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Tuesday, September 29, 2009


A Zen puzzler for you. In addition to the Clark and Price titles noted two posts down, Carcanet have brought out A Century of Poetry Review, a celebratory volume edited by current editor Fiona Sampson. As is well known, Poetry Review has known its share of spin-cycle lurchings now in this direction, now in that, dawdling along for thirty-five years (until 1947) under the shamelessly middlebrow Galloway Kyle, then cutting up rough in the much-mythologized lustrum of Eric Mottram’s tenure, from 1972 to 1977, and so on and so on. But my point is this. Adverting to the self-imposed exile from ‘page poetry’ of a second generation of performance poets, heirs to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zepheniah, Sampson comments: ‘While the Review records this shift too, it must often do so by omissions and silences.’ In what sense can we record something ‘by omissions and silences’? Examples, anyone?

Apologies for all the typos in this morning’s posts, by the way. Now fixed.

'As One Would Turn to Nod Good-Bye to La Rochefoucauld...'

Reading Peter Robinson’s book on the train to Reading, I found myself scribbling the following paltry attempts at aphorisms of my own:

No I’m not in the mood, I might snap, woken from a light sleep. And I was having such a nice dream about having sex with you too!

A memory of one small thing, at least, that seemed to give her pleasure: ‘So X is your girlfriend?’, an Irish writer once asked, to which I countered, ‘No, I’m her boyfriend.’

I need to see you again, one last time. But then again perhaps I’d rather not, since if I was being truthful I wouldn’t need to see you again after that, which would be a shame, or I’d decide I needed to see you another last time, which would be just embarrassing. If only we’d stayed together, I tell myself, then I wouldn’t need to see you at all!

To the Paparazzi of the Soul

I was wondering aloud the other week about the fine line being negotiated between apparent and actual inconsequentiality in the closing sequence of Vona Groarke’s Spindrift. Perhaps inconsequentiality is the wrong word, more a principled abstention from ornamentation and a no logo rebuff to personality as poetic product-placement.

Thomas A. Clark’s The Hundred Thousand Places falls into much the same category. It is a book-length sequence devoted to the landscape of the Scottish east coast around Pittenweem, entirely innocent of punctuation and painting in primary elemental colours of time and space:

once again
for the first time


a sea mist closing
every distance
cliffs falling away
from the edge of a world
only half accomplished

feel your way out
into what might
wave or rock
take form


you are not sure

there where you hover
over yourself
stay there

Lapwings call to the poet to confuse him. When he departs ‘brightness /takes your place’. All is throughther, in Hopkins’ word, meshing and merging into something else: ‘What you see /you will become’. Steven Gerrard (cracker of a goal against Hull City at the weekend, eh) once expressed his dissatisfaction with a poor performance by saying ‘We’re a long way from where we are’, an insight whose philosophical depths pay off here when Clark stumbles on the ‘continual revelation’ that ‘you are not where you are’.

This is rewarding work, and without being in the least obscure or knotted nevertheless seems to me as far from the guileful, irony-laced colloquial register of Armitage or Duffy as any amount of Keston Sutherland. Consequences of this? Are these poems small standing stones in a Scottish field, best left where they are, or are there legs in this style, for its readers? Suggestions, please.

By the same post comes Richard Price’s Rays, which makes three collections in four years now after Lucky Day and Greenfields in 2005 and 07. I’m pleased to see Price’s work from Lute Variations (Rack) and Earliest Spring Yet (Landfill) collected here, but the alphabet poems of ‘little but often’ are something else again, with their tickling rhymes and abecedary zest:

absolute beginner,
a little shy

asked directions –
so did I


blame the books, blame the bees

blame the feathered creatures, the boyish features,
the emblem on the tree –

blame me


course you can,
daily and late at night –

any time and many the time
is perfectly alright


These are fantastic poems of love and desire. Is Richard Price the best Scottish poet of recent years? I should think so.

It’s very easy, reading aphorisms, to imagine all that genre’s historical practitioners sitting round the same table arguing. In which case someone has just made room for Peter Robinson, whose Spirits of the Stair (Shearsman) is an agreeable addition to company. Ah, the structural grammar of the aphorism. The truth-is-in-the-exactly-opposite-place-from-where-you-think-it-is aphorism:

‘One way to avoid ending up like your parents is consciously to imitate them.’

The semi-colon d’adieu, dispatching a sentence as briskly as an over-attentive waiter being waved away:

‘Good poems resolve emotions; bad ones provoke them.’

The fiat veritas definition:

‘An aphorism is a well-used dishcloth waiting to be wrung out.’

Much wistfulness on the subject of pobiz:

‘Self-promoting authors must be volunteering to become canon-fodder.’

Homeopathic doses of return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime reflections on a previous marriage:

‘Back in Cambridge, years ago, some people would sometimes refer to my then wife and I as an ideal couple. I should have known from their use of that word there was something dreadfully wrong... and not only with us.’

Age-of-Muldoon ‘itself’-construction-sponsored quasi-prose poems:

‘An Italian summer: every postage stamp of beach jam-packed with shame taking a vacation from itself.’

The wan smile, fading, fading:

‘For a dedication: “To the paparazzi of the soul.”’

I recommend these books.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


A ship set out from Valparaiso,
slipping its moorings in the bay
and taking as it went the kingdom
of the sun, the days of glory.

‘Abandon me’, she said, ‘and journey
to a place of clouds and fog,
forsake the blue slopes of the Andes
for a dark and rain-kissed city.’

I was young and off I went,
desperate days, of youth foresworn,
when I still believed no poems
were mine to sing, no yarns to tell.

I took that ship across the sea,
under sails that masked the sun
and threw their shadow on the dark
and high among the paltry stars.

One day I’ll return there though,
and see again that far white city
under the hill by a peaceful sea.
Dear God, I almost still believe it.

This is a reverse translation, I should explain, of a poem that will be familiar to generations of Irish schoolchildren – An t-Athair Pádraig de Brún’s ‘Do Tháinig Long ó Valparaiso’.

And now I’m nipping down the country for a Beckett shindig. Apologies for sparsity of prose posts of late and more on my return.

Oppozble Tumbz Wil Open Buke in... 3, Twelfty, 2, 1 Milyun Yeerz

Monday, September 21, 2009

Oblivia Revisited

Herr Neumann, unable
to find an Aryan bride
these past ten years,

reconciles himself to a helpmeet
of ‘suntanned’ complexion.

‘Deutschland über alles!’
he roars, downing his Bock,

but stares blankly when
I mention schnitzel and bratwurst.

Macaw droppings profane
his only 78,
a Fürtwangler Beethoven Seven.

One day he too
will hear Wagner, he tells me.
Perhaps I might whistle some now?

Parsifal, which is
to say The Pirates of Penzance,
and the cicadas join battle.

My good friend
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald
hauled a steamboat over

a mountain to give
the jungle its opera;
I too will prove myself

a conquistador of the useless.
Amfortas lies wounded.
The realm of Klingsor

awaits me, and Kundry the witch.
‘I am the very model of
a modern major general...’

Herr Neumann wipes
the tears from his eyes.
Ach so!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fête Galante

Isosceles formations of hooligan ballerinas
improvise folderols on the harp to a chorus
of four-letter words. Even the headmistress
sees how well the party is going:

the glasses smashed,
a thrilling bocage of divots
where once the croquet lawn
kept itself pinned to the ground.

The tortoise permits himself to be fondled,
shyly at first, but make no mistake.
Did I (retching noise) put what
in the lemonade? I certainly did.

Looking glass because but for, rabbit hole
because fastest way between here and there,
Mme Verlaine’s heels in the air because
if only, which is to say not tonight, not ever.

The little fat girl with terrible skin gets sick
in her hand and opening it releases
a butterfly that flops back to earth
and touching it sticks to and drowns in the puke.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Swimming Pool at Night

Until morning, I thought, there is no water.
There is water. There are spiders
and sticking plasters, the flaked skin

of verrucas shed and to come,
and the chlorine haze of a light-sleeping
swimmer turning over miles away

in search of the perfect stroke,
of the far window of blue over midnight’s
last, gulped deep breath

bubbling slowly towards dawn.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Justin the Great

Promising young Irish poet Justin Quinn has a poem in this week’s New Yorker. Evidently a name to look out for, in future.

The discerning will notice an allusion to the work of Evan Rail.

Self-Referentiality as Dickhead Moment

I was reading Martin Amis’s Money the other week, when I came to the bit when the novel’s repellent protagonist meets a writer called Martin Amis and thought: this novel has just reached its dickhead tipping-point. This is not Pirandello, this is not Flann O’Brien, I’m not finding the satire funny anyway. This is a dickhead moment.

I mention this because of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, if it is a novel, Summertime, which investigates the life and writings of a deceased South African writer called Coetzee, complete with awkward interviews with old girlfriends remembering what a priggish wet blanket and all-round human failure he was. Is it a bluff (i.e., this is a novel, not a memoir, so the real Coetzee is of course nothing like that)? A double-bluff (no he really is like that, and wants to beat his breast about it in public, while simultaneously getting us to admire his courage for doing so)? A triple bluff, if anyone can suggest what that might entail? Coetzee’s last two books, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year, were not good books, by his or anyone else’s standards. His writing slips ever further into the substitution of notes and jottings for anything merely finished, the limp handshake of his perfunctory adjectives snubbing their nouns, while his studiedly ornery protagonists coat themselves ever further in the anti-glamour that now trails Coetzee, or even ‘Coetzee’’s every mention in the press. So while, on the face of it, Coetzee could not be more different from, of all people, Martin Amis, what are the shenanigans of Summertime if not his own version of the self-referential dickhead moment?

Other examples, dickheaded or not. Peter Reading stepping into his 5x5x5x5x5, in square brackets, I don’t consider a dickhead moment. The humour and craziness save it from that.

This guy:

Combine a far-seeing industrialist,
With an Islamic fundamentalist.
With an Italian premier who doesn’t take bribes.
With a pharmaceuticals CEO who loves to spread disease.
Put them on a 916.

And you get Fred Seidel.


Pleading immunity as I do to the Seidelmania currently doing the rounds, I would have to say guilty. Dickhead moment.

Brecht’s ‘Of Poor BB’ (‘I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests...’)? Not guilty, obviously. The poor is far too moving and human for that.

Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock? Roth’s heroes have such a gift for being dickheads, anyway, that maybe his taking of it to the exponential level in this novel has the saving grace of reducing the whole project to a glorious fiasco. An open verdict, then.

So it doesn’t seem to be self-referentiality per se that trips the dickhead switch, for me. It’s the particular form of preening, whether exhibitionist or self-disguising (Coetzee seems to me a preening camouflage artist) that makes the difference. Could this be this my much-repressed inner puritan rising to the surface? Man the harpoons.

Leave your own examples of self-referentiality that are or aren’t dickhead moments in the comments, if you want, with or without explanations, also if you want. Or not, if you don’t.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009


against the lucifer strike
of a kingfisher’s
like any other
gold and blue

for one moment
remarkable thing
a grey reedpit
in dull rain
came into view


Spotted today, in Far Ings, south bank of the Humber. My first kingfisher since Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, County Wicklow, maybe five years ago now.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Accommodation Theory

‘Weugheughtleh.’ That’s either the sound of me revisiting the ten pints of Schlenkerla and the curry I had afterwards last night or, just maybe, the sound of me booking a taxi on the phone, which needless to say I do every time I wish to leave the house. I do not speak like this, let me rush to insist, but if there’s one thing I get weary of living in England it’s people not being able to follow my accent. And where my name is concerned, all the vowels and consonants are different in Yorkshire from their Hiberno-English equivalents (another example: the word ‘hurt’ in a Hull accent comes out as ‘eh-UH-eh’: you see what I’m up against here). So I resort to what linguists call accommodation theory. But only when giving my name on the phone. Let them lump it the rest of the time, say I.

This by way of a preamble to a strange cultural version of the same thing I found in an essay of John Millington Synge’s I wasn’t previously aware of, ‘An Autumn Night in the Hills’, available in Nicholas Grene’s edition of his Travelling Ireland: Essays 1898-1908, most handsomely produced by Lilliput Press. Parts of the landscape with a weakness for eating dogs are always a nuisance, but I was thrilled to learn that Lough Nahanagan in Co. Wicklow, whose name means ‘lake of the monsters’ in Irish, has just such a proclivity. As the young girl in Synge’s essay describes it: ‘There do be queer things them nights out on the mountains and in the lakes among them. I was reared beyond in the valley where the mines used to be, in the valley of the Lough Nahanagan, and it’s many a queer story I’ve heard of the spirit does be in that lake.’ She then tells the tale of a man whose dog jumps in the water for a swim and ‘before the word was out of his mouth the dog went down out of their sight, and the inside out of him came up on the top of the water.’

I assume Wicklow County Council will be opening a dog recycling facility there any day now. But listen to how Synge talks to the women: ‘I’m afraid it’s a lot of trouble I’m giving you (...) and you busy, with no men in the place.’ Come again? Does anyone believe, whatever about the young girl, that Synge himself talked like that? One of the great unspokens in much of his prose is what the country people must really think of him as an interloping Anglo-Irishman, as in the mysterious moment at the start of The Aran Islands when a man in Inishmore harbour claims to recognise him and Synge says nothing (the man is thinking of Synge’s uncle, who had been Church of Ireland rector on the islands, a post that seems to have chiefly involved discharging a shotgun at anyone who strayed into his fishing waters). And while Synge or some proxy for him doesn’t feature in his plays, we are always aware of the author as an eavesdropper figure, as described in his foreword to the Playboy, listening to this alien culture and its servant girls through a crack in the hotel floorboards. But when he starts talking as he does in ‘An Autumn Night in the Hills’ he oversteps the mark and gives the game away. It can’t helping seeming an ‘accommodation’ too far. No wonder the essay was omitted from in In Wicklow and West Kerry in 1912.

Another interesting aspect of the essays, we learn from Grene’s edition, is that while Synge describes himself as meeting his old beggars and wanderers in Aughavannagh, Glenmalure and other evocatively named corners of Co. Wicklow on his own, he was in fact frequently in company with his family. But that would give an entirely different complexion to the encounter, would it not: ‘Old Man of the Hills, sour-faced rent-grabbing old battleaxe, otherwise mother; mother, unwashed indigene yahoo, otherwise Old Man of the Hills’. No John Synge, solitary man of mystery it was, perforce.

Here’s a Wicklow poem of Synge’s to end, and one I never fail to recite to myself as I thrash around in the heather on Djouce, Lugduff or wherever. There’s no accommodating that, let me tell you:

Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.


And by way of a final footnote on whether or not anyone ‘talks like that’, I recently asked a man in Glendalough whether the red deer in the valley ever came into his back garden, to which he replied: ‘Sure amn’t I ate out of it by the bastes!’ But maybe he thought I was a visiting German or Norwegian Celticist and had decided to pull my leg.