Thursday, January 10, 2019

Samboo's Grave at Sunderland Point (revizh 2019)

Samboo's Grave at Sunderland Point

Let us not arrive on our deathbeds knowing
that we should have done more, that we
should have listened more closely
to our heartsMadeleine Shine
On our deathbeds we will cry to have it back,
this wasted timeAlice Aforethought

creeps of sunlight over the salt-marsh
there in the wind from over without
Barrow and Overton, from here to there
up the Irish Sea the overfalls sing
then all out southward freaks of wind

curving in eastward on the intent, the raptor
look of it (in 3Dlook againSamboo
(bells everywherewhat bells?
nothing left below only a tiny skeleta)
your mother dead on the beaches, the bone-beaches

of the endless western Afrique; far-off the sluff and slough
the gold and the kohl the markets of Cathay and Shendy
for this for this, you here, you herewhy here?
all of it, ten thousand years in the marram the cow-heads narrow ring
and no homecomingjust this loneliness
just this violation of the co-opting into everyone's dream
everyone who came here to stamp (and steam)

like cattle about your little garden of squashes
pumpkin-head boy from the meridian lands
sleeping soft and lonely beneath below and black
of beyondand how was it done, Samboo, was it just a wheelbarrow
some seaman's cartno gymkhana plumage, no funeral cortège
only the function, the deposition, the sediment
the geology of the placement of a little black heart, deceased
there at the wind's wild edge where it mattered most and least
dislocked now from his beach-heart and heave-head 
trampled a thousand over, Samboo universal Samboo
weeps soft over the haunted bay
whirls thrice through the cockles
lingers a moment like a ghostly Susan
then thinks again, then is gone
here, spirit, here … we have caught your soul and you

are forever our little semantic boy
all in pieces and scatters underground
squashed and overarchinghow little and lost and longing, all of it
how tiny and lost and ferocious
down there Samboo, down there in the warm and endless cold
where your mother gulfs across all of time
some great universal choke
where is my mind?

across all of this, swooping bells, worlds of light

.(Published in Burning Gorgeous Anthology, 2010
Published in the Triggerfish Critical Review, 2009)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

as clouds traverse and clamour

What a thicket what a mix-up
all my
thatches caught in one
attempt at love
all now as we see stretched forever
into the dead sands of what
Dead starfish?
Myths of ice trawlers?

Wow you have to be joking.

My terrorism goes deep.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Friday, June 29, 2018

Go unconscious and replicate

fatherhood is all those bad memories but
that's too simple it is instead, revived
a series of emails about the Beatles
a set of dead flowers an almanac about rain
in none of which is mentioned the beatings
the times when some giant stood over me saying
you are worthless, or asking, one remembers the asking
most of all, are you a piece of shit? -- note, please, this
is not in quotation marks. Perhaps
it is free indirect fucking discourse
for perhaps that is all that I can remember
assuming, of course, that no real human
could have stood above anyone spewing such
endless fields over which curlews tremor and trill.
In which case, as Epicurus said,
fuck off.

Friday, April 13, 2018

perhaps the strangest lachrymosity
accompanied by elephants with blue
crackling about them

one marvels but can hardly feel
in the field they create


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Six young men and a woman. Sixteen line sonnet.

With some discomfort travailing down the mechanism
of framing not failing to notice in passing how the bilberry
fronds (vb) at the wayside one has concern for—engineering
for the human armature which carries with some instability

to a place slightly—hallowed where she now stands
slightly—awkward in the presence of at least six ghosts
for more are evident in her [country ways] and about her. These
spirit things walk with her in her harrowed life, and one

would reach out quivering across all of time, with urgency
to touch her somehow, to brush them away, to say at last
that this (here, now, again) is what there is, and it must be enough
to sustain her, to lift her from that deep place, to allow her

to feel the waterfalls which flood softly here. This then
is the compact made flesh of negative ions, of potential,
finally, sanctified in this watery and electric place, of love.

I understand and I wish to continue.


Keeping love and its deep monster as pets.

In some areas like breath or sex or design
once achieved like the Estwing hammer
the wheel or the loaf, originality has little virtue
now, and one should celebrate the very fact
of being an ancient cliché in one's feelings
in one's ardour and behaviour, of being hugely
referenced in a million pre-emptive poetries
able to find oneself in ancient art, and to know
that you didn't invent this, neither the feelings
nor the manifestation. You got it from all
of history, from something that gathered
like a god in the escalating momentum
of what it is to be human. When the current
is right, you go with it, and you don't make a fuss
or wish for a new current. Every day is new.

An ancient miracle is a miracle each time it happens
to crack the ice around you, monster.


Sunday, April 08, 2018

America: it's like watching
a brain-damaged child
punching its own face
again and again


Saturday, April 07, 2018

the night's travel

in and now out the same door
like all knives whirling
our utter politics in collisions
of limestone pavements

across all this she travailed
with sepia sandbags
of County Clare

all sailroads to traverse
and only 8 O-clock
by the whale's chime

this big hand by the night's wild travel
points to 12
the little hand
flickers and stops

iris of heart attack hope
—love of small things
and wild places

be certain now be sure

it's that time
in between
where the hands don't count

it's okay to be scared here
to lie down and breathe
to lie a little
before waking

(Published in PoetrySZ 2009)

Monday, March 26, 2018

all up the road
me and my boys
overarched by great snows

sastrugi, I mean

I mean like watch out
a huge sculpture might fall on you as
you walk
All we will know is your silly little legs
kicking next Spring
when we come looking

Jesus we might eat you by mistake
thinking of which
all along this path have been witches
throwing care to the wind
and it seems unlikely now
that the wind
ever caught it

we shouldn't ever walk on this dark path again
oh God let's right now retrace our steps
and make this right

dumbass, we're stuck here forever
don't you see?

and look how big the sky
with its face full of crying

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Now there is snow again. A few days ago, when it was dark and snowy, the deer came down -- five of them -- and hid in that little trench which used to supply the mill. There is a tunnel there, and maybe they use the tunnel for refuge or something. I think about these deer quite a lot. They are small and fragile things with thin legs, but also very hardy. One of them crashed past the door in a state of fright last summer. I want to reassure them, but they are reluctant to speak my language. I think of them in the snow. Really, I would like them to come to the door and eat titbits from my hand. I wonder what the ideal deer food would be. Hello, little deer, I would say, whilst offering beans on toast. Would you like to come in for a coffee? Maybe I haven't got this quite right yet. They looked at us warily anyway, and their eyes shone like broken glass in police lights.
then what for those,
those damaged, for whom
love was never enough?

how to write pertreh

there were flowers. they were small but colourful and they reminded even the sheep of death. we stopped for moments to admire them. there was a stream also and it ran past.we looked at the stream. in its shimmer and stony gleam. it ran indifferently. far along the stream was a great hill where water gathered. this, this was the great and ancient story of that.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


Well who doesn't like getting new books through the door? Mmm, it always excites me a bit, and then I don't read them anyway as I generally think that somehow if I surround myself with the right books then some kind of cognitive word-osmosis must occur. I haven't known this to work yet, but if anyone would like to see my Amazon receipts you can see that I'm trying very hard at the osmosis theory.

Monday, January 29, 2018

just what I've been through; it's nothing like what I'm going to -- The Violent Femmes

Emily must have sat here
looking at things
perhaps the same things
which now bite my legs
and then roar up
the non-road, the track thing
where I lost my phone
one day in the ferns
the same things, oh
all of it is about
a small girl trying

40,000 bodies in Haworth graveyard
it is almost impossible

Triumph Bonneville

oh, nothing

stars, yes, but why?

I wish you lived next door. If you didn't like me I would leave you alone. Perhaps very occasionally I would take your bin around, but not so often that you would think I was attempting to make a point or inveigle you into my dreams of bins and neighbours and things. Sometimes, when the moon was high, we might meet outside in the cold with our bins, and regard each other. You would not trust me but we would chat a little and shuffle our feet, and I would go back, deflated, to my routines. One far off day, despite your reservations, you would invite me to a river, and I would say yes. Both of us would be nearly dead, and there would be a waterfall, and we would both wonder why
it took so fucking long.


15 million pirates suddenly confounded

some weather systems
I almost
then a small bird
perhaps lost
perhaps they have spare ones
but I
even through the glass

bang bang bang
they said, and I
not yet but trying
hard so hard I was trying
don't know who I was, though
maybe perhaps possibly
my tiny beak or analogue of my beak

aches and says
yes I would
if only my pecking
could be wider
wider if only
it was wider
and could



stifled dances of the dead people

all poetry ends in collapse
when the gimmicks are over

we only do this for so long
this equating, this anger, this conflation

which is what it is
stuck together by verve

now we must talk urgently
of dead submariners

their hoarding of breath
their trinkets, their stifled youth

I don't feel like a disease yet
I don't feel like a disease yet

a friend told me she was/is
a poor feminist as she was/is
too forgiving

I am not forgiving
not in that way
they put me in prison
for trying at 4am

not to be an illness

down there with not much left
I promise I have not even one
little song of you
just a choke and a feeling
of great and pressured darkness
inescapable dark
with such light
with goats dancing
on some silver ceiling

it is all about goats now, and what they do
it's not about peoples
not now



Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Triggerfish Critical Review No 19.

Latest TCR is out, guest-edited by Lynn Otto, who is one of our fellow 'advisory editors.' Well done to Lynn for an excellent job. 


Friday, December 29, 2017

For Alfie and Louie, both

I know I have to lose you
for you to become what you will be
but just for this moment
stop by the wayside and look, while
we still have looking in us, together
at this instant, despite its being
manufactured by me for my needs
and spare me this, for perhaps it is
a miracle anyway, just this stopping
and looking, at what it is
this tiny thing, which possibly
neither of us would otherwise have
noticed, and which is now
almost the apocalypse. let's
just look and hold hands
in the last moments of you still being
my little boy, our last breath
of love like this, looking together

at something inexpressible, falling
apart as we do it. Can we ever capture this
while the sun breaks our entire world?


Saturday, December 23, 2017

religion becoming culturally relativistic

so this donkey with a really short face walks into a bar and the barman says hey why the long...

your next word is really really fucking important, says the donkey


Thursday, December 21, 2017

US war movie

when the fish
in the barrel win the day
US war movie


what you believe

just remember
you didn't have Snopes
all of your life


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Duodeniad

La Rage—sing, goddess, of the RAGE of Achilles

the Pope now has an HIV-infected Gay lover
—this has led to a considerable softening of his position
regarding the use of condoms

words that won't wash out: tubetrain/rucsack/Krak des Chevaliers

the Chinese eat cats like crackers
but that's nothing to the French
who drown young beaked boys in Armagnac
bury them in woodland in Spring let it all mulch down to thick soup
they swear by the fortifying properties

his vegetal body his machine massif
his midriff his central nervous plexus a clock
a barometer to be tapped and adjusted
it tracks responsively the snaking isobars set it in train
like a Victorian clockwork golem
trained to follow a bannister commit strangulation upon
a sleeper on the highest floor he intends instead
the meridians of psychic commerce every time that she
walks in the room
 rage sing of rage golem sing of
Aung San Suu Kyi at one end of a telescope
a little uniformed general with his mouth grinding the other
like a cat with nothing else

rage sing of rage he says all silly with a new bike and hat

North Utsire/South Utsire: a sea giant moderate to good
occasionally poor at first

who could love your face so full of interior disfigurement?
the Vatican explains that on a case by casis it has never opposed
the use of condoms if you have been kidnapped by Islamist baboons
force you to commit acts of disgusting coitus on a monkey
but regret that you will still attend the 7th Hell on the grounds
that to be able to commit said act at all you must have had something
going on

we took me and some friends took control of the world sometime yesterday
in ways too subtle yet to be understood

I have decided not to give up wanking
there is a pleasant place just outside Hell where you wait
until the Pope catches up
it's all just a formality now
papers and ID please how often did you do it
were you married no well in here please
try to cool it in the waiting room there will be opportunity later

the Vatican explains that it has never been opposed to the use of
trained monkeys for sex

The Papa has issued clarification-condoms

Hunkpapa winewall at the margo
in eery breathbasks

Saturday, December 09, 2017

'The Nearest of the Faraway Places'

I interviewed artist/sculptor Duncan Moon a while back for The Triggerfish Critical Review. He has since finished the work around which much of the interview focused, so here is a link to an article about it with some pictures, and the interview is available through the links on the righthand side of this page:


Monday, December 04, 2017

a retired sign language interpreter

who could say in the dust and ash and poverty
of the million tiny moments and decisions which

cumulatively brought him to this wet and solitary
place in a cul de sac somewhere in north Leeds

whether it was the breaking of a relationship he
had so tried to break without breaking or the death

and deaths of brothers or the constant repetition
of hand movements and the assumption of

a persona so unlike that he espouses outside
of such contexts but the real life one perhaps

imagines there in the lush grass exchanged
for this barren garret this gibbet this social

housing with broken things in what passes
for 'garden' in this new world already old before

he arrives. it has a small balcony from which
one may observe other, similar buildings

wherein similar breakings continue quietly,
generally, with little exterior fanfare beyond

an occasional smashing or roaring which soon
dies down or is sucked inside to invisibility

or perhaps transmuted into posture, gait,
the distortion of musculature, character

armouring, pathology, the inevitability
of ill health and depression. the balcony

it must be noted, an invitation to a rainy
pendulum into a dramatic public cessation


Magical Elements in Wuthering Heights.

There are three potentially magical or supernatural episodes in 'Wuthering Heights,' in which mirrors or windows – possibly even eyes – act as some sort of lenses, and perhaps portals, through which time seems to slip. The first is when Mr Lockwood breaks the window in Catherine's old bed-chamber and encounters her ghost wailing to get back in, telling him that "it's been twenty years" (which is accurate, but which Lockwood can't yet have known). Entering the room, Heathcliff quickly reads the situation, and, banishing Lockwood, attempts to call Catherine back through the window — to no avail at this point, though it may be through a window that she later comes to join him.

The second event seems to mirror this scene, as though the two are connected across time; it occurs just before Catherine dies at Thrushcross Grange, tended by Nelly Dean. She looks into a mirror and sees a greatly aged Nelly, but sees also her old room at the Heights, with a "black press" to confirm the location. There is no black press in her room at the Grange, but there IS such a black clothes press in Cathy's old bedroom at the Heights (a 'press' or 'clothes press' is an old-fashioned clothes cupboard).
“The black press,” says Nelly, “where is that?” “It's against the wall, as it always is,” says Cathy. But she also sees another face there, which she does not recognise: “Don't you see that face? […] Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted!”

Could this be Lockwood's face, twenty years in the future, peering out from Cathy's old room? If not then whose face? It has no coherent function in the narrative otherwise. Is this the moment when Lockwood and Cathy see each other through the window of Cathy's old bedroom? Just prior to this episode we are signalled that we have entered some magical space and time when Catherine says that her bed is at this moment the "fairy cave beneath Penistone Crag" – presumably a place with preternatural possibilities.

The third magical event comes when Heathcliff dies: Nelly notices his bedroom window is wide open, with the rain blowing in, and then finds him dead in bed, smiling, with his eyes also wide open, as if to echo these open glassy channels across death and time. What else could have enabled Heathcliff to die smiling like that, unless Catherine has somehow bridged an impossible divide and they have been reunited? Of course Emily Brontë leaves us with the suggestion that their ghosts are indeed now united, and have been seen walking together, but has this been accomplished by this through-lined literary device of the windows and the mirror, and even the eyes?

Brontë clearly devises and constructs these episodes to suggest that the supernatural elements might possibly be real rather than imaginary – for how else would Lockwood know of the twenty years gulf; why would Heathcliff be smiling, even in death; and why would his window (recalling the previous windows and the mirror) be open to the rain?

And – if we are not supposed to consider these supernatural intrusions as real – why would the sheep at the end of the book refuse to walk past "t' nab" after the shepherd boy has sighted the two ghosts there? The boy's weeping and fear might be explicable by superstition and ghostly gossip, but how is one to explain the behaviour of those sheep?

Nov' 2017.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

sans armes, ni haine, ni violence—Albert Spaggiari

He had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia he didn’t know; there was little else that he did — Auden on Tennyson

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


after a few weeks of this new start
though she could see he was trying

she could also see that it wasn't working

oh she loved him and everything

but she couldn't keep living through this
like this 
for ever
& so one night when he was fucked up

she slipped the gun
into his open mouth
blew his head all over the wall
behind the bed
where they had made their babies
she sat there afterwards for a while

cried a little
made some cocoa
read a Stephen King novel
until she fell asleep

in the night she cuddled him

in his dark uncomplicated wetness

(Published in 'Burning Gorgeous' 2010)


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Slut (work in progress)

...nearer to the sun and air—wind in the willows
i am the son and the heir—the smiths
yeah, man, the elements—anon

I want to be in the sunny place
[she says points]
—points across the valley—
(like John County Clare
magicking a far-off sheep)

even to use that word is abuse
yes, the s-word (or its many toxic siblings
for it cannot be—is itself
an act of self-negative life-negative
sexual colonization
—Alice Aforethought

oh oh how elemental oh how mythic
she cries out above, 'cross the valley
but now /(she feels silly.and. her voice
is weak and unconvincing

(Librivox audiobooks:
the American woman reading Herodotus
pronounces Herakles to rhyme
with some plural of hysterical)

although one cannot quibble
at such democratizat or ask this of the lulz

—how much is left to go, Eli?
is it so very hard to die?

(ells left to go, many ells: strange, almost
Dada Nells from Imbros)

" 'We think,' they say, " 'that it is unjust
to carry women off, but to be anxious
to avenge rape is foolish—wise men
take no notice of such things' "—
attrib' 'The Persians'—Herodotus.

[the legal heirs to 'treasure L'
from the Calvert mound-side
of Hisarlik in dispute with
the Pushkin—Sophie Schliemann
arrayed in gold—who now
can say what when

— for thereof the arcsin of width/length
.4 indicates a 24 degree angle of *spatter*

the bullet and the rainbow

this will apply equally: archaeology/geology murder
the trajectory the rainbow the drift the erratics the spatter
extrusion and intrusion/the rapid cooling or the slow
—rate of insect attack post mortem

and after all this it was not after all
the black rats but infacto the gerbils
proliferate [adj] one malbenign sommer
in northern Chine in Mongolia
what spread the buboes of after all blackdeath
to Europus—

on the backs of the Mongol hordes—Simon Schama

go easy, go slow, Schliemann
says Calvert, alarmed at the sight
of a million spades. axes, steam hammers, explosives
most of all the robot tank-moles
such industry, such heedless illustry
he will cry shall we all, breathless child of the hill
.........................(thief of future past)—Madeleine Shine. 2008.

it merely means 'work,' says Heinrich
read Kapek when I hear the word
I reach for my Hanns Johst
when I hear the heart says Reich
I reach for my Brownian Motion
to rouse us, Waring, who's alive?

for the time has come the walrus said
to live of many things—Madeleine Shine. 2008.
*lustration (come back to this point?)*

"I don't know what to do"
—Anon 2015

these words uttered listlessly:
give me a look like a hostage crisis
(a culebra cut in Trojan prophylactic gold)

is this enough, Eli?
is it so very hard to die?

is bucket a compound noun?
is mama a compound noun-well
a clerkenwell (Oh well—John Winston Smith the Resignation-Lennon)

"I will try my best for that not to happen
if I feel suspicious I will
throw THROW it out of my head"

for we are holding a drug bee a writing bee
a sex bee a cookery bee a future bee a bee to be
—unknown; possibly from ben, a prayer or prayer meeting—
it is only formally and foolishly fortunate that we are not apiarists

(for what do you call it when a bunch of apiarists
gather to tend and discuss their livestock?

for though Anglo-Saxon, it rhymes
with the Arabic word for darling)

[shibari kinbaku lingchi -- come back to this?]

the kessel envisaged as a giant hedgehog

From Middle English frithien, from Old English friþian (“to give frith to, make peace with, be at peace with, cherish, protect, guard, defend, keep, observe”), from Proto-Germanic*friþōną (“to make peace, secure, protect”), from Proto-Indo-European *prēy-, *prāy- (“to like, love”). Cognate with Scots frethe, freith (“to set free, liberate”), Danish frede (“to have peace, protect, inclose, fence in”), Swedish freda (“to cover, protect, quiet, inclose, fence in”), Icelandic friða (“to make peace, preserve”).

when you were gestating birthing fixing

what dreams were begat of the world?

Margaret Shakespeare died age 1 year 1563
400 years before one's birth, before the deaths of Huxley
Kennedy [Jelly Fish Kiss] Robert Frost, Sylvia
Plath, Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline, a bullet from
the back of a bush Medgar Evers, William
Carlos Williams, Tristan Tzara, Tough Tony,
Jean Cocteau, Georges
Braque, Theodore Roethke, Elmore
James I gather unto myself such magic harvest
in sustenance for the late survival of birth
such dreams for a year for which also
the invention of sex and the Beatles-also-born
in vinyl and Bond-born in celluloid—Profumo,
well one need not mention

[that Ulster-rendered 'now' is a clusterfuck

of /ah/aw/ee/ phonemes (visibility moderate
to good, becoming schwa later)
and high-rising/falling terminal becoming cyclonic
quite unlike the monotone English a-oo
(Utsire an island around which herring swim
far, a long-long...)]

evidence of an immortal typist-monkey

unearthed near Stratford where ever ...

(Miss Fay Wray, come down come down—

ever too high in the widening gyre and gimble
in the Dædalus of thine own inner hast borne
thee too lofted in the Empire inner statehood
whose freudian grillers now will tak thee back ...)

... to that sweep of sunlit snow across the valley
—but something had gone out in her
and would not come again)

and then he knew
that was not where
he was going


another time-things: ice


O dark traveller, click the hyper-link 'the Weshesh'
on the 'Sea-Peoples' page of Wikipedia
find out, at last
where we have been all along
bouncing along the corridor
we did not take
to the hall of mirrors
for humankind cannot bear
very much bouncing bloody reflection


"Do you know Carl Garner, Brandon Garner

or Fast Eddie?"

I do not.

You don't have junk here (hooray!)

—Microsoft SmartScreen is working
to keep it out of your inbox too.


in the 1980s I worked as a recreation assistant
in Meanwood Park Hospital in Leeds, running a 'music
and movement workshop' for the 'mentally
disabled' residents. once while exploring
in this incapacity I found a dried-out brain in a dish
in a sunny (unused) upstairs room. whose abandoned brain,
I wondered, was that, left there to dry
like so much cast-off-offal, uneaten?


Dear Maria, before arrival in Umbria must we pass through Penumbria?


Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space—Spiritualized


Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies,
we are going through hell—William Carlos Williams


Please expect a little turbulence, ladies and gentlemen;
there are monsters in our midst—Alice Aforethought 1988


to join the Mile High Club
you really have to give a flying fuck

"Ach, ja"—Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss

Monday, November 20, 2017

Mile High Club

to join the Mile High Club
you really have to give a flying fuck


Notes for a Poem about Cursing (revizh 2017)

Sister Sue, tell me baby, what are we gonna do?—Mink Deville

time has gone wrong here for no reason
it keeps swinging me back

..........................look it's like this
like you've had a sort of stroke
let me explain that there are flowers
where your hands should be

but what is this called he keeps asking
day and night with that look about him

you have a condition which means
you have to be careful what you think

he insisted there was a warning in the sky
but it was just electricity 

humming & sparking

oh we told him right there and then:'ve had an episode are reassembling things
.............................without a plan

time has done something
there has been a catastrophic error
this poem has performed an illegal operation
& will now shut down

...........................the head and limbs are in the wrong places
...........................—it doesn't matter but some people
...........................will call it a monster

it went on for years
think of him as a boy facing the corner
in a pointed hat
is he a dunce or a magician
either way he's thinking something up

....................the thing is someone starts it
then you take over 

and don't know
how to stop

[your screensaver is a vision of your own death
the naked one reaching for you in the leaf mould]

..........................that's all it is

the beat goes on & the beat goes on

hold the flowers up to your face
work them until you see fingers
this might take years
dip the flowers in hot wax
think them into dripping clusters
of language and light

a sort of stroke—you need to think hard now
what was it that did the stroking?

this computer has not recovered
from a fatal error

(Published in Intercapillary Space April 09)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

eyelid bats modified

bats like rips in twilight

owls for now stolid as off-white statues
beaming in the boughs over the already black embankment above
hearing as we cannot

the shrieking of the bats
in the dead, electric
silence of dusk


Saturday, November 04, 2017

when you were tiny I carried
you on my back into the wind and snow
to explore the moors
and you didn't complain much

even when the snow blew into your ears
and both of us hurt a bit, but
I cushioned your little ears
and wrapped them up

you are too heavy for that now
and your exploring is beyond me

and now my heart is devastated
and doesn't quite know what to do

having turned itself so profoundly
to you


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Modernist Visions of the City: Joyce's 'The Dead' and Langston Hughes's poetry of Harlem.

At some early stage in its metonymising arc, the understanding of the Latin word for 'city,' urbs, merged with its juxtapositional notion of civitas, deriving from civis, meaning a resident of a city (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2017). This etymology endorses the general, if ill-defined, view that a city is the recognisable but quasi-mystical nexus of its inhabitants with the buildings and topographies which are their identifying physical idiom and expression. So we may feel entitled to examine this question of a city “presented up close and at a distance” in the rather dreamlike sense of a superpositioning of psychologies, histories, cultures, human bodies, and architectural structures. To examine a complex and entangled entity called 'Dublin,' for instance, in the flickering magic lantern of James Joyce's 'The Dead,' or another called 'New York' through the fervent, angry, celebratory affirmations that are the Harlem-words of Langston Hughes, is to experience these cities as liminal, as subjective, simulacraic characterisations of two specific cities, and as some deconstruction of the ultimate idea of city itself. These cities, with their shadow cities beyondGalway City, or the greater New York surrounding Harlembecome narratives and discourses, intertextual mosaics that are in some way real, and yet appear dreamlike. They are embattled from without; they bestride thresholds between old worlds (whose Baudelairean ghosts still clutch at the sleeve), and new, burgeoning worlds attempting to become, and we read of them as states hovering indeterminately between historicity and mythopoeia. They are liminal too in the anthropological sense of ritualistically incomplete, for these evocations are in some sense ritual texts suggesting or hoping for transformative social epiphanies and actualisations as their conclusions; and the voices, characters, structures, terrains and events they present are captured at indefinite waypoints between their previous identities and the indeterminate outcomes they foreshadow. 

Liminal is also the word used to translate another signifier for in-betweenness: the Tibetan bardo, representing an intermediate state between life and death. And the Harlem we find in Langston Hughes is such a state, a physical place whose earlier incarnations have died (though architectural and other cultural shells remain), but whose human renaissance, whose next manifestation, which Hughes is wishing into being, is as yet incomplete—for instance, the 'Harlem Renaissance,' for all its lyrical homages to black women, has at this point provided genuine emancipation or equality for very few of them. In 'The Dead' too we find everywhere this intermediate state: to read through the dream-streets and iconography of Joyce's Dublin is to feel the mythic Dead rise through the layers of the other Dublins that lie sleeping below. And hovering above Joyce's city are the two Biblical taxiarchs, the totemic and militarised archangels: the uncertain, conditional-tense Gabriel, and the affirmative and cohortative Michael, existing in a state of cold war unrealised even by Gabriel; both dead and undead in their different ways, contending to see which of them, which of the dreams they represent—and whose version of the city—will be most alive when the snow settles. And we feel this tension also in the representation of the new Dublin middle class represented by Gabriel, the “Western Briton” (Joyce in Norris, 2006, p. 165), and by both Miss Ivors and his own wife, Gretta, representing the Irish resurgence. These incomplete rituals of becoming in these cities are, of course, enacted through words; through images, musics and song; and through layers of excavated or constructed myth. (Norris, 2006; Gates and Appiah, 1993)

'The Dead' is undoubtedly the text from 'Dubliners' that takes us most deeply into the essential mythologies of Joyce's Dublin and its 'geologic' layering. Selecting any of the available texts from Hughes to do the same level of representation initially appears more difficult: these are saccades of up-close Harlem life rather than the grand sweep of multi-layered perspective which is 'The Dead.' Their Modernism is of another type entirely, from a different continent, with locally differing, if allied, socio-political imperatives; but they too give us insight into the experience of a city, and of a people striving to orient and reinvent itself in a cultural and politicised context which would have been impossible for most Black people in the US only a few years earlier, and which would still, even during the 1920s, have been unimaginable in the still-resentful, erstwhile slave-states of the American South with its lynching culture and Ku Klux Klan, and with the 'Jim Crow Laws' operating as minimally-modified reworkings of the 'Black Codes.' As with the deep history in every corner of 'The Dead,' Hughes's poems, despite their celebration of Harlem, still evoke the poverty and suffering of the 1920s, and the deep histories of slavery, and of Africa beyond. These realities too stare at us from every shadow, and we stare down at Harlem, as with Dublin, in this far wider historical context. As Hughes pithily states it in 'Not A Movie,' “there ain't no Ku Klux on a 133rd”, showing us both the joy of this huge fact, and of Harlem as a decisive refuge and haven, but also the roots that clutch, and the act of remembering the disenfranchising south with its extremes of racist violence: “Well they rocked him with road apples […] and whipped his head with clubs”. So while Joyce's and Hughes's texts give us to differing degrees images of cities in paralysis—perfectly illustrated by Gabriel's absurdist 'equestrian' perambulations around a symbol of his own unrecognised oppression—they show us also peoples historically oppressed and brutalised, but for whom there are signs that change has begun, even if for both peoples that change will, as we now know, yet be long and bloody. (Johnson, 2000)

The rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm, Honey,” states the incongruously asexual Hughes in 'Lenox Avenue: Midnight', and this is approximately the first moment in history when anyone could have written these revolutionary words, by which he means that the frequencies and cadences of Jazz are somehow mathematically observable and integral in nature, in the rain, on the hissing and rumbling streets, even in the structures and idioms of the city and its inhabitants. It is the rhythm of life and therefore of sex and the creating of life, and he writes these words in the context of Harlem at night, thereby celebrating and proclaiming the sexed-up, dangerous, jazzed-up nightlife of Harlem. But unmistakably too we sense the alienation and weariness in the poem; this is an area where street cars rumble all night; haven though it may be, this is not some quiet, salubrious zone of the city, and we have the defiant binaries of Hughes peering at his own reflection in Harlem, painting something “dark yet shining, harsh yet gentle, bitter yet jubilant—a Freedom song sung in our midst” (Blesh in Gates and Appiah, 1993. p. 41). But more important, perhaps, than Hughes's words themselves—as Harold Bloom and Arnold Rampersad have suggested—is the fact of him writing them here in this moment. In some ways Hughes is his own opus, his “life a larger poem than any he could write” (Bloom, 2007, p. 3), the detail of his words less significant than the facts of his peripatetic and demonstrative life (at a time when, in reality, few black people had such general freedoms), and his proclaiming that this Harlem, this emancipatory mind-thing, is now possible here, so shortly after the dreadful history of slavery and subsequent oppression, and of the South's de facto ethnic cleansing. So Hughes's poetry of Harlem is a flag waving in a new breeze; it is a decisive snub; and at least in its authorial intent, it asserts a district displacing the beating heart of New York from 'The Great White Way,' or from Broadway, to Lenox Avenue, which he unequivocally constructs as mythic. (Rampersad, in Bloom, 2007)

The derivation of 'Jazz' remains uncertain (though elaborate associations between 'Jezebel' and 'orgasm' and 'jism' and 'jasm' have been proposed), but undoubtedly there is a sexualising of the Harlem scene in 'Lenox Avenue: Midnight,' as there is in other Hughes poems such as the rather infantilising 'Harlem Sweeties,' or 'Juke Box Love Song.' And 'Jazz' is undoubtedly a new, sexy, magic word of the city—recently declared 'the word of the 20th century' by the American Dialect Society (Wikipedia, 2017)—trumpeting both the freedom and equality of black Americans, as the unmistakable virtuosity of Jazz musicians left white visitors to Harlem with little credible rationale for notions of racial supremacy. The word is powerful, and as with many other black idioms and neologisms it will go on to imprint itself upon the world. It is a new structure raised first in New Orleans, but now here in Harlem, and when the white folks awake they will see it towering there on the skyline—they will wonder and resent and scoff, and finally they will embrace it. So here we have Hughes spreading the word of this Jazzed-up new freedom in a new black language, which is informal and conversational, and rather more authentic than, for instance, the non-Jamaican-vernacular poems of Claude McKay, which remain less stylistically free, less urban and modern, and largely “imprisoned in the pentameter” (Brathwaite in Jenkins, 2003, p. 285). Hughes, albeit in a more readerly sense than Joyce, is announcing some sort of revolution, and the modern freedom of his language tells us something about the city and its voices. But alongside the celebration we feel always the menace of the city outside: that other city where few black people yet live, the surrounding vastness of New York with its overarching and watchful narratives filled with “images of impenetrable whiteness” (Morrison, 1992, p. 33). “There ain't no Ku Klux on a 133rd” is not merely a triumphal cry of escape from southern oppression: with its rejection of other potential stopping points en route to Harlem (Washington, Baltimore, Newark), it is a decisive identification of territory and a warning. So Hughes's poetry, language and consciousness constitute, perhaps, a unique Modernism, which will become profoundly influential, will lead, ultimately, amongst other things, to the white Beat culture, to Kerouac and Ginsberg et al emulating its Jazz styling. “The gods are laughing at us,” declares Hughes, becoming in some way one of those laughing gods overarching the city which he himself is instrumental in creating—and an enquiry of modern black Americans for the purposes of this essay reveals that he is still regarded as iconic in this process. Whatever the alleged limitations of his poetry, Hughes, “well before his compeers [...] demonstrated how to use black vernacular language and music […] as a poetic diction, a formal language of poetry” (Gates, 1993, pp. x-xi), and we feel keenly both the rising of this language from the shadows, and with it the rising of a new city. (Wikipedia, 2017)

So while 'The Dead' is perhaps more writerly, giving us components rather than overt declarations, here too we are presented with—or enabled to construct—a city whose spirit and language are rising from the dead, and of actual or latent conflict. The paintings of 'the balcony scene' and the 'little princes' are effectively 'intertextual,' intersecting images of death, factional violence, and blood feud, which we know are already spreading and worsening across Dublin at this time, as though the 'Furies' (and would Joyce have failed to notice the Erin in Erinyes, the Greek name for the 'Furies?') are indeed rising, called back, like Furey's name itself evoking some Homeric or 'Aeschylusian' atavism of retribution and reclamation, in poetical and linguistic opposition even to Gabriel's surname, 'Conroy,' which we can reasonably deconstruct into a Joycean wordplay meaning with the king. And in the references to the surrounding city, we have the church on Haddington Road, next to Wolfe Tone Square; we have the jarring binary juxtaposition of tyranny and rebellion in the Wellington Monument near the site of the 'Phoenix Park Murders;' and in all the references to imagery, to statuary, even to music and to the food served, we have these same binary tensions that are presented between Michael and Gabriel; between Galway and Dublin; between the west and east coasts; even between Gabriel and Gretta in the vast closing epiphany between them which says so much about Dublin and Ireland and the rising (if partly invented) spirit of its history and tradition. All of this is wonderfully captured in the instant visual canonizing of Gretta captured against the stained glass in John Huston's film of 'The Dead' like the the 'Spirit of Éireann' (contemporaneous poster-icon adversary of the 'West Briton') suddenly incarnate in Dublin, in that atavistic burst of colour and song which has Gabriel suddenly transfixed, though still failing to grasp the resurrection here, still in denial until the final moments where he realises he has been competing with the chthonic Michael, whose undead Gallic spirit and the discourse it represents—which he had hoped was long exorcised from Gretta and from Dublin—has been here throughout. And if he had only looked more closely at the city and his wife, perhaps he might have seen it all along.