Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Now January's snows that lately shone
Splendid and abstract under brittle skies
Have shrunk to grey and dessicated shreds
In corners of high fields. And winter's runt,
The small transparent February, comes
And shivers on the very season's edge.
Still bites the bitter frost, the splintered rain
Yet scores the face of winter, but a pale
Reflected sun gleams wanly on the spread
Of milky waters when the spasms cease.
Deep in the breathing earth a current hums;
Its faint insistent signals are received,
Transformed, relayed and broadcast sheer and stark
In frenzied outburst of the early lark.

(Joyce Williams)

Or the darkling thrush. As February shifts between its two colour-ways: bloomgrey and sun.

And the catkins adorn green gold the edges of the wood,

Within the wood's shelter a sapling is even leafing.

The fox disappears up a neighbour's garden path.

One of the unshaven men with disparate eyes, they all live in that part of the estate, leaned his bike.

The cat sunned beside the van wheel. I unlocked. The cat stalked to a gate.

Night sleet.  Windscreen wet spats wiping redrawn. It spats less. It spats more. Where is Sean Pemberton?
They noticed the white clouds over the town at night. They separated. He smoked. He noticed the puddles reflecting streetlights.

The slim elm shape burst with black flowers, back of a length.

He ran walked caught you put his arm around you rubbed your shoulder We'll warm up soon. They marched as night falls later now noticed the late keys in the ash overhead. They queued ordered ate drank remembered wept sat rose washed crossed strode grabbed looked chose paid packed left.

Pane. Raindrops. J2O bottles. We are stretching invisibly.

Complicated whisper cloudscape. Shred-patterns. Arrangements. We don't want to fill it all in. Stop thinking.

The woman walks quickly to her car. Walking the woman opens her bag and finds keys that jingle. The car lights up at the corners.

The wind wombs and the wind wears woollen looms. Which side of the house we opened we closed the skylights?

Headlights in the day. The seagull glided.

The beautiful branches and saplings. The olive grey woodlands with their scant tinsel.

Lonicera fragrantissima (19th February, 2017)


Thursday, February 23, 2017


Motor car owned by Alfred Harmsworth in 1900 (a 12hp Panhard)

[Image source: http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Alfred_Harmsworth]

Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865- 18 January 1936)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.    

("The Advertisement: In the Manner of the Earlier English", from The Muse among the Motors, published in the Daily Mail, February 1904)

One view called me to another; one hill top to its fellow, half across the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the county flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast, where you carry the beat of the tide on your left hand for fifteen level miles; and when at last I turned inland through a huddle of rounded hills and woods I had run myself clean out of my known marks. Beyond that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States, I found hidden villages where bees, the only things awake, boomed in eighty-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches; miraculous brooks diving under stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again; tithe-barns larger than their churches, and an old smithy that cried out aloud how it had once been a hall of the Knights of the Temple. Gipsies I found on a common where the gorse, bracken, and heath fought it out together up a mile of Roman road; and a little further on I disturbed a red fox rolling dog-fashion in the naked sunlight.

As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries.  I judged that the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a green cutting brimful of liquid sunshine, next into a gloomy tunnel where last year's dead leaves whispered and scuffled about my tyres. The strong hazel stuff meeting overhead had not been cut for a couple of generations at least, nor had any axe helped the moss-cankered oak and beech to spring above them. Here the road changed frankly into a carpetted ride on whose brown velvet spent primrose-clumps showed like jade, and a few sickly, white-stalked bluebells nodded together. As the slope favoured I shut off the power and slid over the whirled leaves, expecting every moment to meet a keeper; but I only heard a jay, far off, arguing against the silence under the twilight of the trees.

Still the track descended. I was on the point of reversing and working my way back on the second speed ere I ended in some swamp, when I saw sunshine through the tangle ahead and lifted the brake.

It was down again at once. As the light beat across my face my fore-wheels took the turf of a great still lawn from which sprang horsemen ten feet high with levelled lances, monstrous peacocks, and sleek round-headed maids of honour—blue, black, and glistening—all of clipped yew. Across the lawn—the marshalled woods besieged it on three sides—stood an ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile. ...

(Opening of 'They')

[Full online text]


Scribner's Magazine August 1904.  Lightly revised and collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904). Published separately, with illustrations by Frederick Henry Townsend, 1905. 

‘They’  is one of the first pieces of literature about motoring, a modern theme that it combines with an ancient one: the terrible but age-old fact of child mortality. The narrator’s drive through this wonderfully realized Sussex in June; the visual intensity of the description is grief at work.... The driving is a way of grieving, but the car can't bring back his child; nor can it save another dying child though it flies busily hither and thither to acquire a nurse. 

Also set beside the half-ghostly poetic writing about the charmed old house is an unidealized vision of rural working life: the greedy Mr Turpin, the cheerfully gossiping neighbour, and the rude Mrs Madehurst at the sweetmeat shop – the narrator at that early stage in the story is intemperately judgmental - ; she, however, later becomes the narrator’s friend. Personal grief and new technology, together, open him to an understanding overview. Her “fat woman’s hospitable tears” provide a down-to-earth alternative to the eerily beautiful voice of the blind Miss whose name is not told to us. The bereaved villagers have to walk in the wood (unlike the narrator, who eventually finds his own child indoors) because their social status denies them easy access to the house.

During the very brief period memorialized by ‘They’, cars were luxury items owned only by the gentry, and there were very few around, so Kipling could reasonably conceive the car as an instrument for solitary flights, a way of dropping down into other people’s stable existences, as if one had suddenly been gifted wings, and (by natural extension) as a vehicle for entering the otherworld. Already, however, the car – perhaps more precisely the engine – is felt to bear an incipiently quotidian symbolism, which is why the children keep away from it. (Early cars faced a wall of public disapproval of noise and danger.)

Josephine Kipling

[Image source: https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=25796783]

I’m saying “the narrator” but of course we think Kipling -- except that Kipling's myopia ruled out driving a car himself.  Keen motorist that he was, he always had a driver. Could he even have seen himself all that he describes in this landscape? Part of the description's brilliance is its comprehensiveness; not just the June orchids but the subtler details of what by June is faded and sickly:  the primroses in the moss and the feeble bluebells in the wood; the crunching leaf-fall of the previous year.

 Kipling's beloved daughter Josephine had died in March 1899 at the age of six. This was on a visit to New York; Kipling nearly died himself. Carrie sent Josephine away to her friends the De Forest's, perhaps in hope that a change of location might save her, or perhaps because Rudyard's own condition was still critical. Josephine's death was kept from her father for weeks, for fear of inducing a relapse.  He never got over it.

  In October 1899, by then living in Rottingdean,  he experienced his first ride in a motorcar, a Mercedes driven by Alfred Harmsworth (the future Lord Northcliffe), already publisher of the Daily Mail and many other papers (an episode described by Kipling in Something of Myself). By the summer of 1900 the Kiplings were house-hunting, or pretending to, in their own hired Embryo*. "As a matter of fact we just lounge around and get the skin peeled off our noses..."

At one point the narrator becomes upset not by his loss but (as happens when people are distressed) by something apparently unconnected to it. He says to “Miss”, when she complains that people laugh at her: “That sort laugh at everything that isn’t in their own fat lives.” – (Evidently Mrs Madehurst is still in his mind.) The blind lady talks of her lack of defences, her single skin. He goes into a thought:

I was silent reviewing that inexhaustible matter – the more than inherited (since it is also carefully taught) brutality of the Christian peoples, beside which the mere heathendom of the West Coast nigger is clean and restrained. It led me a long distance into myself.

This meditation has a minor function in the story, since it leads on to the discovery that the blind lady sees the intensity of his anger as colours. Kipling (himself extremely myopic and scared of blindness) might be thinking of unforgiven childhood experience. Yet momentarily the primary meaning seems to be that he recognizes his own brutality; and certainly Kipling is  one of the most brutal of authors, in some respects.

She looked at me, her head against the tree trunk—long and steadfastly— this woman who could see the naked soul.
"How curious," she half whispered. "How very curious."
"Why, what have I done?"
"You don't understand … and yet you understood about the Colours. Don't you understand?"
She spoke with a passion that nothing had justified, and I faced her bewilderedly as she rose. The children had gathered themselves in a roundel behind a bramble bush. One sleek head bent over something smaller, and the set of the little shoulders told me that fingers were on lips. They, too, had some child's tremendous secret. I alone was hopelessly astray there in the broad sunlight.
"No," I said, and shook my head as though the dead eyes could note. "Whatever it is, I don't understand yet. Perhaps I shall later—if you'll let me come again."

(from 'They')

Frontispiece to the 1905 edition by Frederick Henry Townsend

[Image source: Rare and Antique books dot com. Link withheld at site owner's request.]


"Somehow, an enterprising Brighton agency hired us a victoria-hooded, carriage-sprung, carriage-braked, single-cylinder, belt-driven, fixed-ignition Embryo..." (Something of Myself).  This passage is much-quoted, yet I can find no other reference to a veteran car manufacturer or model called Embryo.

Rudyard, Carrie and baby Josephine
[Image source: https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=25796783]

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

now the pink stripes


now the pink stripes, the books, the clothes you wear
in the eaves of houses I ask whose land it is

an orange the size of a melon rolling slowly across the field
where I sit at the centre in an upright coffin of five panes of

there is no air            the sun shines
and under me you've planted a quick growing cactus

(Tom Raworth, who died on 8 February, 2017.)


Tom Clark

Laurie Duggan

S. J. Fowler

John Harvey

Pierre Joris

Jacques Roubaud

Robert Sheppard



The PennSound treasury of Raworth readings and recordings:

Recommended: Amazon's Look Inside! the As When Carcanet Selection chosen by Miles Champion; includes most of a biographical introduction and some of the well-known early poems:

Recommended: Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, and Michael S. Hennessey talk with Al Filreis about Tom Raworth's poem "Errory"

Collage by Tom Raworth

[Image source: http://www.tomraworth.com/pictures.html . It's in the William Fuller Collection, Chicago.]


Friday, February 17, 2017

Dryden on Stonehenge

John Dryden in 1693, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

[In the National Portrait Gallery. Image source: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw01952/John-Dryden?LinkID=mp01369&role=sit&rNo=1 . I've slightly lightened the image.]

Dryden's interesting poem prefixing Walter Charleton's Chorea Gigantum (1663), ends thus:

Nor is This Work the least: You well may give
To Men new vigour, who make Stones to live.
Through You the DANES (their short Dominion lost)
A longer Conquest than the Saxons boast.
STONE-HENG, once thought a Temple, You have found
A Throne where Kings, our Earthly Gods, were Crown’d.
Here by their wondring Subjects They were seen,
Joy’d with their Stature and their Princely meen.
Our Soveraign here above the rest might stand;
And here be chose again to rule the Land.
These Ruines sheltered once His Sacred Head,
Then when from Wor’ster’s fatal Field He fled;
Watch’d by the Genius of this Royal place,
And mighty Visions of the Danish Race,
His Refuge then was for a Temple shown:
But, He Restor’d, ’tis now become a Throne.

"To my Honour’d Friend Dr. Charleton, on his learned and useful Works: and more particularly this of Stone-heng, by him Restored to the true Founders."
 Complete poem:  http://www.bartleby.com/204/19.html]

The story of the future Charles II being at Stonehenge was perfectly true.

"On 6 October (1651) the King, Julia Coningsby and Henry Peters, Colonel Wyndham's servant, left Trent for the home of Mrs Amphillis Hyde at Heale House between Salisbury and Amesbury. Though sleeping at Heale, Charles spent his days at Stonehenge, returning to the house each evening after dark." [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_of_Charles_II]

Charles was 21. He was icognito, fleeing across England following final defeat at the Battle of Worcester. His black hair was close-cropped and he wore countryman's clothes. His unusual height  (to which Dryden's poem alludes) was apt to draw unwanted attention: Charles was 6' 2".

Charles left Heele House on 12th October; he boarded the Surprise at Shoreham on 15th October.

Whether he really spent five full days at Stonehenge I am not sure.  Aubrey Burl says only that he was there on 7th October with Colonel Philips, "reckoning and re-reckoning the stones".

Walter Charleton's book disputed Inigo Jones' claim that Stonehenge was a Roman temple (Jones' claim was made back in 1620, following his survey, but not published until 1655, three years after his death) .

In fact, Charleton alleged, Stonehenge was clearly Danish. And it was not a temple but a place of royal ceremonial,  where kings sat publically in state. (Charleton was the first of many to claim that the Altar Stone was originally upright: it was a throne, he thought.)

Charleton's claims were assailed in their turn by John Webb, Jones' nephew. Stuart Piggott called it "a forgotten controversy conducted on forgotten lines of argument . . . It is is a microcosm of the battle of the ancients and Moderns, with Jones, Webb and Charleton on the far side of the intellectual gulf, Aubrey and Stukeley on the near side..."  (quoted in Aubrey Burl, A Brief History of Stonehenge, p. 37).

Charleton made no independent survey of Stonehenge and the main value of his book, maybe, was that it made him aware of John Aubrey's discovery of Avebury, which he mentioned to the king. Charles, as we've seen, had become interested in the mysteries of Stonehenge. Charles summoned Aubrey for an audience, and shortly afterwards met him at Avebury to explore the site.

The clear-minded Aubrey made short work of the Jones/Charleton theories. He knew about stone circles in parts of the UK that neither the Romans nor the Danes ever occupied. It was clear to him that they were the work of pre-Roman people. For him that simply meant Druids. No earlier phases of British prehistory were known at the time.

Charleton was a royal physician and a Fellow of the Royal Society. But in 1663 it was easier to talk the talk of science than to walk the walk. (Something that's not unknown even today..!)

Still, Dryden's poem shares the excitement of science, the feeling of liberation. Here's how it begins:

THE LONGEST Tyranny that ever sway’d
Was that wherein our Ancestors betray’d
Their free-born Reason to the Stagirite,
And made his Torch their universal Light.
So Truth, while onely one suppli’d the State,
Grew scarce, and dear, and yet sophisticate;
Until ’twas bought, like Emp’rique Wares, or Charms,
Hard words seal’d up with Aristotle’s Armes.
Columbus was the first that shook his Throne;
And found a Temp’rate in a Torrid Zone,
The fevrish aire fann’d by a cooling breez,
The fruitful Vales set round with shady Trees;
And guiltless Men, who danc’d away their time,
Fresh as their Groves and Happy as their Clime. Had we still paid that homage to a Name,
Which only God and Nature justly claim,
The Western Seas had been our utmost bound,
Where Poets still might dream the Sun was drown’d:
And all the Starrs, that shine in Southern Skies,
Had been admir’d by none but Salvage Eyes.

When science, empire and capitalism got together, there wasn't much future for the "guiltless Men" and the "Salvage Eyes". To discover, explore, and exploit... That was what science meant at the sharp edge, just as it does today (its prime victims now being industrial animals, natural ecologies, the earth, the seas and the climate -- though human material is not neglected either.)

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Borden Chase: Red River (1949)

John Wayne as Thomas Dunson and Montgomery Clift as Mathew in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948)


His name was Thomas Dunson, born in Birkenhead across the Mersey from Liverpool, come from England God knows how. A bull of a man. A brute of a man. Thick-necked, low-jowled, with eyes that looked out at you like the rounded grey ends of bullets in a pistol cylinder. … Two mares were in the traces. Quarter mares with broad hips and heavy gaskins. Built to work; built to run. Both had been bred to the sorrel stud that followed the wagon at the end of a tie rope. Foundation stock. Dunson’s eyes watched the slow, rhythmic motions of the younger mare’s rump. Perhaps he was thinking of the colt she would drop in another six months. Perhaps not. Dunson’s thoughts were hidden things.


Ahead, the lead wagon dipped its tongue as the team moved down the grade of a dry stream bank.


In these opening sentences the book’s methodology is completely contained. Sentences are atomized into cinematic fragments. There are fine expressions which are then recycled so that we recognize them as a new epic diction. For example, we will hear a lot more of the analogy between eyes and bullet-nubs; nearly every time that Dunson reappears, in fact. And the best thing in the prose is its convincing use of what sounds like authentic cattleman’s lingo (like the wagon dipping its tongue); lingo that may, for all I know, be as sheerly invented as the epic diction.


Dunson is indeed a brute, a man without pity, a phlegmatic deadshot, a tyrant impervious to reason. He is just about redeemed by some consciousness of his place in history, a vision that is united with a nation’s destiny. Having just killed a Mexican, he muses to his adopted son:


Here I am, Mathew, and here I’ll stay. On all these lands north of the river I’ll grow beef. Food for the bellies of every man in our country. They’ll need meat, Mathew. They can’t build their cities without it. 


This 1949 copy of Red River, tying in with the release of Howard Hawks’ movie, is I think just re-titled from Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail (1946-47), the novel from which Chase himself wrote the screenplay. But for the movie Chase unwillingly substituted a happier ending that he despised; most movie-goers have agreed with him. There were quite a few other changes. The roles of Cherry Valance and green-eyed Tess are much more developed and make more sense in the book. However, this is not to imply that the book is sensible. The west envisaged in the book is as mad, almost, as the civil war from which Mathew returns. The film feels compelled to supply a shred of excuse for Dunson’s landgrabbing from the Mexicans; in the book, it is not discussed. The man went for his gun, that’s all. So many people subsequently go for their guns that the body-count rises bewilderingly in the course of everyday business; these are not enemies, they are just hired hands who question Dunson’s authority. They are always given names, but we can’t take in the names before they are dead and buried, in one of Dunson’s punitive marshallings or in fatal swirlings of the equally swollen river.


The underlying implication is that though the father must in due course give way to his less brutal son, America should reverence such fathers as this. Moralizing is inappropriate to treat the epic appetites of these rough pioneers. Yet sometimes moralizing does cross our path, for example about these sharpers who appear in the west with Clark Donegal’s migrating casino:  


Mathew glanced at Donegal’s men. They were hard hard in a vastly different manner from the trail drivers. Theirs were the eyes of the great vultures that sweep down from the skies to prey on dead things. Each man wore gloves. Each wore a gun.


Hard-working western men driven by plain desire for ownership, domination, women, money, self-preservation and sleep are OK. But these alien leeches are another matter. Texas is “Preyed upon by Northern carpetbaggers. Harried by the dreamers in Congress.”


Chase (pseudonym of Frank Fowler, 1900-1971) was a leading light of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.




By what precise route I don’t know, Chase’s epic simile about the eyes turns up again, transmuted and varied, in the radically different context of Alex La Guma’s amazing Capteown novella A Walk in the Night (1962), a crucial document in anti-apartheid literature. La Guma works his similes intensively, building new constructions out of materials taken from genre literature. Thus with the eyes.


“His eyes were small and round and brown and flat and gritty as weathered sandstone..” (Chips, proprietor of the Jolly Boys Social Club, 9)

“Under the lowered lids the eyes were hard and flat and shiny as the ends of cartridge shells...” (Chips, 9).


These eyes belong to the brutal Police Constable Raalt:


“their irises hard and shiny as plate-glass” (9)

“his grey-as-dust eyes” (9)

“his hard grey eyes” (12)

(officers like Raalt) “these men who wore their guns like appendages of their bodies  and whose faces had the hard metallic look, and whose hearts and guts were merely valves and wires which operated robots.” (12)

“Raalt’s flat grey eyes” (12)

“They saw the flat grey eyes under the gingerish eyebrows, hard and expressionless as the end of pieces of lead pipe” (12)

“his eyes like pieces of grey metal” (12)

[Online Text of A Walk in the Night]


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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

sing like a canary

[The illustration shows a table of trigraphs from a WW2 German naval codebook.]

Chanteuse/Cantatrice was published in 2007, towards the end of Catherine Daly's brief ultra-prolific period, during which she published eight books.

The poem reads from both ends, hence the two jackets shown here, and the double titles of each poem.

The poem is a dazzling historical meditation around the themes of singing, betrayal, complicity, resistance, collaboration, staying alive, and cabaret. There's a lot of early 20th-century history here; also a lot of the Bible, fabrics, design, computer technology, cheesy FM radio pop and all sorts of other things. Daly in this DaDaDa-esque mode is polymathic, or rather, she makes polymathic designs.

Here, for instance, is the Middle Eastern supper section of  "21 Days" / "1001 Nights"


a pretty girl can get by on looks
                aristocracy of beauty
broidered and bordered                purfled
a girl can just sing, sing for her supper
                strained wine clear as olive oil
                Shami apples, Osmani quinces, and Omani peaches
                Sultani oranges and citrons
                Aleppine jasmine, scented myrtle berries, Damascene nenuphars,
flower of privet and chamomile, blood red anemones, violets,
               pomegranate bloom, eglantine, and narcissus
               mutton wrapped in banana leaf
               pistachio kernels, Tihamah raisins, shelled almonds
               open-orked tarts, fritters scented with musk, lemon loaves, melon
preserves, Zaynab's combs, ladies' fingers, Kazi's tit-bit
               pickled safflower and olives, in brine and in oil; with tarragon
and cream cheese and hard Syrian cheese
beautiful, indifferent girl


It's nearly all from Richard Burton's translation of "The Porter and The Three Ladies of Baghdad" in the Arabian Nights  ---

behold, there stood before him an honourable woman in a mantilla of Mosul silk, broidered with gold and bordered with brocade; her walking-shoes were also purfled with gold.... (compare line 4 of the extract above)

Shami : Syrian in this context, according to the commentator Abdulfeda.
Osmani : Turkish, Ottoman
flower of privet : Burton's fancy rendering of henna flowers (Lawsonia inermis)
nenuphars : water-lilies
Tihamah: Red Sea coastal plain of Arabia
open-orked : open-worked in Burton

Scheherezade's situation ("singing" to stay alive) is linked by Daly to the women in war-time Europe with which her book is largely concerned. 

Here's another extract to demonstrate the mixed mode in which the book mainly works:


"If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?"

by itself, a rotor performs simple encryption
substitution cipher
a rotor, one of 26 positions
calls on language to act on people, then a multitude
via pirate radio? mp3?
            Edelweiss Pirates, proletarian, criminal
and never
until they are
where lost things
Hoch's buried collage

one or more musicians
in different places or groups work on the same
             lyric, story, cause, reason
                          song, side, system
musician network
"workers report" method

hanged from meat hooks suspended from a T-bar across the ceiling of
              the execution chamber
Order of the Red Banner
Order of the Fatherland War, First Class

geostationery satellite
based on a fantasy novel written pseudonymously
              with a title including the name of John Calvin's Greek teacher
"putting an arm round the neck of her guide, who set her down upon
the pavement without so much as ruffling the trimming of her green
dress. No lover would have been so careful"


(from "White Rose" / "Red Orchestra") 

White Rose, Red Orchestra : resistance groups in Nazi Germany
"If this is Upper Silesia..." : P. G. Wodehouse, from his wartime broadcasts.
"a rotor performs simple encryption": loosely based on the Wikipedia entry for Enigma machine.
Hoch: Hannah Höch, pioneer of photo-montage
Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Fatherland, First Class: Soviet military decorations awarded to Mildred Fish-Harnack of the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle)
John Calvin's Greek teacher: Andrea Alciati, or Melchior Wolmar? (I haven't been able to trace the pseudonymous fantasy novel.) 
"putting an arm round the neck of her guide..." From the opening paragraph of Ellen Marriage's translation of Balzac's A Woman of Thirty (Une femme de trente ans).


I wrote about some of Catherine Daly's other books in these three pieces:

[The illustration shows a German WW2 Enigma encryption machine. The plugboard at the front increased encryption complexity by temporarily swapping letter-pairs, in this case A-J and S-O. It was normal to swap about ten pairs.]


Monday, February 13, 2017

winter alders

Cones and seeds of Alnus cordata (left) and Alnus glutinosa (right)

Alnus cordata, the Italian Alder, native to two quite small areas in Corsica and southern Italy. But now introduced everywhere as the handsomest of the alders; with the same year-round interest as the others, but not so dependent on moist soil; upright, happy and neat in urban street plantings. Bigger cones and a more open crown than our other alders. Winged seeds.

Alnus glutinosa, the Common, European, or Black Alder. Native trees are usually by water, but they can be planted elsewhere. Winter branches crowded with last year's cones and next year's catkins. Winter crown can look dark purplish from a distance. The cones are much smaller than those of A. cordata. The seeds are a pretty red-orange colour. They're winged, and air is trapped within the wings so they also operate as swim-bladders, handy for spreading the seeds down a stream.

*Some people deplore the word cone when talking about alders, because alders are not conifers, and some people use the word strobile or strobilus, but this is no more correct than cone, since it really refers to a spore-bearing structure such as the fertile tip of a horsetail. Alders are true flowering plants and these are seed-bearing structures.

Botanically, one ought to call the  female "cones" pistillate catkins and the male "catkins" staminous catkins. They're variations of the same basic structure. But common English usage dictates that the word "catkin" can only be used during the flowering phase. When we're talking about the much longer fruiting phase, the only real alternative is "fruit", which is unspecific at best. So "cone" it is.

Alnus cordata (Italian Alder)

Photo from December 16th, 2016 -- before the last of the leaves fell.

Alnus cordata debris, Swindon, 23rd February 2017
What the walkways looked like, after a gusty night on the margin of Storm Doris.

Alnus cordata, male and female catkins (Swindon, March 9th, 2017)

Alnus glutinosa (Common Alder)

Typically crowded crown of the Common Alder. Photos from February 3rd, 2017.

Alnus glutinosa (Common Alder)

Alnus glutinosa (Common Alder)

Photo from February 3rd, 2017. Some early Common Alder catkins were already open, but not on this tree.

Alnus glutinosa, new cones starting out (20th February, 2017)

The same tree on 20th February. Close inspection reveals the reddish female catkins, much smaller than the male catkins (now fully open). These female catkins will become the cones.

Alnus incana (Grey Alder)

Winter crown of Grey Alder (Alnus incana). Often, this is more of a large shrub than a tree. Photo from February 11th, 2017. The new catkins were just opening.


Thursday, February 09, 2017

a walk in Hertfordshire

28th January, 2017

the cup and grass             he looked up slily         the certainty of speaking

a bench-end of coarse bread          poisoned earth around the poem
                                                       that costs so little to write

  monseigneur          the pliers           stretched a run into the argot

a slip-case for the bread        release me        what was certainly too cheap

if you met     stale    foreshore      will wreathe    beauty-spot    they clutched

  light again                             do you see ship or sheep
gleamed   a rider's track  maid of Meltis  racked yield and felloe  suspected mettle


old wagon



This is a very coherent and unified landscape, based on its landform of small valleys and relative remoteness and tranquility. There are extensive views within and beyond the area, especially to the east and west, with only small blocks of woodland to filter views and few hedges. It is thus also an open landscape, of medium scale. ... This is not an unusual landscape but should be valued for its historic integrity and blend of form and function.

burred ash tree

ash branches

mugwort field, for pheasants

some sort of mustard with delicious seeds

anvil of a fierce shower-cloud on the horizon


Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Ken Edwards' book of sonnets

An ideal poetry book for the backpack

A question that arises with some of Ken Edwards' other books too --- what are we going to call it?

eight + six was published in 2003 (by Ken's own Reality Street Editions). It's a small format paperback, an ideal form for carrying around in a backpack or back pocket for all-through-the-day dipping. Each page has a sonnet on it.

It strikes me as somewhat strange that the "plus sign" doesn't slope when you're in an italic font. Why is that?

Anyway, Amazon.co.uk calls the book "Eight and Six", which to people of my vintage sounds like a price ....  [ the price of a much heavier paperback than this one:  an illustrated King Penguin or something of that sort. ]

So personally I prefer to call it "eight plus six", but even this isn't really satisfactory because it prompts me to a sort of kneejerk addition sum.

So far as the sonnet formats are concerned, the division into 8 and 6 is normal but it isn't quite invariable. For example, "Shifts Genre Often" has no division and "Perturbations (2)" is divided 3-4-4-3. Nice! 

More relevantly, very few of these sonnets have a traditional sonnet feel to them.  But occasionally, one of them does. You end up thinking about the form... working it out. What's the feel here? What does it sound like?

The formal energy of these poems is important. I think it's to do with the author being a bass guitarist. The distinctive feel, look, and sound of each poem is a big part of its meaning. But only a part.

[That's even more evident in his recent a book with no name.  You could say that the pieces in this book are to poetry as the groove is to music. In other words, within each piece there's a lot of repetition and a clearly established identity of...   {timbre, approach, manner, activity} .... that's fairly consistent from one end to the other.  What's surprising is how content-rich these pieces are. You'd think they'd be just patterns, but it's not that way at all: they've got a great deal to say.]

Here's one of the sonnets:


You have a great wide window Chris through which
sunbeams flash, reverberate on four
white walls a dark stained floor -- it's a good
window for a good & useful space
Now we're tuned up -- but I just want to say
The Art of Fugue's not something to be hacked through
as one might chainsaw a viola in half
by some careless mischance (finding oneself
with the wrong implement for the occasion)
what is this piece of wood doing in my hands?
where am I? You mean the city's turned &
summer's coming through?
                                                            Welcome to
Planet Earth --
home of Johann Sebastian Bach

* For Chris Shurety, on his 50th birthday.

[my additional notes:

Chris Shurety, composer and director of COMA (Contemporary Music for All).



A few poems in eight + six , it occurs to me, might have inspired Peter Hughes when he was writing Quite Frankly: After Petrarch's Sonnets.  Here --- sometimes -- is love poetry, demotic settings and idioms, the hint of a rap-like comic delivery: the Hughes sonnet starts to come into focus.

But then, always, we veer off. Like this one, another fiftieth birthday poem:


As though astonished
Through the rubric of
"The transformation of love"†

In the room
In the rain
How have you been
Many times this way O boy

I don't know if I can
On the door it says

Use other door
You go through it (the
Turn) and

* For Michael Finnissy, on his 50th birthday, July 1996.
† The phrase is from Rilke's letters.

[my additional notes:

"Absconsion" is the rare noun from "abscond"; it means flight, refuge or self-concealment from authority. Ken's spelling perhaps develops this action into a habitual state of consciousness.

Michael Finnissy is a composer and pianist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Finnissy

Good to see the dagger (aka obelisk) footnote symbol, insufficiently used in most modern texts!



Excellent review by James Wilkes:



Monday, February 06, 2017

Daffodil picking

picking in rainy weather (Cornwall, 2014)

[Image source: http://www.fruitnet.com/fpj/article/160719/daffodil-pickers-battle-against-record-storms ]

“So what are you doing now?”  Kizzy  asked.


Supposing that she didn’t mean cutting the grass with a pair of shears, I eventually mentioned what I was writing.


“And will it include travellers’ culture?” she pursued.


“Oh yes – I mean, it’s mainly just books so far...”


I felt embarrassed, since Kizzy is not at all bookish, or indeed houseish, and I thought of how irrelevant everything I’d written about would seem; like an endless double-period. I was currently in the thick of writing about King Lear, as it happened. That didn’t sound too thrilling. Though afterwards, I thought ... ("the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your looped and windowed raggedness") ... I thought that King Lear was maybe not so irrelevant, after all.





Tulips can be picked by machine; their blooming, or rather budding, is amazingly synchronized. But it’s different with a line of daffodils, which needs to be picked over for days or even weeks after the first emergence of the leaders. Besides, it’s important to spare the leaves; the plant will be cropped again next year. So daffodil-picking remains a manual activity – hands, literally, not scissors. You’ll see why.


The going rate is 6p a bunch (of ten), though it has been 7p or even, exceptionally, 8p. “Green sticks” are the crop, but occasionally “splitters” might be allowed if the market is local. When Kizzy started out she made about £30-40 a day, say 600 bunches. But now she does double that, and one day this spring she picked 1,600 bunches, which is 16,000 green sticks. Which is an average of one daffodil every 2.5 seconds for ten hours, without breaks.


That was in optimum conditions. On some farms the lines run a long way from the collection area, so you lose time carrying the crates (a crate holds 100 bunches).  A sparse crop means time is wasted looking about; or if you’re on a steep slope you spend more time getting a hold; if it’s windy, the stems move as you reach for them; if it’s wet weather, you’re slithering around in mud.  


But there are pickers (mostly Russians and Poles) who can get up to 2,000 bunches a day – by mid-afternoon, even. The fastest are two-handed pickers; Kizzy says it depends where you learn. Two-handed picking is East Anglian. In Cornwall it’s mostly one-handed.


Here’s what one-handed picking means. She picks with her right hand, pinching each stem between thumb and forefinger. You wear a latex glove; the daffodil sap is fierce, as most plant juices would be if you immersed in them all day. The leading joint of Kizzy’s right forefinger is knobbed, from the thousands of times it has banged into clods and stones. The left hand is used to move aside the leaves and other stems so that the right hand is unobstructed. The picked stems stay in the palm of the right hand until there are ten. You have to count as you go (though this becomes automatic), and you never look at the stem you’re picking, because what you are looking at is the next one. When you have a bunch you transfer it to your left hand and carry on. When you have a second bunch in your right hand you put the one that was in your left hand under your right arm; then with your left hand fumble in your pocket for two rubber bands and snap them onto the tails of the two bunches (luckily the rubber bands aren’t charged for and a lot of them end up on the ground). Finally you throw the two bunches into the crate and carry on. (The whole process would have happened twice while you read this paragraph.)


Two-handed picking means that you pick two bunches at the same time; one with each hand. I suppose you go strictly one and one, or you’d lose count. Sighting the two stems that you’re going to pick next sounds impossible, but it obviously isn’t. Generally, though, Kizzy thinks the quality of the bunches picked by this method is not so good;  there’s a higher proportion of short bunches (niners), torn sticks, buds too undeveloped or already showing yellow. Someone might have a word; but part of the skill of any piece-work is to know what you can get away with.


The someone is the “ganger” (gangmaster). It’s a hard job and some gangers are cunts. But whatever might be said, you’ve just got to take it if you want to keep working. Things can be harsh. Language barriers, with all their potential for silence and evil, are the norm. Groups of same-language workers tend to pack together, protecting their own, wolfish to others. No-one needs to mix, because they’re not staying. Resentment, exploitation, allegations, squalor. Perhaps it’s got worse, as the papers are now saying. The recent drowning of nineteen Chinese cocklers in Morecambe Bay has made the whole subject of foreign workers into news, some of it frankly xenophobic (there’s a fertile soil in confusing the issue with asylum-seekers, also fears of British jobs swamped by an influx of Romanies from the more desperate ends of the expanding EU.) This is not, if it ever was, an idyll. *

[* I wrote this in 2003.]

A rogue is any daffodil which is not the variety that’s being grown in that line. One of the poorly-paid late-season jobs is roguing – which always used to mean uprooting the rogues and chucking them down the tin-mines (where they often sprout) but might now mean spotting them with a systemic herbicide.  The pickers are fascinated by the beautiful variety of blooms but they don’t know the names of them, so they make them up on the day. Fury’s fangs, she called one of the curly, very double varieties with a split trumpet of orange.


At the beginning of the season, which may be before Christmas, the bunches are better paid; Kizzy got 10p a bunch once. But the working day is short, and it’s slow going. You are searching for precocious growth, and nipping it deep in the bulb. She felt she did quite well to make £40.


You ought to get a better rate for “ducats” (or perhaps “duckets”) too. These are exceptionally tall daffodils, much prized by flower-arrangers. The stem-length makes them awkward, and you have to pick them long. They easily get damaged and you hope for a windless day, which you don’t always get in mid-February.


Kizzy makes money to spend on the bus. She’s got an inverter now, which turns the 12V leisure battery into 240V for her arc welder. One day she drove up to Roche’s Rock, and watched two climbers on the face. “Perhaps you’d like to have a go,” they said, and she did. “Climb with your feet,” they shouted. They were instructors, but I think she surprised them.


In summer when the weather and the tourists come, she does hair-wrapping. Last time some guy came up and tried to pressure her: “Do you realize you should be charging such-and-such a rate, you’re making us look bad.” Seems there’s a hair-wrap cartel.


Kizzy gave me one of the bags of rubber bands that are thrown out to the pickers. It weighs maybe half a kilo, and through the clear plastic the 20,000 rubber bands look like a snakepit. As an object in my bookish room it feels totally wrong, like a sack of cement, or an engine.

[Image source: http://incornwall.info/1697/when-does-the-daffodil-picking-start-in-cornwall/]

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