LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 5.

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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.

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 4

Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) flying past the moon

I’m okay during the day. There’s lots to do and in between the TV bulletins updating us on the steepening infection curve, the increasingly ravaged images of angry, exhausted doctors and nurses on the front line and the sad, baffled faces of politicians sharing our fear and incomprehension, I’ve been here before: I’m on holiday and the time beat of the day has adjusted to the slow, muffled background thump of hours without agenda or direction.

But at night I wake up suddenly. I open my eyes and the stars are looking back at me, cold and indifferent. Sometimes I’m able to sleep again immediately. But too frequently there’s something about that indifference, that absolute implacability that has me out of bed and downstairs, fearful and alone…

THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT

Unable to sleep, I sit before
the heartless brilliance of the screen
with the real-world darkness

hovering, fresh-minted, glossy
at the window. It’s as if time
has packed her bags and left

for the coast and then beyond.
Fear leans on the back of my chair
in his poacher’s coat, deep pockets

full of gin-traps, poison, shiny knives.
I take off my glasses, knuckle away
the mess of my tears. And then,

like a gaggle of drunks through
a suddenly opened door, the geese
are overhead. Some crass dispute

as to the whereabouts of water
in the impossible night, their voices
skronking inside a collision of

cranking necks and wings. As they
tumble through the unseen clouds,
I laugh out loud and love them all

for their unconsidered vandalism,
neither thought nor theory troubling
the palate of their need.

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 3.

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 3.

I stood looking out of the kitchen window. Hardly a breeze; everything very still. Early violets studding the grass; those last daffodils; the may pushing through the privet. The unconscious persistence of nature set against listening to the Canon Triplex In omnem terram exivit sonus eorum by Benedetto Marcello from the radio, caught by chance at that moment. Tears streamed.

It’s too easy to interpret that persistence through the medium of the emotions, as if these synchronous moments represent some kind of absolute compact between nature observed and our attempts to frame the numinous through music. But Covid 19, the latest in a group of disabling corona viruses, is moving amongst us with the same unconscious persistence. And to the epidemiologist that microscopic floret-bearing globe will have beauty too, even as it exploits our immune systems through sickness and maybe into death.

Spring is officially wide open on Friday and with its cautious warmth and early blooming we’ll feel hope as we open doors and step into it. Easy to emotionalise the big, pale blue skies and the sudden blossom amongst the spiny branches still pushing out their buds. The best we can manage amidst the fecundity of Covid 19 is fear.

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 2.

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 2.

Day 3 of family self-isolation. But it’s a spring Sunday and the daffodils are still in full cry across our weird bumpy lawn. I tried for some solemn moments yesterday. I had a how-to-cope list on my knee that started off with the words, ‘We don’t know what’s in store and we don’t know for how long…’ But everyone giggled so my Swiss Family Robinson pater familias role went up in smoke before I could get to the hard-core survivalist stuff.

So life goes on much as usual with only flickers of newsreel images in the tail of an eye or the sententious tones en passant of another rogue epidemiologist calling out the government for indecisive management to remind us that this is only the beginning. This morning when the girls were up in our bedroom for Mother’s Day a barn owl swept across a skylight whilst higher in a pale blue sky two red kites sauntered around the thermals. We have enough in fridge and freezer pro tem and the local village store and our beloved Red Lion are opening up as conduits for supplies. Behind me now a crop sprayer crosses the field with radials at full spread like some crazily optimistic aeronautical folly. Cars thump pass and a Harley-Davidson hammers along in its own blue smoke behind the Stevenage bus. We can all still hold our collective breath because this is only the beginning.

FIRST LIGHT by BRIAN ENO

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 1.

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LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 1. / 20.3.20

It’s still outside, save for the cars passing. I’m home alone. Sunny on the fields, but cold inside because I daren’t overtax the two 47kg LPG cylinders that comprise our entire gas supply. Better to wrap up during the day and disseminate a little heat in the evening when everyone’s home. Just one delivery driver down with the C19 and we go without for days. Eric Whitacre’s ‘Allelluia’ is on iTunes, volume down so the distant voices seem to be percolating through the walls.

I don’t feel fear for me. Those microscopic naval mines will come bobbing by if they will. And if one bumps my bows then I’ll brace myself for the muffled boom and hope that the damage stays above the waterline. Much more concerned for family members. They have asthma – not severely, but the ash trees are self-germinating now and they’re promiscuous with their pollen.

So not afraid for myself, just sad, terribly sad. Bereft, I guess – so sudden a loss. The Tuesday before last I was at Steve and Jo’s for our weekly music session. I had a bassline to put on a song of Gemma’s after which we played through Steve’s and my two latest songs. Then there was to be next week at mine and the following at Steve’s and so on into our mutual indefinite futures. Now Steve and Jo are in voluntary seclusion through the months ahead and the shared music that has for each one of us served our souls in troubled times must await the silent, invisible movement of this toxic global cloud.

That’s my immediate sorrow. In the world at large there’s ‘a drawing down of blinds’ as everything that has animated our quotidian lives for generations ceases, bringing about a huge empty, uncomprehending vacancy. From those hastening up and down the corridors of power to the puzzled soul standing alone in a once busy street, no one knows what must happen next. The Four Estates are dumbfounded. All about us the signal-to-noise ratio loses out to mere babble. A rumpled, baffled PM mangles his silver spoon vowels, turning with ill-concealed relief to one of the two skeletal science supremoes who flank him on either side. I watch the mouths flapping and think of Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

I sleep fitfully, wondering in my momentary half-consciousness what it is that’s shifting out there in the darkness. And in the morning I know.

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3 POEMS BY MICHEL DEVERGE

Michel

« La poésie, c’est l’art de bâtir des ponts entre ciel et terre »
Michel Deverge

French poet Michel Deverge was no artist-in-a-garret. Once a cultural, scientific and technical attache to the French Embassy in Singapore, he was also an art critic and philologist with a specialisation in Chinese Studies. His poems are quirky and surreal, reflecting in their minimalism and delicacy the influences of the East. Here are three translations. I have several more in preparation.

THE PUNT

the fish watches the maggot
and the line and the rod and
up there on the end of the rod
in the stern of the punt
beneath the spreading shadow of his hat
the angler asleep in the sun.

the lapping of ripples against the flat boards
set against the rustling of the reeds
the punt solitary on the great lake
the fish its warder
and the silence its cell.

THE MASTER WAS POLISHING A BRICK

The master was polishing a brick
the pupil asked
why are you doing that
the master answered
to make a mirror
the pupil said
you can’t make a mirror from a brick
the master answered
you can’t become a buddha by sitting amongst the lotus

THE ASPARAGUS

The asparagus tip
cast a morning glance
across the beach
close by
the basket
the kitchen knife

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POETRY AND MEMORY

POETRY AND MEMORY

On the publication of my first collection ANCIENT LIGHTS a few years back, I was interviewed online by a friendly editor (they’re out there!) for an article about poetry and memory.

Many of your poems in ANCIENT LIGHTS are concerned with time and memory. How do you use memory as a muse? When you revisit a memory in a poem, what does it feel like to you?

I never seek out memory consciously as some kind of goad to inspiration. I can only write in response to a jolt from inside or out and long periods may pass between such events. Then a small linkage of words or a complete line will simply appear, often enough in the midst of a sequence of completely unconnected thinking. Many poems begin when I’m driving on my own. The pairing of concentrated attention behind the wheel and the freewheeling bundles of random thoughts stimulated by music that might be playing or by the passing scene seems to provide particularly fertile conditions for the start of a poem. It’s within this kind of creative context that memory might interpose itself at some point. So there’s no conscious attempt to site an emergent poem in some recollection of the past: if it’s going to happen it will simply happen. But when it does the greater likelihood is that a first draft of the poem will be completed swiftly and its emergence will carry with it an immediate and commanding emotional charge.

There’s an example of this in the writing of In The Daubigny Chapel. I was driving from Hertfordshire to Hampshire, a journey of about two-and-a-half hours along linked motorways alongside which the changing topography is very apparent as the time passes. A CD of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was playing – unobtrusive, as it was designed to be, yet evoking an atmosphere of contemplation and reflection. Around me the great flat fields of the East gave way to the hills of the Southern downs. And at some point out of nowhere a line came into my head: Mice are in the organ loft. I can hear their scratch and scatter… Instantly I knew in what church that organ loft was situated and what scene from my past was unfolding beneath it. Within 20 to 30 minutes I had the first nine-line stanza composed and when I stopped for fuel I quickly wrote it down. By the time I reached my destination I had the second stanza in place and I scribbled it into my notebook before conducting the business in hand.

And then most of the way home I pondered what had happened – how out of nowhere a line had materialised, followed rapidly by a sequence of supporting lines all following a narrative course culminating in a conclusion, the whole linking long-past experience with present perception. The poem had evolved with a kind of steady urgency, its intrinsic mood and atmosphere developing with the falling of the verses and now, as I drove home, I was gripped by the resonance of the memories contained within it and their significance to me now decades later. It was as if the poem had performed a kind of partial decoding process, encapsulating an isolated sequence of events, undramatic in themselves at the time but clearly of considerable moment within a much broader, deeper consciousness now. It’s in this kind of way that memory and time underpin much of my poetry – unbidden and yet compelling in its essence and purposeful in the process of its composition.

In Burn Norton from the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot has four lines that I have always cherished for its representation of the factual imprecision of memories which are nonetheless vivid and powerful:

Footfalls echo in the memory 
Down the passage which we did not take 
Towards the door we never opened 
Into the rose-garden.

I can’t answer for other poets nor can I project some general principle for the greater function of memory within verse. But I have long believed of my own work that in part at least its substance arises from deep within both my active and passive resources of recollection. And it’s been apparent to me for a long time now that each of these memory-driven poems carries within its imagery a set of ciphers. These may or may not be clearly comprehensible to me, but I will always recognise in them a potent significance in respect of what they describe at the point of occurrence and an enduring and informing consequence now.

IN THE DAUBIGNY CHAPEL

Mice are in the organ loft. I can hear
their scratch and scatter, tiny scraps
of moss on the move across the bones
of their ancestors. July sun shimmers
the riches of the windows. And down
on the south aisle floor, sprawling like
a scrubbing penitent, your golden hair
across your face, you lift the brass
up through the paper, inch by inch.

We are in the blissful moment, you
and I. Light and time reiterate
and the motes of dust stand still.
You look so young, so beautiful that
I barely hear the voice that murmurs,
small but clear, ‘You want. Not need
but want. Know this now and then
down the long noise of the years.

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A re-drafting of a poem posted to this blog a couple of years back. Relevant then to me as I continued to make my increasingly cautious way forward into the years immediately ahead, it resonates just that little bit louder now.

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FRAGILE

Much as at the point when suddenly rain stops,
    or wind abates,
        or cloud obscures the sun,

there is a moment just between
    breathe in and breathe   out
        when shock stops the spin and hum of it all

and in the silence and the stillness
    we are changed entirely.

At this point the surgeon reads morbidity into
    the slip and twist of tissues,
    the plasticity of form,
    the salt and vinegar of juices.

And from then, back on the street,
    you may glimpse over and again
        around the crook of each and every corner,

mortality’s black sleeve flapping
    like a torn flag.

 

 

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TWO POEMS BY BLAISE CENDRARS

 

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THE HAZY WORLD OF BLAISE CENDRARS by LEE ROURKE
from The Guardian, July 27th 2007

Reading Blaise Cendrars is like stepping into another universe. His fiction is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. His poetry influenced the mighty Guillaume Apollinaire and helped shape the face of modernism. But it is his mockery of biographical detail and the very notion of literature that fascinates me the most. If, like me, you’re not a fan of autobiography, then Blaise Cendrars is the memoirist for you.

Blaise Cendrars – or the “son of Homer” as John Dos Passos called him – is himself a strange kind of fiction: born in La Chaux-de-Fonds of a Scottish mother and Swiss father, he claimed that he left home aged 15 to work in Russia during the revolution of 1905. He was a bee-keeper, a film maker, a chef, a picture-house pianist, a watchmaker, and a traveller with drunken gypsies. He spent the first world war fighting with the French foreign legion, where he lost his arm in combat, became an art critic, befriended Picasso, sailed the seven seas, shovelled coal in China, amassed and lost huge fortunes and had his own gossip column in a Hollywood newspaper. Nobody knows how much of this is actually true. Though he certainly lost an arm in the first world war, it is possible Blaise Cendrars was pulling more than one or two legs.

In fact, Blaise Cendrars isn’t even his real name. His real name is Frédéric Louis Sauser. Blaise Cendrars is a bastardisation of ‘braise’ (embers) and ‘cendres’ (ashes) with ‘ars’ (art) thrown in for good measure. Blaise Cendrars dances on the ashes of outmoded literary styles to create his own pioneering art. Fire is a repeated image throughout his work and it is this insouciance and dismissal of all that came before him that is elementary to his own philosophy: be different and forge the new.

His most famous ‘biographical’ work is the war memoirs tetralogy, consisting of The Astonished Man (L’Homme Foudroyé, 1945), Lice (La Main Coupée, 1946), Planus (Bourlinguer, 1948), and Sky (Le Lotissement du Ciel, 1949). These aren’t your average war memoirs, they are the strangest and most surreal I have ever encountered. Encompassing almost 1000 pages they cover subjects from the bizarre and the surreal: pimps, wastrels, vagabonds, Gypsies, actors, prostitutes, and thieves figure in abundance. It doesn’t matter to me if some of it isn’t true.

The Astonished Man blew me away when I first read it. It is Blaise Cendrars at his very best, a smorgasbord of artists, thieves, and brain-dead sergeants which hoodwinks the reader into believing this magical and horrifying world. It is gonzo journalism 30 years before Thompson and Wolfe, but, unlike most gonzo journalists, Cendrars could write a mouth-wateringly beautiful sentence to boot. We don’t care for fact when we read him. All that nonsense is dismissed. We are hypnotised.

For me, the best memoirists are those who know that all biography is fiction. Cendrars eschews biographical detail and morphs fact and fiction into an elaborate hoax that is both authentic and illusory – the reader is press-ganged and taken along for the ride. Literature should never be anchored or locked. Who needs to be bogged down with biographical fact when such writers hold the keys to our imagination?

o0o

TWO POEMS BY BLAISE CENDRARS
translated by Dick Jones

STARRY NIGHT

CLAIR DE LUNE

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WE ARE.

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WE ARE – audiofile

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