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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Magnetic Needles: Montaigne on Poetry and Poetic Drama

"Here is something of a marvel: we now have far more poets than judges and connoisseurs of poetry. It is far easier to write poetry than to appreciate it. At a rather low level you can judge it by the rules of art: but good, enrapturing, divine poetry is above reason and rules. Whoever can distinguish its beauties with a firm and settled gaze does not in fact see it all, any more than we can see the brilliance of a flash of lightning. It does not exercise our judgment, it ravishes and enraptures it; the frenzy which sets its goads in him who knows how to discern it also strikes a third person who hears him relate and recite it, just as a magnet not only attracts a needle but also pours into it the faculty of attracting others. It can more easily be seen in the theatre that the sacred inspiration of the Muses, having first seized the poet with anger, grief or hatred and driven him outside himself whither they will, then affects the actor through the poet and then, in succession, the entire audience - needle hanging from needle, each attracting the next one in the chain."
                                                                                  from Essays 1:37 'On Cato the Younger'

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

No Pattern Left to Record: Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016

 


   Amid the weltering turmoil of recent days, now our greatest poet Geoffrey Hill has passed away: would it be too fanciful to suppose that the tawdry spectacle of England descending into mean-minded, parochial nationalism might have speeded the decline of a figure George Steiner described as "our most European" poet? Hill was a model of that older sensibility that managed to be both engrainedly English ( even critics who quail at his mandarin "difficulty" seldom begrudge the astonishing lyric beauty with which he captures the landscapes and countryside of his beloved West Midlands) and as thoroughly immersed in the poetic traditions and historical dramas of mainland Europe as any writer since Browning. He achieves this sense of the Matter of Britain being inseparable from the wider context of European history by applying the same remorseless moral imagination and linguistic vigour to the First World War, Stalinist Russia or the Holocaust as he does to the Battle of Towton, the Reformation or his own boyhood remoulded as Offa's.

   Coincidentally I have just been reading Andrew Duncan's marvellous collation of four different pieces on Hill in a recent Angel Exhaust blogpost. In the context of Canaan, a volume excoriating against the "slither-frisk" of Thatcherite privatisation and social division, this sentence of Duncan's rings particularly true in our current climate:

   "My country sometimes appears like a vast refugee camp, without shared symbolic structures, patrolled by officers alien to their subjects; any rebel who can talk convincingly for five minutes can achieve more following and reputation than the camp authorities."

   Then, in his discussion of A Treatise of Civil Power, Duncan reminds us of the magnitude of Hill's poetic accomplishment and the unparalleled manner in which he has gone from the highly-wrought, hard-won density of his early works to the far more free-ranging and prolific later books, an arc incredible both for its consistency and its diversity:

  "At the outset, at his virtuosic debut, Hill wrote in a cloud of doubt which was equated with the ebbing of the Anglican consensus, letting poetry survive into a new era of autonomy and anxiety. Later, he represented rectitude as far as it was possible in a society based on possessive individualism. Hill's poetry was not hedonistic like some others: he wanted to reach an ethical solution, not wallow in emotions while retarding an outcome to the problem. There is a link between the scrupulousness of his work up to 1971 and the anxiety which, in common opinion, cut the flow of his creativity in the following decades. The master of painstaking truth was seemingly shaving grains off the judgement until there was no pattern left to record. The revival of Hill’s career was astounding not because his work of 1953 to 1993 had not been wonderful, but because his new found creativity and enthusiasm were near miraculous." 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brexit Blues



  While England behaves like a spoilt obnoxious child who refuses to participate in interactions of mutual benefit both to themselves and their immediate neighbours, it's already becoming clear that the gloomiest prognostications from the Remain camp have come true and we are spiralling towards a disaster which is economic, ideological and cultural all at once. The most dismaying phenomenon to observe in the last few days is that incidents of xenophobic hate-crime have already escalated, authorised by the opportunistic rhetoric of the Brexiteers as both major parties implode: at the moment our only hope is in the bankrupt disarray of politicians whom extremity and recession will force into either calling a second referendum or indefinitely stalling the calamitous break-up no-one really wants except venomous bigots like Farage, Nuttall and the madman who murdered Jo Cox.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Review: Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas


Rather than immersing us in a recognisable scenario fleshed out by either a first- or third-person narrative voice, as in most realist novels, Enrique Vila-Matas immediately plays so many tricks with his readers’ expectations that we begin to wonder if this is a novel at all. For much of the book, the narrative is more like a personal memoir or autobiographical account in the way it evokes the author’s formative years living in Paris in the 1970s, yet his experiences are disclosed in such a tongue-in-cheek, non-linear manner - often highly implausible in the way they casually record encounters with cultural celebrities (Margarita Duras, Isabelle Adjani, Roland Barthes) - that it is almost a surprise when you turn to Wikipedia and discover that the story of Vila-Matas’ time in Paris is apparently true,  the hapless bumbler caught up in an absurdist comedy of his own making no more a fictional character than any of our remembered younger selves might seem.

   To further blur the division between fact and fiction, the novel frames the retrospective materials in the form of a three-day lecture on the theme of irony which Vila-Matas is delivering to a projected audience, again foregrounding his authorial presence by making us imagine the memories articulated in his own wry, ambivalent voice. The lecture in turn is prefigured by a comical opening scene in which the novelist enters an Ernest Hemingway lookalike competition in Key West wearing a false beard, only to be told he possesses “an absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway”.

    It was Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, A Moveable Feast, which first inspired the young Vila-Matas to undergo his writerly apprenticeship in that city, like so many other would-be artistic geniuses before him. In flagging up his lack of resemblance to the more straight-talking realist Hemingway, whose narrative romanticised the bohemian loucheness of 20’s Paris, Vila-Matas is again inferring how unreliable and slippery his own story will be, and indeed how unromantic; it will in fact debunk the nostalgic mythology of what living in Paris is like by showing how “very poor and very unhappy” he was there.

    As well as being a parody of A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris also plays with the conventions of the bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel typically depicting a callow protagonist maturing towards disabused understanding. Vila-Matas’ memoirs of Paris are a catalogue of false starts and self-thwartings in his struggle to become a writer: he manages to rent out a garret owned by Duras but cannot understand her “superior” French when she gives him advice; he steals the idea for his first novel from Nabokov’s Pale Fire; he self-consciously poses as a Sartrean intellectual by adopting a black polo-neck, glasses and a pipe, performing the role of ecrivain before he has any accomplished any writing.

   Ultimately, Never Any End to Paris is an ironic anti-novel about the novel: it begs reverberating questions about the form’s limitations in being able to capture the protean reality of memory and identity but also argues for its continuing pertinence (taking its cue from writers like Barthes, Perec and Queneau who appear in its pages) as a post-modern game of ideas, a thought-provoking and critical  jeu d’esprit. Equally, it throws into doubt the role of the novelist as an authentic, credible witness relating the true essence of experiences he’s lived through and casts himself instead as a self-declaring fabricator, a comic poseur who nevertheless manages to draw the reader in to follow his often hilarious misadventures.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Green City

  Llubljana is a city poised between its two forefathers, Plecnik and Prešeren, whose respective principles of architecture and poetry define the character and dynamics of this beautifully understated version of the modern polis. Josef Plecnik(1872-1957), whose house in the Trnovo district I visited on a recent visit to Slovenia, redesigned the city from the 1920s in keeping with the principles of ancient Greek and Roman urban planning, with spaces for habitation, worship and commerce/social interaction (the agora) given balanced consideration. His curious marriage of neo-classical minimalism with odd anachronistic flourishes such as Egyptian pyramid motifs bespeak the near-autistic, monothematic vision of this pious and idiosyncratic solitary, as evidenced by his self-designed house and even his desk with its meticulously-arrayed clutter.
   Against this Apollonian paradigm, also writ large across the city is the more Dionysian image of the national poet France Prešeren(1800-1849), a figure embodying the heady contraries of Romanticism: progressive and democratic politics matched with vatic individualism; a patriotic, Dantesque embracing of the vernacular tempered with an equally Dantesque idolatry of a younger muse whose unattainable form crosses into the symbolic and transcendental. His 'Wreath of Sonnets' - a sonnet redoublé of fifteen poems in which the last line of each becomes the first line of the next, the final sonnet being a recapitulation of these preceding fourteen repeated lines* - is a masterful suite of Orphic laments inwoven with allusions to myth and folklore, a poem circling endlessly around itself, as self-thwarting and incantatory as de Nerval's Les Chimeres.
     Yet visiting the restaurant Preseren was supposed to have frequented, Sestica on Ullica Slovenska, we found in place of bohemian artiness a very old-fashioned, brown-toned Slavic eaterie with a gruff waiter who seemed appalled that we didn't want to order meat (example from what seemed at times a surrealist menu: "foal goulash with dandelion pudding"). More Eastern Bloc than Alexander Blok.
    But as ever I'm intellectualising the appeal of what is simply one of the most charming, unspoilt and laid-back cities in Europe, drawing influence and savour from all its surrounding nations: Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia. It has come through state-Communism and the internecine dissolution of Yugoslavia (all notably recorded in the Museum of Contemporary History in Tivoli Park) and more recent economic hardship to being applauded this year as the European Green Capital 2016, a title the briefest walk or cycle-ride along the Llubijanica River through the pedestrianised city-centre and across its bridges will show to be amply justified. The puckishly surreal, oppositional spirit of Slovenia's two most feted contemporary voices - Slavoj Zizek and Tomaz Salamun - no doubt born of previous ideological turbulences, seems apt yet somehow distant.
                                                                                              
* More recently George Szirtes has produced some marvellous sonnet redoublés and one wonders if Prešeren was his point of departure in this.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

'Infuriated Palimpsests': Guest Poet: Natalie Katsou

 There is a buzz about Greek poetry at the moment: quick on the heels of the impressive Penned in the Margins anthology Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis comes a Penguin compilation Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (ed. Karen Van Dyck). I haven't read it yet, but the review in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago implied the book captures an exciting resurgence precipitated by economic turmoil which rather than bemoan current social hardships does what “poetry does best: offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities”.
   I'm pleased to introduce a further Greek poet today, Natalie Katsou, a multi-talented and polymathic young writer, theatre-director and teacher I worked with until recently. I find her poetry ambitious and disarming, a collage of giddy imaginative jumps full of cathartic drama and dissonance. I reprint here a sequence from her third volume Nymphalidae (Kedros, 2015), followed by her brief bio:
                                          Chrysanthemum  
                                          Cartes Postales

   a mouse jumps on the bench with the frozen shrimps its eyes widen become glass from its ear crops up a tail till it becomes the head of a cat


 the dreamy woman lies down on the bench with the dead shellfish she wags her tail shines her teeth with the tongue her black bitten tongue


 behind fear there is a smile


 when the painter wakes up he’ll seize the knife on the bench and stick it in her breast for spring to flow he will cut her into thin slices place her on lumps of salted rice and share her out among the orphans
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  Left like a gabardine on the table of an entrance dripping a lake after the rain on the wooden floor as on the grass with the thistles and a bunch of poppies that will shed their petals before nightfall soaking the red linen on the sleeve and the last rays hitting the lining while a bag of fresh trout slips gently off the table onto the lake on the floor.  The impending moment of return to this spot stretches and hovers and gathers wind-like in corn till the lake dries up the trout falls among the thistles sweeping the linen to cover it with a red cast-off garment.


Left on an entrance hook she slides towards the lake till a red cast-off garment covers her. 


Left on the grass with the thistles she stretches and hovers and gathers.  Like the wind.
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Arranging flowers and the weight of transparency while horseshoes in copper pots overflowing with boiled snow like a midnight kiss with a guitar’s empty belly for a pillow with a long exotic arm straining the cold in the hive exhaling between the chords as momentarily a swan.

Grief tears the lonely apart


thoughts rust in the isolation and smell a cage to protect them


wind Eumenides worms in windstorms
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In the light’s parting the brain’s woolly parcel


bloats an octopus in the nest and climbs up while the eyes wriggle half-blind against the bats that swoop down with visions behind the fleshy


nutshells  
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The earth is a square mat to sharpen the fingertips exorcizing the flapping of wings


The dream-haunted woman who dares not sleep appears ornamental


A head sleeps beside her swearing to the form of sleeplessness as a spot of an irrational ocean and giving it a comrade’s name


Dead beauty
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observing a water lily caught in a white transparent ice cube


mouths crystallize or a long straight line with two human ends


disappearance within another – a future


sustained of exhaling


is the emptiness between the days that passed with nothing
happening


silences in a cloud ostensibly heartless
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Lying prostrate on the grass with yellow hair


bearing a quiver with a pomegranate in the pocket


barefooted and a deep cut full of dry blood


hiding blades and secrets under her breast.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
She had the look of a dead fairy.


Or a blue entrapped dragonfly.  
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Dripping a thick green the branches catch fire


with the rain


the earth jolts


short-lived psychopomps like seasons


dissolve before eyes spotted from the past


and closed
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the butterflies flee in packs
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homeless guards of those who don’t return


words flying with paper wings exchange


captive skies
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 Dragging a parachute ripped round a branch


ready for a hideout.  A map made of pencil sharpening and


cotton bread.  The ticket is cut again and again


into smaller pieces.


Repatriation is a vanilla and salt ice cream in an ancient newspaper


next to the map with the ticket.  The teeth break with every attempt.  Buried there it never melts.  Without a kiss.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Wearing the parachute for a nightie.


Impersonating sleep. 
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 A far-off scream in the sand dripping on and on and echoing the stars’ asphyxia for there they don’t know of the twin band binding us to chaos its yellow imprint runs among the bare trunks


as though pleading to be uprooted
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infuriated palimpsests of inner flesh fissures of touches shrinking in a broken vase of sand I stand and sweep it up clean it tidy it and with my fingers I lay each grain on the tip of the tongue


the blood afire and instantly white mercury shoots me up to the clouds


I swear to be contained in this doom before the cut off word dawns on the forehead


electrifying the moment and casting it as thunder in the mind
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 Hand and foot battle in a woven basket of moulded cherries.  Eyes gagged, sleeves pinned in a line, thoughts in chains.  A groan and a kick towards the exit.  Suction and dissolution.   Birth        


 Substantiality


Ultimate performative act to bring about the raising of joy and catharsis


 Place Japan


Place imagined and necessary


Place everywhere


 Time excluded


Time the self
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 The night collapses in this white corner with the split screen swallowing the teeth fingers and eyeballs of passersby.  A bottle of alcohol is rolling along the road’s curve.  The bottle falls in the river with a creased piece of paper against the current.


Save me.  Find me and pull me out by the hair.


Coexistence is a multi-unit enigma.


The total is revealed by fitting each loneliness


to the other’s outline.


It’s customary.  A lonely look at things – with the guilt of an animal that’s eating sweetmeat intended for bait.  At a certain moment it may be forgotten.  Once the sugar crystallizes on the palate.  The slaughter takes place between blindness and utter clarity.  Common denominator is the white, the world’s white corner that resembles death.

                                                                          Translated by Yiannis Goumas

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   Natalie Katsou was born in Athens. She studied Law and Theatre Studies at the University of Athens and she had her Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at East 15 Acting School, University of Essex under the Minotis Scholarship by the Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece. She lives and works as a theatre director and a drama lecturer in London; she is the Artistic Director of Operaview.Magodos” (Kastaniotis Publ. 2008- nominated for the DIAVAZO Literature Prize) , “Cochlea” (Kedros Publ. 2012- nominated for the ANAGNOSTIS Literature Prize) and “Nymfalidae” (Kedros Publ. 2015).Her poems have been translated in English by Yiannis Goumas,  in French by Michel Volkovitch and in Spanish by Mario Dominguez Parra. Her poetry features in magazines such as POIHSI,  and poihtiki and in various e-zines such as poeticanet.gr, e-poema, Mediterranean.nu, Quarterly Review and others.
  You can hear Natalie reading with two other Greek poets, Nikos Erinakis and Haris Psarras, in both Greek and English this Sunday 17th April at The Proud Archivist in Haggerston. More details here.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Celebrating CM

 The new edition of PN Review is a particularly enthralling one, containing as it does a festschrift of critical appreciations celebrating the life and work of Christopher Middleton, who sadly passed away at the end of last year. He was a poet of profound importance to me almost since I began to take an initial stumbling interest in literature. I remember first coming across him in the Penguin anthology British Poetry Since 1945 (ed. Edward Lucie-Smith) which was one of our set-texts for English A-Level and not making head nor tail of the poem 'Climbing a Pebble'; nor could my well-meaning teacher begin to elucidate its themes.               
  Equally I'm not sure if I've come fully to grips with that poem even now (is the Nares in "my Nares and Keats" really the obscure 18th century prosodist I came across in George Saintsbury? And what's the allusion to the Life and Letters of Joseph Severn about the lark-shooting cardinal with his glass tied to an owl doing at the end of the poem, although intriguingly leading back to Keats?) Such elusiveness is one of the many qualities one treasures in Middleton, the sense of an inexhaustible interplay of source-materials, ideas and connotative currents keeping the poem vibrant and inviting however many times we return to it, this well-tempered jouissance (meted out with sly Metaphysical wit) working in tandem with an almost tactile, exploratory yet always dexterous feel for language and form.
    As well as warm reminiscences from friends such as Michael Hersch and Marius Kociejowski  and a few very late Middleton poems, there are more measured perspectives on the work from Drew Milne and Tom Lowenstein but the piece I like most is John Clegg's comparison of CM's 'Coral Snake' with Lawrences' 'Snake', tracing where the two poems converge and diverge and bringing in a personal note at the end where he regrets not contacting Middleton and missing his chance "with one of the lords of life".
    I also have a piece in PNR 228, a review of The New Concrete:Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (ed. Chris McCabe and Victoria Bean), a beautiful thick art-book full of fascinating, eye-catching vis-po and really illuminating as to the possibilities of haptic text-images within the scattershot , "semantically-bleached" media-barrage of today. Christopher Middleton, who dabbled in concrete poetry himself (cf. Our Flowers and Nice Bones), would surely have approved.

Monday, 7 March 2016

BS Johnson Not As Poet

                                                   
   A confluence in my reading - Jonathan Coe's biography Like a Fiery Elephant aligning with Penguin Modern Poets 25 which features BSJ alongside Gavin Ewart and Zulfikar Ghose - lead me to originally conceive of this post as a study of what I anticipated as the arresting, unconventional poetry of this arresting, unconventional novelist. I would call it 'BS Johnson As Poet' and I would perhaps be applauded (by whom I'm not sure) for resuscitating the seldom-read verses of a writer who apparently always thought of himself as primarily a poet, a "struggler in the desert" who consistently argued for principles of bold Modernist experiment in the teeth of tepid Little Englander middle-browism.
   However, I rapidly came up against a substantial obstacle: BS Johnson's poems are mostly not very good. Apart from a few notable successes like 'Cwm Pennant', they generally suffer from having the air of "occasional verse" not adequately committed to or followed through - some seem mere squibs or notebook-jottings that haven't yet undergone the necessary creative pressure that might convert them into genuine poems, as though their very brevity and shortness of line automatically endowed them with this status (DH Lawrence's Pansies display a similar kind of failing although clearly he didn't intend them as fully-formed poems, admitting in their Intro "they do not pretend to be half-baked lyrics"). 
   Unfortunately Johnson's opuscules have every pretension to be finely-baked lyrics: indeed, another of their problematics is the frequent air of pretentiousness they exude in tone and diction. The second poem in this selection 'Evening: Barents Sea' begins "the trawl of unquiet mind drops astern" and after a clunky attempt at an almost Pre-Raphaelite-ish descriptive metaphor ("bifurcated banners at a tourney") the stanza slumps to a bathetic truism lent spurious gravitas by an over-bunching of stressed syllables and adjectives: "now the short northern/autumn day closes quickly". 
   In this and other poems there seems to be a reaching towards the heavyweight, lugubrious profundity of European modernism - also flagged up thematically through an often overstated brooding on death and lost love - which doesn't quite come off, whether through a lack of genuine metaphysical insight or, in their consistently egocentric range, a failure to attain the distancing-effects of form and craft which most poets in this lineage work with. This self-preoccupation also gives vent to an array of unpalatable thought-patterns in Johnson which readers of Like a Fiery Elephant will be all too familiar with: a rancorous vein of misogyny, a schoolboy prurience about bodily functions and a tiresome Ee-Aw-ish grumpiness which is a million miles away from anything in Samuel Beckett's oeuvre.
    In each of his novels BS Johnson attempted a different angle of deconstruction in regard to its traditional realist counterparts, laying bare the house of fiction as a crumbling bourgeois facade and its omniscient narrator as a blown-up face on a wide-screen projection which, tugged aside, reveals only a little man at a desk in the corner, furiously reinventing a world he takes issue with. That the majority of his considerable energies went into his prose and that the poems were very much side-projects seems clear. Johnson's tragic downfall - movingly demonstrated in Coe's enthralling biography - was ironically precipitated by a misapprehension more commonly observed among poets than novelists: the notion that - to avoid the somehow inauthentic, fictive status of most writing - he should write about only what really happened to him. So, for example, he made a voyage on a trawler just so he could write about the experience of making a voyage on a trawler.
     There is something autophagous about this process, of course, and potentially damaging to one's sense of self-worth and integrity, as in Nietzsche's aphorism "Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them". Again ironically, in fact, given Johnson's other ideas, it amounts to a romanticised, hypertrophied form of realism. As Coe points out, if you hold to this as a strict tenet you can only - as Johnson did - run out of meaningful experiences to write about and exhaust your own ability to ring the changes of formal variations and strategies in depicting them. Language in itself - let alone literary or poetic language - is a construct and all literary texts work on the creative tension between how they capture reality and how they imaginatively recompose it. Despite all his gifts, Johnson's curious inability to grasp this - as evinced in the short poem 'The Dishonesty of Metaphor' ("The sound of rain/is only like/the sound of rain") - lead him to believe his work had resulted in failure and (to simplify the actions of a complex man) to take the drastic, appalling step of suicide.
      BS Johnson was happiest during the year he spent teaching in Wales at Gregynog (1969-70). Geoffrey Hill memorialises this hiatus and the sad "self-wreck" of Johnson's life in Oraclau :
       Let this be, do not untie it:
           The snow birth-littered where
       The lambs have dropped, immanent atmosphere
       Of crystal haze, much like creation, pure
       As I imagined it to be these times
       Among the fresh erasure of old names
                                             ('At Gregynog')

Afterword: It has just occurred to me that Johnson's idea of the 'factional' novel about his own experiences is exactly what Karl Ove Knausgaard has employed in his phenomenally successful 'My Struggle' novel-cycle - I'm not saying Knausgaard took it from BSJ but that perhaps Johnson was just way ahead of his time in foreseeing the culture of today when - not just in literature but in all media - reality and fiction are bundled up and interfused and as Norman Mailer - another forerunner of 'faction' wrote - "Reality is no longer realistic". A culture in which a contemptible, cartoonish buffoon from The Apprentice who spouts racist absurdities is able to become a likely candidate for President of the United States.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Buy More Books!

 
MHB in happier days
   A little late for resolutions maybe but one of mine this year is to buy more books. Let me qualify this, although in fact I mean it quite literally: to actually go into bookshops, preferably independent ones when I can find them, and pay good money for a poetry-volume or novel which I've taken time to browse through and select and which I can hold in my hands.
   The reasons for this are palpable. We live in a world where this pleasurable, enriching, sensory experience is gradually disappearing from our grasp. Independent bookshops, formerly common, now number less than 1000 across the UK. They are harder to find on our high streets than libraries, which have of course suffered a parallel decline.The few that remain desperately need our custom - imagine the cultural loss entailed if we allow them to become extinct.
   Amazon may have agreed to pay back some of the vast amounts of tax they've evaded in  past years but we all know it's a tiny drop in the ocean of their profits. Many of us - most of us! - are still waiting for the financial upturn George Osborne keeps banging on about so the temptation is always there to One-Click your way to a cheap online bargain. E-books, with their minimal production costs, are part of this mechanism and can be cheaper still to purchase. But each time we do this we're actually undercutting the viability of bookshops to stay afloat and unfortunately we're at the stage now where all writers and book-lovers have to invest in the continuing future of this vital, dwindling resource.
   This was brought home to me the other day when I visited one of the best independents in North London, Muswell Hill Bookshop, only to find it had halved in size - they had lost the lease on the second section, I was told. While obviously having to reduce their selection of stock, staff have had to be creative in their use of space and shelving in order to fit more books into the smaller area. Nevertheless, amid the somewhat cloistered new layout, I chanced on Bottled Air by Caleb Klaces in its handsome Eyewear hardback, a volume I'd never seen in a bookshop before. Though no doubt I could have found it cheaper online than the £13 I paid, I felt happy to support not only this shrinking business that elects to stock such interesting, non-commercial titles but also the small independent publisher that brings out beautifully-presented books of quirky, intelligent poetry like Klaces'.
  
  

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Dystopia in Toyland

  In one pixelated news-image of the aftermath of the recent Paris shootings, Bataclan concert-hall is shown as a charnel-house of bloody corpses wrapped in body-bags, a venue dedicated to the hedonistic enjoyment of music transformed into a nightmarish vision from Dante’s Inferno. While we all share a common revulsion at the perpetrators of this massacre (who apparently may have been less hardline religious fanatics than disaffected young chomeurs high on drugs), is there not a sense in which our culture has become increasingly habituated to such imagery and that in the 24/7 media-feed which saturates our imaginations horror and hedonism, bloodshed and consumerism are surreally interfused, as though they exist as two sides of the same greedily-grasped coin?
    Equally, fact and fiction have imploded and (as Norman Mailer wrote many years ago), “Reality is no longer realistic”. The scenes at Bataclan are the savage end-product of the gun-violence regularly celebrated in thrillers and action-movies but never shown in all its gory, unglamorous brutality. Turn on the Breakfast Show and our warped morality, all but numbed to genuine empathy, regards juxtaposed features on novelty Xmas jumpers and female genital mutilation with the same complacent engrossment.
   Garth Bowden’s new paintings address this conflicted visual-field by asking us to reassess our position as innocent or privileged bystanders, instead plunging us dizzily into the ethical dilemmas that surround us all today. While superficially referencing a mash-up of artistic sources – neo-Pop, the messy Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Pollock, even the visceral impact of early Francis Bacon – these large canvases immediately draw the eye in with their bright, hectic colour-patterns and apparently playful, half-comical imagery. However, this bricolage of cartoon whimsy belies a darker subtext, its characters compressed uncomfortably into each other so that they merge and mutate into distorted chimera. What’s more, red spatterings criss-cross the paintings and undercut the frivolity of the faces crowding in on us, as though the horror-mannequin Chucky has gone on a knife-spree through the cast of Fantasia.
   These bold and bizarre works, effectively capturing the paradoxes of a culture adrift between disneyfied banality and murderous dehumanisation, were created as a response to the Paris shootings by an artist with strong links both to the city and his adoptive homeland of France. If “artists are the antennae of their race” (as Ezra Pound suggested) they could be said to be both emotionally timely and – as a warning against perpetuating the cycle of violence through retaliatory bombings – politically resonant.  They build on themes and strategies that Bowden has obsessively returned to throughout his career and represent a new resolve to explore broader events through the lens of his ambitious personal vision.
  Exhibition Notes for The Silent Crowd, new paintings by Garth Bowden which were shown at Brick Lane Gallery in December