Wednesday, February 24, 2021

soft babble

[Image source: . Carol Kane as Gitl in the 1974 movie Hester Street, directed by Joan Micklin Silver. Based on the 1896 novel Yekl, A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan.]


Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob . . .
Or dances madly at a festival.
Each dawn finds her a little whiter,
Though up and keyed to the long day,
Alert, yet weary . . . like a bird
That all night long has beat about a light.

The Gentile lover that she charms and shrews,
Is one more pebble in the pack
For Sadie's mother,
Who greets him with her narrowed eyes
That hold some welcome back.
"What's to be done?" she'll say,
"When Sadie wants she takes . . .
Better than Bennie with his Christian woman . . .
A man is not so like, 
If they should fight,
To call her Jew . . ."

Yet when she lies in bed
And the soft babble of their talk comes to her
And the silences . . .
I know she never sleeps
Till the keen draught blowing up the empty hall
Edges through her transom
And she hears his foot on the first stairs.

(from the title poem of The Ghetto, and other poems by Lola Ridge (1918)).

transom = transom light, i.e. the window above the door, which could be opened to provide cross-ventilation using a transom operator (wand-like assembly). 

This poem is set in Hester Street, Lower East Side.

Part of the excitement, aside from the mere fact that this poem of the Lower East Side exists, but part of the excitement in this early poetry (her first collection) is that her language and practice are all over the place. Lola Ridge resisted any kind of control, she was an anarchist and some of that gets into the language, there's no rules. And not being in control it runs a gamut from arch literariness to sharp originality to genre cliché. 

Inappropriate as it would be, it's not impossible that this ghetto is echoing Tennyson's brook of 1886.

I chatter over stony ways,
   In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
   I babble on the pebbles.

My ear snagged on the expression "soft babble" -- the rest of this post, I should explain, isn't about Lola Ridge. It snagged for the embarrassing reason that I remembered using it myself in an old flailing poem. Is it an expression, I mean a fixed form, or is it just two words that are capable of coming together? Anyway, I did a search for it. It's virtually always used in the context of water or human voices.

The earliest I could find was this review in The American Monthly, Vol 2 No 2 (February 1861).

A MAN. By REV. J. D. BELL. 12mo., pp. 642. Philadelphia, J. Challen & Son, 1860.

  Here is a book that we like.
  We have been fond of this writer for a long while. We snuffed the same Ontario breezes in infancy. We have rejoiced on the same unbounded prairies, and dreamed and wondered in the same infinite forest solitudes, and, though we know not each other, are not strangers. Under brown old oaks by the drowsy babble of brooks in the sunny west have we lain poring through slumbrous summer afternoons upon the soft babble of waves, and the earnest, fiery, yet tender, sometimes almost sad pages of John Bell. But this is a vigorous book, a healthy book . . .

Elsewhere in the same number, an article on measles notes that it isn't really a dangerous disease so long as it's well treated. Convalescence is critical: the patient must stay indoors, avoiding draughts. No washing and no exercise: sudden changes of temperature are the main risk. 

The religious department published its views on divine providence, "the more readily now, because, in the crisis that is upon our nation, men's hearts are failing them for fear, and they need to be reminded of the grand and consoling truths contained in this doctrine".

Another article is headed SECESSION:

The stirring drama of secession is likely soon to open another scene in the fearful drama of civil war. 
   A people so utterly at the mercy of a reckless mob, so blind to their own interests, so deluded in their estimate of their own powers, and so deceived in regard to those whom they oppose, it is folly to expect will exercise either common sense or forbearance. If a war is prevented, it will be owing solely to the cool forbearance of the North . . .

The author was coming from a religious position:

The truth is, God is speaking to the world in vindication of His own law and the claims of humanity, and producing a witness in the current history of our land, whose testimony shall extort a verdict from all nations, fully exonerating His religion from complicity in the "accursed thing". . .

It was leading him to prefer war to humiliation ( the war began two months later). 

The good neighbors began to go home when they had taken their tea, and the rector and his daughter went with them to the gate, when there was a soft babble and commotion of good nights, and every two people repeated to each other, "What a lovely moon!" and "What a glorious night!"

A Rose in June, by Mrs Oliphant (Boston, 1874). Margaret Oliphant was a prolific Scottish novelist.

While those sweet mingled strains have filled the room, Jeva in thought has been away in the quiet woods . . . . she has heard the soft babble of the brook, tinkling over the pebbles and whispering by the grasses.

Aunt Hepsy's Foundling, by Mrs Leith Adams (London, 1884). Novel set in New Brunswick. 

UK band Palomica's album Incoherencies and soft babble (Seaford/Bristol 2015/2016)

Flat calm, soft babble, rushing current or thundering rapids, an individual river can change its own mood and character on any given day.

An earlier post on Lola Ridge:

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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Peter Philpott, Telling the Beads (2020)

After Yule

where is there to go?
everything full
utterly green
lie on the lawn
watch the swifts
yip, yip, yip

(Opening of head poem to After Lithe (July), from Peter Philpott's Telling the Beads (2020))

I'm of course a fully-signed up fan... See e.g. this piece about Peter Philpott's previous collection Wound Scar Memories (2017): .

But my obsession with Telling the Beads (2020) didn't kick in at once. It is, at first sight, a complicated sort of book. Peter supplies an engaging introduction that guides us through the various ingredients and formal features. Obscure Dark Age history, Brecht, the seasons, modern Stortford, modern poetry...  It was all a bit too much to take in, so what happened was, I tried to read a bit, developed some questions, went back to the introduction, sighed, read a bit more, had new questions. . . 

But gradually these short dips became longer and happier, I didn't need to consult the introduction any more, I felt habituated. And then the real reading began, and the real questions, the things the introduction can't answer. 

Telling the Beads is a calendrical structure, beginning and ending in summer. Its contents are variously seasonal, contemporary, lyrical, autobiographical, philosophical; but there's also an underlying Dark-Age story about Unwin and his war-party. The book has illustrations sourced from Victorian popular histories. It proposes a kind of undogmatic polytheism in place of both theism and atheism (e.g. with reference to the goddesses in some of Bede's month-names). 

Unwin's story has an ending, like Colin Clout's story in The Shepheardes Calendar, but in each case the poem is more than the story, and for its readers the invitation is patent, to just keep going round and round. (cf. Carol Watts' 2011 book Occasionals , another summer-to-summer poem.)  I reckon I've walked the whole course of Telling the Beads three or four times now, and I'm not done yet. I'd like to run it. 

The book is organized by months, the traditional Anglo-Saxon months reported by Bede. (There are extra intercalary days at Yule and Lithe (=midsummer).)  Another input is Bertolt Brecht's 1927 poetry collection Die Hauspostille , whence comes the idea of a manual of piety that's hostile to orthodox religion. Telling the Beads plays with the idea of being a devotional book, and it really is a devotional book. Its subtitle is A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times after Bede & Brecht. (In other respects I don't see much Brecht here, but others may.)

Each month begins with a strophic head poem, with a coda (an intriguing "oracular sentence", and a skittish open-field poem). Then come the holy days for the month, a mix of poems and prose. These holy days mostly turn out to be ordinary days, which are extraordinary days. They are titled, e.g. "A Day for a Pleasant Walk in Gentle Rain" or (its predecessor) "A Day to Think on the Oppressions Caused by Organised Religions". 

But apparently this arrangement still wasn't quite intricate enough for Peter's purposes. So, for instance, the third holy day in each month references Tove Jansson's illustrations to The Hobbit, as seen on his calendar in the kitchen. The number of holy days increases each month until Yule (from 3 to 8), then decreases to midsummer (8 back to 3). 

What Peter doesn't fully disclose is the fixed pattern of the holy day sections, which are suffixed a to h. At its full extent (in Before Yule (6) and After Yule (7)):  a is verse, b is prose (sometimes with diagrams), c is prose (the Tove Jansson one), d is verse, e is prose-verse-prose, f is epigraph-prose-verse-prose, g is prose, and h is a twelve-point list. 

Nor does he disclose that things start to change, especially in the second half of the book. The a poems stop following the strophic form of their own head poem and instead begin echoing the forms of earlier months, running backwards: i.e. 7a has the strophic form of 6, 8a has the strophic form of 5, etc. This carries on until 12a, which you would expect to match 1 but actually matches 2, the same as 11a did. (Meanwhile 8f fails to contain any inset verse; "Unwin did not make song on this theme", it tells us.) 

Something else, too. In the poems of the first three months the stanzas (or strophes) are elaborately matched line for line, by morphed vocabulary and meaning, an aspect of Peter's poetry that I've previously termed "phrase transformation". It's half an echo, half a dialogue.  As an example, here's the head poem for Holy Month (3):

look! another time to start
this year has nothing but, so
look at what it gives us
summer again (all brief)
and a chance to dig in
harvesting slow to make
due sacrifice to all the powers
manifold & circumambient
last brightness in the air

it starts with us all together
you can say we begin with nothing
except what the world now gives us
insects again & all small life
thronging where we dig
harvesting in the middle of decay
preparing what is due to live
many folded around us
lost in the brightness of the air

Let's just hold it together
begin again with nothing
open to what the world gives
life innumerable & delicate
bursting out where we dig
harvest triumphs over decay
preparing some brief escape
our lives are folded in this world
lost within its final brief air

This resonance is still discernible in months 4 to 7, but only just. Then it's gone until Aretha Month (9) when we suddenly catch its elusive presence between two poems. In 11a it's there but restricted to the last line of each stanza. Finally (head poem of 12) it returns in something like its full effect.

In short, there's literally no end to discovering features if you want to, but you don't have to. It's like the book of nature. 


Reading this poetry means experiencing a paradox, or rather many paradoxes. 

The poems are both silly and wise, both simple and complex, both committed and uncommitted, both casual and engaged, both mundane and grand, both throwaway and crafted, both reverent and irreverent.

When I wrote about Wound Scar Memories I talked about this as the expression of the poet's character, the "Peter of the poems". But in Telling the Beads what seems more prominent is that these paradoxes are a way of staying true to a particular vision of life,  a vision purged of idealism and authority but humble, credible and warm-hearted.


You can imagine that the word "now" might feature largely in poems so linked to specific times of year, and so it proves. Along with "this" and "here", it chimes through the book. But the word is less prominent in midsummer and almost absent in winter. Does this prove anything? I suppose not. But I feel that it's attentive to our common experience; that "now" correlates with times of the year when we're keenly aware of change: the earlier nightfall in August, the approach of winter in November, proper spring in April. And it's less prominent at those times of year when our main sense is of each day being much like the next. 

Occurrences of "now" in Telling the Beads (I've ignored the prose. hp = head poem)

After Lithe (Jul) 1hp0. 1a1. total 1.
Weed Month (Aug) 2hp5. 2a2. 2d4. total 11.
Holy Month (Sep) 3hp2. 3a1. 3d1. 3e1. total 5.
Winter Full (Oct) 4hp0. 4a1. 4d1. total 2.
Blood Month (Nov) 5hp2. 5a2. 5d2. total 6.
Before Yule (Dec) 6hp3. 6a0. 6d0. 6e2. total 5.
Yule. Days 1,2,3,5,6,8,9,10,11,12: 0. total 0.
After Yule (Jan) 7hp0. 7a1. 7d0. total 1.
Mud Cake Month (Feb) 8hp0. 8a0. 8d0. total 0.
Aretha Month (Mar) 9hp0. 9a0. 9d0. 9e1. 9f1. total 2.
Easter Month (Apr) 10hp2. 10a1. 10d2. 10e1. total 6.
Three Milks Month (May) 11hp0. 11a0. 11d1. total 1.
Before Lithe (Jun) 12hp1. 12a0. total 1.
Lithe (midsummer) Day 1: 0. Day 3: 2. total 2.

Now, this, here .... it's a poetry that conveys rather than describes. It deploys a quite sparse set of facts: green, sunlight, insects, greyness, birds, wind, the swifts and lime trees that book-end the sequence. We hear the "yips" of those returning swifts before we catch sight of them. The focus isn't on something we see, it's on something we're in. Mostly we don't see much in the way of detail, yet we definitely know we're here and this is now. 
All the diffuse & varying things
the somewhere & the arbitrary constraints
what is the use?
                                not subtle
not some controlling grammar, no
just the inheritance again from arbitrary power
that won't outlast our deaths there
-fore shouldn't outlast our lives
even though the weather breeds submission
this life can be amended
made of flower, eggs, milk & fruit
small knots of resurrected sunlight
crunching against our teeth
                                                     no one
needs that dying worthlessness
this month is short as the sun returns

(from 8d, "The Day to Realise How Short the Month Is")

Mud Cake Month

Billy Mills on Telling the Beads:

Billy's post gives a better sense than mine of the succession of different materials, and it persuaded me to listen out for the individual character of the poems, though I dare say that's not very apparent.

Peter Riley has a brief notice on Telling the Beads here:

Previous posts about Telling the Beads:

Monday, February 15, 2021

to its deep and lovely azure gives / The life of motion


[Image source: . Photo by Thierry Llansades.]

I've been reading Mérimée again, something I find myself doing every decade or so. 

Specifically "The Venus of Ille" ("La Vénus d'Ille", 1837) -- Surely, I thought, this story must have greatly influenced Daudet's Lettres de mon moulin (1869-79). Its opening very carefully establishes the location in Catalan Roussillon. 

I was descending the final slope of Mount Canigou, and although the sun had already set, on the plain I could make out the houses of the little town of Ille, which was my destination.
   "I don't suppose you know where Monsieur de Peyrehorade lives?" I asked the Catalan who had been acting as my guide since the previous day.
   "Why, of course I do!" he exclaimed. "I know his house as well as I know my own. If it weren't so dark I'd point it out to you. It's the finest house in Ille ..."

Perhaps this coming off the mountain was autobiographical. Mérimée travelled all over France, it was his job as Inspector-General of Historic Monuments, and he was in this area in 1834, a year before he wrote the story. You can pretty much identify the exact point on the map where the narrator and the guide are standing, looking down on Ille-sur-Têt. 

After a long dinner with his hosts, the narrator retires to his bedroom. It must be very late, but he can see the view.

The windows were shut. Before undressing I opened one of them so as to breathe in the fresh night air which, after that long supper, seemed delicious. Opposite lay Mount Canigou, a magnificent sight in any weather, but which that evening, by the light of a resplendent moon, seemed to me the most beautiful mountain in the world.

It's interesting to compare the pictures in our minds, reading this concise scene-setting, with actual photos. 

Le Canigou in the distance, from the railway station at Ille-sur-Têt.

[Image source: Wikipédia .]

The landscape presented to this reader's mind was radically simplified compared with the photo. The Canigou, I see now, is not a single up-and-down mountain but a large massif surrounded by a corrugation of snaking ridges running down to foothills. One of the longest ridges comes down here at Ille (that's where the reported conversation must be taking place). Ille-sur-Têt is on a tongue of the Roussillon plain, just where it narrows into a river valley. On one side the valley is bordered by the Canigou, and on the other side, unmentioned by Mérimée, are other lower hills; that's where people go to visit the Orgues d'Ille-sur-Têt, a dramatic rock formation  resembling the pipes of a church organ. 

And yet, though the landscape we readers imagine is so uncluttered compared to the real physical geography, it does express a kind of truth. The Canigou does stand out. It's the easternmost part of the high Pyrenees, so it can be seen from a great distance and from everywhere on the Roussillon plain. It's a mountain that's also a landmark. We don't just see such mountains, we keep an eye on them. We accord them a significance, we feel their vastness. Located in the centre of the Catalan-speaking world, the Canigou has also become a cultural symbol. 


The simplified terrain of fiction is, I think, one of its attractions for me. I love feeling so free of logistics and so privileged to be in on all the conversations. I can whistle around Paris in "The Etruscan Vase" ("Le Vase étrusque") so effortlessly, passing between crowded salon and boudoir and garden and luncheon party. I gain access to all these inner circles, I stand on the field with the duellists but with no risk of being shot. 

In "The Venus of Ille" we feel doubly insulated from the catastrophe because the story is mediated through a narrator who feels little emotional connection with the victims, son and father. Layers of irony and flippancy give the story its original flavour. We keep turning it round in our minds, uncertain what to focus on and how we should take it. The text is both concise and wandering. There seems to be a parable about the destructiveness of love, and yet there's not much real love in evidence. There's a credible sense of provincial life in the story, but this is combined with a sensational tale and a cosmopolitan shrug. Perhaps its clearest message is that life resists interpretation. 

Le Canigou, from Orgues d'Ille-sur-Têt.

[Image source: Wikipedia . Photo by Babsy.]

While reading about Le Canigou, I came across a poem by Sir Humphry Davy. 

The orb of light its flood of lustre pours
From the mid-heavens upon the tranquil sea
Without a tide, whose silver mirror spreads,
Reflecting forms of mountain-majesty
Along the Iberian coast; and, more remote,
In gentle agitation feels the breeze,
That to its deep and lovely azure gives
The life of motion. All the morning mists
Have vanished, and the mid-day sunbeams sleep
Upon thy snows, or glitter where the streams
They feed with crystal waters pour in foam
Amidst thy dark deep glens and shaggy woods,
Where the bright pine and darker cork trees blend:
Their varied foliage forms a boundary
Where winter seems to mingle with the spring.
And lower still, the olive tree appears —
The work of culture, and the leafless vine,
And the green meadows, where the torrents sleep,
Or move obedient to the wants of man.

(Excerpt from "The Canigou", written by Sir Humphry Davy on 26 January 1814. Poem source . The poem is quoted in his brother John Davy's Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1839).)

Humphry Davy (1778 -1829), the son of a Cornish woodcarver, was one of those geniuses who could do anything. He wrote quite a lot of poetry, though that's lost amid his scientific triumphs.  He discovered seven elements and discovered the elemental nature of two others. He created the first incandescent light. We use his words every day: sodium, calcium, chlorine ...

But I won't praise him for the Davy Lamp. That's the kind of technological advance, badged with the magical word "safety", that licenses small-scale exploitation to go large.  

Coleridge was a keen participant in Davy's larking about with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Their high jinks would lead, in the 1840s, to the first use of general anaesthetic in the west  (the Japanese surgeon Hanaoka Seishū used a general anaesthetic from 1804). 

Davy knew Coleridge and Wordsworth when they lived near Bristol and once they'd moved away they asked him to oversee the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge asked him to proofread and Wordsworth asked him to fix the punctuation. (The evidence suggests that he skimped on this.) 

But if "The Canigou" is any indication then he certainly caught the music of "Tintern Abbey". Davy's restless mind is thinking about the tideless sea, the reflections,  the "gentle agitation" further out and what causes it. 

At this point the poet notices a British fleet standing out to sea, and the poem becomes patriotic. In January 1814 Napoleon's fall could be foreseen, Wellington was already in SW France.

                     Albion, thee I hail! —
Mother of heroes! mighty in thy strength!
Deliverer! from thee the fire proceeds
Withering the tyrant; not a fire alone
Of war destructive, but a living light
Of honour, glory, and security, —
A light of science, liberty, and peace!

(You would not suppose, reading these lines, that the reason Davy was in France was because he had just accepted Napoleon's Prix du galvanisme in recognition of his electro-chemical work.)

According to Dr Paris' Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831), "A great poetic Genius has said, 'If Davy had not been the first Chemist, he would have been the first Poet of his age.'" (Paris mentions this in the context of criticizing the frivolity of those who lamented Davy's devotion to science.) I don't know if we should take this remark too seriously, or indeed if anyone really said it.  It's usually attributed to Coleridge or Southey. 

Le Canigou reflected in the sea at Porte-La-Nouvelle (near Narbonne)

[Image source: . Photo by Amanclos, 16 January 2017.]

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Thursday, February 11, 2021

scarcely a rise

Jacket of Anna Ståbi's Den viljelösa säden. (the AB symbol is the publisher's logo, Albert Bonniers Förlag)

Anna Ståbi was born in 1963. Her early childhood was in Ljusdal in NW Hälsingland (county in southern Norrland) and she now lives in Hedemora, a small town in SE Dalarna which nevertheless has the distinction of being that county's only medieval city. Her father was a well-known folk musician, but her own path switched from music to poetry, and for some reason I have her first collection on my shelves: Den viljelösa säden, published in 1994 by Bonniers.

Translation difficulties begin with that title, literally The Will-less Seed. In English while we have the expression "having no will of his/her own" we don't really have any equivalent for the fairly common Swedish word viljelös. The nearest ones I can think of are "drifting" and "aimless". 

Anyway here's a fairly hapless attempt at translating the first poem.

About feeding and a skate etc.

On the armchair a massive skate presses
digests its meal, both mussels and jelly-fish

A window day like this,
what does a skate know about the vertical?
You just exist in your own way
and how you obtain your food
can be the most obvious thing

An elk can't lie like a sheet of paper
in the lingon bushes --
you exist where your food exists
whether you wait for it
or reach for it
like the cloven-hoofed animal

and the dream of seed
is the journey's
whole foundation
food from branches
or from bottom sludge
thus we are stretched and thus flat
we can wait alongside
the everyday

the skate's life,
with eyes like two watchful quails
above its oval lid's
sand-coloured frontside
looks and waits
for food
with those electric ripples
like a smile full of secrets
within it

an attack samurai,
infinitely patient
scarcely a rise in the sea-floor,
which is his own pulsating lung

he's a piece of sea-floor skin
like a patch you lay
over stains, or like a cloth
that hides something
and is in no hurry

he throws his coat
over the food
in a cloud of dust
and bubbles

the ferocity of the atttack is damped
like sound underwater, particles,
negligible like the oxygen that constantly
flows away
out of the skate's world

But the elk, crowned
and dignified
a body of contemplation,
chooses constantly
to reach after
its pine-shoots and its leaves
ruminates attentively

and its steps are precise,
a studied dancer
in the wetland's
sweet-sour universe

over which the elk,
an empirical expert
in the choice of food,
is king in muzzle and eye,
the colours and scents
their stately governor

listens and floats
gracefully over the marsh
with legs
like fantastic stilts

an irreproachable Gandhi
on a pilgrimage
through down-filtered branch light


In a 2003 interview, Anna Ståbi said:

My poems come out of devotion and ecstasy, I don't see myself as personally responsible for the content, rather, I flow with it and trust.

(quoted in .)

Anna Ståbi in 1997

[Image source: . Photograph by Cato Lein.]

I'm not satisfied that I've understood all this poem correctly. The opening, the unlikely image of a skate in an armchair... it's odd that this domestic setting is never referred to again. I don't know what a window day means. And there's some other lines where I feel I'm missing something, but there you go.

Frozen field near Cley Hill, 10 February 2021.

Thinking about Anna Ståbi and why her Swedish was proving so difficult for me to understand, I set off for another walk around and over Cley Hill (near Warminster, Wiltshire). 

Walks at this time of year usually mean wellington boots. 

time to celebrate our worthlessness
crawl up the endless mud   
(Peter Philpott, from "Mud Cake Month" (=February), in Telling the Beads)

But today the ground was frozen hard and I could fly over the ruts in trainers. (Like a benign version of the grass in The Great Divorce.) Coming down the edge of a field I met a guy coming up on a mountain-bike, also appreciating these conditions. I saw him again later, standing atop the bowl barrow on the summit of Cley Hill. Pretty impressive to see a bike up there. (You can make out the bowl barrow in the photos.)

The biker was the only person I saw, but someone must have been around earlier, because there was a big bonfire smoking on the edge of a field; I stopped to warm my hands. A bird flitted around the cedar cuttings that hadn't yet caught alight. 

Snowdrops and wild daffodils. Near Cley Hill, 10 February 2021.

It's hard to believe, when some of our woods are so packed with snowdrops, that the species is an introduction; Galanthus nivalis wasn't recorded in the wild until 1778. It doesn't form much seed here but spreads as bulbs. (There are several other naturalized snowdrop species, but this is the most common.)

The wild daffodil rejoices in the name Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp. pseudonarcissus, and there's going to be lots of it in this glade. This is a species that's undoubtedly native to Britain, but that doesn't exclude the possibility that in lots of places it's naturalized, and that's very likely the case here. 

Snowdrops. Near Cley Hill, 10 February 2021.

A frozen stream. Near Cley Hill, 10 February 2021.

Snow- and ice-crust suspended about a foot above a flowing stream. Near Cley Hill, 10 February 2021.

A bonfire, where I stopped to warm my hands. Near Cley Hill, 10 February 2021.


Late the night before, I finished A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove, 2012), the international bestseller by Fredrik Backman, who comes from Hälsingborg in the far south of Sweden.

Like so many other readers I laughed and cried. Especially cried, but maybe that's my mood. After the walk I was in tears again, this time to the finale of Brahms' third symphony on the radio. 

There's 28,000 reviews on Amazon. I read a few of them, and all the important things were said. The thing that stayed with me most was this: 

There must be so many people like myself who can personally relate to the storyline but have not got the talent of the author of this book to share our feelings in the written word by creating such a wonderful story.

I don't think there can be much higher praise than that.

Backman is a people's author. It doesn't come as a surprise to read that he's struggled to cope with his fame. The mental landscape of his books must come from within; the grief and fury as much as the comedy.

I think part of what induces the tears is the feeling of fairy tale, the feeling of Can it be? The inner conviction that lonely elderly set-in-their-ways people who put up the kind of wall Ove does aren't often given the chance, or can't take the chance, to start over again, to give and receive love. (The same way that Shakespeare generates the emotional punch of Pericles and The Winter's Tale.) Ove's neighbour Parvaneh is the light of the book, but she trembles on the verge of being too good to be true. And maybe the possibly impossible fantasy isn't only about love but about its obverse, revenge, the justice we'll probably never get. 

The light turns green. Parvaneh brings up the clutch, the Saab splutters and the instrument panel goes black. Stressed, Parvaneh turns the key in the ignition, which only makes it grind in a heart-rending manner. The engine makes a roar, coughs and dies anew. The men with the shaved heads and tattooed throats sound the horn. One of them gestures.
   "Press down the clutch and give it more gas," says Ove.
   "That's what I'm doing!" she answers.
   "That's not what you're doing."
   "Yes I am!"
   "Now you're shouting."
   "I'M NOT BLOODY SHOUTING!" she shouts.
   The city jeep blares its horn. Parvaneh presses down the clutch. The Saab rolls backwards a few centimetres and bumps into the front of the city jeep. The Throat Tattoos are now hanging on the horn as if it's an air raid alarm.
   Parvaneh tugs despairingly at the key, only to be rewarded by yet another stall. Then suddenly she lets go of everything and hides her face in her hands.
   "Good Go . . . are you crying now?" Ove asks in amazement. 
   "I'M NOT BLOODY CRYING!" she howls, her tears spattering over the dashboard.
   Ove leans back and looks down at his knee. Fingers the end of the paper baton.
   "It's just such a strain, this, do you understand?" she sobs and leans her forehead against the wheel as if hoping it might be soft and fluffy. "I'm sort of PREGNANT! I'm just a bit STRESSED, can no one show a bit of understanding for a pregnant bloody woman who's a bit STRESSED!!???"
   Ove twists uncomfortably in the passenger seat. She punches the steering wheel several times, mumbles something about how all she wants is to "drink some bloody lemonade", flops her arms over the top of the steering wheel, buries her face in her sleeves and starts crying again.
   The city jeep behind them signals until it sounds as if the Finland ferry is about to run them down. And then something in Ove snaps. He throws the door open, gets out of the car, walks slowly round the city jeep and rips the driver's door open.
   "Have you never been a learner driver or what?"
   The driver doesn't have time to answer.
   "You stupid little bastard!" Ove roars in the face of the shaven-headed young man with throat tattoos, his spittle cascading over their seats. 

(A Man Called Ove, Chapter 27, translation by Henning Koch)

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Thursday, February 04, 2021

these notes on Shakespeare

Olivia and Viola/Cesario

[Image source: . Photo by Lynn Lane. Elizabeth Bunch as Olivia and Kim Blanck as Viola in a 2018 Alley Theatre Production of Twelfth Night, directed by Jonathan Moscone, at the Hubbard Theater, Houston.]

I've got no particular excuse,  I'm certainly not a specialist, but I just love writing about Shakespeare. I realized that some people might like to have all the links together in one place, so here's a list that I'll keep up to date. It's a relief to discover that there's still a lot of plays I haven't written about. I still have Twelfth Night ahead of me!

1. On individual plays and poems:

[I'm listing Shakespeare's works in approximately chronological sequence, but I'm not being too strict about it.  For instance, in the first tetralogy I place Henry VI Part 1 first, even though I think it was written last. Oh yes, and "Shakespeare" sometimes means "Shakespeare and Others".]

The Rape of Lucrece
Sonnet 1
Sonnet 29
Sonnet 81
Titus Andronicus
Love's Labour's Lost
King John
Romeo and Juliet
The Merchant of Venice
Much Ado About Nothing
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Julius Caesar
Measure For Measure
King Lear

2. On more general Shakespeare topics:

3. On what others have written about Shakespeare:

4. On other dramatists of Shakespeare's time:

[But I'm including Dryden, because of the close connection of All For Love with Antony and Cleopatra.]

5. On other poets of Shakespeare's time:


Wednesday, February 03, 2021

The down on the birch


Winter shoots of Silver Birch (Betula pendula, left) and Downy Birch (Betula pubescens, right)

Our two native birch trees are Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and Downy or White Birch (Betula pubescens). (There's also the Dwarf Birch of mountains -- Betula nana -- but that's only about six inches tall.)

Silver Birch is the prettier tree, but Downy Birch does often crop up in town gardens (and I always wonder if it was an accident, or perhaps arose as a natural seedling). Anyway I walked past both species yesterday and grabbed a couple of winter shoots to look at more closely. (Partly because I've just been writing about them in connection with Scott's Waverley.)

Well, obviously Downy Birch has downy twigs, and Silver Birch doesn't. (Actually it sometimes does, on very young growth, but let's not worry here about the complications, there are BSBI papers for field botanists who need to pin down every single individual birch in their area.)

Even a casual glance shows that the Silver Birch twig is shinier, and the Downy Birch twig is more matte.

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)

Both twigs have small white resin-spots, but they're much more noticeable on Silver Birch, because of its lack of downiness.

I wanted to see the actual down. It needs a good lens because the hairs are very small indeed. You can see them (just) on the edge of the twig near the leaf bud in the ultra-closeup below.

The down on Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)

This isn't the place for a full disquisition or celebration of these trees, species of such importance both  to the earth and humanity. 

But here's a couple of random discoveries:

Why , Father of the forest Pan,
Neglect thy ancient care;
Resume, as when thy reign began,
Nor let our cliffs be bare.

O! nurse thy Britain's native plant,
Its stems of silver rear;
Nor let her sons, in future, want
The streams that once were dear.

Her birchen shades, in days of yore,
Were seats of sages' knowledge;
Where Britons heard the oral lore,
Ere yet was known a college.

The beginning of "The Birch", by Richard Llwyd (1752 - 1835, aka "The Bard of Snowdon"), a poem that becomes less lyrical but funnier as it goes along. I suppose the deforestation he's referring to was connected with the industrial revolution. 

Hängbjörk (Weeping Birch), watercolour by Karin Boye (1900-1941), probably in her teens

(Hängbjörk is Betula pendula, of course. The more common name in Sweden is Vårtbjörk: referring to the frequent nodules on the twigs, like the former scientific name Betula verrucosa.)

red in the willow crowns    plum in the birch

patterns of gnats     looked for a language

larger than us     tremor of catkins

folds of a bud    for meaning like runes

harder than answers   length in the light

the over and over of wood pigeon music

An extract from Lucy Ingrams' Light-Fall (2019), found in a review by David Caddy in Tears In The Fence

Silver Birch (Betula pendula). Frome, 1 February 2021.

Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). Frome, 3 February 2021.

These pictures show one of the other differences between the trees. Silver Birch has attractive silver-white bark, which as it ages develops diamond-shaped fissures, so the bottom part of the trunk becomes rugged and not white at all. The bark of Downy Birch stays more intact. It's quite a dull greyish white, even before it's covered in green algae like this one is. (Gardeners these days will probably be directed to the lovely Himalayan Birch Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, which has brilliant white bark, e.g. in cultivars like 'Doorenbos'.)

A young, very red-barked Betula pubescens. Chapmanslade, 9 February 2021.

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)


Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 30 January 2021.

A good time of year for taking a brief look at conifers, while not much else is happening.

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) is a tall tree native to the Pacific NW of America. It isn't a cedar, of course: "cedar" was a prestige-label that timber merchants loved to use for other types of wood. It's a Thuja, a genus related to the cypresses as you can see from the scale-like leaves, but the cones are narrow, not globular. Most Thuja species have deliciously aromatic foliage and this one is no exception, most people comparing the scent to pineapple. The timber is excellent and lightweight; it was originally used for totem poles and canoes, and remains the favoured timber for rugby posts. I won't repeat all the other information that you can easily find on Wikipedia

I know it's Thuja plicata because the cones have 8-12 scales. The cones of Thuja occidentalis (the Northern White Cedar of the eastern US and Canada) have only 6-8 scales. 

Cones of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 28 January 2021.

According to the Nordic Names site, Linnaeus coined the generic name Thuja in 1753, from the Greek thyein (to sacrifice), referring to the pleasant aroma of the classical cedar when burned, which made it the wood of choice for animal sacrifices. (The girl's name Tuija, derived from Thuja, has become quite popular in Finland.) 

There's no consensus on how to pronounce Thuja. Wikipedia suggests THEW-juh. The San Francisco experimental/drone band Thuja suggest THOO-zhuh, which may be how Americans say it. Linnaeus would probably have said TOO-yah, like the girl's name. 

Cones of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 28 January 2021.

Shaheen Virk won first prize in the senior poetry category of the Surrey* Libraries Young Adult Writing Contest 2019 with this poem:

Thuja Plicata

                     Bestowed humble giant
                     Liminality and convergence
                     Are simply
                                    your bread and butter
                     Harbinger of the pacific oscillations
                     Thuja Plicata (Western Red Cedar)
                     The loggers
                                    know of your worth
                     The men in the glass cases
                                    do not
                     You too will be swept by the horseman:
                                    he prefers to be called Inferno
                     But today you stay standing

* This Surrey is the city in British Columbia, just east of Vancouver.

Foliage of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 16 January 2021.

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 16 January 2021.

On these two trees the foliage comes right down to the ground. If you duck inside, you can see that the lower branches have been allowed to reach the ground. When this happens, they root, thicken up enormously and in effect set up as new trees.

Rooting branches of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 2 February 2021.

Rooting branches of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 2 February 2021.

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 2 February 2021.

But here, two hundred yards away, is a much bigger one where this wasn't allowed to happen. (This might well be the parent of the other two.) A very impressive tree, I think, and no-one's going to be mistaking this one for a cypress hedge. 

Bole of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 2 February 2021.

Bole of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Frome, 2 February 2021.

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