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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

British Figures

                  
Untitled Nude, Tom Phillips 2015

       
                                                     Men of War, Nicola Hicks 2015                                              
Finnan Smokers
     John Bellany, Finnan Smokers 1992

(from the exhibition The British Figure at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road until 29th August)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

In Search of Missing Persons

 

    Fernando Pessoa has always been one of my favourite poets. His theory of heteronyms - the concept that a writer could hive off different aspects of his sensibility and imagination into a diversity of poetic voices and registers - is central to the key Modernist trope of fractured identity and multiple selves. In all he invented a total of 136 heteronyms, some with their own biographies, astrological charts and visiting cards, as though his very authorial presence were a work of fiction. Indeed, Pessoa goes so far beyond related strategies such as Poundian personae or Yeatsian masks that he seems eminently post-modern, his entire work posited on the elaborate deferral of subjectivity and the unstable, arbitrary nature of poetic style and language, debunking the egotistical sublime of later confessional modes. Similarly, Pessoa's multitudinous, refractive oeuvre gives the lie to the received platitude that poets should develop a "mature voice" and stick to it, supposedly expressing autobiographical epiphanies in a simplistic traffic between lyric-I and experience recollected in tranquillity.

    Fernando Pessoa the man (1888-1935) is as elusive and self-eliding as his poetry might suggest. The biographical facts we have are remarkably few - after early years in Durban, he spent most of his life in Lisbon and never married or had children. His remorselessly bleak prose-work The Book of Disquiet (fathered by the heteronym Bernando Soares) invokes a penumbrous, liminal existence trapped between the futile tedium of office-work and the isolation of sitting in cafes or in a rented room alone, its narrator a desperate, reality-doubting marginalist combining aspects of Malte Laurids Brigge with the anti-hero of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. The shabby, uninspiring streets of Soares's Lisbon seemed a world away from the colourful, exhilaratingly sunlit city I visited the other week, where old and new architectures vibrantly offset each other and the hilly layout provides dizzying perspectives down narrow backstreets where Pessoa might once have conducted his nocturnal flaneries.



 From our hotel near Saldanha it was a relatively short walk to the Casa-Museo Fernando Pessoa or should have been, were we not distracted by such sights as the Basilica da Estrela and its garden of welcome shade (36 degrees heat that day), an indoor artisanal market and the antique-shops around Rato with their intriguing arrays of bric-a-brac and retro artefacts.

  The Casa Pessoa has the excellent policy of half-price entrance fees to teachers, no evidence asked for, and to students - again no proof needed on this occasion. We were met with a lengthy introductory lecture in English about Pessoa and the house now dedicated to him, rather over-zealously delivered by the tour-guide and a little hard to take in after our walk in the sweltering heat. It was the poet's residence for the last 15 years of his life and houses his library, which contains a high proportion of English books. What surprised me was the fact that - as the guide described it or as I understood him - Pessoa wrote so much in English, perhaps as much as "50/50 between Portugese and English". Some of the work in English remains unedited and unpublished - and is certainly little-known in the English-speaking world.
    (The next day I managed to find a little volume of selected English poems called No Matter What We Dream in a bookshop  and bought a copy. Although some of the work penned by heteronyms like Alexander Search and the Mad Fiddler prefigures the more familiar Portugese poems in its themes and imagery, a lot of the texts read like slightly wooden pastiches of English models and the editors are right to say "Pessoa's English was bookish, old-fashioned in diction and generally lacking the grace of a native speaker".)


    That the Casa Pessoa is a well-curated and important museum is beyond doubt: it incorporates interactive technology to good effect and utilises animated video-clips to draw children into Pessoa's world. It also acts as a cultural hub by having a room for poetry-readings and musical performances and as a study-centre by having the library not just as an archive of the author's book but of translations and critical works about Pessoa from many countries.
What repeatedly struck me as I walked around the museum was admiration that an original and in many ways experimental poet like Pessoa - certainly not a mainstream or populist figure - should be so amply respected and memorialised in this way, bespeaking a literary broad-mindedness seldom encountered in England. (I was trying to think of an equivalent British poet but there really isn't one.) Unknown outside avant garde circles and largely unpublished during his lifetime, Pessoa has ultimately become (alongside Saramago, bacalhau and the fado divas of the bairro alto) one of Lisbon's cultural icons - deservedly so given the distinctive quality of his writing yet strangely ironic when we consider the depersonalising, self-disguising nature of his aesthetic. Like the last line of his poem 'The Cat' (printed on the wall of the restaurant at the back of the museum where we ate lunch after our visit), Pessoa seems always to be saying " I know myself: I'm missing".

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

A Prayerful State

"But to poetry — you have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It's more of a prayerful state than writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying. And the prayerful state is just being passive with it, mumbling, being around there, lying on the grass, going swimming, you see. Even getting drunk. Get drunk prayerfully, though."
   Love this quotation from Robert Penn Warren, very appropriate for poets like me who are also teachers just beginning their summer holidays. 'Prayerful state' sums it up beautifully, although I would hasten to add there's invariably a focussed, active work-phase after the initial passive one when you're waiting for the words to emerge.
   Some prayerful drunkenness tonight, then...

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

I'm A Believer: Robert Wyatt

  A thrilling and rarely-seen performance from Top of the Pops from 1974 with Nick Mason of Pink Floyd on drums and Fred Frith on guitar. However, as this passage from Wyatt's authorised biography Different Every Time suggests, seventies TOTP was not only a hotbed of tacitly-accepted underage molestation but of outrageous disablism too: there was a "squabble centred on Robert's wheelchair, apparently deemed unsuitable for family viewing. 'The BBC were astonishingly stupid about it'  says Fred Frith, who recalls the disagreement lasting throughout the day. Richard Sinclair even remembers having to prop Wyatt up in his chair at one point, when someone insisted on removing the arms. The BBC  did eventually allow him to perform from his wheelchair...but TOTP was a nasty surprise for Robert: 'It was the first time anyone had made me feel unsightly. And it was a shock. I thought other people must think that, but they don't say it. It did upset me.' "
   As the author of this fascinating biography, Marcus O'Dair, puts it when discussing Wyatt's choice of the Neil Diamond-penned, Monkees pop classic, "whether Robert anticipated it or not, a line about disappointment haunting his dreams had a very different resonance when delivered from a wheelchair".

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Make Some Noise

 Made it along to Café Oto in Dalston the other week for an evening of 'Brighton noise-poetry', an oddly alluring tag for a scene bigged-up in a recent piece for The Wire magazine by one of its proponents, Daniel Spicer. I'd missed the article but had friends who were involved in the performance; the proposition of a live amalgam of poetry and noisy/improvised sounds was inviting too as this kind of interface has always fascinated me.
    We're all aware of poetry's archaic origins as words (or vocalisations) set to music: Nietzsche goes further and suggests that "the poet cannot tell us anything that was not already contained, with a most universal validity, in such music as prompted him to his figurative discourse". We all know the other quotes about literature aspiring to the condition of music and poetry atrophying when it gets too far from music but when we turn to famous poems that purport to be composed in musical forms - Bunting's Sonatas, say, or Zukofsky's "A" or (ho-hum) Four Quartets - you discover, despite a foregrounded musicality of language, that the form is being employed more as a structural analogy than as an actual acoustic principle (as, more impressively, Joyce used the fugue in the 'Sirens' episode of Ulysses) and that on the whole, when compared with the vastly more complex arranging and orchestrating of impalpable tonal textures and ideas which composers have to deal with, poets are little better than apathetic scatterbrains merely writing down the ready-made verbiage they find around them and sometimes counting the syllables and inserting homophonic parallels. Equally, compared with the expressive skill and dexterity born of years of dedicated practice displayed by a concert pianist, a jazz drummer or a Tuvan throat singer, most poets are complacent loafers who merely stand there and read out their lines from a sheet in the funny, over-earnest voice we're all supposed to use.
    Not to say that interesting things haven't been done in trying to marry music and poetry in areas outside the mainstream, white, academic field: I'm thinking mainly here of jazz-, rap- and dub-poetries as well as the sound-poetry of writers like Bob Cobbing and Tracie Morris. Of course, playing with the inherent rhythmical currents and cross-currents of language and being alert to oscillations between sound and sense are what makes poetry compelling in the first place so there is considerable potential to explore links between this and musical collaboration, although the challenge for me remains in transferring the density and complexity of language associated with more page-based poetry (ie. poetry that does not yield all its meaning on a first hearing but bears repeated re-reading and contemplation) into a live context with other auditory materials (as well as performance dynamics) to compete with.
   Although bracing and far from run of the mill, the Café Oto night was a mixed affair for this very reason. Several of the acts fell down on a lack of balance between voice and musical backdrop, both on a sound-engineering level (ie. you couldn't always hear the words) and on a conceptual level, where to me the music was more engaging than the spoken text and therefore distracted me from connecting with the texts properly (extraneous noises, during quieter pieces, were also an issue at times.) The duo Map 71 more successfully welded jagged beats to Lisa Jayne's declamatory utterances, closer in delivery to a female Karl Hyde than any other poet I could name. Alan Hay, sans backing, came across as a performer whose poetry held one's interest on its own merits: mercurial, disarming, with a Frank O'Hara insouciance and fluidity about it though equally tinged with an O'Haran downbeat edge.
   Compared to Hay's aslant beret and goatee, Keston Sutherland came on in conspicuously unbohemian guise: short hair, Todd Swiftian glasses and a pair of those reddish chinos usually only seen on Clapham Common or perhaps at Henley regatta. I'm an admirer of his work, in particular relishing the development from the more demonstrably Prynnean stylings of his earlier poetry to the more recent 'Ode to TL61P' where a more articulately transgressive energy is hit upon. Live, in collaboration with the grime-like beats and discords of THL Drenching (don't ask me what he was playing), Sutherland presents like the Professor of Poetry that he is having an apoplectic seizure and venting random tranches of garbled post-Marxian theory in every direction: ranting, spitting, stuttering and jerking his arms as though to vocally reinforce the already disjunctive intransigence of his texts, delivered at relentless breakneck velocity.
   I stepped out into the chilly Dalston night bewildered as to whether this was one of the most cutting-edge performances by a contemporary poet I had seen or a bizarre and impalatable mismatch. Or both. What it certainly wasn't was a complacent loafer merely standing there reading his lines from a sheet.
http://www.thewire.co.uk/audio/tracks/listen_brighton-noise-poetry-recordings

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Guest Poem: The Modern by Chris McCabe

1904

Rimbaud’s stickleback skull
claws from a Lambeth puddle

his scales riffle hologrammatic

over Apollinaire’s ID card

as if he, Guillame, could head
Northbound
to Royal College Street

and X-ray his jawline for the dead kid’s bones

rattling down inside his clavicle,
He walks from an Islington redbrick
checks his notebook for directions
Retour à Angel
Tube en face passé
Demander Clapham Road
4d

as if London is the metric of the mind
French poets arrive
by night-boat to Victoria

Southbound to Clapham

for fog & depression
for “great tits & a behind”


Rimbaud for a bullet’s vowel
his pink cock in some milk

1918

who puts the crows in trench coats

hooded like Germans

on Grosvenor Road SW1

a pink balloon scrotums the rails

- Owen strewn maitre d’ - Apollinaire snotted by Eros -
chaffinches arson their waistcoats,
natural gases in the bowels of a tree
- Picabia Napoleon’d in a sling -
Celine plugs his wounds with London soot -
the fog through which
Mallarme said
God cannot see -

O Tommy, Tommy Boys

it’s 1-nil carrion 2-nil corvus

(reprinted with the publisher's permission)

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   To stave off post-Election blues I'm pleased to feature a poem this weekend from Chris McCabe's Speculatrix, one of the most compelling books of poetry to have appeared last year, with its surreal take on the historical layerings of London and its repositioning of contemporary culture as a macabre Jacobean revenge-tragicomedy. 'The Modern' plays with a juncture I'm particularly interested in: the presence of French poets like Rimbaud and Apollinaire in London during the years of Modernism's inception (also notoriously catalysed by the First World War) and the influence they drew from locales radically altered or non-existent in today's city. 


Monday, 4 May 2015

Poems For Sale

   Due to the proverbial 'technical hitches' (in this case a euphemism for a frank lack of internet know-how), I've just realised that the Paypal button I added to this blog allowing people to purchase copies of Human Form hasn't been working.
  So I'm officially relaunching it now - the book is now available for the reduced price of £7.99 directly from me and with free UK postage and packaging. You can also contact me at: oliverdixon91@gmail.com
  Here's a taster from the book, including the lines Tom Chivers adds to the page about Human Form on the Penned in the Margins website:   
 
        THE DURATION
So many things have come apart
in my hands or somehow gone astray

they could form a museum,                                                                  
a mausoleum of errings and shortfalls.

Like the one we drifted into when at a loss
that unrepeatable afternoon

we explored the historical market-town
in the rain. The vitrines of stuffed curiosities –

faded hoopoe with its punkish mohawk,
a pangolin like an outsize fir-cone

 endowed with limbs – amounted you said
to a ‘colonial mortuary’. The crude diorama

of a blacksmith’s forge – ventriloquist’s dummy
about to smite a horse-shoe while his wife

 and child look blankly on – was so unlife-like,
I wondered what a diorama of our lives

might resemble, a tableau vivant of Post-Everything
Ennui: mannequins of the three of us

watching adverts, waiting for the sky to clear,
my finger poised to hazard a futile suggestion

(like exploring an historical market-town)-
locked into our stances for the duration. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Waiting for the Sunken Ship to Explode

   In literature the only thing better than finding a new word in the dictionary is hearing about an intriguing writer a description of makes you desperate to read. How Uwe Johnson (1934-84), one of the most significant post-war European novelists, "the Poet of Divided Germany", ended up in the terminally uninspiring backwater of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in suburban Kent, is fascinatingly explored in the Radio 3 programme 'A Secret Life'.
   After defecting from Communist East Germany and living for much of the 60's in New York (during which time he worked on his magnum opus Die Jahrestage (Anniversaries), as yet untranslated into English), no-one is quite sure what drew Johnson to Sheerness, where he moved with his wife and daughter in 1974 and remained until his premature, perhaps drink-related death a decade later. The programme's oblique examination of his markedly unremarkable existence there (he was known as Charles to his neighbours and spent evenings in the local pub transcribing banal conversations) reminded me both of JG Ballard in his own bourgeois disturbia of Shepperton and Johnson's fellow German "emigrant" WG Sebald, who spent the last 30 years of his life in rural Norfolk. As well as being adherents of Flaubert's dictum "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work", the three writers share an intense preoccupation with the dark depredations underlying apparently seemly urban existences, the "cracks in culture" Andre Gide spoke of wanting to probe.
     However, no novels or other books emanated from Uwe Johnson's residence in Sheerness. It seems he was "blocked" - semantically ironic, if we consider that it was the "Eastern bloc" he had veered away from. One of the few texts he completed was an essay on the SS Richard Montgomery, which had run aground and sank a mile off the coast of Sheerness with 3,172 tonnes of explosives on board.The essay seems indicative of Johnson's strange, imploded character in how he appears to relish this source of imminent danger and disruption submerged within the tedium of his internal exile. It describes how, due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo had never been salvaged; and how, if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time, perhaps sending a tidal wave up the Thames which would cause widespread damage and perhaps engulf large areas of London.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Sea and Sardinia

Ancient city of Tharros, Sinis peninsula
   "Comes over one an absolute necessity to move". In London we live so much in the virtual clouds our heads now resemble and by the abstracts societal pressures reify within our minds: clock-time, monetary status, group-approval. Until we travel we tend to forget we're primarily a body of which the brain is only one small component. We forget to look, feel and experience the world through sensory channels; that verbal explanations of phenomena are not always necessary. Through receptivity to otherness you can grasp experiences in a way that isn't either intellectual or culturally-circumscribed. Equally, there is always new learning to be acquired just by relinquishing the concept that living in a big sophisticated city gives us a privileged access to knowledge and understanding ie. the worldliness or knowingness - mediated through equivocating layers of irony - of the sceptical urbanite.
Torre di Castari, on the Costa Verde
  Wasn't this the impetus behind DH Lawrence's "savage pilgrimage"? You encounter this difficult, unwieldy sense of wonder, of the unkempt poem as "an act of attention" in Birds, Beasts and Flowers but in the novels set abroad - as well as travel-books such as Sea and Sardinia - the sense of frustration at not being able to turn off his critical intelligence and participate in the simpler, less cerebral life he encounters is palpable. But the expectation that Lawrence could ever discover a zone exempt from what he saw as the ravages of modernity - "Sardinia, which is like nowhere. Sardinia, which has no history, no date, no race, no offering... It lies outside; outside the circuit of civilisation" - seems inherently flawed, even if we still recognise the urge to locate this "uncaptured Sardinia" today.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Unsung Women

    Last Sunday was International Women's Day and Radio 3 devoted their output to playing the works of female classical composers, whose historical marginalisation has been even greater than that of female writers and artists. The few I had heard of - Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Germaine Tailleferre, Elizabeth Lutyens - took their place among a whole host of fascinating discoveries such as Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) whose Céphale et Procris was the first opera written by a woman in France and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), the Venetian singer and composer. 
    I was particularly taken by this cantata by Strozzi, remarkably beautiful and somehow completely contemporary in how it communicates in this version by Mariana Flores.