Tuesday, March 20, 2018

snow and wood

We had a new batch of snow at the week-end: Swindon's third of this winter.  The temperature was only just about freezing. The snow sparkled both in the air and on the ground, as if it hadn't quite made up its mind what it was going to be, and half-thought about melting.

As it happened the temperature got colder and it snowed all night. While we marched home from the Costa Drive-Through at 23:00 on Saturday, in veils of glinting snow, I tried to think what the snow surface reminded me of, but I couldn't quite place it. It was some kind of peppermint confection from my childhood, maybe home-made, with exactly this pure white sparkling surface. The evocation had something yearning in it, and I decided my grandmother must have been involved, the English one. Perhaps someone gave her a box of Clarnico mint creams, and I helped her eat them. An event of no significance at all, at the time. Though to a child peppermint creams are never altogether trivial.

On Sunday the snow froze harder, and on compacted pathways it broke up into crunchy pieces of peanut brittle, except they were transparent. (What is it about sweets? It seems that when we reach middle age we begin to obsess about childhood confectionery, as well as buying old albums of the music of our teens.)

The wind was so piercing that we pretty much ignored the unexpected emergence of a pure white Little Egret from out of a stream threading through the housing estates. It stood clumsily in a willow tree waiting for us to go away, which was immediately. We had no time for exotic birds that morning, we were desperate to stamp some warmth into our feet.

There was no visit to the wood on Monday, we were in John Lewis eating soup,  so I missed any chance of learning more about animal tracks.  But I was back in the wood today. The snow had almost gone.

Scarlet Elf-Cup

Two regular highlights of the wood in spring. Scarlet Elf-Cup appears on some of the fallen twigs.

There's an increasing population of False Oxlip here (Primula x polyantha) . More than there are ordinary primroses, in fact.

Young nettles

More tufts of grass, but this time I can't pretend to recognize them. I'll just have to remember where they are and keep watching them until they produce flowerheads.

A grass with a pretty distinctive appearance at this time of year.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

January and May

Ill-matched lovers by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys c. 1520-1525

[Image source: https://eng405chaucer.wordpress.com/2017/03/24/the-merchants-tale-old-man-young-woman-trouble-ahead/. The painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.52622.html).]

Today (following BritPo forum conversation with Peter Riley), I've been reacquainting myself with the youthful Alexander Pope's sparkling rendering of  that sour late Chaucer masterpiece The Merchant's Tale. Here are the opening lines:

THERE liv’d in Lombardy, as authors write,
In days of old, a wise and worthy Knight;
Of gentle manners, as of gen’rous race,
Blest with much sense, more riches, and some grace:
Yet, led astray by Venus’ soft delights,        5
He scarce could rule some idle appetites:
For long ago, let priests say what they could,
Weak sinful laymen were but flesh and blood.
  But in due time, when sixty years were o’er,
He vow’d to lead this vicious life no more;        10
Whether pure holiness inspired his mind,
Or dotage turn’d his brain, is hard to find;
But his high courage prick’d him forth to wed,
And try the pleasures of a lawful bed.
This was his nightly dream, his daily care,        15
And to the heav’nly Powers his constant prayer,
Once, ere he died, to taste the blissful life
Of a kind husband and a loving wife.
  These thoughts he fortified with reasons still
(For none want reasons to confirm their will).        20
Grave authors say, and witty poets sing,
That honest wedlock is a glorious thing:
But depth of judgment most in him appears
Who wisely weds in his maturer years.
Then let him choose a damsel young and fair,        25
To bless his age, and bring a worthy heir;
To soothe his cares, and, free from noise and strife,
Conduct him gently to the verge of life.
Let sinful bachelors their woes deplore,
Full well they merit all they feel, and more:        30
Unaw’d by precepts, human or divine,
Like birds and beasts, promiscuously they join;
Nor know to make the present blessing last,
To hope the future, or esteem the past;
But vainly boast the joys they never tried,        35
And find divulged the secrets they would hide.
The married man may bear his yoke with ease,
Secure at once himself and Heav’n to please;
And pass his inoffensive hours away,
In bliss all night, and innocence all day:        40
Tho’ fortune change, his constant spouse remains,
Augments his joys, or mitigates his pains.
  But what so pure which envious tongues will spare?
Some wicked Wits have libell’d all the Fair.
With matchless impudence they style a wife        45
The dear-bought curse and lawful plague of life,
A bosom serpent, a domestic evil,
A night-invasion, and a midday-devil.
Let not the wise these sland’rous words regard,
But curse the bones of ev’ry lying bard.        50
All other goods by Fortune’s hand are giv’n,
A wife is the peculiar gift of Heav’n.
Vain Fortune’s favours, never at a stay,
Like empty shadows pass and glide away;
One solid comfort, our eternal wife,        55
Abundantly supplies us all our life:
This blessing lasts (if those who try say true)
As long as heart can wish—and longer too.

(From January and May, or, The Merchant's Tale. Complete text: http://www.bartleby.com/203/21.html)

Chaucer's great theme of the battle of the sexes would be taken up by Pope in The Rape of the Lock and in the Moral Epistle to Blount, among other works.

Reading the poem today, most of us will feel that it pulls its punches on the most repellent aspect of the story, namely the aged sensualist's marriage to a virginal adolescent.  But it's not easy to decide, because there are so many layers of irony. There's no doubt of the implication that the aged January is being a stupid fool who deserves everything that's coming to him, but the sense of May being violated by the arrangement is absent. Chaucer and Pope are only very early steps along the way towards a modern view of marriage and sexual relationships. No matter, that background consciousness of modern views just makes the story even more electric and excruciating.

January and May (and Damian), a print from 1785 in the British Museum

http://literature.wikia.com/wiki/The_Merchant%27s_Tale.  The text claims that it was Pope's favourite poem.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Nicholas Whyte's blog

No time for blogging today.

I've just had one of those delightful moments when you happen across a new blog and immediately know that you're going to enjoy the company of the writer very much indeed, and that there's a huge archive to wander through.


This is the blog of Nicholas Whyte.  His job is something impressive like an international affairs expert, and he also maintains the Northern Ireland election results website. Like me and Andrew Duncan he's a lapsed medievalist. He's majorly into science fiction, which I'm afraid doesn't mean a great deal to me, but he also reads and blogs about a lot of other not-too-predictable books (I was actually googling on Marlowe's play The Massacre at Paris , but ended reading about Ayn Rand, Terry Eagleton and Tolstoy). He doesn't write from an academic or literary perspective but just freshly, enthusiastically and thoughtfully.  I'll be back.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

there are no foreigners

My latest book purchase arrived yesterday: Women: Poetry: Migration [An Anthology] ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (theenk Books, 2017).  It's an anthology of contemporary (mostly experimental) poetry by women who live in a country different from the country of their birth. That might sound a complicated and even pointless criterion but (on the basis of barely an hour's reading)  the result is a book that is very easy to like, its swirlingly various poetic contents feeling a little more approachable because of the framework of converging preoccupations. (The miniature "essays" from each of the contributors are helpful too.) 

Here's a few words from the early pages.


From Jane Joritz-Nakagawa's Introduction:

... in Strangers to Ourselves (1991), Julia Kristeva wrote of "Our [human] disturbing otherness" but stated: "by recognizing our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners" (p. 192). As a poet attempting to write an introduction to a poetry anthology of migrant women's work, I am also thinking of language itself as foreign. Japanese poet Kora Rumiko said in an interview that she "... felt even as a child that language was not mine, that I existed outside the language that surrounded me, like a foreigner.... " Here she is discussing her first language, Japanese, not a second or third one.


From Adeena Karasick's Salomé: Woman of Valor

And what shadowed abyss
of taut turns is riddled by the flux
          of campy anon

And what breathy mambo
of moaning nomads
is frothing in the foolscape of
your wet roulette?
What sluiced verity
What twangy biases
What cooing lurks in the sashay of racy traces


 From Amanda Ngoho Reavey's Marilyn

In the jungle there is a foreboding that surrounds a sentence. It lactates. It drowns.

They say that by the time a child is one year old her brain has been wired to know and understand only the phonemes of the language that surrounds her.

I spent eight years in speech therapy learning how English letters and words should be formed in my mouth...


From Andrea Brady's The Blue Split Compartments

This is the kill box, frozen into sculpture
at a value of some $10m.
And who hover over it are tempted to wonder

where the 'art' went or where the 'work' went
looking for their circus face in the bottom,
or the secret of its underside, where it makes contact
with the gallery floor,
but it says nothing other than 'construction'. It really is
like swatting flies; we can do it forever
easily and you feel nothing.


[JJ-N: born in USA, lives in Japan. AK: born in Canada, of Russian-Jewish heritage; lives in USA. ANR: born in Philippines, lives in USA. AB: born in USA, lives in UK.]


The jacket artwork is by Steven Seidenberg, photographer painter and poet. http://www.stevenseidenberg.com/

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tuft hunting

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea). Swindon, March 14th 2018
Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea). Only two British grass species form large tufts or tussocks. This is one of them. The other is Tufted Hair-grass (see below).

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea). Swindon, March 14th 2018

Meadow Fescue (Festuca pratensis). Swindon, March 14th 2018
Meadow Fescue (Festuca pratensis) is the baby brother of Tall Fescue. It is a medium-height grass and only loosely tufted. Above, a single tuft. Below, a group of tufts.

Meadow Fescue (Festuca pratensis). Swindon, March 14th 2018

Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), with fox poo. Swindon, March 13th 2018.
Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa). Compared to Tall Fescue, the blades are a darker green and quite narrow.

Typical behaviour of a fox during the mating season. The poo is dropped on a natural plinth, in this case a tuft of grass, in order to maximize the spread of its strong smell, which is used for marking territory.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Brief History of Western Culture

Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins

[Image source: http://www.irishnews.com/sport/2016/03/18/news/on-this-day-march-18-1949-iconic-snooker-player-alex-higgins-was-born-454325/]

Since there's no time to write anything new (the TEFL course is reaching its long-delayed climax), I'm fobbing off my readers with four more paltry notes that I wrote back in 2002-ish.

All of them were inspired by the same relativistic and universalist idea: that any and every artefact (no matter how humble, ephemeral or trashy) contained the whole of human history,  had limitless horizons and could sustain a lifetime of study and interest. In principle. You may feel I've demonstrated the opposite!

The Orbis Pocket Encyclopedia of the World (London, 1981)


This has rather a complex history of compilation. The cartography apparently comes from Prague (many of Britain’s cheap factual books from this era originated in Eastern Europe). Someone unnamed, nevertheless, must be responsible for all the English translation, anglicised names on the map (e.g. “Black Sea”) and additional material. The quantity of aggregated labour in the pages of this book is astonishing, as much so as in those Victorian factual books with their impeccable proofreading, exhaustive indexes and thousands of engraved illustrations.


The hybrid origin of the book is subtly betrayed in a map such as the one of Europe. I was at first puzzled by the prominent naming of places I’d never heard of, such as Duncansby Head (we always say “John o’ Groats”). I now see that these are vaguely intended to demarcate the physical limits of Europe. Both “Nordkapp” and “Nordkinn” are shown - the latter name (I think describing the most northerly point in Europe, which is not the North Cape) is not even shown on my large motorist’s map of Norway. The White Sea appears as “Beloje More”.


On the Spanish coast there is no Torremolinos or Benidorm or Lloret de Mar.


Production looms large in the accounts of nations - somehow, archaically so.

The UK produced 124 billion cigarettes p.a, Sweden 11.3 billion (USA 627 billion, USSR 378 billion). China is the leading producer of a tobacco crop - more than a million tons a year.


I really bought the book to understand the moon and skies, but the explanations are, to me, incomprehensible - perhaps they are just not complete enough. 


Alex Through the Looking Glass: The Autobiography of Alex Higgins (Alex Higgins with Tony Francis, 1986)



If the only worthwhile communication in art is not what is said but what is betrayed, this should appeal. The book is narrated in the first, i.e. Alex’s, person (except for an introduction in which Francis speaks for himself). As we read we believe in the persona, and Francis is quite unobtrusive. That it is more or less an understood intention to betray is clear from the often discordant intrusions of Alex’s wife and relatives. Did Alex himself intend to speak frankly, or intend to reveal himself frankly (a different thing)?


“That night the lid blew off. It was the culmination of four years of pressure. The whole episode was so preposterous you’d hardly believe it. One thing I will not stand for is being accused of something when I’m fairly and squarely not guilty. I lost control. That’s why the television set went out of the window. I had to vent my fury somehow. It was better than hitting Lynn. What is a fellow to do when his wife is behaving like this?”


Seeing Alex play snooker was electrifying, but not friendly. He was not really an intentional entertainer. His belief is in who he is - a phenomenon, a person whose every act in some way typifies his unique style. He takes curiously little pleasure in his two world championships. His apparently intense love for his children is unconvincing - it convinced me, iconically, when he wept and beckoned for Lauren on TV. The autobiography assumes that Alex will settle down calmly into middle age - but we know better. Such religious egotism requires disaster. The inevitability is perhaps unwittingly alluded to in one of the sentences above: “It was the culmination of four years of pressure”. Alex grasps that the cause of the outburst is not altogether the immediate events but his own history, which is absolutely real to him. The next sentence makes light of the circumstances. Then he asserts: “One thing I will not stand for...” as if it was a matter of principle. Such principles are always witnesses to a life being desperately shored up. 


That Alex could learn from such an incident is precluded by the very personality (or life-strategies) that caused the incident. “Snooker is show business and the show had to go on. I even managed a humorous interview with Dickie Davis before the match and put on a pretty good act I think. That was the professional in me. Others might have thrown in the towel under that pressure, but the old survival instincts saw me through.” The “survival instincts” is an accurate phrase, but what is enabled to survive is the destructive self.


The Danbury Mint (2001)

On the table is the Christmas 2001 Catalogue of the Danbury Mint (“Heirlooms and Treasures”) - an astonishing publication. I can’t tell the difference any more between the artistic effect of this incredibly rich and complex commercial enterprise and - well, last night it was Rimbaud and Tomlinson, for example. The latter have more re-sale value, but that’s the only thing that occurs to me.

I realized I was drinking my tea from the wrong mug. This one was bought in Magalluf, not in Alcúdia. Dabbled green background, blue and burgundy flowers with yellow centres. I like those cheap hand-painted mugs much more than anything in the Danbury Mint catalogue. In fact the one from Alcúdia was not so cheap, it has an abstract design and is signed “Figas”. I wonder about the life of Figas and the people who produce all those oil paintings of white houses and boats drawn up on the beach. And the photographs of the artists in the Danbury Mint catalogue; the pleasantest, happiest people, with the nicest names, a bit like the writers of romances too.


Walking somewhere, I was struck by the headline



Climate Change - Our View (pamphlet in Esso service stations, 2002)
The question of who “We” is in corporate speech is no mere semantic puzzle when “we” start delivering “our” views. Who is speaking here? The directors in chorus? But this statement was drafted by junior employees, altered at will until approved by someone at a high level. It does not represent the opinions of the juniors (I know how easy it is to distance yourself from words that you write as part of your job). Nor does it represent the opinion of the seniors, which are kept very private indeed (company confidential at least, and probably personally confidential too). In fact it is not the statement of a person (or persons) at all. Does it represent, perhaps, “what the shareholders would want to be said at this time”? We are getting closer, so long as we don’t confuse this with “what they believe”, which is (as with most people) no doubt the usual mixture of imponderable, unconfessable and tamely unconsidered.
One of the things that bothers me about institutions is that they automatically generate “statements” which have no necessary relation to any individual’s opinions. The human beings who comprise Exxon’s workforce are not in control here. I suppose analysis would show that the potential (say, for malevolence) of a corporate is in the end sustained by millions of tiny moral decisions, loosenesses, allowances, etc by thousands of individuals. Within the context of each person’s life, they are not significant, they are easily outweighed by the larger kindnesses and generosities common to most human beings; they are only significant when co-ordinated; when drilled and trained together along one line of least-resistance; i.e. by a system. This is what happens in a corporate, and the effect can be positively referred to as synergy. I do concede the lack of individual responsibility. 
So the corporate statements... who is speaking then? If not a person, then a personification. Which means that the statement has a fictional element. Yes, it goes unnoticed, it is an absorbed convention. The serious matter is that fictions have a complicated relationship to truth.
The pamphlet appears to be addressed to “the public” - it is meant to be “heard”, that is to say to be skimmed, to have a positive influence, to reinforce support from sympathetic motorists and employees; just as important it is meant to be “overheard”, e.g. by regulatory bodies and competitors.
The pamphlet is functional, it is a move in a game. Mere factual communication ranks fairly low in its functions. For instance, one can make nothing of the quoted statistics, because they are decontextualized. They are there to be half-remembered and repeated, not understood. And the pamphlet doesn’t begin with its own background, as thus:  “A lot of people are saying that Exxon should be boycotted because they consistently fight against the implementation of the Kyoto protocol”. That would be highly unstrategic. Anyone who knows the background can work it out for themselves, but the last thing Exxon wants is to enlighten the ignorant. On their own paper, they have no reason to print accusations.
The first section runs, in actuality, as follows:
There is much concern today about man’s potential role in climate change, often referred to as ‘global warming’, and the long-term risk this may pose.
Man-made greenhouse gas emissions occur primarily from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). So we take climate change very seriously. There are still many gaps in the understanding of climate change, but it poses serious long-term risks and uncertainty is no reason for inaction.
Action is needed, but as greenhouse gases arise from everyday energy use, it is important that actions should address environmental concerns but not threaten standards of living or economic growth. A focus on new technology will be essential.
The first paragraph recognizes “concern”. This is a word for possible loss of revenue, and so we can easily believe that it is taken seriously. Yet to recognize people’s concern (if “we” was a human being and not a corporate) is also a pleasant, human trait. The reader who is inclined to support Exxon feels rather warmer towards her/himself because of this sentence. S/he too is “serious” and recognizes that there is “concern”. All the warmer because it is more than possible that the “concern” is all stuff and nonsense. “We” are so human and sympathetic that we take the concern seriously anyway, even if it’s all nonsense. “You need say no more - It’s enough for us that you are worried.” (Which is true, but only because of the revenue.)
The second paragraph says, easily, that “uncertainty is no reason for inaction”. In fact, it would be a very good reason for inaction, if the uncertainty was radical. The important thing, though, is to make sure the uncertainty is emphasized. The reader is given the tools to draw the “stuff and nonsense” conclusion, though the statement is too politic to do so. (Actually, this is a measure of change. It is not so very long ago that Matt Ridley in the Telegraph, for example, was saying quite plainly that the “science” behind predictions of climate change was naive and fatally flawed.)*
*[Since writing this, some newspaper articles have appeared, in the wake of an industry-sponsored collection of papers, which repeat the accusation. But this was very low-key.]
The third paragraph means “we are against any legislation that interferes with our business”. But “means” has several senses. Exxon do not really want such a blunt interpretation to be advanced. The important positive word in this paragraph is “everyday”. It implies that the world in which “we” freely pursue profits is the world that you enjoy with all its benefits. You don’t want that to be threatened, do you? The obscure threat is that actions that hinder the activities of Exxon are likely to bring our merry western existence into catastrophic decline. That argument would, of course, have no force unless Exxon’s operations permeated our lives in the way they do. It is an argument from global spread. It would not be admitted, for example, in defence of seal-clubbing; or if it was, we would laugh. To spell out the implications more clearly, we might put it like this: It’s dangerous to do anything about BIG companies.
The “focus on new technology” is a way of diverting the reader (or over-hearer) from a “focus on legislation”, which of course could be imposed right now without any reliance on the promise of new technology.
In the next section (“The way forward”) this focus is further specified. The list is in fact a series of diversionary tactics (do anything except legislate!). For example, the first item on the list is:
- Vigorous pursuit of energy efficiency. Saving energy reduces emissions.
But this seems the least seriously meant sentence in the pamphlet. If TOTAL emissions were actually reduced, that would be bad for Exxon’s business, as bad as legislation which imposed a reduction of emissions. The only reason for Exxon supporting it, therefore, must be their confidence that it won’t succeed in achieving what legislation would.
A much more seriously intended item is this:
- Promotion of carbon ‘storage’ through forestry and agriculture.
This, of course, would not harm Exxon’s business, since it would allow emissions to continue at the current (or greater) levels. It would also be environmentally disastrous, but only the hopelessly unregenerate will grasp this, and the pamphlet is certainly not intended for them.
The final section of the pamphlet (“Actions we’re taking”) is intended to be read quickly and without much attention to detail. For example, the deliberately boring sentence:
It (i.e. the type of actions we are taking) is consistent with Esso’s longstanding commitment to the environment, reflected in our track record of leading our industry in introducing ‘cleaner’ fuels to motorists in the UK, our global record of excellent environmental performance and the recent confirmation by the international quality assessor Lloyd’s Register that our company is ‘among the leaders in industry’ in integrating environmental management into our business.
From this turgid uninterpretability, the reader is invited to mine a vein of positive connotations: longstanding commitment, excellent, environmental performance, leaders...  
These, as the composers of the text might say, are the “messages”.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Tony Conran: Theatre of Flowers (1998)

Spring Quillwort (Isoetes echinospora)

I'm writing this very fast. This collection contains various groups of poems, but I’m only going to talk about nature . Most of the “Theatre of Flowers” group is too fanciful for my needs – I don’t want to say (and this is at its best) of borage


The sepals curl through it

Furry and brown,

Like claws of an animal


or of cranberries


They’re like eyes red

With affliction


though I do see the point.


This is better:


Spry grass. Grey tombs.


(from “September”). OK, so “spry” is a metaphor, but the comparison is hardly visualized and you might say that “spry” is thoroughly re-appropriated to the vegetable world and means “spry in the way of dry breezy grass in the latter end of summer”. That’s more how I think you can use words about grass and even venture a little way into the non-human form of life, but (paradoxically) by evoking how the grass affects the human mind; you draw on a feeling that we already have for other things in our world, a feeling that’s sub-verbal.


Or this, from “Isoetes (Quillwort)”:


On the down-wind

Shore-line of the lake,

Broken quillwort leaves

Lap the gravel.


Even whole corms

Have been torn by the icy


Of the wind


I'm abashed, almost, to be republishing (from 18 years ago) such a paltry note. It certainly does scant justice to Tony Conran, who was a major presence in Welsh literature. (He died in 2013.)

But in defence I wanted to preserve those quotations where I could find them, even the ones I originally criticized. When I copy out poetry, it seems to stick in my memory; and then, as often as not, it starts to become more important to me.

You can buy some of Tony Conran's books on paper, they are still read and written about and indeed performed (by the Conran Poetry Chorus), but all this activity seems to leave remarkably few traces
on the Internet. All I could find was three poems and two translations.

"Jasper", quoted and discussed by Carol Rumens:

http://mortality-branchlinesblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/rip-tony-conran-poet.html includes the poem "Pebble", which was read at his funeral.

https://www.tonyconran.cymru/home quotes "Beyond This Divide".

https://serenbooks.wordpress.com/tag/tony-conran/ contains Conran's translation of Taliesyn's "The Battle of Gwen Strad".

http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/the_shirt_of/ quotes The Shirt of a Lad: Anonymous Welsh Poem translated by Tony Conran
As I did the washing one day
Under the bridge at Aberteifi,
and a golden stick to drub it,
And my sweetheart's shirt beneath it –
A knight came by on a charger,
Proud and swift and broad of shoulder,
And he asked if I would sell
The shirt of the lad that I loved so well.

No, I said, I will not trade –
Not if a hundred pounds were paid;
not if two hillsides I could keep
Full with wethers and white sheep;
Not if two fields of oxen
Under yoke were in the bargain;
Not if the herbs of all Llandewi,
Trodden and pressed were offered to me –
Not for the like of that I'd sell
The shirt of the lad that I love well.

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

The Strong Room

This is the name of Andrea Brady's 2016 collection, which I am reading.


I dreamed that all the places we had walked were continuous
and we walked them again with the undulating cloth
sometimes sinking or rising as the suns
stitched to the cloth and a bowl of green bending
upwards from the spells of our elimination.
But really night comes as grief:

another day split from thousands, etching
a hairline crack in the rock of what is achievable.
All around Buddhas collapse to powder.
Your hand is beside me, limp, relaxed,
a prop to be taken and made to talk,
your clothes are rags in a hundred years
cast by the brown water    ....

(Opening lines of "Animation", from The Strong Room)

The interview below is helpful:


Andrea Brady's Warton Lecture "The Determination of Love". Text:


It being International Women's Day, I was listening to the women composers on Radio 3 and it suddenly occurred to me that though I'm interested in Nordic classical music I couldn't think of a single Nordic woman classical composer. Well, I can now! .. these are all Swedish.

(Though I might have named Alice Tegnér with a bit of prompting. She wrote many children's songs that have entered Swedish popular culture.)

Elfrida Andrée, born in Visby (1849 - 1929)

Alice Tegnér, born in Karlshamn (1864 - 1943)

Helena Munktell, born in Grycksbo (1852 - 1919)

Cecilia Franke (1955 -)

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Sunday, March 04, 2018

history is not true

Pentti Saarikoski

[Image source: http://www.ostrasmaland.se/feature/pentti-saarikoski-1937-1983-finsk-forfattare/]

Pentti Saarikoski's chaotic personal life and alcohol dependency was nothing to emulate, so why is it that when I read his poems -- I mean, especially, the poems in his trilogy of late collections -- I feel at once that I'm listening to someone enormously wise, someone who tells me things?

Anselm Hollo speaks of Saarikoski's "idiosyncratic sanity". That's right, isn't it?


I sit on the liars' bench
the cow in heat smelled of pine
today the sheep came to the meadow
to eat the grass
that is their work, their task
So many flowers summer so soon

appletrees in bloom, and the cherry
the blackthorn too is in bloom
Power over fellow humans
is costly
history is not true
only propaganda is I repeat
this, praise

him whose face already is stone

his eyes are such
one doesn't listen to him
The price is loneliness
payable in cash
Pull your boat up on the rock, turn it over
sit out the afternoon

on the steps of the boathouse, how the islands
move at right angles, how
I praise him

who had himself tied to the mast
plugged up the ears of his oarsmen with wax
a man of many turns
who came home, killed the suitors
buried buried
His face already stone
the sheep are bounding about
on the first day
He saved his country
but from what
and for what
do means sanctify the end?
I must go see him, ask him
he has killed the suitors, he's lonely
I repeat and praise
his face already stone
Birds appear in the air
this fine evening

Pentti Saarikoski, from The Dance Floor on the Mountain  (1977), translation by Anselm Hollo from Pentti Saarikoski: Trilogy (1988).

By the end of the poem we can put it together: the man with power over people isn't, as we might have expected, Lenin, but Odysseus, admired for his lies. One of Saarikoski's constant conversations is with power. Outside the establishment by dint of wild bohemianism, yet somehow a neighbour to power by dint of his herculean grasp of literatures and cultures, he's unremittingly occupied with the big questions. He accepts nearly everything without complaint, but not those.

Pentti, sitting on his liars' bench, falls to musing how history isn't true and propaganda is true. Propaganda and praise are the same thing in this poem. Praise has given us the Odysseus we read about, the one that matters. Useless to ask if Odysseus was really a good guy, or whether he brought healing or harm. History isn't true because (in the decade of John Berger's Ways of Seeing) there can never be a single history. But praise eventually becomes a fact. Odysseus is a presence in our civilisation; a stone one, but a presence all the same.

This dubious but deep meditation is only a part of the poem.  The gleam of water from the steps of the boathouse; looking up at the end of the thought and seeing birds in the sky...  these are just as important to it.

And the face already stone isn't just Lenin and Odysseus. The whole trilogy is haunted -- perhaps we might say, fuelled -- by awareness of the author's own approaching death. It's a fine evening, and the poet isn't lonely, not like those dead men of power and blood.  Not yet.


The translator elsewhere tells us that in the lines

him whose face already is stone

his eyes are such
one doesn't listen to him

a more literal translation would be "his way of looking is such ...  ".


My earlier (and much longer) post on Pentti Saarikoski:


Iron Age graveyard at Pilane on the island of Tjörn

[Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pilane_gravf%C3%A4lt_med_sina_70-100_gravar_fr%C3%A5n_j%C3%A4rn%C3%A5ldern_p%C3%A5_Tj%C3%B6rn,_den_2_sept_2005._Sedd_fr%C3%A5n_berget,_mot_havsviken_till_h%C3%B6ger..JPG. Photo by "Västgöten", 2nd September 2005.]

For the last eight years of his life Pentti and his wife Mia Berner lived in a cottage on the large island of Tjörn, off the coast of Bohuslän in western Sweden (it's joined to the mainland by bridges). I couldn't find any images of the actual cottage.

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Saturday, March 03, 2018

meeting the animals

Spicules of snow. Swindon, 1st March 2018.

The 1st of March. An arctic day in Swindon. It snowed all day, not big snowflakes but tiny needle-shaped spicules of snow that powdered the ground and were blown about in plumes. Slowly the snow-level rose. Human and other tracks were obliterated within a short time, so the snowscape remained perpetually virginal.

Swindon, 1st March 2018 

You could begin to see a usually hidden fact about the landscape: the places where snow would naturally pile up (my front door being one of them, it seemed) and, in contrast, the places where wind would prevent the snow from ever settling. In miniature you can see that pattern of contrast beginning to emerge in the office car-park.

On the Swedish fells the spots where snow never settles are called vindblottor (wind-blots). They have a specialized flora, rather poor in species.  Winter is much harsher in these vindblottor than under a comfortable blanket of snow.

Untrodden woodland. Swindon, 2nd March 2018

The next day was warmer and calmer, and I went for a lunchtime walk in the wood. The snow had gone stickier. The roads were a corrugated churn of snow that would neither melt nor blow away.

In parts of the world where the snow lies long and regular, I think people must feel much closer to the wild animals who share their land, because the signs of their wanderings become suddenly evident.

Walking through the snowy woodland, with a Subway take-away tea in hand, I met a chap coming in the other direction who grinned and said he'd been chasing the hares.

Hare tracks. Swindon, 2nd March 2018

It was soon obvious what he meant. The hare-tracks ran alongside our own, the hares had recognized the virtues of our woodland path as a through-route.

And five minutes later I caught sight of a big fat brown hare galloping away from me . I don't suppose he was really fat, it was just the fluffed out fur.

Hare track. Swindon, 2nd March 2018

Here's the classic track of the European Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus).  The leaping hare touches the ground with its forefeet, one behind the other, then overtakes those prints to land ahead of them with its back feet side by side. Then off it springs again.

Track of fox trotting in snow. Swindon, 2nd March 2018.

In another part of the wood, I found this almost linear track. This is a foxtrot in snow. At all other times a fox trots in an odd sidling way so its forepaws are to one side of the line of direction and its backpaws to the other. But in snow it changes its gait to walk in a very straight line. The back paws drop precisely into the holes made by the front paws, so the track ends up looking as if the animal has only two legs.

Paw-prints and poo of fox. Swindon, 3rd March 2018.

But here's my prize exhibit, a fox squat I noticed this morning (rather pointedly, just outside the entrance to our offices).

Fox paw-print. Swindon, 3rd March 2018

Close-up of the fox's paw-print. It differs from a dog's in having longer claw-prints at the front, and a big gap in the middle of the five toes. (In a dog's or wolf's print, this area is mainly filled by the rear toe.)

Most of this info comes from Dyrespor, a marvellous book by Preben Bang with drawings by Preben Dahlström, translated into Swedish by Håkan Hallander as Spårboken (1974).


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