Monday, July 15, 2019

Sea Caves (a semi-pataphor)

Summer, and the long stalks are already ripe
with waves breaking through their spear-points
as July winds breathe from the sun's mouth

and as in a sea cave we conceal ourselves there
like blooded hares we hide ourselves there
like hares, motionless in all but their darting eyes

will flatten into the earth, invisible to all but scent
and the hounds, unfoxed, have fastened, their baying
their need for blood, already in our ears, growing

louder as they crash through the corn, dripping
lust from their lips, still bloody from the last
of our brood, to where we hide without hope


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Clerihew (first attempt).

Theresa Mary May
to win one last hooray
should welcome Boris Johnson
with some petrol and a Ronson.


Triggerfish ...

Episode 21 of the Triggerfish Critical Review is out now, and number 22 is coming very soon!

Saturday, July 13, 2019

alliterative poeme à la mode in partly rhyming couplets

may might
can could

will would
shall should


Thursday, July 11, 2019


Holy Jumping Trump

so there comes this day
when Trump, all the shame
of what he is

somehow settling in him

and the press are there
and the right wing dicks are there
and we are all there

and he jumps
but it's not like

the arc of some graceful bird
because halfway down he gets stuck, impaled
on a pink and gold flagpole
and he wriggles there

and slowly dies
and his blood runs down the side of Trump Tower
in a big dark streak

and afterwards we walk home
wondering how long
they'll leave him up there turning black
having his eyes pecked out

by any twittering starlings that happen by
and wish to consume
the optic ooze

of today's fake views


The City Incarnate—presented up close and at a distance: Modernist visions of James Joyce and Langston Hughes.

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. 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 the 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 etc), 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 tensions 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 expressed 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 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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Depth Charges: a short story.

Depth Charges
..     - --- ---     .- --     -. --- -     .-     -... .. -     - .- -- . -.. ·-·-·-     ..     - --- ---     .- --     ..- -. - .-. .- -. ... .-.. .- - .- -... .-.. . —Walt Whitman

From this distance in time an Atlantic mist shrouds everything. There are no films, no recordings, no diaries—only snatches of song through the static, old stories half-heard on a broken wartime radio: the convoys; Morse code; U-Boats calling to each other like bats...                                             
            My Grandfather, Walter, speaks in bursts, in a cracked old Scouse accent, his voice unnaturally high and emasculated by age, squeaking sometimes like an adolescent boy with his voice breaking:                                                                                                                 
            “They weren't crying for God; they were screaming for their bloody mothers.” His eyes are grey and wide and wet like the sea, his voice a quiet shriek.
            “The sea was all on fire around the ships, and the men were all jumping in.”         
            He clamps his entire face shut—almost gurning—shakes his head, turns back to the “Daily Sun”, as he calls it. We sit in the little neat kitchen that smells of bacon fat and Mr Muscle, with my Nana, Alice, wiping around him—she is a big, apron-clad fuss of tidiness and disapproval. I am nineteen, old enough and young enough to feel bored and superior. I am only really here because of my mother's insistence that I visit my grandparents occasionally. That and some sense of guilt.
            “Their bloody mothers,” he repeats.
            Oh don't go on.” Her face is clamped shut too, scowling at him in his nondescript crimplene slacks; his beige cardigan with its brown leather buttons; even a tie—one of those narrow 1960s knitted ties—on a weekday, for Christ’s sake, just sitting in the kitchen doing nothing but being bloody irritating, with his thin, haunted, grey face, his thick white hair even at this age. Silly old sod. Why couldn't he just die?
She outgrew him long ago, and has been ashamed of him ever since. What she can't outgrow are her weird Anglican sensibilities of marriage as an unbreakable set of vows—for better or for worse. Better to live a lifetime of contempt and misery than break the rules, presumably.
            “You seen this?” He's jabbing the paper, his eyes furious. “Bloody bananas now, the swine...” He hates Europeans, hates the ‘Common Market.’ He would have loved Brexit, but he’d have to have lived to 102-years-old to have seen all that, and that was always unlikely.
            “Have you read it? 'Ave yer?”
            “Oh don't go on...” The silly old sod.

And the nights of burning ships, of men screaming for their mothers, are the 19th and 20th of October, 1940. The convoy is HX 79, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool. Walter is a Merchant Marine soldier at sea, on an oil tanker, operating a Bofors pom-pom gun on anti-aircraft duty. He is twenty-six; his skin is raw from the chafing of his always-wet black gunnery uniform. He doesn't know it yet, but up ahead in the Western Approaches before Ireland the Wolfpack gathers. There are even two aces present—Gunther Prien in U47, and Otto Kretschmer in U99—and over the next forty-eight hours theirs and other U-Boats will sink thirty-two ships. Walter steams into history.
            Signals bounce across the radio waves in Ultra, summoning more sea monsters to the feast; but this is 1940, and the famous codebreakers from Bletchley Park are not yet adept at cracking Ultra. Alan Turing has not yet secretly saved the world or been hounded to death for being Gay. This is what the U-Boat crews call Die Glückliche Zeit—The Happy Time—when the Enigma coding is still intact, when the convoy system is still ineffective. The time when no one could yet do a damn thing about it. Walter steams through a fiery seascape at night, seeing burning men jump from burning ships into the burning sea. They do not cry for God.
And after these two nights Walter will never cry for God again.

And then it is many years later, and we are sitting in the garden outside my parents' old house above the Clwyd Valley in North Wales (where we had moved to escape Liverpool), drinking sparkling wine in the sunshine. I am house-sitting for the summer, and Alice is describing dancing to Jazz at the Rialto Club when Walter was on leave, how he looked so handsome capering in his green suit. He sounds like a leprechaun, and it's hard to imagine; he is an old man now, kneeling wheezily on the grass, somewhat improbably fashioning a box kite from newspaper and sticks (kites have long been his party piece). Beside him is a broken concertina he picked up somewhere; he can't play it for shit, but he's been annoying everyone with it for the last year.
            “And I got a gorgeous green dress to match.” Alice is zoning in and out of the past like a stage psychic alternating between talking to the audience and talking to the spirit world. I imagine them in green, whirling under bright lights, twenty-something, wartime, filled with whatever stolen relief people got from alcohol and music and love, and a few quick days off from the war.
             “Oh you shoulda seen us.”
            “D'ya remember that time, Lal...” This has ever been his term of endearment for her, but she cuts him off. She won't remember for him, but she remembers for me, her eyes shining like a little girl.
            “We met at the opening of the Mersey Tunnel. There were thousands there. Even the King and Queen an' all.” And she is truly rapt, as though her moist eyes are seeing into heaven.
            “Aw, you've never seen such a day.”
            She shakes herself a little, and sighs, and we watch Walter building his kite and whistling to himself toothlessly. The sun shines; there are birds singing. From here, we can see right across the valley to the brown-purple heathered flanks of the Berwyn Mountains.
            “Keep talking,” I say. I want to know about everything while they are in this mood; they have almost become kids again.  I am about thirty now, and no longer so superior. I have the feeling that this may be the last time ever, that this moment in the sunshine will be a kind of ending. But Alice is suddenly shy.
            “Let's see if his silly kite flies then,” she says.

The Atlantic crossing is cold and brutal, with the ever-present dread of what lurks below. You imagine them singing Nazi songs down there in their iron bubbles, or holding their breaths, waiting. They invade your dreams when you climb into your wet, smelly bunk, which was vacated ten seconds earlier by your predecessor. The ship rumbles on, shuddering and moaning as ships do when you lie deep in their bellies. There is an overpowering reek of male sweat and fear. Around you in the night, other ships catch fire, then slide into the deep, plummeting towards the sea-floor far below. If you are on deck, sometimes you can see the desperate, oily faces of the men in the sea, shining up in the firelight; you hear their cries. They won't last long in that cold. At least that is a mercy; better that the weather was freezing so they would die quicker. Leaving men behind in the water was perhaps the hardest thing of all. You wanted time to speed up so they'd be dead already. You wanted to stop for them, but you couldn't or your ship would be next, and then you'd be in the water, watching them all steam by, every gaunt-faced man on deck trying to pretend you didn't exist. Perhaps—as you drowned—you'd think of home, of Whitby Street: chickens in the back yard, and the outside toilet shared with the neighbours. Freezing your arse off in winter. Or perhaps you'd remember Jazz dancing at the Rialto. (Years later—in 1981—the Rialto too will burn like a ship from your dreams on the first night of the Toxteth riots. But by then your dancing days will be long over.)

There are calmer nights on the convoys too: the sky low-hanging with more stars than anyone could imagine, and the ships gliding through luminescent green fields of plankton. You could draw up bucketfuls of glittering sea water that shone bright enough to read by.  And then the sun spills out like dancing gold over the wave-tops at dawn, and you make it safely around Ireland—Rockall, Shannon, Sole, Fastnet, Lundy, Irish Sea... River Mersey. River Mersey...
            You are alive: what finer sight could there be than the Liver Buildings drawing you home, the Liver Birds ushering you in on their angel-wings...
             And the good old sexist joke about the Liver Birds (one looks in towards the city, the other out across the Mersey) is that the one gazing out is a wife looking to see if her man is returning from sea. The other is her sailor husband, coming home, looking to see if the pubs are open yet.

I would like to say that the kite soars out across the valleys of North Wales, mounting into the shimmering haze of the sunset like a distant dream (as Alice will remember it later). The reality is that it flies shakily on the breeze until the string snaps, and we never see it again. 
            Walter is unused to gardens. He was born in 1914 on a back street. His mother would drive him out of the house to make money, barefoot, from when he was ten years-old, and wouldn't allow him back in until he had made sixpence. He would scurry like a rat under trestle tables at Saint John's Market, scavenging vegetable scraps to sell. If he didn't make his sixpence he would have to sleep on the street, even in midwinter. He told old stories of Liverpool: of sectarian warfare spilt over from Ireland; of gang fights and criminality. In one of these stories a man is dragged from a pub on Lower Breck Road sometime in the 1950s, and held against the wall outside, his legs forced apart, while other men—drunk and laughing—kick him repeatedly in the groin until he is almost destroyed.
            “I saw him years after—years after—and he was still on crutches like,” Walter says, shaking his head with that grimace that permanently oscillates somewhere between anxiety and outrage. (I am ten years-old when I first hear this story, and years later I still feel the male horror it implanted.)

Walter has been a survivor, a barefoot child foraging in a brutal city; a sailor somehow making it home while all around other men died in the freezing, burning water. But Alice too has been a survivor. She tells stories of the Liverpool Blitz of 1940, of hiding behind a mattress with the kids just before the front wall of their house was blown in by a landmine dropped from a Dornier (everyone had learnt the different engine sounds of German bombers by then). They all survived, though the coarse, noisy parrot—called Gracie—forgotten in the panic, was forever cured of repeating “bloody swine” (in which it had been diligently tutored by Walter).
            The next morning, Alice runs along still-burning streets to fetch the bread and milk with walls collapsing around her. She survives. (Years later, we kids would play in the rubble of these 'bommies,' as we called them, wearing inherited gas-masks, little thinking of the body parts still lost below.)
            Small wonder then that you would grab the chance to go out drinking and dancing in green after nights like that; small wonder that you might grab the chance to do anything, with your husband away at sea, perhaps never to return. And Alice's second daughter—named Joan—looks unlike the others. She is big-boned. black-haired, olive-skinned: a changeling.
            And pale, slight Walter really isn't sure if he was on leave at the right time to explain all of that. And perhaps something dark rises in him like a sea monster.
In the garden that day, having forgotten Walter's “silly kite,” we talk of relatives, of daughters and granddaughters, of infidelities and marriage breakups.
             “I think,” Alice says, “when the sex is gone, it's all gone.” She is wearing a crocheted cardigan and black trousers. I've never before heard her utter the word 'sex.' Walter doesn't say anything; he has no script, no neural pathways for such exchanges, and his wife is an uncomfortable mystery to him in these moments. His kite is lost somewhere in a clump of nettles.
            A few years later, Joan, now in her fifties, accuses Walter of molesting her as a child. Alice doesn't want to know; Walter surrounds himself with an iron curtain of unhearing.
             “He did it, Mum,” says Joan, whose hair is still jet black, whose skin is still olive.
             “It's too late, Joan,” says Alice, her face set like a big quivering rock. “It's too late. I don't want to know now.”
            Whatever outcome Joan has hoped for—perhaps agonised over—for all those years, it is not this. It is not yet the age of #MeToo, and it is mentioned no more, but the next time Joan can bear Walter's presence is at his funeral.

My last memory is of an old yellow man with frightened eyes in a respirator mask like a spaceman, with a nebulizer machine gurgling along next to the bed. He is dying of emphysema, despite having quit smoking decades earlier. He sits there looking out with eyes like a drowning man, while Alice cleans the house around him, smothering his weak voice with the vacuum, cleaning everywhere five times a day, sucking up his remnants in advance so there would be nothing left of him—sucking up the time he has left, and with it all memory, wiping it all clean.
            Most of his clothes have already been washed, ironed, folded, and packed in bin-liners ready for the charity shop, so that when they wheel his body out, a minute or two after he dies, there is already little trace of him, as though some Atlantic fog-bank has rolled in, shrouding everything.
             “I imagine Walter as someone who could get a tune out of anything, says the unreliable vicar at the funeral a few days later, nodding and smiling at us all rather cheerfully and expectantly.
And we all remember that damned concertina, and wonder just who the hell he could be talking about.

twenty-three minutes to seven

평안한 잠 · 정선원: Really, nothing further ought to have been said
Madeleine Shine

a watchdog with the acumen
to keep the Russians in the picture

of a new struggle, a dismal day
the implications of a no deal contributing

to the poor mood, looking for a clear sign
with the degree of urgency it has stretched

itself too far behind the curve on the second day
—so very little to indicate the number of people

whom smoking declines by 2030—we are committed
to important factors (we all breathe 

at the moment (a US-style levy? a very clever
grass court game in an hour's time trouble

and strife)(—the first man on the moon
this Saturday afternoon vying to become

a head to head debate a row with October 31st
in sight to compel same sex marriage except

where the mother's life is at risk of losing
all credibility—setting a strong example

but needs to do more threatening the highest
ratings the worst performing the uranium ambassador

spoke of constant pressure to ensure ministers
are promising change refusing to say whether

our man in Washington was one of the moments
when Mr Johnson refused to equivocate if

a narrow margin matters the key killer blow

your top come what may
not have a grip on detail the only thing he

believes matters as the hamster wheel of gloom [BJ]
—defeatism, managerialism—confirmed in their view

of a welcome breath where both men seem
absolutely in lockstep on the other hand

of the real dividing line and has been 
throughout project fear in a quarter

of an hour it is twenty-three minutes to seven
what are they trying to achieve in the effort

to shine a global spotlight?



Fake News (unending cyborg translation).

fausses nouvelles

vous voyez ce qu'il pense être entre ces mains pourrait être a été
dans ces mains ces mains qui tendent la main
devant Andrew Jackson patpat vous voyez

le besoin quand ils crient vous voyez la décoloration
de l'air entre eux crier ou tirer ils aiment les deux
à égalité n'aime pas la traînée de larmes les codeurs

la foule la foule lubrique et l'équipage dans le sens
de chanté oh comment ils équipent comment brut ils sont
chatte mon amour ma belle pipi-vert pousser mon chapeau

mon chapeau rouge tu vois comme tout est rose et doré
grand encore la plus grande génération ils continuent à dire que
combien des plus grands sont venus à la maison et ont battu le noir

et bleu ce qui est si grand sur le racisme même
son âme est décentrée maintenant, mais voyez l'air capricieux
entre eux voir l'air comme une voiture pleine de vapeurs

dans une grange rouge un balancement penchant dans une ruelle
laissé pour mort balancer avec un visage noir à l'aube pour vos enfants
pour trouver votre langue qui a serpenté à travers le pays

la terre qui n'est pas à vous oui Pocahontas quel rire
à peine un ADN à montrer pas pur-sang comme la chose
avec des mains qui ont saisi du tout hors de portée tout

non désirés simplement pour souiller aucun amour ni autre chose
sentez-vous le mal baise dans l'air l'air
vous voulez de fausses nouvelles regardez là-bas


Sol Sistere (en Francais)

ça fait plaisir d'apprendre à vous connaître
sentir votre chaleur augmenter
sentir votre lumière se propager
de plus en plus à l'intérieur
mais nous sommes des choses inconstantes
et déjà maintenant, à notre moment

de plus grande intimité
nous commençons à sentir la légère traction
de notre autre amour de loin
et tous les jours maintenant
nous partons un peu plus

solstice joyeux-triste


Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, and Time.

‘Time is a relative and subjective concept in these texts.' (Between the Acts and Burnt Norton.)

We might usefully take a quotation from Burnt Norton as leitmotif for Between the Acts: “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189). Woolf's multifarious uses of the imagery, imaginings or realities of time are seeded everywhere throughout her text, almost to the point of madness, embedded and propagated, all seemingly bent to one end – the great, overarching, elusive fact of present time, the numinous place where she experiences her epiphanous  “moments of being” (Woolf, in Asbee, 2017, p. 196). And this centrality of present time, as perhaps one of the primary purposes of her text sees the co-option of all other forms of time, including factual history and the abstracted time she appears to claim that we generally inhabit, gathered into her subjective scheme, relativised against the quickened time to which she directs us, which we were perhaps about to witness for ourselves when “the curtain rose [and] They spoke” (Woolf, 2008, p. 198). Both Eliot and Woolf deploy objective, recorded history, including personal anecdotes (a visit to the derelict gardens of Burnt Norton, for instance), but both assemble all these facts into their philosophic schemes, which have – superficially, at least – something in common. Both are concerned with the quasi-mystical pre-eminence and immanence of Present Time, which, to Eliot's syncretistic religious thinking (“there is only the dance” (Eliot, 1983, p. 191) conflates Christ with Shiva, whose mythic dance engenders the cycles of life, regeneration, and dissolution – time, in fact), potentially includes all of time. And to advance their arguments both use actual historical time (even prehistorical time: “a riot of rhododendrons and humming birds” (Woolf, 2008, p. 98)), relative to fictional time, narrative time, mythic time, and present time. Our answer to the (possibly tautological) proposition that “time is a relative and subjective concept”, then, must be that yes, time is variously subjective and relative – while also objective and non-relative – in these two texts, as it is in our own lives. And both writers are concerned to show us the great connectivity of relative time as they perceive it, in their own highly subjective – though attemptedly objectified – visions, of time's passing, of transition, and of the ineffable and mystic present at “the still point of the turning world” (Eliot, 1983, p. 191).

We might note, in passing, that the titles of both texts (the overall title of Four Quartets rather than just Burnt Norton) relate to forms of dramatic or musical art-forms, in which – while subjective time may be integral to their devising and composition – time becomes objective through performance. The constructions themselves might be regarded as entirely human and subjective, but, once played or spoken, the time elapsed and what occurred in that time becomes fixed and historical (especially if recorded). Between the Acts has an unusual level of theatricality for a novel, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Woolf's stated intentions concerning her vision for prose fiction: “It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose. It will be dramatic, and yet not a play” (Woolf, in Asbee, 2015, p. 193); and Four Quartets, with it's musically-reminiscent title, might almost operate successfully as a play for voices – so both have an association with art-forms in which time, both objective and subjective, is more integral and vital than usual in either novels or poetry. As Eliot claims, “Words move, music moves / Only in time” (1983, p. 194), perhaps invoking the connection himself.

The first names we encounter in Between the Acts are pastoral, classical and/or religious in origin, establishing an immediate field of locality, of continuity, and of deep time underlying the text. They seem pertinent to Woolf's imperatives and to her presentation of time, and it seems unlikely that they are merely serendipitous: Haines derives from Old German hagano, meaning 'hawthorn'; Oliver is, of course, of olive trees; and Giles derives from the Greek aigidion: a young goat. And superpositioning these almost druidic, agrarian images is Isa – which, alongside being “a shortened version of Isabella” (Asbee, 2017, p. 203), is a variant translation of Jesus, representative of the traditional, quasi-Arthurian, spiritual compact between these English humans and their land. And, as though foregrounding the pagan antecedents of this ancient relationship, Isa is also a diminutive form of Isis-Fortuna, the mother/fertility goddess imported into England two thousand years earlier along Roman roads such as that adjacent to 'Pointz Hall' in Woolf’s text. Adding further metaphoric layers to this existential matrix of time and nature, Mrs Haines is “goosefaced” (Woolf, 2008, p. 3) and looking for things to gobble, while Isa arrives “like a swan” (p. 3) adorned with pigtails and peacocks. (Time's passage operates even here at this almost Joycean level of near-invisibility, through scatters of allusion.)

And of course their conversation is of cows and horses; nightingales and laughing daylight birds; worms, snails, Romans, Britons, children and graves; and Isa's thoughts are illicit fantasies of herself and Mr Haines amorously transmogrified into actual waterfowl. Most importantly, perhaps somewhat comedically – lest we fail to grasp Woolf's multiple, metamorphic imagery of the land and the people, of the rooting and propagating, of human and animal husbandry through time – their central topic is the optimum siting of their collective excrement, perhaps the most quintessential motif of the quotidian and the cyclic, the most base and essential; the seasonal and the regenerative and the mortal (almost itself a stark image of the 'dance of Shiva') – itself a ticking clock measuring animal and human lives. “What a thing to talk about on a night like this!” (Woolf, 2008, p. 3) exclaims Mrs Haines, but what sort of night does she think it is? And is she protesting or applauding? Perhaps both, in keeping with the numerous binaries and indeterminacies, and the “random and tentative” (Woolf, 2008, p. xiii) nature of the novel; no doubt this is deliberately vague, as are both the tacit characterisation of time, and the hinted dual role of ordure as both filth and nutrient. In all of these ways, from the outset, we are located and immersed in a layered nexus of human frames of time and place, of belonging and interconnectedness; of an inescapable corporeal, spiritual, and temporal alliance with the living, entangled, root-and-bone charnel house of the natural world, expressed through Woolf's (and our) dreamlike, historical, and ongoing constructions within and around it.

Notwithstanding his rather unconvincing (one almost suspects grudging) qualifications of “perhaps ... [and] ... If” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189) at the opening of Burnt Norton, Eliot seems to make overt and strident declarations of what time is, and how it works (rather exceeding the discoveries of physicists in the process) and it is difficult to see how such confident declarations by fiat amount to much more than personal beliefs. Ultimately it may be possible to find Eliot guilty here of that most tempting of poetical transgressions: telling rather than showing. In reality, his attempts at showing – he shows us age, dereliction, children, foliage; life, death and decay – do not truly connect to his assertions about time; they may be appealing, may even be correct, but the showing does not logically represent them and render them shown, and despite these attempts, Eliot's time remains deeply subjective. Woolf – avoiding grandiose attempts at objectivity – conjures in her readers an experience of her diverse discourses of time through her distorting and conflictual use of the structures of language, and by a near-bombardment with imagery and allusion, by which she gradually envelops us in a densely layered accretion of images of both temporal connectivity and relativism (“Tick, tick, tick went the machine” (Woolf, 2008, p. 159), with her own actual death perhaps operating as the de facto final act of Miss La Trobe's pageant. Woolf evokes time through what seems a reasonable imitation of human consciousness, flitting around, intermittently, capriciously – even chaotically – concentrating, remembering, musing, calculating, posturing, repeating, wishing, lamenting ... Eliot evokes his own subjective vision of time in his slow-paced, expansive rhythms (especially so in his own mellifluous and persuasive recorded reading); he initially appears more comforting, more enticing in his reassuring, paternalistic imagery of time, speaking almost as though endowed with some divine licence, but one suspects it is Woolf who – though with equal artifice – expresses greater honesty, and a vision of time more familiar to humans in its broken mosaic than is Eliot's prophetic sonority.

Eliot also makes claims on the land and on heritage, perhaps feeling for his own roots and his sense of English continuity at a time of slowly advancing national crisis and personal transition. But alongside being captivated by the poetical mastery and musicality of Burnt Norton, we should perhaps remember that Eliot's wider subjectivity around time and continuity and belonging includes disturbing and prescriptive messages such as the following, from two years earlier in 1933: “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” (Eliot, in Philips, 2011) – which could almost be from the pages of Mein Kampf. And we should consider Eliot's suggestions of his own missionary role – “the whole of modern literature is corrupted by what I call Secularism” (Eliot, in Davies and Fraser, 2017, p. 155). Perhaps then we might perceive a subtext to his ruminations upon time. For Eliot, time is an exactingly focused figure of rhetoric and a rather cynical cohortative to the reader; for Woolf, time is running out; it is real, urgent, and honest. Woolf sets Between the Acts just prior to the beginning of WW2, having already decided that she was unlikely to survive another year, expecting that she and her Jewish husband would be killed by the Nazis, whose invasion barges were already massing across the English Channel. One detects a great appeal to time, an invocation of the vast river of English history, animated by this fear and fatalism, animated also by Woolf's antipathy to war, to Fascism, to anti-Semitism. Woolf's time is a wishful and gentle time of remembrance (ushering us towards the wakefulness of present time), not a declamatory or pompous time. Time is indeed bent subjectively to her service, to that of her vision of England, its people, and its literature, and it is – one suspects – a time system engendered by her own feelings of time ending, of imminent invasion, or of death from a random bomb, or perhaps of an intended suicide.

Poets, like anyone else, are of course permitted to cogitate upon time and the universe, but unless they have special knowledge beyond that held by science or the rest of Humanity, there is no reason why we should grant their conclusions special credence. Eliot's formula is to intersperse his grandiloquent propositions with more Modernistic and personal or allusive detail, as if in support of his points, but the reality may be that the more poetic and tangential asides, such as “Go, said the bird, for the leaves are full of children” (Eliot, 1983, p. 190), only reinforce the subjectivity of the whole, and one might prefer to read them – they are wonderfully poetic, of course – without the sermonizing. And the rhetorical devices, the use of chiasmus (rhetorical reversal), anaphora – the extended parallelism of the word “time” repeated eleven times – are always redolent of preaching, and are familiar fare both in sermons and in ostentatious political speeches. Eliot's marginally qualified considerations concerning time, for instance, such as “all time is eternally present” (Eliot, 1983, p. 190) sound impressive, and his authoritative tone and magisterial register may make it easy to miss his crucial “if”, but he might, with as much justification and authority, have considered that “all time is not eternally present.” His meditations seem disingenuous and groundless, if rather messianic, and the tone suggests not revelation or conclusion, but that he is in fact presenting a favoured and highly subjective vision of time, one presumably congruent with some syncretism of his studies of Buddhism/Hinduism, Catholic theology, and his actual high Anglican faith. So we may be entitled to conclude that these are not objective passages gleaned from some great personal breakthrough into new knowledge, but are simply propaganda reflecting his personal reading of religious dogma.

Much of Eliot's life, of course, might also be said to be between the acts, as he repeatedly transitioned to new states of style and belief, including those of his personal life as well as his literary work. This compartmentalisation of time perhaps gives it added resonance as he gazes out and ponders its significance, and the ever-presence of time and potential time experienced as both history and non-history, of constructed other-memory. So Eliot – as with the characters in Woolf's novel – is playing his own localised historical pageant, and also establishing a sort of eternity, also enacting his own life against the larger pageant of time itself, envisaged as some grand cosmic cycling imperceptible to humans confined always in an apparent present moment, their perceptions limited to personal saccades.

One wonders if Woolf's claim that the meaning of Eliot's poetry eluded her – “I am held off from understanding by magic” (Woolf in Asbee, 2017, p. 185) – was in fact a way of mollifying Eliot without having to engage uncomfortably with his religious/political beliefs, being both married to a Jew, and a committed and certain atheist herself, which itself requires a wholly different conception of time than that required by religion and expressed by Eliot. And following this relativism between the two writers and their time systems, signifiers of time – its passage, its seeming cessation, and its various past periods or moments – occur everywhere in Between the Acts, as do relativisms between present time (even present time as the future: “And after that, what? […] Present time. Ourselves” Woolf, 2008, p. 158)), past time, and the future. This is simultaneously relative and subjective and objective, and this ticking clock into the past and the future runs throughout Between the Acts until it seems inescapable that Woolf – with her concept of “moments of being” (Woolf, in Asbee, 2017, p. 196) – is suggesting that we are abstract most of the time, that we do not generally inhabit the “moment of being” which is present time. Perhaps this is too mystical, but present time is where humans do their being, and clearly she refers to its happening only for moments, between which, presumably, there is a stasis, a non-place of abstraction, while we await the next act in present time.

Ambivalence is a state often associated with Modernist writers such as Eliot and Woolf, and in one sense ambivalence is another subjective and relativistic way of looking at time. If we think of Eliot's line, “Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189), then we are already involved in past ambivalence setting up alternative timelines. If life is a series of choices bifurcating our path, then each choice requires the rejection of one or more other choices, with the effect of at least a temporal ambivalence but more likely a multivalence, in which the unselected alternatives run alongside us in the imagination, as though in some facsimile of Eliot's notion all time is indeed subjectively “eternally present” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189). One is tempted to invoke Hugh Everett's 1957 'many-worlds theory' here, and imagine those other timelines actualised as other worlds, and Eliot's “footfalls” echoing not merely in the memory but in the actuality of an alternative, multiversal reality. Modernism (we can at least conveniently hypothesise Burnt Norton as late Modernism) often sets up such dramatic fields of binary oppositions, and attempts to locate the reader in the liminal space between two (or more) poles. Far from merely being between the acts in Woolf's novel, we appear to be between almost everything and everything else: the language uses archaic inversions, idiosyncratic punctuations, oppositions, contradictions, contrasts, antitheses, advances and retreats – subverting itself at every turn, creating, evoking, refuting, suggesting this liminality whereby a thing has only just been established when it is instantly thwarted (or balanced) by the presence of some counter-proposition thrust forward to neutralise it. Where are we in all of this? Clearly we are inside Woolf's head, immersed in the “exact shapes” of her interior, which she statedly wishes to convey. Not much happens in terms of story or plot on the surface of this novel, but its very tissue and fabric are alive with creativity and creation, which gives us another clue to time, which slows to a muddy rural crawl above, while its inner mechanism spins almost – though never quite – out of control.

Woolf has already constructed not only her own complex literary time, but perhaps more crucially her own endtime. And as though the entire text is an unfinished prophecy choked in the mouth of a dying sybil, she will effectively die in its pages, unable to go on to an ending of which she cannot conceive, weighed down with fear for the future, fear of the dreadful unknown, and the rising recurrence of her own madness, shortly to conspire in this great weighting down by filling her pockets with stones and wading out to die, writing – and thereby controlling – the narrative of her own death rather than waiting for it. Miss La Trobe's pageant unfolds English literary time, which perhaps Woolf felt was reaching its own endtime, and perhaps she was consciously or unconsciously planning her own suicide as the logical – even necessary – denouement of the respective pageants of England, of war, and of herself, her own literary terminus perhaps mirroring or symbolising the ending of English literature which she may have envisaged as the inevitable outcome of a successful Nazi invasion. If so, then her ideas of subjective time may have now seemed as finite and limited as Miss La Trobe's sequential imaging of Englishness exemplified by literary pageantry.

The traditional outdoor nature of the pageant effectively co-opts bystanders and audience into an inclusive presentation of the dreams and identity of England, as though Woolf is saying that this last great fatalistic and terminal act to come will involve all of us, before processing to her own final outdoor performance (her suicide in the River Ouse), which involves her in in a meta-sense in her text, symbolises the end of England that she foresees, and is performed with deliberation, theatricality and courage. Between the Acts feels like a wholesale marshalling of the historical and cultural forces of a nation about to perform its next great but potentially foredoomed act; it feels optimistic about history alone, despite its wistful evocations of a present time just out of reach. And, with this in mind, an unfinished novel suggests another kind of subjective and liminal time between acts, a time which was either wrong or insufficient for the finishing of the work, and a next act never to arrive – all her future moments of non-being only. And perhaps the reality is that Woolf, with her litany of subjective time and recalled time has in fact evoked a sort of experience in the reader of the most objective time of all, the present, while Eliot, for all his attempted authority and objectivity, has made his own statements of time seem both more subjective and far less stable.

Reference List:

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Asbee, S. (2017) 'Woolf's Between the Acts: representing lives in fiction', Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Davies, J. Fraser, R. (2017) 'Interpreting T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets', Milton Keynes, The Open University.

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Woolf, V.A. (2008) Between the Acts, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.