Friday, February 27, 2009

as snow falls on the town...

Here's something you don't see everyday in Tokyo. This morning snow was falling in large, fluffy flakes - botan yuki (牡丹雪), in Japanese.
Like the best, most beautiful things in life, it lasted only for a moment, alas, but... there you are.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

a daring hypothesis

Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman in Bergman's Persona (1966)

Even though I'm not always a great Zizek fan, I can't resist stealing the link from a sharp-eyed friend, with thanks. It's a comment by Zizek on feminine sexuality as enacted in Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and goes like this:

"Women's true [sexual] enjoyment is not in doing it, but in telling about it afterwards [and before it, in anticipation, I'd dare add...]. Of course, women do enjoy sex immediately, but [...] maybe while they are doing it they already enact or incorporate this minimal narrative distance, so they are already observing themselves and narrativizing it."

The conclusion is pretty didactic and self-evident, but, well, worth registering anyway:

"Although sexuality seems to be about bodies, it's not really about bodies. It's about how bodily activity is reported in words."

from Zizek on feminine sexuality in Bergman's Persona.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the world’s stone-hard heart

Have just discovered the website of a British poet I've been reading and admiring for years, Peter Riley. Right on the first page, there is a poem followed by a comment on the pitfalls and persistence of poetry that I heartily endorse. Well worth reading in its entirety.

[Zerschmilts, du felsenhartes Hertze!]

The quotation in German is from an eighteenth century opera which is never now performed, and means, “Melt, you stone-hard heart!” I don’t normally quote in a foreign language without an immediate in-text translation, but there didn’t seem to be room for that here. My address to the world is occluded by the world’s resistance or stone-hard heart, like something in a foreign language, or something never performed. It seemed best therefore not to address the world. So, poetry.

(full version here)

Friday, February 20, 2009

dis-orientation (3)

Salvador Dalí, L'énigme sans fin

Momentary disorientations may be suspensions in the flow of time, but they are always consequential. Something in you responds - nothing stays the same. Stillness seeks, breaks into movement, and vice-versa. Why should they be opposites? Nothing stays the same. Ever.


The four elements are sitting at the table
There is a shipwreck on the sands
A warm hand in the mist
Flowers turn colour in the mist
Without moving

Sensitive needle at the extremity of breathing
What can you etch upon the eyes' quick web?
Up to your middle in the dewy grass
Whose profile can you sketch upon their filmy screen?

I have long forgotten why I am young
A bird's blue shadow trembles on my breasts
A bird's song blossoms from the water
Till my neck bends back in a curve like stone
And I am neither white nor warm nor cold

from David Gascoyne, Selected Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1994), p. 32.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

dis-orientation (2)

Max Ernst, Cage, Forest and Black Sun (Cage, forêt et soleil noir)

Poetry is, to a much greater degree than photography, the art of the moment - of the enigma of suspension, deviation, dis-orientation.
I know of no other poet who has so movingly sung of the perplexities of the suspended moment and its disorientations than David Gascoyne. And were I to name the poem I keep returning to like an obsession, it would be this one:


In the waking night
The forests have stopped growing
The shells are listening
The shadows in the pools turn grey
The pearls dissolve in the shadow
And I return to you

Your face is marked upon the clockface
My hands are beneath your hair
And if the time you mark sets free the birds
And if they fly away towards the forest
The hour will no longer be ours

Ours in the ornate birdcage
The brimming cup of water
The preface to the book
And all the clocks are ticking
All the dark rooms are moving
All the air's nerves are bare

Once flown
The feathered hour will not return
And I shall have gone away.

from David Gascoyne, Selected Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1994), p. 43.

dis-orientation (1)

Recently, on trying to respond to a friend's remark on my (self-confessed) lack of a sense of orientation, I found myself musing on dis-orientation and its manifold senses, perplexities, joys and sorrows. All of a sudden, it struck me that what makes a life interesting and worth living are not people or things, but moments. And moments are always a dis-orientation, a brief deviation from or suspension of the flow of things, of our habitual sense of time and space, as when you sit under a tree with a friend, watching the snow falling, cuddling silence.

All senses awakened, the im-possible happens, as if out of time.

People nearly always disappoint or hurt or bore you to death, but the moments you spend with them, certain momentary dis-orientations, will remain, unchanged and forever changing, mysterious.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

secretly wishing for rain

Spring is in the air, but somehow I'm in an autumn mood, secretly wishing for rain and falling leaves...

David Sylvian, "September"

The sun shines high above
The sounds of laughter
The birds swoop down upon
The crosses of old grey churches

We say that we’re in love
While secretly wishing for rain
Sipping coke and playing games

September’s here again
September’s here again

Monday, February 16, 2009

there are days like this...

... when you need to let it off your chest, but are too exhausted & busy & can't find the right words for it. Others can, thank goodness, so here it goes, right from my cherished poetry shelf which keeps me company in these hard times.

This is my desk. This is where I work.
I'm scraping candle-grease off it and
brushing away all the dust that blows in
through cracks during dry spells in the rainy season.
I work hard in my corner, any chance I get,
really I do.

There's an insufferable smell of shit in this small
box which is called, with no sense of irony, my "study".
Wind bringing in again what we leave out again.

And I've been busy. Busy eating, drinking, giving ear,
listening to repetitive nonsense, setting out, getting
a living, watching my children, teaching my children,
making Lesson Plans, filling paper. But do I ever
learn anything? And if I ever do, do I remember it?
Breath, breathe, breath, breathe...

Maurice Scully, livelihood (Wild Honey Press, 2004), p. 134.

Friday, February 13, 2009

shifting between darkness and shadowy light

In praise of shadows, again.

David Sylvian, "Orpheus"

Standing firm on this stony ground
The wind blows hard
Pulls these clothes around
I harbour all the same worries as most
The temptations to leave or to give up the ghost
I wrestle with an outlook on life
That shifts between darkness and shadowy light
I struggle with words for fear that they'll hear
But Orpheus sleeps on his back still dead to the world

Sunlight falls, my wings open wide
There's a beauty here I cannot deny
And bottles that tumble and crash on the stairs
Are just so many people I knew never cared
Down below on the wreck of the ship
Are a stronghold of pleasures I couldn't regret
But the baggage is swallowed up by the tide
As Orpheus keeps to his promise and stays by my side

Tell me, I've still a lot to learn
Understand, these fires never stop
Believe me, when this joke is tired of laughing
I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing

Sleepers sleep as we row the boat
Just you, the weather, and I gave up hope
But all of the hurdles that fell in our laps
Were fuel for the fire and straw for our backs
Still the voices have stories to tell
Of the power struggles in heaven and hell
But we feel secure against such mighty dreams
As Orpheus sings of the promise tomorrow may bring

Tell me, I've still a lot to learn
Understand, these fires never stop
Please believe, when this joke is tired of laughing
I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

in their matrimonial bed

I place a lot of importance on the care of the elderly within a family. I'm also a child of divorce, and like all children of divorce I want to see my parents back together. When my parents eventually need to be taken care of, all I have to do is stick their new partners in nursing homes and then I'll look after them myself--at home. I'll put them together in their matrimonial bed until they die.

Charlotte Roche, Wetlands, trans. Tom Mohr (London: Fourth Estate, 2009).

Hummm. A most promising prologue for a debut novel that has been considered 'puerile porn' and made people faint at public readings.
But, what the hell, isn't this just another fairly obvious roman-à-clef? Well, at least the author has had the good sense of expressly asking her parents, the poor things, not to read the book...

pure, sheer beauty

David Sylvian, "Brilliant Trees"

When you come to me
I'll question myself again
Is this grip on life still my own?

When every step I take
Leads me so far away
Every thought should bring me closer home

There you stand
Making my life possible
Raise my hands up to heaven
But only you could know

My whole world stands in front of me
By the look in your eyes
By the look in your eyes
My whole life stretches in front of me
Reaching up like a flower
Leading my life back to the soil

Every plan I've made's
Lost in the scheme of things
Within each lesson lies the price to learn

A reason to believe
Divorces itself from me
Every hope I hold lies in my arms

There you stand
Making my life possible
Raise my hands up to heaven
But only you could know

My whole world stands in front of me
By the look in your eyes
By the look in your eyes
My whole life stretches in front of me
Reaching up like a flower
Leading my life back to the soil

I might be exaggerating a little, but... has anyone ever created such a beautiful, awesome, moving poem in song?...
Well, I'm exaggerating, of course. Still, this is another all-time favourite. Forever.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

some songs...

... say it all - or even a little too much - about certain temporary states of mind.

Nina Kinert, "Beast"

Why do we always talk about things like these?
Why do we always hunt each other down?
Why do we always smoke those cigarettes?
And drink a lot of wine

I know the kind of beast that I've become

No, I don't always show my gratitude
And I don't always shut it when I'm spoken to
And I don't understand the things that you say
-- Anymore

I know it doesn't show that I love you

No, I don't always like when children laugh
And I don't give a damn about your 14-year old
But who am I trying to fool by acting this way?
I need a lot of wine

I know the kind of beast that I've become

from the album Pets & Friends.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

making beautiful things with steady hands and empty pockets

Can hardly wait to get hold of their new album, Twice Born Men, which will be released next March. In the interim, I'll go on indulging myself with the streaming samples available on their site.

(Click here to listen to "Truth Only Smiles", available for free download).

SBP in a nutshell:

Tinkering about somewhere between the earthy and the ethereal, Sweet Billy Pilgrim scrape strings and tap away at laptops trying to make beautiful things with steady hands and empty pockets. After the TV flickers out and the credit cards have been declined, and we’re returned to hearts and heads, Tim, Alistair and Anthony would love to be called in as the happy architects of small corners in both. It’s all about the hairs on the back of the neck, they say.
With the imminent release of their second album, ‘Twice Born Men’ on David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label following recent collaborations with folktronica luminary Adem, Norwegian electronicists Punkt, and successful shows at the Royal Opera House as well as festivals in Spain and Norway, Sweet Billy Pilgrim are building fires to warm their little musical corner while they wait for planning permission to build their ramshackle beach huts on those tiny, storm-bruised plots inside us all. Should it not be granted – hell… they’re prepared to settle for a gazebo.

--Permission granted to the architects & engineers, as far as the tiny, storm-bruised plots inside of me are concerned.

*Text taken from the SBP website.

in praise of shadows

As I woke up this morning shadows were playing, beckoning me from behind my bedroom shoji, extending an invitation impossible to resist.

Monday, February 9, 2009

soothing shadows

Davood Emdadian, Arbored

After another wretched, endless day straining my eyes at a computer screen, I've had enough of the prose of the world (no offense, Merleau!) and long for the soothing shade of a tree. And how good it is at moments like these to be able to rest a little in the friendly shadows of Clark and Emdadian. At last.

the shadow extends the tree
from substance to possibility
where the tree stands, it walks
while the tree talks, it is silent
it is not a part of the tree
it is not apart from the tree
it comes and goes with the sun
and offers shelter from the sun
the tree is focused in its shadow
at each moment it is at rest
though each moment may be its last
at dawn the shadow is released
and at dusk it will again become
closer to the tree than its name

Thomas A. Clark, Sixteen Sonnets (Nailsworth: Moschatel Press, 1981).

floating, translucent landscape...

I love Lee Harwood's poetry, I love it. In a better world, his poems would be much more widely read - and the same could be said of the most innovative contemporary British poets, for that matter.
Harwood's love/land-scapes deeply move me, for reasons I dare not elaborate on here. And maybe because some of his books are still so difficult to get hold of, I keep (re)discovering hidden gems, such as this one discreetly tucked away in a forgotten poetry anthology:

Spoken into a mirror

"I travel to you

your warmth
To stand or lie in each other's arms

battle scars, tired of the old deceits
we come nervously to each other
yet surely (we think)

Is this the clarity
we dream of?

Not magic but more powerful
in its simplicity --

Guided out beyond the ramparts
the savage boors

Touch me . . . you"

and tinkling bells in the distance
and the words flatter themselves, words on words,
and the first flakes of snow falling softly,
the landscape whitening out

from 'Czech Dream', in Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, eds. Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), p. 108.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

the fear of poetry is the fear


The fear of poetry is the
fear: mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre: curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son's head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet's shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Muriel Rukeyser


derritorialisation, reterritorialisation & lines of flight

On reading a reference to Deleuze & Guattari's magnificent work Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature on a friend's blog, I recalled how much this book once meant to me, as I was preparing my PhD thesis and struggling to find productive concepts to help me articulate the marginality of the poets & poems on which I was then focusing. Here is an excerpt from my notes:

'Reterritorialisation’ is a term that has gained currency in contemporary critical theory. It refers to a process of cultural change which entails the restructuring of a place or territory that has experienced ‘deterritorialisation’. The latter term alludes to a weakening of ties between culture and place, implying therefore a removal of cultural subjects and objects from a certain location in space and time. Both definitions were productively assimilated into literary studies by the theorisation of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In an important book on Kafka, they propose the concept of ‘minor literature’ to refer to the literature that a minority constructs within a major language. [1] This applies not only to Kafka’s use of German, but also to Joyce's and Beckett’s use of English, for example. According to Deleuze and Guattari, such a literature is characterised by three defining elements: a) the deterritorialisation of a major language through a minor literature written in the major language from a marginalised or minoritarian position (‘Language [is] affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialisation’); b) its thoroughly political nature; c) and its collective, enunciative value. [2]

‘If the writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community’, write Deleuze and Guattari, ‘this situation allows the writer all the more the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility’. [3] But a ‘minor literature’ is not only political and collective: it is also spatial, in that it deterritorialises one terrain as it re-maps – reterritorialises – another. It draws language out of its context and into a ‘line of flight’ that creates a new context not yet ready to be understood.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
[2] Deleuze and Guattari, pp. 16-17.
[3] Deleuze and Guattari, p. 18.

Drawing language into a ‘line of flight’ that creates a new context not yet ready to be understood... In a sense, this is what every genuinely new, innovative work of art - or work tout court - does, more often than not at the risk of being misunderstood or ignored in its own time. Perhaps all innovators work, write, create for an imagined but unforeseeable future, and possess thus a unique sense of time and space. We must definitely re-think our notions of 'minor' (and 'major') authors and literatures.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

the fear of poetry

The knowing self is full of darkness, distortion, and error; it does not want to be exposed and challenged to change. It seeks objectified knowledge in order to know without being known.
[Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known 121 (New York: Harper & Row, 1983)]

A man can try to act out a story that, for him, is false, inappropriate, destructive. Commonly, in fact, people try to be what they cannot be, pretend to be other than they are, overlook their own best strengths in imitation of someone else’s story.
[Michael Novak, Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove: An Invitation to Religious Studies 60 (New York: Harper & Row, rev. ed., 1978)]

Two quotes found quite by chance have led me, as usual, in an unexpected direction. Well, maybe the direction is not that unexpected: my thoughts turn to it whenever I hear the usual suspects excusing themselves for not reading - or listening to - poetry. And, of course, this more or less subtle poetry-bashing implies that the freaks who do read it and make it a part of their lives are constantly forced to justify themselves for the eccentricity.

No one has written more eloquently about the phenomenon than Muriel Rukeyser, an unjustly forgotten American poet whose Life of Poetry should be read, not so much by all poetry lovers, as by all poetry haters. Realising though how unfair it is to single out individual passages in this passionate apologia for poetry, I dare select the following:

Now poetry, at this moment, stands in curious relationship to our acceptance of life and our way of living.


Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even ignore with the indifference which is driven toward the center. It comes through as boredom, as name-calling, as the traditional attitude of the last hundred years which has chalked in the portrait of the poet as he is known to this society, which, as Herbert Read says, "does not challenge poetry in principle it merely treats it with ignorance, indifference and unconscious cruelty."

Poetry is foreign to us, we do not let it enter our daily lives.

Do you remember the poems of your early childhood the far rhymes and games of the begining to which you called the rhythms, the little songs to which you woke and went to sleep?

Yes, we remember them.

But since childhood, to many of us poetry has become a matter of distaste. The speaking of poetry is one thing: one of the qualifications listed for an announcer on a great network, among "good voice" and "correct pronunciation," is the "ability to read and interpret poetry." The other side is told conclusively in a letter sent ninety years ago by the wife of the author of Moby Dick. Mrs. Melville said to her mother "Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around."

What is the nature of this distaste?

If you ask your friends about it, you will find that there are a few answers, repeated by everyone. One is that the friend has not the time for poetry. This is a curious choice, since poetry, of all the arts that live in time music, theater, film, writing is the briefest, the most compact. Or your friends may speak of their boredom with poetry. If you hear this, ask further. You will find that "boredom" is a masking answer, concealing different meanings. One person will confess that he has been frightened off forever by the dry dissection of lines in school, and that now he thinks with disappointment of a poem as simply a set of constructions. He expects much more. One will say that he returned from the scenes of war to a high-school classroom reading "Bobolink, bobolink / Spink, spank, spink." A first-rate scientist will search for the formal framework of the older poetry in despair, and finally stop. One will confess that, try as he will, he cannot understand poetry, and more particularly, modern writing. It is intellectual, confused, unmusical. One will say it is willfully obscure. One that it is inapplicable to the situation in which he finds himself. And almost any man will say that it is effeminate: it is true that poetry as an art is sexually suspect.

In all of these answers, we meet a slipping-away which is the clue to the responses, and which is strong enough to be called more than direct resistance.

This resistance has the quality of fear, it expresses the fear of poetry.

I have found in working with people and with poem, that this fear presents the symptoms of a psychic problem. A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.

This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.

from Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry.

And emotion, feeling, however grim and unsettling (but not necessarily so, quite the contrary!), is the truth, the refusal of falsehood, blindness, numbness, forgetfulness. That is to say, the other side of the depressing banality through which most people sleepwalk in life most of the time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

the unimaginable touch of Time

John Constable, Cloud Study

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail:
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

William Wordsworth, "Mutability"

Not wishing to be caught in the traps of determinism, I cannot however avoid thinking that this persistent fascination with mutability and the impermanence of forms which pervades nearly all modern British poetry and art must be deeply rooted in the landscape and changeable climate of the archipelago. Paradoxically (or perhaps not), this rootedness may also account for the persistent will to make forms against all odds, to grasp their line(ament)s, their unfolding and dissolution in time, in the weather, in place.

I have attempted to tackle the topic in the past, in an academic context, but somehow it has cropped up again after a recent visit to an exhibition on "British Art in Sensibilty and Experience" and the subsequent irresistible urge to re-visit the work of the so-called environmental/land artists (names are so reductive!): Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, David Nash and, in particular, Andy Goldsworthy. I didn't need to search far and wide to find this illuminating passage opening one of Goldsworthy's most astounding books:

Whenever possible, I make a work every day. Each work joins the next in a line that defines the passage of my life, marking and accounting for my time and creating a momentum which gives me a strong sense of anticipation for the future. Each piece is individual, but I also see the line combined as a single work.

Time and change are connected to place. Real change is best understood by staying in one place. When I travel, I see differences rather than change. I resent travelling south in early spring in case I am away from home when I see my first tree coming into leaf. If this happens, I see the leaves, but not the growth or change. I feel similarly about the first frost or ice or snow, and the first warm day after winter. I thrive on the disruption forced by seasonal changes - a hard freeze, heavy snow, a sudden thaw, leaf fall, strong winds - which can change dramatically any working patterns that have become established in a particular season.

Not that seasons can be easily separated from one another. The smell of autumn can often be detected well before the season fully arrives, just as emerging growth can be seen in winter. For some plants, such as mosses, winter is their summer. [...]

In a previously unvisited, snowy place I have little idea of the landscape of stone, water and earth that lies below the surface. This gives me a strange perspective on the place which can sometimes be interesting. In the Arctic, for instance, I began to see the frozen sea as land which in turn made me think of the land as fluid. Usually, however, I am like an animal that needs to know where to find nourishment beneath the snow - the summer contained within winter. Being aware of the presence of one season within another and the tension and balance between seasons is also a way of understanding the layers of time that made the land.

Andy Goldsworthy, Time (Dumfriesshire, Scotland: Cameron Books, 2000), p. 7.

Maybe it is this inability - or impossibility, under the present social circumstances - to stay in one place and perceive its changes, the interweaving lines and layers of which it is made, that accounts for our anguished sense of lack of time. Our inarticulate unease at mutability. The impoverished non-places through which we constantly move, in a frenzy, lack precisely this sense of time embedded in a place. But does the lack really lie in the places themselves, or, instead, in our unskilled, desensitised perception unable to see beneath the glossy banalities of the everyday?...

Image: Andy Goldsworthy, The Neuberger Cairn.