Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Life poem

The furious blankness of my life;
The furious blankness of my life.

The eloquent fulness of my life;
The eloquent fulness of my life.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008


SF, that sort based on technological advance, is a marvellous thing, but such advances are all ineluctably functions of wealth. Poverty is immmiscible with them. People are rich, today, in myriad exotic and futuristic ways; but people are poor today as people have always been. They starve, and sicken, and die young. SF is very bad at representing this massive constant of human existence.

Monday, 29 December 2008


To my delight I discover that the word, peptides is from the Greek πεπτίδια which means little snacks. There’s something I never knew before. Means nuts, crisps, olives stuffed with little shards of sundried tomato. Peptides means scoobisnacks

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Wordsworth's Milton

MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Fen is the key, here: or more specifically, the Fens, Cromwell's birthplace. Wordsworth is inflecting his 1802 contemporary world via Commonwealth England, such that each illuminate the other. Coeval with Milton's sublimity is Cromwell's political occlusion, violence and selfishness ('we are selfish men'). Wordsworth begs Milton to raise us up; Cromwell, famously, knew that 'no one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.'

And where is this poem going? It follows a very curious and roundabout trajectory, almost as if denying the implied Milton stream-line straight to the sea it purports to valorize; as if formally mimicking the Cromwellian stagnant fen watersit purports to deprecate. The motion is something like: Milton, I wish you were alive right now. England in 1802 has stagnated. The church, the army and the world of literature ('altar, sword, and pen,) not to mention the domestic arrangements of the better-off ('Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower') have lost their 'ancient English' happiness.

OK. But isn't that a weird quartet? Church, Army, Literary world and Stately Homes. The third term is justified, I suppose, by the fact of Wordsworth and Milton both being poets; but the fourth is not by Wordsworth himself being fairly well-to-do. More, neither the 'Church' nor the New Model Army of Milton (and Cromwell) is hardly in either case the 'ancient English' iteration.
The octet concludes with the confession of selfishness, and the request that Milton give us the altitude of 'manners, virtue, freedom, power': another very odd quartet, a set of values that seems to go out of its way not to map onto the previous set of conceptual locations. But perhaps that mismatch is the point; a subtle dislocation. Because the sestet that follows has nothing to do with the octet, replacing a call for direct action with a rather diffuse peroration to Milton's starriness. 'Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart' articulates muddle: it is unfortunately ambiguous between 'you, Milton, dwelt apart from humanity' ... in which case why call on him, as the octet does, to engage and improve humanity? ... and 'your soul dwelt apart from you, Milton' which would imply schizophrenia. 'Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea' is more interesting, implying as it seems to that Milton lies beyond (a sort of Lacanian Real) the tortuous, fen-blocked river-line of poetry; as a wished for direction. But the last triplet, linked with a wholly illogical 'so', rams a completely other Milton, tramping 'life's common way' and happily stooping to 'the lowliest duties.' It doesn't match the lofty and removed Milton of earlier. Plus, calling a man so eikonoklasteically associated with the regicide 'majestic' just looks clumsy, even crass.

The complex and suggestively dislocated awkwardness here can be mistaken, if you screw up your eyes and don't look too closely, for a simpler, more banal poem: 'Milton was lofty but did not lack the common touch; his poetry, and his model, should inspire the compacent stagnation of contemporary England'. But I don't think that's what's going on in this sonnet. A better way of reading its tangles is to see it as a specific riff upon a specific sonnet of Miltonic starry-uplifting praise:

Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud,
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way has ploughed
And on the neck of crowned fortune proud
Has reared God’s trophies, and his work pursued,
While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester’s laureate wreath. Yet much remains
To conquer still; peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war: new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains:
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.

This is a poem that forces through obstacles (Cromwell ploughing resistless through clouds and detractions); a poem whose stream flows uninterruptedly on, although soaked red with Scottish blood. A poem that knows that the end of war is no reason to stop making war. In the face of such sublimely brutal directness, with its slipstream of human blood and misery, which poet in all conscience would not want to artculate a more circumspect, checked-and-balanced fenny poem?

Saturday, 27 December 2008


It approaches a definition of cynicism to object to Tagore's famous line about Truth coming as conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend. It is, nevertheless, hard to fight the sense that Truth does not come to us at all, either to embrace or to annex; that we have to make our way to the Truth, and the way is harder than many can bear.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Liberty, power

According to Hazlitt, 'The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.' [Political Essays, 1819] There's a truth in this. But of course, the opposite can also be agued: some people may genuinely love liberty primarily in order to disencumber themselves of the oppressive attention of others; and some people may genuinely love power for the good the powerful person can work in the world. In fact, I wonder whether these aren't now the main valences of 'liberty' and 'power' in the post-Romantic age ... perhaps the ideological effort ought to be made to return us to Hazlittian understandings of these two crucial terms.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Grand Old Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens

Listening to this, I was struck that Dave Swarbick actually sings: 'Last night I saw the old moon clear/with the new moon in her hair.' It struck me because the more usual lines are:

'I saw the new moon late yestreen
Wi' the auld moon in her arm;
And if we gang to sea, master,
I fear we'll come to harm.'

This is what Coleridge quotes at the beginning of 'Dejection, an Ode':

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.

That's Coleridge, I think, quoting from memory and 'improving' upon the original; for although there are various versions of the original poem there aren't any, I think, quite a leaden as this. But the question is: were Fairport quoting some alternate original version, or did they just make it up?

But 'the new moon in the old moon's arms': Wikipedia has an entry on the phrase that takes us to the earthshine. It doesn't make sense, though: a new moon is (to quote the Great Infallible again) 'when the Moon is not visible to the naked eye.' To speak of seeing a new moon would be like speaking of seeing an invisible man. But why 'in her hair'? In what sense? Possible meanings: the old English for a February moon is 'wolf moon'. 'Hair' (as the OED points out) is used astronomically of the rays of the sun, of comets' tails etc ('yet shall the aged sun shed forth his hair', Marlowe and Nashe's Dido, 1594). This latter makes more sense to me: moonshine, in the sense of lunar crepuscular rays, are a function of atmospheric interference in observation, and more likely to happen when the air is disturbed, as before a storm. The same cannot be said of earthlight.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


Wisdom from the screenplay of Thin Red Line:
Witt: Do you ever feel lonely?
Welsh: Only around people.
Of course it is otherness that provokes loneliness: it is the presence of other people (for example, people who don't know us or care about us) or the thought of other people -- these are what make us feel lonely. Loneliness is dissolved equally well by being surrounded by people who care about us; or by a perfection of solitude.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008


Oliver Cromwell's signature, of course. It's an interesting thing. I don't know enough about paleography to say whether his habit of writing his lower-case 'e's as epsilons (more time consuming, but perhaps more classical) was widespread; but that line through his terminal two 'l's is a regular-enough feature of 17th century handwriting. That, nevertheless, does give his name something of the look of 'Cromwitt'. Since a 'crom' (or 'cromb') is an old English word for 'hook', or 'crook' (or sometimes 'talon') that means he's signing his name with a classic Villain's monkier: Oliver Crookwit'. It's almost Dickensian.

Monday, 22 December 2008


Hugo's 'On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées' is wish, not actuality. In actuality the truth is the other way about: that ideas fail upon the implacable defenses of certain well-constructed concrete battlements (religion, habit, prejudice), whilst certain armies are now so well-armed they cannot be resisted.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Having to accept a small allowance

'What is the use of poets in a mean-spirited time?' asked Hölderlin, which makes me wonder whether he wasn't, to a certain extent, a big stupidhead. Höldy? Seriously? What other time for poets could there be? What use a poet in the golden age?

According to Wikipedia 'Hölderlin suffered great loneliness, and often spent his time playing the piano, drawing, reading, writing, and enjoyed travelling when he had the chance ... [he] was plagued by money worries, having to accept a small allowance from his mother.' If ever a person were justified in booming 'get a job, idiot' across the gulf of time ... having to accept the allowance? Did she put a fucking gun in his ear?

Saturday, 20 December 2008


'Stop looking for the sea and the waves' fleece pushing the caïques along', Seferis mildly rebukes us [p.101]. 'Under the sky we are the fish and the trees are the seaweed.'

This isn't quite right, and I don't think it's only pedantry to point it out. We don't (as fish do over the seabed) fly. Trees aren't (as seaweed is) massed clots of fluid pennants and ribbons, or olivegreen bubblewrap trailing flexibly in the air. Better to say 'under the sky we are the starfish and the trees are the coral'. Better in several ways.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Consolation poem

That many have suffered this ought
Perhaps to be a consolation, but
It is the opposite of consolation.

In fact it means a sort of pollution;
It means contamination of my grief
By the density of others' suffering.

The brute truth of emotional pain
Is the same truth of the physical:
Its eclipse of everything but itself,

Itself, and the person it's grounded in.
Only the well can properly empathise.
Only the dead are free from selfishness.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


I am cut in half like the moon; but like the moon I grow whole again.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


'First sight' (in love at first sight) implies a kind of hectic immediacy; but 'second sight', for some reason, has come to mean something not more but less solid and reliable: a seeing into the evanescence of the immaterial. By this logic 'third sight' would be the most attenuated and merest sight of all.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


Harold Bloom is haunted (he transfers, in a Freudian sense, that fascination onto Mormonism’s Joseph Smith) ‘by the figure of Enoch, who in ancient Jewish texts was transmogrified into the angel Metatron, sometimes called the lesser Yahweh. A giant in size, radiant with light, this patriarch-angel was renowned for his total knowledge of the secrets of God. If the distinction between God and man wavers anywhere in the Kabbalah, that wavering is most incessant in the figure of Enoch-Metatron. Enoch, who walked with God, is taken up by God and so does not die. The Kabbalists interpreted Enoch’s ascent as the restoration of the state of Adam, not Adam in the Garden but a preexistent cosmic anthropos, at once God, angel and man.' [Bloom, 'The Religion-Making Imagination of Joseph Smith', Yale Review 80 (1992), 29-30]

It can be hard to shake the sense that the (from certain perspectives) heresy of Mormonism is precisely the heresy of Babel: the notion that man and God are of equal stature. This makes it hard to follow the logic of the shift from sentence to sentence in this Bloomian passage:
Nowhere is Joseph’s genius so American as when he declares that God organized us and our world but did not create either, since we are as early and as original as he is. Emerson shrewdly anticipated David Brion Davis in finding Mormonism to be the last expression of Puritanism.
The superficial similarities (the strict daily rules, the centrality of lived faith and so on) are surely not so striking as the differences: that Puritanism is posited upon the gulf between God and man, the lighting of a flame of righteousness in the heart of men to signal the divine; whereas in Mormonism there is no gulf: man and God turn out to be the same thing. Puritanism a faith of soul besieged by body; Mormonism a faith founded upon an understanding of the immanent sacredness of the human form.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Hot Heart Poem

‘a shallow lake of silver in the darkness under the maples’ [Louise Glück]

Plenty of ways of living when your heart has heated:
Dig out some shadows, sit under the sealing trees;
Ice on your chest. Keep the sun’s touch off.

In the early months of the year, in times when the dawn is,
The exhalation of the fields rises as breath in the chill
Or steam in the sauna, water shocked by one hot stone.

Sunday, 14 December 2008


‘It’s only architecture. It’s not religion.’ [Robert Venturi] To go to Stonehenge, and watch the fancy-dress ersatz neodruids stalk from perimeter to center, is to be struck that Venturi has this exactly the wrong way about. Not that it'd be worth mocking the new druids. I daresay their part-researched, part-invented ritualism is meaningful for them; and if it won’t last then there’s no harm in it. Perhaps it seems particularly gauche to perform these invented, evanescent rites under the sightless solidity of the stones themselves; but on the other hand it’s only religion. It’s not architecture.

Saturday, 13 December 2008


Artemis, who loved to hunt in the silent woods, in the mountain’s-shadow: today she would ski. Off piste, of course. Today she would wear earrings (artem, ‘to dangle’, ‘earring’).

From Nabokov's story ‘Wingbeat’: ‘With a glint of her skis Isabel disappeared behind the bend of a snowbank, and when Kern, ashamed, of his awkward movements, overtook her in a soft hollow amid silver-frosted boughs, she wiggled her fingers in the air, stamped her skis and was off again. Kern stood for a time among the violet shadows, and suddenly felt a whiff of the familiar terror of silence. The lacework branches in the enamel-like air had the chill of a terrifying fairy tale.’

Fairy tales delight her; their chill, their ingenuity, the way they are always burgeoning with swift violence.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Lizard poem

The lizard’s Elizabethan ruff;
His bootlace tongue;
The way he throws his legs

From front-left/back-right
To front-right/back-left,
That stationary trot

As the starved sand
Made insane by the sun
Bites the soles of his feet.

All that tongue work, and nothing to say
Lizard? All that supple dancing
And no mate to impress?

You and I, lizard. You and I.

Thursday, 11 December 2008


In 1963 Norman Mailer said that “modern architecture is creating the empty landscapes of psychosis.” Strange way of putting it—to describe the conceptual landscapes of psychosis as empty! Rather the reverse. Perhaps he meant: creating the empty landscapes liable to provoke psychosis in people, but that’s a much less interesting observation, and not especially true.

But perhaps it is worth taking him at his word.

Psychosis is a kind of mental clutter; and psychotic beliefs a way of sorting or arranging the mess so as to make it less distressing, to give the impression of an assertion of self-control. Modernist architecture, the obsessive-compulsive erasure of ornament, the severity of neoclassical and later architectural lines, is, similarly, a mode of sorting or arranging the collective psychosis of an increasingly gnarly, tumorous and psychotic society.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Holy Grail

The Holy Grail opens its mouth terribly wide:
But hard to say whether it's Munch-screaming
Or laughing; whether its a baby bird craving
Its belly filled (wine! wine!), or whether
It is only yawning at its own gem-encrustration.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


'Yesterday': there's a simple correlative between the mood of the song and the cadence the melody line, or more specifically is rising or falling. The very simplicity of this, as a composer's device, enables its genuine affect.

So, the opening 'yesterday' falls away, at its end; but then recalling his former happiness ('all my troubles seemed so far away') the melody rises, to fall back down ('now they look as though they're here to stay'): down ('oh I') on the snag of his own misery but, a qualified rise ('believe') followed by a new inflection of the title subject: not the actuality of yesterday, but his belief in yesterday: the rising melody-line on the second yesterday inverts and contrasts the actuality of misery with the hopefulness entailed by belief.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Saintly, Just

One of the things that makes Saint-Just the true prototype of the twentieth-century dictator is that he would say things like: “You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it.” What he intuited is that passivity is itself a kind of resistance, and in ways a more perilous one than opposition. Better to flush the passive out into activity, even contrary activity. Then at least you know where you are.

It does trouble me, actually, how sensible Saint-Just was: he did nothing by half-measures, but followed the logic of his principles to their blood-stained end. 'One does not make revolutions by halves,' he famously said. It is clearly a dangerous political and ethical policy, given the deathly places it leads, but there's a part of me that thinks: yes. If you're going to do a thing, then do it properly. This, I would say, is the residue of my Protestantism (the culture in which I was raised). Indeed, it approaches one sort of a definition of Protestantism, that it reacts against the human accomodations of Catholicism by saying: if you're going to have a relationship with God then do it properly. The problem is that this doesn't fit very well with how people actually are in the world. It's a very serious problem.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Clovis is Baptised

I could write an entire Fear and Trembling style book about this image (a painting from c.1500, apparently). This is the baptism of the legendary first king of France, Clovis I, who reined from the last decades of the 5th century until his death in 511. He converted to Christianity in the starting point for the tradition of Catholic France ruled by a Catholic monarch. This image, in other words, is a mythic point of origin. The king embraces Christianity, and sets the nation on its Catholic road: except that he embraces Christianity inside an already completed medieval Christian Cathedral. According to the logic of the image, the structures of Catholicism are already there, prefabricated; the tree already fully grown and waiting only to have the acorn symbolically and ritualistically embedded at its root. This inversion is enormously eloquent of the logic of the incarnation itself: the world made by God, this fantastically ornate structure, that is nevertheless void, waiting for the entrance of Christ thousands (no, billions) of years later: the owner-occupier and architect turning up to make his house on the spot on which his house is already completely built.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Man chewing gum

It is well-chewed by now. He catches it with his teeth, and thrusts his tongue through the middle of the lump and between, out of his mouth and into the air: tongue sheathed in a drumskin-coloured condom. After this breaks he cannot help but grin as he draws the ragged strand of it back inside his mouth. It is closer to him than his jugular vein.

Friday, 5 December 2008


Some things cannot be translated. The silence cannot be translated.

It is not a coincidence that the laureate of silence, Beckett, lived precisely between two languages.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Trinity 0.025 seconds

This is the Trinity blister, held; medusa, thumbnail, vast soapskin.
Frozen by film, waiting for the lance that lets the heated evils out, or in.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! [Doctor Faustus]

Superman, Superman and Superman!
Thinketh, he dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon!
His heart is his weak spot, the organ
upon which kryptonite has most purchase.

Superman's blood is packed with corpuscles
each blood cell is superpowerful:
undying blood, flowing faster than a train
propelled by a heartbeat pulsar-quick.

Now he sits in the lunar quiet. No need for air:
his lungs work and superwork, but not
to transfer oxygen to the superbloodstream.
His red-blood-cells aren't haemoglobin-red.

They're red as Martian weed is red, as red giants are.
His blood red-shifts as it flies streaming past us
(he has taken a kryptoknife and cut into his arm)
a snaking line of red, shallow-curled in an S.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


I'm struck that the Latin sibilus (the word behind sibilant) apparently meant both 'a hissing' and 'a whistling' ('sibilo: to hiss, to whistle'). I can see, of course, that whistling is a kind of hissing, or perhaps that hissing is a kind of whistling; but I wonder if 'whistling' carried the negative connotations of hissing (Lewis and Short: 'a contemptuous hissing, a hissing at or off') for the Romans. There's even a word (sibilatus) that apparently means 'a hissing whistling.' To my ear these two sounds register very differently: the hiss a blanket white-noise, the whistle capable of exquisite harmonic musical beauty. But perhaps this is only in my head, not in the sounds themeslves.

Monday, 1 December 2008


What can we say about what can we say about? (I know, I know: the question is really do we ever talk about anything else?)