Site Meter

Friday, January 30, 2009


Since this came up in the comments to my post about Yeats the other day, I thought I’d gratify any fellow bibliographical bores with a quick stock-taking of the variants to ‘Under Saturn’. In Michael Robartes and the Dancer the text began:

Do not because this day I have grown saturnine
Imagine that some lost love, unassailable
Being a portion of my youth, can make me pine
And so forget the comfort that no words can tell
Your coming brought; though I acknowledge that I have gone
On a fantastic ride...

As of Later Poems in 1922, if I’m construing Allt and Alspach’s Variorum edition aright (and it ain’t the clearest, I find), these lines became:

Do not because this day I have grown saturnine
Imagine that lost love, inseparable from my thought
Because I have no other youth, can make me pine;
For how should I forget the wisdom that you brought,
The comfort that you made? Although my wits have gone
On a fantastic ride...

So, ‘lost love’ for ‘some lost love’, ‘inseparable’ for ‘unassailable’, no more ‘thought’, ‘wisdom’ not ‘comfort’, that fine ambiguity on ‘no words can tell’ (the comfort that no words can tell/the comfort that no words can tell your coming/the comfort that no words can tell your coming brought) lost, lost, lost!, and no more acknowledgement of his wits going awol.

‘They do not know what is at stake /It is myself that I remake’ etc.

The Symbolic Affinities Between Poetry Blogs and Oil Wells

Reading you, Kent Johnson, the other day
announcing to the latest piece of neo-Dada,
posturing, flarfist ‘fake shit’ you’d been reading
that, no, what this stuff needed was not
an invitation to the MLA – death by MLA panel! –
but, ‘Geezus, Mary and Joseph’ and if only
for a change, to disappear down the nearest
toilet bowl, I thought of my own somewhat
submerged desire to be able to make poetry
out of the daily petty bêtises of PoBiz,
to write a sestina whose endwords would be
the names of six contemporary poets,
extract scabrous anagrams from the names
of the contributors to the Forward Book of Poetry,
or write a series of graphic atrocity poems about
not the war in Iraq or Afghanistan but a Patriot
missile crashing down on an anti-war poetry reading,
perhaps in the vein of some of those horrifyingly
hilarious poems in ‘Seven Submissions to the War
for The World’ from your Homage to the Last
, a book everyone should read,
preferably in public, guffawing inappropriately,
at a funeral for instance or during a poetry reading,
and why aren’t poets on this side of the water
funny like you about PoBiz, or busy translating from
Greek poets like Alexandra Papaditsas who have
died ‘of the rare syndrome Cornuexcretis phalloides,
where a large kelatinous horn grows from the head’,
maybe Frank Kuppner does something similar
(you should read him and judge for yourself),
I don't know, and for the benefit of anyone
yet to have the pleasure of reading you
I will sign off (for it would appear to be lunch time)
with the closing lines of your ‘Baghdad’,
wishing you many more trouble-making comments
on Ron’s blog and Sylvia Beach letter finds
in obscure antique shops
but most importantly
more of this kind of thing, in book form, soon, thanks:

Good night moon.
Good night poor people who shall inherit the moon.

Good night first editions of Das Kapital, Novum Organum,
The Symbolic Affinities between Poetry Blogs and Oil Wells,

and the Koran.

Good night nobody.

Good night Mr. Kent, good night, for now you must
soon wake up and rub your eyes and know that you are dead.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jews and Cyclists

A long piece by Adam Kirsch on Žižek in The New Republic. It concludes:

In this way, Žižek’s allegedly progressive thought leads directly into a pit of moral and intellectual squalor. In his New York Times piece against torture, Žižek worried that the normalization of torture as an instrument of state was the first step in “a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone.” This is a good description of Žižek’s own work. Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century. He is trying to undo the achievement of all the postwar thinkers who taught us to regard totalitarianism, revolutionary terror, utopian violence, and anti-Semitism as inadmissible in serious political discourse. Is Žižek’s audience too busy laughing at him to hear him? I hope so, because the idea that they can hear him without recoiling from him is too dismal, and frightening, to contemplate.

Žižek’s reply:

Mr. Kirsch quotes my passage “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough” - but is this really a call for even more killing than Hitler afforded? Here is how my text goes on: “Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space (which is why it had to invent and focus on destroying an external enemy, Jews). This is why one should oppose the fascination with Hitler according to which Hitler was, of course, a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions – but he definitely had balls, he pursued with iron will what he wanted. ... This point is not only ethically repulsive, but simply wrong: no, Hitler did not ‘have the balls’ to really change things; he did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, i.e., he acted so that nothing would really change, he stages a big spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.”

Kirsch’s reply to the reply:

I am happy to hear that some of Slavoj Žižek’s best friends are Jews – though I wonder if any of them have evinced discomfort at remarks like the one I quoted: “Typical Jews! Even in the worst gulag, the moment they are given a minimum of freedom and space for maneuver, they start trading – in human blood!” Or the milder, but perhaps still more bizarre, observation in The Fragile Absolute: “As Jewish children put it when they play gently aggressive games: ‘Please, bite me, but not too hard...’”. (How many Jewish children at play has Žižek observed? Does he believe that all Jewish children everywhere play the same biting game?) Or when he threatens, in In Defense of Lost Causes, apropos of the “obscene pact between anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalists and aggressive Zionists,” that “the Jewish people will pay dearly for such pacts with the devil”?


A brief observation. Consider this Communist joke (not recycled from Žižek):

‘The two things wrong with this country are Jews and cyclists.’
‘Why cyclists?’

Ta-da! You are an anti-Semite. Ask everyone you know if they’re racist and the answer will, I imagine, be no. But ask them, in the form of the Jews and cyclist joke, whether they are unconsciously committed to modes of thought that, on examination, are unpleasant and even repulsive, and the answer is yes. Žižek is a dialectician. He will flip-flop from one position to another. He will, to a straight-laced rationalist, seem queasily interested in seeing things from the perspective of a sadist, a reactionary, an anti-Semite. He believes, Matrix-watching Lacanian that he is, that the truth is always monstrous, that we do not know what we know and that the effort of finding out will almost certainly end in tears. Consequently, I imagine, he would find the Jews and cyclists joke a more useful way of flushing out his friends’ unexamined attitudes than simply asking them, Are you an anti-Semite?

Another example. Kirsch ends on a note of horror as he recounts Žižek’s apparent relish for the tale of American doctors vaccinating Vietnamese children and the Vietcong responding by hacking off the vaccinated limbs. This is barbarism, but Žižek’s reaction is, predictably, to see how our reaction of horror masks what should be our deeper horror at the American presence in Vietnam in the first place. The Americans should not be in Vietnam, vaccinating children or not, and we save our horror until something as abysmal as this happens. That too is horrifying. And Žižek’s failure to give us the emotional payoff of dwelling on Vietcong barbarism is of a piece with his whole method, which, again, is to put all positions, including the more stomach-turning ones, in play, rejecting what we think we know the better to find out what we don’t. This last example reminds me of Le silence de la mer, which I think Žižek mentions somewhere, in which a civilized German soldier turns up in France, attempts to befriend the old French man and his niece, speaks of the fraternity between their civilisations etc. It’s all very touching, on a human level. But on a more immediately necessary level it’s irrelevant, because what the German soldier really needs to do is get lost. There is no barbarism like the barbarism decked out in the fancy dress of civilised values.

‘The two things wrong with this country are Vietcong barbarians and nice doctors who want to vaccinate children.’

‘There are two things wrong with this country are Nazi barbarians and civilised Germans who want to talk about French literature.’


So I am defending Žižek, in other words.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Andrei Rublev

The Tatars are coming.
They will spare neither

virgin nor child.
The steppe is alive

with their murderous cries.
When will the great bell

be cast? The icon
master’s work

in progress
is a pot of paint

tossed at the wall
and a vow of silence.

A horse in the rain
is grace:

the Russian Christ
will drag his cross

through the snow,
the women weep for him

then slowly disperse.
Consider the toll

of the great bell
yet to strike.

Let your clay be cast
in the fire and not crack,

and one true note
at least be struck.

The Tatars are coming.
A horse in the rain

rolls on its back.
An icon lights

a bonfire of gold
against black.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


‘In Terry Street, Dunn rarely gives his own sentiments at all; the words do that for him.’

Under Saturn

Do not because this day I have grown saturnine
Imagine that some lost love, unassailable
Being a portion of my youth, can make me pine
And so forget the comfort that no words can tell
Your coming brought; though I acknowledge that I have gone
On a fantastic ride...

Had I but html skills enough... that sounds like the twenty-first-century poem-opening Yeats never got to write, doesn’t it, but had I (etc.), then I’d love to take an Olsonian pliers to the Yeats poem ‘Under Saturn’ and explode it all over the page, the better to illustrate the remarkable interplay of its opening between the line, as unit, and the clause, or unit of sense. Consider line two, ‘Imagine that some lost love, unassailable’, and the (slightly ungrammatical, granted) pathos it communicates, read on its own. But of course we must ‘not’ imagine; and even so, we have another interim reading, before continuing the sentence, in the thought of that provisional strong imperative: ‘Do not imagine that lost love!’ Consider too how a listener might supply a mental comma after ‘Being’ in line three, turning this memory of lost love into an ‘unassailable /Being, a portion of my youth’. And look at ‘the comfort that no words can tell’ and how it rubs up against ‘the comfort that no words can tell /Your coming brought’, and in particular the delay on ‘brought’. ‘No words can tell /Your coming’, never mind your parting, we might feel, momentarily, but no (wait for it), it is the comfort ‘Your coming [pause] brought’. And on it goes: ‘though I acknowledge that I have gone’. So you’ve gone too? ‘Gone /On a fantastic ride’. And how are we to scan the second-last line?

You heard that labouring man who had served my people. He said
Upon the open road, near to the Sligo quay—
No, no, not said, but cried it out—“You have come again
And surely after twenty years it was time to come.”
I am thinking of a child's vow sworn in vain
Never to leave that valley his fathers called their home.

Do the six stresses go on ‘I’, ‘think’, ‘child’s’, ‘vow’, ‘sworn’ and ‘vain’, hurrying through the anapest of ‘of a child’s’ only to stop almost dead on the two catalectic feet (on this reading) of ‘vow’ and ‘scorn’? Or how do you read it? Note that the valley is not home, it is the place ‘his fathers called their home’, and how the vow is credited not to the speaker but an externalized version of himself, ‘a child’. The unspoken subtext is the speaker’s anxiety that there is no home to return to, any more, only the off-balance, absent centre Yeats has so skilfully imitated in his constant shifting of his lines’ centre of semantic gravity, both proleptically and retrospectively. It is a marvellous performance.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

From the Small Back Room

Kathleen Byron, who played the smouldering nun in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, has died. She also starred in their From the Small Back Room (based on a 1943 novel by Nigel Balchin), a title W.R. Irvine has borrowed for his fine new Festschrift for Ciaran Carson.

Most Festschrifts are shitfests, compost heaps of senior common room pleasantries with one eye on bundling the celebratee out the door at last and breathing that decades-delayed sigh of relief. This is a much more enjoyable contribution to the genre, with poems, fiction, essays and interviews by what must be sixty or seventy contributors.

John Brown remembers writing to Carson and asking ‘If it took a man a week to walk a fortnight how long would it take to sandpaper an elephant into a greyhound?’ To which Carson replies, ‘As long it would take to white-wash Cave Hill in boot-polish.’

Carol Rumens writes skeltonically of the individious position poets occupy in university English departments:

At the Varsity Zoo
It was time for a new
Academic Review.
So the billy goats gruff
And the mice talking tough
About Human Resources,
And the Queen’s horses –
The once-a-month tutors,
The yes-men, the Pooters,
The funding re-routers,
The pre-school recruiters
And government moles
Left their boxes and holes
To form a new Board
Where the crocodiles jawed
About research assessment,
And central investment,
And Jabberwock said
How they’d be in the red
And scholarship dead,
Unless they put lids
On the teaching of classes
And got off their arses
And worked on their bids.

And on it goes, most enjoyably, for another three and a half pages. And Paul Muldoon, in a spirit of more pricks than kicks, considers the porcupine:

I’m thinking of those who,
in the same breath, will kiss up to us and kiss

us off. I’m thinking of a woman who’d flaunt
from her shoulder-blade a tattoo:


There’s a lot happening in Carsonland just at the moment, for those finished digesting their Collected Poems from last October. His novel The Pen Friend is out soon, and another collection of poems, The Night Watch (I think...?), and then there’s a collection of essays about him edited by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews due too. But a less ‘honoured and empty-headed’ older poet, in Yeats’s phrase for Wordsworth in the laureate years, I can’t think of. Carson is one of those few who stay open, alive and urgent over the decades rather than settle into a tribute-band caricature of themselves. For this, and much more, I salute him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

St Teresa

I went in search
of the Moors

to be martyred,
but death did not yield

so easily,

I sought you
by way

of understanding,
and found

only myself
left standing.

I sought you by way
of surrender,

except you would not
have me pander.

So I clove to you
until we were flesh

of one flesh
I could taste

and touch,
but we were too many,

and it was too much.
So I sought you

beyond your self
and mine,

where there was
nothing left

to find
in all my void

unanswered prayers,
all asking and

all giving past;
and took my trance-

like rest at last,
with rich, unceasing

empty tears.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Blashey Wadder

Tory. Achill. A tiny one near Ballydehob with a restaurant on it whose name I forget. Mull. Arran (the Scottish one). Oh, and Dalkey Island too. Such is my paltry tally of offshore islands. Do Ireland and Albion count as offshore islands? To each other, perhaps? Tory islanders speak of ‘going over to Ireland’, after all.

Hugh MacDiarmid lived for a while on Whalsay, in the pleasingly named townland of Sodom. I’m as puzzled as anyone else by the precipitous falling off in quality of MacDiarmid’s work in the 1930s, and the plagiarizing will to power, nay, will to omniscience that stepped into the space vacated by the peerless lyricist of Penny Wheep and Sangschaw. Compare:

A wumman cam’ up frae the blae deeps o’ the sea
And ‘I’m Jeannie McQueen’, she said, lauchin’ to me.

But it’s ‘Gi way wi’ your oyster-shine, lassie, gi’ way’ –
For she’d a different colour in the nail o’ each tae.


I am no further from the ‘centre of things’
In the Shetlands here than in London, New York, or Tokio,
No further from ‘the great warm heart of humanity’,
Or the ‘general good’, no less ‘central to human destiny’,
Sitting alone here enjoying life’s greatest good,
The pleasure of my own company,
Than if I were one with the crowds in the streets
In any of the great centres of population,
Or in a mile-long cinema queue, or a unit
In a two-hundred-thousand spectatorate
At Twickenham or Murrayfield or Ibrox...

The first is from ‘ Shetland Lyrics’, the second from ‘In the Shetland Islands’. I wonder whether there is any truth in the story that when he wrote ‘Water Music’, also on the Shetlands, he had access to the A-L half of Jamieson’s Dictionary but not M-Z, which would explain the alphabetically slanted inflection of that fine poem’s Scots aquarelles:

Archin’ here and arrachin there,
Allevolie or allemand,
Whiles appliable, whiles areird,
The polysemous poem’s planned...

Plenty of water, and water music, in the work of Jen Hadfield, as recently belaurelled with an Eliot Prize. Some of the poems in Nigh-No-Place display amoebic tendencies, which I’m presuming represents an effort to imitate the shape of various Shetland isles. Hadfield lives on Burra, that ‘bit /of broken biscuit’, and in ‘Burra Grace’ we watch two ‘peew-t’s wrench free of their company (whimbrels, shalders and rabbits) onto a page of their own. ‘peew-t /peew-t’: that’s it. Never has Charles Olson earned his keep so economically.

Shetland words: ‘daed-traa’ means slack of the tide (Gaelic speakers will hear trá there, though Gaelic has never been spoken on Shetland), ‘snuskit’ (sulky), ‘stumba’ (a thick mist), ‘hüm’ (twilight, mist).

A place of blashey wadder:

At dusk I walked to the postbox,
and the storm that must’ve passed you earlier today
skirled long, luminous ropes of hail between my feet
and I crackled in my waterproof
like a roasting rack of lamb.

And across the loch,
the waterfalls blew right up off the cliff
in grand plumes like smoking chimneys.

And on the road,
even the puddles ran uphill.

Occasional glances across the sound at Fair Isle and Foula. There is a Foul Sound in Galway (snigger snigger) and a river Foulness in East Yorks, but Foula is pronounced ‘Foola’, though it does have a fowl in there somethere, from the Old Norse Fugløy. Foula was one of the last places in Scotland where ‘Norn’ was still spoken, and the last to employ Udal law, which I assume is a kind of Shetlands sharia reguating the punishments for intercourse with sheep and reading the papers on Sunday. Hamish Haswell-Smith notes in The Scottish Isles that Foula can be cut off for seven or eight weeks at a time, and that its pier remains primitive, so if you go, expect to stay. Michael Powell filmed The Edge of the World there in 1937 about the depopulation of St Kilda, having failed to get permission to film on St Kilda itself. Comparing Hirta (St Kilda) and Foula, Haswell-Smith notes that the houses on the former all huddle together whereas those on Foula stand apart, a fact he appears to link to the former going under while the second still thrives.

Back on Burra, Hadfield calls her cat in:

I open up, send Goodnight across the brae,

and the wind canters in
and she with a wild carol

and all the night hail
melted gleaming in her furs.


I recommend this book.

Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, £7.95)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


i.m. M.I.

the all too
of a slim volume’s
for storing
the snipped-out
death notice
let us take
the wise
in future
of publishing
no more books
with endpapers
or why
stop there
last pages.

Found, Oxfam Shop


They never went.

Bloke/lass could not stand Bruce Chatwin. It was the beginning of the end. They went, argued and broke up, and Scott still lives there, on a truck-stop in Wagga Wagga, with his new partner, Bruce/Muriel.

They went, had a great time, came back, broke up when Scott found out about the bloke/lass from Cleethorpes.

They are still together, and have so many lovingly inscribed books lying around the house a cull was the only way they were ever going to find room for that new wide-screen TV.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mick Imlah

I almost sent Mick Imlah a mail today, since my pocket had taken a pounding over Christmas and I wanted to earn eighty quid, or whatever the going rate is, for a short review. But now this evening I read he has died, of motor neurone disease. My house is full of books with scraps of paper with his writing on them. He was a most kindly and considerate editor, letting me into his pages on the slenderest of pretexts (on my part) way back in the lifetime-away-now 90s and humouring my suggestions ever since; and publishing so many other people I know, too – always open, always receptive. I once had a long conversation with someone I thought was Imlah at a reading in London to which I’d invited him. Good of you to come, I told him, and nice to meet you at last. Except it wasn’t him and my presumably nonplussed interlocutor didn’t put me right.

But most of all he was the author of The Lost Leader, the difficult second collection and unholy clamjamfrie of polyphonic Scottishness (and rugby players) that took him twenty years to come up with. Here is ‘Precious Little’:

By the shore of Lake Constance I sat down and prayed
That your health should not collapse in an African swamp.
I found the name you carved before I was born
On the Tower of Pisa, and chiselled mine beneath it.
When our hotel in Brussels burned to the ground,
I fled with nothing but my bullfinch and your portrait, dear.

Two dreams: that you have come home at last
With your throat slit, and walk past me without speaking;
Or, as I roam the poor quarters of Mecca or Medina
In my loose nightgown, exhausted with yearning,
I cry aloud, ‘Does he care for me?’ –
And think I hear an angel whisper, ‘Yes’.


I think this is the first time this blog has had to record the death of someone I knew, even if only to correspond with. I do so with sadness and anger at the cruel loss of one so young.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Mweelrea

I am climbing Mweelrea with my teeth.
The lightning of hunger flashes
from my blank eyes. One piece of grass
leads to another. Waves lead
the island of the bright cow to pasture
beyond Blacksod bay. My twitching
ear to the ground takes what should be
its pulse, keener than glaciers,
deeper than fjords: the thunder is all
but audible. Days under wind
on a one-in-one slope I have you,
mountain, by your long grass root:
shake me off your back and you
will tumble into the sea and be lost.
A mountain with a sheep on its crown
is higher than any map allows,
but no foot passes my threshold
of cloud. I will reach the summit
and never have raised my eyes.
I will reach the summit and sink
gently into the roof of the sky.


Image found here.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Voici le rossignol

Much to my embarrassment I let the centenary of Messiaen’s birth go by without comment last month. Here he is talking about birds, with interspersed piano renderings of birdsong. I also see Deutsche Grammophon have brought out a jaw-droppingly alluring 32 CD set of recordings, without which any home is incomplete, and with which, etc. What an astonishing artist Messiaen was, to the point where I feel incapable of saying anything more on the subject, which seems (non dignus sum) like a good cue to stop.

At Sally Gap

‘At this desolate spot situated at the head of the Liffey valley, scarcely a trace of civilization is visible, and until the advent of the bicycle and motor, these roads were often left untraversed by any vehicle for many months at a time. In recent years, however, they have become so well known, that on any popular holiday during fine weather, motors, cycles, and even pedestrians may be counted in dozens.’

So writes the ever-peregrine Weston St John Joyce, master of the Belacquan boomerang, the ‘out and back’, in The Neighbourhood of Dublin, Its Topography, Antiquities and Historical Associations, long a favourite urtext of mine. I notice in the page I reproduce above that the three figures in the lower picture have become two by the time the second was taken, having presumably resorted to cannibalism in the time it took them to walk from the Featherbed mountain to Liffey head bog.

Sally Gap is bearnas na diallaite, the ‘saddle gap’, or at least always was in my salad (and saddle) days, so imagine my surprise on my last visit to find it upgraded, or back-dated, to bearna bhealach sailearnáin, the ‘gap of the way of the sally trees’, though sally trees were there none, then or now. Come back Ordnance Survey sappers, all is forgiven.

I put together a little anthology of Wicklow writing in 1998 and was annoyed to find, too late, a Michael Hartnett poem, ‘In Sally Gap’, which I’ve always regretted not including. That said, the poem has always puzzled me more than a little: what is the ‘it’ of the first and sixth lines (‘It was left upon the granite cliff...’, ‘It hung upon a cross of furze...’). Whatever it was:

It hung upon a cross of furze,
white like a waterfall,
moving, at this distance,
its meshes bleached,
like a lost scarf of lace.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

From W.J. McCormack’s Fool of the Family: A Life of J.M. Synge:

Maud Gonne sat on the opposite side of the table. Synge was at one end by Lady Gregory. Patrick Colum sat next to me. Suddenly Yeats exclaimed in admiration of a scene he was reading:
‘Who does he mean?’ Colum whispered, amazed.
‘Synge, who is like Aeschylus.’
‘But who is Aeschylus?’
‘The man who is like Synge.’

Monday, January 05, 2009

Zurbaran, Saint Diego of Alcala

An Geabhróg

Mí Mháirt arís agus braithimid
geabhróg ag teacht i dtír
sa ché ar an bhfál cúng
idir a imeacht anuraidh
is filleadh na bliana seo chugainn.