Thursday, October 19, 2017

archipelago of stories: the eastern front.

Red Army soldier near Dnieper hydroelectric dam

[Image source: . When the Red Army blew a hole in the dam it resulted in a flood-wave that killed 20,000 - 100,000 people;  soldiers from both sides as well as Ukrainian civilians.]

Stories from the Eastern Front, from that inexhaustible fount of stories, The Gulag Archipelago (1973).

We soon discovered that there really were Russians fighting against us and that they fought harder
than any SS men. In July, 1943, for example, near Orel, a platoon of Russians in German uniform
defended Sobakinskiye Vyselki. They fought with the desperation that might have been expected if
they had built the place themselves. One of them was driven into a root cellar. They threw hand
grenades in after him and he fell silent. But they had no more than stuck their heads in than he let
them have another volley from his automatic pistol. Only when they lobbed in an antitank grenade
did they find out that, within the root cellar, he had another foxhole in which he had taken shelter
from the infantry grenades. Just try to imagine the degree of shock, deafness, and hopelessness in
which he had kept on fighting.

They defended, for example, the unshakable Dnieper bridgehead south of Tursk. For two weeks we
continued to fight there for a mere few hundred yards. The battles were fierce in December, 1943,
and so was the cold. Through many long days both we and they went through the extreme trials of
winter, fighting in winter camouflage cloaks that covered our overcoats and caps. Near Malye
Kozlovichi, I was told, an interesting encounter took place. As the soldiers dashed back and forth
among the pines, things got confused, and two soldiers lay down next to one another. No longer very
accurately oriented, they kept shooting at someone, somewhere over there. Both had Soviet
automatic pistols. They shared their cartridges, praised one another, and together swore at the grease
freezing on their automatic pistols. Finally, their pistols stopped firing altogether, and they decided
to take a break and light up. They pulled back their white hoods — and at the same instant each saw
the other's cap ... the eagle and the star. They jumped up! Their automatic pistols still refused to fire!
Grabbing them by the barrel and swinging them like clubs, they began to go at each other. This, if
you will, was not politics and not the Motherland, but just sheer caveman distrust: If I take pity on
him, he is going to kill me.

In East Prussia, a trio of captured Vlasov men was being marched along the roadside a few steps
away from me. At that moment a T-34 tank thundered down the highway. Suddenly one of the
captives twisted around and dived underneath the tank. The tank veered, but the edge of its track
crushed him nevertheless. The broken man lay writhing, bloody foam coming from his mouth. And
one could certainly understand him! He preferred a soldier's death to being hanged in a dungeon.

They had no choice. There was no other way for them to fight. They had no chance to find a way
out, to safeguard their lives, by some more cautious mode of fighting. If "pure" surrender was
considered unforgivable treason to the Motherland, then what about those who had taken up enemy
arms? Our propaganda, in all its crudity, explained their conduct as: (1) treason (was it biologically
based? carried in the bloodstream?) ; or (2) cowardice — which it certainly was not! A coward tries
to find a spot where things are easy, soft, safe. And men could be induced to enter the Wehrmacht's
Vlasov detachments only in the last extremity, only at the limit of desperation, only out of
inexhaustible hatred of the Soviet regime, only with total contempt for their own safety. For they
knew they would never have the faintest glimpse of mercy! When we captured them, we shot them
as soon as the first intelligible Russian word came from their mouths. In Russian captivity, as in
German captivity, the worst lot of all was reserved for the Russians.

In general, this war revealed to us that the worst thing in the world was to be a Russian.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago trans Thomas P. Whitney, pp. 254-256.

Full online text:

Vlasov detachment soldiers, with accordion accompaniment

[Image source:]


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

two poems

One night in late September. The insects are
flying among the people, and it's a warm night
blanketed in low cloud.

The air still dark and the night still quiet.

What do you seek when you don't seek love,
in these webby passageways and in bathrooms?

Feng-shui of bathrooms... find them resting in
the plughole and the shower-curtain, smelling
the water, the nudity and toilet. Here is life, they

The long-legged stars are looking for
something deeper than love. But that is love!


Above the blanket cloud, the starry sky is colder.
You pent your love in.

You were loyal,
your rainbow brightened,
by draining the sky of light. You loved so much,
that to prove it,  you made a bonfire.

Feudal to your love, you feuded,
neglected the concourse and slighted the glade,
stared through and scarified until
your heaven was empty of all but the one fierce car.

The debt for this desert falls due,
at last you will hate even the one you love.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Claes Andersson

Claes Andersson in 2007

[Image source: . Photo by Johannes Jansson.

How could I forget about Claes Andersson? But so it is. I haven't read his poems for ten or fifteen years, and yesterday the forgotten book (translations by Lennart and Sonia Bruce) comes off my bookshelf, falls open, and I begin reading, and I remember how strongly and passionately I love this poetry that I had nevertheless forgotten all about. Wasn't there, though, a perceptible if undiagnosed emptiness in the years between? Or am I misremembering it all, and the truth is I love Andersson's poems much more today than I ever did before? Has love opened up in me that I express it so, or is there something histrionic about all this, has love in fact narrowed -- whereas, back then, I inhabited a whole world of love, I didn't need to make such a noise about it?

A couple of poems translated by Rika Lesser

Here's part of one of them:


Have sat at meetings, ticked off items on the agenda, recommended,
                         turned down
Approved the minutes (change "should" in §123 to "ought")
Gone to movies, museums, bars, libraries, homes, deserts, caves
Shoveled snow, played with the children, screamed at the children
                         been bitten by dogs 
Traveled in Europe, the States, Africa, met people
Bought and sold junk and cars, waited for buses, trains, have biked
Given speeches, lectures, been dumbstruck, signed petitions, demonstrated
Read (tons of) books, papers, brochures, hares' and crows' tracks
                         in the snow
Stared at TV, drunk beer, wine, schnapps, kefir, tasted sperm
Awakened in my own bed, in another's, up to now have always awakened
Dozed off over books, steering wheels, bottles, women, in buses,
                         closets, on guard duty
Put on pounds, lost them, exercised, lifted weights, brides over
                         thresholds, odds and ends
Been disappointed, happy, angry, indifferent, enraged, in love,
                         indifferent, empty
Been to funerals, weddings, soccer games, visiting, to crayfish
                         dinners, outhouses
Witnessed deliveries, death throes, christenings, autopsies, orgies
Written plays, traced hearts in the snow, poems, demand notes,
                         prescriptions, crib sheets
Shot rifles, pistols, water guns, mortars, slingshots, blowpipes
Had the mumps, the shakes, anxiety, depression, paranoia, inflamed urethra
Fought with conservatives, radicals, myself, Finns, windmills, my wife
Rented rooms, laundry rooms, apartments, tuxedos, cars, bought
                         houses, potted plants
Been plagued by guilt, small children, nightmares, red-headed lovers
Have asked the meaning of it all
Brooded, deliberated, pondered, constructed, conceived, stopped
Found the questions irrelevant and answered with the answer of
                         the senses

More poems translated by Rika Lesser:

(positive thinking)

Brussels is famous for its sunny weather and
      its waste disposal.
My potency and my teeth have never
      been better.
Every moment I have free I listen to Wagner and
      read Proust without stopping.
It is not tragic to be smothered and consumed
      by small animals.
As far as I'm concerned, the panic attacks are
      a stage that has passed.
Politics is about respect for those who think
      differently and about being honorable.
I never feel like smacking my wife.
Autumn is my time of year, a time of clarification, of self-control.
What I enjoy most is the solitude of an early morning
      in the churchyard.
I am a happy person.
The problem with our war was that they could
      not defend themselves.
Nonetheless, we carried out the war entirely
      according to plan.
We did it for our credibility and so that
      we could restock the depots.
Man is not a commodity in short supply.
Land mines were not a problem for us who
      conducted operations from the air.
 War is always a tragedy but even a tragedy
      can be beautiful.
The pictures you saw were slightly out of focus.
Any sharp boundary between the military and civilians
      is hard to draw.
I was inside when the department store collapsed.
I was aboard the passenger ferry when it vanished
      in the deep.
I lay on the operating table when rockets hit the hospital
      in the city under siege.
I was riding the subway when nerve gas seeped into
      the cars.
I had hidden myself in the cellar when soldiers set fire
      to our house.
I saw the tidal wave that would drown us as it approached.
I was one of the children put to death because a friend
      needed my heart.
 I remained in the sand after the desert storm.
 What you are I was, what I am you will become.
Our childhood photographs lie where we left them,
      in an attic in a cellar.
With their features half dissolved, those closest to us,
      our demons, oxidized to silver nitrite.
In the attic in the cellar, in the dark ice-cold goddamn
      cellar in the attic.
Brothers, cousins, sisters, moms, dads... oxidized,
      disarmed, destroyed.
Of mother's wondelful shining kitchen only the hearth remains.
The cat drowned in the well along with the rag doll,
      the kids' bicycles, the rats.
Maybe someone ought to remain, withstand the oxidization when
      the others flee, drown, dissolve.
Why do cars and houses with people in them explode every day
One fine summer day the children found a dead soldier
      in the cellar in the attic.

More poems, translated by Rika Lesser:

More poems, translated by David Hackston:

Claes Andersson on reading and writing poetry:

Claes Andersson on Pentti Saarikoski's alcoholism:

Andersson is a Finland-Swedish author (i.e. a Finn who speaks and writes in Swedish).

Förtvivlan är ett alltför stort
ord, men jag vet inte.... Ty sorgen är
obotlig, den går aldrig över
Därav dess styrka, dess bördighet för det
som ännu inte förstörts inne i oss
Den som inte har sorgen har intet
Den som inte har sorgen kan ta sig till
med vad som helst! Med vem som helst!
Den som inte har sorgen har aldrig förlorat
någonting, aldrig ägt någonting
Smärtan och försoningen finns inte hos den
som aldrig haft sorgen Och dikten
växer bara ur sorgen, ur den sorg
som beretts ett rum i glädjens hjuls nav
och där klarnat till blick och förståelse. (Ur "Under"- 1984)

Swedish text sourced from:

The Claes Andersson Trio:

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

St Martin of Tours

There's a few churches of St Martin in the UK, of which the best known are possibly St Martin's in Canterbury, considered the oldest place of continuous worship in the English-speaking world, and the iconic church and concert venue in Trafalgar Square, at one time (long before its neoclassical remodelling) an isolated place of worship in the fields between Westminster and the City of London.

But the patron saint of those distinguished churches is little more than a name to us, or maybe it just evokes a faint recollection of the attractive legend about Martin dividing his coat with a beggar (while still a soldier of the Roman Empire).  As recounted by Sulpitius Severus:

ACCORDINGLY, at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar.

That night Christ appeared in a vision to Martin. He was wearing the half-a-cloak.

In the following chapter (IV), Martin resigns his commission with the memorable words to Caesar: "Hitherto I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God.." 

Sulpitius begins his Life of St Martin with the reasonable though large question: "What benefit has posterity derived from reading of Hector as a warrior, or Socrates as an expounder of philosophy?"


In Europe St Martin (316 or 336 - 397 CE), third bishop of Tours, has signified much more. The monastery at Marmoutier (where Martin went to escape the crowds in Tours) became influential and Martin became an icon of Frankish royalty. The half-a-cloak that Martin retained became one of the most revered royal relics, preserved in the royal oratory of the palace (hence known as capella) and carried everywhere that the king went by a cloak-bearer or cappellanu (the origin of the words "chapel" and "chaplain" respectively).  This association of Martin with French royalty would last as long as the royalty itself. Then, rather belatedly, St Martin was adopted as an icon by French republicans. More recently Martin has been re-cast as a symbol of pan-European unity (because he was born in modern-day Hungary).

The churchmen of those pre-national days did move around, though perhaps Martin was exceptionally far-flown.  Of the early worthies of Tours, Sulpitius  (c.363 - c.425) was relatively local (an Aquitanian); Gregory of Tours (c. 538 - 594) was born in Clermont; Alcuin (c. 735 - 804) came from York. It was Gregory who most diligently nurtured devotion to St Martin. Tours became one of Europe's top pilgrimage sites.

[Obviously royalty moved around in Merovingian days too. The palace was wherever the king and his household decided to set up shop. There was an early Merovingian palace in Paris (the Palais de la Cité) -- ultimately Sainte-Chapelle and the Palais de Justice are its successors. There were numerous others in Clichy, Compiègne, Berny, Ponthion, Soissons, Chalons-sur-Saone, Trier, Metz, Vienne etc.  See Ross Samson´s thesis ]

Martin was a heathen convert (his parents were Romans stationed first in Pannonia then Pavia), and he was a devotee of early monasticism. Sulpitius portrays him as a reluctant churchman who really wanted to spend his time in monastic isolation. Historically, he's associated with the spread of monasticism into the west.

St Martin's other relics (e.g. his bones) were first housed in a wooden chapel, then the basilica of St Perpetuus, burnt by Vikings in the 10th century. Then a medieval basilica was built; it was sacked by Huguenots in 1562 (and most of the relics were destroyed), but restored. The vaults fell down in 1797, bad timing since France's post-Revolutionary government was still uncompromisingly anti-clerical. The basilica was unceremoniously demolished. Roads and houses were built on the site. What remained of the relics having gone to the cathedral for safe-keeping, St Martin's medieval "tomb" was forgotten and was only rediscovered in 1860, leading to a new surge of Catholic piety in Touraine and beyond, and to the shoe-horned neo-Byzantine basilica (1886 - 1924) of Victor Laloux that visitors to Tours see today.


Sulpitius met Martin and wrote his Life while he was still living (according to what I've read, Martin died the year after publication). Yet the miraculous contents inspire scepticism.

Could the following tale be true, at least a bit? I'd like to think so.

For, first of all, having followed some devious paths among the Alps, he fell into the hands of robbers. And when one of them lifted up his axe and poised it above Martin's head, another of them met with his right hand the blow as it fell; nevertheless, having had his hands bound behind his back, he was handed over to one of them to be guarded and stripped. The robber, having led him to a private place apart from the rest, began to enquire of him who he was. Upon this, Martin replied that he was a Christian. The robber next asked him whether he was afraid. Then indeed Martin most courageously replied that he never before had felt so safe, because he knew that the mercy of the Lord would be especially present with him in the midst of trials. He added that he grieved rather for the man in whose hands he was, because, by living a life of robbery, he was showing himself unworthy of the mercy of Christ. And then entering on a discourse concerning Evangelical truth, he preached the word of God to the robber. Why should I delay stating the result? The robber believed; and, after expressing his respect for Martin, he restored him to the way, entreating him to pray the Lord for him. That same robber was afterwards seen leading a religious life; so that, in fact, the narrative I have given above is based upon an account furnished by himself.  (Chapter V)
While taking refuge from persecution on the tiny island of Gallinaria (modern Isola d'Albenga / Isola Gallinara) "Here he subsisted for some time on the roots of plants; and, while doing so, he took for food hellebore, which is, as people say, a poisonous kind of grass. But when he perceived the strength of the poison increasing within him, and death now nearly at hand, he warded off the imminent danger by means of prayer, and immediately all his pains were put to flight." (Ch VI)

Sulpitius meets Martin:

  His conversation with me was all directed to such points as the following: that the allurements of this world and secular burdens were to be abandoned in order that we might be free and unencumbered in following the Lord Jesus; and he pressed upon me as an admirable example in present circumstances the conduct of that distinguished man Paulinus, of whom I have made mention above. Martin declared of him that, by parting with his great possessions and following Christ, as he did, he showed himself almost the only one who in these times had fully obeyed the precepts of the Gospel. He insisted strongly that that was the man who should be made the object of our imitation, adding that the present age was fortunate in possessing such a model of faith and virtue. For Paulinus, being rich and having many possessions, by selling them all and giving them to the poor according to the expressed will of the Lord, had, he said, made possible by actual proof what appeared impossible of accomplishment. What power and dignity there were in Martin's words and conversation! How active he was, how practical, and how prompt and ready in solving questions connected with Scripture! And because I know that many are incredulous on this point,--for indeed I have met with persons who did not believe me when I related such things,--I call to witness Jesus, and our common hope as Christians, that I never heard from any other lips than those of Martin such exhibitions of knowledge and genius, or such specimens of good and pure speech. But yet, how insignificant is all such praise when compared with the virtues which he possessed! Still, it is remarkable that in a man who had no claim to be called learned, even this attribute [of high intelligence] was not wanting.

Martin spent a good part of his career engaged in combatting heathenism and the Arian heresy. He succeeded in converting his mother to Christianity, but not his father.

According to a pamphlet from the Museum of Saint-Martin in Tours:

Martin was once again at the Court of Trier during the trial of the Priscillianistes, begging Maximus not to spill their blood. These Spanish ascetics, accused of practices considered to be fanatic, condemned by the councils of Saragossa in 380 and Bordeaux in 384, had appealed to the Emperor. "As long as he was at Trier, the trial was deferred and on leaving, he obtained from Maximus, thanks to his extraordinary authority, the promise that no condemnation would demand the shedding of the defendants blood". Later, however, they were executed.

The pamphlet is indifferently translated, so I'm not sure if that final sentence manifests irony or an unblushing determination to stand your ground.

There are various accounts of this ugly business at Trier. Some say that Martin's well-meaning if ineffectual intervention nearly led to him too being condemned as a heretic.

Sulpitius Dialogues III
the Wikipedia entry on Priscillianism


Martinmas, or St Martin's day (November 11), remains an important day in many European cultures, but has been largely forgotten in the UK. [Supplanted by Remembrance Day. The "eleventh minute of the eleventh hour.." was also a Martinmas idea originally.] The day was associated with the end of autumn harvest and wheat sowing, the slaughtering of Martlemas beef and geese, hiring fairs for agricultural labour, and the beginning of winter: work indoors for the women, forest-labour for the men. It was often combined with Hallowmas-type traditions and feasting.

"St Martin's Summer" (été de la Saint-Martin) means a spell of warm weather in early November. It was connected with a legend that when Martin's coffin was transported from Candes to Tours the banks of the Loire came unseasonably into bloom.   (Martin died on 8th November.)  [In English- speaking countries this term has now been supplanted by "Indian Summer":  an American phrase whose origin is obscure, but "Indian" definitely meant Native American.]

St Martin and the beggar, stained glass at Varennes-Jancy, 1220-1230

[Image source:]


Friday, October 06, 2017

bale-fires and football

The Lay of the Last Minstrel. A page from the 1922 Kings Treasuries of Literature edition, intended for school use. This is the book I was reading on our van travels around Europe (though I've almost destroyed the cover).

[Re the illustration, the falchion is the curved sword, not the one "giving the stab" (in Marlowe's expression).]

In Canto 3, when Branksome Tower is threatened by an approaching host from England, beacons (variously called bale-fires or need-fires) are lit to summon aid from Scottish allies.


The Seneschal, whose silver hair
Was redden'd by the torches' glare,
Stood in the midst with gesture proud,
And issued forth his mandates loud:
"On Penchryst glows a bale of fire,
And three are kindling on Priest-haughswire;
        Ride out, ride out,
        The foe to scout!
Mount, mount for Branksome, every man!
Thou, Todrig, warn the Johnstone clan
        That ever are true and stout;
Ye need not send to Liddesdale,
For when they see the blazing bale,
Elliots and Armstrongs never fail.
Ride, Alton, ride, for death and life!
And warn the Warder of the strife.
Young Gilbert, let our beacon blaze,
Our kin, and clan, and friends to raise."


Fair Margaret from the turret head
Heard, far below, the coursers' tread,
While loud the harness rung
As to their seats, with clamor dread,
The ready horsemen sprung:
And trampling hoofs, and iron coat,
And leaders' voices mingled notes,
        And out! and out!
        In hasty route,
The horsemen gallop'd forth;
Dispersing to the south to scout,
And east, and west, and north,
To view their coming enemies,
And warn their vassals and allies.

The ready page, with hurried hand,
Awaked the need-fire's slumbering brand,
And ruddy blush'd the heaven:
For a sheet of flame from the turret high
Wav'd like a blood-flag on the sky,
All flaring and uneven;
And soon a score of fires, I ween,
From height, and hill, and cliff, were seen;
Each with warlike tidings fraught,
Each from each the signal caught;
Each after each they glanc'd to sight
As stars arise upon the night.
They gleamd on many a dusky tarn,
Haunted by the lonely earn;
On many a cairn's grey pyramid,
Where urns of mighty chiefs lie hid;
Till high Dunedin the blazes saw
From Soltra and Dumpender Law,
And Lothian heard the Regent's order
That all should bowne them for the Border.

(Canto III)

In his later poem The Lady of the Lake Scott has another summoning scene, this time describing the use of the Gaelic crann-tara . This was a wooden cross, scorched by fire and quenched in blood. It was a summons that could not be refused; fire and blood awaited those who did. This tradition has analogies with the bidding sticks of Scandinavia, which were likewise charred.

[I sometimes wonder if Scott's thrilling scenes might lie behind Hagen's summoning of the vassals in Wagner's Götterdammerung.]

Possibly, too, Thomas Dixon remembered them when he wrote The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan in 1905. His book, adapted as a play, and later as  D.W. Griffiths' film Birth of a Nation, seems to have instigated the later Klan practice of  burning crosses.  These became part of bonding rituals and intimidations, visible from a long way off (a bit like beacons). However the original crann-tara involved delivering a summons to hand, in the form of a charred bit of wood.



Now, noble Dame, perchance you ask
How these two hostile armies met?
Deeming it were no easy task
To keep the truce which here was set;
Where martial spirits, all on fire,
Breathed only blood and mortal ire.
By mutual inroads, mutual blows,
By habit, and by nation, foes,
They met on Teviot's strand;
They met and sate them mingled down,
Without a threat, without a frown,
As brothers meet in foreign land:
The hands the spear that lately grasp'd,
Still in the mailed gauntlet clasp'd,
Were interchang'd in greeting dear;
Visors were raised, and faces shown,
And many a friend, to friend made known,
Partook of social cheer.
Some drove the jolly bowl about;
With dice and draughts some chas'd the day;
And some, with many a merry shout,
In riot revelry, and rout,
Pursued the foot-ball play.

(Canto V)

This passage describes what went on during a truce between two armies of inveterate foes.  The tales of football matches between British and German troops during the Christmas Truce in 1914 may have been founded on true events, but Scott's 1805 poem had already supplied a literary analogue.


A little earlier, Scott's flexible tetrameter, rippling into anapaests, incorporates a marching tune whose title sounds a bit like a football chant.

To back and guard the archer band,
Lord Dacre's bill-men were at hand:
A hardy race on Irthing bred,
With kirtles white, and crosses red,
Array'd beneath the banner tall,
That stream'd o'er Acre's conquer'd wall;
And minstrels, as they march'd in order,
Play'd "Noble Lord Dacre, he dwells on the Border."

(Canto IV, Stanza 17)

Scott knew the impressive march tune, "Noble Squire Dacre", played on the pipes at Dacre family funerals. If there were any lyrics to it originally, they don't survive.

Sheet music: 
More info:

"Noble Squire Dacre" performed by the Twaggers in Chiddingly:

Noble Squire Dacre/Biddlestone Hornpipe from Will Fly on Vimeo.

A map of the border region referenced in the poem.


Thursday, October 05, 2017


A couple of poems by Bruno K. Öijer (b. 1951), from his 2008 collection Svart som silver (Black Like Silver).


du går nerför
den här långa breda avenyn
det är svalt och vackert
träden skummar
över dom vita husfasaderna
som om stammarna skakats
fyllda med ett kolsyrat grönt vin
du tänker inte på något speciellt
och låter blicken glider över trafiken
över uteserveringarna
och havet av fönsterrutor
det är en bra dag
en dag när man bara följer med strömmen
allt svävar och flyter
och tanken har aldrig slagit dej
men i ett av fönstren
många våningar upp och bort
står en kvinna eller man vilken some helst
och använder sina ögon som saxar
klipper ut dej från trottoaren
och håller upp dej i handen
synar dej som en pappersfigur
och går tillbaka in i lägenheten
följer en impuls
bränner upp dej över ett stearinljus
eller nynnar och kysser dej
stoppar in dej under kudden


you're going down
this long wide avenue
it's cool and beautiful
the trees foam
over those white housefronts
as if the stems had been shaken
and were filled with carbonated green wine
you're not thinking anything in particular
you let your gaze glide over the traffic
over the outdoor seating
and the sea of windowpanes
it's a good day
a day when you just go with the flow
everything hovering floating
and the thought has never struck you
but in one of the windows
many floors up and back
stands a woman man whatever
using their eyes like scissors
they cut you out from the sidewalk
they hold you up in their hand
look at you like a paper figure
and they go back into the apartment
following an impulse
and burn you above a candle
or they mumble and kiss you
stuff you under the pillow


jag råkade
snudda vid dej
en sen natt för länge sedan
och vad jag minns
hade du druckit för mycket
och var ledsen över att du glömt bort namnet
på den som sytt den här världen
jag tror inte jag var ut efter
att trösta dej
jag hade annat i tankarna
men jag sa att någonstans måste
nålen ligga kvar
och varje gång vinden skakar tag i marken
kan du se den här nålen kastas upp i luften
och slå ned
som en hisnande kort bländande blixt
flera mil bort härifrån


i managed
to get with you
one late night long ago
and what I remember
you'd had too much to drink
and were feeling down because you'd forgotten the name
of the person who sewed this world
i don't think i really meant
to comfort you
i had something else in mind
but i said that somewhere
the needle must still be there
and each time the wind lifts the thread from the ground
you can see the needle flung up in the air
and coming back down
like a whirling short flash of lightning
many miles off

* The final line means literally "several mil from here". A mil  (aka "Scandinavian mile") being 10km, I've tried to imply a distance of 15-20 English miles.

Öijer in action in 1996:

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Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Perennial Sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis)

My favourite of the many dandelion-like Asteraceae species. (I do have several favourites, though.)  Of those native to the UK, this one has the biggest flowers.  It's also the tallest one that you're likely to meet on a regular basis, growing inland on wasteland, arable and road verges, as well as in coastal locations. (The rare Marsh Sow-thistle (Sonchus palustris), a specialist of tall waterside vegetation, can grow much taller).

It's common all through the back half of the year, flowering from late July onwards, but I value it even more as autumn draws on, and here it is still looking good in October.

A particularly immaculate flower that I noticed in N. France.

More commonly, the longer ray-florets round the edge give the flower a slightly shaggy appearance compared e.g. to dandelions.

Like other Sow-thistles, S. arvensis is edible (young leaves and roots are less bitter).  It has medicinal properties similar to dandelion. It can be an arable weed.

(Above..) Photo taken at 9 am, before the flowers are fully open.

Unlike many similar composites, this one has no red on its stems or leaves or buds. The interesting combination of olive-greeny bracts (clothed in yellowish glandular hairs) with bright yellow flowers is one of the plant's subtle attractions. 

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

a frozen smile

Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Doorenbos') - East Sussex

Today's post is a makeshift helpless sort of thing, and it begins with a joyous notice seen outside a church and passed on by Lawrence Upton in his latest newsletter.


A straw poll in the workplace revealed that most people didn't see the joke, which in turn meant that my mirth died in mid-chuckle, overtaken by a sense of isolated and reprehensible old age.  Most likely the person who wrote the notice is a second-language English-speaker. Whether or not, they don't deserve my pointing fingers.

I don't really want this post to be about this, I want it to transmit the other things that were in my mind before I began to write, the hundred vivid and particular realities I think of each day, the enormous things they might mean, the joyful connexions they could make in our lives,  if only I could open up my language and composition to bring them through.

That theme, the theme of writing inadequacy, has directed my reading of both the books that I've spent time with this morning.

In Denise Riley's Say Something Back (2016), the lyricist is driven by the desperate need for a response, not from her audience of living people, but from those who don't respond: somebody we love who has died, God when you don't have faith, the flat blue sky...

Yes, the scenario for most lyrics is talking to the wall.  You're addressing or apostrophizing someone who can't hear you and who doesn't answer back.  Maybe they're an animal or a cloud or star, or a nation,  or society in general, or Toussaint L'Ouverture, or someone dead, someone in your past, or maybe they are an icy unattainable Petrarchan object of desire, or maybe they're an old flame that you once had something with, or a child too young to understand, or even someone you do talk to every day yet can't talk to about the things you say in your poem.

The engine of the lyric has always been this frozen need.  "Things I'd like to say but don't know how, except in a poem". But it isn't just a need to express ourselves, who wants that for its own sake? It's a need for a response that most likely we'll never get. 

The poem can enclose the lyrical engine in half a dozen wrappers and frames, ironic or complicating or allusive not - it can be the fictional Old Minstrel who sings of his native land, not the poet - and some level of fictiveness is nearly always there, isn't it? - but still, you read the poem and it's like peeling off all those wrappers and sitting transfixed looking into the frame not at it. And there it is: the frozen need.

                            I couldn't spot
the obvious - obviam, in the way; plain
sight goes blind through chasing clarity.
I looked for you, so couldn't see you gone.

I sensed your not-there in its burning life.
I listened out to feel its silence beat.
It does not speak with any human mouth.

(Denise Riley, end of "Hiding in Plain Sight")

[Latin obviam can be translated as "on the way, in the way towards" or "against"]


The other book is Richard Makin's Mourning (2015), the final part of his trilogy. I don't know this book particularly well. Despite its name, the book is rich (if that's the word) in Makin's peculiar kind of humour.

More rainfall, exhaustive and noisome. His quest to join the guild of mastersingers was frustrated by petty rules and technocracy; it's a terrible time to be on the earth if you've no wish to know anything.


Answers are raised here, more than I could ever question. His concept of history is a struggle between two opposing forces: thesis and antithesis. (Look, an arctic!) That noise must be the building swaying in the solar wind he once spoke of.

I too was unsought. That's quite funny; I meant to say this is macrofiction.

(extracts from Richard Makin, Mourning, p. 57, p. 58)

Makin's books are more like sculptures than books you read from cover to cover.  You visit them and look. They are determinedly non-narrative: there is no place out there, real or even imaginary, that the text describes. Its extraordinary ingenuity goes with an unbending resolve not to open the shutters. Or should I say an unbending incapacity to open them?

Makin's deadpan version of the Fichte triad (synthesis is conspicuously absent) is one way, perhaps, of expressing the frozenness in his astonishing sculpture. A frozen need I suppose.

As with a lyric, what happens is obscure. The triumph, if ever a triumph is conceded, arises from the inadequacy. Something is beautiful, and that's an obscure says-nothing sort of word too.

I asked for decapitated so I wouldn't have trouble sleeping.

(Mourning, p. 61)

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Thursday, September 28, 2017



Bullaces, along with damson and sometimes other smallish plums such as gages and mirabelles, have been called Prunus institia, or (which I think is better) Prunus domestica ssp. institia

There seems to be no botanically-acceptable distinction between damson and bullace. Of the numerous distinctions that are claimed, the most credible is Mrs Grieve's, that damson fruit is somewhat oval whereas bullace fruit is round. Also, the word damson always seems to imply a dark purple fruit, whereas bullaces may be any colour including green and gold. And generally you more often hear of damsons in a garden context than a hedgerow context.

So perhaps the best way of seeing it is that the word "damson" is used to name a particular group of varieties of "bullace", which in turn vaguely designates those plums that are more sloe-like than most, i.e. with smaller fruit, downy twigs, and occasional thorns.

[In 2015 the subject was discussed on the Facebook Wild Flower Group. The following ID tips come mostly from Richard JD Smith and Richard Collingridge.

1 .Cherry-plum (P. cerasifera)
Thornless, more or less
Fruit round, ripens early (the earliest plum), sweet-tasting; purple, red, orange, yellow, white.
Flowers, earliest, with leaves

2. Blackthorn/Sloe (P. spinosa)
More fruits in a cluster than 3 or 4
Fruits small, globose, extremely astringent (skin) and sour (flesh). Black-purple (may look blue because of bloom)
Fruit-stones not or scarcely flattened
Flowers, later than 1, before leaves

3. Bullace (P. domestica ssp. institia, var "Bullace")
Shrub or small tree
Usually not or scarcely thorned, but sometimes thorny.
Fruits less in a cluster than 2
Fruit usually larger than 2 (typically about double the diameter); smaller than 4. Globose. Sweeter than 2, but skin may still be astringent. Black-purple, also yellow-to-reddish ("Shepherd's Bullace")
Fruit-stone more flattened than 2.
Upper leaf shiny
Twigs hairy
Flowers, slightly later than 2, with leaves

4. Damson (P. domestica ssp. institia, var "Damson")
Small tree
Rarely with any thorns
Fruit earlier than 3, larger and more oval than 3. Sweeter than 2. Purple.
Upper leaf not shiny
Twigs not hairy
Flowers, slightly later than 2, with leaves     ]

Bullaces, mixed up with honeysuckle.

Bullaces, showing a couple of thorns

Bullaces are a common plant around Frome. They often spring up as weeds in gardens and are then grubbed out.

The local Frome folk-belief is that these are a sort of worthless cherry unique to the Frome area and they never produce fruit. That is wrong on all counts.

It's true that the plants that spring up in gardens are never allowed to grow big enough to produce fruit. (Except in Laura's.)

But the fruit is a common sight in local hedges and thickets. For example, there's a fine harvest to be gathered next to Halfords on the local trading estate.

It's possible to eat bullaces raw as a survival food. You could even get to like them. They are a bit sour,  but are much more palatable than sloes.

The best way to eat them is as a jam, with some extra sugar. Bullace jam has the same virtues as damson jam. Some people say it's even better! 

The tedious challenge with bullaces is removing the stones. The stones are small and pitted, and the flesh does not come away from them cleanly. They float out during cooking, eventually.

Bullaces / Woodbine


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Evert Taube: Sjösala vals

Sjösala vals

G                                                                      D7
Rönnerdahl han skuttar med ett skratt ur sin säng
D7                                                         G
Solen står på Orrberget. Sunnanvind brusar.
G                                                         D7   
Rönnerdahl han valsar över Sjösala äng.
D7                                                              G
Hör min vackra visa, kom sjung min refräng!
Tärnan har fått ungar
och dyker i min vik,
ur alla gröna dungar
hörs finkarnas musik.
Och se, så många blommor
som redan slagit ut på ängen!
C                 D7                 G
Gullviva, mandelblom, kattfot och blå viol.

            Rönnerdahl jumped up with a laugh from his bed.
The sun is over Orr mountain, the southern wind rushing.
Rönnerdahl he waltzes over Sjösala field.
Hear my pretty song, come sing my refrain!
The tern has got her young ones
and is diving in my bay,
all the green dingles
            is heard
the music of the finches.
And see, so many flowers
            already blooming in the field
            Cowslip and almond-flower, cat's-foot and violet blue!

Rönnerdahl han virvlar sina lurviga ben
under vita skjortan som viftar kring vaderna.
Lycklig som en lärka uti majsolens sken,
sjunger han för ekorrn, som gungar på gren!
Kurre, kurre, kurre
nu dansar Rönnedahl.
Koko! Och göken ropar
uti hans gröna dal.
Och se, så många blommor
som redan slagit ut på ängen!
Gullviva, mandelblom, kattfot och blå viol.

             Rönnerdahl he whirls his rough legs
the white nightshirt that flaps round his calves.
Happy as a lark in the May sunshine,
He sings for the squirrels who are swinging on the branch!
             Scurry scurry scurry
ow dances Rönnerdahl!
! And the cuckoo calls
his green dale.
And see, so many flowers
            already blooming
 in the field!
            Cowslip and almond-flower, cat's-foot and violet blue!

Rönnerdahl han binder utav blommor en krans,
binder den kring håret, det gråa och rufsiga,
valsar in i stugan och har lutan till hands,
väcker frun och barnen med drill och kadans.
Titta! ropar ungarna,
Pappa är en brud,
med blomsterkrans i håret
och nattskjortan till skrud!
Och se, så många blommor
som redan slagit ut på ängen!
Gullviva, mandelblom, kattfot och blå viol.

            Rönnerdahl he weaves from the flowers a garland,
binds it around his hair, which is grey and scraggy,
            he waltzes
into his cottage and has the lute in hand,
wife and children awaken to trills and cadences.
! cry the children,
Daddy is a bride,
with a flower wreath in his hair
and his nightshirt for a wedding gown!
And see, so many flowers 
            already blooming in the field!
            Cowslip and almond-flower, cat's-foot and violet blue!

Rönnerdahl är gammal men han valsar ändå,
Rönnerdahl har sorger och ont om sekiner.
Sällan får han rasta - han får slita för två.
Hur han klarar skivan, kan ingen förstå,
ingen, utom tärnan
i viken - hon som dök
och ekorren och finken
och vårens första gök.
Och blommorna, de blommor
som redan slagit ut på ängen,
Gullviva, mandelblom, kattfot och blå viol.

            Rönnerdahl is old but he waltzes yet.
Rönnerdahl has troubles and is strapped for cash.
Rarely does he rest, he must labour for two.
How he gets by, none can understand!
            None but
the tern
in the bay - the one who dives -
and the squirrel and the finches
and the first cuckoo of spring.
And the flowers, the flowers
           already blooming in the field! 

           Cowslip and
 almond-flower, cat's-foot and violet blue!


One of Evert Taube's best-known songs. Here are some more:

For my voice it's better to play the song in E (with the capo at the second fret, then play as if in "D").  The first part of each verse is an object lesson in how to make an entrancing melody using only two chords!

In the Youtube performance Evert Taube seems to play a different chord in place of the first B7.

Sjösala: About 25km due east of Stockholm, on the shore of the archipelago. I'd probably describe it as part of the mainland rather than a distinct island, but in this semi-submerged part of the world it's a moot point.

The common May flowers in Rönnerdahl's meadow are:

Gullviva (literally Golden Primrose) - Primula veris  - Cowslip.
Mandelblom (=Mandelblomma) literally "almond flower" - Saxifraga granulata - Meadow Saxifrage
Kattfot lit. Cat's foot - Antennaria dioica - Mountain Everlasting
Blå Viol (lit blue violet)  - Viola  species - one of the common violets e.g. Dog Violet. I don't think that "blue" implies any species in particular.


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Monday, September 25, 2017

of crimson sheen

Comb Morion helmet, as worn by sixteenth-century border reivers

[Image source:]

Soon on the hill's steep verge he stood,
That looks o'er Branksome's towers and wood;
And martial murmurs, from below,
Proclaim'd the approaching southern foe.
Through the dark wood, in mingled tone,
Were Border pipes and bugles blown;
The coursers' neighing he could ken,
A measured tread of marching men;
While broke at times the solemn hum
The Almayn's sullen kettle-drum;
        And banners tall of crimson sheen
Above the copse appear;
        And, glistening through the hawthorns green,
Shine helm, and shield, and spear.

(The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto 4 St 16*)

Scott's tetrameters in this, his first and probably greatest narrative poem, sometimes suggest a totally different meter, that of Gawain and the Green Knight and other stanzaic romances. Nowhere more so than here, where the alliteration is consciously heightened and the terminating "wheel" (though without a "bob") delivers the same refreshing effect, of giving us pause for breath.

The watcher is the hardy yeoman Watt Tinlinn, just returning from failed pursuit of the supposed son-and-heir who turns into a mocking elf. Scott's in the middle of one of his virtuosic Ariosto-like shuttles between different plotlines.

* There are two versions of the poem. In the First Edition of 1805, the stanza that I've quoted appears as St 13, not 16. Check it out here, where you can also have a look at Scott's extensive antiquarian notes, unfortunately absent from nearly all later editions:
The version of the poem that I've been reading  (and the one normally seen, e.g. here: has some differences from the first edition, e.g.

Canto 4 St 7 :  The four-line "wheel" is only in the revised version.
Cant 4 St 10 - 12: This extended episode, describing the Scotts' scattering of the Beattisons in Eskdale, is only in the revised version.
Canto 6 St 24 - 31 These stanzas were mistakenly numbered 25-32 in the first edition.

I don't know when the additions were made though I should imagine it was early on. They seamlessly improve an already excellent poem (a skill few revisers possess). The reason may be that Scott's poetic art was always based on a methodology of accretion. A skeleton was progressively enriched (the same sort of way that Jane Austen developed her novels).

The original idea for the poem, as recounted in the important 1830 Introduction, was to tell the tale of the goblin (or "elf"), employing the meter Scott had discovered a year earlier when Mr Stoddart recited from memory some passages of the unpublished "Christabel". In the poem as it developed, the goblin is not the most important element; border life, scenery and feuding occupy the centre. Scott had the idea of the minstrel and the frame-narrative after conversation with friends, who said that so original a poem needed a "pitchpipe" for the reader. (A nice image, that. We who as a point of honour resist making our poems accessible to unprepared audiences should maybe think again about it.)

On "Christabel", its influence on Scott, and Coleridge's resentment, see this post:

[Watt Tinlinn's "battered morion" should really have looked more like the one at the head of this post.]


Saturday, September 23, 2017


Gezi Park, May 2013

[Image source:]

I'm making a first few cautious forays into Andrea Brady's new book The Strong Room (Crater 42, Jan 2017). 

Title and opening stanza of one of the poems:

Gel Gör Beni Aşk Neyledi


We walk burning, itching, streaming all over,
cascading Mungyeong yellow. Love or its sister
forces has stained Cumhuriyet Caddesi
with blood but les pavés pressed
hand to hand dry flowers become barricades,
underneath, roots of the red apple.
We aren´t static, aren´t mad.
Come see what our revolution has done to us!

The full text is here:

The poem is about the Gezi Park protests beginning on 28 May 2013.  ("Diren Gezi" means "Resist, Gezi!"). explains various terms used in the poem, eg. çapulcu , the protesters' adoption of Erdogan's absurd description of them as "looters".

burning, itching, streaming = The police used tear gas. Tear gas is banned as a weapon of warfare (in various international treaties most states have signed) but it's permitted and much used by states to control their own citizens.

Cumhuriyet Caddesi = A highway in Istanbul, passing along one side of Gezi Park.

les pavés  =  paving slabs

dry flowers = As in the peaceful Portuguese revolution of April 25 1974, carnations were thrown.

The poem has this endnote: In solidarity / with apologies to Yunus Emre  *

[* To be strictly accurate there's a bar-shaped diacritic above the first "u" in "Yunus". I haven't worked out how to reproduce it yet (I also haven't seen that spelling anywhere else).]

Yunus Emre is a famous and popular Sufi poet, one of the earliest poets to write in Turkish. Andrea's poem is an improvisation on Yunus Emre's famous poem Gel Gör Beni Aşk Neyledi ("Come see what love has done to me"). Here's the first couple of stanzas in a translation I found online:

I’m walking, my heart ablaze...charred I’m burning!
Love painted me blood red.
left me neither sane nor mad
come, see what Love did to me

sometimes as the winds, I whirl
at times as dust on the path, I drift
sometimes as swift as a flood,
come, see what Love has done to me

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

the guardian moon and her comrade star

Crescent moon with Venus at evening

[Image source:]

I recently wrote a post about Emily Brontë's earliest dated poem.

Here's the poem again:

Cold clear and blue the morning heaven
Expands its arch on high
Cold clear and blue Lake Werna's water
Reflects that winter's sky
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star

(In or before July 1836, age 17)

I've been reading Emily's complete poems in chronological order of composition, and now I've reached the other end of her output, some ten years later on. And suddenly there comes a flicker of memory of that early poem:

M.A. Written on the Dungeon Wall - N. C.

I know that tonight, the wind is sighing,
The soft August wind, over forest and moor
While I in a grave-like chill am lying
On the damp black flags of my dungeon-floor --

I know that the Harvest Moon is shining;
She neither will wax nor wane for me.
Yet I weary, weary, with vain repining,
One gleam of her heaven-bright face to see!

For this constant darkness is wasting the gladness
Fast wasting the gladness of life away;
It gathers up thoughts akin to madness
That never would cloud the world of day

I chide with my soul -- I bid it cherish
The feelings it lived on when I was free,
But shrinking it murmurs, 'Let Memory perish
Forget for thy Friends have forgotten thee!'

Alas, I did think that they were weeping
Such tears as I weep -- it is not so!
Their careless young eyes are closed in sleeping;
Their brows are unshadowed, undimmed by woe --

Might I go to their beds, I'd rouse that slumber,
My spirit should startle their rest, and tell
How hour after hour, I wakefully number
Deep buried from light in my lonely cell!

Yet let them dream on, though dreary dreaming
Would haunt my pillow if they were here
And I were laid warmly under the gleaming
Of that guardian moon and her comrade star --

Better that I my own fate mourning
Should pine alone in the prison-gloom
Than waken free on the summer morning
And feel they were suffering this awful doom

[No. 164 in Janet Regazi's edition, dated August 1845.]

* M.A. is a Gondal character, not known from other sources. N.C. : the Northern College. This was indeed a college, where children of the Gondal nobility were educated. But in the Gondal world every building has its dungeon.

Both Emily and Anne wrote "dungeon wall" poems. And in fact Anne's dungeon wall poem of 16 Dec 1844 "Though not a breath can enter here" had introduced the motifs of sensory exclusion and of being neglected by the free world.  Emily's poem meditates more deeply on that. It passes to and fro between the captive's evocation of luminous late summer evenings and their absolute exclusion from the captive's present dungeon.

And a drastic choice looms. Since the captive's fate is forgotten by the people above, shouldn't the captive forget the world above? That is to say, forget her/his own memories? That impulse comes from within and we see it's driven by despair and disappointment but also by self-preservation. It's the residual connection with that other life, now thinned to memory, that is torturing.

It was written only a few weeks before "The Prisoner". Self-pity is explicit in this sketchy lyric, while the heroine of "The Prisoner" conspicuously defies self-pity and she mentions no friends upon this earth;  nevertheless, her pitifulness does seem to be an understood thing.

Anyway, "that guardian moon and her comrade star" means the moon and Venus.  The two have been linked since very early times.  As the brightest objects in the night sky, they often seem to have the sky to themselves, particularly during a misty twilight when fainter objects can't be seen. They sometimes appear quite close together: a waxing crescent with the evening star after sunset (as in the photo above), or a waning crescent with the morning star near dawn.  A fairly close conjunction takes place around 8 times a year (about half of them during hours of darkness)

[As on the well-known crescent-and-star symbol on many flags. This is often mistakenly identified with Islam, but Islamic thought deplores visual images, especially for the divine. The crescent-and-star was an emblem of the Ottoman Empire; its origins are pre-Islamic.]

Emily's poems usually speak rapturously of the heavens, and especially of these two comrades. In the sensation-starved and solitary life of Haworth, their appearance in a window was something that mattered. She saw them as nurturers and comforters.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

uk - france - spain - portugal - spain - france - uk

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