Wednesday, 18 May 2011

comments on my own poems 3 (Savage Survivals)

Schemas for poems

This post contains comments on 'Savage Survivals' and 'Alien Skies'.

The “schema” for the book was to avoid autobiography (again), otherwise it was just to be frivolous in comparison with “The Imaginary in Geometry”. The title comes from an already existing book, I believe one produced by the Rationalist Association in about the 1930s. I liked the phrase without wanting it to mean very much.

Acoustic Shock
A harbour at West Bay in Dorset destroyed by a storm circa 1964. the soft wrapping of the tender membranes is a quote from the ‘Chaldaean Oracles”, where the throat of someone gives an oracle, aulos meaning ‘flute’. Qualmwasser water pushed at high pressure through cracks in a dam, in a description of a dam that I read. The holes in the earthen dam were made by a kind of mouse. frame capture: the process is dynamic but if you look at it frame by frame it starts to make sense.

The Border Hills
A flight to Edinburgh and memories of walking through the Border Hills.
Malt Shovel: my supervisor, Paul Beard, gave me a list of pubs to go to in Edinburgh. “Eighty Shilling” is a grade of beer, “ninety shilling” is so rare you can’t find it.

Weapons Form With Music There is a 13th century Chinese novel called The Water Margins, of which I am very fond. Mr Brian Holton translated it into Scots. This seemed like a good opportunity to write about Chinese outlaws in Scotland. Figures from Patrick Walker’s Biographia Presbyteriana also appear. I also used some martial arts magazines.
‘bring me an ink tablet’
‘Blue sword in white hand’
5 Elements Ninja
‘heroes in a bar’
Scathach and the Striped Ones
‘we turned the jingling horses’ heads for home’
‘a poofy bar’
‘From zenith to pupil’
In Caledonia Dysarta
The Hand of Claverhouse
Cum furca et fovea
weapons form with invective
drownings at Wigtown
land and lordship with Ronnie Laing
the reconstruction of the Crane Dance
Nomos and daily forms
a plethora of Chinese wood-kerns
Bodiless forms of the Internal Arts canon
At Castle Sweeney

Cum furca et fovea ‘with gallows and pit’. A legal term describing the powers of landlords as local officials. Executions of women were carried out by drowning, hence the ‘pit’.
‘Weapons form with music’ is a phrase from a martial arts magazine. The ‘form’ is a sequence of exercises, ‘weapons form’ when carried out with a weapon.
Scathach ran a kind of martial arts academy at which Gaelic heroes trained in Old Irish tales, or specifically Cu Chulainn in The Tain.
In Caledonia dysarta Latin ‘desertum’ becomes ‘diseart’ in Gaelic, and was applied to the ‘deserts’ where hermits lived. Hence the place-name ‘Dysart’. Being in Scotland, they were wet. I am comparing them to the ‘water margins’.

Ghost Technology: Extreme Computing Fair
Describes an idealised research engineer, the kind of person who might have been attending the Extreme Computing Fair. I wrote most of the poem while wandering through the fair, with some additions afterwards. The ‘Orion Project’ was one in the early Sixties for a nuclear-powered spacecraft, on which the physicist Freeman Dyson worked - who was at the Extreme Computing Fair. ex situ: out of (original) position. Acephalous: headless, so a pattern with meaning distributed all over it. “receding in a dapple with a clock pulse”: so, it comes and goes. confusing a simple R/C timer and a ceramic resonator clock!: R/c is ‘radio clock’. These are electronic components.
the Burgess Shale of electronics: the Burgess Shale was a site in Canada which had fabulous anomalous fossils as described by Stephen Jay Gould, part of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’, so the prototypes are the beginnings of multiple technical lines that stopped after one prototype. Red Galaxy videos: archetypal ‘hard’ science fiction, these films have apparently disappeared altogether. They were shown at the Scala during the 1980s. We are trudging through the 1950s: I found an evocative story in New Scientist which I ‘mixed-in’ to the main story about the Extreme Computing Fair, so the next 23 lines describe a techy kid in 1959 buying military surplus parts to build telescopes from. It is still about people building their own equipment from components up. Cut and strap: to modify a printed circuit board (to make it do what you want). Joshua Logan directed the film of ‘South Pacific’, with its avant-garde colour effects. The last eleven lines describe a nuclear test in the Pacific breaking a shelf of Martini glasses, I can’t remember where this came from.

My copy says Ghost Technology part 2, I think part 1 was “The Spirit Mover, Roger Spear”.

Swimming in Spirals
The observation that frogs, carried into outer space as an experiment, swam in pure spirals, suggested that their normal courses were influenced by gravity. This inspired the notion that they could be used to detect gravity and hence the presence of nearby masses, as a navigation aid. The poem describes a spaceship with frogs in floating tanks.
Because it is about gravity I think this was written as part of ‘Alien Skies’ and dates from about 1987.

Blauer Reiter at Ducketts Common
There was a Turkish festival on Ducketts Common, near Turnpike Lane in North London, with a poster which I stole by taking it off a wall. The poster shows the painted leather puppet Karagöz, who appears in the poem. I thought the style was like some paintings in Central Asian tombs, but Luci disagreed. The poem also records the end of a depression where I couldn’t think. ‘Blauer Reiter’ just because of his blue tunic. Somewhere between Turnpike Lane ABC and the New River?: The ABC was a cinema where the bus station is now, and the New River was dug to carry drinking water to London, is still there.

This deals with the build-up to the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, and with a figure known as Andy the German, who was head of security at a camp called Elohim City Compound, and is said to have been working for the German guard of the constitution, which wanted to prevent neo-Nazi propaganda from being printed in Oklahoma and distributed in Germany. The poem starts with people who reject the mainstream media but have limited education. After rejection, they then succumb to ideas and news streams which are even more warped than the mainstream media. This is sad. Much of the information in the poem is untrue - it is the “conspiracy theory” junk which such people believe, and which Tim McVeigh believed. The poem puts forward a conspiracy theory which I do not believe in. I wanted to reproduce the language which a member of “Christian Identity” might use, and I used the style of radio ads as the basis for the poem.

Needwood and Charnwood
A “national forest” is being grown, linking the two ancient forests of Needwood and Charnwood. It starts about 3 miles from the house where I grew up. Much of the area to be covered is poisoned ground, the site of old industrial enterprises, to be healed by the trees.

Mainadik Scholia
Some friends of mine had a project for filming The Bacchae, for which I was to provide a new translation of the Greek text. The project fell through due to an excess of ideas, but we had focussed intensely on it and I wanted to recover something from the deserted site. Oreibasia: going to the mountains.

Precipice of Niches
I think this developed from a phrase by the East German painter Gerhard Altenbourg, “ich-Gestein”. This means something like “the I-mineral”. I was thinking of the ego fused with the soil, soaking up information from the geology. This became “data-fish”.
In the poem, you have four examples of a ‘honeycomb of niches’, starting with an ego as ‘data fish’, then a reef which is very irregular and rich in fish, then a sort of ‘ballistic niche’, a set of circumstances which allowed some dust to move away from the sun and coagulate into a planet, then a partially imaginary culture which has many niches. But the end of the poem starts to mix them all together. The “x-zone” features in one theory of the origin of planets, where the “x zone” is one where material whirling round the sun is thrown off rather than falling back in. The “x-wind” is not made of air but of particles, thus slung into space. ‘Chondrule insets’ are nodules of metal in meteorites, whose make-up records the temperature of the zone where the inset was formed.
The bit about ‘ibex’ is drawn from information about the Sabaean culture in the Yemen. This is a culture I know nothing about, and the poem is about ‘an imaginary culture which we know nothing about’, but which we can enter in imagination, and which is rich in niches.
The ‘Moors in Hell’ bay came from a novel by Norman Lewis.
‘Precipice of Fishes’ was a poem by Eric Mottram about Tenby (literal translation of Welsh name, “Dinbych-y-pysgod”).

Photographing the Ideal
Describes someone attempting to take film of England in about 1942, under the aegis of Jack Beddington, who controlled all stocks of film and had specific ideas about how England was supposed to look. The poem is about making ideology visible. This belongs with the research on Stephen Tallents used in ‘Anglophilia, a romance of the docks’. “We spend the afternoon asking the ash tree to look like itself”. Those Shell posters: Beddington had been head of advertising for Shell and explored a vision of Beautiful England which could be adapted as wartime propaganda.

Vertical Features Remake
The speaker is the pilot of a plane taking aerial photographs of a part of England, for archaeological reconnaissance. on a looted table with back-lighting: the individual exposures have to be joined up to recover complete landscapes.

The star temple of Sumatar Harabesi
Aby Warburg proved in 1912 that the frescoes of the Months in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara are based on the ‘decans’ in Picatrix, an astrological work written in Arabic by moon-worshippers from Harran in Syria. 36 decans of 10 days make up the year (and each has a ‘star-demon’). The frescoes were painted around 1470. In 1963 J.B. Segal visited the remains of a star-temple, with seven buildings for the seven planets, near Harran - at Sumatar Harabesi. This is in the Tektek mountains about 100 kilometres south-east of Urfa and 40-50 kilometers north-east of Harran. The site is in what is now Turkey but the inscriptions there are in Syriac so we would call it “Syria”.
The poem describes Schifanoia and the temple, and is about making ideology visible. Segal has now withdrawn this identification. ‘Schifanoia’ means ‘shunning boredom’, a place of courtly diversion; it was in use as a tobacco factory when someone realised that there were frescoes concealed beneath plaster - or partly in heaps on the floor. triplice strisciata pittorica is something like ‘triple pictorial strip’, or stripe. At some point I describe the cells of the unborn child being struck by rays of celestial influence. These are somehow like the flakes of pigment on the floor.
Rhoizos is a Greek word for the ‘sound’ that the stars make in turning, in the Neo-Platonic concept. Since stars don’t make a sound there is no English word for this. Shakespeare has “the whizz of meteors”. Whizz and rhoizos sound as if they might be related, but I don’t think they are.
Frances A Yates worked at the Warburg Institute and I was very taken with her books, like other people I suppose. Picatrix (or Ghayat al-Hakim) is a work of great importance in the introduction of Neo-Platonist and astrological ideas to western Europe. As Yates pointed out, Campanella and Bruno are dependent on it. The text claims to come from Harran, however Ronald Hutton has collected evidence making it more likely that this Arabic text was written in 11th century Spain. Like most occult books, it includes a false attribution of authorship! There was a fabula that the Harranites were great masters of magic. This may be the source of the Western occult tradition, or it may be a “cover story” for knowledge of other and more recent origin.
Coincidentally, Peter Manson published a pamphlet ‘Birth Windows’, with a poem which is also about the Palazzo Schifanoia.

Altyn-Dagh is a made-up name, ‘gold mountain’ in Turkish. The nucleus of the poem is the idea of the undifferentiated as the precursor of all forms - the centre in the sense of being equally close to everything. In Chinese colour symbolism, gold is the colour of the centre. There are mountains called ‘golden’ - the Altai - in Central Asia. I was interested in the idea of a place where Chinese, European, Iranian, and Siberian cultures touched, and of a language equally close to the languages of all those places. The ‘nothing’ can only survive until it becomes a ‘something’. The poem shows a child coming from the central mountain and wandering through the different cultures in the different directions. Following the story told in a poem called ‘The Pearl’ (or ‘the Hymn of the Soul’), he longs to return to his home, and finally does, dissolving into featureless gleaming, sunlight before it touches the earth.
Arche-syllable: the basic design of a syllable, schema underlying everything that is a syllable. Roshnan means ‘creatures of light’, i.e. ‘humans’, in Parthian Manichaean texts. What fell east became Chinese: if you move in any direction from the ‘absolute centre’ you acquire the features of a local culture. I was also interested in the idea of languages evolving back towards a primeval language, at least in a kind of geometrical transform. Spell for the decoying of a soul into a child: the child is taught the local culture but still has a yearning for the Pure Centre and so goes on wandering. This part repeats a tune from ‘A Virtuality/ Cyclical Polygons’.

What country is this? / how many milliseconds split one sound from another?: repeats the questions in the epigraph to the book. he ejected what he’d learnt.: he is disquiet and wanders away to another part of the world. royal luck, khvarenah: ‘royal luck’ is a gloss for khvarenah. This word also appears in ‘Three Graves’. Source is RN Frye’s The Heritage of Persia. Amita Dimita Trimita ... from a list of types of silk taken from some history of textiles. Exarentasmata, I just liked the sound of the word. Just possibly these words record names from an Asian language closer to the source of the silk. the original pearl that fell: the pearl plays a role in Manichaean texts as the soul ‘fallen’ into the body. In part 4 he goes to Europe. from piandj to pyat’ to five to pump: word for ‘five’ in various Indo-European languages, related, which is why “a sound that was heard in the Pamirs” is still heard in Europe. The languages are, roughly, Sogdian, Russian, English, Welsh. The mountains of languages: mountainous areas can preserve an extraordinary variety of old and rare languages, due to bad communications. Examples are the Pamirs and the Caucasus.
going up where the birds from the Green Sea go: a phrase from Sohravardi. To be honest I am not sure what this implies, but it is beautiful. By fires they sing a lullaby: here culture is seen as a series of tricks to lure the soul into the body of a child.
Where the marmot makes every call twice: it is a bi-lingual zone, the marmot has to say everything twice. Four red parts of the world: a phrase in a Gaelic folk-tale (in Rosg Gaidhlig). I have no idea why the adjective “red” appears in this phrase. Rowed sheep out to the grass of the summer isles; grazing sheep on islands is a feature in Norway and the Hebrides. I guess we have got to Western Scotland by this time.

Tunes for the acquisition of a body: this resembles a theme in ‘Wonders of classification’. Lines in part 8 come from a poem named ‘The Pearl’, which appears in the apocryphal ‘Gospel of Thomas’. This was identified as Manichaean, but it seems rather that Mani was very much influenced by Christian writing of the town he came from, Edessa, and that the poem is Christian but woven from the same “image-complexes” that Mani used. (More about this in my book Council of Heresy.) The poem was beloved by GRS Mead and was used extensively by Eric Mottram in ‘Peace Projects Four’.

The Twelve Days
The poem is based on the argument of Dumezil’s Le mythe des Centaures, in which the twelve days of Christmas were seen, by the Indo-Europeans or some descendant group, as days of chaos, a primal time, where everything reverts back to formlessness. Each day foretells the course of one month of the New Year. The universe is remade, within that time, by a group with the attributes of sovereignty, who play music; they have the forms of animals, and are associated with winter storms. Centaurs are a variety of these creatures, with whom hobby-horses, tricks, and the casting of lots are associated.

Acallamh Answers Without the Questions
This is an old Irish genre in which one voice poses questions and another answers them. I thought to remove the questions. The reader has to decide what they were. We have 37 answers. This is a tribute to the Informationist poets. In modern Gaelic, ‘acallamh’ means ‘interview’. The questions could be 37 words that exist in Scots but for which there is no English equivalent. Carberry Cat-head was a figure in old Irish legend, I don’t know why “cat-head”. The Cowlairs Chord is a stretch of railway track in Glasgow.

Bob Cob Bing Bong
Bob Cobbing was a ‘sound poet’ whose sound filled me with fear and loathing. His ‘photocopier art’ was not half so bad. This poem uses ‘visual’ and ‘sound’ forms, as is appropriate for the subject. ‘Jackie Leroux watch your Ps and Qs’ comes from some American song, probably from New Orleans, I can’t remember.
Bob used to scrumple up pieces of paper, put them through the photocopier, and then put the output through again. A lot of the image had no white, was pure dark, and so rich in carbon. This is “paper wraps coal and splits”, those seven lines are about the photocopies.

Visualizing Corporate Structure
I used to work as a project planner, which meant putting abstract relations into graphical form for managers to understand. When I saw illustrations of microscopic fauna called radiolaria, with an infinite vocabulary of forms, I saw it as a possibility for explaining how industry works. The poem has me walking a manager round the site trying to explain what happens there. “test” is a hard shell. Khrien: glossed in the previous as “sets of actions”. A German word from Greek for “necessary actions”, effective actions that you spend your working days carrying out. Asphradium: an organ of the micro-organisms. Malacologists: students of molluscs.
‘An exponent of less than one’ means “negative growth”, or business failure to put it bluntly.

Rhythmic Blind Spot
Based on a film I saw at the Natural History Museum of a mongoose killing a scorpion. The mongoose does not pounce without preparation, but moves rhythmically, the scorpion prepares to sting each time but is unable to predict the mongoose’s moves, so finally the mongoose finds a gap and jumps on it.

Poems unwritten, in faint exhaustion, one Sunday night
The Dressmaker
*Burning a Church

Listed but I don’t think this was ever finished.

*The Influencing Machine
Listed but I don’t think this was ever finished.

The First Household
Describes the design of the first household ever, the one from which all others are derived.
*Topic Ode to Camden
Listed but I don’t think this was ever finished.

Self-reproducing Programs, Property Regimes
*The Pageant

Something I was working on during ‘Savage Survivals’ but which was set aside so that I could finish the other poems. It was specifically a pageant in 1945 or 1946, the war was won and it was about post-war optimism.

I had a scheme for a ‘monument to the Empire’ which would express an unpatriotic view of the process. This was never completed and I can’t remember publishing any bits of it. This almost certainly started with an exhibition by Tony Cragg in the Barbican circa 1990 which included a very elaborate bronze casting showing a machine gun in all technical details, cartridge belt, long barrel, etc. The gunner was Mickey Mouse. I kept coming back to this project over several years but never finished it. I think the problem was that I was imagining a building complex, in three dimensions, and the poem could never be that.

The Whole History of Heresy
This has three elements composed in an ABC structure. So, one is the Gnostic heresy, two is Presbyterian preachers in the time of persecution in the late 17th century, three is the world of Underground poetry. Each one is excluded from the centres of power and goes to ground among the common people. the house of rain: outdoors.

The Whole History of Shopping
Never finished and not included in the published volume.

From the kitchen floor (Prometheus creating mankind)
This was published as a pamphlet by Ulli Freer in about 1992. It is a creation myth, which is a familiar genre I suppose. There was a sarcophagus in Naples which showed “Prometheus creating mankind”, I couldn’t follow the iconography. In the texts Prometheus does not create mankind, but the reality of myth was a huge scatter and the versions on vases and so on are often different from all the texts we have. There are more parts than went into the pamphlet, it was an instalment. “The First Household” is part of this material, which was never completed.

In High Places
Can’t remember where this was published.
Gavrilo Princip
Published in ‘Ten British Poets’ around 1993.

There is no more society (published in 13 Wasted Years)
Alan Land
The Gram
(published by Kelvin as a pamphlet)

Alien Skies
“The starting point was dreaming about spaceships and listening to jazz drumming. The discovery that in Welsh caeth, the term for strict metre, also means captive, led to the realization that the surrender of strict metre was equivalent to the escape from gravity implied by leaving terrestrial space. Hardly less obvious was the entrance of the heretic, Mani, whose death crushed by the weight of chains set up the opponent values of gravity and light-which he regarded as the soul substance. This dependence of emotional states on arriving radiance is discussed in terms of the physiology of an English reptile: the viper, which is in a kind of metabolic shutdown for nine months of the year. The wish for exit led to an investigation of substances -disputably or really-infalling from outside the sparse terrestrial rim: meteorites, cosmic rays, proton winds, daylight, gravity waves, omens, natal influences. The fleeting presence of the 17th century Jesuit poet Jacob Balde is called up by the poet’s being felled by sunstroke, toccado, while searching for an Oscan inscription in Pompeii in 1987. The correlation of temporary insanity, minerals, and stars is investigated via anomalies reported in Derbyshire in the 1640s.
The concept called for a poem consisting of a ring of metaphors, each one repeating the other, the whole blazing a kind of exit path, a track in thin air.
Early plans for issuing the poem scratched on plaques of burnished meteoric iron have not yet been realized. It is only available on paper.”

I can’t quite remember the dates for this, but circa 1987-92. There were two projects in parallel which in the end became ‘Alien Skies’ and ‘Surveillance and Compliance”. A lot of Alien Skies was produced by improvisation, I had the themes but the poems were written spontaneously and I went with whatever came out. This process does not leave a memory but I can identify the themes. The pamphlet series had a fixed length so I think there are poems in my copy that are not in the published version. This was my third book to be published, not the third I wrote.

The five bonds which are the Five Senses: we are held captive by the senses according to Manichaean doctrine.
You shall put on a radiant garment : I think this line comes from the poem ‘The Pearl’. I worked on a translation (adapting the English translation by AA Bevan) around this time, maybe 1990. But it crops up in other poems I wrote ten years later. And then in Eric Mottram’s ‘Peace Projects 4’ when I tried to write a commentary on that.
Caeth: this means ‘captive’ in Welsh but also refers to “strict” as in “strict metres”.
The Scanner: monologue by an electronic apparatus that is waiting to detect very specific signals.
The third part of your brain, do you know where it is?: fragment of found dialogue used on a Cabaret Voltaire record. At some point I found where it came from - an episode of ‘The Outer Limits’ named ‘The demon with the glass hand’. I think the answer is “Wrapped around the solenoid in my central body cavity.” Ingrettus os ventremque creter: quote from Jacob Balde’s ‘Poesis osca’, meaning something like “mouth fattened and belly filled”. Oscan, not Latin.
Novena formosarum mulierum: means “a group of nine beautiful women’, the Muses. Taken from some Latin texts I had, possibly 16th century. This might be Marsilio Ficino. The poem is largely a hymn to the sun (Apollo, leader of the Muses) and ‘Alien skies’ as a whole is about the radiation from stars.
Pierides: the Muses.
Leichhardt: German explorer who died on an expedition in Australia. He appears here because he was a botanist carrying seeds, the radiation of plants being one of the themes. Mendes went to the Tatar city of death: a story in the Portuguese ‘Tragic history of the sea’
The fallen stone: Balde’s foreword to his poem tells of finding a stone deep in the earth on which his poem was inscribed. the Woolwich chemical fuel experiments in ‘43: i have no specific memory of this, but the “chemical fuel” bit implies a rocket experiment with solid fuels. Vibrations, essentially sound waves, hence the “surface of sound”, tended to extinguish these fuels, and this was an obstacle in developing rockets.
asp.rez: glossed inside the poem as ’racetrack’, Iranian roots meaning ‘horse, run’. And the wolf under the Elburz breaks its chains: part of an apocalyptic myth, the end of the world. We (who are created by dry lands: dry conditions are suited to a nomadic way of life, the “we” is a nomadic group on an archetypal campaign of conquest.
The Star Catalogue of Ulugh Beg: Ulugh was a central Asian Moghul and astronomer. There are amazing photographs of his giant marble observing installations. Steve Sneyd also wrote a poem about Ulugh Beg, much to my surprise. Geomancers: ‘divining [truth] from the earth’, semi-magical landscape experts. This may be related to “the star temple at Sumatar Harabesi”, self-imitation.
IRIDIUM: iridium is formed by molten fragments (called ‘tektites) shot up from a meteorite impact, which cool and become hard as they fall back to earth. They are glassy and so like mirrors. This relates to a specific iridium pebble which I bought from a stone shop to help with the poem. I could not acquire something of extraterrestrial origin, but this was as close as I could get. If the iridium is made of the substance of the meteorite, it actually is of extraterrestrial origin.
Goddard drilled to find a buried star: Robert Goddard, looking for a giant meteor.
Time is liquid [...] in the body of the Great Bear: various peoples saw the bear, which grows fat and then thin, waxing and waning, as symbol of Time, and a star that waxes and wanes as a bear-star. influencing machines: machines that control behaviour, as devised by a patient of the Croat psychoanalyst Victor Tausk (as described in an amazing essay by Tausk). But they are just machines that influence people, in the poem. An otolith turns towards concentrations of mass.: otoliths are free stones in the ears of certain animals that can tumble, and form a “gravity organ”. I think this theme relates to a poem ‘Swimming in Spirals” that was probably originally part of ‘Alien Skies’. zenith gun: ‘zenitka’ in Russian is an anti-aircraft gun.
AT THE GLASS FELLS: the ‘glasvaellir’ or ‘glass fells’ are the place of immortality in Norse myth. Not the only place, but they feature in some texts I found. The name has also been translated as “bright plains” but I see it as “glass”. There is a fairy-tale in which the protagonists have to cross mountains made of glass, and I see these as a symbol of death. The poem is then about how to survive death, also transcending gravity.
Domhnall Astjolf Alparslan. Three who surpassed death: just three random names for three heroes on an adventure. Three is the usual number. Trees of the hawk’s perch: the with addresses them in ridding language as befits her profession. The phrase is a Norse kenning and simply means “men”, perhaps also “distinguished men”. The hawk perches in the man’s hand and the hand grows on a man. Odainsakr: ‘field of the undying’. Heafodbeag: head, bow. A crown, viz. a ring that goes around the head. Nos vieilles pellicules aux sels d’argent.: line from an advertisement for film. Means “our old films with their silver salts”. But ‘pellicules’ also means ‘fine skins’.

Friday, 6 May 2011

More on 'Council of heresy'

More on “Council of Heresy”.

Note. One of the basic arguments in ‘Council of Heresy’ was that ignoring the background of ideas used by poets in poems was a way of reaching false understandings of the poems - the false opinions amounting to heresy. So, much of the book is an exposition of various ideas significant in this background. One area was the line of poetry (not the thickest line in the whole picture, to be sure) which was, in the wake of Blake and Yeats, involved in the teachings of Western occultism. Thus the book gives a commentary on Kathleen Raine in the light of what Raine believed. This note follows up what I said in the book.

The book Picatrix was, as Frances A.Yates has demonstrated, quite fundamental to the Western occultist tradition. Its internal attribution to the Sabians of Harran in Syria has been challenged recently. In the new version, scholars think the link to the Sabians is a mere fable, as they were legendary for their occult knowledge and their astronomy.

There is some kind of link between the academy at Harran and the theological & speculative creativity of Edessa, thirty miles away. Both partook of a sociology which was productive of intellectual creativity. Other centres were knocked out by various military disasters, and there was presumably a “Syrian moment” when this area (Edessa, Harran, Nisibis, Antioch, others?) was the most productive in the European/ Mediterranean world. This moment lay, I would suppose, between the 4th and 9th centuries AD. One may regret that the intellectual agenda at that time involved the entanglement of ideas with theology. What one has to admire is the “fissile” quality of the educated stratum in Syria, the astonishing proliferation of new ideas and heresies. The impression one comes away with is of an intellectual milieu where there is no wish to be orthodox. This was the centre of intellectual creativity at the time - a title no one would claim for Christian Europe.

By chance I acquired a book on changes of climate, from 1955. (C von Regel,Die Klimaanderung und die Gegenwart) It records “But gradually a change appeared, the forests in the vicinity were felled, the pastureland was exploited, and and after the invasion of foreign peoples, for instance the Mongols, the irrigation works decayed, until everything, towns and cultivated land, disappeared under the desert sand. [...] Northern Syria was once full of blooming cities, whose ruins are still to be seen. The doorsteps are several feet above the level of the earth - a proof that the fertile earth was blown out of the yards.”

This sheds a light on the quite different distribution of intellectual power in the first millennium AD and the last one BC. Europe rose because it was the land of thick forests, abundant rainfall, and thick humus. Of course the questions which the thinkers of those cities answered were meaningful mainly within those cultures, not to us; what reached Europe was material which was quite marginal, and this is why it acquired the fringe status of “the occult”. Astrology is the prime example of this.
There is an older theory that rhyme was the invention of Ephraim the Syrian (4th century), and reached Europe as an imitation of Ephraim. This is not quite as clear as it once appeared, the facts do not form an obvious pattern, but it remains a possibility. (Recent writers deny that he used rhyme.) Another legend is that Ephraim invented the Christian hymn. (Also, that he copied the idea from the Daisanites and borrowed their tunes.)
Ephraim came from Nisibis, one of the “university cities” along with nearby Harran and Edessa. In these towns, there were numerous Christians, also numerous Jews, Gnostics, and Manichaeans. Also Neoplatonists and pagans. In the 2nd century, >>Osrhoene [[Northern Syria]] was a religious melting pot, where the cult of Mesopotamian gods like Nabû and Bêl existed side by side with Syrian deities like Atargatis and Elagabal.<<
Nisibis was on the border with the Persian Empire, with its Zoroastrian faith. Even numerous languages were spoken there.

>>The most important of his works are his lyric, teaching hymns (madrāšê). These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. Each madrāšâ had its qālâ, a traditional tune identified by its opening line. All of these qālê are now lost. It seems that Bardaisan and Mani composed madrāšê, and Ephrem felt that the medium was a suitable tool to use against their claims. << (Wikipedia) Mani invented his own world religion, Bardaisan also invented at least a cult, a heresy of local stature. So Ephraim read their works and wrote a “parody” of them, for a sophisticated audience which knew the originals. The competition and interaction are startling.

More difficult is gauging how the magical practices (of the uneducated, perhaps) related to the philosophical schools. The surviving texts show them intermingled and voices have been raised recently, forcibly suggesting that to divide them is to project 20th century ideas onto the milieu. This question is also tangled up with the issue of how ancient religions, for example the whole heritage of Mesopotamian religion, went on thriving and how these “irrational” conceptions were the raw material for philosophers. It seems likely that the academy of Harran involved magic and an old Moon religion as well as Greek philosophy. Next, the question of how huge drafts of Hellenistic culture were absorbed in areas like Syria, and whether the specific quality of Syrian culture of Late Antiquity was due to the combination of Hellenistic ideas and techniques with the ancient Mesopotamian material.

The idea that the “magical papyri” and so forth represent the uneducated part of the population is not based on more than supposition. We expect educated people to be critical and free of illusions, but there are huge exceptions to that. Just as educated people in the 17th century could be devout Christians, so also educated people in the 4th century may have devoutly believed in magic. In fact, the whole written tradition belongs to a minority, so where we have magical written texts (in large numbers) it is perverse to suppose that they were for the use of the illiterate. There may indeed have been a Belief, of date circa 1900, that magic is Low and belongs to savages whereas Religion is high and belongs to Europeans. This was a way of dealing with the non-Christian religions of the colonial empires. It is, rather obviously, Eurocentric. Perhaps it was no more than a fantasy, and we should see magic and religion as a continuum. The consequences of shedding this imperialist ideology may be far-reaching. Some of the most prominent occultists were super-intellectual. This connects also to the problem people have accepting that neo-Platonic magic comes from people who were top Platonists and of professorial rank.

It has been suggested that the whole body of texts in the Corpus Hermeticum was collected and preserved by the intellectuals of Harran, and that they had a “hermetic academy” between, say, 300 AD and 1000 AD. (The Mongols may have brought this to an end.) That this version of the god Hermes was developed in Harran (identifying him with Mercury in their planetary symbolism). That this knowledge reached the Arabs via Harran.

It is now suggested that ‘Picatrix’ is not named for ‘Hippocrates’ but for ‘Harpocrates’. (Thus, “the book of [har]Pcatrix”.) Harpocrates had a special association with talismans, which are very prominent in Picatrix. He was an Egyptian god of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

In ‘Council’ I deal with Anthony Thwaite’s ‘Letters of Synesius’, a 4th century bishop from Cyrene, now in Libya. I discovered by chance the other day that Synesius was a neo-Platonist. He was surely a Christian, but the language he uses in his hymns seems quite alien to us. It seems less alien if you read about Neo-Platonism - which is described in other parts of the book, but not in the chapter about Thwaite.

Council offers a rather unmediated account of Nicomachus of Gerasa’s description of noises made, formally, by members of cults in his time (1st or 2nd century AD), and points out that this “pre-verbal vocalisation” resembled the acts of 20th C sound poets. I now have more information available on this, as supplied by Wolfgang Schultz in his Dokumente der Gnosis (1910). He gives examples of ‘sound poets’ who may not have been the same ones mentioned by Nicomachus. In the text known as ‘The Mithras Liturgy’, there are seven poems which recall seven stages of the creation, each one accompanied by a different pre-verbal (and pre-human) noise. In this case, the primitive sounds recall the primitive state of the universe, before words or even shapes were fixed. Similarly in the creation myth recital known as ‘Abrasax’. (See pages 79 and 84 of Schultz’s book.) This is the theory, but my guess is that sounds of this kind had a presence in various rituals of the Low Empire without the benefit of clear theoretical underpinning. Schultz offers us a breakdown into vowel chanting, non-verbal noises, and chanting of meaningless sound strings (which quite often have a numerical symbolism built into them). These types may have different histories and distributions, but they all belong together in the world of the para-verbal.

I had not seen Schultz’s collection of sources (1910, reprint 1986) when writing ‘Council’. One of its merits is that it includes the “low” magical material and gives helpful explanations of it. Theologians and intellectuals tend to leave this material out. Schultz acutely presents a theory that Gnosticism arose from people analysing the whole glittering morass of magical spells and rites and deducing a philosophical system out of it. He rapidly says that this is a wrong theory. All the same this is the source of quite fundamental insights. Either you think that magic is sunken religion or that religion is bureaucratised magic.

I am aware of two ‘Basilidian talismans’ of the Roman period found in Britain, one in Norfolk and one in Carnarvonshire. (See Wikipedia article for ‘Thetford treasure’.) These may suggest that Gnosticism had reached Britain during the Low Empire. However, it would be possible to buy talismans without understanding the difficult theology. They were very portable and very tradable. The talismans have very brief inscriptions which do include the invocation-name IAO. This is not certainly dependent on Gnostic theology describing IAO. Written amulets are a classic way for someone illiterate to acquire the 'power' of the written word.

To close, a reminder that the project of ‘Heresy’ is not to prove the doctrines of occultism right, but simply to allow readers to understand certain books of English poetry, as a step towards artistic judgement of them. Describing any single “mythical system” distracts us from the fact that a poet may have a purely personal mythology - so, five poets mean five mythologies. I am following up what GRS Mead wrote in 1913, that the modern cultural situation reproduces the situation of the Late Empire, with energy going into cults.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

commentary on my own poems (2)

Notes on my own poems to help in case of doubt.

poems from 'The Imaginary in Geometry'

“Jerusalem” CR Ashbee, the arts and crafts theorist, was town planner for Jerusalem in the early days of the League of Nations Mandate. to the mullions in the scatter of stone golden cubes: Ashbee took artisans from the East End of London to a new life in the Cotswolds. with the ripple of hammer-pats to say “hand-made”: the hand-made goods were expensive but held to contain virtue; manufacturers mass-produced the goods from moulds that imitated the marks of hand-made items, thus breaking the business in Chipping Camden.
Cotton Suq: cotton market

“Wonders of Classification” The poem has a “double scheme”, about the collections which were the prehistory of museums, and about the acquisition of a body. I was thinking about the idea of “collections”.
The poem starts with the “object pouch” of an American Indian “medicine man”, because it is obvious that people were making collections of precious and rare objects before buildings were invented. (So the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is an expansion of the medicine pouch.) Anomalous objects expose the classification system because they are exceptions to it; the early collections were of anomalies, wonders. Later “science” differs from “everyday knowledge” because the latter is sometimes wrong, at points exposed by anomalies. I was interested in the idea that a poem is a collection of objects before being a sequence of words.
Ambras: Schloss Ambras was where a Hapsburg Duke of the 16th century (Ferdinand II of Tyrol) kept a legendary collection of wonderful objects. Lhotsky wrote a book which describes it but the collection is long since dispersed. The motive for collecting may have been competition with a brother, also a collector. Tradescant: had a “hutch” for his collection of dried plants, a forerunner of a museum. Kenter? I think it may have been Johann Kentmann, actually. He had a “cabinet” of minerals around 1565. Raritätenkabinett: cabinet of rareties, or curiosities. “lesson objects” because “object lessons” were where children were shown sets of objects to familiarise them with shape and texture.
“to collect body parts”: we are still in the Natural History Museum, but the idea has now shifted, we are looking at evolution and an unnamed “collector” assembling body parts in order to acquire a body. This may hark back to the “talons” in the medicine pouch. The galvanic corpse-tensors/ Judgment Day trick riggers produced the articulated dinosaur skeletons famously on display in the museum in Kensington. missing a limb, and failing the test of pattern: a creature at this point is trying to acquire a body, for 15 lines, and repeatedly failing. ‘tetrapod’ is the four-legged creatures, descending from crossopterygian fish. lashing surf: to move on dry land you need limbs. The “surf” is also shapeless, where you try to acquire a shape. Gambas suras femoralia/ capitali centro cartilagini: from the Lorica of Laidcenn (ob. AD 661), a spell of protection involving a catalogue of body parts, in a strange sort of Latin. (variant 'cambas'). Here we are getting at the prehistoric levels of language, to go with the prehistory of acquiring four limbs, language is being nonsense but, rapidly, it evolves into something like words with their regular anatomy. The gambas suras etc. are a catalogue of body parts, almost as if we acquire limbs by naming them. a tray of birds’ legs rowed to speak: there was a case of legs from different birds showing how their anatomies differed.
Now the poem moves on to a new “collection of sensations”. A drip swelling to a sheet/ a flexible plane flaring as a wrapper/ restating a hole as an inside. records sensations on the skin. The creature is learning sensations to go with its new body. We are seeing household goods of a precious quality, because they test out fineness of perception: fine linen flows like milk. The wonders of classification applied to textiles and food. These are “lesson objects”.

My notes record, “also a female “witch doctor” burial at Maglehoj. with in belt box: two horse’s teeth, some weasel bones, the claw joint of a cat, possibly a lynx, bones from a young mammal, a piece less than 1/2” long of a bird’s windpipe, some vertebrae from a snake, two burnt fragments of bone (human?), a twig of mountain ash, charred aspen, two pebbles of quartz, a lump of clay, two pieces of pyrites, a sheet of bronze and a piece of bronze wire bent at one end to form a hook. star patterns on bronze box and belt-fastener.” This (from Denmark) gives us the end of the poem. One can imagine these objects being assembled into the symbolic structure of a Bronze Age poem. The “box” is the forerunner of the cabinet of curiosities.

“The Spirit Mover, 1854”
Roger Spear was a Spiritualist preacher and made a machine at the instruction of spirits. The poem describes this building project and then the locals destroying the machine at the end. the device of unknown purpose: the spirits did not tell Revd. Spear what the machine was for.

Anglophilia — a Romance of the Docks
This is a kind of biography of Stephen Tallents (1884-1958), indicated by the research I was doing as (unofficially) head of ideology between the wars. He was a Foreign Office official who headed the civilian part of the naval expedition to the Baltic States in 1919-20. He wrote a pamphlet called The Projection of England which is a guide to using images associated with England for advertising or propaganda. He founded the British documentary movement (at the Empire Marketing Board and later at the GPO Film Unit). He was head of the Overseas Service of the BBC, which is where the Arabic-language propaganda stations come in. I was interested in the overlap between beautiful political ideals and the Government’s version of “the good life”, and in how to put ideology into pictorial form. (That is, the imaginary enters geometry and so is caught for us.) The sequence can be seen as an essay on film criticism.

While I was researching the career of Joseph Macleod I read his memoirs, A Job at the BBC, which is full of paranoia about Tallents. Then while researching something different, namely propaganda, I came across the name of Tallents again, in almost the same week. I took this as a sign. (More about Tallents in Origins of the Underground.) Talents wrote a pamphlet called “The projection of England”, initially I used that title but then changed it to “Anglophilia”. The cover of “Projection” shows a map of England with circles of influence beaming out from it like a radio signal. This expansion can be reversed to see the position of Britain as threatened by incoming waves, for example enemy aircraft and submarines. Tallents was aware of threats from the USA, Fascism, and communism, worried about “loyalty” in the empire and in the working class. Naval power is basic but to defend Trade you also have to project an Image to the consumer. Cinema projects a “way of life” which helps your goods to sell - the actors are wearing them.

Analysing the propaganda element in culture peels away the acquired knowledge. Underneath is a self which can slip out of the conditioning, temporarily, and be naked or empty. The poem is also about this disincorporated self, looking at the pictures from outside. It wants to acquire a new society, but is hesitating, looking back at the old pictures with regret. This is offered as an interpretation of what it means to sit in a cinema. The poem is about being a child.

I can’t resist adding a quote from the head of theatrical censorship, in 1937, saying “I think we can congratulate ourselves that, of all the burning issues of the day, not one is represented in a London theatre.” This is really what the poem is about. The events in it were either prevented from happening or were removed from the record.

There were “British documentaries” from the start, even in the 1890s. The “British documentary movement” has a more restricted reference, perhaps showing an ability to manipulate public image. I looked at earlier documentaries, like the “Secrets of Nature” series, but could not write a poem about them.

Anglophilia - a Romance of the Docks:
Baltic Relief Mission
1919, British warships on station in the Baltic and helping Baltic Whites against Reds. The idea of free trade and democracy is what he will promote in his films. The ships were only observing, but “projecting power”. They are literal force, and Tallents saw film as a more modern way of projecting influence - they show commodities and freedom and so incline people towards a certain view of politics.

Precious stuffs unstopping
The idea of socialisation and the possibility that cultural texts are integrating you into a broadly based deception. The attempt to go back before conditioning, the idea that in that “before” there is only a blank receptor. Trier: ruins 1700 years old as a guarantee that the past exists.

Putting England on film
Tallents ran the Empire Marketing Board and founded English documentary film. Some of these films were made in Bolton by Humphrey Jennings. The poem alternates between three films of the period (Bolton, Jamaica, Cornwall) and someone in the audience, drinking in what England is. The poem is about acquiring behaviour norms. The things learnt are not so much objects as patterns of emotional responses, tunes, a score with timings “so many tenths of a second”. The “spherical blank fullness” is literally the eye, but is also a childish sensibility, ready to absorb everything. “The music tells us when and where to breathe”, it is teaching us emotional responses. The child is a thief because it grabs the strips of behaviour and repeats them as play.

Two documentary films: Onimus and Martin film the heart of a dove beating, (opening a “seeing wound”). Geoffrey Bell films psychotherapy and the attempt to make traumas rise to the surface. (For the Army, hence the subject is “a soldier”). “a chemical flare to conduct us through the darkness”, the victim of combat neurosis can find a way back to the light, to be healed. The films were made as training material for Army doctors. The Mass Observation part, then, is not a film but still photographs by Humphrey Spender and William Coldstream. The poem shows the ideal of documentary film, its ability to show us true things which are normally hidden. What Tallents was trying to do was utterly different.

Darling, let’s stop pretending
Archetypal line of dialogue from a 30s drama about “sophisticated” people, it refers to the whole burden of collusion in the British endeavour. We see a filmic hero, and a film in which our emotions are cued by clever tricks of narrative. This is evidently a fiction film, against which the documentaries presented reality. The film makes “dust” to “porcelain”, eliminates diffuse reality to make an expensive product that can be sold. The scene is unspecified but it has a “look”, the sophistication which British films wanted so much to achieve. So much rotates around the way the hero dresses. Because the rest of the film is there to complement the leading man’s tailoring, it has the feel of an advertisement. The film is a servant to narcissism and cannot go any deeper. We don’t find out the plot of the film, because only the look matters. The actor could be Ronald Coleman, Herbert Marshall, Robert Donat. Is "star quality" more than narcissism?

The poem opens with a discussion of naval power in the 1930s. Then, a scriptwriter as one of the producers of this skein of illusion, he wonders what rules he has to conform to to get his scripts filmed. The rules are never made explicit. The poem starts with a description of the vulnerability of Britain in the 1930s, for example “infinite approaches to the homeland”, the island has to be defended in the “approaches” but these are “infinite”, which is why there are fleet units from “Greenland to Ceylon”, a paranoiac overstretch. This is the background to the censorship of British films of the time. The propagandists, Tallents at their head, act to “seal off the wound”. The film producer has a modernist sculpture on his desk. 12 lines describe naval gunnery as an analogy to visual ideology - and perhaps as the subject of a film. The reach of the guns holds the Empire together. This is an imaginary power and also exercises power over the imagination. “the pale girl in a beret” is the actress in a film, unnamed. “seizing a country/ to protect a coaling station” is occupying the Aden territory to protect Port Aden and its bunkering facilities.

The moving line of capture
The acephalous as autonomy and spontaneity - as the opposite of the manipulated media industry. This is my attempt at a “documentary” on Situationist lines. Miching: skipping school. Marlocking: making a mess, disordering things. The snake appears as a symbol of chaos in Gnostic gems (a goddess who is snake from the waist down, named Echidna, who symbolises random fertility, the formless, the plebs).

Silver Threads and Golden needles
An egoistic writer/director describes his view of History. In the Thirties, writers were still acting as “mages” who could reveal the truth about history. The “silver threads” stitch the story together, perhaps as a silver screen. Grote Kraweel - “great caravel”, a Hanseatic ship, it might have sailed on the Baltic. The “Gotlandish Shore” is part of the harbour in Lubeck. Coinage was invented in Lydia. Moments to do with trade and currency. These personal symbols are raw materials for a version of history, but we don’t hear what this is. It could be diffusionism, Marxism, Theosophy, it doesn’t matter. “This is my public vision”, his version of history is personal and so cannot be true. The symbols are unfamiliar because we are used to other selective accounts of vital points in history. The more he owns the vision, the more it burns itself into his brain, the less it is there anywhere in the outside world. The tricks of editing (“this is the pot of splicing cement” for joining film together after cuts) are needed because the isolated moments do not really form a story. The first and last stanzas describe the image of an angel - imperious personal vision as opposed to truth.
“those containing noble metals...” - a catalogue description of gold thread, from a book about embroidery.

The Outlands
Describes a personality in total withdrawal from collusion in anything: ”head emptied of ideas ... detoxicated”. Symbols flicker out as “something like We stops existing”. The critical project of wiping out collusion has disastrous results, a grey blank: “what is to dust as dust is to objects”. This is a nervous breakdown, or it certainly feels like one, but we offer a way back up: “The voice written on gold leaves buried deep/ comes up flawless telling you where to go”. The pebbles might have been used in symbolic operations, like abstract thought, but since symbols have been abolished all he can do is arrange pebbles, they no longer mean anything.

Radio Wars
Mussolini had an Arabic-language propaganda station as a way of “projecting influence”. The Foreign Office responded by funding a pro-British Arabic radio station (ultimately overseen by Tallents). They were “parallel stations staging/ Roman pomp and British ships”. The poem imagines an Egyptian Arab (the lieutenant) listening to both stations and, in play, imagining himself as an Anglo-Arab and an Italo-Arab. It shows the radio signals fighting with each other. The Arab journalists writing scripts for the current affairs broadcasts did not always reproduce the Foreign Office line (not mentioned in the poem). “Maronites, Armenians, and Latins” are inhabitants of Cyprus apart from Orthodox and Muslims. “Psywar” is psychological warfare, a phrase of later date which includes propaganda. The lieutenant is possibly Nasser.

“Q ships” were submarine-destroyers disguised as helpless merchantmen, in the First World War. There was a film called “Q-planes” in around 1945… anyway I adapted this as “Q-landscapes”, something not totally unrelated to the nonist movement and their dictum that all landscapes are imaginary. “Kew” is a sort of Q person, he is the envy figure who stars in all advertisements. Thus his first job was as St Michael in a cathedral, now he works more in gents’ clothing. The poem goes through a series of advertisement scenarios. Thus we have the wonder textile invented by an eccentric boffin. ‘Chatham bullion” is the gold braid on the uniforms of naval officers.
Cantabrian oak cargo: based on a film, made outside our period, in 1951 (alas!). This showed wine cellars in the city of London, including fabulous fungi that lived off the fumes of wine from the casks. As a symbol of snobbery the fine, old wines were indispensable to the Kew mystique. The “rejoice” sequence at the end does not mean very much, it was meant to sound like a litany in church, a sort of litany to commodities. The svelte and swift in Apollinary games: the image of Britain projected by Tallents and others focussed on leisure and the weekend, with clothes for men deriving essentially from sport. (This is why the tennis shirt has to be re-invented.) There were “ludi apollinarii” in ancient Rome, but what I had in mind were sports which are Apollonian as opposed to Dionysiac, they project ease and leisure.

A story where we work in a terribly important government department and have complete faith in the work we are doing. Simply the reversal of the poems about detachment and disillusion. Mitigator Project: all government departments are trying to mitigate something or other.

13 Like spring water strained through muslin
The title describes art which has had truth filtered out of it. The Stoker is a stock character from a number of Thirties documentaries; he “gets no lines to speak”. The “objects of unconsciousness” are the lives of ordinary British people in the Depression; Prime Minister Baldwin was described as “a man who would do well by doing nothing”. The stoker is shown as appearing in an employer’s files because he is politically active, a firm has sold the employer lists of “known leftists”. ‘the ones who speak up find it written down’. Remington: a make of typewriter.

A failed collection
The speaker thinks that the rules of Britain are inside him. You would look for social structure in the minds of individuals. If it is not there, where would you look for it? Recalls a late 19th century series of cigarette cards, “Picturesque peoples of the Empire”, as recorded by JM Mackenzie in his book on British propaganda. Suggests that the knowledge of British history sold to us is as superficial as the information about the Somalis in the text on the cigarette card about them. “Collect the set”, this collection of cards fails in certain ways.

The forgetting
The operation of propaganda is shown as drowned by time, as the whole story is gradually forgotten, whether it was true or false. The Stoker is shown on a merchantman sunk by a submarine, the classic theme of Forties semi-documentary as opposed to Thirties documentary. He has a job this time but the ship goes down. The cargo of the sunken ship becomes a treasure for sea organisms, a “pelagic town”.

The Ruins of GuldursunBased on SP Tolstov’s book Po sledam drevnekhorezmiiskoi tsivilizatsii (1948). I had read about Tolstov in RN Frye’s book about ancient Persia, and was amazed when I found his book in a basement in Charing Cross Road. It was cheap (”the set of sounds at modest cost in the cellar”). Khwarezm, or Choresmia, is in Central Asia, south of the Aral Sea and east of the Caspian. The book records archaeological campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s. The poem is about one (ruined) castle specifically, Guldursun, and the wall paintings in it. Tolstov dug up villages that had a binary division in them, and related this to Zoroastrian dualism; hence much of the poem is about Zoroaster, who may have come from Khwarezm or a neighbouring province. He appears as an Oriental sage, devising the rules that make living together a happy experience. The animation/ in its virtual planes shedding cells, washing back: the imagination of a vanished culture, vivid but always prone to blur and fray, breaks like a wave. “Thraco-Cimmerian”: Tolstov’s idea of what language was spoken in the region, chosen I think to maximise its originality compared to anywhere else. This was always dubious, and what we know about Choresmian today points to an East Iranian language (“Iranian language denied”). the word kanat: a Persian word for ‘irrigation ditch’ borrowed into Russian, suggesting early cultural contacts. Some of the poem is about soil versus sand, irrigation, oasis cultures. There is some point in the book where Tolstov finds resemblances between European material culture and the artefacts he is digging up, but insists that the European ones are on a far lower cultural level, and implies that Europe is a kind of humble offshoot of Khwarezm (not in the poem). aust i kurusm: from a runic inscription on a grave in Sweden, for someone who died “east in Khwarezm”. dar zamin dur dast: traditional opening phrase of Persian fairy-tales, “in a far away land”. “where s turns to k”: the line between the two sub-families of Indo-European, compare Latin centum and Sanskrit satem. in the belts of falling white: the Avesta refers to snow, so it is believed that Zoroaster came from the north; belts, climatic belts. Nine Words of Power: a form of words that gives life, also Zoroastrian. Sinistral: northern. Ephedrine: chemical present in the plant known as haoma in the Avesta (also given to me for asthma, as a child). Propylaeon maze: a zig-zag protecting the main entrance. The Tiger and Pheasant Chamber: a painted chamber in Guldursun. Water master: a public official in irrigation cultures who allocates flow to each farmer, times here compared to the length of sounds and syllables. the eyeless disquieting roar: as the clay becomes human so it resolves sound into speech.

The Builder of Follies
While researching into the invention of museums and collections I became interested in an Earl of Arundel, identified as the first collector in England, so around 1620 or 1630. His family also pioneered the building of follies. The poem is about a fictional character, presumably a 17th century landowner disaffected from politics, and his follies. ‘Gelassenheit’ means calm and detachment, favoured by a theologian, Valentin Weigel. The lead character is truly disengaged, he can enjoy his diversions to the full. He has travelled to Prague (like Arundel) and picked up these ideas there. the hysteria of accumulation: an agent goes to Turkey to collect Classical marbles for him but the ship is wrecked on the return voyage. He engages in chemical experiments. “Glowing minerals”: scientific experiments are also seen as a form of “accumulation” of experiences. swarved ditch: swarved is said of a channel that has silted up so that water no longer flows through it (also known as an interment). stays as a derelict several: a ‘several’ is one channel of a river split into several, and a ‘derelict’ one is swarved. The irritations were all in the plat: he advises the king on architecture, a ‘plat’ or diagram, but they disagree. like tartar on a wine-cask: this is a phrase used by Paracelsus to describe how natural processes make deposits in the body of a living human. This may be an argument for simply being yourself. Deep study is part of being a melancholic.
This poem belongs with “Wonders of Classification”.

Commentary on my own poems (1)

This is meant as a reference source for people reading my poems, in case of difficulty. The poems are meant to be complete without them. I am setting out from the assumption that the poems up to ‘Alien Skies’ do not need a commentary. I thought it would be helpful to critics, translators, or interviewers to confirm some suppositions.

Poems from ‘Selected poems’
from poems of 1991-6:
At Cumae
Transparent RadiationThe ‘radiation’ is sunlight. The title comes from a song by 60s psychedelic band The Red Krayola, as covered by the Spacemen Three.

For C.
Wind and Wear at Aix en Provence

Triumph and Martyrdom of Sergei KorolevKorolev was a rocket designer who was in a prison camp for a while before rising, eventually, to be the chief designer for the Soviet space programme. The poem shows him in the camp dreaming of being free and an engineer, and has an alternative story where he never leaves the camp at all.

Chronique mondaine of the Sixth Poetry Conference in a Regional Style
This was reviewed by Peter Manson who was puzzled by it and couldn’t work out how he was supposed to respond. A ‘Chronique mondaine’ is a newspaper column which describes the idyllic experiences of the beau monde, in this case the attendants of a poetry conference in Cambridge (in 1997?). I don’t think there is a unity of mood, instead the poem is composed of dozens, even hundreds, of fragments of dialogue which “utter” an entity with hundreds of mouths, so the “autonomous poetry collective” or the consciousness of somebody wandering around the conference listening. A number of the lines are rapid responses to readings of poems; “am I that easy to remember” could apply to any poets on the scene (Jim Reeves sang “am I that easy to forget”). It is in a “regional style” because on completing the poem I didn’t think it sounded like me, but it did have the immediate and social quality of a number of poems from Cambridge. The “mood” is probably one of being carried away, of personality dissolving into a flood of sensations - a temporary identity. The parts don’t converge back on something. “Just open the door and hit him as hard as you can” is something somebody said as I was passing by them on a Cambridge street. I wrote dialogue down as I was hearing it. This is an “acephalous” poem, it has no theme but “The spontaneous wills of subjectless action”.

Three Graves
In ‘Three Graves’ you have three monuments, roughly in the same geographical space, all as symbols of tyranny; first a Scythian ‘royal grave’ with sacrificed horses and so on, then one of the Nazi monuments at Kutno in the Ukraine, then the concrete sarcophagus around the reactor at Chernobyl. Wilhelm Kreis: an architect who designed a lot of monuments to war dead in the 15 years after the First World war and was also employed by Hitler. The Scythian part also describes the Goths in the Ukraine, following Herwig Wolfram.

Male nude in interiorThis was published in ‘Active in Airtime’ but never collected.


There was an “instruction” for Imaginary, and it was something like “nothing autobiographical, nothing pessimistic, poems have to deal with ideas that interest me but which are not already fixed as knowledge”. I remember setting this plan down, in a particular building in West London called the Pantechnicon, in about 1997. The plot was to achieve separation from ‘Pauper Estate’, then still in progress. I believed that in order to get “intelligence” inside poetry it was necessary to go where intelligence functioned, i.e. ideas on the edge of my grasp rather than ones which I could just retrieve from memory. I felt that “intelligence” was something elusive and short-lived, the brain much prefers to deploy secure and fixed knowledge. The Penguin book The Living Brain identified consciousness as something that happens for about five minutes a day. I was more interested in releasing this small “neurological melody” than in the actual objects of knowledge.

The title refers to a project of finding visual expressions of ideology. Thus, Dumezil’s three-part ideology of the Indo-Europeans, with “soldiers, priests, workers” could be expressed in visual form by a stele with three registers. The frescoes at Schifanoia are another obvious “win”, as they show a text on astrology translated into visual terms in a rather clear way. The sequence “Anglophilia” shows how ideology is represented in cinema - this didn’t arrive until two or thee years after the book was planned, but it fitted the project. The title is also the name of a book by Pavel Florovsky, a scientist-priest who had a great technical brain but was anyway put in a camp and destroyed by the Bolsheviks. (It seems that geometry relies on idealisations, it is not simply a set of measurements and observations. Real objects do not display geometry ideally.)

Coastal Defences of the Self
This is about the line between “mine” and “not-mine” from a poet’s point of view. It is about being the object of knowledge. The poem is interrupted by hostile questions from some connoisseur who has the sense he’s being cheated. “a mouse can tell one million other mice apart”: this is saying something about the ‘signature’ of a poet, how elemental it is. What mice detect in the scent of other mice is, supposedly, their genes as affecting the immune system. This information allows the mice to make better decisions about mating. “folios in the trays of the huge cabinet”: the collection is a theme of the book, here I am part of someone’s collection. “Rainy journeys through folk roots/ to find what isn’t there”: it would be nice to think that what I am writing could be recognised as a continuation of some ancient Gaelic folklore, but I don’t think it is. Aberdeenshire: home of all the Duncans. “is this a duplicate of something I’ve already got?”: being on sale is not invariably pleasant. “a flawed realisation of ten other people”: well, such is connoisseurship. Keimelia (Greek): treasures from the ground, i.e. antique and finely wrought ones. I come out of the nest to take on: the next 16 lines are a pessimistic, agonistic view of the work of art as something that only starts when you are on the brink of exhaustion; the extreme of performance is the signature and only right at the limit is shape found. The last six lines with “the machines ... engulfing and without individuality” show a vision of art that is free of personal signature.

A simple description of the deep north. The sub-Arctic summer as a flush of abundance from the point of view of geese who fly to feast there. But the island is productive in a different way than Britain, no humus so no “thorps” (villages). Wegener was a geologist who crossed Greenland by sleigh, and who died there in the end. Actinic: Northern light is more sharply polarised. Wegener’s three-colour system: for colour photography. Instrument scales: for his observations. Lewis: the island of Lewis, off Scotland, which is facing Greenland (across the breadth of the ocean).

Deep Dish
Three glass objects, one being a “glass-acetate wafer” with music by Charlie Parker recorded on it.

The “Salt Lake” bit is about a manager bought in from a consultancy firm who used to have meetings in the desert where their people fused into a corporate entity. Scary.

Spectrum Flight

These four poems were an attempt to write things with very few words. Briefly before writing things with huge numbers of words. I think the plan was for 14 poems 14 words long, something like that. I cannot remember anything about “Spectrum Flight”, it must have been written very fast. Improvised poems don’t really leave a trace in memory. I think it is just an illustration of the phrase “coloured by feeling”. “dual in line” is a way of packing components, presumably light detectors, in this case eyes. When I look at it I see a bar with the light shining through liqueur bottles of perfect colours. Testosterone merges with pigment, so there are chemicals in humans stored in bottles and released in doses which colour responses... ah, it’s not that simple.

On the Beach at Aberystwyth
About being in Aberystwyth, looking out at the Irish Sea, and thinking about Celtic sea-ways and Celtic geography. Mostly this is about sea contacts from the West, as an alternative to ones from the south and east, which favour England; also about decentralisation, a network without great cities. Ystwyth: river that Aberystwyth is at the mouth of. Tartessus: Bronze Age city at the mouth of the Guadalqivir, so nearly in Africa. The Tartessians are associated with trade to Britain, in tin, so with very early contacts with the British Celts. Beth ydy adeiladwaith cymdeithasol? just means “what is social structure?”. Whether Pokorny was right: Julius Pokorny had a theory that there was a substrate of a North African language formerly spoken in Britain which gave rise to the distinctive features of British Celtic. He talks about breeds of dogs and cattle among other things. It would have come via Spain. As the source languages have disappeared this theory is hard to test. On the beach at Aberystwyth, I picked up a piece of rock which had a myriad of tiny tunnels piercing it. Like surf, a lot of it was made of air. I guessed this was fossilised cold-water coral. My niece, aged about nine, informed me that they had been to a Welsh museum which had such a piece of rock and it was called “babalwbi”. (I now think the pebble may be a piece of basalt, but the coral identification is an object which is valid inside the poem. The tunnels may be air-bubbles in a boiling flow of lava.) I liked the word because it was decentralised. (Babalwbi now appears on the Internet and seems to mean lumps of white quartz. OK! The research went wrong!) In the poem, the pebble symbolises multiple routes and connections going to and fro without a centre. It is "surf".

The Ghost of Fusion
Taken from a book about the claims to have carried out “cold fusion”, a near-infinite energy source, and the brouhaha around them. This was in Utah. The catalyst outperforms the analyst: the catalyst was supposed to have accelerated the reaction to an incredible degree, thus doing better than the scientists who tried to analyse the experimental results. Zero wriggle: in order to interpret what you find, you need to set up any experiment to produce unambiguous results, thus “zero wriggle (room)”. The accuracy serves to starve “wishes”. mirror setups: to “mirror” the experiment and reproduce its results to check them.
Bengal: measurement of helium-3 released or used up confused by environmental helium-3, notably from a geological “leak” in Bengal. Tritium: would become incredibly cheap if cold fusion worked. Canard: false rumour or news story. We see only heat: more heat than light, or, heat released but no cold fusion. Foofaraw: American word meaning “big fuss”, from French fanfaron.
Shambhala: also “Shangri-la”, a sort of never-never land, also a sure source of false results.

Swanning with the Bishop
Describes being an editor of a poetry magazine and dealing with torrents of bad poetry. My co-editor came from Bishop’s Stortford.

100 Bars of Inattention
This is about paradoxes in the way different modules of brain software pass control of “attention” to each other. Something has to stage and sequence stretches of attention, but it is very difficult to make the operation of this something conscious. I didn’t want to deal with something complicated like “the software of jealousy”, but something quite at “service level”, the service that manages attention. Every cell of attention that switches on has to be switched off after it has had its share.
job control shell scripts: ‘shell scripts’ are Linux programs that relate to system actions like allocating resources. Something takes the decision to supply “100 bars of inattention”, a regular part of office life. This is a sequence I copied from Roman Jakobson/ his name still legible/ in the comment lines: when programs evolve over years you can sometimes see who first wrote them by looking in things like comment lines that are non-executable and so avoid being updated.
the ego data fish: I re-cycled this idea in “Precipice of Niches”. Oh well, no one’s perfect.
“words for three selves with different geographical ranges”: from some anthropological work I read. The ranges are something like confined to the body, able to leave the body and roam around the known territory, able to leave the terrestrial plane and visit the Otherworld. These selves had three different names. The tin dancer waiting for his music: on a musical box, no doubt.

When Myth becomes history/ When history becomes myth
Part 1 describes a period where myth is breaking down. Mythic time breaks down and the statues turn into flesh, “wings defiled by a web of pink blood. “the rain of objects full of niches”: the division of society into social roles as instructed by a divine object which falls from heaven. “their features made of damage”: the divisions have been carved, a form of damage of the original objects, just as the division of society can be seen as damage. I didn’t write about the social roles as I think that is difficult within a poem. Suppose you say “men shall look after horses, women shall look after poultry”, that seems to apply to all of Europe and is the kind of command that features on these “law objects”. If I said “men shall look after mice, women shall look after crabs”, that would show how arbitrary the whole thing is, but would be hard to follow. The “law object” might read: There shall be workers, there shall be peasants, yea, and there shall be intellectuals. he transformation of these niches returns us to the age of myth.
Music: it is hard to say exactly what music is there for. In this case, I think it’s to cheer us up. We have left the Age of Myth but now music and ritual come along to relieve us. So the nine lines of the last stanza describe a mythic system. It is not important for the poem which one it is, just that we see a bewildering and rich complexity of correlations and sensations, like an evening at a Lebanese restaurant. (In fact this is from the Sabian rites at Harran in Syria, “the hexagonal black temple” relates to the planet Saturn.)
Part 2 is a view of regional cultures which sees them as profoundly conservative of traditions and as protected from History by remoteness and obscurity. These marginal cultures are outside history, that is what Eliade says. Their narratives are cyclic, do not advance irrevocably like History. “On the margins of great cultures” is a quote from his L’eternel retour. The first twelve lines give an example of conservatism, the retention of designs using the frontality of Parthian art in folk embroidery in the Ukraine. The theory has been contested but I take it as a poetically valid object. Mitra, tall royal hat; akinakes, short sword, found in the embroideries. Alans and Ardagarantes would be two steppe tribes of Iranian language who would have used this Parthian culture. The second stanza describes the theme of the poem and mentions Campanella, as a possible embodiment of provincial culture. The third stanza describes the benefits of a provincial culture. Stanza four continues that, with some rude Bronze Age artefacts. I suppose Britain is marginal by definition, in every time. “Only what starts from zero...”: the renewing quality of pure myth.
Part 3 is an attempt to construct a myth. I had the feeling that a myth needs a number of unrelated elements in order to become a whole, also that it needs a few species in there, so “ibis and starfish”. The starting point was a photograph of a mid-19th century female Campanian rebel against the Savoy dynasty. This was instantly recognisable as my friend Luci, also Campanian and a rebel. Paladin of regional apocalyptic lore: these were ”primitive rebels” in Hobsbawm’s sense, hoping for a total overthrow of the social order. I may also have been thinking of Campanella and Bruno, also from the deep South. “Mauser rifle and a brace of Belgian pistols”: features of the original photograph. Transformation scene: something necessary for myths, in this case transforming the outlaw of 1860 into “Luciana in linen”, in Tasmania (where the Derwent is). ibis: Luci described to me how there are many ibis in Melbourne, perhaps they found Egypt unsympathetic. Emigration is a typical feature of the Italian South and related to the “apocalyptic” view of history. “sky catalogues ... at Gospel Oak”: Gospel Oak is an area in North London. Paladin: these were the warriors of Charlemagne (or palatini). The South Italian puppet dramas use tales of the paladins, descended from who knows what chansons de geste.

History of my Contemporary
The title comes from Korolenko’s autobiography, ‘istoriya moego sovremennika’ and means really “a history of my contemporaries and myself”. The poem narrates episodes from the life of two poets of my age, Tidemark and Wymeswold. Wymeswold is a village near my home town, “Tidemark” was meant as the ‘spirit of the age’, the ideal contemporary. They have experiences which were almost compulsory for that place and time but which you can't find any more. “The Roxy. The Vortex” etc. were punk clubs in 1977, where “a rage entity” met. “subjectless action” was a theme of Felix Guattari, expounded in Mille plateaux by Deleuze and Guattari. In around 1984 you could buy these books in Compendium in Camden High Street and then go and see a band in one of the venues on the same street in the evening. The “Kurdish music” was accompanying some kind of protest outside the library in Wood Green High Road.

“Les Paul’s Garage Studio”: Pfleumer was studying a way of preventing the gold leaf on high-fashion cigarettes from coming off on people’s lips; having become an expert on laying metal films on plastic, he invented recording tape. Ampex taperecorders were taken by the Americans as war reparations, and the first one, supposedly, was bought by Les Paul, who invented overdubbing. Ludwigshafen, on the Rhine, is where the major works of BASF, the tape manufacturer, is. "purposeful distortions of the recorded groove" comes from a book on the history of the recording industry. I wish I'd written this line. Pharaoh: I think the fashion for gilt cigarettes came from the fashion for gold inspired by the uncovering of Tutankhamun.

“Radio Vortex”
based on descriptions of Terence Gray’s productions of around 1930 at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, and the poems of Joseph Macleod, who acted in some of them. I was researching Macleod‘s career as an actor and trying hard to conjure up vanished theatrical events. Eventually I wrote a poem about this unfillable gap. Choliambics: Macleod had to stand on a tower declaiming verse in this metre (from a play he had written to complete an existing Greek play). The crab comes from a poem in The Ecliptic. Gray had a stock of basic aluminium shapes which were easy to construct sets from; the aluminium received colour from the lighting system, which was one of the most advanced in europe at that time. “the “helical, shimmering, bolts” are from the lighting battery, but also the “rays of influence” from the Zodiac, because Macleod wrote The Ecliptic while working for Gray. The crab comes from one section of Macleod’s poem. Ichnographic: ‘ichnos’ is ‘track (of animal)’ but the word is also used for Latin titles of works of engraving. Here it means “the image of an animal from the Zodiac”, but also the projected light carving shapes on the aluminium. thundering and screeching: Macleod as actor found some of Gray’s colour combinations shocking. Greek violence in Egyptian space/ isometric hoplite, flattening field/ in frieze perspective, to arrest recession: phrases taken from Gray’s autobiography. The ‘Egyptian space’ is the spatial organisation of (ancient) Egyptian painting. “isometric” means “without foreshortening”. ‘Hoplite’ is a greek warrior in full armour, who might appear in a play like ‘The Suppliants”.

“ A Virtuality/ Cyclical Polygons”
This is a poem about language. The notes say “a clear idea of the special network embodied in language. the net which holds you in, and which vanishes when you have a nervous breakdown. a poem about the opposite of a nervous breakdown. but how to express this in words? it’s about wanting to be loved and feeling loved. language as a way of tuning the brain, filling it with melodies.”

I think the ‘polygon’ bit came from Stalin’s essay on linguistics, where he says that “the surface of language is like the surface of geometry”. Words are thus objects of specific shapes, which fit in with words already present in an utterance and define a shape into which further words have to fit. Then ‘cyclical’ polymers are ones which repeat themselves. “Cyclical polygons” would be “words repeating in chains”.

Preceding the poem was a wish, going back to my late teens, to write a poem about the end of depression, the dawn and the return of colour after the fearful night. The poem was never written, the end of depression is undramatic, it is simply the return of the world as it is. If you look at a group of friends talking, say over four hours, the topic keeps changing: the main process is something much deeper, the “switching on” of huge areas of functionality relating to love, esteem, curiosity, pattern analysis. The language faculty involves all these. The extent of these areas is only clear when they are switched off - when there is no dialogue, when inner language is silent. ‘A Virtuality’ cycles through many examples of language to expose language itself, underneath all of them, something only visible through the totality of its fleeting creations. By defining what has been restored we define what was once lost. The theme is restitution, repletion, freedom of action.

The statements about geometry throughout the poem relate to words as shapes. By carrying out simple divisions and folds one can create thousands of words, enough to fund a language.

I suspect that the appeal of creation myths is that they stage a scenario which could be the end of depression: all the objects of sense and of reason are re-created, one by one, firmly enough to resist doubt. They falsify anxiety. So when this scenario appears (as in “Prometheus creating mankind” and “Twelve Days” among others) the theme is the return of intact objects after depression is relieved.

This poem and ‘Anglophilia’ are both about being a child, but in different ways. Both are about socialisation, the acquisition of social knowledge.
The poem takes a tour through a number of features of languages as a way of approaching the language faculty itself. Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a fundamental commentary on how a child acquires moral knowledge through acquiring language, guessing the meanings of sentences by intuition of the states of mind of the people speaking them. The poem essentially presents what Schleiermacher said.
The poem can be thought of as extents of adult language being listened to by a very young child that cannot yet understand what is being said. It has its intentness. Puzzles and riddles recur because for such a child the whole universe of language is a riddle. On solving the riddle it will have learnt to speak.
“encore une fois”: the child learns words by hearing them repeated. And the child also repeats what is said to it.

“The women in coloured woollen hoods”; painting, Oscan and from the 6th century BC, in Naples, showing women in a circular dance. Illustrates the cyclical aspect, everything “encore une fois”.

Music: we get a stanza about music because it is related to language and the kinship probably says something about both.
Beasts worsted by riddles: in some fairy-tale or other.
Take this point and extend it: this has to do with the “polygons”, language as geometry

Implexity: the complexity implied by the rules of a game (see my book Council of Heresy for more on this word).
‘shimmering helical cylinders”: line from a poem of the 1930s by Joseph Macleod. Also appears in ‘Radio Vortex’. I just liked this line a lot.

Castico Catamantaleodis: Vendryes believed there was a sound (the tau celticum) in the Celtic language of Gaul which could not be represented in the Mediterranean alphabet they borrowed, and the variation in the quoted words shows this uncaptured sound sliding. So we get nine lines of Gaulish words. Beautiful sounds. The ”underhearing” is someone trying to fit Gaulish sounds into a Latin alphabet. We see only the geometry where this missing sound might fit.
In a far country, in a long region: reflects the “dar zamin dur dast” (in a land, far region) of Persian fairy tales, but with a spin, “long region” is a typical error for “distant land”.
In Urartu the first city of squares: supposedly, this city in east Anatolia is where the grid pattern of streets started. In the poem, this is connected with the origin of the line-break as a "turn". The verse line may have been an invention of Bronze Age Anatolia, as cautious examination of Hittite tablets suggests.
Suwassunna: Hittite name with a great sound.
He reformed the n/r alternation: a feature of very archaic Indo-European. (Latin femur, genitive feminis.) If it disappeared, maybe someone reformed it. It is much more common in Hittite than in other IE languages.
the mythic forebear of the Soviet state: Urartu was in Armenia, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. If you read official publications like Bol'shaya Sovetskaya istoriya they tell the whole of history as the growth of the strong State. Urartu is presented as stage one of this, significantly happening on Soviet territory, or at least only a few days away.

Statistics: an infant analyses the occurrences of various sounds to determine what are the phonemes of the language its parent are speaking. This is a mathematical analysis. Without this initial faculty the infant cannot learn what language means and can never acquire language. So actually we learn language though mathematics.