A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN CULTURE
by Michael Peverett
Section 8. 1997-2004
Tony Conran: Theatre of Flowers (1998) words for other life
Ian McEwan: Amsterdam (1998) a worthy winner
Roger Grenier: The Difficulty of Being a Dog (1998) books aren’t about dogs
Craig Raine (1999) a slice of
Stephen Isaac (2000) an amateur revelation
Katharine McMahon (2000) anachronism as an investigative tool
Moniza Alvi: Poetry Collections (1993, 1996, 2000...) poetry at school
The Danbury Mint Catalogue (2001) “richness” in practice
Five from Finland (2001) Mirkka Rekola, Kai Nieminen, Lauri Otonkoski, Tomi Kontio, Riina Katajavuori NEW
Esso: Climate Change, Our View (2002) corporate fictions
Åsne Seierstad: The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) within another country
In the shops (2002) clothing, handwash and supermarkets
Daffodil-picking (2003) labouring to be free
Erophila verna (2004) ephemerals and the wonder-torch
Tales from the Ironing Trade (2004) a great leveller
Peter Riley (1940 - ) Excavations, The Day's Final Balance
I am writing this very fast. This contains various groups of poems, but I’m only going to talk about nature . Most of the “Theatre of Flowers” group is too fanciful for my needs – I don’t want to say (and this is at its best) of borage
The sepals curl through it
Furry and brown,
Like claws of an animal
or of cranberries
They’re like eyes red
though I see the point.
This is better:
Spry grass. Grey tombs.
(from “September”). OK, so “spry” is a metaphor, but the comparison is hardly visualized and you might say that “spry” is thoroughly re-appropriated to the vegetable world and means “spry in the way of dry breezy grass in the latter end of summer”. That’s more how I think you can use words about grass and even venture a little way into the non-human form of life, but (paradoxically) by evoking how the grass affects the human mind; you draw on a feeling that we already have for other things in our world, a feeling that’s sub-verbal.
Or this, from “Isoetes (Quillwort)”:
On the down-wind
Shore-line of the lake,
Broken quillwort leaves
Lap the gravel.
Even whole corms
Have been torn by the icy
Of the wind
You feel dispirited afterwards. The
Despite the symmetry all the real interest revolves around Clive, the neo-classical composer. We are to discover what ills we have swallowed in such an apparently neutral sentence as “The years and all the successes had narrowed his life to its higher purpose”.
We share in Clive’s struggle to compose his finale. If a suspicion intrudes that this is not quite how a good composer would think, you can’t deny that McEwan seems to understand his subject, right down to the choice of key. Clive’s brute selfishness is in the end spelled out when he ignores a rape-scene that interrupts his composition. It isn’t subtle (Clive’s selfishness was already contained in his interior monologues) – worse, it isn’t credible; all he had to do was safely reveal his observing presence with a call.
The crudeness in that scene (nevertheless wonderfully performed) alerts us to other peculiarities of this very kinetic book. Rose Garmony is a parody of sweetness from her very name. She performs open-heart surgery on a little West Indian girl, and she then appears (somewhat stage-managed) as a staunch Tory wife whose deceitful support dispatches her husband’s enemies. The novel challenges us to demur.
Her husband fails anyway – mud is always
remembered. Whether we go with
Why McEwan has to give us a little lesson
in English comprehension to spell out how Clive’s note is misread, I don’t
know. It’s another page, like the ones about Rose Garmony, that falls weirdly
flat. “On the other hand, perhaps no other outcomes were available to them, and
this was the nature of their tragedy.” Another irony, at authors being stupider
than their books, or is McEwan himself incompetent as well as brilliant – a
It is rather fitting that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize – you almost suspect it was aimed to do just that, but with the covert intention of discrediting the prize. It’s a slight entertainment about boringly familiar establishment types, but, like the Siamese twins who bite each other’s faces, or Clive messing up the identity parade, it’s continuously vivid until near the end.
I wish, instead, that I’d read Atonement. My Dad said it was good.
I give the date of publication in
Anyway, the original title was Les
larmes d’Ulysse, which is untranslateable since it refers to the tears that
sprang to Odysseus’ eyes when he was recognized by the dog
Everyone who takes an interest in “civilisation”, in the “human” world in which we operate, must be interested in dogs, since they have been our colleagues in making this world. At least, this is true of Euro-American culture, beyond which Grenier does not stray.
But I have not much to say about the rest of the book. It becomes merely anecdotes, a publisher’s good idea, a middlebrow hotchpotch for those many buyers of Christmas books who like to be around fine literature without actually reading it. But literature, we discover, is disappointing when it comes to confronting the subject of dogs on its own terms. We’d do better with an animal psychologist. Instead we get literary anecdotes with a doggy flavour.
But rather than waste time on that, here is another passage that mattered:
Emmanuel Levinas, captured by the Germans in 1940 and sent to a forest work detail with other Jewish prisoners of war, realized that in the eyes of his guards, and even of passersby, he and his fellow prisoners no longer belonged to the human race. Then a stray dog came and joined them: ‘For the dog, there was no doubt we were men.’
And, since reading a book should be a
co-operative exercise, this was my own reflection. My parents have had three
dogs, and I loved the second one best (she was a collie named Beth). In fact I
loved her so much that I always withheld affection from
So I began to see that in heaven both Beth
The woman who Raine intends to memorialise is unnamed, like Shakespeare’s young man, though the name is not secret even to an outer public since she is stated to be the Penguin translator of Flaubert’s Tentation.
In the end her personality remains about as shadowy as the young man in the Sonnets. The flyleaf of the book (which might well be considered part of the poem, since I guess Raine wrote it) talks about restoring her “formidable complexity” (along with other things) but I don’t think this is achieved and don’t really see how it could be without supplying a lot more of her own words than we actually get.
Raine uses about 800 lines of loose couplets, and I suppose one question that arises is whether his memoir would have more effectively achieved its aim (“To make you here”) in plain prose. Or again, he might have presented his material linearly, instead of cutting back and forth.
It might seem rather against the grain to attempt to disentangle the chronology - but since that is what Raine is shown doing himself (working out if he could have caught AIDS), and since it is after all possible (a marked difference from Shakespeare’s sequence), let’s accept the covert invitation. For after all, in doing this we are treating the woman as a real person, and thus forwarding the author’s project.
“thirty years ago” (i.e. from now, therefore late ‘60s?) their relationship began, and he read her poems. But the quotation about the “rare, precious hair of the dead” must have been written later, if it was written, as the poem says, when her father died - because her father was able to refer to Raine as “the gutter-snipe” years after they’d split.
Before the below, probably - “At Stoneleigh, Watlington” - she sublets, and makes Raine give a lodger notice.
1969 - She is in
1970 - she is living at
Sometime later: she has a lecturing job and gives it up. Tries modelling. Her first adventure with “a total stranger” - thereafter, many more.
Also sometime later, she has a black boy-friend (Jamie, the one who gives her AIDS) - but Raine and she go to bed at least once thereafter (“talking like sister and brother”).
“1982, 83?” - she is living at
1986 “unreadable” novel published. (Three years before the next.)
1989 (i.e. the year before the next). She already knows she has AIDS. Asks him to be her literary executor - he refuses.
“1990”. The last time they met, at
Fornello’s, a restaurant. She invites him to
The experience of working all this out is quite interesting, since it reveals a more vulnerable side to the woman than appears in swift reading through. Her own chaste letters (the “epistolary iceberg”) and her burning out of Raine’s “filth” from his, are now seen to pre-date her later sexual adventurings. The shock inspired by Grünewald’s painting is presented as prophetic of her death. But she retains a reserve to the end (“Details that make you cringe”).
I meant to complain that, if not quite “unlovable”, she certainly strikes us as unloving. But she does have an affection for the famous dead (Racine, Proust, Caruso...) and for Raine himself, and we know too that she has a certain consideration for her parents’ feelings. She doesn’t love her goldfish.
Raine’s couplets are easy to read, often humbly bathetic:
We ate a quiche, a quiche Lorraine.
Quiche hadn’t reached
The bubble at the corner of your mouth.
Which seems somehow to mean so much.
Sometimes, there’s an unpleasing university wit, suggesting “light verse”:
The vulgar fraction and the better half.
The way your knees whispered together
like words of a feather -
And then there are the trademark successions of similes:
is file and feather duster.
The sea is sparkling like sandpaper.
Arabic script, its ripple and flutter
stencilled on whitewash.
The main café: a line of hookahs
like a single letter
It’s hard to judge a passage like this as a whole (I like the sandpaper, but not the rest so much). The only way seems to be to see this as building up a civilised, inquisitive, accepting tone, a sort of fluid though limited medium in which the woman can be, to the same limited extent, re-membered. What we get is not the woman as a complete person (which would involve her relation to her parents and who knows who else) but the images that live in Raine’s imagination and bear her name. What else could he honestly come up with?
But I don’t like it very much. In some ways I even prefer Dryden’s Eleonora, though the author freely admits “One Disadvantage I have had, which is, never to have known, or seen my Lady”. Dryden passes methodically and blithely through each field of virtue - Eleonora excels in them all - and we are not informed of a single gossipy, peculiar little trait or taste. But Dryden, in surveying this model noble wife and mother, achieves more than he knows. Most of what we are we share with our peers.
Of Raine’s poem I might say, unkindly, that
its chief impression is “a glimpse of
Nevertheless, he doesn’t really stretch his art to meet the challenge that his desire to re-create contains. The poem feels simultaneously complacent and restless, as if he knows he wants to magic something out of the ashes of that cremation, but thinks that if he just gives his memories the good old Raine treatment it could possibly be enough.
This is amateur and self-published verse. I envy the author’s freedom at the same time as I wonder why he makes such poor use of it. And yet, perhaps everything is satisfyingly said. The best poems seem to be the most fictive, or the nonsense poems: as if at this level the author is not disabled but can speak as surely as anyone else. The desperation and then shoving it to the back of your life are effectively revealed.
This is a historical novel about English Catholics in the early seventeenth century. It is so well-written that one soon comes to trust; here there will be no badly made scenes.
The dialogue is written in neutral modern English, always sharp and absorbing, yet somehow recalling Mills and Boon romances.
“But you must surely have longed to be more active all these years.”
“I’m not the adventurous type. I only do as I’m told.”
“Shall we go to the cathedral first? Shall we see what it’s like to be in a Catholic church?” Isabel asked.
“We’re expected in the Rue Grosse.”
“Ten minutes. Just to convince ourselves of where we are.”
But Isabel’s story doesn’t lead in a conventional Mills and Boon direction, though it draws on that genre’s fire, idealism, and avoidance of the explicit.
The descriptive writing is like this:
Behind lacy iron gates the house was burnished the colour of toast.
He was a tallish man with a complicated face and flaky scalp.
He folded his hands and pom-pommed a little tune to himself.
When she pushed back the door the smell of raw wood and incense was at once replaced by a rush of autumn air.
The logic of this mentality is that Shakespeare, in the book’s most nervous moments, must be rejected with appalled incomprehension. But this is not the rejection of a pious seventeenth-century Catholic; it is the rejection of a modern awareness.
The brilliance of those descriptive sentences is inescapably linked to the anachronism of the dialogue and the implied conceptions of action. Nothing could have been thought in this way, yet these things (or something like them) must have happened. There is indeed a yawning void in our ability to grasp the everyday life of the past. The writers didn’t record it, though we are tricked into thinking that they did.
The effect of the anachronism is to make the book’s image a “fantasy” - a liberating effect when it is employed so seriously. I persistently question what (or where) the book is really about. The ending is thoroughly satisfying. Mary Ward’s project is feminist as well as (or perhaps more than) religious. All the male characters fail Isabel, unless perhaps Father Turner, who (with splendid anachronism) clinches matters thus:
Your penance, my dear Mistress Stanhope, and it is a heavy one, is to follow the dictates of your own conscience.
The book’s intended readership is perhaps entirely female, but that ought to change. It is a modern book, not in any sense that implies avant-garde, but because it reflects the outlook of many rather ordinary, intelligent people with a high degree of competence.
[The Country at my Shoulder (1993); A Bowl of Warm Air (1996); Carrying My Wife (2000) – the latter was published by Bloodaxe in an edition that also contained her earlier volumes. This piece first appeared in Intercapillary Space.]
The Opinion column in Guardian Education, a few weeks ago, had Philip Beadle singing the praises of the AQA’s selection of “poems from different cultures”. (He was speaking of course as a teacher of English, not just as someone who likes poetry.)
Their place on the curriculum allows students the chance to form emotional responses to slavery and apartheid; to displacement, drought, disparity; to the complex inter-relationship between evil and love; and to the idea that religion might be groundless superstition. They examine cultural and linguistic heritage and the conscious homogenising of acceptable modes of discourse by an elite white male orthodoxy.
And in response to the suggestion that the curriculum should now dispense with the services of Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy – apparently it comes from Andrew Motion, but I think Beadle must be having fun – he points out in dismay that these are
poets whose work is both accessible and complex and, as such, sublimely relevant. I have lost count of the number of students who have cried at the climax of Armitage’s November, or girls who have begun to form a new version of femininity in their heads as a result of reading Duffy.
Litterateurs, Hands Off! he wants to say. And more seriously, “but the point is, I don’t think senior examiners drew the poets’ names on the back of a beer mat during a particularly boozy lunch.”
That, I’m sure, is quite right. School has its own agendas and they are complex ones. If poetry finds a place in the prime-time curriculum, it is only to a small degree, and for a small number of pupils, about learning to like or read or write poetry. Even less is it anything to do with introducing key works; this is about kids, not canons. An English lesson needs to support the maximum degree of differentiation, that is, it aspires to send every pupil in the room away with something that they can connect with, no matter what their interests or skills.
It might seem surprising and a little sentimental that the curriculum compels schoolchildren to savour this ancient, elitist, deeply unpopular art-form at all. But in fact the school poem is very good at its job – better, in some ways, than any form of prose. School poems are short and attractively full of space; not intimidating for those who are appalled by long back-and-forth periods that blacken the page with a confusion of detail; they encourage close comprehension skills; they allow a creative participation, they are puzzles and games and inspirations; they have the wonderful trick of permitting a divergent range of responses that can plug straight into the pupils’ own preoccupations; and of course, they bristle with important issues that a teacher wishes to report having aired in class. The differentiating lesson and the poem are just made for each other.
[In principle, anyway. Students who have struggled for years with the hateful effort of penetrating what written sentences mean are, more often than not, very ill-disposed towards writing that does not mean one thing in particular. Just as those of us who can’t do maths might possibly be prepared to attempt a sum if we think it has a definite answer, but regard all flim-flam about multiple roots and deviations and probabilities as placing the matter beyond further discussion.]
It needs to be a particular kind of poem. We sometimes imagine the hapless schools being forced to dine off husks by a malign conspiracy of poetry publishers who inexplicably want to sell Poetry Lite, but the social relationship between school and poetry establishment of course more complex than that. In fact for some explanatory power it’s better to look at where and why the poetry is consumed. Even poetry publishing has its commercial forces, and a nationwide system of authorizing certain writers in the classroom is something so gigantically disproportioned to the feeble sales of poetry through any other channel that a commercial poetry publisher wouldn’t be doing their job not to be thinking about it. Not that pupils are issued with copies of top collections by Armitage or Agard; GCSE material circulates in a diferent way. But its indirect spin-offs go a long way towards sustaining the modest demands of a poetic career; the sort of career that has a real commodity value for the trade.
They sent me a salwar kameez
glistening like an orange split open...
....I tried each satin-silken top –
was alien in the sitting-room.
I could never be as lovely
as those clothes
for denim and corduroy.
My costume clung to me
and I was aflame,
I couldn’t rise up out of its fire,
unlike Aunt Jamila...
“Presents from My Aunts in
Influence in the classroom is two-way and Alvi, like many another teacher, has something of the attractive directness of her charges. It’s hard to think of a less dilatory title, for example; there’s no issue here with knowing what we’re talking about! And obviously the poem is located so firmly in a child’s preoccupations that it is, as one fan nails it, what you “can totally relate to”. For this, it’s not necessary to drop exactly onto the paradigmatic issue of half-answering to a second country.
I love the poem, although I found it hard to ‘get into’ at first, because I was unused to poetry, now I really love and understand it. The more you read it, the more you notice, Its amazing all of the different meanings you find.
How amazing is Moniza????
She conveys typical teenage behaviour of wanting to fit in – anywhere! and the way we all feel out of place sometimes.
Sitting in a store dressing-room, even in one’s own country, can make you feel like these clothes don’t belong to me, or I wish they could belong to me but I don’t fit with them. It’s a beautiful color, but makes me look washed out and feel inferior. I somehow always go back to the same styles and colors. That’s where I feel secure!
That’s a reading that’s shifted quite a long way even from the second country of parents that every teenager has to contend with. But naturally identifying with some element of the poem’s cultural pressures adds force:
i fink this poem shows how a girl is trn between her culture.it help myself to portray the image in which she is tryin to create how her own culture is hurting her and they they another is trying to control her life.
and I was there – of no fixed nationality, this poem encapsulates the struggle that the children of the east face in the western countries they have adopted as their own, the struggle between two such different cultures each claiming them as its own... that the children feel in a land that their parents view as alien but they view as their own.
These remarks are from that treasure-house of spontaneous reader-responses, the Internet. In the classroom, alas, differentiation is one thing and a top exam grade is another; for that, as I see from the advice for teachers, you have to develop the ideas fully, carefully describe contrasted emotions, and connect to broader issues of identity. Exam advice:
Make it clear what the poet is writing about.
Refer to anything you know about the context of the poem which helps you understand the poems.
Remember to comment in detail about how the poem is written, referring to particular words and phrases.
Considered as a teaching aid, Alvi’s poem
is useful in so many ways, of which the least is its basic poetic toolkit
(which includes vibrant colours, similes, alliteration, and things that, the
teacher modestly queries, could be symbolic). “Presents from My Aunts” permits
some straightforward facts about
Though a measure of guidance may be needed:
The teacher reminded the class that many pupils had something in common with her by having backgrounds influenced by two cultures. In Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, the poet Moniza Alvi talks about the confusion she felt as a child towards her dual heritage. The teacher stressed that the poem was written in [about] the 1960s and that many people today have successfully fused the two cultures they inherited.
[The lesson continued well: there was focus and comment on “some of the key messages in Moniza Alvi’s poem”, and pupils “were able to discuss openly and calmly issues such as racism in society, cultural difference, their pride in their own cultural heritage and their conviction that they had successfully fused two (or more) cultures.”]
Those earlier comments obviously weren’t
burdened with scholastic labour. Nevertheless, they make highly nuanced
responses to Alvi’s luminous poem. (The point of the English lesson is not what
you know, you already know almost everything, but what you can be made to
understand that you know.) The topic is multiculturalism, which puts the word
“my” to the question, but the determining framework of the discourse is
inevitably western individualism. At the same time, since it’s “my” struggle
with the kameez, and “my” haunted exclusion from the
For the politically correct poem is a political poem, like everything else once you let it into a school. For a supplemental Alvi poem, you might choose the inclusive welcome of “Indian Cooking”:
paprika, cayenne, dhania
haldi, heaped like powder-paints.
a poem “bursting with colours, scents and flavours.....” (says Ideas for the Classroom) “.... ask each of them to write a poem about one of their own meals. Look closely at ‘Indian Cooking’ and borrow ideas from Moniza Alvi: the way she lists names of ingredients, for example; her use of simile and metaphor (spices “heaped like powder paints” and “Melted ghee made lakes, golden rivers”); and most importantly of all, the celebratory feel of the poem – you can tell by reading it how much she loves this food! The aim is to write with relish (apologies for the pun) and make your reader’s mouth water... There are real cross-curricular opportunities here – imaginative colleagues in Food Technology or Geography might well be keen to” etc. Alvi herself is quoted in a chatty interview and makes the appropriate noises:
The names of the foodstuffs
are beautiful words too: paprika, cayenne, dhania, haldi, keema, khir. They
must have an exotic sound to many people in
I was fascinated by the Indian names of spices and found it satisfying to use these words from the “other” culture in a poem, particularly as I’d grown up with them.
What’s your favourite food?
Unsurprisingly, I still have a particular affection for Indian food, but I love food generally and hate to hear the food of any culture dismissed.
I hope it doesn’t seem over-biographical to suggest that the classroom and its adult sequel, the workshop (in which we willingly re-assume our innocence) are the basic matrix for Alvi’s art. She is surrounded by young people and draws wholesomely from a range of children’s literature, nursery rhymes, and the vibrant joys of lovely poems. Her 2005 Guardian workshop “Close to the Skin”, for example, draws inspiration from the liquefaction of Herrick’s Julia in silk, takes in a line or two from Simic, Redgrove and Sexton, and nudges:
You might find yourself invoking a whole world, or a remembered scene. You may find you want to ‘take off’ from the description of the clothes into another area... you may wish to include elements of the magical... Perhaps you already have within your notes the first draft of a poem. Look for a good beginning.... Do you sense any emerging rhythms in what you’ve written? ... Experiment with different arrangements of the poem on the page... Choose a title...
It’s idle to deny the attractions of chalkdust and getting together. I should love to be miraculously transmuted into a bright pupil who gets to enjoy “GCSE Poetry Live!” and to see Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy in the flesh (“We guarantee there will be at least five poets at each venue..”). I should also have loved to be at the British Council Poetry evening in Poland last November, where Alvi and George Szirtes’ poems were read in Polish translations, and they diplomatically answered questions thus (Are you representatives?):
GS: I don’t consciously represent anything. We’ve been talking about this with Moniza in the aeroplane, because we’re sometimes in a very similar situation because we both have different backgrounds. ...
MA: There are so many poets writing poetry of great value and they are representing themselves. I feel that it is difficult enough to represent yourself in your poetry, let alone a country. ...
I might have spent too long with Moniza Alvi’s poems. Behind their popular tales, childlike appeals, helium fantasies, I hear a different sound-world, forced and awkward, characteristically a sound of toil, altogether more sombre. You can’t call it a ground-bass for it comes and goes: the awkwardness is the way it juts. I suppose I think of it as a subterranean structure that we eventually understand that the poem requires in order to truly make sense.
My Aunt Luckbir had full red lips,
sari borders broad like silver cities,
gold flock wallpaper in her sitting-room.
Purple curtains opened
The pattern of clogged assonance-pairs, stretching the shape of your mouth, is established in that second line, enforced in the fourth. Thence we’ll trace it through “overseas degree” and the desolate affluence of “Picking at rice on pyrex” until we arrive at the marriage of assonance-pairs thus:
After she died young
Uncle tried everything –
Without these noises, the poem chatters along emptily enough. With them, it’s shadowed by stretches of time that in themselves Alvi’s anecdotal memories can’t get at.
You are so concerned with the barrels of gunpowder
Take “Never Too Late” (from Carrying My Wife, 2000) as an example. Characteristically, it seems to be a harmlessly surreal fantasy on Guy Fawkes – as usually, a child’s fantasy, popular material. Carry on reading it like that and it seems a bit glib and tasteless when she suddenly kicks out:
Surely you knew you’d be tortured and hanged.
These bare ideas of unguarded violence, never “felt”, always followed by a swift change of tack – as if they haven’t been said – are more common in Alvi’s child-pictures than the reader easily remembers. She flies directly against the aesthetic dictum (still a potent residue of Leavisite days) that the high-profile topic needs to be “earned”.
Or she appears to. It needs a still moment to hear the paradigmatic pattern of the lines in “Never Too Late”: from a first half that is chattily confiding to a second half that labours to get itself completed, normally by some word that’s choked with sound. In these line-ends the story stalls, appalled by the recalcitrance of its material. Compare these:
For years you believed you were an alchemist.
In time you became a firework-maker.
You toyed with firecrackers, rockets, starbursts,
You’d had a lifetime of detonation.
They invited you to the firework-makers’ last supper.
There was always a sparkle in your stomach,
A star in your brain – the opportunity
to give vivid displays to a captive audience.
Alvi’s terrorism poem thinks aurally, engaged by the long effort in the sound of “firework” while its deadly triviality patters around.
In the title poem of The Country at my Shoulder, you can hear once more that Alvian sound of too-prolonged assonance:
dancing garlanded through parks.
(this is Bollywood). That the true story behind the anecdotes is a sound-story, as in “Luckbir”, begins to be apparent from the poem’s second line:
There’s a country at my shoulder,
growing larger – soon it will burst,
rivers will spill out, run down my chest.
The semi-rhyme of “larger” with “shoulder” should alert us: it’s the sound that a writer of standard prose would sheer away from. There’s another warning in the next stanza:
My cousin Azam wants visitors to play
ludo with him all the time.
He learns English in a class of seventy.
That second line is too short of syllables, the mock-refreshment of “ludo” ludicrously prolonged, “all the time” developing into an exasperation that drifts out beyond young Azam.
And I must stand to attention
with the country at my shoulder.
There’s an execution in the square –
The women’s dupattas are wet with tears.
The offices have closed
for the white-hot afternoon.
But the women stone-breakers chip away
at boulders, dirt on their bright hems.
They await the men and the trucks.
We seem to be drifting away from that opening image into profitless anecdote, but the word “boulders” is there to remind us. In fact this is Alvi at her most intuitive. The sound of “execution” is so sensuously unlike those weak, clumsy stone-breakers: so fine and final.
Here comes another of Alvi’s intoxications with those yawing dipthongs:
When the country bursts, we’ll meet.
Uncle Kamil shot a tiger,
it hung over the wardrobe, its jaws
fixed in a roar – I wanted to hide
its head in a towel.
The country has become my body –
I can’t break bits off.
The real function of the tiger’s heavy noises is to instantly displace the little olive branch, the little trickle of lyric, in “we’ll meet”. The payload of “meet” is postponed until the final line of the poem:
Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.
It’s a question for the reader whether the sound-tension in the poem is something Alvi developed or something she failed to exclude. It may not be all that important: for example, the hyper-real “country” is there to be shot down anyway. My choice of expression, of course, is uncomfortable.
Alvi has now published five full-length collections; I don’t know the last two so well. She seems to have put a block on those too-plentiful similes, as we all have. But a narrative of artistic crises is not to be looked for here. “The Suits” (published in the Guardian along with that workshop) is a poem whose subterranean activity is perhaps more concentrated than ever:
My father’s forties suit,
bought when he first came to
pin-striped with broad lapels, comfortingly chocolate, but crisp.
He and his Pakistani friends and their we-have-arrived-suits.
In a black-and-white snap, Dad sits on the grass at a rural crossroads,
head in his hands, signs pointing in all directions: Digswell, Welwyn,
Tewin Wood... Even here, deep in the countryside, he’s wearing
his suit. He’s handsome as a doctor, our neighbour said.
My father and his friends, marvelled at wherever they went, ordering
a sandwich at the Comet Hotel, or shopping on the Barnet by-pass.
This was before Go back home! Their suits of armour
could have stood up without them. Walked on and on.
This has a holiday insouciance (chocolates, crisps and sandwiches) but the sounds of prolonged toil are still there to be heard in the lines that could be filler-lines but really aren’t (1 and 8). (And there in line 10 is the ugly violence whose evocation the poem doesn’t allow us to admire.) In lines 5-6, the Ws make English sounds, in particular the silent or near-silent Ws in Welwyn and Tewin. These are gradations of misty distance: the country, like the suits, is both put on and stands up without you; habited, inhabitant... Lost among those silent Ws, “wearing / his suit” is, near enough, “airing his suit”.
On the table is the Christmas 2001 Catalogue of the Danbury Mint (“Heirlooms and Treasures”) - an astonishing publication. I can’t tell the difference any more between the artistic effect of this incredibly rich and complex commercial enterprise and - well, last night it was Rimbaud and Tomlinson, for example. The latter have more re-sale value, but that’s the only thing that occurs to me.
I realized I was drinking my tea from the wrong mug. This one was bought in Magalluf, not in Alcúdia. Dabbled green background, blue and burgundy flowers with yellow centres. I like those cheap hand-painted mugs much more than anything in the Danbury Mint catalogue. In fact the one from Alcúdia was not so cheap, it has an abstract design and is signed “Figas”. I wonder about the life of Figas and the people who produce all those oil paintings of white houses and boats drawn up on the beach. And the photographs of the artists in the Danbury Mint catalogue; the pleasantest, happiest people, with the nicest names, a bit like the writers of romances too.
Walking somewhere, I was struck by the headline
TIMELESS CLASSICS COME OF AGE
Mirrka Rekola, Kai Nieminen, Lauri Otonkoski, Tomi Kontio, Riina Katajavuori
This article is named and dated from Anselm Hollo’s translated selections, published by Reality Street Editions, from which all quotations are taken. One of the poets, Mirkka Rekola, can also be sampled in Herbert Lomas’s Bloodaxe anthology, Contemporary Finnish Poetry (1991). Four of them have generous selections (with translations in multiple languages, some of them taken from this book) on the excellent Electric Verses site maintained by the Finnish literature and culture association Nuoren Voiman Liitto (which also supplies much more sensible introductions than I intend to do). None of them, however, happens to feature in Leevi Lehto’s "My Short Anthology of Finnish Poetry" (http://www.leevilehto.net/default.asp?a=5&b=10) compiled in 2005 – Finnish poetry is a large field, even putting on one side the significant Finland-Swedish tradition.
If I could read any Finnish I might think about
these poets completely differently. In the English-speaking world we rely on
selections, never glimpsing more than the silvery flash of each poet. It’s easy
enough to see that
The landscape's deepest melody flowed on
over the banks of the resounding Middle Ages. (LO)
People in the river are waving their torches away.
A medieval woman bricked up in grief
is praying underneath the market square
with no missal. (RK - from the Electric Verses site)
New churches, old
harmonized organs and repetitions
like a prayer or a psalm for seven voices. (LO)
the door open, no one in the pews,
the organ playing, a choir
up in the gallery, it sang "hallelujah." (MR)
The odd thing is that when I forget about the author the poetry strikes deeper into me. I am not a reviewer then, I am in a state of receptivity which allows surprises. The words are just Anselm Hollo translating something, it doesn't matter about who the author is. They merge back into the shoal with their difficult-to-pronounce names. I think if someone stuck to leafing through Five from Finland in that incurious manner the anthology would speak as a sort of involuntary collaboration and it would have off-message things to say. But now I'll be professional and separate these harmonized repetitions back into the authors. When I do that, I realize that generous as these selections are, they leave me wanting to read whole books by each of them, all their books. And yet one has to be grateful that so relatively much modern Finnish poetry is translated, grateful pre-eminently to Hollo (who has translated around thirty volumes) - and to Herbert Lomas and the rest: may there soon be more!
I remember where the sun set, the boat headed out,
the water grew dark, the moon rose on the left, you greeted it,
and torches were burning at the King’s Gate.
You did not sleep much that night, nor did I
When we reached the harbor
the moon, almost full, was on our right,
a dazzling sun on the left,
I remember us in the air on that narrow bridge
but can’t remember on which side of you I was walking
The mind does a little helpless topography: so they left, heading south. Night, the moon passed overhead. Now the moon is setting in the west. So have they now arrived at a different, north-facing harbour; or have they returned, and are looking back, when the rising sun is on the left and the setting moon on the right? (Because after all, when you dock you always look back at the sea.) There’s no answer to this. The transforming, little-sleeping night has changed the harbour, even if it’s the same one. What, after all, does it mean to say the “same place” when the sun and moon have moved? But what has transformed most is personal: I and you. Yet memory, always wanting to locate, does not deal well with transformation. There’s a different tenderness in not remembering; how much that blur in the memory remembers! Are they caught standing still, the way that memory has it, on that narrow bridge – no, they are walking. Are they going home, or to somewhere else?
Mirkka Rekola is the sparest of the five poets here. I don't mean she necessarily writes fewer words - not much Finnish poetry that comes into English is expansive - but she gives less. And this ungiving durability is compelling.
Kai Nieminen’s Serious Poems (1997) is rather dificult to represent briefly, since it consists of clusters of short pieces mostly in prose, employing a variety of modes. A lot of the work is done by juxtaposition of those prose pieces; nor are the clusters themselves entirely unconnected.
Thus one of the clusters is called In Praise of the Market Economy; it begins with a sarcastic song of the seasons, includes a breezy praise – again sarcastic – of Finnish cultural life, ends with this:
As soon as I’ve set the world to rights, I’ll write some pretty, apolitical poems again. If I have the time.
A little further back, we find this:
This can’t be hubris, hubris never lasts this long. But what, then, is it? Whatever I say, I immediately think that I know better, and then I try to humiliate myself. If I was split in two, one half could go into politics, the other into academia; I would find ways to get them into debates, ex cathedra and on television. Back home, I would zip them together again and clean out their wallets for our joint account. But as things are, only ideas are arguing, not men, and that is worse than useless: I consume wine for two and double my hangovers. The worst thing about it is that every victory is a painful defeat.
The split men, that active pair, would clearly contribute to the market economy, very valuably for all including the poet. They would be implicated, true enough, but then isn’t the internally divided speaker implicated too, with his double consumption? His lifelong hubris (of a sort) is a kind of ecstasy of disengagement, attracting its lifelong disasters. At the same time he does succeed in being a sarcastic spokesman, and that final aphorism (quoted above) is proud: he knows that we know that this is political poetry.
This both means it and means the opposite.
By certain indices
Even though I can’t see him, he is always in charge. This is how we are doing so well, how we can have peace, food, clothing, a home. Or so he tells us. And who would want to risk trying anything else, we can see what things are like in other places. He is always present, and sometimes I ask myself if it is I, after all, who orders me to do all these things? But it can’t be, I wouldn’t know how to.
Nieminen’s aphorisms (a key form in Nordic cultures) don’t speak from a superior vantage-point. An aphorism intrinsically generalizes, but instead of us submitting (as to Samuel Johnson, perhaps) with a How true! and How effortless! – or else (more likely as time goes by) with an angry rejection of the coercive trick – we are invited to see the generalization as a matter of comic effort by someone who doesn’t count for anything. An effort that, occasionally, we may judge to be true without us being coerced. The only way we can make that judgment is to see the poems as being about ourselves.
I hesitated a long time over Nieminen, uncertain what to quote, uncertain if these simplicities would seem like anything worth thinking of as a poem at all.
Hitting and missing is part of the procedure here, and some of the misses seem just careless. But that I wouldn’t know how to in the last poem I’ve quoted casts a long beam. Here’s another that does that:
Poorly scrawled graffiti,
clumsy tags: no question, they are repulsive and depressing to behold. But what
if apathy grows so deep that no one even bothers to scratch the pictograph of a
cunt on a lavatory wall – where do you think we’ll be then? In
And one more:
All evening, night, and morning the waves lap the shore, I sit on the porch or on a rock, lie on my bed in front of the open window, and forget.
The writing is elegant, accessible, generous with its fun. But the effort required from us is nevertheless exhausting. In this space there isn’t an option to forget.
One of the thrills of Otonkoski's poetry - and it does seem, in contradistinction to Mirkka Rekola, like one of its gifts to us - is its miscellaneousness. It is very difficult to predict what the poem on the next page will contain - its subjects, forms, appearance, manners all seem up for grabs. The three parts of "Werther's Aphasia", for example, seem like three very different verbal designs, not only on the page but in their texture.
In the forest I often saw
the forest's wooden comment
and loved (from Werther's Aphasia 1)
(from Werther's Aphasia 2)
The gables of houses fell silent like pocket watches pierced by rays beyond intention and
But you, still there, like the sound of a zipper after a thousand-year-long opera festival.
(from Werther's Aphasia 3)
Anyway, here's the kind of thing that it leads to in a whole poem:
On the Ear's Walk
The landscape's deepest melody flowed on
over the banks of the resounding Middle Ages.
Do you hear, do you hear it
the way a snail hears,
that snail there who teaches,
learns from the earth's replies, learning
the snail hears and gets there,
gets there for sure
even the slow one gets there,
even the slower one will
then get there, it will
surely get there, into the pot.
By the time we get to the punchline of that snail story, we've pretty much laid aside the resounding Middle Ages, but those opening lines have such a wide horizon compared to the garden path that follows, we can't forget them, and experience the odd satisfaction of feeling we've had two poems for the price of one.
This bifurcation says, perhaps, something about the strange contrast between the earthbound ear, what is it, just a cabbage, and the extraordinary carrying resonance, the enlargement of hearing.
On the cusp of the poem between its two components is the strange, urgent intimacy of "Do you hear, do you hear it", and at the end a warm sarcasm; both of these feel like characteristic - no, not moves, that sounds too calculated - I feel like they are personal characteristics of the poet. Surprisingly for someone who writes with such miscellaneousness and jagged incompleteness, the poetry is somehow held together by portraiture.
Tomi Kontio's poems are irresistible, perhaps in an un-Finnish way. At any rate, he is a nature poet and his poems live continuously in a dazzling reaction of images, and that's what doesn't seem Finnish, where normally a birchleaf or autumn are used more like material words, i.e. to talk about something else, than as objects for exploration. In short, Kontio is an unashamedly popular poet, sometimes his poems make me think that, if Tranströmer wrote about the stars, and sometimes, if Redgrove had written about the stars... And perhaps he is also the only poet here who might suggest the word "domestic".
Here is one of the star poems: they assume knowledge of star-names, traditional symbolism, location in the sky and the shape of the constellation - in Cassiopeia's case, the "W" compared to stitching.
The dress sleeps on the back of the chair.
The chair stands outside, it is the Queen's chair.
The trees' blood stops, the forest crackles.
Frost burns the crows black.
Schedir, Caph, and Rucha are drawing a woman onto the sky.
The dress wakes up and glides across the pale landscape.
It secretly gathers birds from their branches and buries them in the ocean,
secretly gather the outlines of stars under its hem.
Cold hands traverse my dream,
tears freeze in my eyes, sweat crowns my forehead.
In every room, these figures are known,
this dance of fear, sewn through the eyes.
You can kind of see why Kontio is also a celebrated writer of children's books, though that's nothing unusual among Nordic poets. There's a certain grand simplification that underlines the breathtaking sense of wonder that Kontio calls fear; he makes us imagine that the fixed shapes of the constellations are seen through each and every one of the world's windows. Literalistically Cassiopeia will never be seen through a window in the southern hemisphere, or through a south-facing window, and not often through any window where trees or buildings obscure the horizon; and in fact for all sorts of reasons it is rather rare to notice constellations through windows, at least if you live in a town in a cloudy climate. And I call it grand because these petty objections don't matter, only the image of that eternally wheeling, eternally and unculturally tiled ballroom of the starry sky in the unpolluted night.
But is there a less childish aspect to this "dance of fear"? In Kontio's poems everything is staggeringly beautiful, but the beauty is unnervingly detached from goodness.
A tattered white cloak, the moon unfolds above the housing development. What a pock-marked monster! Or abused wife who quietly proceeds through her darkness like a coin dropping into an ocean abyss. How poetic the landscape becomes when the buildings retreat into their nocturnal lairs and children's prayers fade into the horizon...
The uncomfortableness of pointedly following up the gentle progress of the abused wife with "How poetic.." gives us a small, distasteful jolt. Kontio as it were displaces the sentimental nineteenth-century idea of the beauty of a woman's sacrifice with the less self-pleasing idea that what is really beautiful is a woman's suffering. Within the poems beauty is a fact, but it is not a meaning, not an easy one anyway.
Anselm Hollo tells us that Riina Katajavuori's poems are "collages of voices, observations, acts of speech and writing from the street, television, radio, lectures and books". Saila Susiluoto tells us that Katajavuori's "themes are motherhood, womanhood, writing, familiarity and unfamiliarity of the everyday". The following poem bears out both these claims, yet in such a way as to surprise us with how misleading it can be to read about poems we haven't seen.
If your child sleeps under a tree, you
must be ready to leap down from the balcony.
Soon there will be cobblers again, even in the
How birds change their color.
The far shore is covered by emptiness.
Unknown species live there.
When you emigrate, you die
and lose your sun.
What we're not expecting is the distance covered by the poem; its actual words are such a long way from naming the poet's concerns. Somewhere off in this distance is a philosophical debate - in this case about mutability, children going through changes... it's surprising that an unphilosophical intensity makes itself heard. Reading through this selection of Katajavuori's poems - it always seems too few - I keep picking up the transmission of an intensity that I name anger, though I don't know if it's really anger; it just gives me that kind of feeling. In other words, I suppose I read them politically, even when they might not seem it; they still convey a critical view of the conditions of life. The poet's own existence is so remote from this interest that she can even pretend to put herself stage centre, and the poem remains restlessly political, it refuses to focus on her. I like that a lot.
I want to turn in a direction where
sentences burn with a big flame
the mouth with quick intelligence, if
the expression of speech is true.
I try to scratch an eye-sized opening
into the random, which is
Notes - (on photos contained in the Intercapillary Space article, which I couldn't be bothered to include here...)
Photos borrowed without permission as follows:
Mirka Rekola, from http://www.kaapeli.fi/rekola/ , which also has some poems in Finnish with translations into ENglish and Swedish.
Kai Nieminen, photo by Musta Taide, from http://www.lukukeskus.fi/lehdet/kiiltomato_net/kai_nieminen.html
Lauri Otonkoski, photo by Irmeli Jung, from http://www.finlit.fi/booksfromfinland/bff/199/otonesit.htm (with useful mini-essay by Jyrki Kiiskinen translated by Herbert Lomas)
Tomi Kontio, from http://www.teos.fi/en/authors.php?id=6&start=h
Riina Katajavuori, from http://www.robertalanjamieson.info/katajavuori.html
(click on the link to read Robert Alan Jamieson's translation of three of Katajavuori's poems into Shetlandic Scots. )
Anselm Hollo, photo by Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/522
The question of who “We” is in corporate speech is no mere semantic puzzle when “we” start delivering “our” views. Who is speaking here? The directors in chorus? But this statement was drafted by junior employees, altered at will until approved by someone at a high level. It does not represent the opinions of the juniors (I know how easy it is to distance yourself from words that you write as part of your job). Nor does it represent the opinion of the seniors, which are kept very private indeed (company confidential at least, and probably personally confidential too). In fact it is not the statement of a person (or persons) at all. Does it represent, perhaps, “what the shareholders would want to be said at this time”? We are getting closer, so long as we don’t confuse this with “what they believe”, which is (as with most people) no doubt the usual mixture of imponderable, unconfessable and tamely unconsidered.
One of the things that bothers me about institutions is that they automatically generate “statements” which have no necessary relation to any individual’s opinions. The human beings who comprise Exxon’s workforce are not in control here. I suppose analysis would show that the potential (say, for malevolence) of a corporate is in the end sustained by millions of tiny moral decisions, loosenesses, allowances, etc by thousands of individuals. Within the context of each person’s life, they are not significant, they are easily outweighed by the larger kindnesses and generosities common to most human beings; they are only significant when co-ordinated; when drilled and trained together along one line of least-resistance; i.e. by a system. This is what happens in a corporate, and the effect can be positively referred to as synergy. I do concede the lack of individual responsibility.
So the corporate statements... who is speaking then? If not a person, then a personification. Which means that the statement has a fictional element. Yes, it goes unnoticed, it is an absorbed convention. The serious matter is that fictions have a complicated relationship to truth.
The pamphlet appears to be addressed to “the public” - it is meant to be “heard”, that is to say to be skimmed, to have a positive influence, to reinforce support from sympathetic motorists and employees; just as important it is meant to be “overheard”, e.g. by regulatory bodies and competitors.
The pamphlet is functional, it is a move in
a game. Mere factual communication ranks fairly low in its functions. For
instance, one can make nothing of the quoted statistics, because they are
decontextualized. They are there to be half-remembered and repeated, not
understood. And the pamphlet doesn’t begin with its own background, as
thus: “A lot of people are saying that
Exxon should be boycotted because they consistently fight against the
implementation of the
The first section runs, in actuality, as follows:
There is much concern today about man’s potential role in climate change, often referred to as ‘global warming’, and the long-term risk this may pose.
Man-made greenhouse gas emissions occur primarily from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). So we take climate change very seriously. There are still many gaps in the understanding of climate change, but it poses serious long-term risks and uncertainty is no reason for inaction.
Action is needed, but as greenhouse gases arise from everyday energy use, it is important that actions should address environmental concerns but not threaten standards of living or economic growth. A focus on new technology will be essential.
The first paragraph recognizes “concern”. This is a word for possible loss of revenue, and so we can easily believe that it is taken seriously. Yet to recognize people’s concern (if “we” was a human being and not a corporate) is also a pleasant, human trait. The reader who is inclined to support Exxon feels rather warmer towards her/himself because of this sentence. S/he too is “serious” and recognizes that there is “concern”. All the warmer because it is more than possible that the “concern” is all stuff and nonsense. “We” are so human and sympathetic that we take the concern seriously anyway, even if it’s all nonsense. “You need say no more - It’s enough for us that you are worried.” (Which is true, but only because of the revenue.)
The second paragraph says, easily, that “uncertainty is no reason for inaction”. In fact, it would be a very good reason for inaction, if the uncertainty was radical. The important thing, though, is to make sure the uncertainty is emphasized. The reader is given the tools to draw the “stuff and nonsense” conclusion, though the statement is too politic to do so. (Actually, this is a measure of change. It is not so very long ago that Matt Ridley in the Telegraph, for example, was saying quite plainly that the “science” behind predictions of climate change was naive and fatally flawed.)*
*[Since writing this, some newspaper articles have appeared, in the wake of an industry-sponsored collection of papers, which repeat the accusation. But this was very low-key.]
The third paragraph means “we are against any legislation that interferes with our business”. But “means” has several senses. Exxon do not really want such a blunt interpretation to be advanced. The important positive word in this paragraph is “everyday”. It implies that the world in which “we” freely pursue profits is the world that you enjoy with all its benefits. You don’t want that to be threatened, do you? The obscure threat is that actions that hinder the activities of Exxon are likely to bring our merry western existence into catastrophic decline. That argument would, of course, have no force unless Exxon’s operations permeated our lives in the way they do. It is an argument from global spread. It would not be admitted, for example, in defence of seal-clubbing; or if it was, we would laugh. To spell out the implications more clearly, we might put it like this: It’s dangerous to do anything about BIG companies.
The “focus on new technology” is a way of diverting the reader (or over-hearer) from a “focus on legislation”, which of course could be imposed right now without any reliance on the promise of new technology.
In the next section (“The way forward”) this focus is further specified. The list is in fact a series of diversionary tactics (do anything except legislate!). For example, the first item on the list is:
- Vigorous pursuit of energy efficiency. Saving energy reduces emissions.
But this seems the least seriously meant sentence in the pamphlet. If TOTAL emissions were actually reduced, that would be bad for Exxon’s business, as bad as legislation which imposed a reduction of emissions. The only reason for Exxon supporting it, therefore, must be their confidence that it won’t succeed in achieving what legislation would.
A much more seriously intended item is this:
- Promotion of carbon ‘storage’ through forestry and agriculture.
This, of course, would not harm Exxon’s business, since it would allow emissions to continue at the current (or greater) levels. It would also be environmentally disastrous, but only the hopelessly unregenerate will grasp this, and the pamphlet is certainly not intended for them.
The final section of the pamphlet (“Actions we’re taking”) is intended to be read quickly and without much attention to detail. For example, the deliberately boring sentence:
It (i.e. the type of actions we are taking) is consistent with Esso’s longstanding commitment to the environment, reflected in our track record of leading our industry in introducing ‘cleaner’ fuels to motorists in the UK, our global record of excellent environmental performance and the recent confirmation by the international quality assessor Lloyd’s Register that our company is ‘among the leaders in industry’ in integrating environmental management into our business.
From this turgid uninterpretability, the reader is invited to mine a vein of positive connotations: longstanding commitment, excellent, environmental performance, leaders...
These, as the composers of the text might say, are the “messages”.
On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes
smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, New York. Within weeks,
Åsne Seierstad, a young Norwegian war
correspondent, was in
The Khan family was not typical (is there a
typical family?). It was rich by Afghan standards, and its patriarch, the
bookseller, was multi-lingual and literate. Seierstad effaced herself from the
book and tried to tell only family stories, as if she wasn’t there. She changed
the names, but presumably in
Young Afghans (mostly ex-pat) on the Afghania portal were uncertain to blame Seierstad or Khan most – they saw the book as a dishonouring of their nation; their own lives did not sound much like the Khan family’s, they sounded very much like everyone else who posts to Internet forums. But Internet forums seem to select from a very narrow band within the human population.
In a sense Sultan must be right. Intimate
histories reported by and read by people of another culture must fail. It’s a
kind of Chinese whispers. In the end-product of our reading, the combined
product of Seierstad’s imagination, the translator’s imagination, and the
western reader’s imagination, Leila, Mansur, Sharifa and the rest have
inevitably been transformed into westerners who find themselves caught up in
un-western situations. When we read that Leila never sees a drop of sunlight,
we are bound to interpret that life-giving sun according to a Scandinavian (and
British) scale of values. To be deprived of sunlight is to waste away! It can’t
seem quite like that in
And when I read:
While Sultan ruminated over how to ask for the hand of the chosen one without the help of family women, his first wife was blissfully ignorant that a mere chit of a girl, born the same year she and Sultan were married, was Sultan’s constant preoccupation...
my first awareness is that “blissfully ignorant” and “a mere chit of a girl” contain English ideas. This kind of ignorance and this particular way of feeling dismissive of youth could not exactly convey Sharifa’s experience. On the other hand, verbal expressions cannot exactly convey one person’s feelings to another, anyway. We each have a private set of connotations for the same verbal formula. And besides, don’t some things supersede culture – for example, the experience of being no longer young, or having had three children? Perhaps we can try to form a global fellowship on the slender biological basis of what we share as members of one species.
And the book’s mode is after all western – a crossover between ethnography and fly-on-the-wall reality show.
Back to Mikrorayon’s bullet-riddled apartment blocks, where water and electricity are so intermittent, from a visit to the hammam (steam baths) is a journey we can take, sharing the weight of those burkas – a smelly and stale shroud placed over momentarily clean skin. Can we weigh them more accurately than we weigh the meals soaked in mutton fat or the flabby, pale fat of the women?
Mansur, who has been our wide-eyed hero on the formidable journey to Ali’s tomb at Mazar, behaves with continual rudeness to his aunt and servant Leila. Seierstad admits that she could not feel temperately about the perennial male lording it over women. To admit the sufficient causes of Mansur’s ill-temper is one thing. But to see how all this looks, on the premise of woman’s rightful subjugation, is not possible for her. A country in a mess, what no-one denies... but what is a right way?
Other books about
Ferdowsi (c. 940-c. 1020) is the author of the massive Iranian poem The
Shahnameh. Many of the legendary locations look further east, i.e.to
Rumi – the thirteenth-century Sufi and (in dubious translation)
topselling poet of 2004 in the
“The sancitity of life in the hill villages of
Kipling’s story Dray wara yow dee (1888) has an Afghan narrator who recounts his
vengeful pursuit of Daoud Shah, his young wife’s lover. Kipling’s story has
many subtleties; on one level it was clearly a large influence on the next item
(by ‘Afghan’). Kipling’s long story The Man Who Would be King (also
1888) describes the fatal attempt by Peachey and Carnehan to become “Kings of
Kafiristan” – this is the area shown on modern maps as
‘Afghan’, Exploits of Asaf Khan, Herbert Jenkins, 1923? This book, written by an Englishman some time after the World War, concerns a border-country hero who is also a ruthlessly bloody killer; his effortless salvation in our eyes depending in large part on his devotion to the English – as e.g. the narrator of Kipling’s “A Sahib’s War”. The English are thoroughly idealized, and the moral ins and outs of it all are staggering at times. But as I carried on reading, I found the book increasingly impressive – a novel folk-epic combining popular adventure fiction (“coolly”, “the work of an instant”) with a well-handled quasi-oriental manner and skilful narration. It proceeds by episodic chapters told out of sequence in order to produce, eventually, a fully realized Imperialist image. It would be unsubtle to dismiss this as purely a matter of “history is written by the victors”. British admiration for the mountain fighters, treacherous and bloody as they might be, is notably present in the following book too, and no doubt persists to this day as an unacknowledged colouring; it’s as an antidote to this kind of racialist romancing that Seierstad should be appreciated. [I am appropriating the old word “racialist” to refer to a way of interpreting national, racial, regional and even professional types, much cherished for its romantic possibilities in writers of this time – Buchan perhaps showing it most clearly, but few British writers (even the most prestigious) avoid it completely. For Buchan to place, say, a red-haired Breton fisherman, a turbaned Sikh and a pawky Glasgow lawyer in the same railway carriage is to create a romantic situation already rich with legendary significance – and the complexity to which e.g. Buchan may develop this picture-thinking can be surprising. I distinguish the term from “racism” which is best used with explicit and primary reference to injustice (e.g unjust thinking, behaviour, laws, policing, etc). Racialism, both as a contemporaneous pseudo-scientific theory and in the wider imaginative sense I am giving it, is racist, of course, but it is a specific manifestation of racism, perhaps in literature an intermediate stage in addressing the existence of other cultures at all – as opposed to e.g. Jane Austen, for whom other cultures are not on the agenda at all.]
Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1936?) is a travel-book (supposedly
in search of the origins of Islamic architecture). Extravagantly admired by
Bruce Chatwin, who re-traced the journey in his youth and wrote an introduction
to the reprint in 1980 – collected as “A Lament for Afghanistan” in What am
I doing here (1989). The most notable features of Chatwin’s piece are his
perpetuation of the idea of the moral superiority of the mountain race over the
Patrick Macrory, Kabul Catastrophe: The Retreat of 1842, 1986 (originally published as Signal Catastrophe in 1966). Fascinating account of British political and military mismanagement in the First Afghan War – total destruction of an army, reminiscent of (and not quite unworthy of comparison with) Thucidides’ account of the Sicilian expedition.
The Horsemen, novel by the French journalist Joseph Kessel,
translated by Patrick O’Brian in 1968. Odd book – I thought I had read it as a
child but now I think I must have mixed it up with another book, possibly
called Bush-Khazi!. For the first fifty pages it feels so over-written
that you wonder if you’ll get through it. Then you begin to realize that it’s
turning into a powerfully unusual book. It concerns the buzkashi horsemen of
the northern steppes and a deranged journey across the
Nick Danziger, Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers,
1987. In part of which, Danziger manages to get across into
The Kite Runner, 2003. Novel by Khaled Hosseini (Californian doctor
born in Afghanistan, whose family received political asylum in 1980) – largely
Rough Guide to
A book I have not read – Nadia Anjuman’s Gul-e-dodi (“dark red
flower”). She lived near
anti-bacterial moisturising handwash
Brand items are fascinating. These words are not designed to be seen apart from the plastic bottle on which they appear, so you may find the product hard to visualise. It is a product of the sort that was first marketed as “liquid soap”, in order to explain to the consumer what it is used for. That hurdle overcome, and the pump-action dispenser sufficient in itself for recognition, the word soap becomes counter-productive. It carries too much historical baggage, for example the suggestion of dry, creviced skin.
Moreover, inasmuch as soap implies something definite about chemical constituents, it may be positively inaccurate, and anyway it ties one down. The label above tells us nothing about the product’s origins, it concentrates on functional material about how the product should be used. As Ronseal announce, with some measure of moral pride, “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. As for what the stuff in the tin is, well it probably doesn’t have a simple name, and how you make it is something the shop assistants don’t know. A brand is rather like a little shop of its own, or a franchise. The contents may change (NEW IMPROVED) but the brand maintains market recognition and loyalty.
[A somewhat similar development in the embryonic mobile phone market:
at first it was not clear what to call a mobile phone, and one of the
names was “cellphone”, which was a reference to the cell technology that made
them work. Hence one of the dominant early suppliers of a mobile phone service
came to be called Cellnet. Then it became “BT Cellnet” (if this happened to
suggest a generally cheaper cost for calls to land-lines, it made a promise
that the company could not keep – the Monopolies Commission would have seen to
that). Subsequently it has become “O2”, a name with a purely connotative
implication (which we must not judge a contradiction in terms). I often
thought, at the time, that the number of competing service suppliers had been
planned in advance, in order to maximize the number of high-cost inter-network
calls. If there had continued to be only two (i.e. Vodaphone and Cellnet), then
a point would have been reached when one would have fallen behind and decelerated
into Betamax oblivion. Because there were already four major players during the
period of maximum growth (which was when everyone realized “overnight” that
their teenage children should be allowed to have mobile phones) consumers saw
that it was impractical to eliminate inter-network calls by standardizing on
one network. But there were other factors: teenagers became a key market
because they gained, lost, smashed up, nicked and generally circulated phones
at a high rate, destroying any attempt to maintain a standard (“We all use
We have been doing clothes shops today. In
the more expensive ones, the label is highly important and esteemed. The rail
of teeshirts sings: Bench, Psycho Cowboy, Drunknmunky... Some of them tell us
freely where the teeshirt is made (
get it together
is subtle, like a faint fragrance. This lettering should have been accompanied by a photograph. It is not meant to be read very closely, and it’s only in thinking about writing this that I’ve fully grasped the double meaning in the slogan (a range with items for both sexes / it’s a practical buy). You might say triple meaning, since the informal modernity and familiarity of the phrase is just as important as any denotation.
In Marks and Spencer, the men’s range this year is called
B L U E H A R B O U R
(accompanied by an oblong of blue and red on a black background, instantly suggesting a nautical flag)
so understated that no-one will ever mention it. The blandness is intentional.
A little whiff of the freedom and leisure and gently sporting activity that we
associate with seaside or lakeside is permitted to drift across the clothes.
Perhaps we might even imagine (in some very lax, unpatrolled area of our
consciousness) that the clothing or designs vaguely originate in a place called
Back in the cool shops again, I am taken in by the Osiris shoes, with their extravagantly wide tongues and named designers. I remind myself that they are worn not by xtreme heroes but by shop assistants. The disdain is not fair. The real rush of energy is on our plane (the plane of shop assistants), after all - the marketing, like Freud’s dreamwork, ssimply uses visual images to substitute for what cannot be expressed in its medium.
An advertising hoarding says (Tesco, 2003):
Low prices on books,
even when he graduates
(this is accompanied by a photo of a young schoolboy, Harry Potter style, reading a massive tome with “Spells” on the cover. In case anyone should have trouble guessing his age, there is a sticking plaster on his temple, which means that he is a typical boy, getting into scrapes; mythical types of the ages of man, unaltered since Jacques, remaining useful shorthand). The key messages of the billboard are two-fold: 1. Tesco continually keeps its prices low. 2. You can buy more than food at Tesco. Since the billboard is in a town that does not have a local branch of Tesco (so Tesco means a trip in the car), both messages are important.
The photograph, of course, does not make sense, it is not descriptive. It contrives to combine both the boy’s current youth and his later formidable reading matter (like Freud’s dream-work, again). But if one imagines that this picture was replaced with a realistic picture of a boy with a GCSE maths book, or else of some person in a mortarboard with whatever graduates read, we no longer have an advert but a distracting claim. For heaven’s sake, this advert is not about the price of books!
What is the difference between the price of books and the price on books? The former represents the language of the consumer; it’s what s/he pays, or declines to pay. The latter is equally sound English, but only if a verb is assumed, whose subject is the seller: “Now, what price shall we stick on these books?” The words of the billboard, therefore, are, with perfect propriety, the words of Tesco speaking, not the words of some individual. We are habituated to this, and hardly notice the honesty. We understand that this speaker (whatever fictionalization is implicit in the convention) is not exactly one of us, and is licensed to speak in words dipped in magic and hope without any dispute from us. Tesco knows nothing of our individual circumstances; knowing nothing, of course it may paint a pretty picture. So we like to hear companies speak.
pots big x 5 coke
new pots diet coke
carrots x 2 olive oil
leeks x 2 rice
onions x 2 spaghetti
fine beans bread
- h + m
tampax – reg. kievs
snackajacks stuffing balls
packed lunch actimel
(2002, revised 2003)
“So what are you doing now?” Eb asked.
Supposing that she didn’t mean cutting the grass with a pair of shears, I eventually mentioned what I was writing.
“And will it include travellers’ culture?” she pursued.
“Oh yes – I mean, it’s mainly just books so far...”
I felt embarrassed, since Ebony is not at all bookish, or indeed houseish, and I thought of how irrelevant everything I’d written about would seem; like an endless double-period. I was currently in the thick of King Lear, as it happened. That didn’t sound too thrilling. Though afterwards I thought that King Lear was maybe not so irrelevant, either.
Tulips can be picked by machine; their blooming, or rather budding, is amazingly synchronized. But it’s different with a line of daffodils, which needs to be picked over for days or even weeks after the first emergence of the leaders. Besides, it’s important to spare the leaves; the plant will be cropped again next year. So daffodil-picking remains a manual activity – hands, literally, not scissors. You’ll see why.
The going rate is 6p a bunch (of ten), though it has been 7p or even, exceptionally, 8p. “Green sticks” are the crop, but occasionally “splitters” might be allowed if the market is local. When Eb started out she made about £30-40 a day, say 600 bunches. But now she does double that, and one day this spring she picked 1,600 bunches, which is 16,000 green sticks. Which is an average of one daffodil every 2.5 seconds for ten hours, without breaks.
That was in optimum conditions. On some farms the lines run a long way from the collection area, so you lose time carrying the crates (a crate holds 100 bunches). A sparse crop means time is wasted looking about; or if you’re on a steep slope you spend more time getting a hold; if it’s windy, the stems move as you reach for them; if it’s wet weather, you’re slithering around in mud.
But there are pickers (mostly Russians and
Poles) who can get up to 2,000 bunches a day – by mid-afternoon, even. The
fastest are two-handed pickers; Ebony says it depends where you learn.
Two-handed picking is East Anglian. In
Here’s what one-handed picking means. She picks with her right hand, pinching each stem between thumb and forefinger. You wear a latex glove; the daffodil sap is fierce, as most plant juices would be if you immersed in them all day. The leading joint of Eb’s right forefinger is knobbed, from the thousands of times it has banged into clods and stones. The left hand is used to move aside the leaves and other stems so that the right hand is unobstructed. The picked stems stay in the palm of the right hand until there are ten. You have to count as you go (though this becomes automatic), and you never look at the stem you’re picking, because what you are looking at is the next one. When you have a bunch you transfer it to your left hand and carry on. When you have a second bunch in your right hand you put the one that was in your left hand under your right arm; then with your left hand fumble in your pocket for two rubber bands and snap them onto the tails of the two bunches (luckily the rubber bands aren’t charged for and a lot of them end up on the ground). Finally you throw the two bunches into the crate and carry on. (The whole process would have happened twice while you read this paragraph.)
Two-handed picking means that you pick two bunches at the same time; one with each hand. I suppose you go strictly one and one, or you’d lose count. Sighting the two stems that you’re going to pick next sounds impossible, but it obviously isn’t. Generally, though, Ebony thinks the quality of the bunches picked by this method is not so good – there’s a higher proportion of short bunches (niners), torn sticks, buds too undeveloped or already showing yellow. Someone might have a word; but part of the skill of any piece-work is to know what you can get away with.
The someone is the “ganger” (gangmaster).
It’s a hard job and some gangers are cunts. But whatever might be said, you’ve
just got to take it if you want to keep working. Things can be harsh. Language
barriers, with all their potential for silence and evil, are the norm. Groups
of same-language workers tend to pack together, protecting their own, wolfish
to others. No-one needs to mix, because they’re not staying. Resentment,
exploitation, allegations, squalor. Perhaps it’s got worse, as the papers are
now saying. The recent drowning of nineteen Chinese cocklers in
A rogue is any daffodil which is not the variety that’s being grown in that line. One of the poorly-paid late-season jobs is roguing – which always used to mean uprooting the rogues and chucking them down the tin-mines (where they often sprout) but might now mean spotting them with a systemic herbicide. The pickers are fascinated by the beautiful variety of blooms but they don’t know the names of them, so they make them up on the day. Fury’s fangs, she called one of the curly, very double varieties with a split trumpet of orange.
At the beginning of the season, which may be before Christmas, the bunches are better paid – Eb got 10p a bunch once. But the working day is short, and it’s slow going. You are searching for precocious growth, and nipping it deep in the bulb. She felt she did quite well to make £40.
You ought to get a better rate for “ducats” (or perhaps “duckets”) too. These are exceptionally tall daffodils, much prized by flower-arrangers. The stem-length makes them awkward, and you have to pick them long. They easily get damaged and you hope for a windless day, which you don’t always get in mid-February.
Eb makes money to spend on the bus. She’s got an inverter now, which turns the 12V leisure battery into 240V for her arc welder. One day she drove up to Roche’s Rock, and watched two climbers on the face. “Perhaps you’d like to have a go,” they said, and she did. “Climb with your feet,” they shouted. They were instructors, but I think she surprised them.
In summer when the weather and the tourists come, she does hair-wrapping. Last time some guy came up and tried to pressure her: “Do you realize you should be charging such-and-such a rate, you’re making us look bad.” Seems there’s a hair-wrap cartel.
Ebony gave me one of the bags of rubber bands that are thrown out to the pickers. It weighs maybe half a kilo, and through the clear plastic the 20,000 rubber bands look like a snakepit. As an object in my room it feels totally wrong, like a sack of cement, or an engine.
English translation by David McDuff and Stina Katchadourian, 2006. This review first appeared in Intercapillary Space.
In 1990 Bloodaxe published David McDuff’s translation of Tua Forsström’s Snow Leopard (1987). In 2003 Forsström reissued this and two later collections (The Parks 1992, After Spending a Night Among Horses 1998) as I Studied Once at a Wonderful Faculty. The present volume is a complete translation of this composite work, which ends with a brief additional cycle called Minerals. It’s therefore a rare opportunity to enjoy a Finland-Swedish poets’ work at length and while it’s still fairly new. (For some reason, McDuff’s superb translation of Gösta Ågren’s Jär trilogy (1988-92) never made it into print, though I hope a few other lucky people have taken the opportunity to grab it from his website - http://www.halldor.demon.co.uk/agrenpage.htm.)
Tua Forsström’s poems are in focus from her point of view but not from ours. It happens using remarkably simple means:
You mistake someone for an animal and kill the animal
That’s how it happens in the forest, that’s all there is to it
I woke up from an eroded embrace and a dream
about how minerals should be stored: the sun won’t
injure them, the moon won’t injure them.
There was frost in the grass and the sea had frozen over.
Who writes the murky law?
It’s basic to the structure of Forsström’s poems that they are topographically dispersed, and here the forest in the classical myth has nothing to do with the frost. “Procris” comes from After a Spending a Night Among Horses, a collection that quotes from the director Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. The poems too are sculptures in time and place; they never resolve into a location. One of the ingredient locations is the dripping forest of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) – others include Benidorm, Central Sweden, LA, the Atlantic, Laika’s Sputnik, southern Australia, amber, the Missouri, Sicily, Lund Cathedral... Or you could consider the range of tones, none of them defining the poems that they emerge from: “You were right: it’s fine here”, “how I used to live my life in the mire, like a pig!” “wish you nothing, good or ill.” “O gall-sores of the soul!” “we take place at unknown depths” “I’d love to have a lilac arbour” “and rusty iron bled from my mouth”.
Forsström has said that she writes her poems by cutting 80%, rewriting many times and finishing them in another country; all these are techniques for creating a palimpsest with over-determined resonances. Hard work for the reader who finds too many silences. [The back cover is therefore particularly misleading in suggesting that “her poetry draws its sonorous and plangent music from the landscapes of Finland” – the image of Sibelius is too often transferred to Finnish poets, along with the ice and snow.]
The story of Procris (accidentally killed by Cephalus, and dying lovingly in his arms) disappears – cut off by the no-full-stop – but the rest of the poem keeps coming up against it. This was a doomed relationship and the panic about someone getting injured leaks into a dream about storing minerals. Something hasn’t been faced in the weariness of “that’s how it happens, that’s all there is to it” – this asserts (with what foundation?) a law; – pretending to be hard-nosed, it in fact proposes a shape of consolation that the rest of the poem sees for good or ill as a frosting. It may be true enough, it may be a necessary thing to say, but at what cost?
I am making an argument out of this, but the poem contains no statements. It’s impacted between feeling and reasoning, each warily circling the other. This argument is just for expository purposes – what’s fundamental, and difficult, is the troublesome conflict between e.g. crystal and the softness implied by “injury”, or between the sharp lines of graphology and the nebulousness of “murky”.
Here’s another poem (from The Parks):
I write to you because
there’s a composure, that little
horse on Via del Corso which goes
where it doesn’t dare: in the evening traffic
among harlequins, taxis and
make-up. It’s raining. One recognizes
oneself: the parks, something made of silver, rotten.
The stench. A bell’s overtones at a distance
‘We are permitted to be nothing. Like a river
we flow willingly into every shape’
Its unreality. Its everydayness, its
terrifying cleanliness. I’m setting off.
I’m going to a night conference.
I don’t know what you are like, I don’t
know what it’s like, but it can’t be like
this: sunshine in white rooms.
I sometimes think of Forsström’s poems as deliberately twisted pieces of tapestry. Sometimes you see the threads (but not in Cervantes’ sense, I’m not talking about translation), and the picture side is not the poem itself but something the poem kicks off from. Sometimes, like here, the poem starts off nearly plain, the little horse, with just a small tension between forces – composure, and what one doesn’t dare. Then things go off-radar (a move you come to look for); the eye turns inwards, and the quotation from Hermann Hesse is dropped into the text without connections. At the last moment we settle again (as we can’t help doing) on “sunshine in white rooms”, but the whole poem has been about denying the comfort or relevance of that image. At the same time that we experience a sense of finality we identify it as just a noise.
What I can’t give an accurate feel for is how Forsström’s poems depend on each other. In the middle part of this poem, the recognition is also partly ours; recalling (as from a long time back) the poem in Snow Leopard that ends
against silver-rotting wood.
and in the poem immediately before it, that rare moment of startlingly overt image (this in a poem that began so lightly...)
Yes, there is a glowing point
somewhere for us all where
rags and masks will fall.
So that there will never
have been any rags or masks.
There we are eye against eye,
ashes against rain.
That dire communion is distantly remembered when we read in a later poem of the dazzle of headlights in the darkness, “those burning moments of halogen against halogen”. This describes an ordinary moment of being out of control; we could get through it but we’re on the edge of plummeting. The essential movement in Forsström’s poetry is a plummeting movement; a movement that cuts through the familiar rhythms of sitting still or bumbling along, or (in our case) reading steadily through a book. The plummet is transforming, destructive of certainty; it’s usually catastrophe or grief, though sometimes it’s being swept off our feet.
To see a foreign poet in larger compass can be risky. No longer one colourful fish among a shoal that intrigues with its cultural unfamiliarities, limitations are inevitably exposed, we demand solidities even through the inevitable blurring of translation to another language.
Still, I think Forsström’s poetry really requires the kind of wider view that you get from whole sequences. That’s perhaps especially obvious in The Parks, where texts we provisionally identify as “the actual poems” are interspersed with brief clusters of broken phrases repeated from elsewhere, which we provisionally identify as some kind of ornament. As the sequence proceeds this distinction is seen to be unsustainable. The real solidities in fact hover somewhere behind the poems, maintained by a network of forces.
It makes them potent when they slide into view; but it does depend to a large extent on us and our own willingness to plummet. The up-close acquaintance with grief and catastrophe – not hers, but ours – is something we can want to avoid. Reading Forsström in the wrong state of mind, one experiences the sequence not as a place where important things happen but, somewhat less compellingly, as a place whose silence gives the impression that important things could happen in it.
That could be one reason why though I’ve lived with her poetry I don’t read Forsström as willingly or as often as some other Swedish and Finnish and Finland-Swedish poets; among the latter, for example, she makes me value the confrontational directness in Ågren and Claes Andersson. Andersson (an admirer) speaks of the exceptional beauty of her poems and I believe him but I don’t rely on seeing it. Nevertheless, I don’t know another poet who goes about things in exactly this way, and the sculpturing of those inner spaces is continuously unpredictable; it never resolves itself into a manner. That’s why I expect I’ll continue to keep her poems somewhere close to hand.
At the back of my flat is a triangular piece of land, an acre or two, composed mostly of flattened gravel, the drystone used as rail ballast. This area belongs to the railway. On two sides it is bordered by diverging lines; one is the main line that approaches the station, the other is a line used by quarry trains. It goes off to a Mendip quarry which produces crushed stone, a tough Carboniferous limestone. It’s a product required in huge quantities for road-building and also, as it happens, for rail ballast, so here we have crushed stone squeaking along steel levels that are bedded on crushed stone.
It could be worse. The East Indian railway of 1856 runs for hundreds of miles on the plundered ruins of medieval Brahminabad and prehistoric Harappā. But perhaps that was just a forward-looking piece of recycling? The structures that are crushed here are quite a lot older, though they were invisible at the low end of the Mendips beneath gently-sloping fields (where the clean layers, undistorted and unweathered, are much better for quarrying).
This railway land is officially out of bounds, but it has plenty of human visitors; dog-walkers and BMX bikers, and especially children, above all young teenagers attracted to an unpoliced spot not far from the centre of town where they can get on with the business of growing up without being overlooked.
In the rain, however, I am alone; rain converts most places back into wildernesses.
Most often when we’re out there the gravel looks like a moonscape, highly inimical to plant growth. You can see extensive areas where ragged webs of dessicated moss are strewn over the ground, and you wonder idly why they’re in one place and not in other. You might also notice curious black flakes of some other indecipherable substance; you would probably just call it dirt. After the heavy April showers all this begins to make sense. You see that the moss lies in very shallow depressions which are now slow-draining swamps. The hyaline tissue in the moss has swollen hugely; this is a moss empire, vividly olive-yellow. The black stuff is now unrecognizable; it has transformed into a vivid green jelly, a mass of lobed and folded algae like seaweed on land.
I can’t tell you much more about this; my fondness for mosses far outruns my ability to name them, and there aren’t even any capsules, except on the endlessly proliferous Funaria hygrometrica, that ubiquitous town moss that especially likes the kind of dysfunctional garden that its tenants use solely for burning tyres.
This gravel land is, on the whole, a terrible place for plant life. It consists almost entirely of stones grating against each other, with a certain admixture of mineral dust. There is hardly any organic content to the “soil”. Water drains straight through it; or rather, it would do if it weren’t for those undisputed monarchs of the ground, the moss and algae, which greedily bloat with any water that stands around for a few minutes; and after a night of continuous April rain there is, even here, a period when the surface water doesn’t drain through at once.
Nearly all the rest of the time this is a desert. The moss makes a virtue of its lack of roots. In its dessicated state it wafts around, gets kicked around and pecked about by birds. The ground is basically dead flat but the moss will tend to end up lodging in any shallow depression, which is just what it wants, because this is where the storm-puddles will happen. The black, brittle algae crumbles and flakes; that’s its own splendidly primitive way of spreading. In the rain each crumb grows like mad. That’s all there is to it.
But what really takes my eye is a small group of higher plants that manage to make a living among the moss. These are opportunistic annuals. The most characteristic and extreme of them is Erophila verna (Common Whitlowgrass), a true ephemeral. Most of the year it is invisible, surviving only as seeds.
It is a common plant on sandy ground, walls, cobbles and other unpromising places. There are two other Erophila species, rather less common. They all have the same lifestyle and without inspection look the same as each other, but are actually quite easy to tell apart. Erophila majuscula is the most pubescent and it has leaf-stalks (petioles) less than half as long as the blades (laminas); Erophila glabrescens is the least pubescent and has petioles about twice as long as the laminas. Erophila verna is intermediate in both these respects, but fortunately it also has the distinctive feature that the petals are split more than half-way down, unlike either of the others. So by gathering a few of the plants and getting busy with a hand-lens, I knew what I was looking at.
It’s a very good idea to gather common plants, root and all (though this is illegal in Britain). Fieldwork alone doesn’t give you a close enough feeling for the plant as an individual. This does not mean you dig up rarities or make a collection (what is more futile than a pressed flower?) – but you do want to inspect at leisure; to look, and check, and touch while the plant is still wet and alive.
Around the end of December Erophila verna becomes visible, as small neat rosettes of toothed leaves. They are a deep, pure green. The rosettes hug the ground, and so do the first, unnoticed flowers, in late January. By the end of February they begin flowering on stems that are barely a centimetre high; the flowers look brilliant white, almost like snow (they are, in fact, sometimes under snow).
Most annuals are opportunistic and have to be flexible. One way of being opportunistic is to flower at any time of year, like such common weeds as groundsel and red deadnettle. Erophila isn’t like that. It knows that early spring is the time when there’s most likely to be water around, so it is strictly a spring annual. What it doesn’t know, in any given year, is how much water there will be. Cold and frost and dew will ensure a fairly predictable moisture in February, but later it’s much more chancy. So the idea is to flower (and fruit) instantly, without wasting time on growing very much stem, then to carry on growing stems and producing more flowers and fruit if that turns out to be possible. A particularly fortunate individual may have produced half a dozen stems by mid-April, all with flowers. If you examine a plant that looks like it’s almost over, you can see the potential future stems in a curled up state at the centre of the rosette.
All the growth of the plant radiates from a single point: all the leaves, the stems and the rather insignificant roots, which begin as a single vertical process of about a centimetre before branching into fibrous laterals. The plant looks like a static thing, but it is actually rather a kinetic display, this explosion from the seed. By April the leaves are no longer green; they have already turned reddish and look rather shrivelled, though new flowers are still being produced. By May the plant is unnoticeable, a wispy skeleton, its papery fruit-cases emptied of their copious tiny seeds. The leaves and roots shrivel away, so the plant frees itself from its anchorage. At the last moment the remaining potential stems extend, using every last piece of remaining nutrient to produce hasty, half-formed flowers and fruits.
Two other small annuals grow a couple of yards away. They are less extreme in their life-histories but with basic similarities. Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) also springs from a rosette, but it produces only one, strictly vertical stem. It is a relatively robust plant (attaining 20cm) which even has some small stem-leaves, but is no less dedicated to fruiting. The extra structural strength required by this impressive stem is reflected in the root system, which forks early. This is the British plant with the lowest chromosome number (2n=10). This is handy for plant geneticists and thale cress became, I am sorry to say, a popular choice of victim in the early days of GM experimentation. A scientist friend of mine told me that his students produced glow-in-the-dark thale cress, with the help of a jellyfish.
Rue-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites) is just starting to flower in mid-April. It is clearly adapted to a slightly longer lifetime than Erophila. Its perky succulent leaves are intended to preserve some water through the warmer days of May. The plant has a red stem and all its surfaces above ground are covered in fine hairs tipped with sticky red glands.
I first wrote that it is “an attractive little plant”. An experienced reader of plant-books will know from experience what this connotes; it means that the plant is not eye-catching but on inspection reveals a certain neatness and definiteness of form, the opposite of “coarse”; it reminds you of the kind of thing that appeals to horticulturalists. In reality, rue-leaved saxifrage is too small to be noticed casually. And when it is inspected closely, the sense of “attractiveness” is subsumed into a general sense of beauty that is hardly separable from mere apprehension. For then all these plants turn out to beautiful; one is flooded with an intellectual intoxication. It is wonderful to be able to look at things.
It’s the end of May, and all these annuals are a dry fringe of chaff. I switch on the wonder-torch and point it at a robust garden weed, rarely considered attractive, the smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). It works. The way that the buds spring with systematic asymmetry from a single node impresses me as a finely-honed way of filling space (a “loose umbel”, the book says). The stout hairless stems, with their two ridges which are easier to feel than to see, speak eloquently to my fingers. I ought not to be surprised, because Sonchus is a genus with potential. The perennial sow-thistle, Sonchus arvensis, is one of those glorious high-summer plants (like certain thistles, or common ragwort, or hogweed) that stand tall in the lowlands in July and August– the largest-flowered and perhaps the loveliest of all those dazzling ligulate Asteraceae that are vaguely reckoned to be dandelions. By contrast, the yellow of Sonchus oleraceus is pleasingly insipid, like star-fruit in a chiller cabinet.
In a large car-park I find that the torch has switched itself on by mistake. It’s a mild day. I get out of the car and am transfixed by a cluster of grey clouds against a grey sky. They lie behind a cluster of lamp-posts, and match them: half a dozen clouds, half a dozen lamp-posts. An obscure, sub-verbal message seems to be spelled out over there. I’m watching it, but it appears to be watching the car-park, in the way that someone making a spectacle of themselves is watching for a reaction. Perhaps I am only reminded of a space-age serenity in the first half-hour of a sci-fi movie, before the explosions begin.
The wonder-torch, however, fails to ignite when I train it on the red lily beetles. The adult beetles are smartly attired, admittedly, but the larvae, which are bigger, are hideous things and hideously numerous, hiding on the underside of leaves and chomping them to mush – they lurk in disguise beneath (or rather, above) a sticky, downward-pointing mound of their own excrement, and considering the demolition they are making of the Asiatic lilies it is a disturbing sight. I try to say “interesting” but my heart isn’t in it. Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds, though this probably wasn’t what Shakespeare was thinking of.
The ironing trade is an old one. It finds a place in literature in Zola’s L’Assommoir (1872), though Gervaise’s business was also a laundry. But it continues to thrive, and Mags found a job that suited her when Alison expanded from her ironing business in Melksham and started a branch in the outskirts of Bath. The Melksham business was in a unit and had no shopfront, but the new Bath branch is on a high street and attracts some of its business from passers-by.
The workers are mostly on piece-rate. Hours are variable, and it’s important that there is always ironing for them to do when they are there. When you start work you get a better rate for a while. The assumption is that you will take a few weeks to come up to speed. Then you go down to the standard rate. This can cause friction if the newcomer happens to be super-fast already and earns a load more money than any of the longstanding ironers. That’s what happened with Var. She made £230 and the longstanding workers weren’t happy. They liked it even less when they were told not to bother to come in because there wasn’t enough ironing for them. Var just wouldn’t leave. You told her to pack it in and go home and she acted like she hadn’t heard. And then customers started sending loads back to be re-done because they weren’t up to scratch.
Mags is on an hourly rate. Four mornings a week she has to keep the whole place ticking over. Arrange the deliveries, deal with customers, answer the phone, keep the irons clean, make sure the high-volume piece-raters are looked after, do the paperwork, and do a bit of ironing whenever she can. She can afford to take time over difficult items, and some customers insist on her, for example the shop downtown that deals in theatrical and Victorian costumes.
Bed & Breakfast places make up part of the customer base. Others are private customers, usually rather well off. Getting your ironing done for you isn’t cheap. The workers (nearly all women, apart from the delivery drivers) are from near the bottom of the economic pyramid. Some, such as Flo and Paula are English and solidly working-class. Others are students or foreigners. The shop has a cosmopolitan air. Jeanette (French student), Irene (German emigré), Varvara (Latvian emigré) may all be working alongside each other, the steamy air thick with different accents. Add Flo’s Bristolian, Paula’s Bath-ian...
Jeanette, ironing a sheet and perfecting her pronunciation: “Shit. SHIT. SHIT! SHIT!!” while Paula laughingly shushed her in the background.
On a bad day you can rather resent the customers, who can afford the frippery of getting their ironing done. On a good day you can laugh at their funny little ways, the different things they insist on. Some want the cuffs flattened; others will complain if you do that. Some insist on starching. Some hand in miscellaneous piles of family washing most of which simply doesn’t need ironing. It makes your job easy, but at the same time you shake your head over someone being able to afford to be so foolish. It’s not so trivial when they bring in their ironing sopping wet or terribly creased. One of the difficulties with an ironing business is that you can’t really charge a different rate for loads that come in like this, even though they may take three or four times as long as a normal load. It’s a delicate matter to preach to your customers – it sounds too much like a criticism of their lifestyle. Some customers naively think that the ironers prefer a wet load; they wouldn’t if they had ever tried to iron one themselves.
If there’s a really awful load the pieceworkers don’t want to do it because it affects their pay. Flo is fast and her ironing is good, but she’s there to make as much money as she can and she just wants to mop up volume. Once or twice she’s resorted to slipping in a note to the customer: I done the best I can with it....Naughty Jeanette has a tendency to cherry-pick easy loads. Mags has to keep an eye on all this and to share out the unpopular loads in an equitable way. She often tries to do the worst items herself.
Despite her naughtiness Jeanette is irresistible. She’s leaving in a couple of weeks and no-one wants her to. She is a student at Bath uni, teaches at Bristol uni, speaks Japanese and Spanish and heaven knows what else, does waitressing, has numerous boyfriends (the latest in Malaga), takes herself off alone on a cycling holiday in Amsterdam, books herself into a tourism and leisure conference in Brussels and is a massive hit with all the stuffy old directors there, says she’s going off to the beach and has them all trailing after her in a convoy of Mercs. That covers the last week or two. In short, she’s a ball of energy, but she overdoes it. Every so often she’s so tired she can hardly speak, and once Mags took pity on her and sent her home when she’d spent an hour on one shirt and earned about 40p.
Today Mags’s ears were blocked up with wax, so Jeanette spent the whole morning blaming her for everything that had gone wrong and blithely telling the others: It’s all right, she can’t hear anything. The ironers are supposed to put a card in with each load saying “Your ironing today was done by –“. Most of them (including Mags) don’t like doing it and so the compromise is to use pseudonyms. Jeanette’s is “Joshua”.
Matt (the daytime delivery person) came back with ten loads that he hadn’t delivered. He had made a mistake, but that was supposed to be impossible with his new fail-safe system so he blamed Mags too. Mags has to look after them all like children. She knows that you can’t have a fail-safe system. Mistakes will happen and you just have to double-check constantly. Matt gets very upset when things go wrong and needs a lot of soothing but you can put up with that because he does stick at it and he does turn up. They are having terrible trouble finding someone for the evening deliveries – The last two Thursdays running they have arrived to find that the latest agency person has just cut and run, leaving all the deliveries in situ , a lot of disgruntled customers and chaos all day trying to sort it out.
There’s no time for a proper break, so they eat on the go. Mags started to get very bored of the sandwiches at the Co-op. “Why do they insist on putting tuna in malted bread?” she complained. It’s the malt mountain, I explained. It was a condition of joining the EU; Britain had to sign up to eat a quota of malt. “It just doesn’t go,” says Mags. “It’s like eating fish with gravy.”
Janet is back from hospital after heart surgery, so Mags is doing her ironing again. She has big problems with fluid retention but her voice sounds a bit stronger. She still has a crafty fag – you can smell it. Her great fear is that the next time she’s “taken ill” they’ll notice if the sheets have not been ironed. For some wrinkles there’s really no excuse.
It so happens that most of the regular ironers are in their menopause years. Their parents are ancient, amazing or gone. Some of them like gardening and most of them would like to have a home in the sun. They have very little money. The tips money they bet on the horses – Matt lays the bets. They don’t know anything about races or names, only the odds. “I told him to put a quid on at five to one on the nose,” Mags tells me.
“Ironing is a great leveller,” said Mags.
It was hard to avoid expressions like that. Just as cleaners catch themselves out using clichés like “sweeping it under the carpet”, so Mags constantly found herself saying:
“We’ve been going flat out all day.”
“I’m a bit pressed for time but I’ll try to squeeze you in.”
She spoke of “ironing out the creases”, of “striking while the iron’s hot”. And, in due course, of having “other irons in the fire”.
The good times at the ironing shop lasted for the best part of two years. But there’s not much security in this kind of job. Alison left the ironers on their own. They loved the informality and the responsibility; morale was high. Cash was just in a cashbox and when they needed something like a new iron or some diesel for the van they just took the money and wrote a note. But last October Alison came into the shop and said she was selling up.
The new owner was Debbie. She already had a hundred employees in other businesses and she saw things completely differently. She changed the pay arrangements so everyone was paid a week in arrears; she had a proper BACS system, not cash in hand. A week soon turned into two weeks, then three... When you’re on a low income, it hurts. She forbad all extra hours. She didn’t care if the customers were let down; they’d just have to put up with it. The atmosphere changed, people started to leave. Debbie didn’t care. Mags tried to talk to her about the effect on morale. “I won’t be held to ransom,” Debbie said. All the other things she said, except this one, appeared to be dishonest. She’d say whatever sounded good and then just carry on. It’s easy enough to make people leave and no doubt she thought it would be much more convenient if all the staff were new and had no memories of how it used to be.
Quiet improvident Susie was the first to go; then Paula, then Glaswegian Rose. Mags stuck it out for a couple of months; in fact she was seething. She’d been there from the start. She’d created a beautiful, friendly, place to work and the customers loved her. She’d nurtured the others, nipped quarrels in the bud, filled even dyslexic Matt with self-belief. But Debbie never offered one word of recognition, these things were not important to her. Finally, Mags’s will was broken. She accepted her demotion and just tried to zip her lip, clinging to the remnants of her job. But Debbie wasn’t content with that, so she confronted Mags and gave her a verbal warning for being uncooperative. That was Mags’ last day; she never went back. Anyhow, the way it worked out with the council rent and the tax and the bus fares she’d have more money being on the dole. But how she misses it. Every time I see her she talks about her work, she recalls another funny story, as if the gang are still all there and all she has to do it get on a bus and go back. And once or twice she’s made me drive past the shop to see if the dreaded computerized till has appeared yet.
[First published as a book review in Stride Magazine, 2004.]
There are, or were, something like 20,000 Bronze Age round barrows spread across Britain, in particular on chalk upland. Many have been destroyed, and others ruined by optimistic digging for buried treasure, but many too have been carefully excavated, for example by the Victorian archaeologists of the Yorkshire Wolds who supply Peter Riley’s base material. The barrow contents are varied and puzzling, suggesting a complex cultural language. Bodies, body parts and other objects were disposed significantly, yet enigmatically, and have inspired numerous theories. The mounds themselves are (presumably) conclusions of a process, but modern terms that tend to arise, such as “burial”, “ceremony”, “family”, “religion” are all questionably apposite. We don’t know much about what was going on. Riley has some fertile ideas of his own, for example about two polarities (N-S and E-W), or about a funerary “theatre” that waited for corpses. For example, of a huge mound of chalk raised over the body of a one-year-old child:
the incomplete and fragmented utterance of this child’s future. Who happened to die when this tumulus was needed. Or not. Sentry on the ridge-top, facing dawn. And another cold morning spread its grey distances into the thanking heart.
You’ve seen that “Or not” before, of course; it’s been one of the standard moves (along with incomplete and fragmented utterance) by which modern poets have prevented their linguistic play from descending to definition. But here it conveys something more specific, namely a hypothesis: that when this tumulus was needed the child was killed for it.
My point in saying all this is that if you want to like poems in a modern idiom but you also like a book that seems to be about something, then you should seriously think about getting hold of this one. Excavations is blatantly content-rich.
Most likely you already own some of Excavations, because Iain Sinclair’s 1996 Conductors of Chaos anthology contained a dozen or so early drafts of the final 181 prose poems. They were pretty astonishing, and some of us have been waiting for the whole book ever since. But in a way this selection made a misleading impression. For example, what looked like wildly fanciful section-numbering turns out to refer soberly to numbered tumuli. I suppose the question does arise whether a dozen of Excavations mightn’t seem just about enough.
Peter Riley is the most Wordsworthian poet of his generation. He is very unlike Wordsworth, and perhaps I could write the obverse of this paragraph, but I’ll write this one first. Like Wordsworth he is intensely serious; the extensive beauty of the writing is not lush, and it steers close to a plain, even prosaic, idiom – but it’s the kind of beauty that keeps its quiet lustre. The fundamental concerns of life and society are never far off. Like Wordsworth his poetry often centres on the ordinary bereavements and tragedies of ordinary people. The adjective “pastoral” occurs at various levels, but not what has been slightingly called “conservative pastoral”. Like Wordsworth he is a poet who, you think, bloody-mindedly knows what he’s doing and expects the world to fit in. No time for the Byrons: “As if corrupt statecraft weren’t the natural result of two centuries of artistic bohemianism” (105). He probably does mean that. Like Wordsworth, the poetry if not the poet is capable of prodigious feats of sobriety, and sometimes the pomposity-warning-light seems to be on the blink. But if Excavations starts to happen for you, you won’t bother much about that.
Yearning for a pitch that wasn’t/can’t be, seeking a tenseless junction. Finding nothing | Writes in the dust an oval ditch, wider E-W than N-S, into solid chalk a white ellipse on the otherwise yielding text. Promises are rarely actual. Striving to maintain social justice when law is the king’s new clothes If ye love me [keep my commandements] so where the |centre| at the (where the/ true, whole, entity →body, or statement, would be is a patch of earth very hard, as if puddled, to a foot’s height is where we danced that night. And in that metope the promise born, and I (I) shall give you «another comforter» e’en the sprit of Truth (and yearning cease). The moon in the branches of the small pine, for instance, or the dripping tap in the stone house. Unbroken ring, repeated: spirit of, lower case, home. Accept the offer at point of departure. Have it where it says the moment’s extraordinary reach. Says death shall not die, and every jarring love is worded.
I’m quoting this mainly to give you an idea of what Excavations looks like. The poems resemble chunks of a conglomerate stone composed principally of three materials, but naturally with a few other traces as well. The text in standard font is what binds everything together, and is predominantly a modern voice, not too darn poetic, opinionated, emotional, groping for definition, perhaps jotting down swift entries in a writer’s notebook. The italicized text normally comes straight out of the archaeological reports; solid, dry and factual. The emboldened text consists typically of fragments of generalized lamentation taken from sixteenth-century lyrics (e.g. for all the teares my eyes have ever wept), but there are plenty of exceptions to this and, in the poem above, they come from St John’s Gospel.
The poems run together like pages of a book, often explicitly so. They invite non-sequential reading, so sometimes I’m just seeing the reports, or just the embedded quotations; at other times I might blank them and try to make sense of what’s left. These reading-games are possible, so it seems reasonable to try them out.
In the case of number 136 we might notice that the words from John 14 are concerned with how the disciples should behave when Jesus is dead. They are concerned with a coming bereavement, and the Holy Ghost is spoken of as a comforter. The desire for comfort, for an impossible negation of death in a “tenseless junction”, is also the subject of the first sentence of the poem. Jesus’ promises are contingent on law-abiding behaviour (“keep my commandements”) and it’s plain that the bronze-age relics reflect a community bound and cheered by a system of laws (the dancing floor at the centre of the ditch). But a certain resistance to this vision of law-abiding acquiescence swirls through the poem. Promises aren’t much. Politicians enjoy preaching to us about obeying the rule of law and getting solid employment, though they themselves seem to be above both. And then, Writes in the dust refers to the woman taken in adultery (John 8), a cardinal instance of Jesus’ highly ambiguous relationship to the rule of law. Riley secularizes the comforter into bourgeois instances of the melancholy beauty with which truth may sometimes ease the bereaved (“The moon in the branches of the small pine, for instance..”). Well, that’s something. The poem ends with the unsparing “death shall not die” (a reversal of Donne’s famous holy sonnet); this is made to sound positive, however, and perhaps the irreversibility of death is the only way of accommodating all our “jarring loves”; we couldn’t have our own lives, with their unique network of piercing affections, if the dead didn’t make room for us. “Have it where it says the moment’s extraordinary reach” is a complex sentence. It suggests a highly time-bound way of living (“enjoy the moment” in adspeak terms) but it also hints that the moment of someone’s life in fact has a “reach” forward in time to where someone else may interact with it.
This is a very limited unpacking of a complicated poem, though it’s the best I can manage at the moment. Even so, it’s enough to make the poems around it begin to seem replete with joined meanings – the text begins to belly with life like a flysheet. The moon is moving behind a hill in 134 (it’s always getting behind things). In 137, the offers and promises of 136 are once again called to account, and are said to “do what surf does on the hand”. The puddled earth and the dance reappear in 145 (perhaps the underlining visually evokes the “hardpan” floor). Of death as a necessary finality, we meet this formulation: “Death’s hand steadying the earth, take it without fear” (139). Bereavement is omnipresent in this part of Excavations, and pregnantly so in 142 and 144, which quote the verses from 2 Samuel 18-19 where David grieves wildly for his son Absalom – who did not keep his commandments. (Riley in the notes says “Jonathan”, but that’s a slip; both the political and familial context of the quotations are vital.)
I have so far avoided mentioning the obvious point that after Jesus speaks the words quoted in 136 he goes out to die, and to rise from the dead. In a hundred different ways the poems of Excavations keep coming up against the notion of life after death. You could say that it’s built into the very structure of the poem, because poetry always tend to animate what it talks about, which in this case is mainly corpses. Even the excavator Canon Greenwell writing, for example, of “the body of a young woman [ENE/SSE] her face in contact with the child’s head“ (129) puts into our minds, not a bone, but a face; not location, but touch. And furthermore, the central images of the poem, both the barrows and their exhumations, are testaments to a belief in the ongoing significance of the dead.
Peter Riley talks of reading each poem as a choric ode over exhumed remains, but that’s something I haven’t felt any inclination to do, though it sounds worthy. Wandering across the bowl barrows in my own neighbourhood, it isn’t Peter Riley’s words that come to mind, or anyone else’s particularly. It’s difficult to feel the communal submersion in another’s words that Riley atavistically proposes. I feel rather alone and I’m content with that. It might help if he’d given his words a tune. Prose poetry doesn’t seem the obvious way to deliver it. Surely we end up more in the analytical posture of the excavator than the participatory posture of celebrants? But perhaps this is starting to say more about the reviewer than the book.
All the pieces I’ve homed in on have been from the second part of Excavations, which seems to me critical. The poems of the first part are dryer, more airy, as if they are scratching about in a locale but haven’t yet accepted an involvement. Picking it up from where we were, there’s a large discernible shape to what follows, if you read quickly enough. At 150 Riley makes potent use of Gunnar Ekelöf’s extraordinary 1951 poem “A Dream” in which the dreamer has an intimate, indescribably stale, experience of contact with the dead. The poems in this region attain maximal stress. From 162 onwards a calmer clarity is reached; it begins
Where the light returns to the eye like a tear running back in, the foramen ovale re-opens and the singing echoes back through hollows in the earth to the pain centre now stilled, funnelled to a point of nil gravity, an immense weight lifted ...massive exostosis on the shaft of the left tibia, agglutinating the lower third of the fibula The sorrowes, which themsealvs for vs have wrought
The continuation of this quote asserts a more distanced perspective (“Sorrow was my revendge, and wo my hate”), and the poems that end the sequence, curiously exalted, are also responsibly concerned with social matters – mirroring in a surprising way the closing movement of Wordsworth’s much under-estimated poem of grief, The Excursion. I’ve under-represented the range of tones in Excavations, so for a final extract (and to show that it’s not all as formidably multi-threaded as what I’ve shown so far), here’s an extract from 171:
No home but the struggle but no struggle worth half a thought that isn’t to spread home across the earth, wherever the light wind creeps and the broken leaf settles, to sit there in justice. A whole and singular thing, a self. That stays itself and stays sited as the world offers faster and faster transport to nowhere in particular. And the fast transport shakes the earth until the self and the roof and the steps of the Institute slide into nonentity in a smoke, a cleansing smoke a smoke for getting rid of people. That drifts across the town most natural seeming of a Sunday afternoon, raising a smile in the ethical couple, that their dependence is full of continuing labour and the planet well mined. The smoke comes from behind a wall where some self fell an inconvenience to the great hurry.
“Ethical” is plainly denigratory there, but the sequence is still restless, and in 174 the ethical comes up for consideration again, but this time in a more probing connexion; the poem is about Antigone. But there’s a fancifulness in these last poems (“That strange habit of counting in sixes and twelves, always plus a unit to the hand measures”). And perhaps rest arrives in the word “core”, from these final lines:
And lie there, in more space than you need, your history forming an empty cavity offset behind your back like a rucksack as you religiously face SE and sneeze for luck. Fall no other way but back to the lapse, where nothing is surer, the core and sudden end of love. Through a thin stratum of dried blood, tomorrow turns over.
In fact this isn’t quite the end of Excavations, and I’m making the movement sound too orthodox. But perhaps the final six “preludial flotations” can be left dark, to assure you of getting your money’s worth without the irritating sensation that someone else has already had it. I did try, but I’ve barely scuffed the surface of an astonishingly sustained and purposeful operation.
The Day's Final Balance: Uncollected Writings 1965 - 2006 (2007)
First published in Stride Magazine.
Peter Riley had this to say about Nicholas Moore's later poems, introducing a selection of them for the Conductors of Chaos anthology (ed. Iain Sinclair, 1996):
Everything loosened up in this orgy of pre-rejected writing. Since nobody was listening, the poetry could be 'anything'. Long meditations, short epigrams, rhymed and unrhymed, measured and unmeasured, sonnets, songs, ballads, blues, straight philosophical statements, symbolic landscapes, surrealist figurations, imagist trances, jokes and nonsense, poems in gobbledegook, outrageous travesty and satire, calm description, detective poems, jazz poems, cricket poems, haiku, doggerel, pure 1940s lyrics and persona narratives. . . all 'rubbish', all free as the wind.
Nothing in The Day's Final Balance is so flagrantly rubbish - Riley is hardly a neglected poet as Moore was - but the aesthetic space that Riley is admiring does have a counterpart here, most obviously in the hundred or more very short poems that comprise "Floating Verses" , a very complex form because of how it slipslides vertiginously between the silly, accessible
and the highly wrought:
The party of children in wheelchairs at the planetarium
And their stately indifference.
Another phrase from that introduction also resonates: Moore's "claiming a personal meditative space" in defiance of the public literary world. The
most characteristic of the floating verses lie between the extremes, between quotidian throwaway and a lyricism that's a little sullied by the deflating implications of its neighbours. But the real work of the page develops behind the verses: a world in which lyricism, philosophy, jokes, nonsense and banality all rub along composes both the meditative space and what it meditates.
And, to some degree, a similar space is opened up by the book as a whole. As an instance of that genre of qualified legitimation, an Uncollected Writings, it delights in being deliberately a very mixed bag.
Riley's work is full of paradoxes. For besides this leaning towards the freedom and space of an unliterary aesthetic, his work also contains Alstonefield, one of the most finished of modern English poems, so sincerely enthused over as, so to speak, possessing the classic status that its form on the page seems to propose. If at times enthusiasm for Riley has tended to take the form only of votes rather than witnesses - but you cannot cross-examine a vote - Alstonefield has certainly begun to generate a small hill of commentary with that communal momentum that becomes mutually enlightening, and engaging. Reading the pieces by Jamie Wilkes and Kelvin Corcoran on the recent symposium in Intercapillary Space (http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.com/2007/10/peter-riley-symposium.html), you feel you want to join in. The presence here of "Alstonefield VI" is perhaps the most substantial reason why people will buy The Day's Final Balance - this and also the prose piece "Alstonefield" are essential pendants to the earlier work, summating and slipping out beyond it. "Alstonefield VI" consists of twenty stanzas, of which this is one:
And all the people in the land, as the clouds clear,
without priority, the fruit of work, all pain and
sorrows over. These are the ghosts in the white stone,
written in the strata: Go down, you blood red roses.
And all the work in the land, as the stars fade, doesn't
bear more result than a leaf reaching the ground, all
its joys a history. Such are the songs that surround us,
near and far to comforting me, shadows on the sea.
So with some sense of purpose on a thick morning I
pass by empty fields to a tree-crowned pinnacle.
The "thick morning" varies the "warm day" of the previous stanza. Its haze is re-figured in a number of other images with other intention: bread ovens smoking, houses that are heaps of smouldering ash (in a war-torn village), a smoke-filled cellar (musicians in Cluj), a view of Paris from Belleville on a misty morning. The poem is freely conversational, though decorated with high-style generalities and internal rhymes; despite these formal bracers the stanzas have trouble arriving at a resonant close, though apparently they strive to, and the poem eventually elects to stop in mid-stanza. The thought has occurred to me that the poem confesses to having moved outside the orbit of the original Alstonefield; confesses in a recurrently comic spirit as if this is a comic failure, but holds in its belly the alternative possibility of being a serious critique of the earlier poem.
Another paradox: Riley is both a fine writer and a maker of writings. Two skills that imply almost contrary interests, and you would think that one would quickly give way to the other, but this has never yet happened. For the former, try this:
Like a sob interrupted by a froth of blood
The far cry of the cockerel tore apart the misty air
(Riley versioning Baudelaire in the last part of "Memory Street"). For the latter, see, in The Day's Final Balance, such pieces as the eloquently restrained "Royal Signals", based on the war diaries of Riley's father, or the "Small Square Plots", written over other people's poems from the 1940s, perhaps the most difficult poem here because it both asserts historical context and then declines it in the reading.
Another paradox: there is a luxuriance in the profusion of works that Riley has written or over-written or re-written, yet there's a persistent aesthetic of plainness in the diction. Look at this evocation of soprano saxophone, a complete section from "Six Musical Experiences":
5. Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone)
Carefully, feeling the way, like a slug, testing the ground with our horns, retracting and proceeding, and, as the day gathers force, opening out, breathing in a wider and wider landscape. The full and chiming biomental sphere, bright with trees and mice and nesting orioles. . .
Song at the pitch of hunger, the blackbird in the late evening, breaking his time across the stones of the valley by the slight rain for the truth of it, lost for the furtherance . . .
This "we" is no more than a trust, and an audience.
And the mice, what about the mice? They are gnawing holes in our hearts,
To let through the light.
I suppose the rumbling elongation of the second paragraph ("for the truth of it, lost for the furtherance") is what most clearly identifies this as Riley's work. But the thin sound of the saxophone is also there in the threadbare beginning and end of this piece. "Carefully" is such a colourless word, a word that you know was not chased down in the dictionary but merely said; compare the leaf "reaching" the ground in the quotation from "Alstonefield VI". The words "beautiful lack" rise out of the final poem in "Small Square Plots" as an epigrammatic description for this effect, which it also instantiates - for "beautiful" is a colourless word, too. (The resultant emptiness/spaciousness and illuminating darkness are what I draw from Melissa Flores-Borquez' "General Remarks" in the aforementioned symposium.)
These paradoxes are all latently present in the triumphant early poem "Introitus" which begins this collection. The author, on the Stade at Hastings, gets absorbed into the mechanics of walking on shingle:
you have to
lean forwards so you'd fall if you didn't push
your feet back from a firm step down and
back sharp forcing the separate ground
to consolidate underneath you, with a marked
flip as you lift each foot, scattering
stones behind, gaining momentum.
The description does not strike you as gobsmackingly evocative, yet with repeated attention it does seem distinctive: there's a strength arising from the author working himself into a position from which to find something new about the world. As this continues the marine space gathers around the poem:
That nothing comes
is good. No news
across the shore is
excellent, the truth
is there for a start.
The flesh is full
of what there is
there / then,
has that, offers
back self, is one
of all that.
A palpable sense of getting somewhere and knowing it suffuses the poem. It, the thing that "begins" in the poem's opening line, is carrying on happening. Few of the other early poems match this opener, I think only the one called "Archilochus: the complete fragments" (in fact, versions of just a few of them - but wonderful versions that are engineered to make a complete artefact). Here, as in the later "Three Pastoral Poems", we are tantalized by the sketch of a project from which might have sprung the immense flow of an Excavations.
Perhaps it is related to the unliterary plainness mentioned above, but some of the prose pieces here hardly suggest a considerable writer at all: the "Carpathian Pieces" in particular are like superior blog entries, contemplating the beggars and spiny dry fruits that get into your sandals that any other intelligent northern European notices in southern Europe. The content is sometimes modestly interesting, but it's composed shoddily and the impression is that the writer is not bothered about being elegant or circumspect in order to satisfy the expectations of a critical audience. Nevertheless, in "St Albans" there is a kind of link between the shoddiness and the wasteland subject which could be expressive - which sometimes is expressive precisely in failing to be competently expressive! Biographically this habit of slipshod expression may provide the unexpected opening for the kind of art that Riley makes when he's really making. There's a directness in the connection that is a peculiar strength. Or again, "Manchester" is mainly a casually interesting memoir - Riley does not strike me as really interested in cities, unless when they are a smear of lights on the horizon - but it's when he gives vent to loose political generalities that the forces that underlie his creativity begin to push up through the prose:
I make a terrible mess of the days, but I never agreed to Salford. In the end there were conflicts between that broad liberality of the thriving city where any worker might have access to the fullest reach, and that which made the city thrive, which stripped the worker of everything but abject ambition, and grew fat on his/her heart-consuming worry until the whole country is steered on fear. The burrowing had to stop. In the end it didn't matter how any bunch of seekers wrapped themselves in the fabric of the town, it was going to go on as an illusory thriving running into the ground. The creative focus lay out of sight.
As the metaphors pull away from mere analysis I suddenly begin to feel how it's really not such a long step to get to this (from the inspiriting "Prose poems and pieces written at the time of writing Excavations", which reflect the light of their greater companion):
A step forward and the past clarifies. Geometry of the heartland, moon marks on the ridge, the river stepping down the vale... What we work to, lies here in the decided risk, the speech saying yes, on, yellow feather at the world focus as the chest empties into [song] bursts into [help]
I've mentioned most of the things I like best in The Day's Final Balance, but perhaps I haven't sufficiently emphasized the stray, welcoming lyric poems that are best discovered by leafing through the book at random, so I'll end with one of the "Four Transylvanian Songs":
I ask unspeaking earth,
silent totality, for help,
to mend the heart
And hurting. It is not the heart
but we say heart to describe the hurt.
The earth banging on my coffin lid
will silence all that.
And I'll be a star in the sky
shining faintly at the edge of the sky over the forest
and around midnight I'll poke around the houses
to see what my loves are up to.
A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett