Friday, April 30, 2010

songs of exile (2)

'The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person. Our home is open, there are no keys in the doors, visible ghosts come in and out at will'.
--Czeslaw Milosz

Difficult indeed, but this is what eases and mitigates the pain of exile. That you are not confined to nor contained by it - there is always enough space for surprises, changes, transformations.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

songs of exile (1)

Psalm 'By the Rivers of Babylon' from Chludov Psalter

Sometimes when you are all alone
You think back to that time you once knew,

When every thought
Was in a different tongue,
A language you could no longer speak.
And you'd realize as your mind goes back,
You'd felt things you could no longer say,
When every color
Was in a different shade,

A language you could no longer speak.
            --Ayuo, 'Different Languages' [click to listen], from Earth Guitar.

I have been pondering on whether to accept or decline a recent institutional request that will force me to dwell more than I wish to on a language I can no longer speak: my own native one. Not that I cannot function in Portuguese occasionally, when I speak with family & friends. I can, of course, but it has long ceased to be a vehicle I feel like using to convey my thoughts in any meaningful, creative, pleasant way, especially in writing. I can no longer speak it, because it no longer speaks me. It has become rootless, placeless, tied to environments, landscapes and memories that are fading away, cracking like old paintwork as time goes by and I realise there is no return. I will never return there (and where would I return to, where...?), except in passing, when I really have to, to dispatch family or professional commitments. As swiftly as possible, and never for pleasure, let alone for nostalgia. 'Environments are a part of thoughts' indeed, as Ayuo's song so beautifully phrases it. Some of my thoughts are homeless in this light. Orphans.

A while ago I wrote here that the alternative sense of home I envisage allows you to find roots and feel at home wherever you are. I was partly lying to myself, I guess, because there is a land where I feel hopelessly, heartbreakingly homeless and displaced - a fish out of water, gasping for breath: my own 'homeland'. But who has deserted whom? I recall an article by Neal Ascherson where at some point he mentions, citing J. R. Jones, 'the pain of exile', the most agonising and irreversible experience - that of 'knowing, not that you are leaving your country, but that your country is leaving you, being sucked away from you'.* That very much puts things as they crudely are, at least for me. The truth I will have to live with for the rest of my life: that my own tongue is the language of exile, the language I will never be able to relate to without the pain of exile. To ease it, I have endeavoured to master other languages to perfection, so that they can speak me while I speak them, quid pro quo. (Will we ever reach a fair deal, though...?)

Speaking of languages you can no longer speak always brings me back to that most moving, beautiful, painful song of exile ever written in the Portuguese language, which I can never read without tears (of exile). Camões wrote it as a gloss on the Biblical Psalm 137, 'Super flumina Babylonis', a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The rivers of the famous opening lines - 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion' - are the Euphrates and its tributaries, but throughout art and literature these waters have come to symbolise all sorts of tears of exile and memory.**

And what did Camões make of them? This astounding 'Sobre os Rios / Over the Rivers' (original Portuguese followed by a rough translation - the whole thing does sound so much less painful and heartbreaking in English...):

Sobolos rios que vão
Por Babilônia m’achei,
Onde sentado chorei
As lembranças de Sião,
E quanto nela passei.
Ali o rio corrente
De meus olhos foi manado. . . .

[Over the rivers going by
I found myself in Babylon,
Where I sat down and wept
The memories of Zion,
And all that I have been through ever since.
There, the overflowing river
Poured from my eyes . . . .]

And, a couple of stanzas later, the most difficult of determinations:

Eu, que estas cousas senti
n’ alma, de mágoas tão cheia,
«Como dirá, respondi,
quem tão alheio está de si
doce canto em terra alheia?»

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
E se eu cantar quiser
em Babilónia sujeito,
Hierusalém, sem te ver,
a voz, quando a mover,
se me congele no peito.
A minha língua se apegue
às fauces, pois te perdi,
se, enquanto viver assi,
houver tempo em que te negue
ou que me esqueça de ti.

[I, who have felt all these things
Upon my soul so full of grief,
replied thus: 'How will someone
So utterly estranged from himself
Sing such a sweet song in a foreign land?'
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If I ever, thus in Babylon imprisoned, wish to sing thee,
O Jerusalem, without seeing thee,
May my voice, when I move it, freeze in my chest.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, for I have lost thee,
If, while I thus live,
There should come a time in which I deny
Or forget thee.]


So may mine. I've hung my harp on a tree a long, long time ago.

*Neal Ascherson, 'Chords of Identity in a Minor Key' in Games With Shadows (London: Radius, 1988), p. 3.
**Most famoulsy in T. S. Eliot's line from The Waste Land, ''By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept'...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


'On certain mornings, as we turn the corner, an exquisite dew fills our heart and then vanishes. But the freshness lingers, and this always, is what the heart needs'.

Albert Camus - Return to Tipasa

Monday, April 26, 2010

chinese envoy

I don't know what conjured up the memory, but I've humming this song to myself all day - and recalling one of the most moving, beautiful concerts I've ever attended, more than ten years ago in Edinburgh, during the Fringe Festival, when John Cale sang from his album Fragments of a Rainy Season.

There are moments, voices, songs that just leave this soft but indelible imprint on your soul. 'Chinese Envoy' is one of them, alongside Cale's interpretations of some of Dylan Thomas's poems. (For reasons I don't quite understand, I've never managed to find a version, youtubed or otherwise, of 'If I were tickled by the rub of love' that Cale sang on that night - to absolute perfection, restraint, emotion, depth. So much better than Thomas's own overdramatic recitation.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

walking, travelling, dreaming

A sore throat prevented me from going walking with friends today outside Tokyo, which was a shame. I was thus left with an unexpected day at home (so rare in these hectic times) for an imaginary walk around landscapes that mean the world to me, with the best guide you can wish for. Reading, writing, reading... that is, travelling.

Almost as good as a walk outside, or as...


The story began

"Waking at five and passing into a jumble
of dreams that with time ended by
taking me into your arms.

Over the weeks apart our minds race
ahead of our bodies,
When we meet, when they catch up,
then like a golden light, yes?
descends upon us wholly.

The dream is right.
The words wrong-foot sometimes
but try to push through the briars,
leap over them sometimes,
Brer Rabbit and all."

But I built too much in those dreams?
Too many scars and losses behind us.
Yet this chance, come upon by accident,
precious but shakey.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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

Lee Harwood, from 'Czech Dream', Collected Poems, pp. 429-31.

you are the music while the music lasts

I am always in awe of that moment when, sitting in the audience, suspended in time, I wait for a performer to step into the half-light of the stage. It is a rite of passage, the archetypal enacting of a microcosm, a sacred space where something hitherto invisible becomes visible and something, someone is born, becomes body, flesh, sweat, naked emotion.

At the beginning of his wonderful book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Antonio Damásio sees in this moment - 'the passage through a threshold that separates a protected but limiting shelter from the possibility and risk of a world beyond and ahead' - a powerful metaphor for consciousness, for the birth of the knowing mind, for the momentous coming of the sense of self to itself. And he chooses the perfect verses to illustrate the moving quality of such a moment, from the most memorable of poems on our sense of time and its music:

...Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

T. S. Eliot, 'The Dry Salvages', from Four Quartets.

How I remembered it tonight, like a mantra against the surrounding noise.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

there is nothing so beautiful

"You must try, Psyche, to use up all your facility against an obstacle; face the granite, rouse yourself against it, and for a while despair. See your vain enthusiasms and your frustrated aims fall away. Perhaps you lack sufficient wisdom yet prefer your will to your ease. You find that stone too hard, you dream of the softness of wax and the obedience of clay? Follow the path of your aroused thought and you will soon meet this infernal inscription: There is nothing so beautiful as that which does not exist."

Paul Valéry - 'Concerning Adonis', qtd. in Lee Harwood, 'The Long Black Veil' in Collected Poems, p. 183.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I love the beginning of books (well, I love the beginning of everything that is good and new and promising). Every now and then I find myself returning to the opening lines of books I read ages ago, and realise how the spell never ends. It is always a fresh beginning.

Were I to choose an all-time favourite, it would be this most amazing beginning about beginnings, about the beginning of everything. Everything.

Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.

Let no one be mistaken. I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.

So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before the pre-history there already existed apocalyptic monsters? If this history does not exist, it will come to exist. To think is an act. To feel is a fact. Put the two together - it is me who is writing what I am writing. God is the world. The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate and impossible to define. My heart has shed every desire and reduced itself to one final or initial beat. The toothache that passes through this narrative has given me a sharp twinge right in the mouth. I break out into a strident, high-pitched, syncopated melody. It is the sound of my own pain, of someone who carries this world where there is so little happiness. Happiness? I have never come across a more foolish world . . . .

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star, trans. Giovanni Pontiero (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986), pp. 11-12.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

tranquil obsessions

Some artists have large audiences, drag multitudes, sell like hot cakes. Others have a small, discreet, almost secretive following. A following that is neither a herd of silly teenagerish fans nor a snobbish coterie, but people who often don't know each other and accompany an artist at a respectful, serene distance, as if not to disturb some sacred ground of creation (into which they could only conceive of stepping barefoot, in the privacy of silence and the night). People who become addicted, as a dear poet once put it, to an artist's method, language, worldview. They got him/her under their skin.

Ever the loner distrustful of herds & bestsellers, I tend to relate to an artist's world in this way. Even when the full immersion mode, the years of "sharp study and long toil"* compel you to approach the person, there always remains a reticence, a fear of entering someone's place uninvited and with muddy shoes. Or of being sorely disappointed at human, all too human weaknesses & vanities that might mar the appreciation of the work. (That happens a lot.)

Yes, I do have my half-secret list of tranquil obsessions - and Lee Harwood's poetry is no doubt on the shortlist. How can I even begin to verbalise what draws me to his poetic world? His emotional landscapes that always leave room for disclosure and mystery, distance and proximity, groundedness and change, transformation. You can never know who 'you' and 'I' are in his poems, as they float and metamorphose incessantly; his lovers are at times men, at times women, because what counts is the absolute singularity of the moment, of the place in which love happens, and the indelible mark it leaves on memory.

And then there are, of course, the walks. The way people walk in the world in which they find themselves, the way they merge into it, its colours, sounds and feelings, blurring the boundaries between the human and the natural - culture and nature, the most arbitrary of distinctions.

In the distance __ the cliff walk
decorated piers now antique ____ you lie away
the ocean is so vast ____ someday
I am waiting ___ is your patience enough?

Ghosts haunt the sites of our past
I ___ someday soon
across the ocean ___ coming
such love goes far beyond

Green seas look soft and turn grey
the white chalk ___ a cap of dark woods
it is a matter of wonder
and what comes with time?

Lee Harwood, from 'The cliff walk', in Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2004), p. 128.


*The quote is from an ode by Basil Bunting (another artist who had the smallest but most dedicated following of readers):

These tracings from a world that's dead
take for my dust-smothered pyramid.
Count the sharp study and long toil
as pavements laid for worms to soil.
You without knowing it might tread
the grass where my foundation's laid,
your, or another's house be built
where my weathered stones lie spilt,
and this unread memento be
the only lasting part of me.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

no home

I live on an island
I work on that island

there is no home
(and that the hardest to admit -
that we're here naked, alone)

the island part of a continent
and that part of the world (obviously)

Fly, float, drift, from place to place,
land to land.

And where is the knife less sharp, sir?

Lee Harwood, from 'Notes of a Post Office Clerk' in Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2004), p. 252.


The hardest to admit, indeed. That's why you've got to carry your home around with you, turtle-like. And as strong.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

your most terrible name

Of late I've been humming this little song to myself more often than I should. A mesmerising poem on the lovable, translucent, dark, terrifying liquid realm to which you always feel compelled to return when something, someone takes you by storm and you just don't know what to do. You just don't know. (And so just sit quietly in the shadows humming songs, waiting. Waiting and listening.)

Damn it.

Little Water Song

Under here, you just take my breath away
Under here, the water flows over my head
I can hear the little fishes

Under here whispering your most terrible name
Under here, they've given me starfish for eyes
And your head is a big red balloon

Under here, your huge hand is heavy on my chest
Ah, and under here, Sir, your lovely voice retreats
And yes, you take my breath away

Look at my hair, as it waves and waves
Sir, under here, I have such pretty hair
Silver, it is, and filled with silver bubbles

Ah, and under here, my blood will be a cloud
And under here my dreams are made of water
And, Sir, you just take my breath away

For under here, my pretty breasts are piled high
With stones and I cannot breathe
And tiny little fishes enter me

Under here, I am made ready
And under here, I am washed clean
And I glow with the greatness of my hate for you

Lyrics by Nick Cave
Performed by Ute Lemper

[Note: A nice, much mellower live version by Kate Miller-Heidke. Too nice, perhaps?...]

Friday, April 16, 2010


On rereading an old essay by Brian Eno, I realised how what draws me to certain listening experiences doesn't really differ much from what draws me to certain poetry or to certain 'visual' art: their capacity not just to evoke but be a place, a feeling, a landscape, a world. A place where I build a house - or maybe a boat - and dwell in, swim in, float in, get lost inside. Naked and sheltered, alone and not alone.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

on friendship, again (2)

'The wind, roaring in the night, is both stranger and friend'.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, from Detached Sentences on Friendship, 1991.

(And so are you. So are you.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

on friendship, again (1)

'Friendship is inclination, acquaintance geography'.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, from Detached Sentences on Friendship, 1991.

But wouldn't it be nice to bring both together, inclination and geography, and spend physically more time with your friends, instead of on telegraphically stereotyped e-mails, Facebooks, online dating sites? Oh, barbaric, self-absorbed age we live in... [sigh]

life is elsewhere...

Often, all too often, when deserting a friend, a lover, a place, a possibility, you may just be deserting yourself. (Some euphemistically call this 'taking a distance'.)

Which is not necessarily bad, but not necessarily good either. Running away from yourself can be a 'lifestyle' in itself - and take over a lifetime. (That is to say, it can replace life itself.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

the spirit of place is a great lie

Every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality. [...]

There was a tremendous polarity in Italy, in the city of Rome. And this seems to have died. For even places die. The Island of Great Britain had a wonderful terrestrial magnetism or polarity of its own, which made the British people. For the moment, this polarity seems to be breaking. Can England die? And what if England dies?

Men are less free than they imagine; ah, far less free. The freest are perhaps least free.

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when I they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obey- ing from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, Organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when we are escaping to some wild west.

--D.H. Lawrence, 'The Spirit of the Place' in Studies in Classic American Literature.


O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

--W.B. Yeats, 'A Prayer for my Daughter'

I have often thought, especially over these past three years after I moved to Japan, how alien this nationalistic sense of place is to me. And it is perhaps because I have never been one to feel 'rooted in one dear perpetual place' that I have spent so much time studying artistic expressions of this rootedness, its illusions and pitfalls. While the experience has been rewarding in so many ways, it has also drawn me to the work of artists who have developed a radically different sense of place, artists who are cautious about or sceptical of national and communal allegiances because their sense of place relates to larger geographical or geological realities, or, most importantly, to much smaller ones - anonymous, non-descript small places that touch the heart unexpected ways.

Some might see here a survival strategy to cope with personal circumstances and hardships - forced nomadism, rootlessness, whatever - but I prefer to envisage it as an alternative sense of home. As I wrote a while ago, a sense of home that allows you to find roots wherever you are, in places where you were not born and did not live for long (or did not live at all), because you carry your sense of home around with you, and it overflows, emanates from you whenever some thing, some place, some person sparks it to life and you respond.

Finding a place for yourself in the world, or between worlds: developing an attentiveness to the unexpected, the unplanned, the improbable - and being at once patient and unafraid to respond.

That's the prayer I'd send up for my ever-moving daughter. May you feel at home everywhere you are and go, sweetheart.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

listening, again

At the end of an exhausting day, the sudden pleasure of finding a long-awaited book of poems in your mailbox, bringing it inside, cuddling with it, like sitting with a friend by the fire.

Listening with your eyes, time stands still. All weariness wears off - you are just pleasantly tired.

Music after the flood
in the hills and mountains.
As spring comes a young bull
bellows in a high green field.
You stop and listen.

And the other sounds -
the mew of two buzzards up above,
the drumming of water down
over rock slab over rock slab,
my voice talking to myself.

Listening, waiting, drifting
into that space beyond words.
Forgot what I meant to say.
My hands before my eyes.
It can happen. Clear and bright.

from 'Talking Bab-Ilu" in Lee Harwood, Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2004).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

the worlds are breaking in my head

Every so often the silence of the small hours brings me back to the poetry of the suspended moment - an immense stillness on the verge of an immense disquietude, "unforeseen happenings . . . the time of earthquakes at hand."

And who else could have written it? Who else?...

The worlds are breaking in my head
Blown by the brainless wind
That comes from afar
Swollen with dusk and dust
And hysterical rain

The fading cries of the light
Awaken the endless desert
Engrossed in its tropical slumber
Enclosed by the dead grey oceans
Enclasped by the arms of the night

The worlds are breaking in my head
Their fragments are crumbs of despair
The food of the solitary damned
Who await the gross tumult of turbulent
Days bringing change without end

The worlds are breaking in my head
The fuming future sleeps no more
For their seeds are beginning to grow
To creep and to cry midst the
Rocks of the deserts to come

Planetary seed
Sown by the grotesque wind
Whose head is so swollen with rumours
Whose hands are so urgent with tumours
Whose feet are so deep in the sand

'Yves Tanguy', by David Gascoyne.

Monday, April 5, 2010

the beauty of temporariness

Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Umbrellas (Japan)

While I'll always prefer the small-scale, solitary, pastoral, whimsical approach of British earth artists - Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Drury, David Nash, Richard Long, and Hamish Fulton are my faves - to the megalomaniac American Earthworks, I very much enjoyed visiting the Christo & Jeanne-Claude retrospective LIFE=WORKS=PROJECTS in Tokyo this weekend. A most felicitous title indeed, for this identification runs through everything they lived & did together. No matter how much you dislike their self-importance and extravaganzas, you have to admit that they did manage to merge what most of us, mere mortals, are forced to keep separate: life and work, work and pleasure, love and work, life and love... And is there a nobler aspiration for an artist?

But besides this, their crazy, obsessive large-scale projects have an undeniable beauty of their own, which the artists perceptively attributed to their 'nomadic' temporariness (they always insisted that their projects be temporary and exist for a very limited number of days) - an ephemerality that has an awesome power to change forever your way of perceiving a certain landscape. Here are a couple of moving lines I copied - by hand! - from one of the captions at the exhibition:

'In the thousands of years of art history,' [Christo & J-C] explained, 'artists have introduced various elements of beauty into their works. There have been religious themes and abstract designs, colours and shapes, marble and wood used as materials. But there is one element of beauty that no one has used until now. That is temporariness. That is what we have in our works.'

[On the 'nomadic':] 'The nomads of Tibet and the Sahara desert pitch their tents in the desert,' [Christo] said, 'and instantly create a village. But the next day there is no trace of the village. We want to incorporate the quality of nomadic life into our projects.'

They did. And I, for one, shall never forget the image of Christo dashing between Ibaraki and California, shouting at everybody, throwing tantrums, between despair and exhilaration, childishly enjoying his 3,000 thousand blue and yellow umbrellas...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

walking & waiting, again

Aomori, September 2009

the path turns

don't follow it
wait to feel
the lure of it

from Thomas A. Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), p. 79.

Friday, April 2, 2010

I gave her the gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign

It's one of those things. A reference, in passing, triggered an irresistible urge to revisit Kavanagh's poetry and, with it, the memory of this lovely old Irish ballad. There are numerous versions of the song, including a moving one by Sinead O'Connor, but it's Mark Knopfler's soft Scottish touch that steals my heart.

On Raglan Road

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew

That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay -
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her the gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that's known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay -
When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Patrick Kavanagh