Friday, May 24, 2019

just writing

I want to believe that some blogs achieve more than ephemerality,  and here's one that I'm still reading, though it came to an end in 2010, Jenny Allan's Intermittent Voices. This was the post for 7th September 2008.

juggernauts at dawn

probability discusses the case, pinning hopes on the background in accordance with genuine conditions, shell-shocked and heedless of foresight she ushers in piffle emanating from the wrong end of the stick – the backroom word is: hold your tongue, for the grapevine enlightens the grindstone at all turns

in defence of halcyon days she winds up finishing off the golden touches, leaving only their indents to smell the roses into pacification – peace talks in the flower beds, the rookie thorn dead set on a duel

midpoint handicap, the difference between being thrown off balance and compensating, it’s a short fall of untrimmed habit, patching up each rung of the stairway, going halves on equal opportunities, agreeing on another time for nowadays, it’s a preview of ‘on the spot’ that dates back to a posthumous eve

unruly light, when will it be dawning again? or is this the terminal knot no-one counts on as we proceed slavishly recurring, the sun’s groupies, in the making of, or hand in hand with, the majority, all pending the next instant to robotically be tricked by drill, permeated becomes addicted becomes tamed and our own winning ways docilely impress the rut

tramlines of behaviour, she too can head, is heading for disorder

lying on her back and watching the juggernaut sweep everyone up into play, the future is close at hand, make a distinction


There are so many kinds of experimental writing, but I do have a soft spot for what isn't pre-programmed or explained. Jenny's writing is social and witty, but through its endless constructions of spatial architecture out of clichéd idioms it arrives at an alienation from its own crowded corridors: it produces a feeling of human isolation. (I seem to remember she admires Maurice Blanchot.)

The romantic, the quixotic, the unexplained. I enjoy the intensity of my attention as I read. For it's a fact that the world, too, doesn't explain itself, and always means more than what you can say about it.

I find this quality too in Richard Makin's writing. It is not very communal or correct, not apparently very concerned with politics or society. It's willing to inhabit a dream space without preconceptions of what may come from all this. It's difficult to choose a page to quote from the enormous Dwelling (2011); one is uneasily aware of the promises of the facing page. But here is some of p. 518.


   It lay in wait. I was much younger. Reading is impossible. These tricks drive me mad. I fixed the time and the place, all recognizable events (incendiarism, the poison cup). I paid dearly. A flap of mucous membrane was stretched taut across the orifice.

   Still, it's a beautiful island. Who was declared petroleuse for the day? We had our own duty machine and a book of shares. He offers no comment. We three make quite a team. I ask him what is going on in the background. He refuses to say. An antique bone handle and potsherds were found.

   The domestic tort. One of the most squalid pieces of light and shade imaginable. Far off, the keen of a foghorn -- bury me standing et cetera. At the apex there are ruins. Some paragraphs demonstrate abrupt changes of style.
   Trout hovering in light-stained water. Assassin.

   Tracing the history of the other senses will prove more difficult. Nerves are unsheathed and put to the torch. A pool spread out from under the container. The carpet was yellow. One surface is no longer in contact. I am inside. Words are becoming less and less necessary. Everything happens at once, at once.

   Hermit cell. Familiar tightness bursting in chest. The ligament between the valves has snapped. Having two separate singularities, a vacuum can survive outside of itself.

   A bittersweet little morsel.
   The glass box touched the bottom of the sea. Some had axes, some had saws, some had hammers. I'm understood. A thin sheet of skin separates us from the surrounding spaces. The question is not what you looked like. A bunsen flame was applied, beneath.

   Wide-where, dazzling white light. A trustworthy oration. At last the end, surcease. Where.

   Somebody once fashioned an unreal. Anyway, there is the after, where more human happens. He says our relationship to objects has declined. (There never was nor can be et cetera.) This one has been labelled. I am delivering. The crime of wilfully infecting a body has been waived.


How are such texts constructed? I've written before about how there's no such thing as "making things up", but I think Jenny built primarily from her own invention and linguistic resources: that requires incredible tenacity. For Richard's stupendous epic you can suppose he's mined texts from science, geography, archaeology, anatomy, navigation... It approaches an encyclopaedia, a wikipedia by one person (though, as it frequently and sardonically acknowledges, it contains no information whatsoever).

The appeal of the texts isn't principally in the enigma of their production. It's possible to have a much more explicit methodology and yet the artefact remains as mysterious as ever.  A chance to quote another favourite experimentalist, Gale Nelson:


Prodded oolong tea in debt but veils long
secret lists of verdict's ending on lusted
trembling calls. Shadow dooms dull patter, doubt doubles
song's floated past sand's aria. Preach long our best
gang's soothing steed, coin the sod here
or drown tea at every dock's fast keel.
The sea races, are you that fast? Trust that old
pale iced wing on which all doubt and prior
redoubts hone in. Orb sings then loses me
on fretted seas, then spots tea that seems red but
foils as green. Long sea dash speaks above
these crashes, bubbles down this throaty song in
lunging wreck. Unlauded green essence,
land at sea's last bid. Oolong iced,
oolong under all the thirst stalls. Brood ice --
shred those blood-red doubts and shout best
yelps along precise cloven seas. Tread
their folded red boots in tea, then burst
all avid feet, bring frozen cup of stale
green bitter spills -- lick up this feud and fend
it. Calm battered voids or shout back these last
youth-addled causes. Trade that ice,
guard the tea's smooth entry. Bring faster seas
then quit song's bend. You know those four
oaken tree stumps strung there in
damaged husks? Grace enacts loss, entices grave
falls. Proof refracts the oolong
suds. Now it seems lost. Net shamed oaks: lost but that
lacks much easing, endures loss. The housing of
dignity is beyond the ire. Larks bend and soft songs burst
that trembled islet long dead in alcove's
frigid ease. This use must stall by
last lone sea's ebb. Oak's ill roots flow, but no
sea is gone. It sails on, fills on
each shire's ledge.

This poem comes from This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (2011), a book in which, it's explained, the poems follow the vowel-sequence from various famous Shakespeare passages (this poem follows the "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet). Part of the fun is admiring how the poem circles specific topics (such as iced tea), all the time within the tyrannous constraints of the poet's methodology. But iced tea is a small part of the strange imaginary world that we readers enter here, and likewise in the other two pieces I've quoted.

You may have noticed that all of these were published at least eight years ago. To an extent that reflects changes in my own economic circumstances and literary preoccupations (I don't, alas, now buy many books of new poetry), but I find myself wondering, too, whether it reflects a change in the culture of western nations since 2010: the growing sense of crisis and the increasingly embattled and politicized discourses in which so many of us now feel involved. Whether our civilisations no longer seem to afford the space for such free explorations as those I've quoted.

Jenny Allan simply disappeared from view as an author. Richard Makin produced the much briefer Mourning in 2015 (a mere 250 pages) and was heavily involved in the Arca Project (2017), an art/text exhibition paying tribute to W.G. Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn (1992). A fairly short prose piece, Insane Leonards, was published in Hastings Online Times in 2014. Gale Nelson is an active academic at Brown University (Providence, RI). He is surely writing but I'm not aware of any more recent publications.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

min morfar

Klas and Sigrid had a sole child, rather late in life: my mother. When she married an Englishman it must have distressed them to think of her making her home so far away from Sundsvall. But when I was born and we returned for a long visit, their delight in their grandson is easy to imagine. There are many photos of a proud Morfar with me when I was a baby boy who had inherited his blue eyes. For a man who never had a son, to have a grandson would have meant a lot.

But as it turned out grandfathers would never play a large part in my life. I barely knew my English grandfather, meeting him only twice so far as I recall. And Morfar* (Klas) died on the morning of Christmas Eve when I was about ten. I remember my mum's anguish when she answered the telephone. So far away! Later that day, I thought how strange it was to be unwrapping a Christmas present from someone who had already died. (It was a reclining dog, with a nodding head.)

Morfar had had a bad stroke around five years before, affecting both his speech and his mobility. In England my early bilingualism had foundered. We could only afford to visit Sweden every other year, so Morfar and I never had much chance to overcome the language barrier. After the stroke I became rather afraid of him; I was always a shy child.

Once we were alone together in the living room of the flat. I was playing by myself. Morfar was sitting in his invariable armchair, well dressed as ever (Morfar always wore a tie). Suddenly he rose: he wanted, I thought, to show me a kindness and to bring us closer together. He managed a step or two, and then he collapsed to the floor. "Morfar's fallen over!" I shouted, very alarmed. Mormor and my mother came running from the kitchen. They settled him down, but the emotional barrier between us, as much as the language barrier, never thawed any further. I loved him because he was my Morfar but I never knew him as a real person.


Klas Henrik Gulliksson was born in 1893. Three months before he was born, his father Henrik had died of pneumonia. His mother Karolina lived on for many years after her husband's death; my mother knew her.

Klas had four elder siblings. Hildur, Lydia, Henning and Karl, who was just two years older than Klas.


The family could only afford to educate one of the children. That was Henning. When he was at home, he passed on his knowledge to his brothers and sisters. Henning became relatively well off. When Klas and Sigrid married, the house they moved into was Henning's: Klas couldn't afford to buy his own. Henning, like many Swedish dignitaries, was a Good Templar, that is, a strict teetotaller. It was important for his reputation that he never even attended a gathering where alcohol was served. When my mother and father got married in 1957, the toasts were in grape juice!

The house was Fridhemsgatan 11 in Sundsvall. My earliest datable memory is from that house: a Christmas when I was three. Jultomten (Santa Claus) visited the house that day. He scraped the snow off his boots and announced: "Here is a present for a little boy who is three." I hesitated, being a stickler for accuracy, and said "Well, I'm three and a half!" The present was a metal pick-up truck, coloured orange and white, with a crane and a hook you could wind up and down.

Fridhemsgatan 11 was a lovely wooden house, with Falu Röd Färg (dark red) walls and white-painted window and door frames: the traditional colours of such houses. They only occupied the downstairs: there was another tenant above them. This was where my mother grew up. The house had a fine cellar and a big garden containing currant and gooseberry bushes as well as raspberries along the back fence. In my summer memories the garden is always sunny, but in winter it got no sun at all for six months, because of the rising slope of the South Mountain just behind. Around the time of Morfar's stroke they moved to a third-floor apartment on the north side of town: Elevgränd 4B. Of course I remember this flat much more clearly, but that's for another post.

I don't remember Farbror Henning but as I was born in 1958 I suppose our lives probably overlapped a bit. When I was a little older we used to stay at Faster Selma's apartment in Stockholm: one of several stopovers on our long journey north. Selma was Henning's widow. I remember her cloudily: a tea-party, and some forgotten joke about jam. Usually we used the apartment when Selma wasn't there. Probably she was away at a summer cottage, like most Stockholm residents at that time of year.


Hildur is only a name to me. She emigrated to the USA, as did Karl.


I and Annika remember Lydia very well, though not, I am sure, the way she should best be remembered. When we were very young Lydia, who never married, had her own flat in Sundsvall. I remember her as an elderly woman with short black hair, teetotal, religious and a bit austere (but she's laughing heartily in the photos where she's giving me a carry). Around the same time as her younger brother Klas, she suffered a catastrophic stroke. After that she lived a lingering half-life in care homes for another decade or more. Visiting Faster Lydia was a regular and dreaded part of our annual holiday in the north. She lay there like a frail bundle of bones, scarcely a hump beneath the bedclothes: the bed was a narrow single bed but she made it look big. Mum and Dad spoke to her and went through rituals of greeting, talking about the holidays, pointing out us children (who added our weak smiles), to a bunch of flowers by the bed, and so contriving to eke out a near monologue. The ghastly Lydia, with well-combed thin white hair, was unfathomable, barely capable of a syllable or flicker of feeling. I don't know if Lydia had Alzheimer's or was just too weak to say or feel anything.  Mum would stay a bit longer while we and Dad went off to the beach at Björkön. When the visit was over we cried, but not much: we'd cried before, but nothing would or could ever change, so what was the point.

It was only many years later that I began to be interested in my family past and to learn what a dynamic and active woman Lydia had been. I'll find out properly one day, but I know she was heavily involved, I think as a teacher, in church charitable work. I think she worked at the orphanage at Mjösjö, a remote but pretty spot in the the hinterlands, about 100km from Sundsvall.


Like Hildur, he emigrated to the USA. He married a Swede over there. Karl was considered rather a "black sheep" (I can add no scandalous details to this, but I imagine he wasn't teetotal). He lost touch with the family for many years. When his mother Karolina died, there was no way of letting him know until he got in touch, several years later.


So, my grandfather. Most of what I know about Klas's younger life is encapsulated in the page of the family album shown above.

He was "in the cavalry" as a young man, but what cavalry, and for how long, I don't know. Then he was a wage clerk for the railway during the building of "Östkustbanan": the new coastal route from Gävle - Sundsvall - Härnösand, now the principal rail route to the north, opened in 1927. The photo of the logging camp may come from this period.

He's standing in the middle of the group of five revellers. They could be anywhere in northern Sweden, but I've always imagined this photo shows either the North or South mountain in Sundsvall: both popular locations for a day out. The girl beside him isn't Sigrid, so perhaps she was an early flame; or it could be his sister Lydia. (An old photo of Sigrid appears at the bottom right.)

Thereafter Klas was a cargo inspector at the docks in Sundsvall. (Coincidentally, the same job my great-uncle John did at Southampton.) He retired on the 12 March 1963, when he was seventy. I know this because I'm looking at the Seamaster watch he was presented with. The watch is engraved "Långvarig trogen tjänst" : the standard phrase for these occasions, meaning "long faithful service". The watch is one of those self-winding ones: I've given it a good shake and it's working, after at least ten years of lying in a drawer.

Photo taken outside Lidens Gamla Kyrka. Michael in the arms of Moster Anna, Mum, Mormor, Morfar and a pal whose name I don't know.



Swedish has two words for grandfather:

morfar: mother's father
farfar: father's father

Likewise mormor (mother's mother) farmor (father's mother), moster (mother's sister), faster (father's sister), morbror (mother's brother), farbror (father's brother)


Monday, May 20, 2019

Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)

20 May

Hedge Mustard (Vägsenap - Sisymbrium officinale)

So far as I'm aware every plant in the Brassicaceae is more or less edible.

Despite its common name in English (and Swedish), this species isn't in the same genus as any of the three species that are used to make my favourite condiment (Sinapis Alba, Brassica juncea, Brassica nigra).

Nor is it in the same genus as the rocket normally eaten in salads (Eruca sativa). But it has been suspected as being the "English rocket" with yellow flowers referred to by some early botanists. The fresh leaves are certainly very good eating.

It's native to Europe and very common; also introduced in the eastern USA.

After six months of unobtrusive greening it suddenly rockets forth in May (though "rocket" in that sense has no etymological connection with the salad rocket). The flowers are very small but the ever-elongating lateral flower shoots with adpressed fruits are unmistakable.

The leaves have quite a distinctive shape too.  Runcinate with a truncate terminal lobe, if I'm using the terms correctly.

13 May

4 May

4 May

28 April

28 April

22 April

13 April

10 April

12 February

27 December

25 November

17 November
13 November
12 November

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Six Swedish songs

The album of songs in Swedish is picking up pace. It was quite a good way of finding out that I'd been mispronouncing some common words for many years! In particular, I'd never paid much attention to the difference in sound between long O and long U (an obstable course of both sounds in the opening lines of the second song), both of which are roughly like the English sound "oo" but the first is a back vowel and the second a front one. Likewise, Hör (hear) and "Hur" (how) -- both words appear in the first song -- are front and back, though in each case the approximate English equivalent is "her".

No time for any expansive prose at the moment but as I'm passing by my home I'll just dump the recordings I've done so far.

SJÖSALA WALTZ (song by Evert Taube)

More about it:

SUN WIND AND WATER (song by Ted and Kenneth Gärdestad)

More about it:

SONG  (poem by Dan Andersson, with music by Michael Peverett)

More about it:

THE DANCE AT SUNNANÖ (song by Evert Taube)

More about it:

FOR LOVE'S SAKE  (song by Ted and Kenneth Gärdestad)

WHILE THE BOAT FLIES ALONG (song by Evert Taube)

More about it:


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Reverse engineering

I finally got round to reading C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". It's a 1959 talk about education and about a problem, at University level: the different cultural worlds inhabited by (a) science and technology (b) the arts and humanities.

It's difficult (speaking for humanities students of my generation) to read this talk without remembering the jeers of F.R. Leavis. Snow's naive self-importance and tendency to over-rate his own expertise,  are both very apparent. But sometimes it takes stupidity to bring up a topic that others are too smart to go near. Think of it as a transgressive text.

At one point Snow reports asking various arts specialists to describe the second thermodynamic law; none of them could tell him anything about it. And yet, he comments, from a scientist's point of view that's about as basic as asking "Have you ever read a play by Shakespeare?"

It's a fair cop. I didn't know what the second law of thermodynamics was, but (with the help of Wikipedia), I do now. Not that I understand the maths.

But I do get that it's about accounting for the non-reversibility of processes: why an ice cube in a glass of water turns into a colder glass of water, but not vice versa. Why you can add milk to your tea, but not take it away.

Because simple physical processes such as these are inevitably involved in more complex processes, those complex processes are irreversible too. It may be that such irreversibility, based strictly on the second thermodynamic law and its mathematical concept of entropy, is of a trivial nature, I don't know. But it's apparent that many complex processes have the same quality of irreversibility. A baby's perfect silky skin becomes an OAP's wrinkles, but not vice versa. A plant cannot become the seed it once was: it can only make new seeds. And above individual lives, history too seems to have an irreversible direction; that was always so, even before literacy and technological advance. The directionality was there, even when it certainly wasn't "progress". The extinction of the Greenland Vikings after the commencement of the little Ice Age was also a testament to directionality; so are tyrants, epidemics and Krakatoas.

Yet swimming against the tide often seems the right way to go. Religious texts express it. Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). The Tao Te Ching is a guide to rediscovering the primordial Tao that gave us birth and flows through all things: in effect, discarding the empty hurry of the ego that we have learnt subsequently. But this doesn't mean reversing our history. We need to become, not the child we were (then we'd just end up here again), we need to become as a child.

So what about lowering emissions?
It's always easier for doers to do than for undoers to undo. Doing even gets easier, as the distribution channels are already in place.  So industry keeps finding new uses for fossil fuels, for the same reason that doctors keep promoting new reasons to prescribe existing drugs; they are already on the pharmacy shelves. When we look back at the formidably entrenched operations lined up in support of more carbon emissions, all armed with "what I have I hold" and abetted by the natural self-seeking of humanity, then it's easy to despair. These circumstances are the work of history, and we can't unpick them. Lowering emissions has come not from sabotaging capitalism but from better technology; from engineers. But educators make a difference too. And educators need activists; because you can't teach something effectively if no-one is visibly concerned about it.

How fossil fuels are sold.

[Image source: Nectar email, May 2019. Sainsbury's Energy, supplied by nPower, supplies an energy mix that's more than averagely low in renewables and high in CO2 emissions. So the advertisers pull out all the stops when it comes to encouraging the aptitude of Middle England to couple financial prudence with staunch dismissal of the fads of do-gooders. The team of joyful and reassuring models are a human shield for an anti-human product.]


Sunday, May 12, 2019

"A choice of Swedish verse"

Veronica alpina

[Image source: ]

I have the perhaps bad habit, for a blogger, of continuing to tinker with posts long after they've been posted. But I don't think any have transformed as much as this one, which began as three pages of translation and has ended up being over thirty... in fact, Curt Lofterud's complete booklet about the geology, botany, history etc of locations on a well-known hiking route in the Jämtland fells.

I'm very interested in that part of the world myself, and I walked the route back in 2016. So it was an obvious way of improving my Swedish while learning about the fells. I hadn't quite anticipated that it would be not only a challenge to my language skills but would also require learning quite a lot about the geomorphology of glaciers, ice ages, snow, and ground-frost.

Anyway, now this self-imposed task is finally complete, it's time to think up another one. And a couple of evenings ago I got excited by the rather obvious idea, considering my obsessions, of making a translated anthology of Swedish-language poetry (Swedish poets for the most part, but also Finland-Swedish poets). After all, I've already translated quite a few poems over the years (in particular, by Karin Boye). In that moment of euphoria, I was almost at the point of drafting pitches to publishers.

But then, hesitations crept in. I knew that with such rudimentary knowledge of the language as mine, it would be slow, difficult work. Perhaps I'm not ready for this yet.

I have many other disqualifications too. I'm not really interested in literary history or any kind of overview. Consequently there are many poets considered important that I scarcely know at all. I would naturally want to represent experimental poetry but I feel my knowledge of experimental poetry in Swedish is very slight indeed. To undertake such an anthology one would surely need a direct engagement with the contemporary scene: to live there, be fluent, know some of the poets personally.

But this kind of anthology wasn't even what I wanted to do. I'm sceptical of books that claim to define a canon or outline a culture representatively. My book would have to be a more personal exploration, beginning from ignorance. I felt particularly unexcited by the thought of translating big poets like Tranströmer and Martinson and Ekelöf who have been well translated already. Instead, I would like to find other materials, popular and unpopular, and slowly uncover a picture whose features I didn't know in advance. A picture of what? A developed and prosperous western nation -- Is that what the world needs more of? It was another thought to make one pause. Would I even want to confirm nationality as a lazy system of forming our conceptions?

At about this point in my ruminations, I suddenly remembered that I didn't even like poetry anthologies... Though, of course, I do use them. I prefer books of individual poets... I have more of a chance of getting to know the poets. Gobbling up an anthology, I lose a sense of the individual poem's context and its author. So why would I want to produce a book I wouldn't myself enjoy? Well, there could be many good reasons for doing that, but right now I'm looking for a kind of congruence.

What was great about translating the booklet was that I wasn't thinking of anyone else, I just wanted to spend virtual time in the fells. And there's very little demand for English-language info about these fells; practically all the people we walked with in 2016 were Swedes. I suppose every nation has its international magnets and its local attractions... The "friendly triangle" was firmly in the latter class.

I feel the same about the kind of Swedish poems I'd like to translate. The less they address an international poetry audience, the more interested I am. I say to the poem: You must really know something.

Thursday, May 09, 2019


Least Yellow-sorrel (Oxalis exilis). Swindon, 7th May 2019. A diminutive plant native to New Zealand and Tasmania.

Similar to the much commoner garden relic Procumbent Yellow-sorrel (Oxalis corniculata), but much smaller, and rarely with purple leaves. Also, Oxalis exilis has ten stamens but only five of them produce anthers (zoom in on the pic above to see what I mean); Oxalis corniculata has ten anthers.

Least Yellow-sorrel (Oxalis exilis). Swindon, 9th May 2019. 

I wake up. My head is lying comfortably on a polyester pillow. The raw materials of polyester come from crude oil derivatives. A chilly morning. I put on my cardigan, made by a popular California clothing brand called Cherokee -- a Native American people from the SE USA (to be fair the name Cherokee is a colonist's term for the people and is not the term in their own language; it must be based on a native language, but the origin has not been satisfactorily explained). It's a polyester cardigan, so is very cosy, never creases and is resistant to stains; in fact virtually indestructible. My Dad passed it on to me. I suppose my Mum bought it some time before 2015, when the Cherokee brand was being sold in the UK in Tesco stores. It does need a wash now and then: it was hanging on a plastic-covered dryer in front of the radiator. The radiator is pleasantly warm. It's fuelled by gas: around 40% from the UK, the rest from Russia, Norway and other places. I can go straight out into the garden with my tea and look at how the plants I picked up at the garden centre are doing. I dug them down yesterday: no sign of slug damage, though yesterday's stormy showers snapped some blooms off the new Aubretia. I put the plastic pots away in the shed. Later on we'll go for a walk in the countryside. We'll be shod in plastic trainers, and we'll both carry plastic drinks bottles. It's a simple life. (This is a car-free day, and I'm trying not to think about the £1,000 estimate that the garage have just told me about.) I play a Swedish folk-tune on my guitar, which has new nylon strings.

Mexican Orange-blossom (Choisya ternata). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

Mexican Orange-blossom (Choisya ternata). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

Stone Parsley (Sison amomum). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

A common plant in Swindon. It's a biennial: the photo shows emerging first-year and second-year plants.

Stone Parsley is said to be edible: most authoritatively here, but that's an 1884 source. I haven't seen any recent accounts. Perhaps not many people are tempted to try it, in view of the plant's unpleasant petrol smell ... setting aside the general danger of messing around with wild Apiaceae, a family which includes many highly toxic species as well as garden herbs (parsley, dill, coriander, caraway, angelica, lovage) and food plants (carrot, celery, fennel).

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). Swindon, 7th May 2019

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). Swindon, 7th May 2019.


Tuesday, May 07, 2019

C.P. Snow: The Affair (1960)

Cherie Lunghi as Margaret Eliot

[Image source: . Shaughan Seymour and Cherie Lunghi starred in the 1984 TV dramatization of Strangers and Brothers. ]

C.P. Snow (1905 - 1980) annoyed F.R. Leavis, who “lost it” in a manner more than slightly suggestive of a Snovian scene. It may be that anyone who reads more than one novel in the Strangers and Brothers sequence will be overcome by the sense of a writer who composes his own clichés, unwittingly parodies himself and has an absurd self-regard. Snow is perhaps not a novelist at all, as Leavis proclaimed. So much the better, I think.

The “Establishment” is such a mysterious and inaccessible world that it’s very gratifying to be permitted to enter it in so much detail, even though the author makes no bones of his admiration. Indeed, he could not write these books without the admiration.

The Affair is a book without sexual adventure or death. And yet not altogether a comedy, though there is something in the book’s procedure that reminds you of comedy. It’s mostly conversation about the business – a doubtful matter that cannot be finally resolved, though I think we are perhaps meant to suppose that Nightingale destroyed the photograph – but, as in real life, there is room for doubt. (It would be more or less certain if you could treat the text of the book itself as evidence in the trial it describes, because what Nightingale says before the hearing doesn’t make sense if his assertions during the trial are entertained; but you can’t give even the most skilful sort of novel that kind of weight within its own fiction). The persistent doubts, the essential vagueness of the technical matters, are there to provoke the complex reactions of the participants.

It would have been hard to tell whether Martin had heard what Skeffington had just said. He was not looking at Skeffington. He gazed steadily at the hearth, in which the electric fire had one small incandescent star, much brighter than the glowing bars, where a contact had worked loose.

I’m quoting this because it reminds us, as other stray sentences do, of everything that this book isn’t about – everything that other books are about. 

A few pages taken from the middle of the book will illustrate what is distinctive in Snow, both for good and ill.

In April I had to go to Cambridge on official business. On business which was, as it happened, at that time top secret...

The mock-modesty of that “as it happened” – one was always dealing with top secret matters – is one reason why you might object to Snow, and remember Buchan ungratefully. Briefly Lewis Eliot looks out of the windows of the conference-room:

it was a piercing blue April afternoon, a sunny afternoon with a wind so cold and pure that it made one catch one’s breath.

The word “pure”, with its strong implication of public-school chastity, is again Buchanesque.
...resentful ... as though once I had been out in the cold free air and known great happiness. And yet, my real memories of days like that in Cambridge were sad ones.

That is comfortably beyond Buchan. Yet we are soon back at the conference-table, and once again his spectre rises.

There was a fair amount of ability in the room, two Nobel Prize winners, five Fellows of the Royal Society. For imagination and sheer mental drive, I would have put Luke before any of them...

(This unacademic psychology, this “shrewd judgment of men” which Snow prided himself on and probably possessed, is a key element in what his books are about.) Everyone here is idealized, Luke in particular, Crawford later. That is also a significant part of Snow’s intention in portraying the decision-makers. Also an element of his style; even the unamiable Howard is somewhat gratuitously supplied with this:

One felt that, change his temperament by an inch, he would have made a good regimental officer.

This is a book about good people.

That conference-room scene is a generous introduction to the splendid succession that follows – the top secret business is an aside to the plot. Now follows the scene in which the bad news of the Seniors’ reconsideration comes through.

He and I sat there in silence, watching Laura gaze with protective love at Howard. He was holding the newspaper low, so as to catch the light from the reading-lamp. The only movement he made, the only movement in the whole room, was that of his eyes as they went down the page.

Then Howard explodes, and Martin (Lewis’s brother) catches some of the flak. Lewis admits:

He [Martin] was no saint. He had none of the self-effacingness of those who, in the presence of another’s disaster, don’t mind some of the sufferings being taken out on themselves...

Naturally this wins our sympathy. Soon we are told to have more:

People often thought that those who ‘handled’ others, ‘managers’ of Martin’s kind, were passionless. They would have been no good at their job if they were.

We don’t take this so easily. Eliot/Snow seems to be bullying us – on the basis of their joint expertise, which of course we little readers can’t remotely compete with.

I forgot to mention a moment in the Howard scene, when he says to his wife:

’You know nothing about it.’

He spoke to her roughly – but there was none of the suspiciousness with which he would have spoken to anyone else that night. Between them there flared up – so ardent as to make it out of place to watch – a bond of sensual warmth, of consolatory warmth.

Snow only mentions love if it’s relevant to power, but he does so persuasively. Marriage is the form of love in which he’s interested, and as it’s an institution and a power he inevitably over-praises it. The Skeffingtons’ marriage is almost a sham, but

With her own kind of clumsy devotion, she was with him whatever he wanted to do. Others might admire him more, other women might long for the chance of admiring him, but she happened to be married to him.

Now follows another great chapter.

We had walked right into the hiss and ice of a quarrel.

Arthur Brown’s imperturbable handling of the atmosphere, and his utter rejection of Tom Orbell’s political advice, strike us like beorhtword, somewhat in the manner of a saga hero. Of all the great and the good, Brown (though on the “wrong” side) is probably the hero that Eliot/Snow adulates most.

[That position I've just expressed, of feeling closer to an opponent than to your own side,  is itself a long-hallowed trope of the Establishment imagination. Richard and Saladin, as it were. It conceals some complicated meanings -- not in Snow's novel particularly, but in its wider meaning. One is about licensing betrayal of principle (sometimes necessary); another about leaving prejudice to the lower orders.] 


Another vestige of my former website. Written in 2002. 

Jacket of the first edition, strangely prophetic of American Psycho


Saturday, May 04, 2019

rising stars / a book about the face

Dove's-foot Cranesbill (Mjuknäva - Geranium molle. Swindon, 1st May 2019

* Rising stars   * a star in the night mist
                                 * Night treetrunks
                           * a fleeing bike in traffic

* Vagabonds.
          charging phones
          sleeping in hoody

But when the face
         migrated into photos
did it fade from the earth, just a little?
   Was some intensity of faces lost then,
and to recapture it, you must veil . . . ?
-- There should be veiled men. --

We look at the record of your face, Ralph*,
      But it should be sometimes, only.
For the world lives
     and we need to live with our faces,
and life can never be seen.
   Yet we come to know each other
        we know living faces in the way that
          you know something without scrutiny

                         I know our faces,
and that's become who I am,
it's written all over my face too -- our life together.

* Ralph Bates, Swindon novelist (1899 - 2000). A black and white portrait in Brookhouse Farm, a pub in Middleleaze.

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Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Two poetry collections by Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich in 1979

[Image source: . Photo by Susan Wilson, in the Radcliffe Archives, Schlesinger Library (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University).]

The Dream of a Common Language (Poems 1974-1977)

The title refers to poetry; that much, you could conclude from the poem in which the words appear, Origins and History of Consciousness. But not just any old poetry – this poetry. I think I wasn’t so off-track in at first supposing that it also has a specific feminist weight; a connexion with the dream of a common sisterhood.

So the book is to some extent meta-poetry, poems about a search for a new poetry (I suppose many good poems are like that to a certain extent; stopping short of being just Klein bottles...). But NOT just any poetry. The art that is being sought and dreamt of is so close as to be identical with a life (but not any life) and a power and a society.

Perhaps it might all be mixed up with the sort of polemical assertions that new love tends to induce in poets. But Rich gives an honest answer to that:

                       I want to call this, life.

But I can’t call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.

It so happens that the central part of the book is a sequence called Twenty-One Love Poems. In fact there are twenty-two of them, and only the unnumbered one is truly a love poem, an aching concession to feeling. The rest is taut with watchfulness, open to the world and to unmendable wounds. And the relationship it memorialises, fails. It wasn’t the Nirvana that she wanted it to be,

and soon I shall know I was talking to my own soul.


But this is a momentary dejection (the anger is less momentary). In an earlier part of the sequence she says:

            Your small hands, precisely equal to my own
            only the thumb is larger, longer in these hands
            I could trust the world, or in many hands like these,


Do I trust Adrienne Rich’s hands?

It’s a collection that you’re compelled to read as a whole, straight through; all of the poems are focussed on and veering towards the “common language” of the title. But some of the poems I don’t like. Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev is one (and it’s the second poem in the collection, and substantially longer than the first, so that’s offputting). The Lioness, the last poem in the first part (which is called, and is about, Power) is another. And, in the third part, Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff – and a few others. At first I just shrugged my shoulders about these perversities of taste, but if I stop to examine them there seems to be a pattern. I seem to have a problem with the poet speaking through the mouths of, or pretending to look through the eyes of, other women. Basically I feel that she’s somehow co-opting them to say what she thinks – that she isn’t showing them enough respect. And that also applies to the lioness. I find myself thinking: We men have used women enough; must you do it too?

But now it’s possible that I’m reacting to something right, and righteous, and right-on in the book. Perhaps to the pride in these words:

                                My guilt is at least open,
            I stand convicted by all my convictions


It really wouldn’t be surprising if my hopeful stance of the man-who-would-understand (Natural Resources) was found out and thoroughly implicated by this book, of all books.

The poetry leaps out of a voice that is often plain, even skeletal.
while her mind and body in Manhattan are more with me
than the smell of eucalyptus coolly burning    on these hills


The drift of the sentence actually tries to undercut the evocativeness of “coolly burning” – not to mock it, but to accept its limits.  It wants to speak freely and not be constrained to putting out a steady production line of flowers. “mind and body in Manhattan” is the best way to talk.

Nevertheless there is a continuous subtlety of form in the poems. The best ones, it seems to me, are Origins and History of Consciousness, Splittings, Cartographies of Silence, and the three poems at the end of the book: Natural Resources, Toward the Solstice and Transcendental Etude

All these poems are medium-length – a few pages – and I suppose they might all be called meditations. There is a great deal of cross-current between the poems: for instance, “the gap / in the Great Nebula” (Natural Resources) and “the rift / in the Great Nebula” (Transcendental Etude); or the spiders’ webs in A Woman Dead in her Forties, Natural Resources and Toward the Solstice. Nevertheless, each poem keeps its own identity; it has a distinct music, a distinct form though it is nothing so mechanical as a stanza form. You have to read the poem to hear it.

In the first of these poems, Origins and History of Consciousness, the key word “simple”, which ties it all together, is delayed until the beginning of the third paragraph:

Thinking of lovers, their blind faith, their
experienced crucifixions,
my envy is not simple.

The poems often circle before dropping down on their chosen line of progression. Their right-on-ness, their compulsion to tell the truth and to be on the right side, is what can’t be wished away, for it makes them what they are: confrontational, directly challenging, unapologetic. They nevertheless admit to complexities: consider how in the lines just quoted the word “experienced” can mean both “something they actually felt” and “something they were practised at”.

There is insecurity, too. Cartographies of Silence ends with this positivity:

            what in fact I keep choosing

            are these words, these whispers, conversations
            from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.

But the poem is haunted by a different power, the power of silence. Or perhaps “power” is the wrong word, since Rich views it with such misgivings:

            She died     a famous woman    denying
            her wounds
            her wounds    came    from the same source as her power

(Marie Curie in Power)

Natural Resources, again, ends forthrightly enough:

            I have to cast my lot with those
            who age after age, perversely,

            with no extraordinary power,
            reconstitute the world.

But the poem has insecurities. In the “circling” opening we happen on the image of a woman miner. Immediately the poet is on the defensive: “The miner is no metaphor”. Well, perhaps. There were more than three thousand woman coal miners in the US in the early seventies. Still, the image can’t help but make us consider that, after all, most miners have been male. And that’s allowed to undercut the argument. There was no need: women’s labour is in fact a main component in our world, as Rich more straightforwardly persuades us in Divisions of Labor (a poem in Time’s Power). But Natural Resources gains from the subtle fault. It circles its way to a vision of a barn sale, of things – not words but silent, practical things - collected by women of the past (“These things by women saved / are all we have of them”).  Their silence was a weakness – was it? but if power is called into question, perhaps weakness might be strength. In those closing words (quoted above), the meaning of “cast my lot with” is now vulnerable. It sounds like it means “stand up for”, but it also sounds like it can’t mean “be one of”. In short, the poem is open to questioning: one is lucky, perhaps, to have a public voice, and necessarily separated from the people one stands up for.

Toward the Solstice is equally uncertain, and I think (perhaps I’m not meant to) there’s a promise in its uncertainty. The solstice is a hard, physical fact; it’s a time that does come. Is it a winter or a summer solstice? And what does it mean, for the speaker? “It seems I am still waiting / for them to make some clear demand...” The poem is about a revolution, but isn’t 100% committed to revolution though it would like to be. A vein of images ties the speaker to continuities. She finds herself

                   trusting to instinct
the words would come to mind
I have failed or forgotten to say
year after year, winter
after summer, the right rune
to ease the hold of the past
upon the rest of my life
and ease my hold on the past.

That ringing phrase, “the right rune”, jumps out of the flow of the sentence. You could say that it epitomises the confrontational, idealistic, engaged position that The Dream of a Common Language often arrives at, and always dreams of.  

In the rather random lines I’ve quoted, a preoccupation comes to light: time after time, age after age, year after year. These phrases are absolutes: they assert the conviction, the amassed evidence, with which the poet puts forward a proposition. But they also suggest continuity, waves of time that go round. That seems to me characteristic of much of the revolutionary art of the 1960s and 70s. It starts with folk music, not with futurism.

Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988

This collection, too, has a mannerism. You can see its origin, in fact, in the lines just quoted above:

            to ease the hold of the past
            upon the rest of my life
            and ease my hold on the past

The lines describe a relationship, and then they switch it round. So the first poem here, Solfegietto, addressed to the poet’s mother, ends:

            What was worth fighting for? What did you want?
            What did I want from you?

(The title means something like “in the manner of scale exercises” and the poem is about the mother’s failed attempt to make her daughter a virtuoso. In Transcendental Etude Rich had spoken out about how little she trusts that kind of achievement. This poem attempts to probe beyond that statement.)

The next poem ends:

            Do you think I don’t remember?
            did you think I was all-powerful
            unimpaired    unappalled?
            yes    you needed that from me
            I wanted this from you


It’s a sort of companion-piece to the first poem (now it’s Rich who is the mother). But the double questions and the reversals of relationships continue through the poems that follow:

            does she ever forget how they left, how they taught her leaving?

                                                                        (Harper’s Ferry)

            What would you bring along on a trek like this?
            What is bringing you along?


Time’s Power is less absorbed with the poet’s own mission. It has less wrong with it than The Dream of a Common Language, and is less urgent; less exciting, maybe. The double questions admit the otherness of the world. Yet the poem I like best is Harper’s Ferry, not least because the abused child’s wounded leg is a covert allusion to the poet’s own disability (the poem that comes after it begins with her “walking in a walker on the cliffs”). Harper’s Ferry is complex, and owns up to the poet’s own involvement in its docu-fiction. It’s about armed struggle, and the verse is urgent, from the “October-shortened sun” of the third line; time, it seems, moves forward rather rapidly, for later we find

                     the decanter of moonlight pours its mournless liquid down
            steadily on the solstice fields

I suppose solstice continues to imply a millennial or critical moment (see Toward the Solstice, above). I want to quote this, too:

            But this girl is expert in overhearing
            and one word leaps off the windowpanes like the crack of dawn,
            the translation of the babble of two rivers. What does this girl
            with her little family quarrel, know about arsenals?

(The answer is, quite a lot...) These two passages give an idea of the odd, excited nature of the poetry. You could say that it’s a poem that’s in love with guns. But it’s in love, too, with cold mint tea. And it’s also horrified, for example, by the brothers who have

                                                climbed her over and over
            leaving their wet clots in her sheets

The other poems that I’ve gone back to most often are Living Memory and Turnings. I haven’t pondered the desert imagery in the collection as much as I might; I think the image of God’s eye through a microscope at the end of Turnings resonates with the un-quaint slides in the attic (The Slides)...    


Adrienne Rich 1929 - 2012

Another gleaning from my old website; I wrote this in 2003.

Audrey Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur and Adrienne Rich. Austin, Texas, 1980. 


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