Site Meter

Sunday, September 30, 2007


From a review of Robert Carver’s Paradise With Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay: ‘The Ministry of Railways employs 25,000 people and there are no trains at all.’

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


There is a small farm in the countryside near where I live with a sign that reads 'Bag your own manure.'

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It Burns, It Burns

I know I love Andrei Rublev and, if asked, would definitely give George Costanza's answer to the question 'So what exactly attracts you to the faith, my son?' in that episode of Seinfeld ('The hats, I would have to say the hats'), but to go out of my office for a minute and come back to find one of these in it, really, it's too much.

An Orthodox priest. He was 'blessing' my office to mark the beginning of the academic year. You'd think he'd do something useful like pick up some of the essays lying on the floor, but no. I didn't even get time to do an 'It burns, it burns' routine before he billowed off down the corridor.

'You truly must be filled with the spirit of the Lord.'
'Oh, I'm full of it father.'

Laughing Policeman

This is a laughing policeman, perhaps even a laughing secret policeman, to celebrate the fact that Matthew 'Sweney' is an entirely different person from Matthew 'Sweeney', despite the latter's recent forays into Central Europe and track record of poems about mental disturbance.

You're nicked my son. It's a night in the Lubyanka for you.

Blatný (cont.)

My copy of Blatný’s The Drug of Art arrived in the post.

Did Matthew Sweeney really have his first name and surname misspelled on the cover of his first book? Because, in what would count as a slight improvement, he appears here (as translator) as Matthew ‘Sweney’ throughout.

There are the formal ‘Brno Elegies’, the elegiac poems of ‘Old Addresses’, and the caputa mortua of ‘Bixley Remedial School’.

Lots of poems in facsimile at the end of the book. ‘Come on you lazy censors’ is reproduced in typescript, its last line tumbling diagonally off the page before regaining the horizontal with a handwritten emendation:

Come on you lazy censors
confiscate my poem
put a dark oblong in its place
I wanted to say black
black jako na úmrtním oznámení

The last line means ‘black like in the death notice.’ How odd to start hailing a distant censor from the (I was going to say ‘comfort’) remove of your English mental hospital bed, and to be reduced to internalizing the interference in your work this sadly negligent censor has failed to provide. The secret police were on to him, by the way, so this wasn't just paranoia. He was given the codename 'Salamander' and an agent was dispatched, bunch of grapes in hand I presume, to inquire about his plans for returning to Czechoslovakia.

His affectionate reminiscences of Czech football (cue gratuitous image of the great Patrik Berger). I remember watching the 2002 World Cup in Prague and being able to bring a large jug into a street-corner pub and fill it, before disappearing upstairs to watch a game on TV. The closing stanzas of Blatný’s’s ‘Football’:

We’ll watch the match in its entirety
from far-off England, from behind closed eyes.
On this TV, with any luck we’ll see
the offsides and the fouls, the angry cries.

To see the fans fling all kinds of abuse,
to stay for ever longer games, refuse
to climb league-tables, leave the jerseys torn,

to stay, to stay there near the Svratka’s sluice,
near football, football, like a mother to us,
and never have been born.

{Quotation ends, that fine translation by Justin Quinn}

Blatný’s heart may remain in the stands of FC Brno but his reputation is obviously due a transfer to the big league.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ivan Blatný

This is Czech poet Ivan Blatný (1919-1990). He had a fractured, displaced life, and wrote fractured, displaced poetry, much of it in a kind of macaronic patois reflecting his distance from the Czech language in the English mental asylums that were his home after the war, until his death. Though I'm not sure how much it will have meant to him, it is pleasing to think that he lived to see the liberation of Czechslovakia and even got to send a message of congratulations to Václav Havel when he visited Britain in 1990.

Ugly Duckling Presse are bringing out a selection of his work until the title The Drug of Art.

Here's a poem from it, in Matthew Sweeney's translation:

Small Variation

Thursday 8 pm. On the table:
Matches, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
My tools.
You already know my music from five or six things,
You already know my music from five or six things,
My little song.
As it sizzles on the stove, as it bubbles in quietude
The song of the interlude,
Which happens only once in history.
Matches, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
And dust on all of them.
The inaudible galloping horse carries it on its hoof.
In the deathified flat, dust up to the roof.
In the deathified flat, dust up to the roof.
For the last time the unsettled loses itself in history.
Thursday 8 pm. On the table:
Newspapers, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
Newspapers: Papandreu, Pierlot.
Furniture: Divan, ornamented credenza.
My little song.
Big drops hit the poorly boarded-up window with a splat.
We'll get wet inside the flat!
We'll get wet inside the flat!
And even worse boards
Will be left for the coffin.

The Well-Made Catastrophe

The situation is catastrophic but not serious. That’s the Lacanian joke about how we live with the prospect of nuclear catastrophe, global warming, whatever.

Catching up belatedly with The Lives of Others made me want to turn that around: the situation is serious because not catastrophic.

(Water-treading plot summary paragraph.) The film centres on a Stasi agent sent to spy on a novelist and actress husband and wife, but who finds his morale flagging when he learns he is being set up to pin something on the entirely innocent husband and leave the way free for a slimy party apparatchik who is harassing his wife. Disgusted, he tips the novelist off about his wife’s reluctant affair. Emboldened against the system at last, the novelist decides to speak out by writing an article for Der Spiegel about suicide in the GDR. He deliberately conducts a subversive conversation in his apartment to find out if it’s bugged or not, but misunderstands its failure to trigger any response: the agent is taking pity on him. The frustrated apparatchik sees to it that the actress is arrested and threatened with drug offences; panicking, she betrays the hiding place of her husband’s secret type-writer. When the Stasi search the apartment, however, the typewriter has vanished: the good agent has removed it. It’s all too late for the actress, who runs into the street and throws herself under a lorry. The novelist is not arrested and the agent is disgraced in the eyes of his superiors. After the wall comes down, the novelist visits the Stasi archive and reads the agent’s reports, and the elaborate fantasies they spun about him, rather than betray his real activities. Recovering from many years’ writer’s block he writes a new book (Sonata for a Good Man), which he dedicates to the agent under his code name.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘the situation is serious because not catastrophic’. To start with, the novelist is not a good writer. He is a Yevtushenko/Sholokhov figure at best, whose outrage at the philistinism and brutality of the regime must have had lots of practice over the years but, somehow, has never got him into real trouble. His wife too is presented as a great artist, but must worry that something is wrong if party hacks and apparatchiks can love her work as much as they do. Each needs some kind of traumatic jolt to reawaken his/her sense of purpose. The novelist gets a taste of danger when he writes his article for Der Spiegel, and the actress is threatened with having her career destroyed by her lecherous admirer, but something tragic, and tragically out of proportion is required. If husband or wife went to prison, the worst that could happen would be temporary loss of freedom, martyr status, and rehabilitation after the (imminent) collapse of the system. Hence the logic of the wife’s self-sacrifice, however unconscious that sacrifice. And in fact, the sacrifice would be impossible without the good agent’s well-intentioned meddling. Because what the agent does for the couple is raise what might otherwise be a minor gesture of defiance, or of grubby compromise, to something permanent and irreparable. He separates wife and husband, gives one a tragic, martyred death, and the other the inspiration to do his best work. So, as I was saying the other day about the depiction of the artist in the recent film of McEwan’s Atonement, catastrophe is achieved and everything still turns out for the best. It also lets the novelist off the dissident hook, since if the typewriter had been found he would gone to jail and had to experience communist tyranny as a national tragedy rather than the backdrop to an unsavoury domestic incident. Why, it even allows an outing to that hoary old figure, 'the good communist' , the conscientious individual who does the system down out of loyalty to, rather than in defiance of the communist ideal. Maybe I would have warmed to him a bit more if, like his boorish colleagues, he could have allowed himself a good belly laugh at the jokes about Honecker. But he doesn't.

It’s always the way with cinematic depictions of writers though, isn’t it. The catastrophe can’t help turning out a roaring success.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Jose Mourinho Resigns

Scenes of grief, passion at half-empty Stamford Bridge.

Embarks on nationwide series of handshake-refusing full-time charges down the touchline.

Abramovich Bond villain-style assassination plot aborted; smiling, relaxed Abramovich ‘kept the receipt anyway’; as governor, tells people of remote Siberian province of Chukotka shots of reindeer urine brandy ‘on the house’.

Who now will offer strength and leadership, fans ask, through next owner-enforced parachute signing of German misfit and £30 million Ukrainian flop?

Who now, fans wonder, will get Chelsea-loving best out of badge-kissing Chelsea-loving all contract negotiation-refusing Frank Lampard?

John Terry ‘sombre’, in interview from window of booze ‘n’ birds stretch limo.

John Obi Mikel or whatever the hell way round his name is meant to be still not entirely sure who that guy was.

Unveils Jose Mourinho Truth and Reconciliation Foundation to work with victims of Luis Garcia Champions League semi-final goals.

Random conspiracy theory tribute planned by Chelsea players after weekend game against United.

Now sod off.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anacrusis, Bebung, Clavicytherium

Basil Bunting on English metre: ‘There will always be subfamilies threatening to bud off the main rhythmic branches. The question is not whether these families can be said to exist at all; nor even whether they would conflict with others that are more prominent (such conflict is a component in musical interest, as basic to it as the conflict between bar division and melodic contour in Scarlatti)…’

Anacrusis. I’m surprised there isn’t a journal of post-avant poetics of that name; maybe there should be. Listening to Scarlatti’s sonata in D major, K. 96: his dithering over finishing it off, like Pozzo in Waiting for Godot wondering if he should sit down twice or not, but not dithering in that overexcited Romantic way (kick a perfect cadence a dozen times and it’s sure to lie down – it’s all your fault Beethoven), but in his unique, wobbling, 2-into-3, 3-into-2 Scarlattian way. It’s something he does all the time, not just at the end, as though he had musical cardiac arrhythmia.

Should Scarlatti be played on the piano? Maybe not, but Bach didn’t even use a harpsichord. He preferred the clavichord, for its capacity to alter the volume of a note even after it has been struck. The pitch of a note can be altered on a clavichord too, through a technique called ‘Bebung’, a word that crops up in the score of Chopin’s mazurkas.

Anyone familiar with Seán Ó Riada’s late harpsichord recordings should know that the instrument he used was in fact a clavicytherium, an upright harpsichord. The example he used is in Luggala, at the home of his good friend Garech de Bruin. Luggala, I remember you well. One can also be seen in Charles Jervas’s Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu with a Clavicytherium in the National Gallery in Dublin. And don’t ask me why the portrait of her, by him, in Dublin, that comes up on google has no vertical harpsichord in sight. Because it’s damn well there.

Scarlatti was a pioneer of cross-hand playing, a technique I believe he developed as his paunch ballooned at the Portuguese court, and rather than reach over it he sat an infanta on his knee and told her to play the high notes. Or at least that’s what he said to social services.

Someone once told me that Geoffrey Hill refused to give a first to an otherwise exceptional on Bunting's Briggflatts because it didn't contain any reference to the Scarlatti sonatas on the old LP of Bunting reading the poem. And quite right too.

Anacrusis. Bebung. Clavicytherium. Ah, the joys of the word hoard.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Michael Palin in Bosnia

Impartiality will only get you so far. Watching Michael Palin’s travels round ‘New Europe’ last night, starting in former Yugoslavia, I thought of Slavoj Žižek’s joke about how to work out if you’re a racist or not. It involves a Serb and an Albanian arguing on German TV, and the interviewer interrupting with the line, ‘After so many centuries of ethnic hatred, why not just put your differences aside and get along?’ At which point, Žižek says, if you have any sympathy for the German, you are a racist.

Palin’s Žižek joke moment arrived when he was talking to a mine-clearer working in the countryside around Sarajevo. Aren’t you angry, he asked, that such maniacs and idiots laid all these mines in your country? Hardly, came the reply: I was one of the people who did it, and if we’d had ten mines as many, we’d have laid them too.

He also informed us that the combatants in the Bosnian war divided into Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs and ‘Bosnian Muslims’, who I’m guessing were the Bosnian Bosnians.

It all made me think of the cartoon (above) from Oslobodenje, published during the siege.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What Is This Thing Called Modern Art

I’ve always had a special place in the perforated pump that is my heart for full-on conservative bloviation. John Waters telling Irish Times readers that young Irish men commit suicide because they don’t go to mass enough, Norman Podhoretz polishing the nukes he wants dropped on Iran, Mark Steyn blaming disability legislation for the fact that people in wheelchairs died in the Twin Towers when of course they should never have been given jobs in offices with stairs in the first place (where’s a Bulgarian orphanage when you need one), to give just three examples from the last few days: yes, there’s nothing I like better in my Daily Puke than a restorative reminder of human pettiness and stupidity, lest I ever lapse into the heresy of meliorism.

So even though the decline of American formal verse has yet to cause any godless Irish teenagers to hang themselves (that we know of), it’s good to see a piece by James Matthew Wilson in the current issue of the Contemporary Poetry Review draw the following vector from ‘progressive’ art to Kim Addonizio to blue movies with a proposal en route for a ‘history of modern art’ that I for one would love to read:

Most confessional poets, like the realist fiction writers of early twentieth century, offer in their work that mild frisson most contemporary persons have come to identify as the controversial power of “progressive” minded art (a history of modern art lies hidden in the curious fact that pornographic movies used to be called “art films”). When we read details of some sexually abusive midget uncle on whose life a poet’s eyes have lingered for a free verse strophe, we are intended to experience both indignation, uncomfortable arousal, and finally a warm sense of self-congratulation that we can stomach the “great art” of a tortured modern genius.

{Quotation ends}

I'll raise you one Dana Gioia to all your midget perverts. Modern art? Bring it on.

Robert Walser, Again

The Impresario
Your career, do you want to ruin it?

The Flapper
Once and for all,
Get this: my name is Flapper. Now
What a dismal face you’re making. Me,
A pleasure person is what I am.
Enamoured of joy. So I say little of it.
Say it, and you lose it. Ho hum,
Lady Muck, I think it was, the other day,
Honoured me with her attentions.

Any moment now, and here she comes,

The Flapper
A pretty dance,
Considering she has toothache.

{Quotation one ends}

At present I’m reading a most tastefully written novel.
I’m more active than seems to be the case.
The first impression I make on myself is one of being wide awake, a satisfactory state, reason enough to think I’m capable of something.

{Quotation two ends}

Both from Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932, i.e. from Walser’s Bleistiftgebiet or ‘pencil area’ phase, the material written in a microscopic cipher that now occupies the 2000 pages of Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet, 1985-2000.

Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat

A programme on BBC4 last night spent an hour and a half showing us children slowly starving to death in a Bulgarian orphanage, children dumped there at birth for the crime of being born blind or deaf, a bright mildly autistic girl also dumped there and gradually succumbing to the chronic all-day rocking of the unreachable, the child left to scream when her matchstick leg broke, the blind boy who stood motionless for hours when left by a nurse in the corridor. It also managed an interview, eventually, with the orphanage director, who boasted of having bought three umbrellas for the (empty) swimming pool, and felt the orphanage could badly do with a computer for her office.

If you Google ‘Bulgarian orphanages’, this is the first hit:

Everything regarding bulgarian orphanages - available now at - bulgarian orphanages. Would you like to know bulgarian orphanages? offers exhaustive information concering bulgarian orphanages, Harmony Sofia, and Hotel Accord.

You did it! bulgarian orphanages, and a great deal additional information can be found here. Just click here: bulgarian orphanages!

Visit, and read further information about not only bulgarian orphanages, but also Hotel Kamena and Hotel Duchess. Finally, make sure to consider bulgarian orphanages reports, bulgarian orphanages newsletters and bulgarian orphanages bulletins.

{Quotation ends}

The image is Dalí’s ‘Freud’s Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat)’.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Curse You, Number Seven

Upper beak still quivering, we join the world in mourning Alex the parrot, up-to-six-counting African grey parrot whose death has been unofficially linked with forces close to the number seven.

His last words to his handler were ‘I love you, too. You’ll be in tomorrow.’

His death at the early age (for a parrot) of 31 means his remarkable intelligence, equivalent to that of a five-year old human, will never achieve its fitting reward of a junior lectureship at the university where I work or an Arts Council literature bursary.

Join me in a commemorative peanut. Make sure to throw the shell at someone too, when you're finished.

Plenty of parrots in Beckett of course. I must do a fact about them.


To his adroit Creator
Ascribe no less the praise –
Beneficent, believe me,
His eccentricities –

I held a bat in my palm once. It looked a bit like a fur-and-leathery chocolate biscuit. I felt I should have brought it a tribute, some tasty bugs for instance, or a piece of banana. Do bats like banana?

Buy this book and help a bat. All royalties go to the Bat Conservation Trust.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mount Ararat

From Mandelstam’s ‘Journey to Armenia’:

I was lucky enough to observe the clouds performing their devotions to Ararat.

It was the ascending and descending motion of cream poured into a glass of ruddy tea, dispersing in various directions like curly-headed tubers.

The sky over the land of Ararat, however, brings little joy to the Lord of Sabaoth: it was invented by the blue titmouse in the spirit of the most ancient atheism.

Coachman’s mountain glittering in the snow, a small field sown with stone teeth, as if its intended purpose were mockery, the numbered barracks of construction sites, and a tin can brimming over with passengers – there you have the environs of Erevan.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Crappers' Quarterly

Someone out there with even more time on his/her hands than I have (a chronic constipation sufferer, I'm guessing, with bathroom-friendly wifi access) maintains a site called Crapper's Quarterly.

This features rest station reviews such as the following pair:

The Big Race

I was at the Nascar race at Texas Motor Speedway...unfortunately we had to wake up early in the morning to get there and I had no time to "release" before the long day. So we got there and I suddenly felt a rumble. Oh no! I have easily another 5 hours before I will be home...please don't turn into goo! Well sure enough an hour later I was dying. I knew I had to release this demon...but where? this is a nascar event everyone is drinking so everyone is peeing. The lines even for the mens room were OUT THE DOOR. after 30 minutes of searching I saw it...a handicapped bathroom that fully locked shut with a sliding bar!!!!!!! It had a light shining on it like an angel! I ran towards it.. it was perfect it was clean..had toilet seat covers and plenty of paper. it was a mircale and a disaster was successfully diverted!!!

Attention WalMart Shoppers
by Ogie from Plano

I became rather ill after eating goat cheese salad with a great big banana flavored metamucil milkshake, with added fiber. As if that were not bad enough, my sister had laced my milkshake with Ex-Lax (getting me back for the ex-lax brownies I served her boyfriend).

Well, I was in toys at Walmart when I felt anal slippage. I ran as fast as I could and would have made it in time, but a friendly Walmart shopper was in the only non out-of-order stall. So much for my desired privacy when taking a crapper. I used the sink, and the customers that came after me will find that the cleanliness of my neighborhood Walmart has been seriously compromised!

{Quotations ends}

There's also a section for photos, such as this one of an anti-sewage outflow campaigner called Mr Floatie who was prevented from addressing a local council meeting by some killjoy or other.

And this one, which doesn't seem all that turd-related to me, but has to go somewhere I suppose.

'All cisterns go'. That's what I'd say at an editorial meeting if I was in a particularly can-do mood. Flush your own scatological suggestions straight to the comments box, please.

Andrei Rublev

Monday, September 10, 2007


I mentioned the beer-writer Michael Jackson's passing a while ago. On the principle that there's no such thing as too much good writing about beer, follow this link for my friend Evan Rail's most excellent description of a long-distance Bohemian brewery-crawl, and learn the word 'zymurgical' in the process.

The Piraha People of the Amazon

A long article (and a fairly old one too) about the Pirahã people of the Amazon.

Daniel Everett, who has studied the Pirahã over many years, believes their language contradicts the Chomskyan paradigm of universal linguistic structures. They do not count with numerals, and have difficulty in distinguishing groups of objects where the number exceeds two. This is not, the New Yorker writer notes, down to 'mass retardation'. They appear not to have words for colours. They lack any signs of a belief in God, or even a creation myth. Their pronoun system, which is rudimentary, may have been a borrowing from a neighbouring Amazonian language, before which they may have had no pronouns whatever. They have no words for right or left. Their language does not demonstrate one of the most basic Chomskyan features of all, recursion, or the ability to embed clauses (Wikipedia's example: 'Dorothy, who met the wicked Witch of the West in Munchkin Land where her wicked Witch sister was killed, liquidated her with a pail of water.')

For an outsider, their referential framework can seem impossible to crack. From the article linked above:

One morning, while applying bug repellent, I was watched by an older Pirahã man, who asked Everett what I was doing. Eager to communicate with him in sign language, I pressed together the thumb and index finger of my right hand and weaved them through the air while making a buzzing sound with my mouth. Then I brought my fingers to my forearm and slapped the spot where my fingers had alighted. The man looked puzzled and said to Everett, “He hit himself.” I tried again—this time making a more insistent buzzing. The man said to Everett, “A plane landed on his arm.” When Everett explained to him what I was doing, the man studied me with a look of pitying contempt, then turned away. Everett laughed. “You were trying to tell him something about your general state—that bugs bother you,” he said. “They never talk that way, and they could never understand it. Bugs are a part of life.”
“O.K.,” I said. “But I’m surprised he didn’t know I was imitating an insect.”
“Think of how cultural that is,” Everett said. “The movement of your hand. The sound. Even the way we represent animals is cultural.”

{Quotation ends}

They appear to be almost fundamentalist in their experientialism:

Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”

{Quotation ends}

Their phonemes are extremely difficult to master. When Everett discovered that their language uses a voiceless dental bilabially trilled affricate (exhausting just to write that down, never mind try pronouncing one) he wondered whether they had never used the sound in his presence before because they were 'ridiculed' when they did so in front of non-Pirahã.

Fewer than four hundred Pirahã survive, which suggests they may soon be going 'out of experience'.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

When I Think About Horses

When I think about horses I think of Jack Yeats’s horses, with and without riders, exultant, galloping out of their frames.

I think of the horses in the rain at the end of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, rolling over and over.

I think of a tethered horse on the side of Bray Head I came upon in the fog, that had walked its tether into a horrible tangle and could scarcely move.

I think of a traveller’s horse, tethered by the old lead mine on Ballycorus, kicking and bellowing fearsomely.

I think of Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘No Particular Horse’:

I can offer no greater sign of trust
than to say you are someone with whom
I would steal horses.

I think of Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’:

We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.

I think of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s ‘Malairt’, and Ciaran Carson’s translation of it, Ciaran Carson who includes so many horses in Breaking News, along with a poem ‘after Isaac Babel’, and I think of Isaac Babel. It seems odd to use the word ‘picaresque’ about stories set in the Russian civil war, but when I pull down the Complete Works I can follow my own picaresque route through it – a two-page story here, a diary section here, a screenplay there – and throughout it, on the march across the endless steppe, are Babel’s horses. In ‘The Story of a Horse’ Savitsky takes Khlebnikov (no that Khlebnikov)’s horse, a white stallion. Khlebnikov is given a black mare instead, but he wants his stallion back. He complains to his army chief of staff, who writes him a letter authorising the retrieval of his horse, but when he travels to see Savitsky, Savitsky laughs at him and refuses to give it back. He goes to see his chief of staff, who tells him he has spoken already and the matter is closed. In despair, he writes a thirty-page petition: ‘He spent the whole day writing it, and it was very long.’ He throws himself on a tree stump, injuring himself badly enough to receive a discharge:

That’s how we lost Khlebnikov. I was very upset about this because Khlebnikov had been a quiet man, very similar to me in character. He was the only one in the squadron who owned a samovar. On days when there was a break in the fighting, the two of us drank hot tea. We were rattled by the same passions. Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.

{Quotation ends}

Isaac Babel and his horses. I love them.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Crucifying yourself is never a good idea. After all, how are you expected to get the next nail in after the first hand goes up? No, it never works out.

I was reminded of this as I sat watching Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement yesterday. First young Briony wrecks two people’s lives with her malicious and false identification of her sister’s friend Robbie as a rapist. Then she sees becoming a nurse rather than spending the Second World War in Cambridge as a stab at ‘redemption’ (though for the sister whose life she wrecked and who is also a nurse it is presumably merely a punishment). Then we see her making a grand gesture of apologizing to Robbie and her sister, only to learn this never happened, because Robbie died in France and the sister died in a tube bombing. The apology scene and Robbie and Cecilia’s being reunited have only happened in the fictional retelling of the tale written by the now-famous novelist Briony in old age. The film ends with her confessing to a television interviewer that she has changed what happened so as to give the couple the happy ending she denied them in life.

So first she wrecks their lives by overriding the truth with her self-interested and distorted version of events (an inchoate crush on Robbie lies at the bottom of her malice), and then she tries to make it better by throwing reality out the window again, and finally she comes clean in a live television interview.

What I took from the film was a damning portrait of the deluded and self-absorbed artist who, whether wrecking or trying to mend lives, cannot allow the story to be centred around anything other than herself. But what I thought the film was trying to say was how well Briony’s passion for distortion, sorry, justice had all worked out, given the nice happy ending her novel (and the film itself) had managed to give the couple, and then, after the narrative about-turn, the dignified and lip-biting send-off they got as well, on a kind of 2-for-1 deal. And all this because Briony is an artist and the artist knows best even when she’s making a complete balls-up of everything.

I also kept wondering whether the mole on Keira Knightley’s back was her on-off switch.

As for the farcical McEwan novel that's just been put on the Booker shortlist about the life-derailing tragedy of a husband spilling his bugs on his wife's chest by mistake on their wedding night, I find myself with nothing to say. A tragedy not just for the woman in question, but for us all. Maybe Kleenex hadn't been invented in 1962.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rokia Traoré

I think Rokia Traoré’s ‘Kôté Don’, from her album Bowmboï, is just the most sublime thing I’ve heard for a while.

I wonder if she’s related to former Liverpool left-back and all-too-often hapless hoofer Djimi Traoré. I suspect not.


I’d like to coin the term ‘credentialism’ for a certain style of poetry reviewing. The writer is introducing the latest book by ‘honoured and empty-headed’ (Yeats’s phrase for the elderly Wordsworth) (insert poet of choice’s name here), and begins by saying ‘Winner of the X, Y and Z prizes, distinguished professor at... holder of the...’

Transpose the phrasing, with appropriate period adjustments, into Eliot’s early reviews, or Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Go ahead, try it.

Let us agree, collectively, not to give the most constipated of stools whether someone has or hasn’t won a prize, is the Should Know Better Professor of Blatherskite, or has just won an Emphatically Doesn’t Know Better Fellowship from the Balnibarbi Academy.

This kind of writing may be something, but it is not criticism. Don’t buy it. Throw it on the scrapheap where it belongs.

Sam Gardiner

You won’t believe it when it happens,
you who believe in everything but God
(or in nothing but), may not even
know it has happened, though you felt
lighter inside than out, floated above yourself,
flinched at the cold breath of passing
wings, and almost embarked on a ship
made out of fog, the night sailing.

That’s the first stanza of Sam Gardiner’s poem ‘Believe It’, from his 2004 Smith/Doorstop pamphlet The Picture Never Taken. You won’t believe it if you buy his second book, The Night Shifts, when it’s published by Lagan Press next month, if you’ve let all this time go by without discovering this very fine writer before (his first book, Protestant Windows, was published in 2000). Another Northern Irish writer, Nick Laird, has also published his second collection this year. If he and Sam Gardiner could swap their superhero fame points for even the Warholian fifteen minutes, the world would be a much better place.

Ad ends.

Photo of Portadown (SG’s birthplace) found here.

The Well Below the Valley

Traditional Irish song-collector Tom Munnelly has died. Read an obituary here. But for him, legendary Irish traveller John Reilly's song 'The Well Below the Valley' would have been lost. This is Christy Moore singing it (with 'Middle of the Island' by way of an intro) on The Late Late Show many years ago now.

Mór thú a Thomáis!

A Bluebell

Writing on Robert Frost’s notebooks in Poetry, Kay Ryan notes with surprise ‘the utter absence of nature notes – no birches, no birds, no weather, no interest in rock wall construction.’

It reminds me of a poem on a plaque I saw by a living Irish poet in Glenveagh national park in Donegal, in which the writer praised the elaborate fauna while apologising for not knowing any of their names. So go and learn them then, you lazy so-and-so, I thought.

Or, in a similar vein, a T.S. Eliot anecdote I read recently (can’t remember where, and don’t know where to look, lazy so-and-so that I am), in which he had crossed out a would-be Faber poet's line about ‘birds’ singing and written in the margin ‘Wrong word, tell us what kind.’

Writers who can’t be arsed, don’tcha hate ’em. It's enough to make a man reach for his Hopkins. Here's GMH writing in his journals about bluebells:

One day when the bluebells were in bloom I wrote the following. I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it. It[s inscape] is [mixed of] strength and grace, like an ash [tree]. The head is strongly drawn over [backwards] and arched down like a cutwater [drawing itself back from the line of the keel]. The lines of the bell strike and overlie this, rayed but not symmetrically, some lie parallel. They look steely against [the] paper, the shades lying between the bells and behind the cockled petal-ends themselves being delicately lit. Then there is the straightness of the trumpets in the bells softened by the slight entasis and [by] the square splay of the mouth. One bell, the lowest, some way detached and carried on a longer footstalk, touched out with the tips of the petals an oval/ not like the rest in a plane perpendicular to the axis of the bell but a little atilt, and so with [the] square-in-rounding turns of the petals…

The Drugs Aren't Working

Mother on radio, discussing her child’s ADHA (attention deficit whatever thingy), said she’d tried giving him drugs but the only effect they had was to ‘exasperate’ the situation.

Robert Walser

Before his death in 1956 Robert Walser spent many years in a sanatorium. As he got older his writing got smaller and smaller, until finally it could only be deciphered by microscope. When asked by a visitor if he was able to work in the sanatorium he answered, ‘My business here is not to write, but to be mad.’ One anecdote offered as evidence of his maladjustment is that, on meeting Lenin in Zurich in 1917, the only conversational topic he could think of was whether or not Vladimir Ilyich enjoyed Glarner Birnbrot (a local pearcake), which seems like a fair enough question to me. He loved long solitary walks (and made sure to die on one too), and the opportunity they gave him, in Susan Sontag’s phrase to ‘turn time into space.’

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Nothing Less Than Salvation Itself

From Cappelørn, Garff and Kondrup’s Written Images: Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals, Notebooks, Booklets, Sheets, Scraps, and Slips of Paper:

‘A general trait of Kierkegaard’s handwriting is that the middle zone – that is, the area occupied by the smaller letters (a, c, e, i, m, n, etc.) – is narrow or thin and sharp. Kierkegaard did not express himself much in this area but did so instead in the lower area and especially the area above, where the long Gothic ss are striking. They rise up above the smaller letters with great energy, but then they break or bend towards the right in a powerful, stress-laden hook, an excited and rapid movement, the likes of which the graphologist had not seen elsewhere. She interprets this as an expression of the writer’s wish to seize hold of something spiritual – nothing less than salvation itself.’

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Michael Jackson

The beer writer Michael Jackson has died. Read an obituary here.

Ask not what beer can do for you, ask what you can do for beer.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Jimmy White's Brother

Two men in South Africa have been arrested after stealing a hearse with a body in the back to go on a drinking spree.

In other words they have almost, but not quite, done a ‘Jimmy White’s Brother.’ This phrase commemorates the time when cue-meister Jimmy White’s brother died and his friends decided to retrieve him from the mortuary for one last night’s drinking at his local. I can’t say for certain whether this involved propping him at the bar or not. One can only hope.

The story may be an urban myth, but its plausibility (to weak minds, obviously) can gauged by the inclusion of the phrase in that inexhaustible hoard of demotic potty-speak, the Viz Profanisaurus.

Immodest Proposal

I think I remember, which is to say I almost certainly misremember or have just invented, an eccentric English lord who wanted to leave his body to Battersea Dogs’ Home for pet food. Odd choice though it sounds for self-disposal, it has at least some plus points I can think of in comparison to leaving one’s remains to a university archive.

I’m put in mind of this by Heather Clark’s The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast 1962-1972, which draws extensively on the Emory archive in Georgia. From it we learn, at length, just how annoyed A was in his letters to B about what C had said about him to D, and much more in that vein. One particular prize exhibit is a judiciously excerpted long letter written by Michael Longley to Marie Heaney but never sent.

AE defined a literary movement as a small number of people living in the same town who cordially hated one another. Maybe literary history is a reverse alchemical procedure for turning gold back into the base metal of tittle-tattle.

I think it was Eliot who said what a nice feeling it gave him when hed written a letter to… pop it straight in the fire. I enjoy reading dead people’s letters as much as anyone else, but in a spirit of green abnegation don’t think we the living need add anything to that particular compost heap. Writers: burn your letters, delete your emails, and make your peace with the fact that one day your blogs will be hijacked by online gambling or Russian porn sites. Don’t live long enough to need the money to retire on. Let the feeders on entrails go without breakfast. Leave no trace.

Sunday, September 02, 2007