Friday 31 October 2008


I've submitted this, and a couple of other recent efforts, to the latest Festival of the Trees, at Via Negativa

Going to a buddhist workshop on death and lucid dreaming, scheduled for this weekend, I imagine, with a smile.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime

My cinema going, once fairly obsessional, has ground almost to a halt, with the growing realisation that 'losing myself', being emotionally manipulated to identify in the particularly powerful way that film invokes, no longer appeals to me all that much. The few films I do see are usually French - their focused, small-scale, highly crafted articulacy still does it for me sometimes.

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime / I've Loved You So Long
is a wonderfully satisfying example of this kind of film-making, with Kristin Scott Thomas in the performance of her life, quietly, often silently, spellbinding in almost every scene. Receiving the performance through the vehicle of her French, which sounds like mine - pretty convincing, but a few ineradicable English vowels - made it particularly touching, I think. She haunted my dreams the night I saw it, and will for a while.

Here's an informative review and a trailer from The Guardian. And another good review from John Baker - I don't agree with John (I often do agree with him) about the ending as a weakness: I think catharsis and redemption, not realism, are the intent, and the film worked well for me on that level.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Triangles in the air

John Berger talks about translation. It’s triangular, he says, arms drawing giant triangles in the air. The process is a triangular, not a linear, one. We have to get behind the text, get to the pre-verbal, and bring it back in our own language.

It was a wrestling match, the Palestinian academic Rema Hammami says of their work together on an English translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, Mural. She began with a set of aspirations all of which she ended by abandoning, began by trying to be technically faithful, thinking that was the best way to honour the Arabic language and the poet. She was scandalised by what he came up with – not translation, she thought, but re-writing. And so they struggled, back and forth, giving birth to the translation.

Wait till I pack my bag Death
my toothbrush soap after-shave and some clothes

Is the climate warm over there?
Do the seasons change in the eternal whiteness?

Or does the weather stay fixed in autumn or winter?

Will one book be enough to read in non-time?

Or should I take a library?

And what do they talk over there?

vernacular or classical?

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday, Berger and Hammami read their translation of Mural (a longer extract is here) and showed a film of Darwish, physically frail but verbally vigorous, at his last public reading not long before his death in August. In discussion with David Constantine, co-editor with his wife Helen of Modern Poetry in Translation, whose Palestine issue included the work, they talked in terms both modest and enormous about translating poetry today. The significance of poetry in dark times. How potentially global the audience now is. They talked about the autonomy, the truth, the transcendence of poetry amidst lies and chaos, in a world out of control. How poets are on the move all over the world, yet poetry only works if it is rooted in the particular. How poetry is the last resort, an ‘appeal to the sky’, but also heard by other people. How it can become a ‘nodule of energy’, shared energy, capable, in some unquantifiable way, of increasing endurance, building strength for action.

I made copious notes throughout – something I never do – wanting to remember, to capture that nodule of energy.

From the Resist Network (who have some other great stuff on their website):
John Berger reads from the translation of Mural.

Monday 27 October 2008

The week's edge

The sky is a uniform soft blue, like brushed denim. My breath, harshly visible before me when I left the house an hour ago, is barely there now, a vague, suggestive trickle of me into the out-there.

All weekend, I hid, curled up, chewing my fingers. Go away. Go away. That frightening, fragile edge. This tender, mysterious edge.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Not yet shrivel'd

An Editorial in
The Reader magazine (free issue available for download) directs me to this poem, published in 1633 by George Herbert. How wondrous is the Internet!

The Flower

How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an houre;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell,
We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.

O that I once past changing were;
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offring at heav’n, growing and groning thither:
Nor doth my flower
Want a spring-showre,
My sinnes and I joining together;

But while I grow to a straight line;
Still upwards bent, as if heav’n were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone,
Where all things burn,
When thou dost turn,
And the least frown of thine is shown?

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can finde and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Thursday 16 October 2008

When you stop

What happens when you stop?, I’d been wondering, and thinking: nothing good - and it wasn’t. Yesterday was TOIL (who invented that bloody acronym?), and I slept and walked and cried and slept a lot more, twelve, fifteen hours, with needy, disturbing dreams. Cathartic, I suppose, but wretched.

Working like this, I plod on, losing myself in work, losing myself in expanding flesh (that horrible Spanish expression, entrada en carnes - encased in meat), the small spark of self threatening to be squeezed and squeezed until it snuffs out. I wonder why I mind so much, since I can’t but view this ‘self’ as a cumulative disaster. But I do, I do.

Lately, on the bus, I’ve been reading books about the brain, about neurological damage (Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia; Claire Morrall: The Language of Others), reading with a chill of recognition and wondering if some of my deficits are neurological as well as psychological (does it matter?). Painful thoughts, but the will not to be snuffed out is strong for all that.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

In brief periods of wakefulness yesterday, I was glad to have read two excellent and very different blog posts from Zen Habits and from Via Negativa, for Blog Action Day on Poverty.

Tuesday 14 October 2008


(Do you have this annoying optical illusion effect that the top photo isn't straight?

Monday 13 October 2008

Orhan Pamuk remembers beginning

"When I was seventeen or eighteen, and began to spend most of my time on my own, reading... like every Turk who loved reading, I started writing poetry... I was like one of those innocent souls who, when they see an 'abstract' painting think: 'I could do that'... I started wanting to write poetry and I sat down at my desk and wrote some."

From a lovely article by Pamuk on his life with books, published in El Pa
ís on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Turkey will be Guest of Honour this year - I expect this long piece will surface somewhere in English.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Rock, wrack

Tired bones and muscles crawl and cry beneath the skin like mewly babies seeking comfort, the comfort of mattress and motionless, swaddling and sleep. But after a long night's sleep more isn't feasible. The debt must be paid off in installments.

Not the best metaphor, as the alarmed tones of financial crisis hover round my dreams. Having managed to acquire very little in the way of money, stuff or sensations of security, never mind its reality, I've not much to lose, myself. And I grieved for the world already, don't know that I grieve more now. But fear is a wearing climate to live in.

Up then, warm the bones by moving, absorb the mind in rhythms of work. The next thing, and the next.

Prolonged overwork I find wretched and stupid. What's it
for? (in light of the above, not even for money). Its saving grace is that after a while it's like running fast or standing for ages in a cold shower: it blasts away every other feeling, which when depressed has been your main feeling in recent months is kind of a blessing.

What happens, though, when you

Thursday 9 October 2008

When extremely busy

Active and convincing as the shadow is, you may think it's me.
But I am over here.

Wednesday 8 October 2008


The simple single-storey prefabricated houses, widely known as prefabs, erected in a hurry, often on bomb sites and often by prisoners of war, to house people made homeless by World War 2, were a common sight when I was a child. They were meant as a short-term solution, but the UK housing shortage has never ended and many had much longer lives than intended. Few, though, now remain. A row of survivors stood, perkily enough, until recently in my South East London suburb. Then one after another was swallowed up by new housing developments. Now there are just two, one visibly abandoned, one just recently vacated and surrounded by a fair-sized and lovely cottage-style garden not yet returned to wilderness, though it won't take long.

Humble, basic homes they were, gratefully received by their occupants, but no-one's preference. Expectations have changed, and not necessarily in the ways you'd think: the size of these houses, and certainly the size of their gardens, is quite generous by modern standards of all but the most affluent. They have their own charm, a spacious, timeless quality, sitting lightly, but as it turns out quite enduringly, upon the earth. I'm kind of sad to see them go, certainly sad to see their gardens go. Perhaps this modest, inexpensive style will have its time again in future aftermaths.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Rain and wind

A very atmospheric weekend in the country.

Monday 6 October 2008

The petrified woman

"The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative."

From Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech.

I read the passage that follows on the bus to work. From this weary, shaky anxiety, from this abraded, aching body that needs more sleep, a kick of spirit in response. I felt addressed, reached. This is it. The storyteller. The meeting. Why writing matters.

"Buzby... was small and neat and wore - I swear it - pince-nez glasses. I could see at a glance that he was a city man dropped, like a seed, by the wind. He had been there a long time, certainly. He knew the corn talk and the heat talk, but he would never learn how to come forward in that secure, heavy-shouldered country way, to lean on a car door and talk to strangers while the horizon stayed in his eyes.

...I could see him hesitating. It was plain that he wanted to show us, but the prospect was half-frightening. Oddly enough, I had the feeling his fright revolved around his discovery, more than fear of the townspeople. As he talked on, I began to see what he wanted. He intended to show it to us in the hope we would confirm his belief that it was a petrified woman. The whole thing seemed to have taken on a tremendous importance in his mind. At that point, I couldn't fathom his reasons.

...The wind goes down into those canyons also. It starts on the flats and rises through them with weird noises, flaking and blasting at every loose stone or leaning pinnacle. It scrapes the sand away from pipy concretions till they stand out like strange distorted sculptures. It leaves great stones teetering on wineglass stems.

I began to suspect what we would find, the moment I came there. Buzby hurried on ahead now, eager and panting. Once he had given his consent and started, he seemed in almost a frenzy of haste.

Well, it was the usual thing. Up. Down. Up. Over boulders and splintered deadfalls of timber. higher and higher into the back country. Toward the last he outran us, and I couldn't hear what he was saying. The wind whipped it away.

But there he stood, finally, at a niche under the canyon wall. He had his hat off and, for a moment, was oblivious to us. He might almost have been praying. Anyhow I stood back and waited for Mack to catch up. 'This must be it,' I said to him. 'Watch yourself'. Then we stepped forward.

It was a concretion, of course - an oddly shaped lump of mineral matter - just as I had figured after seeing the wind at work in those miles of canyon. It wasn't a bad job, at that. There were some bumps in the right places, and a few marks that might be the face, if your imagination was strong. Mine wasn't just then. I had spent a day building a petrified woman into a mastedon femur, and now that was no good either, so I just stood and looked.

But after the first glance it was Buzby I watched. The unskilled eye can build marvels of form where the educated see nothing. I thought of that bison skull under his eaves, and how badly we needed it.

He didn't wait for me to speak. He blurted with a terrible intensity that embarrassed me, 'She - she's beautiful, isn't she?' 'It's remarkable', I said. ' Quite remarkable'. And than I just stood there not knowing what to do.

He seized on my words with such painful hope that Mack backed off and started looking for fossils in places where he knew perfectly well there weren't any.

I didn't catch it all; I couldn't possibly. The words came out in a long, aching torrent, the torrent dammed up for years in the heart of a man not meant for this place, nor for the wind at night by the windows, nor the empty bed, nor the neighbours twenty miles away. You're tough at first. He must have been to stick there. And then suddenly you're old. You're old and you're beaten, and there must be something to talk to and to love. And if you haven't got it you'll make it in your head, or out of a stone in a canyon wall.

He had found her, and he had a myth of how she came there, and now he came up and talked to her in the long afternoon heat while the dust devils danced in his failing corn. It was progressive. I saw the symptoms. In another year, she would be talking to him.

'It's true, isn't it, Doctor?' he asked me, looking up with that rapt face, after kneeling beside the niche. 'You can see it's her. You can see it plain as day.' For the life of me I couldn't see anything except a red scar writhing on the brain of a living man who must have loved somebody once, beyond words and reason.

...It was two days later, in the truck, that Mack spoke to me. 'Doc'. 'Yeah.' 'You know what the Old Man is going to say about shipping that concretion. It's heavy. Must be three hundred pounds with the plaster.' 'Yes I know.' Mack was pulling up slow along the abutment of a bridge. It was the canyon of the big Piney, a hundred miles away. He got out and went to the rear of the truck. I didn't say anything, but I followed him back. 'Doc, give me a hand with this, will you?' I took one end, and we heaved together. It's a long drop in the big Piney. I didn't look but I heard it break on the stones. 'I wish I hadn't done that', I said."

From The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.

Friday 3 October 2008

Grow up, would you?

Maybe it takes some of us who had a poor start our whole lives to grow up. It's been borne upon me in the past few weeks of stress and overwork that, although I don't find this any less wretched and exhausting than I ever did, my resources and resilience are a lot greater these days - maybe I'm finally becoming, not a happy or successful grown-up, more of a sad, fat, silly one, I'm afraid, but a grown-up all the same, a person with more of a centre (or do I mean a person needing less of a centre) who can flow with life's vicissitudes, despise and deplore them, feel anger and hopelessness, but hold (hold what? something) and come back from them, still able in the midst of it all to see the beauty and the humour and sometimes to connect, not disappear into my own scowling vortex of uncoping. Phew. 'Course, these times when you think you've arrived somewhere, you know that sooner or later you'll spot the real summit still there, far away through the mist.

Thursday 2 October 2008

El Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida

In the midst of all this work, when I can spare five minutes I try to check out a few blogs that I know will refresh and divert my mind, and yes, something catches my eye. Wood s Lot had links this week to Miguel de Unamuno! Oh my god. The horror and hatred of my first year as a university student. Who ever put this man on the curriculum for 18-year-old foreign students of Spanish literature has a lot to answer for. His pessimistic, difficult, anguished, existentialist philosophy, novels and poetry… how I hated them. Of course he was interesting and brilliant. Of course his deep, post-end-of-Spanish-colonialism questioning got to me. I was so lost in life and had so little idea of what I was doing, in this new intellectual environment so out of my social class and so far from all my previous experience - it wasn’t what I needed! And to cap it all, once he’d got me all upset and depressed... oh no, this stuff was all about the male psyche, he said. Women were warm, simple, creatures, earth-mothers, not subject to any of this anguish. How I hated him.

Well, I find I like his poem, and I suspect I’d have quite a lot of time for him these days (though not for his views on women). The Tragic Sense of Life – which 18-year-old wants or needs to hear about that? Now, of course, it’s always with me. His face in the photo, the quizzical expression, the very Spanish beard, makes me smile, and yes his desk looks just like mine! How things do come full circle.