Back to the beginning, then.
Who lives here still? Some shepherd swain chewing
on a stem, staring over the lonely treetops?
Fool if you expected silence,
or thought that the trees would be empty.
But the contrails have gone and the big roads
are all but deserted. I don’t hear the kids
with their acrobat bikes and clattering skateboards.
And no Mr. Singh (“Call me Ajay”) with his deep,
deep voice over the parcels and stamps. All the buses
are empty when they stop at the curbs.
Or are they discharging ghosts?
Get used to the diet! Now the barn owls glide by day.
You’ve heard that inappropriate warble blown across
the pigeon’s flightpath. All is change, or all is reversion.
There’s the groundsel shouldering through the tarmac
now that no one’s standing between her impatience
and the sun. And yes, the sky’s as blank as paper.
Not a chalk mark or a water line across it. And the field
before us goes unkicked, unfurrowed. Hares are tucked
into its hollows. By night the fox will lift fastidious feet
on the way towards our overflowing bins. Each morning
butterflies that hadn’t been invented just a month ago
adore each other’s colours on the honeysuckle.
So watch the grass grow blade by blade for times
this succulent won’t come again. And just across
the treeline lies the town with its waiting rooms
and corridors and wards and the great hearts huddled,
distant but intimate over the tubes and the lines.
LOCKDOWN read by Dick Jones.
ECHOES by mUmbo.
mUmbo are Emma Semple: violin, viola, vocals and video creation
and Doug McGowan: guitar.
Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.
Ever since the acquisition of words provided me with a receptacle for memory, I have loved language. Its music, its power to evoke, its absurd variety delighted me as a child and my joy in it flourished into my adolescence and youth.
My love of language drifted me into teaching – English first, then, for the greater part of my career, Drama. As during my time in teaching time passed and experience accumulated, goals shifted, routes changed and strategies altered. But one constant remained at the heart of whatever version of whatever syllabus I followed. It was contained within a small but perfectly formed lecture that I would deliver, not particularly original in content but imparted with a messianic zeal undiminished by time and repetition.
In it I would urge my students to take every opportunity they could to broaden their vocabularies and to recognise in language the key to knowledge, understanding, independence of mind and, ultimately, a degree of real personal autonomy. A keypoint of this address was reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the mighty and potent weapon of Newspeak. I would ask them to examine their own speech forms – the unquestioning reliance that some may have had on deliberately vague, oblique or discursive vocabulary, or on acquired slang forms whose terms of reference, however linguistically rich in their own way, were meaningless within the cultural territory that these middle class students occupied.
I would proselytise further about language as a universal resource whose capacity for articulating beauty and truth as we understand them need not be limited or constrained by social or cultural circumstances. I used as exemplars of this certain Gypsies I have known whose illiteracy, far from being an impediment to the development of language, actually provoked the need for an enhanced flexibility and richness of expression because of reliance on the purely oral form. I asked them to see that there need be no conflict of interests between their acquisition of linguistic skills and nominal subscription to a resolutely anti-intellectual culture. Indeed, such skills would provide an opportunity for agile movement across cultural territories. I would insist that the objective must be always to avoid being trapped within one register of language usage, unable to move with ease and grace from level to level.
I would conclude by telling them to read, to read anything and everything. To make it a habit; to regard every unfamiliar word, phrase, term and figure of speech as a challenge to understanding that must be met. Master language and ultimately you need never be manipulated, exploited, controlled, owned by anyone!
And they would listen politely, only glazing over if I ventured too far past the 10-minute mark. Occasionally, long after the event, the odd ex-student has made reference to the sermon and expressed gratitude for having been nudged towards a greater respect for language at just the right moment.
For all that I can sometimes add to a well-turned sentence a word too many, only to have it collapse in on itself like some poorly constructed architectural folly, I loathe promiscuous language. Listening to cornered politicians turning on the tap and shamelessly letting it flow unchecked has me barracking from the sofa. Hysterical Oscar winners in verbal free fall, pretentious artists endeavouring to translate piles of house bricks into meaningful messages, pop stars who read a book once and now imagine themselves to be sages – all who sling words around like frisbees – piss me off to the point of inarticulacy, which, in current context, is ironic. This is not language in reaching for light; it’s language whose sole achievement is pure sound.
But what really brings down the red mist is the use of language as a means to exclude all but the cognoscenti. When language becomes so abstruse, so convoluted, so comprehensively up its own arse, I know that I’m dealing with a man (almost invariably) who, were he not overdriving the keyboard, would be driving a very fast car very fast. These professional intellectuals – almost all of them inhabiting the worlds of recherché philosophy, arts theory or, God help us, linguistics – have no interest whatsoever either in language’s capacity to communicate complex concepts with absolute clarity or in its intrinsic beauty in utterance or on the page. The wielding of language is for them a kind of aristocratic sport by whose obscurantist rules and protocols they may celebrate their membership of an exclusive higher order of being.
Meanwhile, out in the bearpit a similar, if less refined game is being played. Consider the out-of-control IT jargoneer, the estate agent (realtor) describing a property and those drones who compose the letters that banks send you when you’re overdrawn. Each mangles and distorts language into something convoluted and grotesque, seeking to establish through it only the branding of his or her particular agency.
These are the true perpetrators of word crimes, not those whose earnest attempts to communicate are hampered because their command of classical grammar may be faulty and their non-colloquial vocabulary sparse. The latter struggles for meaning and truth; the former intends the obscurantist tyranny of trade jargon .
Now, how about this document. I stumbled across it whilst doing some internet research and as I read it I searched in vain for irony. I present it as evidence for the prosecution, item 1. It comes from a PhD dissertation entitled Immersive Ideals/Critical Distances: A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms. Okay, I might be accused of emulating Hermann Goering and reaching for my revolver at the utterance of the word ‘culture’, but please – is this an authentic statement about an area of art theory and practice so arcane that it can’t communicate its specifics without the exclusive use of entirely specialist language – or is it simply check-this-out bollocks?
A lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art and established a seemingly unrestricted area of prodigality which I identify as viractuality. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, the real co-exists with the virtual and the organic fuses with the computer-robotic. Consequently, I am interested in a new interlaced sense of artistic viractuality which couples the biological with the technological and the static with the malleable. As such, viractualism strives for an understanding and depiction of an anti-essentiality of the techno-body so as to allow for no privileged logos. Here images of the flesh are undone by machinic viral disturbances they cannot contain. Here thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs and topples down into the realm of viractual reverie.
Thank you for your attention. Any questions?
A final reflection on language and meaning. In 1962 the late Harold Pinter made a statement about his perception of the real function of much the speech that we utter, ostensibly for the purposes of communication. It’s a difficult statement that requires careful reading and subsequent reflection. But there’s a world of difference between the narcissistic game playing of the writer just quoted and the elegant and painstaking proposition that is now seen as informing at the deepest level Pinter’s extraordinary work.
There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished, or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.
In conclusion, I must acknowledge that much of the above may be seen to achieve little more than to prove through example the author’s claims. If that is the case then I’ll just have to try harder to pursue Samuel Beckett’s paradoxical aim of trying to pare language back to the bone through the use of language.
An earlier version of this post appeared on the Patteran Pages in February 2007and here in January of this year.
Here’s a poem that ponders the origins of language and the duality of form that emerged as class and hierarchy established themselves over time.
A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed.
When we began
the world was made
of hands and eyes –
fingers and winks.
We wove a sense
of what the light
revealed and the dark
consumed by dancing
in plain sight, waving
our meaning, daubing
onto walls and
a soundtrack like
the wolves and bears
Words were licked
into life by tongues
stirring in their
bone and water beds.
Ululation into utterance,
one day, one night
when sudden light
or no light at all
twisted noise into
a loop of syllables;
or something was born
by breath in the heat
of loving after the fire
had died; or something
out of grieving congregated
in a mouth a drift
of stones that rattled
into meaning and spat
sense that all could share
and speak again and again.
Then the scribes tugged
our pictograms from walls
and with those tongues
pushing out a bottom lip,
they penned them slowly,
rush-lit night and day,
across the calfskin, line
upon line. Golden ciphers,
language wrapped in
arabesques, concealed in
locked into floral curlicues
and stalked by fantastical
beasts across the vellum.
All our words licked now
by gall and gum, by
iron salts and lampblack,
a cultivation so sublime
that each word lifted
sits in the mouth
like a fig plucked from
the highest branch. Princes
and priests turn the juices
on their tongues and tell
the kneeling penitents
how good they taste.
O believe! Have faith!
You only need to hear
our words beneath
a vaulted ceiling and
are assured. Your hollow
syllables turned into a fall
of bells, all your raw vernacular
stacked like bricks inside
the architecture of a hymn.
On a Christmas morning many years ago I was born. Mum and I were in a small maternity home in Horton Kirby, West Kent. A few miles away in my grandparents’ terraced cottage on Hockenden Lane, Swanley, Dad and Alan (my parents’ lodger, turned closest friend) awaited the call. When it came via the only telephone in the terrace of cottages, they climbed onto their bikes and negotiated the lanes between Swanley and Horton Kirby. There was no snow; it wasn’t a white Christmas, but there was a hard frost and ice lay across the surfaces of the lanes. Dad skidded and fell off his bike so many times that on arrival at the nursing home, Mum’s midwife had to patch him up, much to my mother’s disgust. Alan, however, was unblemished. Calm, cautious and fastidious as ever, he’d navigated his bike along the gutters of the lanes, correcting his passage against pavement or hedge bank.
And so, as I stared blindly up towards the light, there were three faces looking down at me, not just the usual parental complement of two. And as I grew into sentience, conscious bit by bit of the world immediately around my cot, and then around the looming beds and armchairs and sofas, there were three grownups sharing my space. I had a Mum, a Dad and an Alan. This was the ordained way of things; this was normality.
Alan lived with us in our corner house in suburban Norbiton, Surrey, finally moving to his own flat in central London when I was 14. But the ties were indissoluble and he drove down every weekend, and still we spent holidays together. Many years on in retirement Alan bought a beautiful house in the South-East of France, which he shared with my parents and where they stayed for the greater part of the year.
My father died in 1998 and my mother in 2008. Alan died this April at the age of 98, still resident in his London flat, and his funeral was on May 7th. I wrote this poem while my mother was still alive and Alan and I were visiting her, each in 3-day sequences, Alan, increasingly frail, making the journey from Hyde Park Square to North Hertfordshire.
AIW – 2007
Sometimes I see us,
you and I, as two figures
in a landscape, empty
but for us, chalk-mark still,
our long shadows
in alignment at last.
You tended the edges
of my life
from the start
the good steward,
the gatekeeper. But the
hard, white lighthouse
beam of that
indivisible love shone
high above my head.
I knew only
my mother’s laugh,
her head thrown back,
my father’s tread
on the rising stairs,
and your silence.
Yet, even then,
that beam’s bending edge
cast light enough to read by.
Now my father’s dead
and my mother smiles,
lost in her sheets.
And still you radiate
(burning up hope
and your few years)
that love indivisible whose
fanatic heat binds us
here in this empty place.
On July 25th 2015 my friend the poet, blogger and curator Dave Bonta was kind enough to publish on his eminent blog, Via Negativa a first draft of French-Canadian poet Yves Préfontaine’s extraordinary poem Peuple Inhabité. Life in a time of Corona has given me the time to return to it and as result make some small but important revisions.
Here;’s what Dave wrote above that first translation:
Quite a challenge, this one. It’s always a delicate balance that has to be maintained between ‘translation’ and ‘version’ so I shall be interested in any feedback from other Francophones.
I found a brief biog of Yves Préfontaine at the Electronic Poetry Centre (which, incidentally, opened for business way back in the mid ‘90s when there was virtually no poetry presence on the internet at all). Born in 1937 in Montréal, poet Yves Préfontaine is an anthropologist by training. He published his first poems at the age of fifteen and released his first collection at twenty. At eighteen, he began his career as radio script writer at Radio-Canada, with some incursions into television. He organized, amongst other things, a series of fourteen shows with Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist – who was also originally from Montréal. In 1959, he co-founded the journals Situations and Le Québec libre; later he joined the editorial board of Liberté, of which he was the editor-in-chief from 1961 to 1962. […] His poems have been translated into English, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, and Croatian.
by Yves Préfontaine, translated by Dick Jones
I live in a region where the cold has beaten down the grass, where gloom lies heavy over the ghostly trees.
I live in silence amongst a dormant population, shivering under the frost of their words. I live amongst a people who have lost all language both fragile and forceful.
I live inside an all-embracing cry –
Speechless stone –
Sudden clifftops –
The winter a naked blade in my chest.
A snowdrift of exhaustion gently stifles this land in which I live.
And I prevail within the fog.
And I persist in speaking out.
And from my pain no echo returns.
A people’s language is their bread.
A place of light amongst the rotting wheat.
I live amongst a people who have lost themselves.
And the great territories of their joy wither beneath this endless tundra
This great disowned abundance.
I live inside a cry powerless now to pierce, to strike, to break through
these barriers of spittle and masks.
I live amongst a phantom people disowned like the ugly daughter.
And my footsteps mark a circle in this desert. A deluge of furious white faces surrounds me.
The land that I inhabit is a marble tableau under ice.
And this land empty of the men of light whispers in my blood
like a lover.
But I fight against this absence between my teeth, a poverty of words
that gleam and then are lost.
J’habite un espace où le froid triomphe de l’herbe, où la grisaille règne
en lourdeur sur des fantômes d’arbres.
J’habite en silence un peuple qui sommeille, frileux sous le givre de ses mots. J’habite un peuple dont se tarit la parole frêle et brusque.
J’habite un cri tout alentour de moi –
Pierre sans verbe –
Falaise abrupte –
Lame nue dans ma poitrine l’hiver.Une neige de fatigue étrangle avec douceur le pays que j’habite.
Et je persiste en des fumées.
Et je m’acharne à parler.
Et la blessure n’a point d’écho.
Le pain d’un peuple est sa parole.
Mais point de clarté dans le blé qui pourrit.
J’habite un peuple qui ne s’habite plus.
Et les champs entiers de la joie se flétrissent sous tant de sécheresse
Et tant de gerbes reniées.
J’habite un cri qui n’en peut plus de heurter, de cogner, d’abattre
Ces parois de crachats et de masques.
J’habite le spectre d’un peuple renié comme fille sans faste.
Et mes pas font un cercle en ce désert. Une pluie de visages blancs
Me cerne de fureur.
Le pays que j’habite est un marbre sous la glace.
Et ce pays sans hommes de lumière glisse dans mes veines comme
Femme que j’aime.
Or je sévis contre l’absence avec entre les dents, une pauvreté de mots
Qui brillent et se percent.
Jean Coulthard – The Bird Of Dawning Singeth All Night Long. Poem for violin, harp and strings (1960)
A CLEAR BLUE SKY
My dad was a man of prose – a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages –
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.
When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well”, “Insomnia”, “Coughing still”.
For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look – a clear blue sky’, and we turned to see.
My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty –
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky’, floating the words on the sterile air
like leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night and,
one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.
The quality of light: this, a piece
of late evening sky. How darkness
can shine: last of the sun, a first
breath of stars, a waxing moon.
Judas walks out of the small room
while they are still dining.
No one knows but Jesus
and his head is turned away.
But they can’t escape, these
protagonists, caught between
the ruby and green, the dark blue light,
the black bands of lead.
IN THE DAYS BEFORE THEY CAME FOR HIM
What interests me so much more than
those pages of scripture foxed with turning
is his choosing of a blue gown over a white;
his weighing of two stones in either hand, the one
mottled like a perfect moon, the other pale and blind
as a sleeper’s face,
and his standing by an open window
speculating the limitless sea
as a merciful place where to rest his head
against a turning back towards a roiling world
whose tide is in the flood.
A summer morning.
I’m 10. I’m sitting
in a sandpit, back
The sun is brilliant,
and standing high;
it must be
nearly noon. I
tip back my head
and I yawn and
the sun fills
my open mouth
like a spoon
and I know
that I shall
Memories of loneliness within the crowd and seeking solitude in order to conjure up home…
UNDER BLUE ANCHOR
They were singing The Parting Glass. The fire was high.
Some eyes were closed with the weight of the song;
others gleamed. All there were drinking hard.
The windows ran with condensation and rain fell straight
in the windless night. I rose and threaded my way
to the door. From woodsmoke, I stepped into seaspray.
From the crossweave of the song, I stepped into the cry
of gulls. Sickle wings looped and turned in the dark.
I sat on the wall and thought of home. I lifted my face
into the rain and thought of you and the children. All of you
asleep – your hair auburn-red over the counterpane,
their faces spellbound. And I called along the alleys
of the rain and out across the tenements of clouds
to where you lay sleeping, thinking not to wake you but
just to stand for a heartbeat at the corner of your dreams.
The Parting Glass at Peadar O’Donnell’s Bar, Derry
Another restless night. At 01.20 I stood at the window watching the skyline. During previous bouts of insomnia, there was always something faintly comforting about the long, probing lights of planes flying into Luton Airport from the east and descending elegantly behind the trees. Others awake like me, but in transit from Sofia, Talinn, Lyon, Kutaisi, Reykjavik, Cork. The enigma of arrival.
But in the small hours this morning nothing disturbed the skyline. And my sense of solitude was strangely heightened by the sudden doppler whine of a motorbike speeding by on the road below. But, of course, the solitude is real and its sense is pervasive. Yesterday we went for a walk. We crossed the fields and walked down the long slope of the lane. We were passed by just one car before turning onto the muddy track that took us past the farm and onto the bottom of the hill leading up to our house. As we walked alongside the meadow where the horses are grazed, half way up it a lone figure was slipping a bridle over the neck and head of a piebald shire horse. She turned as she gathered it into her arms and saw the three of us paused by the fence. With the solemnity of the stay-at-home edict still fresh in our minds, there was a curious hesitancy in the distant encounter. Then the woman slowly raised her free arm in a strangely stiff and formal salute; we returned it in similar manner; she turned and walked towards the stable buildings and we continued on our way.
So suddenly we’re strangers in a strange land. And as the economic structure purées all standard procedure around us, the normal social protocols go into suspension. In one street an act of inexplicable cruelty and stupidity occurs; in a parallel street the self-sacrifical kindness of a stranger demonstrates the extraordinary generosity that ennobles humanity in crisis.
And it’s all broken apart in a little over a fortnight. Here we all are inside our familiar house, moving from room to room, eating meals, binge-watching on Netflix, carrying our laundry upstairs, face-timing friends, sweeping floors, insulated briefly from the Mystery. But the outside world that we scrutinise through the windows has fallen away. The trees and fields and pathways prevail, but the few passers-by hasten in their transit as if anxious only to draw their own walls swiftly around them so that they too may themselves move from room to room, glancing now and then through the windows.
Ólafur Arnalds – Particles, featuring Nanna Brands Hilmarsdóttir.