Friday, June 30, 2017

in a time of plague

Los animales y la peste

En los montes, los valles y collados
 de animales poblados,
 se introdujo la peste de tal modo,
 que en un momento lo inficiona todo.
 Allí donde su Corte el león tenía,
 mirando cada día
 las cacerías, luchas y carreras
 de mansos brutos y de bestias fieras,
 se veían los campos ya cubiertos
 de enfermos miserables y de muertos.
 "Mis amados hermanos"
 exclamó el triste Rey, "mis cortesanos:
 ya veis que el justo cielo nos obliga
 a implorar su piedad, pues nos castiga
 con tan horrenda plaga:
 tal vez se aplacará con que se le haga
 sacrificio de aquel más delincuente,
 y muera el pecador, no el inocente.
 Confiese todo el mundo su pecado.
 Yo, cruel, sanguinario, he devorado
 inocentes corderos,
 ya vacas, ya terneros,
 y he sido, a fuerza de delito tanto,
 de la selva terror, del bosque espanto".
 "Señor" dijo la zorra, "en todo eso
 no se halla más exceso
 que el de vuestra bondad, pues que se digna
 de teñir en la sangre ruin, indigna
 de los viles cornudos animales
 los sacros dientes y las uñas reales".
 Trató la corte al Rey de escrupuloso.
 Allí del tigre, de la onza y oso
 se oyeron confesiones
 de robos y de muertes a millones;
 mas entre la grandeza, sin lisonja,
 pasaron por escrúpulos de monja.
 El asno, sin embargo, muy confuso
 prorrumpió: "Yo me acuso
 que al pasar por un trigo este verano,
 yo hambriento y él lozano,
 sin guarda ni testigo,
 caí en la tentación, comí del trigo".
 "¡Del trigo!, ¡y  un jumento!",
 gritó la zorra, "¡horrible atrevimiento!"
 Los cortesanos claman: "Éste, éste
 irrita al cielo, que nos da la peste".
 Pronuncia el Rey de muerte la sentencia
 y ejecutola el lobo a su presencia.
Te juzgarán virtuoso
si eres, aunque perverso, poderoso;
y aunque bueno, por malo detestable,
cuando te miran pobre, miserable.
Esto hallará en la Corte quien la vea,
y aun en el mundo todo. ¡Pobre Astrea!

(Fábulas morales, Book 3 number 2, by Félix Maria de Samaniego. Based on a fable by La Fontaine, apparently.)

Loosely translated:

The animals and the plague

In the mountains, valleys and hills that are inhabited by the animals, there came once such a plague as in a moment struck down all in its path.

The lion was holding his court, where he was wont to watch each day the hunts, combats and tournaments of meek brutes and wild beasts. But even from here you could see the fields already covered with miserable sick and dead creatures.

"My beloved brothers," exclaimed the sad King, "my courtiers: you see that a righteous Heaven obliges us to implore His mercy, since He punishes us with such a horrible plague. Maybe He would be placated by a sacrifice of the most guilty of us. Let the wicked die in place of the innocent! So confess, everyone, your sin.  I, cruel, bloodthirsty, I have devoured innocent lambs, yes, and cows, and calves. And from the volume of my crimes I have been named the Terror of the Jungle, and the Dread of the Forest."

"Oh Sir," says the fox, "as for all that, it's nothing more than the noble excess of your majesty, that is pleased to tint, with the blood of these vile horned creatures, the sacred teeth and the royal claws."  

The court considered the King far too scrupulous.

Then from the tiger, the ounce and the bear, were heard confessions of rapine and of murder by the thousand. But being such great ones, these testimonies were dismissed (leaving all flattery aside) as nunnish scruples.  

A donkey, however, became very confused and burst out: "I accuse myself that when passing through a cornfield this last summer, I felt so hungry and the wheat looked so luscious, and there being no guard or anyone to see, I fell into temptation, and I ate some of the wheat."

"Eat wheat!! A donkey!!" cried the fox, "Oh, hideous crime!"

The courtiers cried out, "This is he, this is he, who incenses a just Heaven and brings the plague upon us!" 
The King pronounced the death sentence, which the wolf carried out in his presence. 


You will be judged virtuous if you are, though wicked, powerful; and criminal if you seem, though good,  poor and wretched. Thus it is in the court, and even in the whole world. Oh,  Astraea!


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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

drifting round Peter Philpott's poetry

From A Second Life (you can read the whole marvellous lot online):

Look we haven’t come through: the boat
took us back home, of course, how silly not
to realise these truths: only here, only now
this misty island marred first by glaciers then people
why didn’t we realise we’re free of gods but not trouble
no one left to save us but our selves, each soul
bargaining in vain not to be taken home, Ukanian Ingerlund
where the longest dead control the language & the mind
why didn’t we realise we’d be wading thru this brutish mud?

Last week, coincidentally, I had a work experience student alongside. Turned out that Jake hailed from Bishop's Stortford, and at the name something stirred in my mind, connected as I thought with early morning flights to Sweden, or visits to nearby backwoods in deep Hertfordshire.

What I didn't recall, until, at the end of the day,  I picked up Wound Scar Memories, is Peter Philpott being a long-term Stortford resident. Wound Scar Memories ends with a hefty discursive dazzler about the Dark Ages; Stortford's history plays quite a big part in it, along with the Germanized Brythonic name Cerdic, later the basis of Scott's invented name Cedric in Ivanhoe. (I think Scott would have been delighted to learn of a British element in the Anglo-Saxon founder-patriarch, but that's by the by.)

The quotation I started with  exemplifies a few things about PP's praxis. His poems are fast reads and probably quite rapidly written. There's usually a couple of things to consult the notes about, but the pace is important, the switching of the thought; because dynamics is part of the whole-body expression by which we come to know each other. And in this case we soon get acquainted. The Peter of the poems, though not perhaps quite all of the man himself, is a person we know. I feel I would rather talk of a person than an instrument. And yet the years of inhabiting this praxis have had cumulative value, like someone learning to play an instrument: his latest poems are usually his best.


Here's another extract from the same collection (poem 73):

Laughter, though, sustaining
all this miraculous disorderliness
nostalgia of the non-human
– it glitters! somehow slippery as
oh, bêche-de-mer – what allows this?
joy, skipping through our mongrel lives
to the horizon, that buffet of possibilities

Here it definitely helps to read up a little about "bêche-de-mer " (Sea Cucumbers).

Not just to learn that the food has a notably slippery texture, but to more fully appreciate the poem's probing away from all angles at anthropomorphism, at heroism, at ideal human shape: at Michaelangelo's David, you might say.


... said it did not matter if no one ever read the poem, nor even if the poet forgot the poem before it was written, or if the poet was not even aware of the poem, but dreamt it and then forgot the dream. The poem had existed, and had influence upon the world. A true reader would discover it, read it from its consequences in the world. Such readers, unfortunately, were rare; but, then, so too, were poems.

From: The fragments.  A poem based on classical lyrical fragments, apparently.

Gareth Prior writing about The Ianthe Poems :

About Peter Philpott:

About A Second Life (and its predecessor Within These Latter Days)
(So far as I can make out, neither of the more recent books The Ianthe Poems and Wound Scar Memories constitutes the potential third part of this magnum opus.

Within These Latter Days


An extract from The Ianthe Poems hand-copied (under mild protest) from Blart 2 ( (I do think online poetry really deserves to be electronically copyable.)

oh the singing of those free children

their noses are disgusting

                        facing us and

                        gnomish like


their own visas to here

in art




                            outside this tight circles

                             justice is people

                             as wooden clogs

                             bears are burnt


                             in these streets

                             the catch?

                             great mulligatawny mops

                             strangled to live


                              moving into wobbles to

                              where it's busy


at last

terrible reptiles

typed up forms

don't eat


Something that doesn't come across in these extracts, but is a feature of all these recent poem sequences, is what I'll term "phrase transformation".  (I'm sort of basing that on the analogy of "theme transformation" in Liszt's music.)

What this means is that while each poem stands on its own (if not quite so securely as the reader may wish), some of its words and phrases are usually transmutations of words and phrases in preceding poems. Likewise, its own phrases turn up, transmuted, in the poems that follow it.  (To give a single example, "asparagus" turns into "Asperger's".)

Without going very deeply into this, there seems to be a clear connection with Peter's perception that identity is never really unitary, that origins are never origins (there's always something that comes before them), that impurity and mongrelism are the basis of life, that we all depend on each other and can't ultimately be prised apart.


Wound Scar Memories is, to a certain extent concerned with Petrarch, and it openly references those two recent Petrarchiasts Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, poets in whose work we perhaps breathe a comparable atmosphere, relish a comparable zip and humour as in PP's writings, though in other respects all three are doing very different things.


Friday, June 23, 2017

lyrics by Kenneth Gärdestad

Kenneth and Ted Gärdestad in, I'm guessing, about 1980
[Image source: . Photo by Torbjörn Calvero.]

Kenneth Gärdestad wrote the lyrics; his brother Ted, ten years younger, was the popstar who wrote and performed the music.

For more about Ted, see

Here's a couple of Kenneth's best-known lyrics, taken from the superb 1993 compilation/comeback album Kalendarium.  (Since Ted's death, other more ample compilations have taken its place, but Kalendarium is worth tracking down for its historical/cultural significance.)

[If you are a fan of the sheeny rose-steel production of classic Abba, then you may like to know that most of Gärdestad's recordings also have that Polar Music sound, with Björn and Benny in close attendance.]

"Sol, Vind Och Vatten"

D - Dsus4 - D - Dsus4 - D - G/D - D - G/D

D                   Em7         D           Em7

Ännu spelar syrsor till vindarnas sus
D                  Em7             G             A
Ännu rullar kulorna på skolgårdens grus
D                  Em7            D              Em7
Och än strålar solen på brunbrända ben
    D             Em7               G             D
Ännu ruvar fåglarna fast timmen är sen

              Asus4        G                Asus4        G   
Det finns tid till försoning innan dagen är förbi
             F#m7                Em7              Asus4
För jag tror, jag tror på friheten jag lever i
        D                   A                   G
Och är det inte verklighet så drömmer jag

Asus4                                 Gmaj7
Sol, vind och vatten är det bästa som jag vet
Em                  Em7               A        D
men det är på dig jag tänker i hemlighet
Asus4                        F#m7                        Bm  Bm/A
Sol, vind och vatten höga berg och djupa hav
Em                     A7                 D - G/D - D - G/D
Det, är mina drömmar vävda av

D                   Em7         D            Em7
Jag vill veta vägen till herdarnas hus
          D              Em7            G               A
Jag behöver att omges av en ledstjärnas ljus
          D                Em7          D            Em7
Det skymmer vid Sion och natten blir sval
         D              Em7              G              D
Men än doftar blommorna i skuggornas dal

               Asus4        G                  Asus4      G
Det finns tid till försoning innan natten slagit ut
             F#m7                Em7            Asus4
För jag tror, jag tror att livet får ett lyckligt slut
        D                A                   G
Och är det inte verklighet så drömmer jag
 Asus4                                  Gmaj7

Sol, vind och vatten är det bästa som jag vet
Em                 Em7                   A      D
men det är på dig jag tänker i hemlighet
Asus4                                F#m7               Bm  Bm/A
Sol, vind och vatten höga berg och djupa hav
Em                   A7                D   -  G/D - D - G/D
Det är mina drömmar vävda av

Asus4                          F#m7                Bm   Bm/A
Sol, vind och vatten höga berg och djupa hav
Em                 A7                   G
Det är mina drömmar vävda av
D/F#      Em                A7                  D  - G/D - D - G/D - D ...
Mm, Ja, det är mina drömmar vävda av

"Sun, Wind And Water"

Still the grasshoppers are chirping to the wind's sigh
Still the balls rolling in the schoolyard's gravel
And still the sun is shining on brown-tanned legs
Still the birds are busy though the hour is late

There is time for reconciliation before the day is over
Because I believe, I believe in freedom I'm living in
And is that not reality, and so I dream

Sun, wind and water are the best things that I know
But it is you that I'm thinking of in secret
Sun, wind and water, high mountains and deep seas
That's what my dreams are woven of

I want to know the way to the shepherds' house
I need to be surrounded by a guiding star's light
It is silent at Zion and the night gets cool
But still the scent of the flowers in the shadowy dale

There is time for reconciliation before the night breaks out
Because I believe, I believe that life gets a happy ending
And is that not reality, and so I dream

Sun, wind and water are the best things that I know
But it is you that I'm thinking of in secret
Sun, wind and water, high mountains and deep seas
That's what my dreams are woven of

Sun, wind and water, high mountains and deep seas
That's what my dreams are woven of
Mm yes, that's what my dreams are woven of

Kenneth recalled (in the liner note):
Lena Andersson höll på att spela in en platta med visor skrivna av gräddan av Sveriges kompositörer. Vi blev tillfrågade och Ted skrev melodin direkt för Lena och klämde i på svenska för ovanlighetens skull, annars är det alltid engelskan som är hans musikspråk. Sol, vin och vatten blev till slut Sol, vind och vatten.

Lena Andersson was recording an album of songs written by the cream of Sweden's composers. We were asked and Ted wrote the melody for Lena directly and, unusually, annotated it in Swedish, because otherwise English is always his language when composing. "Sun, wine and water" eventually turned into "Sun, wind and water".

Here is Lena Andersson's version, showcasing her lovely voice, with just piano for accompaniment:

But the classic recording is Ted's lively west coast style version with its weaving acoustic guitar runs, in 1973. The art of the opening is to reveal only a hint of the wealth of melody to come,  so that the song is a continually unfolding surprise.

And here's my own version:


"Himlen Är Oskyldigt Blå"

Himlen är oskyldigt blå,
som ögon när barnen är små.
Att regndroppar faller som tårarna gör,
rår inte stjärnorna för.
Älskling jag vet hur det känns,
när broar till tryggheten bränns.
Fast tiden har jagat oss in i en vrå,
är himlen så oskyldigt blå.

När vi växte upp, lekte livet,
vi var evighetens hopp.
Det var helt självklart att vår
framtid skulle bli,
oförbrukat fri.

Somrar svepte fram,
jorden värmde våra fötter där vi sprang
Rågen gungade, och gräset växte grönt.
Hela livet var så skönt.

Himlen är oskyldigt blå,
som ögon när barnen är små.
Att regndroppar faller som tårarna gör,
det rår inte stjärnorna för.
Älskling, jag vet hur det känns,
när broar till tryggheten bränns.
Fast tiden har jagat oss in i en vrå,
är himlen så oskyldigt blå.

Frusna på en strand,
Flög vi med drakar medans
tiden flöt iland.
Vi var barn som ingen ondska kunde nå
himlen var så blå

Nu tar molnen mark.
Jag var förblindad av att solen sken så stark.
Men mina ögon kommer alltid le mot dig.
Kan det begäras mer av mig.

Himlen är oskyldigt blå,
djupaste hav likaså.
Att regndroppar faller som tårarna gör,
det rår inte stjärnorna för.
Älskling, jag vet hur det känns,
när broar till tryggheten bränns.
Fast tiden har jagat, oss in i en vrå.
Är himlen så oskyldigt blå

"The sky is the purest blue"

The sky is the purest blue,
Like the eyes of small children.
That raindrops fall as tears do,
Does not matter to the stars.
Darling I know how it feels
When the bridges to safety are burned.
Though time has hunted us into a corner,
the sky is the purest blue.

When we were growing up, life was play,
and we were eternity's hope.
It was so clear to us
our future would be
entirely free.

Summers swept forward,
The earth warmed our feet as we ran,
The rye swayed, and the grass grew green.
All life was so lovely.

The sky is the purest blue,
Like the eyes of small children.
That raindrops fall as the tears do,
Does not matter to the stars.
Darling, I know how it feels
When the bridges to safety are burned.
Though time has hunted us into a corner,
The sky is the purest blue.

Freezing on the strand,
We flew with dragons while
the tide flooded land.
We were children whom no evil could reach,
The sky was so blue.

Now the clouds recede.
I was blinded cos the sun shone so strong.
But my eyes will always smile at you,
Could you ask more of me?

The sky is the purest blue,
like the deepest sea.
That raindrops fall as tears do,
It does not matter to the stars.
Darling I know how it feels
When the bridges to safety are burned.
Though time has hunted us into a corner
the sky is the purest blue.

The song was originally recorded in 1978 with top West Coast session musicians. It then had English lyrics (written by Kenneth) and was called "Blue Virgin Isles". (The verses of the song contain one of Ted's most astounding melody-lines.) The attempt to promote Ted Gärdestad as an international star wasn't successful; and this English-language album wasn't much noticed even in Sweden. For Kalendarium, fifteen years later,  Kenneth produced a new set of Swedish lyrics, loosely based on the original song, but with marked omissions and additions. These are the lyrics that are given above.

In both its versions, the song is about growing away from the certainties of childhood. But it's fair to say that Ted's intervening twelve years of mental instability gave the song a new resonance in 1993. This re-recorded version became a big hit in Sweden and is now regarded as a Swedish classic (as is Sol, Vind och Vatten).

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

How can we write about Meadow Fescue (Schedonorus pratensis)?

A group of Meadow Fescue in unmown amenity grassland in a business park in Swindon, photos from 5th June 2017.

This is the grass I grew up calling Festuca pratensis, but someone has decided that the flat-leaved fescues ought to have their own genus, so Meadow Fescue and the clearly related Tall Fescue are now Schedonorus.

Despite the similarities, the two species are not really confusable. Tall Fescue (Schedonorus arundinacea)  is robust and densely tufted, forming large tussocks, generally reminiscent of Deschampsia cespitosa in terms of its growth form. It's no surprise that it tends to grow in places that are dampish, or have some hidden water source. (It is not a coastal grass in the UK - it evidently can't cope with salt -  but in Sweden, it's associated with the shores of the barely-saline waters of the Baltic.)

Meadow Fescue is a medium-tall grass -- on this verge it stands out from the lower Meadow-grass and Rye-grass --  but we're only talking thigh-high, not chest-high. It is only loosely tufted (this is quite well shown in the photograph) and it occurs typically as a major component of old hay-meadows with an open sward,  the sort of attractive meadow where you might also find Meadow Barley and maybe some Golden Oat-grass. (As at the Seven Fields reserve in north Swindon.)

Here's the northern hemisphere distribution map:

(Image source:

Meadow Fescue is native to all of temperate Europe and extends far into Russia.

It's also widespread in the eastern half of the USA, where it's an introduced species. 

It is notably winter-hardy, though a closer look at the distribution in northern Scandinavia suggests that it can't cope with full-on Arctic/Alpine conditions.

[Image source:]

It makes an excellent pasture grass, being much more palatable than Tall Fescue.’t-be-forgotten.html

A century ago it was more widely used in the USA than it is today (though it has been "rediscovered" recently), and you can read about it as a forage crop in this 1909 booklet by Harry Nelson Vinall, based on its use in Eastern Kansas:

Meadow Fescue: Its Culture and Uses

From this I learn:

It was known by some as "English Bluegrass", a name deprecated by Vinall (quite right: the American term Bluegrass generally refers to species that we call Meadow-grass).

"Its principal point of excellence is as pasture for fattening cattle."

As hay, it can have a laxative effect (especially on horses).

Meadow Fescue waving in the breeze

So there we have it: a grass that is quite common , but not commonplace. A grass that's only modestly attractive in its own right, but contributes to attractive places. A few grasses impress themselves on the folk-memory, because they're so abundant in school grounds, or because they have  distinctive flowerheads, that you can play games with --- but this certainly can't be claimed of Meadow Fescue. It's a purist's grass.


How do we write about Meadow Fescue? This is a question that, in different forms, has haunted me for years. Not Meadow Fescue specifically, of course -- but taking it as instantiating all the other variety of nature that surrounds us and makes our lives without us being aware of it.

There has to be a poetry... or a prose .... that can engage with Meadow Fescue and find its relevance to our lives .... a prose other than botany for specialists, or manuals for farmers, I mean.

I look at the blank paper. Where do you start? How can you step in the rubbery wellingtons of language without crushing the particular integrity of this life, this Meadow-Fescue-y thingness?


My thoughts turn to Tolstoy and his supreme kind of nature writing.

Arrived at a gate, Papa told us and the huntsmen to continue our way along the road, and then rode off across a cornfield. The harvest was at its height. On the further side of a large, shining, yellow stretch of cornland lay a high purple belt of forest which always figured in my eyes as a distant, mysterious region behind which either the world ended or an uninhabited waste began. This expanse of corn-land was dotted with swathes and reapers, while along the lanes where the sickle had passed could be seen the backs of women as they stooped among the tall, thick grain or lifted armfuls of corn and rested them against the shocks. In one corner a woman was bending over a cradle, and the whole stubble was studded with sheaves and cornflowers. In another direction shirt-sleeved men were standing on waggons, shaking the soil from the stalks of sheaves, and stacking them for carrying. As soon as the foreman (dressed in a blouse and high boots, and carrying a tally-stick) caught sight of Papa, he hastened to take off his lamb's-wool cap and, wiping his red head, told the women to get up. Papa's chestnut horse went trotting along with a prancing gait as it tossed its head and swished its tail to and fro to drive away the gadflies and countless other insects which tormented its flanks, while his two greyhounds--their tails curved like sickles--went springing gracefully over the stubble. Milka was always first, but every now and then she would halt with a shake of her head to await the whipper-in. The chatter of the peasants; the rumbling of horses and waggons; the joyous cries of quails; the hum of insects as they hung suspended in the motionless air; the smell of the soil and grain and steam from our horses; the thousand different lights and shadows which the burning sun cast upon the yellowish- white cornland; the purple forest in the distance; the white gossamer threads which were floating in the air or resting on the soil-all these things I observed and heard and felt to the core. (Childhood, chapter 7)

THE PLACE fixed on for the stand-shooting was not far above a stream in a little aspen copse. On reaching the copse, Levin got out of the trap and led Oblonsky to a corner of a mossy, swampy glade, already quite free from snow. He went back himself to a double birch-tree on the other side, and leaning his gun on the fork of a dead lower branch, he took off his full overcoat, fastened his belt again, and worked his arms to see if they were free.

Grey old Laska, who had followed them, sat down warily opposite him and pricked up her ears. The sun was setting behind a thick forest, and in the glow of sunset the birch-trees, dotted about in the aspen copse, stood out clearly with their hanging twigs, and their buds swollen almost to bursting.

From the thickest parts of the copse, where the snow still remained, came the faint sound of narrow winding threads of water running away. Tiny birds twittered, and now and then fluttered from tree to tree.

In the pauses of complete stillness there came the rustle of last year’s leaves, stirred by the thawing of the earth and the growth of the grass.

‘Imagine! One can hear and see the grass growing!’ Levin said to himself, noticing a wet, slate-coloured aspen leaf moving beside a blade of young grass. He stood, listened, and gazed sometimes down at the wet mossy ground, sometimes at Laska listening all alert, sometimes at the sea of bare tree-tops that stretched on the slope below him, sometimes at the darkening sky, covered with white streaks of cloud.

A hawk flew high over a forest far away with slow sweep of its wings; another flew with exactly the same motion in the same direction and vanished. The birds twittered more and more loudly and busily in the thicket. An owl hooted not far off, and Laska, starting, stepped cautiously a few steps forward, and putting her head on one side, began to listen intently. Beyond the stream was heard the cuckoo. Twice she uttered her usual cuckoo-call, and then gave a hoarse, hurried call and broke down.

'Imagine! the cuckoo already!’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, coming out from behind a bush.

'Yes, I hear it,’ answered Levin, reluctantly breaking the stillness with his voice, which sounded disagreeable to himself. ... (Anna Karenina Book 2 chapter 15)

Tolstoy's example is a classical one. He has, clearly, an immense feeling for grass as well as for trees, clouds and all the other things that impress themselves on us when we are outside and aware of where we are. But he uses a very simple vocabulary - you could translate it into classical Latin. Only a few trees and birds have specific names (aspen, cuckoo). Grass, no matter how tenderly and feelingly rendered, is always just grass. Nature has a meaning inasmuch as it has meaning for a human being. But when you are such a master as Tolstoy, the complete honesty of this approach supplies tantalizing hints of nature's inner life, too.

So the Tolstoyan answer to my question,  you might say, is this:

It's a mistake to ask the question "How do you write about a particular species" ... Nature, so far as it can be realized by us at all, is usually realized, not as a list of species, but as wide or piercing momentary impressions. We don't, at least most of us don't, organize those impressions by species. We acutely experience (say) a grass field, a humming meadow, a tender blade of spring grass.. the experience is living .. Thus it is to be an animal on this planet (and human beings at their best are animals). Animals live in the world, animals know nature, but they don't categorize, they don't know the names of other species.....   Nature writing, to be affecting, must always come from this animal perspective, this human perspective.

Didn't Chekhov, too, advise that when writing about nature in a story you should always anthropomorphize it, give it a human dimension and an emotional life so as to fill it with meaning for your reader?


I'm aware, too, that organizing a piece of writing around an individual species can have pitfalls.

One is the point made by Hazlitt, that an individual species is not an individual. We tend to see nature as types rather than individuals. We hail the primrose as an old friend --- this primrose as representative of all the primroses we've seen before.   If we regard one lamb as, in all essentials, identical to every other lamb -- a prancing skittish woolly tail-wagging little chap that lifts our hearts in spring -- then doesn't our poem neccessarily stop short of the deeper contact with nature that I'm looking for?  For after all, individuals are individuals. You would not like to be treated as a mere instantiation of your species, would you?

Another  pitfall is that when we take one species and isolate it for special treatment, the result is often a sort of allegorical treatment that consists of finding strained symbols for moral sermons, something like the art of a medieval bestiary.

Wordsworth's poems on the Small Celandine don't fully escape this stricture.

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane;—there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ’tis good enough for thee.

Ill befal the yellow flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others, too, of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!

Wordsworth regards the plant's low habit as a character trait, a sign of unassuming humility, while its glowing yellow flower is interpreted as a pleasant and therefore kindly face. Since the plant grows in all sorts of places, however mean, it is evidently a modest plant and not a worldling like those flaunting buttercups. Few have praised it before, therefore it has been ill-requited. And so on. -- this makes a fancy embroidery, but you wouldn't say that it goes very deep in terms of realizing the plant's essence from perspectives perhaps more relevant to itself --- such as its ecology or way of life, for instance.

To some extent that's also true of this tougher poem about the same plant:


          THERE is a Flower, the lesser Celandine,
          That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
          And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
          Bright as the sun himself, 'tis out again!

          When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
          Or blasts the green field and the trees distrest,
          Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
          In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

          But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed
          And recognised it, though an altered form,                  10
          Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
          And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

          I stopped, and said with inly-muttered voice,
          "It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
          This neither is its courage nor its choice,
          But its necessity in being old.

          "The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
          It cannot help itself in its decay;
          Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue."
          And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.               20

          To be a Prodigal's Favourite--then, worse truth,
          A Miser's Pensioner--behold our lot!
          O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
          Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Here we escape Hazlitt: this is a poem is about one individual plant. Wordsworth notices that this plant's flower doesn't close up, despite the typically appalling Lakeland weather --- because the flower is fading. And he draws the general parallel with ourselves: how in the last decrepitude of age we can no longer defend ourselves against the storm. I don't think that's a strained resemblance: this really is a true observation of natural decline, in plants and animals alike. But still, the poem isn't quite as "about" Ranunculus ficaria as its title seems to promise.

I am more surprised than perhaps I should be that William had not noticed the Small Celandine until he was thirty. Something very big happened between William and Nature, but he wasn't interested in the details of the natural world, such things as the names of species. In The Excursion he pours scorn on the fad for scientific travelling, on amateur botanists and geologists.  And even here, it might strike you that for William the most important thing that ever happened to the Small Celandine was that he had chosen it to be his favourite.

How different from his sister. And Dorothy Wordsworth is where we should turn next.

May 141/1, 1 800. Wm. and John set off into York-
shire after dinner at half-past two o'clock, cold pork in
their pockets. I left them at the turning of the Low-
wood bay under the trees. My heart was so full that I
could hardly speak to W. when I gave him a farewell
kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of
the lake, and after a flood of tears my heart was easier.
The lake looked to me, I knew not why, dull and melan-
choly, and the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy
sound. I walked as long as I could amongst the stones
of the shore. The wood rich in flowers ; a beautiful
yellow (palish yellow) flower, that looked thick, round,
and double the smell very sweet (I supposed it was a
ranunculus), crowfoot, the grassy-leaved rabbit-looking
white flower, strawberries, geraniums, scentless violets,
anemones, two kinds of orchises, primroses, the heck-
berry very beautiful, the crab coming out as a low
shrub. Met an old man, driving a very large beautiful
bull, and a cow. He walked with two sticks. Came home
by Clappersgate.

(The Ranunculus sounds like Globeflower. "Heckberry" is Bird Cherry. I have no idea what Dorothy meant by a "grassy-leaved rabbit-looking white flower", though I do like the sound of it.  She was writing this memorandum for herself, so the description only had to make sense to her. )

Dorothy's journal entry reminds us that treating a species in isolation is maybe not the best way. As I read this hasty list of plants, my reading pieces together a memory of the rich flora of a wet northern English wood in May. I'm not sure if it's a true memory of mine, or if I've combined different memories of woods in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Jämtland and Lappland.  So anyway, reading this raises some other thoughts about my question. 1. Nature is a community of species and is best evoked that way. 2. Nature writing mainly depends for its effect on the reader's prior knowledge.


To explain my own stake in this. I've long toyed with the idea of writing a series of poems named after plants. That would seem quite a natural project for someone with my interests. And yet something has always deterred me from embarking. I suppose this post is me thinking through some of the issues.


Maybe, I think to myself, the species could be named in the title and then the poem that follows could be only tangentially about the species, and certainly wouldn't try to describe it or to draw analogies between its life-form and ours; the poem's opacity would respect the integrity of the other life named in its title.  Maybe my own poems might be a little like Zukofsky's poems in "80 Flowers" ?

#63    OXALIS

Wood sorrel lady's-sorrel 3-hearts tow ox
a leese rapids whose soul
air-spring disperses thru water elator
ox lips mistaken for clover
more ruse mulberry locust-flower shield
welcome wanderer óxalis time primrose-yellow
a breeze sweet rampant pulse
scald scold honor the bard

(Source: Ray Davis' interesting essay on Pseudopodium:


Opinions have naturally varied as to what Zukofsky was up to, and even to what extent he was really interested in the titular flowers. Perhaps it doesn't seem quite right to describe this poem as being "about" oxalis.  Certainly it seems to be as interested in the name itself as in the plant that it names.  And yet this certainly strikes me as a fresh and involving poem. It has some of the shape and texture of nature -- unless that's an idea that I'm importing into it. Perhaps a representation of plant-life through an especially indirect medium, such as sound or music.

[Online access to 80 Flowers is extremely limited.  Here are some of the other poem titles, suggesting the arrangement was in alphabetical order:

Honesty  Liveforever  Dogwood  Raspberry  Thyme  Vines  Weeds   Zinnia

Here is the introductory poem:

Heart us invisibly thyme time
round rose bud fire downland
bird tread quagmire dry gill-over-the-ground
stem-square leaves-cordate earth race horsethyme
breath neighbors a mace nays
sorrow of harness pulses pent
thus fruit pod split four
one-fourth ripens unwithering gaping 

(Source: Jack Foley's review: ).  Thyme gets mentioned twice here. Thyme has square stems. Thyme does not have cordate leaves.

Here are a couple more of the poems:


 League gust strum ovally folium
looped leaf nodes winter icejewel
platinum stoneseed true ebony berries
gray-jointed persistent thru green
hedge ash-or-olive order white panicles
heavy with daffodil doxy red blood pale
reign paired leaves without tooth
on edge primmed private privet


 With prayer-plant eyes annually winter-leggy
zinnia miracles itself perennial return
blest interim strength lengthening coreopsis'-summers
actual some time whereso near
zebra-fragrant sharpened wave currents tide
new moon to full sunrise
sunset enable ships seaworth slow-rounds
rosette lancers speared-yucca's white night

(Source: Michele Legott's Zukofsky reading list, here --

And here's a couple more:

Starglow dwarf china rose shrubthorn
lantern fashion-fare airing car-tire crushed
young’s churning old rambler’s flown
to sky can cut back
a crown transplanted patient of
drought sun’s gold firerimmed branched
greeting thyme’s autumn sprig head
happier winter sculpt white rose
Known color grown mountain laurel
broadleaf of acid earth margin
entire green winter years hoarfrost
mooned pod honesty open unvoiced
May-grown acute 5-petal calicoflower cluster
10-slender rods spring seed sway
trefoil birds throat Not thyme’s
spur-flower calico clusters laurelled well

(Source: Christopher Patton's student exercise.
His students duly wrote some poems in the manner of 80 Flowers, and they're well worth a look: )

The poem "Privet" certainly takes a fairly focussed interest in the plant's physical appearance, as well as its names (Privet / Ligustrum) . And this poem, too, perhaps shows most clearly the way that Zukofsky is going about his work. 80 Flowers is very much a garden collection. The plants are isolated from ecological communities and treated as specimens or even as artworks. Much attention is paid to the plant's connections with a world of human culture. (Not ethnobotany so much as the literary imagination.) These are good and important topics, but the poems don't look at the plant in the wild, at the other face of nature, the one that doesn't face towards us.


Meadow Fescue waving in the breeze

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

once we were

Eva Ström

[Image source:]

Not really sure what today's post is going to be about, but anyway now's the time to mention that I'm off to Spain early tomorrow for a week.

Well, apparently it's going to be Eva Ström, since a random Google search on "Swedish poetry" brought me straight to this, one of three poems translated by Carol Berg in a Qarrtsiluni post. (The other two poems are by Johanna Ekström.)

Dödssynder åtrår ni mig ännu?

Dödssynder åtrår ni mig ännu?
Vrede vill du blomma i mig?
Vill du driva blodet till mina kinder
och få mitt hjärta att accelerera.
Avundets korta sting,
vill du träffa mig,
låta mig fåfängt få rasa
efter ett annat liv.
Jag vill känna högmodet och gå
med högmodets vadderade ncacke,
jag vill känna den beska älskogens söta sting i min kropp,
och vila en stund på smickrarnas ockersålda mattor.
Jag vill känna hur slugheten får min hjärna att arbeta
och hur omåttligheten griper tag i mig i ett vällustigt begär.
Dödssynder åtrår ni mig?
Kan ni ännu verka i mig?

Deadly Sins, Do You Still Want Me?

Deadly sins, do you still want me?
Wrath, do you want to bloom in me?
Want to drive blood into my cheek
and make my heart accelerate.
Envy, short sting
do you want to smack me,
churn in me—vain rampages
after my next lonely life.
I want to feel pride and run
with pride’s stiff neck,
I want to feel the bitter sweet sting of sex in my body
and rest in the moment on flattery’s shaggy carpet.
I want to feel how cunning works in my brain
and how excess grips me and touches me with desire.
Deadly sins, do you still want me?
Can you still work in me?

A poem about age and youth, then.  And it is true, quite a few of the characters in the procession of Deadly Sins seem to be well adapted to a medieval condemnation of youthfulness itself: Pride, Lust, Greed and so on.

And yet, who believes that the elderly are, predominantly, better people than the young?  Who thinks that human character is improved by neurotic fear and anxiety, the grasping of security that is the true meaning of Covetousness, narrowing sympathies and increasing indifference to the sufferings and trials of others,  and so on. 

And yet, youth is a shallow, blind, self-centred thing. If my own youth was any indication.

There is excess and desire in age. Only the objects change. Excess in the form of panic. Desire in the form of clinging to old ways of thinking, intransigence to change. The elderly do over-reaction very well. Also envy and anger.

The Sins can work in every age-group. That's the bare truth.


But then, Eva Ström is not a preacher and her poem isn't really about sins. It's really about the shrivelling of life in our lives, the dulling of response, the acceptance of mundanity, the withering of aspiration.  The "shutting down" that we are sometimes accused of, that in unsparing moments we can see for ourselves.

The translator seems to have beefed up that idea with her intrusion of the word "lonely" into the middle of the poem.

A more literal translation of those lines about envy would be:

Envy's short sting,
do you want to meet me
and make me get a vain rage
for another life ....

In Ström's poem Envy has, so to speak, been reinvented as passionate dreaming. There are many Envies I suppose. My own conception of Envy is that it takes the form of a chilly dislike for those who do dream.


Eva Ström has translated Shakespeare's Sonnets into Swedish.

Translations of four Shakespeare sonnets into Swedish, with commentary.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Colm Tóibín: The Heather Blazing (1992)

Colm Tóibín in 1992

[Image source:]


Colm Tóibín: The Heather Blazing (1992)



This really isn’t a good choice of novel to give someone as a gift. But read it yourself. It’s about a successful, clever man who doesn’t connect with his family; and it’s desolating. The ending, mildly optimistic with its curious recollection of Dombey and Son (grandfather, daughter, grandson by the sea), does very little to modify the overall sense that one has been wounded, a trap has been sprung on the unwary.


Eamon Redmond doesn’t talk, doesn’t allow himself to think about his past – one thing that keeps us reading on is the feeling that we’re going to uncover a secret but there isn’t really a secret of a simplistic concrete sort, like some unusually traumatic experience. What there is, is the gradual formation of a pattern of life; a powerful success-making driven pattern, but also a pattern that is terribly trapped in its own terms, quite unable to see itself from outside. The book is not a voyage into memory but it is a voyage into Redmond’s mind and all the important things that it doesn’t remember, that it never allowed itself to register properly. I hope the anguish of this paragraph will come across – this is Eamon, back in the bedroom of their holiday home, after his wife’s death:


The night when he had washed her in the bath and lay on the bed beside hercame back to him now. He had avoided thinking about it. He remembered that it was a warm, close night like this with moths blundering against the windowpane. He remembered her voice, her voice telling him that he had never listened to her when she tried to tell him about her parents. He had gone over everything, every talk they had in all the years and he could recall nothing. He thought that she loved her parents, he remembered her talking about them in the months after they died. He could not remember her telling him that they fought in the house, nor that her father drank too much. As he sat there now in the night he asked her to forgive him if he had done anything wrong, he told her that he had tried to remember everything, but nothing came back to him, no time when he could have listened to her and comforted her about what had happened during her life at home. He simply could not remember.


Tóibín’s complex novel is made out extremely simple words, the ones you speak to yourself. Yet how complex the effect of e.g. that “could have listened”. Eamon’s poor memory, and it’s not any different now when he wants to be forgiven if he’s done anything wrong, is intimately connected to his skills as a judge, the clean slate he maintains for impeccable lines of reasoning. Which is a place of relief. People don’t become brilliant at something just for fun.


Eamon is a fine public speaker, but his communication in private, haltered by a judge’s reticence, is tortuous. He reserves information as a matter of habit.


He had learnt not to speak to the Guards; some of them had given evidence in his court over the years and, no doubt, would do so again, and he felt it was better if he did not know them.


He kept listening, more and more sure that he should not mention the story about his father and Cathal Brugha, that he should consign it to the past, to silence, as his father had done with the names of the men who did the killings in Enniscorthy.


And to his son:


‘You don’t recognize Cathy?’ Donal said to him.


‘Recognize her? I’ve just met her.’


‘He wouldn’t remember me,’ Cathy said.


Eamon noticed that both of them had become hostile. ‘I’ve a very good memory for faces,’ he said. ‘It’s not as good as Carmel’s, but I think I would remember you if I had met you before.’


‘Maybe it’s a guilty conscience,’ Donal said.....


‘Did you see what the Irish Times said about your judgment?’ Donal asked sharply.


‘It’s a funny day now when a newspaper starts making legal judgments.’ He was suddenly angry. ‘But I don’t think that we can discuss the case, if you don’t mind. I’d rather go back to discussing coastal erosion or the temperature of the Irish Sea.’


‘I’m sure you would,’ Donal said.


Eamon is constantly deciding not to tell people things, afraid he will be misunderstood. As we read we learn to interpret these moments as a series of untaken escapes from the pattern behaviour that makes him what he is. Where any of them might have led, who knows? But freedom does not seem a good description of what Eamon has. On the other hand it seems wrong to think of Eamon as exceptionally cold or inarticulate. The book seems quite clear that in his own way, he’s all right, more than all right in many ways. It’s one of the book’s terrible insights.  


Tóibín’s communication, however, is remarkable. The press write-ups on the back of the book reveal for once that this book has been read and has been effortlessly understood (“It is impossible,” says one of them, “to read Tóibín without being moved, touched and finally changed”). No poet would recognize the ease of that transaction with readers of the day. Though the book is too painful to be a bestseller, it plugs straight into the communal or national “we” as endlessly deployed by media commentators.


This transparent eloquence can make the book easy to under-rate. A second reading does not add much to what came across so completely on the first. And if there is no obscurity of effect, what is there for a critic to do?


What appeals to me throughout is the pacing of the narrative – I notice it without in any way feeling the story less. One great scene is the account of a death-haunted Christmas in which Eamon’s grandmother, so soon to be engulfed by tragedy, is dominant. Another is the punishingly long walk in which Eamon, after his wife’s death, tries to tire himself out and is slowly adjusting. Chapter 11 might be the best and most painful of all, the visits to Wexford for hopeful physiotherapy, and Carmel soiling herself. Nothing melodramatic happens to Eamon in the whole book – this is what we can all expect to go through, and we’ll be lucky if it’s no worse. That’s the other terrible insight.    



Tuesday, June 06, 2017

meeting the family

Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source:]

Here's one of my current favourite poems in Alistair Noon's collection The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2015):

Meeting the Family

Take me to greet your relatives
emplaced around the low hills,
covering their ears against familiar
chatter on the New Year visit.

Let's bump out there to inspect them,
the old spring-rolled into back sets, the young
clutching the sides of a bare-backed truck,
surfing the potholes, next

to arrive with an hour's supply
of Gatling Gun crackers in the breeze,
to mow down a Square of Heavenly Peace,
put five generations on trial.

Here we are. Your ancestral homes
are of earth and tufted with grass.
Like wriggling dragons, the annual paths
aren't happy or sad. Let's burn our banknotes.

Your eldest brother has the farmhouse.
The second, the haulage firm, Audi,
and Country & Western ringtone.
Your sister, the unspecified business.
You have the punk drumkit.

Third cousin, a pleasure to meet you
and feast in a room of resemblances
and filling, revolving tables. Thanks!
We're glad to be here among the iron trees,

where I might sink into the earthquake zone
and mime the unrelated individual
when centuries hence they find the pit
and my DNA here in the chicken bones.

Noon's poetry is all-active. Here the sound-scheme is understated, just the ghost of a vowel-rhymed abba , --  and with absolute regularity of stanzas avoided by that one extra line in the fifth stanza. But the word-scheme is a wonder, right from the start...    from that word "emplaced" in line 2, a word typically used of big guns and fortresses...  to let us know that the relatives of  line 1 are ancestral tombs rather than living individuals.

But I think we should start even further back, with the opening words: "Take me..."  It's the first of three imperatives in the opening stanzas.  We understand, of course, that the protagonist (I'm going to call him Alistair, with the usual caveats) is not actually the one making the suggestions about what they're all going to do. His use of the imperative conveys, actually, enthusiastic assent -- even, perhaps, a touch over-enthusiastic --- pardonably, of course. He's making the broad smiles and exaggerated gestures that most of us make when meeting people for the first time and anxious to make a good impression.  Because this "Meeting the family" isn't just about greeting the ancestors. Alistair is also meeting his friend's extended living family -- the five generations who find the incessant firecrackers rather a trial, in Stanza 3.

There's a train of cultural references to make it clear that we're in East Asia, almost certainly China.  ("Square of Heavenly Peace" is a rendering of Tiananmen Square).

As often in Noon's poetry the scena is a sort of deflated but undefeated globalism. The poem is too honest to deny Alistair's flitting thoughts.. for example, that everyone round here looks much the same ("a room of resemblances") ... and the wryly self-regarding fantasy that some future researcher might pick out his own DNA from the quake.

On the surface, that ending insists on Alistair being a stranger, unrelated to the family in question. But isn't the poem as a whole talking about something else? Namely, the Human Family, to which he is very much related and which he is now meeting, albeit in an unfamiliar part of the globe... (The poem has already juggled with the word "familiar").

There's a lot else about this poem - themes that hover there, mostly unstated. Can we meet a family and not join them? Yet isn't that balancing act what society enforces? Is the idea of regarding the whole world as our brothers and sisters a sentimentality that's only attainable in the barest terms of equality before the law, not in terms of the real acquaintance that defines what a family can really be? Actually, what is a family, today? Is it a tribal buttress, asserting common identity by tribal practice, or can it be something that opens out with the welcome to strangers seen here and in so many other parts of the world (though not, all too often, in property-owning England.) Is the family necessarily punitive towards difference and foreignness, or can it be something else?

Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source:]

"among the iron trees"

That line in the poem probably has nothing at all to do with this Tertiary relict species,  Chinese Ironwood (Parrotia subaequalis), an extremely rare but lovely tree that was properly identified only in 1992 --- in a small area of eastern China. (Its only close relative, Persian Ironwood, grows some 3.5 thousand miles to the west.)

Anyway, it makes for some nice illustrations to this post.

Photos of a wild specimen of Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source: , an article in Arnoldia by Jianhua Li and Peter Del Tredici. Photos by P. del Tredici. ]

(Other possible interpretations of Noon's line: 

1. A large decorative indoor plant with mottled spiky leaves, a bit like an agave, famous for flowering very rarely... it is known in China as  the Iron Tree.

2.  Artificial metal trees for New Year decoration, similar to fake Christmas trees.

3. (Unlikely) Lamp posts: ... Lampooned (ha, ha),  when first installed in Shanghai, as "iron trees bursting into bloom" -- proverbial for an unlikely overturning of the world order.)


Sunday, June 04, 2017

murky and still in a cradle of watery poison

Pamphlet published by Sad Press, 2015. 

There are not many alternative-poetry pamphlets that I could genuinely say I wish were longer, but this is one. Cooke's twelve poems seem to be over in a rush, not so much because of a paucity of text as because of the reader's greed for these euphoric/catastrophic narratives.  

Basically, they are accounts of dreams that have an apocalyptic premise. Apparently based on notes of true dreams by the author, but rendered in different forms.  

New apocalypse dream: there is an apocalypse. I am at work. The only way to avoid the apocalypse is to apply for study leave ....

how shit would it be if the end of the world
was a rave in the snow. yet here it is. muddy
snowy footfalls & loud music & stoned eyes
with drugs generated from beetroot compounds...

That's how two of the pieces begin.

Here are some of the euphoric lines:

Rain here does not clean; it muddies; we feel this as

We are bloodless; shit fish.
And it is just water coming down on people.

That there are only minutes left. Our knowledge is
incommensurable. We are happy.

a waterfall of effluence tumbling
people with everything else how
far can it fall off the edge of this
...can it be fun to surf before you die
in sewage washed to the end the...

In the seas a block of salmon fillets floats high as an iceberg, rearing above our deck, enormous and pinkly soft at the edges -- you could cut off your dinner, but it's diseased.


I would also have liked to quote the bit where they're hiding in a squat in Brighton trying to recharge their phones -- the apocalypse has become an irritation.  ... but anyway this is as much of an idea as I can give you in one post.

Dreams are a release of fiction into the aridities of art.

Dreams (genuine ones) are overdetermined. Cooke (a big Freud fan)  has allowed the overdetermination to flow into her poems. So the book is somehow a fond autobiography of childhood and adolescence and even university common rooms at the same time that it is an alarming dredge into the sub-political globalized mentality of 2015, and a captious view of social behaviour when we're not dreaming.

The hilarity in the book comes from reason confronting the irrational. Sometimes reason is demolished by it, and sometimes reason wins small petulant victories.  In the end Apocalypse Dreams aligns itself with that shrinking part of the population that is still educated and intelligent. It is enlightened.

The apocalypse is inevitable defeat. We are all in a slow apocalypse and must one day face that defeat: the time when it seems better to let go than to struggle, the time when we know, in office parlance, that we are "fighting a losing battle". Cooke's poems witness both the relief and the dread of that release.

But it's not just or even mainly about individual demise. Even before 2015, and acceleratingly since, much of our world has perceptibly begun to behave more like rats in a hot cage. Apocalypse Dreams feels like a useful guide to our times.


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