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Monday, March 30, 2009

Something Understood

I hear you

My Philosophy of Life

Everyone should have a philosophy of life, and this is mine. It is based on thinking about doing something then not doing it, for no reason. I have a brilliant idea for a novel, so I don’t write it. Someone is attractive and intelligent, and I think: how nice it would be to sleep with that person, and then I think: no it wouldn’t, I would hate that. I think: I should live somewhere I like, not where I do, and then I think: no I shouldn’t, I should stay where I am, not because it gives me pleasure but just because. I’m here now and why change that. I reject the human will, in other words, but in a way that aims to exclude any sense of sacrifice or self-denial. The flipside of this philosophy is that when you (which is to say I) actually do something it can’t be because you wanted to, but because it happened when you weren’t looking, behind your back, or that’s what you have to tell yourself. In this way your life can become one long glorious empty accident. And this is my philosophy of life.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

St Catherine of Siena

Catherine never saw
without wanting to kiss

a leper’s sore,
she whose flesh

throve on something
so like fresh air

(body of Christ),
any more

was already as much
as she could bear.

To the pure in heart
all is pure.

We are not ourselves.
We are His vessels.

The dead saint’s head
the faithful sever

turns to a bagful
of rose petals.

I the leper am healed
of my evil.

Now heal me as fast
of your cure.

St Lucy

Accept the gouged-out
orbs Lucy

proffers, glassily
facing you down.

Nothing to see here,
say the empty sockets

already passing on.
Shrinking horrorstruck

from your gaze
there was nowhere to look

but into your eyes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oblivia (cont.)

The faded tattoos of the old
native man in the market,

the scratch-mark filigree
of lines round his wife’s eyes.

I am lingering in the bookshop
over A Short History
of the Flags of Landlocked Nations

and Travels with a Capybara,
a volume of humorous verse

by the celebrated author
of The Capybara and I.

The loose-hanging bandanna
round the neck of a young campesino,

the fly swatted away
by a secret policeman
watching me from across the street.

My last appearance
in The Oblivian Monthly Review,

an ode to the motorcycle side-car,
has generated a lively correspondence:

‘Your upstart bard, besotted
with the Judaeo-Masonic
dross of a decadent Europe...’

Death to comma-shirking
free-verse Bolshevist
enemies of the people!

The pompom rear ends
of a clutch of alpacas prancing
down the street,

a mouse tail’s spaghetti
vanishing between the teeth
of the bookshop cat.

Swat!, goes the policeman’s
paper, rattling his coffee cup

and sending the fly out
dawdlingly through
the nearest dirty window.

Chronicles of Oblivia, pt 1

Rodent-infested altiplanos
of the commonweal,
monotonous and breath-taking!

The keels of our warships
lick at their salt-basins
and tomorrow, we say, the Pacific
will wash the dirt from our feet.

I naturalize the word
enclaustramiento in English,
the straitjacket of the open
plains and no horizon in sight.

O patria mia:
for proof of agreeableness
see national anthem, stanzas
one through four and six through eight.

O patria mia:
bought and sold for the price
of a few copper mines
and Indian trinkets,

a retired maestro
of our border skirmishes
wiping the blood
from his moustache

this fine morning
over a madeleine
in the Café Excrucior.

The ten réis coin
he presses into the waiter’s hand
is adorned with the national flatfish,

goggle-eyed and delicious.
Where there is salt is no water
and where there is water no salt.

The tide’s roar rises
to deafening on my ear-drum
but my boots stay dry.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Here's Looking at You

after Henri Michaux

Those who see me coming.
Me too, I’m onto them.
One day the cold will speak.
The cold will push the door open on Nothing.
And then, my hearties? What then?
Backsides to the wind, still swaggering,
bloated with others’ voices and the lungs of the age,
I see the whole pack of you under one cover.
Hard at work? The palm tree shakes its arms.

And you combatants, soldiers of good heart, sold and unpaid.
Your glorious cause is beneath you. It’ll be cold
in history’s corridors.
How cold it is!
I see you be-aproned, and oh what a sight!
I see Christ too, and why not?
As he was two millennia back.
His beauty fading already.
His face gnawed by the kisses of Christians to come.
So are we still on for selling those seats in heaven?
I’m off then all, goodbye, my foot’s on the escalator already.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Brueghel's Proverbs

Before roasting a fart first you must catch it.
The deaf man applauds the hurdy-gurdy too.
If the sheep-fancier spurns your sheep
his heart is elsewhere. Where there is heart
there is pancreas. No one hates an idiot
like the village’s second stupidest man.
It is quicker to beat your husband than walk
to the next town and write him a letter. Envy
the bathing sow on the day it rains dung.
The bishop shuts his mouth and sits on it.
The gangrenous leg knows good hacksaw work
when it feels it. The rattrap feels it ought
to apologise for the baker’s mouldy cheese.
When your pigs fly they’re not coming back.
Two can shit through the same hole as cheaply as one.
The wooden spoon does not match the shape
of your backside for nothing. The condemned man’s
vomit has a lucky escape. The hangman combs
his hair before putting his hood on. The gravedigger
will not be taking out ads. The old buffoon
has always got some proverb or other to hand.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Parachute Knickers

Q: Can I ask, did you paint your legs in the war?
Joyce Hewick: Yes.
Q: I thought so, go on tell me what with.
JH: Oxo or tea.
Muriel Berzins: Gravy browning with a pencil line up the back, you’d stand on the table and a girl would put a pencil line down your leg.
Q: Did you ever (sic) any parachute silk knickers or anything?
JH: Oh yes, yellow they were, bright yellow.
Q: How did you get hold of the parachute silk?
JH: Oh, I’d better not say.

Found in Time on My Hands: Memories of Hedon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hall of Mirrors

The closer I get to myself the more I shrink.
You loom larger and larger walking away.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leporine Lore, Loping and Lolloping

The hare, call him scotart,
big-fellow, bouchart,
the O'Hare, the jumper,
the rascal, the racer.
The wimount, the messer,
the skidaddler, the nibbler,
the ill-met, the slabber...

(from Seamus Heaney’s version of the Middle English poem, ‘The Names of the Hare’)

Myles na gCopaleen once suggested that a Tomb of the Unknown Gurrier could be erected on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, and watching the flatlands of the Humber estuary flash past from a train window the other day I thought of the equal desirability of a Tomb of the Unknown Giorria (giorria = Irish for hare). There they were, in white-arsed profusion, loping and lolloping round the fields, even if I didn’t quite get to see any boxing (above fine photo of which found here).

Peter Didsbury once told me of his desire to edit an anthology of poems about hares. He was describing his hare fixation to someone in Sweden once, when a hare stepped out in front of him, in the snow on the city street. Didsbury readers will remember the reference to Cowper’s hares (Tiney, Puss and Bess) in ‘Eikon Basilike’, while ‘Hare’s Run’ (also from The Classical Farm) collates some toothsome leporine lore: ‘Hare ran on mountain, /disclosed the boundless accidental /graces of his running.’

In between gazing out the train window I was reading R.F. Langley’s (highly recommended) Journals, in which I find the following:

Hares play. They leap up. Leaping up in the essence of opening. ‘Open’ and ‘up’ are the same word. Intuition is a hare. It brings its transformations, making the rationally impossible happen, startling in its appearance. John Layard said so. These did seem large, ready to unleash themselves if it seemed to them the thing to do, touched up bravely with black and white, and truly remarkable for length of back leg. They are supposed to enjoy being hunted, even if there could scarcely be a more obvious piece of wishful thinking. These were flaunting themselves while pretending not to see us, as the four of us walked up the middle of the field, talking.


And then ponder Yeats’s ‘Memory’, with its serendipitous exploitation of the fact that a hare’s lair is called a form:

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

But why ‘cannot but’? It would be understandable if the grass couldn’t keep these transient forms, but the fact that it does somehow makes ‘charm’ and ‘face’ all the more poignant, in a very Yeatsian way.

I for one would stump up cash in advance for an anthology of poems about hares. And how better to pay it for than in Yeatsian Free State Irish thrupenny bits, like these:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Antarctic Poetry School

Historically, the absence
of even one writer

has been the least
of the Antarctic School’s worries.

Is its hallmark cool tone
sustainable in today’s climate?

I suspect not, though
the Old Antarctic

for ‘burning zeal’ is ‘thin ice,
beware’ and ‘splash, ha ha’.

Most traditional verse forms
are too complex to have been ever attempted.

Prizes are often awarded
but their recipients seldom informed.

Resentment of the more glamorous
South Georgia School runs high.

Poems break off daily and float
in the general direction of Chile.

Solitaries are demagogues
and demagogues solitaries.

Annual poetry sales, it must
be said, never dip, not a unit.

Penguins are rarely mentioned
for fear of obviousness

though the albatross, where encountered,
is a symbol for penguins,

and the elephant seal
a symbol for the albatross.

The local note
is especially prized

on condition
that nobody strike it.

Another glacier

goes off to the most
wonderful splash.

Do you have this typeface
in white, please?

There is, between all
local dialects,

one word for snow
and that word is ‘snow’.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Six Steps to a United Ireland with RIRA/Ruaille Buaille

1. Targeting of pizza delivery boys undermines confidence in convenience food industry.

2. Collapse triggered in pizzeria-servicing Unionist-dominated farming sector.

3. Enfeeblement and starvation of population.

4. Food riots, anarchy, collapse of law and order.

5. Dissident republicans enter power vacuum.

6. United Ireland established

Friday, March 06, 2009

Derek Mahon at Morden Tower

Image found here.

A Memory of Michael Donaghy

Readers of Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man may recall a long and rambling joke about a theological debate between the Pope and the chief Rabbi, which ends with the Pope believing he has routed the Rabbi by showing him some bread and wine as a sign of Christ’s forgiveness, while in the other corner the Rabbi explains ‘Then we broke for lunch’. I first heard this joke, and maybe Zadie Smith did too, from Michael Donaghy. The occasion, for me, was after a reading he gave with Roy Fisher in Jean Hartley’s back garden in Victoria Avenue, Hull, in July 2004. In another back garden, Angela Leighton’s this time, Michael explained to me that he had been taken ill recently in the States, and had had his gall bladder removed. Within two months, he died suddenly.

He’d been coming to Hull quite a bit, since I moved here in 2000. The first time I heard him read, before we’d actually met, he explained to the audience that one of the advantages of reciting his work from memory was that no one noticed when he made a mistake – except you David, he added, pointing at me. I’d recently mentioned in a review of Conjure that the Latin at the end of ‘Quease’ (‘Absolvum te’) was wrong. The next time we met he told me he’d changed the line, and showed it to me in the new edition of the book. I seem to remember him having replaced the Latin altogether, but looking the poem up in his just-out Collected Poems I see the phrase now reads ‘Absolvum te [sic].

The jumper outdoors MD is wearing above was borrowed on the day from John Osborne, I believe.

And as I was typing this The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions came through the letter box, a book I’m pleased to see contains MD’s interview with Conor O’Callaghan, first published in Metre in 1997. Given my now well-established role monkeying around on the margins on MD’s texts, I remember puzzling over an extract from this interview we had selected to go on the back of the mag. Charles Olson was a ‘virtuous typist’? How exactly? The word, as I realized just in time, was ‘virtuoso’.

The one signed MD book I have is my copy of Conjure from that first meeting. MD inscribed it ‘Ego te Absolvo!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Damask-Scene Conversion

Who buys old issues of literary magazines in second-hand shops, I wonder. Myself excepted, that is. That distinctive savour of the compost heap or potting shed drew me irresistibly to a copy of The Dublin Magazine (Autumn/Winter 1966) the other day, as edited by the euphoniously named Rivers Carew. How pleasing, though, to come across not just the first printing of the Mahon poems ‘Exit Molloy’ and ‘Preface to a Love Poem’ (‘This is a way of airing my distraught /Love of your silence. You are the soul of silence’), two uncollected poems by Anthony Glavin and, in among four other poems of his, a Longley inédit, ‘The Centaurs’:

The sergeant, an arrow in his back,
Who crawled, bleeding, up the dusty street,
Who gasped his news of the failed attack,
How on all fours he made his retreat – ...

And then to find, too, an uncollected essay by Eavan Boland titled ‘The Attributes We Seek’ reprimanding Edna Longley’s dismissal of Thomas Kinsella in the previous issue. Boland demurs at Longley’s pejorative characterisation of Kinsella’s imagination as ‘heraldic’, and this being before what I might ill-advisedly call her ‘damask-scene’ conversion to Dundrum feminism, her critical language frets in the shadow of what I presume was the TCD style of the day, i.e. something resembling an Addison editorial, all the way down to the ‘We’ of her title and the heavy hand of this last comma: ‘Once surprise is traduced, and wonder is exchanged for a sort of weary prediction, then those bearings by which each man’s achievement is valued, become illegible.’

Seeing Mahon’s ‘Preface to a Love Poem’ again though reminded me of Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, and a letter she quotes on the subject of silence from her friend Janet Batsleer:

Silence is the place of death, of nothingness. In fact there is no silence without speech. There is no silence without the act of silencing, some one having been shut up, put bang to rights, gagged, told to hold their tongue, had their tongue cut out, had the cat get their tongue, lost their voice. Silence is oppression and speech, language, spoken or written, is freedom. (...)

All the social movements of oppressed people in the second part of the twentieth century have claimed ‘coming to language’ and ‘coming to voice’ as necessary to their politics... In the beginning was the Word... Silence is oppression. It is ‘the word’ that is the beginning of freedom. All silence is waiting to be broken.


Which is, I have to say, the biggest pile of tripe I’ve read since the last biggest pile of tripe I’ve read. To restore silence is the role of objects, said Molloy. Literature is the word that speaks and stays silent. Whereof man cannot speak, the silence thereof one noisily celebrates.

Janet Batsleer obviously isn’t one of those people who read back issues of literary magazines, in other words (I mean, you should see the rest of the issue of the Dublin Magazine I’m talking about here). Now there are cloisters whose calm will not be violated any time soon. Or as Michael Longley says of the weasel and the ferret elsewhere in my mouldy new purchase:

I can tell how softly their footsteps go -
Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.