This appeared a year ago, in PN Review 245 Vol. 45 No. 3, January – February 2019. I’m posting it here now, because, obvs. I don’t know how the future will rearrange itself, but I quite liked the old paradigms.
Half of the restaurant sticks out over the sea: a suspended dining-room with aluminium tables and paper tablecloths and driftwood floorboards flecked and grating with sand. The other diners sit outside on the beach itself, the legs of their chairs in the bright sullen water. Clumps of seaweed and mixed detritus shredding and shifting in the semi-dormant waves. You lean out and look into the weeds and catch the truth of that poem you quite like: Jorie Graham, the one where ‘the minnows, thousands, swirl / themselves, each a minuscule muscle’.
It is dirty, a haphazard careless dirtiness that is not unpleasant, but is simply the result of living in a world of sand and salt, where freshness is a myth and humidity levels hang around eighty percent twelve months of the year. Your clothes feel damp even before you put them on; paperbacks decide to imitate the surrounding Atlantic and twist themselves into waves that after a few days slump saturated back into flatness.
You are here to eat. You eat aliens: deep-fried sea anemones that are sacs of salted jelly; clams that have swung open like Bibles. You tear off and suck the heads of gambas rojas, enjoying the salty brain. Your son throws breadsticks to the fish. You eat cazón, dogfish. The serving plates are passed round until they are empty. You eat chips and fried green peppers, and drink beer from frozen glasses.
Today you don’t really talk to your wife’s family, Óscar and his girlfriend, but when you do, you talk about nothing. This is not the place for political discussion – you are here to eat – but today in particular nothing seems to catch. Conversations start up and fail, and you cover this failure with chips and clams. It’s odd, you are not uncomfortable, but there seems today to be a wall between you and the rest of the world. You feel happier looking at the sea, the little fish ‘making of themselves a / visual current’.
Housman: ‘the sea is a large department; [but] as a subject of poetry is somewhat barren’. But today you understand it, can see why children love the sea, how it works as a first introduction to the world of metaphor. All the straightforward questions and answers: the impermanence of humanity, the sandcastles being sucked away by the rising tide, this vast indifferent colourful object, the same material always rearranged in subtly different combinations. All so obvious and nonetheless true. What will the crabs leave after I drown, you think to yourself. The steel plate from your skull.
This morning, before coming out to the restaurant, you walked through the old town. Manuel lived here when he was younger, and knows how it works, but Herminia, who grew up five hundred metres away, on the avenue, claims always to get lost in its alleys. You yourself feel uncomfortable here: a world made out of backstreets, most of which you think you have never seen before, even as you walk them over again. It’s a fractal city: the closer you look at it, the more detail it reveals. Not to mention the history, the layers upon layers. The oldest continually inhabited city in Europe: you are constantly surprised by Phoenician noses and eyes, Roman faces, Celtic faces, the faces of Al-Andalus. The centre of the garum industry at the time of Augustus: fish guts fermenting and dripping through tight-plaited baskets.
Byron wrote his worst poem here, in a fog of coital longing: ‘born beneath a brighter sun / For love ordained the Spanish maid is, / And who, when fondly, fairly won, / Enchants you like the Girl of Cadiz?’ Who indeed. Slightly better are his descriptions of the place in his letters, although they still give the impression of being written by a bigoted lovesick cartoon wolf, his eyes popping and his tongue unrolling over the table: ‘Cadiz, sweet Cadiz! – it is the first spot in the creation. The beauty of its streets and mansions is only excelled by the loveliness of its inhabitants. For, with all national prejudice, I must confess the women of Cadiz are as far superior to the English women in beauty as the Spaniards are inferior to the English in every quality that dignifies the name of man.’ Or this, from a letter to his mother: ‘Long black hair, dark languishing eyes, clear olive complexions, and forms more graceful in motion than can be conceived by an Englishman used to the drowsy, listless air of his countrywomen, added to the most becoming dress, and, at the same time, the most decent in the world, render a Spanish beauty irresistible.’
Enough wooziness, enough décolletage. It’s a city built out of reclaimed rock from the sea, fossils in every wall you touch. The city fights the sea; the sea fights back: Cádiz is a shifting space. When your older brother came to visit a year or so ago, you walked him past the port to the best ice-cream parlour in town. On the way home, he suddenly stopped, owlishly confused: ‘Wasn’t there a block of flats here when we came by earlier?’ One of the regular seven-storey cruise liners had slipped away, changing the configuration of the labyrinth. But today, for an afternoon at least, you have broken out, and everything is much simpler. You were just here to eat.
When you have eaten, you all walk out of the back door of the restaurant onto a small weedy beach. Your son wants to run into the water; your brother-in-law holds him back and swings him round, both of them laughing and apparently happy. There are some dead dried crabs laid up on a pile of driftwood. ‘I am free to go. / I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.’ Herring gulls. Stray cats. A placard tells you that all stray cats here are captured and neutered before being allowed back into the wild. A blue European flag flies lazily above the restaurant. You are suddenly very tired, and feel very alone.
When I was about eleven, our school art teacher, Mrs Alpha, retired. She was replaced by Mrs Omega (names are obvious lies). When Mrs Alpha had been in charge, we had largely been left to our own devices: after we asked her, she had covered the back wall of the class with paper, and allowed me and David and Patrick to spend what in my memory are days and weeks covering it with little drawings, super-heroes, figures from role-playing games etc. Whadda you want? We were nerds.
Mrs Omega was completely different. Faced with a group of recalcitrant young pre-teens, she decided that the thing to do would be to give us a crash course in technique: she set us drawing homework and made us spend the first few classes sketching. She gave us little objects to work with: the first class with her we all had to sit and look at e.g. shells and pinecones and other natural detritus, and spend five or ten minutes drawing what was in front of us. If I think about it now, I guess that she must have been reading Ruskin, which is a good use of anyone’s time.
Anyhow, we all sat dutifully and drew our shells and pinecones, and Mrs Omega walked around the class telling us we were good, or bad, or indifferent. Except when she got to David’s place, and found that he had drawn his snail shell and then added a cheery snail sticking out of it, exhaust pipes, rocket boosters, movement lines, go-faster stripes, a caption I can’t remember. Her reaction is marked down in my memory (my childhood was very uneventful) as a key example of adult injustice: it was obviously a good drawing, funny, so why was she so cross?
I got older; I went to secondary school; I lost touch with David for reasons I don’t really want to rehearse here (and salient details of which I may have forgotten). And then, middle of last year: Twitter, friend request, and here we are.
And it turns out that David is still on some level drawing go-faster stripes on snails, and sketching super-heroes and figures from role-playing games, except in a more adult (which does not mean more mature), more coherent, much funnier way. His fantasy novel, The Black Hawks, came out last year and I highly recommend it: the old tropes done in new ways. I’m not the right person to review it objectively: it’s clearly excellent, but I kept on seeing flashes of the eleven-year-old I remembered behind the forty-year-old author, which means my reading experience and my enjoyment will have been more particular than is perhaps ideal. But: swords, funny jokes, cowardice, archers, mutes, corpses, cannibals, secret passages … all the good stuff. Look it out; read it; buy it (David’s website tells you how).
Well, I started the year well enough on the blog, I guess. But there was a long period, about six months (if I’m being generous to myself) when my idea of keeping the rhythm going here and posting something every couple of weeks didn’t really work out. But better in 2020! Onwards and upwards! Less meat, more water!
I read 216 books in 2019. This is a slightly skewed number, because I had the great good fortune to be awarded the opportunity to go and write for almost a month at Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, between mid-March and mid-April. My (then) new job was extremely flexible, and let me take the time off, and I spent a wonderful month doing nothing apart from eating and writing and reading. I discovered lots of people I didn’t know about, such as the great American poet Sandra Alcosser, and reread lots of people who were already favourites (Our Mutual Friend, which I hadn’t read since university, was a particularly great rediscovery). However, I filled up (and then lost) my reading diary for the first few months of the year, so I am choosing my five favourite books of 2019 from April onwards. In no particular order, they are:
I am growing more and more interested in Turkmenistan. I have probably forfeited my right ever to visit the country, given my involvement in certain projects connected with human rights issues in the least open and free state in the world (even North Korea has more of a tourist industry). Even so, I am reading whatever I can find about the literature and culture of the country: in particular I am translating the work (well, the work that was published in Russian; my Turkmen is still ‘very rudimentary’, if we’re being polite, and ‘limited to about five or six words and some grammar notes’, if we’re being accurate) of Annasoltan Kekilova, a great poet who was arrested and incarcerated in a mental institution during the Soviet period. But this year I also read the poems of Magtymguly Pyragy, the national poet of Turkmenistan, in a couple of editions. First was a glossy coffee-table book, published in English with introductions from the current president of the country Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and various scholars from the Smithsonian who should probably be a little ashamed of what it is that their desire for academic access has led them to. The translations were awful, as generally happens when they are run the wrong way round (Turkmen scholars translating into what is not their native language), and I couldn’t really see that Magtymguly had anything going for him at all. But then I found Louis Bazin and Pertev Boravav’s versions, and all became clear. It may be because I was reading them in French, where evocation and exaltation and exclamation are all much more usual and welcome in poetry, and it may be down to the genius of the translations (Louis Bazin was a very distinguished Turkologist, and the winner of the Prix international Magtymguly-1995, for what that’s worth, and Pertev Boravav was an extremely significant academic in the study of Turkic folklore), but I read this collection and, as the Spanish saying has it, me disfruté como un enano. Magtymguly comes across as a concrete mystic, putting his quest for the divine very firmly in the world of the desert, giving us bats and prophets, camels and visions. He’s very good on the woes of the world: here’s a poem about how things aren’t what they used to be.
On ne sait plus …
J’ai à me plaindre de mon pays et de mon temps!
On ne sait plus ou trouver le bien, le bonté.
Telles sont les cruautés et les violences des tyrans,
Qu’on ne sait plus où sont l’Islam et la Foi.
Plus personne, dans ses entretiens, ne cite le parole de Dieu,
Plus personne, dans une assemblée, ne donnes des sages conseils.
Plus personne ne distingue le licite de l’illicite.
On ne sait plus où sont le profit et le dommage.
Il n’y a plus, dans les masses, ni éducation, ni instruction.
Il n’y a plus, chez les riches, ni générosité, ni charité.
Les femmes ont devenues impudiques, et les filles, effrontées.
On ne sait plus où sont la bienséance et le décence.
Les uns ont l’œil rivé sur les biens de prochain;
Les autres, fanatisés, se chargent le cœur de haine
Et s’entre-tuent sans raison valable.
On ne sait plus où trouver aide et refuge.
Magtymguly! L’âme est un hôte passager, dans la charogne du corps.
Quand tout va bien, on a beaucoup d’amis. Mais quand cela va mal, on n’a même plus de frères.
De nos jours, tout est sens dessus dessous: tête en bas, pieds en haut.
On ne sait plus où est le bien, où est le mal.
It feels somehow comforting to read this, written about 1775, and know that things have always been getting worse. I also love the convention of this kind of poetry that the poet has to address him or herself in the final stanza: it’s something I might steal, to have lots of poems which end up by calling ‘Womack!’ to the heavens.
I can’t ever imagine writing my autobiography: I have too loose a grasp on things that happened to me, and immediacy is something I am not very good at. This probably means that I am overly overawed by people who can recall the details of their childhood as a set of more-or-less connected anecdotes. Regular readers of this blog (Ha. Ha. Ha.) will recall that I fell big-time for Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography last year, and Lord Berners’s First Childhood is more of the same, in some ways, although with less radical London politics and more Proustian reveries in the greenhouses. But he’s a very funny writer, adept at that kind of 1930s (the book came out in 1934) patrician irony, of the need to read between all possible kinds of line. I don’t know if we’ve lost it, or if contemporary versions of this kind of writing don’t seem so funny now and will only find their true audience eighty years down the line. If we are spared. Which we won’t be. Anyway, here’s a taster:
‘I had an impression that Mr Pratt was not very interested in children. When he came to the house my presence seemed to embarrass him and he seemed almost studiously to avoid noticing me. But once, when I rode over to take him a note from my mother, he made himself unexpectedly agreeable. He showed me his collection of jade and his orchid houses, and when I left he presented me with a magnificent cattleya. When I showed the orchid to my mother on my return the gift appeared to cause her an unaccountable irritation. She said it was a ridiculous thing to have given a child. It is possible that the incongruity of the gesture aroused some dim apprehension slumbering at the back of her unsophisticated mind. I was accompanied, when I paid this visit to Mr Pratt, by a rather good-looking groom, and I remembered thinking that, after all, Mr Pratt must be a nice man as he seemed so amiable in his manner to servants.’
You know, that kind of delicate eternal humour that takes nothing and nobody seriously.
And, speaking of humour … I am trying to find out more about the Russian / Polish writer of satirical science fiction known to me as Osip Senkovsky (although the only substantial English-language biography of him, by Louis Pedrotti, identifies him as Józef-Julian Sękowski, which seems fairer, probably, as he was born near Wilno, in 1800). When we ran the Spanish publishing house, we put one of his stories, the great ‘A Scientific Journey to Bear Island’ (‘Ученое путешествие на Медвежий остров’), in an anthology. But since then, rather like the man himself, I’ve become a bit obsessed by his pseudonyms, his own personality, the way in which his whole life mixes in a fascinating way the refined and what was then called ‘brutal’: he’s a pioneering figure in the field of Russian studies of Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, and went himself on one of those traditional European undercover tours to a vague and rather undefined ‘East’, which his studies did their best to redefine and fix. I don’t know what I want to do with my new knowledge: I have my own vague and rather undefined ideas about writing something about Senkovsky and his Jules Verne-esque imagination, and how satire can fade into real life (why I should be thinking about that this year, I have, of course, no idea). Here’s a bit from ‘The Poetic Journey Over the Whole Wide World’ (‘Поэтическое путешествие по белу-свету’) which gives you some idea of his tone, and why I might like him. The translation is by Pedrotti (who I find out died in 2010; it’s a shame to get interested in things just a couple of years too late for you to thank the people who made you interested in them).
‘All great poets play cards. The battle between greed and luck is the poetry of the pocket. I set about playing cards, and I played quickly, so as to produce at least some sort of shock to my soul, which had been stagnating motionless in one and the same rank. And this shock actually took place in it very soon. It happened during a fierce brawl when, in the heat of poetic inspiration, I made fifty thousand rubles off a couple of young and inexperienced Collegiate Registrars who had recently arrived from the countryside with ready money to serve their country.
But after this salutary shock, a really Classical kind of boredom threatened to destroy the embryo of the beautiful passions in my heart and turn it into a wasteland. The Registrars were bent on registering a complaint against me. I’ve never been fond of the damp and gloomy prose of prisons, where the human heart ids put in heavy chains as a precaution against the intrusion of great feelings: where the noblest creation in the world, inactive and humbled, like a mind confined within the iron cage of the three unities, goes begging for the alms of a few ideas and a morsel of glory through rhetoric’s thick grating—and I rode out of Petersburg, leaving my opponents penniless and in the fourteenth rank. But where should I go? I’ll go to Moscow.’
I’m not very aware of comics, not really aware enough to know what the specific taxonomies of their description should be (‘graphic novels’ etc.), but this book, Beautiful Darkness, whatever it is, is good. It’s fantasy (one version I saw had an endorsement from John Crowley, the author of the astonishing Little, Big, which seems a fair pairing), and it’s philosophy, and it’s art, and I don’t really have much to say about it, because I don’t have the words. It’s about a group of little fairies whose life is overturned when the vessel in which they live, a young girl, dies suddenly and alone in the woods. They are forced out of the corpse and have to make their own lives, scavenging and preying on one another. They are portrayed as almost entirely without morals, or else, in the case of the protagonist, with some vestige of moral scruples that might amount to nothing more than saying ‘This isn’t really very nice’. So, there’s murder, and cannibalism, and pixie frocks, and beautiful watercolour depictions of horrible, horrible things. I can’t get it out of my head. Obviously difficult to quote, but here’s an indicative page:
And, deep breath, onwards.
This is published as an ‘experiment’, which seems a bit arch, but you can’t really blame a writer for her publishers. The main body of the book (sixty-odd pages out of 120) is an exercise in (yes, experimental) translation, where Bolland, who knows some German but not much, takes the German text (or rather a computer-generated pdf of the text, with its own mistakes) of Freud’s Über Deckerinnerungen and provides what she calls ‘a psychotic translation without a dictionary’. The results are odd, of course, but also fascinating, and a very clear indication of the truth of certain of Freud’s ideas: the texts swallow back upon themselves, remain constrained in a certain body of vocabulary, and give us a picture of the unconscious mind of the author (or the unconscious mind she wishes to offer us, because knowing about Freud means we are less likely to fall into his traps, and the possibility remains that this is all a very knowing exercise, an experiment carried out on us rather than one we observe). Maybe I’m not explaining myself too well, but here’s a bit that may help you see what it’s on about:
Ein anderer berichtet als erste Kindheitserrinerung eine Epi&ode von einem Spaziergang, auf dem er von einem Baum einen Ast abbrach. Er glaubt noch heute angeben zu kommen, an welchem Ort das vorfiel. E.s waren mehrere Per&Onen •mit dabei, und eine leistete ihm Hille.
A wanderer bereft and thirsty child-hot in-and-under an episode with a space-gang, of them and for them who are born in a star-boat. Her night gleamed hailing angels as cunts, a world orb falling.
“He swears my pens with diamonds, and a lace of hells”.’
I found the selection of favourites quite hard this year: there were lots of other books that, were I in a different mood, might have been in the list. For example, D. Nurkse’s Love in the Last Days, Sandra Simonds’s Atopia, Philip Terry’s Dictator, ‘Liane de Pougy”s My Blue Notebooks, M. Aurel Stein’s Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan, the poetry of Rimbaud, which I hadn’t really paid any attention to before now, too swayed by the judgement of the people at university (twenty years ago!) studying French who called him ‘the dipshit’s dipshit’, Henry Bashford’s Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man … I hope I’ll have as much fun in 2020, although I’m likely to have less time.
So, me and my friend Ana were sitting in my attic flat, the first flat Marian and I lived in when we moved to Spain. Ana was smoking, with occasional pauses not to smoke, but smoking more often than not. We were working on one of John Ash‘s poems, I think ‘Ferns and the Night’. The epigraph comes from Marie Luise Kaschnitz (and another thing I need to thank John Ash for, too late, too late: discovering Kaschnitz to me, roundaboutly): ‘Und wir hörten sie noch von ferne | Trotzig singen im Wald’. I remember suggesting that it was deliberate that ‘ferne‘ should make its way into a poem with ‘Ferns’ in the title.
I found the Kaschnitz poem in the Penguin anthology of Twentieth-Century German Verse (1968), and I like to imagine hopefully that that’s where Ash came across it too: the persona I like to think of him adopting in his work is as someone more comfortable with anthologies than collected works, more obviously broad than deep. Here’s the Kaschnitz quote in context:
Auf dem siebenten Berg war kein Haus
Und mein Bruder sagte, steigt aus.
Da wurden sie alle traurig
Und ließen die Luftballons los,
Und das lieblichste übergab sich
Gerade in seinen Schoß.
Sie gingen eins hierhin, eins dorthin
Die kleinen Fäuste geballt
Und wir hörten sie noch von ferne
Trotzig singen im Wald.
And here is what is always advertised in the Penguin series as the ‘plain prose translation’ of this stanza, the last one of Kaschnitz’s poem ‘Die Kinder dieser Welt’:
On the seventh mountain there was no house and my brother said ‘Out you get’. Then they all grew disconsolate and let go of their balloons, and the sweetest one was sick right on his knee. One went this way, one went that, their tiny fists clenched, and from afar we still heard them singing sulkily in the woods.
You can see, once you fall in love with John Ash, what he might have found enticing in Kaschnitz’s poem: the children, the apparent whimsy, the melancholy, the overlay of what appears to be surrealism but which instead is a complex of gestures embodying a wider emotional accuracy. Here’s the last stanza of ‘Ferns and the Night’:
She finds that her bare feet are wet and that she is looking into a puddle,
Seeing the clouds reflected and her face (the moon also). She calls again
but has forgotten where she is, or whose name she is calling. Her own perhaps?
The wooden house, the lighted porch seem unreachable, –
artfully lit, a glassed-in exhibit in some future museum of the human.
Ferns and the night conceal the child whose laughter distantly reaches her.
This echoes and ebbs around the Kaschnitz epigraph, but is all its own thing as well: the stage-set lives, the sense of looking at the world through slightly alien eyes, the emotion that is not ours, but which maps onto emotions we might feel.
Ana and I worked on this poem for a long time: there were little fish-hooks in it, difficult phrases that we worried at, that worried at us. ‘A series in retrograde inversion’, for example, which I couldn’t explain well enough in Spanish, and which became in the published version the meek and inadequate ‘serie inversa‘.
I think all of the above is nothing more than a set of ways of showing how I never think I’ve really understood how John Ash works. I sit and read him and say to myself ‘How does he do that?’, but there’s never an answer that satisfies me. It comes back to the question of broad versus deep mentioned above: he’s extremely knowledgeable about some things (music above everything else), but generally knowledgeable about most things. He’s carefree, camp, angry, philosophical, sometimes in the same poem, sometimes all at once. I can’t work out how it all adds up.
He’s one of my favourite poets. Thank heavens I don’t have to analyse him. Translating him was hard enough. All I need to do, all anyone needs to do, is say ‘Thank you’.
I went to Ledbury this Friday, to see if I was going to win a prize. I didn’t, of course: the Ledbury Forte Prize for Second Collections was won by AK Blakemore, whose book Fondue is very good indeed. However, all the shortlisted poets got (as well as a free night in beautiful Herefordshire town, and some food, and their travel expenses generously covered) a little gewgaw, a hand-decorated ceramic spoon, so I think I ended up ahead of the game. I will use it to eat caviar, if I ever get the chance: it’s that kind of an object.
The prize-reading was … it’s difficult, there’s a vocabulary of these things that is fairly basic, and not particularly informative. It was enjoyable, yes, more than a lot of other readings I have been to, but more than that it was a chance to hear people read whom I hadn’t heard read before, and see them do different things, and think a little bit about the mechanics of poetry readings, the kinds of poets who read and how they read.
A few categories, not all of which (obviously) were on display last night: the people who think of their poems as shapes on the page, and who emphasise the form of what they have written; the people who think of poems as essentially information, and who read them as stories rather than end-stopped objects; the people who want to engage with the audience; the slapstick buffs; the ones who signal jokes; the ones, alas, who laugh at their own jokes; the people who explain too much or too little; the ones who use props; the ones who think their poems are delicate; the ones who know their poems are robust; the people who whisper; the people who shout; the bored professionals; the failed stand-up comics; the proud fathers and the kings for a day; the lost, the wretched, the foul-breathed and the socially inept.
I did notice, and enjoy, the difference between various types of reading and reader. The reading I liked the most was David Tait’s, I think: he skewed towards the ‘telling a story’ end of the spectrum, and I was very keen on his tone of voice. On one level, tone of course comes from the poem itself, but good readers can play their tone against the tone of the poem, and use their voice to support or balance out their words. Here (via Kim Moore’s blog) is a poem that he didn’t read, but which I like a lot, from his first collection Self-Portrait With The Happiness.
I was in Oxford over the weekend, at the Guided Retreat for my Creative Writing MSt students. This is the last time I see them before they have to submit their end-of-year projects, so quite a lot of my time was spent (with my second-year students) nodding and saying, ‘Well, this is nearly done, good job,’ and (with my first-year students) shaking my head and saying, ‘Burn it all, burn it to the ground’. Tough love, you see. Made me the man I am today.
But, on the Sunday evening, I had nothing to do, and so I went to the cinema. Which is what you do when you have nothing to do, and need to fill your head with someone else’s ideas of what might constitute a good time.
I went to the Ultimate Picture Palace, which I haven’t been to for years. I went on my first official date with my wife there, to see Annie Hall, which I saw again recently and which (lordy, lordy, lordy) the years and the world really haven’t been kind to. But that’s another story (‘We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones‘).
The film I saw was Pájaros de verano, a Colombian movie released in the UK as Birds of Passage. It’s about the drug trade in Colombia, told via the experiences of indigenous people who get involved in it. It comes across as half something out of Werner Herzog, an anthropological treatise of some kind, mildly exploitative, and half a standard narco-thriller, with all the emotional beats (‘you killed my best friend!’; ‘this is family!’; ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in‘) you might expect of the genre. I loved it.