Tuesday, July 31, 2018

some poems from Karin Boye's Hearths (1927)

[Image source: http://kulturellaspar.se/litteratur/karin-boye .  I think the photo is by the celebrated Anna Riwkin and dates from 1933, but I haven't been able to confirm it.]

From Hearths (1927)

The Two Lineages

This song is for the children of wrath
on the thistle-heath, the heathen;
that the angel with the flaming sword
expelled from a lost Eden.
Thistledown, thistledown,
across the ground is windblown,
having no means to root or grow
within that closed-up garden.

Yet the myths say that the sons of God
thought the earth then so gorgeous,
on the dawn hills, in the gold lustre
of those days in the first ages,
that they met with the daughters of men
under moon-billowing darkness,
and seeded children with aether-seed;
with the trace of heavenly harmonies.

To meet their descendants is amazing,
their hands are profuse with joys.
Yes, I've met some passing among the thistles,
who have passed along sacred shores... –
Yet nights of sleepless grieving,
these too amount to something;
and if you have known what anguish is
you know more than most who study.

I have seen them passing among the thistles;
free, light, transparent –
and I quivered with worship, with longing
for a glance, or just a movement.
But tell me: – Who has touched our race’s root,
those souls of glimmering streams,
or you – with your eyes that are full of night,
your mouth red with bloody dreams?

De båda ätterna

Min sång är sjungen för Vredens folk,
folket på tistelheden,
för dem, som ängeln med det flammande svärdet
drev ur det förverkade Eden.
Tistelfjun, tistelfjun
driver över marken i vinden
utan kraft att rotas och gro
inom lustgårdsgrinden.

Men sagorna säger, att Guds söner
förr fann jorden fager
på Morgonens kullar, i guldglans
av urtidsåldrarnas dager,
gästade människors döttrar
i måneböljande nätter
och sådde barn av sin etersäd,
av himlafurstarnas ätter.

Deras ättlingar möter den lycklige,
och lycka bringar deras händer.
Jag har sett dem vandra bland tistlarna
som gick på de saligas stränder. -- -- --
Men nätter av sömnlös vånda
är också något värda,
och den som har känt vad ångest är,
vet mer än många lärda.

Jag har sett dem vandra bland tistlarna.
De är fria, de är lätta och klara,
och jag darrar av längtan och dyrkan
för en blick och för en rörelse bara.
Men säg, vem har rört vårt släktes rot,
de själarna av glimmande strömmar
eller du -- med dina ögon som är fulla av natt
och din röda mun av blodiga drömmar?

Keep Moving

The day of satisfaction is not best.
The better day — that is a day of thirst.

Though there’s a goal, a reason for our journey,
really, the road itself is why it’s worth it.

The best goal is to make camp overnight,
with the fire lit, and something quick to eat.

In places where you only stay the once,
your sleep is sound, your dream is just a song.

Break up, depart! The new day dawns pale.
Our life's adventure is perpetual.

I rörelse

Den mätta dagen, den är aldrig störst.
Den bästa dagen är en dag av törst.

Nog finns det mål och mening i vår färd -
men det är vägen, som är mödan värd.

Det bästa målet är en nattlång rast,
där elden tänds och brödet bryts i hast.

På ställen, där man sover blott en gång,
blir sömnen trygg och drömmen full av sång.

Bryt upp, bryt upp! Den nya dagen gryr.
Oändligt är vårt stora äventyr.

The Falling Morning Star

“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall,
obstinate morning star! Yes,
gladly I give you darkness,
you that are dearest to me of all.”

“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall,
fire of blazing turquoise!
Gleam in the deep’s long tortures,
raise your citadel’s coal-black wall!”

“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall!
You that would taste all evil.
Will you come back, as usual?
You that are nearest to me of all.”

Den fallande morgonstjärnan

"Fall", sade Herren, "fall,
trotsiga morgonstjärna!
Mörker jag unnar dig gärna.
Du är mig kärast i världen all."

"Fall", sade Herren, "fall,
brinnande blåa låga!
Glimma i djupens plåga,
res dig en stad av svart kristall!"

"Fall", sade Herren, "fall!
Du som allt ont skall smaka,
kommer du snart tillbaka?
Du är mig närmast i världen all."

Lilith’s Song

Rainclouds hanging heavy
swell in the tender darkness where they’re stored,
night-blueish grapevine clusters
heavy with wine, that hushed over earth is poured,
heavy with deep-born wine,
heavy with secret force,
wrested from sea and heavens
and bitter dew in the utterest dark’s expanse.

Living’s heady vapour
cools into droplets, falls through the dead-still night.
Drink deeply! you will maybe
grasp the key, where no-one has set her foot...
land where the spirit, loosed
out beyond time’s frontiers
tastes in eternal spaces
things that no-one thinks of or sees or knows.

Under waking country
seethe unearthly seas of joy and woe,
world-deep smithy-forges
from which comes (like a wave-spat) all we see.
Dare you attempt the road
that opens in fear's carouse?
Fear-stricken, yet favoured,
you come to the eternal Mothers’ sombre house . . .

Flakes on widest waters,
Oh deep-born flower who never knew her root,
mayfly averse to nightfall –
comes the time you’ll enter the Mothers’ night!
Dying is black with pain.
Dying is white with bliss.
Plunged in its murmuring waves you
cease to think of life’s pale, clouded coast.

Liliths sång

Molnen hänger tunga,
mognar i ljumma mörkret, där de göms,
nattblåa druvors klunga,
tunga av vin, som tyst över jorden töms,
tunga av Djupets vin,
tunga av hemlig makt,
sugen ur hav och himmel
och bitter dagg i det yttersta mörkrets trakt.

Livets heta ånga
tätnar i droppar, faller i dödstyst natt.
Lyft bägarn! Du ska fånga
nyckeln dit, där ingen sin fot har satt --
landet, där anden löst
bortanför tidens gräns
smakar i evigheter
ting som aldrig anas och syns och känns.

Bakom vakna världar
sjuder främmande hav av lust och ve,
världsdjupens smideshärdar,
varur sprang som ett stänk vad vi kan se.
Vågar du vägen dit,
banad i fasans rus?
Skräckslagen, salig
når du de eviga Mödrarnas mörka hus...

Flarn på vida vatten,
Djupets blomma, som aldrig såg sin rot,
dagslända skygg för natten --
en gång tar dig Mödrarnas natt emot!
Döden är svart av kval.
Döden är vit av lust.
Sänkt i hans susande vågor
glömmer du livets bleka töckenkust.

Complete Swedish text of Hearths (Härdarna):

[Image source: http://www.goteborgkonst.com/?post_type=konstverk&p=1503 . Detail of a sculpture of Karin Boye by Peter Linde in Kungsportavynen, Göteborg (the city of her birth).]

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Monday, July 30, 2018

the local author / anachronism

Katherine McMahon: After Mary (London: Flamingo, 2000)

This is a historical novel about English Catholics in the early seventeenth century. It is so well-written that we soon come to trust; here there will be no badly made scenes.


The dialogue is written in neutral modern English, always sharp and absorbing, yet somehow recalling Mills and Boon romances.


“But you must surely have longed to be more active all these years.”

“I’m not the adventurous type. I only do as I’m told.”


“Shall we go to the cathedral first? Shall we see what it’s like to be in a Catholic church?” Isabel asked.

“We’re expected in the Rue Grosse.”

“Ten minutes. Just to convince ourselves of where we are.”


But Isabel Stanhope’s story doesn’t lead in a conventional Mills and Boon direction, though it draws on that genre’s fire, idealism, and avoidance of the explicit.


The descriptive writing is like this:


Behind lacy iron gates the house was burnished the colour of toast.


He was a tallish man with a complicated face and flaky scalp.


He folded his hands and pom-pommed a little tune to himself.


When she pushed back the door the smell of raw wood and incense was at once replaced by a rush of autumn air.



The logic of Isabel and her world is that Shakespeare, in the book’s most nervous moments, can only be rejected with appalled incomprehension. But it is not the rejection of a pious seventeenth-century Catholic; it is the rejection of a modern awareness.


The brilliance of those descriptive sentences is inescapably linked to the anachronism of the dialogue and the implied conceptions of action. Nothing could have been thought in this way, yet these things (or something like them) must have happened. There is indeed a yawning void in our ability to grasp the everyday life of the past. The writers didn’t record it, though we sometimes devceive ourselves into thinking they did.

The effect of the anachronism is to make the book’s image a “fantasy” - a liberating effect when it is employed so seriously. I persistently question what (or where) the book is really about. The ending is thoroughly satisfying. Mary Ward’s project is feminist as well as (or perhaps more than) religious. All the male characters fail Isabel, unless perhaps Father Turner, who (with splendid anachronism) clinches matters thus:


Your penance, my dear Mistress Stanhope, and it is a heavy one, is to follow the dictates of your own conscience.



[Image source: http://www.optimamagazine.co.uk/read/features/people/213-creative-processes-katharine-mcmahon . Katharine lives in N. London.  This is from an interview with the author in a local magazine covering "S. Hertfordshire / N. Middlesex".]


After Mary draws on the historical figure of Mary Ward (1585 - 1645), a Roman Catholic nun who founded a non-contemplative women's community in St-Omer in 1609, to much conservative disquiet within the church. She conceived it as a sister movement to the Jesuits. The movement carried on after her death, though official status was withheld until 1703. As the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary / Sisters of Loreto,  it now runs 150 schools worldwide: Mary Ward was granted the title Venerable in 2009. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ward_(nun)).

Mary Ward was born in Mulwith, three miles SE of Ripon in North Yorkshire. Presumably this was at Mulwith Farmhouse, though the present-day building is a mid-18th-century construction. Mulwith is on the north bank of the river Ure.


Katherine McMahon's website: https://www.katharinemcmahon.com/ . Her tenth novel, The Hour of Separation, set in Belgium in March 1939, is just out.

Katharine McMahon's interesting article "Memory and Fiction: Why Historical Fiction is also Contemporary Fiction": https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/memory-and-fiction/

Katharine McMahon on her lifelong obsession with the Brontës: https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/haunted-by-the-brontes/ . 

(The Hour of Separation has submerged connections with Villette.)

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

morning bramble

It rained all night, after months of wall-to-wall sunshine.

The brambles have stood it better than most other plants, but these morning snaps of lagging fruit inscribe the history of the summer: the pent drupelets, longing to swell but half-resigned to abort.

(A little movement in the breeze, combined with the confusing reflection of surface water, was all too much for my phone camera to cope with.)

Saturday, July 28, 2018


Samuel Daniel's monument in the north aisle of St. George's church, Beckington, Somerset

Between stormy showers this morning I had time to make only my second visit to Samuel Daniel's monument in Beckington church. Daniel (1562 - 1619) retired to Beckington around 1610.

About the monument

Let others sing of knights and paladines
In aged accents and untimely words;
Paint shadows in imaginary lines
Which well the reach of their high wits records:
But I must sing of thee, and those fair eyes
Authentic shall my verse in time to come,
When yet th' unborn shall say, "Lo where she lies
Whose beauty made him speak that else was dumb."
These are the arks, the trophies I erect,
That fortify thy name against old age;
And these thy sacred virtues must protect
Against the dark, and time's consuming rage.
Though th' error of my youth they shall discover,
Suffice they show I liv'd and was thy lover.
(Delia, XLVI)

[Daniel's Delia was published in 1592. Shakespeare's debt to the Delian sonnet tradition is manifest.]


Daniel is said to have become "poet laureate" -- whatever that may have meant at the time  -- on the death of Edmund Spenser in 1599. He seems to have resigned the post, not long afterwards, to Ben Jonson.
St George's, Beckington, showing the impressive Norman tower


Friday, July 27, 2018

Afghan books

The Dar-ul-Aman Palace, Kabul, October 2002

[Image source: http://www.rawa.org/k-nam17.htm. The Dar-ul-Aman avenue, once bordered by tall white-stemmed poplars, was described by Robert Byron as one of the most beautiful in the world.]

Åsne Seierstad: The Bookseller of Kabul (2002)

On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, New York. Within weeks, Afghanistan was invaded, toppling the fundamentalist regime of the Taliban but failing to secure Osama bin Laden, the enemy of the United States.

Åsne Seierstad, a young Norwegian war correspondent, was in Afghanistan to report the conflict. She then stayed for four months in spring 2002 with an Afghan family and wrote this book. Soon translated into many languages, it was an immediate best-seller, feeding a suddenly intense desire by Westerners to understand parts of the world that for the first time seemed to have a serious significance for them.

The Khan family was not typical (is there a typical family?). It was rich by Afghan standards, and its patriarch, the bookseller, was multi-lingual and literate. Seierstad effaced herself from the book and tried to tell only family stories, as if she wasn’t there. She changed the names, but presumably in Kabul it was easy enough to penetrate the disguise. Its subject family were prominent citizens, and family matters were reported accurately, since that was the whole point of the book. After publication, Sultan Khan repudiated it as a travesty. Perhaps that’s when he could read it in English, not in Norwegian, a hermetic language to the rest of the world. He’s going to write his own book. But trade is booming. Meanwhile Seierstad has been in Baghdad during the war, and has been funding hospitals with her new wealth. Not everyone has fallen under her spell (a spell is a double-edged sword in this world). In Norway, people mutter that she bought her fame too easily. Others have detected a certain condescension in The Bookseller of Kabul.

Young Afghans (mostly ex-pat) on the Afghania portal were uncertain to blame Seierstad or Khan most – they saw the book as a dishonouring of their nation; their own lives did not sound much like the Khan family’s, they sounded very much like everyone else who posts to Internet forums. But Internet forums seem to select from a very narrow band within the human population.     

In a sense Sultan must be right. Intimate histories reported by and read by people of another culture must fail. It’s a kind of Chinese whispers. In the end-product of our reading, the combined product of Seierstad’s imagination, the translator’s imagination, and the western reader’s imagination, Leila, Mansur, Sharifa and the rest have inevitably been transformed into westerners who find themselves caught up in un-western situations. When we read that Leila never sees a drop of sunlight, we are bound to interpret that life-giving sun according to a Scandinavian (and British) scale of values. To be deprived of sunlight is to waste away! It can’t seem quite like that in Kabul, one of the sunniest cities on earth, where shade is fruitful and a blessing. Faute de mieux. It’s a beginning. Deeper inhabitation of an alien culture cannot be had on such readable terms.

And when I read:

While Sultan ruminated over how to ask for the hand of the chosen one without the help of family women, his first wife was blissfully ignorant that a mere chit of a girl, born the same year she and Sultan were married, was Sultan’s constant preoccupation...

my first awareness is that “blissfully ignorant” and “a  mere chit of a girl” contain English ideas. This kind of ignorance and this particular way of feeling dismissive of youth could not exactly convey Sharifa’s experience. On the other hand, verbal expressions cannot exactly convey one person’s feelings to another, anyway. We each have a private set of connotations for the same verbal formula. And besides, don’t some things supersede culture – for example, the experience of being no longer young, or having had three children? Perhaps we can try to form a global fellowship on the slender biological basis of what we share as members of one species.

And the book’s mode is after all western – a crossover between ethnography and fly-on-the-wall reality show.


Back to Mikrorayon’s bullet-riddled apartment blocks, where water and electricity are so intermittent, from a visit to the hammam (steam baths) is a journey we can take, sharing the weight of those burkas – a smelly and stale shroud placed over momentarily clean skin. Can we weigh them more accurately than we weigh the meals soaked in mutton fat or the flabby, pale fat of the women?

Mansur, who has been our wide-eyed hero on the formidable journey to Ali’s tomb at Mazar, behaves with continual rudeness to his aunt and servant Leila. Seierstad admits that she could not feel temperately about the perennial male lording it over women. To admit the sufficient causes of Mansur’s ill-temper is one thing. But to see how all this looks, on the premise of woman’s rightful subjugation, is not possible for her. A country in a mess, what no-one denies... but what is a right way?


Åsne Seierstad has gone on to write several other books, e.g. about Grozny (Chechnya), Baghdad, and Anders Breivik. The most recent one (2018) is about two Norwegian girls who went to Syria to fight for ISIS.


Other books about Afghanistan – nothing in common with each other, particularly, except that I happen to have read them or been told about them.

Ferdowsi (c. 940-c. 1020) is the author of the massive Iranian poem The Shahnameh. Many of the legendary locations look further east, i.e.to Balkh (near Mazar-e Sharif in N Afghanistan) and the Oxus, e.g. Seyavash’s campaign against the Turan Afrasyab. 

Rumi – the thirteenth-century Sufi and (in dubious translation) topselling poet of 2004 in the USA,, was born in Balkh which is now in Afghanistan. (I’ve lost my notes, but I think the tenth-century philosopher Avicenna was also born in Afghanistan.)

“The sancitity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.” (Gladstone to the voters of Midlothian, 1879). Gladstone really used Afghanistan as a rhetorical hyperbole. Though he had strongly opposed the Disraeli-sponsored invasion of Afghanistan, his developing views on national self-determination were focussed on Christian nations and specifically in the present instance on an independent Bulgaria. As post-colonial critics have emphasised, Gladstone’s philosophy of self-determination was only practically applied in an imperial context to white “settlement colonies” e.g. to Canada not to India. Its main focus was on Europe, where  Gladstone’s ideal had great influence on Woodrow Wilson and the new frontiers of Europe drawn up at Versailles in 1919 – the new or revived nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Roumania. The chief victim of these changes was the extinction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the last large exemplar of the essentially medieval idea of lands yoked together not by nationality but by (Catholic) faith and aristocratic inheritance. This new philosophy remains in principle a cornerstone of international policy but it cannot be wholly disentangled from the contemporary racialism that underscored its force, e.g. the hatred between Slav and Magyar. Its limit is reached where two unfriendly groups inhabit the same territory (Northern Ireland, Palestine..). Then the widely-promulgated belief that national self-determination ought to be one’s right might make genocide more likely. Thus Fisher notes sourly that when the Turks methodically massacred every Greek in Smyrna in 1922 (and created a million Greek refugees from mainland Turkey to Greece), “the chief occasion of Greco-Turkish hostility was paradoxically removed.”  By a similar logic Hitler’s destruction of East European Jewry was a “final solution” to a problem conceived in terms of national self-determination. Thus a principle actuated by admirably disinterested liberalism bears some responsibility for the most evil acts of the years that followed. Yet the racialist conception of nationality should already have been an obsolescent concept – it is essentially a rural idea based on often illusory extrapolation from memories of stable cultural groups in an era when isolation was a common experience, and is utterly inadequate to prescribe ideals for the mixed populations of great urban centres.  And in fact all conceptions of nationality must one day be known as only imaginative projections; the human species is instantiated not by peoples but by persons. This is of course much easier to entertain if you don’t perceive your own cultural group as threatened. 

Kipling’s story Dray wara yow dee  (1888) has an Afghan narrator who recounts his vengeful pursuit of Daoud Shah, his young wife’s lover. Kipling’s story has many subtleties; on one level it was clearly a large influence on the next item (by ‘Afghan’). Kipling’s long story The Man Who Would be King (also 1888) describes the fatal attempt by Peachey and Carnehan to become “Kings of Kafiristan” – this is the area shown on modern maps as Nuristan. It is a mountainous and inaccessible region NE of Kabul and south of the Hindu Kush (the two adventurers turn right at Jagdallak, which they recall from serving under Roberts – in the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-80).

‘Afghan’, Exploits of Asaf Khan, Herbert Jenkins, 1923?  This book, written by an Englishman some time after the World War, concerns a border-country hero who is also a ruthlessly bloody killer; his effortless salvation in our eyes depending in large part on his devotion to the English – as e.g. the narrator of Kipling’s “A Sahib’s War”. The English are thoroughly idealized, and the moral ins and outs of it all are staggering at times. But as I carried on reading, I found the book increasingly impressive – a novel folk-epic combining popular adventure fiction (“coolly”, “the work of an instant”) with a well-handled quasi-oriental manner and skilful narration.  It proceeds by episodic chapters told out of sequence in order to produce, eventually, a fully realized Imperialist image. It would be unsubtle to dismiss this as purely a matter of “history is written by the victors”. British admiration for the mountain fighters, treacherous and bloody as they might be, is notably present in the following book too, and no doubt persists to this day as an unacknowledged colouring; it’s as an antidote to this kind of racialist romancing that Seierstad should be appreciated.  [I am appropriating the old word “racialist” to refer to a way of interpreting national, racial, regional and even professional types, much cherished for its romantic possibilities in writers of this time – Buchan perhaps showing it most clearly, but few British writers (even the most prestigious) avoid it completely. For Buchan to place, say, a red-haired Breton fisherman, a turbaned Sikh and a pawky Glasgow lawyer in the same railway carriage is to create a romantic situation already rich with legendary significance – and the complexity to which e.g. Buchan may develop this picture-thinking can be surprising. I distinguish the term from “racism” which is best used with explicit and primary reference to injustice (e.g unjust thinking, behaviour, laws, policing, etc). Racialism, both as a contemporaneous pseudo-scientific theory and in the wider imaginative sense I am giving it,  is racist, of course, but it is a specific manifestation of racism, perhaps in literature an intermediate stage in addressing the existence of other cultures at all – as opposed to e.g. Jane Austen, for whom other cultures are not on the agenda at all.]   

Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1936?) is a travel-book (supposedly in search of the origins of Islamic architecture). Extravagantly admired by Bruce Chatwin, who re-traced the journey in his youth and wrote an introduction to the reprint in 1980 – collected as “A Lament for Afghanistan” in What am I doing here (1989). The most notable features of Chatwin’s piece are his perpetuation of the idea of the moral superiority of the mountain race over the lowlanders of Iran, and his angry reference to appeasement,  referring to the West’s lack of protest about the Russian occupation.

Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958) ... great entertainment, from what I remember.

Patrick Macrory, Kabul Catastrophe: The Retreat of 1842, 1986 (originally published as Signal Catastrophe in 1966). Fascinating account of British political and military mismanagement in the First Afghan War – total destruction of an army, reminiscent of (and not quite unworthy of comparison with) Thucidides’ account of the Sicilian expedition.

The Horsemen, novel by the French journalist Joseph Kessel, translated by Patrick O’Brian in 1968. Odd book – I thought I had read it as a child but now I think I must have mixed it up with another book, possibly called Bush-Khazi!. For the first fifty pages it feels so over-written that you wonder if you’ll get through it. Then you begin to realize that it’s turning into a powerfully unusual book. It concerns the buzkashi horsemen of the northern steppes and a deranged journey across the Hindu Kush, full of visionary scenes, self-destructive pride, subjugation and cruelty, and it has the best broken leg in literature. My idea of how the book was written is this: start with a few general facts about “the Afghan world” (e.g. indomitable pride, abject subjugation, horses), then build up a conception of a world in which such things can flourish in their fiercest forms, then write the book about your imaginary world, adding more Afghan colour as you go along. I am trying to explain why I feel that both author and reader seem so inward with this world. 

Nick Danziger, Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers, 1987. In part of which, Danziger manages to get across into Afghanistan (Herat area) from Iran, and eventually gets out to Pakistan via the ungovernable border area south of Kandahar. This was at the time of the war with Russia – a tense narrative.

Khyber Knights (2001), by CuChullaine O’Reilly. A "long riders" epic, describing travels on horseback in -- mostly --Peshawar (Pakistan) and -- partly -- Afghanistan, at the time of the Russian invasion. The Irish-American author converted to Islam as a result of his experiences. More details: http://www.thelongridersguild.com/Books/khyber-knights.htm .

The Kite Runner, 2003. Novel by Khaled Hosseini (Californian doctor born in Afghanistan, whose family received political asylum in 1980) – largely set in Afghanistan.   Followed by A Thousand Splendid Suns , And the Mountains Echoed.  Hosseini seemed to create a new genre of popular fiction, with readers across both East and West. See e.g. Nadia Hashimi, below.

Jason Elliott, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan (2007).

Debbie Rodriguez, The Kabul Beauty School (2007). Heart-warming account of a women's initiative in Kabul, soon after the fall of the Taliban. Debbie has also written the fictional books The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (2011) and Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (2016)

Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea (2008), and Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools (2010). Non-fiction, about Greg's humanitarian work setting up schools in remote mountain areas. Set mostly in Pakistan, partly in NE Afghanistan. Veracity assailed by Jon Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit (2011).

Maggie Hamilton Little. Dancing with Darkness (2011)

The Pearl that Broke its Shell, 2014. Novel by Nadia Hashimi (another expat with Afghan roots), followed by several others. Set in Afghanistan in two different periods, early 20th century and early 21st century.

Rory Stewart, The Places In Between (2014). Travel book describing a walk across Afghanistan from Herat eastwards. Rory is currently a minister of state in the Ministry of Justice.

A book I have not read – Nadia Anjuman’s Gul-e-dodi (Dark Red Flower). She lived near Herat and came to the attention of western media when she died, aged 25, following a domestic beating on 4/11/2005. At the time of her death none of her poems had been translated into English.

(I wrote most of this in 2004, but I've updated the book list and a few other things).



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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Elisabeth Bletsoe's Cormorant


Admirers of Elisabeth Bletsoe's poetry have grown used to a starvation diet, so it was a wonderful thing when the Fortnightly Review recently published three new poems:

Given the ever more intense compression of her work, three poems is a treasure-trove.

In this case they all come from her ongoing series Birds of the Sherborne Missal. I'm calling them poems, but they are really haibun, a mixed Japanese form in which a paragraph of prose is followed by a haiku. But these haibun don't aim at the relaxed gait of Basho. They are dense constructions and you need to put on your poetry hard-hat.

Here's the first one, which relates to the cormorant (I managed to source a small image of the Sherborne Missal cormorant):


Cormerant, Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
—For Kim B. Ashton

TO KICK OFF one’s shoes and throw them. Slipping between pleated histories at the lake’s surface, brilliant or dazzling, the coup de foudre. Fortunately falling folded amongst these structures of unmaking, these collusions in perceptual paradox. Stunned by the flashover irrupting capillary walls in arborescent erythema; keraunographic markings reveal the pathologies of lightning, a dermal feathering. To covet the silk of your downpourings; calculations in drowning, weighed down by little stones: I have called you by name, you are mine, when you pass through the waters I will be with you. Breathing our stories into each other’s mouths, reaffirming mutual tales of origin. Stuck in the craw. Bloodlines drawn across the lawns; a thumbnail splitting the stems of genealogical daisy-chains, she’s reading for the part of kate in the shrew (o mother); a screwing down of migrainous clouds, spreading stain of strawberry ice. Time’s passage in fond, undigested lumps. A hem of bindweed, woundwort & pendulous sedge, stitched into. Lap of a wave to the hand, and. No less liquid than.

                         black rainbow dive: mercurial
                    bubbles escape the murder-beak, dark
                                        mucoid throat


The poem takes off from a real cormorant. (For example, it's a fact that birds have mucoid glands in their throats.)

The poem evokes a cormorant diving into water.

But the poem is moving so fast, it handles a multitude of other topics. It's threaded with them. Lightning, blood and food; shoes and shrews and screws; pleats and hems and stems.

Kim B. Ashton: composer and oboist. https://kimbashton.wordpress.com/about/

"erythema": surface capillaries flushed with blood, e.g. around an injury.

"keraunographic": refers to a folk notion that the victims of lightning-strikes sometimes bore markings that were quasi-photographic images of objects lit up by the flash. The idea attracted some scientific and media attention in the 19th century.

I have called you etc, from Isaiah 43: 1-2 .

Craw = crop, where birds store food for later digestion.

"kate in the shrew" : Bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst. Good excuse for a Shakespeare-immersion, but if there's any particular connection to the rest of the poem I haven't seen it yet.


Elisabeth is the Honorary Curator of Sherborne Museum, but the 15-century Sherborne Missal, with its remarkable naturalistic illustrations of various bird species, is in the British Library.

In some ways these illustrations ask a question comparable to that of sindonology (a word I've just learnt, meaning study of the Turin Shroud) ... How were they made? Were they based on field drawings ? It seems like an anachronistic notion.

It's beyond me to say if the Sherborne Missal contributes anything more to this poem than its cormorant. But there is some resemblance in the kind of art being made.  The poems, like the illuminations, are highly crafted objects, miniaturized and decorative. The poetry risks being arch or precious, maybe. Yet I feel the flamboyant workmanship has a devotional aspect, as it does in the missal -- not necessarily Christian, though; something more immanent and pantheistic maybe...


The cormorant poem ticks most of the boxes that superficially identify a poem in the alternative tradition: for example, broken syntax (e.g. at the end of the prose section), an absence of time-defining tenses in the verbs, an absence of defined characters in the narrative (the pronouns "our" and "she" remain unidentified).

Nevertheless,  -- and despite, also, her historic connections with such eminently alternative poets as Chris Torrance -- there seems to be some reluctance to categorize Elisabeth's poetry as out-and-out alternative.

I don't know why, really, though I concede she doesn't easily fit into any poetic school. Maybe because her poems also embrace some values associated with the mainstream: e.g. careful evocation, picked terms, craftsmanship....  and each poem is overtly about a stated core of interest, even if it circles it in unexpected ways.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

D major

The chord of D major went sounding

from my fingers and plastic; clammy.

The brook trickled;  I stood on the tree's brow,

pulling at my shirt.

Leafing through a file of papers about my Spanish mortgage, I found this unfinished poem from 2003.

The poem doesn't make its statement: I never discovered what I wanted it to say.

Fifteen years later I'm scrutinizing it, but not with any thoughts of finishing it... Indeed it seems to me as unfinishable as our past histories are unchangeable: an action photo of a poem forever in mid --  Well, mid-what?  That's the question.

The image of a leaping deer brings to mind another cliché : the unfinished poem is "fair game". Having failed to develop its own congruence, it cannot put up much resistance to reckless interpretation: everything, in that line, is permitted.


The tree's brow, I do remember, was supposed to mean the knobbly surface-roots around the base of the trunk. That expression doesn't really work, though if a brow connotes intelligence, well, they say that plant intelligence is located in the root surfaces.

So there I stood, evidently no longer playing the guitar.  (D is a particularly easy ringing chord.) Perhaps that first half of the poem is a teenage memory. At least the sound rang out in those days, however empty-headed and solipsistic, however badly executed.

But now I'm pulling at my shirt, hot and bothered, recalled by the word "trickle" to my own discomfort; or perhaps, as I think now, with a sense of having swallowed some large sharp-cornered object -- a paving slab, for instance -- that I needed a bit more room to accommodate.

The self-absorption remains, but no longer the expression. The poem gets jammed, half a line short.

Several things had conspired to break a poetic, if that's the right word, that I might have summed up in Albert Lee's words:

Gonna tell it like it is,
And how it was, as I remember...*

All my poems -- all the ones I thought were any good --  began from my own experience and feelings... I don't mean they were always or mostly about me.  I wrote about family and lovers and friends, things I'd seen and places I'd been. But they were always  controlled by and nourished by a certain dogged fidelity to circumstance.

Some of the things that broke this poetic were personal stuff, of which, suffice it to say that I learnt that there are many people who don't feel they can speak frankly about their own lives, and that I had very much taken that luxury for granted.

Perhaps even more critical,  I had been belatedly taking on board the implications of new poetries and the ideas behind them. Among these new poets, whose work I instantly embraced, all of my ideas of the kind of poem I seemed to be able to write were under attack. Anecdote; personal narrative; autobiography; clearly identified pronouns; unbroken syntax; domesticity; family; the celebration of nature ("conservative pastoral"), the mourning of transience; irony, evocation, epiphany ...  -- Every one  of these poetic approaches, I discovered, was being assailed, and on troublingly persuasive grounds. In fact I thoroughly agreed with these arguments, so far as they seemed to explain my long-felt frustration with the worthy poetry books that I encountered on the shelves of Waterstones or Borders: Ian Hamilton, Douglas Dunn, Oliver Reynolds, Peter Scupham, Fleur Adcock among a hundred others.

The kind of poetry I wrote was not how my favourite poets wrote, it was not how John Ashbery wrote, it was not how Jackson Mac Low wrote, or Alice Notley or Lisa Samuels or Bill Griffiths or Ken Edwards.

But as for me,  I couldn't do what they did. I just couldn't write like Ashbery or Harwood. In a way I didn't even want to: what I loved about their poetry was precisely that it took me beyond my own expression: that every few lines I'd have the feeling Gosh, I'd never think to do that...

If I tried, as I sometimes did,  I felt weary and the results didn't detain me for long. Fake, I pronounced (with that utter lack of prissiness that we reserve only for our own work). What I now produced, it seemed, traded questionable fidelities for something more radically dishonest, a poem that was in costume, a poem pretending to be a different kind of poem, a poem that was pretending not to be saying the only things that it defiantly intended to say.

There were other troubling factors, too.  The events around 9/11, as nothing before, had woken me up to a realization of the limits of Eurocentricity: I could no longer excuse an implicit sidelining of Islamic or East Asian or African experience,  the world could not be normatively evinced through the experience of an educated white northern European.  How that should or could play out in the poetry of other northern Europeans I didn't know. But there seemed something decidedly odd and quaint about me writing poems, in these times, about family holidays in a summer cottage in the north of Sweden... It seemed no longer a matter of course, it required some explanation... maybe even recantation.

Finally, such questions about our writing are never just about writing; they are about our whole lives. That's what I believe now. At least I'm sure that's how it was in my own case. I perhaps didn't see it as clearly in 2003. Now, fifteen years later, I see that my issue about writing poetry was only the visible nub of a much deeper problem about my own inner congruence; a problem about living a less timid and more fruitful and more honest life. Idling on that tree-root, it was another sort of journey I needed.


*In justice to Lee, the song as a whole presents a more complex scheme. The singer, recounting things conscientiously, is himself in a constant process of change. Furthermore, he uses words he thinks are his own, though they unknowingly repeat things planted in his memory. In the song, both these elements testify to a greater faith.

("I won't let you down", from the 1973 album Old Soldiers Never Die by Heads Hands and Feet.)

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Thursday, July 05, 2018

glumes and lemmas

Squirrel-tail Fescue and Great Brome

At the week-end I was up in N. Yorks, and while I was there we had a sunny walk from Kilburn to Byland Abbey and back via Oldstead, essentially the same walk I did four years ago:


Anyway, this time I was on the lookout for grasses and I returned south with a bunch of grasses in a "vase" (plastic drinks-bottle).  It took me a week to get round to inspecting them (with grasses, it doesn't matter too much from the ID point of view if the material is a bit dried up). And the bunch seemed to contain two species I've never knowingly seen before.

Squirrel-tail Fescue  (Vulpia bromoides)  is actually the most widespread of the Vulpia genus in the UK, especially in the countryside, but the only one I knew was Rat's-tail Fescue (V. myuros), which has become pretty common in urban environments. The chief diagnostic difference relates to the relative sizes of the two glumes, which in V. bromoides are reasonably well matched, whereas in V. myuros etc the lower glume is extremely small. (Additionally, V. bromoides has a shorter, more erect, inflorescence, beginning well above the uppermost leaf-sheath.)

Great Brome (Anisantha diandra, previously known as Bromus diandrus) is an introduced species (from the Mediterranean). In Hubbard's Grasses he says it occurs only in the southern UK, but the current BSBI map shows it well established in NE Yorkshire.  The basic visual difference from the ubiquitous Barren Brome is the length of the awns on the lemmas: up to 5 cm whereas Barren Brome rarely exceeds 3 cm. Both species have hairs on the fruit (pointing in the same direction as the awn), but they are much more noticeable on B. diandrus. These innocent-seeming hairs cause the mature seed to work its way into the soft parts of animals (paws, eyes, mouth-parts), and has led to it becoming known as Ripgut Brome, a name that was apparently once admired by Paul Auster.

We're off to Spain for a couple of weeks. I may not be blogging much, or even at all. But we'll see.

Sheep field with clouds of Wavy Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa)

Byland Abbey

Returning to Kilburn


Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Giorgio & Nicola Pressburger: Homage to the Eighth District (1986)

Budapest, District 8

[Image source: http://luxusriksa.hu/tours.html]

The date 1986 refers to the original publication in Italian, Storie dell'Ottavo Distretto (Genoa). Gerald Moore's English translation was published by Readers International in 1990. (Lawrence Venuti ought to read his way through the publications of Readers International.)

The authors were twin brothers, Hungarian Jews who emigrated at the time of the 1956 uprising. The book is about the Jewish community in Budapest, which survived the Holocaust (though rather more than 50% died in it), and which has also survived Communism. (It remains to be seen if it survives Orbán.) Specifically, it's about the area around the Teleky Market.


After the war  the scene had changed. My relatives still lived near the great market. But they were in better apartments, of two or three rooms, and lying more distant from one another. The population of the quarter was frighteningly reduced by the Holocaust of the Jews, and there was much more space for the survivors. My own family had advanced a step up the scale of human and social dignity.


Here's another passage from another story, beginning in the same way but running a different course:


After the war life started up again in the Eighth District. First with a petty black market: with a few ounces of flour - mostly mixed with plaster - with flint stones, saccharine and lard. Then Franja and the other survivors re-established contact with the peasants, getting hold of fresh eggs, a little milk, a few chickens, then hens, then geese, and finally the stalls reopened their shutters and the old ice-boxes were once more filled with artificial ice. The blessing of the Lord again showered upon those little wooden stalls, bringing money with it. But how long could it last?


And in another story again, the children who have lived for three months in dreadful conditions in the Temple (to escape the Holocaust) are finally let out when the Russian assault on Budapest (January 1945) makes it too dangerous to stay.


"We must send them away from here," he said, not to us but to the secretary. "It's both just and advisable". Soon after this exchange, we children were thrust into the overcoats abandoned on our arrival and conducted downstairs. We were taken outside in groups. It was the first time for ages that I saw the light of day. I lifted my eyes. Two planes were fighting in the grey sky overhead. I saw red tracers speeding from one plane towards the other: two battling angels soared in a sky immersed in the thunder of bombardment. Then, in an instant, the two angels disappeared behind the roof of the temple, still exchanging their red arrows of gunfire. And a moment later an unspeakable thunder shook us and all the buildings around. The bomb had fallen quite nearby. The spectacled Maurer and many more of my companions of those months were carried off by the Angel of Death in that terrible explosion. I still ask myself why.


It was a poor area, also populated by Gypsies and poor Christians of various kinds, for example Juliet:


She had been a servant all her life and knew no other role. Her consolation was her faith. She went to Mass every morning. An hour later, when Rachel's children woke up, she was ready with the coffee and milk. Even in the days when no one would have advised frequenting the church, she remained devoted to Saint Rita, whose chapel was close by. She had no religious problem so far as the Jews were concerned; she called down the blessing of the saints on them too. She was certain that the good Lord heard their prayers also. In the evening she retired to the basement of the block. There she prayed before a sacred image which never lacked the glory of a lighted candle. She never spoke of her past. With the children and the world in general she was always patient, and, unlike Manci [a Gypsy servant], quite free of ambition. Her long years gradually melted away without leaving a trace. Just as if she had never lived. The wheels of a tram tore her body apart one evening when she was wandering distractedly in the road.


That sudden violence is one of the book's motifs.  The stories we believe to be true, but they are shaped into fable structures. Franja, for example, with her fiancé,


had exchanged a few little kisses. In those brief moments she, with her acute sense of smell, had detected a strange odour, of camphor or of phenol - of the hospital, in short. "I am a fox in these matters," Franja said of herself, "I can smell everything." And so it proved. After an interminable two-year engagement, the young man came one evening to Franja's house, and that very night her destiny was accomplished. Turning up with cakes and candies at the home of his consenting fiancée, he was seized in the midst of a happy conversation about future arrangements by a terrible fit of coughing, until a huge gob of blood burst from his throat onto the table, which was already prepared for supper. The boy, who had kept his consumption hidden throughout the engagement, died within three weeks - may he rest in God - almost on the eve of his intended wedding. At the sight of so much blood and in the proximity of death, Franja said simply: "You see? I suspected it. I'm a fox."


The story ends with a real fox bursting from Franja's grave and attacking the author.


As the pieces grid on to each other time-wise (e.g. the end of the war) and place-wise (Eighth District), they are also shaped into stories by a grid-like process: Ilona Weiss's seven lovers, Franja the Fox's sequence of cold perceptions, Selma Grün's decalogue of maxims, Rachel's memory-transformations, and Tibor Schreiber's successive encounters with the author who hates him. Each of these stories is entirely successful in giving a meaning to someone's life. We see that it is easy to give meaning; the easier it is, the more doubtful we are of what meaning this someone's life really has; that it must be quite different to what we are being told (e.g. Timor Schreiber), or perhaps does not have one meaning at all.  This evocation of scepticism is characteristic, and is linked to another characteristic effect: a dialectic between light-heartedness and profound desolation.  So much so that, whenever one of these emotions is proposed to us, it tends to evoke the other.   


The twins were born in 1937. Nicola Pressburger died in 1985. Giorgio Pressburger was a film and theatre director; he also wrote several other books. He died in 2017.


Monday, July 02, 2018

the pine-cone

I had an idea, whilst driving,

Not so much an idea,

As an idea of the sort of idea
that occurs to an artist or a writer.

But this is a bit abstract so I am picturing
a small pine-cone, dry and open,
come to rest among needles and lichen
on a dry and sunny rock.

The idea just comes to you, an eminent author remarks,
You don't choose it; only
whether to pursue it or not.
I've seen pine-cones on rocks, so many times, but not recently.

Back of the estate comes the cawp of a raven
flying from an unknown point in the west
to somewhere in the east.
It isn't an invitation, but it invites.

Do ideas arrive like that, one at a time,
each inviting pursuit?
If one taps at my door, how fervently I'll answer:
My life, yes. but a poem, maybe not!


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