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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

'Am I rambling? I hope so': Reading Peter Riley

‘What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture’ begins Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia, Urn Burial: ‘But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism.’ Future antiquarians of British poetry, take note. Why Daisy Goodwin wanted to save our lives with a slew of self-help anthologies; why Don Paterson introduced American readers to British Poetry (in his co-edited New Gen redux anthology, New British Poetry) with a furious diatribe against unnamed ‘postmodernist’ poets; or why (to take a counter example) Andrew Duncan published a poster map of post-war British poetry in the Chicago Review that did not so much as mention Thom Gunn or Geoffrey Hill, though also puzzling questions, need not be beyond conjecture. Brendan Behan had Irish politics in mind when he said the first item on the agenda was always the split, but for those resolved to part company with the poetry of Peter Riley before reading it, reasons will not be found wanting. Editorship of The English Intelligencer with Andrew Crozier; early publications with Grossteste Press; a Cambridge address from which he has laboured long in the stony acres of the British small press scene; the anthology company he keeps; all this will add up for many readers to one almighty fennish whiff. Even the man’s surname, shared with the no less astringent Denise and John, would appear to give the game away: Peter Riley, Cambridge poet, guilty as charged. But not the least refreshing thing about Riley is his failure to conform to the fanciful mods v. rockers, experimentalists v. mainstream divide in contemporary British verse that Paterson’s introduction so wilfully embodies. ‘I’m opposed to a universities poetry’, Riley writes in Alstonefield, in answer to those who would see alternative poetries as permanently alibied by the dullards of the academy. For all his appearances in Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos and Ric Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other, he is no more a postmodernist than Paterson himself. ‘As far as I’m concerned’, he has told Keith Tuma, ‘where I am is a normal and proper place to be, is where people like me always have been, and mainstream and avant-garde are way out on a limb, really nowhere.’

Exactly where that normal and proper place is varies from book to book, from North Africa and the south of France to Manchester and the Staffordshire Peak District. No place can be remote in itself and not in relation to somewhere else, and in his prose travelogue The Dance at Mociu Riley ponders the shifting nature of centre and periphery in ‘an almost forgotten part of Old Europe’, Transylvania. In his essay ‘A Little Theory of Destiny’, Emil Cioran pondered his Romanian beginnings with ebullient rage: ‘Hating my people, my country, its timeless peasants enamoured of their own torpor and almost bursting with hebetude, I blushed to be descended from them, repudiated them, rejected their sub-eternity, their larval certainties, their geologic reverie.’ He hasn’t been the only one keen to get out: during one of Riley’s visits, television cameras put in an appearance to record Angus MacQueen’s documentary The Last Peasants, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003, which followed local menfolk prepared to spend five hours clinging to the underside of a Vienna-bound train (put it down to native Mociusmo). To the author of a Browneian volume of Excavations, however, a phrase like ‘geologic reverie’ must sound like an open invitation to come and explore, and as of the very first sentence of The Dance of Mociu we find Riley pushing to ‘the end of the road’. Points of entry into local culture and the attendant protocol are the subject of much polite anxiety, with music taking a leading role. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes affectionately of André Kertész’s photograph of a blind Hungarian fiddler being led by a boy. The music in The Dance at Mociu comes courtesy of village fiddlers and zongora players, the hissing cassettes Riley buys at car boot sales and, most memorably, the funeral of a teenage boy where wedding music is played; all that is missing is the late György Ligeti’s piano etude in honour of the Brancusi column (the Coloana infinită) that Riley visits in Tîrgu-Jiu.

As in the Kertész photograph, kindly guides feature prominently: Riley and wife are forever being taken in hand by winning young girls with the key to the local pub or church in their pockets, and who reel them into the circle of village life. The etiquette of begging is much remarked on: the absence of solicitude or resentment, the ritualized physical interactions that mark all social occasions, as in the episode of a deafblind woman introduced to the English couple who sits holding Beryl Riley’s handbag. In The Aran Islands, a text with its own share of music, funerals and blindness, Synge dreams of being possessed by a music that fills him first with ecstasy, then agony and rage, and from which he struggles to tear himself away before waking up to ‘no sound anywhere on the island’. The Dance at Mociu ends with news of one of the local wedding bands travelling to a festival in the United States and staying on as illegal immigrants: ‘A silence grows in the green stony lanes of Soporul de Câmpie, in which no one tunes a violin any more.’ With or without an otherworldly struggle, the music falls silent: the one thing certain about the organic community, as Raymond Williams used to say, is that it has gone. England loses out in the mantic stakes to Transylvania, a country where Riley is cash-rich but has nothing to spend his money on, though as comparisons go this one could do with more input from the train-hugging economic migrants of The Last Peasants. And if Riley occasionally feels awkward or abashed among his generous hosts, as Synge did on Inismaan, perhaps he senses that in his wake will come the viewers of another Channel 4 show, Place in the Sun, which has been instructing viewers of late to snap up property in Romania.

A poem, for Riley, is ‘an object between poet and reader which is both a means of communication and a barrier to communication’, ‘neither opaque nor transparent’, a ‘body of light’ reflecting ‘the need to say and be revealed crossed with the need to remain silent and secret’. It’s all about paying attention: the best way to read poetry is ‘with very bad eyesight (… ) so that you would only go to this trouble /with a telegram of some concern.’ Glenn Gould suggested that the audience is to the artist as one is to zero, and in an appreciation of Nicholas Moore Riley goes further: ‘If poetry in this place is to have any half-decent future, it will have to be withdrawn completely from public view.’ Is Riley the Glenn Gould of British poetry, shunning live performance for the mixing desk or Cagean anechoic chamber? In Excavations he investigates another form of chamber, the Saxon burial mounds of East Yorkshire, but opens his texts up to all manner of echoes. The book’s 175 fragments mix Riley’s own words with italicized and bold-face quotations from the Edwardian archaeologist J.R. Mortimer, Elizabethan lyrics, and a ‘10% anarchic principle’ of mock quotation, spotting which becomes one of the book’s incidental pleasures. ‘What matter who’s speaking, someone said what matter who’s speaking’, Beckett said, and whatever it matters who’s speaking here, Mortimer or anarcho-Riley, Excavations hymns that most archaeological of styles, palimpsest: ‘I conceived the idea that in this art of funerary ceremonial the opportunity of a death was taken as the occasion of a total theatre, of which the final disposition left in the earth was the dénouement, of which the excavator finds a fragile and usually over-written map.’ As Jon Thompson has argued, the book is really an elegy for the present, just as its form elegizes a collage-based modernist style that texts as diverse as David Jones’s The Anathemata, Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memory of James Joyce and Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears should have, but have not, naturalized for readers of contemporary poetry. Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns would seem an obvious intertext too, though a Riley narrator (the most democratic of creatures) straying into that volume might agree with Offa’s pronouncement that ‘the strange church smelled a bit “high”’.

The book’s own archaeology is not irrelevant here, part one appearing as Distant Points in 1995, before being reinterred in expanded form a decade later. The long poem Alstonefield too has had a peregrine existence from original (‘unfinished’) version to a later recension to the further layer of topsoil we find in The Day’s Final Balance: Uncollected Writings 1965-2006. His other most recent ‘new’ book, The Llŷn Writings, comes with its own geologic layerings, some of the poems dating back to the 1970s. Riley himself has flitted from publisher to publisher as hectically as any Transylvanian migrant, from British small press stalwarts Reality Street, Shearsman and West House Books, to Carcanet, and beyond to the US, with nary a Cambridge fen in sight in the batch under consideration here. ‘Making a work is not thinking thoughts but accomplishing an actual journey’, David Jones wrote in The Anathémata, and much of Alstonefield is peripatetic poetry, veering from a Harvey-esque encounter with a giant rabbit to Irish sean-nós singing and the possibility, even in the Peak District, of ever escaping the sound of an automobile (it can’t be done, apparently). A telling difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge, those archpoets of the Romantic Holzwege, was Wordsworth’s keeping to the straight and narrow, while Coleridge habitually veered at an unpredictable zig-zag across the path, much to the inconvenience of his walking companions. With Riley, there is often no discernible path or destination, and Alstonefield may be one of the most ambitious journey poems of our time, or a hopelessly errant cross-hatching of an Ordnance Survey map with what Riley calls ‘17th century karaoke’, or possibly both at once. ‘Am I rambling?’ he asks Tony Frazer in a prefatory letter: ‘I hope so.’ Expecting him to do otherwise would be like, in his own words, ‘shouting GO HOME to the homeless’.

In its Mary Celeste-like farings forever short of a harbour, Alstonefield closely resembles the loose baggy monsters of a decade that means a lot to Riley: the 40s, that heyday of Nicholas Moore and a perennial revisionist alternative to the Movement putsch that followed. The one Larkin poem for which Andrew Duncan professes any fondness in his eccentric study The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry is the long, abandoned poem ‘The Dance’, its length and incompleteness both at odds with the ethos of lyric repletion from which Duncan recoils. Even at a hundred pages, there is no reason why Alstonefield might not be twice as long again, and still unfinished: as with Excavations, Riley conceives of the space of the long poem as an arena, a theatre for the self, anti-self and other ‘pluralities that devised this spectacle’. Referring the reader to a passage thirty-one stanzas before, Riley signposts it as the spot where ‘Self Two took off to the left’. Riley has little time for the ‘metaphor-laden forms of rhetoric’ and ‘self-regarding figurative ingenuity’ he associates with the Movement and its Martian inheritors, and if the self-multiplication just described sounds like po-mo tricksiness, it is more constructively viewed as an effort to maximise the points of ‘entrance’ into the chthonic stuff of his poetry. This can make his longer work difficult to excerpt, but two stanzas from ‘Seawatch’ (from The Llŷn Writings) give something of their flavour, as well as signalling from their Welsh peninsula in the general Cornish direction of later W.S. Graham:

Sunk in a grass hollow in the cliff, my station,
A grave green chair. The sea is blue green white,
The sea is grey and folds, the sun is splilt
And the clouds are a fire. Truth is never
Quite the same, its quantum cracks but
Like a three quarter moon hands down adoring stead.

Which is a pulsing certitude a gently
Wavering assurance. The sea throws
Silver coins at the rock. The whimbrel, that shuns
The sight of man, passes down the coast
And a heron follows, for if we are still
We are welcomed, if we are one we are met.

In our post-Romantic condition to write about nature is to write about the disappearance of nature or our alienation from it (Williams’ organic community again), which can leave those who wish to carry the pastoral mode on regardless looking either very foolhardy or very deluded (the intakes of breath in post-avant circles when Riley professes his admiration for Walter de la Mare can only be imagined). ‘I should be modern’, he writes in A Map of Faring; ‘I cannot be modern’. Yet another dimension to Riley’s resistance to classification is the intense chastity of his diction: he does not blanch at a ‘vocabulary which is generally considered /nonsense’, and is not above cooing ‘Poor little mite!’ at a ‘mother suckling her babe’ or choking on the wholesomeness of his own vision: ‘I must be blind, to see such brightness /in such delicate light, to see the world /in its hope as a leaf turns in the /movement of cool air…’ As in some passages of Prynne’s Word Order or Pearls That Were, part of the shock for the first-time reader is just how untutored the emotional tenor of this poetry is, how entirely free of the jaded inflections of our post-Movement condition.

A Map of Faring is divided into setts, conjuring an image of poet as badger, and once again descriptions of excavating and entering the earth abound. Images of cave walls suggest a latter-day Lascaux, while above ground the world is peopled by itinerant noble savages such as Donegal fiddler John Doherty ‘tuning the earth’. These vagrant musicians would blend right in in a Jack Yeats canvas, and poems on Yeats in Passing Measures and The Day’s Final Balance point to picaresque affinities, with the figure of Beckett a possible hinge between the two. ‘An imaginative adventure does not enjoy the same corsets as a reportage’, Beckett wrote of Yeats’s novel The Amaranthers in 1936, and Riley’s rejection of a ‘literature of notations’ is never less than principled. The reportorial leakage of current events into the knowingly ironised lyric is a register almost entirely absent from Riley’s work. Readers on the look-out for some encroachment of the contemporary world will turn excitedly to ‘Stuck in Vienna for Two Weeks Watching CNN Every Night’ only to find Riley telling them to ‘forget Vietnam’ and ‘walk the forests, learn to live’. Perhaps Daisy Goodwin and poetry’s life-saving properties aren’t so far away after all. Riley has written appreciatively of Douglas Oliver, but his version of A Salvo for Africa (or even Vietnam) will be a long time coming: this is a poetry hewn from the things most ‘most proportionate and conditioned’ to its author’s body, as Francis Ponge said of his favourite kind of art in Notes pour un coquillage. Not that the present-and-correct author makes himself the measure of all things: as he wrote in ‘S. Pietro in Montorio’, ‘I stand in my absence in front of a thing /That stands in its presence and fits it /To perfection.’ Present or absent, Riley dreams of human adequacy unto ourselves. Looking at a child’s drawing in Terezín concentration camp, he urges us to ‘Agree to suffice, not to surpass, agree to be /the actual person.’ If taking a walk in the countryside means not writing a poem about Iraq then Iraq can wait (‘Is nothing safe from our guilt?’ he asks in ‘The new war poetry’); and the assertion of this freedom need not be an anti- or apolitical act. Here we touch on the profoundly humanist core of Riley’s work, and its refusal to surrender the ‘authentic realisation of individual experience’ to any passing distractions, no matter how noisy. ‘It is the human that is the alien’, Wallace Stevens claimed, and for Riley too the closer one approaches ‘authentic’ experience the more its primal simplicity eludes expression, as suggested by ‘The Walk to Roussillon’, a Beckettian poem in both location and style: ‘The red cliff in the dark green woods, /walk towards it. As you get /closer it is difficult to see.’ The honouring of this diffficulty and honest exploration of it are what keep Riley’s work on edge and save it from the leafy ditches of the contemporary heritage trail.

Faced with the unerasable but embarrassing survival of alternative poetries long after their supposed extinction, contemporary anthologizing will often reach for synecdochic stand-ins for a not-to-be-countenanced whole (a dash of Roy Fisher here, a sprinkling of Denise Riley there). Nothing could be cosier in the climate of British poetry today than a timidly entered plea for increased love and understanding all round, with the promise of a periodic walk on the wild side for the general reader in return for an admission from Andrew Duncan that Philip Larkin may not have been quite the embodiment of evil after all (though to judge from his own comments, this may not be all that removed from Riley’s view of him too). A braver endorsement might be to suggest that Riley’s body of work speaks for itself, beyond all arguments about the mainstream and its bloodied fringe, and if he doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, he himself won’t object. ‘“Many customers” is an ailment I have sought assiduously /to avoid’ a (possibly imaginary) Peak District barman tells him in Alstonefield. To return, finally, to Transylvania, Cioran once observed that Palestrina’s music was written for God whereas Beethoven’s was written for humanity, a declension he by no means appeared to approve. Peter Riley isn’t in it to be liked, and if his musically elegant poems seem to give up on a contemporary audience, and Palestrina’s God is no longer on call, their witnessing and example is no less impressive, moving or urgent for all that: ‘I believe /passionately that steady work /to a cleared purpose is true love.’

Books Cited
Peter Riley, Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems. Carcanet, £9.95.
The Dance at Mociu. Shearsman Books, £8.95.
Aria with Small Lights. West House Books.
Alstonefield: a poem. Carcanet, £9.95.
Excavations. Reality Street, £9.
A Map of Faring, Parlor Press, npg.
The Llŷn Writings, Shearsman, £8.95. 15 January 2007.
The Day’s Final Balance: Uncollected Writings 1965-2006. Shearsman, £11.95. 15
January 2007.

As originally published in P.N. Review.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lines on the Unknown Soldier

after Mandelstam

Let this air stand by what we’re told:
that his pounding heart so far away,
even in the dugouts of this world,
remains an ocean sightless to this day.

And stars – there must be more than twinkles in your
eyes, seeing everything beneath
and knowing it’s the judge and witness that were
due cells blind as his till death.

How barren the seed would have to be to match
the rain, so evocative of his nameless manna,
or how the wooden crosses stood watch
over an ocean or a fallen banner!

And men will still go cold, fall sick, and worse,
murder, shiver with the cold, and starve,
while the body of the unknown soldier’s
laid to rest in an infamous grave.

You, ailing swallow, I take for tutor –
half-forgetting yourself how to fly –
how shall I steer round death without a rudder
or, wingless, cheat the grave to mount on high?

And where Mikhail Lermontov’s concerned,
allow me to spell out for his benefit
how much the hunchback has to learn
from the death he sees reflected in the pit.

How these worlds menace
us, like rustling grapes,
hanging like stolen cities,
golden slips of the tongue, calumnies –
berries of the poisonous
cold – marquees of tensile starscapes –
stardust in golden, oily drops.

Signing the ether like a decimal point
the dazzle of speeds slowed down to a ray
begins to trace a figure suffused with lucent
pain and a mole of nullity.

Beyond the field of fields a new field
is taking wing with a triangular crane –
the bright dust road we see the news propelled
along shines from battles long since done.

The news flies along a bright dust road:
I am no Leipzig, no Waterloo,
no war of the tribes: I am fresh blood
but unspilt. It is from me that light will flow.

Deep inside the black marble oyster
was where the flame of Austerlitz was extinguished.
The Mediterranean swallow’s slit-eyes stare;
the trap is sprung in Egypt’s plague-ridden waste.

The medley of an Arabian hodge-podge,
the dazzle of speeds slowed down to a ray –
and on its two splay feet the image
falls athwart my eye.

The millions done to death on the cheap
have trodden a path through the emptiness:
good night to them, best wishes from the scarp
of the earthen fortresses.

Trenched, incorruptible sky, sky of
our almighty, wholesale morgue –
it is behind you, away from you, that I move
my lips, whole one, in the dark.

For the shell craters, embankments and screes
over which he broods and frowns –
the pockmarked, sullen, powerless
spirits of the overturned gravestones.

How well the infantry dies
and how well the nightly choir sings
over smiling flat-nosed Švejk,
the metatarsus, avian and chivalrous,
and Don Quixote’s bird-lance.
The cripple befriends the man: there’s work
enough for both of them. The race
of wooden crutches runs amok
around the outskirts of the epoch.
Comradeship – ah, how the earth spins!

Must the whole skull be unpacked,
the brain-pan from temple to temple,
the dear eye-sockets be helpless
to resist the soldiers’ onward trample?
The skull, unpacked of life all of a piece –
from temple to temple –
teases itself with how well it was patched
together, gleaming like a dome of tact
frothing with thought to see its dreams reflect
itself, the cup of cups, the lares and penates –
a mob-cap sewn like a starry scar –
the cap of joy – Shakespeare’s father.

Ash-tree for clarity, sycamore for vigilance:
a homeward scramble tinged with scarlet
as though to swoon into speech with the heavens,
both of them, in their colourless heat.

Only what’s passé allies itself to us:
that isn’t our downfall ahead, just one more error.
The struggle for the air I breathe – this
glory I name beyond compare.

What good is the package of ready-made
charm, stuck in a vacuum?
To send the scarlet-tinged white
stars rushing back home?

And commending myself to my consciousness
with a half-fainting core
of being I’ll down this slop without choice –
eat my head under fire!

Can you feel it, stepmother of the starlit
bivouac, the night come down, the night ahead?

Aortas choke in blood. Row
upon row you hear them whisper:
‘I was born in ninety-four,’
‘I was born two years before...’
And, holding on tight to
my worn-out birth year
I whisper through bloodless lips: ‘I saw
the light of day first two
nights into the untrustworthy year
of ninety-one. Now
the centuries encircle me with fire.’

Thursday, September 25, 2008

File Under...

As seen on the ever-amusing failblog.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Jiří Mědílek, Krajina

for J

‘When you present
absence in your

paintings, then it
is unfair to say

what is absent.’

turns hyperactive
and there is no calming it.

I can only aspire
to degeneration.

There is no decadence
left: I have

dissipated myself
for nothing. Our former

ragged-edged clouds
scab and flake off the sky.

The horizon has gone
to live over the hill.

There might be colour
or there might not:

what transcends appears
out of reach and

falls through
itself, a knot turned

inside out. Briefly
zero gapes

and the sharp
end of an asymptote

stitches up
its shocked eye.

At home too long
behind my own

I wear the face
of the earth: I blink

and the earth
comes with me

into the dark.
Do not think

of asking me what
I have failed

to paint. You’re
looking at it.

It is right there.

Did You Say Cheese?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Vanishing Points

Jiří Mědílek, Krajina

Écrire aperception purement visuelle, c’est écrire une phrase dénuée de sens. Comme de bien entendu. Car chaque fois qu’on veut faire faire aux mots un véritable travail de transbordement, chaque fois qu’on veut leur faire exprimer autre chose que des mots, ils s’alignent de façon à s’annuler mutuellement. C’est, sans doute, ce qui donne à la vie tout son charme.

(Beckett, Le Monde et le Pantalon)

Úbězníky. Úpadek. Degenerace. Mizení. Vymření. Nepřítomnost. Zaniknutí. Vyloucění.

Vanishing points. Decline. Degeneration. Disappearance. Extinction. Absence. Expiry. Exclusion.

[Abjectly gives up effort to reproduce Czech diacritics.]

These landscapes seem to have no past. The traces are swept away. One thinks of the Broumov region, one of the places where M. lives, and how that land was cleaned of Sudeten Germans after the war. But even this is to say too much. I imagine M.’s annoyance, or even boredom, at my mentioning the Sudetens. When you present absence in your paintings, then it is unfair to say what is absent. It could be Sudetens – their community, their architecture – and equally it could be any other thing or people possible. Any worldly thing.


From Justin Quinn’s text accompanying the painter’s images in Jiří Mědílek, Obrazy (Prague, Opus), a ravishingly pleasing book.

See and read more of and about Mědílek here (in Czech).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Mont Sainte Victoire

Photos found here, here and here.

Felix Doran, The Pigeon on the Gate

The Treasures of a Folklore Beyond Compare

As a child I would perch in the tree-house and dream of scaling the tower on the mysterious German’s land behind the estate. As a teenager my one desire was to play the pipes like Johnny Doran. Now my music has been and gone and my palms fall useless against my thighs.

The town of Rathnew is an unremarkable town, with its Wimpy bar and plaster Madonna, but here rests Doran, king of the travelling pipers, one chanter’s toss from the Wicklow bus and its godawful radio station.

Among the most important effects on the pipes is the contrast between C natural and C sharp, as featured in so many piping tunes, Doran’s version of ‘Rakish Paddy’ for one. Consider how differently he does it on his two recordings of that track, working the regulators each time like a pack of hounds on the chanter’s trail.

At the time, forty years on, John Kelly, who duets with Doran on ‘Tarbolton’ and ‘The Fermoy Lasses’, still kept shop on Capel Street, and kept his fiddle under the counter. His fiddler’s brow: sloped, confidingly, over the counter, through the window, as I walked by.

Some pipers play open, some closed. Doran played open. I prefer closed, but prefer Doran’s open to any good reasons why I might prefer closed.

One thinks of Robert Johnson

Hoist that chanter off the knee for those low Ds and Es, let the fox bark all it wants!

Pipeless today, I look up as the bus passes the cemetery and wonder where I have buried my music.

Sometimes he plays C natural, sometimes C sharp.

How I dreamed, as a child, of the tower on the mysterious German’s land behind the estate.

In Memory of the N11

Site of the next smash
victim’s roadside shrine,
who and wherever: waiting,

sped past. The Sugarloaf’s
shark-fin tip overhead,
sniffing blood.

Tarmac in my veins
but not once underfoot,
how you burn for me,

shimmer and burn.
The inside lane peels off
for the garden centre

and the driver turns
the radio up for the sport.
The road has eaten

a small village
under the sign of
its service station’s

knife and fork;
we drive through
someone’s front room.

A child in a hillside field
flies a kite, and a cat
one lane from the road

is asleep in the sun.
Stream through my eyes,
kite girl, their shade

to your light. On still
evenings the fox’s cry
at the end of your lane

must carry all the way
to the flyover. It wipes
its nostrils clean of my scent.

The minute underground throb
of the bus’s passing shakes
my grandparents’ bones.

Rush hour sometimes
a body can feel it’s never
going to move.

Towns are concessions,
begrudged. Dip in the road
where a bloodline

rose, sank, settled,
‘D’ye know what I’m goin’
to tell ye,’ a generation’s

worth of opening
conversational gambit
at the Village Inn,

Uncle Joe. Roads
without traffic
after the upgrade

don’t go untravelled,
merely become
their own destination.

Figure looming
smaller and smaller
on the hospital drive

staring me full
in the back as I scarcely
glance up from my paper:

not until you are out
of sight do I think
to look, then left

and another pocket
handkerchief graveyard,
and that was a great day

for the village, the green
and red football flags
by the Marian grotto

will say, meaning
that not-to-be-forgotten
triumph, meaning that never-

disgrace. The misspelled
takeaway sign awaits

the last drunks
and the king of the pipers
lies under a snowstorm

of flecked marble chips
but snow is not general.
There is no snow,

is only an evening
coming down, with
from the far docks

the sound of a foghorn
while the Sugarloaf slips
behind its veil to digest

the day’s catch. You sit
in a blunted pencil of light
and a current of recycled air,

but don’t imagine
there’s no arriving, no
retiring you into

the slipstream with scarcely
a backward glance
from the driver. Your seat

is only so comfortable
and only the road
has no home to go to,

the one true static thing.
A last boy
leaves the misting-up

windscreen empty
before you
stepping off

at the edge of town
and its moving blackout
is pleasure deferred

enough. On your way
with you! It is two hours
ago all over again

but do not run
for the last bus:
you are on it and gone,

waving not me
but the bus stop
goodnight and already

hearing the foghorns
to greet you.


Photo found here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Death Spits in Our Eye

David Foster Wallace has died. Reginald Shepherd has died. Early death. Violent death. Rage against God, man, life and death. Perhaps a passing adherent of one of our time-honoured strains of cosmic hoax will stop by the comments box to explain how these developments are helping to bring our beloved creator’s plans nicely to the boil. Death spits in our eye. From Leopardi’s ‘A Silvia’:

Che pensieri soavi,
che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!
Quale allor ci apparia
la vita umana e il fato!
Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme,
un affetto mi preme
acerbo e sconsolato,
e tornami a doler di mia sventura.
O natura, o natura,
perché non rendi poi
quel che prometti allor? perché di tanto
inganni i figli tuoi?

And in Eamon Grennan’s fine translation:

What tender thoughts we had,
What hopes, what hearts, Silvia!
How fate and human life
Looked then! When I think
Of all those hopeful dreams
I’m bitterly stricken,
Beyond consolation, and begin
Lamenting again my own misfortunes.
Ah, nature, nature, why
Can you never make good
Your promises? why must you
So deceive your own children?

The World of Darts, A Continuing Series: Pt 47, That Time Jocky Wilson Did That Hilarious Thing

‘I never drink English water,’ said Jocky solemnly. ‘My granny said the English put poison in the water.’
Again I realised he was not kidding. ‘So how do you clean your teeth?’ There was a long moment. Daft question, I thought, Jocky has none.
‘When I did have teeth I cleaned them with Fanta!’ said Jocky.’
‘Aye, he did that,’ said Sandy solemnly.
It would have been much better if, after consuming well over forty units of alcohol the night before, Jocky had stuck to Fanta when we got to the darts. Fat chance. After registering at eleven o’clock, Jocky had a few pints of lager before the first match at 3 p.m. Fife played Suffolk and won, then after shots of Magic Coke, they took on London. That’s when Jocky, topped up from the night before, lost the plot. He was playing Ray Cornibert and suddenly began using foul language to the lady official doing the scoring. He accused her of urging Ray on to beat him. It was obvious to all observers that Jocky was pissed.

The outburst cost him dearly. He was given a three-month ban by the BDO that on appeal was reduced to nine weeks. But it still meant that he could not defend his Unipart British Professional title at Stockton in October.

Sid Waddle, Bellies and Bullseyes: The Outrageous True Story of Darts

Below-Par Liverpool Continue Shaky Start to Season

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Seamus "Chuckles" Heaney was born on 13 April, 1939 at Mossbawn, Co. Derry. The only son of poor black Northern Irish sharecroppers, he survived on twigs, leaves and Weetabix for the first decade of his life. This upbringing, along with the freedom he gained from it, continues to influence his poetry, instilling its savage rhythms. At the age of twelve, he killed his first hedgehog. With its roasting over a bin-full of rubbish, young Seamus knew he had at last attained manhood.


Muldoon has published ten collections of poetry. These are For Once It Isn't Bloody Raining (1973), Sling-backs and Espadrilles (1977), (It Was The Smell) (1980), Silly Made-Up Words (1983), Meeting The Fenians - Only Joking! (1987) (It was also, for a brief time, known as Occupational Hazards), Murdock - The A-Team's Mystery (1990), Canals full of Chilli (1994), Hey! (1998) and Moi, Sand and Gravel (2002), with which he cemented his reputation as poet dealing with concrete examples of life in Ireland and America, and for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In response to the prize his most recent volume of poetry, published in 2006, is entitled Hoarse Platitudes.


Yes, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have uncyclopaedia entries!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Few are the writers who pass my bookshelf’s double figures test, but among them, I see when I add his new collection Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw, is Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

‘My particular joke was being healthy’, he writes in ‘A Vocation’, sounding his usual Horatian note, the pursuit of the good life, but with a satisfyingly pinch of self-mockery in the mix too.

I find the eudaemonist view, that ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right’, perhaps the single most difficult to make poetry out of. When I try it, which is not often, nothing comes. Happiness writes white. ‘Tranquillity’, CWC writes in ‘Reading Smoke with Orpheus’, ‘It can be painted, but /it’s very much like reading smoke /or seeing a snake as mobile typography.’ Not that CWC doesn’t take a walk on the dark side too (the political sonnets in his last book, By and Large, took a gloomy view of the Australian body politic and the jiggery-pokery of PoMo academics), though here I sense that shading into a dim but calm crepuscular view of things: ‘Dust in the eye-corners: /inert gases where the soul should reside’. Or:

Because they are also us
judgement sways and falters
old ligaments tightening up,
limping in our long, subjective jogathon
round the desolate park

for now.

The Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, you may recall, ends with a dot. Not a full stop, but a dot. CWC’s ‘The Alignments’ is an ode to dots. ‘Why do things /have a line around them?’, the poet remembers his daughter asking. Shades of the Robert Kilroy-Silk gaffe about the Arabs giving European civilisation nothing, boom boom. The poem mentions Klee but not that dot-matrix-master Seurat, who I mention here as someone whose name I’ve always wanted to rhyme with ‘sewer rat’.

As for poetry readings:

Poets on the circuit
are talking out their days
As they won’t get money,
all they need is praise.

Poets on the circuit
have shocks of silver hair.
Yes, they’ll do a reading
more or less anywhere.

This last claim is all too true, evidently, given that CWC is giving a reading in Artlink on Prince’s Avenue, Hull on 18 September at 6pm. So why not come along, you shower of useless lazy so-and-sos.

Finally, I cannot let this post pass without mentioning the line CWC says at readings he has always wanted, but never been able to incorporate in a poem. It is ‘Release the tiny hamster of desire.’

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Bad Behaviour

In an obituary for the eccentric actor Ken Campbell, who has died (obviously, I wouldn’t be reading an obituary for him, etc), I see that he once staged a one-man show called Bendigo about a nineteenth-century boxer who trained by walking into pubs and spitting in people’s drinks, in the hope that they’d start a fight with him. The next time you do that, think of Ken Campbell. Do it for Ken.

Kevin McAleer

Following a link from a Dublin Opinion piece on Irish comedy, I was pleased to find Kevin McAleer saying of his mother, ‘We were like chalk and cheese, but that’s where the similarity ends.’

In Other News


In Other News


In Other News


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What a Hoot

Beckett Fact no. 92.

Ten Birds in Beckett.

1) The corncrake, as exulted in by Belacqua in ‘Walking Out’ (try finding a corncrake on the Irish east coast now): ‘It was at this moment that he heard with a pang, rattling away in the distance, crex-crex, crex-crex, crex-crex, the first corncrake of the season.’

2) ‘That fabulous bird, the mesozoic bird, addicted, though childless, to self-eviscerations’ (‘Recent Irish Poetry’). Cf. Lucien’s ‘poem’ ‘C’n’est au pélican’ in Dream.

3) Take your pick from the aviary on show in ‘Serena I’: ‘a weaver-bird is tangerine the harpy is past caring /the condor likewise in his mangy boa’.

4) ‘Birds of every kind abounded’ in the rest home for the bewildered which Sam finds himself sharing with Watt. ‘Robins in particular, thanks to their confidingness, we destroyed in great numbers. And larks’ nests, laden with eggs still warm from their mother’s breast, we ground into fragments, under our feet, with peculiar satisfaction, at the appropriate season of the year.’

5) ‘I hear the eagle-owl’, announces Moran at the start of his narration, ‘What a terrible battle-cry!’

6) A corvid pun and a carrion bird in Text 1: ‘Eye ravening in the haggard vulture face’, not to mention the poem on that same carrion bird, ‘The Vulture’, written ‘not without reference to Goethe’s Dem Geier gleich’.

7) Sapo in Malone Dies follows the flight of a hawk with rapt (if not raptor) ‘gull’s eyes’, ‘fascinated by such extremes of need, of pride, of patience, and solitude.’

8) An exotic bird of passage in How It Is: ‘the vast past near and far the old today of the extreme old even the humming-bird known as the passing moment all that’.

9) ‘April morning... face in the grass... nothing but the larks...’ (Not I).

10) Finches in Rough for Theatre II: ‘Look at that lovely little green rump! And the blue cap! And the white bars! And the gold breast! [Didactic.] Note moreover the characteristic warble, there can be no mistaking it. [Pause.] Oh you pretty little pet, oh you bonny wee birdie! [Pause. Glum.] And to think all that is organic waste! All that splendour!’

The vidua bird in Krapp’s Last Tape you will already know. The parrots I leave for another occasion.