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.
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.
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 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”.