I arrived in Spain just as the news was breaking back home of Seamus Heaney’s death. Earlier in the week, in preparation for my course, I had been reading ‘Summer 1969’ from ‘Singing School’, Heaney’s account of vacationing in Madrid at the very moment when civilian protesters were being gunned down by the constabulary on the Falls Road. Heaney’s inability to forget what is going on in his home while he is ‘suffering / Only the bullying sun’ leads him to a greater dilemma – what can he, as a poet, say to make a difference.
It’s the old refrain of Auden’s: ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, written on hearing the news of the death of Yeats. And the same cycle of suffering and inability, the effort (and possibly failure) to make a difference is present in his poem, which equally could be a statement on Heaney’s work (now complete):
Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Followers of Invective will know I have quoted those lines before. They never date – sadly, as I abandoned the news section of my paper on the plane, with its headlines speculating the possible American invasion of Syria.
Despite the Syrian crisis and the sad news of Heaney’s passing, I was glad to be back at the Almàssera Vella, with Christopher and Marisa North, who for part of the year generously open their home as a retreat for writers – a stunning place to gather and spend a pleasurable week in the sun (very hot, certainly, but more nourishing than bullying) talking about poetry and art. We were fortunate in our group to have two sculptors and a former artists’ model, so the discussion took on many aspects and angles. We started with Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, written around the same time as Auden’s tribute to Yeats, with the world on the brink of yet another world war; it’s tempting to see the two poets in dialogue, as Stevens presents his imperative to the writer or artist:
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,
Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand
Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.
You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.
Stevens’s blue guitar is an instrument of invention, a metaphor for how we construct metaphor. Despite the destroyed shapes and rotted names we continue to try and make sense of the world, even if it feels sometimes as if no one is listening or looking. Stevens, of course, is the presiding spirit of this blog, and it’s his poetry I have often turned to as a model of how to construct my own. Like Heaney, Stevens is really talking about the world and the reality of the world, and how reality is sometimes bleak, but like Heaney, Stevens will guide rather than preach. His blue guitar, by way of Picasso and Braque, stands for the imagination, a reflection of us that isn’t us, but something that sings our pleasures and pain. We can’t change reality, instead we ‘patch’ the world as best we can; poet as invisible mender.
So round the table in the blue house, we sat talking about Stevens’ blue guitar, and Jorie Graham, Charles Simic, Frank O’Hara, the latter becoming another kind of presiding spirit for us. We decided to write a ‘lunch poem’ every day, although we had to trade O’Hara’s frenetic Manhattan for sleepy Relleu (the village going into siesta mode just as we were gearing up for our afternoon’s writing).
It was O’Hara who declared it ‘a fine day for seeing’, and when we piled into a couple of cars on the Tuesday, the sun still shining, we were more than ready to look at some art. We took a detour on the way to Alicante to visit a 2000-year-old olive tree, growing a few hundred yards from the motorway, down a dirt track. It was an amazing sight, its great, gnarled branches twisting up and into a canopy of small silvery leaves. Later, in the gallery when we considered issues of texture and complexity, looking at sculptures by Sempere and Chillida, we recalled the smooth wood of the olive, rubbed white in places, like bone – reality as metaphor, a symbol of stubborn survival.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Alicante is a revelation. Three floors of modern and contemporary art, mainly by Spanish artists, many who were new to us. The building itself is a sculpture – all white marble and stone, a clean space for seeing, a true meeting of architectural vision and user-friendly space, with balconies on the upper floors that open to vistas of the galleries below and to the hills and castle outside.
It is a symbol of pre-recession ambition and civic pride, all the more surprising in a town where most visitors head straight for the promenade and the beach; as a result, we had the place pretty much to ourselves (the museum attendants actually outnumbering us). It is incredible that more people are not taking advantage of this remarkable gallery (which offers free entry). The fact that there is no catalogue of the collection, not even a postcard or two, perhaps reflects its underuse. So we had to record our experience in our poems (and a few stolen snapshots).
The next day we piled back into cars and drove to the nearby village of Sella, and into the hills, the craggy puig molten copper in the late afternoon sun. We climbed higher and higher into the Tafarmach ridge, finally reaching the home and studio of Terry Lee and his wife Pam (who paints under the name Olivia Firth). We talked with them about their work, their notion of landscape; how we carry the landscapes of our past and of our imaginations with us (Terry often bringing together his adopted Spanish hillside and his native Derbyshire in the same painting). And I thought of Heaney again, how in his poem he can’t help think of the reek of the flax-dam as he passes through the fish market of Madrid, how he finds Goya’s cudgels in the Prado, and thinks of them as ‘two berserks’ who ‘club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.’ The visit to Terry and Pam, to the remote and extraordinary landscape in which they live and work, was an inspiration to us to think about how we might make space for our work, even in the noisy corner of a busy city.
And all too soon it was time to return to our respective cities and cloudier skies, away from the dreaming space of the Almàssera. But many poems are still to be written, as we carry the landscape in our minds, one more folded sunset.
Oh what a field day for headline writers! Big blue cock erected on fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square. Boris Johnson unveils big blue cock. Sacre bleu! Lord Nelson now looks down on a giant French cock in Trafalgar Square. And it’s true that the artist, Katharina Fritsch, likes a joke, a bit of wordplay (the word for “cock” in German, “hahn”, has the same double meanings as the word in English). In the land of double entendres, Carry On films, ‘very British’ sex scandals (which always makes me think the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley), the giant blue cock should feel right at home.
But apart from being a good joke, Hahn is a brilliant piece of public art. Firstly, the colour is an inspiration. I went to see it on an ordinary grey London afternoon (one of the first in an amazing summer of sunshine). London, as much as I love it, is a rather colourless city on an overcast day (which gives it a certain character), but the blue cock fills the air with its blueness. It’s the blue of Yves Klein, of Titian, of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (so a bit psychedelic) not the blue of ‘the blues’, but a joyous cry, a proper belly laugh. Getting back to the old double entendres, it’s also the blue of blue movies, something a bit risqué, daring, a middle finger raised in the sedate square.
It’s characteristic of Fritsch. Here’s her giant orange octopus, grasping a doomed diver:
But back to the location, the square itself. Trafalgar Square has in this century become the natural gathering place for protest, as it is a little more than a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Downing Street and Parliament. Many of the Fourth Plinth commissions have made political statements: Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, or Yinka Shonibare’s piece Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. The projects that have attempted to bring a subversive force into the square has been the most successful.
You look around at the other statues in the square: pompous generals, preening officials, some on horseback, depicted as Classical heroes. Alll presided over by Lord Nelson, at the top of his ridiculously phallic column. He presides over the whole of central London – I realised he was peeking out at me between buildings the other afternoon when I was sitting on the Level 5 terrace of the Royal Festival Hall. He is a symbol of Britishness, of empire, of battle. So the cockerel, a little preening and pompous himself, has been placed in the middle of this stag party by a woman artist, a self-proclaimed feminist. Who also happens to be German. And she considers her cock to be a very French symbol, placed just so to piss off Nelson – a little nod to Napoleon.
It is public art that makes you laugh, that makes you consider what surrounds it, and gets you to re-evaluate the way the city honours its greats (and who is chosen to honour). And it’s bright. And it’s exuberant. I wish it would stay there forever, because I know as long as it’s there, it will bring a smile to my face.
When Auguste Rodin died at the age of seventy-seven on 17th November 1917, Henry Moore was a nineteen-year-old soldier serving on the front in France. Moore’s wartime experience would end when he was demobilised after a gas attack and it was at this point his life as a sculptor began. He attended art school in his native Leeds; while browsing the shelves in the reference library, he came across a book of conversations between Rodin and Paul Gsell:
I remember in it somewhere Rodin saying that when he got stuck with modelling a clay sculpture, he would sometimes drop it on the floor and have another look. Now this was for me, as a young sculptor, a tremendous revelation of how you can take advantage of accidents, and how you should always try and look at a thing over again, with a fresh eye.
This is the thing the two sculptors share, the need to look over and again, to bring to their forms a fresh eye. And it is compelling to want to compare the two great sculptors, both of whom were so in tune with the shapes and contours of the body; however, going around the current Moore Rodin exhibition at Moore’s house and studio in Perry Green, what is most interesting is the contrast. Rodin’s project was to capture the human form faithfully in bronze and clay. His figures become symbols of what we aspire to and exert upon the earth – beauty, power, passion, love. ‘I invent nothing, I rediscover,’ he said. Rilke talked about Rodin’s figures as ‘strange monuments of the momentary’, and that idea of the monument is central to Rodin. We are not common, we exert our presence on the world. This is a celebration of the individual, each man a miracle.
Whereas Moore’s figures are not representative. They embody ideas, concepts, they grow from the landscapes in which they are placed (I’ve always thought Moore’s figures really come into their own outdoors, particularly in rural landscapes where he was most at home, and where they merge with the contours of the hills). They are not about the individual as much as all humanity. For it wasn’t the First War, the one in which he fought, that formed Moore, but the Second, the war that forced him and his family to flee London for Perry Green, where he remained for the rest of his life. That was the war that touched him, and his drawings of groups of Londoners sheltering together from air-raids in the Underground are what I think of when I think of Moore. Humanity, what it is to be human; even in his individual figures there is this sense of all of us, moving in all directions at once.
Rodin died at the very moment when it became possible to imagine dimensionality in art, Cubism breaking a figure into facets of itself, and Moore picks up the baton. By putting the two artists together what we see is a progression. That is not to say that Rodin was reactionary; his work begins to push at the twentieth century well before it arrived (it is nearly impossible for us to view his work today and recall the shock with which it was received). Moore acknowledges this debt, and says that all of his generation were influenced by Rodin in some respect – the great master.
What is always exciting for me is going to a place where an artist worked. Having visited Rodin’s house a couple of years ago (and having recorded the experience in a previous post), it was a great pleasure to finally visit Perry Green. As we walked around the grounds, I thought it was strange that the gently rolling and fairly sedate landscape of Herfordshire was were Moore spent most of his life – I still equate him with the rugged and rough hills of West Yorkshire – but looking again at his undulating forms in situ, perhaps there was something after all in this landscape that softened him.
It has always been the case that what we value most is what we have in short supply: our desire is increased by the impossibility of attainment. As I sit here in the glorious sun, the years of bleak grey sodden summers in my adopted country are forgotten (or, if not completely forgotten, at least pushed to one side). I can’t dismiss the rain entirely – it defines the British tendency towards stoical acceptance, which I have always admired – but I am grateful this summer to be reminded of the sort of summers I remember from childhood: languid, hot and joyful. This sort of hot July day instantly carries me back to summers in New Jersey in the 70s (as snowfall too makes me nostalgic for those long cold winters).
But weather can also jolt us forward: July has been a month of poetry journeys to other parts of the country. At the beginning of the month, I spent some time in Frome with fellow poets on a writing retreat. As I have said before, these retreats are invaluable. I love the familiarity of my desk and having all my books around me, but routine can be a hindrance. I find there are moments in my writing life when I want to shake myself up, change direction – this is especially so between projects, when I’m waiting for the next big idea to ‘hit’ me. I only wrote one new poem in Frome, but it was a poem I needed to complete – a response to the drawings of the artist David Harker, for a publication he’s releasing later in the year. As David’s recent drawings are very detailed studies of trees, I took myself off to a field and sat under the shade of an oak and started to write. The resulting poem was informed by the immediacy of my conditions: Frome, oak, field, summer; but also the conversation I had with David a few weeks before, the recent death of my mother, the memory of other summers which seemed to be unlocked with the heat. I am interested in how a poem can be a map of a particular moment in the poet’s life, and how that private information is often obscured from the reader. When I reread my poems, I can remember where each one was written, what was happening in my life at the time, what triggered the initial idea or the first line. My poems are my private diary, but I’m aware that their public lives are entirely different.
These discussions of process and practice continued this week in Teeside, where I have been the guest of the Hall Garth poets. We spent a lot of time talking about form, how the poem is enclosed in its shape, how it can represent ‘spots of time’, to quote Coleridge. We sat in the cool interior of the Chop Gate Village Hall for our discussions, and then emerged into the sun to write. When I’m leading a group, I never manage to write anything of my own (the concentration is different); but I have made lots of notes for new poems. Next week I take these impressions and discussions back to my desk in London, where somehow that process of ordering and remembering always manages to shape itself into a poem. And I hope the forecast will remain sunny as well.
For many years I have taught the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, regarded by most to be a textbook example of a villanelle. I have discussed the use of refrain lines with my students, and the importance of getting two that stay in the mind, that can withstand repetition, so that they carry the poem forward, both musically and thematically. I have analysed the poem – written when Thomas’s father was on his deathbed – read those words over and over. But I realise that I have failed to comprehend the poem. I am a careful reader, I’d like to think, so the failure isn’t so much in my understanding, as my inclination to be moved. Sometimes words are simply words until you allow them to have the ability to strike you, like an axe to break the frozen sea within us, to quote Kafka. So much poetry relies on joining a secret club, having shared whatever crucial life-changing moment or emotional epiphany the poet is revealing. We enter the poem once we have entered the experience. Since the recent loss of my mother, only now do I get it.
Because the way to really understand ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is to watch a parent in his or her last days. Thomas is imploring his father not to die, to fight against it, despite the impossibility of winning, to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ (it could be said he neglected to take his own advice – intent on his self-destruction, he died only two years after the poem was written, at the age of 39). The word ‘rage’ appears eight times over 19 lines, as well as ‘fierce’ and ‘rave’. Thomas is spitting with anger – death makes him angry, its useless waste, its unnecessary suffering. Death is not gentle, nor, I suspect, for Thomas, is it a ‘good night’ (although ‘goodnight’ also means ‘goodbye’). For the most part, it is not peaceful, nor dignified, nor pleasant. It is not the Victorian damsel waiting for the guy with the scythe to come and get her, nor is it the noble lady of the manor stretched out in her canopied bed in all her finery. Nothing fine, nor noble, about it.
As I have mentioned before here, my sister-in-law gave me Ariel for my fifteenth birthday. It was, as they say, a damascene moment. I realised Plath was speaking to me directly from beyond the grave, telling me to write my anguish. Of course, I had nothing to be anguished about, but it was an attractive subject. I returned to Plath over the years but never with the same youthful vigour as I encountered her as a teenager, with her sharp tongue and curt turn of phrase. The more I learned about poetry, the more I understood her technical gifts (I teach her too now), the way she pares her lines to the bone. My mother’s last illness coincided with the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death (and made me realise they were near contemporaries – there is a photo of my mother when she first arrived in New York that could do for a cover illustration for The Bell Jar). I found myself going straight from the hospital one night to a reading of the Ariel poems at the South Bank. Sitting there in the dark, listening to the voices of various poets and actresses reciting lines that I had once to heart, I found myself getting annoyed with Sylvia, her appropriation of death as an art, as a piece of theatre. I am not denying that she was a very troubled and unhappy woman whose death was tragic, but there is something in the poems, a bravado, a seduction (perhaps a way of fooling herself into health?) that suddenly bothered me. I thought of my mother, who had lived a long and happy life which she valued, and I measured that against a woman who, in poem after poem, seemed to make death into a fetish. This is a gross simplification, I know, but in my fragile mood, it was how the poems struck me, for the first time, and I thought her selfish, willing death to make her ‘pure as a baby.’ I thought of the way I have romanticised death in my own poems, naïve as I have been, and I resolved to treat the subject with greater respect. It may have been another damascene moment.
I find this is the poem that gives me comfort at the moment. It is one of those poems handed down from generation to generation, from stifling classroom to dog-eared anthology. It has become so familiar that perhaps it has begun to lose its power. But now that I am ready to hear it, it is my axe.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, the explorer Marco Polo returns from his voyages to regale Kublai Khan with stories of the many and varied places he visited in his travels. But as his narratives progress, the ruler begins to question the reliability of his young adventurer. It becomes clear that the numerous cities Polo claims to have visited are merely different facets of one city – Venice, Polo’s home town. What to make of these ‘imagined’ cities once the truth is known? The book becomes not a travelogue, but a work of psychogeography, an imagining of many possible experiences within one urban centre, where buildings, people and ritual come together:
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls …
I remembered Calvino when visiting Julie Mehretu’s current exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey. It was not my first encounter with Mehretu’s work, having seen her paintings first in Venice (making the connection to Calvino more overt), then in Kassel. Two very different urban experiences: I have written about both cities here on Invective, and it strikes me now that both Venice and Kassel are appropriate sites for Mehretu’s project. Venice represents the meeting of east and west, a strange confection of ornate palazzi but also brooding corners and dark dead-ends. Kassel is a palimpsest – a city that will never shake its complete destruction, even through its reconstruction.
Mehretu’s cityscapes, like Calvino’s, are unreliable. You cannot move freely through the streets or chart a route between two places. Through a layering of architectural drawings – showing features such as columns and porticos – and city planning documents, Mehretu builds a place of frenetic energy and multiple diversions. Over these layered architectural elements, she creates a series of smudges and lines – almost destroying her creations, in the same way the wrecking ball levels buildings everyday (slow to erect, fast to collapse) – and over that, she paints coloured acrylic flourishes, long arcs and stripes, like graffiti (the unofficial street art that she cites as one of her influences). She says of these ‘marks’:
I think of my abstract mark-making as a type of sign lexicon, signifier, or language for characters that hold identity and have social agency. The characters in my maps plotted, journeyed, evolved, and built civilizations. I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars. The paintings occurred in an intangible no-place: a blank terrain, an abstracted map space. As I continued to work I needed a context for the marks, the characters. By combining many types of architectural plans and drawings I tried to create a metaphoric, tectonic view of structural history. I wanted to bring my drawing into time and place.
She calls the finished canvases ‘story maps of no location’, every city and no city at once. The idea of stories, of narratives, of characters, brings us back to psychogeography, which is concerned with the emotional responses of the individual to a city. Recently in this blog I mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s alternative mapping of her home town, San Francisco, and her definition of places as ‘stable locations with unstable converging forces.’ Mehretu’s approach is similar; she says:
I am interested in the potential of ‘psychogeographies’, which suggest that within an invisible and invented space, the individual can tap a resource of self-determination and resistance.
Her recent ‘Mogamma’ paintings contain overlaid images taken from 31 different squares which became centres for revolt and conflict during the Arab Spring. These are ‘charged places’ for Mehretu, and even post-revolution, they hold the turmoil of their association to these events in their very bricks. Mehretu herself fled a place of conflict – Addis Ababa during the Ethio-Somali war – when she was seven years old. In her work, she is placing herself back in the centre of conflict, asking the question: ‘how do I look at myself in this moment? How do I exist in a larger social and historical moment?’ The crisis, as a human being, globally, environmentally, politically, is always to consider how much power the artists’ mark has in our time.
I’ll end with a poem by Weldon Kees which seems to chime with Mehretu’s project:
To Build a Quiet City in His Mind
To build a quiet city in his mind:
A single overwhelming wish; to build,
Not hastily, for there is so much wind,
So many eager smilers to be killed,
Obstructions one might overlook in haste:
The ruined structures cluttering the past,
A little at a time and slow is best,
Crawling as though through endless corridors,
Remembering always there are many doors
That open to admit the captured guest
Yet in spite of loss and guilt
And hurricanes of time, it might be built:
A refuge, permanent, with trees that shade
When all the other cities die and fade.
Every writer could use a good tower (or at the very least, a top-floor study). I think of Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee or Joyce’s Martello in Sandycove (the subject of a blog post over a year ago now). A tower gives you perspective, the ability to see the full landscape. This morning I looked out the window of my tower and found myself eye to eye with a gull (which was perched on the top of a telegraph pole). The gull was looking for breakfast, and I was looking for a poem; the gull flew off, but not before he’d made it into what I was writing.
When I say ‘my tower’, I mean the South Lookout on the beach in Aldeburgh, which is on loan to me for the weekend. The tower is owned by the gallerist Caroline Wiseman, who invites writers and artists to use the space as a creative stimulus. The only proviso is that you must sleep here for at least one night. The ground floor area (which is a gallery space when not occupied by those creating the art) is rustic and spartan, as it should be, with a folding camp bed that I have placed near the open fire (there is electricity, and I’ve used one of the sockets for the bar fire, and the other three to charge my computer, Blackberry and iPad respectively – so much for ink and quill). There is no plumbing in the tower, but Caroline’s house is a few feet away (I remember hearing that Thoreau’s modest shack at Walden Pond was less than two miles from the family seat – writers do need creature comforts, even in the attempt to be closer to nature). Caroline’s instinct is right: there is something about waking up to the sound of the sea and the wind, knowing you are right on the beach, in the middle of the elements, that sets you off in a way that could not happen in one’s own bed.
I rolled up on Thursday to glorious early evening sunshine, but woke on Friday to bleak rain-soaked skies. Although the sun that greeted me on my arrival was lovely, the grey, leached East Anglian landscape (of Crabbe and Sebald) is the one I’ve grown to know. I started Friday at the very top of the tower, which is accessed from the outside of the building, up a narrow spiral staircase. The view, even rain-soaked, was fabulous, and I wrote my first poem of the day (after the meeting with the gull). But then the skies closed in, and the eerie became cold and oppressive (no heating up there!) so I moved to the middle level, which has just been officially christened the Laurens van der Post Room (opened by his daughter, Lucia) where the writer came to work every day for 30 years. That was my spot for most of the day, and where I wrote a further three poems.
This kind of concentrated experience has proven to be the sort of stimulus I would not have elsewhere. It normally takes me months to do what I’ve done in one day, just by being quiet and isolated in a little space with no distractions or disruptions, apart from watching for any activity on the beach, and charting the constant movements of the sea.
On Saturday, I will put my poems up on the wall, along with some photos of the beach, and invite people to come into the Lookout to see what I’ve been up to. And Saturday evening, I’ve invited some fellow Suffolk poets along to read poems about the sea. It should be a wonderful evening, even if it rains.
During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river – some of my favourite aspects of the city are from the Thames – we cross it back and forth over bridges constantly, but we are seldom on it. Although the underground is a necessary means for navigating London, it removes us from the city by taking us below it, and so we miss the engagement with the street and what is happening there in real time (which is why I favour the bus, when I’m not in a hurry!).
To get back to Brodsky, a long-time resident of Venice, he talks about the way that water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute – the deck – under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absent-minded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass. Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one.
This idea of being unsettled and alert is perhaps another reason I keep returning here. Nowhere else in the world feels so unreal (partly because of the efforts of tourists and those who cater to them to turn the place into Disneyworld); Venice has not been allowed to come into the modern age. Apart from the odd modern Scarpa-designed building, it remains firmly in its past (which is why so many poets have compared it to a graceful dowager). Its past is its glory.
Despite that, so much has been created here in the last hundred-odd years. James’s late novels, Wagner’s Tristan, and poems by Byron and Shelly, Browning, Brodsky, Merrill and Hecht, and of course, Pound’s Cantos. This city attracts those from other places who arrive, often in exile from where they started. It feels a final destination. Peter Ackroyd wrote ‘the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death’, especially when you think of those who have come here to die (fictional as well as actual).
Which brings me to death, decay, ruin. Venice is frail, crumbling. Water degrades its marble and stone, there is a delicate patina of rust and algae over its surface. James said ‘Venice is the most beautiful sepulchre in the world.’ And so it is. You are nowhere more reminded of demise anywhere else.
So I am here, with a group of poets (some visiting for the first time), exploring and thinking and writing. Trying to find something new to say about this place which has been written about thousands of times. I’ll end on something which has been said before, but for me captures the feeling of coming back, and the mixed sensations of this place – the first stanza of Amy Clampitt’s ‘Venice Revisited’:
Guise and disguise, the mirrorings and masquerades,
brocaded wallowings, ascensions, levitations:
glimmering interiors, beaked motley; the hide-
and-seek of Tintoretto and Carpaccio. From within
walled gardens’ green enclave, a blackbird’s warble —
gypsy non sequitur out of root-cumbered
terra firma, a mainland stepped from
to this shored-up barge, this Bucintoro
of mirage, of artifice. Outside the noon-dim
dining room, the all-these-years-uninterrupted
sloshing of canals; bagged refuse, ungathered
filth; the unfed cats, still waiting.
Apologies to followers of Invective for the radio silence. It’s been a busy time. Here is a link to a piece on the Poetry School blog: a discussion between myself and Julia Bird on the recent Poets After Dark performances at the Hayward Gallery
To Matt’s Gallery to see the new Susan Hiller installation, Channels. I have always been a fan of Hiller’s work, for its curiosity, its humanity, its obsessive cataloguing of objects associated with the activity of living. At her Tate Britain retrospective several years ago, I became fascinated by her Homage to Joseph Beuys, a collection of bottles of holy water which Hiller patiently sourced from locations around the country, labelled and placed in a cabinet – like a medicine cabinet, but the ‘medicine’ contained in it was more about faith than pharmaceuticals. Hiller said of this piece:
When I collect water from a holy well or sacred spring, I’m in the process of trying to turn banal tourism into a quest or pilgrimage. The waters supposedly produce powerful effects for believers, but what I treasure is the special mental space created by searching for them and thinking about them. These little bottles of waters are more than just souvenirs; they are containers of an idea about the potentials hidden in ordinary things and experiences.
Yes. Isn’t that what a poem is too, a container for an idea that finds its source in ordinary things and events? I found myself imaging Hiller on her journey, carefully bottling those precious wells, in turn thinking about the people who come to them for solace.
Hiller’s new piece is also about faith, or at least an examination of what happens to the human spirit when it faces the unknown. In a darkened room, a bank of analogue televisions form a tall wall. They are all tuned to nothing, and hiss their white noise into the silent gallery. From their flickering screens, a series of waving lines emerge, then disembodied voices that speak at once. One voice takes over, and begins a story of a near-death experience, the televisions registering the voice as a single green line that pulses with speech. Each voice introduces itself, and begins another tale. These experiences are remarkably similar – at the moment of death, the speakers would often hover over their dying bodies, or find themselves inexplicably in the company of strangers or long-dead family members, who are there to tell them it isn’t their time yet, before they regain consciousness. The voices tell their stories without emotion, but we find the emotion in ourselves, the listeners. Hiller’s act is to record them.
In my previous post, I talked about James Merrill’s epic poem, ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’. Merrill was the great chronicler of the other world, sensitive to our brief time here, our longer time beyond. I was put in mind of the other voices he ‘channelled’ sitting with the Susan Hiller piece, not just channels we watch, but also channels we follow – directions, paths, divergences.
I will end with Merrill’s poem, ‘Lorelei’:
The stones of kin and friend
Stretch off into a trembling, sweatlike haze.
They many not after all be stepping-stones
But you have followed them. Each strands you, then
Does not. Not yet. Not here.
Is it a crossing? Is there no way back?
Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.
It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness
Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face.