Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The fork and spade

It was the minstrel hoar and old,
Adown the moor-paths drear and cold,
One stormy eve with quickened pace,
The rain in channels down his face
And straggling locks, upon that hour
He sought a roof in Newark Tower.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Getting changed in a summer hut. The clothes around your ankles: a disk, that's all clothes are.

The baby soothed by motion and melody. The cars on the carriageway, swinging between their places. The lovers in the room at last.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


In a park dappled with shade trees and open gantries. Ordering horchata and mango y pera smoothie. Somewhere in Salamanca, in the spray of thoss pavement fountains that toddlers love. Here in the middle of hundreds of kilometers of arid Castilian wheat-plains, which Laura calls the Wild West, with reference to dusty gas stations just off the Autovia de Castilia.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

pre-van-trip gallimaufry

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) again

Apparently the word "gallimaufry" meant (or perhaps still means) "an unappetising dish" in French.

Today's unappetising dish, in preparation and forewarning of three weeks off-grid in Europe, is just a hasty flutter through some books in my backpack.

Let's begin with a book I bought last time I was on the road, and have now picked up again, thinking to take it with me.

Un cœur girondin

Le soleil de septembre inonde d'une lumière dorée le jardin de mon presbytère. J'hésite à me priver de ces rayons en fermant les volets pour conserver un peu de fraîcheur dans la maison. J'habite une véritable chartreuse girondine, bâtiment de pierre tout en longueur, surmonté dúne seule fenêtre selon les usages de lárchitecture de la région. De mon logis, les rues coulent en pente douce vers la Garonne, contournant au passage les hectares de vignobles.

Ici, on produit du loupiac, un délicieux vin blanc liquoreux, dont les vendanges sont tardives. Pluie et chaleur ont alterné cet été; les viticulteurs pressentent que la récolte sera bonne.

(from Mémoires d'un curé de France by René Negré)

The September sun floods the garden of my presbytery with golden light. I hesitate to deprive myself of those rays by closing the shutters to conserve a little of the freshness in the house. I live in a true Girondine charterhouse, a stone building throughout, surmounted with a single window according to the architectural usage of the region. From my lodging the streets run in slow descent towards the Garonne past acres of vineyard.

Hereabouts they produce Loupiac, a delicious sweet white wine, harvested late in the year. Rain and heat have alternated this past summer; the winegrowers predict a good vintage.

(Loupiac, on the north bank of the Garonne about 30km SE of Bordeaux, where frequent mists encourage the botrytis; Sauternes and Barsac are grown on the southern side.)

Negré, from a fairly wealthy family (his surname, he wryly notes, probably indicates former slave-owning interests), discovered his vocation partly in dismay at the Saucats massacre in 1944 (when French military police and the Gestapo destroyed the farm of Richemont and all its young inhabitants) and partly from his own veneration for St Vincent de Paul.

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) being visited by bee

Ken Edwards,


On Wednesday the corona
On Thursday a strange & hilarious day
On Friday my green gardens are blooming
On Saturday the sky was fresh

O braid my
             light-brown braid
I plaited you mechanically
             with the words of consolation.

One braid
becomes two,
             the army
of mechanicals
              attacca subita

(from eight + six, 2003)

The six sonnets titled "A Wedding" make reference to Stravinsky's Les noces (1923). "O braid / my light-brown braid" is part of the libretto; The bride-to-be Nastasia in the opening tableau is having her hair done. (Stravinsky wrote it in Russian, based on traditional Russian wedding-songs.) "Mechanical" refers to Stravinsky's percussive instrumentation, which he delighted in as "totally homogenous, totally impersonal and totally mechanical". Attacca subita  is the musical direction in Stravinsky's score, meaning to proceed to the next tableau without any pause in between.

I guess the sonnets also celebrate Ken and Elaine's wedding in 1999. "Corona" refers, Ken tells us, to the solar eclipse partially visible in London on 11th August 1999. (I remember watching it lying in a field in Somerset.) The "army of mechnicals" probably means cars for the church and has nothing to do with Snug the Joiner. The typically unsettled August weather ends, in the sixth sonnet, with light breezes and a sort of open contemplation of the future's constant changefulness; at the same time with a strong sense of the permanent transformation effected by marriage.

(Pondering on Ken Edwards' sonnets in relation to the Stravinsky of Les noces, on the cusp between modernism and neoclassicism, is a surprisingly fertile line of thought...)

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) with the clock in focus

I'm slowly following Napoleon through Scott's epic Live of Buonaparte, which I downloaded to my phone a few months back. There was no vein of cruelty in Napoleon, but he could be ruthless, and once out of Europe and in the Middle East he committed an undoubted war crime following the taking of Jaffa in Palestine: some twelve hundred Turkish and Albanian defenders who surrendered and were given quarter, were later led out into the desert and shot, their bodies piled in heaps.* Napoleon never denied it. Apparently he wanted the story to get around. It was part of a comparatively crude programme of manipulating eastern hearts and minds. Napoleon had also taken every measure to respect Islam and to reject the imputation of leading a  crusade; the French Republic was determinedly secular. So far so good, but he also claimed wildly that in liberating Egypt from the tyranny of the Mamelouks he was acting as the instrument of Allah and in fact his arrival in Egypt had been several times prophesied in the Koran. His Moslem interlocutors kept their thoughts to themselves and remained politely silent when he spoke in this vein.

(The sacking of cities such as Jaffa, with consequent looting, murders of citizens, rapes of women, slaughter of babies at the breast etc, was not considered a war crime in Napoleon's time, but an inevitable concession to the soldiery that no general could do much to control.)

*Scott's conservative estimate. Higher figures (2,400, or 4,100) are often quoted.

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis), Swindon, 15th August 2017

A couple of 2017 poetry books to see me through the autumn: Andrea Brady's The Strong Room (which I've unfortunately left at home) and Laurie Duggan's no particular place to go, a remarkable mesh of annotations. In keeping with the vaguely French theme of this post, let's return to the banks of the Garonne, but a bit further upstream, at Toulouse.

The last city defences
demolished 1820,

red brick channels
the Garonne's rapids,

trees snagged on rocks
from a recent flood.

Movement of wind through plane leaves
is pointillisme.

In the riverside bar a student reads
One Dimensional Man.

(second half of "A short history of France".)

*One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse, 1964. Influential sixties bible delineating the pervasive dehumanizations of capitalism and the need for negative (critical) thinking.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

waves of our native soil

Summer weather forecast for Vaasa, Finland


The oarsman's bronze face
looks timelessly at the summer day.
A sculpture consists of darkness
that reflects the light. Accordingly
it is invisible. Really
only its existence exists, not
it itself. I know the oarsman
well; yet his face is
nameless. When a mountain breaks
among the clouds we turn homeward.
The black sound overwhelms
like the mother's booming pulsebeat
in the foetus. There is no defence
against defencelessness. Through the rain
we see the church towering above the
They punish their unbelief with belief,
says the oarsman. They believe
in what does not exist:
a life after this
and death.

(Gösta Ågren, from Jär (1988), translated by David McDuff as Standing Here (Kindle Book))


Jär's epigraph is these famous lines from "The Prisoner" by Emily Brontë: 

Oh! dreadful is the check, intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

"A Day at Sea" subscribes to Brontë's argument against heaven: life is only meaningful in connection with our world. Brontë uses the word "earth" to express the latter concept. For Ågren, the boat rowing across the low waves of the gulf of Bothnia (Östersjön) does as well, the thunderstorm a mother's heartbeat. This being the life without which there is nothing for us, we are both as secure as the unborn, and as defenceless.

And the oarsman's face, holding still as the boat glides, with the sun shining on it... this face is a sculpture, because it is timeless and because it is immanent in the world, it doesn't belong entirely to Ågren's friend, who after all does have a name. 

(Ågren has also mentioned that he is an admirer of R.S. Thomas, which seems like a good excuse for a Thomas poem with a sea theme.)



It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea's mirror.         

(R.S. Thomas)


Neither of these poems mentions waves directly. But this is sophisticated poetry. In poems of national pride and patriotism waves are somehow important.

           Britannia rules the waves!

Partly this is something to do with the increased visibility or thereness of a land when you are at its border ("White Cliffs of Dover"...).  A coast makes an unmovable topographical argument for the unique identity of a place and its people.  And then, ever since the Athenians and probably long before. the coherence of local identity often begins with the exploitation of the sea as highway, harvest and battlefield.

With my English-speaking head on, I deplore patriotism and I see states as mere systems of coercion, discrimination and injustice... And in fact I agree with Gösta Ågren's tart aphorism, "If states really existed, there would be no need for borders".

But with my childish Swedish-speaking head on, I'm a helpless sentimentalist and patriot. Which is why, earlier today, I was reading the traditional county songs that appear in Sjung Svenska Folk! And the waves danced and glittered, visibly testifying to the inherent living spirit of each place. 

Känner du landet (SÖDERMANLAND)

Minns du den stranden, där Mälarens bölja
Suckar av kärlek och dansar av lust?

Do you remember the shore where Mälaren's waves
Sigh with love and dance for joy?

Ostgötasång (ÖSTERGÖTLAND)

Så grant står Östergyllen i sommarfager prakt,
Och skördarna, de gyllene, de bölja.
Väl hundra vita kyrktorn på slätten håla vakt
Längs insjöstrand, som glittervågor skölja.

So fair stands Östergyllen in summer beauty's splendour,
And its harvest of gold that swells up.
And a hundred white church-towers keep watch across the plain,
Beside the lakeshore where the glittering waves lap.

Bohusvisan (BOHUSLÄN)

I Bohuslän det gamla
Drog viking över våg
Att segerbyte samla
På dråpligt draketåg.

In ancient Bohuslän
Sailed the Vikings o'er the wave
To win victory
For the mighty dragon fleet

Hallandsången (HALLAND)

Vår kust nu ligger fager
Vid Västerhavets våg
I tidig sommardager
Med böljors glittertåg.
Jag älskar böljesången
Med dur och moll uti
Och doften ifrån tången
Där vindar dansar fri.

Our shore extends so fair
beside the Western Sea's* waves
In days of early summer
With the glittering of the waves.
How I love the waves' song
Its major and minor melodies
And the smell of the bladderwrack
Where the winds dance free.

*i.e. the North Sea, as opposed to the Baltic.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

autumn hawkbit

Autumn Hawkbit on a dry day (Frome, 5th August 2017)

Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autumnalis, formerly Leontodon autumnalis. Sw: Höstfibbla.


    in the individual case
a starched confection shirt
             That was us!

That was the old rolling sea with its gold and mottoes

No-one has done wonders here

Who broke the steady branch that rests

respective situations

my eye, your eye

it was just that we started late

the tissues that are soaked with sea

and to sustain
falling with such relieving force
as to bear all that

so you would cloak your mirth

and I still believe it


Autumn Hawkbit has now been banished from the large genus Leontodon and, along with a dozen other species worldwide,  placed in a new genus Scorzoneroides. (Peter Sell and Gina Murrell comment that Scorzoneroides appears to have at least as much in common with Hypochaeris as with Leontodon.)  Our other common hawkbits (Rough Hawkbit and Lesser Hawkbit) remain in Leontodon.

Autumn Hawkbit is one of the most commonplace of flowers in lowland Britain (though nevertheless very welcome because of its fresh appearance in late summer at a time when so much other floral colour is becoming rather scrappy). The flowers look like dandelions but a bit smaller, the stems are branched, and the "clocks" are brown rather than white.

However, it does have a number of varieties that grow in rather more exciting places than Swindon.

According to Den virtuella floran:

Huvudvarieteten vanlig höstfibbla (var. autumnalis) har gleshåriga eller nästan kala holkfjäll och djupt flikiga blad. Svart höstfibbla (var. taraxaci (L.) Hartm.) har svarthåriga holkfjäll och nästan hela blad. Gulbrun höstfibbla (var. asperior Wahlenb.) är grovt byggd med glesflikiga blad och   brunhåriga holkfjäll. Kal höstfibbla (var. salinus (Aspegren) Lange) har kala holkfjäll, vanligen ogrenad stjälk och grunt flikade blad.     ... Varieteten svart höstfibbla (var. taraxaci) är nordlig och växer på snölegemark, stränder och dryashedar i fjälltrakterna. Gulbrun höstfibbla (var. asperior) är också nordlig och växer i videsnår och ängsmarker i fjällen.

Translation: The main variety, Common Höstfibbla (var. autumnalis) has sparsely-hairy or nearly hairless involucre-bracts and deeply lobed leaves. Black Höstfibbla (var. taraxaci (L.) Hartm.) has black-hairy involucre-bracts with the leaves almost entire. Golden-brown Höstfibbla (var. asperior Wahlenb.) is a coarser variety with sparsely-lobed leaves and brown-hairy involucre-bracts. Bald Höstfibbla (var. salinus (Aspegren) Lange) has glabrous involucre-bracts, a usually unbranched stem and shallowly-lobed leaves.    ... The variety Black Höstfibbla (var. taraxaci) is northern and grows in the fells in snow-layers. lake-shores and Dryas-heath.  Golden-brown Höstfibbla (var. asperior) is also northern and grows in willow-scrub and grassy places in the fell region.

Sell and Murrell (Flora of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 4) describe eleven varieties. Here's a summary list:

1. Var. salina . Grows in salt-marshes. (see above)
2. Var. simplex.  Leaves deeply divided almost to midrib with narrow lateral lobes. Grows on heaths, moors, dunes, shingle.
3. Var. nigrolanata. Dense long greyish-blackish hairs on involucre-bracts and upper stem. Coastal in N. Scotland and islands.
4. Var. alpina. Formerly treated as ssp. borealis.  Leaves nearly glabrous, teeth curved down, capitula solitary. Mountain cliff-ledges.
5. Var. pratensis (= taraxaci, see above)
6. Var. autumnalis . Stems slender, usually few, and see above. 6,7 and 8 are common plants of lowland roadsides and grassy places.
7. Var. pinnatifida . Stems slender,  often very numerous. Leaves divided to midrib with linear lateral lobes. Capitula 3-merous per stem.
8. Var. coronopifolia. Stems slender, often very numerous. Leaves divided to midrib with very long  narrow linear segments.
9. Var. cinerascens. Robust stems, large flowers and dense yellowish hair on involucre-bracts. Very rare (perhaps only introduced) in UK.
10. Var. dentata. Leaves erect with short, broad teeth. A few places in Wales and Co. Cork.
11. Var. latifolia. Leaves Broad-leaved in undivided part, with widely spaced long teeth. Roadsides, in occasional clumps.

Autumn Hawkbit on a rainy day (Swindon, 9th August, 2017)

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Monday, August 07, 2017

The water

Grisselören, on the E. Baltic coast near Nykarleby, Ostrobothnia (Österbotten), Finland

[Image source: . Photo by Marcus Soininen.]

June night

The motionless sea
is waiting for the rock to go.
This is not the answer
but the silence

28. If states existed there would be no need of borders.

(from Aphorisms)

Gösta Ågren, translated by David McDuff (In the 1992 Bloodaxe selection, A Valley in the Midst of Violence)

Leo, hans liv
Det var svårt att vara, inte
för människan i honom, men för
djuret, som inte orkade bära
medvetandets bly. Vetskapen om,
att han levde, hindrade honom
från att leva. Den utgjorde
ett sömnlöst ansikte, som såg
på hans känslor tills de smög
sig bort som skådespelare
från en dålig föreställning
och som tänkte, att han tänkte,
tills varje tanke djupnade till
intet i detta kalla ljus. Han
var själv fienden, och skrev
böcker för att besegra sig,
men i en sådan kamp är den enda
möjliga segern alltför stor.
Han segrade. I tystnaden
efteråt hördes några
sista, trevande ord.

Poem, from Jär (1988), about the novelist Leo Ågren, Gösta's elder brother, who died in 1984. (Source:


It was difficult to be, not
for the the human in him, but for
the animal, which had not the strength to carry
the leaden weight of consciousness. The knowledge
the he was alive prevented him
from living. It formed
a sleepless face that looked
at his emotions until they crept
away like actors
from a bad performance
and that thought that he thought,
until each thopught deepened to
nothing in this cold light. He
was himself the enemy, and wrote
books in order to defeat himself,
but in such a battle the only
possible victory is too great.
He won. In the silence
afterwards came a few
last fumbling words.

(Translation by David McDuff, from Standing Here, now available on Kindle.)


Gösta Ågren has been a supporter of "Ostrobothnian separatism". The small coastal county of Österbotten is (along with the Åland islands) the only part of Finland where Swedish remains the majority language, and it is linked to Sweden by a daily ferry across the Baltic between Vaasa and Umeå. Ostrobothnian separatism, however, is not about reunification with Sweden. The region's culture of independence from the state goes back much further than Finnish independence in 1917 and the rising status of the Finnish language during the 1920s. Already in the early eighteenth century, Pietist movements in Österbotten were seeking independence from Sweden and its "Grand Duchy" (i.e. modern Finland). As with other quiescent separatist movements in Scandinavia (Tornedalen, Jämtland, Åland), an outsider doesn't always know how seriously to take it. But Ågren's poetry is absolutely serious.

Background: (Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Vol 2: 1520-1870))
Background: (David Kirby, "Nationalism and National Identity in the New States of Europe: the examples of Austria, Finland and Ireland" in Peter M. R. Sirk, ed., European Unity in Context: The Interwar Period)

[As usual, I've labelled Finland-Swedish literature as both Finnish and Swedish (on the basis that its  readership straddles both sides of the Baltic).]

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Friday, August 04, 2017

I'd (and She'd, He'd, We'd They'd...)

This post isn't so much a post - at least not yet - as a construction site. It aims to collate, investigate, speculate, pontificate and posture about an observation that I made many years ago but first mentioned on the Britsh-poets forum a year or so back.

The observation, in very crude terms, is this:

"I'd" (and other related words such as "she'd", "we'd" and "they'd") are very popular words in modern mainstream poetry in English. Contrariwise, these words almost never appear in experimental/avant-garde/alternative poetry in English.

This appears to be the case even though few if any practitioners are aware of it. So I see this as to some extent a matter of sociolinguistics.

Response on the forum was muted or hostile, perhaps because few poets like to think their diction is unconsciously determined, or perhaps because of ideological resistance to the idea that there are different poetries, or because the word mainstream is deemed to be always pejorative.

[On this last point, I will only assert here that both these poetic camps have existed for over half a century and there is a formidable tradition of important poets in each camp (as well as plenty of poets that nobody has ever taken much notice of). The claim that one camp is as a whole better than the other camp is not easy to defend convincingly.]

Anyway, here's the middle part of Andrew McMillan's "Dancer", which was the Friday Poem on Radio 3 (in this case it was also aligned with Radio 3's Gay Britannia celebration). I'm not sure where McMillan's line breaks occur (the poem won't be published until next year) so I've simply cut the text into lengths.


Even after rehearsal when I invite him
back to the flat to shower before the night's performance
he moves through the rooms so carefully
as though deciding a way to best inhabit them

I'd imagined he would be too beautiful to be curious but
each shelf and photo receives his audience of wet hair
tight body where each part's connection to another part is visible
his battered feet leaving their notations on the false wood floor


(It isn't relevant to what I'm going to say about them, but I do like these lines very much.)

"I'd" is present here, and it reveals the mainstream tradition in which this poem functions; that is, the poem is more Mark Doty than John Riley (to name a couple of poets that have been reported as McMillan faves).


So, why? 

There are three elements to our collocation: Pronoun, contraction, and verb/tense.

The combination is more important than the individual elements. A pronoun, an idiomatic contraction, and even a past perfect might all crop up in experimental poetry, but the presence of all of them together tends to go with a stable narrative frame: a frame in which "I" ("She", He"...) has a certain definite identitiy, including a previous history (promoting such tenses as the past perfect "I had + PP" or past continuous "I had been + vb + ING" or past habitual "I would + INF", all of which can be contracted to "I'd".) Contrariwise the "I" ("She", "He"...) of experimental poetry often exists only in the now, as an experiencing entity; as often as not, we have no idea who I/she/he is.

"I'd", then, is a collocation that appears in anecdotes. But not just any sort of anecdote. A dramatic or extraordinary event may not need a carefully constructed backstory. Unliterary narrators, sticking to the strict sequence of events or speech-acts, would see it as a failure of art to have to slot in achronological information in the past perfect. The collocation comes into its own in those unsensational stories in which the significance resides more in an accumulation of psychology and individual experience than in the event itself; even more so when the narration deviates artfully from the timeline in a Conradian manner; more so still when the past is conceived as a realm of greater significance and interest than the now. [This is obviously not a factor in McMillan's poem, but it's very much a factor in the wider world of poetry, whose typical audiences (and practitioners) are nearly as elderly as church congregations.]

The act of contraction itself is a less important element. Nevertheless, it can be associated with a conversational, idiomatic, informal diction, such as is usual in mainstream poetry, which aspires to be taught in schools.  (On my TEFL course we're encouraged always to teach our students to use the contracted forms -- though not when "had" is the simple past tense of  "to have", as in the Heaney quote below.) The mainstream poetry scene is heavily imbued with the belief that regional accents go with good poetry and that it's good thing if a poetic text suggests the distinctive inflections of an individual voice. [Experimental poetry tends to be informal too, even aggressively so, but it's far less committed to seeking the most idiomatic and natural ways of saying something.]

These more or less relevant generalizations arise from the observation, but they don't fully explain it. To go further is to note the poetic diction that exists as much now as in the eighteenth century; both the mainstream poet and (perhaps more damagingly) the experimental poet have each an unconscious poetic diction, which is a selection of vocabulary and syntactic forms that comes to hand when making up the next line. The choice is not as free as it seems. This individual poetic diction is what the "source text" of Mac Low's diastic verse is intended to replace. In fact the poetic diction is a kind of source text already; that is, it is limited though ample, and it isn't, for the most part, unique to the individual who writes, but is shared with other poets who write the same kind of poetry.


"I'll have been working here for eight years, come the end of November..."

Poetry in English, no doubt, has always favoured a straitened selection of verb forms. Tenses such as the future perfect continuous (as in the sentence above) are part of the standard English toolkit but they are not particularly common in any form of discourse, and they deter poets in particular because they use so many syllables.

Nevertheless experimental poetry stands out for its excessively narrow range of verb forms. It avoids nearly all the standard tenses, except the simple present, in favour of floating forms (in particular, present participles). This is because of of its willed indefinition of agency and chronology.
Experimental poetry tends to be about the general state of things. From this perspective the verb tends to be a suspect device. It appears as an anthropomorphic piece of publicity about what someone thinks they are doing, or even worse, what they want other people to think they are doing. Experimental poetry believes that the social processes at work outrun this human language of verbs in much the same way that particle physics outruns the common language of time and identity.



William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn  ( I would)

Edward Thomas, "Up in the Wind"

But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it (I would)

Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details"
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base (I would)

Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Mounting the lectern I peruse a few
hectoring large-scale verses and pronounce
Here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant... (I had)

Dannie Abse, "Return to Cardiff"
No sooner than I'd arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on. (I had)

Derek Walcott, "The Fortunate Traveller"
I'd light the gas and see a tiger's tongue. (I would)

Derek Mahon, "Afterlives"
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home. (I had)

Mark Doty, "Source"
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
—smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them—  (I had)
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway—   (I had)

Ted Hughes, "Epiphany" (from Birthday Letters)
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.           
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. (I had)

Peter Porter, "Afterburner"
I'd been raised an Anglican. 'In the Name of the Larder,
the Bun and the Mouldy Toast. (I had)

Moniza Alvi, "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro"
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape (I would)

Seamus Heaney, "Two Lorries"
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,  (I had)

Christopher Reid, "Late"
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress (I had)

Carol Ann Duffy, "Salome"
I'd done it before (and doubtless I'll do it again, sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me (I had)

Jo Shapcott, "Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood"
Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. (I would)

Kathleen Jamie, "Glamourie"
When I found I'd lost you -
not beside me, nor ahead,  (I had)

Owen Sheers, "Late Spring"

one-handed, like a man milking,

two soaped beans into a delicate purse,
while gesturing with his other
for the tool, a pliers in reverse

which I’d pass to him then stand and stare
as he let his clenched fist open
to crown them. (I would)

Daljit Nagra, "In a White Town"

That's why
I'd bin the letters about Parents' Evenings,

why I'd police the noise of her holy songs (I would)

Simon Armitage, "Privet"
Because I'd done wrong I was sent to hell (I had)
Roderick Benziger "Piano lessons"

and all I'd hear was the stream's dance
no drip, drop; and I'd feel in league

with my five-year-old self, cocooned in bed,
a bar of light under the door,

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Cold clear and blue

"Cold clear and blue", "Will the day be bright", "Tell me tell me smiling child" and "The inspiring music's thrilling sound",  from a manuscript in Brontë Parsonage Museum Library

[Image source: Janet Gezari's Last Things: Emily Brontë's Poems (OUP, 2007; browse it in Google Books)

Despite living in the the most literary of households we know extraordinarily little about Emily Brontë, except through her writings. She rivals Ann Radcliffe in the inscrutability of her biography, and you might well apply to Emily what Martin Mueller, talking about sources, says about Shakespeare:

The "person" Shakespeare, irretrievable for all practical purposes from either direct utterances or third-party accounts, exists only through a multiplicity of readerly or writerly choices that we can trace with varying degrees of confidence.

("Shakespeare's Sleeping Beauties: The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing and the Play of their Repetitions", Modern Philology Vol 91 No 3 (Feb 1994), p. 293)

And yet, there's a feeling of incongruity, thinking of this in connection with Emily. When do we ever feel we're sharing her readerly choices? Her kind of writing doesn't sit very well with the idea of sources. It seems quite aloof from the literary world. If we ask, frivolously enough, who was Emily's favourite author, don't we feel a dissonance in the terms of the question? We know that Scott, Byron and Shelley were enthusiastically read in the Brontë household, but what did Emily think of them? Did she have favourites?


The question arises with what is thought to be Emily's earliest poem:

Cold clear and blue the morning heaven
Expands its arch on high
Cold clear and blue Lake Werna's water
Reflects that winter's sky
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star

(Taken from The Complete Poems, ed. Janet Gezari. The date is conjectured to be 12th July 1836 or earlier -- in the MS it precedes another poem with that date. The author was not yet 18. )

According to Lawrence Lipking, "The moon is set" is an allusion to Sappho, well-known in Emily's time as author of the line "The silver moon is set". That is a quotation from J.H. Merivale's (1779-1844) translation of Fragment 48 (in the best-known numbering), published in Collections from the Greek Anthology in 1833.

The silver moon is set;
The Pleiades are gone;
Half the long night is spent,-- and yet --
I lie alone.

Whether the Sappho allusion was intended I don't really know. But if it was, Emily's poem decisively turns away from sexual longing and towards a celestial ecstasy.  Also, Sappho's poem (her authorship has been disputed) is a midnight poem.

In Emily's poem Venus is hovering near the eastern horizon. The moon (evidently a waxing moon some way short of the full) has set in the west at some point during the night. So Emily's poem has a 360 degree view, it is turning its head both to east and west to see what night-time objects are still in the sky, and the answer is, just the one, the planet Venus. 

The form suggests an unfinished poem: the word "star" hangs there, expecting a rhyme that never arrives.  But as the MS shows, the poem is as finished as it's going to be. (Emily did this again in dated poem 26 in Gezari's edition; her poems often resist closure.) You could call it a conscious fragment.

The time of day described in Emily's poem is fairly precise. It must be one hour before sunrise. At that time the sky, especially towards the east, can be a uniform blue.  The growing light is enough to make the stars invisible. Fifteen minutes earlier, and you'd still see other stars. Fifteen minutes later, and Venus too would be little more than a pinprick; moreover, the colour of the eastern sky ceases to be blue as it becomes suffused with the approaching sunrise. (Observations based on a cloudless dawn in Somerset on Oct 27th 2017.)

The poem celebrates a thrill of the present. Dawn is a time of rapid change in appearance.  Lake Werna will cease to reflect, the sky's blue will change, Venus will soon disappear from view. And yet the poem fixes the moment.

The cloudless blue sky recurs in her next two poems, too. (Both on the MS page shown at the top of this post).



    Will the day be bright or cloudy?
    Sweetly has its dawn begun
    But the heaven may shake with thunder
    Ere the setting of the sun

    Lady watch Apollo's journey
    Thus they first born's course shall be --
    If his beams through summer vapours
    Warm the earth all placidly
Her days shall pass like a pleasant dream in sweet tranquillity

    If it darken if a shadow
    Quench his rays and summon rain
    Flowers may open buds may blossom
    Bud and flower alike are vain
Her days shall pass like a mournful story in care and tears and pain

    If the wind be fresh and free
    The wide skies clear and cloudless blue
    The woods and fields and golden flowers
    Sparkling in sunchine and in dew
Her days shall pass in Glory's light the world's drear desert through



Tell me tell me smiling child
What the past is like to thee?
And Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully

Tell me what is the present hour?
A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away

And what is the future happy one?
A sea beneath a cloudless sun
A mighty glorious dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity


Emily would write poems for the next ten years or so, slackening off when she came to write Wuthering Heights (Oct 1845-June 1846). (Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published at the end of May 1846.) Only ten poems are dated 1845,  then "No Coward Soul is Mine" on 2nd Jan 1846 and the rough draft "Why Ask to Know the Date" on 14th Sep 1846. This last was partially revisited in May 1848.

With that minor exception the final two years of Emily's active life are a complete blank, so far as any literary remains go.  Work may have been destroyed, by Emily herself or another. It's surprising that nobody in the family mentions anything that Emily was writing, but nor do they mention her conspicuous lack of writing... For more on this, see:

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

a few steps in the forest

During last week's visit to the New Forest, we made a couple of ventures into the woods. Here are some plants I saw --- all common ones in acid habitats, but interesting to us visitors from the limestone scarplands.

Scutellaria minor and Potentilla erecta

Lesser Skullcap (Scutellaria minor), growing alongside Tormentil (Potentilla erecta), ever-present in acid habitats.

Scutellaria minor

S. minor is a diminutive, slender plant, with fresh green untoothed leaves. The flowers are pretty if you get close up to them. When the flowers fall, the calyces resemble pillboxes with round lids.

Scutellaria minor

Juncus articulatus

Jointed Rush (Juncus articulatus).  It likes woodland rides, which is what the New Forest is all about. This was quite a small specimen, but rather eye-catching.

Juncus articulatus

Stachys palustris

Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris) growing beside a lane. (Actually I've seen this in Swindon, too, but in Swindon I was not inspired to photograph it. Call it the holiday effect...)

Gnaphalium uliginosum

Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum). The genus always appeals to me, because it reminds me of the far north.  Although this particular species (Sw: Sumpnoppa) is mostly a plant of S. and C. Sweden rather than northern Sweden.

Seen here growing with Broad-leaved Plantain (Plantago major), looking rather more exotic than usual in these surroundings.

Gnaphalium uliginosum

Usnea ceratina

I know very little about lichens but could not  ignore this one, a magnificent tree-lichen that I discovered in a tangled heap on the forest floor (vaguely recalling computer rooms in the pre-wireless era).

(Thanks to Mary Breeds for the ID -- on the Facebook group for "non-flowering" plants.)

The FSBI site has this to say about the habitat of Usnea ceratina

On acid-barked old trees, particularly Quercus and Fagus, in relict woodlands and parklands where it is characteristic of well-lit sites on trunks of ancient trees particularly along waysides and in glades, also often on inclined or horizontal trunks and boughs in thin tree canopies; locally frequent in the south and west. []

Which exactly fits the glade where I saw it, near Brockenhurst.


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