Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Black swan

Here you can see a black swan, its beak so red it looks painted all over with scarlet lipstick.

The swan, sitting motionless on the taut water, made a spontaneous rorschach test: its neck 2-coiled, its body balanced perfectly on its reflection, like a black butterfly with oversized antennae, or like the number 38 with the spaces inked in.

Behind the pond, a carefully coiffured tree was all tongue, stuck out rudely at the sky.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

'What is thy bidding, my master?'

Strange the way 'you' and 'thou' have effectively changed placed in contemporary English usage. 'You' is now familiar, where 'thou' sounds archaic and stiffly formal and therefore more mannered and respectful. Of course, strictly speaking, 'you' is polite/formal and 'thou' de haut en bas, cheeky, friendly or intimate.

The prize of an orange to whomsover identifies the source of the title quotation. Suffice to say, it's from a popular culture text, and is uttered by a respectful junior to a powerful senior in a particular heirarchy.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Walcott's 42

This poem, from Walcott's new collection White Egrets (2010; which I haven't yet seen) was published ahead of time. I found it on the Repeating Islands blog:
This prose has the gait of a mule urged up a mountain road,
a slope with wild strawberries; yes, strawberries grow there,
and pines also flourish; native trees from abroad,
and coffee-bush shining in the crisp blue air
fanning the thighs of the mountains. Pernicious ginger
startles around corners and crushed lime
leaves its memory on thumb and third finger,
each page has a freshness of girlhood’s time,
when, by a meagre brook the white scream
of an egret beats with the same rhythm as crows
circling invisible carrion in their wide dream;
commas sprout like thorn-bush alongside this curved prose
descending into some village named Harvey River
whose fences are Protestant. A fine Presbyterian
drizzle blesses each pen with its wooden steeple over
baking zinc roofs. Adjectives are modestly raised in this terrain,
this side-saddle prose on its way to the dressmaker
passes small fretwork balconies, drying clothes
in a yard fragrant as Monday; this prose
has the sudden smell of a gust of slanted rain
on scorching asphalt from the hazed hills of Jamaica.
It's dedicated to Lorna Goodison, and the prose praised is that of her From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (the Jamaican town of Harvey River is namechecked there in line 13, there). Part of this is by-the-numbers Walcott: the bright colours, the slightly studied, or mannered, pungent richness, the zinc roofs (he might reply, of course, that there just are lots of zinc roofs in the West Indes). The 'strawberries; yes, strawberries' seems to me a little lax, too; and the whole middle section tumbles a little confusingly from 'girlhood’s time' to 'white scream' to 'egret' to 'crows circling invisible carrion' (why invisible?) to 'dream'. But the ambling line, linked to the closely observed three-quarter-rhyme rhymescheme (Jamaica/dressmaker; ginger/finger; road/abroad) give the poem a pleasing solidity. And writing a poem to praise the success of another human being is as old as Pindar.

What I like the most, though, about this poem is the way it rather deftly plays with the trope of writing as actual landscape; the way thorns are like commas, and not the other way about; the pun on 'pen'; the italic drizzle at the end. I like this, though some critics do not. Here's Kate Kellaway in the Observer:
Walcott is never fully available for comment; his heart is a million miles from his sleeve. Here, the egrets are again on duty to rescue him from himself and, for a second time, he likens them to poems. Actual and written landscapes frequently become hybrids in Walcott's work – a stale device upon which he over-relies. Wriggling insects are "like nouns", sunflowers are "poems we recite to ourselves", barges "pass in stanzas along canals". The breakers Walcott loves so much are trusted collaborators. They roll and smash their way into poem after poem. They shore up the verse.
Maybe it does get tiresome at length, but I'd say there's something simple and effective about this recurring Walcottian trope.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Perfect numbers

I can do no better than quote wikipedia:
In mathematics, a perfect number is a positive integer that is the sum of its proper positive divisors, that is, the sum of the positive divisors excluding the number itself. Equivalently, a perfect number is a number that is half the sum of all of its positive divisors (including itself), or σ(n) = 2n. The first perfect number is 6, because 1, 2, and 3 are its proper positive divisors, and 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. Equivalently, the number 6 is equal to half the sum of all its positive divisors: ( 1 + 2 + 3 + 6 ) / 2 = 6.
'Perfect' is such a loaded term though. Why should we consider this neat trick of slicing a number into nonremaindering divisors and then recombining them a different way to arrive back at our starting place perfect? Diving 4 in half and multiplying the result by 2 is perfect, because it is a symmetrically circular process -- and because it works for all numbers. But the process of deriving divisors and recombing them as a sum is lopsided and doesn't work for all numbers.

Saturday, 27 March 2010


Camus says 'reason and the irrational led to the same preaching. In truth the way matters but little; the will to arrive suffices' [p.48]. Now I appreciate that Camus mode in this work is to treat profundity whimsically, and that's a commendable thing, but this is a strange thing to say nonetheless. It underestimates the enormous momentum of things -- the one thing Sisyphus himself would never do. We'll arrive, regardedless of the strength or vapidity of our will to do so. We're rolling down there. It matters how we go.

Friday, 26 March 2010


We exonerate our clothes and blame ourselves. The problem isn't perspiration as such, at least not really; its the interaction of sweat and fabric. The staleness and foulness is a function of our covering; but we swallow the blame unthinkingly.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


A cherry the size of a beachball. Toast you could shelter under. Sugar grains big as dice.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


If our enjoyment of food is parcelled into ten
The idea of food gets nine; the food itself but one.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Beware the Cat

This F&SF piece gets a few things wrong. Baldwin's Beware the Cat was wrtten in 1553 and published 1570, not '1533' as here; and it's not really an attempt to worldbuild an intelligent feline society, so much as it is a clunking allegorical anti-Catholic satire (to be fair, Norwood notes 'Some of the stories have a strong anti-Papist theme'). But a trick is missed by not including the full title: A Marvellous Hystory intitulede Beware the Cat, Conteynyng diuerse wonderfull and incredible matters, very pleasant and mery to read. For myself, I'd like that to become the default title setting for all SFF. (For example: A Marvellous History entitled Yellow Blue Tibia, Containing diverse wonderful and incredible matters, very pleasant and merry to read.)

On second thoughts, maybe not.

Monday, 22 March 2010


And write out the words,
and link them in art,
that people might read
and break-up their heart.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

To see is to be

One of the things that gives Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids its great resonance (over and above its memorable hostile walking plants, and its detailed, matter-of-fact compelling sense of societal breakdown) is the way it treats blindness. Blind people, it says, unabashedly, aren't really people. Human existence is sight.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Be is To Be

I'm very persuaded by Ewan Fernie's penetrating reading of this Shakespearian soliloquy:
To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
He asks students to take the question in the first line seriously: Hamlet gives himself two options (being, not-being). Which does he go for, in the end? Well clearly he decides to be: not to end his life with the bare bodkin; to eschew suicide and carry on. But he arrives at that decision by a curious route. In plain terms he considers life ('being'), and notes its many agonies ('the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes'). But then he considers the alternative, death ('not-being') and finds that just as bad, or possibly worse. Another way of putting this would be to say, he looks to 'not-being' and finds that it is actually just another sort of being. In other words his decision 'to be' is arrived at, paradoxically, through a process of rejecting 'to be' not once but twice; finding fault with two modes of being and still concluding that he must be. This profound ontological negativity, or perhaps confusion, has important resonance for the play as a whole; a text whose opening is dominated by an entity, the ghost, who is precisely strung ambiguously between being and not-being.

It sent me back to the monologue. And that in turn got me thinking about 'quests'.

Quest is an interesting word, although now rather bleached of meaning by its endless reiteration in the context of (for instance) Fantasy narratives -- interesting not least as a sort of conceptual structuring principle. OED says a quest is 'a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something'; as well as 'in medieval romance: an exhibition or adventure undertaken by a knight to procure some thing or achieve some exploit.' The word has an obvious etymological relation to 'question', although it is, of course, a literalised exteriorised version of the process of mental enquiry. Or to be precise: it orients the question elswehere. OED also quotes the Romance of Merlin (1450): 'thei entered into many questes forto knowe which was the beste knyght.' In other words, the quest arrives at a conceptual answer (which is the best knight) by arriving at a material object. That's important.

Shakespeare writes blank verse (famously, so). But the first five lines of this, his most famous speech, amount to hendecasyllabics (only with the 'end' at the end of line 6 do we fall back into a decasyllabic rhythm). And part of the memorableness of that appallingly famous first line has to do with the way it spills beautifully over the limit of ten syllables we so stronglyssociate with blank verse, as well as the way the stresses of the verse reinforce the existential vehemence of the question. 'To BE or NOT to BE,' pause, 'THAT is the QUEST.' The '-ion' comes after, leaving us with that spectral sense that 'to be or not to be' is not so much a question as a quest. And in turn that not only points up the memorable trope of death as a linear, one-way journeying ('the undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns...') it also carries with it the sense that such jouneying is towards a palpable object, the reification of 'being/not being' itself. We might, if it didn't sound too facetious, say being, or the knot-(of)-being. The thing.

Friday, 19 March 2010

A is to B

Sport is to war what alegbra is to numbers.

Thursday, 18 March 2010


You hope to go far
And see things like this:
That coke's vinegar
And yellow wine piss.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


The second chapter of Wyndham's novel (p.41 of this edition) includes this digression on naming the titular motile vegetables:
Now that walking plants were established facts the Press lost its former tepidity, and bathed them in publicity. So a name had to be found for them. Already there were botanists wallowing after their custom in polysyllabic dog-Latin and Greek to produce variants on ambulans and pseudopodia, but what the newspapers and the public wanted was something easy on the tongue and not too heavy on the headlines for general use.
We're then given a list of possible names, all playing on 'tri', in reference to the tripled pseudopod foot of the creature's root.

I like the way this is deliberately tricky (hah! tri-ckey; but then tricor is the Latin for 'to make difficulties, to play tricks'). It pretends to be a list of non-latinate names, when every name there is from a latin root ('tricuspus', 'having three points'). Some of these names contain hidden poison ('trigenates', for instance, are cyanide acids); some are gloriously random ('trigon', apart from being a three-pointed-shape, after the manner of pentagon or hexagon, is also a kind of neume). 'Trilog' looks like a crashing vegetal pun ('log'), but doubtless has more to do with a truncated 'trilogy', a sort of literary in-joke. 'Tridentates' is, since no plants have 'teeth', splendidly misdirecting. 'Tripeds' and 'Trippets' play games with pronunciation; for whilst we know we're supposed to read the first of these as 'TRIpeds', we can hardly help seeing the word as 'TRIP-ets'. But most of all, I like the way that Wyndham has simply incorporated in the body of his novel what looks very like the sort of list an author comes up with when thrashing out his/her ideas prior to writing. 'What shall I call my three-pronged ambulatory plants? Here, I'll make a list.' That this lists includes 'tripods' is the best gag of all.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


I quite like Craig Raine's definition of Modernism (from here, p.315) as 'an assault on sentimentality in literature.' There's something in that, although it makes me wonder why Modernist authors so rarely produced any laugh-aloud literature; for nothing assaults sentimentality so effectively as properly funny belly-laugh satire and general hilarity. Or perhaps we've been reading Modernism wrong; maybe its leading proponents were actually Wodehouse and Thurber.

Monday, 15 March 2010


It seems a bit puzzling, to me, to call James Ravilious 'a photographer of rural life.' Which is to say, it seems to me that the focus of his (undeniably very beautiful) images is not 'life' as such, but form; and that his art is 'rural' only in the trivial sense that it's not urban. That tangle, there (the image is at the top of the first page of Ravilious's webpage) -- that knot of texture and shade is much more Pollockian than it is (as it might be) Samuel Palmer.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Food is the purest form of what we may get and hold. Food is the way we command the external world, and metamorphose it into our own beating heart and our own synaptic flicker. The electrical impulse shiver across the spongy network, like light passing and repassing across polished chain mail. That's the end of food.

Saturday, 13 March 2010


There may be some point in resurrecting the medieval notion of 'gluttony' as an explanatory strategy by way of explaining Western society, although we'd need to purge it of its religious context. One benefit is the way it excavates some of the buried logic of 'overindulgence' in contemporary world. The medievals understood that gluttony was more than just 'eating lots of food.' Some modes of gluttony get coded differently to others, and gender has a lot to do with that. Being gluttonous for (say) alocohol or drugs is somehow seen as tragic-heroic, rock-n-roll, masculine. Being gluttonous for cakes and chocolate is somehow contemptible by comparison, contemptible because feminised. But a skeletal heroin-chic and a morbidly obese addiction to deep-fried chicken are, actually, the same thing.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights, like folds of astral flesh.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

One haiku

Here's one of the most celebrated of Bashō's haiku (cut-and-pasted, of course; I know no more about Japanese pictograms than did Ezra Pound):
古池や 蛙飛込む 水の音
furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

fu-ru-i-ke ya
ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu
mi-zu no o-to

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound]
Or as I prefer to render it:
Oval of water:
A frog's muscular limb-jerk
And pond clucks its tongue.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Food of the gods

I recently read Wells’s Food of the Gods. It occurs to me that one often overlooked thing separating contemporary religious belief from the beliefs of past ages is its relationship to food. In neither Christianity nor Islam does God eat food (in fact something the reverse is the case with Christianity, where God, though ineffable and immaterial, is mysteriously eaten as food by His worshippers). God does not need physical sustenance the way mortals do. Yet Homer’s gods ate and drank—Ambrosia and Nectar respectively; and most earlier religions include the practice of sacrificing animals to the gods, in order (as the belief was) that those gods might eat.

The concept of an immortality drink is attested in at least two Indo-European areas: Greek and Sanskrit. The Greek ἀμβροσία (ambrosia) is semantically linked to the Sanskrit अमृत (amrita) as both words denote a drink that gods use to achieve immortality. The two words may be derived from the same Indo-European form *ṇ-mṛ-to- : immortal (n- : negative prefix equivalent to the prefix a- in both Greek and Sanskrit; mṛ : zero grade of *mer- : to die; and -to- : adjectival suffix). However, the connection that has derived ambrosia from the Greek prefix a- ("not") and the word brotos ("mortal"), hence the food or drink of the immortals, has been found merely coincidental by some modern linguists.
That we should eat immortality to become immortal is part of the same belief structure that says 'I eat bison to become strong as a bison; I eat lion to become brave as a lion.' But food is broken down in the stomach, and that which is immortal cannot be broken down. Might as well swallow gold pellets. Still, I like the way the long-lost Indo-European word *ṇ-mṛ-to- both means and more-or-less sounds the same as the current English word immortal. That's neat. The real moral is: language is immortal.

Monday, 8 March 2010


The well of loneliness. The hell of loneliness. The smell of loneliness.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A Satyre entituled the Witch

'A Satyre entituled the Witch' (from here, pp. 381-3) is an anonymous broadsheet, presumably from 1616, or thereabouts (it is subtitled 'supposed to bee made against the Lady Francis Countes of Somerset': which is to say, Frances Carr, who was tried for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. Here's a contemporary account of that, and here's Wikipedia's page on her. A quick peruse of this latter explains many of the references in the poem below). It goes like this ('Bustuary' in the first line means 'funereal'):
Shee with whom troopes of Bustuary slaves,
(Like Legion) sojourned still amongst the Graves;
And there laid plots which made the silver Moone
To fall in Labour many times too soon:
Canidia now drawes on.

Shee that in every vice did so excell
That Shee could read new principles to Hell;
And shew the Fiends recorded in her loooks,
Such deeds, as were not in their blackest books:
Canidia now drawes on.

Shee that by spels could make a frozen stone
Melt and dissolve with soft affection;
And in an instant strike the Factours dead
That should pay duties to the Marriage bed:
Canidia now drawes on.

Shee that consisted all of borrowed grace,
Could paint her heart as smoothly as her face,
And when he breath gave wings to silken words,
Poisons in thoughts conceive and murthering swords:
Canidia now drawes on.

Shee that could reeke within the sheets of lust,
And there bee searcht, yet passe without mistrust;
Shee that could surfle up the waies of sinne
And make streight Posternes where wide gates had been:
Canidia now drawes on.

Shee that could cheate the matrimoniall bed,
With a false-stampt adulterate maidenhead;
And make the Husband thinke those kisses chast,
Which were stale Panders to his Spouses wast.
Canidia now drawes on.

Whose brest was that Aceldama of blood,
Whose vertue still became the Cankers food;
Whose closett might a Golgotta bee stil'd,
Or else a charnell where dead bones are pil'd:
Canidia now drawes on.

Whose waxen pictures made by Incantation,
Whose philters, potions for Loves propagation;
Count Circe but a novice in the trade,
And scorn all druggs that Colchos ever made:
Canidia now drawes on.

Oh let no Bells bee ever heard to ring,
Let not a Chime the nightly houres sing;
Let not the Lyrique Lark salute the day,
Nor Philomele tune the sad dark away:
Canidia still drawes on.

Let croaking Ravens, and death-boding Owles,
let groning Mandrakes, and the ghastly howles
Of men unburied, bee the fatal knell
To ring Candida downe from Earth to Hell:
Canidia still drawes on.

Let Wolves and Tygers howle, let Serpents cry,
Let Basilisks bedew their poisoning eie;
Let Plutos dogg stretchhigh his barking note,
And chant her dirges with his triple throate:
Canidia still drawes on.

Under his burthen let great Atlas quake,
Let the fixt Earth's unmoved center shake;
And the faire Heavens wrapp't as it were with wonder
That Devills dy, speake out their loudest thunder:
Canidia still drawes on.

No longer shall the pretty Marigolds
Ly sepulchred at night in their owne folds;
The Rose should flourish, and throughout the yeare
No leaf nor plant once blasted would appeare:
Were once Canidia gone.

The Starres would seeme as glorious as the Moon,
And Shee like Phoebus in his brightest noone;
Mists, clouds and vapours, all would passe away,
And the whole yeare bee as Halcyons day:
Oh were Canidia gone.
I particularly like the way the charges against 'Canidia' begin with her specific power of rendering her husband impotent, and faking her own virginity test ('Shee that could surfle up the waies of sinne/And make streight Posternes where wide gates had been' means that she metaphorically 'surfled' or 'sewed' up her vagina, making it appear as narrow as a virgin's rather than as wide as a strumpets), but swiftly move on to a sense that all cosmic ills and infertilities would somehow be cured if she were disposed of. Why 'Canidia'? Well, this is the name of a witch from Horace's Fifth Epode (the Latin name means 'white'); a short-ish poem spoken by a boy kidnapped by Candida and her witch-sisters, who intend to bury him up to his neck and starve him to death, tempting him with food just out of his reach -- the belief is that his hunger will cause his liver to grow, and it's his liver they want, so as to make a powerful love potion (here, in Smart's translation):
Canidia, having interwoven her hair and uncombed head with little vipers, orders wild fig-trees torn up from graves, orders funeral cypresses and eggs besmeared with the gore of a loathsome toad, and feathers of the nocturnal screech-owl, and those herbs, which Colchos, and Spain, fruitful in poisons, transmits, and bones snatched from the mouth of a hungry bitch, to be burned in Colchian flames. But Sagana, tucked up for expedition, sprinkling the waters of Avernus all over the house, bristles up with her rough hair like a sea-urchin, or a boar in the chase. Veia, deterred by no remorse of conscience, groaning with the toil, dug up the ground with the sharp spade; where the boy, fixed in, might long be tormented to death at the sight of food varied two or three times in a day: while he stood out with his face, just as much at bodies suspended by the chin [in swimming] project from the water, that his parched marrow and dried liver might be a charm for love; when once the pupils of his eyes had wasted away, fixed on the forbidden food. Both the idle Naples, and every neighboring town believed, that Folia of Ariminum, [a witch] of masculine lust, was not absent: she, who with her Thessalian incantations forces the charmed stars and the moon from heaven. Here the fell Canidia, gnawing her unpaired thumb with her livid teeth, what said she? or what did she not say? O ye faithful witnesses to my proceedings, Night and Diana, who presidest over silence, when the secret rites are celebrated: now, now be present, now turn your anger and power against the houses of our enemies, while the savage wild beasts lie hid in the woods, dissolved in sweet repose; let the dogs of Suburra (which may be matter of ridicule for every body) bark at the aged profligate, bedaubed with ointment, such as my hands never made any more exquisite. What is the matter? Why are these compositions less efficacious than those of the barbarian Medea? by means of which she made her escape, after having revenged herself on [Jason's] haughty mistress, the daughter of the mighty Creon; when the garment, a gift that was injected with venom, took off his new bride by its inflammatory power. And yet no herb, nor root hidden in inaccessible places, ever escaped my notice. [Nevertheless,] he sleeps in the perfumed bed of every harlot, from his forgetfulness [of me]. Ah! ah! he walks free [from my power] by the charms of some more knowing witch. Varus, (oh you that will shortly have much to lament!) you shall come back to me by means of unusual spells; nor shall you return to yourself by all the power of Marsian enchantments, I will prepare a stronger philter: I will pour in a stronger philter for you, disdainful as you are; and the heaven shall subside below the sea, with the earth extended over it, sooner than you shall not burn with love for me, in the same manner as this pitch [burns] in the sooty flames. At these words, the boy no longer [attempted], as before, to move the impious hags by soothing expressions; but, doubtful in what manner he should break silence, uttered Thyestean imprecations. Potions [said he] have a great efficacy in confounding right and wrong, but are not able to invert the condition of human nature; I will persecute you with curses; and execrating detestation is not to be expiated by any victim. Moreover, when doomed to death I shall have expired, I will attend you as a nocturnal fury; and, a ghost, I will attack your faces with my hooked talons (for such is the power of those divinities, the Manes), and, brooding upon your restless breasts, I will deprive you of repose by terror. The mob, from village to village, assaulting you on every side with stones, shall demolish you filthy hags. Finally, the wolves and Esquiline vultures shall scatter abroad your unburied limbs.

Saturday, 6 March 2010


Tucked away at the back of the BMJ for 13th Feb 2010, I discover this:
Kissing as an evolutionary adaptation is another curious proposition ... the hypothesis suggests that through mouth to mouth sexual kissing, women control when they are exposed to their partner's diseases -- thus, if the woman becomes pregnant, her fetus could avoid primary infection with teratogenic diseases such as human cytomegalovirus during vulnerable periods of developmnent. As this protection would only be conferred if women also avoid contact with other men, viral tetratogens could also be a pressure towards the development of monogamy. [p.372].
An interesting idea. There is something intimate about full-mouth kissing that isn't necessarily true even of full sex, of course. I like the idea that the risk of disease might even be the point of it.

Friday, 5 March 2010


Walter de la Mare's 'Remembrance':
The sky was like a waterdrop
In shadow of a thorn,
Clear, tranquil, beautiful,
Dark, forlorn.

Lightning along its margin ran;
A rumour of the sea
Rose in profundity and sank
Into infinity.

Lofty and few the elms, the stars
In the vast boughs most bright;
I stood a dreamer in a dream
In the unstirring night.

Not wonder, worship, not even peace
Seemed in my heart to be:
Only the memory of one,
Of all most dead to me.
I quote it because it strikes me as representative of a huge mass of poems, not just De La Mare's (although certainly his). Which is to say: poems in which occasional lines and images of great beauty and resonance are muddled in with huge quantities of chaff and crap. In this case, is it possible to recuperate the poem simply on the strength of
The sky was like a waterdrop
In shadow of a thorn
and either to gloss over or in some other way redeem the remainder? Perhaps what's needed is a critical sifting; or a lifting on the embargo concerning the reworking old texts. Rewiting King Lear to give it a happy ending is absurd; but reworking this poem to make it equal to its superb opening would be a worthwhile endeavour.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Some future book titles

Dr Sandmann.
Hollow Mars.
Green As Emerald: an Antarctic Tale.
The Infall of the Cenozoic Moon.
That piano probably hasn't been tuned since Woodrow Wilson.
The Fox Who Knows They Are Coming.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


'...the tree began to breathe ...'

What's miraculous is not the breathing, but the begininng. Ordinary trees, after all (ordinary bushes, too) breathe all the time.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

All Descended From Monkeys

Vladimir Solovyov's quip 'man is descended from monkeys therefore let us love one another!' (which has, incidentally, definitely gained something in the translation) isn't really a quip at all. We should take it seriously. Not because we revere ancestors so much that the scientific demonstration of a common ancestor to all humankind makes us all brothers and sisters -- on the contrary, precisely because we want to put distance between ourselves and our ancestors. To stop, in a phrase, throwing our own shit at one another, screeching and baring our teeth. Because we want to live differently to the way we used to; to live like human beings.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Coleridge's Piss

Coleridge, in his notebooks: ‘what a beautiful Thing urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous, the Image, diamond shaped of the Candle in it, especially, as it now appeared, I have emptied the Snuffers into it, & the Snuff floating about, painting all-shaped Shadows on the Bottom.’ [Seamus Perry (ed) Coleridge’s Notebooks: a Selection (OUP 2002), 52]

Which is all very nice, if a trifle self-regarding (he loves it because it's his urine; he wouldn't like a pot of my piss so much, I'd wager). And so, by a simple process of critical elaboration, to a whole thesis about Coleridge's intense self-absorption. But what really strikes me here is the sense of Latin punnery, conscious or otherwise. Urine in Latin is urina; pot in Latin urna; burnt-colour (brown, yellow) uro; 'to plunge into water', like a diver (or like an old snuffer) is urino. And shadow (umbra) isn't that far away. Coleridge seems to be piddling about in the 'U's.