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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whydah Fools Fall in Love

What gratifying answers to my request for neologisms the other day. Moping and mooching at work today I found myself rewriting song titles to form terrible puns on bird’s names, and came up with the following ten. Any other suggestions gratefully received!

Rook Around the Clock
Grouse is the Word
Stork in the Middle with You
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Plover
Hip to be Skua
Auk on the Wild Side
Pipit on a String
Born to Wren
Kea to My Heart
Whydah Fools Fall in Love

Jane Draycott

From a short review of mine of Jane Draycott’s Over, in today’s TLS:

In the same way that the titles of the final sequence, based on the international phonetic alphabet, often have an elliptic relationship with their subject matter, ‘Zulu’ is a poem about the author’s father which proceeds entirely by negation. The long last sentence beings with a ‘Nor’ that cancels all that follows, the description of the father’s travels, and how he would return home and:

come in and play for hours
on our old Broadwood, his fingers
truly a river in spate around the house
and out into the desert of our street,
named for the small hill on which we lived.

None of this happened, in other words; but whether fictive or real, these poems are messengers bringing ‘news from another place’, in writing that is assured, sophisticated and moving.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spoffle, Squodge, Copropody

Found these lying around the other day and thought I might recycle them. Carbon-dating on references to e.g. phone cards might convey something of their vintage. But still and all. Anyone feel like suggesting some neologisms of their own?

anaerocathedry n: inability to regain one’s seat on an airplane until refreshment trolley has got out of the way.

autoperipatism n: failure to remember where you parked the car at the airport before you went on holiday.

chumble n: hole in pocket through which change falls down and through trouser leg in public.

copropody n: act of stepping in dog dirt.

digitismus n: compulsive use of finger gestures to convey quotation marks in speech.

dillywicking n: action of beginning to undo one’s flies before entering gents’ toilet in pub.

dysflexia n: refusal of cash dispenser to return your pass card.

dyssymposia n: inability to conduct a dinner-party conversation about traffic or the price of houses.

equistructionist n: person who stands in the centre on crowded escalator.

esprit de l’ascenseur n: realization that a fart suppressed in a lift would have been silent after all (‘Au même temps que les portes se fermaient derrière lui il hésita un moment et péta. Toujours ce vieux esprit de l’ascenseur! se dit-il.’—DE CAMUVOIR.)

frigomantism n: belief that storing telephone call cards in a refrigerator recharges them.

hiott n: telephone call whose sole purpose is to inform the recipient of one’s whereabouts [acr. ‘Hi, I’m on the train.’]

johnnygodot n: tourist who waits by middle doors of Dublin bus expecting them to open at bus-stop. [St John of God’s + Godot]

moozled adj to be ~: feeling on reaching post office/bank/labour exchange counter and discovering you have been standing in the wrong queue.

n: sexual arousal by television commercials for French cars.

pratcom v: to use a laptop computer in a café, pub, train or bus.

pringleton n: older male relative who will not be offended by gift of tie and/or socks for Christmas.

proxoscopy n: the feeling that you have seen a new film when you have only read the reviews.

solyksism n: extreme refusal to acknowledge power of speech to communicate with others, esp. in teenagers [‘sort of like you know’].

spoffle v: to show guests your holiday photographs after dinner.

squodge v: to urinate in sink, e.g. in rented accommodation, rather than walk down corridor to use bathroom.

stime v: to put unwanted newspaper supplements in the bin unread before opening the rest of the paper. [abbr. Sunday Times]

tedcred n: knowing at least one person who had a cameo in Father Ted.

witbetog n: job that makes you wear a name-tag. [acr. ‘Will that be to go sir?’]

Saturday, April 24, 2010

'Go Long'

Formal poetry, eh. Can I still write it? I suspect not. I always feel on the verge of it abandoning me, given which sad state of affairs I take the small pre-emptive step of abandoning this new example I’ve just written, hereunder. I do think ‘Go Long’ from Joanna Newsom’s latest album is the loveliest thing I’ve heard all year though, I must say.

Go long, go longer. Linger, song,
words I hang on, echoing on,
although what song I hardly care,
any words to any old air
so long as I am lost among

the old heart rights and wrongs, heart-wrung,
light on the air as your sweet tongue.
But ‘heart’, and ‘heart-wrung’? Are you sure?
Or were you listening too hard to hear?

Whether the heart be song’s true spring
or nowhere at all, means not a thing,
drifting on the words we share.
All besides I trade, forswear,
if you too give in, borne along.
And where? I’m listening too hard to hear.

Peter Porter

Peter Porter has died. He was 81. I have exhumed and retyped (with a broken elbow, too, let me add, which I had for eleven full days before going to hospital!) – retyped, I was saying, the following review of his two-volume Collected Poems of 1999. Those volumes were intended to mark Porter’s seventieth birthday, but turned instead into dead-on-arrival funeral monuments to the OUP poetry list: the last books that imprint published, I believe.

Porter had odd views on Irish poetry, it must be said. He achieved a certain mythic, or was it urban-mythic, status for having rejected Mahon’s ‘Disused Shed’ while poetry editor at The New Statesman. Irish poetry, he thought, certainly when written by Seamus Heaney, was irretrievably mired in Georgian platitude. I think Muldoon and Carson gained a partial reprieve from this blanket condemnation, but, equally, I don’t think Porter spent overmuch time seeking out volumes by Maurice Scully or Trevor Joyce to prove himself happily wrong. It was just a pat generalisation he would trot out, repeatedly, year after year. But there is more to Porter than this. Let me not omit, too, a salute to his ailurophilia, especially in light of the heroic efforts Percy the cat has made this last hour to stop me typing the following, by sitting on the keyboard, repeatedly opening random programs (Powerpoint?) and looking up ’errrrrrr4444444445t’ in the Microsoft Word help dialogue box. And as for the poetry, here then is my review of Porter’s Collected Poems, which originally appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 62 in 1999:

In comparison to Auden and MacNeice’s Thirties, the Forties have always been seen as a poor decade for poetry. There was Dylan Thomas and his train of apocalyptic incantators, but things didn’t really pick up again until the Movement came along in the Fifties. That’s how the story usually goes, but hardly less influential (at the time at least) was the Group, of which Peter Porter was an early and prominent member. Both camps tried to drag poetry of the Forties’ slushy morass, but the Group was stridently opposed to the ‘gentility principle’ of Movement poems about country churches in neo-Augustan stanzas. For Porter and an associate like Al Alvarez, poetry was all about taking risks: it meant tackling subjects like nuclear war and being reminded of the holocaust when you saw scratch marks on the ceiling of a Tube carriage.

The young Porter is an angry poet, so angry you expect his poems to give off steam as you read them. ‘What a Lying Lot the Writers Are’ he titles a poem, before going into detail on ‘the tearing fingers of the ruck’, and his rising ‘bilge of hate’. There is something Jacobean in his indignation, as befits the author of ‘John Marston Advises Anger’, with anything smacking of upward social mobility coming in for particular ire. A frequently used symbol of decadence is a young woman marrying for money, as in ‘Made in Heaven’, whose housewife cheers herself up with:

Half a dozen lovers whose faces I can’t quite remember
(I can still start the Rose Adagio, one foot on the fender)

But at least I’m safe from everything but cancer –
The apotheosis of the young wife and the mediocre dancer.

Porters’ Sixties England is a world strangely devoid of even token rock and roll idealism: arty types in his early poems aren’t countercultural subversives, just so many cynics and lechers on the make. Larkin’s ‘Deceptions’ has taken a lot of criticism over the years for its awkward attempts to console a rape victim, but Larkin’s awkwardness is as nothing to the venom of Porter’s portrayal of a woman deciding not to lose her virginity in ‘Changes Wrung’. Sometimes Porter’s satirical manner becomes so tickled with its urbanity that it’s hard to say who or what the object of the exercise is. ‘Quatrains Dedicated to James Fenton’ is pure ‘Sweeney’-era Eliot-meets-Anthony Hecht, and none the better for it either. More enjoyable are the translations of After Martial, with their cuckolded husbands and malodorous orgiasts, their little gobbets of epigrammatic spleen. This is ribald contemporary satire at its best.

Written after the suicide of his wife, ‘An Exequy’ immediately stands out from all this banter. The Elizabethan Henry King is remembered for another poem of the same name and almost nothing else, and for Porter too this is surely his anthology piece. ‘The Easiest Room in Hell’ and ‘An Angel in Blythburgh Church’, also from The Cost of Seriousness, are uncharacteristic but fine poems on the same theme.

Porter didn’t go on being angry into middle age, or watch his poems slowly run out like Larkin’s. Instead he became a sort of millennial fabulist, toning down his persona to that of the wistful highbrow beached by the filthy modern tide. To put it in terms of Roman poets, since Porter himself so frequently does, he becomes less Martial than Horace. He has also become more productive, almost neurotically so: I can’t foresee too many readers resisting the temptation to skip a few pages along the way (and be warned, there are 788 of them). He buy his loquacity at a price: hand in glove with the Horatian pleasantries comes a hammered-home moralizing about poetry’s limitations and perfidies. As he puts it in ‘The Lying Art’:

It is all rhetoric rich as wedding cake
and promising the same bleak tears
when what was asked for but not recognised
shows its true face after a thousand breakfasts.

This, not Miss Moore’s disclaimer, tells me
why I too dislike it. It is paid to distract us,
to tell the man disappointed by his mother
that he too can be a huge cry-baby.

Too much of this becomes very tedious indeed, with its tone of woozy inconsequentialilty so familiar from late Auden. Was Porter being ‘a huge cry-baby’ when he wrote ‘An Exequy’ (separated from this by a mere four pages)? Of course not. But such is his fear of the lachrymose that he insists on planting the thought in our heads anyway. There’s only so much ground you can cut from under your feet without falling over, and Porter’s version of self-deprecation isn’t exactly slapstick fun. Opposing drippy consolation and manly restraint suits his purposes too well; if nothing else, a few embarrassing tears (or any other body fluids) might have served to lubricate the dry savannahs of volume 2. As he says in ‘Sticking to the Texts’ (ironic title, evidently): ‘Better to suffer the nightmares natural to /The body and tell what you have heard /Among your fellow-sufferers’. His best poems don’t need to prop up the tired old mind/body/art/life divides he makes so much of elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the words of ‘Sticking to the Text’ aren’t advice that he takes to heart. What he likes doing best in his recent work is playing the role of a Browning for our times. Wagner, Piero di Cosimo, Borromini, John Ford talking to T.S. Eliot, Bellini talking to Heine: the second half of Collected Poems can read like the Porter pocket guide to Western culture, with guilt, religion, sex and the decline of the West all written up in a tone of the utmost, maddening reasonablness. Late Porter, in other words, is essentially a poet of superior chitchat. His most memorable work in this vein includes ‘A Lament’, ‘A Great Reckoning in a Little Room’, ‘Bad Dreams in Venice’, ‘Woop Woop’, ‘Pisa Oscura’, ‘Copycat’, ‘The Chair of Babel’ and ‘Echt Deutsch’. But if you want something more gripping, stick to the ferocious satires and elegies in volume 1.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I swapped the northern for the southern ocean.
I gained and lost time, cheating it like Oisín.
Up was down. Clarity was confusion.
The words I spoke had suffered an inversion.
The brilliant light of dawn was grey and ashen.


Saline meniscus we secrete
as our limbs wrap, knit and attune,

our rough drafts left behind on the sheet:
sealing by stretching the space between

my flank and your flank, my chest and yours,
the extra space of a liquid pinch

that comes away in our hands and pours
us out of each other, the mingled drench

we tip out through the tips of our tongues
and down the gutters of palms and spine;

the pool of us gathered by shoulders and hips
we each collect, that insists as it clings

I am your outside now and you mine:
the sweat we lick from and leave on our lips.

Monday, April 19, 2010

James Clarence Mangan, 'Iceland Moss-Tea'

(...) Where, from the mountain’s furnace-lair,
From thousand smoke-enveloped cones,
Colossal blocks of red-hot stones
Are night by night uphurled in air –

(Like blood-red Saga-birds of yore)
While o’er the immeasurable snows
A sea of burning resin flows
Bubbling like molten metal ore –

Where from the Jokuls to the strand
The dimmed eye turns from smoke and steam
Only to track some sulphur-stream
That seethes along the blasted land –

Where clouds lie black on cinder-piles,
And all night long the lone Seal moans,
As, one by one, the mighty stones
Fall echoing down on far-off isles –

Where, in a word, hills vomit flame,
And storms for ever lash the sea,
There sprang this bitter moss for me,
Thence this astringent potion came.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Return of Keats and Chapman

‘Tell me’, Chapman asked Keats after their Thursday evening cribbage game and over a particularly fine amontillado, ‘would you describe yourself as a remorseless person?’
‘I would.’
‘A person who does not feel the need to apologise or make excuses for things you have done?’
‘Like that time you tickled Dryden in the eye?’
‘If by “tickled” you mean “punched” and by “that time” you mean “repeatedly” then yes.’
‘Indeed. And to what do you attribute this character trait?’
‘My collection of stuffed birds, a mere several hundred of which you see in this very room. My blue-footed boobies, hairy woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers...’
‘I see.’
‘There is however one species that has served me better than all others in this regard.’
‘Go on.’
‘Its power derives not just from the species but the location where my specimens were found.’
‘That being?’
‘A riverbank in County Tipperary.’
‘Large white birds, of heron-like appearance.’
‘Too right.’
‘And they are?’
‘I have Nore egrets.’

Icelandic Ash Cloud Reported 'In Discussions with Agents', Holding Out For Sandra Bullock in Role of 'Inconvenienced Ryanair Passenger'

Friday, April 16, 2010

The frothing caress cast in fractured syntax!

I do like car ferries, I must say: anywhere the 70s haven’t stopped happening yet is all right by me. Escaping the pestilence of Icelandic volcanic ash this morning, which had grounded my flight on Thursday, I found myself queuing for breakfast behind a supersized scouser still in her pyjama bottoms and finishing off a Bacardi breezer from the night before. Bullet-headed lorry drivers sprawled in postures of Brueghelesque repose or held forth on Man City team-selections this season, a tad too excitedly for the hour that was in it, I thought (five in the morning, for God’s sake). I was in Dublin for the presentation of a tribute book to my old professor, Terence Brown. It’s called Twelve by Two for Terence and has some very fine things in it, I must say. I saluted him then, and do so again now. His appreciation of having me back may have dipped slightly during a certain ‘musical’ interlude over dinner, but bygones now, bygones. I was also able to pick up a copy of Icarus LX·MMX while I was over, a celebration of sixty years of that publication, which rifles (or do I mean ‘riffles’?) their back catalogue for a collection of hits, misses and outright horrors (that would be me, with a risible attempt from 1988 – ‘Purpose and place are blent /when the sundial is damp with the first dew still’, forsooth). Michael Longley’s often repeated tales of his Trinity salad days get a fresh telling here, mentioning, among other things, how he took a poem published in Icarus in 1960 and reworked it for his 2004 collection Snow Water. That’s enviable. I contribute a short piece on editing the magazine myself, which I reproduce below, though as you’ll see I largely take refuge in tales of our amusing little mishaps. My Trinity roots have given me much, but I find I combine my returns to them with a morbid nervousness of origins, and much grand-standing superstition about and fear of the past (though maybe the extremeness of my reactions just confirms how childish I remain, twenty years on). Because you can’t go back, really, you can never go back! Having said that, I notice with amusement that my name at least has never gone away, since it is still on the door of house 25, where I used to live.

Here’s that piece then. The picture above is of Birkenhead at dawn.

‘Author’s name lost’: hardly the most confidence-inspiring of bylines, but there it is on page 29 of Icarus 91, under a poem called ‘Outside Mass’ (‘On Easter moss, delicate and moist...’). The covering letter that holds the key to this mystery is, I presume, lodged down the back of a sofa or filing cabinet somewhere in the upstairs room in House 6 where I edited, which is to say flung together, three issues of that magazine in the academic year 1989-9. These were still the days of camera-ready copy. Laser-printed pages were gummed down and delivered to a printer behind Mahaffy’s pub on Pearse Street. Our sales figures are not recorded.

Contributors were recruited in a haphazard way. One of our illustrators was a copiously-bearded man named Hugh reputed to live in a large pipe in the Booterstown bird sanctuary. An interview with Seamus Heaney was bagged after a T.S. Eliot centenary lecture he gave to the Phil. May O’Flaherty of Parsons Bookshop reminisced on bygone bohemian days (Liam O’Flaherty ‘must have been the least civil person I have ever come across’), while self-styled ‘master of the universe’ Aidan Walsh offered a blueprint for bohemian times to come (‘Anyone who wants to play in my band can write to me and send donations or whatever’, an invitation that for all I know still stands).

Typos abounded. Issue 93 carries an article on a Russian film director referred to throughout as ‘Tartovsky’. Opportunities for monkey business were gratefully seized. I bastardized a poem of Henri Michaux’s about icebergs into English under the moniker ‘Harry Mitchell’. Among our other contributors was a bunch of my mates from Presentation College, Bray, whose names I purloined for a spot of heteronymic mischief: they know who they are. Another victim of these ventriloquistic high jinks I can name was Fearghal McGarry, now a distinguished historian and former TCD lecturer, then an employee of Fogarty’s sweet shop near the Dart station in Bray. Icarus 93 records him as the author of the deathless couplet, ‘I bite the head and survey the ooze. /Frail jellybaby, my truncated muse.’ Try telling me books about the Spanish Civil War or Eoin O’Duffy top that. Directly under this we find another couplet, this one titled ‘1989’: ‘The frothing caress cast in fractured syntax! /Come let us immerse our hopeful satieties.’ That was probably my idea of a chat-up line too, at the time.

The closing poem of my last issue, ‘To Be a Sperm’, I pass over without comment. My pages may as well have come with scratch-and-sniff Biactol inserts, anyone reading them today might think. That’s all cleared up now, as Woody Allen says on the phone in one of his films to a long-ago college girlfriend, and while the experience may induce its share of squirms twenty years on, it’s one I’m very glad to have had. No matter the bemusement or indifference with which the ‘expensive delicate ship’ of university life sailed past its theatrical splash, Icarus remains a compelling bright spot in the canvas of my Trinity years.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Scorborough, East Dalton, Lockington

Why would there be a very dead rabbit five feet up a tree impersonating a Francis Bacon screaming pope? A question I had reason to ponder this afternoon in a wood outside Lockington here in East Yorks. I’d seen red kites dawdling overhead earlier in the afternoon. Would they take rabbits? Might a red kite (or if not, what) have taken one and dropped it by mistake? Or on purpose (à la shrike)? A quick google search finds accounts of dead rabbits spotted twenty feet up trees, which might tax the ingenuity of even the local satanist/ wax-jacketed oaf fraternity. Anyone who might the answer, speak.

Note bullfinch in branches. There was also a small bird in the hedegrows whose song I can only compare to a walkie-talkie or some kind of phone signal. And again, o ye knowledgeable ones, speak.

And is that a fieldfare (going by the grey neck)? Or am I getting that completely wrong?

‘Scorborough’. Don’t you love saying that. It’s an east-coast seaside town pronounced in a Dart (‘Dort’) accent, evidently. Or a hamlet on the road to Driffield. Take your pick!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Maria Johnston

I mentioned Maria Johnston’s chucklesome article ‘Reading Irish Poetry in the New Century: Poetry Ireland Review 2000-2009’ the other day. Poetry Ireland have now put it online here.

And as chance would have it, once again, the author is speaking here in Hull next Monday, on ‘The “Effetest Fop of Formalist Poetry?”: Modern and Contemporary Rondeaux’ (Graduate Seminar Room, University of Hull, Monday 12 April, 4.30pm).

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Trevor Joyce

From a very brief review by me of Trevor Joyce's Courts of Air and Earth in this week’s TLS:

These poems take their place alongside Ciaran Carson’s version of the Táin and Vona Groarke’s of Lament for Art O’Leary as notable recent acts of translation from Ireland’s constitutional first language. Joyce’s style throughout is characteristically astringent and unadorned. Courts of Air and Earth is an exemplary act of reimagining and recovery.


And as chance would have it, Trevor Joyce is reading here in Hull next week. Staff House, University of Hull, Tuesday 13 April, 7pm.

I’ll see you there.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Auto Da Fé

I was very surprised indeed, on finally getting to read the PIR 100 article mentioned here, to see that the poem of mine noted therein is one that’s not in any of my books and which, in fact, I’d forgotten I’d even written. As I’m currently trying to finalize a contents page for another book, and find myself sitting knee-deep in discarded and rejected poems, I am reminded of how many of these things I’ve racked up over the years. I see Todd Swift mentioned the other day, in between copious references to the Feast of the Crucifixion of the Easter Bunny or whatever the festival is that Christians are currently celebrating (and how nice to see the Irish Catholic Church able to take time off the other day from its busy schedule of abetting child rapists to denounce the sinful practice of consuming alcohol of Good Friday), sorry, where was I, mentioned his hope that someone might be interested in publishing a Best Of his blog; so maybe I too should place a small advertisement for myself here, on condition that the book in question be called The Worst of Me: Rejected Poems. For instance, there is the rake of Projective-y poems I am obliged to write ever time a full moon falls on a Friday 13. But then there are quite normal poems too, like this one I noticed recently. And as it mentions black cats I thought we might have a picture of the patron and overseer of all domestic literary production to go with it. Monorail kitteh currently experiencing slight delays on the line, but hopes to resume normal service shortly, I think he is telling us. And now here is the poem, ‘Auto Da Fé’:

That Alice Kyteler have her revenge –
vengeance for her witch’s fiery death –
St Canice’s Cathedral is swarming with
black cats familiarly making strange:

hundreds of black cats with burning eyes
upsetting the round tower’s vats of boiling oil,
fouling graves and altars, sworn to chill
the wine of Christ’s own blood to burning ice.

For coupling with the devil himself you stand
condemned, our ardent heretic, to burn,
putting to shame the heaven never ours

to lose and the fires of hell you laugh to scorn:
abashing us beyond your wildest curse
changed to a black cat, eating from my hand.

Thursday, April 01, 2010