis XVI, whose diary entry on the day they stormed the Bastille was "Rien". I wanted to maintain a virus-free zone -- whether physical, technical, mental, tribal or mass-medial. But there we go, I've said it now.

Will this brusque reminder of the foundations of life finally persuade us to care for our planet's health? Or will the world's battered economies supply a pretext for burning oil as never before? Or if it's both, depending on where you stand, will our present sense of a society pulling together be followed by yet more furious polarization?

So being at home on a Saturday evening (this never happens) I decided to switch on the radio and listen to Opera on 3. It was Beethoven's Fidelio, the Tobias Kratzer production at the Royal Opera House (Antonio Pappano, Lise Davidsen, Jonas Kaufmann) ... an opera I'd never seen or listened to, so I sat there following the libretto on my smartphone, and it was a thrilling experience: both less and more than an opera perhaps, yet an opera all the same,  a unique one.

The skeletal but resonant narrative concerns Leonore (disguised as Fidelio) rescuing her husband, who is a political prisoner; the opera is a paean to liberty, constancy and resolution; a woman who defies all the odds.

No declaration, no proof of mad passion could have had stronger contagion than these flower symphonies, in which my deluded desire led me to exert the efforts that Beethoven conveyed in his notes ; profound inward searchings, tremendous soarings towards the sky.  (Honoré de Balzac, The Lily of the Valley (1835), pp. 144-45)

Berlioz wrote:

What stands in the way of the music of "Fidelio" as regards the Parisian public is the chasteness of its melody ; the great disdain of the composer for sonorous effects which are not justified ; and his contempt for conventional terminations and periods which are too obvious. There is also additional cause in the opulent sobriety of his instrumentation ; the boldness of his harmony ; and, above all I venture to say, the profundity of his feeling for expression. Everything must be listened to in this complex music, everything must be heard, in order to enable us to understand it. The orchestral parts, which are sometimes principal and sometimes obscure, are liable to contain the very accent of expression, the cry of passion, in fact, the very idea ; which the author may not have been able to give to the vocal part.

About Fidelio:

Edward Said on Fidelio (1997):

Single-flowered deep pink cherry. Bridgemead, Swindon, 28th March 2020.

[Normally I'd be thinking Sargent Cherry, but this feels very different from all the other specimens I know; the blossoms more clustered and deeper pink, the new leaves more fiery...]

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Honoré de Balzac: The Lily of the Valley (1835)

Prunus 'Tai-haku' beginning to bloom, in a strangely peaceful Swindon

The countess gave me those dumb thanks that break a youthful heart ; she gave me the look that she kept for her children ! After that blissful evening, she always looked at me when speaking to me. I cannot describe the state I was in upon leaving. My soul had absorbed my body, I weighed nothing, I was not walking at all, I was flying. I could feel that glance within me, it had inundated me with light, just as her Adieu, monsieur ! had reëchoed in my heart the harmonies contained in the O filii ! O filiae ! of the paschal resurrection. A new life was dawning for me. Then I was something to her ! I fell asleep amid swathes of purple. Flames passed before my closed eyes, pursuing each other into the darkness like the pretty worms of fire running after one another over the ashes of burnt paper. In my dreams, her voice became something indescribably palpable, an atmosphere which enveloped me in light and perfume, a melody which caressed my imagination . . .   (The Lily of the Valley, p. 90)
[Page references are to The Lily of the Valley in the Caxton edition (1897). The Caxton translations were anonymous -- a gigantic labour that seems to have kept its secret.]

O filii et filiae is an Easter hymn composed by the Franciscan Jean Tisserand (d. 1494). Sung here by the choir of Notre Dame de Paris:

Le Lys dans la Vallée  (The Lily Of The Valley, 1835)

It's one of the big books of the Comédie Humaine, -- I even saw a stray remark that it was Balzac's own favourite -- but I don't know of any modern translations into English and it's hard to see from what quarter new readers might emerge in any quantity. I feel very lucky to have read it (in a copy "borrowed" from the shelves of Caffe Nero). Forgive me continuing to ruminate on that reading, fully conscious that I can hardly expect much acquaintance with this particular dusty old book.

She lived there, my heart was not deceiving me : the first castle that I saw upon the slope of a plain was her dwelling. When I sat under my walnut-tree, the tiles on her roof and the panes of her windows were sparkling in the noonday sun. Her muslin gown was the white spot that I could see among the vines beneath a peach-tree. She was, as you already know, without knowing anything further, the LILY OF THIS VALLEY where she was growing for Heaven by filling it with the perfume of her virtues.   (p. 33)

So, first and trivially, Balzac's title had nothing to do with the plant Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), the bulb that carpets northern woods and suburban front gardens, its fragrance first synthesized in 1956 by Dior and subsequently popular in the soaps and eau de colognes of Bronnley, Yardley, etc.

[Image edited from .]

However Balzac certainly did have in mind the biblical passage that probably suggested the plant-name:

Je suis la rose de Saron et le lis des vallées.
Comme le lis au milieu des épines, telle est ma bien-aimée parmi les jeunes filles. (Ostervald, Le Cantique des Cantiques 2:1-2)

I am the Rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. (KJV, Song of Solomon 2:1-2)

One evening, I found her musing gravely before a sunset which, while showing the valley as if it were a bed, was so voluptuously reddening the heights that it was impossible not to listen to the voice of that eternal Song of Songs with which Nature incites her creatures to love. Was the young girl reviving her lost illusions? was the woman suffering from some secret comparison? I thought I saw an abandon in her attitude favorable to first confessions . . . (p. 85)

(Théophile Gautier, indeed, described The Lily of the Valley as the Song of Songs of the Comédie Humaine.)

A narcotic flower-arrangement of the erotic and the spiritual hangs over the story. Henriette de Mortsauf, the target of Félix's pursuit, is evidently conceived as a lily of the large and white sort, a Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum).

Lilium candidum
[Image source: .]

As for the valley... , this aristocratic wife and mother who comes to delight in wearing white dresses for her younger admirer hardly ever leaves her chateau of Clochegourde, in the exquisite valley of the Indres, south-west of Tours. (Balzac based Clochegourde on the early 17th-century Manoir des Vonnes, just north of Pont-de-Ruan.)

Manoir de Vonnes, woodcut by Ferdinand Dubreuil

[Image source: .]

The intriguing autobiographical elements of this particular Balzac novel, and its potential as a touristic magnet for the Indres valley, haven't been altogether neglected.

This all makes it sound rather idyllic, and for long stretches it is, specifically but not exclusively in the imagination of Félix de Vandenesse. But it's also tragic and even horrible. Balzac contrives to deposit us, at the end, in a state of deep uncertainty about the correct interpretation of the long, slow, polished and heavily scented narrative we seemed to share with our narrator.

Mothers' Day Tulips given away free by M&S

French text:
English translation, by Katharine Prescott Wormeley:
An entertaining (if tendentious) summary of the story, by Jim:

A couple of books that discuss The Lily of the Valley.

Bill Overton, The Novel of Female Adultery: Love and Gender in Continental European Fiction, 1830-1900 (1996).

Discusses The Lily of the Valley in fruitful apposition to contemporary novels by George Sand, Flora Tristan and others. Technically the novel's main relationship, never consummated, can't be adultery; yet it lingers on every note of that keyboard except for the physical one it aches for: "as completely one as jealousy could desire, but without any earthly bond" (pp. 137-38). (Félix's other relationship, with the Englishwoman Lady Arabella Dudley, is flagrantly adulterous and ferociously, even monomanically, sexual.)

I sometimes think Balzac did his long-term reputation no good service by inventing the overarching format of the vast Comédie Humaine. It can result in individual novels being considered too narrowly, i.e. purely within a Balzacian echo chamber, and not as key interventions in a far vaster cultural enterprise, the western novel.

That said, my second book is more or less a revel in pure Balzac, though still with a lot of awareness of Flaubert, Zola, Proust.... This is the historian Anka Muhlstein's Balzac's Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré Balzac (originally published in French as Garçon, un cent d'huîtres, Balzac et la Table (2010)). She points out the regular association of food and sex in Balzac, so underscoring the symbolism of Henriette's dreadful death by starvation.

Field Wood-rush shortly before flowering
Anka Muhlstein calls The Lily of the Valley "Balzac's most complex novel", which is quite a strong statement given the competition, but complex it certainly is.

Nevertheless it's never likely to be the most popular or the most esteemed. Sometimes it's quite indifferent to realism; for instance Félix under the walnut-tree happening to guess, correctly, the very house in which the woman of his dreams happens to live). Cruel misfortune is sometimes varied by absurdly prodigal luck; the huge wealth that suddenly comes to the impoverished Mortsaufs, or Félix suddenly rising from obscurity to become one of Louis XVIII's most powerful civil servants. In this novel, Balzac is not bothered about describing or seriously accounting for these transformations. Much of what we think of as the essence of Balzac's genius is absent; there is no bourgeoisie, no shady business affairs, amoral ambition or unscrupulous predators. The chief characters are all aristocrats and analysis of society as a whole is minimal. Paris and Parisians scarcely feature; how different the story might have been if the teenage Félix had succeeded in his plan to sample the pleasures of the Palais-Royal (p. 21). Nor is there any of the thrilling action of, say, The Black Sheep or A Murky Business or Cousin Pons; the story moves slowly, more through feeling than through drama, and we may feel -- in the unanticipated epilogue -- that Countess Natalie's dismissive response scores quite a few direct hits ("You are sometimes boring and bored, you call your sadness by the name of melancholy ... when you have composed a few sentimental phrases ..." (p. 419)). And yet the sense persists that Félix's tale opens up something much larger and stranger than the understandably nettled countess (his current mistress) is willing to recognize.

Natalie's fleering is after all drastically reductive (even if getting out of Félix's clutches seems like a good idea). We soon get her measure. One of the many aspects of the story she affects to ignore is the cruel treatment that both Félix and Henriette suffered as children. But she's understood it instinctively, and is quick to join in.

[Of Henriette and her mother] "In order to form any idea of this struggle between a hard, cold, calculating, ambitious woman, and her daughter, full of that sweet, moving kindness which is inexhaustible, you must picture the lily, to which my mind has ever compared her, ground between the wheels of a polished steel machine." (p. 130)

A glassy Small Celandine

Henriette's husband, the unbalanced Comte de Mortsauf, apparently had contracted syphilis in the past and transmitted its effects to the couple's sickly children. I missed that aspect until I read it in other people's accounts of the novel, but it's fairly clear when the following three passages are brought together:

During dinner, I remarked, in the depression of his withered cheeks and in certain looks secretly bent upon his children, traces of vexatious thoughts the outbursts of which died away upon the surface. Seeing him, who is there that would not have understood him ? Who would not have taxed him with having fatally transmitted to his children those lifeless bodies?  (pp. 58-59)

A few pages later, Balzac sketches the past history of this aristocrat during the Exile...

The count's French and Touraine gayety gave way ; he became morose, fell ill, and was tended through charity in some German hospital. His illness was inflammation of the mesentery, often a fatal case, but the cure of which entails variation in the moods, and nearly always causes hypochondria. His amours, buried in the depths of his soul, and that I alone discovered, were amours of low degree, which not only attacked his vitality, but still further ruined it for the future.   (p. 68)
... and then moves forward to his life at Clochegourde...

... but the birth of Jacques was a thunderbolt which ruined both present and future ; the doctor despaired of the new-born child. The count carefully concealed this decree from the mother ; then he sought medical advice for himself and received a hopeless answer which was confirmed by the birth of Madeleine. These two events, and a sort of inner certainty about the fatal sentence, increased the emigrant's sickly tendencies. His name for ever extinct, a young wife, pure, irreproachable, unhappy at his side, sacrificed to the agony of maternity, without its pleasures ; this soil of his former life from which fresh suffering was springing, struck him to the heart, and completed his destruction. The countess guessed the past by the present and read into the future. (p. 72)
Whatever queasy doubts we might have about the novel as a whole, one of its indisputable successes is the portrayal of Henriette's unhappy husband as a self-pitying, cruel and tormented hypochondriac.

I then became acquainted with all the angles of this intolerable character ; I heard those continual outcries for nothing at all, those lamentations over evils that had no visible existence, that innate discontent which was robbing life of its bloom, and that incessant anxiety to tyrannize which would have led him to devour fresh victims every year. When we went out in the evening, he himself directed the walk ; but no matter where it was, he was always bored by it ; upon his return home, he would lay the burden of his lassitude upon others ; it was his wife's fault for taking him where she wanted to go against his will ; no longer remembering that he himself had led the way, he would complain at being governed by her in the slightest details of life, at not being able to keep a wish or a thought to himself, at being a nobody in his own house. If his harsh words were met with silent patience, he would be annoyed at feeling there was a limit to his power ; he demanded sharply whether religion did not command wives to please their husbands, whether it was decent to slight the father of her children. He always ended by attacking some sensitive chord in his wife ; and, when he had made it ring again, he seemed to taste a pleasure peculiar to these domineering ciphers.  (pp. 135-36)

... from this plant

Here is Félix musing on the pattern of his relationship with Henriette as it settled into its most stable form:

Every hour, from moment to moment, our fraternal marriage, founded on confidence, became more coherent ; we were both settling down into our positions ; the countess enfolded me in fostering care, in the white draperies of a wholly maternal love ; whilst my love, seraphic in her presence, became, when away from her as scorching as a red-hot iron ; I loved her with a double love which alternately darted the thousand arrows of desire and lost them in the sky where they died away in impenetrable ether. If you ask me why I, young and full of ardent longings, continued in the delusive expectations of platonic affection, I will confess to you that I was not yet man enough to molest this woman, always in dread of some calamity with her children, always expecting an outburst, or stormy variation of mood from her husband ;  wounded by him, when she was not being worried by the illness of Jacques or Madeleine ; seated at the bedside of one of them when her husband, being pacified, allowed her to take a little rest. The sound of too intense a word agitated her very being, a desire shocked her; for her, it had to be veiled love, strength mingled with tenderness, in fact all that she herself was to others.                Then, I will tell this to you who are so thoroughly womanly, this situation allowed of the delightful languors, the moments of heavenly sweetness and the content that follow tacit sacrifices. Her conscientiousness was contagious, the persistence of her devotion without earthly reward was imposing ; this deep, secret piety, which served as a link to her other virtues, acted all around like some spiritual incense. Then I was young! young enough to repress my nature in the kiss which she so rarely allowed me to imprint  upon her hand, the back only of which she ever gave me and never the palm, the boundary perhaps where for her began sensual voluptuousness. If ever two souls were more intensely bound up together, never was the body more fearlessly or victoriously subdued. (pp. 132-33)

There's a certain complacency in Félix's contemplation of his and Henriette's mutual sacrifice, of this apparently stable plateau with its fascinations and tremblings. With all its torment, this love completely satisfies him for the time (though afterwards, once living away from his beloved Henriette, it doesn't take too long for him to succumb to the voracious Arabella). He believes, without thinking too much about it, that not only the sacrifice but the satisfaction is mutual.

It's only on her death-bed that Henriette will reveal that she had always secretly wanted him to push her further, to seize her hungrily, to rip away the principles that are killing her. If Félix had only been more forceful, she might have lived!

The Henriette that says this is in extremity, her identity is breaking apart, so she may not be truthful about what she really wanted back then, it may be just a cry of rage and pain, an agonizing fantasy of what in hindsight she wishes had happened. Re-reading the earlier part of the book, we tend to think that the dying Henriette is forgetting the full complexity of how things were; that they couldn't honestly have been any different, that Henriette knew she had to stay in a position to nurture her sickly children; and that Félix was hardly more than a boy, that she was a great aristocrat, how could he have rescued her, how could he do more than share her sorrows?

But whatever, Balzac's vision of love is of an apparent symbiosis between two partners; apparent, because it always conceals an element of parasitism. No love is truly of equal satisfaction to both partners; always, the apparent plateau is being sustained because one of the partners is giving something up, accepting something less than they ideally want. This most precious era of Félix's life, though it is the source of all Henriette's joy, is also sealing her fate.

Veronica hederifolia ssp. lucorum

Some of the most intoxicating pages in The Lily of the Valley describe the bouquets that Félix lovingly prepares, and which express in an incredibly intricate language of flowers his sentiments to Henriette.

No declaration, no proof of mad passion could have had stronger contagion than these flower symphonies, in which my deluded desire led me to exert the efforts that Beethoven conveyed in his notes ; profound inward searchings, tremendous soarings towards the sky. Madame de Mortsauf was no one but Henriette at sight of them. She would ever return to them, and feast upon them, she would answer all the thoughts I had placed in them when, in order to accept them she raised her head from her tapestry frame, with: "Good Heavens, how beautiful that is!"  (pp. 144-145)

But did Henriette really "answer all the thoughts I had placed in them", was it really possible that she should divine all the "delicious correspondence" that Félix placed in his arrangements? Or did she exclaim at something else, things that she saw in the flowers and in Félix, things that he himself hadn't tried to convey and was perhaps not even aware of? The Lily of the Valley asks that question, how deeply lovers can ultimately know each other.


Henriette's eventual rival is an Englishwoman. Lady Arabella provides the excuse for, I think, a quite revealing picture of the British, from Félix's perspective.

Whatever she does or says, England is materialistic, perhaps unconsciously. She has religious and moral pretensions, in which the divine spirituality, the catholic spirit is missing, the life-giving grace of which can never be replaced by any hypocrisy, no matter how well simulated. She possesses in the highest degree the science of existence which improves the least particles of materialism, which makes your slippers the most exquisite slippers in the world, which gives an indescribable savor to your linen, which lines the cupboards with cedar and perfume ; pours out at a certain hour a fragrant tea, skilfully laid out, expels the dust, nails down the carpets from the first step to the furthest recesses of the house, brushes the walls of the cellars, polishes the door-knocker, eases the carriage springs, which makes of matter a nourishing, mealy pulp, conspicuous and clean,  in the midst of which the soul dies of satiety, which produces the terrible monotony of well-being, furnishes an unthwarted existence, stripped of all spontaneity, and which, in a word, mechanizes one. (pp. 288-89)

Arabella's love was

A horribly ungrateful love, which laughs over the corpses of those it has killed ; a treacherous love, a cruel love which is like English policy, and in which almost all men perish. (p. 289)
Balzac wasn't necessarily being serious, no more so than when he writes about the German character, but these were evidently the stereotypes of the time. (Napoleon made similar allegations in his bulletins.)


Monday, March 23, 2020

Guppy-lips suck air.

Florence Elon: Self-Made (1984)

This was Florence Elon’s first book of poems. I like to think of her receiving a complimentary copy from the publisher and putting it on her bookshelf. For her the title would shine out with a special naïve meaning, like those books you can get made for your children with their names inserted in the text and called My Own Story Book.

Less privately, the title refers to her experience as a second-generation emigrant to the USA, where human beings are free and make their own destiny. Many of the poems refer to this.

To many, the primary meaning of the title is something else. This author conceives her book as poems about a topic; as if her medium is a way of being a raconteur. It places her quite clearly on the traditional half of the divide that is supposed to run through American (and British) poetry. Various names have been given to the halves; I like Ron Silliman’s use of Poe’s “School of Quietude” to characterize the traditional half (Wilbur, Lowell, etc). (Silliman's Blog, by the way, contains what is incomparably the best regular commentary on modern English poetry that I have found on the web – go there rather than here if you haven’t discovered it already...)

The existence of this great divide is much attacked, virtually always by those whose own poetry tends towards pure SoQ --  for we all play this incessant and ridiculous game of oneupmanship and experience intense discomfort at the thought of being discovered in a conservative seat -- I say “we all”, but I suppose I mean, primarily, minor and insecure poets and academics who seek approval from their peers.

Still, the existence of the divide is undeniable. Only a very unworldly poet is unaware of it (though some SoQ poets affect to regard modern innovative poetry as of no great significance and haphazardly co-opt older modernists and post-modernists into a satisfyingly single great tradition). But it is not necessary to get embroiled in judgments about history. It is a present fact that there are two major audiences for different poetries with scarcely any crossover, and hence two major artforms that both call themselves poetry. (But then “poetry” has always been a blanket term that embraces a multiplicity of endeavours.)    

But enough of the intoxication of big ideas.

You think you know where you are with the poems in Self-Made. The poems are frankly about  relationships, sick-rooms, her children, her parents, death and being in foreign places – the absolutely standard fare of around a million American and British poets, some few of them published. I have read some of these poems many times and seen nothing but the standard fare. Then one day I notice something else.

In the New World

My mother in her Old World pose
sails through a shop on Third Avenue
like a steam liner, leaving froths
of lace, long white scarves in her wake.

She dons fur caps, high boarskin boots,
brocaded gowns of her Moscow youth;
like crystal, turning, decades flash
in velvet-curtained booths.

Once from her closet rack, I stole
a sequined shawl, black sash.
She laughed – to find me rouged
and stumbling in her spike-heeled shoes.

Now each, in turn, holds up a chipped
hand mirror for the other’s use.
She tucks in strands of grey.
We pick out matching pins.

It began with the rhythm and the hint of rhymes. I saw that the poem hinted at an Ur-poem which is in iambic tetrameter and whose stanzas rhyme abab. (I am using “iambic” in the incorrect but time-hallowed and useful way to refer to an accentual pattern in English verse.) The actual poem begins each stanza with an iambic tetrameter but breaks away from it, though sometimes half-returning; it creates lines that aren’t quite accepted by the ear, but are heard as unmetrical or nearly metrical. You might relate the Ur-poem to the fancied norm of behaviour referred to in the opening words: My mother in her Old World pose / Sails.... You might relate the rhythms of the actual poem to a daughter’s erratic copying: And stumbling in her spike-heeled shoes (a line that itself is formally an iambic tetrameter, but so congested with double consonants and long syllables that it struggles along).

As for the rhymes, they are displaced across stanzas (flash, sash) and dispersed into smaller units of sound (Avenue, froths, boots, youth, booths, rouged,  shoes, use). The last two lines make a quiet comment by their form alone, still resolutely end-stopped but presenting new, unrhyming, sounds to the ear  – and being trimeters with a coldly duplicated rhythm, so the tetrameter music is in the end closed out completely. 

What each stanza actually segregates is not a pattern of rhythm or rhyme but a locale: the aisles of the shop (Stanza 1), the booths for changing (2), Mother’s closet (3), a hospital ward (4). All of the locales are wintry, but take place at different times. The poem is concerned with long spans of time, in fact with an attempt to encompass the essence of two lives.

All the stanzas have complexities. The first exposes opulence and serene energy, and coming straight after the title may be taken as telling us that the New World is opulent and serenely energetic. Here the tetrameter is elongated luxuriantly in the second and fourth lines. The New World, it seems, is the Old World plus. (“steam liner” hints too at the visible breath of winter.)

The second stanza is giddier – even sickly giddy. When I listed the locales I implied that this stanza, too, takes place in the shop on Third Avenue, but a vein of suggestion works against this. “She dons” does not usually mean “She tries on” – the word is more likely to be used about one’s own clothes. Similarly “of her Moscow youth” can be accepted, just about, as meaning “like those she once wore in her Moscow youth” but the semantic discomfort is perceptible. The last two lines can be “read off” in several different ways, like the crystal itself (a discotheque mirror-ball, a crystal, a crystal ball in a fortune-teller’s booth). Are visions of decades being flashed back to them in a changing-room, or are they flashing past?

The third stanza can be read straightforwardly as a charming and familiar domestic scene, and indeed that meaning should not be neglected. This daughter, I think, adoringly emulated her mother’s style. But “stole” could be a hard-nosed little rebellion and “laughed” could be an unkind comment on its ridiculous failure. There is certainly a recalcitrance in the things themselves (the dropping of “and” in the second line suggests a dot-dot-dot...  the frustration of inconsequent clothes grabbed from a rack).    

But all the first three stanzas persist in opulence, though its satisfactions are increasingly qualified. The last stanza presents a diminution both of possessions and of physical movement. The two women are doing their hair with severe practicality, no fantasy. Is this, then, what being “in the New World” means – merely being what we routinely are? There is a tenderness, but a chilled tenderness, in the scene. It says “enough” and “not much” at the same time.  

“In the New Worlduses irregular rhythms against a discerned counterpoint. “Visiting Hours” (the poem about her father that precedes it) uses an insistently regular rhythm based on two iambic feet. The rhythm at first suggests a buoyant sense of purpose. The poem begins:

These daughters that you used to dress,
whose skinny legs you pushed to run
on Orchard Street

Then the rhythm loses that meaning. It runs on, but becomes detached from the father’s questioning watchfulness in the ward:

Their hands wear polished, sharpened nails.

By the end of the poem the rhythm robotically fails to react to the changed material:

                              those mumbled prayers
they can no longer say, their mouths
whose wails you used to kiss away
have now forgotten how to speak.

The rhythm now has a different and crueller meaning, hurrying to a destination with a momentum that is indifferent to human purpose. 

In the following poem, too, rhythm remains important. It provides a means of falling silent.

From now on

Covered with sticky white –
ointment or fresh paint –
you are placed by my side
out of nowhere:

eyelids, fluttering,
can’t stay open;
breath puffs, twice
as fast as my own;
skin’s glued to mine.

suck air.

Out of the silence
your tiny voice begins
its unending sing-song.

Every time I read this poem its slowing-down to zero, to the barest minimal line of “suck air”, is more captivating.The silence then is a perfect stillness in which the mother and the tiny baby lie, for how long we can’t say, in a prelapsarian union that, perhaps, is maintained only by trance, by oblivion. Not often does one lie so close to someone whose features are totally unfamiliar. At this moment it is almost as if the birth hasn’t yet happened, as if the long embrace of pregnancy continues in its intimate silence. (For the doubled rhythm of the baby’s breathing still fits neatly within the mother’s breathing.) They are companions, for all that the sense of the poem includes the mother’s observation, its detachment which at another time could be amusement.

The final stanza enacts an effort, one of whose meanings is reluctance. Life begins again, positively charged with the child’s miraculous “sing-song”, and reflecting the mother’s adjustment to her baby’s stubborn differentness, which includes being a different person and being a baby, not an adult.


A leftover waif of a post, written in 2003. Florence Elon published several more books in the 1980s and in 2019 a poem of hers appeared in the magazine of Poetry Express Berkeley, but there's not a great deal of information about her on the internet. Her husband Alex Zwerdling, Professor of English at UC Berkeley, died in 1917.

When I first wrote this piece, it gave rise to a much longer Appendix (on the use of First Person Present Tense in modern poetry) that I later posted on Intercapillary Space:


[It was, of course, the Silliman's Blog of that now-distant heyday that I was enthusing about. Silliman's Blog has been in slowly deepening twilight for ten or twelve years. If you visit it now, first impressions are that there there's nothing much to see. Not a single post from 2020, for instance; the most recent is a passing reflection on the Democratic party race as it seemed last December. But use the search box, (type in Leslie Scalapino, say) and suddenly the big box flies open, revealing page after page of vast, fertile and seemingly effortless poem talk. The comments stream, I think, has been removed;  in the glory days it had been very vigorous.  Ron's posts were highly contestable, he had a gift for generating debate. But some commenters  merely wrested his blog to their own needs and others pretty much trashed it. (Of course you didn't have to read the comments, but somehow you often did.) Eventually, if I remember correctly, Ron had had enough, he stopped allowing comments. But by then he was fast losing his enthusiasm for blogging, he was perhaps too sensitive to the form's democratic contradictions, its vexatious authority. Silliman's Blog had been a Utopian experiment, like the Language projects he remembered and introduced to a new generation.] 


Reading the British poet Carol Watts last week led me to an account of her American influences . There are many signposts you could follow there. The one I chose was this:

Substantially, however, the most important writing to me has been that by Alice Notley and Leslie Scalapino, for the integrity of their encounter with language, two forms of being uncompromising. I hear the stakes of writing there.

I wasn't totally unacquainted with Alice Notley's work -- once I even blundered out a post about it  -- but Leslie Scalapino (1944-2010) has, unforgivably, been just a name to me. Anyway, I've been excitedly discovering her writing over the past week-end. It feels like a big discovery, and a week-end is not nearly enough to think of framing any words about it  -- and in this case that might be particularly counter-productive, see the quote by Emily Critchley below! -- , but I might as well start gathering some links here. (She went to school in Berkeley, so there's a vaguely unifying geography to this drifting post...)

Disbelief.  A long "performance work/talk/essay" first published in 2008. It seems a great introduction to her writing and its concerns, and also to the preoccupations of the Language poets (West Coast chapter).

[Image source: .]

One of the books that Disbelief discusses in detail, an early one, is that they were at the beach (1985). Happily a good deal of this is available to read online. It has four sections:

1. "buildings are at the far end"


2.  "that they were at the beach -- aeolotropic series"


3. "A Sequence"

4. "Chameleon Series"

From a later collection, New Time (1999):

from the waist–so that, turned the bulb that's oneself (thorax)
–only–then–doesn't have any existence–turned (wherever one
    as conception–at waist of magnolia buds that exist in the day
    sewing the black silk irises–not when one turned at waist
    sewing them, they have no shape literally except being that–
from one's hand (being, in the air)
    the irises only had existence in the black, before dawn, in fact
    a man doesn't want me to become quiet again–go into ocean
not weighed of before fighting–ever

    formation of that of narrowed to no form in one–of black volup-
tuous lip–outside–voluptuous lips that (aren't) on black dawn, or
before it when it's black.
    There was no intention–being done–with their existing.

    not weighed before fighting which is the black, weighed, air–
not the lips which have no weight–isn't following
    if one's not the inner isn't contending either...?

Emily Critchley on Leslie Scalapino's alternative ways of seeing:

Scalapino herself has frequently resisted critical exegesis – by  the  current  writer  and  others –complaining  that  a  reordering  of  her work precisely undoes the work’s intentions, re-instating that which she is attempting to challenge: ‘Restatement adjusting perspective [...] to an ordered sense is psychic imperialism’
Despite this,  EC avoided resorting, as other sympathetic commentators have done, to a form of LS's own disjunctive syntax, and her essay is enlightening about the Buddhist background of LS's anti-hierarchical thought.

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

on the path

Words failed him.

That bloke is just such a, bloody, BLAB. He, Just, Will, Not, keep his big fat mouth shut. He's a flaming liability. I should have known better. We're in a whole world of grief now. Yeah, thanks mate. Thanks very much. Thought you'd let slip some juicy goss did you, nothing better to do. He should be locked up that bloke. I tell you what, that's it now, I'm done with him.

And so he went on, Frank, for five or ten more minutes. There wasn't much point me saying anything, he had to have his head, so he yelled and banged the table and called Dennie "that bloke", until in the twilight of his fury he expressed his feelings in a woodwind music of sighs and groans, from which burst isolated rockets of a single syllable.

But I see I'm over-writing, I'm really not used to this sort of thing, so you must forgive me if I just plough on not daring to stop, and perhaps I may shove a sign up now and then, with the words PLEASE SKIP!

In my husband's eyes one of the chief principles of morality was, Can you keep a secret. And as for blabbing to a woman! Frank had a great fear of women, that's probably why he married me.

And yes, I quite agreed with him, Dennie blabbing to Yasmin was downright bloody infuriating, and this had happened at the worst possible time, when she'd only just lent us the £20,000  and when we were so anxious to show ourselves deserving cases (which we certainly were not) and very grateful to her (which we certainly were),  and instead we'd kicked her in the guts or rather Dennie had by failing to keep his thieving trap shut, but it was us not Dennie who'd suffer all the fallout, us and Yasmin who now loathed us, as I informed Frank when she hung up.

Sex tonight? Frank said later. Oh yes, marvelous, said I though my mind wasn't really on it .........................
,................... I could always make Frank laugh ...................
 Thinking about it now, that was one of our last voyages on the rumpled Spanish Main. What a crew we were after all, Frank always premature, the old romancer, and as for me, I never cared much about it, whoever I might be with, but let's not go into that now.

Well it so happened, this business of secrets came up that same evening, while I was at the Moral Maze. Under the green parasols, as indeed above them, there was a merry peaceful piping, not unfuelled by glasses of chianti (not the birds, obvs).

I can't remember exactly who said what, though Mimi was very strong, and Pascal stomped off at one point. Anyway, I will give you my abiding sense of it.

Kept secrets underpin our social existence. Like other reticencies they are the cushions in the sofa, or rather the hidden girders behind a neo-Baroque façade (PLEASE SKIP?), the foundations that persuade us to come out into a plaza like this one, confident of not being made to hear and of not being asked to tell, invited to display our most valuable qualities, able to appreciate each other, to listen and to love. Life, or everything about life that's worthwhile, life is the breath of a garden, it is a chosen space for delicacy and fragrance. The secrets that we steadfastly keep are like the weeds kept just outside the garden fence, the brambles, nettles and buttercups; no less true or beautiful or justified than the ruby peonies within, at least not in the eyes of a truly steady philosopher, but once let the brambles in, and you don't have a garden any more. No more peonies, no more chianti, no more sunset or Mimi's golden elbows with the matelot tee rolled up. (Perhaps I've gone a little off track in that last sentence.)

And yet.... Does the Bible ever stand up and clearly spell it out, that one of the really important commandments is to just bloody keep shtum? It has plenty to say for proclaiming God's Truth, and for letting your yay be yay, and for confessing your sins; it has plenty to say, too, against whited sepulchres, forked tongues and Phariseeism. It is hard to escape the drift of those accumulated opinions. And doesn't nature itself rise up, in the shape of Dennie's loose-tongued gossip, to assert the outrage of constraint, the indecency of manacles, upon the natural impulses of the heart? Should our words, more than our emotions, be cloaked, controlled, choked down? Shouldn't we aspire to complete transparency, our palms open, our fingers spread apart? Do trees button their roots from streaming the news, do jackdaws ration their woody caws, do infants conceal their smiles or their tears, does the sun think twice before shining between clouds?

We had automatically kept Yasmin out of the loop, for her own good (and, admittedly, for ours) --- it was not a difficult decision --- yet I doubted, somehow, if Yasmin would altogether see how right we were to keep her in the dark, or would recommend the same behaviour in our future dealings with her, should such ever occur.

It was hard to know. On which note, I turned over and went. But Frank was quiet and I sensed he was awake.

. . . . . . . . . . . .


Monday, March 16, 2020

forty days and forty nights

Mistakenly or not, I associate the forty poems of Carol Watts' Wrack (2007) with the Flood: "I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made I will destroy from off the face of the earth" (Genesis 7:4)... [and thus with fellow London poet Andrea Brady's insomnia poem "40 Days and 40 Nights" (in The Strong Room, 2016), but that's another story].

The poems are highly interlinked, each one to the next, and also to a centring but obscure historic nexus, the 1772 shipwreck, on Thurlestone Rock (south Devon), of the Chanteloupe, a merchant vessel bound from Grenada with a cargo of sugar, coffee and rum, a crew of 13, and seven passengers of which one was a woman (only the second mate survived).

Poem 27 brings us most shockingly close to the wreck itself, to "the strand's pornography / thirled rock and ship's whalebone... / the heaving of its ribs / on the sweet mania of wrack / its molasses spreading dark ..." But the sequence wanders a very long way from that event, and casts an eye on many other places and things. This posts offers some glimpses;  to begin,  a tranquil river Thames.



On the banks of this brown river
there is little thought of catastrophe
save the contemplation of judges

at the Prospect   twisting fruit
toasting the fatal tree in its defence
of silver    lengths of cloth   and bread

On Pelican Stairs       Queen Sive
reviews her pocket     dragon's teeth
ah    it is not a moment for insurgency

the quiet river peace    the drift
of bells    a change of watch    perhaps
or shipman's axe off stroke

meeting iron       his eye caught
the white gulls       ah
the inexpressible thought of a storm

On a distant ocean ships lie        are seals
boarded by a parcel of furies        among them
Pelican's child        beard pricked out

roaring like a catherine wheel      knuckles
tattooed with LOVE and HATE    fingers
too few for WONDER and SUFFERING

making his own entertainment        a tree
snarled across his back      land-locked      gibbous
ah      but this is not the fate of pirates

bodies racked in the flux and reflux of the tides
and not this gentle morning      she says
the seaweed on the Stairs dry to her touch 

(Wrack,  Poem 13)

The Pelican Stairs are waterman's stairs in Wapping, beside the ancient pub The Prospect of Whitby, once a favourite hostelry of Judge Jeffreys. Before his time, according to Stow, pirates used to be hanged here. The "twisting fruit" and "fatal" tree allude to the gallows. So, surely, does "gibbous" (the shape of the dangling noose -- there is one today on the river shore outside the pub, just for fun). Like a parcel of furies is the description of a pirate assault in A General History of the Pyrates, probably by Daniel Defoe.  One of the pirates it describes, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), was said to braid his beard into pigtails and to light slow fuses under his hat.

Jeffreys' major work in the execution line was putting down the Monmouth insurgents in the west country. But "Queen Sive" (who I envisage, for no particular reason, as a small child playing on the beach) alludes to another insurgency that was brutally repressed in 1761-63, the secret agrarian society in SW Ireland that came to be known as the Whiteboys, for whom "Queen Sive" was a rallying call (the legendary Sadhbh, mother of Oisin).

Dragon's teeth are what Cadmus (or Jason) sowed to produce armies of fighting men.

Seaweed-covered Pelican Stairs, Wapping

[Image source: . Photo by the writer and film-maker John Rogers, from his London blog the lost byway.]


it was not until     a planetary curve
              sent me spinning across the black earth
                          of Dakota      its tectonics

a patchwork of plains and light
              stitched     in the line of a child's horizon
                          from winds and grasses

and understood      I was crossing the bed
               of an ancient sea        there to find
                           a truth in erosion

beyond the complexities of rain
              its subsistencies      and the deluge
                           of the Red River    ....

(Wrack, beginning of  Poem 22)

North Dakota's oil and coal bearing sedimentary rocks, formed in shallow primeval seas....

The "Red River of the North", the river that divides North Dakota from Minnesota, flowing northward into Canada. It regularly floods.

There's also "a journey across North Dakota between the minimal lines of When Blue Light Falls", CW said in Jacket2, in an interesting article about her US influences. Some of the word-play in Wrack, she said, arose from President Bush's pronunciation of Iraq.


I remembered the jointure      of Géricault
           his trust      in black as a principle
                      of connection

where the use of bitumen
           set in motion     his painting
                       and its slow immeasurable decay

(Wrack, from Poem 24)

One of the colours used by Géricault for his enormous painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) was bitumen. This is at first a glossy and lustrous black, but over time it discolours and wrinkles, so the painting today is rather hard to make out in places.

and then      the crowd declared     'I will not serve
            as a mouthpiece for such barbarity'
                        preferring to observe

the unrolling of ten thousand feet
            of canvas         a Novel Marine
                        Perispheric Panorama

with accompanying strings and tubas
            to ride the drama of the Fatal Raft
                        and weep at the rescue

(Wrack, from Poem 25)

When Géricault's masterpiece was shown in Dublin in February 1821, it was overshadowed by a rival exhibition, a "moving panorama" (unrolling canvas with commentary) described in a Dublin newsletter as "an entirely novel Marine Peristrephic Panorama of the Wreck of the Medusa French Frigate and the Fatal Raft".  The poem suggests that this popular attraction was sentimental and tub-thumpingly patriotic (it was a British ship, the Argus, that rescued the few survivors of the Méduse).  But these considerations might also have played a part in the general enthusiasm that greeted Géricault's painting in London. Very unlike its divided reception among Parisians, who saw the political implications.

Le Radeau de la Méduse, 1819 painting by Théodore Géricault

[Image source: .]

The whole of Carol Watts' Wrack has now been made available to read on-line:

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