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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Insufferable Christ

Looking for the text of MacDiarmid’s ‘The Innumerable Christ’ online, I was surprised to find it posted on a wikipedia clone called conservapedia, which I presume is a project devoted to the conservation of encyclopaedias, and which describes the poem as ‘one of the most remarkable meditations on the theme of Christian redemption and other worlds.’ Did Christ save any aliens out there too, as well as us humans? I always read the poem as a meditation on the cosmically laughable hubris of religious belief, but maybe that’s just me. A Vatican observer, I also notice from a quick google search, has noted the possibility of life on other worlds and the risk that some of these creatures, amidst the protozoic slime on any habitable moons of Saturn or Jupiter, might even (for shame!) have been born without original sin.

William Empson was much exercised by John Donne’s interest in extra-terrestrial life, I remember. And just last week we learned of a clause in the X-factor winner’s contract about its terms being binding anywhere in the solar system. If only MacDiarmid could have lived to write a poem about that. Instead of which, here are the last two stanzas of that chilling and wonderful poem, ‘The Innumerable Christ’:

I’ mony an unco warl’ the nicht
The lift gaes black as pitch at noon,
An’ sideways on their chests the heids
O’ endless Christs roll doon.

An’ when the earth’s as cauld’s the mune
An’ a’ its folk are lang syne deid,
On coontless stars the Babe maun cry
An’ the Crucified maun bleed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Liverpool 2 Hull City 2

What is a Minor Poet?

What is a minor poet? I did an edition of James Clarence Mangan a few years ago, a poet I love, but a minor poet, undeniably so. I bring this up because Moynagh Sullivan’s contribution to Irish Poetry After Feminism dwells extensively on Patrick Crotty’s treatment of minor women poets of the post-Revival period in his long essay in the Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan, to Crotty, are ‘predictable propagandists’, and Nora Hopper Chesson is ‘something of an historical oddity’, and so on. There are plenty of dud male poets from the period too, but for Sullivan ‘although often found “anaemic”, “vatic” and “lifeless” they still manage to become “memorable” in some way because of a biographical detail, anomalous subject matter, some striking lines, or because they anticipate somebody better.’ One example of this is Crotty’s treatment of Brian Coffey, whom he fairly slaughters, but whom Sullivan sees him as treating in some small way better than those women I mentioned above, since at least he anticipates the more interesting work of his friend Beckett. Whereas by contrast the ‘quite wonderful’ (Sullivan’s words) Winifred Letts is totally dismissed.

Here’s a sample Letts poem for your consideration, and mine too, since I’d never read her before coming across her name in this essay. It’s a jaunty piece of doggerel called ‘The Connaught Rangers’:

I saw the Connaught Rangers when they were passing by,
On a spring day, a good day, with gold rifts in the sky.
Themselves were marching steadily along the Liffey quay
An' I see the young proud look of them as if it were to-day!
The bright lads, the right lads, I have them in my mind,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind.

A last look at old Ireland, a last good-bye maybe,
Then the gray sea, the wide sea, my grief upon the sea!
And when will they come home, says I, when will they see once more
The dear blue hills of Wicklow and Wexford's dim gray shore?
The brave lads of Ireland, no better lads you'll find,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind!

Three years have passed since that spring day, sad years for them and me.
Green graves there are in Serbia and in Gallipoli.
And many who went by that day along the muddy street
Will never hear the roadway ring to their triumphant feet.
But when they march before Him, God's welcome will be kind,
And the green flags on their bayonets will flutter in the wind.


It is so important, I think, to be aware of how those scare-quoted ‘standards’ (see last post) are indeed not timeless entities, but historical constructs, which have of course carried their unfair share of gender-specific ballast. It is so important to be aware of all that and not be spooked out of continuing to believe in standards (no scare-quotes), and to be able to do simple justice to the words on the page, if we still care about that, which I assume we all do. As Dennis O’Driscoll (that man again) once told someone in response to an inquiry as to what his ‘aesthetic’ was, there are good poems and there are bad poems, and he believes it is possible to tell the difference. So here goes. If we award Yeats one standard unit of major poetdom, Mangan comes in somewhere 0.1 of a poet in comparison, I would suggest, and Winifred Letts, on this evidence, somewhere under 0.01. Yeats is ten times the poet Mangan is and at least a hundred times the poet Letts is. That’s why Mangan is a significant minor poet and Letts, in comparison, is not. She is a very minor poet, the case for whom I would be as interested as anyone else to see argued, since I’m evidently very ignorant of her work. But I can only tell it as I see it, as that’s how it looks to me.

Irish Poetry After Feminism

Justin Quinn says:

If the poet writes this spectral stuff and is a woman, what you will often get in addition are reflections on brave female figures in the past, hints at primeval contact with the earth (in Katie Donovan’s case through the use of Celtic mythological figures), quiet indignation at the way man-made representations of women were often wilful distortions of the female figure (if the poet is Irish also, this usually comes from Adrienne Rich via Eavan Boland). As ideology this is compelling. What is objectionable is that these poets are epigones, repeating the stances and insights of their forebears with minimal variation. That which was once courage and transgression is now debased, and the poetry they write is a record of imaginative cowardice.

Moynagh Sullivan says:

Those who sponsor a ‘textually pure’ or formalist, and non-cultural approach to literary studies, those who are often accused of revisionism – and most obviously represented by the intellectual and artistic groups attached to Queen’s University, Belfast and to a lesser extent Trinity College, Dublin – invoke a lexicon of aesthetic defence that is steeped in a fascination with, and deep fear of woman. (...) In the light of [Patricia] Waugh’s observations, reading the traces of the Eliotic cult of (im)personality that Quinn endorses (an invalidation of autobiography, relational identities, intimacy and childhood) as well as the formalism that finds such writers lacking, it would appear that the protection of ‘standards’ implied in the dismissal of such poets involves more than monitoring poetic ‘purity’. It also involves removing the threat of assailed boundaries from the world views, themes and methodologies of such writers...

Peter McDonald says:

I must say at once that I cannot imagine a direct response to her essay which does not have truck with such things as aesthetic standards and poetic value. And for me, there are in fact such things; but I am in effectively denied these terms by Sullivan, who believes that cultural and gender studies have seen through them long ago.

Catriona Clutterbuck says:

Leontia Flynn as a poet-practitioner made the case for avoiding sisterhoods, on the reasonable basis of claiming the right to competitive relations and to difference between Irish women poets. But as Patricia Boyle Haberstroh argued long ago, behind such an eschewal of sisterly solidarity when it edges towards the requirement that women poets admit no common cause as women in poetry (...) lies the anxiety that the woman’s work will not be taken seriously as a master of the craft and visionary initiate.

Fran Brearton says:

‘Political correctness’ may be admirable in many contexts, but the earnest and unironic mode in which appropriate views on women are stated in [Mahon’s] later poems does not make for the best poetry. Whatever Mahon’s unease with the poem after publication, [‘First Principles’] works both formally and thematically neither because nor in spite of its surface gender politics, but by virtue of its latent, and far more complicated, political and artistic tensions.

Lucy Collins says:

In moving between places, the younger Irish women poets problematise the act of speaking from any one position. Their precursors are not specifically female; their textual heritage is not limited by gender or culture. In this way they create new poetic spaces where their own rules prevail.

Selina Guinness says:

Kirkland reminds us that that the demand to ‘attend to form’ itself claims weight as a way of thinking in which humanism (through the search for individual talent) finds itself reflected, asserting itself as a universal good while disregarding traces of its own class and/or sectarian prejudices.

Leontia Flynn says:

What is desirable after feminism may well be a climate (or ‘political dispensation’) in which women don’t feel themselves to be anomalous, and in which their themes and forms are able to arise without being fatally overdetermined. Until such time, McGuckian’s subversive complicity with the cultural codes which impede the attainment of an idyllic neutrality make her achievement a radical and very witty one.

I say:

Boland’s mistake, for me, is to assume, first, that her at-homeness in the roles of both woman and poet will make better art than that produced out of fragmentation or exile and, second, that her success in combining these roles offers her a unique and superior point of leverage from which to lift the tragic burden of history. I simply do not believe this is true.

Read more (plus bonus track of Mahon’s otherwise unavailable ‘First Principles’, but while stocks last – only 250 copies!) here. (Note: the book description page doesn’t seem to have a unique URL for some reason: navigate your way to the title Justin Quinn (ed.), Irish Poetry After Feminism.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cretinism Arraigned

Anyone can make a mistake. Anyone, asked to write a book review, can fail to reach Johnsonian heights of deathless prose. But perhaps it takes an Oxford don writing in the Sunday Times to reach the level of cretinism displayed by John Carey, writing about Dennis O’Driscoll’s volume of interviews with Seamus Heaney:

The America he came to know in the 1980s, as a Professor in California and in Harvard, seemed to him to be living in a ‘centrally heated daydream’, epitomized by the poetry of John Ashbery, which appealed to a middle-class readership, insulated from the cold blast of world poverty, and ‘on the move between its shopping malls and its missile silos.’

Good old Ashbery, smoking jacket and all, with his versified senior common-room tales and ever-dependable way with a triolet. Has John Carey ever read Ashbery? How bothered should we be if he hasn’t? Criticism on this level renders praise and dispraise equally meaningless. If this is poetry reviewing today, abolish it now, someone, please.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Poetry and Ideology

John Kinsella on one third of perhaps the single greatest poem ever written: ‘I do not like Dante’s Inferno’:

I do not like his judgments nor punishments. Its grotesqueries are not adequately deconstructive in terms of the self, and Virgil seems too relieved that this, at least, is not his lot. It’s a smug work. For me, hell is what we live with, and each of these grotesqueries, as maybe Dante would agree, lives with us here and now.

This in the context of his new book Divine Comedy, hailed as a ‘distraction’ on Dante’s text.

And speaking of Dante, what a fine poem in the New Yorker the other week on the Tuscan’s terza rima by someone ‘I’ve never – not once in over 40 years – been able to finish a poem by (...) without nodding off’.

Christmas Trees

No point in wanting until January for this one, I think. Like Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, I used to like Christmas when it was all about naked commercialism but nowadays I notice an element of religion creeping in, and I don’t like that. No really, I hate Christmas and everything to do with it, so consider me in an almighty sulk until January.

In lapsed honour of the some other time
arrival of a god not mine
bin day finds the grass verge strewn
with stripped brown trees in a tatty line
celebrating nothing and no one.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Death of Bagpuss Creator, Takes Mystery of What Professor Yaffle Was Professor of to Grave

Irish Poetry, Paul Klee of

Maurice Scully, the Paul Klee of Irish poetry, has a Selected out from Dedalus Press: order it here. And while you wait for it, my thoughts on his Wild Honey Press book Livelihood.

‘We use space a lot today’, announced vice-president Quayle back in the reign of Bush the first. Comparing Maurice Scully to Dan Quayle may not seem like a promising start, but Scully too knows all about using space. Is the poem the space of the page or just the thing in the space? It’s been a moot question ever since Mallarmé sent his dice-throw tumbling off the end of the margin. Ralph Richardson thought acting was the art of stopping people coughing, and one definition at least of poetry is the art of getting people to put up with all those white bits the poet can’t be bothered filling in. Some of the section breaks in Livelihood use up to eight near-blank pages (‘why is the white so/ difficult touched/ suddenly’, Scully pertinently wonders in ‘Prelude’), and even when not fast-forwarding in whiteout mode Livelihood is a brisk read. This is fifth-gear poetry, tanked up on Raworth and Olson (‘so that one leads to another /& another leads to a thing just so’), heavy on the ampersand (‘a terminal spinney of ampersands’) and light on the majuscule.

Livelihood is the middle part of a trilogy, and runs to five parts and 336 pages. So what’s it all about then? Open the first page of ‘The Pillar & The Vine’ and the welcome pack goes something like this: ‘wandering beyond the puny /into the light net /this pillar //this vine hard to in shadows /discard patterns that /smash their way //into yr face’. And who could resist an invitation like that? With the obligatory dig at poets on a ‘small half-empty island’ who versify their ‘mothers and fath- /ers and grandfathers and grandmothers and fields / and ploughs and pigs’, Scully pulls his Groucho Marx stunt and resigns from every club that wouldn’t have him as a member anyway. Not that the Scully clan is so hygienically absent from Livelihood as that might suggest, I should add. But anyway, rupture of the lines of communication and all that, so we cut him the requisite slack. But still, what’s it all about?

When he worked on a building site in the 1980s Scully’s job involved writing the words ‘Site normal. Nothing to report’ in a logbook at regular intervals. Here the site is rarely normal, and we’ve got the CCTV tapes to prove it. He spends a lot of time ‘establishing the field’ as he calls it, like someone who invites you round for dinner and proceeds to assemble the kitchen table in front of your eyes. Here he is on the job in ‘In the Music’:

There is a ball, a sphere. There is a field,
a rectangle. At each end a space, an Aperture.
Marking on the field and mine, marked and
numbered. A set of rules, a set time, a whistle,
an umpire, an audience. The phantasy of pride of
skill in tactical symmetry, the siphon of violent
energies, the bonding of comrades, place-adoration,
display-therapy: our gift, your tradition! A poet
under the grassblades, threnody in the palmtrees.
There is a ball, a sphere.

The world is round after all. But with his reverie further down the same page of having no readers, ‘None at all’, we can only assume that Scully didn’t want us to RSVP the invitation in the first place. ‘He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, /the epistemology of loss’, as Berryman wrote in another poem about a ball.

Kit Fryatt is right, in her Metre interview with Scully, to see lots of Kinsella in the first section of the book, The Basic Colours. The Paul Klee comparison Scully himself makes is also revealing. (And speaking of painting, my copy of Livelihood has strange smudges in the margin every now and then that look like they’re ghosting in some adjacent twilight world, half Le Louis Le Brocquy inkblot Morrigan, half shroud of Turin Jesus.) Musically, he’s a John Cage minus the Buddhism who’s just sat on a firework. It’s all about play and improvisation, tuning up, exploring different frequencies and registers, picking up a riff and running with it without pausing to ask, as I’m now doing for the third time, what it’s all about:

beat it’s a beat
that’s what it is.
made of
what is it made of
the Mission cuts in deep
but the people jeer
this beat this singular this
I stopped everything
the people jeer
just to pick up
it’s wonderful
the downtrodden people jeer
catch it precisely
not bend it smooth it out
into Literature or Song or Art of
just once in a while
lifting yr nose from the pile

After the tuning up of The Basic Colours, there’s a lot, in a kind of stanzaic systole-diastole style, about forms of writing and representation in Zulu Dynamite (Sumerian pictographs, charcoal sketches, ‘the name of the sound of the rain’). Priority offers the striking proposition that ‘an inventory of engaging rubbish is the gleaming /ambiguous horde under the floorboards of that book /in the dream in the dark’. There follows a ‘transcapture’ of the Seán Ó Ríordáin poem ‘Saoirse’, which reminded me of the George Tabori production of Waiting for Godot in which the actors sit around reading at a rehearsal from their copies of the play until you realize, No, this really is the play! The tuning up and the performance become one; the scaffolding is the façade. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I think Scully is aiming for:

I’ll go down: tonight. Yes.
Tiny animate creatures connect. Proliferate.
This house; that star. Bless

the smoke
dispersing in the air.
Be desperate. Measure measure.
O fix sticks in the mud: decide. Stuck.
Raghaidh mé síos anocht.

Which just leaves Steps and Adherence, the former resolutely trying to stammer its way past the aposiopesis of ‘The thing about poetry is’ – is what? – and the latter staring, big-eyed Narcissus, into a deep pool of despair before hauling its way back to ‘Happiness – /under a lion’s paw under a furnace //under the sun’.

A frequent charge against this kind of poetry is that it fails the memorability test. Granted, we may have some way to go before Poetry Please starts clocking up requests for favourite bits of Zulu Dynamite, but this isn’t really an argument at all. Robbie Williams’ ‘Millennium’ is a catchier tune than a Webern string quartet. A man in Japan recently recited pi to 83,431 decimal places. So what? Just because something gets stuck in your head doesn’t make it worth hearing. There are deeper patterns of recognition and pleasure than those of rote learning. And that’s Maurice Scully for you.
Finally, I’ve almost got through this review without rehashing the debate that normally follows any mention of Irish neo-modernism faster than you can say ‘Call for Papers’. Is Seamus Heaney a patch on Trevor Joyce? Why isn’t Catherine Walsh as famous as Eavan Boland? Discuss with reference to your favourite theory about the 1930s, identity politics and Northern Irish poetry. What a pleasure to give all that a rest and read a good book instead. Livelihood is a fine book. I enjoyed reading it. You should do too.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


One note encountered
the next in a Gortahork bar

a lit hole dug in the evening

its resinous tang, the landlord
playing chess in the corner

and, having nothing better
to do, the reel began
whistling itself to itself.

While I watch his elbow stitch the air
to the triplets of ‘The Black Mare of Fanad’,
the next sound along, just out of hearing,

is the purr of the cat whose gut he sent haring
in search of the tune, its phantom paw
coming down softly, viciously on it.

I ask for ‘The Cat that Kittled
in Jamesie’s Wig’ and here
they come now, the kittens:

moving on to my thatch,
digging their claws in and holding
on through the lightest of naps;

droplets of blood sloping
over my lashes and down
my grateful cheeks.


For a youtube clip of Donegal fiddlers James Byrne, Tommy Peoples and Danny Meehan playing that strathspey I mention, ‘The Cat That Kittled in Jamesie’s Wig’ (youtube embedding ‘disabled by request’), see here.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Roy Keane Sacks Sunderland FC, Names One Man on Touchline Formation for Weekend Game, Promises 'Open', 'Attacking' Style of Gum-Chewing

Fragment of Autobiography

The house I lived in when I was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, was built without a foundation and on wet winter days like today entry would require a complicated series of leaps across the large puddle that collected in the doorway, sometimes with the aid of a sandwich board someone had helpfully placed there. One of my student acquaintances was only too happy to negotiate this obstacle in search of a safe place to skin up, a habit I began to find increasingly annoying after another acquaintance was ejected from rooms for possession of a trivial amount of weed. To compound my displeasure, this person borrowed a pair of my boots and refused to give them back. Allow me at this point to sidetrack into a tale of John (non-Hollywood-actor) Wain, who when living in Reading University found it an inconvenience to walk down the corridor to the bathroom and fell into the disgusting habit of pissing in bottles. Hosting a party one evening, he poured someone a glass of wine, pondered it quizzically, and said ‘That looks like piss’, tasted it and confirmed, ‘It is piss!’ As you will already have guessed, this tale tops that one in one crucial regard. Reader, I too was a disgusting young man and have been known on (an obviously one-off, never to be repeated) occasion to take a leak in a handy empty bottle. Anyway, this person, who never did return my boots, attended a party in my room, attempted to slug a drink from a bottle, which contained a healthy pouring of feculence, otherwise piss, a fact I didn’t break to him then but which, twenty years after he took my goddamn boots, I hereby make public, and take that, you boot-filching blackguard, you drank my piss!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

SHOp Talk

Any fans of Father Ted out there will remember Tom, the village/island idiot, who gives Ted a lift one day and stops to nip into the post office. Cue the sound of a rifle being discharged and Tom’s comment, on getting back into the car, that he ‘doesn’t like filling out the forms, Father’.

I sympathize entirely, as will anyone who has ever filled out a grant application to an arts funding body. But spare a thought for that excellent poetry magazine, The SHOp, described by John Montague as ‘the best poetry magazine in these islands’. Its new issue arrives with a letter apologizing for its inability to pay contributors, owing to the loss of a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The saga goes something like this. All applications these days must be made not to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland but a body called ‘Awards for All’, any reference to Lewis Carroll being strictly unintentional, I presume. Some bureaucratic stickings points, such as the magazine not possessing a Northern Irish bank account, dragged proceedings out to the point where a whole annual cycle elapsed and the (twenty-page) application had to be begun all over again. This new application was also rejected. I quote: ‘The most bizarre [of the requirements outlined by ‘Awards for All’] was the demand that, because we sometimes publish poems by teenagers and also by “vulnerable adults”, we were to secure the endorsement of an independent referee with “ANI clearance” and “up-to-date child protection training.’

The SHOp’s failure to provide these credentials means ‘we won’t be receiving the £4500 sterling that we had hoped for from that oddly-named body’, which I presume represents something like the amount it has received in the past.

Communicate your displeasure at this absurd injustice to:

Awards for All
1 Cromac Quay
Cromac Wood
Ormeau Road
Tel: 028 9055 9090
Fax: 028 9055 1444
Textphone: 028 9055 1431

Send your support, financial or otherwise to:

The SHOp
Co. Cork

Liverpool Controversy Over Link to Criminal Waster

Michael Shields Joins Lock Robbie Keane Up Now Campaign.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Inverse Translation

The following is an inverse translation. It translates and inverts as it goes. Take a look at the French down below and see for yourself what a travesty it is.

The Slip
after Baudelaire

Far from the blaring street in full cry round me,
here where I glimpsed her first and thought ‘Not bad’,
the woman dressed in black who shares my bed
chases from the door the wolves that hound me,

just by being there, day after blissful day.
But what if the thrill I need is not the storm
of all her love-bites’ cheeky brand of harm,
but one that worse than hurts – that fades away?

Thunderbolt that struck me down where I stood
and called me flaming back to life, how long
before the routine of it drags our heaven

down to same old ditch where I belong,
and you’re left cursing, wishing how you’d given
that stranger in the street the slip while you could?

À une passante

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d'une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l'ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair... puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Time and the City

I haven’t seen the new Terence Davies film, Time and the City yet, though a while ago I mentioned him in connection with an auratic (I found) image I’d seen in the paper. And yesterday I thought of him again when I found this image of old Wincolmlee (the area round the river Hull) in an antiques shop. I strongly suspect this is what the inside of my head looks like too. Is that a human figure in the foreground on the right-hand side? Or an anamorphic smudge? A red-raincoated dwarf perhaps. Don’t Look Now meets industrial Hull.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Opening for Smart Youth

Looking for a conservatory? Inside your Mail on Monday Works by members of the East Yorkshire Embroidery Society will go on Display Youngsters with the drive to win Outstanding value weekends away, short breaks and holidays Honoured to receive top reward Residents get in a festive mood For quality tools, supplies & services Can you offer this pet a new home? This election is about who really runs Great Britain Including lenses glasses & sunglasses Brought to you by Mail Publications Free delivery within 50 miles of any branch Share your good news with us Subject to availability The society is also on the look-out for more men to join its ranks Plus many more in stock Calls from mobiles and other networks may vary Mattresses not included with bedsteads Utter in words (5) Or just spend, spend, spend! An interplanetary war looms All in all it’s a huge improvement Pictures are for illustration purposes only Don’t miss out Full wheelchair access with ramps Find it, buy it, sell it 1 lady owner, 12,000 miles Very good condition What a bargain No smokers or pets There’s also an aesthetic price to pay Dreadful sci-fi thriller, starring Val Kilmer All aspects of hairdressing Control phobias and much more Make sitting a ‘pleasure’ Roos Arms is situated at Main Street, Roos Front or back door fitted Few holidays are more spectacular than a safari The best selection of local jobs for local people Mark down beds Friendship/companionship at first then let the fates decide Lost lovebird bright yellow with red head African grey parrot, large doom cage, semi tame, approx year half old No callout fee Rubbish man Carer required Market leader in frozen Yorkshire puddings To advertise your vacancy Please apply in writing Busty Jayne, something special Now we’re motoring For all your sports action Reproduction of the contents of this newspaper in any manner is not permitted without the prior consent of the Publisher.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


after Seán Ó Ríordáin

No dead men will leave the tomb
to seek out the confines of night or day.
Abandon your designs on them
and humble your bare head to the clay.

Don’t think you can put flesh on a wraith.
The beautiful was never true.
I know that My Redeemer lieth.
No pennies will fall from heaven for you.

You want a pooka to breathe down your neck,
and all the heavenly lies he’d spin.
You’ve settled for the hump on your back;
don’t let it spread to the brain.

Amidst your pooka shadowmancy
find the pooka truth and way.
Cast a hunchshadow all can see
and humble your bare head to the clay.

Make a show of yourself. The critic rates
the hunchshadowself you hide in
that once was laid between the sheets
to kiss while deafness blew from heaven.

And a gentle hand entombed and rotting,
a dream in a separate tomb imprisoned,
the dearest dream, the rarest thing,
in a deep tomb inside the mind,

and the black chalice of night drained low,
and a crooked sleep, tossed left and right,
while Veronica mopped His brow,
while the hunchback stripped bare in the night.

Hypocrite lecteur who read
the poem I beget on sickness,
try judging that and then decide
what is failure and what success.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Fragility of Euphoria among the Different Orders of the Animal Kingdom

Our neighbour knocked: she wanted to know about our sink, whether it had been draining or not. No, it hadn’t. My spat-out toothpaste signed its way clingingly down the basin, like froth on the side of a pint-glass. First it’s the sink, she told us, then it’s the drains. How right she was: soon the drains were coughing up sewage all over the place. We were drowning in shit. Get a whiff of that! The quadruped’s black button nose flared in disgust.

Sniff of the pouch means. Shoelace dangling. Means. Thing. Something. Bumhole smell. Mine. Theirs. Enemy. Noses under the fence and paws in the door. Hate! to bleeding tatters. And deserved. Over the fence and away.

Neighbour. Has name. But not essential that know.

Sits on her cushion, the other, or mouth in trough, after dance demanding, also smells when approached. Propelled along the tiles, the iam rebounds from the skirting board. Ping! Or sit in the window for hours on end. The sky falls down piece by random piece, hopping and squawking.

Consider me approachable, available for opening of security gate round the side in case of lost keys, emergencies or. Conscientious about. I pride myself on. If we had children then conversations about, the neighbours and I. I have no children. My children are grown up. My children are dead.

The important thing is to bury the turds where no one will. Sniff. Ever. Scrape the muck over and pat or throw up. (The muck.) Behind the fridge is a hole in their eyes. No turds allowed. For going asleep. The milk bottle top that moved, that time, behind the fridge. That was the great event.

Except when the fireworks go off, Guy Fawkes’, New Year’s, never goes in there normally. Scaredy boy. Come out, come out!

First lie on the radiator, then senselessly, slowly kill you, then lie on the radiator again. Then lick the bleeding shreds dry. I might. Just don’t expect me to clean up all that shit in the garden. If that’s there where it came from, then stick it back up there!

After a leap, a series of abrupt shakes of the head has the desired effect of resettling the bones in the ear. Then all is well.

The next morning it had all gone, presumably back down the sewer. We never had any problems after that.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Saint Francis

If the heart is game
Christ is its hunter.

In your name, Francis,
the wolf is my brother.

In the name of the wolf,
the dogs and the birds

named in your prayers,
all living things

we place in your care;
except the wolf

I can endure,
but your perfection

is too much to bear.
It is Christ the hunter,

gentle Francis,
who bites and who tears.

At the close of your life
your near-blind eyes

were found to be sealed
by a lifetime of tears.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Herman Reich: ‘I have sorrowed a grievous loss; when my donkey had learned the art of going without food, it died.’

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Teller and Tale

An unwonted if not unwanted flurry in the comments box when I posted on Heaney a few days back leads me to revisit that topic, no doubt unwisely. When Larkin’s letters and biography appeared in short order after his death in 1985 and Tom Paulin and others lined up to administer a critical kicking, there was a widespread feeling that an English icon was being abused. Paulin, in his wrath, spoke of ‘The sewer under the national monument’. I’ve no wish to revisit that stale controversy now, but as many of Larkin’s defenders have pointed out, he does a very poor impression of the John Bull English everyman both his detractors and admirers took him to be. And certainly, for me, Larkin is at his most interesting when seen as a poet of marginal zones, of a radical disenchantment with the very English lares and penates he is often assumed to curate. Think of ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’. But my point is this. There certainly was an Eeyorish side to Larkin, in his interviews. He frequently used them to put readers off the scent (‘Foreign poetry? No!’). And this is entirely in order, even if it does end up faning the flames of his misreaders’ indignation. Artists often attempt to finesse or dictate the terms on which they are read, leaving it up to us to fight back and read them against the grain. Think for a moment how disastrous it would be to read a poet like Geoffrey Hill in terms of the self-image he lays down. And similarly with Heaney. I was riled, I confess, by his casual reference to the ‘rooted normality’ of the major artist. So much for Rimbaud then, or Artaud or Paul Celan. But this is just Heaney covering his tracks. North is not a work of ‘rooted normality’. It is a violently eccentric take on the Northern Irish Troubles, which if taken as sociological fact would appear to offer mythic sanction for contemporary paramilitary killings. Of course it does no such thing. But if that book comes out of dark and disturbing corners of Heaney’s psyche, as it does, his public pronouncements on the subject are designed to keep his readers away from them, insisting obsessively on his ‘rooted normality’. It’s a bluff, I’m suggesting, an aesthetically necessary and self-protecting bluff, and not one we need get overly worked up about. Because interesting though the interviews with Heaney are, it is simply wrong to expect them to yield up his poems’ secrets. Art tells one story and the artist another, and we should know better than to assume the two are going to coincide.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Curlew by the Humber

Hooped over turned earth
they stalk between tides,
unlooked for but found,
approaching, too close almost!

The stubble of worms
they take shaved clean
at the root, loose grass
on the breeze

and shifting
temporary islands somewhere
behind the high ditch
world enough for them –

in a gaze
they do not return
tracking their looped cries

upwards and peeling
away as one at last
that I might know what
I have seen.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Another estuarial away-day, through the pleasant alluvial scatter of hamlets around Blacktoft and Yokefleet. This latter was the ancestral seat of the Empson family, inspiring William Empson’s ‘Flighting for Duck’:

The darker silhouette is where a barn
Straddling two banks over a lesser channel
Stands pillared upon treetrunks like a guildhall
Empty, mudheaped, through which the alluvial scheme
Flows temporary as the modern world.
The mud’s tough glue is drying our still feet.
A mild but powerful flow moves through the flats
Laden with soil to feed the further warping...

‘Warping’ is land laid down from tidal river water, Empson explains in a note. A reference to an air-raid siren reminds us of Blacktoft’s wartime moment of fame, when Lord Haw Haw mentioned it in one of his broadcasts, apparently mistaking it for Hull.

That’s a sparrowhawk in flight, I believe. Unless it was a kestrel.

I wrote a poem about the place, a while ago now, which featured ‘A man and his dog – always one man and his dog’, so imagine my delight at having just such a couple oblige me by ambling along the dyke from the Hope & Anchor pub. Dropping into this Laurel and Hardy-themed hostelry, the curious can pick up a copy of Historic Blacktoft and read of local worthies such as the Merry Miller, Thomas Hardeslow. This merry man was a strong believer in ‘Holy Day’ festivities, ‘where he not only got drunk, drinking the ale the village bracatrices had brewed, but he also expected everyone else to get drunk as well. Indeed he would be very sorely grieved with anyone who remained sober.’ As the 1363 ‘Yorkshire Sessions of the Peace’ record: ‘Just as the Ascension Day festivities had ended, Thomas Hardeslow, the Lord’s miller did flog and wound Alan Rede of Blaktoft at Blaktoft, because he hardly ever turns out drunk with his way of life.’

For shame.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sigh, Calamity, Jeremiad

A first dip into Stepping Stones, Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Seamus Heaney. I excitedly seek out any evidence of a Heaney other than or dissenting from the emollient, diplomatic Heaney only too familiar from his public walkings-on-air of these last few decades, if only in the interests of rounding out his persona a little.

SH Comparing Larkin’s treatment of him in his letters to Berryman’s Dream Songs:

Larkin’s masks allow for something a lot more brutal and unlikeable than Berryman’s. Substitute a Mr Bollocks for Mr Bones, a National Front man for the frontman Henry, and you have the team and the permission.

On Prynne, of all people, and the ‘avant-garde’:

These poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence. There’s a phrase I heard as a criticism of W.H. Auden and I like the sound of it: somebody said that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent. (...) Now that’s what I yearn for – the cement mixer rather than the chopstick.

On Beckett and Irish modernism:

It was a single partisan review from the Beckett of ‘Whoroscope’ that foisted this fantasy of a ‘tradition’ of Irish ‘modernist’ poetry on us. It seems to me that in the final uptoss, as Kavanagh might have said, those thirties modernists get marks for effort, and effort in the right direction, but the stuff they actually wrote is generally of period interest.


This is a good deal of ‘something almost being said’, as Larkin might have put it, about his move away from Northern Ireland, and sometimes more than almost, as in the fairly brisk dismissal of James Simmons and his childish attempts to reel the superstar Heaney back into the manageable orbit of a dressing-down in the pages of the Honest Ulsterman or some such local occasion. There is a valiant but embarrassing attempt to square that belief, above, in ‘rooted normality’ with whatever it is makes Paul Celan a great poet. I’m grateful to that ‘rooted normality’ soundbite, as it sums up for me the grounds of my disagreement with Heaney about, well, everything I disagree with him about (Heaneyesque chiasmus, that). If ‘rooted’ and ‘normal’ are no guarantees of anything, as I would have thought, ‘rootless’ and ‘abnormal’ aren’t either, but since explaining my reasons why all the great Heaney virtues, of confirmation, being ‘forwarded in ourselves’, redress and authentication etc, are for me by a distance the least interesting thing about his work would take a couple of thousand words, I should probably stop. A couple of thousand words I’d like to write, but some other time.

Besides, there is much more that’s new to read too. George Szirtes’s enormous new doorstopper of a New & Collected, and a marvellous supplement to the latest Stinging Fly, Marks, in which poets are paired up with visual artists. One last surprise from Stepping Stones though. How odd to find Heaney quoting Emil Cioran. And yet he does, from The Temptation to Exist:

Routine of the sigh and of calamity, jeremiads of minor peoples before the bestiality of the great! Yet let us be careful not to complain too much: is it not comforting to oppose to the world’s disorders the coherence of our miseries and our defeats? And have we not, in the face of universal dilettantism, the consolation of possessing, with regard to pain, a professional competence?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Walk On

Are you a dustbin? It appears so, as the following is a dead poem, which I am hereby dumping on you. Its vintage can be guessed at from its featuring this man in a red shirt, recent shock! horror! rumours of his possible return notwithstanding. A match report for the game in question can be found here.

{Premable ends}

‘Walk on, sir?’ ‘Walk on.’
We are the Kop End Stand
of reception desk camaraderie,
she and I. I walk on
alone from the choking diesel
transport pens, their huge
gross cattle nose to rump,
rattling their chains, past the stairwell’s
You Are Here and shadow
a cleaner through the ferry’s
intestinal tract to my oubliette,
its tucked-away, ironing board bunk,
a smoker’s cough haunting
the pasteboard divide, and my unwashed
face spotlit over the brutalist sink.

But you are not here, and wherever
I am you are not. The barmaid
slips the beer pump out of dry dock,
the counter awash in frothy slops.
Yes plenty more at home like her,
she pacifies my van driver friend,
back where she comes from,
Manila or Monkstown. Someone
has to do all the shitty jobs!

Out at sea prime Japanese-
reject BNFL
cesium-137 closes on Sellafield,
throbbing in time to the Brave
Merchant’s grampus rumble
(clearing the buoys and
leaving its TV signal and Liverpool-
Bolton highlights behind);
throbs, checking its pulse against
the .01 of a second’s
small change refunded
that same afternoon from
the world hundred metres record.
Through the static: And Heskey must score…

How many electron heartbeats
divided us on the Irish Sea,
sunbursting into extinction,
that Saturday night of hulking containers
under the water line,
their secretive cargo, of surly
drivers and last-minute goals,
how many beats of my mobile’s pulse
in search of a signal, leaving me
silently boxed-in, counting the hours?
More than enough, as I reckoned
again my tally of half-lives
jettisoned one by one
in the ferry’s sightless wake,
my something to declare, the one thing
bumped from me the next morning
by the prow door: Isotope,
my irreducible isotope,
who will whip our overheated
sub-particles up to a storm
for miles round the sealed chamber
that, month after month, you have kept warm.

Foul Underpants Stain

Antonin Artaud speaks. It ain't pretty. In fact it’s hair-raising. Is that you Papa Lazarou? I very much suspect so. Hereunder my version of his poem 'Love':

As for love we’ve got to be rid
of that foul underpants stain
drenching the milky way with its load
of the selfish, slacker gene.

The barrel organ grinding the wind
and a raging sea’s head of steam
are all the soundtrack you’ll get behind
its vague, uneasy dream.

Between her and what soul I have left
our love-in’s on the money,
but who, love, is the more deceived?
O fountain of ignominy:

you in whose bed I idly dream
of escaping my own stale air,
abolish with one dice-throw my shame
and make paradise now and here.

Benefits of Sectarianism

The Independent reports on a Scottish town so sectarian that the local Subway cannot be painted green, for fear of attack by Rangers fans. Better, or worse, or better worse:

Traffic lights, with their green bulbs, are another victim. Between 2004 and 2007, 205 sets of traffic lights were smashed, costing the council nearly £17,000 to repair. There have even been claims that drunken youths have attempted to set fire to grass.


Presumably down the road, rabid Celtic fans stand around throwing stones at the sea or poking themselves in the eye.

The report did, however, remind me of this episode from Hugh Maxton’s memoir Waking, in which for possibly the first and last time in history sectarianism demonstrates its innate benefits. ‘Bob’ tells the writer how he had been blasting stones all day in Ballymorris (in Co. Wicklow) and stopped into Lawless’s hotel in Aughrim for a mineral water (he was a teetotaller):

When the Black and Tans arrived suddenly in front of the hotel, there was no time for anyone to slip away or to hive off from suspect acquaintances. Bob breathed to his neighbour ‘I’m done for, I’ve the remnants of dynamite in my pocket.’ The Tans advanced down the bar, throwing this one or that across the bar to be rummaged or searched. When they were two paces or one away from Bob, his neighbour broke out in execration heightened in the Wicklow whine of the man then and Bob telling it forty years later – ‘no point searchin’ the fuckin’ Protestant fuckin’ bastard, ahny hoaw, for he’s fuckin’ one of yees ahny hoaw’. I meet Cousin John and he confirms the story. But now it is Bob’s brother Jim who has the lucky escape.


Photograph of Mullaghcleevaun found here.