Wednesday, January 31, 2018

In the January wood again

fallen branch with lichen and orange fungi

I've spent too much time alone in the woods. I'm not really a naturalist, I don't recognize the birdsong, I don't notice the signs of animal life, I don't know the lichens or fungi or insects. I've made only glancing contacts with naturalist communities so I've never learnt anything. Now and then I've researched something myself, normally a flower or a grass or a tree, but this is an inefficient way to proceed, when I could have found it all out just by chatting to people. Nevertheless, I've usually gone alone. Some kind of need has grown up in me, to walk into the woods.  I don't know what I'm looking for, or why. And do I keep coming back because I found what I was looking for, or because I didn't?

Helleborus foetidus

A single plant of Stinking Hellebore. A popular garden plant, and I'm assuming this one is naturalized rather than native; the plant certainly is native to the UK but I've found no advice online about how you might spot a native hellebore, or where you would go to see one. Does it matter? For most purposes, not really. Still, I'd like to know.

Helleborus foetidus

Maybe what I come here for is some sort of grounding, as well as the healing properties of fresh air. Sometimes I don't even think about nature, I'm just stretching my legs. Even so, a communication is taking place. And sometimes, on days like this, I can't go twenty paces without noticing something that fills me with questioning wonder.

Decaying branch

There's field maple and oak growing here, too. Just a couple of hundred yards away, across a busy dual carriageway, there's a fragment of ancient woodland, oak and bluebells. It looks completely different to the secondary woodland on this side of the road.

Prunus laurocerasus - Inflorescence buds in January

Cherry laurel. The leaves are evergreen. These inflorescence buds will rapidly elongate over the next six weeks.  Flowering starts around the spring equinox.

An introduced species, of course. Its native region extends from Albania to Iran.

Anthriscus sylvestris

Cow-parsley, just starting out.


Lots of box growing as understorey, along with hazel. The trees are mostly ash, poplar and sycamore.

Iris foetidissima -- fruits in January

Another stinker. This one is Stinking Iris, a plant whose mention always prompts one of Laura's favourite jokes.

Viburnum tinus

Having left the wood, but not yet back at the office, I passed by this Viburnum tinus, a popular shrub in the UK for its winter flowers; native to the Mediterranean region.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Cathy Park Hong

Ruins of Shangdu (=Xanadu), Inner Mongolia, China

[Image source: .]

My Yellow Steppe of Xanadu, the summer residence of ancient Khans.
My cool and pleasant Kaiping Xanadu
   (from the lament of Toghon Temur Khan)

I recently got involved in a debate on the British Poets forum about populist poetry (in various senses of that term) and I found myself mentioning the Gurlesque and institutional anxiety to exclude the "Plague Ground"*, and anyway I somehow ended up surfing the web on the US side and I started to read some of Cathy Park Hong's poetry.

[*Joyelle McSweeney's term. ]

She's the kind of poet who has never meant a rush on this side of the Atlantic (at least not in the poetry communities I know about... but see below). Anyway here are some of her poems. Whenever I'm able to work out which of her three books they appear in, I've specified that.

Ga       The fishy consonant,
Na     The monkey vowel.
Da     The immigrant’s tongue
          as shrill or guttural.

Overture of my voice like the flash of bats.
The hyena babble and apish libretto.

Piscine skin, unblinking eyes.
Sideshow invites foreigner with the animal hide.   

(The opening lines of "Zoo")

from Translating Mo'um (2002)

"Body Builder"
"All the Aphrodisiacs"
"Hottentot Venus"

Dance Dance Revolution (2007)
From descriptions this sounds like CPH's most adventurous book, mostly in an invented polyglot lingua franca.
"Language Guide":
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 1. Services"
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 2. Preparation for Winter in the St. Petersburg Arboretum"
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 3. The Fountain Outside the Arboretum"
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 4. Atop the St Petersburg Dome"

Here's a podcast about the book, including readings of several poems:

from Engine Empire (2012)
There's a lot of on-line reviews of this book, most being eager to summarize its intriguing narrative frames. The three sequences are "The Ballad of Our Jim", "Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!" and "The World Cloud".

The review I liked best was by J Zenoni -- richly interpretive but also off-message, the way a good review should be -- for instance when it refers to Wendy Cope's poem "My Lover", a poem I haven't read for a very long time. That seems to spin the populism wheel again, in a weird sort of way.

"Our Jim"
"Ballad in A"
"Ballad of Infanticide"
"A Wreath of Hummingbirds"
"Engines within the Throne"

Other poems I've found (not known which of the above collections, if any):


"They Come"

(To some extent this is about Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur...)

"Morning Sun"

Cathy's challenging and upfront essay "Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde" has been much discussed.

She contends that mantras of innovative poetry like renouncing subject and voice, the whole post-identity thing, don't make sense for poets of colour. And she adds:

But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author's visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.  

Here's what she says about the avant-garde's stereotypical prejudices about poets who do "identity politics".

To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism. Compare that to Marxist—and often male—poets whose difficult and rigorous poetry may formally critique neoliberalism but is never “just about class” in the way that identity politics poetry is always “just about race,” with little to no aesthetic value. 

She also argues that poets of colour played more significant roles in both the early and later avant-garde than tends to be acknowledged by the avant-garde's white-heavy audiences and teachers.

And here's a follow-up from the UK perspective by Sandeep Parmar

This seems like a good moment to link to Kenan Malik's article about the British Empire and its apologists, in today's NYRB:

....Opal of opus,
beamy in sotto soot, neon hibiscus bloom,
Behole! 'Tan Hawaiian Tanya' billboard.she your
lucent Virgil, den I tekkum over es
talky Virgil.want some tea? some pelehuu?

.I tren me talk box to talk you
Merrikkens say "purdy".no goods only phrases,
Betta da phrase, "purdier" da experience, I tellim
"Me vocation your vacation"


...Menny 'Merikken dumplings unhinge dim
talk holes y ejaculate oooh y hot-diggity. dis
Be de shee-it. ...but gut ripping done to erect dis Polis,
We expoiting menny aborigini to back tundra county.
But betta to scrape dat fact unda history rug.
so shh.

I usta move around like Innuit lookim for sea
I'mma double migrant. Ceded from Coreo, ceded from
'Merikka, ceded en ceded until now I seizem
dis sizable Mouthpiece role.

(extracts from "Roles")

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Friday, January 26, 2018

the nurseling inn

Water dripped from an overhang in a leaf-strewn brook. It was not altogether dark,
once you got used to it.

The brown shadow of a bird flitted among the boulders,

the brook in its eye.

Nothing was heard but the thin sweet song.

It was an inn of dreams; flock roosting in bevelled cruck,  chalk castigation.
The far light of its windows (rose and amber)
widened along the box-alleys.
A wagon pointed its forks at the sky;
a dog slouched into the yard.
Otherwise the inn floated like unwelcoming silence,
serene in its woods. Of some flowers of China.
Daimlers lined up on the gravel. And what lies beneath the inn
and its network of underground tunnels in dry yellow clay,
but hard and darkening rock? Miles of descent, in which
there were sometimes a distant spate of tremors,
a ticking, a sigh from that restless jelly of heat, the core?

There came a long sigh of boughs, passing like a hand reaching
across the wold, and then another, so to the lonely traveller's fancy
grew the idea that the trees
were shifting ground, and that the trees were crowding in. 

I shook my ears of their sleep and gathered my knapsack,
which was bleached to a jade colour; there were ginger nuts within!
I more slid than walked on the leaf-fall, descending to the sea-cliff.
Above my head a constellation -- I knew its name then, though I don't now ---
bobbed among the the branches, who seemed to be grasping for it.

I was at the notch and stood over the beach in grey moonlight.
The gulls were quieting, and waves barely lifted the pebbles.
The stilling of the dark planet's nowness to this inn-struck moon.
I delighted in my death.

There was someone else moving around in the wood; there came
the stealthy sound of someone moving forward in the silence, alarmed by
their own noise,  and often pausing, but determined.
Was that nothing to do with me?
Was that something to do with me?
The feeling that they knew me, I knew them, were known to me, was known to them,
as if it was a gear-change
sung to the different colours in the harmony leaves
sung to the velveteen marker in the lemony room
snug of the snakeskin waters black with the eyes of lapis
came before me with , no, not a panic,
but a shallower breathing, an anxiety of listening to the dry leaf's ripple under my own boot.
Boldly marched they in Bratislava...

Who measured all their pouring blood?

lovely is walking in the woods and groves



Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Drew Milne scratchpad

Chrysothrix candelaris, a leprose lichen

[Image source:]

Regular readers will know I usually write about poetry in homoeopathic doses, partly influenced by the capsule essays in Edmund Hardy's Complex Crosses, and partly because this reflects conditions of my own time-sliced life in which encounters with poetry tend to be fleeting.

During my recent flu layoff, however, I've had comparatively limitless time to spend reading, and I've tried to put it to some good use. The only snag was, I no longer seemed able to take pleasure in what I was reading, so it all felt like rather a slog.

Everyone knows, sadly,  how illness and other chemical changes in the body make dramatic alterations to our seemingly stable identities: our personalities, emotions and opinions. Increased irritability is one of the most observable and common outcomes, and I certainly experienced some of that, I haven't used so much colourful language since my days of working for a quarry company. But with my beloved books there was not very much irritability, just not much love. I saw, not felt, how beautiful they are.

Anyway, after sucking all sustenance from the Arden Much Ado I went on to Emilia Pardo Bazán's The House of Ulloa and I've got about a third of the way through the massive Fortunata and Jacinta by her sometime lover Benito Pérez Galdós. (I love Galdós and my insensibility to this, his masterpiece, was particularly dismaying.) I continued to grind through Paul Keegan's doorstop anthology of British verse and, to get down to business, I've also read (or at least skimmed) the whole of In Darkest Capital, the recently published collected poems by Drew Milne. The rest of this post is nothing but an ongoing scratchpad of reading notes.


Milne's Lichens for Marxists consists of 35 poems. The one I wrote about before ("Reindeer Lichen") is, in a relatively straightforward way, about a particular lichen, and about human pollution of the arctic. Likewise "Silicon glitch" has some information to impart about edible lichens. Most of the other poems, though they all contain the word "lichen" somewhere, are more tangential.

Language and grammar show up quite a lot ("Song of the unknown grapheme", "Preposition stranding", "The adjectival lichen" and others). So does political subject matter ("Lichens for levellers", "Vote lichen", "The ballad of liberal moonshine"). So does Scottish local matters ("Sang of the unkent lichen","Alloa lichens", "Letters from Edinburgh"). Jokes, both high and lowbrow, are never refused ("No taxonomy without representation"). Stanzas develop phonemically:

a some such so slow wound
in snow toes strung among
proofs to the presence of
the hung gruel done flame  ...   ("Value comb")
or as variants on proverbs, literary tags and other linguistic readymades.

Fragments of 17th century language abound in "Lichens for Levellers".

There's quite a lot of plasticity in Milne's praxis, and the text in these poems has sometimes, perhaps often, aggregated out of smaller fragments ("lichen emblems") published on social media and elsewhere as digital postcards backed with lichen images. See too the extremely different early version of "The adjectival lichen" in the list below. The fixity of the In Darkest Capital texts may be an illusion, they may still be evolving. At any rate Milne isn't done with lichens, I gather, e.g. from the prose poem "Flight of the Pesticides" in the current issue of Blackbox Manifold (details below).

There is a lot of continuity with Milne's earlier work. The comedy, for example, has always been there (Milne prefers the word "wit", but I have a slight difficulty with that, due to not having been able to forget Edward Lucie-Smith's revival of the term "University Wits" to cover such Oxford poets as James Fenton and John Fuller).  There's a feeling of an ongoing conversation through the whole book, so it's not a surprise that in Foul Papers we find "up with which I will not put" which is also the basis of "Preposition stranding" in Lichens for Marxists. And "The Trojan light" (IV) dwells on the word "azure", as does Go figure, a word that preoccupies Milne again in the lichen poem "Outspoken". This reminds me to mention that the frequent word "knives" appears to have special resonance in Milne's poems, and "worms" too.

From Carcanet's own description of In Darkest Capital, "An ark of ecological resistances to late capitalism". Those may be Milne's own words, at any rate they seem suspiciously well chosen. Perhaps especially the word "resistances", which seems to capture the refusal of the poems to resolve into clear meaning.

Which reminds me that Karl Marx morphs into "calm arks", alongside other nineteenth-century German thinkers such as  "hay gull" and "shopping hour" in one of the poems here that is just sheer fun (there are a few of them).

As a poetic, that description poses the question whether hunks of text could comprise that kind of ark, or whether the ark can only be vulnerable and languageless nature itself? Can even a critical poetry escape complicity?

Anyway I don't really like the ark myth because it already commoditizes nature. It turns it into freight.

Of Milne's earlier poems I particularly like "The garden of tears", a very lachrymose poem; Foul Papers (this one already much-read in Conductors of Chaos), Bench Marks - long stanzaic poems with intent focus - , and poems from Mars Disarmed such as "Pianola" and "The Trojan light".

Resistances to late capitalism...  As the earth keeps getting hotter, the necessity of that resistance is going to seem more pressing. The bizarrely extreme, apparently uncontrollable, drift of wealth towards the already very rich, might provoke a few questions too. Perhaps I might add, most especially under national governments committed to unfettered libertarianism.


As it were comes over to me as a comic portrait of a sunk society putting up with things ("up with which I will not put"?), accepting second best, unable to account for or sensibly respond to their conditions of life.

...Do me out, my
love, in enough to be going on with.   (end of first poem)

Here's one of  the later poems in full:


The pile driver rings
in late memo flasks,
ristretto fire, in goes
to Monday, when to

a weak shift there's
but a flower in your
open look, a feeble
task force through to

take of day, tasto solo,
this throng of down
sizes jogging holdalls
for a high water clerk

call it a day off

This poetry isn't really "about" things, but for the sake of exposition this poem is about going to work and pretending it's a day off, as if you can live your own life in the working week. But the work envisaged isn't, of course, the construction crew's, the people who operate the pile driver; it's the white-collar "high water clerk" (puns are not refused...)  --- or perhaps we may say, university teacher --- with the ristretto. (Something there about restraining bitterness...).

"Flasks" may mean flashes, as in Donne's Nocturnall:

"The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs"

"Tasto solo" is an obscure instruction in baroque musical scores; it means don't harmonize the basso continuo, just play the notes (usually on the cello, if you don't have a pile driver to hand). C.P.E. Bach reported that the Italian musicians he met never took any notice of this instruction.

[Pile drivers, since they make the whole environment quiver to their boom, are typically only allowed to operate, like other noisy construction work, during the hours 0800-1800 Mon-Fri, 0800-1300 Sat.]

[In marine environments pile driving is not allowed in darkness because it's impossible to know if marine mammals (subject to hearing damage) are present in the "mitigation zone" (0.5km around the pile driving operation).]


Poems by Drew Milne online:

The earliest poems in In Darkest Capital can be read on-line using Amazon's Look Inside! feature.  (and in this case I think the early poems do repay attention)

Sound recordings, from 2006, of "The Trojan Light", "Pianola", some of "Go Figure", etc

You can read some or most of "The Trojan light" here:

"The eclipse of the ear"

"Troubadour unbound: on his belated inauguration"
"To the point of abstraction"
"Seasonal greetings"

Some of the (untitled) poems from Go figure (at this stage called "Ill at these numbers")

"caesurae and ballroom bellinis"

[The above poem is dedicated to Pussy Riot. Before we forget their story, it's interesting to meditate how the group's striking insistence on only performing illegally might be shadowed in western radical poetry. In general, authorities are quite reluctant to make poetry illegal if no-one reads it or understands it. Is there a way that poetry could demonstrate its refusal to countenance the capitalist construct? Obviously this is a bigger issue for Pussy Riot, because the music industry is big commerce. Poetry isn't, and perhaps the impulse to demonstrate clean hands is thereby petty, merely a breeding-ground for timewasting and futile exercises in holier-than-thou-ness. Could poetry be published in the courts of capital as Banksy-like graffiti (and then, of course, by smartphone photos)? Could poetry, perhaps, at least always be made available for free? But as I'm too well aware, publishing freely available poetry on the internet feeds capitalism, though to a miniscule degree, just as much as  (arguably, more than) publishing it through a small press and then levying a fair charge for production; the opportunity to capital comes through the various costs entailed in us poetry fans surfing the internet "for free"; you could argue that even anti-capitalist information and gestures, once published on the internet, essentially promote capitalism by agreably variegating its pleasure-garden. Indeed you could argue, I think this would be Hegelian, that existing anti-capitalism is a sort of confirming foe that prolongs the life of its enemy... but where was I? Another approach would be to publish only through backroom presses whose products aren't on sale through Amazon. But there's something peculiarly self-defeating about obfuscating access to wider audiences for collected poems: and so,  just as you can buy Prynne's Poems through Amazon and have them delivered tomorrow, well, you can also buy In Darkest Capital. That's pragmatic. Poetry is, nearly always, a public art. It's true that the mystique of some poetry is kept alive by cultivating inaccessibility --  Bob Cobbing's legacy comes to mind --- but the upshot is,  it's only the myth that lives, not the work. (At the radical end of the poetry spectrum there can be confusion with subversive political activity that is necessarily secret. Faux secretiveness, however, is just a fashion statement.)]

"Lichen card"

"Letters from Edinburgh"

"Lichen prospectus"

"Value comb"
"Lichen times: golden twenties" (= "Golden twenties")

"Vote lichen"

"Reindeer lichen" (text and sound recording)

"Crypsis papers"
"Adjectival masquerade" (early version of "The adjectival lichen")
"The lost moons of Endymion the third"

Three lichen emblems (some of this text re-emerges in Lichens for Marxists)


"Flight of the pesticides"

Drew Milne and John Kinsella, from Lip Trills ("Strung out goes hard wired...")

Drew Milne interviewed by Charles Bernstein in 2006:
[The whole interview is worth listening to, but the most key point, in my opinion, comes quite near the beginning, when Milne says that poetry may promote the conditions for a critique of capitalism, but the poetry isn't and can't be that critique. In other words writing poetry is not a substitute for political engagement.]

Interesting review by Brian Kim Stefans of Satyrs and Mephitic Angels


Friday, January 19, 2018

translations from Swedish

Midnatt (Midnight), painting by Anders Zorn (1891)

[Image source: The painting is in the Zorn Museum in Mora.]

Krus Erik Ersson, the parish cobbler, and his apprentice, Konstantin Karlsson, had sat the whole week and made shoes in the rectory, and now at nine o'clock on Saturday evening were on the way to their home, which was a long way off, on the edge of the parish.

It was autumn, and the sun had gone down long before, but that did not mean they walked in darkness, but through clear air and moonlight. It was as lovely as could be. The lake below the rectory lay mirror-bright, with a track of silver down the middle, and in the fields you could see dewdrops on every grass-stem, like white pearls in the moonlight. It was only when they had to pass through one of the groves of trees that it darkened around them. It wasn't particularly late in autumn, so the branches still had their leaves, and the tree-crowns spread out like a vault of the deepest black over their heads.

(Selma Lagerlöf, Tjänsteanden / The Spirit of Service, first published 1911)

Beredan väg för Herran!
Berg, sjunken, djup stån opp!
Han kommer, han som fjärran
Var sedd av fädrens hopp.
Rättfärdighetens förste,
Av Davids hus den störste.
Välsignad vare han,
Som kom i Herrens namn.

Prepare the way of the Lord!
Sink, ye mountains! And ye deeps, rise up!
He comes, who long since was
the foreseen hope of the fathers.
Foremost in righteousness,
of David's house the greatest.
Blessed be he who
comes in the name of the Lord.

(Frans Michael Franzén (1772 - 1847). First verse of a carol sung at the Sankta Lucia service in St Paul's Cathedral last December.)

Dance in Gopsmor, painting by Anders Zorn (1906)

[Image source:]

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Unforgivable Claudio / Benedick and the lads

Claire McEachern's Arden 3rd Series Revised Edition (2015)

I was given this for Christmas, and it has been my joy through a fortnight of flu. Sutchinda Rangsi Thompson's jacket design shows a Venetian mask (with reference to the masked ball in II.1) backed by a bit of sheet music.  In fact this bit of sheet music is the first page of the Second Symphony by one "Jan Sibellius", which I confess I'd prefer not to see deployed as mere musical lorem ipsum , but maybe that's the flu speaking. However Claire McEachern's edition, originally from 2006, is a marvellous edition of a marvellous play.

There was only one moment, I think, when I found myself in protesting dialogue with the editor. The moment was in Act III Scene 2, when Don John stops Claudio and Don Pedro in their tracks.

[Don John] .... Go but with me, tonight you shall see her chamber window entered, even the night before her wedding day. If you love her then, tomorrow wed her. But it would better fit your honour to change your mind.

Claudio: May this be so?

Don Pedro: I will not think it.

Don John: If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know. If you will follow me I will show you enough, and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly.

Claudio: If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her. .... (III.2.101-113)

McEachern's note on the highlighted sentence says: "a difficult line, to the effect of 'if you won't believe your eyes, then you must refuse the knowledge they present' ". (And she adds that the two instances of "that" should both be taken as meaning "what".)

But is that really saying anything, other than a rather wire-drawn bit of epistemology? I feel that Don John ought to be saying something far more pertinent, logical, and manipulative: "If you dare not trust exposing your eyes to what they may see this evening, then don't profess that you know (that Hero is innocent)."

I'm not scholar enough to know if Shakespeare's words could support that interpretation (and surely, I can't be the first to propose it). The sentence would certainly be extremely elliptical. But it wouldn't be unprecedented for Shakespeare to dash off words that don't quite manage to nail his meaning, especially in his foul papers, which are agreed to be the source for Q.

There is, however, much in favour of my proposed meaning. Don Pedro and Claudio have not, at this stage, stated that they will go with Don John. It's still in the balance.Don John follows the disputed sentence with one that begins "If you will follow me..." It makes sense that the previous sentence should concern itself with the alternative scenario, i.e. If you decline to follow me...

Again, the sentence in question ought to flow from what has just been said by Don Pedro: I will not think it. McEachern's proposed meaning does that, but I consider my proposed meaning is more relevant to the situation. If someone announces in advance what they will or will not think, it sounds like they're about to refuse to look at the evidence. Don John needs to "head that off at the pass", as we say in the office. So he responds: Yes, you can refuse to look, you can will yourself to believe something, but you can't kid yourself that you know.


Well, enough of this speculation. What it does bring into focus is how Claudio's deeds and thoughts are strongly modified by the influence of these high-ups. He's young and Don Pedro's marks of distinction towards him are new, so Claudio is still getting used to these heady heights.

Claudio must have something about him, given these marks of favour. Since it doesn't seem to be intelligence or grace, we assume it's military prowess, courage and good looks.

But he has a genuine pal in Benedick. I say this because Benedick tells Leonato, in the midst of IV.1, "you know my inwardness and love / Is very much unto the prince and Claudio..."  At such a moment this must be the honest truth. But if it weren't for that speech, I really might doubt it, because Benedick has a big issue with openly expressing kind thoughts towards his male pals. In fact he tends to put young Claudio down. In the incessant flow of banter, which Claudio keeps up gamely, it's rare indeed that Claudio gets one over on Benedick, and when he does the latter is not very gracious in defeat. Yet Claudio and Don Pedro seem to understand Benedick. They understand that they can play jokes on him to their heart's content, that there's no real malice in him, that he doesn't bear a grudge.

But Benedick isn't easy company. George Bernard Shaw wasn't quite as astray as usual when he remarked:

From his first joke, "were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?" to his last, "There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn," he is not a wit, but a blackguard . . . 
Shaw proceeds to compare Benedick unfavourably with the generally offensive Lucio in Measure for Measure, which I think is nonsense; but the roughness of Benedick's wit when he's in the company of Don Pedro and Claudio is certainly something to ponder on. (He behaves quite differently when they aren't present.) Beatrice is perhaps spot-on when she says "he both pleases men and angers them" (II.1.128-29).

When Claudio asks about Hero, Benedick hints at a potential moral judgment in questioning Claudio's motive, but the moralizing soon gives way to mischief. And he is also mischievous and unsupportive during the masked ball, when Don Pedro seems to be stealing Hero from under Claudio's nose. In both scenes, Benedick's implication to Claudio, if he has one beyond his own self-regard, seems to be: Don't take love so seriously.

Anyway, coming back to the scene with Don John...  at this particular juncture in Claudio's journey through the play, Benedick isn't around. Claudio has Don Pedro, who has been far more openly helpful to Claudio than Benedick ever has. However, Don Pedro is a prince, and sometimes a prince is not the best sort of friend, not even for a Count (for "the right noble" Claudio is repeatedly named as a Count, unlike Benedick who is a mere Signor). Don Pedro is undoubtedly well-meaning, but he has his own way of going about things (and Claudio, when jolted by Don John, had got rather confused about Don Pedro's proxy wooing). Don Pedro also has a prince's temptations, which are not like those of other people.

The presence of Don Pedro as an active figure in the play makes a great difference to the character of Claudio (as compared with his model Timbreo in Bandello). Timbreo never remotely suspects his informant, just as Othello never suspects Iago. But Claudio, Count though he be, is more overawed than unsuspicious. After all Don Pedro does have pretty good reason to suspect the good faith of his brother, and Don John is even bold enough to refer to it (actually he has no choice: if he didn't refer to it, others would). But it's a prince's part to take no note of petty causes of suspicion. To do otherwise might seem timid; one is above that sort of thing. So neither Don Pedro nor Claudio enquires how Don John comes to know about this secret assignation and what motives his informants may have had for telling him. In all this royal superiority to pettiness, Claudio doesn't get much of a chance to review any suspicions he might have. Instead he's swept along, and perhaps losing his head in such high company, makes that rash statement about shaming Hero at the church. You get the impression he's trying to be seen to be doing the high, decisive, princely (or countly) thing.


It's a sort of tribute to the shock-power of one of Shakespeare's greatest scenes (IV.1), that over the years Claudio has been increasingly viewed as unforgivable. For Claudio, so shy in his courtship of Hero, is apparently more than willing to take centre stage when it comes to calling her a whore (Don Pedro, as he promised in III.2,  adds his own gross insults, but only after Claudio has led the way). We have to accept, which isn't always easy, that Claudio and Don Pedro genuinely believe that Hero has flagrantly betrayed her husband-to-be the night before her wedding, gullible as this makes them appear. Some of Claudio's words witness to bitter disappointment in love.

Claudio, like Othello, will later use the excuse of "mistaking" but in both cases it rings quite hollow these days. Of course we understand that people do make mistakes, especially when a villain sets out to deceive them. But, maybe bcause of our own era's belief in the law of attraction, we tend to have an inner feeling that if someone's deceived, they somehow contributed to it themselves. And that's especially true with these impertinent accusations, by outsiders, of a lover's sexual infidelity. Why (we think) didn't you show a bit more faith in your partner? Why didn't you at least talk to them (in private) before striking out?( And if they were indeed unfaithful to you, what made them feel like that, why were they unhappy and what was wrong between the two of you? ...) Plus, undeniably, ethics have changed since Shakespeare's time, at least on the surface. We don't, most of us, place a value on bridal virginity, and in Shakespeare's time they did. So Claudio also gets blamed for the values of his society.

It's apparent that Claudio doesn't know Hero particularly well, and indeed we never hear them speak together prior to this scene, though they apparently do talk together and they do both take part in the general conversation with Don Pedro about his plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together (end of II.1). That plan, Don Pedro makes clear, is to be organized along gender lines.  Don Pedro, "with your two helps"  (meaning Leonato and Claudio), is going to gull Benedick;  Hero on the other hand (albeit briefed by Don Pedro) will look after gulling Beatrice. There's an assumption that normal discourse (and presumably normal life) tends to mostly involve hanging around with your own gender.

And Claudio's journey, certainly, takes place very much within an all-male environment. Even at the altar he more easily addresses Leonato than Hero. Before his lady, he exemplifies the chivalrous shyness that can be so easily transformed into disappointed spite. Unlike Benedick, he's not a lady's man and is not seen in female company.

There's more that's unforgivable. In V.1, Claudio and Don Pedro have an uncomfortable walk. They pretend to be in haste about something, but this is evidently self-consciousness of being in a false position. No wonder -- what are they doing still here in Messina, having publically shamed their host's daughter? (And didn't Don Pedro say he was only staying for the wedding, anyway?). First they meet Leonato and his brother Antonio, who attempt to challenge Claudio to ill-matched duels.

[What is brother Antonio doing in this play? Shakespeare mysteriously revisits the situation in Titus Andronicus, where it is Titus and, especially, his kindly brother Marcus, who stand up for the raped and mutilated Lavinia. Compare:  Antonio: God knows I loved my niece. ... with  Marcus: ... gentle niece ... lovely niece...    Lavinia's, briefly, is the fearful image that hovers over what Claudio and Don Pedro have done to Hero.]

Being rid of the old men, Don Pedro and Claudio then encounter Benedick, and perhaps the unforgivable thing is that Claudio attempts to be witty at Benedick's expense, which seems tasteless given that (so far as Claudio knows) Hero has died after his shaming of her. Surely some sobriety would be in order, even though Claudio and Don Pedro still believe themselves in the right. As the scene unwinds, first with Benedick's very serious challenge and then with the confession of Borachio, that belief is destroyed. (It's curious that Borachio addresses Don Pedro as "Sweet prince", recalling the same address by first Claudio and then Leonato during the shaming scene at the start of IV.1.). Then, indeed, things do change.  Claudio remembers "Sweet Hero" spontaneously, and he ends the scene with "Tonight I'll mourn with Hero". It has not been felt to be enough, though McEachern makes a good case for the emblematic importance of the monument scene (V.3). The truth is, Shakespeare's abbreviated time-scheme, essential for gripping theatre, doesn't allow for credible penitence. But Shakespeare could have tried harder if he'd wanted to. For instance, Claudio's ease at marrying another, and his rough jesting at Benedick in V.4, before he knows that the other is his Hero, still seem to us to lack acknowledgement of the harm he's done.

Shakespeare apparently doesn't mind. His critique of Count Claudio and the "sweet prince" is explicit. Much Ado About Nothing is a tough little tragicomedy and it isn't concerned that all its principals aren't moral paragons, or that its final dance doesn't securely promise an eternity of well-merited happiness.


Most readings of Much Ado About Nothing accept the romcom theory that Benedick and Beatrice are already in love before they are tricked into thinking so, and I agree. It's apparent from the start that Signor Benedick, who is consistently spiky with his high-up military pals, is only truly at ease in the company of Beatrice. To Leonato (once out of earshot of the aforesaid pals) he is sincerely courteous and polite; and it's Leonato's presence that apparently convinces Benedick that the garden scene isn't feigned. Markedly in contrast with the Count Claudio, he is at ease in female company (e.g. the little scene V.2, with Margaret). Benedick isn't really one of the lads. But he doesn't much admire insipid females either (such as Hero). Beatrice is the woman who matches him. Their flurries of wit and insult are outrageous, but, looking closely, we see that Benedick does pull his punches. When Beatrice says "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me" (I.1.125-26), she lays herself open to a more brutal response than Benedick chooses. And though Beatrice complains of it, Benedick's "I have done" (I.1.137) is really an instinctive curb on following up his own victory. Likewise during the masked ball, Benedick is extremely temperate when Beatrice unleashes her cutting remarks about the "prince's jester", which somehow end by turning into flirtatiousness. At some deep level Beatrice allows herself to be vulnerable, she already knows that Benedick won't abuse his advantage. And the conversation ends with a prescient moral agreement (positively Jane Austen-style):

[Beatrice].... we must follow the leaders.
Benedick: In every good thing.
Beatrice: Nay, if they lead to any ill I will leave them at the next turning. (II.1.137-140)

When they do lead to ill, Beatrice indeed declines to follow the leaders. And at that crisis Benedick will go along with her.


Monday, January 01, 2018

a meeting

I thought ..... it was the hat!

You're smiling!

I might have replied that Kalle was smiling too.

It's been so long. So very long!

Long enough, my friend.

Where had we met? I couldn't bring it to mind. I wanted to refer to something from our past and to see the sly understanding on Kalle's face. But was it that this seemed unnecessary, given the roundness of our grins.... or was it, that I feared some disappointment?

Come and sit here, by me. I don't hear so good these days.

Nor me!

And I must ask you.... but settle yourself first.

Now I looked at him for the first time. The face with its untidy beard, its generosity, its anger. A little wintry. Thinner than in my memory. Perhaps my feelings showed.

I have not been very well. We won't go into that. But I have not been been well.... for rather a long time. My friend. (He smiled at me again.) Are you well?

I dismissed myself with a wave.

As it happens, I am a bit better today.

In illustration of this point Kalle suddenly raised the tips of his elbows like wings, rose from the café table and, ignoring other customers, sang out the words Vi ska ställa till en roliger dans, accompanying himself with dance movements.

His energies exhausted, he sat down abruptly. I applauded, much relieved that the performance had lasted only a single line. Years spent knocking around with Kalle had made me familiar with the song. The chorus crescendo of Hej hopp! would have caused dismay, I thought.

Do you know how it feels, that first morning when you rise and something at last feels right within your breast, and you know you are truly on the mend? Perhaps it will only last a week, or a month... at our age we don't know. But life has returned, something in all its gentle fullness. I felt the gratitiude and the humility -- of Beethoven. You know? For example, I took a shower this morning. In my shower there hangs a fern. ... a potted plant.  And I thought to myself, Ah, how I do love ferns!  Yes! I thought it in all sincerity. Yet the truth is,  in all my life I've never spent two minutes thinking about ferns. I don't even know their names. Even this one in the bathroom, I had nothing to do with it.   

I like ferns too, but yes, I know... it's only with the back of my mind that I notice them. I know some of the names. Not many.

You had better tell me the names of the ferns.

Oh! Well.... maybe when I've mugged up a little, we could --

No. I shall not be interested then. Only now, is the time for naming the ferns.

And indeed, Kalle betrayed no great enthusiasm. As for me, my beetroot flush of pleasure at the incredibly rare experience of actually being invited to talk about something I was interested in, was immediately followed by a complete mental blankness, in which I couldn't remember any names at all, nor even what we were talking about. The sensation was becoming familiar.  It didn't bode well for my idea of taking up teaching.

Ok... well, for example, there is the Hart's-tongue Fern, which has a simple leaf like a pointed tongue, and grows in the wet woods of the south-west. And then, well there's Bracken of course, that's easy to recognize because of the tough smooth stems which elevate the leaves above the ground. Actually they're not really leaves, or stems come to that, but never mind. Erm...  those little ones that grow on walls.... Oh well, how about Polypody? That's a nice fern. Quite small, with simplistic wavy fingers. It grows on logs and things. Oh, there are actually three sorts, I think. Maybe, if I just check on my smartphone....?

NO! commanded Kalle, really alarmed. Please don't, I beg of you. Pardon an old man's vagary.

Yes, of course. Well, let me see.... Ah yes, the Male Fern and the Lady Fern, two common ferns of woodland.

I imagine they differ, Kalle smiled, by the former bearing some sort of appendage.

No, not at all. No appendage. They both look, well,  like normal ferns. Actually they look about the same as each other.

This didn't go down well with Kalle. He buried his head in his hands. No wonder, he said, no-one bothers about ferns.

I mean you can tell the difference, if you look at the underside of the leaf, the shape of the spores....

Kalle was not placated.

So let me get this straight. I find myself in a wood where there are about a thousand ordinary-looking ferns. I turn over the leaf of the nearest fern and I see it is a Man Fern. Good. I look at another fern that is growing ten meters away. It is another Man Fern. I examine a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth. They are all Man Ferns. Yet, I say to myself, that still leaves 994 ferns who might be Lady Ferns. Maybe only one in twenty is a Lady. That would still make the Ladies quite common. So I turn over the leaves of another twenty ferns, and then another twenty, and they are all Men. But perhaps the Lady Ferns live all together in a different spot? Perhaps I should hike to the other end of the wood and begin all over again? God, what a wretched existence! What an absolute nightmare!

I had the impression we were done with ferns for the time being.

The sky was a uniform colour, too pale for grey. White with a touch of ash in it, maybe. I kept eyeing the corners of the sky as if searching anxiously for some variation in it. Meanwhile, the street before us was busy with big hard-faced women in puffer-coats, dogs, push-chairs, anxious male halves, men who liked a drink or a bet, naughty boys on scooters, shop-staff outside for a smoke, thin men in trackies, pretty plump girls, young Asian men in near-identical clothes from TopShop, mop-haired students home for the holidays, a Big Issue seller, couples who may have been in love, fat African ladies in headscarfs, three local characters around a colonnade, musicians, sweet smiling girl toddlers resembling their mum, gawky Christians with partings, short-cropped bulky girls with piercings, bodybuilders and runners in lycra revealing too much anatomy.

I couldn't see it any differently. Like every man of my generation, my conceptions were veined with sexism and racism. My reason and my beliefs were better than that, they were quite up to the mark, I thought. But my eyes! They were unregenerate. And how did I see Kalle? First and foremost, as a foreign man. That meant many things to me, most of them positive. But the fact was, I stereotyped him.

A man came by picking up litter with a grabber. Everyone had a reason to be here. It was all a comprehensible pattern. But I never took any notice of it, usually.

Nature, said Kalle, doesn't want us to know its names.

People who say that are usually about to justify dirty fuels or hacking down a rainforest.

I spoke more sharply than I intended, because I was feeling so disgusted with myself. Kalle, however, was not offended.

I am not talking about science. I am not putting a blot on the great Linnaeus.

Relieved, I found myself smiling again.

I mean only this. Those who live closer to nature, people of instinct as you may say, are careful about revealing their names. They know that a name can be like a photograph and gives away some power to the one who knows it. On the other hand you, my friend, would tell your name to anyone, with relish! For you pursue fame.  But nature is unobtrusive.

And once again, I blessed Kalle's hat. How lonely, I thought, my life has become.

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