Friday, 31 October 2008


Every poet has to live through their fifteen minutes of obscurity. Fifteen minutes can be a long time in a poem; but then again ... after all unfamous doesn't mean the same thing as infamous.

Thursday, 30 October 2008


We shed tears as the snake its skin: to renew ourselves.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Keats's bright star

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

I'm not sure I'd previously clocked how puzzling this poem is: it is saying 'I want to be like that bright star' and then immediately qualifying with 'not in the sense of being in the sky and watching the world below' but in the rather specific sense of being upon his fair love's ripening breast. In what sense is any star like that? Obviously the main focus here is on the 'steadfast' nature of the star: but isn't it a lovely touch that the poet cannot even be steadfast about the consistent spelling of the word steadfast? ('steadfast' in line 1, 'stedfast' in line 9). To start out by saying: 'I wish I were like that enormously distant cold star up there, which is to say I wish I were warm and close to my lover's bosom' just looks contradictory.

I'm drawn to the rather banal interpretation that, whatever the implication of the opening lines, Keats has in mind a star-shaped necklace round Fanny B.'s neck and resting on her decolletage; or else (to become more fanciful still) that the poem is actually addressed to Fanny B.'s star-shaped nipple. That breast is properly galactic, of course; the Latin for nipple (papilla) is related to the word for butterfly (papilio), that lover's insect, softly fluttering like the woman's breast. Or then again, 'Stella' is the conventional pseudonym by which the masculine poet addresses his female lover. The poem then becomes: I wish I were like that star ... no not that star, the one in the hermitage of the sky ... but that star, that papilla that cleaves so closely to the object of my affections ...'

Tuesday, 28 October 2008


Niklas Luhmann writes with seeming common sense: 'It is not impossible but rather probable that humankind as a life form will someday disappear ... in any case, future societies, if they can continue to exist on the basis of meaningful communication, will live in another world, will be based on other perspectives amd other preferences, and will be amazed at our concerns and our hobbies.' [Observations on Modernity, 75]. Which seems fair enough; although I wonder whether one of Luhmann's central points in this book -- that our concepts of futurity are always contingent on the present society that constructs them -- doesn't unpick this rather. Say the future is radically different to the present. Who's to say that our concept of otherness itself (''...other perspectives amd other preferences...) will survive?

Monday, 27 October 2008


Oh, Prometheus means foresight, does it? But the essence of foresight is seeing what is not directly in front of (L&S define pro: before, in front of) your eyes ... in seeing the hidden recesses of futurity. Prometheus was, shall we say, rather unskilled at that: would he really have stolen that fire if he'd known the pain it would bring him? Or, put it another way: perhaps there's a kind of truth in the way posterity has given us episode one of Aeschylus's Prometheus Trilogy ('Bound') but taken away from our sight episodes two and three ('Unbound', 'Firegiver') ... as if the drama itself says 'I show you what is directly in front of your eyes; but I shall hide the future from you. That is the nature of my representation of "foresight".' In other words, what we take to be 'foresight' in ourselves is almost always the opposite: the things directly before, in front of (pro) our sight obscures what is to come. Anne Carson's 'Twelve-Minute Prometheus (after Aiskhylos)' seems to me to be saying something similar. This is how it ends:

Dolls, this is the end.
Tsunamis of fire engulf the stage, that's it for us.
Most of the audience already off to the bus.
Of course this is a trilogy, but as
plays II and III
are lost, looks like the rest of your
evening is free. [Exeunt omnes in flames]

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Mare nostrum

The middle sea will become the atmosphere, the high sea the space beyond. Our slowly shivering tectonic Earth, and its phlegmy oceans, will become the lower sea.

Clouds and contrails against an Atlas blue.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Sentiment and irony

In his poem 'The Definition of Love', Bernard O'Donoghue suggests love is not what has previously been suggested (not sex, not wishing someone else's welfare), but is rather fingers touching fingers across a linen tablecloth. The last nine lines of the poem are given over to this little narrative:

A young curate of a parish in West Cork
Was told his mother was seriously ill
And he must come home to Boherbue
(In fact she was dead already; they had meant
To soften the blow). He drove recklessly
Through mid-Kerry and crashed to his death
In the beautiful valley of Glenflesk.
This was because he fantasised in vain
About touching her fingers one last time.

Beautifully handled, this: the use of plain language and the plain measure of blank verse, the vocabulary titivated by the expressive use of Irish place names; the way the syllabic count contracts (11, 10, 9; and then again 11, 10, 9) until the punctus is reached at 'death', whereafter the lines are all regularly decasyllabic. It is properly touching poetry. More, its the kind of dramatic irony (as in Greene's Heart of the Matter) that is both surprisingly resonant and surprisingly rare in contemporary literature. Why should this be? I've been thinking about it, and I wonder if my first reaction -- that it is too sentimental for modern tastes (although 'sensibility' is not a criterion of aesthetic dispraise, in my book) -- hasn't got it the wrong way about. What I mean is I wonder now whether the definition of sentimentality isn't, as it is often taken to be, grounded in affective response; whether sentimentality isn't more radically the iteration of a certain sort of dramatic irony.

Friday, 24 October 2008


If is the same as some.

Thursday, 23 October 2008


Neal Ascherson summarises from Barry Cunliffe's Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000, focussing particularly on the role the 'creative imbalances' of 'the diversity of outlooks fostered by variety of landscape' has played in the development of the peninsular. I liked this bit in particular: Cunliffe 'speculates that the earliest shore dwellers had a distinct view of the world, richer than that of forest dwellers. Maritime communities were aware, thanks to tides and moon-phases, of natural rhythms other than the mere progression of seasons, and were intensely concerned with the identity and movement of stars as aids to navigation.'

There's something very appealing about this, although it also (of course) panders to a pretty deep rooted prejudice most people share: we all like to think of ourselves as shore-dwellers; we all feel that tingle in our souls as we walk along the beach. But the modern equivalent of forests are called 'cities', and that's where we -- most of us -- mostly feel at home.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Brother, sister

The imbalance in spelling and pronunciation is irritating: brother, sister. Preferable would be either, brother, sisther; or broter, sister. The development of the words (compare: frater, soror) seems caught between convergence and divergence.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Go on

So when you say 'I must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on', so, is it that the last clause, there, modifies the previous one? That you thought you couldn't go on, but that on reflection you've realised you can? Or that when you said 'I can't go on' you actually meant 'I'd rather not go on'? Perhaps the circumstances changed, such that before you couldn't go on, but now you've discovered new reservoirs of strength and have revised your former opinion?

What has this text to do with before and after, with revision, with going on. Going on is the point where it stops

Monday, 20 October 2008


A spondee-shaped scratch on the back of the finger, like a stitch in the skin.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Hook of love

Because of what I know about fishing I expect the hook in my cheek, a spiny gobstobber, hauling the right side of my face out of triue like matter tugged into the supermassive sinkdrain of a huge star. But the hook of love can attach itself to any portion of the body; it need not distort the face. More usually it catches in the ribs, like a badly handled bayonet; or pulls the cock long like raw pasta being strung; or wounds the gut.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Dalí's clock

See, if the fascia and the hands distort at the same rate, then there is no reason why this clock can't be perfectly accurate and useful as a timepiece. Gravity bends time equally for both members of this two-man-crew in the spaceship orbiting the black hole.

Friday, 17 October 2008


A slice of griffin, cut from the muscular thigh, or breast
Diced, seared, stewed in chillies
With stock, tomatoes, red peppers (of course these must be red)
Let the griffin meat be gamey; cook on a high heat
Let time and intensity soften the fibres of the meat.

Thursday, 16 October 2008


As Cicero says, our first transgression is leaving the womb; for the word transgression is formed from trans ('across') and grossus ('the pregnant female body; the thickened torso of an expectant mother').

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


Fish shiver in the sunlight in the cold stream.

Tadpoles cluster like whole notes escaped from the staves.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


The sky blushes at the intimacy of the sun's caress.

Monday, 13 October 2008


Over the railway bridge: the sun shining on the metal rails. The line diverges here, and the raised shiny bars and lines of the points look like a woodblock lying on its back, ready to be inked, turned and printed.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Atmospheric Feeling

Freud, referring to his Christian friend Oskar Pfister, talked about what he called 'the oceanic feeling'; 'a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded--as it were, oceanic ... one may rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone' [Civilisation and its Discontents, 251-2]. He adds, perhaps mournfully, 'I cannot discover this "oceanic" feeling in myself.' John Schad (whose Queer Fish quotes this passage) thinks that there is something fishy about Freud for all that: his first scientific work was studying the nervous system of fish, 'and' (says Schad) 'in a sense he never stops studying nervous fish. For, as Freud reminds us, we are all fish of a kind.' [Schad, 71].

But surely a fish is the entity least well-placed to experience an oceanic feeling? If the ocean is your entire idiom, then the oceanic feeling is simply the feeling, and as a feeling parses the ordinary in a way incompatible with the transcendent apprehension Freud is yearning for. For a fish, the equivalent would surely be 'the atmospheric feeling' ...

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Snow poem

The cloud shook itself out in the air
a sheet immeasurably slowly shaken

and interference pattern of light and silver.
Then it stopped snowing, and the layer was

landscape dry as a lonely heart,
crisp like an aired and ironed sheet,

with only one person's shadow upon it like a
stain of ink seeping through cotton.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Eating France

I can't remember precisely when, but I was young: less than ten years old, I think. I was old enough to know that being on holiday in France with my family was estranging, because we were in a foreign country. It was a question, to me, of somehow fixing that fact, registering its strangeness, and preventing it from slipping away when I returned home. So, on the beach, and with an inchoate sense of the necessity for secrecy, I ate a little of France: unpalatable grains of beach (and the next day a little dirt from the campsite). If a man who eats a human leg is as much a cannibal as a man who eats the whole human, then I have begun the process of devouring France. It is inside me.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Embrace poem

I dock my mouth to hers.
Our hands zip fingers.
Our bodies press together

The wood pressed hard against its stock
The sheet held motionless between us,
A perfectly inked page of text.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008


Do we assume that caterwauling is a sort of calling?
A sound like cats a-wailing, as etymologists say?
A clattering? A wet tarpaulin of expressive misery?
The mistake is in thinking that pain finds voice
In onompatopoeia, or rhyme, or association.
Pain has no association but itself; it dissolves all rhymes.
It is the solitary and single thing, and when we voice it
The last thing we resemble is an incommoded cat.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


Bob-cut brunette sitting at the cafe table. One stray strand of hair leaned, line an italicised l, from forehead across cheek and to the corner of her mouth, like a phone mike.

Monday, 6 October 2008


Crocodile is all a mud-encrusted tail that stands
On four newt-legs, and toothed at the fat end:
Mud layered and dried thick, and cracked
In regular tyreform along the flexing back.
Crocodile is snake set hard in bakelite
Pucked and stretched in use and scorched by light.
Crocosnake, crocoslug, crocopile,
A mad cluster of gnomons on the long sundial.

Sunday, 5 October 2008


Ah, how the futuristic bradshaw brightens my day; on this occasion by informing me that the Old English for 'to sneeze' was fnēosan -- a word preferable in every way to the present sibilent-topended term. I shall start a petition to have this splendid, expressive word returned to the common anglophone vocabulary.

It makes me think, though: I can't recall reading about any character from Old English, or Middle English literature who sneezes. I can't remember any sneezes from the Renaissance, but assume there are some (there must be a cold-afflicted miser in some Jonsonian or Middletonian comedy). Who is the first figure in English literature to sneeze, I wonder?

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Future is Red-Shifted

If we move through the medium of time, then from our perspective the past will be blue-shifted and the future red-shifted. If we are stationary and time moves around us the effect will be the same.

Friday, 3 October 2008


Two ways: we move ourselves around (the old way); or we are moved around by others: the aristocrat carried in a sedan-chair, the rich man chauffered in his car. In this sense planes, trains and buses are the aristocratisation of the proletariate.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Alien

The Alien, having monitored a great quantity of earth televisual transmissions, had seen more nature documentaries than he could easily recall. Accordingly he had come to the conclusion that the main occupation of humanity was watchmen of wildlife--observing and monitoring the other forms of life on his planet. Wildlife just weren't interested in humanity the way humanity were interested in wildlife. In fact, unless man were about to provide food or posed a threat, wildlife wasn't interested in man at all. This seemed to the Alien to be the proper position. By comparison mankind's obsessive monitoring of wildlife seemed to the Alien creepy, a little unhinged, the actions of a communal stalker.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Train journey

I've long preferred to sit in the rear-facing seats in trains. I started doing this, I think, from a sense that it was safer in case of sudden deceleration or crash. But now that I come to think of it I'd say that it is because it is simply more joyful to watch the world scroll past you and away, swept backwards and disposed of in your view, than it is to watch it continually piling itself desperately upon yuou. This is how we move through time, after all: we see where we have been, we don't see where we are going.