Monday, 31 August 2009

Not only ought 'it's a no-no' carry twice the force of a simple 'no' (instead of a quarter of the force, as it actually does); it ought to set in train a series of increasingly vehement negations: 'no-no-no'; 'no-no-no-no' and so on. But does it?


Sunday, 30 August 2009


The penne adhere to the base of the pan,
sway in the scum-hot water like razorshells
clustered on their low-tide rock

Saturday, 29 August 2009

What children say

In Longus’ Daphnis and Chloë Eros speaks: ‘I am not a child though I seem to be so, but am older than Kronos.’ Every child says this, without speaking; the iteration of the ancient-ness of new life.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Urban superposition

‘Now let us,’ says Freud in Civilization in its Discontents, ‘by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palace of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine … the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.’ It's an odd thing that Freud immediately steps back from his psychical thought experiment (‘There is clearly no point in spinning our phantasy any further, for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd’). Other writers have not been so coy, most recently, of course, Mièville’s City and City. But the central point here is worth stressing; that actually this precisely how cities operate: we walk semiconsciously through the semipermanence of all the city all of time.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Esmiss Esmoor

That moment in Passage to India where the locals begin chanting ‘Mrs Moore’, and her son is revolted: ‘he disliked it more than he showed. It was revolting to hear his mother travestied into Esmiss Esmoor, a Hindu goddess.
Esmiss Esmoor
Esmiss Esmoor
Esmiss Esmoor
What’s odd about this is that Isis is not a Hindu deity ('is Mother Isis! More Mother Isis!): although she is very much the right goddess to invoke at this moment in the novel.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Judgment of Ys

I’m less interested in the Judgment of Paris, and more in the Judgment of Ys. The fate of a land is of more moment than the fate of an individual—or more precisely (since the latter soon tangles up the fates of nations) the environmental thoroughness of the judgment passed on Ys is more striking.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

What the parrot says, and what it means

When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through the all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you” [Tony Morrison, Jazz]

The pathos here is all to do with the fact that though the parrot might say “I love you”, it does not mean it, and in fact it cannot even know how to mean it, any more than a dead woman can feel the cut of your revenge. This gap between our tendency to invest the world with our own emotional intensity and the actual indifference of the world is one of the key things that informs Morrison's fiction.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Up up and away

Up, certainly; but away? That's not the direction in which away is found.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Harp song

The harpist sits herself
Before this great baleen mouth
This plankton seive;

Folds her legs about it,
Tries to feed it her hand
Scratches its musical itch.

The harp's bones spell D
Or V, or a closed L.
From what creature is it quarried?

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Ze-no, Z'no, Ze-no, Z'no

Here's a fact about the great early philosopher Zeno of Elea I didn't know: 'According to Plutarch, Zeno attempted to kill the tyrant Demylus, and failing to do so, "with his own teeth bit off his tongue, he spit it in the tyrant’s face."' Now that's what I call philosophic martyrdom; why does wussy 'let me drink this poison and die gently and with dignity' get all the credit? Zeno should be our poster-boy.

Friday, 21 August 2009


The Democriteans thought different atoms were differently shaped -- some had little hooks on them (you could feel this if you touched them). Atomic hooks and eyes; a sort of material universe in a fabric sense.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Now that the laureateship has become synonymous with poetry, I think we need more. What sort of lauels make up the leafy crown for what sort of poet? Of course it'll be different for different ones: laureate cinnamomum? Laureate avocado? Laureate Sassafrasi?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Money money money

It's only recently occurred to me that "must be funny/in a rich's man's world" may be a not-quite-fully-idiomatic-English Swede-lyricist's attempts to say 'rich men must have a lot of fun' (rather than, say, 'tch! funny old world, weath!')

But what it lacks in command of idiom it makes up for in sheer greatness, this song. Here's a small example of what I mean. Take the title line: six syllables sung on two ascending triplets. The effect is to teeter-totter, or seesaw, the emphasis subtly from MONey to moNEY and back again ... nicely, if almost subliminally, disorienting. Because, of course, nobody thinks this minor-key little hymn to the desperation of desire is actually a song in praise of being rich? The opposite, of course.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

All Eat All

This piece on cannibalism, by the exceptionally good Jenny Diski, is interesting (it's a review of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Catalin Avramescu, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth). Thought-provoking, too. One thought it provoked for me was whether there hasn't been a profound shift in the cultural logic of food.

Previously, the rationale was: 'I eat and internalise this food, thereby adding its strength to mine.' So, if you eat a strong warrior it makes your own war-strength greater (or, in less cannibalistic ages: eat beef to be strong as an ox; drink wine and the god enters into you). But now we increasingly view food as the enemy, as a kind of poison: if not literally so (the vogue for talking about 'toxins') then in terms of the attrition against our health: fat; sugars; cholesterol; junk. In such a culture the last thing you want to do is internalise the food; and anorexia becomes the norm. Or perhaps the logic shifts: eat beef to become fat and stupid as a cow and so on.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Lot's wife

Glancing through Jean-Marie Déguignet's Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (written c.1900; translated Linda Asher, Seven Stories Press 2004), I discover this peculiar little version of the story Lot's wife:
According to Benjamin Jonos [a twelfth century writer], who saw Lot’s wife in the twelfth century, she was not completely dead; when animals licked her and thereby made her smaller, she turned back into her old shape and resumed her monthly periods like other women, though she probably did not enjoy that much.
I can't find anything else out about this Jonos, and am not certain he ever existed. But I find the story fascinating.

Lot's wife has had her share of interpretation over the years. For Martin Harries, she ‘becomes a figure for certain modern conceptions of spectatorship .. in particular, Lot’s wife becomes the nexus of a constellation of 20th-century fantasies and fears about the potential for spectatorial damage.’ What she 'means', in other words, is that just watching catastrophe may destroy us. [Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife: on destructive spectatorship (Fordham Univ. Press 2007), 7-8]

This is one perspective; what she saw and the damage it caused her. Another, of course, is her dilatoriness—if the Lord tells you to leave, then don’t hang about or you’ll be punished. But the ‘Benjamin Jonos’ version suggests a completely different perspective … it turns her story, via what looks like an aetiological myth (animals at salt-licks), into a fable of the loss of and renewal of fertility: salt is the medium of barrenness; being brought back to life entails the restoration of the menstrual cycle. The emphasis, in other words, is on the ‘wifely’, not on
If we take her transgression to be dilatoriness, this in turn starts to say something about the urgency of fertility: the need not to hang around. It also turns her into a form of the wandering Jew: still alive in the 12th-century AD, for Jonos to meet, as if what they used to call 'the curse' really is a curse. Jonos also tells us her name: Edith, apparently.

Sunday, 16 August 2009


As if there's a cicada inside my head ...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Baie de Douarnenez

The wide and open bay. The long lines of incoming waves line up like perfectly straight plough-lines scraped into the mauve-brown water.

Friday, 14 August 2009


The OED suggests (with a tentative 'perh.') that the name of the country Brazil comes from 'brazil wood' the name of a red timber found there (the country being named after the wood, not the other way about). As for the etymology of this, they're not sure: perhaps from French briser, 'to break' (because the wood is particularly frangible?); perhaps the Spanish brasa, 'a glowing coal', because of its colour.

There's another theory, though less happily advanced. Irish myths spoke of a phantom island hidden by the mist except for one day each seven years, located in some nebulous way off the southwest Irish coast, and called either Brazil or Hy-Brazil. These names, the excellent wikipedia tells me, 'are thought to come from the Irish Uí Breasail (meaning 'descendants (i.e., clan) of Breasal'), one of the ancient clans of northeastern Ireland. cf. Old Irish: Í: island; bres: beauty, worth; great, mighty.'

The story that Pedro Álvares Cabral thought that he had reached this island in 1500, thus naming the country of Brazil seems to be unsubstantiated. It would be nice, though: the notion that Brazil is neither broken nor glowing but the inheritance of a mighty and beautiful Irishman. Of course it has lost its Í, for it is not an island; and in almost every other respect - its size, its forestation, its ethnic mix, its culture, its latitude - it remains a kind of anti-Ireland. But the child need not resemble the parent; and Brazil is southwest of Ireland ...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Winter morning poem

A scintillant membrane of frost
encloses the whole car.
Your mouth is an exhaust pipe,
Auspuff, the Germans call it.

The driver's doorlock has
regrown its maidenhead:
you must kneel down to kiss
its tiny virgin apeture

with infinite tenderness
for its inset, infolded metal.
Your pericardium contracts
with the thrill and the ice of it.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

How Soon?

One thing that makes 'How Soon Is Now?' work so wonderfully is the opening lyric. Now I'm sure I don't need to tell you that Morrissey adapted a line of George Eliot, from Middlemarch: 'To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.' But as sung, the line works very neatly to wrongfoot us. The jangly, spacious, throbbing music, and M's elongation of the syllables, encourage us to take the opening as 'I am the Sun, and the Air' ... as if the song is setting out to be a hymn to bright openness, to being free as a bird. Of course not. The second line ('...of a shyness') forces us to revise our sense of the first line retrospectively (son, heir), a little trick that focusses the song's excellent apprehension of being slightly out of step, of not quite fitting in.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Trees without leaves

Trees without leaves aren’t properly trees, though, are they. In autumn the trees become something else—hatstands, coatracks, skeletons, pylons, anything but trees.

It sounds like the start of a poem: 'tree without leaves, as the young birdcatcher/swept off his tall hat...'

Monday, 10 August 2009


As the old proverb has it: ‘To judge by appearances is to take cow and zebra for brothers.’

Sunday, 9 August 2009


Adam Phillips, in Terrors and Experts, says something interesting about the interpretation of dreams. 'A dream is enigmatic--it invites interpretation, intrigues us--because it has transformed something unacceptable, through what Freud calls the dream work, into something puzzling. It is assumed that the unacceptable is something, once the dream has been interpreted, that we are able to recognize and understand. And this is because it belongs to us; we are playing hide-and-seek , but only with ourselves. In the dream the forbidden may become merely eccentric or dazzlingly banal; but only the familiar is ever in disguise. The interpreter, paradoxically--the expert on dreams--is in search of the ordinary.' [64]

But why must the extraordinary be turned into the ordinary? That sounds like false reckoning (or false translation) to me. The implication here is 'because it started out that way'; but that's surely not true: dreams are as likely, or are more likely, to grind their metaphorical molars upon extraordinary aspects of our life. The perfectly habitual aspects of it won't snag the unconscious's interest. So could it be that dream-interpreters turn the extraordinary into the ordinary because the ordinary sounds more comprehensible to us, because it produces the sort of narrative the dreamer prefers to wake up to? ('...those skinny cattle eating the fat cattle and not getting fat? That's about harvests, mate.') But if the currency of dreams is the extraordinary, common sense suggests that the interpretation of dreams should be extraordinary too. The sense of recognition Phillips is talking about here, that 'aha! that's what it means!' is all about the transcendent rush, the poetry, not about the mundanity.

Saturday, 8 August 2009


Kafka said: ‘I have brought nothing with me of what life requires, so far as I know, but only the universal human weakness. With this—in this respect it is gigantic strength—I have vigorously absorbed the negative element of the age in which I live, an age that is, of course, very close to me, which I have no right ever to fight against, but as it were a right to represent.’ Intimacy and strength—the two defining characteristics of Kafka’s writing.

Friday, 7 August 2009

On Tarzan

The myth of Tarzan is that a white man may rule Africa, but only if he goes naked—not to demonstrate innocence, and not for sexual reasons, but only (on the simplistic level of imperialistic ideological idiom) to put on display the one, solitary, superficial thing that justifies his position: that his skin is indeed white.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Witch of Oz

Margaret Hamilton’s wicked witch of the west is green for a reason. All her evil bravado and mockery cloaks her envy—that famous image of her green hands reaching out for Dorothy’s splendid scarlet shoes is an icon not of covetousness but precisely envy, since in her heart the witch knows she will never have them. It’s that knowledge that makes her so foul tempered. Whether she realizes it or not.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


There is insurrection in notions of resurrection; a rebellion not against the kingdom of death but of life.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Gargoyle poem

The cigars in those gargoyles’ mouths
are leaden waterspouts;
—or tourist-aimed blowpipes

poised to fell the sacristan.
Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar:
as when stone sucks on metal.

Monday, 3 August 2009


Praying is like kissing.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Ouden Menei

I've sometimes thought that people miss the recursive elegance of Heraclitus' most famous assertion:
πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei
Everything changes and nothing remains the same.
'Aha,' we think: but this contradicts itself, for change is precisely the constant that does remain the same. The line should be Everything changes and nothing remains the same except change.' 'No,' Heraclitus says: 'for the change everything undergoes itself continually changes.' 'But then,' we try again, 'it ought to be: Everything changes and nothing remains the same except the continuity with which change itself changes.' 'No, you still don't see,' returns Heraclitus, politely. 'That change is also, itself, a changeable thing.' 'Well in that case...' we say, settling in for the long haul.

The longest, in fact.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


As the old expression really should have put it: cast ne'er a clout at least til août. It truly has been a cold and rainy old summer, so far, in England.

Anyway, that's août, up there, from (of course) Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. And as lovely as any of them; although if you click on this enlargement, you might want to look at the swimmers in the river in the middle distance. The chap sitting on the bank seems to have no feet; and the two guys fully submerged seem to be, respectively, reasonably and prodigiously endowed in the trouser-eel department.