Thursday, March 23, 2017

big avant-garde poetry books

Tim Allen's Copyright, front jacket

In the ecosystem of my life big poetry books lead an especially precarious existence. I seem to move house about once a year, usually into smaller digs, and with each year I more eagerly anticipate the breaking of the chrysalis into a fully mobile travelling lifestyle with no encumbrance of "things" at all.

And I suppose I'm only in the vanguard of social changes that we all feel to some extent. Our possessions are becoming digitized, we are most relaxed not in our own homes but in coffee bars, and we carry our passports.

So it is that, along with much other lumber, I'm sadly having to say goodbye to these two big books by Tim Allen, books that I've hardly opened until today.  I'll be carrying the miniscule though brilliant Default Soul into my next life, but that may be all.

Copyright or (c)  (Dept Press, 2013) , once delved into, isn't really all that different from Default Soul, just more of Tim's endlessly curious and good-natured investigation of the world. I don't know whether it's because I'm currently doing a TEFL course, but some of the lines now seem even funnier than they did before (Tim is a primary school teacher).

The phrases I like best are the ones where the reader feels a vague semantic or logical discomfort, just begging to be teased out. E.g. (from the pages shown below)

"an assortment of negatives"

"i match tear to paper"

"i need a dark to see stars through" (p.10)

"i warm up on the ice" (p. 12) 

and so on...

first page of Tim Allen's  Copyright

"homeless builder and purpose crazy" (p. 8) -- evidently Tim's comment on my lifestyle.

Another page of Copyright

Tim Allen's Copyright, rear jacket

List of other books, from Tim Allen's Copyright.  

That is to say, a list of books by people called Tim Allen. I think these are bona fide books, at least I've just looked up The Lost Abbey of Abingdon (2011) and that one's real enough. Did you know that Abingdon Abbey was about the size of Wells Cathedral?  Despite this, as soon as the titles are detached and brought into Tim's list they start to feel irresistibly comic and strange. "Strange Way to Save the World"..... utterly bizarre.....  "Queuing Theory".... hmm, intriguing.... "The Lost Abbey of Abingdon"...  oh dear, where can it have got to? As for his own books, the list of course misses the most recent ones, including my fave Default Soul and also the book that I'm about to mention, Tattered by Magnets.

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, front jacket

The poetical enjoyment of Copyright is a relatively pure contact with the words. Tattered by Magnets (KFS, 2014) is quite a lot more intricate, because it weaves the verbal material into beautiful stanzaic forms --- and consequently, is rather more resistant to being sampled by a page or two.

But for what it's worth, here they are.

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, first page

"the exiting cathedral?" (2.2). I suppose that must be a comment on Abingdon Abbey.

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, another page

There's a lot of interacting ingredients here and some of them I haven't particularly noticed in Tim's earlier work. Like this sort of landscape painting in the first line of 1.3:

arc             smile    limb   mile   lime   acre

Or the way the rest of the poem yearns towards another sound, (via lido, bimbo and Beano  -- "air hostess's complimentary Beano")  before finally converting the lime into limbo.

My admiration for Tim's inventiveness could hardly have been much greater, but repeatedly on leafing through Tattered by Magnets I catch myself thinking: I didn't know he could do this... 

My main essay on Tim Allen's poetry is here:


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Culham Hythe

For now is culhan hithe i com to an ende,
And al the contre better an no man the worse.
Few folke there were coude that wey wende,
But the waged a wed or payed of her purse.

And if it were a begger gad breed in his bagge,
He schulde be ryght soone i bid for to goo aboute,
And of the pore penyles the hiereward wold habbe
A hood or a girdle, and let hem goo withoute.

Many moo myscheves there weren I say.
Culham hithe hath causid many a curse.
I blyssyd be oure helpers we have a better waye,
Withoute any peny for cart and for horse.

(lines 95 - 108)

wed = gage, hiereward = ferryman

From Richard Forman's 15th-century poem on the building of Abingdon and Culham bridges (in Oxfordshire) and the causeway between them.

Full text:

Translation into modern English:

A "hythe" or "hithe" (OE "hyð") was a small landing-place or harbour, either coastal or on the bank of a river, stioll frequent in place-names (Lambeth (=Lamb-Hythe), Rotherhithe, Queenhithe (City of London),  Hythe (Kent), Small Hythe (near Tenterden, Kent), Bulverhythe (Hastings, E. Sussex)...). So Culham Hythe meant a ferry service, an extortionate one in the eyes of this ironmonger poet.  The building of the bridges in 1416-22 meant that carts could cross the Thames for free.

Richard Forman (Fannande?) wrote his poem in rhymed alliterative long lines. In several places the influence of Piers Plowman is palpable, though in Langland's great poem the word "beggars" has negative connotations that seem to be absent here.

Ironically the bridge later became a toll bridge, so Forman's vision of free movement was shortlived. It spans the Swift Ditch, now a backwater, but then the main navigation channel down the Thames. Because of its strategic importance the bridge was the scene of conflict during the Civil War, first in 1644, then again in 1645.

I learnt about the poem from reading this post on Edmund Hardy's marvellous blog:

Culham old bridge

[Image source:]

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

along the garden fence

Rosmarinus officinalis

Mediterranean shrub with glorious flavour as a pot-herb. Height of flowering is in late winter.

The challenge of deciding when is the right time to prune Rosemary (obviously never, in my own case):

With Alzheimer's such a grotesque and undignified ending to so many western lives, there's naturally a lot of interest in the traditional association between rosemary and memory enhancement.

"Rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors, but also produced an impairment of speed of memory compared to control..."

More clearly, Rosemary has typical antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

Some of the undoubted benefits of Rosemary and other herbs must, I believe, have to do with the psychological or spiritual state that arises from a respectful meeting with nature ... for example, eating what we've grown or gathered ourselves.

Anemone blanda

These plants were given to me by my Mum, a generous gardener, last year. (Come to think of it, she gave me the rosemary plant too...)  They are the Balkan/SE European species Anemone blanda. (Anemona apennina is a slightly taller species of South-Central Europe) I often see patches of A. blanda flourishing beyond the garden fence, but that seems to be as far as it ever gets, so I suppose it  spreads by bulb division but not by seed.


Wallflower, possibly Erisymum cheiri "Sunset Primrose". An early flowerer anyway.

(Photos from 0900 this morning, Tuesday March 21st.)


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Harold Morland: The Matter of Britain (1984)

[Image source:]

Harold Morland, born in 1908, was already well into his retirement when he wrote a long poem that found its way into print. It is cast in a narrative mode and the stories are taken from the Arthurian corpus.


The poem, which is in a dozen sections or so, is written in syllabic stanzas of the form 5-7-5. But whatever part the haiku may have played in originating this form, these stanzas bear no resemblance to haikus and are best judged as an alternative to other traditional vehicles for narrative poetry in English, chiefly the pentameter. This now seemed a hopeless medium for any modern poetry because the smooth flow of the stress-pattern is immediately antipathetic to the sounds that now come into our heads. In some way not instantly easy to define, the way it sounds isn’t right for a modern sensibility*. I’d guess that the invention of recorded speech (especially in movies) is the key factor in our new way of hearing and forming vividness. We like effects that (in the now-archaic terms of prosody) depend on clashing stresses; on speech-rhythms and prose-rhythms and on almost anything but what the accentual iamb imposes on us, a regular lilt. 


If you consider each of Morland’s stanzas as a single narrative pulse, you can see its potential for releasing those irregular effects. For example, the seven-syllable bit can seem both to match and not match the five-syllable bit, as in the first two lines here:


Even light armour

   under the heat of summer

      rubbed him to soreness.


The matching, emphasized by rhyme, expresses a momentum, in this case of riding. The non-matching, the skitter of extra syllables, expresses a resistance to that momentum, a sense that our environment is always too obdurate to fit our efforts exactly but instead carries on with its own agenda, in this case being hot and buzzing with flies.


A book with such a dependable bedrock is inevitably readable, but it seems to me that several things prevent The Matter of Britain being as enthralling as it ought to be. The author writes episodes, not concerned with completing stories that he (perhaps rightly) assumes every one of his readers will already know. This makes us doubt the the nature of the author’s commitment to narration, so we don’t really give ourselves up to the story. Elaine is taken no further than her night with Lancelot. Perceval is carried forward with some purpose but breaks off after the curse. These are two of the best sections, but how deeply can we involve ourselves in segments that seem to exist for the author’s gratification and not ours?


As a narrator, Morland has evident powers. Thus, describing the evening with Lancelot,


            First in the darkness

               golden globes of candle-light

                  on delicate hands;


We believe in the way that Elaine falls in love under the spell of this evening, even though she knows it’s being stage-managed by her father.


Or when Perceval sees the Grail procession:


            First came a young man,

               his hair radiant as fine gold

                  in leaping fire-light,


            bearing a white lance

               that seemed too pure for the use

                  of dusty battle;


            but from its steel head

               a drop of slow blood dripped down

                  to the young man’s hand.


Morland suggests the image of a ceremonial spear such as I remember seeing in Anglican churches of my youth. It makes that drop of blood shocking in a new kind of way.


The pleasure of narrative is hard to kill. If the story is chugging along it’s no real problem putting up with long stretches of dull writing and – what’s worse – fine writing that shows its age (“Voles haunted his feet”) in return for occasional refreshments such as these.


But it’s disappointingly apparent that Morland’s interests don’t extend to tournaments, quests, or the other bread-and-butter motifs of the Arthurian romances. Instead, he focusses on individuals (e.g. Morgan le Faye, Merlin, Kay, Palomides) and turns them into seekers of the mind’s mysteries, figures who evince a worldview. They observe the ways of nature and Arthur’s court while large thoughts twist briar-like around their brain. Sometimes this vaguely recalls Browning and sometimes the poetry of the 1940s.


[In Morland’s template scene of the young Perceval meeting the knights from Arthur’s court, he – like Perceval – problematizes the knights. This more or less reverses the perspective of Chrétien and Wolfram, who present the scene as being all about how bizarre Perceval’s performance is; knights are (or at least are tactfully assumed to be) a commonplace of the audience’s daily life.]  


The last section is good. It tells the folktale of the shepherd who in after-times disturbs a cave where Arthur sleeps out the centuries with his knights and hounds. Morland’s shepherd is heavy-handed, he stumbles, his body weighs 14 stone like a real body, and he makes an eloquent contrast with that shadowy, ceremonial other-world that can’t exist in the same kind of way as ours, yet constantly haunts us with the promise of contact. This is how it ends:


The shepherd awoke.

   A rubble of moss-greened stones,

      and there at his feet


the clew of gray wool.

   A lark overhead singing

      in delirium.


A little laughter

   of wind in the grass. Silence.

      And a gaping mind.


The green hills asleep,

   with sun and shadow drifting

      and life murmuring.



Across his rough boot

   a thoughtless snail is making

      its own milky way. 



*Written in 2005. Since I wrote it, the emergence of such various but certainly modern poets as Alistair Noon and Simon Jarvis rather call into question any simple conclusion about the obsolescence of the iambic pentameter.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

unrejoicing berries

Berries of Taxus baccata (Common Yew)

[Image source:]

I hope I need no excuse for quoting Wordsworth's very wonderful poem "Yew Trees" in full:

There is a Yew-tree, pride of Lorton Vale,
Which to this day stands single, in the midst
Of its own darkness, as it stood of yore:
Not loathe to furnish weapons for the Bands
Of Umfraville or Percy ere they marched
To Scotland's heaths; or those that crossed the sea
And drew their sounding bows at Azincour,
Perhaps at earlier Crecy, or Poictiers.
Of vast circumference and gloom profound
This solitary Tree! -a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed. But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! -and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine
Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved, -
Nor uninformed with Fantasy, and looks
That threaten the profane; -a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
Perennially -beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose decked
With unrejoicing berries -ghostly Shapes
May meet at noontide: Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight, Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow; there to celebrate,
As in a natural temple scattered o'er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,
United worship; or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glaramara's inmost caves.

(William Wordsworth, Yew-trees)

"Unrejoicing berries".... yes, that's just what I've always thought about yew berries.

More specifically, I knew that yews were highly toxic and that the cheerfully-coloured berries were to be kept away from.

It was true, I had since learnt that the fleshy part of the berry was not in fact poisonous. But since the pip in the middle of the berry was, that didn't seem to make much practical difference.


So I was rather taken aback when I encountered the following passage in John Meade Falkner's Moonfleet (1898):

Now, my favourite seat in the churchyard was the flat top of a raised stone tomb .... Anyone sitting on the grave-top was snug from the weather, and possessed a fine prospect over the sea. On the other three sides, the yews grew close and thick, embowering the tomb like the high back of a fireside chair; and many times in autumn I have seen the stone slab crimson with the fallen waxy berries, and taken some home to my aunt, who like to taste them with a glass of sloe-gin after her Sunday dinner. (Ch 3)

Falkner, I felt sure, could not be unaware that the yew was poisonous.  But as an antiquarian could he have heard of some such country use as he describes?  [The health and safety of impressionable youth was obviously not something that concerned him overmuch.]


As usual, the most authoritative account of yew berries and their toxicity is in The Poison Garden:

There's also a lot of discussion on foraging sites.

The sweet, slimy flesh can be eaten if the seed is removed. Some wild-food people are quite enthusiastic about this food source.

Songbirds eat the berries, including the seed. The unbroken seeds pass through the gut and the bird is not harmed.

The seeds are highly toxic, three being enough to cause death. But if a child (or adult) eats yew berries and swallows the seeds without chewing them, there's a reasonable chance they'll get away with it in the same way the songbirds do, though this seems a risky sort of game. It's this likelihood of "getting away with it" that probably accounts for John Gerard's comment: "when I was young and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times".

Grain-eating birds with gravel in their crops (like chickens or pigeons) are advised to stay away from yew berries!

So are drinkers of sloe-gin, pending further information...


[Wordsworth's lines about longbows reflect a common but mistaken belief. The wood for British longbows was always imported from abroad: British yews don't grow straight enough. So the legend that yews were grown in churchyards to furnish weapons for a desperate defence of the tower is wrong..  More likely, the yews were there long before the church was built. They were a sacred Celtic tree.]

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Death hath a thousand doors to let out life"

In Aubrey Burl's Brief History of Stonehenge, one of his chapter-epigraphs quoted this line by the Jacobean dramatist Philip Massinger.

     Death hath a thousand doors to let out life.

I can't remember now what the chapter in question was about, but probably it was about the skeleton of a man with a stone arrowhead in his ribs, found near the earth ring and carbon-dated to soon after the erection of the great sarsen circle.

Of this or another male skeleton - perhaps the Archer at Durrington - Burl tells us that his ankle bones were worn down, indicating a life that involved prolonged squatting.

Apparently this tell-tale clue from the ankle bones is well-known among human archaeologists. A Google search turned up Merry E. Weisner-Hanks' Concise History of the World (2015), where we read  (p.33):

This has led scholars to assume that in Paleolithic society men were also responsible for hunting, and women for gathering. Human remains provide some evidence for this, as skeletons and teeth indicate the type of tasks the person did while they were alive. At Chinchorro on the north coast of Chile, for example, male skeletons from the period 7000-2000 BCE often show bone growths in the ears, the result of diving in the cold coastal waters for seals and shellfish (today this condition is called "surfer's ear") , while female skeletons show changes in the ankle bones resulting from prolonged squatting, perhaps to process the marine products or gather and process terrestrial foods. Such a division of labour is not universal, however....

Simon Mays' book The Archaeology of Human Bones (1998) explains:

In the squatting position there is extreme dorsiflexion of the feet. [This] puts continous pressure on the ankle ligaments which tends to elongate them, permitting greater dorsiflexion of the joint between the tibia and the talus.... Habitual extreme dorsiflexion of the ankle joints... [leads] to the formation of anterior extensions to the joint surfaces... [known as] squatting extensions.

He notes that among a group of skeletons of medieval peasants from Wharram Percy, 71% of the women and 44% of the men had squatting extensions. (Burl, reporting that the bones were "worn down", may have misunderstood.)

The earliest, and for many thousands of years the only, piece of  human furniture, was the chest.

The first vital essential was to have somewhere to put important stuff. The chest was the beginning of property and the first private space. (Living spaces were not private.) To be able to "keep" something was much more important than such fripperies as a bed or a chair.  So there was a lot of squatting in ancient times.

When we go backpacking, we revert to those days. Our backpack is our chest. It's the only piece of furniture we really need.


Alm. Do, tyrant,
No more a father, feast thy cruelty
Upon thy daughter ; but hell's plagues fall on me
If I inflict not on myself whatever
He can endure for me !

Vice. Will none restrain her ?

Alm. Death hath a thousand doors to let out life,
I shall find one.  If Portia's burning coals,
The knife of Lucrece, Cleopatra's aspics,
Famine, deep waters, have the power to free me
From a loath'd life, I'll not an hour outlive him.

Pedro. Sister !

Leon. Dear cousin !

[Exit Almira, followed by Pedro and Leon.]

Vice. Let her perish.

(from A Very Woman (1634), Act V Scene 4).

The Plays of Philip Massinger:


A Very Woman isn't often mentioned these days, though Francis Cunningham considered it one of Massinger's best. It was registered in 1634, but is considered a revision of a play written around 1619-22, either by Massinger and Fletcher, or perhaps by Fletcher alone.

So Massinger may not have written his most famous line. Anyway, the thought had appeared in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) and seems to have become theatrical common currency.

But this is the most beautiful and resonant expression of that thought. (It's one of those quotations that gains power and interest by being detached from its original context.)

The faint suggestion of Life being a restless visitor importunate to leave, and of a house-proud Death being no less eager to sweep his guest towards the nearest of many exits .... there's a certain sombre thrill in that thought, as we turn briefly  aside from the contrary observation -- that's to say, with what amazing tenacity Life fights and endures and clings to its existence -- to consider that, after all, Life is fragile and a miracle, and how lucky we are to have it now, and Life does always depart in the end, and not in such a very long time either, from the perspective of the centuries...

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"The Courting of Dinah Shadd"

Rudyard Kipling in about 1892 (Bourne and Shepherd)

[Image source: ]

Kipling's brilliant story of 1890, with its elaborate frame, beginning in a large-scale army exercise... as we edge our way gingerly and crabwise towards the inner story... and all is just an exercise, and high jinks and hilarity ...

Full text


‘How’s that, umpire?’ said the major commanding the attack, and with one voice the drivers and limber gunners answered ‘Hout!’ while the colonel of artillery sputtered.

‘All your scouts are charging our main body,’ said the major. ‘Your flanks are unprotected for two miles. I think we’ve broken the back of this division. And listen,—there go the Ghoorkhas!’

A weak fire broke from the rear-guard more than a mile away, and was answered by cheerful howlings. The Ghoorkhas, who should have swung clear of the second division, had stepped on its tail in the dark, but drawing off hastened to reach the next line of attack, which lay almost parallel to us five or six miles away.

Our column swayed and surged irresolutely,—three batteries, the divisional ammunition reserve, the baggage, and a section of the hospital and bearer corps. The commandant ruefully promised to report himself ‘cut up’ to the nearest umpire, and commending his cavalry and all other cavalry to the special care of Eblis, toiled on to resume touch with the rest of the division.

‘We’ll bivouac here to-night,’ said the major, ‘I have a notion that the Ghoorkhas will get caught. They may want us to re-form on. Stand easy till the transport gets away.’

A hand caught my beast’s bridle and led him out of the choking dust; a larger hand deftly canted me out of the saddle; and two of the hugest hands in the world received me sliding. Pleasant is the lot of the special correspondent who falls into such hands as those of Privates Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd.

‘An’ that’s all right,’ said the Irishman calmly. ‘We thought we’d find you somewheres here by. Is there anything av yours in the transport? Orth’ris’ll fetch ut out.’

Ortheris did ‘fetch ut out,’ from under the trunk of an elephant, in the shape of a servant and an animal both laden with medical comforts. The little man’s eyes sparkled.

‘If the brutil an’ licentious soldiery av these parts gets sight av the thruck,’ said Mulvaney, making practised investigation, ‘they’ll loot ev’rything. They’re bein’ fed on iron-filin’s an’ dog-biscuit these days, but glory’s no compensation for a belly-ache. Praise be, we’re here to protect you, sorr. Beer, sausage, bread (soft an’ that’s a cur’osity), soup in a tin, whisky by the smell av ut, an’ fowls! Mother av Moses, but ye take the field like a confectioner! ’Tis scand’lus.’

‘Ere’s a orficer,’ said Ortheris significantly. ‘When the sergent’s done lushin’ the privit may clean the pot.’

I bundled several things into Mulvaney’s haversack before the major’s hand fell on my shoulder and he said tenderly, ‘Requisitioned for the Queen’s service. Wolseley was quite wrong about special correspondents: they are the soldier’s best friends. Come and take pot-luck with us to-night.’

(from "The Courting of Dinah Shadd")


‘“An’ am I shameless?” sez she, bringin’ her hands up above her head. “Thin what are you, ye lyin’, schamin’, weak-kneed, dhirty-souled son av a sutler? Am I shameless? Who put the open shame on me an’ my child that we shud go beggin’ through the lines in the broad daylight for the broken word of a man? Double portion of my shame be on you, Terence Mulvaney, that think yourself so strong! By Mary and the saints, by blood and water an’ by ivry sorrow that came into the world since the beginnin’, the black blight fall on you and yours, so that you may niver be free from pain for another when ut’s not your own! May your heart bleed in your breast drop by drop wid all your friends laughin’ at the bleedin’! Strong you think yourself? May your strength be a curse to you to dhrive you into the divil’s hands against your own will! Clear-eyed you are? May your eyes see clear evry step av the dark path you take till the hot cindhers av hell put thim out! May the ragin’ dry thirst in my own ould bones go to you that you shall niver pass bottle full nor glass empty. God preserve the light av your onderstandin’ to you, my jewel av a bhoy, that ye may niver forget what you mint to be an’ do, whin you’re wallowin’ in the muck! May ye see the betther and follow the worse as long as there’s breath in your body; an’ may ye die quick in a strange land, watchin’ your death before ut takes you, an’ onable to stir hand or foot!”

‘I heard a scufflin’ in the room behind, and thin Dinah Shadd’s hand dhropped into mine like a rose-leaf into a muddy road. ‘“The half av that I’ll take,” sez she, “an’ more too if I can. Go home, ye silly talkin’ woman,—go home an’ confess.”

(from "The Courting of Dinah Shadd")


The tragedy of Mulvaney's life, figured in the magnificent Black Curse of Shielygh that is the climax of the story.  If it is not Dinah's quiet response.

The failure, and the drink, and the years, and Dinah.


‘Ay, listen to our little man now, singin’ an’ shoutin’ as tho’ trouble had niver touched him. D’ you remember when he went mad with the home-sickness?’ said Mulvaney, recalling a never-to-be-forgotten season when Ortheris waded through the deep waters if affliction and behaved abominably. ‘But he’s talkin’ bitter truth, though. Eyah!

‘My very worst frind from beginnin’ to ind
By the blood av a mouse was mesilf!’

When I woke I saw Mulvaney, the night-dew gemming his moustache, leaning on his rifle at picket, lonely as Prometheus on his rock, with I know not what vultures tearing his liver.

(from "The Courting of Dinah Shadd")


Surprising, given the vehemence of Kipling's anti-Home Rule sentiment in poems such as "Ulster" (1912),  his sympathetic presentation of Mulvaney and later of Kim (the son of an Irish soldier).

Kipling's fury, from 1902, was really political. He had grown to despise the Liberal government for, as he saw it, giving up to the Boers. The Home Rule bills seemed to promise the same  treatment for Ireland.

Kipling's response was emotive in ways we can all recognize now. It was not open to nuance or debate. Anyone who thought differently he accused of rapine or fraud or treason.

But after his son's death he wrote the history of the Irish Guards and, despite his violent unionism and anti-Catholicism, quotes plentifully and fondly from the soldiers. The lovely 'Dal Benzaguen (in "The Village That Voted...")  looks to be Irish too.


The Irish comprised a large part of the soldiery in British India. See this archived article:
Kipling's own son became an officer in the Irish Guards.

The "Soldiers Three" lay behind the 1939 Hollywood classic Gunga Din (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Victor McLaglen) but none of the three Sergeants are Irish. In fact Mulvaney has never appeared on film and now perhaps isn't likely to,  as a stereotype Irishman (e.g. a regular binge drinker and skirt-chaser with plenty of blarney). His one chance, probably, was the 1951 film of Soldiers Three. Stewart Granger was originally supposed to play Mulvaney, but it was discovered (rather late in the day) that Granger couldn't do an Irish accent. So the Mulvaney character was transformed into a cockney called Archibald Ackroyd.


The "Soldiers Three", illustration for "On Greenhow Hill" by William Strang

[Image source:]


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

undercliff, rock and shore

On seaweed:

cockle shell   black-limbed   slacks off
gelatinous              red ghosts    gouted
by the tide      are sealed      the salt air

mending     [...]

                       there must be a key
in the writing of barnacles   where fibonacci
makes sense of  the spread of  bladderwrack

at the height of spring tide   blackened
even in meagre sun   wrack taken as a word
in a wider universe   not portent

but principle of  addition   or in a briny manual
discovered   A Dreadful Alarm upon the Clouds
of  Heaven, Mix'd with Love    shared

with crows   whipgrass    the barking of gulls
the busying sands and fingering waters
readying to come again   to keep oraginous order

(from Wrack, poem 1)

On seashells:


the shell in your palm   a child's milk tooth

abandoning infancy to the bulls and bears
a nocturnal calculus   not yet established
in the fold of what is inanimate and lasting

in us   but found in a line on the sand
fetched up by the night tide   I shall treasure it

always   tracking a parallel economy
shells etched with lines   frequencies lit
like the bloom of flesh   ringed and grained  [...]

(from Wrack, poem 4)


Coming to this book from Occasionals (2011) , I might have anticipated this brilliance of nature writing and this flow of new discoveries connecting nature, economy and identity. 

But Wrack (2007) is not just about wandering along the shoreline. It's also a salty smuggling, merchandising and wrecking book based on an actual Devon wreck of 1772 and a single woman passenger.

Which makes it a marvellous companion to the other book I'm in the middle of right now, J. Meade Falkner's 1898 adventure yarn Moonfleet, set in Dorset in 1757-ish.  (Both books being, besides the related subject-matter, incredibly creative in the language department...)

And as Carol's book co-opts a touch of the boy's-book excitement of the seafaring yarn in order to pursue a meditation about women's experience in the western urban capitalist world of today, well there's a bit of a parallel there with another poem I've spent a lot of time with in the past year, Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland (2009)...


Cormorant (Phalcrocorax carbo)

[Image source:]

When I was a landlocked child in Kent, I thought of the cormorant as a rather exotic creature confined to seafaring yarns, or perhaps seen just once, on that caravan holiday to cream-tea country.

In those days Phalocrocorax carbo bred on western coasts in the spring. Outside of the breeding season they sometimes ventured inland, for example they could be seen in winter in parts of the west midlands and northern Ireland. But not elsewhere.

Things have changed. Fifty years later, the whole of the British Isles (apart from high Scottish mountains) play host to the winter cormorants.  For example here in Swindon, a long way from any coast. Whether it's because our inland waterways are so much cleaner and they once more "teem with fish" (Bede's description of England) ; or because we've now ruined the sea-fishing ; or because inland winters are now as mild as coastal ones used to be ; I don't know - but I suspect it's the first reason, given the similarly dramatic increase in herons and egrets over the same period.  Cormorants being superb fishers, this has rattled the angling community, who want the freshwater fish stocks all to themselves.

The cormorants fly around in small flocks of half-a-dozen birds, and they spend a lot of time perching companionably but clumsily in the bare crowns of trees above the water -- I mistook them for crows or rooks until I looked more closely. (Webbed feet are not really much good for perching.)

Last Sunday I watched a cormorant fishing on a calm stretch of the River Avon in Bath. (I've also noticed them at Midford, south of Bath.) Its body sat very low in the water, reminding me of the great northern divers that I used to watch in Sweden. And now the cormorant seemed graceful, not clumsy. The long snaky head and bill were extremely impressive. So were the long dives. I held my own breath, wondering that it could stay down so long. Then I'd find it again, twenty yards away.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Julia Conejo Alonso


[Image source:]

The Leon poet Julia Conejo Alonso maintains a poetry blog called Telas mal cortadas, which means something like "badly cut cloths".

Here's a poem I found there, from her own collection Peces transparentes :

DE TUS SUEÑOS   (Of your dreams)

Ya no soy ese sueño
de tus tarde heridas de misal
y sotana.

    I'm not that dream any more
    of your afternoon wounds of missal
    and cassock.

La ternura a granel que tantas veces
te enganchaba a la vida.

    The tenderness on tap that so many times
    connected you with life.

Ya no soy la que enciende las estrellas
y las cuelga del techo
cuando todos discuten.

    I'm not the one that lights the stars anymore
    and hangs them from the ceiling
    while everyone is arguing.

La que puede bailar con el pie escayolado.

    The one that can dance with a foot in plaster.

Me soñabas así,
ligera y quebradiza,
para que siempre
la luz y la penumbra
calaran en mi cuerpo.

    You dreamed me thus,
    featherlight and fragile,
    so that always
    the light and the darkness
    would penetrate my body.

Ahora estoy en el sitio donde tú ya estuviste.
El lugar donde aguardan
los que han ido perdiendo poco a poco
sus piezas
y buscan un recambio
para seguir nadando por la orilla del viento,

     Now I'm in the place where you were.
     The spot where those wait
    who have been losing little by little
    their components
    and are looking for a spare
    to carry on swimming at the edge of the wind,

sorteando las rocas
en las que se resbalan todavía,
a pesar de la costra que les cubre.

    dodging the rocks
    on which they slip yet,
    in spite of the crust that covers them.

( "a granel" normally describes produce such as vegetables or wines sold unpackaged and paid by weight or volume. It can also mean in bulk quantities, lavish quantities, by the ton...)


EN EL METRO / In the metro

Es una conversación banal
es más
da la impresión de que hablan por hablar

 y eso es lo que te produce un escalofrío
pensar en el triste destino de esas palabras
cuyo único fin es
tapar el silencio.

  It's a banal conversation
  it's more
  it gives the impression of talk for talk's sake

  and that's what gives you a chill
  to think of the sad destiny of those words
  whose only purpose is
  to conceal the silence.


My knowledge of contemporary Spanish poetry is basically nil, and my Spanish is pretty poor. Both of these translations were adapted from Google Translate and probably fail to grasp the point in places.


[Image source:]

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Charlotte Brontë once more

Belshazzar's Feast, painting by John Martin (1820)

[Image source:'s_Feast_(Martin_painting) In the foreground are the sacred vessels of the temple, defiled by Belshazzar and his women.]

Lines Addressed to 'The Tower of All Nations'

Oh, thou great, thou mighty tower!
    Rising up so solemnly
O'er all this splendid, glorious city:
    This city of the sea ;

Thou seem'st, as silently I gaze,
   Like a pillar of the sky:
So lofty is thy structure grey ;
  So massive and so high!

The dome of Heaven is o'er thee hung
   With its maze of silver stars ;
The earth is round about thee spread
   With its eternal bars.

And such a charming doggerel
   As this was never wrote,
Not even by the mighty
   And high Sir Walter Scott!

(Charlotte Brontë, aged about 14)

A mezzotint (dating from about 1830) of John Martin's gigantic painting hung in Haworth parsonage. The young Brontës were duly impressed by the tremendous tower of Babel that looms in the background, and it became their model for the most imposing building in their imaginary world, the Tower of All Nations in Verdopolis.

[This information comes from Heather Glen's own essay (on Shirley and Villette)  in The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës (2002), a collection she also edited.  Stevie Davies, editing the poems in 1976, named a different (though equally spectacular) John Martin painting - also with a gigantic tower in the distance - , The Fall of Babylon.]

Mezzotint (1831) from John Martin's painting The Fall of Babylon (1818)

[Image source: ]


"Villette is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power." (George Eliot in 1853)

If we can interpret  "preternatural", the second sentence seems to be a recognition, from the point of view of a future woman novelist who would herself be constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible, that she could neither have conceived beforehand the existence of such a book as Villette nor conceive now how such a book was written.


Some days elapsed, and it appeared she was not likely to take much of a fancy to anybody in the house. She was not exactly naughty or wilful: she was far from disobedient; but an object less conducive to comfort—to tranquillity even—than she presented, it was scarcely possible to have before one's eyes. She moped: no grown person could have performed that uncheering business better; no furrowed face of adult exile, longing for Europe at Europe's antipodes, ever bore more legibly the signs of home sickness than did her infant visage. She seemed growing old and unearthly. I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination; but whenever, opening a room-door, I found her seated in a corner alone, her head in her pigmy hand, that room seemed to me not inhabited, but haunted.
And again, when of moonlight nights, on waking, I beheld her figure, white and conspicuous in its night-dress, kneeling upright in bed, and praying like some Catholic or Methodist enthusiast—some precocious fanatic or untimely saint—I scarcely know what thoughts I had; but they ran risk of being hardly more rational and healthy than that child's mind must have been.
I seldom caught a word of her prayers, for they were whispered low: sometimes, indeed, they were not whispered at all, but put up unuttered; such rare sentences as reached my ear still bore the burden, "Papa; my dear papa!" This, I perceived, was a one-idea'd nature; betraying that monomaniac tendency I have ever thought the most unfortunate with which man or woman can be cursed.
What might have been the end of this fretting, had it continued unchecked, can only be conjectured: it received, however, a sudden turn.
One afternoon, Mrs. Bretton, coaxing her from her usual station in a corner, had lifted her into the window-seat, and, by way of occupying her attention, told her to watch the passengers and count how many ladies should go down the street in a given time. She had sat listlessly, hardly looking, and not counting, when—my eye being fixed on hers—I witnessed in its iris and pupil a startling transfiguration. These sudden, dangerous natures—sensitive as they are called—offer many a curious spectacle to those whom a cooler temperament has secured from participation in their angular vagaries. The fixed and heavy gaze swum, trembled, then glittered in fire; the small, overcast brow cleared; the trivial and dejected features lit up; the sad countenance vanished, and in its place appeared a sudden eagerness, an intense expectancy. "It is!" were her words.
Like a bird or a shaft, or any other swift thing, she was gone from the room. How she got the house-door open I cannot tell; probably it might be ajar; perhaps Warren was in the way and obeyed her behest, which would be impetuous enough. I—watching calmly from the window—saw her, in her black frock and tiny braided apron (to pinafores she had an antipathy), dart half the length of the street; and, as I was on the point of turning, and quietly announcing to Mrs. Bretton that the child was run out mad, and ought instantly to be pursued, I saw her caught up, and rapt at once from my cool observation, and from the wondering stare of the passengers. A gentleman had done this good turn, and now, covering her with his cloak, advanced to restore her to the house whence he had seen her issue.
I concluded he would leave her in a servant's charge and withdraw; but he entered: having tarried a little while below, he came up-stairs.
His reception immediately explained that he was known to Mrs. Bretton. She recognised him; she greeted him, and yet she was fluttered, surprised, taken unawares. Her look and manner were even expostulatory; and in reply to these, rather than her words, he said,—"I could not help it, madam: I found it impossible to leave the country without seeing with my own eyes how she settled."
"But you will unsettle her."
"I hope not. And how is papa's little Polly?"
This question he addressed to Paulina, as he sat down and placed her gently on the ground before him.
"How is Polly's papa?" was the reply, as she leaned on his knee, and gazed up into his face.
It was not a noisy, not a wordy scene: for that I was thankful; but it was a scene of feeling too brimful, and which, because the cup did not foam up high or furiously overflow, only oppressed one the more. On all occasions of vehement, unrestrained expansion, a sense of disdain or ridicule comes to the weary spectator's relief; whereas I have ever felt most burdensome that sort of sensibility which bends of its own will, a giant slave under the sway of good sense.

(Opening of Chapter 2 of Villette (1853) by Charlotte Brontë, then aged about 36)

It was a lonely Charlotte Brontë who set about writing Villette. Since the time of writing "Lines Addressed to 'The Tower of All Nations'", composition had always been a family affair. A new novel had always been tried out on sisters, even Shirley, though by the end there were no sisters left. But now, according to a letter, she was deeply conscious of making her way unaided (her father apparently was no substitute, though we know his opinion had a modifying influence on the ending). 

There are many voices here. The author's wit, though no longer funny, brims with energy. The remarkably accurate observation of the child Paulina, her father, and later Graham, is hard to reconcile with the cool, judgmental Lucy Snowe. Surely such observation must imply tenderness? We're meant to notice Lucy, of course. At times it's a little unsubtle, for example the adverb "quietly" intruded into a remark that Lucy never even gets to make. At the end of the quoted passage we see how Lucy is oppressed by palpable emotion even more than by a blaze of passion, because she can't find the former ridiculous. But why this terror of emotion, if Lucy's unspecified tragedies are still in the future?

Lucy already, it seems, sees herself as something less than a human being. On the first page of Villette, she comments: "One child in a household of grown people is usually made very much of, and in a quiet way I was a good deal taken notice of by Mrs Bretton..." But why is Lucy "one child in a household of grown people" when she is only a year younger than Mrs Bretton's son Graham, who is still at school? Graham appears to regard Lucy as, if anything, rather older than himself: old enough, anyway, to safely pronounce her dull in contrast to little Paulina.

The anti-self-portrait of these opening chapters is sufficiently tortuous to draw the attention that it seems to want to hide from. The reader keeps wondering if Lucy is perhaps joking about her own cool nature, if she must mean us to interpret her as being full of the warm feelings that we like to think we feel ourselves when we read about Paulina and her father. The mystery is never, perhaps, quite resolved. Lucy holding Paulina in her arms on the night of her departure, or the dark-haired boy child a couple of chapters later, suggests a reasonably warm heart and more than usual consideration, where children were concerned. Yet both scenes also suggest that Lucy didn't feel the children were very fond of her.

In some way the apparent contradictions in the narrator are a searching self-portrait of Charlotte, very different from the passionate Jane Eyre. But not quite resolved. Lonely as she was, Charlotte was now a famous novelist, no longer hiding behind the name of Currer Bell, and made some short visits to London -- meeting Thackeray and G.H. Lewes, among others. Witnesses say she appeared grave and serious. She apparently found the presence of young children burdensome. Patricia Beer tells us that her late and all-too-brief marriage was a happy one.

jacket of a Spanish translation of Villette


Monday, March 06, 2017

from The Noiddler of Donderil

We sat. He prodded the fire with a leddiron until it flamed into life, amberwreathed, inderold. The dusky ceiling glowed orange, like the compassing onderlid of a great city at night. The sweet woodsmoke fragrance of oderlind rose to rafters much spotted with dendroil. A fire, surely, that was never put out! 

The walls were hung with a hundred accoutrements; a titanic roddline cast a bowed shadow over all. We picked through an oaken chest (dorniled to the teeth with iron studs), spilling lindored treasures of the chase, reels, gruff constants, antlers of assay, harpcorns, cornharps, a well-polished universal langauge, and a mass of other objects of the same sort.    

Had I met a lady in the courtyard? Did I know the noiddler well? Had I a desire for travel?

He invited me to look over the rondiled bookshelves. I obtained a sense of them. Svante Arrhenius... Lyrical Dramas of Dilderon... a volume of Odderlin's verse. (I well remembered the ecstatic Nordlied of lorndied Endorild...) 

The hour past, my inspection was over; the spilling treasures constrained, the ordenlid quietly replaced. Yet we lingered; and he meant, I saw, to indordle me of something further. But as to what it might be, I felt as ildorned as the veriest Parzival...

(from The Noiddler of Donderil


Friday, March 03, 2017

Alistair Noon at Horgos

Entry to the EU:  the Serbia/Hungary border crossing at Horgos (when it was temporarily closed in 2015)

[Image source:]

No time for anything today, except... -- Some time earlier this week, I was reading poetry reviews by Billy Mills, a reviewer I admire very much.  One of them presented a rather critical view of Alistair Noon's new poetry collection The Kerosene Singing.

Noon's urbane continental and stubbornly different poetry (different from most other UK poetry I mean) is unfinished business so far as I'm concerned. I've been meaning to read more of it for ages. But I recognize some of Mills' dismay. Irony and reserve are not typical virtues of most of the modern poetry I like to read.

Then again, I also remember Peter Riley's brilliant discussion of a Noon sonnet.

Here's the sonnet:

Late at night the Balkan languages clog
at Horgos, where they wait to gain admittance
to the circle of stars. A see-through smog
surrounds the returners from the remittance
economy: static, running exhausts
and the world’s greatest mass cigarette break,
as coaches queue up for one of the ports,
bays with a quay, where the night shift’s awake.
We hoot, or cheer each inch; the wise just doze.
No border guard knows the meaning of soon.
Priština, Niš, to Dortmund, Ulm. One
goes to Miriampol. (O beautiful moon
of Miriampol… Sat in East Berlin,
Bobrowski looked up). Here’s Europe. We’re in.

I've spent five minutes looking for something I could quote from Johannes Bobrowski, but time's up!

Aerial view of the Serbia/Hungary border crossing at Horgos

[Image source: . Photo by Civertan]


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Literary ephemera - Scott etc

Last Sunday, in a charity shop in Bath, I found copies of two of the three Scott novels that I've never read: Anne of Geierstein and Count Robert of Paris. I've been looking out for these for years, and am still crazy with excitement five days later.

Not, you understand, that my expectations are unduly high. It was during the painful composition of Anne of Geierstein (1829) ("I hate Anne", he wrote in his journal) that Scott really became aware that his powers were failing him. Count Robert of Paris (1831) was dictated to Laidlaw, as Scott could no longer read his own handwriting. At one point he had a severe stroke (his third) that nearly killed him. Nevertheless the novel was at last written. But the soul-destroying labour of making alterations demanded by Cadell and Ballantyne, alterations with which he did not agree, was finally beyond him. He gave up, and told them to publish Count Robert as it stood. Then he left for the Mediterranean in a final, unavailing, quest for health. As soon as he'd sailed, Lockhart rewrote large parts of the novel at Cadell's prompting. Scott never found out.

[I am taking as authoritative Kurt Gamerschlag's absorbing account of the composition of Count Robert of Paris (Studies in Scottish Literature Vol XV No 1 (Jan 1980) ]

When I was first interested in Scott, back in the 1970s, second-hand bookshops groaned with unwanted copies of The Waverley Novels.  Forty years later these books have largely gone to ground (probably literally in many cases). The more obscure Scott novels, especially these very late ones, are rarely seen.

Of course you can read them all on-line, but my upper limit for on-line reading is a short story. If, like me,  you insist on obscure Scott in book form, then you're quite likely to find it in one of the two inexpensive editions shown above.

The dingy but serviceable volume on the right is from the Centenary edition, published by Adam and Charles Black (Edinburgh). This copy of Count Robert of Paris (volume 24) is dated 1887. The name must refer to the centenary of Scott's birth in 1871, but rather belatedly; the volumes I've seen are all dated 1886-87. They belie appearance by including a full set of apparatus: in this case a frontispiece, Lockhart's note on Scott's sources, Jedediah's Introduction (in this case, largely written by Lockhart), Notes and Index.

The more attractive volume on the left is from the Melrose Edition, published in London by the Caxton Publishing Co. No date is given, but I've read that this series dates from around 1930.  Still dangerously carried away by my finds at the week-end, I liberated this copy of The Heart of Midlothian from the shelves of a local pub a couple of days later. This volume doesn't contain any apparatus except for a glossary -- no 1830 Introduction, and No! not even the worthy Jedediah Cleishbotham! Instead, it starts straight in -- or nearly straight in -- with Peter Pattieson speaking of the slow horse-carts of thirty years since. In a mere fifteen pages we will actually be catapulted into the story...

This unseemly haste is hard to forgive, but there are compensations in the form of a variety of illustrations, some by Cruikshank in satiric/comedic mode, and others of a more serious or sentimental cast ("The Interview Between Effie Deans and Her Sister in Prison", by Robert Herdman, R.S.A).

Of course, when once embarked on the journey of reading Scott, such trivialities become altogether irrelevant. We enter a world in which everything is perfect, that is to say, adequate. These two words become identical in meaning.


Other things that I am reading, or want to write about, or am planning to write about:

Katherine Mansfield (I picked up a copy of Bliss in the second-hand bookshop at Batemans).

More Kipling stories (I also unnecessarily indulged in yet another selection of Kipling's stories).

Richard Makin's Dwelling and Mourning. The visible parts of his monumental construction of non-narrative prose.

I want to update my essay on Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland with all the things I've subsequently learnt from reading Zoë Skoulding's essay about it.

A Swedish book, 100 frågor och svar om att väntar barn (100 questions and answers about your pregnancy)

Philip Massinger. George Eliot's Adam Bede. Tolstoy. More Samaniego.

Swedish poets: Bo Setterlind and Olof Lagercrantz.

Oh well, back to the TEFL course....


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