Thursday, May 30, 2019

Göran Sonnevi: The Ocean




I've just discovered that the celebrated Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi lives in the same town, Järfälla, as my sister. (It's on the edge of Stockholm, at the eastern end of Lake Mälaren.) In honour of that discovery, I'm dipping into Oceanen, Sonnevi's enormous poem of 2005. I thought: let's open the book at random (p. 40 of 419), and begin to translate....



ORMÖGA; SECOND POEM

Here's Ormöga    The grey clouds drift over
the level heathland    the sea horizon grey
with a glowing streak just above the land
The cuckoo calls  The snipe are flying round the fen
The early marsh orchids' dark little torches glow    The grass is
greygreenbrown, changing    All round are precipices
There's one next to the bed I sleep in    Steeply
falling night    We float over the darkness, as over
the universe, in its abstraction    In the morning we're to-
gether    We listen to music    I'm listening to nothingness too

In the distance I can see the fishing huts,  the chapel ruins
Among them stands the Celtic cross, of lime-
stone, which was itself the crucified with
outstretched arms    The hands    The head    The foot
grown over with grey and yellow lichen    Now rain
sweeps across the landscape    The hen harrier flew
from the grove towards the sea    I shall not have any defence
I'm in the streaming darkness also the pale night

I've set up as a sign
the feather I picked up by the eastern sea
My father and my mother are in the western sea, which I
also touched, with my hands    Here are the other dead, the other
living    We touch each other's distorted faces
I feel their geometry    I see the swallows' flight-curves
here too, quick switches in direction, a constant adjustment
The hen harrier has its geometry, in its flight    That's
what we touch, far away, in the distance
The feather is grey within, then brown, then nearly white
Also down at the root there's white, fluffy
The swallows are still building their nest, on the outside the clay is moist
Ay! Ay! That dark face rests behind all this

The landscape here moves in a seemingly
older economy    Same dry-stone walls, same fields
as from another time    The birds    The orchids    Yesterday
we went to the sea; within the pine grove grew
a very large specimen of Military Orchid,
Orchis militaris, pale lilac, a big spike, thick stem
Down by the sea I went to the place with Blood Orchid,
flecked leaves, boldly marked flower-lip, beside
the Early Marsh Orchid, a deeper lilac    The black-tailed godwit flew up
The cows, young heifers, formed themselves into a line in the distance
Farming going on    The smell of liquid manure in the rain, under
the mists    On the sea cargo boats go by    On the thrift's
stem glowed the lackey moth's larvae in the evening sun, with red-brown
hairs, above the light blue and brown stripes along the body
We are in a network of dependencies    Who is it that's murdered?
Who do I murder?    Everything depends on the way we touch each other

In Ormöga the blind man lives, alone, since his mother died
a couple of years back    When I pick up the post from him
he turns his ear's glance towards me while we talk
In his face is a kind of peace    The garden runs ever more wild
We're renting here at one of his sisters', in one of the houses
facing the sea    Most of them are leased out now    I told her
about Gunnar and Verner in Färgaryd, how they kept a calf
This talk touched my childhood    I'm getting ever more childlike now
Today is the last day of the year since my mother's death    We'll be lighting a candle

Everyone's asleep    Everyone is as if they were awake
in the first moment of dawn    The landscape entirely still
My mother has been dead for a year    Now I'm wholly alone
My child is asleep    You're asleep, dear one    Everyone should sleep
In the morning we light the candle in the window in the sun
between us and the sea    Here is Ormöga, where we were meant to be
a year ago    We are here for the second time

What do I see with the snake's glance out towards the sea    In my
self-sufficiency, in my lack of interest for the
life of others    The indifferent's geometry    My tower here is
turned towards the sea, since the proprietress locked the other room

I shan't break open the other's room    Only my own
Yet nothing can be repeated    The swallows' geometry is constantly new
Perhaps we go into each other's room    As into a chamber of Hades?
We will be in each other's intolerance    There love finds us

My mother has gone in to my silence, is now part
of it    There she can no longer disturb me    It's
not required now either    She touches me with every leaf
In the grey afternoon I go alone to the sea
The black-tailed godwits fly up, circle around me, cry
The curlew flies up too    In the pine grove by
the sea a red-brown cow has got over the dry-stone wall    She
follows me with her gaze    I follow her    Down by
the sea I touch the water, follow the beach    Look for
avocets in the bay towards Kapelludden, but there aren't any

My mother's silence breathes    I am in my breath    The deep
voice is heard, within me, in the silence    Whose turn is it now?
Ay! Ay! The swifts' young are flying, already supreme    I breathe
in    Genders, animals, creatures, society, people    They breathe
also within me    I delete nothing    The voice is in its
divisions, infinitely subtle    It isn't subject to anyone

I'm waiting for the dark pain    That will come
and break its way in as my mother    She comes also as
a woman, and I rest in her transparency
She's terribly jealous, doesn't tolerate that I'm
with anyone else    There is no sleep    I'm with my dear one
We are lying within the extended sofa's wooden frame
Over the heath and the wood stands the moon, a bit bigger than a sickle,
waxing    It shines with silver-gold light in the pale night
Still June    Later in the night I hear the shriek of the black-tailed godwit

July    Through the open window comes air from the sea
Listen to the swallows, their small chirping sound    Far off
is heard the curlew    The grief for my mother comes, outside time, it doesn't
bother about time    Saw her smiling hugeness, when she no
longer was sad    The vastness without reserve, just in existence
Here's Ormöga    The pain has no time    The joy neither
The sea glitters in the distance    On the shoreline saw the beck's cleft

I still wait for the pain to break into the future, into its
dark forms    I see the angel of the annunciation on the font at Egby,
Gotland sandstone, 11th century    It flies like the birds of the dead
on the picture-stones some centuries earlier    But with a glory round
the head, above the wild animals who attend Mary
In another scene she rests wrapped up, half sitting
on a bed, Joseph gives her something to drink    We go to
the little alvar behind Bockberget to the west    There we see the cranes stepping

Yellow sedum's blooming, and white, half out    A little
tuft of thyme glows lilac    On a dark limestone slab a light-coloured stone,
some kind of sandstone, mossy, hollowed out    A cranium
You stretch out on the warm slab, rest there    In the distance
I see you as some animal, green- and black-flecked, that doesn't exist
At night the swifts flew before the moon, nearly half full    A
single star appeared, scarcely distinguishable, in the pale night

The noise of rain on the roof    Here too in the tower of nothing
Gösta Skyle    We'll be going straight from here to his burial
He's the last of the people from my childhood    At his home was
the same luminosity, the same kindness as at my dad's    Not his torment
I didn't see that until now, in the contrast, in death
Grasp that my father didn't want to be what he was    At Gösta's I saw
a different society stand out   Where nothing's sold    Nothing bought
See that my father fled from his mum's torment, her hardness, dominance
Helge related how he used to get up in the night with the potty full of blood
She forbad Gunnar from marrying, after he came to grief in America
when the bank that held his savings went under, and he was forced to live
in someone else's house as a farm-hand    Farfar wrote to him, when he was called up
in the summer of 1941, about the harvest, and that he hoped he wouldn't have to
go to war    Seeing before me Gösta's parents, August and Selma, Gösta
took after her, remember the hornet's nest I stirred up when as a child I said:
Farbror Svensson is a Nazi      Who has said that? Where did you hear that?
The adults in a ring round me, disturbed    I understood nothing about it
Don't know, but I have no reason to think it was true
He was a grocer in Vattugatan in Halmstad, a little shop
in the basement of the big apartment block, bowed metal roof over the stairs down
His children, Gösta and Helfrid, wanted to be artists; he became a drawing master,
she became a telephonist    The other son, Sture, became a chemist; when I was
nine or ten, maybe eleven, I visited him at Chemicum in Lund
All that I see    Ay! Ay! Nothing of everything    Everything of nothing

The tower of nothingness is emptied    The hen harrier stops with
fluttering wings above the beach heath    I go out in the sun
look at the rock-roses in the grass, the burnt orchids and the
twayblades    Hear the waves, and far off the black-tailed godwit
In the night I heard the nightjar, while visiting friends
We came home over the Alvar beneath the moon    Then northward, getting
under dark clouds, in the rain    Here all the birds are sleeping
The swifts sleep under the roof tiles, with their long,
slender bodies    We sleep beside each other    I've drunk wine
Not you, who drove    This tower is emptied    Others will come
Slenderer, with their roots far down beneath the earth
The water presses up through the limestone pavement    Meets the rain there
I heard the nightjar sixteen years ago in the same place    We are older

I see a woman's sex, bright, upright, a narrow mandala
I pass in there   Into its darkness    In a violent emptying
I see history's face    Wolves pressed into Paris, through
breaches in the wall    Ay! Ay! We shall be here with each other

The sea sees me, with its horizontal glance    Level with the eyes
Yesterday I went to the mother-sea, also here    There are all creatures now
All those who see each other    The fox, the cat    Cows there in the distance
At dawn the fly runs like a sweat-drop over the face    It
doesn't sleep    The swifts are already flashing past    Everyone sleeps

Here is Ormöga    Here everything is foreign    Here we almost
don't exist    Here is the dark-grey sea horizon    All the flowers
All the birds    Yesterday I saw the swallow's young in the nest nearly above
the dining-room window    In the beach heath the curlew's young, while the parents
circled above; smaller, slenderer bill, same call, though smaller
I went the last time to the sea, alone    Everywhere water, after
the rain    The sea was completely still; I heard its voice, still
This is now my mother's sea too    Although she never managed to come here
I touched it    It is a returning    Here everything is foreign
Here is the hen harrier    Here is the snipe, keeping watch
In the night I see the moon go down, orange among the clouds    Perfect
solitude; perfect silence    While everyone sleeps    At dawn the fly wakes us
Ay! Ay! The everywhere vacant torment, in its furthermost presence
The cuckoo is heard, distantly    The swifts are in their geometry, dynamic
We take our leave of friends, chat in the dusk, after visiting
the headland    the first migrating birds are gathering, dunlins, says the newly arrived
                                                             ornithologist in the house next door
Tomorrow Gösta Skyle will be buried in Söndrum outside Halmstad    We shall be there


(pp. 40-47)


*


[Ormöga is on Öland,  which contains Europe's largest alvar (extended limestone pavement) -- Stora Alvaret -- , and also many orchids.

Blood Orchid = "Blodnycklar", a name given to Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp. cruenta,  a dark-coloured subspecies of Early Marsh Orchid.


]











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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

inner space



Online text (Caxton's edition)

While I was writing about experimental poetry, in my previous post, I kept thinking about Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, which I finished re-reading this morning (in the slightly abridged edition of the Winchester manuscript by Helen Cooper). For this writing too, like the samples I quoted then, creates a dream space and has a problematic relationship to significance in the world we inhabit.

Yet Le Morte Darthur is a thoroughly medieval construction. Caxton, anyway, had no anxiety about its significance. Quoting St Paul ("But all is written for our doctrine"), he pointed out its treasure trove of examples of noble and ignoble behaviour and urged his readers to emulate the former and to avoid the latter. In fact, to read it in the same way as a history book, though Caxton admitted that his readers might have their own views about how historical the Arthurian stories were. In the infancy of printing, he reasonably expected that his principal audience would themselves be nobles, like the jousting knights and their ladies, though he urged readers of all classes "that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same".

Nevertheless the resemblance to modern experimental writing isn't pure fancy. Medieval books weren't made in the same way as modernist poems but they are fully as composite: the result, in Le Morte Darthur, is an extremely dynamic inner space. Malory's work, written in 1469-70, is based mainly on French Vulgate Cycle from more than two centuries earlier: this cycle was already composite in nature, the work of many hands and deriving in turn from Chrétien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others. Malory also used English sources closer to him in date: the alliterative and stanzaic Morte Arthure poems from the end of the fourteenth century. Accordingly, the main sections of Malory's work have each of them a rather different character. But within the sections, too, there is a composite feeling: different sources, intrusions by Malory himself, a sudden switch to another source. The ground shifts beneath our feet. Time has a fitful and local presence (children emerge only as adults, and no-one grows old). The vocabulary changes from page to page; characters become inconsistent with their former appearances and events we think we know about are recounted differently. Contrary to what Caxton would lead you to expect, morality is also inconsistent. Malory repeatedly lands us in situations that are good in one moral code but bad in another. In his blanket use of terms such as "worshipful" to describe people whose adventures constantly land them in moral hot water, we see the distant ancestry of Clarendon's belief that the ruling class need not be bound by the rules of personal morality. (A belief that is sturdily reviving in our own times.)

In the opening pages, in Uther's reign, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury: in the final pages, after Arthur's death, we have a sometime Bishop of Canterbury living in a hermitage near Glastonbury. That typifies the slippage between concrete historical institutions and a sort of fairyland that occurs throughout the book.

In the "Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake" we unexpectedly find ourselves at Tintagel (Caxton VI.10-11), and become aware that up to that point we have had no idea where Launcelot's wandering adventures have been taking place, other than by such descriptions as a "fair highway" or a "deep forest". After this brief glimpse of a real place (complete with its real bridge and village), Launcelot dives back into the trackless forests again. At the end of this section "Sir Launcelot came home two days before the feast of Pentecost; and the King and all the court were passing fain" (Caxton, VI.18). Here too are the various folk he has rescued, helped, overcome or jovially tricked.

But where is this "home"? In Malory's book this is often elusive. Sometimes Arthur's court is not in a defined place. At other times it becomes more definitely "Camelot". Camelot, in earlier Arthurian romances -- Chrétien is the first to use the name --,  is potentially many places and yet none. On a few occasions Malory tells us that it is Winchester (but Caxton said it was in Wales). It's only towards the end of his epic that this location becomes more grounded. Finally the name "Camelot" is allowed to flutter away on the breeze; the scenes where the Lancelot and Gawain parties fall into fatal dissension around the hapless king are now merely Winchester, and later Carlisle.  And once Mordred usurps the kingdom, this kingdom is the bare unvarnished England of Winchester,  London, Dover, Salisbury Plain, Glastonbury, Amesbury... "Camelot" has gone the way of individual jousting and giants and forests and romance: it now belongs to an otherworld of the past.

Lancelot's own castle of Joyous Gard is apparently near to Camelot; at least it is in the Book of Tristram. But at the end, when all those mists of romance are clearing, we are told "Some men say it was Alnwick, and some men say it was Bamborough".

The coldly emerging England of "Lancelot and Guenivere" and "The Death of Arthur" is in especially marked contrast to the previous section, "The Tale of the Sangreal". Here the romance world of "Tristram" is transformed into an even more otherworldly landscape. As the knights depart on this glorious but disastrous quest, they enter a spiritual realm that resembles neither fabulous Camelot nor cold England, a landscape where nothing can be pinned down, though we are at one point in Scotland and, of course, finally in the Middle East. Magical boats allow a kind of warp drive, knights meet and re-meet but there's no geography to it.

But overall Malory's geography, in the late 15th century, is far less fanciful than in, say, Wolfram's Parzival, though it coexists inconsistently with the vaguer geographies of his predecessors; because the medieval book contains, and embraces, what it has outgrown.

"It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England..."  In Malory, the Arthurian legends, drawn from Celtic lands and becoming the delight of all Europe, have been refocussed on England.

With the emergence of England comes also nationalism. In the "Book of Tristram" we're surprised to hear, at one point, that Cornish knights had a reputation for cowardice; that kind of national stereotype seems to belong to a different age. But actually, the nationalist world picture is already in Malory, prefiguring the tropes of Shakespeare's history plays a century later. A foreign authority seeks tribute, the king defies him ("Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome" cf. King John). We wonder if the portrait of the unchristened knight Sir Palomides (basically good and noble, but also passionate and treacherous) contains seeds of later negative oriental stereotypes. In, for example, the portrayal of Gawain and his brothers, the sons of Lot of Orkney, we sense an emergent feeling about Scottishness that isn't purely neutral. And we're reminded quite insistently about the French origins of Lancelot and his relations. When things fall apart in "The Death of Arthur", one of the many transformations is learning that Lancelot is effectively "lord of all France". And there follows a national invasion by Arthur and Gawain with "three score thousand" men (cf. Henry V). The last, most extended, and most depressing of all Malory's hundreds of knightly jousts takes place in Benwick (which Malory says is Bayonne or Beaune) (Caxton XX.20-22). Over a period of weeks Lancelot and an implacable Gawain fight it out endlessly and to no result. Gawain will not yield; Lancelot could kill him but won't do so, out of respect for both Arthur and "my lord Gawain" (The respectful Lancelot seems to conceive Gawain as having some feudal rights over himself and the other knights of the Round Table). Meanwhile, behind Arthur's back, Mordred is usurping England.

Malory's book never mentions trade, commerce, merchants. Occasionally there is a ploughman, a doorkeeper or a cook but essentially he has stripped off all the lower orders. There's no agriculture. Seasons are of no significance except in connection with important feast days (especially Pentecost). Weather is mentioned very rarely indeed (once or twice there is a tempest: in the "Tale of the Sangreal" they are part of the spiritual landscape). As in other Arthurian literature there are no Jews, though there exists a remarkable 13th-century Hebrew manuscript containing judaized Arthurian episodes (Melech Artus).








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Friday, May 24, 2019

just writing

I want to believe that some blogs achieve more than ephemerality,  and here's one that I'm still reading, though it came to an end in 2010, Jenny Allan's Intermittent Voices. This was the post for 7th September 2008.


juggernauts at dawn


probability discusses the case, pinning hopes on the background in accordance with genuine conditions, shell-shocked and heedless of foresight she ushers in piffle emanating from the wrong end of the stick – the backroom word is: hold your tongue, for the grapevine enlightens the grindstone at all turns

in defence of halcyon days she winds up finishing off the golden touches, leaving only their indents to smell the roses into pacification – peace talks in the flower beds, the rookie thorn dead set on a duel

midpoint handicap, the difference between being thrown off balance and compensating, it’s a short fall of untrimmed habit, patching up each rung of the stairway, going halves on equal opportunities, agreeing on another time for nowadays, it’s a preview of ‘on the spot’ that dates back to a posthumous eve

unruly light, when will it be dawning again? or is this the terminal knot no-one counts on as we proceed slavishly recurring, the sun’s groupies, in the making of, or hand in hand with, the majority, all pending the next instant to robotically be tricked by drill, permeated becomes addicted becomes tamed and our own winning ways docilely impress the rut

tramlines of behaviour, she too can head, is heading for disorder

lying on her back and watching the juggernaut sweep everyone up into play, the future is close at hand, make a distinction

*

There are so many kinds of experimental writing, but I do have a soft spot for what isn't pre-programmed or explained. Jenny's writing is social and witty, but through its endless constructions of spatial architecture out of clichéd idioms it arrives at an alienation from its own crowded corridors: it produces a feeling of human isolation. (I seem to remember she admires Maurice Blanchot.)

The romantic, the quixotic, the unexplained. I enjoy the intensity of my attention as I read. For it's a fact that the world, too, doesn't explain itself, and always means more than what you can say about it.

I find this quality too in Richard Makin's writing. It is not very communal or correct, not apparently very concerned with politics or society. It's willing to inhabit a dream space without preconceptions of what may come from all this. It's difficult to choose a page to quote from the enormous Dwelling (2011); one is uneasily aware of the promises of the facing page. But here is some of p. 518.

*


   It lay in wait. I was much younger. Reading is impossible. These tricks drive me mad. I fixed the time and the place, all recognizable events (incendiarism, the poison cup). I paid dearly. A flap of mucous membrane was stretched taut across the orifice.

   Still, it's a beautiful island. Who was declared petroleuse for the day? We had our own duty machine and a book of shares. He offers no comment. We three make quite a team. I ask him what is going on in the background. He refuses to say. An antique bone handle and potsherds were found.

   The domestic tort. One of the most squalid pieces of light and shade imaginable. Far off, the keen of a foghorn -- bury me standing et cetera. At the apex there are ruins. Some paragraphs demonstrate abrupt changes of style.
   Trout hovering in light-stained water. Assassin.

   Tracing the history of the other senses will prove more difficult. Nerves are unsheathed and put to the torch. A pool spread out from under the container. The carpet was yellow. One surface is no longer in contact. I am inside. Words are becoming less and less necessary. Everything happens at once, at once.

   Hermit cell. Familiar tightness bursting in chest. The ligament between the valves has snapped. Having two separate singularities, a vacuum can survive outside of itself.

   A bittersweet little morsel.
   The glass box touched the bottom of the sea. Some had axes, some had saws, some had hammers. I'm understood. A thin sheet of skin separates us from the surrounding spaces. The question is not what you looked like. A bunsen flame was applied, beneath.

   Wide-where, dazzling white light. A trustworthy oration. At last the end, surcease. Where.

   Somebody once fashioned an unreal. Anyway, there is the after, where more human happens. He says our relationship to objects has declined. (There never was nor can be et cetera.) This one has been labelled. I am delivering. The crime of wilfully infecting a body has been waived.

*

How are such texts constructed? I've written before about how there's no such thing as "making things up", but I think Jenny built primarily from her own invention and linguistic resources: that requires incredible tenacity. For Richard's stupendous epic you can suppose he's mined texts from science, geography, archaeology, anatomy, navigation... It approaches an encyclopaedia, a wikipedia by one person (though, as it frequently and sardonically acknowledges, it contains no information whatsoever).

The appeal of the texts isn't principally in the enigma of their production. It's possible to have a much more explicit methodology and yet the artefact remains as mysterious as ever.  A chance to quote another favourite experimentalist, Gale Nelson:

*

Prodded oolong tea in debt but veils long
secret lists of verdict's ending on lusted
trembling calls. Shadow dooms dull patter, doubt doubles
song's floated past sand's aria. Preach long our best
gang's soothing steed, coin the sod here
or drown tea at every dock's fast keel.
The sea races, are you that fast? Trust that old
pale iced wing on which all doubt and prior
redoubts hone in. Orb sings then loses me
on fretted seas, then spots tea that seems red but
foils as green. Long sea dash speaks above
these crashes, bubbles down this throaty song in
lunging wreck. Unlauded green essence,
land at sea's last bid. Oolong iced,
oolong under all the thirst stalls. Brood ice --
shred those blood-red doubts and shout best
yelps along precise cloven seas. Tread
their folded red boots in tea, then burst
all avid feet, bring frozen cup of stale
green bitter spills -- lick up this feud and fend
it. Calm battered voids or shout back these last
youth-addled causes. Trade that ice,
guard the tea's smooth entry. Bring faster seas
then quit song's bend. You know those four
oaken tree stumps strung there in
damaged husks? Grace enacts loss, entices grave
falls. Proof refracts the oolong
suds. Now it seems lost. Net shamed oaks: lost but that
lacks much easing, endures loss. The housing of
dignity is beyond the ire. Larks bend and soft songs burst
that trembled islet long dead in alcove's
frigid ease. This use must stall by
last lone sea's ebb. Oak's ill roots flow, but no
sea is gone. It sails on, fills on
each shire's ledge.


This poem comes from This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (2011), a book in which, it's explained, the poems follow the vowel-sequence from various famous Shakespeare passages (this poem follows the "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet). Part of the fun is admiring how the poem circles specific topics (such as iced tea), all the time within the tyrannous constraints of the poet's methodology. But iced tea is a small part of the strange imaginary world that we readers enter here, and likewise in the other two pieces I've quoted.

You may have noticed that all of these were published at least eight years ago. To an extent that reflects changes in my own economic circumstances and literary preoccupations (I don't, alas, now buy many books of new poetry), but I find myself wondering, too, whether it reflects a change in the culture of western nations since 2010: the growing sense of crisis and the increasingly embattled and politicized discourses in which so many of us now feel involved. Whether our civilisations no longer seem to afford the space for such free explorations as those I've quoted.

Jenny Allan simply disappeared from view as an author. Richard Makin produced the much briefer Mourning in 2015 (a mere 250 pages) and was heavily involved in the Arca Project (2017), an art/text exhibition paying tribute to W.G. Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn (1992). A fairly short prose piece, Insane Leonards, was published in Hastings Online Times in 2014. Gale Nelson is an active academic at Brown University (Providence, RI). He is surely writing but I'm not aware of any more recent publications.








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Thursday, May 23, 2019

min morfar




Klas and Sigrid had a sole child, rather late in life: my mother. When she married an Englishman it must have distressed them to think of her making her home so far away from Sundsvall. But when I was born and we returned for a long visit, their delight in their grandson is easy to imagine. There are many photos of a proud Morfar with me when I was a baby boy who had inherited his blue eyes. For a man who never had a son, to have a grandson would have meant a lot.

But as it turned out grandfathers would never play a large part in my life. I barely knew my English grandfather, meeting him only twice so far as I recall. And Morfar* (Klas) died on the morning of Christmas Eve when I was about ten. I remember my mum's anguish when she answered the telephone. So far away! Later that day, I thought how strange it was to be unwrapping a Christmas present from someone who had already died. (It was a reclining dog, with a nodding head.)

Morfar had had a bad stroke around five years before, affecting both his speech and his mobility. In England my early bilingualism had foundered. We could only afford to visit Sweden every other year, so Morfar and I never had much chance to overcome the language barrier. After the stroke I became rather afraid of him; I was always a shy child.

Once we were alone together in the living room of the flat. I was playing by myself. Morfar was sitting in his invariable armchair, well dressed as ever (Morfar always wore a tie). Suddenly he rose: he wanted, I thought, to show me a kindness and to bring us closer together. He managed a step or two, and then he collapsed to the floor. "Morfar's fallen over!" I shouted, very alarmed. Mormor and my mother came running from the kitchen. They settled him down, but the emotional barrier between us, as much as the language barrier, never thawed any further. I loved him because he was my Morfar but I never knew him as a real person.

*

Klas Henrik Gulliksson was born in 1893. Three months before he was born, his father Henrik had died of pneumonia. His mother Karolina lived on for many years after her husband's death; my mother knew her.

Klas had four elder siblings. Hildur, Lydia, Henning and Karl, who was just two years older than Klas.


Henning

The family could only afford to educate one of the children. That was Henning. When he was at home, he passed on his knowledge to his brothers and sisters. Henning became relatively well off. When my mother was two, the house Klas and Sigrid moved into was Henning's: Klas couldn't afford to buy his own. Henning had lived there with his first wife Svea until her death.

Henning and Svea had one child, a little girl who died after just three days.

(My mum was born to Klas and Sigrid three years later, and she was treated with perhaps painful protectiveness, because she was the only Gulliksson child; Klas and Sigrid were not young parents, and all Klas' brothers and sisters were either single or childless.)

For Svea the whole thing was so traumatic that she swore never to go into hospital again. She died, a few years later, of a burst appendix.

Eva, my future mum, stood in the street and told the passers-by: "I used to live at Albertsgatan 4 and now I live at Fridhemsgatan 11." (The family had only moved a few hundred meters.)

Fru Wahlström, Svea's mother, still lived upstairs. Klas and Sigrid shared the house with her when they moved in.

The house was Fridhemsgatan 11 in Sundsvall. My earliest datable memory is from that house: a Christmas when I was three. Jultomten (Santa Claus) visited the house that day. He scraped the snow off his boots and announced: "Here is a present for a little boy who is three." I hesitated, being a stickler for accuracy, and said "Well, I'm three and a half!" The present was a metal pick-up truck, coloured orange and white, with a crane and a hook you could wind up and down.

Fridhemsgatan 11 was a lovely wooden house, with Falu Röd Färg (dark red) walls and white-painted window and door frames: the traditional colours of such houses. They only occupied the downstairs: there was another tenant above them. This was where my mother grew up. The house had a fine cellar and a big garden containing currant and gooseberry bushes as well as raspberries along the back fence. In my summer memories the garden is always sunny, but in winter it got no sun at all for six months, because of the rising slope of the South Mountain just behind. Around the time of Morfar's stroke they moved to a third-floor apartment on the north side of town: Elevgränd 4B. Of course I remember this flat much more clearly, but that's for another post.

Henning, like many Swedish dignitaries, was a Good Templar, that is, a strict teetotaller. It was important for his reputation that he never even attended a gathering where alcohol was served. When my mother and father got married in 1957, the toasts were in sparkling pear juice!

I don't remember Farbror Henning but as I was born in 1958 I suppose our lives probably overlapped a bit. When I was a little older we used to stay at Faster Selma's apartment in Stockholm: one of several stopovers on our long journey north. Selma had been Henning's second wife and was now his widow. I remember her cloudily: a tea-party, and some forgotten joke about jam. Usually we used the apartment when Selma wasn't there. Probably she was away at a summer cottage, like most Stockholm residents at that time of year.


Hildur

Hildur is only a name to me. She emigrated to the USA, as did Karl.


Lydia

I and Annika remember Lydia very well, though not, I am sure, the way she should best be remembered. When we were very young Lydia, who never married, had her own flat in Sundsvall. I remember her as an elderly woman with short black hair, a strict Baptist, teetotal and a bit austere (but she's laughing heartily in the photos where she's giving me a carry). Around the same time as her younger brother Klas, she suffered a catastrophic stroke. After that she lived a lingering half-life in care homes for another decade or more. Visiting Faster Lydia was a regular and dreaded part of our annual holiday in the north. She lay there like a frail bundle of bones, scarcely a hump beneath the bedclothes: the bed was a narrow single bed but she made it look big. Mum and Dad spoke to her and went through rituals of greeting, talking about the holidays, pointing out us children (who added our weak smiles), to a bunch of flowers by the bed, and so contriving to eke out a near monologue. The ghastly Lydia, with well-combed thin white hair, was unfathomable, barely capable of a syllable or flicker of feeling. I don't know if Lydia had Alzheimer's or was just too weak to say or feel anything.  Mum would stay a bit longer while we and Dad went off to the beach at Björkön. When the visit was over we cried, but not much: we'd cried before, but nothing would or could ever change, so what was the point.

It was only many years later that I began to be interested in my family past and to learn what a dynamic and active woman Lydia had been. I'll find out properly one day, but I know she was heavily involved, I think as a teacher, in church charitable work. I think she worked at the orphanage at Mjösjö, a remote but pretty spot in the the hinterlands, about 100km from Sundsvall.


Karl

Like Hildur, he emigrated to the USA. He married a Swede over there. Karl was considered rather a "black sheep" (I can add no scandalous details to this, but I imagine he wasn't teetotal). He lost touch with the family for many years. When his mother Karolina died, there was no way of letting him know until he got in touch, several years later.


Klas

So, my grandfather. Most of what I know about Klas's younger life is encapsulated in the page of the family album shown above.

He was "in the cavalry" as a young man, but what cavalry, and for how long, I don't know. Then he was a wage clerk for the railway during the building of "Östkustbanan": the new coastal route from Gävle - Sundsvall - Härnösand, now the principal rail route to the north, opened in 1927. The photo of the logging camp may come from this period.

He's standing in the middle of the group of five revellers. They could be anywhere in northern Sweden, but I've always imagined this photo shows either the North or South mountain in Sundsvall: both popular locations for a day out. The girl beside him isn't Sigrid, so perhaps she was an early flame; or it could be his sister Lydia. (An old photo of Sigrid appears at the bottom right.)

Thereafter Klas was a cargo inspector at the docks in Sundsvall. (Coincidentally, the same job my great-uncle John did at Southampton.) He retired on the 12 March 1963, when he was seventy. I know this because I'm looking at the Seamaster watch he was presented with. The watch is engraved "Långvarig trogen tjänst" : the standard phrase for these occasions, meaning "long faithful service". The watch is one of those self-winding ones: I've given it a good shake and it's working, after at least ten years of lying in a drawer.





Photo taken outside Lidens Gamla Kyrka. Michael in the arms of Moster Anna, Mum, Mormor, Morfar and a pal whose name I don't know.


*

*

Swedish has two words for grandfather:

morfar: mother's father
farfar: father's father

Likewise mormor (mother's mother) farmor (father's mother), moster (mother's sister), faster (father's sister), morbror (mother's brother), farbror (father's brother)

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Monday, May 20, 2019

Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)

Hedge Mustard (Vägsenap - Sisymbrium officinale)

So far as I'm aware every plant in the Brassicaceae is more or less edible.

Despite its common name in English (and Swedish), this species isn't in the same genus as any of the three species that are used to make my favourite condiment (Sinapis AlbaBrassica junceaBrassica nigra).

Nor is it in the same genus as the rocket normally eaten in salads (Eruca sativa). But it has been suspected as being the "English rocket" with yellow flowers referred to by some early botanists. The fresh leaves are certainly very good eating.

It's native to Europe and very common; also introduced in the eastern USA.

After six months of unobtrusive greening it suddenly rockets forth in May (though "rocket" in that sense has no etymological connection with the salad rocket). It looks like a completely different plant.

 The flowers are very small but the ever-elongating sickle-shaped flower shoots with appressed fruits are unmistakable.

The winter/spring leaves have quite a distinctive shape: Runcinate with a truncate terminal lobe, if I'm using the terms correctly. The leaves that appear in the upper storey when flowering begins have a very different shape:their terminal lobes are even pointed.


Sisymbrium officinale. Frome, 3 August 2019.

Sisymbrium officinale. Frome, 3 August 2019.



30 June




26 May



26 May



26 May

26 May




20 May




13 May

4 May


4 May

28 April

28 April

22 April

13 April

10 April

12 February

27 December


25 November

17 November
13 November
12 November
21 August

There's a bit of a "second wave" in around August, which is what these photos show. The plants are generally small and have a speeded-up life-cycle, so you can see basal leaves, flowers and fruit all at the same time.


8 August

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Reverse engineering

I finally got round to reading C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". It's a 1959 talk about education and about a problem, at University level: the different cultural worlds inhabited by (a) science and technology (b) the arts and humanities.

It's difficult (speaking for humanities students of my generation) to read this talk without remembering the jeers of F.R. Leavis. Snow's naive self-importance and tendency to over-rate his own expertise,  are both very apparent. But sometimes it takes stupidity to bring up a topic that others are too smart to go near. Think of it as a transgressive text.

At one point Snow reports asking various arts specialists to describe the second thermodynamic law; none of them could tell him anything about it. And yet, he comments, from a scientist's point of view that's about as basic as asking "Have you ever read a play by Shakespeare?"

It's a fair cop. I didn't know what the second law of thermodynamics was, but (with the help of Wikipedia), I do now. Not that I understand the maths.

But I do get that it's about accounting for the non-reversibility of processes: why an ice cube in a glass of water turns into a colder glass of water, but not vice versa. Why you can add milk to your tea, but not take it away.

Because simple physical processes such as these are inevitably involved in more complex processes, those complex processes are irreversible too. It may be that such irreversibility, based strictly on the second thermodynamic law and its mathematical concept of entropy, is of a trivial nature, I don't know. But it's apparent that many complex processes have the same quality of irreversibility. A baby's perfect silky skin becomes an OAP's wrinkles, but not vice versa. A plant cannot become the seed it once was: it can only make new seeds. And above individual lives, history too seems to have an irreversible direction; that was always so, even before literacy and technological advance. The directionality was there, even when it certainly wasn't "progress". The extinction of the Greenland Vikings after the commencement of the little Ice Age was also a testament to directionality; so are tyrants, epidemics and Krakatoas.

Yet swimming against the tide often seems the right way to go. Religious texts express it. Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). The Tao Te Ching is a guide to rediscovering the primordial Tao that gave us birth and flows through all things: in effect, discarding the empty hurry of the ego that we have learnt subsequently. But this doesn't mean reversing our history. We need to become, not the child we were (then we'd just end up here again), we need to become as a child.

So what about lowering emissions?
It's always easier for doers to do than for undoers to undo. Doing even gets easier, as the distribution channels are already in place.  So industry keeps finding new uses for fossil fuels, for the same reason that doctors keep promoting new reasons to prescribe existing drugs; they are already on the pharmacy shelves. When we look back at the formidably entrenched operations lined up in support of more carbon emissions, all armed with "what I have I hold" and abetted by the natural self-seeking of humanity, then it's easy to despair. These circumstances are the work of history, and we can't unpick them. Lowering emissions has come not from sabotaging capitalism but from better technology; from engineers. But educators make a difference too. And educators need activists; because you can't teach something effectively if no-one is visibly concerned about it.

How fossil fuels are sold.

[Image source: Nectar email, May 2019. Sainsbury's Energy, supplied by nPower, supplies an energy mix that's more than averagely low in renewables and high in CO2 emissions. So the advertisers pull out all the stops when it comes to encouraging the aptitude of Middle England to couple financial prudence with staunch dismissal of the fads of do-gooders. The team of joyful and reassuring models are a human shield for an anti-human product.]


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Sunday, May 12, 2019

"A choice of Swedish verse"

Veronica alpina

[Image source: http://vandra.mior.se/fjallflora/en/A/bild/28/en/ ]


I have the perhaps bad habit, for a blogger, of continuing to tinker with posts long after they've been posted. But I don't think any have transformed as much as this one, which began as three pages of translation and has ended up being over thirty... in fact, Curt Lofterud's complete booklet about the geology, botany, history etc of locations on a well-known hiking route in the Jämtland fells.

I'm very interested in that part of the world myself, and I walked the route back in 2016. So it was an obvious way of improving my Swedish while learning about the fells. I hadn't quite anticipated that it would be not only a challenge to my language skills but would also require learning quite a lot about the geomorphology of glaciers, ice ages, snow, and ground-frost.

Anyway, now this self-imposed task is finally complete, it's time to think up another one. And a couple of evenings ago I got excited by the rather obvious idea, considering my obsessions, of making a translated anthology of Swedish-language poetry (Swedish poets for the most part, but also Finland-Swedish poets). After all, I've already translated quite a few poems over the years (in particular, by Karin Boye). In that moment of euphoria, I was almost at the point of drafting pitches to publishers.

But then, hesitations crept in. I knew that with such rudimentary knowledge of the language as mine, it would be slow, difficult work. Perhaps I'm not ready for this yet.

I have many other disqualifications too. I'm not really interested in literary history or any kind of overview. Consequently there are many poets considered important that I scarcely know at all. I would naturally want to represent experimental poetry but I feel my knowledge of experimental poetry in Swedish is very slight indeed. To undertake such an anthology one would surely need a direct engagement with the contemporary scene: to live there, be fluent, know some of the poets personally.

But this kind of anthology wasn't even what I wanted to do. I'm sceptical of books that claim to define a canon or outline a culture representatively. My book would have to be a more personal exploration, beginning from ignorance. I felt particularly unexcited by the thought of translating big poets like Tranströmer and Martinson and Ekelöf who have been well translated already. Instead, I would like to find other materials, popular and unpopular, and slowly uncover a picture whose features I didn't know in advance. A picture of what? A developed and prosperous western nation -- Is that what the world needs more of? It was another thought to make one pause. Would I even want to confirm nationality as a lazy system of forming our conceptions?

At about this point in my ruminations, I suddenly remembered that I didn't even like poetry anthologies... Though, of course, I do use them. I prefer books of individual poets... I have more of a chance of getting to know the poets. Gobbling up an anthology, I lose a sense of the individual poem's context and its author. So why would I want to produce a book I wouldn't myself enjoy? Well, there could be many good reasons for doing that, but right now I'm looking for a kind of congruence.

What was great about translating the booklet was that I wasn't thinking of anyone else, I just wanted to spend virtual time in the fells. And there's very little demand for English-language info about these fells; practically all the people we walked with in 2016 were Swedes. I suppose every nation has its international magnets and its local attractions... The "friendly triangle" was firmly in the latter class.

I feel the same about the kind of Swedish poems I'd like to translate. The less they address an international poetry audience, the more interested I am. I say to the poem: You must really know something.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Awaking

Least Yellow-sorrel (Oxalis exilis). Swindon, 7th May 2019. A diminutive plant native to New Zealand and Tasmania.

Similar to the much commoner garden relic Procumbent Yellow-sorrel (Oxalis corniculata), but much smaller, and rarely with purple leaves. Also, Oxalis exilis has ten stamens but only five of them produce anthers (zoom in on the pic above to see what I mean); Oxalis corniculata has ten anthers.


Least Yellow-sorrel (Oxalis exilis). Swindon, 9th May 2019. 

I wake up. My head is lying comfortably on a polyester pillow. The raw materials of polyester come from crude oil derivatives. A chilly morning. I put on my cardigan, made by a popular California clothing brand called Cherokee -- a Native American people from the SE USA (to be fair the name Cherokee is a colonist's term for the people and is not the term in their own language; it must be based on a native language, but the origin has not been satisfactorily explained). It's a polyester cardigan, so is very cosy, never creases and is resistant to stains; in fact virtually indestructible. My Dad passed it on to me. I suppose my Mum bought it some time before 2015, when the Cherokee brand was being sold in the UK in Tesco stores. It does need a wash now and then: it was hanging on a plastic-covered dryer in front of the radiator. The radiator is pleasantly warm. It's fuelled by gas: around 40% from the UK, the rest from Russia, Norway and other places. I can go straight out into the garden with my tea and look at how the plants I picked up at the garden centre are doing. I dug them down yesterday: no sign of slug damage, though yesterday's stormy showers snapped some blooms off the new Aubretia. I put the plastic pots away in the shed. Later on we'll go for a walk in the countryside. We'll be shod in plastic trainers, and we'll both carry plastic drinks bottles. It's a simple life. (This is a car-free day, and I'm trying not to think about the £1,000 estimate that the garage have just told me about.) I play a Swedish folk-tune on my guitar, which has new nylon strings.

Mexican Orange-blossom (Choisya ternata). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

Mexican Orange-blossom (Choisya ternata). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

Stone Parsley (Sison amomum). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

A common plant in Swindon. It's a biennial: the photo shows emerging first-year and second-year plants.

Stone Parsley is said to be edible: most authoritatively here, but that's an 1884 source. I haven't seen any recent accounts. Perhaps not many people are tempted to try it, in view of the plant's unpleasant petrol smell ... setting aside the general danger of messing around with wild Apiaceae, a family which includes many highly toxic species as well as garden herbs (parsley, dill, coriander, caraway, angelica, lovage) and food plants (carrot, celery, fennel).



Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). Swindon, 7th May 2019

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). Swindon, 7th May 2019.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2019

C.P. Snow: The Affair (1960)

Cherie Lunghi as Margaret Eliot

[Image source: https://www.memorabletv.com/tv/strangers-brothers-bbc-2-1984-shaughan-seymour-cherie-lunghi/ . Shaughan Seymour and Cherie Lunghi starred in the 1984 TV dramatization of Strangers and Brothers. ]

C.P. Snow (1905 - 1980) annoyed F.R. Leavis, who “lost it” in a manner more than slightly suggestive of a Snovian scene. It may be that anyone who reads more than one novel in the Strangers and Brothers sequence will be overcome by the sense of a writer who composes his own clichés, unwittingly parodies himself and has an absurd self-regard. Snow is perhaps not a novelist at all, as Leavis proclaimed. So much the better, I think.

The “Establishment” is such a mysterious and inaccessible world that it’s very gratifying to be permitted to enter it in so much detail, even though the author makes no bones of his admiration. Indeed, he could not write these books without the admiration.

The Affair is a book without sexual adventure or death. And yet not altogether a comedy, though there is something in the book’s procedure that reminds you of comedy. It’s mostly conversation about the business – a doubtful matter that cannot be finally resolved, though I think we are perhaps meant to suppose that Nightingale destroyed the photograph – but, as in real life, there is room for doubt. (It would be more or less certain if you could treat the text of the book itself as evidence in the trial it describes, because what Nightingale says before the hearing doesn’t make sense if his assertions during the trial are entertained; but you can’t give even the most skilful sort of novel that kind of weight within its own fiction). The persistent doubts, the essential vagueness of the technical matters, are there to provoke the complex reactions of the participants.

It would have been hard to tell whether Martin had heard what Skeffington had just said. He was not looking at Skeffington. He gazed steadily at the hearth, in which the electric fire had one small incandescent star, much brighter than the glowing bars, where a contact had worked loose.

I’m quoting this because it reminds us, as other stray sentences do, of everything that this book isn’t about – everything that other books are about. 

A few pages taken from the middle of the book will illustrate what is distinctive in Snow, both for good and ill.

In April I had to go to Cambridge on official business. On business which was, as it happened, at that time top secret...

The mock-modesty of that “as it happened” – one was always dealing with top secret matters – is one reason why you might object to Snow, and remember Buchan ungratefully. Briefly Lewis Eliot looks out of the windows of the conference-room:

it was a piercing blue April afternoon, a sunny afternoon with a wind so cold and pure that it made one catch one’s breath.

The word “pure”, with its strong implication of public-school chastity, is again Buchanesque.
...resentful ... as though once I had been out in the cold free air and known great happiness. And yet, my real memories of days like that in Cambridge were sad ones.

That is comfortably beyond Buchan. Yet we are soon back at the conference-table, and once again his spectre rises.

There was a fair amount of ability in the room, two Nobel Prize winners, five Fellows of the Royal Society. For imagination and sheer mental drive, I would have put Luke before any of them...

(This unacademic psychology, this “shrewd judgment of men” which Snow prided himself on and probably possessed, is a key element in what his books are about.) Everyone here is idealized, Luke in particular, Crawford later. That is also a significant part of Snow’s intention in portraying the decision-makers. Also an element of his style; even the unamiable Howard is somewhat gratuitously supplied with this:

One felt that, change his temperament by an inch, he would have made a good regimental officer.

This is a book about good people.

That conference-room scene is a generous introduction to the splendid succession that follows – the top secret business is an aside to the plot. Now follows the scene in which the bad news of the Seniors’ reconsideration comes through.

He and I sat there in silence, watching Laura gaze with protective love at Howard. He was holding the newspaper low, so as to catch the light from the reading-lamp. The only movement he made, the only movement in the whole room, was that of his eyes as they went down the page.

Then Howard explodes, and Martin (Lewis’s brother) catches some of the flak. Lewis admits:

He [Martin] was no saint. He had none of the self-effacingness of those who, in the presence of another’s disaster, don’t mind some of the sufferings being taken out on themselves...

Naturally this wins our sympathy. Soon we are told to have more:

People often thought that those who ‘handled’ others, ‘managers’ of Martin’s kind, were passionless. They would have been no good at their job if they were.

We don’t take this so easily. Eliot/Snow seems to be bullying us – on the basis of their joint expertise, which of course we little readers can’t remotely compete with.

I forgot to mention a moment in the Howard scene, when he says to his wife:

’You know nothing about it.’

He spoke to her roughly – but there was none of the suspiciousness with which he would have spoken to anyone else that night. Between them there flared up – so ardent as to make it out of place to watch – a bond of sensual warmth, of consolatory warmth.

Snow only mentions love if it’s relevant to power, but he does so persuasively. Marriage is the form of love in which he’s interested, and as it’s an institution and a power he inevitably over-praises it. The Skeffingtons’ marriage is almost a sham, but

With her own kind of clumsy devotion, she was with him whatever he wanted to do. Others might admire him more, other women might long for the chance of admiring him, but she happened to be married to him.


Now follows another great chapter.

We had walked right into the hiss and ice of a quarrel.

Arthur Brown’s imperturbable handling of the atmosphere, and his utter rejection of Tom Orbell’s political advice, strike us like beorhtword, somewhat in the manner of a saga hero. Of all the great and the good, Brown (though on the “wrong” side) is probably the hero that Eliot/Snow adulates most.

[That position I've just expressed, of feeling closer to an opponent than to your own side,  is itself a long-hallowed trope of the Establishment imagination. Richard and Saladin, as it were. It conceals some complicated meanings -- not in Snow's novel particularly, but in its wider meaning. One is about licensing betrayal of principle (sometimes necessary); another about leaving prejudice to the lower orders.] 

*

Another vestige of my former website. Written in 2002. 


Jacket of the first edition, strangely prophetic of American Psycho


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Saturday, May 04, 2019

rising stars / a book about the face

Dove's-foot Cranesbill (Mjuknäva - Geranium molle. Swindon, 1st May 2019



* Rising stars   * a star in the night mist
                                 * Night treetrunks
                           * a fleeing bike in traffic

* Vagabonds.
          charging phones
          sleeping in hoody


But when the face
         migrated into photos
did it fade from the earth, just a little?
   Was some intensity of faces lost then,
and to recapture it, you must veil . . . ?
-- There should be veiled men. --

We look at the record of your face, Ralph*,
      But it should be sometimes, only.
For the world lives
     and we need to live with our faces,
and life can never be seen.
   Yet we come to know each other
        we know living faces in the way that
          you know something without scrutiny

                         I know our faces,
and that's become who I am,
it's written all over my face too -- our life together.





* Ralph Bates, Swindon novelist (1899 - 2000). A black and white portrait in Brookhouse Farm, a pub in Middleleaze.








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