Invective Against Swans
Matters of the heart


Followers of Invective will recall the chapbook Formerly, my first project with designer and photographer Vici MacDonald. The success of Formerly demonstrated to us that there was a niche we might fill, as we discovered there were very few publishers willing to take on poetry/ photography collaborations (although since then there have been a few brilliant ones: I Spy Pinhole Eye by Philip Gross and Simon Denison and Wordless by George Szirtes and Kevin Reid to name two). And so, our press, Hercules Editions was born. 

There was never any doubt what our next project would be. Back in 2010, Vici, me, and our friend, the poet Sue Rose, went on a trip to Paris. During our stay, we visited Personnes, Christian Boltanski’s Momumenta installation at the Grand Palais. I was familiar with Boltanski’s work – so much of it a statement on loss and memory, the great atrocities of the twentieth century, particularly the Holocaust – but this was devastating, overwhelming. The vast halls of the Grand Palais were filled with rectangular plots, like graves, filled with old clothes. Further into the hall, a picker on the end of a crane grabbed more piles of clothes and dropped them on a burgeoning heap, like a burial mound, like the piles of bodies, dead or nearly dead, that were discovered when the Allies liberated the camps (it is particularly poignant that I write this a few days after Alice Herz-Sommer, the last survivor of the camps, died at the age of 110). Laura Cumming summed up the experience in her review at the time:

You were in a necropolis, now you are in purgatory: balanced between heaven and hell, witnessing the hand of God. Except, of course, that you are in a freezing, cacophonous place surrounded by secondhand clothes and probably eager to be gone. That is the exceptional achievement of the piece. All its elements are frankly simple and apparent, you see how they combine, how it all works. Yet none of this stifles its resonant truths, that in the midst of life we are in death, that man’s inhumanity to man continues beyond Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda.


And into the huge echoing space came the sound of heartbeats; Boltanski’s other great work, Archives du Coeur, is an attempt to record as many heartbeats as possible, so that they might be eventually stored on an island off the coast of Japan as a permanent record of human existence. At Monumenta, you could have your heartbeat recorded to be part of the installation. Sue immediately queued up.

We were all moved by the work, but it was Sue who carried away not the recording of her heart (you could get a CD, but it was too late in the day by the time she’d had hers recorded) but the seed of an idea that would grow over the next three years, from a few initial poems that drew directly on the installation, to a whole sequence which formed her own ‘heart archives’ – poems about the people she loves. Vici and I watched the sequence grow and develop, out of that incredible experience that Boltanski gave us.


And so the book, Heart Archives, was launched in London last week. Rather than use images from the installation, Vici commissioned Sue to take her own photographs, on her iPhone (the technology which allows us all to be our own archivists), of things and people who matter to her. The result is a book which is intensely personal, but also very moving – we can all connect with the need to preserve those we love, to keep their flames burning even once they are gone.

I will end with a few words from Sue, from her introduction, on the process of making the images for the book:

It was a strange process, rediscovering and revisiting so many of our family’s valued objects which, despite being within easy reach, had been forgotten and ignored, gathering dust in dark places. I was saddened that many of them had either been damaged by the passage of years and neglect or stripped of their identities and resonances to become once more objects devoid of meaning and history. It reminded me again of the importance of preserving and documenting the artefacts from our own personal archaeology. If we don’t, we risk losing our heritage and, by extension, ourselves.

Heart Archives is now available. You can order it here:


The fullness of time

Just back from a week at the glorious Château Ventenac where spring had arrived before us, and the wisteria was buzzing with fat black bees. We came together to discuss the poetic sequence, especially in relation to space (but also place) and time.

We started by looking at Georges Perec’s funny little book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a treatise to writers on how to observe, but also on how to immerse oneself in the moment. Perec recorded everything he saw in the place Saint-Sulpice over the course of a weekend (positioning himself, as any self-respecting Oulipo poet might, at various café vantage-points) without editorial comment or censorship, so that even the most mundane or pedantic details are faithfully listed. It reads like an exercise because that’s what it is. When we get down to the business of making experience into poetry, we select, so that certain details might be singled out, highlighted as significant. It is interesting to consider what we cross out in the process.

And that’s where the idea of a sequence comes in. One poem is sometimes not enough to contain all the things we need to show. Why not more? After all, poets love numerology, the idea of splitting language into a neat package of lines or stanzas. So why not five poems (like the fingers on a hand) or seven (like the deadly sins, or the days of the week), to show different points of view, angles, timeframes, narratives, etc? We moved from Perec to Stevens, and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which gives us such variations, like a Cubist painting or a jazz riff put into words. We thought about the symbolism of the blackbird, the number thirteen, and what Stevens is saying about fate and how language tries to express big things like mortality – and often misses – unless we can focus on the small details. We agreed that his blackbird never feels like an omen, an harbinger of bad luck (after all, Stevens is a champion of the commonplace rather that the fanciful – no nightingale for him) but rather a presence that is alive and moving in a static landscape …

Although it was actually the hoopoe who was sighted, sunning in the lower terrace, and of course, the resident black swans of the Canal du Midi. I include them here because I’m often asked what I have against swans – it’s their romanticising I resist. The black ones have a sort of mythical quality about them, although these two are hardly mysterious – they are used to being fed by tourists on longboat holidays, so they will swim right over to you, and demand attention, trumpeting loudly.

We attempted a group exercise (based on Anne Berkeley’s wonderful versions of Baudelaire’s Pipe) to identify the different ways we perceive language. We all looked at the same poem by Eluard, and came up with our own versions, ranging from fairly faithful translations of the original, to surreal statements based on a complete ignorance of French – increasingly more unstable as comprehension and meaning fly through the window.

And flying is what time did too. It seemed like a lot to pack into a week, and so it was. Naturally, it passed very quickly, in the excited mix of poems and chat, and food and wine. And suddenly I find myself back at my desk in London (where spring seems to have been and gone).

I began my week in the walled medieval citadel of Carcassonne, a place which is sealed in time, and so I end with a photograph, taken by poet Sue Rose, of a motif of decorative carvings – remains of larger structures – arranged on a wall to celebrate pattern and light. Like a good poem, or a series of poems, each one a little bit different than the one next to it.

In praise of dragonflies

Exactly a year ago I started this blog with a piece in praise of crows, which mentioned that greatest of crow-poets, Ted Hughes. So today, in celebration of the Invective anniversary, I give you dragonflies, and Hughes again. On a walk over Blaxhall Common this morning, I encountered (along with my fellow poets Anne Berkeley and Sue Rose, who took the picture) this fine male Emperor, Anax imperator. Sometimes a thing is so perfect, so beautiful in itself that you don’t need to write about it; it’s just there, making a simple walk significant. And you couldn’t do better than this poem, which is all about the issues of trying to capture nature in art (but Hughes manages to nail it, of course):


How To Paint A Water Lily

A green level of lily leaves
Roofs the pond’s chamber and paves

The flies’ furious arena: study
These, the two minds of this lady.

First observe the air’s dragonfly
That eats meat, that bullets by

Or stands in space to take aim;
Others as dangerous comb the hum

Under the trees. There are battle-shouts
And death-cries everywhere hereabouts

But inaudible, so the eyes praise
To see the colours of these flies

Rainbow their arcs, spark, or settle
Cooling like beads of molten metal

Through the spectrum. Think what worse
is the pond-bed’s matter of course;

Prehistoric bedragoned times
Crawl that darkness with Latin names,

Have evolved no improvements there,
Jaws for heads, the set stare,

Ignorant of age as of hour—
Now paint the long-necked lily-flower

Which, deep in both worlds, can be still
As a painting, trembling hardly at all

Though the dragonfly alight,
Whatever horror nudge her root.