Saturday, 30 April 2011

dubrovnik: history and poetry

Had a family holiday in Croatia during Easter, a remarkably beautiful country. We were staying on the Adriatic coastline not far from the stunning Old Town of Dubrovnik, with a Renaissance elegance and equanimity to its architecture that rivals Venice for dazzling historical perspectives.
    Only when we visited the far less attractive fort high above the city was I reminded about the encroachments of more recent history: the fort was the scene of pitched battles to defend Dubrovnik exactly 20 years ago and now contains an exhibition of images and paraphernalia from that internicine conflict - the Old Town itself was quite heavily bombed and damaged and in fact has been quite extensively rebuilt in order to regain its period beauty. History, then, is always this overlayering of different actions and processes; and a city like Dubrovnik (again in this resembling Venice) is a palimpsest of conflicting currents and influences which the camcordering tourist - captivated by his or her experience of 'living history', wandering in a reverie of bygone seemliness and order - rarely looks beyond the surface of.
   Poetry is also reflective of historical process, of course; and the splitting of the former Yugoslavia into its constituent states has meant a fracturing of poetries within what was (as far as I understand) the single language of Serbo-Croat. In briefly trying to research Croatian poetry, I've been struck how all the renowned names from this part of the world - Charles Simic, of course, plus fascinating poets he's translated like Popa, Lalic and the contemporary Tomasz Saluman - are all actually Serbian in origin. I wonder if this is by chance or whether a post-war jockeying for prominence has occurred among publishers and promoters within the Slavic world. (But whereof I don't know enough to speak of, perhaps thereof I should remain silent.)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

On Once Again Looking Into the Penguin Proust

About a month ago I finally embarked on a re-reading of Proust's A la Recherche, something I've been promising myself to do for many years. In fact I'd left the three volumes of my old Montcrieff/Kilmartin translation at a previous address owned by a friend for about a decade, until recently he vacated the flat and passed back to me a large box of the books I'd stored there - among which nestled the handsome, fat Proust tryptych - if not forgotten, then also not consciously missed -  now seeming to cry out to me for re-perusal and reappraisal.
   Opening Volume One I found inside the cover, with a little shock of recognition, my hand-written signature and the date 1988. I'd originally read the novel as an undergraduate living at several different grotty student-digs across London and intermittently attending lectures at what was then the Polytechnic of North London (my campus on Prince of Wales Road in Kentish Town no longer exists). I remember it taking me well over a year to read all the way through and my becoming so rapturously involved in the text that finishing it seemed almost a bereavement, a sorrowful eviction out of a much-loved fictional universe that was certainly more vivid and poetic than my own bumbling, self-thwarted life at the time.
    As I began to re-read the famous opening to Swann's Way, I can only describe the experience as in itself profoundly Proustian, as my current, lucid engagement with the narrative intermingled with layers of memory of myself at 19 interpreting it in quite a different way - far more romantic and lyrical, searching out beautiful imagery,elevated descriptions of nature and impressionistic sketches of elegant, idealisable women who of course had the added attraction of being French - and with the whole context of my febrile adolescent life behind it, largely unable to tell imagination from reality.
    Whereas ,of course, the mature narrator's voice looking back over his life is not really like that: it's ruminative, subtly analytical, philosophical; innately ironical in consistently drawing parallels and counterpoints between incidents and characters he's observed; often showing up human failings or absurdities through wryly comic slantings or reflective asides full of worldly scepticism. In fact, the childhood evocations of the chapter Combray are themselves infused with this dual perspective of sensitive youthful aestheticism at once re-embraced and re-interpreted from the viewpoint of ironic hindsight.
    Could one say that Proust's over-arching achievement is not just to delineate the movements of time and memory in the structure of his great work, but also through this continual interplay of viewpoints (more and more complex as the novel proceeds) to enact the very process of time passing for the reader, who meets himself again and again at different points in the narrative and with differing degrees of awareness or knowledge each time - and furthermore, with successive re-readings, is confronted with a deeper understanding of how time has altered his own life-narrative: perhaps at last the only way that time can genuinely be regained.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


A friend asked why I haven't posted more of my own poems on Ictus. Good point. This is one that appeared on Nth Position last year:


As Jonah is said to have lived inside the whale
an ant lives inside me, lost in the coiled Underworld
of my interior, struggling for release. He tunnelled

down my earhole as I slumbered through
the nightshift; tiny explorer bent on expanding
the territories of Antdom, and claim lebensraum

for the coming swarms. My ear-drum
suffered no perforation,I dreamed some new slang utterance
was entering my vocabulary, relaying its urgent echo

towards my brain: he tinkers on the ossicles
in passing, clanging the anvil with bone-hammer;
he helter-skelters the slippery cochlea,

crash-lands in the maze of the inner ear,
bearings dizzily lost. Three days and three nights now
he has haunted my polluted canals, his lamentations

a tinnitus in my skull: what else
could this restlessness be, this whisper
that breaks my focus in whatever I attempt

and has me ranging these night streets myself
an ant, an ant inside a whale, seeking an exit, a
way through: to crawl inside your sleeping ear and speak


I'm in Eyewear today, which I believe is the UK's most widely-read poetry blog (or blogzine, as I think Todd calls it). It's a review of an interesting volume by the Canadian poet Steve McOrmond ( link in blog-roll).

Sunday, 10 April 2011

swell maps etc

 I was pleased to discover the other day that one of my fellow teachers at Hackney Community College is a former member of both Swell Maps and the TV Personalities, two fairly seminal post-punk bands from the late 70s and early 80s. I haven't had the chance to speak to him about it yet (he seems a modest guy who's never advertised his musical connections) but it feels like a definite privilege to work alongside someone who played in groups I used to listen to on John Peel as a wide-eared teenager.
    This video demonstrates how quirky and underrated Swell Maps were and how - very much as The Fall were doing at the same time - they filtered a Can/Neu type motorik-chug  through ramshackle punkish swagger and edge.

Friday, 1 April 2011

sign poetry

  Something beautiful and intriguing about this; and suggestive about poetry on all sorts of levels: the gestural and proximal aspects of communication; how rhythm originates in the body and hands; how reverberative patterns can be passed on and modulated in poetic form and interaction.
   And how much can be embodied without words: the concept of a silent poetry is an interesting one.(The implications here for individuals who don't use written language to communicate are endless.)