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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dried Fruit

War threatens market trader Zeno
Cosini’s freedom to sit up thunder-struck
in bed and announce ‘Buy that dried fruit
at once!’ It was a border town

but the border town had wandered, like true
magnetic north or the date of Easter.
Its latest name sweated out
its overheating Italian vowels

with a brisk after-lunch shower.
Dried fruit is civilisation.
Dried fruit, the pouting finch

corrects him, eyeing his leavings –
a fig-rind – dried fruit is war.


I hereby adjourn to the frozen north (Aberdeen) for a few days. More anon, then.

Y for Mistress

A correspondence on the Cockney alphabet in the Guardian inspires me to go sleuthing for it online. And how could I not record it here, with entries like ‘F fer Vescence’ and ‘Y for mistress’). The Cockney alphabet:

A for Horses (or A fer Gardener)
B for Mutton
C for Miles (or Seaforth Highlanders)
D for Kate (or D fer Ential)
E for Brick
F for Lump (or F fer Vescence)
G for Police (or G for Get It)
H for Consent (or H for Bless You)
I for Novello (or I for the Engine)
J for Nice Time (or J for Oranges)
K for Restaurant
L for Leather
M for Cream (or M for Sis)
N for Lope
O for the Wings of a Dove (O for the Rainbow)
P for Relief
Q for the Loos
R for Mo (or R fer English)
S for you, you can take a hike (or S for Rantzen)
T for Gums (or T for Two)
U for Me (or U for Mism)
V for Espana
W for a Quid (or W for the Winnings)
X for Breakfast
Y for Mistress
Zee for Moiles (or Z for Wind)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

O My Slovenia!

O my Slovenia, fanatically mild
and unknown! Empire’s glove-compartment,
land of modestly-priced swimwear and cheese,
and the capital with the loveliest name.

I fancied the hills full of knee-high bears.
Walking among vineyards I found a toy
scorpion pricking the air above its head,
defying you and your army’s ignorant bootheels

and taking for victory the nearest gap,
reversible-into, in the dry stone wall.
The bells peeled on the hour in honour

of Our Lady of the Tape Recorder.
There was no bell-ringer. There were no bells.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tally Most Incredibly Ho!

Much pleasure from Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. This anecdote, for instance, recalling James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson’s thirty-thousand mile crisscrossing of the United States, as described in their Wild America (1955), and their sighting of the legendary California condor:

Fisher then makes two remarks which from an Englishman of his class and generation represent pretty strong language:

“Tally most incredibly ho!” I said as I ticked it off on my checklist. “Worth seeing, actually.”

Peterson, notoriously, rarely thought about anything other than birds, as Fisher describes:

I’ve learned several things about Roger in the course of our acquaintance, and one of them is this: that Roger talks most of the time about birds. When the subject switches, a faraway look comes into his eye. He just waits for a lull and steps in where he left off.

A famous example of this habit is when Peterson was accompanying a party of eminent statesmen and others on a bird trip to a UK estuary. Lord Alanbrooke, chief of the General Staff during the Second World War, was holding forth to an attentive audience on his relations with Winston Churchill when Peterson abruptly turned to the group and said ruminatively, “I guess oystercatchers will eat most any kind of mollusc.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Plover is a Mellifluous Bird

Rereading The Third Policeman, I am reminded of a quality of gloriously manic indirection which, let me suggest, lies close to the heart of Mylesian comedy - a quality on which, it strikes me, I too have all too often had cause to draw, in the sad and monotonous prosecution of my daily routine. I come down in the morning to feed the cats and find you, for instance, a total stranger, sitting in my kitchen, but being of a nervous disposition I hold off from asking you what exactly you are doing there. There must, I assume, be some other way of eliciting this information. Such as asking you every conceivable other question possible in the English language. For example (sample answers supplied):

Are you not in fact Maolseachlainn Ó hIfearnáin, from a long line of Maolseachlainn Ó hIfearnáins, known for the manly vigour of your countertenor vibrato and your love of the corncrake of Inishbofin?
I am told the 46a will bring you there direct.

Is your wife not Assumpta Mullarkey of the County Wicklow, known to the authorities for worrying ewes?
It was generally thought his tattoos were ill-becoming of the bishop’s station.

What if any are the connections between the Hebridean isle of Mingulay and notorious Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele?
Though my great-uncle Paddy would drunkenly boast of having invented the croissant, I dismissed these claims with outright contempt.

What are your credentials in the field of ailments of the urinary tract?
The plover is a mellifluous bird.

Is it not true that your researches in the field of turf-powered self-brewing tea have come to nothing?
A brisk of walk of four to five miles, before breakfast.

What are the practical advantages of driving blindfolded?
I have never cared for cinnamon.

Why is your ferret doing that?
The Central African Republic has struggled to impose itself on the world stage.

Is it not the case that shaving one side only of the face, though a razor-saving measure, leads ultimately to ridicule?
The south island in particular is remarkable for its mangrove swamps.

How do you assess reaction to your proposed revisions of the Bolivian flag?
Ministers of the Eucharist are increasingly hard to come by.

Is a sonata for inaudible dog whistle not a pointless endeavour?
By the end the hovercraft had become an embarrassment.

Would you care to say a few words on the influence on your life and thought of the works of pontiff Sixtus V?
It is widely acknowledged that my cat possesses an exemplary set of whiskers.


I could do this all day, and in fact frequently do. Ask me a question in the comments stream and I’ll supply another answer in the same vein. I presume if I do it enough this interweb thing will get the knack and just keep on going itself.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Liverpool Defeated by Freak Inanimate Object on Pitch...

... otherwise known as yesterday’s starting eleven. And the beach ball didn’t help much either. Pathetic!

At the Sign of the Fudge-Coloured Cat

At the Sign of the Empire that Came and Went,
at the Sign of the Fudge-Coloured Cat,
we are well met. There is time
between the waiter’s leisurely rounds

for the currency to change and change back.
The Futurist Volunteer Bicycle Brigade.
Caparetto. M’illumino d’immenso.
The old Austrian statues going back up

here, now, but under what flag?
The end of war need not be defeat
but obscurity raised to a fine art.

Another empire could come and go
and the beer at this café still be flat.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mute et svelte

Hand-delivered to my door, issue one of the Cambridge Literary Review. Yes, hand-delivered, which I’d wager is more than anyone reading this in Cambridge can boast, but it seems one of that new journal’s editor’s parents live around the corner from me here in Hull. (How unsatisfactory the collective possessive is in English, is it not, may I add parenthetically. I’d like to thank you on all our behalves. The behalves of all of us? Fie on’t!). ‘In one corner of Oxford, I have not been forgiven for coming to Cambridge’, begins Jeremy Noel-Tod’s ‘A History of Difficulty: On Cambridge Poetry’, an essay that has already inspired excited reveries in the TLS and much cyber-debate. Substitute ‘Grimsby’ and ‘Scunthorpe’ for the place-names in that sentence and you will be halfway, at least, to grasping why some people still flinch from Cambridge poetry, the very thought of it, though I seem to remember JNT venturing beyond those city wall to t’North Country a few summers back with no obvious ill effects, even if t’soft lad ’ad t’nerve to compare Philip Larkin to Patience Strong while ’e were ’ere. There is a pathology of Cambridge poetry, undoubtedly, a small glimpse of which can obtained on (CLR contributor) Robert Archambeau’s blog, when having made the unfortunate suggestion that some consciouness-raising-in-the-community might have the effect of getting a Seamus Heaney reader to read a bit of Tom Raworth, which would after all be a good thing, Keston Sutherland pounces faster than a Proletkultist reproving a less ideologically sound comrade at a Comintern meeting on town sanitation to point out that, no it wouldn’t, Heaney being a running dog of international capitalism (‘by this point practically an armrest of the state apparatus’), though Sutherland also rejects the ‘weird vignette of cults, sects, mysteries, conspiracies, messianism, contrived suffering, programmatic self-exclusion, etc’ he found in Kent Johnson’s characterisation of recent British poetry recently over on Digital Emunction (‘If anyone’s obnubilated in incense and ectoplasm it’s people like Fiona Sampson, the editor of the once again wretchedly conservative and dull Poetry Review’). Would there were world and time enough to do justice to these epic struggles of our time but, can you believe it, there aren’t.

Among the other noteworthy things in CLR are an opening poem, ‘Patridges’, by Helen Macdonald, whose Shaler’s Fish, let me repeat myself here, remains one of the best book of British poetry of recent times. I also recently read and can recommend her Reaktion Press book on the falcon, and note from the back of the mag that she lives in Cambridge ‘with her gyrfalcon Mabel’. ‘Partridges’ ends:

You can whisper birds for as many times as you like
but they are mute et svelte, et primaries wet as palms

alulas wet as thumbs, lovers of beets and ground.
How many those walked alfalfa. Toadflax and hairy beeds
weak foci for the dispossessed. If I could plant plover
in the sky. Or shake a westerly with landrails down.
And all its invented ghosts. And for all its clouds.
They run along the lines as tiny soldiers
all wintry & humane.


She also contribute a prose piece, ‘Big Trouble in Little Shelford’.

Peter Riley presents some poems by ‘Ray Crump’, who J.C. at the TLS seems to think was a kind of Fenland Ern Malley, though for non-devotees of this kind of thing ‘How would they tell the difference?’ would seem an obvious follow-up question. From a ‘real’ Cambridge I mean, whatever that might be.

Suffice to say, then, that I found that the Crump poems perfectly readable, nay lucid. (perhaps that’s why he had to leave Cambridge?):

Flint in long
grass. Fracturing, cracks
like the death of a bird. Blood
edge echoes chorus
of the hedge. Stubmling down
a damp lime slope. Roadside
littered with flint stone. Flint
and a black feather.


There’ also John Hall on Douglas Oliver, Christina Macleish on Nigel Wheale and R.F. Langley, and a meaty essay by Stefan Collini, among much more. Subscription details on the website.

I recommend this fascinating new journal.

On Ilkley Moor Bar T'At

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bittern-Worship (Last Word)

Positively my last word in bittern-worship. For now.

Plus a night-parrot (next page), close cousin of the kakapo, as glimpsed over the weekend on Last Chance to See momentarily distracting Stephen Fry for his quest for wifi reception by attempting hilariously to have sex with zoologist Mark Carwardine’s head. I’m facebook friends with the bird in question, Sirocco Kakapo, he boasts embarrassingly.

And I’ll throw in a Tasmanian devil while I’m at it (next page after that). But first, a a picture of my good friend Sirocco, gettin’ down and dirty.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Conor O'Callaghan

Not for the first time, earlier typos fixed now.

Rereading Conor O’Callaghan ahead of his visit here next Tuesday, I am pleasantly reminded that he got to Hull before I did, in ‘Ships’, from Seatown, that key collection of late 90s Irish poetry:

Lately I find I can lie here
listing their grey ports in my head –
Hull and Bergen and Bilbao
and Riga – without drifting off.

There’s a lot of water and a lot of drifting in O’Callaghan’s work: a swimming pool on a headland, closed for the winter; a second pool, entered with a step ‘from the edge into the shallows / [that] makes no ripples on the white day that follows’; the river at night ‘where I am floating in darkness’; the blue of a computer screen as yet another swimming pool; the Plath-inflected (‘This is the sea, then, this great abeyance’) sea-missing anxieties of ‘Inland’; and the endless aqueous humours of Seatown, culminating in the masterful, slow windings of a Sunday drive around the Louth coast in ‘Slip’.

O’Callaghan was already quipping years back now about being tired of his party-piece poem ‘East’:

I know it’s not playing Gaelic, it’s simply not good enough,
to dismiss as someone else’s all that elemental Atlantic guff.
And to suggest everything’s foreign beyond the proverbial pale
would amount to a classic case of hitting the head on the nail.

But give me a dreary eastern town that isn’t vaguely romantic,
where moon and stars are lost in the lights of the greyhound track
and cheering comes to nothing and a flurry of misplaced bets
blanketing the stands at dawn is about as spiritual as it gets...

– so I can only imagine how he feels about it now. I well recall Mary O’Malley’s ‘The Loose Alexandrines’ and its pot-shot at ‘East’ (a poem that mentions Bray, let me say, to complete my auto-toponomical double-whammy) – condemning the poem for its implied defection from the Sturm und Drang of the Atlantic shoreline, not to mention its West-Brit cultural cringe (‘more Larkin, less Yeats, no Plath’), though as Venn diagrams go ‘West-Brit’ and ‘Dundalk’ will already have the more practised travellers among you up and down the Irish east coast guffawing into your pints of McArdles, or do I mean Harp.

Implicit in O’Malley’s flyting of ‘East’ is the perennial charge-in-waiting against anyone deemed to be versifying under the influence of Larkin – those lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations, even making allowances for a vaguely Mahonesque condiment of lurking apocalypse, very quiet apocalypse, somewhere in the background. But if this kind of critique suggests that O’Callaghan writes about the familiar world, what it misses is that he writes about a world we know not just well but too well. ‘It’s a view that seems too familiar’, ‘Landscape’ begins. The first line of the first poem in The History of Rain, begins ‘It must be a cliché to think...’, but it is plain wrong to imagine these poems are in the business of tying us down, imaginatively, to the this-and-only-this world of familiarity and boredom with which they play. Althusser’s hoary old theory of interpellation, whereby ideology shouts ‘Hey you!’ in the street and, in looking round, we recognise ourselves in its beaded-eye gaze, holds all too true for these poems that stage and restage the pacts we make with habit; but at the same time (let me insist) repeatedly circle with a kind of hypnotized fascination the moment of original choice, identification, and freedom, or was it surrender. ‘Landscape with Canal’:

So this, the means to an end, is chosen
as the landscape of a private fiction
where the tracks you make are all-too-well-known.
Though this time, since whatever will happen
will happen most likely in the open,
you set it in a derelict autumn
when all its symbolic fruit has fallen.
This action is yours alone to govern.
As long as you make the silence broken
by the presence on the bank of someone
that’s both anticipated and sudden.

But if Mary O’Malley sees Larkin, I see Edward Thomas:

Walking back the shortcut none the wiser
through the mill and the gates of the manor
there must always be some faceless other
on the towpath by the slick of water
who’ll call in the murk ahead, ‘Who goes there?’
and call once more when you don’t quite answer.

Or consider the title poem (one of them) of Seatown, the familiar bric-a-brac of its opening lists achieving epiphanic... not quite lift-off, more a muddy tidal flux and reflux of mixed feelings that are as good as it gets. No really, they are:

Point of no return for the cattle feed on the wharves
and the old shoreline and the windmill without sails
and time that keeps for no one, least of all ourselves.

May its name be said for as long as it could matter,
or, failing that, for as long as it takes the pilot
to negotiate the eight kilometres from this to open water.

One of my favourite poems from O’Callaghan’s third collection, Fiction, is ‘Shanty’, which jumps across the page as fitfully as the poet jumps radio station on the car stereo, its ‘ditty from home’ ‘flicked across three provinces /inland of any shore’, ‘with chorus enough to keep /the memory of a squeezebox company’. The poem loses a lot deprived of its proper visual format, but you’ll have to make do with lowly line-break indicators here, alas. O’Callaghan has lived in Philadelphia and North Carolina, and while his stylistic response to the US may be like Mao Tse Tsung’s response to the French revolution (it’s too early to say), there are signs of a loosening up, which may lead him further away again from the conservative caricature of him we find in ‘The Loose Alexandrines’. Adorno intoned about two torn halves that no longer made a whole, but the flick of a wrist across the line-break after ‘whole’ soon puts paid to even that much attempt at mirages of holism here. ‘the phrases don’t recall if they are /warm of half /measures become a whole /new frequency: the carriage lights of an island /stopped in black or a swell /between passing cars /there and there again /the air as yet unsung’. There is a large gap in the line between ‘there’ and ‘there again’ in that penultimate line, and it is in that absent ‘there’ that O’Callaghan is perhaps most at home.

Something similar is going on in the fine recent poem ‘Emergency’.

I mentioned ‘Slip’ earlier. I’ll finish with the slow release of its final letting-go, a moment I find among the single most satisfying in all the poetry written by my contemporaries:

There is just long enough
to saunter down
in shirt sleeves,

spill some shingle from
one hand to the other
and wonder about the patch

of charred cans and ash,
the gulls scattering,
the pristine life-ring.

If the glazed window
piercing the haze
is dusk in Port Erin.

To whistle strands
of an unplaced air,
then call it a day.

Before the haze swells.
Before the tide
comes around again.


And just in case the foregoing seemed like a slobbering pitch for him to buy me a drink on Tuesday, I now forfeit all the credit I have just earned by dredging up from the hard-drive of history the following picture, from a Leinster Leader of 1997. From left to right: Emmett Tinley, Bill Tinley, a turtleneck-wearing (for shame) DW, Conor O’Callaghan.

Friday, October 02, 2009

till better flounder

bail bail till better

So runs an uncollected late poem included in the new Beckett Selected Poems 1930-1989. What the notes to this edition don’t tell you, however, is that the poem began as Beckett’s attempt to write an advertising slogan for a charity that helped the partially sighted:

Braille Braille till better

A second draft played on Beckett’s love of a certain Belgian singer-songwriter, who he felt deserved more airplay on French radio:

Brel Brel till better

While another again recorded his impressions of the fish suppers he scoffed on a trip to Hull:

brill brill till better

‘till battered flounder’ even, perhaps. Any other suggestions? Go on, you know you want to.