Friday, May 26, 2017

John Donne at Lincoln's Inn again.

Donne's three Epithalamions are some of the most entertaining of his lesser-known poems. The one titled only "Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne" is a slightly uncomfortable joyride from its very first stanza:

The Sun-beames in the East are spred,
Leave, leave, faire Bride, your solitary bed,
No more shall you returne to it alone,
It nourseth sadnesse, and your bodies print,
Like to a grave, the yielding downe doth dint;
You and your other you meet there anon;
Put forth, put forth that warme balme-breathing thigh,
Which when next time you in these sheets wil smother
There it must meet another,
Which never was, but must be, oft, more nigh;
Come glad from thence, goe gladder then you came,
To day put on perfection, and a womans name.

 We are guessing here, but I like the idea that this is one of Donne's very early poems, written when he was a student at Lincoln's Inn, probably not long after its obvious model, Spenser's Epithalamion, was published in 1595. That guess is confirmed by the poem's presence in the Westmoreland manuscript. It's further been speculated that the poem was not commissioned for any real-life wedding, that it was a "literary exercise" and this explains some of Donne's outrageous flights -- he was not offending anyone.  (But Donne and outrageousness go together, and are not altogether absent from the other two Epithalamions, which celebrated real marriages in about 1613.)


I can't make up my if the final line is a straightforward Alexandrine or if "-tion" is mean to be disyllabic, breaking the line into a chiasmic fourteener.  What do others think?


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

At a glance: Smooth and Rough Meadow-grass

Of the 100 or so grasses in the UK, only about a quarter are at all common, but that doesn't mean that identifying them is a breeze.

Even among the commoner grasses, there are quite a few serious hurdles to get over, and this post is about one of them: distinguishing Rough Meadow-grass (Poa trivialis) from Smooth Meadow-grass (Poa pratensis).

Now in one sense this is a no-brainer: Rough Meadow-grass has rough stems and Smooth Meadow-grass has smooth stems. A more reliable feature (because P. trivialis isn't always noticeably rough) is the totally different ligules: That of P. trivialis is  quite long (4-8mm) while that of P. pratensis is a short neat collar (1-2mm).

That's not the challenge. The challenge is to distinguish the two species without manual inspection, from a distance. To know which of the two species you're walking past.

If you look at the distribution maps in Fitter et al, you'll see that both species are absolutely ubiquitous in N. Europe. What you mustn't infer from this (as I did for years) is that both species are equally abundant.

P. pratensis prefers dry grassland, whereas P. trivialis likes normal-to-damp grassland and is prepared to grow in the hollows between taller species. Worldwide, P. pratensis is the more widespread species (native to the USA, for example). Even in Sweden  P. pratensis (Ängsgröe) is regarded as more common than P. trivialis (Kärrgröe).

But in the Atlantic climate of the UK it's P. trivialis that dominates. In most typical UK grassland of the semi-urban variety, P. trivialis is the more abundant species. This is the bog-standard Meadow-grass species that you find on verges and fields, inter-growing with Perennial Rye-grass, Wall Barley, Lop-grass, Barren Brome, Cock's-foot, Yorkshire fog, False Oat-grass, etc.

Yes, P. pratensis is usually around too, but in smaller quantities. For instance, in my own unmown patch of lawn there's one little group of P. pratensis by a paving slab, the rest of the Meadow-grass is P. trivialis and Annual Meadow-grass (P. annua).

Anyway, here's some suggestions for picking out P. pratensis from a distance.

1. Drier places.
2. P. pratensis is very upright, the stem often seeming to grow straight up from the rhizome. (P. trivialis has stolons and the stems are initially procumbent.)
3. Blade of uppermost stem leaf is very short (shorter than sheath), stopping a long way short of the inflorescence. Stem leaves usually very erect, close to stem. Blades parallel-edged before suddenly narrowing to hooded tip. (P. trivialis leaves are not hooded.)
4. Spikelets are broader and stubbier than P. trivialis, with pointed glumes.
5. P. pratensis comes into flower a week or so earlier than P. trivialis. Those precious few days in late May are the best time to get acquainted with the two species (if you are not otherwise distracted by buttercups, cotoneaster, beaked hawksbeard, or young oak leaves...).
6. In general, P. pratensis tends to be a smaller plant than P. trivialis (though individual exceptions are quite common).


Smooth Meadow-grass (Poa pratensis) (25th May 2017, Swindon)

Smooth Meadow-grass (Poa pratensis) (25th May 2017, Swindon)

Rough Meadow-grass (Poa trivialis) (25th May 2017, Swindon)

Rough Meadow-grass (Poa trivialis) (25th May 2017, Swindon)


Rough Meadow-grass on the left, Smooth Meadow-grass on the right

(The plant in the middle is a kind of sedge.)


Poa pratensis - inflorescence


When it comes to a genus like Poa, images that you pick up from Google searches should be treated with grave suspicion. Many are palpably misidentified: either by the contributors themselves, or by Google being led astray by the surrounding text.

Poa links.

Matt Lavin's Albums on Flickr are a treasure-house. Here's his Poa album:

Matt's numerous other grass albums can be reached from here:

Unfortunately Matt is based in Montana, USA and his Poa album has no images of P. trivialis , which is not native to America.

[Long-term readers may recall that this post appeared in a more primitive form last year.]

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Florbela Espanca

Just before leaving for the airport, I spotted a poetry book on the shelves of our AirBnB apartment in Lisbon. It was called Sonetos and was a sort of selected poems of Florbela Espanca (1894-1930).

I hadn't heard of her before, yet her biography had many features that seemed rather familiar: an early 20th-century woman poet, feminist, sexually liberated, illness (physical and mental), suicide at a relatively young age. ... As if it blended together biographies of Karin Boye, Charlotte Salomon (the painter), Katherine Mansfield, Edith Södergran, more distantly Rosalia de Castro.... 

I just had time to make the discovery that I could read a surprising amount of the Portuguese text, based on my rudimentary Spanish, on common word-transformations, and on assumptions about the sort of things that early-twentieth century Portuguese poems might be saying.

The combined result was to leave a mental picture of Espanca .. but stereotyped, without the individual features of the other writers in that list, like a worn limestone statue. So I'm writing this post in the hope of learning a bit more. There's plenty of material in Portuguese but not much in English.


Florbela Espanca (1894-1930) foi uma poetisa portuguesa, autora de sonetos e contos importantes na literatura de Portugal. Foi uma das primeiras feministas de Portugal. Sua poesia é conhecida por um estilo peculiar, com forte teor emocional, onde o sofrimento, a solidão, e o desencanto estão aliados ao desejo de ser feliz.

Florbela Espanca (1894-1930) was a Portuguese poet, author of sonnets and important tales in the literature of Portugal. She was one of the first feminists in Portugal. Her poetry is known for a peculiar style with strong emotional content, where suffering, loneliness, and disenchantment are allied with the desire to be happy.



2012 Article in the Portuguese-American Journal, with translation of five poems, by Billie Maciunas:  , introducing Billie Maciunas' (still-not-published?) book of translations.

The death of Florbela's brother was a crucial event in her life. Billie Maciunas discusses it here, with some more translations:

Florbelian Symbology, discussion by Billie Maciunas:


Saudades! Sim.. talvez.. e por que não?...
Se o sonho foi tão alto e forte
Que pensara vê-lo até à morte
Deslumbrar-me de luz o coração!

Esquecer! Para quê?... Ah, como é vão!
Que tudo isso, Amor, nos não importe.
Se ele deixou beleza que conforte
Deve-nos ser sagrado como o pão.

Quantas vezes, Amor, já te esqueci,
Para mais doidamente me lembrar
Mais decididamente me lembrar de ti!

E quem dera que fosse sempre assim:
Quanto menos quisesse recordar
Mais saudade andasse presa a mim!

Florbela Espanca, in "Livro de Sóror Saudade"

Missing You
Missing you! Yes... maybe... and why not?...
If the dream was so high and strong
That I thought to see it till death
Dazzling my heart with light!

Forget! What for?... Ah, how vain it is!
That all this, my love, do not matter to us.
If it left beauty that comfort
It should be sacred as bread.

How many times, my love, I already forgot you,
In order to more madly remember
More definitely remember you!

And I wish it was always like this:
The less I wanted to remember
The more I would be missing you!

Florbela Espanca, in 'The Book of Sóror Saudade'


Eu quero amar, amar perdidamente!
Amar só por amar: Aqui... além...
Mais Este e Aquele, o Outro e toda a gente...
Amar! Amar! E não amar ninguém!

Recordar? Esquecer? Indiferente!...
Prender ou desprender? É mal? É bem?
Quem disser que se pode amar alguém
Durante a vida inteira é porque mente!

Há uma Primavera em cada vida:
É preciso cantá-la assim florida,
Pois se Deus nos deu voz, foi pra cantar!

E se um dia hei de ser pó, cinza e nada
Que seja a minha noite uma alvorada,
Que me saiba perder... pra me encontrar...

Florbela Espanca, in "Charneca em Flor"

To Love!
I want to love, to love madly!
Loving just for loving: Here... beyond...
More This and That one, the Other and everyone ...
To Love! To Love! And not loving anyone!

To Remember? To Forget? Indifferent!...
Attach or detach? Is it bad? Is it good?
Who says that you can love someone
During the entire life, is lying!

There is a Spring in every life:
You have to sing it as it is blossoming,
For if God has given us a voice, it was for singing!

And if one day I am dust, ash and nothing
Let my night be a dawn,
So I can lose myself... and find myself...

Florbela Espanca, in 'Heath in Bloom'


Se Tu Viesses Ver-me...
Se tu viesses ver-me hoje à tardinha,
A essa hora dos mágicos cansaços,
Quando a noite de manso se avizinha,
E me prendesses toda nos teus braços...

Quando me lembra: esse sabor que tinha
A tua boca... o eco dos teus passos...
O teu riso de fonte... os teus abraços...
Os teus beijos... a tua mão na minha...

Se tu viesses quando, linda e louca,
Traça as linhas dulcíssimas dum beijo
E é de seda vermelha e canta e ri

E é como um cravo ao sol a minha boca...
Quando os olhos se me cerram de desejo...
E os meus braços se estendem para ti...

Florbela Espanca, in "Charneca em Flor"

If You Came To See Me
If you came to see me today in the early evening,
At this hour of magic weariness,
When the gentle night is approaching,
And be all arrested in your arms...

When it reminds me: this flavor that had
Your mouth... the echo of your footsteps...
Your laughter of fountain... your hugs...
Your mouth... your hand in mine...

If you came when, beautiful and crazy,
Trace the sweetest lines of a kiss
And it's red silk and sings and laughs

And it's like a gillyflower in the sun my mouth...
When my eyes get closed by desire...
And my arms extend to you...

Florbela Espanca, in 'Heath in Bloom'    

(Translator(s) unknown ---  machine-translated maybe..  Found on the internet. I'm not giving the link here because it seems to trash my browser every time.)


"Cravo" ("Gillyflower") = "clavo" in Spanish, a carnation or clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus) or perhaps one of its common wayside relatives.

The "cravo" has subsequently acquired further significance to the Portuguese, because of the Revolução dos Cravos on 25th April 1974.

[Image source:]

Most of the poems I've seen are 4-4-3-3 sonnets, but not all. I read somewhere that she also wrote stories.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Guias Viagem

Friday, May 12, 2017

blog silence. ...

The previous couple of weeks have been distinctly over rich with experience, and now I'm off to the backwoods of Portugal for a week..   so blogging has pretty much stopped for now.

No cause for alarm... I've written nearly a thousand posts in 12 years, and I'm not about to jack it in :)

Prunus 'Shogetsu'. This year's blossom coming to an end, 1st May, 2017, Swindon.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Bliss and other stories

Quince (Cydonia oblonga) April 9th 2017, Bath

I haven't begun yet. I don't yet know if I can write about Katherine Mansfield.

I can read her, mostly. There are some greasy spots on the pane no doubt, but most of Bliss is pellucid now. "I know why, I know what you're saying....!" -- I say to this long-dead writer -- I read a bit more ---  it's almost a conversation.


I'm forever grateful for the long years at uni when I had time to read the massive novels of our classical tradition. These days I can't read many novels. I begin to take more interest in short stories... that curious, democratic form. Everyone who can write at all can write a reasonable short story. We don't make lists of the best short stories, like we  do with larger forms such as novels or films or operas. Consequently, the titles of short stories are comparatively unimportant (hence whimsical Mansfield titles like "Feuille d'Album"). The short story is a kind of folk art. In saying what it needs to say in the limited space available, it resorts to certain necessary crudenesses. The short story fails to attain authority. (That can be a good thing).  It has a very close relationship with stereotype and cliche and the instinctive judgments we make that are based on externals. The short story can hardly begin without having that dubious company in tow.

In Bliss we see it, for example, in the numbing quantities of period affected speech -  "dear little" "queer little" "dreadful" "fiendish", and so on. James and Proust use that kind of speech as part of an intensive inquiry into civilization and its meaning. Mansfield hasn't got time for that. Mostly, she uses such language as a shorthand way of implying critique of the person speaking or thinking: emptiness, brittleness, superficiality. Yes, it can be crude...  briskly and necessarily.

But that's not always how Mansfield uses fashionable slang... "The Man Without a Temperament" ends with its virtually silent hero, sharing his wife's final days in a semi-shut-down state, pronouncing the word "Rot". The effect isn't crude here. It's a Tolstoyan art:  to bring people's existences and emotions to life, floating and communicating with each other almost separately from the words that are actually said.  Almost but not quite.


Katherine Mansfield was under sentence of death herself. Bliss is a catalogue of neurotic, highly strung men and women.

It ends with "The Escape", in which a woman, jarred by the mundanities of travel, pours out a frantic torrent of abuse at her husband, who's blamed for everything.

Poor little mice! He had his hand in his trouser pocket before her. " For Heaven's sake don't give them anything. Oh, how typical of you! Horrid little monkeys! Now they'll follow us all the way. Don't encourage them ; you would encourage beggars " ; and she hurled the bunch out of the carriage with, " Well, do it when I'm not there, please. "
It's the nakedest instance in the book of  what we now call self-sabotage. The circular experience of misery and disappointment that results from the sufferer's own way of living.

The husband and wife relationship in "The Man Without a Temperament" has similarities, though here the wife is dying and truly needs her husband/carer/servant and is endlessly appreciative...

" Where's your shawl ?" he asked.
" Oh ! " She gave a little groan of dismay. " How silly I am, I've left it upstairs on the bed. Never mind. Please don't go for it. I shan't want it, I know I shan't."

Or Monica Tyrell in "Revelations", of course.

"Tell Monsieur I cannot come," she said gently. But as the door shut, anger -- anger suddenly gripped her close, close, violent, half strangling her. How dared he? How dared Ralph do such a thing [call to invite her to lunch] when he knew how agonizing her nerves were in the morning! Hadn't she explained and described and even -- though lightly, of course ; she couldn't say such a thing directly -- given him to understand that this was the one unforgiveable thing.

Reginald Peacock is another who finds mornings difficult and keeps experiencing "the one unforgiveable thing". 

If there was one thing that he hated more than another it was the way she had of waking him in the morning. ... but really, really, to wake a sensitive person like that was positively dangerous! It took him hours to get over it -- simply hours. ...

The( approximately) thirteen-year-old girl in "The Wind Blows" thinks:  "How hideous life is -- revolting, simply revolting..."

Then there's the just slightly hysterically over-ecstatic Bertha in "Bliss". ...

Or the explosion of the approximately five-year-old Sun at the end of "Sun and Moon": "I think it's horrid --- horrid --- horrid !"

Neurosis, you get the impression, was fashionable. But unbridled expressions of emotion are also natural, at a young age. And for the writer these "over-reactions", as we call them, can also produce a kind of expressionist vision of how we live.


What about the pair in "Psychology"?  This is a story about that all-too-familiar experience, a crunch. For a few seconds the two new special friends/definitely not lovers/hmm, potential lovers?... Well, we'll call them friends... For a few seconds the meeting of the two friends is perfect.

Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light. Still, as it were, they tasted on their smiling lips the sweet shock of their greeting. Their secret selves whispered:
   "Why should we speak? Isn't this enough?"
   "More than enough. I never realized until this moment..."
   "How good it is to be with you ...."
   "Like this ...."
   "It's more than enough."
   But suddenly he turned and looked at her and she moved quickly away.
   "Have a cigarette? I'll put the kettle on. ..."

They don't quite know what to do (caresses being not in their way). The gears crunch. A timing problem ensues. She associates meeting with tea. He doesn't really want tea. She needs it. There's a lot of fiddling with tea things, time is felt to pass. Silences become awkward. Or they speak at the same time. Or they say what they don't really feel, to break the silence. Or they are distracted by self-consciousness; by the feeling that it isn't working, or even by the feeling that thank God it is working now. Once again, looking at each other turns out to be fatal:

"Not at all," said he. "Look here ..." On the talk went. And now it seemed they really had succeeded. She turned in her chair to look at him while she answered. Her smile said: "We have won." And he smiled back, confident: "Absolutely."
   But the smile undid them. It lasted too long, it became a grin. They saw themselves as two little grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness. ...

In the end nothing is said and the wrong thing is said and it all comes to an end. But this pair aren't really neurotic, they are pretty normal. Nervous, suffering, disappointed, enchanted... the things we feel even when we habitually don't express them.

So much for the confidence of "And the best of it was they were both of them old enough to enjoy their adventure to the full without any stupid emotional complication..." --- Obviously, that glibness gets found out. But the story isn't really like a Dickensian narrator waxing archly avuncular about a pair of young people who are obviously in love but coy of knowing it. These two aren't in love, really. But then friendship isn't simple either. Emotional complication is always a part of life...


"Bliss", perhaps because it's the title story, or perhaps because it is more conventionally built than the others, with a dramatic twist, has been the perhaps unfortunate recipient of a mass of interpretations. 

This anxiety to make objects in the story mean something different to what the story shows they mean  --  Which comes first, I wonder, the failure to hear or the itch to interpret?

I think that Bertha's feeling of giddy bliss is a feeling of giddy bliss, not a feeling of sexual desire for either Pearl (a popular idea), nor - what certainly does develop later in the evening - sexual desire for her own husband. (Bertha is perfectly aware of the nature of that desire, as soon as she experiences it.) Now it's true that Bertha is - she says it herself - "in love with" Pearl. The meaning of that emerges, so far as the author is interested in it emerging, from the story.

I consider such questions as "What does Pearl Fulton's name really mean?" and "Why is it a pear tree rather than an apple tree?" to be based on radically false premises. I don't feel that I appreciate the story much better for being pointed at the book of Genesis, or Twelfth Night, or traditional symbolism of the moon.

Some commentators, it seems, aren't familiar with the spectacular appearance of pear blossom. They can't see why an apple-tree by moonlight wouldn't be just as good as a provoker of Bertha's bliss. They would prefer the tree to have been an apple, because it sounds more like the Tree of Knowledge.

Someone, straightfacedly, proposes that Mansfield chose a pear-tree because pear-trees are hermaphrodite, and hence a symbol of Bertha's latent bisexuality. Neither this someone nor their admirers seem to be aware that the vast majority of flowering plants are hermaphrodite.

But Mansfield was herself particularly fond of pear trees. And elsewhere in Bliss, too, we see that trees can be spellbinding objects that seem to the viewer rich in meaning (e.g. "The Escape" -- or the rather tree-like Aloe in "Prelude"...)


[post still being written...]

Bay (Laurus nobilis), April 9th, 2017, Bath


Thursday, May 04, 2017

"Dansen på Sunnanö" / "The Dance in Sunnanö"

A song by Evert Taube, published in 1953. Rönnerdahl is an elderly spelman (fiddler) who appears in several Taube songs.

Dansen på Sunnanö

Där går en dans på Sunnanö
där dansar Rönnerdahl
med lilla Eva Liljebäck
på pensionatets bal
och genom fönstren strömmar in
från skärgårdsnatten sval
doft av syrener och jasmin
i pensionatets sal
doft av syrener och jasmin
i pensionatets sal

             There is a dance in Sunnanö
             there dances Rönnerdahl
             with little Eva Liljebäck
             at the pension* ball
             and through the window streams in
             from the skerry night's coolness
             the scent of lilac and jasmine
             into the pension hall
             the scent of lilac and jasmine
             into the pension hall

Och lilla Evas arm är rund           
och fräknig hennes hy
och röd som smultron hennes mun
och klänningen är ny
herr Rönnerdahl det är ju ni
som tar vem ni vill ha
bland alla kvinnor jorden runt
det har jag hört ha ha
bland alla kvinnor jorden runt
det har jag hört, ha ha

                And little Eva's arm is round
                and freckled is her hue
                and red as a strawberry her mouth
                and her clothes brand new
               "Herr Rönnerdahl, I know your sort
               You take just just what you want
               of all the women in the world
               that's what I've been told, ha-ha!
               of all the women in the world
               that's what I've been told, ha-ha!"

Att ta är inte min musik          
nej fröken men att ge
jag slösar men är ändå rik
så länge jag kan se
vad ser ni då herr Rönnerdal
kanske min nya kjol
ja den och kanske något mer
ta hit en bra fiol
ja den och kanske något mer
ta hit en bra fiol

                   "To take is not my music's way
                  dear young lady, but to give.
                  I squander all, yet still I'm rich,
                  so long as I can see."
                  "And what do you see, Herr Rönnerdahl --
                  maybe my brand new dress?"
                  "Yes, that, and maybe something more...
                  Pass me the fiddle, please!
                  Yes, that, and maybe something more...
                  Pass me the fiddle please!"             

Där går en dans på Sunnanö
till Rönnerdahls fiol
där dansar vågor dansar vind
och snön som föll i fjol
den virvlar där, där går ett brus
igenom park och sal
och sommarmorgonen står ljus
och södergöken gal
och sommarmorgonen står ljus
och södergöken gal

             There is a dance in Sunnanö
             to Rönnerdahl's violin
             the waves dance and the winds dance
             and the snows that fell last year
             they swirl around, a rush of noise
             flows through the park and hall
             and the summer morning lightens
             and the south-cuckoo calls    **           
             and the summer morning lightens
             and the south-cuckoo calls

Och lilla Eva dansar nu             
med Fänrik Rosenberg
och inga fräknar syns på hyn
så röd är hennes färg
men Rönnerdahl är blek och skön
och spelar som en gud
och svävar i en högre rymd
där Eva är hans brud
och svävar i en högre rymd
där Eva är hans brud

                    And little Eva dances now
                    with Ensign Rosenberg
                    and now no freckles can be seen,
                    so rosy is her hue!
                    But Rönnerdahl is pale and fine
                    and plays just like a god...
                    floating upon a higher plane
                    where Eva is his bride
                    floating upon a higher plane
                    where Eva is his bride!

* "Pensionat" -- a modest hotel, almost a guest-house. The golden age of the "pensionat" was coming to an end in 1953. In fact there no pensionat on Sunnanö (an island in the Stockholm skerries)... Taube is supposed to have based this song on the pensionat in Södermöja.
** The call of the first cuckoo, if it comes from the south, betokens death according to a Swedish folk superstition: södergöken, dödergöken... Explained in this entertaining note to the OE poem The Seafarer by Charles Harrison-Wallace:

Evert Taube singing the song (unfortunately truncated in the last verse). Note the cuckoo-calls in the guitar part!

The song lends itself to developments such as this lovely version by Göran Fristorp:

A version by Håkan Nilsson:

A version by Anna-Lotta Larsson:

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

easter yellow

Easter drink and card

I'm not sure when yellow became the brand colour of Easter. I suppose it owes a lot to chicks and daffodils.

Or is it the colour of resurrection, as in Tom Clark's poem?

and your childish mind would be ever alive, wondering
what kind of lounge furniture do they have in heaven
a cloud, awash in a soft spray of golden
yellowish light... God-light... perhaps extending a hand
or more likely ignoring your presence
as though you hadn't really died
yet, but were just being treated to a brief
preview of the festivities, which for that
matter didn't really appear to have anything festive in them
certainly no creaturely joy or solid colour or sweet wild song
for without the material world, how
throw together a halfway decent festivity?
Is there no change of death in paradise?

When they roll away the stone, does light pour in?
Are there, like... snacks? 
The idea of death
in the mind of a child
is an idea wasted on an unformed mind
way back when, in the pre-world
before imagination died
God would be there, in that spray of golden
yellowish light
coming out of a bright mist of cloud
through which one might walk
or fall...  that wide water
without sound
but for the soft calls of the wood doves
beside a pool in Palestine
along the Perkiomen,
the deer coming down to water, ...

From "Easter Lilies"

In East Somerset, Mells Daffodil Festival (commonly shortened to "Mells")  is an important event in the calendar. It always takes place on Easter Monday.

But Easter and the blooming of daffodils are both moveable feasts. This year Easter came late and the daffs exceptionally early, so their yellow was just a distant memory by the time of Mells.

But in spring yellow keeps on coming ... waves of dandelions (once again, very early compared to St George's Day (April 23), the traditional day for gathering dandelions), celandines, forsythia, buttercups and laburnum. The latter two are really May sights, but not this year....

Laburnum, Swindon 24th April 2017 08:45
Cadbury Mini Eggs Easter Egg

Chair for sale

Ring around the moon, Swindon, 10th April 2017 23:14

The physics behind these fairly common 22 degree rings around the sun and moon is lucidly explained here:

The ring indicates that there are icy cirrus or cirrostratus clouds in the upper atmosphere, which could presage a change in the weather. And certainly this proved to be the end of the summery heat that had been building for a month since mid-March -- the cause of all that early flowering. But the rest of April, though colder, has carried on being almost bone dry. April showers? What are those?

oil painting by Christer Caramon
[Image source:]

Just before this post hastens to its end, here's a portal to the multi-talented enigma Christer Caramon, outsider artist and musician with a glorious singing voice.

Two of my favourite tracks. "Greetings dear Mollberg" is an eighteenth-century song by Carl Michael Bellman, relating the unfortunate experience of a musician who insisted on playing "polskas" during a time of anti-Polish hysteria. [Actually, the "polska" - despite its name - seems to be an entirely Swedish dance tradition. -- It is not the same thing as a polka, by the way.]

Text of Bellman's song Tjenare Mollberg, hur är det fatt? (Fredmans Epistel No. 45)

The second, "Cecilia Lind", is a song by Cornelis Vreeswijk (1937 - 1987), Dutch-born but an immigrant to Sweden at the age of 12. He went on to become one of Sweden's best-loved troubadours.

And here's a whole 20-track playlist of Swedish songs in English...

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fernanda and the lesbian

I'm truly sorry about the lack of posts at the moment. But rather than blather on with excuses and explanations, let's seize the moment to barely-more-than-mention one of my most-favourite-ever books, US anthropologist Oscar Lewis' monumental 800-page oral history of lives in poverty in San Juan and New York, La Vida.  (1966; published in this tackily-jacketed Panther edition in 1968.) The interviews on which the book was based, all six thousand pages of them, were translated from Spanish into English by Muna Muñoz Lee, who really ought to get a co-author credit -- but then again maybe the real authors are "Fernanda" and her family. (The real names of both the family and Lewis' own research assistants are concealed.)

The jacket may be a touch exploitative, but Lewis' interviewees certainly let it all hang out. The book is a triumph of furiously exciting narrative.

Here's a taste. Fernanda is living with Erasmo and her three children. She and Erasmo have fights....


what's the matter with you?" And Erasmo answered, "Oh, the bitch I keep here bit me." Arturo said, "Good for her. You didn't have to beat her. After all, you're not her father."

Another time we had a fight and I had him arrested. I never did understand what that fight was about. I just know that he came and hit me over the right ear so hard that I felt as if the whole side of my head had exploded. I told him, "Wait a minute, if that's what you want I'll go call the cops." The cops were near and I had him arrested. They kept him in jail about seven days. I said to Arturo, "Tell him to fix the bail himself if he wants to go free, or he can stay in jail for all I care. I won't lift a finger to help him." So Erasmo sent for some money and bailed himself out. Then we made up and went on living together, but I had lost my love for him. When I love I love without limit, but when a man hits me I stop loving him at once.

It was about that time that a lesbian fell in love with me. I didn't pay any attention to her and what happened was Erasmo's fault because that Sunday he wouldn't take me to the movies and I had to go alone. Afterwards I went to a bar in La Marina and sat at a table to read the newspaper. Then that lesbian came and snatched the paper from my hands. I asked her, "Why do you do this?" And she answered, "You think you're tough, don't you?" I said, "I'm not tough but I can take on the toughest." Then she socked me, and we started to fight.

Arturo was in the bar at the time. Somebody said to him, "Look, Arturo, your sister-in-law is fighting." Arturo was very surprised because I really beat her up. She wasn't able to hurt me at all, except for one bite she gave me. I left her all scratched and practically naked. The cops came but the owner of the bar and the boy who worked there hid me. They knew I'd never fought before and they all liked me. So the cops started taking away this other woman and she kept saying, "No, I fought with a tiny woman in there and she tore all my clothes off my back."

"Why did you fight?" the policeman asked.

"Because I've always liked that woman and she's never paid any attention to me. I took the newspaper away from her to see if she'd at least talk with me. Because I like her!"

Then Arturo and some others said to her in front of the cops, "Look, that woman you're after is no lesbian. She's a woman through and through. Don't you make any mistake about that, and be careful what you do to her."

Well, she ended up fighting with the cops and they hit her and took her away. She was in jail a month. When she got out she started looking for me everywhere. She meant to cut me if I didn't accept her advances. She came to the bar with a Gem in her hand and another in her hair. When Erasmo saw her he sent for me and said, "Nanda, don't go down to the bar. That woman came in with a Gem and she's threatening to cut you up."

I said, "She is? Then I'll go down all the quicker, because I'm no coward." He insisted, "Look, you'd better not go." Erasmo has always been a sissy. He'll never stand up for anybody. I bet he was at the movies when I was having the fight.

I took my Gem and went to the bar. When they saw me there, the boys bought me a Coke so I could attack her with the bottle if I had to. Then she sent for me to talk with her alone. I sent word back that the one who was in need was the one who did the walking. And she was the one who needed me, not I her. Well, she never paid any more attention to me after that, but we are still enemies. She doesn't say a word to me, nor I to her, when we meet.

I think it's very ugly for two women to do it with each other. If I'd had a taste for that, I'd be sleeping with women and living off the fat of the land. Because women ran after me too, you know, and offered gifts and money and clothes. But I didn't accept them because I never did like that way of life.

I left Erasmo because he was drunk all the time and he kept after the kids. Any little thing the children did bothered him. He just didn't like them ....  But the real reason I left Erasmo was because of Soledad. According to what I was told, Erasmo had fallen in love with her. Soledad was nearly grown by then, and you should have seen her! ...  (pp. 138-139)


Here's a couple of pages from later on. Fernanda's daughter Soledad is speaking:

Lewis put forward the theory that poverty is an identifiable culture transcending national differences. Could be. I recognize many aspects of this La Perla life in the English council estates where I've lived.  Nor was it so very different in the days of Lazarillo de Tormes or Moll Flanders. On the other hand,  the particular poverty of western secular urbanism isn't perhaps very similar to what you'd find in e.g. fourth-world indigenous peoples.

I don't agree with people who use "the culture of poverty" as an excuse for why such a rich nation as the USA has such high levels of poverty, or as a reason for not bothering with social programs.

But the first thing, always, is to respect people, not treat them as cases. And if you respect people, then you know they are ingenious survivors and they'll remake their world the way they need to. People in similar circumstances will come up with similar solutions. In very difficult circumstances, the choices get less.


Friday, April 21, 2017

blown sphere

It was night. The baby was sleeping soundly,  half in the world. The mother lay in the bed, feeling exhausted, as sleep came over her. Her partner slept deeply, exhausted.

The earth rotated, moving the stars through the branches.

The man was drawn back to consciousness by the need for a pee. He rose unsteadily, put the living-room light on in passing. He left the toilet door open and peed in shadow, half asleep. Even so, he had a good idea about a book he was reading.

Three or four cats, near enough, aware of each other. At the approach of the van, they were disturbed. They moved apart. One scampered. One stalked away. But they remembered. Missing out. They circulated. They saw. At a distance. They sat.

They were asleep. They had been ill all holiday. Now they were both back at school, and the boy went to nursery. He was an early riser. He had his own truck.

The whole city was asleep, but there were always a few trucks, the police... 

She got out of bed, leaving him ticking in his throat. Often, nowadays, she couldn't sleep. She felt the migraine on the border of her day. Might it pass her by? She padded down to the kitchen with her book. She made a small, very mild, instant coffee; tea gave her a migraine. She read the reminders in her own handwriting.  She thought about Jocelyn and the funeral.

He sat at the desk, half-asleep, and read: own pace in life, is trustworthy, loya & diplomatic. samsung. from responsible sources. can kill your unborn child. watercolo. 36g. Equatoria.

He was driving. He was home at last. The estate was quiet although there were a few lights on. Some people might be speeding or on their consoles. In one of the gardens was a moving shadow. That was normal. His gate was open. He decided not to close it in case it disturbed the dog upstairs. Cherry blossom on the path. Did it fall at night?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

kite string

Lebanese author Dominique Eddé's 2003 novel Cerf-volant, translated from French by Ros Schwartz as Kite and published by Calcutta-based Seagull Books in 2012.  (This is the second book I've read by this excellent publisher, the first one was Andrea Brady's Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2013).)

The novel tells, in many short readable chapters by multiple narrators, the story of a love affair between Mali Rashed (née Shami) and Farid Malek. It's also a melancholy, though often comic, portrait of upper-class cultured life in Lebanon and Cairo (and London, Paris, etc) from early in the 20th century up to 2002. Dizzying society gossip, on every topic from the most serious to the most trivial, overwhelms us. It meditates richly on novels, on language (especially French and Arabic), on love, time and memory. The distant connection with Proust is there of course, yet Cerf-volant does not seem very Proustian.

The unfolding history of Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Syria is always in the background and sometimes in the foreground too. (Especially Nasser, the Six-day War, the Lebanese Civil War.)  September 11, al-Qaida and Islamism make it into the last scenes of the book (which are actually nearly at the beginning). It was written before the "Arab Spring", the rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi, the endless Syrian War and the punitive bombings of Gaza in 2014, but the seeds of all these events seem to be present in it. There's even a nod at the increasing confidence of the far Right in Europe, in the form of the outspoken yet charming publisher Paul Braque.

Eddé, a distant relative of a Lebanese president back in the 1930s, was born in 1953, so she is around twenty years younger than Mali. It's quite an impressive feat, to lead us through scenes in the life of someone who is this much older than the author. At least so it would be in a thoroughly naturalistic novel. But Cerf-volant is written according to a different theory of time than clock-time.

An early chapter from Cerf-volant / Kite in French / English / Chinese

Here's the English version:

'What is a novel?' Mali asked her students.

It was October 1968, shortly after she and Farid had broken up for the first time. She was teaching French that year at a government school in Beirut. She had been given a class of sixteen-year-olds, about sixty boys, most of whom were behind in their studies and had only a smattering of French since they were sitting their baccalaureate in Arabic. Their replies, hesitant at first, came thick and fast. Mali jotted them down. Running on from each other, they read as follows: the novel's a story that's long and wide; it's life but in a book; it's like my uncle who married my aunt without asking for permission; if you observe life carefully, the novel is all around us; it's a story that has a beginning and no end; it's an Arabian Nights; it's when love is a river that meets a dam; I've got a novel, Miss, it begins with some Russians; the novel is full of things that happen at the same time and we don't know why; a novel is so sad it makes you laugh; well, my father says that our defence minister is a novel all by himself; if a novel begins, there's no more rest, that's it; what happened between Abdo and Mohammed the day before yesterday's a novel; the novel's for the French, we Arabs have poetry; Miss, is my sister's death a novel? everyone has novels, there's no need to die; only Allah writes novels; I want to write a novel about Palestine, so that it stays somewhere.

One boy sitting at the back of the class had said nothing. Gazing out of the window, his arms folded, he looked not so much absent as irritated. Yet he was the only one who spoke French. Mali addressed him. 'Ali, I haven't heard anything from you. What is a novel?' He resisted. She insisted. 'It's a story someone tells,' he replied eventually, 'that's all.' 'Give us an example,' she answered, expecting him to give a book title and the name of an author, but that was not how he understood the question. This is what he replied:

It was a winter's day. The sun came and went. The clouds grew bigger. The whole sky was like a stormy sea. Abu Sami pushed his orange cart shouting,'Ten piastres a kilo!' The street was empty, no one could hear him but he paid no attention. He shouted, 'Ten piastres a kilo!' and dreamt of a woman he loved. The hands on the clock were turning, daylight was fading and the clouds were growing darker and darker still. The rain began to fall, the dust turned to mud and Abu Sami's dream came and went, like the sun, its light vanished, he could hardly see the face of the lady he loved. Abu Sami no longer had the strength to shout,'Ten piastres a kilo!' He trundled behind his orange cart in silence. Several oranges rolled off but he didn't pick them up. Just then, an American car pulled up beside him and a lady sitting in the back wound down her window to buy five kilos of oranges. He put the fifty piastres in his pocket and went home with his oranges. A neighbour was waiting for him on his doorstep. He said, 'I have bad news for you, Abu Sami, the dancer is dead.' The dancer was the woman who had been going round and round in his head while he walked. Her name was Camelia. He'd seen her once at Ain el Mraisseh in a cabaret called Chéri. Only once but he loved her.

'There, that's a novel,' grunted Sami, shrugging his shoulders. And as Mali, smiling, wrote down the closing sentences in a notebook, he added in a more conscious, even solemn, tone, 'Once is enough to kindle a dream and a cloud is enough to snuff it out but, for the person telling the story, the dream and the cloud can last a thousand years. The novel doesn't move like an ordinary watch, its hands can stop for an hour on a minute and for a second on twenty years. It's a machine that can gobble a life in two pages.'



The sleeve, unfolded. It's been composed by taking a commonplace natural scene (I won't guess from which country), and joining it to its mirror image to produce a perfectly symmetrical hump of yellow flowers.  Since the kite-string appears only on the front of the book and not on the reflex image on the back, it stands revealed as having been super-imposed. And closer inspection shows that the "kite-string" is actually a line of black ink, and even has a little break in it.

Both jacket and book-title refer to an image, in the final pages, of the novel as a kite. The image appears in the middle of a long harangue by the Armenian novelist Dance Vavikian, who begins by quoting the Washington Post.

And look at the bottom of the page, I quote, "Yesterday, a young woman was stoned to death for making a paper plane out of a photo of an Imam." For those who don't understand Arabic, a "paper plane" in English is a kite, and what is a kite? First of all, it's the opposite of a statue, it has the right to go in any direction, to fly, to stop, slow down, eagle-dive, sail, change course, somersault, once, twice, three times, stop upside down, soar again and fly off in the sky, while an unseen hand holds the end of its string, that is a kite. It is a paper cloud that crosses borders, blurs them, pushes them back, it is the wandering ghost of all that we have lost as a result of being afraid of everything and accepting everything. The kite is a novel, it goes here and there not knowing where it goes. ...  (p. 298)

Joumana Debs offers a parallel interpretation of the image: the kite (a person's life), controlled by an unseen hand (historical events).

Joumana Debs' essay "Le cerf-volant ou l'évanouissement du rêve arabe",  in Des femmes et de l'écriture. Le bassin méditerranéen (Carmen Boustani and Edmond Jouve, eds). You can read most of it on Google Books:


Or isn't the unseen hand, rather, the novelist's? Dance Vavikian, like Dominique Eddé, is a novelist who writes novels. Mali is a novelist who never writes a novel, though we do get to read her unfinished effort, a chapter or two of her grandmother's life in France.


The framing of life by historical events, the impact of historical events.... Of course these are important themes. Mali is a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause, Farid is an activist for the Palestinians. They are politically engaged, but how deeply does this engagement impact their lives? (Even when Farid is shot in the back in Lebanon, he recovers.) Are the ups and downs in Mali's and Farid's love affair really caused by - say - the Six Day War, or are they just coincidental with it? Are Mali's mildly left-wing views skin-deep or are they directly connected with the inner forces that drive her?

In one of the novel's preludes, the characters are milling around on the platform and talking it over. An unspecified speaker asks Farid: "But you, Monsieur Malek, what do you think of a novel that, just when the world is falling apart, hires liveried waiters and English governesses but not a single CIA operative, no al-Qaida members, not a Russian, not a Chechen?"


Interview with Dominique Eddé in Le Monde  (in French):


Lebanon is a nation of many languages. Because of the civil war, many younger Lebanese writers were displaced and began to write in English. Syrine Hout's book Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction introduces the topic.


Article in the Independent (June 2016) about the controversy caused by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf's appearance on Israeli media. Quotes Dominique Eddé at one point.


Dominique Eddé, from a promotion of her 2012 novel Kamal Jann
[Image source:]


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sir Walter Scott: Kenilworth (1821) - two notes.

1. Zacharias Yoglan, the Jew, is a minor character in Kenilworth (Volume II, Ch 1). Wayland Smith, the shapeshifting blacksmith/alchemist/swashbuckling retainer, purchases a very rare ingredient from him.

"And vat might your worship vant vith that drug that is not named, mein god, in forty years I have been chemist here?" .... This (black powder) he offered to Wayland, his manner conveying the deepest devotion towards him, though an avaricious and jealous expression which seemed to grudge every grain of which his customer was about to possess himself, disputed ground in his countenance, with the obsequious deference which he desired it should exhibit...

It's pretty disappointing to see Scott falling back on this anti-Semitic stereotype nonsense, only a year or two after he had made some decent effort to go beyond it in Ivanhoe. In that novel, Judaism turned out to be an important topic and in portraying Rebecca Scott began to imagine what it might be like to be a pejoratively-labelled alien in Merrie England. But in Kenilworth Scott's vision is of a dangerous but thrilling society of entrepreneurs, and he has no compunction about chucking in an avaricious Jew in passing, just to underline Wayland's skilled manoeuvring in the City.

It's a shame, maybe, to dwell on this detail from such a brilliant book, but the shame is Scott's.

2. Surprisingly to me, Kenilworth (now more or less forgotten by all but academics) was twice serialized on BBC television.

The 1957 serialization, in six 30 minute episodes, was in 1957, with a young Paul Eddington playing Edmund Tressilian. (The actor later beloved as Jerry in The Good Life and as Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister.) It is apparently lost.

The second serialization, in 1967, consisted of four 45-minute episodes. This time Edmund Tressilian was played by Jeremy Brett, later a memorable Sherlock Holmes for Granada Television. One of the episodes is said to survive. I don't suppose it's very good. But it emphasizes that the once hugely popular author was at that time still an enervated presence within popular culture.


Monday, April 10, 2017

cherry blossom in Bath

Prunus 'Ukon'. James Street West, Bath (8th April 2017)

'Ukon' is unmistakable for a day or two when the newly-open blossom is a unique creamy-green colour. Thereafter it is not quite so obvious but remains a subtly classy tree, distinguishable by the only-semi-double flowers* and the rather noticeable red eye on the blossom as it ages (though be warned, many other cherry blossoms have red eyes too).

* Therefore distinct from other white blossoms such as Tae-Haku (single) or Shirotae etc (fully double) ...

Prunus 'Pink Perfection', Canterbury Street, Bath (8th April, 2017)

This is the same tree I photographed in bud last week.

The massive double white cherry (Prunus avium 'Plena') in Queen Square, Bath (8th April, 2017)

Prunus 'Amanogawa' near Pulteney Road South, Bath (9th April, 2017)

...Actually, outside a new-build development on the other side of the railway line, on the path up to the canal. I would have given the street name but Google Maps doesn't know about it yet.

Prunus 'Kanzan' in Victoria Park, Bath (9th April, 2017)

This is the same tree that I photographed in bud last week.

Avenue of Prunus 'Kanzan' in Victoria Park, Bath (9th April, 2017)

Why Prunus 'Kanzan' might not be the ideal choice for a small garden...

People relaxing in Victoria Park, Bath (8th April 2017 18:37)

Royal Crescent, Bath (8th April 2017 18:38)


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