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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Poems That Matter

Countering the contemporary distrust of the word, the poststructuralists’ rejection of the possibility of truth and meaning, Heaney reasserts the metaphysics of presence. His poem is informed by belief in a transcendent metaphysical order which is pre-literary, pre-rational, and ultimately mysterious. (Elmer Kennedy-Andrews on Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mycenae Lookout’)

It is striking nonetheless that both ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Keeping Going’ operate through a series of juxtapositions of image clusters extrapolated from a little suite of master images introduced at the outset. If there is a Lowellian influence at work in ‘Keeping Going’, however, it is an influence absorbed so deeply that it issues in a poem that is radically unLowellian in tone and vision. Indeed Heaney’s text is one of only a tiny handful of poems written in the fifty years since the completion of ‘For the Union Dead’ to achieve a comparable weight and authority of utterance, and it does so in a music no less decisively new and distinctive. (Patrick Crotty on Seamus Heaney’s ‘Keeping Going’)

Mere topicality, of course, is a far from adequate explanation of the poem’s long-term influence, however much it might account for media attention in the 1970s. It is not the fact of the poem’s response to the Troubles which renders it so compelling but the manner of it. As with the later sequence, ‘Wreaths’, from 1979, ‘Wounds’ is notable for a deceptive simplicity of style allied with a complex political (in the broadest sense of that term) layering. In a letter to Longley from 1973, Brendan Kennelly describes it as ‘the best poem I know written about the troubles in Belfast.’ ‘The problem with most of the poetry written about your city’, he continues, ‘is that, to put it bluntly, the poems are sectarian and therefore crippled. “Wounds” knows no frontiers and its pity is unconfined.’ (Fran Brearton on Michael Longley’s ‘Wounds’)

Jazz is an endless source of invigorating possibility and Longley’s profound engagement with this “huge” art form marks him out as a poet of the world, a poet of humanity who embodies and embraces paradox and play, order and indeterminacy. Like jazz musicians, the poet is a performer, and the relationship between performer and audience, poet and community is central […] “Words for Jazz Perhaps” not only speaks to the large-scale complexities and wide-reaching extent of Longley’s unique, intricate music but insists upon breathing new life into Irish poetry and broadening the scope of all poetry to ‘accommodate everything’ in this way. (Maria Johnston on Michael Longley’s ‘Words for Jazz Perhaps’)

These from the new issue of Irish University Review, a special on the theme of Poems That Matter 1950-2000 edited by Peter Denman. The other choices are:

Louis de Paor: Seán Ó Ríordáin, ‘Adhlacadh mo Mháthar’
Maurice Harmon: Austin Clarke, ‘Ancient Lights’
Moya Cannon: Patrick Kavanagh, ‘The Hospital’
John McAuliffe: Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Epic’
DW: Derek Mahon, ‘The Forger’
Gerald Dawe: Padraic Fiacc, ‘By the Black Stream’
Bernard O’Donoghue: Richard Murphy, ‘Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie
Brian Donnelly: Seamus Heaney, ‘The Digging Skeleton After Baudelaire
Lucy Collins: Derek Mahon, ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’
Neil Corcoran: Paul Muldoon, ‘Our Lady of Ardboe’
Christina Hunt Mahony: Paul Durcan, ‘Going Home to Mayo, Winter 1949’
Frank Sewell: Gabriel Rosenstock, ‘Mussolini ag dul ar Neamh’
Catriona Clutterbuck: Eavan Boland, ‘Mise Eire’
Borbála Faragó: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ‘The Informant’
Máire Ní Annracháin: Biddy Jenkinson, ‘Gleann Maoiliúra’
Moynagh Sullivan: Medbh McGuckian, ‘On Her Second Birthday’
Paul Durcan: Michael Hartnett, ‘He’ll to the Moors’
Patricia Coughlan: Thomas Kinsella, ‘High Tide: Amagansett’

Much to chew on here, from the memoir style of Neil Corcoran’s piece, with its antenna-twitch of sensitivity to the Heaneyesque intertexts in ‘Our Lady of Ardboe’, to the suasive density of Patrick Crotty on Heaney (with a side-order of MacDiarmid intertexts), the unblushing bardic mantras of Elmer Kennedy-Andrews on the same author, the fascinating inflections of poetic dinnseanchas offered by Máire Ní Annracháin in Biddy Jenkinson’s ‘Gleann Maoiliúra’ (and that’s Lugnaquilla in Glenmalure up above), to the as-ever-richly-suggestive Maria Johnston on jazz in Michael Longley. All yours for €12.

And for the record, the sentence by me at the end of the first paragraph on page 220 should read ‘Modernism in Mahon is more a rumour than a presence, ritually acknowledged rather than acted on’ (scratch the plethoric ‘rather’ printed – aagh! – after ‘rumour’, in other words.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Dreariest Places

It is almost ten years now since I moved to the shipping forecast area-in-waiting that is East Yorkshire, once those rising sea-levels do the decent thing and bury my house at sea. ‘These old P.M.s are gruesome, but I often find them –’, as Krapp confesses to his tape recorder (the joys of aposiopesis), and while I’m rarely, I hope, reduced to drawing water from the fetid lagoon of my day-to-day life for material here, it might seem prissy and affected to avoid the subject altogether. So then: all in all a fairly uneventful-to-comatose ten years of my life, Teflon years, leaving no trace, but bearing the small gift of my previous investment in Ireland and the home place, all my belief in it as my natural centre of gravity, having drained away to nothing, to be replaced by also nothing, since here is hardly home, whatever home means. Here is just a place, like any other, to live, for some reason, whatever reason. And yet there are things to be said for the condition of non-attachment, if that is what I have come to inhabit. I am walking by the Humber just past the non-event of an estuary village that is Paull and thinking of one my very favourite poems John Clare’s ‘To the Snipe’:

Lover of swamps,
The quagmire overgrown
With hassock-tufts of sedge — where fear encamps
Around thy home alone

The trembling grass
Quakes from the human foot
Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass
Where he alone and mute

Sittest at rest
In safety ’neath the clump
Of huge flag-forest that thy haunts invest
Or some old sallow stump

Thriving on seams
That tiny islands swell.
Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams
Suiting thy nature well -

For here thy bill,
Suited by wisdom good
Of rude unseemly length, doth delve and drill
The gelid mass for food,

And here, mayhap,
When summer suns hath dressed
The moor’s rude, desolate and spongy lap,
May hide thy mystic nest -

Mystic indeed,
For isles that ocean make
Are scarcely more secure for birds to build
Than this flag-hidden lake.

Mystic, eh? Speaking here the other week, Hilary Mantel discussed her novel Beyond Black and its psychic protagonist. Pointing out the similarity, on one level, between psychics and writers (both hear voices, both make the dead speak), she insisted that the authenticity or otherwise of her medium, Alison Hart, was not the principal issue in the book and... at that point the discussion veered off in a different direction, though not without the residue of unease it left adding to the sedimentary drift I’m collecting here. Psychics and writers are indeed alike, with the one simple distinction that psychics are nauseating frauds (cue reprise of the Dara O Briain routine about ‘bogus psychics’, as though the bogus ones were going around giving the genuine one a bad name, as if all psychics are not total frauds). But walking by the river and contemplating the array of waders in the shallows (dunlin, redshank, godwit, curlew, egrets, but no snipe that I could see), I thought yet again of my desire to – what? discover and inhabit, me too, their mystic nests? channel these creatures’ voices, speaking, like Yeats’s Cuchulain, no longer with his own voice but the voice of the birds? What am I doing if not taking advantage of their inability to answer back, to peg my precious non-attachment to these innocent birds of passage? Even as we (I) scrape the mange of ego off our (my) attempts at writing with the rusty spoon of self-mortification (Humphrey Lyttelton homage there, I think), does a deeper temptation not hove (hove!) into view, of self-extinction as a proxy for a deeper and even more pernicious form of egotism and vanity? At which point we succumb to Becket’s final temptation, in Murder in the Cathedral, of doing the right thing but for the wrong reason, and I may as well have saved myself the bother of buying those boots and binoculars and stayed down the pub.

My walks also remind me of Tim Robinson’s stopping to wonder, somewhere, about the status of the respect he accords the holy wells and tales of saints and fairies he has collected on Aran and in Connemara given his own frank avowal of atheist materialism. In what sense ‘mystic’ nest, then, I ask myself, mysticism minus religion equalling what? Emptiness, I suppose, for a start, the romance of the void, and (there is no) God knows, I’ve spent enough time wallowing in that. Reading Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with some students the other week I drew attention to the self-parodic eternal emptiness of his landscapes, which we agreed, my students and I, formed an ideal correlative to his melancholy shouldering of the tragedies of history. But just around the corner from your empty restaurant in East Anglia, Sebald, I expostulated, there is a pub! with people! serving refreshing and intoxicating beverages! Here’s a couple of blokes called Terry and Geoff talking about today’s football and what a tosser Gordon Brown is. Now snap out of it and buy me a drink. So what do I believe in, and what am I doing with those small brown birds, I ask yet again? The short answer is nothing, given my rejection of any and all forms of religious belief, but the longer answer involves the point at which the empty landscape, the condition of non-attachment, the attempt to channel my birds, would appear to come up short against the language of mysticism. And where I part company with Sebald and his lovingly cultivated melancholia is my concern, at all costs, not to dress up the mere emptiness and dreariness of life into a form of mystique, but to snap back out of it into the deeper desolation of banal reality. There is indeed a pub around the corner full of brash and amiable drinkers talking about football. It is no betrayal of your terrible vocation of seriousness to go there. If anything, going there will remind you that it’s not all about you or even all about not-you, come to that, it’s about the work itself and how, oddball loner or bloke down the pub, it’s all the same to the work since nothing else matters but that, the work. I am entering a defence, in other words, of the dreary, the non-eventful, the aching tedium of it all, as entirely preferable things to the alternatives waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum I’m describing here, out in that wintry emptiness and dark. A real hell, or purgatory, or limbo, really is preferable to an imaginary paradise. The snipe in the reeds is not singing for you. The river spirit does not require your devotions. Writing is not religion or mysticism by proxy. Do not dress your quivering awareness of your insignificance up as some secular epiphany of the sacred-lite. Nothing is sacred. There is no spirit. There is, however, snow falling on the disused mill and the swing bridge I passed walking to the pub last night, where the landlady kindly brought me a plate of roast chestnuts, for which many thanks, again. There is a small brown bird in the reeds:

In these thy haunts
I’ve gleaned habitual love;
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above.

Thy solitudes
The unbounded heaven esteems
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams.

I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot,
Giving to all that creep or walk or fly
A calm and cordial lot.

Thine teaches me
Right feelings to employ:
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lord William Percy, Three Studies in Bird Character

(Typos now fixed)

As one of the 7th Duke of Northumberland’s thirteen children, Lord William Percy (1882-1963) may have had more free time on his hands than most to devote to the study of waders. The account of his findings, published in 1951, is a wonderful small classic of a book, Three Studies in Bird Character: Bitterns, Herons and Water Rail, abounding in bittern lore. Sir Thomas Browne kept a bittern in his study in an attempt to discover of its mysterious boom. Our author weighs in:

Whatever may be the mechanism by which the booming bittern produces these notes, they have certainly not struck the human ear with associations of the season of the resurrection of life and hope, for allusion to the bird and its voice in ancient literature is uniformly that of a symbol of desolation and woe. As the prophet announces the doom of Babylon, ‘I will also make it a possession for the bittern and pools of water. I will sweep it with the besom of destruction saith the Lord of Hosts’ (Isaiah xiv.23), so the inhabitants of Nineveh are warned that ‘the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows, desolation shall be in the thresholds’ (Zeph. ii.14).

[A footnote adds:] The Revised Version in substituting ‘porcupine’ for bittern mars the rhythm of the passage and seems to convert a paradise for bitterns into a purgatory for porcupines. [Foonote ends.]

If as the age of superstition recedes the implication becomes less harsh, Chaucer’s ‘As a bitore bombleth in the myre’ still retains the ring of melancholy, and it is not till the Middle Ages that references to the bird in the ballads and folklore of our forefathers have lost their former sinister connotation. From then on the bird becomes a cherished object of the chase – ‘euery egge of euery Bittour’ rigorously protected by such laws as Act 25 Henry VIII, XI, 25 – and a favoured delicacy on their tables.


The reference to eating bitterns may explain another folk name for the bird, the butterbump, though the good Lord forbears from offering any recipes. The birds’ melancholy aspect no doubt accounts for their presence (‘the bogey bittern’) in Fungus the Bogeyman, that most fennish of books, as I was reminded by a commenter the other day. ‘Like Surface Bitterns, and like Bogeymen themselves, they are SOLITARY, SKULKING and CREPUSCULAR.’

Our twitcher Lord follows his three species for an entire season, spending what must have been hours a day deep in the reeds stalking the birds, and giving instructions not just for how to approach a bittern but even how to pick one up:

If you think it worth while to assure yourself that the thing can be done, you may wait till the booming starts again, rise silently to your feet, and dash across the intervening space to find Botaurus half defiant, half cringing, at your feet. At the cost perhaps of a blood-stained knuckle from a stab from his bill, which is neither as vicious nor as powerful as it reputed to be, and is in any case no more than you deserve, you may pick him up, for in such circumstances his physical or emotional condition seems to rob him of the power of pulling himself together for sudden flight. Tossed into the air from your hand he will wing away heavily to the other end of the reedbed, or, loosed on the ground, slink off hunch-backed into the reeds.


The book contains no fewer than 80 quizically-captioned plates: ‘A heron descending through the branches of a tree resembles a man walking on a slippery road in imminent danger of losing his balance’, ‘The impasse reached in plate 51 [two bittern chicks tugging at either end of an eel] is resolved, the parent first abstracting the eel from both her young, re-swallowing it itself, and then suppressing all further contention in spite of their protests’, and, combining evidence of the water rail’s habit of picking its young up in its bill with an unintentional, surely, schoolboy pun (our Lordship is far too high-minded for that), ‘One laggard grabbed by the cock and carried off in his bill.’

I have enjoyed reading this book so much that I more or less resent taking time off from looking at it to have to talk about it here instead. In case anyone is wondering what on earth that owl is doing in the plates I’ve reproduced above, the answer is that it’s stuffed. Lord WP decided to experiment by placing the owl by the bittern’s nest with some dead eels lodged between its claws. ‘With an air of the utmost confidence she strode across the nest, walked straight up the owl, seized the eel from between its claws, and swallowed it.’

When I read Tim Dee’s The Running Sky and looked up copies of John Buxton’s out-of-print study of the redstart, which TD was recommending, I blanched at the prices I found. Copies of Three Studies, by contrast, are available for about a tenner.

I can now almost feel the year has ended on a positive note. But let’s not get carried away here. And yet: Lord William Percy, master naturalist, I salute you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Water Rail

Pursuing my current birdy obsession the other day, I was trawling through amazon in search of books about bitterns, and found a total of one: Lord William Percy’s 1951 study Three Studies in Bird Character: Bitterns, Herons and Rails. Annoyingly, the copy I bought hasn’t turned up yet, but in the mean time I can’t resist reproducing this picture I found here of a water rail, known to John Clare (since I mentioned him the other day) as the ‘water craik’, and a species with the most unusual habit of carrying its young in its beak. What a fine photograph.

'Nothing so dogged as the silent air...'

This I don’t remember doing before, but a comment left by one ‘Look – it has fallen through’ is a striking enough piece of writing, I thought, to deserve posting out here in the open. Thanks, whoever you are.

Nothing so dogged as the silent air
will come. Will come through tears
a running figure, stuck shadow on the bricks
The city’s dark and tastes of smoke, fireworks

may be gunshots and which ricochet
like sirens like neon grinning thru the rain
off wet road and bricks, finish too.
A running figure, still shadow on the roof

dogged against headlight squalls & wind
vanished at dawn. Will come in hours
When dark the streets are cold and taste of junk, takeouts.
breathe suddenly between us the fissuring spoke

Nothing as dogged as the silent air
rush quiet is permanent vanishes too.

Glyn Morrow of York, I Salute You

Glyn Morrow of York, I salute you. Writing to the Guardian’s Notes and Queries page today, in answer to the question ‘Is a dead badger still a badger?’, you rip to pieces the bubble-wrap that has for too long shrouded philosophical discussions of language in its prophylactic of shame. As you write:

A badger was never really a ‘badger’ even when alive, at least not to itself or another badger, for badgers – and iguanas, camels, ants, etc – have no human language; therefore a badger is/was only a ‘badger’ to a human. So a badger, alive or dead, exists (or not) only as a badger in an anthropomorphic universe [...] to insist it is or was a badger, blaireau, or dachs, is to miss the essence of the matter.


Badgers are not in fact badgers, nor are the blue tit and the tree it is sitting in outside my window a blue tit or a tree. They are a blue tit and a tree as so described in an unthinkingly anthropomorphic world whose language has been designed by and for humans without so much as a consultation exercise first with the badgers, blue tits and trees. Wow!

You may have got away this for going on a few millennia now, humanity, but there are going to be some changes round here, buddy, before the badgers are finished with you. You’d better believe it. Ghost of Ludwig Wittgenstein, please copy.

Glyn Morrow, I salute you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Evening 'Out'

I went to a restaurant the other evening and had some ‘dinner’ there. The ‘reason’ I’m doing that thing with the quotation marks is that the menu listed the cheese as ‘English’ and the fish as ‘locally’ sourced, and unless someone has been watching (and slightly misunderstanding) that episode of Friends where Joey slightly misunderstands the quotation marks sign people do with their fingers, I couldn’t work out what the menu was trying to tell me. I wondered, during my token one veggie option main course (which worked out at £2.50 a spoonful of risotto: cue Woody Allen joke about the food here being awful, yes, and the portions are so small too) whether having ‘asked’ for the bill at the end they would accept me ‘paying’ with some of this ‘money’ (jelly beans) I was carrying in my pocket, but coward that I am I merely ‘went home’ fuming silently to myself at the brass neck of abattoir-friendly ‘restaurants’’ idea of torturing not just animals but the English language too in an attempt to ‘impress’ their ‘customers’.

Call for Papers

Speakers for a conference on sleep are invited
from across a range of disciplines
to put us to sleep then nod off
themselves, concentrating furiously.


his shortest poems
his fullest
in the sense
they could not contain
one syllable more


Wing-mirror spider
sitting tight
all motorway long

takes my finger
come journey’s end
cuts loose and moves on

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Pensthorpe Corncrake

A 300-mile round trip in search of, and yes, there it was, the Norfolk corncrake, John Clare’s landrail:

How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain

Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt
We know tis something but it ne’er
Will blab the secret out...

The ones I saw were captive specimens, granted (‘doing bird’ perhaps, as captives), and part of the Pensthorpe Reserve breeding programme which has seen a few dozen birds released into the Nene Washes in the last few years; but still, I was enraptured to see such mythically elusive creatures, beloved of poets from Clare to MacNeice and Conor O’Callaghan. There’s always Leach’s petrel and the stone curlew, I suppose, if I find myself short of a new avian fetish object, but, what a pleasure. And then to visit John Clare’s grave too! Despite his hounding unto death with the label ‘peasant poet’, a quick walk down the road to the hardly-poky cottage he used to live in should dispel any lingering illusions on that score. But, ah, that corncrake.

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy guest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest

In simple holes that birds will rake
When dusting on the ground
They drop their eggs of curious make
Deep blotched and nearly round

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow hay

Curlew, Godwit, Avocets, Lapwing, Egret

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Iceland, or Norway as it was then, in what is now modern Denmark

The sacred festival of Spendgasm is almost upon us again, and with it the need to recycle all my lines about much how I hate it, turkey-murdering arse-end of the year that it is. For me, Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling noted, Christmas was always all about commercialism, but in recent years I see a note of religion creeping in, and I don’t like that. Speaking of the great Sir Arthur, the recent death of his interlocutor on the Twelve Days of Christmas, Ludovic Kennedy, is surely pretext enough for embedding one of those deathless interviews here. ‘Season’s Greeblings.... Iceland, or Norway as it was then, in what is now modern Denmark... Underwear, really, wooden underwear... I do have a smoettering of Loep... I imagine if I were to find myself in fourth-century Lapland I could get by, probably... proebably... Can I tell you my second reason first?’

To hurry along, before my funny fuses, some recommendations for Spendgasm spending based on my own recent servicing of at least two of my senses.

My old mucker Christopher Reid, in between honing the art of stepping onto every passing poetry shortlist with the alacrity of Henry James stepping onto the veranda after a particularly good dinner for a brandy and cigar, has also, I believe, invented a genre: the exaugural lecture, with his new O&G pamphlet A Box of Tricks for Anna Zyx, as its poems ‘were to have been presented by the author at his inaugural lecture as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull’, an occasion that sadly miscarried for reasons of illness, and continues to miscarry for reasons of his no longer being around (though his spirit lingereth). This alphabet counts down from Z to A, passing the ‘ur-letter’ X (‘meaning whatever you want’), an Old English Wen ‘more negligible /than a gnat’s kneecap’, inventing a genre on Q (the ‘Quatrina’), translating from Valéry, Caproni, Rimbaud (what a fine translator Christopher is), and... let me pause on k for ‘Kandy’, with its salute to the Buddha’s tooth:

I can’t say that I saw the Tooth itself,
but I did see the bedizened elephant that carried it –
as important a performer, surely, as Chesterton’s donkey –
and hear the clamour and trumpeting
of the accompanying throng.

Our balcony was high above the road
along with the procession passed like a turbulent river
bearing away an unseen holy relic,
bearing elephants, bearing everything away.

The rising flood-line of Christopher Reid books and pamphlets in recent times from O&G, CB Editions and Areté makes the absence of any larger Selected, never mind Collected, a matter of some national urgency. Do something about this, someone. O&G are contactable at 161 York Way, London N7 9LN.

Flarestack, Smokestack. Smokestack Lightning. Howlin’ Wolf. Cliff Forshaw, the Howlin’ Wolf of Hull poetry, whose Wake has just been published by Flarestack Poets:

You are to wander,
entering and departing strange villages.
Perhaps you will achieve nothing.

Here is Larkin’s poetry of departures, taking off for the Far East but emphatically not wanting to be back for tea, yelling ‘Hello! Moto!’, at motorbike taxis in downtown Saigon and ‘putting the Ho Ho Ho in /Ho Chi Minh City’ while the Vietnamese, it is very much to be hoped, get Spendgasm all wrong in stereotypical ways and string that bastard Santa Claus up on a crucifix where he belongs. Here are Memiadluk and Uckaluk, nineteenth-century stumblers upon Hull from the Davis Straits in Greenland, and look what happened to them. Here is Victoria Pier, site of Peter Didsbury’s ‘At the Pierhead’, and of the mercifully now reopened Minerva. Here are rainsoaked bouquets for those the sea has claimed: ‘bladderwrack, the colostomy /where cellophane traps /what rainwater’s steeped to tea.’ And here is the Cabinet of Curiosities at Burton Constable. List poems can be horribly limp and passive affairs, but not this one:

Rhino horn, coco-de-mer, shark jaws,
tailfins, swordfish, swords, sawfish saws,
quadrants, astrolabes, a huge ‘book camera’,
manuscripts, microscopes, a Concave Mirror
all of Twenty-Four inches in Diameter,
antiquities, dried reptiles, thermometers,
fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, the Claw
of a Great Lobster...

There is more, but that’s your lot for now. Cliff Forshaw is a poet of rooted non-attachments, a nomad of the suburbs and a boulevardier of the wild places. As maps go, Wake is the one that will get you lost, but you’ll thank its author for it, later, or maybe even at the time.

Béla Fleck is and will surely remain the only bluegrass banjo-player to be named after a Hungarian modernist composer, and the third volume of his Tales from the Acoustic Planet series, Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions, is superb. Let me direct you straight away to track five, a virtuoso performance on the thumb piano by Tanzanian musician Anania Nogogia. I couldn’t find any youtube clips of this man, so you’ll have to take it from me when I say he makes a noise not unlike the possible results of Butters from South Park inventing an instrument from a shoe box and a knitting needle and singing as he plays. The man is a phenomenon and needs to be recorded at album-length immediately.

How excellent too to see Mayra Andrade, Cape Verdean chanteuse (and, cough, world’s most attractive living human being) has another album out, Stória, Stória. Cape Verde appears to be principally famous for being the country code where sex chat-lines in the back pages of tabloids eventually redirect you. I believe this is mentioned in a Paul Farley poem. Her music triangulates Africa, Brazil and Europe in a marvellous way. In fact she is so wonderful I will (cough) embed some of her at the bottom here now.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Sun-Fish is also out, but since I’m hoping to write about that elsewhere I will do no more here than point out that the fish in question is not the puffy, swivel-eyed creature, mola mola, you’ll find in tropical waters, but a basking shark. I mention it here because of its Irish name, liamhán na gréine, which sounds suspiciously like Leviathan to me. Could they be related? I also recommend this book.

Aistriuchán suntasach ó ‘Shelter from the Storm’ Dylan in eagrán nua Iris Éigse Éireann, uimhir a nócha naoi. Gabriel Rosenstock an t-aistritheoir:

Saol eile ar fad a bhí ann, sclábhaíocht agus cró
Suáilce ab ea an dorchacht
Is bhí guta ar an ród.
Isteach liom ón bhfiántas
Mar neach a bhí gan fhoirm:
Gabh i leith, ar sí, is tabharfad duit
Bheith istigh ón stoirm.

Má chastar orm aris í
M’fhocal duit ’s mo lámh
Go ndéanfadsa mo dhícheall di
Oíche agus lá
I ndomhan na súl crua marbh
Bíonn teas ar fáil sa choirm:
Gabh i leith, ar sí, is tabharfad duit
Bheith istigh ón stoirm.

I am now so exhausted by inserting all those fadas that there’s only time to mention a long piece on Michael Longley by the always-excellent Maria Johnston, and a typically erudite piece by the most cosmopolitan poet in Ireland, Peter Sirr. Everyone not already doing so should reward these fine editorial efforts with a subscription.

And that’s your Spendgasm sorted out for you. May you choke on your turkey and be given something you already have and never wanted in the first place anyway by the various carbon-based lifeforms who take sufficient pity on you to buy you a gift.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Glimpsed Among Trees

The Case of the Mechanical Turd (Slight Return)

If and when, as can only be a matter of time, a prime-time detective series is commissioned devoted entirely to Aspern Papers-style skulduggery surrounding the literary afterlife of Philip Larkin, and featuring a lovable rogue of a hardbitten Hull gumshoe, the saga of the Mechanical Turd will transfer irresistibly from the page to the screen, I am sure. [...] While the Keyesian intertext [in Larkin’s ‘Poem for Penelope abt. the Mechanical Turd’] acquits our man of the charge of gratuitous abuse of a not-quite student girlfriend, it adds further evidence to the already-swollen dossier of his gratuitous abuse of Sidney Keyes (1922-1943). What’s it all about then?, our TV detective will ask of his bewildered sidekick over a half of mild in the Gardener’s Arms, before bearing down on the Brynmor Jones Library in search of a foxed copy of Eight Oxford Poets and, with any luck, an answer that will have our man Larkin bang to rights.

(‘Larkin and Sidney Keyes, or, The Case of the Mechanical Turd’, continues in current issue of About Larkin...)