Friday, 13 September 2019


TK-Max: Crib for Thomas Kling translations in “zerodrifter”


This is an “extra feature” for readers of the selected poems of Thomas Kling in translation, a book from Shearsman. It is not going to make sense if you haven’t read that book.

The idea of the Kling poems is that you just get thrown into them. However, while preparing a volume of Kling translations for Shearsman Books I had the feeling that the text was tantalising and a back-stop would at least confirm to people that their guesses were right.

Ratinger hof, zb 1
for 'zerhacker', see the introduction to zerodrifter. Reference is to a “zero drift” amplifier.
Ratinger hof, zb 2
Ratinger Hof, zb 3
This was a tribal punk club in Dusseldorf. I thought Kling was there for the music, but I have been told that he wasn’t really a fan of punk.
Berber, Gert. Relating punk visual sense to forgotten figures of the Weimar era is so typical of Kling – the compulsion to recall lost parts of German culture. Images of Ratinger Hof, Berber, Gert easily available on the internet.

käptn brehms verklappung (seestück)/ captain brehm's effluent (marine piece)
focus is on the extinction of animal species, discussed via a famous 19th C work on zoology (Brehm's Tierleben,originally 1864-69). I couldn't build this into the translation, but Ulf Stulterfoht has advised me that “'Käptn Brehms verklappung' is in fact a double cover version of Reinhardt Priessnitz poems, being 'kleine Genesis' (with some 50 times the word 'klappaugen'  these are doll's eyes which can open and close, but also the headlights of sports cars, which you can open and close) and above all the poem 'kapitän sieben strophig'”. Both poems are in “vier und vierzig gedichte”. Ulf suggested that the phrase which I have translated as “liana vulgo avalianche” (liana vulgo lawine) involves an “open and shut” process, where the words reflect each other; and this echoes a process which appears throughout “vier und vierzig gedichte”. Verklappen means “release effluent”, with the implication that it shouldn't have been released, and specifically in the sea; the “klappe” which opens and shuts is the covering which is opened to release toxic sludge from a ship. (same root as ‘klappaugen’.) This is why it is a “marine piece”  because of the association with dumping of waste offshore. Dumping at sea avoids certain legal constraints. The waste could also be spoil from dredging harbours and channels, or sewage, or liquid effluent from factories. The poem mentions the Elbe, and due to the progressive silting-up of the Elbe mouth at Hamburg very large amounts of mud have been dredged up from the Elbe and dumped further out. The 'tunnel' – there are two tunnels under the Elbe at Hamburg. Vulgo must be common in the Zoology, meaning “commonly known as”, so “Cattus cattus vulgo cat”.

hermesbaby, auspizium / Hermesbaby, Auspicium
a birthday poem for Friederike Mayröcker. There is an error in some German editions of the poem, where “70” is incorporated into the title – it was the page number from the original book. It wasn't Mayröcker's 70th birthday. Spickzettel: if you took cribs into an exam, with the answers written on them, they would be called “spickzettel”. (Spicken may mean look. Root spic is also in auspicium.) Mayröcker composed poems out of many short tags which she edited together, and these are the “spickzettel”; they were pinned on the pin-up boards and composed a “reservoir”. Hermes was versatile but may feature here as god of secret wisdom, a Hellenistic Egyptian variant (cf. hermeneutics). Mayröcker is the closest stylistic predecessor to Kling.

direktleitung/ direct connection
focus is a satire on established German writers – nonspecific, a wide variety of them. Sumsemann: a beetle who lost a leg . >>Little Peter's trip to the Moon is a fairytale by Gerdt von Bassewitz. It describes the adventures of the ladybird Herr Sumsemann, who flies to the moon together with the human children Peter und Anneliese, to fetch his lost sixth leg from there.<<


terraingewinne/ territorial gains
focus is less on war in the Middle East than on how it is mediated through (West German) television. We get ‘aphasia’ in line 4 and then a reporter called Paul Broca – Paul Broca did very important work on aphasia in the 19th century, discovering the ‘language area’ in the brain (Broca’s area). (Key paper 1861.)

öffentliche verkehrsmittel/ public transport
Focus is on the narcissism of a director. Setting is a crew getting documentary footage of people in a German city, travelling on public transport but also chasing adventures on foot. The director may only be getting pictures for local TV news, but he thinks he is Stroheim and Eizenshtein (and Buñuel). The “razorblade close-up” is a reference to a celebrated shot by Luis Buñuel, in the first scene of “Un chien Andalou”, which shows a razorblade entering an eye. This is described as “bathing”. NO QUOTATION HERE: I think this is saying that the megalomaniac director momentarily shuts up when faced with a suicide. So a moment of sensitivity is truly amazing. ‘Make the holes fly out of the cheese‘: line from a song (the Blankenese Polonaise) played at Carnival time.

polares piktogramm/polar pictogram
Topographical poem about a stay in Finland. Focus is on cold weather. “Pictogram” is a word used for the figures incised on rocks, a feature of Northern Scandinavia.

petersburger hängun’/ Petersburg hanging style
nost”. Why mention the word nost? I think this is a snatch of conversation and the stimulus was nost' as in glasnost'. “what does nost mean?” Focus is the idea of Petrograd, around 1920, with a generation of brilliant artists not yet decimated by Leninism. “Randhaltung”, someone like Kharms was held down not by being imprisoned but by magazines not taking his work (and a Party monopoly on starting up magazines). Khlebnikov is being ruled out (‘Velimir?/ get out of here’) because he was a Moscow-style writer and not part of the Petersburg arts scene.
Spooled-back glass: there is a word for ‘knocking back a liquid’ which is very similar to this, but the line must mean “action [of drinking] placed on a reel [of film] and endlessly re-run”.

düsseldörfer kölemik/ düsseldorf confidential
focus is the Düsseldorf art scene. West German art was booming in the Eighties as the credibility of New York taste-makers had run out. It has been suggested that the “kö” refers to the Königsallee, a high-end retail street in Düsseldorf. The title could then be “kö + polemik”. I accepted this (after originally thinking it included the name Köln). My impression is that Kling isn't taking sides here, he is just recording snatches of dialogue or behaviour as they flit past him. We go through a series of scenes, ending up in the country, where apparently we have gone to get away from the art scene. Auf der Hardt is near Düsseldorf. One snatch involves drug cops – Schneehund probably means “a cop chasing snow” rather than an Alpine dog. A difficulty is Pöseldorfer longdrinks – Pöseldorf is in Hamburg. And why is “longdrinks” an English word. Maybe “Pöseldorfer longdrinks” means “having long drinks while eating a hamburger”. The idea that people on the Eighties art scene were using cocaine isn't too surprising.

gestümperte synchronisation/slipshod dubbing
focus is embarrassment. The poet is watching a palpably bad film, with out of synch dubbing and visual clichés, but finds he can't tear himself away. The poem ends abruptly because he is embarrassed to be watching such a bad film. It may not be “Attack of the Killer Shrews” but it probably isn't any better than that. Flaggensatz: identification flags of a ship, in this case false colours. The print claims credits which are obviously fake. Possible link with “pirate” video.

zivildienst. Lazarettkopf/ noncombatant service. infirmary head
West German youth could avoid military service by doing civilian service, typically caring jobs in hospitals and so on which nobody really wanted to do. This instance of zivildienst has to do with old people, of an age to remember the Second World War vividly. “dagger and anchor”: presumably a naval tattoo, sagging as the muscles beneath the skin (of the arm?) wither.

(penzinger schreittanz)/ pavane in penzing
Penzing is part of Vienna. The focus is on Reinhard Priessnitz (1945-85), the Viennese avant-garde poet. The poem tells a story of a catastrophe and the emergency service response. I couldn't work out how this related to Priessnitz. Priessnitz wrote a poem which includes his name in anagrams, and “penzinger schreittanz” is a sort of anagram. ABC means “atomic biological and chemical warfare” but could also means “operations involving the alphabet”, which would be a description of Priessnitz's cryptic experimental style. Priessnitz wrote a poem named “beutler” which includes synonyms of his name, viz, heinz paris estin, denis hitz-phrasirer, heinz andre irrpisst, prinz rene isisdraht, dr. erin spatzenhirn. And others. “beutel” seems to mean a “dent” (or bulge), damage to a text.
One of a series of poems about Vienna.

verkehrsfunk/ traffic news
focus is on a seasonal toad migration (to find water) which interrupts a Bank Holiday traffic build-up.

from: tiroltyrol, 23 part landscape photograph; 8
3000er (lawinenlicht)/3000er (avalanche light)
tiroltyrol, 9:
GEMÄLDEGEDICHT, SCHRUNS/Painting Poem, Schruns
two poems from a sequence of 23 about the Tyrol. 8 is about climbing accidents and 9 connects the memorial of an Austrian killed in 1915 and a mediaeval or early modern painting (mural?) showing the dead being despatched either to heaven or hell.

taunusprobe. lehrgang im hessischn/ Taunus sample. course in hessian
focus is a pub in the Taunus area of Hesse and the noise prevailing in it. The “radio certificate” is for using the emergency services channel, and the stress is not on radio technology but on knowing the codes and being skilled enough to communicate tersely and objectively and so forth. It implies volunteering for civil emergency work, possibly mountain search and rescue.

berserkr
setting is Finland and the theme is fly agaric mushrooms. These are connected to the berserkir, who in one far-fetched theory could have used the mushrooms to set off their states of fury. If you eat the mushrooms, you may feel as if you are flying, but the “fly” bit relates to flies – musca in Latin, giving the name amanita muscaria.

knirsch!/ gnash!
This is a greeting to the great Rumanian poet Oskar Pastior. The ‘organisation Toth’ bit probably refers to the film director Andre de Toth, who was one-eyed, so at a guess Pastior and Kling watched a bad print of a de Toth film together. It may have included a shot of the temple at Paestum (de Toth did make one ‘peplum’ film about ancient Rome, “Gold for the Caesars”). ‘Mummers’  German text says “cuckoos” but these are impersonators, so I put “mummers”. ‘Gauch’ does not mean ‘cuckoo’ as in ‘crazy’ but rather an idiot, someone of comic appearance, which certainly fits actors in Italian gladiator films. Organisazzjon Toth – military engineering works in the Second World War were carried out by Organisation Todt (named after the boss, Fritz Todt, and not the word for ‘death’). Todt built the first autobahns, so the jump to the Romans, as great road-builders, is fairly short. The "beams" bit refers to the "beam in your own eye" saying in the Bible, with the implication that much of the film was filmed through de Toth's bad eye. 'flying blind' is presumably where the image on screen vanished altogether.

Historienbild/ history painting
the focus is Czechoslovakia, or just Bohemia. So we get variously religious wars of the 14th century, Heydrich as “Reich protector” getting blown up by Czech commandos, and Soviet tanks driving in to put down the Prague Spring in 1968. This is one of his simplest poems – the themes are less intricated than usual, which gives a glimpse of his method. “History painting” was a genre, the most admired (and expensive) in the 18th century, later acquiring a reputation as pompous and overblown. The word must be satirical, in this context – but the poem is about history.

von inneren minuslandschaften/ of inner minus-landscapes
The setting seems to be a film crew with Kling attached, and travelling through Rumania.

effi b.; deutschsprachiges Polaroid/ effi briest; german-language polaroid
'Effi Briest' is a 19th C German novel by Theodor Fontane about a dissatisfied wife. I didn't like it very much, but everyone has heard of it. The theme of the poem is a flawed marriage.

porträt JB. fuchspelz, humboldtstrom, tomatn/ portrait JB. foxfur, humboldt current, tomatoes
The focus is on enthusiasm for Beuys, a hippy protest specialist. The fox-fur is on the poacher's jacket which the guru/conman/ freak wore.
Kling's school was named after Alexander Humboldt, after whom also the Humboldt Current was named – the word “current” is associated with electricity – so “Humboldt current” means a punishment, a jolt.
Tomatoes and deadly nightshade are both solanums so dayshade (tagschatten) is a poetic way of describing the tomato (to avoid repeating a word). The Friderizianum was (then) the location of the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, the visible face of modern art in West Germany.

di zerstörten. ein gesang./ the destroyed. a song
focus is on the poet's grandfather's reminiscences of the First World War. “88” is the grandfather's age when he spoke to the grandson about it, so the moment of transmission is significant for the poem. That was around 1974. The Putna is a river in the Bukovina, in a district which is now in Rumania but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

ornithologisches zimmer/ ornithological room
two themes – birds outside the room and a woman in the room with the poet. RR would stand for rust-red breast but this is the woman in the room. Pun. she is described as like a bird. So rostrot = RR and is a woman, compared to Emily Bronte. Kühlervogel – woman who likes the wine cooler.

blikk durch geöffnetes garagntor/look through opened garage door
a single moment – a glimpse of a stag carcass, being butchered, as seen by an 11-year old boy.

landschaftsdurchdringun'/ landscapepiercing
theme is the summer.

valkyriur. neuskaldisch/ valkyriur. neo-skaldic
theme is fighter planes crashing somewhere in Europe, on which is superimposed a story about Valkyries.
It has been suggested that “interalt” is a mispronunciation of “hinterhalt”, ambush. The poem describes defects in the manuscript telling of the Valkyries. As winged warriors they are a good match for fighter planes. They come for the pilots because they are about to die. -iur is the Old Norse plural.

autopilot. phrygische arbeit/ autopilot. phrygian ware
A plane is flying over the Middle East. There is a technical problem. In time-honoured fashion, the stewardess resolves the problem by getting the passengers as drunk as possible.

schwarze sylphiden/black sylphs
Theme is Melanesians, photographed by a European, perhaps a century ago.

karner/ ossuary
The setting is the area, or an area, where in the 1st century AD four Roman legions were wiped out by the German barbarians. The German insurrection is compared to an “intifada”. I am not sure about the Ingwäonische Wellentheorie, but I think it might be about a dialect area which included forms ancestral to English, Frisian, and Lower Saxon. (Theodor Frings published some papers relating to “Ingwäonische Welle”.) The “wave theory” might explain how changes disseminating across parts of the area create similarities which are different to ancestral similarities. So, Frisian may look similar to English because the other dialects had shared innovations (which didn’t reach England and Frisia). Tribes living near the Weser would have spoken such a dialect. When a wave of innovations spreads through a dialect region, I think unda is the wave and umbra is the fringe which the wave misses, and which thus becomes conservative or marginal.

-passbild. Sigmar Polke, “the copyist”, 1982 / identity picture/ sigmar polke, the copyist
einpass is a very precise digital equivalent, suitable for security checks. Passbild is a passport photograph. Einpassbild is a made-up word for a “super-accurate picture”. There is a pun on these two words which I could not translate. Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) was one of the West German painters who rode on the Eighties art boom.

stimmschur/ voice fleece
focus is on being in bed making love.

chaldäischer katalog/ chaldaean catalogue
focus is on watching a meteor fall. “Chaldaean” because this people of Mesopotamia (west Semitic language) were associated with astronomy, and after their disappearance as a separate ethnic group the word “Chaldaean” meant “astrologer”. >>The Persians considered this Chaldean societal class to be masters of reading and writing, and especially versed in all forms of incantation, sorcery, witchcraft, and the magical arts. They spoke of astrologists and astronomers as Chaldeans, and it is used with this specific meaning in the Book of Daniel (Dan. i. 4, ii. 2 et seq.) and by classical writers, such as Strabo.<<

dermagraphik (kanaanäisch)/ dermagraphic (canaanite)
dermagraphic” is here as a kind of pun, because it refers to “tattooing” (literal meaning is “writing on skin”). The poet transfers it to skin as a writing medium (parchment, vellum) and the focus is the brilliance of a palaeographer combining fragments of vellum back into a connected form. Canaanite was the language (north-west Semitic) of the inhabitants of Canaan.

kopf, kragn/ necklacing
The subject is the execution of a poor Black in a south African township by setting fire to a tire tied round his neck (“necklacing”). The focus is on the discontinuity between this extreme event and someone in the West watching it on television – specifically, in a bedroom of an Interconti hotel. Display ware: it looks as if the poet is looking at a camera in a glossy magazine (of the kind where retailers near to a hotel advertise luxury goods) and associating this with the footage showing on TV, also from a camera, a hand-held one which shakes. “kein clip im dornbusch”: the countryside is referred to as “thornbush”, taking it that the typical vegetation is a scrub with thorns. “clip” means “advertising clip”, which would look a lot slicker than the footage of a necklacing. These were public events, the ANC wanting everyone to know that they had the power to kill anyone who disobeyed their wishes. This is why it was possible for someone to film the ceremony. The poet is dressing as the film runs, asking whether certain clothes suit the hotel, and putting his trousers on. The lion's paws holding up the bathtub may be a link to an African setting.
The phrase ‘um kopf und kragn’ includes the idea of ‘execution’, which is the subject of the poem, but I couldn’t translate this, sorry. Schreim: this would make better sense if it were (standard German) “schreien”, but the phonology suggests it must have a labial, so should come from “schreiben”. People are often inconsistent when they write down dialect words.

serner, carlsbad
focus is on Walter Serner (1889-c. 1942), a Dadaist from Karlsbad (in Czech, Karlovy Vary). He moved to Zurich (to avoid the war) and was part of the original Dada group. >>He seemed to drop out of sight, lending further credence to the myth that he had become part of the criminal underworld. But he had returned to Czechoslovakia, married his longtime girlfriend from Berlin, Dorothea Herz (also Jewish), and lived the quiet life of a schoolteacher in Prague (first at Revolucni 30 and then Kolkovna 5). The Nazis banned and burned his books once they took power, and when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, Serner and his wife made numerous futile attempts to leave the country for Shanghai. << This is part of Kling's interest in forgotten and marginal figures, which is really an attack on the West German literary establishment as it was around 1980, its investment in forgetting. There is a reference also to Kling's trip to the town aged 15.
>>Becherovka, formerly Karlsbader Becherbitter, is a herbal bitters, often drunk as a digestive aid that is produced in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic by the Jan Becher company. The brand is owned by Pernod Ricard.<<

falknerei/ falconry
simple poem about a kestrel, with an echo of Middle High German lyrics.

quellenkunde/spring lore
quellenkunde” is literally “source analysis”, a pun I couldn't translate. Theme is a holy well (or spring) believed to have healing properties; votives, models of the afflicted part of the body, were left at the spring.

nordkaukasische konsonantn/north caucasian consonants
This is an obscure story, but the focus is a report on clear-felling in this part of the former Soviet Union – of interest to the German media because Germans are terrified of forests disappearing, and importers of timber are suspected of breaching government provisions about only using sustainable timber production. The other theme is the unusual phoneme inventory of a cluster of languages in the Caucasus, which literally the poet cannot pronounce.

Mithraeum. This and “ruma” are from a sequence about Rome. There is a Mithraeum in Rome and I guess the poem is about a visit to this. It is where Mithras was worshipped, and takes the form of an underground shrine. Actually there are seven Mithraea in Rome, according to Wikipedia. One is under the Basilica of San Clemente, and if you search on the internet you can find photographs of it.

ruma. etruskisches alphabet/ ruma. etruscan alphabet
The focus is a “culture history poem” about early Rome. Ruma is Etruscan for “Rome”. Kling had earlier quoted a passage from Theodor Mommsen about the earliest Etruscan writing not being in lines but written in a spiral.

Modefarben 1914/The colours in vogue, 1914
One of 14 poems about the First World War in fernhandel. Blue pills: probably means “bullets”. I struggled with this, but Elie Kedourie quotes a 1917 pamphlet by a Turkish nationalist which refers to “He wanders, armed to the teeth, from village to village, from mountain to mountain, dispensing out his only medicine, those death-dealing blue pills[.]” It is likely that the pills are bullets. (This is certainly what the phrase “blaue bohnen”, also in the poem, means.) I think the colour implies a steel jacket.

Bienen, eine Wespe/ Bees, a Wasp
deals with two patients in a clinic in a forest. Both have dementia. They are called Mnemosyne, memory, because they have lost most memories.

Der Schwarzwald 1932/ The Black Forest, 1932
Describes a family photo album with pictures taken in the Black Forest, 1932. Theme is partly the gap between seeing someone’s face and understanding them, and partly the unreliability of memory. Kling says that a shepherd boy in 1932 is removed from an observer (around 2000) in the same way that an ethnographic photograph does not “deliver” its subject to a Western observer. The poem shows Kling's grandfather and the anecdote that he had read Mein Kampf in 1926 and said, if this man comes to power there will be war in the whole of Europe. This is a moment where the memory of knowing someone, and what they said, can be added to the photograph.

Larven / Ghosts
Eastern New Guinea was a German colony up until the First World War. Focus is elements of Papuan culture being absorbed in Germany. “larva” means “mask” as well as “ghost” in Latin. Masks are a big feature of the culture of Papua New Guinea.

Paläolaryngologie – Alte Kehlen/ Palaeolaryngology. Ancient Throats
Focus is the evolution of language, seen in terms of hunters passing on prey information. Also, the invention of writing, traced back to recording of spatial information (on rocks or cliff faces) and phases of the moon (on bones or antlers). The larynx allows a human or near-human to make hundreds of distinct sounds per minute, as opposed to long calls, roughly one per breath, as other primates do.

Bildprogramme/ Instructions to a Painter
This is about late 15th century humanism and German culture of the time. The first part of “satellite phone” includes the word “Sattel”, which in the Alps means a “saddle” or col, and this sound match inspired the anachronism of giving Pirkheimer a mobile phone, a deliberate shock effect, which people were delighted by, I think. Pirkheimer was a humanist scholar, and close friend of Dürer, who commanded the Nuremberg contingent at the Battle of Chalavaina.
Three themes – a building where an archaeological dig is taking place, the battle of Chalavaina in 1499, another building with murals and texts on scrolls in the murals. Chalavaina was part of the Swiss national myth, as where they beat the Emperor and defended their freedom and independence. To be honest I don’t think Kling is interested in the politics, as he doesn’t identify who the opposing sides are. Maximilian saying “I didn’t want this to happen” is an echo of Franz Josef (allegedly) saying after the outbreak of war in 1914, “Ich hab' es nicht gewollt.” In Karl Kraus' great documentary drama, the war finds God saying “I didn’t want this to happen”.

Pieter Bruegel: Alchemie Headset/ Pieter Brueghel: Alchemy Headset
The Alchemist is a drawing of around 1558 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The theme of the drawing is the complex delusional belief and expenditure of the alchemist's patron or victim, which ends up with bankruptcy. The view through the window is a later episode, the family being led away to the poorhouse.
The headset is because the poem comments on the drawing like the commentaries you hear on headsets as you go round a museum. “gemist” is a pun in the picture, “al ghemist”, where gemist means “dung”. Not a great pun, actually.

Unbekannt/ Unknown
focus is on a single Gothic wood carving of a Madonna with a belly which opens on a hinge to reveal the Holy Infant. This is a simple poem but it helps you to think about Kling's three- or four-strand poems.

Der Similaun. Directors Cut/ The Similaun. Directors Cut
The focus is the end of a Neolithic human, later the mummy later known as Ötzi, which was discovered in a high Alpine valley near the Similaun refuge hut. It had been frozen into the glacier since 3000 BC. He was possibly a shepherd. There is a modern figure called “dr camcorder”, subtitle “director’s cut” serves to put the stress on the act of observation, although we don't see what is different in the director’s cut from any other cut. “sichtzwang” is a key word, referring primarily to the irresistible attraction of the view – we are close to the top of a mountain. It refers, probably, to Celan's word “lichtzwang”, which refers probably to searchlights forcing members of the Maquis to stay hidden. The point with the mountain, for Kling, is not the height but the fact that the view goes on for ever. In 'slipshod dubbing', we had 'sehnot' (urge to see). Freud used the word Schaulust (“scopic drive”) – sounds similar but it is important that Kling does not use the same word. 'Sichtmure' ('a glacial flow of sight') incorporates an Alpine word for “mountain torrent swollen by rain or glacier melt” (cognate with moraine). So ‘releasing mud flow of sight’. The view shoots down the mountainside at the speed that an Alpine stream does.


Bärengesang/ Bear song
The focus is grief for his mother's declining health. The journey back to the Stone Age gives simultaneously a return to childhood and a poetic description of aphasia – via the taboo-words which were studied by Jakobson and Bogatyrev. The taboo on the real word for bear led to a range of cover-words, used in the ceremony, which may also have been the origin of part of the old European poetic vocabulary. Thus Beowulf, the bee-wolf, is a furry forest animal fond of honey and is probably a taboo-word for bear. Rotphase (red phase) is normally about traffic lights, their “red phase”, here is the phase when berries are ripe. The poem ends with a return to heaven. The style is quite like the paintings of A.R. Penck.

Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra/ The sky disc of Nebra
The Nebra disc is really one of the most interesting artifacts from the whole of European prehistory. Check the internet for the story. I didn't translate all the parts of the poem, but the focus is the poet's lung cancer and his expected death. The disc describes the sky and was found buried in the earth – this is a symbol of death and what comes after it.

Amaryllis belladonna L. Linnaeus did propose in 1751 a flower clock where flowers which open at different times of day would tell the time. Belladonna is used as a beauty aid, because it makes eyes open wider – like the opening of the flowers.

Sibylle Hellespontica / Sibyl of the Hellespont

Sibylle Cumaea/ Cumaean Sibyl
Aeneas started from the Hellespont (Troy) and sailed to Cumae in South Italy. He descended into the underworld through an entrance at Cumae – another reference to death. The Sibyls were humans with prophetic gifts, imagined as old women. There were twelve Sibyls, in the legend; Varro (1st C AD) says there were ten, some monk expanded the team to twelve. The oldest version has four.

My thanks to Ulf Stolterfoht, Norbert Lange,and Tony Frazer for clarifying many points which were utterly baffling to me.



Sunday, 9 June 2019


Learning Irish

In a previous blog I wrote about the political history of famine in Ireland as a consequence of colonialism and land hunger. This post is about my personal project of learning the Irish language, with however many defects of skill and indeed of effort.
Sometime in 2016, I decided to attack Irish. I had learnt quite a lot of Scottish Gaelic (since an evening course in 2000) and I had a volume of essays (Cruth na Tire), on landscape in the Gaelic tradition, which was half in Irish and half in Scottish. This was provocative, and I determined to have a go at the Irish chapters, to see if I could read them. It was a difficult weekend. I came out knowing the “rotations” you need to connect Irish words with Scottish ones. I also concluded that I had to learn about 5000 new words in order to read Irish prose comfortably. (That is, very modern Irish – not anything older.)
There is just too much data to learn. But the process is deeply rewarding. I am counting my pupillage in Irish as a protest against Brexit.
Vincent Morley records that few manuscripts were written in Connaught. Why was that? I don't know.
One of the volumes of Maynooth Lectures (Leachtai Cholm Cille) has a piece about sermons which includes some such 19th C texts recorded in English spelling. Apparently the priests were native speakers but their Catholic education had not included literacy in Irish – although they probably knew Latin and English. So they wrote down their sermons in English spelling. This is very like a group of manuscripts from Scotland, where again you could be a native speaker and classically educated but not know how to spell Gaelic words Gaelic-style.
I wanted something lucid in organisation but interesting in content. This led me naturally to academic prose, usually about themes in the culture of the Irish Sea Culture Province, to use a significant phrase which not everyone may recognise. A significant scholar who chooses to write in Irish is likely to be a nationalist – this is just a cultural fact. So this has given me exposure to a range of views which I didn’t encounter while growing up, at the same time as initiating me into aspects of the culture of outer north-west Europe. Donald Meek remarked that the Gaelic world had rarely been studied from a Gaelic point of view – this might push me into an instability where there is no ground beneath my feet, if I reject a “European” point of view without having any knowledge of what I am to replace it with, but calls for a heightened sensibility to the deeper aspects of the regional culture, something going beyond the content of particular texts.
I wish I had the linguistic scope to read the bardic poetry which was so important to the culture of the nobles – but I can’t read this material in Welsh and I don’t see much prospect of me acquiring enough Gaelic to read either the incredibly rich Irish material or the less extensive Scottish equivalent. But memorizing language structures is enough for my purposes. Besides, there are quite a few texts I can access. The key thing is the overall structure of genres – the range of genres in the Gaelic world is quite different from the range in the mainland of western Europe, and this is immensely significant. I can’t reach a conclusion on this without encountering a large range of texts, it is part of the evidence as a whole rather than located in the lines of any single text.
I must say I am finding this process quite difficult. If you teach yourself, you can go down wrong paths. I felt very comfortable reading a novel “for adult learners”, published by the magazine Comhar. I got every part of the page rather than struggling on a ladder of guesses. But I couldn’t find a supply of simple Irish. Anyway, it’s good to read a book full of things you absolutely don’t know and which you find absolutely vital.
Before I got into the language, I read about Roderick O’Flaherty and had a strong image of him as someone who had Classical learning (he wrote in Latin) and yet also had a perfect knowledge of the old Gaelic culture. This struck me as wonderful and I really wanted that lost lore more than I wanted the language, although the language embodies the old Gaelic thing very directly. But when I looked at O’Flaherty’s book “Ogygia” (1684), it was unreadable. He just piled up recounted Classical learning and didn’t answer any questions. This is an example of acquiring a complete misunderstanding – part of the journey if you are entering a genuinely foreign culture. I had to form suppositions about what I was going to learn and because I was self-taught I formed bizarrely wrong ideas. But the Gaelic world has mainly been recorded through the filter of bizarre fantasies and distortions, that is the typical approach of someone travelling in from “inner north-west Europe” and most of the books you can get embody such distortions. So observing them in formation is very instructive. I don’t think you have anyone who observed the classical Gaelic world from an analytical viewpoint – by the time you had rational scholarship being brought to bear, all that is left is folk culture, and this isn’t what produced the myth-tales and the bardic poetry. I may be wrong about this. There was a terrific learned endeavour, say from 1580 to 1700, which recorded a great deal of the old knowledge. But it wasn’t asking questions or interpreting the material – it was part of the Counter-Reformation and it was confined inside theology and a deeply conservative learning. It captured the records about saints’ lives incredibly thoroughly, and the collation of Annals and so on was partly to get secure dates for the saints. Those people just weren’t asking “why is Ireland different from the rest of Europe” or “how was political power acquired and transmitted in Ireland”. Bernadette Cunningham quotes William Camden, saying in 1615 “if you take out of history why, how, and to what end, and what is done, and whether the actions answer the intents, that that remains is rather a mocking than an instruction, and for the present may please but will never profit posterity”(p.32); she does not spell this out, but in effect this defines what the traditional Irish historians, and even the large-scale works of the Counter-Reformation, did not do. It is quite easy studying the history of Ireland after the Tudor conquest (An Concas), but very difficult finding out how the traditional society worked. You have terrific stories, about saints and heroes or both together, but not political history the way Thucydides or Tacitus wrote it. Of course, this question-asking history is not typical of the West, even if it has taken over since 1600 or so.
Ireland did not have coins before the Danes arrived, and gave them up again after the Danes were defeated. It is very difficult to reconstruct how a society works without money, and it was certainly very different from what we know about. Pre-Norman Wales may also have been largely a non-monetary economy. Anyway, it’s no good thinking that 18th century Ireland was like that older Ireland, or that the knowledge of thinking Irish people then, however nationalistic they were, gave them or us access to the older society.
You may very well say, with Seamas O Siochain (Cultur agus an Stat), that anthropology is good with societies which operate without money or the State, and so would be good with pre-Norman Ireland. But anthropology is based on fieldwork, and no anthropologists studied Ireland before the 20th century. So the proposition is that “anthropologists have generalisations so powerful that they can give results with no fieldwork, and exploiting textual analysis and a bit of archaeology”. This isn’t convincing. I enjoyed reading O Siochain’s 1982 lecture (in Leachtai Cholm Cille volume 13) but it has limited concrete results. It is very interesting on a 12th C text, Senchus fer n-Alban, which is actually Scottish. There are zero Irish texts of this type and only one Scottish one. Unfortunately, this suggests that a very exciting method is going to run out of suitable evidence too quickly. The Senchus is a written document spelling out how the State (the Kingdom of the Isles) works in obligatory naval levies to fight off foreigners (probably the Norwegians). It is rare because Gaelic polities didn’t use written administration (and arguably weren’t states). It is obviously unsafe to generalise from it to kingdoms without chanceries and clerks. In some cases we know about, money arrived because states wanted a way of storing wealth and made people pay taxes in cash (rather than perishables such as flour). So perhaps Irish ‘petty kingdoms’ were politically weak and that is why they didn’t bring money into use. OK. I don’t see any way you could prove that. And, why was money not part of their political strategy but was part of the strategy of kingdoms in Southern England a century before the Romans came?
I was fascinated by the presence, in what may be the earliest piece of Irish prose (the ‘Cambrai Homily’, 7th C) of colour symbolism: the figure in which martyrdom can be either red, white, or green. This has been treated as something deeply Irish. But the figure is already present in a third-century (in the 250s) Latin tract by Saint Cyprian of Carthage. (This is discussed in Robin Lane Fox’s 1986 book Pagans and Christians, and the figure was also used by Saint Jerome.) The figure can’t be Irish, and the earliest written texts anywhere are likely to reflect the dependence of the literate minority on their patrons in the culture from which their knowledge of writing came. The idea of colour symbolism is good for teaching an audience of the uneducated, and evidently came from the Mediterranean milieu of early Christianity, and connects with the thinking which used colours to mark the robes of various grades of priest. But it may have become part of the Gaelic tradition, and been productive. Still, if Christian texts have deep structures, they presumably record the unconscious of the 3rd or 4th C Mediterranean, not of Ireland.
Something else which I was very curious about was the “revisionist” debate, between professional Irish historians, which began in the 1970s (and may be over now). (One version is that revisionism itself began in the 1930s, but that real arguments began after the start of the Troubles in about 1969.) The most radical essay in revision was perhaps a 1966 one by Fr Francis Shaw, SJ, on the legends of Easter 1916. This is a good way in for an outsider, because the experts disagree so much and there has been an explicit debate, citing evidence which you can study. The argument has mainly been about the period since the eighteenth century; so far as I can tell, there has been no argument about the period before the Norman conquest (of the 1180s). This is the most puzzling period, but I think it is hard to write about because the evidence is so thin and because it is so stylised. I found this period so frustrating when I was a student in 1977, and the only progress I can recall is shifting that frustration into a sort of awareness of a horizon where awareness ends.
Let me cheer myself up by thinking about a passage in St Cogitosus’ Life of St Brigid (analysed by O Siochain) which describes the building of a road where the route was divided up into stretches and different political groups (the text says “relatives and families”) supplied the work on particular stretches. This is a fascinating moment, as it is an “explanatory structure” which has been taken from an Irish text (of the 7th century) and applied to explain how “public works” were created in prehistory in other European countries. So archaeologists have looked at “causewayed enclosures” in England and found that different parts were worked in different ways – which they attribute to the participation of different tribes, competing or contributing to a “union” project.
I have a commemorative issue of the magazine Comhar for their record from 1942-82, something I can read reasonably well because journalists do write clearly and the issues they write about are stimulating. They reproduce pages from past issues (1982 was still the era of paste-up and photolithography) and the early ones still use the Gaelic letter forms (gaelach), which I can’t really read. Then in about 1949 they shift wholly to romanach, the usual European letter forms. Quite a big shift – one surely with pragmatic advantages. All the letters come from manuscript forms of the Roman alphabet, deviations don’t have much historical or orthographic force. I believe the print letters we use now come from a Florentine manuscript hand of the 15th century. All European countries which use the Latin alphabet now use those letter shapes. It is not very plausible to persist with a provincial variant. This isn’t a specifically Irish problem, for example the Gothic letters, or Fraktur, were used in 19th C Germany and revived by the Third Reich. Indeed, that rather aggressive revival may have influenced the Irish shift to a European (Florentine?) model. Scandinavian countries used a Gothic typeface up to some point and then abandoned it, I don’t have details on this. I don’t have information on the older Dutch and Flemish printing practices. Anyway, the Irish revivalists (athbeochan is the keyword) were not eccentric in putting a regional manuscript hand into print, but they were surely forward-looking when they switched typefaces. (Wikipedia tells me that English printers went on using blackletter, which is like Fraktur, until about 1590. You can probably find blackletter in the fonts available in your word processing programme. Wiki also says “It continued to be used for the Danish language until 1875, and for German, Estonian and Latvian until the 20th century.”) The Irish Text Society had antiquarian interests and printed its magnificent text series in the gaelach typeface. However, the short texts published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) use the European typeface, and these are a lot more accessible for learners.
I am asking the question “what language am I learning? where did this standard form come from?”, and this is revealing, although I certainly can't give a comprehensive answer. I believe that the texts printed in the first two decades of the 20th century used a basically 17th century standard of spelling, close in fact to Geoffrey Keating (in his work Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, finished around 1640). A reform then threw out a large number of non-pronounced letters, mainly intervocalic spirants. This produced something much more real and natural, but accentuated differences from Scottish Gaelic (which still uses such spirants in certain situations). Language building involves taking firm decisions, and some kind of centralised and authoritative body or bodies which can make those decisions uniform and valid. Once Irish stopped being “a language without a State”, it became part of the State.

I am wondering if the "hedge schools" taught pupils to write Latin but not Irish. That would suit the childhood years of future priests, who would go to a continental seminary and there speak Latin as an everyday language. In certain ways, the Middle Ages lasted until the 19th century in traditional Ireland. Scribes copy manuscripts because the printing press is not available. So the best pupils could become either priests or teachers in hedge-schools. But this conjecture is hard to confirm, after all the records of those schools are scanty. When did Catholic schools become legal? around the same time as the foundation of the college at Maynooth, in 1795? I guess literate Gaels had limited knowledge, but also had certain social power because everyone else was illiterate.

Addendum. The genealogist Dubhaltach mac Fhirbisigh recorded a political generalisation which belongs with "question asking" and is an exception to generalisations about the old Gaelic learning. It dates from sometime in the mid 17th century (in a book whose first version he completed in 1650) and states "It is customary for great lords that, when their families and kindreds multiply, their clients and their followers are oppressed, injured and wasted."