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Monday, June 29, 2009

The Balcony

It was child's play choking
to nothing the space that had opened
before me, to a tedious vacillation
your incendiary absolutes.

So today I belatedly pitch
my self-belief into that void
for whose sake the rigours of waiting
for you alive keep

their bloodthirsty edge. This life
telegraphing its sparks is the only
one you acknowledge. You lean

towards it out of a balcony window
that stays in the dark.

(after Montale)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Submarine Paint

Submarine paint. That was the secret of Italo Svevo’s wife’s family business, and based on a secret recipe too. Since I notice my submarine could do with a lick of paint, I thought I’d saunter over to Friulia and see about tracking the recipe down myself.

Back anon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

At Sally Gap

Sally Gap has long been a sacred place to me. So this by way of a salute to it.

The placeless place
find it incline
to the back roads’

slant invitation
a colour code
rainbow away

on the map
primary secondary
third class

other the signs
in neither kilo-
metres nor miles

the Irish spelling
a qualm of variants
snagged on

a barbed-wire fence
through which

lours a sheep’s
water face

this long-ago
Sunday after-
mass drive

the gearbox

the windscreen
in tears and who

for the Redcoats
to chase laying
the military road

as they go
and their heads
on their barracks’

stone pillows
the misspelt
patriot the lost

German soldiers
out of memory

here where God
becomes Featherbed

the monstrous
pylons striding
ahead and sunk

in the infant
breaking waters

tramper and twitcher

the heather spikes
on the sheep trails
and sparing

a glance as we pass
the corrie’s
inverted dunce-

cap plumbing
the lacustrine

and if there were
houses there are
no houses

the rundown
national school
and struggling pub

cease to be
of concern where
the joyriders

burn out their cars
and walk home
and the radio mast

tears open
the sky on a sinkhole

upwards and out
of everywhere
from the overrun

seaboard the hereby
declared notional
city beyond

the helplessly
fertile midlands
and upstart

bustle of derelict
we rise

without trace
the any-day-now
impassable roads

all too open
to your forecast
of issueless

that does not come
but have we not

been here before
pulling over
might I not

for once delight
in the sheep droppings

the beer cans
and facing four ways
choose all or none

knowing well
dusk will find us
at sea-

level the mountains
asleep again

behind the last
estate’s teatime
lights all that

cosy apocalypse
stood down

and hardly
not this time
the end of the world

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chat-Up Line, Overheard

‘Ah ehn’t got no diseases or owt.’


Excuse me if I vomit from my freshwater and my saltwater stomachs (vomiting is a sign of joy in my species), but now the puffins are back (here) I’ve made the highly gratifying discovery that they sound just like Futurama’s Dr Zoidberg (scroll down a bit, ‘Atlantic puffin’).

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Not to endure like a needy old man,
ears full of hair and shouting

at the bare-chested boys
to get off your lawn.

Not to hang on like the wheezing
old woman who proves

such an annoyance clambering
onto the bus. To die

as you’ve lived,
a yellow-bellied dog,

stomach full of sawdust and scraps,
between the security fence

and the flyover, thoughtfully,
out of harm’s way.

Air Street

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Randolph Healy, Rattling the Bars

There are plenty of oystercatchers along the river Humber, at Blacktoft, Sunk Island, Keyingham, Paull and other places of avian rendezvous, but the closest I can come to a picture of these birds I took myself is the above, taken in Mayo last December. The oystercatchers would be the near-imperceptible smudges in the middle distance.

My occasion for this being the publication by Oystercatcher Press of Randolph Healy’s pamphlet Rattling the Bars. Living in my ancestral spawning ground of Bray, Randolph knows all about the practically green (non-eco, radioactive sense) sea washing up on its shores, and devotes much of these poems to his thoughts on radioactive and other forms of pollution, sometimes as filtered through his signature anagram randomizer (‘we pronuclear /now recap lure /of new purer coal //unclear power’). ‘Peel Me a Fruit Bat’ sounds like an out-take from Trout Mask Replica, while another title ponders ‘The Om in Remote the Not in Control’. But the stand-out poem for me is ‘Out-Takes’, which I read as a response to Heaney’s North, that most over-autopsied of Heaney’s books. The Grauballe man wept the ‘tar river of himself’, but even Heaney didn’t think of a self-inwoven simile as arresting as shitting oneself in the sense his near homonym Healy has in mind here:

One must be limp a long time
not to mob the tanned and maimed.

Surround the de-nippled torso
arms out as if no one was more willing
unworked hands judged beautiful,
whorls spiralling beyond naming

then rubberneck a neck-wrung ex-sixteen-year-old,
Munch-gape made of meconium
as if she had shit her self,
or someone sat on her while still warm.


I’ve always liked Randolph Healey’s poetry and am delighted to see it more of it in print.

Old Hull

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Being a devotedly disillusioned fan of democracy, that worst possible system of government as Winston Churchill called it (until you consider the alternatives), I defer to the right of my fellow citizens, subjects or whatever they are right to vote for whoever they want – even if that someone is, get this, a career Nazi, former member of the National Socialist Movement (a wingnut groupuscule with a taste for fire-bombing Jewish property and synagogues in the 60s), and a swastika badge-wearing, rights-for-white-defending former chairman of the National Front. This person is now, can you believe it, one of my MEPs. And I defer to people’s right to vote for him. But as for the 67.5 per cent of you who couldn’t get off your ‘Yorkshire and the Humber Region’ arses to vote for a pig in a hat, a passing lugworm, or a piece of shit on a stick – a piece of shit on a stick would do fine – shame on you. Shame shame shame, you shower of absolute good-for-nothings!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ulysses and Us

Where was I hiding, I wonder, in the thirty years I lived in Ireland, to prevent me ever hearing the phrase ‘Feast of Saint Jam Juice’ applied to that annual festival of Edwardian tomfoolery better known as Bloomsday. Perhaps I was living in some alternative reality from Declan Kiberd, who reassures me in Ulysses And Us that that is how Bloomsday is ‘jocularly’ known in Dublin. Google hasn’t heard of it either.

Someone has been spoiling Kiberd’s fun. Specifically, Ulysses critics. They have wrenched the text away from the common reader and made it a prize specimen of ‘specialist knowledge’ rather than the ‘property of all who shared in a common culture.’ And yet this is strangely at odds with the actual evidence offered by Kiberd. There are ‘dozens of taxi drivers’ who ‘know the main characters but haven’t got too far into it yet’ (this story, I feel, is a whisker away from the hardy old perennial about the man at the unveiling of a plaque who remembers living down the road from Leopold Bloom, and what a decent old skin he was.) Kiberd senior loved Ulysses, but on attempting to sit through a Joyce symposium at Trinity College, Dublin, was scared off by a paper on ‘The Consciousness of Stephen’. Kiberd fails to offer readings, or even the names of these academic baddies – in fact the book appears to quote no Joyce scholarship of the last few decades, one passing reference aside to a book published in 2004; otherwise nothing – and when it does make a gesture in that direction weakly mutters of ‘specialists prepared to devote years to the study of [Ulysses’] secret codes – parallax, indeterminacy, consciousness-time being among the buzz words.’ This is unreadable jargon? Holy contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality! But then again, on the subject of unreadability, Kiberd reminds us that Joyce’s great defender Hemingway couldn’t be bothered finishing Ulysses and that Roddy Doyle too thinks it’s full of boring longueurs. Maybe Kiberd doesn’t actually want us to read it all the way through?

The last time I was in Hodges & Figgis the shelves were packed with guides to Ulysses, reader’s guides, beginner’s guides, and walking guides of Joyce’s Dublin. Acknowledging their existence might come between Kiberd and his mission in this book, which is a deeply Arnoldian one. Joyce, it quickly emerges, is the central exhibit and weapon in a culture war Kiberd is waging singlehanded on the cosmopolitan dross of the modern world with its ‘corporate’ university elitists and their contempt for ‘national culture’. Kiberd appears to believe every bit as much as old mutton chops in ‘national cultures’ and the genetically imprinted national characters that accompany them. He also believes in the mission of art not just to civilise but, in effect, to save us, tut-tutting at Shakespeare critics’ weakness for treating the plays as ‘technical performances’ rather than ‘guides to a fulfilled life’. And also like Arnold, he believes the bourgeoisie (with a little help from the kindly literary critic) are on a mission to save civilisation. I don’t quite grasp his class theory, I confess. He believes Ulysses is the epic of the ‘civic bourgeoisie’, a group now replaced by the ‘consumerist’ ‘middle class’. Joyce ‘hated being called a middle-class writer. For him this was the greatest of all insults, to which he responded jocosely [‘jocularly’ a minute ago, now ‘jocosely’] by saying that “nobody in my books has any money.”’ This aversion to social-climbing chimes with Kiberd’s distaste for what a Christian brother might have called ‘company-keeping’: ‘[Joyce] had little truck with bohemians, preferring to stress the practical value of art for a full life.’ (Instead, Ulysses ‘respects’ the masses by showing how ‘admirable’ they are.) Nor does the moralizing stop there. Joyce may have used swear words in his fiction but, strait-laced type that he was, he would ‘on no account utter them’. And woe unto his readers ‘intent on proving how free they [are]’, who have ‘confused art and life’, and go around effing and blinding. Not in front of the women and children, please.

E.M. Forster had his man on the Clapham Omnibus and Kiberd’s equivalent would have to be a man on the Clontarf Dart, membership papers of the Plain People of Ireland at the ready. Kiberd is the most relentlessly anecdotal of writers, and many of these anecdotes are designed to remind us, as though we could ever be reminded enough, of what a wonderful bunch of people we Irish are. ‘This was the era when democracy meant that anyone could enjoy Shakespeare. When a group of travelling players asked a porter in Limerick railway station whether they had reached their destination, the man raised his cap in mock-salute and said, “Why, sirs, this is Illyria.”’ Even for a dog bites man story, Man in Non-Academic Job Not Total Illiterate doesn’t exactly have teeth. Why is it so pass-remarkable to Kiberd that a railway porter might know Shakespeare? Who is he trying to impress or prove a point to here? On the one hand, the Fall Narrative of a vanished common culture has to be rehashed over and over again (‘The middle decades of the twentieth century were the years in which the idea of a common culture was abandoned’) yet on the other here he is, Declan Kiberd, expounding, nay embodying this common culture, and being hyperbolically feted for doing so (‘the most exciting book I know on the most exciting novel ever written’, gushes Joseph O’Connor). So where is the problem, really?

I am deeply skeptical of the rhetorical assumptions that underpin Ulysses And Us is what I’m saying here, in other words, the comfortable moral high ground of its elitist-bashing populism, and its dewy-eyed love affair with the tedious old business of Ireland and Irishness, which may still interest some of those over-specialised academics Kiberd talks about but, apologies for the mild swearing here, bores the arse off me.

(Declan Kiberd, Ulysses And Us, Faber and Faber, £14.99)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Exit Strategy

rhapsody on a theme of Jean du Chas

Saperlipopette! I trip over
the concierge’s mongrel again.
An imbecile of genius
with a lazy eye, it watches me
come as I go and go as I come.
While the lift remains broken
I will be sadly unbearable.

Consider life a series of
connecting rooms between corridors.
In corridor and on landing
I am a yo-yo dangled
from an upstairs broom cupboard
as the chambermaid rearranges
my dust. Perspectives dizzy
and the banister takes my supporting arm.

Always and everywhere
someone is watching and when
she nods off over a tisane,
le concierge, c’est moi
shooing the street urchins off
in between reading your postcards.

M. Machintruc, half past eight,
don’t like that tie.
Addresses and posts
a croque-monsieur to his mouth
at the café bar on the corner
and scans the paper for news
of the Greenland campaign.
It lies in ruins.
And so to work.

The line of a trilby hat
passes the frosted glass
by my head at eye-level.
My life is a broken-
backed roman policier
on a two-second time-lag
to the past historic tense,
sleazy yet classical:
Maigret and the Concierge or,
The Dead Man Left
No Forwarding Address.

The postman, rodent-faced
brute, in-out, nine ten.
The full stops of dust motes
he trails huddle slowly
into a will-less drift of ellipses.

Madame Balai, tripping over
her broom: ‘God blows
his nose and woe betide us
when the hanky descends.’

M. Putanesco, nine twenty,
the weight of the world’s
street-walkers’ perfume
lagging behind him, loitering
fugitively on the stairs.

Mme Balai, sweeping herself
back onto her feet: ‘I remember
my mother as a young girl,
always scraping her knees.’

M. Ningún, travelling
salesman in nothing,
nine thirty, an empty
bag full of samples.

You exit therefore you are.
When you exit, I see you.
You are no one before that
and no one then too,
but certified so.

As you slink in past the sleeping
lazy-eyed dog in the evening
the very wallpaper knows
where you’ve been.

I who am nothing know all.
Madame le concierge stirs
in her sleep and I make myself
scarce up a drain.

The dead Uruguayan
lay in his room a fortnight.
Page after page his manuscripts
proved themselves more than equal
to the parakeet’s guano.

Skim-reading as I threw them away
I knew myself in the presence of genius.

Typo Department

All my life I have carried around a mental store of typos, on whose memory I regularly impale myself, and to which I equally regularly add. In my piece on Beckett’s letters, in the new Dublin Review, I notice I refer to Beckett’s wife Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumensil as Suzanne ‘Dechevaux’-Dumesnil, which I suppose is one step above calling her ‘Deuxchevaux’-Dumesnil, but is still fairly lousy. Or so I thought until (the ever-reliable) wikipedia alerted me to the fact that the woman herself spelt it my wrong way, which is to say the right way. It’s how it’s spelt on her gravestone. Serendipity.

But since I’m on a typo roll here, I may as well point with an inverted sursum corda the note for Krapp’s Last Tape in the new Krapp’s Last Tape and Shorter Plays which records Krapp as having been played by Patrick Magee while ‘Henry was played by Jack MacGowran’. Jack MacGowran played Henry in the first production of Embers. And equally, in Dirk van Hulle’s Compnay etc we are told that Stirrings Still was published in The Guardian on 3 March 1989 and then again in The Manchester Guardian on 19 1989. Let me atone for the pettiness of even noticing these things but posting a poem straight away to wash that nasty taste away.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Teary Old Greek, Hoarse Old Florentine

from y to z
to the dearest decimal dead

That’s a ‘Poetic Miscalculation’ written by Beckett in a group of ‘Worstward Poems’ at the back of the first manuscript of Worstward Ho. I keep harping on about Beckett’s dodgy arithmetic, and if that percentage is meant to indicate one twenty-sixth of the alphabet the figure should be 3.8, not 4.9%. Tsk! ‘Incalescent’ means warming up, and for anyone else on the trail of the ideal shelf-ful of corrected Beckett texts, Dirk van Hulle’s new edition of Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still, from which I take the above, would suggest we’re getting warmer.

Reading ‘The Way’, with its figure of eight and infinity sign, our editor reminds us of the ‘drink graph’ in Dream of Fair to Middling Women (an infinity sign is perhaps a figure of eight on its ear): ‘if you had got what you were looking for on the way up you got it again on the way down. The bumless eight of the drink figure. You did not end up where you started, but coming down you met yourself going up.’ A Heraclitean maxim if ever there was one (‘The way up and the way down [are] one and the same (...) And these two ways are forever being traversed in opposite directions at once’, as that teary old Greek put it.)

Also in attendance here is ‘Ceiling’, last seen in Fulcrum 6, and introduced there by Christopher Ricks. Van Hulle reminds us of its genesis in a wispy 1981 poem of the same name:

lid eye bid

And here’s a pleasing factoid to have on the record. The last of the three sections of Stirrings Still invokes a word the narrator cannot distinguish: ‘on how and here a word he could not catch it were to end where never till then’. The word was ‘faint’, originally, in the right-hand margin. This reminded Beckett of the Italian phrase ‘per lungo silenzio fioco’, his translation of which could not bring itself to choose between ‘faint’ and ‘hoarse’ for fioco, though in the end he used neither. The line originates in Virgil’s first appearance to Dante in Inferno I.

The edition also features ‘what is the word’, a text which will also be featuring in the edition of his poems due later this year. ‘Keep ! for end’, as Beckett wrote on the top of that poem in manuscript.

An exemplary ‘addition to company’ and a steal at a tenner.

(Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still, ed. Dirk van Hulle, Faber and Faber, £9.99)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Ian Hamilton in Hull

I mentioned Ian Hamilton’s Hull connection last week. He was one of a series of Compton visiting poets who came here in the early 70s, the others being Cecil Day-Lewis, Peter Porter, Richard Murphy and Douglas Dunn who, yes I know, was already here anyway. Here’s Hamilton speaking to Dan Jacobson of his none too successful stint:

I was supposed to sit in an office in [Larkin’s] library, waiting for these young poets to bring me their work so I could appraise it. I think about two people came in the course of the year, with what looked to me like the lyrics of pop songs. And one you pronounced that these weren’t quite up to what they could be, you never saw them again. So there was that side to it. On the other side there was the English Department, which couldn’t understand why money was being spent on somebody sitting around in the library doing next to nothing. [...] The place seemed to be full of time-servers and charlatans of one sort of another, and I just didn’t get on with it, and retreated to my office and waited for the next non-poet to arrive – who never did. In the end I went back to the TLS and wrote an article about it, and made myself even more...

(Jacobson:) Eminent.

Even more eminent – certainly in Hull. ‘Enemies’ was the word I had in mind.


I’ve tried and failed to track this article down. A little bibliographical ferreting turns up four TLS articles for this period, all called ‘Viewpoint’, and none of them the piece described here. But I now realize I may have misunderstood him to have meant the article as well as its author was in the TLS (Hamilton was working there at the time). Back to the bibliography then. But offers of help also gratefully received.