Wednesday, 4 May 2011

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.

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