Thursday, January 29, 2009

When it comes to apples,

I like the skin of russets,
it feels like it was made in World War Two.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hangovers and the GDR

Anna Funder's Stasiland has been on the bookshelf beside my bed for, as far as I can work out, about the last four years. I always liked the look of it but it was never the right time. Then last week I took a break from Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, picked up Stasiland and haven't looked back. (Well, actually things have been complicated by the fact that I've started reading a books of short stories that arrived in Monday's post, creating a veritable nest of reading.)

Funder's book begins with her hungover, and thre's a description of being hungover which I find impressive:

...this is not one of those hangovers where you write the daty off to darkness. It is the more interesting kind, where destroyed synapses are reconstructing themselves, sometimes missing their old paths and making odd, new connections. I remember things I haven't remembered before – things that do not come out of the ordered store of memories I call my past. I remember my mother's moustache in the sun, I remember the acute hunger-and-loss feeling of adolescence, I remember the burnt-chalk smell of tram brakes in summer. You think you have your past filed away under subject headings, but, somewhere, it waits to reconnect itself.

I'm not taken with the specific memories, which are after all hers and not mine ('hunger-and-loss feeling' is lazy, and what does burnt chalk smell of). But the passage captures, or at least describes accurately, the vivid and complex experiences that can sometimes accompany a hangover. I don't know about the science of synapses reconstructing themselves, but the idea is a good one.

By chance I had my first really bad and really interesting hangover for months the other day, so the experience was fresh in my mind – the sense of being able to write something, for example, even though what you actually write is no more likely to be good than usual. A hangover is at least a jolt to the system. I wonder if the mind and body, in their poisoned state, lose their control a little and allow the poem room to emerge; the brain can't do any work, so it resolves to play. It's true for me at any rate that being drunk wipes out the capacity to write, but hangovers are another matter.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sentence I particularly enjoyed in the Daily Telegraph

From a story about an Iranian millionaire convicted of defacing books in the British Library:

The court heard that his obsession with books was such that even on his wedding night he left his marital bed to polish the covers of the volumes in his library.

There's always someone worse off than yourself.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Decision time

Yesterday I got my final manuscript off to Salt, which was a pleasure and a relief after protracted agonies about inclusions, omissions and alterations.

Having the comments of various readers to guide my editing was extremely useful, but didn't solve everything. For example, there was one short lyric which more than one reader had queried, and I can see why. I feel it earns its place, partly because it helps to balance out the longish poems which are prevalent in the book, but also on its own account. In particular it draws on and informs some of the other pieces it sits among.

Of course this is mere self-justification, and the readers may well be right. It's so difficult to get a proper perspective on one's own work, and yet the flawed perspective you do have is, whatever a theorist might say, privileged. The comments of readers are useful precisely because they come from good poets, but if you followed every other poet's advice – this is analogous to the idea of the 'workshop poem' – you'd risk knocking off the edges that make your work distinctive.

So – I left it in, and while I have no idea if I made the right decision, it's now out of my hands, so I can't worry about it any more. Much.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sample Poem: I Leave Myself

I Leave Myself
after Tadeusz Nowak

I leave myself — leave my body like smoke
through the gnarled and inelegant chimney of my ear,
or rise as a spirit from the vault of my chest.

No. I leave myself. Salt leaves, or is left by, the sea,
something of old ironwork
leaks from the end of a long tool like a hoe
left lying in perfect stillness on the ground
or leaning against a gate:
where iron nails attach the iron end to the wood
seems the likeliest place for such a loss, or escape:
among the flakings of rust and spider shit.

Dogs lean out from the boundaries they guard
towards the musk I exude, exhibit, which I am,
swirling the smell of the pigs in the woods
through a nest of hay, down to a kink in the river.

I’m not there, or anywhere else. There’s a raspberry bush
modestly covered in dust from the road, where yokels
carry heavy items down the road
in ten-legged, hesitant crab-step, kicking up dust:
sleepers, roof lead, a grand piano, their plans for satisfying sweethearts.
They happen to stop, pull the fruit and dust it
on their sleeves, in the air, blow on its absent fire to cool it.
Their searching fingers play a little jazz medley on my branches

like a cosmopolitan priest counting rosaries,
come to the country under a cloud,
staring absently into the bishop’s orchard
up through scented branches towards the open veranda
from where
the man’s elder daughter disappears into the house.
He can hear her, then it isn’t true that he can hear her,
he only imagines it; it’s worse.

The suffocating heat under his cassock.
I sympathise madly but I am only a fruit tree
and he ignores me, kicks his heels
and pulls a dead strand of honeysuckle from the wall
with as much petulance as he’ll allow himself.

From the top of the telegraph pole above him
which is
singing across continents about
matters it would be presumptuous to mention,
I can see a cloud of horsemen approaching.
I can see a haystack dreamed
in the murky cobalt of a
landscape reserved for dreams
and other untethered possibilities,
and beside it
two or three or four horses
standing placidly,
in possession of their horsey selves,
reaching down stretching their stringy ropes
taking sugar lumps, the tarts, from a man
no older than I remember — which seems rather suspicious,
a heaven I imagined when I was in a self
that seems laughable, a mere heaven. I leave myself.

first published in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, 2007

A light coming on

Last night I happened to lean over my bedside lamp when turning it on with a view to applying a bit of Tobias Smollett eye ointment. The top of the bulb was covered in a healthy fuzz of dust, and it occurred to me that it looked particularly like a glowing testicle.

Now I'm wondering if this perception can be turned to account, for instance in the manufacture of electrically lit testicles (perhaps in partnership with the makers of lit globes like the one we got my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas); or in a poem, for instance as a prosaic metaphor for an angel's bollocks and/or those of someone who had been exposed to a high dose of radiation. If any of the panel of Dragon's Den happen to be reading this, perhaps they could drop me a line.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sample poem: Tenebrio


Tenebrio, the fabled Panther, Reynard, local kids,
a dangerous prowler — or just the usual drunk on the skids —
slipping in and out of your names and costumes nightly,
you come around here, rifling bins, screaming your vixen cry,
playing your games, leaving a guano of gum in the bus shelter.
...........The mystery caller that made the dogs bark, the lateness of the hour,
...........the sweet spliff fumes that rise through the air,
...........backlit orange, behind the privet — you’re gone, never were,
...........remain in the bushes as a pair of evil stars,
when some gracious shivering husband stirs
and comes with a torch and pulled-tight dressing gown to see.
Plodding back, he hushes his wife but is awake instantly
when the floodlight’s triggered by your shadow’s tail,
and is taking Nytol when he hears the clatter of disturbed metal.
...........The next day there’s just a smudge of feathers and two
...........twigs lying crossed in the path. Next door’s window
...........has been tampered with: the tracks lead to a high fence and stop.
All those night-time incidents: you move in rumours, stalk and drop,
accost and flash at the elderly and the young
and fade like the Cheshire Cat, leaving a fleshless dong
and a funny turn or tearful scream for mummy.
...........You are a ninja dissembling into the bough of a tree,
...........and now stand huge and awful by the wardrobe shelves,
...........fixed in a rictus of mockery and wrong intent till that too dissolves,
and you depart, drifting across a city of bad sleep and prints on window-sills,
finding sport among its bedroom hells
and day-forsaken alleyways, lurking behind the silence:
...........something and nothing, all the false alarms that diffuse
...........through foolish laughter, all the violence that goes
...........unreported or is shelved for lack of evidence.

first published in The London Magazine, 2007


Lost and Found

Yesterday I found that blogaholic WN Herbert has yet another blog, this one dedicated to trying to remember the contents of a lost notebook. Go forth and read it.

Friday, January 09, 2009

If Not Levi, Who?

A book catalogue came through the post yesterday - essentially one of those discount book clubs, although with this one you're not committed to buying anything - which is lucky as we rarely want to. The books generally aren't my cup of tea.

But 'imagine my surprise' when, flicking through it, my eye was caught by one of the titles: If Not Now, When? My excitement was muted (I've got it and read it) and indeed short-lived when I saw that it wasn't Primo Levi's novel about Jewish partisans, but a piece of twaddle by Esther Rantzen, subtitled 'Living the baby boomer adventure'.

Such gross co-opting (or unhappy coincidence - I don't know) is rather enjoyable - transforming an urgent imperative about justice, heroism and dignity into a soothing pat on the pack for the self-absorbed and -indulgent. It's so gross that I don't even want to go into the details and ramifications. Or rather, I want to a bit too much, so I'll spare you.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Not the Fun Centre

Previously I'd considered the rebranding of school and university libraries as 'learning centres' to be no more than a bit of harmless nonsense, but then I heard a piece on the Today Programme this morning with Charlie Higson and Frank Cottrell-Boyce about encouraging boys to read.

Higson pointed out that reading is not primarily about learning but about fun, and Cottrell-Boyce picked this up to talk about how learning centres increasingly focus on providing IT facilities rather than books, despite the fact that more children have access to computers at home than to a wide range of books. And it occurred to me that the shift from 'library' to 'learning centre' encodes a shift in attitude, in which books are no longer seen as fun, as an end in themselves, but as a 'resource' for learning. In that view a book really is no different from a computer in that it is a vehicle for content, and in many ways it is less powerful and versatile. Such a change suits bureaucracy and government because 'learning' in the sense of 'training' can be measured, tested, recorded and used. But there is also the joy and pleasure and useless mental profit of reading good books, which a library, as opposed to a learning centre, exists to provide.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Floral face-off

A belatedly festive post now that I've dug out my copy of RT Davies's Faber anthology of Medieval English Lyrics. We all know that in the bitter conflict between the holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood the holly bears the crown. Or do we?

That carol seems to be based on an older lyric, which has very similar versions listed under the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Faber book. The first verse and chorus run:

Holly stond in the hall
Faire to behold:
Ivy stond without the dore–
She is full sore acold.

Nay! Ivy, nay!
It shall not be, iwis:
Let Holy have the maistry,
As the maner is.

(A full text version is available here.)

Two-nil to holly. But Davies also includes a fifteenth-century lyric 'In Praise of Ivy':

Ivy, chefe of trees it is,
Veni, coronaberis [i.e. Come, you shall be crowned]

The most worthye she is in towne–
He that seith other do amiss–
And worthy to ber the crowne.
Veni, coronaberis.

Ivy is soft and mek of spech,
Ageinst all bale she is bliss.
Well is he that may her rech.
Veni, coronaberis.

Ivy is green with colour bright,
Of all trees best she is,
And that I preve well now be right.
Veni, coronaberis.

Ivy bereth beris black.
God graunt us all his bliss,
For there shall we nothing lack.
Veni, coronaberis.

So now you know.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Factual errors and felicitous variants

I've discovered that one of the poems in my book contains a factual error. It irks me, but I don't want to correct it, because I like the line.

William Empson's poem 'Invitation to Juno' contained a factual error in its early versions. It's the usual exquisite tortured cleverness about unworthy man wooing aloof woman, and the last stanza reads:

Courage. Weren't strips of heart culture seen
Of late mating two periodicities?
Did not Professor Charles Darwin
Graft annual upon perennial trees?

The trouble is, Darwin was never a professor. In later versions Empson substituted the much inferior line 'Did not once the adroit Darwin', correcting the error but weakening the verse (that horrible metrical filler 'the adroit' doesn't even sound right).

This in turn reminds me of a Marvell eclogue I read recently, 'A Dialogue between Thyrsis and Dorinda', where, in the passage where Thyrsis describes paradise -

Oh, there's neither hope nor fear,
There's no wolf, no fox, no bear.
No need of dog to fetch our stray,
Our Lightfoot we may give away...

- some manuscripts have the line 'Free from the wolf and horrid bear', which strikes me as a far classier one than the main reading.