Saturday, April 30, 2016

Alex La Guma: Time of the Butcherbird (1979)

Original jacket, pulpy fun that blithely (or perhaps carefully) by-passes the novel's racial context

This is the second La Guma novel that I've read. I've gone straight from his first (A Walk in the Night, 1962) to his last, Time of the Butcherbird (1979).

It was a controversial novel, and the implication of its relative inferiority to its predecessors has tended to linger on. (Maybe the original jacket didn't help much.)

South Africa was in crisis, and the novel partakes in that crisis. Violence spills over. (La Guma never pretends that violence is accurately-directed. Murile hits his bull's-eye with Hannes Meulen, but he also takes out Edgar Stopes, a man he's never met.) The novel laments individuality but sees it as dispensible, even unwanted, in present circumstances. For the first time La Guma devoted much of his novel's energy to white characters, but the prose is tense with its struggle to see those white characters as other than empty shells. There are two very different brands of racism in the bigoted Afrikaner and complicit English groups, but both are equally destructive. That of course is a humanist way of looking at it. Time of the Butcherbird could be seen as a novel where the novel's intrinsic humanism is in distress and is tested. Also tested is the noir style that La Guma began from: that too depends on a security of humanist response, on which its hard-bitten manner plays a piquant variation.

Noir, nevertheless, remains an important bedrock of the book. Whether it's Meulen talking to Steen or Mma-Tau talking to Murile, the prose makes no explicit judgments, it merely narrates. The compression and selection still accounts for a large part of the book's power and poetry.

I think it's a fantastic book. It certainly is less perfect than A Walk in the Night but then it's twice as long and much more ambitious.

What might be, and has been, considered thinness in the characterization is really down to a deliberate honing of repeated motifs. These are sparse people in a sparse country. Shilling Murile is nearly always "the one who was called Shilling Murile", and his only prop is his pair of boots. Madonele is always thinking about the tobacco. (Both the tobacco and the boots are connected to Murile's ten years in jail.) The unfortunate Timi is excited and innocently drunk: what else do we need to know about him? And characters of whom we see much, such as Edgar Stopes, turn out to be obsessively narrow in their outlook, always thinking and feeling the same things. In the drought (endless, so far as the book is concerned), nature too is composed of the faintest variations on repetition: every day the sun burns and the dust swirls. It's the passing of time, but it's also, as the title says, a time. A static condition. "Our course is set," says Hannes Meulen.

The primary images are of faces, land and sun. La Guma's writing  is unashamedly inventive on these subjects, like a pulp author.


'There,' her father said. 'You see you are going to have a wife who will out do you in public activities, so be careful, son.'

Meulen chuckled, 'She can help me with my speeches.'

'What -- about wild flowers?' Rina asked and they laughed.

The rest of the meal was frikadells, yellow rice cooked with raisins, boiled vegetables, beet salad and apricot chutney. They passed dishes among them and Steen called on the servant to bring the peach brandy from the lounge.  (p. 63)

Rina wants to borrow trucks to transport drought-stricken wild flowers to parks where they can be preserved. Meulen is happy to lend her the trucks, once they've been used to take the evicted kaffirs to the railway for transportation into the pitiless Karoo. (La Guma anticipates the "green colonialism" described by Naomi Klein.)

Conversation at dinner is high-toned, about the challenges and duties of preserving God's culture and racial purity in a time of liberalization.

Before dinner, Steen had mildly cajoled Meulen for using the word "kaffir": - "We call them Bantus now." But a few moments later he says:

'I suppose those black things will move?'

Steen inherited money and hasn't needed to farm for a few years, but he's still very interested in making his pile from the minerals concession.

La Guma's book really has some admiration for the principled, orderly lives of the Afrikaners; compared to the shallow, hopeless, unhappy consumerism of the British South Africans Edgar and Maisie.

So he sees the ingrained racism of Steen and Meulen as a tragedy for their own people as well as for the peoples they oppress.

How far the depersonalization of Steen's remark can go, comes out in the account of what happened ten years before, during the wedding night of Meulen's sister.

Such a celebration ought, you would think, to bring reconciliation between people; and that's how the drunk Murile sees it. Actually its effect on Meulen is the opposite: to make him even prouder, even more repulsed by the subject race, and even more punitive. Murile and his baby brother are treated to volleys of "baboon" and "filth" as they're lashed to fence posts with electric flex. But most telling of all is Meulen's reponse to Murile's plea of acquaintance.

'Baas, you know me. This is a bad thing to do, boss. Why, you know me. I carried the buck which you shot, I cleaned your guns, you know me.'

'Know you shit,' Meulen said with contempt. 'Since when do I know a kaffir? One kaffir looks just like another as it concerns me.'

It's important for Meulen's self-respect not to recognize "kaffirs". (Ten years on, there's a careful irony in Meulen not recognizing the man in the hotel garden who's carrying his shotgun.)


For Meulen, his fairy-tale beloved and his Dominee the racial hierarchy is imagined to be sustainable. Edgar and Maisie are more consciously troubled. Theirs is no fairy-tale romance, in fact each wishes the other dead most of the time. And their backgrounds are socially precarious; the shop of Maisie's parents has black customers and they live in a dubious neighbourhood. Edgar is conscious of being treated like "a bloody nigger". They aren't attractive people themselves and they achieve no enlightenment but the book shows this as a missed opportunity, that whites on the edge of society may have more in common with the urban blacks than they realize.

Lanius collaris

[Image source:]

In southern Africa the "butcherbird" is the Southern Fiscal (Lanius collaris), a kind of shrike. (Unrelated to the Australian butcherbirds, which are in the magpie family.)

The bird was named from its habit of impaling insects and other food on thorns. The butcherbird is considered beneficial, especially by farmers whose animals were tormented by ticks. He is "a hunter and a smeller-out of sorcerers", as Shilling Murile says.

So the novel meditates on a time of violent cleansing.


The wealthier Afrikaners have stinkwood furniture in their homes. This is Black Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata), formerly prized by cabinet-makers for its beautiful close-grained timber, but no longer commercially available due to over-exploitation.


When Meulen arrives Steen is reading "a story by Potgieter". This was the Dutch author Everhardus Johannes Potgieter (1808-1875), romantic, extremely patriotic, a firm believer in trade and a good businessman.


Extensive essay by Kathleen M. Balutansky (Google Books has nearly all of it) in The Novels of Alex La Guma: The Representation of a Political Conflict (Three Continents Press, 1990). Structured around the symbolisms of the title and the opening and closing paragraphs.

Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, "Sharpeville and its Aftermath: The Novels of Richard Rive, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma and Lauretta Ngcobo" Argues that Butcherbird suffers from the author's long exile and resorting to a non-South African readership; it is less concretely imagined than his earlier urban works. Says there are minor mistakes "such as putting Sesotho words in the mouths of Xhosa-speaking Africans from the Cape where his novel is set".

Annie Gagiano, '"The Tree Goes on":Reconsidering Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird' in English in Africa Vol 24 No 1 (May 1997).  Available on Jstor:
Troubled by the novel's apparent celebration of Murile's revenge killing.

Louis Tremaine, 'Ironic Convergence in Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird'. . In the one-page extract, Tremaine refers to La Guma's observation, a few years earlier, that the colour bar made it impossible for any South African writer to portray both white and black characters with equal inwardness, and points out that Butcherbird is his first book to attempt to portray white characters at length.

Anders Breidlid, "Resistance and Reaction in Alex La Guma's And A Threefold Chord". Thinks in depth about Benita Parry's criticism that La Guma's realist fiction isn't an adequate form for a genuine resistance literature or oppositional discourse.

Simon Lewis's review of Nahem Yousaf's Alex La Guma: Politics and Resistance (2001) . Asks the question, how do we read La Guma's Fanonism now, given that the apartheid regime ended without a civil war in 1994? (La Guma died in 1985.)

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers & Empire has a chapter on La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End, (Selected pages on Google Books.) He points out that some of the changes disernible in Butcherbird, compared to its predecessor, are down to the  intervening Soweto massacres following the children's uprising in 1976.  Time of the Butcherbird was written when the long-foreseen civil war seemed to be already under way.


My earlier piece on Alex La Guma's first novel, A Walk in the Night

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Honoré de Balzac: Le Cousin Pons (1847)

Superbly read by the great Bruce Pirie, in Ellen Marriage's fine translation, for Librivox . There are not many securer pleasures in life than hearing Pirie read Balzac, unless it's hearing him read George Eliot or Tolstoy.

This note is for those who have heard or read Le Cousin Pons recently. It would be a shame to spoil that experience by knowing anything about the plot or characters in advance.


French text:
Online text (Ellen Marriage translation):

Reproduction of Honoré Daumier: The Free Performance

[Image source:]


After an introduction in Balzac's most discursive manner, Cousin Pons explodes into drama, mostly in direct speech, the pace ever-accelerating until the end. Its titular hero is on his deathbed, and the book revolves around the efforts of a catalogue of rogues both high and low to plunder Pons' collection and thwart its settlement on his too-unworldly friend Schmucke. As a narrative of death and its aftermath, it's painful and accurate. Balzac isn't a comic novelist in the way that Dickens is, but there's the energy of comedy; it's comedy in the sense that Beckett or Dostoyevsky are comic.

Despite the dying Pons' heroic last-ditch attempt to outwit them, the rogues triumph in the end. They comprise some of the most unsavoury characters in the whole human comedy; above all the bent lawyer Fraisier, and those equally horrific women from opposite ends of the social scale, Mme. Cibot and the Presidente de Marville.

Often the book indulges emotively in the simple contrast of good with evil. But this is persiflage; behind it lies a much more searching analysis. Pons is not portrayed as a deeply lovable man, and Schmucke is too innocent; he is both good and not good for very much. Pons was once a composer, but he's come down in the world. His brilliant collecting, his eye for a bargain, creates an instability in the social fabric; you cannot bring this much wealth into a poor neighbourhood without having it taken off you. When Mme. Cibot belatedly understands that her old gentleman's bric-a-brac is worth a great deal of money, her behaviour, not her character, changes in the blink of an eye.

All the rogues do well for themselves, but a collection such as this ends up in the hands of the upper classes; at which point, you may say, a stable balance has been attained once more. Fraisier is clear-sighted in seeing that he can only have what it fits him to have. It's the triumph of a society on the make. The fearsome greed of individuals is only a symptom of larger economic forces at work. There's a certain irony in that the surrender of Schmucke's legacy is ultimately brought about not by the wholly corrupted Fraisier but by Gaudissart, the rather likeable impresario. The simple notions of crime, innocence and guilt, are displaced by the more neutral idea that it's just a matter of finding the right price for the person; and one succeeds better if one possesses a certain amount of genuine human warmth. Schmucke's price is, of course, shockingly low.  


Sebastian del Piombo, portrait of Cardinal Antonio Pallavici
[Image source: A Sebastian del Piombo is one of the jewels of Pons' collection.]

Balzac's skill as a narrator is breathtaking; we're never sure where the story is going, and for much of the first 100 pages have little idea of what it's going to be about. (Pons' sudden interest in promoting a marriage for the unamiable Cécile, and Brunner's sudden withdrawal from the negotiations, are perhaps the least well-founded elements.)

Snuff-box by Jean Frémin

[Image source: "Remonencq's eyes lighted up till they glowed like carbuncles, at the sight of the gold snuff-boxes".]

I've enjoyed speculating that Tolstoy´s War and Peace (1865-67) was influenced by Cousin Pons. (Perhaps it's more than  mere speculation, but I'm no Tolstoy scholar.) The reminiscences, if that's what they are, all surround the unpleasant figure of Prince Vasily. Least significant, no doubt, is the collection of snuffboxes and discussion of their finer points in Book III. Then there's the scene, in Book I, Ch 21, where Vasily and Princess Katerina Semyonovna plot abortively to seize and alter the will of the dying Bezukhov in which he leaves everything to his illegitimate son Pierre. Villainy and dirty tricks feel somewhat anomalous topics in War and Peace, alien to Tolstoy's mature vision; but Cousin Pons is a master-class in both. Finally there are the two scenes, close to each other at the beginning of Book III, in which mercenary betrothals are arranged by Vasily; successfully in the case of Pierre and Helena, unsuccessfully in the case of Princess Mary and Anatoly. Both scenes in different ways recall the scene where Fritz Brunner is expected to propose to Cécile.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

weeping white cherry

Here's a tree I've started to tune into this year. It's a weeping cherry with small single white flowers.

I'm not sure if it's:

A.  Prunus 'Snow Fountain' aka 'Snofozam', which I've read is a weeping Higan cherry (P. subhirtella), but not to be confused with weeping pink varieties like 'Pendula rosea', 'Pensula rubra'.

B. Prunus 'Snow Showers' aka 'Hillings Weeping', which I've read is a weeping Fuji cherry (P. incisa).

C. something else.

I've seen it in two forms:  parasol shaped (as here) (grown on a broomstick graft), or narrowly weeping all the way to the ground.

It flowers about the same time as 'Tae Haku'.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

sound poetry international + and swedish

Öyvind Fahlström in 1961

A recent interchange with the Australian poet Hazel Smith brought me to this Russian site, the Electronic Museum of Lingua-Acoustic Space, which I think is a fantastic resource for discovering the extraordinary world of sound poetry.

Besides containing small samples from sound poets across the world (including Hazel Smith), it also contains a lot of history of the genre (bringing to the fore names like Henri Chopin that are well known to aficionados but virtually unknown to many of us who come from a verbal poetry tradition). 

Naturally I was particularly interested in this essay by Teddy Hultberg, about the fitful history of sound poetry in Sweden: 

Re the images here:  

Öyvind Fahlström, Fluxus artist, produced the influential 30-minute piece "Birds in Sweden" for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation in 1963. 

Lars Gunnar Bodin is a text-sound artist associated in the 1960s with Bengt-Emil Johnson, Åke Hodell, Sten Hanson, etc.  (I didn't notice any women's names in Hultberg's essay.) Brief extract of his work below: 

Lars Gunnar Bodin and Sten Hanson in the 1960s

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Friday, April 22, 2016

F O T O, poems 61 - 70

Northern Crowberry (Empetrum hermaphroditum), photo by Anna-Lena Anderberg 

[Image source:]

61. (Washing clothes in the garden)

Plain flowers, children, their tiny tops,
tenderly handled, long gone, long grown out of.

Under a foreign sky, wringing your socks.
For each past, we still carry the useless love.

62. (On the bron Mum arranging flowers)

You spared a posy and naturally it’s obstinate;
the stems huddle, all the worse for the breeze.

Untidy! Your fingers dab, you’d like to plait it.
And then the shape settles just right in your eyes.

63. (Laura and me Holmstagården)

Only us. We switched tables with the sun, and finally
camped out in the café lawn, in bowls of clover.

Sitting still, we pivot. The sweeping pine sweeps in reverse.
And now, the building is watching us over its shoulder. 

64. (Campfire Norrsjön)

In the flurrying smoke clutching your sandwich:
the smile of the lucky one. The flame’s soft ditty

sings like it never stopped singing five years ago,
and you were one of my sisters, minding eternity.

65. (Picnic beneath the pines)

Dad has a dozen casts, and lands a jack-pike.
My concentration broke, but the hundred trees

never miss a single detail. The lake’s latest instalment
narrates all summer. And then? Well, everything freezes...

66. (Drinking tea)

The patchy pine-spires, their sifted lights,
their rationed rain on crowberries, rocks, bilberries —­

for ever. Eclipsed by a totem, bristly pig-face:
all in scented reflection, I tipped it into me.

67.  (Rowing Norrsjön)

Over the blind transom you lolled your fingers...
Far off, a diver honks — us, too! The dinghy bends

and shies, ruffled by waves. They are coursing coldly
under the deck, those songs without friends.

68.  (Sleeve over mouth)

“Have I gone too far at last?” your eyes watched me,
spoilt and shining. You have completely overhauled

the fizzing ant-hill and the sunstriped lake, this isn’t the walk
I thought I’d take. It was nature: but this is wild. 

69. (Moss-hall)

Within the shadows sometimes are quiet halls, bright green
and foodless to go to. Here moss riots, immobile.

A yellow leaf has drifted here, presented on a cushion.
A beach, a church. To scuffle and shriek in the aisle.

70. (Kvarnån in spate)

From out of the woods, Kvarnån aired a crush
of yellow histories; they winked, plunged under the bridge.

And beyond, it steadies, it becomes a brilliant sash. 
They built there: hard, flat rooms; the hum of a fridge...


Back-story: In and around Utanede. 61-62: Cottage chores. 63: Local cafe. 64-67: a local lake (on the forested plateau to the east of the Indal valley). 68-69. Walking back from the lake. 70. Local beck in spate after more rain. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lars Gustafsson: "The hare"

Lars Gustafsson in 1978

[Image source: (Dagens Nyheter):]

Timeline (in Swedish):
Lars Gustafsson's blog:

Lars Gustafsson was chief editor of Bonniers (major Swedish publishing house) for some years in the 1960s. He was a regular columnist for newspapers; his political/cultural views favoured liberalism, rationalism and science. He accused Sweden in the 1980s of drifting towards iron-grey East German collectivism. In his later years he spoke out for reason and science as not just another creed that can be compared to religious faiths and dogmas. He spoke out against fundamentalism and its apologists. Tolerance of intolerance, he said, leads to intolerance.


There's a few mysteries in the Bloodaxe Selected Poems.

In the brilliant "Sörby Elegy", I've found out that a "fyke" is a kind of fishing net, but there's a misprint in the same line. There's a few in the book; probably not important ones, but one sighs for a proof-reader.

In "An early summer day at Björn Nilsson's grave" the word "mol" appears a few times; some sort of monster; I can't find a suitable definition online. Perhaps you have to read the Christopher Middleton poem "The Mol" that Gustafsson mentions.

I ought to speak about John Irons' translation. The only really important thing is that reading the Selected Poems I felt persuaded that I was meeting Gustafsson, I mostly forgot that this was a translation.

You can see a few of the poems in Swedish in the Google Books rendering of Elden och döttrarna: Valda och nya dikter (Bonniers, 2012).

It turns out that "Mörten bears his name with silence" ("Mörten bär sitt namn med tystnad") has an additional section at the start of the poem, not hinted at in the English translation. Why was it important not to write the idiomatic "in silence"?

Here's a poem I can access in full in both languages.

   Haren / The hare

   En eftermiddag fanns han plötslig.
   Alldeles stilla
   Mellan syrenen och vinbärsbusken.
   Precis som hos Dürer:
   öronen längre än huvudet
   och undersidan vit. Stora milda ögon.

One afternoon he was suddenly there.
Completely still between the lilac and the currant bush.
Precisely as in Dürer:
the ears longer than the head
and the underside white. Large gentle eyes.

   Värför satt han så stilla
   frusen till bild i eftermiddagsljuset?
   Hade han ett större förtroende
   till oss än till andre människor?
   Vad hade han för skäl till det?

Why did he sit there so still
frozen to an image in the afternoon light?
Did he have a greater trust
in us than other humans?
What reason did he have for it?

   Mycket rörd, nästan smickrad
   stängde jag dörren. Gick tillbaka.
   Till mitt eget. Nästa dag
   fann jag honom liggande
   i en egendomlig ställning,

Much moved, almost flattered
I shut the door. Went back.
To my own doings. The next day
I found him lying
in a strange posture,

   något mellan sovande och embryo
   utanför verkstadsdörren.
   Några droppar ur vattenkannan
   fick honom att ta några tveksamma steg
   som om han inte längre hade tilltro

something between sleeping and embryo
outside the workshop door.
A few drops from the watering can
got him to take a few hesitant steps
as if he no longer had any credence

   till världen och dess bilder.
   Det var nästa dag som jag insåg
   att han måste vara blind.

in the world and its images.
It was the following day I realized
he must be blind.

   Det var när jag fann honom
   drunknad och mjuk som en trasa
   intill båtbryggan. Vad jag hade
   sett som stilla lugn och tilltro
   var blindhet och ingenting annat.

It was when I found him
drowned and limp as a rag
by the landing-stage. What I had
seen as quiet calmness and credence
was blindness and nothing else.

   >>Naturen är god<< står det
   på något slags paket i kylskåpet.
   Naturen är god.
   Och hur vet ni det

'Nature is good' it says
on certain packets. Brand name Spreadwell.
Nature is good.
And how do you know that,
margarine hawkers?

I'm not going to pick the translation apart. Some obvious points: two lines become one in the first stanza; "trust" and "credence" are used for the same word "tilltro"; "the next" and "the following" for the same word "nästa" ;  most overtly "Brand name Spreadwell" appears in place of "i kylskåpet" ("in the fridge"). Perhaps this reflects a Gustafson variant. "Spreadwell" is a literal translation of Bregott, Sweden's most popular brand of spreadable butter, and it's motto is indeed "Naturen är god".

 ["Paket" is not as definitive as "packet"; it can mean "packaging" in general; so can well be used of a tub of marge.]

"Precis"(line 4) is a more everyday word than "Precisely" - the tone is casual - "Just like in Dürer..."

Urban hare at Kallhäll, beside Lake Mälaren

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

W. B. Yeats: "Blood and the Moon"

Yeats in 1933, photo by Pirie MacDonald

[Image source:]

Blood and the Moon

(from The Winding Stair and other poems, 1933)

Donald Davie expressed his distaste for what he saw as a Fascistic temper to this poem (quoted in full below).

“A Fascist Poem: Yeats’s ‘Blood and the Moon’” (published 1979, reprinted in Modernist Essays: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, 2004 ed. Clive Wilmer).

See also Mohammad Nabi Meimandi’s PhD thesis, “’Just as Strenuous a Nationalist as Ever’, W.B. Yeats and Postcolonialism: Tensions, Ambiguities, and Uncertainties” (University of Birmingham, 2007). 

Nevertheless this reading can't be regarded as orthodoxy. 

Try it for yourself. It's possible to piece something Fascistic together -

a bloody, arrogant power
             rose out of the race

Yeats is referring to ancient Ireland, and probably before Hitler came to power though not before Mussolini did. Perhaps the poem registers a kind of respect for the "bloody, arrogant power", which at least was not half-dead at the top; perhaps the stain of blood is identified with life itself in its fullness; perhaps the stain of blood is even in a way countenanced by the purity of the moon that cannot be stained by it. It's a possible reading, though extremely partial. But contemporary readers might pick up, as we never can, subtleties of tone or phrase that betrayed (like a class marker) very clearly where the author was coming from. Unfortunately they could also make mistakes sometimes, or read only the first four lines.

For me what's apparent in Yeats' poem is the Byzantium-style detachment of old age. That's certainly something to reckon with in our world. Life does become cheaper as one's own grave approaches... all the atrocities have been witnessed, yet somehow the world muddled on...  Only the eternal images of butterflies and the moon are lovely ...  what does it matter about passing screams and blood, now we stand above the centuries....

You might say it's a slackening of ardour for human justice, in the growing dawn of the mystery of one's own extinction, the very sources of life and death... (I'm turning Yeats' wonderful language into cliches, but anyhow)...   I wouldn't call this natural process fascistic, though I agree that the gradual indifference to small individuals contains its dangers and its terrors as well as its beauty. (It's why old people should never be in positions of power.)

Identifying Fascism or other unacceptable things in giants of literature is a game played with great intensity by all of us, university students especially. At school we get fobbed off with literature that is impeccably right-hearted, The Crucible and The Handmaid’s Tale, then our horizons widen and we have to make our own sense of the problem that famous artworks may have an uncomfortably close association with views that we find evil or actions that we find upsetting. As it happens, this provides an educative device. Not everyone knows how to be a critic, still less a reader, but everyone can be a witch-finder. There’s an enliveningly competitive aspect to the game of trying to free our own tastes from moral aspersion, and it’s an obviously relevant way of making a meaningful engagement with what would otherwise be just boring old lit. (If anything, it seems that the aspersed authors receive an unfair amount of attention.)



Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
           Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it,
           Rose like these walls from these
           Storm-beaten cottages —
           In mockery I have set
A powerful emblem up,
And sing it rhyme upon rhyme
In mockery of a time
Half dead at the top.


Alexandria’s was a beacon tower, and Babylon’s
An image of the moving heavens, a log-book of the sun’s journey and the moon’s;
And Shelley had his towers, thought’s crowned powers he called them once.

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.

Swift beating on his breast in sibylline frenzy blind
Because the heart in his blood-sodden breast had dragged him down into mankind,
Goldsmith deliberately sipping at the honey-pot of his mind,

And haughtier-headed Burke that proved the State a tree,
That this unconquerable labyrinth of the birds, century after century,
Cast but dead leaves to mathematical equality;

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme;

Saeva Indignatio and the labourer’s hire,
The strength that gives our blood and state magnanimity of its own desire;
Everything that is not God consumed with intellectual fire.


The purity of the unclouded moon
Has flung its arrowy shaft upon the floor.
Seven centuries have passed and it is pure,
The blood of innocence has left no stain.
There, on blood-saturated ground, have stood
Soldier, assassin, executioner,
Whether for daily pittance or in blind fear
Or out of abstract hatred, and shed blood,
But could not cast a single jet thereon.
Odour of blood on the ancestral stair!
And we that have shed none must gather there
And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon.


Upon the dusty, glittering windows cling,
And seem to cling upon the moonlit skies,
Tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock butterflies,
A couple of night-moths are on the wing.
Is every modern nation like the tower,
Half-dead at the top? No matter what I said,
For wisdom is the property of the dead,
A something incompatible with life; and power,
Like everything that has the stain of blood,
A property of the living; but no stain
Can come upon the visage of the moon
When it has looked in glory from a cloud.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

urban primroses

A characteristic spring sight in towns and cities, a group of normal-looking primroses with a sprinkle of magenta-coloured plants.

Does the urban primrose have its own taxonomic status, distinct from the country primrose, Primula vulgaris?  

Or should the population be regarded as a hybrid swarm, like what happens when Red Campion meets White, or Herb Bennet meets Water Avens?

Presumably the magenta is due to introgression from garden Polyanthus species.

But what intrigues me is the uniformity of these populations. E.g. there always seems to be the same proportion of magenta plants. For example, you never see a group which is 95% magenta and 5% yellow.

What controls this proportion and makes this a stable population type?


Friday, April 15, 2016

Tomorrowland again - 3

[Images: experiment with using the mobile blogger app with photos sent to me on WhatsApp. I think these show Prunus 'Shirotae'. They were taken in Herne Bay, Kent 14/4/16.] 

When Lisa Samuel was in the throes of emigrating from California to New Zealand, "tomorrowland" was her nickname for a destination where the date was already tomorrow. 

"Tā moko", the tattooed facial designs of Maori culture, turn up in the poem as the woman "with blueprints on her face" (ATBMOV, p. 75) and as "our blue-stained faces" (TBC, p. 91). Less certainly, "the family carved its ink along its flesh to remember" (S, p. 30); "Then Eula took to etching ink into the hide as well" (NOM, p. 41).

Crux, see also crocks (TBC p. 90).

Traduced upon the southern cross
Whose shining pistels meet apart  (ATBMOV p 83)

Birds and feathers. passim. ATBMOV pp. 74-75.


Important are both the umbrella and the parasol (TBC, p. 90).

Also the shovel. (ATBMOV, pp. 80-81)

The adze. (e.g. ATBMOV, p. 82 "The world collects itself for you / an adze and scarf waft"). Ancient tool. There survive prehistoric Maori adzes that were used for woodcarving. "The pounding of the adze" (TBC, p. 89)  (unexpected use of an adze).


Useful email interview with LS from 2013 by fellow NZ poet/academic Jack Ross:


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Prunus x yedoensis (Yoshino Cherry)

Yoshino Cherry  has a complex origin that is still being studied, but everyone agrees that it's a hybrid that arose in the 18th century. In many ways it behaves like a species cherry. It's easily grown from cuttings and it produces plenty of small, sour fruit.

Here's the most informative article I've found:

Botany Boy gives the parentage as a cross between P. speciosa (syn. P. lannesiana) and P. spachiana f. ascendens (syn. P. pendula f. ascendens) (Innan et al, 1995). But it's possible things have moved on since then.

Yoshino Cherry trees are propagated vegetatively and so are believed to be clonally identical to the original 18th-century cross.

But how then to account for the cultivars, of which there are several? The supposition is that these must be crosses with other taxa. Which means, I suppose, that the fruit sometimes produces seedlings.

I usually think of Yoshino Cherry as being absolutely smothered in blossom, but this is mainly when the tree is young and compact.  As you can see from the photos here (an older tree in Swindon's now-moribund Moredon Tree Collection), it eventually develops quite an open canopy. It's still loud with bees and still extremely attractive; anyhow for a couple of weeks in April.

In Japan, the Yoshino Cherry is still the dominant variety in parks etc, producing breathtaking sweeps of flesh coloured landscape during its few days of peak blossoming. This is a somewhat equivocal legacy of Japan's militaristic era up to WW2. The intensity and uniformity inspired social cohesion and a stern patriotism dedicated to this newly constructed, falsified and simplified idea of the essence of Nippon. The synchronized transience of the blossom emphasized glorious death rather than exuberant fertility.

Meanwhile Japan's fantastic heritage of other cherry varieties (from the 16th -mid-19th century) was generally neglected and many varieties were at risk of extinction. That's the context of Collingwood Ingram's work, as recounted by Naoko Abe in her book 'Cherry' Ingram: the Englishman Who Saved Japan's Blossoms (2019).

The bark on mature trees has distinctively thick corky lenticels. This tree doesn't look as if it's been grafted. (Most internet sources say that Yoshino cherries are grafted, but some say the opposite.)

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Two arguments for literary relativism

estate fence through rainy windscreen

1. Greatness is not absolute. One person builds a cathedral, and another makes a table-fork. A cathedral is a far greater thing than a fork can ever be, but it isn't so good for eating with. In short, a fork is a better fork than a cathedral is. Even a plastic one.

(This argument is adapted, or rather misremembered, from something C.S. Lewis wrote.)

2. I am fond of wild flowers. A few flowers are special favourites of mine, but for reasons that I recognize as purely personal. Generally I have no need to choose among them. My interest in, and enjoyment of wild flowers goes along quite nicely without any thought of comparative judgment. Why then should a reader feel compelled to describe one book as better or worse than another?


The two arguments are complementary. The analogy in the second argument (i.e. wild flowers) is carefully chosen. Wild flowers don't have a use, or rather, their use is principally a matter for themselves. They may appeal to you, but whether they do or not, we aren't interested parties. As soon as we become engaged, for instance as gardeners or farmers, plants begin to take on comparative values. (Some become judged as weeds.) The argument "I am fond of people..." is not so self-evident since most of us are highly judgmental of people.

But the first argument specifically addresses use, and asserts that the relation of reverence to use is not simple. Indeed disuse makes meaning, as happens, according to Lars Gustafsson, with obsolete machines. And a Marxist view of art as surplus value would also be consistent with that.

Yoshino Cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in the Moredon Tree Collection


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Lars Gustafsson

I was only just starting to discover Lars Gustafsson's poetry, via this Christmas present, the 2015 selection translated by John Irons for Bloodaxe, when I discovered that he'd died; it was little more than a week ago, on the 2nd or 3rd of April.

This kind of thing is bound to happen occasionally to any reader of modern poetry; last year, too, I was finally getting down to reading Lee Harwood properly for the first time when news came through of his death.

It's a strange feeling. In the euphoria of discovery, delighted recognition of the solidity of the work, it's impossible to grieve. I don't only mean that I can't share in the raw grief of the poet's near ones - that goes without saying - I mean that I can't share in the heavy yet hollow feeling that long-term readers of Gustafsson will be feeling now.

When a poet has been, so to speak, your daily bread, then the poet's death is an upheaval that mysteriously changes the poetry. (I'm speaking above all of what I remember to have been my feelings when Peter Redgrove died in 2003.) The most basic fact for the reader is that there will be no new messages; only an archive. And evidently we read the poems of living poets that we "follow" in this different way: as messages, as updates, even from someone who doesn't know of our existence.

When a poet dies there's a little burst of sales and reading and celebration, like a pimple on an imposing statue's nose.  And then, for some few years, comes a period of withdrawal, when the poet lies hidden behind a screen. Seamus Heaney lies there now. We need, as poetry-readers, to take a long breath and to re-inhabit the world that exists and continues to exist without that dominant voice. Are we even really ready, yet, to think about Ted Hughes again?

And for the devoted fan, now the immediacy of communication is over, a period of doubt enters in. Was Redgrove's poetry all I had thought it when I was living it?  I became reluctant to open Redgrove's books, and I still feel that reluctance now. I want to preserve the memory of my own experience of the work's vigour and sappiness, in the days when it was still growing.

So in a way a poet has two separate readerships, those who read the living author and those who read the dead one; and they don't necessarily mix.


There's in fact a number of resemblances between Gustafsson and Redgrove; both poets with an interest in science, and with an interest in imagining beyond what science knows; both prolific, quotidian authors; both cheerfully detached from the poetic schools and conflicts of their time; both authors who have been often acclaimed, and yet perhaps with a certain defensiveness...  but already I'm carrying the analogy too far. Gustafsson's poetry, for example, is preoccupied by our inability to wholly know ourselves, or anything else. It's a philosophical preoccupation.  Redgrove's poetry is quite different in that respect.


   When the air lies still, so do the lakes,
   the great bright lakes, still like quicksilver.  ....

An organ pipe plays the deepest sounds of all, felt only as tremblings. Then the poem drops on to its titular subject: it's called "Bombus terrestris" :

   A flyer who lives in the depths of the forest
   has folded his wings, and is asleep in the rain.

   It is not at the start and not at the end.
   It is mainland, vast tracts that are far

   within maps and deep within time,
   a forest of years protective on all sides,

   and the larks soar up like a jubilant cloud,
   but always some will fall dead, and perish.

The poem continues to switch direction after this too, but that idea of "mainland" is what lodges in my mind.


And here's an extract that chose itself. It's the beginning of a poem called "Concerning everything that still hovers".

   As yet my grave is nowhere visible.
   And thus I too am hovering:
   resting, myself, unknowing,
   I too in a sea of air, an atmosphere.
   Floating with the floating,
   living with the living,
   resting with the resting,
   and, perhaps also, without knowing it,
   dead with the dead.

The hovering, existence as a continuous low hum, is a main focus of the thinking. (I find that, like Per Wästberg who introduces the Bloodaxe volume, I'm leaping from one poem to another, as if they're all part of a common statement.) So the poems are about life, really. But death is part of that.


   There is so little left.
   Of dogs for example
   only their collars.
   Normally sent home in an envelope
   along with the bill
   from the vet.
   Of the really great writers
   some extracts in anthologies
   that are soon thinned out
   over a couple of decades
   and die away in the ever-shorter footnotes
   of secondary literature as the century passes.
   Of Admiral Dönitz, Admiral Nimitz
   and Admiral Tirpitz?
   A few rectangles and triangles.
   Some red. Some blue.


Gustafsson was also a local poet. His dogs, his fishing, his family are very particular in these poems. He lived in the midland county of Västmanland, and the lake on the book-jacket is a lake that often breathes within or beside these poems.

[Image source: . From a group of 18 photographs, by Peter Krüger, of Lars Gustafsson at his summer cottage outside Sala in Västmanland. The pictures were published by VLT (Vestmanlands Läns Tidning) on 3rd April 2016, following the announcement of Gustafsson's death. They were probably taken the previous summer.]

[I will also be a belated reader of Gustafsson's lively blog ("blogg" in Swedish). He was posting regularly until mid-March 2016.]

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Friday, April 08, 2016

F O T O, poems 51 - 60

Martingården, at Nybyn, Överkalix

[Image source:]

51. (Sparkstötting, cartwheels, anchor Överkalix)

The last generation of the old kit
is lovely decaying among the flowers.

Peasant — aristocrat. Against much logic
the trace of your famished life fed my eyes. 

52. (In the cafe/junkshop, Överkalix for Rachel)

Drawers striped with dust, old annuals, kettles, handles;
a tea-mist forms, but you’d brighten it Rachel,

you who quarry the auction browns with warm eyes,
no sentiment of loss. Everything’s up for renewal.

53. (On the drive south)

The stitches out, 600 miles of rain, our last wee-halt
in the woods that smell of humus, then Utanede by midnight.

Back seat dark, still warm. Dad’s hand on the wheel,
plump with bandages, roosts... no. is bright and alert.

54. (Brushing my teeth in the garden)

Dawn sat in the ghost-farm; perhaps took coffee...   
Shadows have pates now: flowers inch open.

An insect whirrs at the grille. Peeking out,
the aspen is glittering. I stumbled into the sun.

55. (Mum in the hammock)

For two minutes and a photograph
you put your feet up. Green morning sunshine.

For eight seconds you gazed across the valley,
swaying between a birch and pine, wishing nothing.

56. (Långfil)

Corner snipped, the carton pumped in my hand,
& the fil flopped into itself in the bowl.

So lovely and white, my spoon hovered,
a bather on the brink. Then I dogged it all.

57. (Dad chopping kindling)

You’ve thought of it all week, the treacherous block
where the axe clanged and split your hand.

Now you have to go back. To do what you dreamt, in shock,
in the muddle of blood: be calm and it’s gone, you rewind...

58. (Sickling the garden)

The hip-high grass, the wineglass bellflowers
toppled, strewn hither and thither. A rake rasps

bouncing on the cellar slopes. They drank their saft  
and swished, from the rust-red walls, stray wisps...

59. (Eyes closed in hammock)

The sun lurches, and the ground tilts, the red cottage;
you shove off, and go sleeping on the wing.

Under your eyelids, the day broadens.
Deep in your shadows, how loud the birds sing! 

60. (Sawing logs)

Chock. I wiped the saw with a clout of grass,
its hot teeth resiny. Racked in the shed, all mine:

so long may I read and dance, so many winter days! 
(But their records go on playing: sap, sweat, rain...)


Back-story. 51-53. The road trip ends, with a day of driving through steady rain. Brief stop for coffee and a loppis at Överkalix in Norrbotten.

53, 57. While L. and I were cycling round Abisko (37 - 50), my dad was at a hospital in Kiruna having the stitches taken out of his hand, following a recent accident with an axe.

54. Waking up in the morning at the summer cottage in Utanede, last seen in Poem 2. This is the locale for the rest of the sequence. Fine weather suddenly, after a very wet summer. Time for the outdoor chores (57, 58, 60).

54. The ghost-farm. An abandoned building on the fringe of the village, hence higher up the slope of the river valley and catching the morning sun earlier. The rural villages of Jämtland (like rural areas elsewhere) are reduced in population; empty buildings are commonplace.

56. Långfil. A regional variety of fermented milk with added butterwort, which gives it a ropy texture (hence "long fil").

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