Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the scale of the north

Storuman, in Västerbotten

[Image source:]

A blog post by the poet Lars Gustafsson, from September 19th, 2010, with approximate English translation by me.

Sjöar utan svall

Att upptäcka Lappland kan för sydsvensken vara en överväldigande upplevelse. Är detta verkligen samma land som det man trodde sig känna därför att man har varit i Surte, Dingle,Västerfärnebo och Lund ? Är det så här en flod skall se ut – som Lule älv eller Vindelälven och inte som Kolbäcksån,Lagan,Nissan,Ätran och Viskan ? Hur var det egentligen med den där gamla expressenrubriken en novembernatt på sextiotalet: BLIXTHALKA I HELA LANDET ? Att resa i Lappland är för den sydsvenske provinsbon, att förändra alla måttskalor;världen breder ut sig,töms på människor och blir ett mäktigt largo. Sydsveriges åar och älvar förvandlas till stillsamma bäckar i jämförelse med Luleälven.En myrmark kan pågå,i stort sett orörd av människa och tid, i tretton mil,ungefär sträckan Stockholm-Köping;förkrympta björkar långt från varandra,plötsliga vattenglimtar ,permafrostens märkvärdiga upphöjningar som termitstackar, och allt insvept i myrväxternas apoteksdoft mil efter mil.

Men det allra märkvärdigaste är sjöarna.Mäktiga som innanhav ligger de och tiger därute i sommarljuset,Storuman ,Stora Lule träsk. Båda har en yta på något mer än 160 kvadratkilometer. (Åmänningens mäktiga vidder i norra Västmanland uppgår till futtiga 29 kvadratkilometer )Vid första anblicken kan dessa lappländska vatten se ut som de stora sommarsjöar man har vant sig vid,Mälaren,Vättern,Siljan.Tills man plötsligt ,hisnande,ser skillnaden.

Det finns inte en båt därute.Inte en båt så långt som ögat når.Inga marinor,inga vita segel,inga motorbåtar som drar upp svall.För första gången i mitt liv ser jag stora sjöar som sommartid saknar båtar. Och inser att det är ju så här sjöar egentligen ser ut. Båtar är ju i grund och botten ett slags klotter på rena ytor,eller ?


Lakes with no wakes

Discovering Lappland, for southern Swedes, can be an overwhelming experience. Can this really be the same land that one imagined one knew on the basis of Surte, Dingle, Västerfärnebo and Lund ? And is this how a river really ought to look: like Luleälven or Vindelälven; and not like Kolbäcksån, Lagan, Nissan, Ätran or Viskan? And how differently, now, I think of that old Expressen headline one November night in the 1960s: BLACK ICE ACROSS THE WHOLE COUNTRY!  To journey in Lappland is, for the southern provincial, a matter of changing one's scale: the world broadens, it empties of people, it becomes a gigantic Largo. The rivers of southern Sweden seem like placid streams in comparison to Luleälven. Up here a bog may extend, largely without a single trace of man or time, for eighty miles, roughly the size of Greater Stockholm: stunted birch-trees, widely separated; sudden glimpses of water; the permafrost's remarkable groundswells, resembling termite-mounds; and always the bog's ubiquitous pharmacy-scent, for mile after mile after mile...

But the most astonishing things are the lakes. As big as inland seas, stretching silently into the summer-lit distance: Storuman, Stora Luleträsk. Each has a surface area of more than 160 km2. (By comparison, the mighty Åmänningen in northern Västmanland extends a paltry 29 km2). At first glance these Lappland waters do resemble the big summer lakes we know so well further south: Mälaren, Vättern, Siljan... Until suddenly, with an intake of breath, one sees what's different.

There are no boats out there. Not a single boat, as far as the eye can see. No sailors, no white sails, no motorboats spreading wakes behind them. For the first time in my life I'm seeing a big lake in summertime without any boats on it. And the realization dawns that this is what lakes really look like. The boats are basically... like graffiti on a clean surface. Aren't they?

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

crippled by gentility - revised

The signs don't look good that I'll be doing much writing this week,  so to give you something to read I'm exhuming this post, which first appeared here in a rudimentary form about five years ago, then (much expanded) on Intercapillary Space in 2013.

Lime trees in Eastville Park, Bristol (7th November, 2015)


There is class war on the internet as everywhere else. And I'm as implicated as anyone, and (thinking of myself as a player here, because I've now written so many literary pieces) I keep noticing common literary/journalistic expressions that I just would never use, because of personal snobbery and because I want people to see that I've got more class than to write crap like that (which really means that I'm not being told what to write by paymasters, because no-one gives a toss about what I write).

1. "a gem of a book"

Pure Hustle is a gem of book ... (Jo Shapcott on Kate Potts' debut collection for Bloodaxe.) BTW, since we're taking potshots, the Bloodaxe website is rubbish. Can you imagine it, you can't even browse in the books, there's no samplers! So the only things Kate Potts has got to promote her probably unique gifts are two worthless blurbs, Jo Shapcott's heartwarming "gem of a book.. pure gold..." and Jen Hadfield's woolly stab at a more surreal style ("this assonance-jellied, beetle-drawer of a pamphlet..."). Is this of any use to anyone? Contrast, of course, the Shearsman or Salt websites: you can really discover a whole lot about, say (pause...), Sascha Aurora Akhtar's The Grimoire of Grimalkin.. Hey, I like this book a lot; that wasn't in the script. I thought Salt had stopped publishing my kind of books (NB I was right, but you can still buy some old things). Anyway, you see what I mean? That's what a publishing website needs to do, isn't it? The business of a publisher is to publish, not just print.

[This was written in 2011. Unfortunately,  Sascha Aurora Akhtar's book is no longer on the Salt site. You can read more about Kate Potts' book here:]


"This gem of a book" - most appropriately used of debut collections: attempting to suggest a cherished personal discovery that one has hugged to oneself for ages before coyly, earnestly, almost reluctantly, feeling impelled to speak of it among friends.

Of course we don't use expressions like this in the alt-poetry world.  (We pretend that we don't have any friends, while mainstreamers pretend that they don't live in an economy.)  Perhaps we view the gushingness of "this gem of a book" as further evidence that mainstreamers in general don't have any thoughts about poetry worth attending to, while they continue to believe that we don't  really care for poetry at all but just use it to promote our own personal agendas; both very true insights.

The more general form of the expression used by both Shapcott and Hadfield ("This A of a B")  now appears to survive only in the provincial world of books, long since discarded from more fashionable media spheres (who used to say "this colossus of a performance", "this determined beauty of an anti-single" etc).

More distantly, it makes me think of:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Essentially all these expressions are about asserting (creating) value, i.e. they attempt to propose a heroic scena in which swords are magic and heroes can hold up stone bridges with their bare hands. Used in reviews, this transmutes into a heroic/commercial nexus, i.e. in which you can BUY THE ACTION: bucklers, bridges and all.

2.  "in defence of"


Yup. That's it. No, I mean, that's one of the things I would never, ever write: an article entitled "In Defence Of" something. But lots of people do. Try Googling "in defence of" ... well,  anything. Modernism, moral imperialism, moral absolutes, mothers, monarchy, moderate aesthetic formalism, model-based inference in phylogeography, Morgan Tsvangirai, and that's just the MOs.

Gillian Beer in defence of rhyme (Guardian, Jan 13th 2007): "Rhyme is often dismissed as conventional, old-fashioned and childish. Not so, argues Gillian Beer, who believes its potential to persuade and surprise should not be underestimated". That's the subEditor speaking, with his brisk "Not so". The article that follows is often intelligent, not at all original, and eventually sinks under the oppressive discomfort of trying to pretend to be a perky topical must-read: "One difficulty in discussing the effects of rhyme is that these are manifold and diverse," the author laments helplessly.

(Bit of a soft target, you're thinking? I know. The fact is that I've lost contact with the original article that inspired this particular snobbery; I can't even remember if it was about poetry or not.)

So why are people so fond of titling their articles "In Defence of X"? Because it vaguely reminds them of other articles they've read. They think it's a clever quote from something, was it Shelley? (No, it wasn't.) Even if it was a clever quote, I'd despise it because it wasn't a cleverer one. Think of all those other vague appropriations of forgotten quotations: I want to say that entitling your essay "Post-Structuralism and Its Discontents" (Globalization, Simulation, The Euro...), or telling us that things are "always already" such-and-such, so far from differentiating you, in fact places you on just the same beery level as if you wrote "The Great British Barbecue" (Pudding, Christmas..).

But the real reason why cool people don't use "In Defence Of..." is this. Consider the scenario: you use it to stand up for something that is, in your opinion, under attack. In other words, you tell the world that you're going to come on a bit reactionary here. Obviously, you're saying it oh-so-knowingly so as to prove that you're not REALLY a reactionary. (Keston Sutherland could possibly get away with that, but absolutely no-one else can.) But it won't work. Your title proves exactly the opposite. It proves you have a taste for sitting among reactionary furniture, so probably you ARE a reactionary, it's just that you're so reactionary that you don't even realize how reactionary you are. Actions speak louder than words. (And it's a safe bet that though you're finding relief in giving vent to some of your reactionary views now, you're still holding back on all the worst ones.)

But, wait a minute, doesn't it make a difference WHAT you're defending? No, not really. Never defend. It's A. defensive behaviour B. A lost cause. C. Suggests the puzzled blinking of an owl in daylight. D. Proves you're in denial.

And by the way, the perhaps exemplary object that you've set out to defend is now, thanks to your own bungling, tainted by association with the reactionary attitudes encoded in the word "defence".

You think I'm joking. Well, take Michael Pollan's big-selling "In Defence of Food". Main assertion, that there's no point taking any nutritional supplements because you cannot reduce food, which is so chemically complex, to a small number of active principles. I can't help noticing that the same argument would seem to condemn all medicine or pharmaceutics; it asserts an obfuscatory integrity of nature and makes experiment or investigation as impious as to question the ways of God. Interesting argument, nonetheless. But hold on! Soon the author is complaining that people don't even sit down together to a family meal these days! And if you want to know what real food is, then it's whatever your grandmother would have recognized! .... The author together with his cherished damsel (defended object: "Food" in this instance) are equally betrayed from within by these mindless Daily-Mail-isms.

There's a more important reason than any of that. Attack and Defence are like Good and Evil, they tend to reduce the complexity of nature to the ancient binary systems, always more or less inaccurate, that humans rightly fall back on in extreme emergencies when action of some sort is paramount and layers of complexity must be stripped from the vision. At all other times, binary is pointlessly wrong.

3.  "oft-presented".

Now that's nasty, isn't it? Evidently, the word "oft" is a poeticism and has no idiomatic existence today, supposing it ever did. Nevertheless some people love to use it when they're writing. Well, I don't. Oh but surely this is just about personal taste? No, it's about class struggle. But it doesn't necessarily work the way you might assume. In this case, middlebrow huxters write things like "oft-denied" or "oft-imperilled" in order to demonstrate, as they suppose, that they have some culture about them, that they're at ease with public writing. Highbrow huxters would be ashamed to do the same, because their secret conviction is that their writing is sufficiently commended by its own essence to obviate the need for pathetic decoration with such faded blossoms as this.

4.   "I'm reminded of"

People are very funny when writing about other people's poetry books. When it's the kind of poetry that I mostly follow, the the primary experience of the reviewer is usually puzzlement, and this can be signalled in various ways, of which this one. If a modern poet is lucky enough to get a review at all, it's usually just a ragbag of "I'm reminded of".

This phrase means that the critic is about to introduce something that, within the critic's personal imagination, has a vague connection with the book under review. At the same time, the phrase signals that the critic realizes that this association, this something, is in all probability purely personal to the critic, and is not at all likely to be known to the poet; and is probably an evanescent impression that oughtn't even to be mentioned, but hey.

[Something similar to this is when the reviewer confides "I happened to be reading such-and-such last night and ..." ... followed by quotation from tangentially relevant book.]

There seems to be a consensual recognition that a review of a book is not a study of the author's work. It is sufficiently justified, so this consensus runs, by being written by a reader and by honestly recording how it strikes them. But does this mean that the reviewer-reader's happenstance experiences are all grist to the mill? Traditionally, I'd say no. In former days the reviewer aimed for typicality, or rather pretended to do so. Now that this is rightly discredited, the modern reviewer is encouraged to confide the random synchronicities of their readerly life, even when only flimsily connected to the book in hand. I think that's how it's meant to work.

5.   "There is a sense of"

This timidly risks proffering an interpretation, while ready to snatch it away at the first hint of a frown.

Perhaps it is meant to evoke the enormously long, calm middle-distance musing that I remember from university tutorials. I hate the way these manners still persist.

6.  "only to"

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, 'Eurydice' suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek myth around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again. .... it is tempting to conclude .... Chillingly, .... etc etc. (Stride review of James Womack by Thomas White.)

Is it fair of me to single out out "only to", surely that's unobjectionable??

Well, perhaps it is as regards the quotation I've taken up, but it strikes a disagreeable note in me nevertheless. It's something to do with being knowing, with consciously seeing all round a subject, and with abusing the short and easie way to seeing all round a subject, which is reductiveness. You fancy that in the hierarchy of knowingness, Thomas White sits somewhere above Christopher Reid who himself sits above Ovid who sits above poor naive old Orpheus. White, above all, knew where the story would end almost before it began. Yet to me (doubtless excessively reverential) this hierarchy is upside-down. The commentator should never sit above the subject, you can't see through your own butt.

7.  "who should know better"

This chiding schoolmasterly phrase is inexplicably popular among critics who, I think, would want to reject its implications if they thought them over. Borrowing the enemy's weapons is good in war but bad in criticism, is the way I see it.

8. "serves to"

This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Obviously part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing (as per 6); the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. In Righter's case, this knowingness is probably unintended. She is apt to state that such-and-such a passage "serves to" support her thesis, when it might seem to serve to do other things that are a lot more obvious. (I mean just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? Isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's one of the most obvious things there is, that "make-believe" is something that a young child "gets" without any help whatever?)

The other part of my objection, and I admit this is more speculative, is that this expression encodes a master-and-servant view of the world. I am all right with services as something provided by servers (computers) or by companies. But I'm uncomfortable with people serving and I'm uncomfortable with a view of the world or nature as something whose main function is to serve us. And I extend this to the materials of art. I don't believe that the artist's relationship to her/his materials is one of using them to serve her/him. I see the relationship as more human and more tentative. The artist, as I see it, participates with materials (such as language or vocabulary) that are already imbued with a certain life because of their context within interpretive communities.

9. "itself"

We live of course in an era where art tends be self-conscious and self-reflexive and self-referring. Somehow this has been seen by many not as lame-brained mannerism but as a revolutionary kind of brilliance that they have been keen to associate with and to mimic. (The truth is, it's nothing but a heat-sink for controlled dispersal of those instinctive revolutionary restlessnesses that one hesitates to deploy to any real purpose.)

Personally I was bored of it in 1976 and I haven't become much less bored of it since.

Most literary commentators are not Jacques Derrida. Their wielding of self-reflexive argument amounts to little more than arriving at the word "itself".

What the hell am I talking about?

...interweaves political intrigue, personal responsibilities and the ways in which the forces of history are played out in the struggles of individual human lives. But its true subject is perhaps the role of narration and the limits of storytelling itself.

(Jacket note to the Edinburgh Edition of Scott's Peveril of the Peak.)

Can you hear the triumphalism in that ending? The author believes that by arriving at the word "itself" they have achieved a climax beyond which no other is necessary or even possible. Like St Anselm defining (or rather, manhandling) God into "that than which nothing more Godly can be conceived".

But why did and does this snake-swallowing-its-tail manoeuvre have (in the eyes of its authors) such incredible prestige? I believe it's to do with the disenfranchisement of the first-year Arts student who suddenly ceases to acquire any further information about the world, while her/his colleagues continue to dully mug up on economics, technology, genetics, chemistry, medicine, civil engineering and political history. Meanwhile the Arts student is left with her /his swift intelligence intact, but without any knowledge. (I know. I was one.) The outcome is that the Arts student becomes addicted to rebuttals of this form: "If that were true then it would also undercut your statement since this itself would by implicated by what you claim."  It's a form of argument that requires hardly any knowledge about the actual topic under discussion, and for that very reason (an inner consciousness of comparative ignorance) it seems to its author almost miraculously clever, the first couple of times they pull it off. A lot of people never get over the thrill of it.

NB Yes, St Anselm was an Arts student.

10. "It is as if"

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

(Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates (2007))

Ah, fancy! "It is as if" introduces a proposition with the minor concession that it has no basis in fact, but offering as a substitute the rarely-kept promise of a brilliant dash of intellectual play.

Obviously I have no sense of humour left. I note that Seneca did commit suicide ("all but incapable"?), and that his slow bloodflow was due to being old, and almost certainly not to reading Plato. I also note that contrasting Rome disparagingly with Greece has a long literary tradition. Why was anyone bothering to write this, in 2007? What was this, actually, but bookmaking;  that is, very old wine in new bottles?

("Nicely summed up", according to the columnist who requoted it.)

11. "extraordinary"

This is more spoken than written. If you listen to or watch any arts program (I'm basing this mainly on BBC Radio 3), then you'll find that the interview is paved not only with plugs, awards, anniversaries and anecdotes of the famous but with the regular utterance of the word "extraordinary", used to self-complacently celebrate shared moments in the speaker's own life-experience. A generous reading of this interview-mannerism is that it honourably recognizes the distinction of others and encourages the listening art-lovers to see their own art-loving lives in terms of a series of "extraordinary" events shared with art-makers; though one must point out that even this generous reading boils down to an encouragement to spend more money. An ungenerous reading (Heaven forbid!) would interpret it as someone working hard to define themselves as within a hagiographised elite, and reporting a certain wonder at finding themselves there. So far from this sense of wonder being disabling, it is actually legitimizing, since it is well-known that members of an elite are A. humble B. born to it.

12. "not dissimilar to"

Another vague pretext for the imminent incorporation of dubiously relevant mental clutter, as per 4 and 10, above.

But really, I'm including this only as an excuse to quote Prynne, writing about the opening lines of Tintern Abbey.

The present visit is made 'again' after this double interval [sc. five summers/winters], part-clement and part-forbidding, and 'again' is a marker word which is itself repeated, so that these linked doublings establish a rhythm not dissimilar to the rhetorical patterns of the renaissance handbooks, or the looping journeys of a tour of visitations. 

 (from the essay "Tintern Abbey, Once Again" in Glossator (Fall, 2009))

This quotation is meant to be a welcome refreshment (plus, don't you think clement and forbidding would be a good pair of concepts to characterize Prynne's poems?).

How much more suggestive is that word "visitations" than (what one more commonly achieves on a tour) mere "visits" !

Ah, poetry!

But still, "not dissimilar to" remains a burbling reminder of dubious relevance. How vastly have the repetitions within Wordsworth's text been amplified in Prynne's commentary! A commentary that very much enjoys overflowing the bounds of its subject. Attentiveness is one thing; but amplification, that's something else, there's a fuzziness in it. In this case the amplification is done by raking in some bits and pieces that the poem doesn't hint at (those very unspecified renaissance handbooks, for example) and by doubling the doublings again and again, not omitting to apply the essential assurance of the word "itself" (see 9, above).

Well, it's no good getting too hung up over vocabulary. Prynne's essay (it was written in 2001, in fact) is after all exemplary, its sentences full of depth-charges (four examples: "variations of nature and nurture" in unripe apples; the latency, absence and promise in "murmur"; connection of orchard tufts to youth; and the contemplative threshold of "natural unhoused wandering and its mimicry by the traveller on tour"). Anyway, that's enough of praise for now.

[This pallid eviscerated UK poetics-related whine is a stub. You can help Mikipedia by expanding it.]


Sunny side up

Posting from my phone. Laura thinks a post about her Saturday bout of salmonella would be a good topic and I agree. We went to Bath, though she was already feeling well dodgy. After parking the van she went and lay down in the back while I drank tea from the thermos and talked to a coach driver who was passing the day while his flock went round the Christmas market. We got half way down the woodland walk and she threw up her breakfast juice under an ash tree. Then we went to Costa and she sat with her head on the table. We gave up on shopping and went back to the van and drove to Swindon, stopping on the way for Laura to be sick outside Dyrham Park. In the evening we watched Place in the Sun, back to back Dinner Date and about three hours of Britain on Benefits. Laura said it was the best evening in she'd had for ages. She reckons people often get ill to get some proper downtime.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Buzz Aldrin, and walking on the moon (July 20, 1969)

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

I wrote this after listening to an audiobook of Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon, written by Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham (2009). I wonder if a support author like Abraham ever dreams of forming a literary masterpiece out of a celebrity's memories. That is almost what this is.

That lunar landing remains a witnessed miracle without counterpart: the moon, indeed, sent us a little mad. The now-popular idea that it couldn't have really happened is testimony both to the miracle and to the madness. As philosophers have often pointed out, witnesses to a miracle will, as details fade, tend to eventually deny that they could have seen what makes no sense; every other explanation, no matter how far-fetched, that saves the appearances of non-miraculous earth, will (in accord with Hume's reasoning) soon be recognized as more probable than the miracle itself. That the moon had for millennia been a defined barrier in our cosmology, separating the transient from the transcendent world; that we would actually see history change, the very moment (no later re-enactments for the cameras).  Now as much as then, the wonder of it is palpable. And yet we easily forget. Because what was the consequence? What was all that about? Do we inhabit the moon? Do we use it for anything? 

Anyway, Magnificent Desolation is a wry and funny parable about pioneering achievement, the aging of a civilization, our slow embrace of virtuality. It begins with the Apollo 11 landing.  Buzz in his later years slowly morphs into the media personality role that, immediately after the Apollo 11 mission, he found so difficult to handle. Years of depression and alcoholism were to follow. Buzz at these low points seems to be trifling, still obsessed with serving his country and still jotting down wild designs while increasingly isolated from NASA, but (after his third marriage, to Lois) it all starts to come right. The space programme seems to be dying on its feet, but Buzz's vision continues to shine a light (if only in virtuality and space tourism for billlionaires) on how to continue the amazing ascent of those sixty years from Kitty Hawk to the moon, thereafter in forty-year hiatus.

After having attained the goal of reaching the moon Joan had forgiven me for my infidelity, and still hoped that the "old Buzz" would return once I was "well". She even went along with me on the tour to help promote the book. Before long we received overtures about a possible deal in the works to do a television movie. So, although Joan and I still weren't functioning well as a married couple, we were at least together. Indeed, we could have been fine, but for my recurring bouts of depression, that led to drinking too much alcohol, which led to further depression. It was a downward spiral. I wasn't obnoxious when I drank. I did, however, feel less inhibited. Drinking relaxed me, imparting an almost euphoric sense of wellness. I didn't realize that I was not impressing other people that way at all.

(Random quote - difficult to quote from an audio book...)

One of the wonders of the co-authored celebrity autobiography is that it can have a flexible voice that sometimes initimately records the celebrity's own experience, but, all mixed in with this narrative, can with equal propriety gush like a fan. Every chapter manages to drag in a reference to "after all, this guy did GO TO THE MOON!!!" Even Lois's wedding ring. "That is one small step," quips Buzz the keynote speaker, "in the words of a guy I went on a trip with once."

As an insight into the cream of western society, Hollywood entertainer Tom Hanks, rocker Ted Nugent, talkshow host Jay Leno and all, you can't do better. Presidents, royalty, chiefs of staff - and Aldrin, somehow more eminent than them all, the one who did something.


Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon, I now realize, belongs to a particular sub-genre of personal narratives in which the focus pans outwards from the newsworthy event that we all want to read more about to its aftermath and its place in the narrator's personal journey. Another good one is Beck Weathers' Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

november morning

Jasminum nudiflorum (Swindon, 24th November 2016)

The last month of autumn; and by the end, with the trees almost leafless, it's autumn with a  distinctly wintry feel. It's time to start looking forward, not back.

And so, walking out to the gate this morning, with a self-satisfied glance at the lawn (speckled with a few leaves, but the grass no longer growing quickly), I caught sight of this new something-else  ...  a glow of yellow close to the ground....

Winter Jasmine is a Chinese species-plant; there are no hybrids or varieties.  Much of its photosynthesis takes place in the the four-angled stems, which stay green for several years, rather than in the, rather sparse, trifoliate leaves.  I suppose the advantage of all this winter adapation is the lack of competition from other plants. The garden is clear now. It won't be shaded out, even though it really doesn't get far off the ground. The stems are long and strong, arching down and rooting where they touch the ground. The jasmine has no fear of winter storms.  

Stems of Jasminum nudiflorum (Swindon, 24th November 2016)

Plane trees, now almost leafless (Swindon, 24th November 2016) 


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gale Nelson, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (2011)

This post, slightly revised, has now been published in Intercapillary Space]

I wrote a piece about Gale Nelson's poetry before:

"Mac Low's diastic process (in Gale Nelson's stare decisis)" 

but when I wrote that I didn't know that he had just published a new book (Burning Deck, 2011). It turned out to be a spectacular one.  Here's one of its 64 poems. 


Lights up in wheel's wrong spool of thread's lost
shine, velvet send-off slips past fuse's ill-wind
crease. Stylize raided atoll in red
grammar; dial aging, trial paid as
soil's dandy venom speeds past cries swelled best for trust
slated and sent upon crab-lamp's oil. Frosted,
the glass is dark. This is not doubt's tremor but doom's best
glint of horse's depth. Throw fading shares over
losing stir, or open trout's first stave about
sand's moist star. Trim land's valid
test, vestige and better path of urged betterment --
not attack's shifting grass. Sing of these
unflagging boards faded, bent and soiled --
yet they still stand. Lights up, set our long parenting mask
as if alone in bigamy's avid gall. 

(p. 23)

The basic thing to know about these poems is that their vowel-letters (A,E,I,O,U) follow a predetermined sequence. The sequences are taken from eight famous Shakespeare passages. This poem follows the vowel-letter sequence of Orsino's speech beginning "If music be the food of love, play on...". (The title "Their Vocal Soul Din" follows the vowel-letter sequence of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.) 

Nelson explains all this in an engaging afterword. He also explains how the groups of poems (eight for each of the eight Shakespeare passages), instead of being presented one after another, are intermixed by following an ancient "knight's circuit" around the 64 squares of the chessboard. (Thus the sample poem I've quoted, though it appears as the twelfth poem in the book, is in fact the third poem in the eighth group. 

al-Adli ar-Rumi's knight's circuit, used to order the poems

But once we start to read the poems, we realize that this afterword is very far from explaining everything that's going on. 

To use the terms of diastic verse, Nelson tells us everything about his seed-text, but he says nothing about the source-text...

The reasonable assumption, then, is that there is no source-text (in diastic verse, a source-text is a reservoir from which all the poem's vocabulary is taken). 

OK, so there's no source-text as such. But the more we examine these poems, the more we realize that their verbal contents are, nevertheless, full of mysteries. The protocol described by Nelson is not so stringent as diastic verse, which virtually precludes personal expression. Following a predetermined vowel-letter sequence is no doubt quite taxing, but it would permit some meaningful expression. Nevertheless, it's apparent that what's going on here, though it often makes a kind of sense, is certainly not the poet just "talking". (This is what happens when talk ends.)

I've slipped down the screen, so here's that sample poem again:


Lights up in wheel's wrong spool of thread's lost
shine, velvet send-off slips past fuse's ill-wind
crease. Stylize raided atoll in red
grammar; dial aging, trial paid as
soil's dandy venom speeds past cries swelled best for trust
slated and sent upon crab-lamp's oil. Frosted,
the glass is dark. This is not doubt's tremor but doom's best
glint of horse's depth. Throw fading shares over
losing stir, or open trout's first stave about
sand's moist star. Trim land's valid
test, vestige and better path of urged betterment --
not attack's shifting grass. Sing of these
unflagging boards faded, bent and soiled --
yet they still stand. Lights up, set our long parenting mask
as if alone in bigamy's avid gall. 

This particular poem is obsessed with three-word phrases of a particular form: "thread's lost shine" "doom's best glint", "trout's first stave", "sand's moist star".  (Generally, the -st suffix plays a very large part in these poems.)  

Readers of the book will recognize some other characteristic features, too. The word "venom", for example: this is one of the words - there are quite a few of them, once you start to look -  that show up just a little bit too often for it to be accidental. ("Best" and "better" are others.) 

Then there's the recurrent emphasis, both in structure and content, on vocal but not necessarily verbal sound: "vocal", "din", "cries", "sing"... 

Then there's the coastal, marshy, grassy landscape and the fishing, here and in almost every poem ("spool", "crab-lamp", "trout"). I like to imagine that the poems breathe a damp and breezy Rhode Island, where Nelson lives (he teaches at Brown University). That's probably a naive idea. These poems are not descriptions of nature. 

But they do, for all that, have a texture that persistently recalls nature. As we can't help noticing in the season of leaf-fall, nature too is habitually patterned, and the patterns are formed, like fallen leaves on a path, by multiplication of chance events. The Oulipian and aleatory procedures deployed by writers like Nelson generate these patterns, too. The closer we examine them, the more we'll see.   


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Leaf fall

Friday, November 18, 2016

Carol Watts, Occasionals again

Young elm, 15th November 2016


Something of an evacuation of light. Persists,
it knows the ending of day. Approaches, it turns
towards heat as love might. Deep in the earth,
rotting gently, sweat. Of leaves, skin's sudden
exposure. Plane trees, in intentional mottling
effect, sun spots. Ruching....

....  Trees cascade, rust hoards, are coin.

....  It is the way woodsmoke brings
life forward, strong as leather, the way yesterday
always joins. With. Scenting tomorrow, its yellow
haunting.  ....

These are extracts from one of the two poems for October 31st.  All of the poems in Occasionals are 28 lines long.  The thought in each poem is fantastically interlaced, so that quoting a few favourite lines, like here, feels like a disjointing: what's quoted is good, yet  I'm aware the meaning of the goodness is largely lost.

That poem was, somewhat, about leaf-fall, but also about love, injustice, SAD, and its contrary... There's also rain in the air, and the watery element musters in larger forces in the  next poem, XVII (24th November - the last poem in autumncuts). Indeed, now it's beginning to flood.

    .... Looking at his feet, they already push.
Through the flow, the child stamps.

And it's getting dark, no sun but "possible light". Earlier in the poem,

                  .... Before an Atlantic
storm, with hours of quiet rising. Weakness,
in light, lays down to rest. The falling out
of purpose.

Later remembered in the resting birds' "fatigue of alarm", this weakness, being necessary and to come, is nevertheless the season's potential. From a certain point of view this weakness is, will be, strength. But that's rather a drastic reconfiguration of values. How do we, or the complaining cat outside the window, negotiate it?



Yet light reverses sameness, the word. Latte is a witness-board
around the cardboard hedge, the corrugated leaf. And not.
To drink deeply, but. The cone is acquisition, yet equation.
For the rain soaks also along, and can wade on pegs.
To sup laterally, the going down of. These golden fish,
for the heron to stick at. Because Nationwide they say baulked
at the hydrant, or the tap stuck, shallowing
the serrate dorsals. But more rain overnight.
To clear this suspicion of a dwelling. On the
motions of the, several traffics, following
each other out. As rinsed of old use. How she said as we
cleared, they say in the footings to the
medical centre, and rehearsals from it.
A bus-shelter draws. A flare of sun
in the plastic windows comes down. The street, as if.
So they do. The leaves wink and in the afternoon, morning,
for noon never steeples. The naked imaginings of
summer hill-forts, move in the occluded
more freely perhaps. There is a Morkerseende.
Whose space we frolic. And the large windows
open as for fitness, should a child stray in it
buoyed by reassurance. Or the continuance of home eggs.
As if the timetables came to know upon the coops.
Mostly, it is. But how do we know where to go without.
These elders, turning with a light upon the stairs. Into
a space so surrounding. Out into, as we say, the closing
of home behind, whose waiting was known so long
it's still experienced lost. Not known as a base camp.

Elm leaves, 15th November 2016

[I'm no expert on elms but if I had to make a guess I'd say this is one of the Ulmus minor x glabra hybrids, perhaps a Huntingdon Elm: a lattice pattern on the bark (below) is said to distinguish Huntingdon Elm from Dutch Elm. At any rate, it definitely isn't U. procera (English Elm) or U. glabra (Wych-elm).]

Elm bark

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

2016 in fireworks

Battle Effigy stuffed with fireworks,  Morning of 5th November 2016

Brief history of the Battel Bonfire Boyes, the oldest of the Sussex firework societies:

This year's bonfire night celebrations also commemorated the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, fought upon this spot.

The legend on the effigy says:

1066 - BREXIT


I find myself thinking about Rudyard Kipling, a local to these parts. Most literary people tend to be Europhiles. Even Kipling was a Europhile now and then.

But he's also one of our few really great writers who would, I feel pretty certain, have been a Brexiter. And he, of them all, has some measure of insight and empathy with the values, utterly mysterious to most literary people, of "Middle England".

Since the self-sabotage of the Brexit vote, we cosmopolitan liberals have been rightly self-recriminating about our failure to be aware of or take seriously the concerns of dead-end shit-holes in post-industrial Wales and the North, and we talk about how we've been punished by a "working-class revolt".

It's salutary that this is being talked about, but the bulk of Brexit votes can't be accounted for as the howl of poverty in Caerphilly or Middlesborough. The bulk of Brexit votes were not a protest vote, but the settled opinion of Middle England. And this, too, is something we'll eventually need to try and understand.

A Norman Eurocrat faces Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn


‘We wasn’t throwin’ nothin’. We was cuttin’ out they soft alders, an’ haulin’ ’em up the bank ’fore they could back the waters on the wheat. Jim didn’t say much, ’less it was that he’d had a post-card from Mary’s Lunnon father, night before, sayin’ he was comin’ down that mornin’. Jim, he’d sweated all night, an’ he didn’t reckon hisself equal to the talkin’ an’ the swearin’ an’ the cryin’, an’ his mother blamin’ him afterwards on the slate. “It spiled my day to think of it,” he ses, when we was eatin’ our pieces. “So I’ve fair cried dunghill an’ run. Mother’ll have to tackle him by herself. I lay she won’t give him no hush-money,” he ses. “I lay he’ll be surprised by the time he’s done with her,” he ses. An’ that was e’en a’most all the talk we had concernin’ it. But he’s no bunger with the toppin’ axe.

‘The brook she’d crep’ up an’ up on us, an’ she kep’ creepin’ upon us till we was workin’ knee-deep in the shallers, cuttin’ an’ pookin’ an’ pullin’ what we could get to o’ the rubbish. There was a middlin’ lot comin’ down-stream, too—cattle-bars an’ hop-poles and odds-ends bats, all poltin’ down together; but they rooshed round the elber good shape by the time we’d backed out they drowned trees. Come four o’clock we reckoned we’d done a proper day’s work, an’ she’d take no harm if we left her. We couldn’t puddle about there in the dark an’ wet to no more advantage. Jim he was pourin’ the water out of his boots—no, I was doin’ that. Jim was kneelin’ to unlace his’n. “Damn it all, Jesse,” he ses, standin’ up; “the flood must be over my doorsteps at home, for here comes my old white-top bee-skep!”’

‘Yes. I allus heard he paints his bee-skeps,’ Jabez put in. ‘I dunno paint don’t tarrify bees more’n it keeps ’em dry.’

‘“I’ll have a pook at it,” he ses, an’ he pooks at it as it comes round the elber. The roosh nigh jerked the pooker out of his hand-grips, an’ he calls to me, an’ I come runnin’ barefoot. Then we pulled on the pooker, an’ it reared up on eend in the roosh, an’ we guessed what ’twas. ’Cardenly we pulled it in into a shaller, an’ it rolled a piece, an’ a great old stiff man’s arm nigh hit me in the face. Then we was sure. “’Tis a man,” ses Jim. But the face was all a mask. “I reckon it’s Mary’s Lunnon father,” he ses presently. “Lend me a match and I’ll make sure.” He never used baccy. We lit three matches one by another, well’s we could in the rain, an’ he cleaned off some o’ the slob with a tussick o’ grass. “Yes,” he ses. “It’s Mary’s Lunnon father. He won’t tarrify us no more. D’you want him, Jesse?” he ses.

“No,” I ses. “If this was Eastbourne beach like, he’d be half-a-crown apiece to us ’fore the coroner; but now we’d only lose a day havin’ to ’tend the inquest. I lay he fell into the brook.”

“I lay he did,” ses Jim. “I wonder if he saw mother.” He turns him over, an’ opens his coat and puts his fingers in the waistcoat pocket an’ starts laughin’. “He’s seen mother, right enough,” he ses. “An’ he’s got the best of her, too. She won’t be able to crow no more over me ’bout givin’ him money. I never give him more than a sovereign. She’s give him two!” an’ he trousers ’em, laughin’ all the time. “An’ now we’ll pook him back again, for I’ve done with him,” he ses.


(from "Friendly Brook", Rudyard Kipling, 1914)

Later the same day...

[Image source:]

Bonfire, Battle Market Place, 5th November 2016

[Image source:]

Saxon and Norman on roundabout in Battle, commemorating the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Dovre Slate Mill

[Post now republished on Intercapillary Space.]

Dovrefjell, with Musk-Ox

[Image source:]

In Dovre Slate Mill

Maneuver the body across deep traps, across water-clogged holes and open wells. across the animal's wet fur with terror in my neck-frenzy. Sharp branches strike and lash blood-needles against my finger-skin my face of blue enamel against naked nettle fibers. On the other side of the smeltery at the edge of the murky lake there I see Zachris move too close to the shaft. I move closer to the head even though chains clang dull metal against the febrile radula. Here runs a clear underground border a fistulation toward Mare Imbrium. I thrust the muscle latch toward the machines that throb there in the wound. What evil can happen to you what evil can happen to you here near heavy waters. In the smithy the Daude choir's tortured tracks shrieking against sharp spits. Chitinstaffs, porphyry, cold coal crystals. And my stiff hands cupped, and my stiff hands cupped around the surface of your black cranium.

I Dovre skifferkvarn

Manövrerar kroppen över djupa fällor, över vattenfyllda hål och öppna brunnor, över djurets blöta päls med skräck i ryggens hets. Vassa grenar slår och snärtar blodbarr mot min fingerhud mitt ansikte av blå enamel mot nakna nässelfibrer. På andra sidan smältverket vid randen av den dunkla sjö där ser jak Zachris komma schaktet allför nära. Jag rör mig närmare mot huvudet trots kedjor klanger matt metall mot den febrila radulan. Här går en tydlig underjordisk gräns enfistelgång mot Mare Imbrium. Jag stöter muskelfästet mot maskinerna som bultar där i såret. Vad ont kan hända dig vad ont kan hända dis här nära tunga vatten. I smedjan Daudekörens pina skenor skriande mot skarpa spett. Kitinstavar, porfyrer, kalla kolkristaller. Och min stela händer kupade, och mina stela händer kupade kring ytan av ditt svarta kranium.

Aase Berg, from Mörk materia (=Dark matter) (Bonniers,1999), with English translation by Johannes Göransson (from Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg, Action Books, 2005).

This was Aase Berg's post-apocalyptic second collection of poems (in Sweden, the book is often regarded as in dialogue with Harry Martinson's 1956 sci-fi poem Aniara). Born in 1967, Berg is one of Sweden's best-known younger poets. She has now published seven collections, she also writes for Expressen.

One of the ideas I took from reading around this poetry is about a two-fold conception of nature: one side facing towards us, acculturated and interpreted through culture; and the other side facing away, the "dark matter" that exists in crushing solidity but beyond identification and beyond the possibility of acculturation. But it seems important to add that in Berg's poetry nature is not separate from the body. She is not a landscape poet; everything is within.


Name of a village, region and mountain massif in central Norway. (I think Berg has Norwegian ancestry, though I could be mistaken.) The famous Grieg tune known in English as "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is really called "I Dovregubbens hall".

The meaning of the source-word dofr is disputed but the best guess is that it relates to a deep cleft or gorge.  In this poem, it's apparent that the journey is into the earth.

skifferkvarn ("slate mill")

In Swedish the line between standard vocabulary and coinage is fuzzy: the agglutinative nature of the language naturally tends to produce coinages and re-coinages, and Berg's poetry makes heavy use of this. This particular word had been used (rarely) before, for example in a history of artificial fertilizers to describe a gypsum-crushing machine. In this case the important thing is perhaps the crushing of form and identity (the distinct thin layers of slates; books, screens, images; the picturable, the nameable).

Mare Imbrium

The largest crater on the moon (it's the Man in the Moon's right eye); resulting from a catastrophic planetary collision 3.8 billion years ago. The collision was so traumatic that its effects can also be seen at the diametrically opposite point, on the moon's dark side. Berg's poem is strongly aware of geological time-spans. Other poems in the sequence refer to Lemuria (hypothetical ancient continent) and Purgatorius (the original primate genus).

Daudekören ("Daude choir")

Daude is a Norwegian variant, especially in compound words, to the standard word død ("death").

Brief biography of Aase Berg:

Three other poems from Mörk materia, with English translation:

A selection of other poems (Swedish only) from the period of Berg's involvement with the Stockholm Surrealist Group, including six from Mörk materia .

"Sälformen släpar skinnet -- om naturen i Aase Bergs tidiga diktning"
Interesting dissertation (in Swedish) by Johan Attfors about nature in Berg's two earliest collections,  Hos rådjur (=With Deer) and Mörk materia  :

Johannes Göransson's excellent essay "'Antibody': Aase Berg's Grotesque Poetry and the Swedish Welfare State", in Transnationalism and Resistance: Experience and Experiment in Women's Writing ed. Adele Parker and Stephenie Young, can (mostly) be read here:

Aase Berg

[Image source:]

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Friday, November 11, 2016

E. B. Ford: Butterflies (The New Naturalist, 1945)

Specimens of the extinct English subspecies of the Large Blue (Maculinea arion, spp eutyphron)

In such places the Aurelian might not infrequently be seen with his surprising equipment.

Variety hunting had yet attained no considerable proportions, while the difficulties of studying geographical variation were great, nor was its interest appreciated; for Darwin had not yet come.

(of data labels...) What we did others could have done, and they were culpable for their negligence.

Their knowledge was largely empirical and died with them, but it was great; I rarely find their like today.

All these sentences are taken from the first chapter, a history of butterfly-collecting. The style is Latinate and poised, and to me it seems remarkable: we'd labour to match its quickness today. But Ford finds no use for it in the rest of his book. Its suppleness is of use when the subject-matter is human and social. When he buckles down to genetics, he writes a plain prose.

Ford was a scientist who began as a butterfly collector. A passage such as the following reveals the connection between acquisitiveness, violence and knowledge.

(The Monarch) “is the largest butterfly seen in Britain, though but few collectors have the pleasure of encountering it. Yet it was my good fortune to do so on the evening of August 30th, 1941, at Kynance Cove, Cornwall, within two miles of the most southerly point in Great Britain. Those who know that exquisite spot, now largely spoiled through having been popularised for tourists, will remember that the steep path up the cliff reaches a short piece of level ground just before the summit. Climbing from the cove, I arrived, net in hand, at this place at 6:20 p.m., double summer time, and glancing to the left saw a Monarch Butterfly about twenty feet away flying inland perhaps fifteen feet from the ground. It was slowly flapping and gliding and looked immense, and the honey-coloured underside of the hind-wings showed clearly. It quickly reached a small rocky hill and disappeared over the top. Now every collector knows that if one loses sight of a butterfly one rarely sees it again. It was with a sinking heart therefore that I gained the top of the hill and, turning to the left in the direction which the insect had taken when last seen, found my way barred by a steep rocky slope. I threw myself over, landing in a heap at the bottom and, on picking myself up, beheld with joy the Monarch about fifty yards away. It was hovering over a path, no more than a foot above the ground, and then slowly rose. By the time I arrived it must have been about two feet above the heather, and I caught it with a single stroke of the net. It proved to be a female in good condition, and is the specimen represented on Plate 27, Fig. 1.

“On this occasion I was much impressed by the resistance of this species to pressure and by its leathery consistency; a well-known characteristic of these protected insects, which allows a bird to peck them sufficiently to realise their disagreeable qualities without killing them. As this specimen was too large to go into my killing bottle or boxes, I kept it in the net and repeatedly pinched it. This would have cracked the thorax of a large Nymphalid and caused its immediate death, but after each pinch this insect would lie still for a few minutes and then revive apparently none the worse. A faint musky odour hung about it, and I was greatly tempted to bite into it to determine if it were unpalatable but, having regard to the interest of the specimen in other ways, I thought it well to restrain my curiosity in this respect.” (pp. 159-60)

(It seems that Ford’s interest in palatability was, however, indulged on larvae of the Large and Small Whites.)

It must be admitted that butterflies are elusive, often refusing to stay still even for a photo. If you are deterred from killing them, as I am, you aren’t likely to get to know them very well. But even the collector’s relationship to an insect in the wild is brief; that’s why he tells us how it flies two feet above the heather.

As for us, we're only too familiar with the migration of the Monarch across our screens, advertising everything from hair-dye to laser printers.

Ford and his readers could not have imagined that; and in his book the colour photographs of living specimens are pointed out by the editors as a significant novelty. 

Note: The Collins "New Naturalists".

Insect Natural History, A.D. Imms, 1947

This is one of my favourites and I've read it lots of times. "On Wings and Flight", "Concerning Feeding Habits", etc, all wonderfully readable and informative. 

Birds and Men, E.M. Nicholson, 1951

"The late Sir Hugh Gladstone calculated on the basis of data given in the Book of Numbers that about the year B.C. 1580 the Children of Israel killed within thirty-six hours in April upwards of 9 million quail at the place afterwards called Kibroth-Hattaavah." Similar figures were regularly achieved in Southern Italy in the later nineteenth century: the main market was Britain.

Dartmoor, L.A. Harvey and D. St. Leger-Gordon, 1953

March 1947 produced the Great Ammil - a glazed frost of freezing rain atop two months of snowy work. "Every bush, tree, sprig of heather, bracken-frond or reed, every rail or post, each inanimate object, was sheathed in ice as though in a glass case. ... The grandeur of the scene was unsurpassable, but in this enchanted world no living thing had a place. ... 'I've been on the land for fifty years,' one local farmer remarked to me, 'but I never saw rabbits starved to death before.'..."

The authors argued strongly that "it is difficult to reconcile the minimum military demands for land on Dartmoor, in so far as these are known, with the idea of it as a National Park" and you must admit, they do have a point. Dartmoor had just become Britain's fourth national park (1951), but the anomaly of around a quarter of it being used as ranges has never been resolved. Military use began at the end of the 19th century, and expanded greatly especially during WWII. The military areas have reduced a little since their book was published, but not much. Comparing their map with today's, the whole area in the south around Legis Tor has been given up, and the ranges in the North have withdrawn in a few places, e.g. from Black-a-tor Copse and the neighbourhood of Postbridge. Access to the ranges (except sometimes Willsworthy) is possible on nearly all week-ends and throughout the month of August, as well as at other times (check it out at - so the situation compares quite favourably with e.g. the Imber Ranges on Salisbury Plain, which are permanently inaccessible. But in truth, such an extensive and genuine wilderness as Dartmoor Forest - right here in the S. of England - was too useful for the army to give up.      

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Wednesday, November 09, 2016


Mikhail Dmitrievich Ryumin
[Image source:]

Sleeplessness (yes, combined with standing, thirst, bright light, terror, and the unknown -- what other tortures are needed!?) befogs the reason, undermines the will, and the human being ceases to be himself, to be his own "I". ... A person deprived of sleep acts half-consciously or altogether unconsciously, so that his testimony cannot be held against him.

They used to say: "You are not truthful in your testimony, and therefore you will not be allowed to sleep!"


23. The bedbug-infested box has already been mentioned. In the dark closet made of wooden planks, there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bedbugs, which had been allowed to multiply. The guards removed the prisoner's jacket or field shirt, and immediately the hungry bedbugs assaulted him, crawling onto him from the walls or falling off the ceiling. At first he waged war with them strenuously, crushing them on his body and on the walls, suffocated by their stink. But after several hours he weakened and let them drink his blood without a murmur.


Yes, yes, Minister of State Security Abakumov himself did not by any means spurn such menial labour. (A Suvurov at the head of his troops!) He was not averse to taking a rubber truncheon in his hands every once in a while. And his deputy Ryumin was even more willing. He did this at Sukhanovka in the "Generals'" interrogation office. The office had imitation-walnut paneling on the walls, silk portieres at the windows and doors, and a great Persian carpet on the floor. In order not to spoil all this beauty, a dirty runner bespattered with blood was rolled out on top of the carpet when a prisoner was being beaten. When Ryumin was doing the beating, he was assisted not by some ordinary guard but by a colonel. "And so," said Ryumin politely, stroking his rubber truncheon, which was four centimeters -- an inch and a half -- thick, "you have survived trial by sleeplessness with honour." (Alexander D. had cleverly managed to last a month "without sleep" by sleeping while he was standing up.)  "So now we will try the club. Prisoners can't take more than two or three sessions of this. Let down your trousers and lie on the runner." The colonel sat down on the prisoner's back. A.D. was going to count the blows. He didn't yet know about a blow from a rubber truncheon on the sciatic nerve when the buttocks have disappeared as a consequence of prolonged starvation. The effect is not felt in the place where the blow is delivered -- it explodes inside the head. After the first blow the victim was mad with pain and broke his nails on the carpet. Ryumin beat away, trying to hit accurately. The colonel pressed down on A.D.'s torso -- this was just the right sort of work for three big shoulder-board stars, assisting the all-powerful Ryumin! ...

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Interrogation" from The Gulag Archipelago (1973), translation by Thomas P. Whitney, 1974.  

Mikhail Dmitrievich Ryumin

[Image source: . See also]

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Tuesday, November 08, 2016

adventitious drinking

Everyday life on my kitchen window-sill. The Chinese Money Plant with the round leaves (Pilea peperomioides, last seen on this blog in April) is a thirsty plant in a too-small pot, and the pot is on a shallow hand-painted Spanish saucer. When I water it the water tends to run straight through the bone-dry soil, overflow the saucer beneath, and flood the tiles.

Then I do my best to wipe up the surplus water with a j-cloth, but I don't do a particularly good job of it.

The J-cloth goes on to the radiator to dry out. I go to bed. Next morning I see that the residue of spillage is being hoovered up by new-emerged adventitious roots on a plantlet of the Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), a plant of tropical and southern Africa that we now grow in our homes.


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