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Friday, February 27, 2009


I don’t often comment on politics, given the unremarkableness of my views thereon, but seeing Nick Cohen give a favourable review to a piece of absolute hokum and horse manure called Liberal Fascism by neocon nobody Jonah Goldberg, I’d like to name a syndrome after him, Cohenism. Goldberg believes that modern liberalism derives not from the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, but from, of all things, fascism. His sum evidence for this fact appears to be one random idiotic remark by H.G. Wells calling for ‘liberal Fascisti, enlightened Nazis’, and a belief that liberals, like Nazis, want to use the state to take over our lives, ergo liberals are Nazis. Cohen’s review of this garbage is here, and a more properly sceptical review is here.

Nick Cohen, I despise you for peddling this garbage. You are a man in denial. You were once on the left, and have now shifted to the right. This is not in itself an unusual phenomenon. You believe you are engaged in some kind of crusade to flush out the Hamas-supporting nutcases who are giving the humane left a bad name. But as your rush of enthusiasm for the slimeball Goldberg demonstrates fairly crudely, to everyone but you, you are doing no such thing. You are simply confirming that your politics are now those of the lumpen Tory right and the Daily Mail, to which paper and its moron readers I suggest you sod off at the earliest opportunity. And given the prevalence of this condition, as anyone still reading British newspapers will know, I thought you might as well give your name to it. Cohenism. You are a disgrace and an embarrassment. I sentence you to a date with Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin as your punishment and cure.

I now revert to my previous slumbering political apathy.

Thought is a Vector

In the course of his memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands applies his theory of ‘externalism’ to a pet wolf he kept called Brenin. Rowlands believes that mental processes happen not just in the head, but are embedded in our surroundings. Thoughts are a vector, generated not just by the thinker but the object of contemplation too: ‘there are certain thoughts that can emerge only in the space between a wolf and a man.’ Tim Robinson thinks in, with and through the landscapes he describes. Taking his maps, the two volumes of The Stones of Aran, his other essays and fiction, and now this trilogy as one unified whole (and they seem to me to benefit from being read as such), these separate units add up to perhaps the single most impressive writing project undertaken in Ireland in the last several decades.


For my attempt to back this statement up, I refer the curious to a review I have of Tim Robinson’s Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (and from which I’m quoting here) in the new issue of The Stinging Fly.

A Life Asleep

‘The creature in all the world most to be envied is Patricia Maguire of Chicago. She sleeps since 1931, her stupor lightens briefly at meal times, she is massaged daily, her fanmail is composed mostly of proposals of marriage’ (Beckett to Mary Manning Howe, 18 January 1937).

Man and Hound

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Son of a Gun

As I continue to stalk the Far Ings bittern, just across the river from here, I am fascinated to learn from the RSPB site that the UK bittern population is estimated at just 75 nesting pairs. I tramp around the estuary suspecting the bittern is there, and perhaps it is, never showing itself, and think of Schrödinger’s cat in the box, both there and not there, alive and dead at the same time. I think of the Monty Python sketch on the importance of not being seen (no random explosions in Far Ings yet, though I look forward to hearing some booming). I think of ‘An Bonnán Buí’ by that son of a gun Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (best. poet’s. name. ever.):

A bhonnán bhuí, is é mo léan do luí,
Is do chnámha sínte tar éis do ghrinn,
Is chan easba bidh ach díobháil dí
a d'fhág i do luí thú ar chúl do chinn.
Is measa liom féin ná scrios na Traoi
Tú bheith i do luí ar leaca lom',
Is nach ndearna tú díth ná dolaidh sa tír,
Is nárbh fhearra leat fíon ná uisce poll...

Or in the English of that man who ‘shall not hear the bittern cry’ (after 1916), Thomas MacDonagh:

The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst -
I was sober a while, but I'll drink and be wise
For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.


Far Ings bittern, show yourself.

Or maybe not.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Boniments, chiroplatonic, obstipation, eviration, mumper, polypus, gantelope, sinciput

The bad news, or do I mean good news, is that I can’t possibly respond to Beckett’s letters in fewer than 5000 words or so, an occasion of wordshed that should present itself sooner or later. But in the meantime, some notes. It was Beckett’s Normalien friend Jean Beaufret who coined the phrase ‘black diamonds (of pessimism)’, much beloved of Belacqua, and even a cursory first dip in the bran-pan of the Letters 1929-1940 dredges up coruscating (on thin ice) examples in richly abject abundance:

I met Michael Farrell and he destroyed me with an endless disparaging hyperbole on his own bland suspension between the vulgarities of great talent and the roots in the anus of genius now & then. The little tubercular tot in the cot buttons across its double-brested pilche [for double-breasted pilch], the little cheeks meet on the inside, the accumulated wisdom of the world unites the little lips like a zip fastener, and Mr Farrell is glad he is a doctor.


That would be Michael Farrell, author of Thy Tears Might Cease.

Or this, like the last addressed to MacGreevy, McGreevy rather (the a had yet to exfoliate), on Cézanne:

What a relief the Mont Ste. Victoire after all the anthropomorphised landscape – van Goyen, Avercamp, the Ruysdaels, Hobbema, even Claude, Wilson & Crome Yellow Esq., or paranthropomorphised by Watteau so that the Débarquement seems an illustration of ‘poursuivre ta pente pourvu qu’elle soit en montant’, or hyperanthropomorphised by Rubens – Tellus in record travail, or castrated by Corot; after all the landscape ‘promoted’ to the emotions of the hiker, postulated as concerned with the hiker (what an impertinence, worse than Aesop & the animals), alive the way a lap or a fist (Rosa) is alive.


Baby anthrax, chancres or fistulae, few are the epidermal ailments unknown to Belacqua or the young Beckett, and as that last example will have reminded you few are the early letters not pock-marked or at least pebble-dashed with a sprinkling of Gallicisms, a German, Italian, Latin or some other sanies of loutish learning (‘boniments, chiroplatonic, obstipation, eviration, mumper, polypus, gantelope, sinciput...’, protests John Walsh in The Independent.)

And then there are back passages, always with the back passages, Beckett’s long hard days at the orifice. Would Michael Roberts ‘care to a appoint a time do you think for me to bend over. Poets bottoms’ are so very much the same’ (Roberts had sent George Reavey a somewhat baffled response to Beckett’s poetry). Jacob Bronowski is ‘using three turds from my central laboratory’ in The European Caravan. SB must try & arrange ‘a proper booze before I return [to Dublin] – like a constipated Eurydice to the shades of shit.’ His critical intelligence is ‘blafard, gritty lilke the Civic Guard’s anus’ (compare the unfinished joke in Godot about the Englishman in the brothel who asks for a boy, to which the madam replies, ‘I’m getting a policeman’; ‘Oh no, please, they’re too gritty’). His poems are ‘carmina quae legunt cacantes’, songs to be read at stool. But it’s not all backsides, as the spermatic obsession bobs up too with the regularity of a haunted damp patch. Two poems ‘came together one on top of the other, a double-yoked orgasm in months of aspermatic nights & days’, Perugino’s Christ is ‘a lovely cheery Xist full of sperm’, and in the simply marvellous letter of 18 October 1932 to McGreevy, ‘I’m in mourning for the integrity of a pendu’s emission of semen, what I find in Homer & Dante & Racine & sometimes Rimbaud, the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind.’

Now then, in some pretence at factuality, some new things we learn about Beckett’s poems, as it is very much Beckett the poet who effectively dominates this volume.

Some cancelled lines from ‘Serena III’, as originally sent to McGreevy:

on Misery Hill brand-new pale livid
oh a most ferocious West African baboon’s
swoon on the lil puce
house of prayer

There is also, much later, an alternative ending to ‘Ascension’:

en reçoit-il une colombe
aussi souvent que moi

A reference in a letter to Nuala Costello to ‘your brother the fly’ is, I suppose, a source for the paragraph of ‘Serena I’, with the indomitable apparatus nodding off for once (more on this in a minute).

Equally, the ‘feet in marmalade’ in the same letter can be compared to the ‘heart in marmalade’ of ‘Enueg II’. The phrase comes from a saying of Pelorson’s mother, was it, ‘les pieds en compote’?

The following extract from a George Reavey poem in French (letter of 23 June 1935) might give fresh impetus to any academic woodworm looking around its native research library for a fresh angle on Irish poetry of the 1930s, since Eluardian inflections notwithstanding its affinities with SB’s own imminent French poetry are unmistakable:

Femmes si réelles votre réalité n’est pas sûre
quant à ce qui est des caresses
signes d’adieu d’étoiles mourantes
apposition des mains mésintelligence
des lèvres et des yeux
l’enchaînement de certains moments
et l’inconséquence de la plupart

Speaking of the 1930s, Beckett’s comments on Devlin’s poetry in 1937 might give at least a few sectaries of Irish poetic modernism pause before the next rehash of the Irish MacSpaunday argument: ‘The Bacchanal I find very very bad, the worst kind of Whitman-Kipling-aling piétinement sur place (...) the process is one of working up the perceived, when it is not a screen for the failure to perceive (...) When he gets metaphysical it is awful.’

And speaking of Beckett’s Normalien friends, as I was doing at the start, a small update to the exhaustively exhausting apparatus: Georges Pelorson (b. 1909), later Belmont, after his wrong-way wartime jump, and author of the Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe – died last December.

And still on the apparatus, I naturally gravitated straight to every reference of my native Co. Wicklow, registering a particular thrill at the obsessiveness of Beckett’s ramblings up over Glencullen, Glencree and down into Enniskerry, whose Powerscourt Arms he frequents thirstily, but when a hilarious account of ‘our old bitch’ getting into a ‘profound coït’ (laying rather than lying doggo, in other words) is followed by a trip a ‘dog abortionist on the upper Dargle Road (...) to have her washed out’, and a note informs us that ‘the one vet listed up Dargle Road, Bray’, is Miss Hilda Bisset’, I’m sorry, quiveringly proud Brayman though I am (and my brother John plays or has played in a football team called Werder Braymen), sorry, where was I, but there is also a Dargle Road in Deansgrange, which, being considerably closer to Foxrock than Bray, I’m assuming is the Dargle Road in question.

If right about this I presume the edition will now be recalled and pulped. For which many apologies to all and sundry.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On the Suspicion of Elegy as an Exercise in Displaced Self-Gratification

good grief

Domestic Incident

A giant rabbit has taken to sitting in my front room, ears brushing the ceiling, the lettuce it steals from my fridge tiny and ridiculous in its huge mouth; the red of its eyes some photographic mishap writ large, its leavings in gravelly cairns on the carpet. He and I eye each other awaiting developments, unsure what happens next. Some boy’s birthday party when I was young, I remember, the boy had rabbits, I always wanted a rabbit… ‘And now you’ve got one!’ you tell me and laugh.

Johannes Bobrowski, Bloodrain (my translation)

Primed for flight
released to the sky,
the blossoms

the colour of dust
with spilt water.
Your hair is like grass.

Take my blood-
and water-dividing

new eyelids
until tomorrow.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Postman Cometh

Beckett fact no. 95.

Hark, they have arrived. Beckett’s letters that is, minuscule margins, shiny paper and all, the latter adding a certain piquancy to Beckett’s wisecrack to MacGreevy (reproduced therein) about the sheet of glass in front of the Perugino Pietà in the National Gallery, Dublin, ‘so that one is obliged to take cognisance of it progressively, square inch by square inch.’ Before I launch into the book though, ten post-related Beckett texts.

1) ‘The Smeraldina’s Billet-Doux’. A love letter, used in both Dream and More Pricks Than Kicks, from Belacqua’s lovelorn German admirer and final wife, transparently (all too transparently for her family) based on Beckett’s German cousin Peggy Sinclair, who died of tuberculosis in 1933.

2) ‘What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland’, announces the narrator of First Love. Elsewhere he comments on his private parts as ‘nothing to write home about’, prompting Christopher Ricks to wonder under what circumstances exactly one does write home, on a postcard or otherwise, about one’s genitals.

3) Could the young Beckett but have brought himself, in France or Germany, to cross this final frontier of epistolary taboo, his missives would have been delivered to Foxrock by Mr. Shannon, the ‘consumptive postman’ of Watt, forever whistling The Roses Are Blooming in Picardy, or alternatively Mr. Thompson, the aphasic postman of Dream.

4) ‘that time in the Post Office all bustle Christmas bustle in off the street when no one was looking out of the cold and rain’ (That Time). No doubt to join the queue for one of those stamps reproduced above.

5) And what else but the eventual possibility of buying stamps adorned with his creator in that very building can have tipped Neary over the edge and prompted his attack on Cuchulain’s buttocks (elles n’existent pas) in the GPO in Murphy. And then, to compound the embarrassment of his run-in with an Irish policeman, Neary is escorted from the building by Wylie in search of a pick-me-up from their friend ‘Cathleen na Hennessy’ only to learn from Mooney’s clock across the street that the curse of holy hour is upon them. Perhaps you’d like a drink while you’re waiting, sir?

6) The more hardcore stamp-collector is referred to Moran’s half of Molloy, in which the detective pauses admiringly over the Togo one mark carmine and Nyassa 1901 ten reis in his son’s collection, before rumbling the little bleeder’s fiendish scheme to bring originals along on their journey in his duplicates book.

7) Cooper’s numerous telegraphs from London to Neary in Dublin, as he variously finds and loses Murphy, topped in their imaginative use of the word ‘stop’ only by Beckett’s own 1983 telegraph to The Times:


8) ‘The last time I laid eyes on him I was on my way to the Post Office to cash an order for back-pay’, B reads from a witness statement on the patient in Rough for Theatre II. Our witness reports in detail the patient’s fascination with the piece of dogshit between his feet. Then: ‘When two hours later I emerged from the Post Office, having cashed my order, he was at the same place and in the same attitude. I sometimes wonder if he is still alive.’

9) French letters sign off with military formality, do they not. Even when they’re as acid as the letter that opens Beckett’s hoax lecture on Jean Du Chas, ‘Le Concentrisme’: ‘Il ne me reste que d’exprimer tous mes regrets que cette noble aspiration ne se soit pas réalisée, et de vous prier, Monsieur, d’agréer ma sympathie et mon plus profond mépris’.

10) ‘... unfinished game of chess with a correspondent in Tasmania...’ (Rough for Theatre II).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Boll Weevilism

Enterprise, Alabama, has the distinction of being the only town in the world to have erected (in 1919) a monument to an agricultural pest, the boll weevil. The weevil destroyed cotton harvests, encouraging farmers to turn to the more profitable peanut instead. Charley Patton recorded a track called ‘Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues’, whose characteristically ellipsis-riddled lyrics Alice Oswald includes in her anthology The Thunder Mutters:

Sees a little boll weevil keeps movin’ in the, Lordie!
You can plant your cotton and you won't get a half a bale, Lordie
Bo weevil, bo weevil, where's your native home? Lordie
‘A-Louisiana raised in Texas, least is where I was bred and born’, Lordie
Well, I saw the bo weevil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordie
The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordie
Bo weevil left Texas, Lord, he bid me ‘fare ye well’, Lordie


‘And he made louse for us and delivered us to boll weevils amain’, as we read in Finnegans Wake.

The concept of erecting a monument to something terrible that has indirectly led to the discovery of something much more pleasant is an attractive one. Richard Dawkins can lead a church-building campaign, the ACLU can erect memorials to Strom Thurmond, Ron Silliman can write paeans to Edwin Arlington Robinson. Boll weevilism: the conscientious attainment of a long-coveted goal only to turn away from it in favour of the more interesting failures and miseries it was meant to have swept away. Wittgenstein was always a dab hand at this, whether kicking the atomistic elegance of the Tractatus in the pants and taking off to rural Austria for a protracted sulk:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

Or at the start of the Philosophical Investigations:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

And then there’s Gottfriend Benn introducing his Collected Works:

So now these collected works are published, one volume, two hundred pages, how paltry, one would have to be ashamed of it if one were still alive. I would be amazed if anyone were to read it; I feel quite remote from them, I throw them over my shoulder like Deucalion and his stones; maybe their distortions will turn into human beings, but whatever happens, I don’t care for them.

Boll weevilism. Success is a parasite on the worm, failure, that feeds and keeps it alive. It worked for Enterprise, Alabama, and Wittgenstein, and can work for you too.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili are a group of largely paraplegic street musicians in Congo. Click the top clip for an introduction, the bottom one for a dance number.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Day of the Hrabalment

Starting Czech lessons, as I am and with a relation of Milan Kundera no less!, I am reminded of Evan Rail’s poem ‘Wanderings in Czech’. Evan, as your residual part-co-copyright holder (Tsunami, Metre Editions, 2004), I order you to contact me and nominate your fee for the reproduction of the following:

What does ‘zmrzlina’ mean?
It means ice cream.

What is wrong with this word?
It is neither cold nor sweet.

What does ‘slečno’ mean?
It is used to address a young woman,
like ‘miss’ or ‘mademoiselle’.

What is wrong with this word?
It is ugly.

What does ‘krk’ mean?
It is the word for throat.

What is wrong with this word?
It has no discernible vowel.


Image is of Bohumil Hrabal on some Postřižinské beer bottles, in honour of Evan’s expertise in the field of Czech beer (the beer is named for one of Hrabal’s novels, and is produced in Nymburk, where Hrabal grew up as stepson of the brewery manager.)

Out Now

The first volume of Beckett’s letters is now available, physically extant, OUT. I’m manning my letter box as I type, with drunkenly voluminous updates to follow.

Jean Martin, 1922-2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


While I continue to steam out a bad head cold I have at the moment, allow me to divert you with a prayer from Antonin Artaud.

O for skulls of burning coal
singed by lightning from on high,
and you, lucid one, to keep us real
and sanitize us when you stop by.

Deliver us afresh to skies
of within whose chasms fall like showers;
shoot us through with dizzy surprise
where your nails plant their aching fires.

Feed us, give us this day our daily
intersidereal kerfuffle.
With lava of stars for blood, shall I
need anything more for my survival?

Cut us loose. Separate us with
your hands of burning coal that showed
the way to where one dies beyond death,
out there on the burning road.

Make our brains stagger at the heart
of the self-knowing they inter.
Let the ravishing of our minds start
with the claws of the new whirlpool we enter.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum

While Licinius pursued with his army, the fugitive tyrant retreated, and again occupied the passes of mount Taurus; and there, by erecting parapets and towers, attempted to stop the march of Licinius. But the victorious troops, by an attack made on the right, broke through all obstacles, and Daia at length fled to Tarsus. There, being hard pressed both by sea and land, he despaired of finding any place for refuge; and in the anguish and dismay of his mind, he sought death as the only remedy of those calamities that God had heaped on him. But first he gorged himself with food, and large draughts of wine, as those are wont who believe that they eat and drink for the last time; and so he swallowed poison. However, the force of the poison, repelled by his full stomach, could not immediately operate, but it produced a grievous disease, resembling the pestilence; and his life was prolonged only that his sufferings might be more severe. And now the poison began to rage, and to burn up everything within him, so that he was driven to distraction with the intolerable pain; and during a fit of frenzy, which lasted four days, he gathered handfuls of earth, and greedily devoured it. Having undergone various and excruciating torments, he dashed his forehead against the wall, and his eyes started out of their sockets. And now, become blind, he imagined that he saw God, with His servants arrayed in white robes, sitting in judgment on him. He roared out as men on the rack are wont, and exclaimed that not he, but others, were guilty. In the end, as if he had been racked into confession, he acknowledged his own guilt, and lamentably implored Christ to have mercy upon him. Then, amidst groans, like those of one burnt alive, did he breathe out his guilty soul in the most horrible kind of death.