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Monday, August 31, 2009

Return of Keats and Chapman

Resplendent in his Batman costume, Chapman was getting very bored indeed, standing there waiting for Keats to make up his mind. As usual, when they were invited to a fancy-dress party, Keats couldn’t decide who to dress up as. There he stood, holding an imaginary conversation with his friend Walter Savage, whose dress-sense he’d always admired, but all the while casting covetous glances at the Lord of the Rings costume too. He must have watched that box-set ten times over now. How he loved that High Warden of the White Tower. Dapper poet friend... Lord of the Rings... poet... Lord of the Rings... ‘You’re going as Robin’, Batman-Chapman shouted at him, ‘Neither a Boromir nor a Landor be.’

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Bob Dylan Joke

What is the lizard Bob Dylan’s favourite song? ‘Visions of Goanna’.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Good Samartian

Sixth picture shows a tree sparrow, distinguished from the house sparrow by the black patch on its cheeks. Like the house sparrow its population has suffered a steep and mysterious decline in recent years.

Fifth picture (I am doing this in reverse because that’s how blogger loads multiple images) shows a lapwing. Is fad ó bhaile a labhraíonn an pilibín.

Fourth shows a couple of green sandpipers lurking in the corner of a lagoon otherwise full of redshank.

Third and second pictures show a marsh harrier, to whose spectacular hovering and fly-pasts (at one point with a vole in its beak) I completely failed to do justice, as witness these pictures. The point of the third picture is to show her yellowish head, which isn’t apparent in the otherwise clearer shot. Though you’ll have to look quite carefully to see it.

And then at the top a (tries and fails to think of a collective noun) of redshank.

One of my favourite poets anyway, and perhaps my favourite to take on these estuarine outings of mine, is Johannes Bobrowski. I’ve never been to Samartia, his name for the German lands of the former East Germany and the Baltic States, but for some possibly groundless reason I think of it as full of marshes, reedbeds and waders, just like the landscape in the shots above.

The river rises
against my breast,
the voice of sand:

I can not get through
your dead
drift in me (‘Experience’)

Clouds move over the river,
that is my voice,
snowlight over the woods,
that is my hair.
I came along
across the gloomy sky,
grass-blade in mouth, my shadow
leant on the fence, it said:
Take me back. (‘Encounter’)

Friday, August 28, 2009

... and our paths through flowers

Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel (In Defence of Bad Photography)


‘Thomas Browne too was often distracted from his investigations into the isomorphic line of the quincunx by singular phenomena that fired his curiosity, and by work on a comprehensive pathology. He is said to have long kept a bittern in his study in order to find out how this peculiar bird could produce from the depths of its throat such a strange bassoon-like sound, unique in the whole of Nature.’ (Sebald, The Rings of Saturn)

‘One morning while I was at the Cincinnati Museum in the State of Ohio a woman came in holding in her apron one of this delicate species alive, which she said had fallen down the chimney of her house under night and which, when she awoke at daybreak, was the first object she saw, it having perched on one of the bedposts. It was a young bird. I placed it on the table before me and drew from it the figure on the left of my plate. It stood perfectly still for two hours, but on my touching it with a pencil after my drawing was done, it flew off and alighted on the cornice of a window. Replacing it on the table I took two books and laid them so as to leave before it a passage of an inch and a half, through which it walked with ease, Bringing the books nearer each other, so as to reduce the passage to one inch, I tried the Bittern again and again it made its way between them without moving either. When dead its body measured – ’ (Audubon, The American Woodsman; he killed it, in other words)

Twelve-Year-Old in Grimsby Now Oldest Child in Britain Not Circumnavigating Globe

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Served the King of England

Bohumil Hrabal. Possibilities for puns thereon: Hrabalaisian, Hrabal without a cause, Day of the Hrabalment. I love the inscrutability of the Hrabal persona. Give your Czech a workout with the above youtube clip and find him drinking a beer down the pub (U Zlatého Tygra perhaps, the Golden Tiger) and reading the paper. The holy drinker, perhaps freshly back from the terraces of a third-division football game (I think of Ivan Blatný’s marvellous poem about football). Why, Bill Clinton and Václav Havel might even drop in. But Alexander the Great dropped in on Diogenes. What can I do for you sir? Stand out of the light. Get your round in.

Ditie, the protagonist’s name in I Served the King of England, means ‘child’, more or less. What could be more childish than his picaresque blunderings through life, latching onto some idiotic catchphrase as a way of explaining everything. The title, as one of those phrases, refers to a head waiter’s ability to tell in advance where a customer is from and what they’re going to order. And how does he know all these things? Because ‘I served the king of England’. Ditie doesn’t quite manage that, though he does serve the Emperor of Ethiopia, who eats a camel. He’s awarded a sash and a medal for his services too, which he likes to whip out as reminders of his rise in the world. Large burps in the fabric of history come and go (Nazism), or come and don’t go (Communism), and Ditie blunders through uncomprehendingly but with just enough peasant cunning to land on his feet. He marries a Nazi athlete and submits to a farcical inspection of his privates to ascertain their suitability for congress with an Aryan vagina. He is not on the list of millionaires for dispossession after the war by the Communists but insists on having himself added to it, in yet another attempt to prove himself to the social betters he feels are always snubbing him. He lives in a hut in the woods on his release and trains his German shepherd to go to the village and do his shopping, but the villagers shoot it because they miss his visits to the pub and want him to come back.

Throughout Hrabal there is a diastole-systole alternation between social routine and outbreaks of something more violent. The swaggering waiter who is knocked off balance, for instance, and drops two plates, but then smashes the rest, and starts destroying the whole hotel around him. Or artistic violence, as when a writer puts a knife to the narrator’s neck in Too Loud a Solitude and starts reciting a poem about nature (he can’t get people to listen to his work otherwise, as he apologetically explains afterwards). But even when something very gruesome does happen, we laugh. The Nazi wife dies in an air-raid and Ditie finds her decapitated body in the bank garden. But now we realize the meaning of the chapter title when he announces, despite digging up the whole courtyard in search of it, that ‘I never found the head’.

Or sometimes it doesn’t take any grisly-comic violence at all and Hrabal distils an image of pure surrealist innocence, like the floating tailor’s mannequins. The system is that the tailor makes a life-size mannequin for each of his customers, which he then inflates and allows to float up to the ceiling, where it is stored until his next visit. Ditie is enthralled:

All this made me long for a new tuxedo made by that company, and I was determined to buy one as soon as I got my waiter’s papers, so that I and my mannequin could float near the ceiling of a company that was certainly the only one of its kind in the world, since no one but a Czech could have come up with an idea like that. After that I often dreamed about how I personally, not my torso, was floating up there by the ceiling of the Pardubice tailoring firm, and sometimes I felt as though I were floating near the ceiling of the Golden City of Prague restaurant.


We leave him in his hut in the forest, baffling the locals with his talk of wanting to be buried on a hilltop so that half of his remains will be washed one way and half another, leaving him swimming in both the Black Sea and the North Seas. He may have served the Emperor of Ethiopia but he becomes an empire unto himself. He has quite possibly learned nothing at all from his experiences. He likes a drink and a bit of skirt, we learn, but we could have guessed that at the start.

Bohumil Hrabal, I salute you. I’d gladly have bought you a drink and allowed you to sell me the film rights to one of your books on a beer mat. I would have made the film too, needless to say.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Yellowhammer, River Hull, or, Sebald and I

‘At that twilit there were no passers-by to be seen...’, ‘Nowhere, however, was a single human being to be seen...’, ‘There was not a soul about, of whom one might have asked the way...’, ‘There were no visitors about on that leaden-grey day...’, ‘If I now think back to that desolate place, I do not see a single human being...’, ‘Slouching round the supermarket in search of cheap lager and burgers for a barbeque I’d planned for later that evening, I pondered the hordes of tracksuit-wearing simpletons among whom I live and made small talk about the rugby league with Sharon on the till before having to remind her about my nectar points...’, ‘Even in the most abandoned spot in the entire region, Shingle Street, which now consists of just one wretched row of humble houses and cottages and where I have never encountered a single human being...’, ‘Never yet, on my many visits, having come along the lane and crossed the little bridge over the moat to go up to the house, have I found anyone about...’

All right, so it doesn’t take an Inspector Maigret to spot my cameo in the above random choice of lines from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Pehaps Sebald had a body-odour problem, news of which would be radioed ahead through his rural Norfolk stomping grounds, causing the countryfolk to scatter to cellars and World War Two bomb-shelters? Whatever the reason, the endless tableaux of deserted seaside villages in his prose become self-parodic very quickly, and I say this as someone who loved the book. So let me also say right away it wasn’t through any choice of preference of mine that a long ramble along the banks of the river Hull yesterday saw me encounter a total of zero other human beings, though for long stretches I was walking opposite the back of a row of houses and then, a short distance off, the mighty temple to consumer spending that is Sutton Asda. No, I tell a lie, there was a teenage boy sitting under a bridge on the other bank from me fishing. We did not exchange greetings. I was also able to confirm, by mobile phone, that Hull City had beaten Bolton Wanderers one-nil with a goal from Algerian new boy Ghilas. You don’t get much of that in Sebald either, do you.

And then as for the people Sebald does meet! ‘At times it seems’, his friend Cornelis de Jong opines, ‘as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar, like the model of the battle of Esztergom created by a confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresia, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy’. Why are they always so wonderfully eccentric?, I wondered aloud as I watched my friend Feardorcha Ó Maolseachlainn put the finishing touches to the 1:100 scale model he was constructing out of cocktail sausage sticks of the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, as it looked that fateful night in 1990 when Dave O’Leary stepped up to take his penalty kick against Romania for the Republic of Ireland, a model my faithful wolfhound Setanta would demolish later that evening after carelessly knocking over and lapping up the entire contents of a 1945 Château Pétrus.

Though I didn’t meet anyone on my walk, I did at least see a yellowhammer, as pictured rather smudgily above. The pictures in Sebald books tend to be indistinct affairs too, do they not. But while I may salivate over much better pictures of birds on flickr, I’m not sure if there’s any point in my investing in an expensive camera. The ratio of several hours’ tramping to one brief moment of flickering yellow smudge in the middle distance seems a truer reflection of the rate of effort versus payoff involved in the whole process.

I wish I could use my yellowhammer as a jumping-off point for a long disquisition on the whale-collecting of the Seigneur of Holderness, the vanishing villages of the East Yorkshire coastline, whether or not Andrew Marvell was gay and whether as William Empson believed he was a lifelong sufferer from the malaria he contracted in the swampy environs of Hull... and maybe I could, should, or will, one day. But for the moment, I can’t make it mean anything other than itself: one yellowhammer by the river, an unremarkable photo thereof, and this by way of my defence of the smudgy, evanescent zones around the edge of the visual field that may lead us into wonderlands of association, conjecture and mystery, or possibly lead us to nothing and nowhere at all.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sam in a Box

Vona Groarke, Spindrift

There’s a queasy moment in Fran Brearton’s fine study, Reading Michael Longley, when Brearton describes the series of verse letters Longley wrote in the 70s, one of which, to Derek Mahon, he published in The New Statesman, and which describes the two poets picking their way through an ‘imaginary Peace Line /Around the burnt-out houses of /The Catholics we scarcely loved’. Cue a letter from Mahon the following week dissociating himself from Longley’s belief that he could speak for Mahon’s attitude towards his Catholic neighbours (and also from the phrase ‘two poetic conservatives’). How marvellous to imagine writing a poem to a contemporary of mine which its dedicatee would then be forced to disown, even partially.

Still on that generation, I remember reading Heather Clark’s The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast, 1962-1972 and, not infrequently, hardly knowing where to look as the subject turned once again to what this contemporary thought of that one, to how this writer had invested so much more than that writer in the idea of a shared group identity but now felt left out, and wondered if so-and-so had thought he was above all that now. If that was in private, that generation also did a fair amount of intra-group reviewing in the opinion-forming public prints of the time. Is that bad? Perhaps, though when I consider the shameless log-rolling indulged in by the young Ginsberg, and then consider the alternative of sitting around waiting for Lionel Trilling to start writing these raves of Kaddish instead, maybe it isn’t so bad after all.

My feeling on poetic generations, though, is that the agreeable business of being able to get drunk together (now and then) aside, it is wrong to start dressing up accidents of collective birth as mass movements. I was most blessed to have several inspiring and very talented writers as my contemporaries. I read them often, with much admiration, and wish them all hatfuls of prizes. But there are no class reunion photos for poetic generations, alas. The only ways are separate ways.

This by way of a circuitous preamble to the question of how to write with any honesty, never mind usefulness, about one’s contemporaries, as prompted by the arrival of Vona Groarke’s Spindrift. I wrote publicly about Vona’s third book, Flight, when it came out, but felt I was being on super-good anti-log-rolling behaviour and maybe sold myself and the book short. So let me get out of the way straight off that her, what, fifth book now since 1994 reminds us (me) again how much VG has been one of the small few making any kind of a difference in poetry from Ireland these days.

VG is a midlander, an inhabitant of what if Ireland were just a little bigger we who’re not from there might be tempted to call the ‘flyover’ counties. (Having once stopped in search of something to eat in Kinnegad I’d be in favour not just of flying over, but tunnelling under, around or right through the goddamn place in future). All that’s missing from many of these Auburnian landscapes, a lot of the time, is a spot of tumbleweed blowing past in the background. So even when the poetic locus is the home (and home is at least three places here, by my count), there’s a sense of camouflage or obliquity, of the home place lurking somewhere it thinks you might overlook, and not feeling the need to shout its grid reference from its inconspicuous rooftop. Consider the ending of ‘The Family Room’:

From here on in
light will be noiseless,
chastened, as if
holding its breath.
Ask any question
of a bolt of smoke;
the scissors will answer
‘Indeed, indeed’.

Consider too the clothes horse of ‘Horses’ that segues from a clothes horse to one of the outdoors kind, and brings the indoors outside and the outdoors back in (and lo, elsewhere there is a poem called ‘Inside Out’):

He bred horses, fenced them in clean lines,
swaddled them in cast-off woollens,
gave them our names,

walked out to stand with them
one Christmas Day; bought back
to the house a voice infused

with inland fields and breath
that flocked above them
like damp flannel, streaming silks.

The tag-line to ‘The Difficult Poem’ proposes a poetry version of Gödel’s theorem: ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it’, but then the problem identified at the end of the poem turns out to be the use of the word ‘froth’ in a sonnet (‘That is all I can remember’). There is a ubiquitous reluctance to fall back on the poetry of first-person insistence, and when some poems do (‘The Difficult Poem’, ‘Cowslips’), they quickly shut down, as though having none of it.

The final title sequence is an audacious piece of writing, in several ways. I’d been rereading Mahon’s’ ‘Light Sequence’ lately and thinking about how far down the road of stripping away his usual stanzaic splendours he is prepared to go (answer: a certain distance but no further). What distinguishes many of these little will-o’-the-wisps of poems is their swerving away from anything resembling not just a punch line, but any manner of hop-step-and-jump towards the little something extra you may be looking for at the end, not to speak of a tuck-in and story before bedtime too. No, they insist, the poem stops here and that’s it, basta. These are poems of rare unadorned self-sufficiency and grace, to the point of being (like spindrift itself) exceedingly hard to make stand still long enough to say something meaningful about, if you’ll pardon the tortuous syntax. And why is this such a big deal for me, in the (usually) very small package of the poems themselves? At random:

The field
is silked
in magenta.
sequins it.


Honeycomb fields.
Low clouds
swarm over them.


Hide and seek
in the windbreak.
I never grew out of it.


The final poem goes like this:

It is all a kind
of love song, really,
and I am only
listening to it,
trying to follow
the words.


I don’t mean to suggest that VG is some manner of superheroine of the oblique, doling out the thin gruel of facticity and no epiphanic garnish on the side. Not at all. There’s plenty here that’s straightforwardly direct, detailed and skilful (as ever). But there is also a quality of closeness-to-the-bone, of an insistence on this, on a this here and only this which manages at the same time to be so much more, that is new, arresting and moving.

I recommend this book.

(Vona Groarke, Spindrift, Gallery Press)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Awful Occasion

How exquisite, to be able to seize by the throat at last the opportunity to say, like Krapp, ‘Thirty-nine today...’, given the anniversary more or less around now of my dropping, thirty-nine years ago, to seize this opportunity by the throat, as I was saying, and shake soundly until dead. Except that the introspective bug has never enjoyed very rich pickings on my vitamin B-deficient blood and I don’t really have anything, anything at all, to say on the subject. In my imagination the subject of my dropping occupies a position not dissimilar to what people like to say about the sixties: what would I know about it/them anyway? I was only there.

I can however oblige with two renderings of Beckett in French on the subject of birth, due to appear in my cobbling together of his Selected Poems 1930-1989, which you can expect to see darkening your local bookshop some time next month.

chaque jour envie
d’être un jour en vie
non certes sans regret
un jour d’être né

each day the desire
one day to be alive
not of course without scorn
for one day having been born

pas davantage
de souvenirs qu’à l’âge
d’avril un jour
d’un jour

no more
memories all told than aged
one day in April
one day old

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


On a Dying Animal


its empty waterbowl
heavier in my hand

than the full

as if

a shadow
alone casts
no shadow

departing to no
goodbye it
can receive
or return

it goes
without saying


Monday, August 10, 2009

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Paull Holme Sands, with Egret

Samuel Beckett, 'An Badhbh'

ag streachaíl a ocrais trí spéir
mo chloiginn blaosc an spéir ’s an chré

á umhlaidh féin do na bacaigh a bheas orthu
tromán na beatha a árdú is siúil leis

iad ina gceap magaidh ag an gcolainn
go n-iompóidh ocras cré agus spéir ina ndramhaíl

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Henri Michaux, Labyrinth

Life the labyrinth, the labyrinth death,
labyrinth without end, says the Master of Ho.

Everything caves in, nothing sets free.
The suicide is reborn to new pain.

The prison opens onto a prison,
one corridor opens on another:

he who thinks he’s unrolling the scroll of life
is unrolling nothing.

Nothing leads anywhere.
The centuries too live underground, says the Master of Ho.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Secret Beach, Flamborough Head

Days of the Brindled Cow/Tell Us a Joke

Always read the footnotes. Or so I was reminded when skimming through Donna Wong’s essay on ‘Literature and the Oral Tradition’ in the Cambridge History of Irish Literature and I came across this:

Modern Irish dictionaries often quote proverbs, and as Tomás Ó Cathasaigh has observed, Father Dinneen’s Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla (1927; 2nd edn Dublin: Irish Texts Society: 1934) ‘is the only dictionary in the world with a folktale in it.’ I hand him laurels for referring me to Dinneen’s marvellous entry for riabhach, which concludes ‘laethanta na riabhche, the days of the brindled cow, .i. March; the legend is that the brindled cow complained at the dawn of April of the harshness of March, whereupon March borrowed a few days from April and these were so wet and stormy that the bó riabhach was drowned, hence March has a day more than April, and the borrowed days are called laethanta na riaibhche’, p. 893.’

This story reminds me of the joke about the surveyor working on the Polish-Russian border after the First World War who meets an old farmer and offers him the chance of deciding which of the two countries he wants to be in. He thinks about it for a while and chooses Poland since, as he says, ‘I don't think I'd be able for the Russian winters’.

And since I’m telling jokes, I wonder if anyone else noticed the story in the Guardian feature on comedy a few days back in which a comedian described reading a children’s book to a bunch of six year olds in the library, one of whom raised his hand and asked ‘Does this get good soon?’ Is it too late to change the title of this blog, to change my name to ‘Does this get good soon?’

And since not everyone reading will have seen Mock the Week last Sunday, here’s another joke, from that show. A bored teenager is sitting in a classroom whacking her malfunctioning calculator against the desk. ‘Linda! Stop that!’, her teacher shouts. ‘How would you like it if I banged you against a desk?’