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Saturday, 30 August 2008

Heads, Tails, Both or Neither

Only for tails read hearts. Very familiar in the world of art - or art myth - is the person who knows what he likes, of whom it is often said that, what he really means is he likes what he knows. And why not? How is anyone to like what they don't know? Which begs the point of the remark being made of him, which is that he is too set and does not try to go beyond what he knows to other riches that art, literature, whatever, might have to offer him.

Art, music, poetry all sing when the intellect understands what it is it is looking at or listening to and when at the same time the heart embraces it and feels its way into it. When' in fact, the critical faculties and the emotions respond together. But there is no need to wait for that glorious occasion, no need to be limited to it. It is possible to admire a work of art, for example, without being able to love it, without being able to embrace it, as I have put it, with the feelings. At this moment in time the public is being asked to raise - or at the very least, to approve the raising of, a large sum of money (£50 million each) to save at least part of a valuable art collection from being sold abroad. The pride of the collection are two of Titian's finest: Diane and Actaeon and Diane and Collisto. (The image shows his painting The Holy Family and Palm Tree another from the collection .) I admire the work of Titian greatly: I can appreciate a whole spectrum of aesthetic qualities, I acknowledge that he was a great master in his field, but the works do not sing for me. That is a fault in me. Whatever it is that a Titian painting resonates with in other people is missing from me. Yet I shall be mortally disappointed if they are lost to the nation. Milton's Paradise Lost I would put in the same category, along with much (but not all) of Browning. Certain works do it for me, others do not. But judgement - hopefully - need not be affected.

On the other hand it is equally possible to love without qualification a work and yet not be able to fully comprehend it with the intellect.The first time I read W.S. Graham's The White Threshold, I think it is true to say that my intellect made nothing of it at all, yet it lept from the page telling me that whatever it was, it was not nothing. The heart saw something in it, feelings were aroused and responded to it. (I wouldn't want you to run away with the idea that all Graham's work is like this: there are more beautiful poems and there are certainly many less difficult ones - most of them in fact. My illustration is limited to this one example.) Indeed, the whole of this poem is not like this. These are the first two verses of a first section of six verses, half a page of a poem of perhaps seven pages, five sections in all:

Let me always from the deep heart
Drowned under behind my brow so ever
Stormed with other wandering, speak
Up famous fathoms well over strongly
The pacing whitehaired kingdoms of the sea.

I walk towards you and you may not walk away.

Always the welcome-roaring threshold
So ever bell worth my exile to
Speak up to greet me into the hailing
Seabraes seabent with swimming crowds
All cast all mighty water dead away.

I rise up loving and you may not move away.

Graham can leave you mentally wallowing in his wake, while you are at the same time being dazzled by the something you cannot catch up with. The trick, I think, is not to worry about the meaning. Least of all should you attempt a prose translation of it. That is an absolutely fatal mistake. It will take you nowhere but away from the poetic meaning of the piece. Meanings will come with reflection and re-readings. I am still at that stage with The White Threshold. Other once-difficult poems have revealed themselves more easily. I recall the first time I heard Chinese poetry recited aloud in its original tongue. I was in my teens. Obviously, I did not find it intellectually satisfying, but the feelings clicked in. I thought it was beautiful.

But what if there is no contact, either with the mind or the emotions? I have written earlier - as I know Jim has - about the personal difficlties that arise when you can make no sense of a work on which other people, whose abilities and judgements you respect absolutely, are lavishing great praise. What do you do? What do you tell yourself? That all these people of sound judgement (so you believe) are deluded? I have this problem with Tracey Emin and the now famous (or infamous) bed - which I take as an example, for I have the same problem with most of her work. And it is this: I can see what she is at, so to that extent the brain is engaged, but it does not respond because she has done nothing with it, it is still, in my opinion, raw material. It is not a found item, yet she has not sublimated it. (Yes, I know, I have changed the usage of the word sublimate, applying it to an object, rather than an impulse, but it is as near as I can get to saying what I want to say.) I see what she sets out to do, but cannot see that she has done it, or even tried to do it. She has not turned her material into a work of art. Sadly, neither does she speak to me through the emotions, not beyond the feelings that she arouses, the normal human feelings that all must surely have when we hear about the troubles of her early upbringing and the traumas they have left her with in adult life. But as attributes of a would-be work of art they do not speak, for the very same reasons that prevent it working on me intellectually. But there are these many people whom I admire who absolutely rave about her work. So what is a poor bewildered chap to think?

I have an almost equal difficulty with someone like Francis Bacon, not because the raw material has not been processed, for it obviously has, but because the point of it is lost on me. I join the ranks of the philistines and ask: why does he have to paint nothing but what I can only interpret as ugly and evil, a distortion of reality that does not seem to portray any hidden truth? If you do not know his work, click on the link I have given to see one of his portraits in the famous/infamous Screaming Popes series.These are a real difficulty for some, but how would a person think about the Pope, the ultimate authority, who was a 100% dyed-in-the-wool atheist and card-carrying homosexual who had been brought up in Ireland? Interestingly, he expresses my heart/head dichotomy in rather different terms: Some paint comes across directly to the nervous system, other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. He was not interested in the latter. Art for him was completely visceral or it was nothing. You coud not talk about an image; if you explained or analysed it, you rendered it worthless. The distortions that most satisfied him were those he took from medical books, of bodies twisted into grotesque shapes. And yet he is perhaps the most popular English artist since Turner - but turner painted pleasant landscapes, stuff the public like to see. recently a study for a figure by Bacon went for £14million. The critics (mostly) adore him. What am I missing?

The two images given here to the right and above depict two of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the next three are works by a great hero of mine, Graham Sutherland, a painter in the best traditions of English landscape painting. The first of the Sutherlands is Boulder in a Landscape, on the extreme right is Thorn Head and lower down Entrance to a Path. You may think there is a superficial affinty, a blood brothership almost between the Bacons and the Sutherlands.

Many have remarked upon it when I have professed to being moved in heart and mind by the Sutherlands, whilst being left out in the cold by the Bacons.

To me the difference is all, the resemblances merely show the importance that motive makes to the all-important processing of the work.
Yet maybe it is a blind spot that I have. Maybe, maybe.... but to return to my original contrast: there is an important similarity (and difference) as between Bacon's work and Emin's. The similarity relates to their childhoods. Emin's I think is well known. It was, as I have said, traumatic.The nature of the trauma was that of not being wanted - or at east believing that she was not wanted, a trauma still unresolved. In Bacon's case three facts are critical: the first that he was an ugly child, told he was ugly by his parents; the second that he would often visit his grandmother whose second husband would cut off the claws of cats and feed them to the dogs before tying the cats up by their legs and torturing them; the third critical fact is that Bacon discovered he enjoyed witnessing this. Given the emotionally vulnerable nature of a young boy, it is not difficult to see how this last could happen. It perhaps was not pure enjoyment that he felt, but there was something there in his feelings that he could not deal with, perhaps has never been able to deal with, is still trying to deal with. It has been said that these figures at the base of the crucifixion are animals with human physical characteristics, because we are animals. The truth it portrays is that of our ugliness towards each other and ourselves.

But it is, as I say, when a work of art speaks directly and 100% to both head and heart that we experience the sublime. Let me therefore give an example of a poem that does that for me. (I confine my literary examples to poetry partly from personal preference and partly because the point is more easily and thoroughly made than would be posssible with, say, a novel.) I have chosen T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets (read all) Here are the first two of the three verses that make up Part 1.


Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

I have to confess that I find that sublime. And my final is image is of a sculpture that I find equally magnificent: The Horseman by Marino Marini.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The thing a poem has to be.

So, against all my expectations, it is here. There were certainly times I thought it would get no further than the bin, but what you see making up the second half of this post is the third of my three poems, my trilogy on the boy who disappeared. I have to say that it's been fun. Great fun. Whether it's been poetry I'm no so sure. For one thing, a poem, so far as I am concerned, has always had to have compression as one of its qualities, and these poems have precious little of that. To recap a moment for the benefit of those who may have just tuned in, the first poem, A Tale for Today was given, as I like to think of it - or was as close to beinggiven as anything I have ever experienced. I have had these flashpoint moments before, when someting has sparked off a poem, but it was never quite as complete before, never producing more than a vague outline which had to be worked on - often unsuccessfully. On this occasion it produced far more: I was going through some papers, and got as far as looking down a list of words and phrases when something sparked between a couple of them. (I could not now say which two.) More quickly than I could get it down on paper I had the first verse, and more. I don't wish to suggest that it was dictated, or was some form of automatic writing, certainly not that it was another Kubla Khan (I don't fancy myself as Coleridge), but that the feel and style of the poem and the uncompressed nature of it (which at the time seemed the whole point of it) were all there. Furthermore, the lines, as I wrote them down, suggested further lines. The whole thing came very easily, really like unwrapping a parcel. It was extraordinary, but so was what happened after I posted it. First of all Ken and then Ellumbra followed by Maekitso, Hope at The Road Less Traveled and Dick at Patteran all commented as though the poem had been at least partly based on a true story (which it was not, though in developing the poem I did have in mind the public concern, much publicised in the media just then, with knife crime and with missing young people). The suggestions mostly were that it would be nice to know a bit more. They were saying, with good reason, that there was a quality of incompleteness about it.

Now these are all people whose opinions I value highly, from whose blogs I get both inspiration and pleasure, as indeed, I did on this occasion, for their comments led me to explore the story further to see whether I could unearth a little more information about the boy and what might have happened to him. This had not been even a remote thought when writing A Tale for Today, so I had not prepared the ground, had not introduced difficulties with a thought in mind about how they might be resolved. Least of all had I sketched out a scenario from which to select facts for the poem.

The second poem, The Almost Lovers (both earlier poems are in the ealier posts list in the side panel), which was meant to prepare the ground for this final poem, was a real struggle, and I thought it showed. This one has been somewhere inbetween, bits have come easily, bits I've had to struggle with.

The title for the post came from an email I received from a lad too bashful to expose himself in the comments to the blog. He picked up my earlier remarks concerning the necessity for compression and added: "There is no one thing apoem has to be."
Initially I thought it sounded sane and sensible, even if I couldn't wholly subscribe to it - without fully knowing why - but later I thought it sounded like one of those exam questions: "There is no one thing a poem has to be: discuss."
Going Back

Into the house of mourning walks
one claiming to be him, the boy
who disappeared - repeatedly - and is feared dead.
He's like enough for hope, sufficiently dissimilar
for doubt; in looks and speech he is
and yet is not: the badger streak
much wider in his hair; the voice
less hoarse; the rudimentary third ear
less clear, less well-defined.
Suspiciously, he recollects
no further back than when he disappeared.
Before that day... zip, zero, nix. A set
of picture post card images begins
with the most perfect rainbow that began it all.
So by the light of that he gives
his affirmation, turns
the sadness of that house
to muddle and dismay.

Leaving Four Mile Wood, I saw it straight ahead,
a spray of light and colour in the nettles by the barn,
a spirit wake that arced the heavens where a messenger
had flown, wings folded back like hands in prayer
the way my world was folding back
to Miss Melissa's cadences;
to listening one blissed out hour that never left -
would never leave - my being. No,
not then, not after leaving Grey Moon Cottage;
not following the mallow trail -
sprigs left by either of the Mallows to beguile me
to the broken egg
and to the baffling nest above it in the tree.
I knew I must go back
(my life will be a life of going back),
my nature bade me back; a prelude
viewed in hues hung in the sky; an anthem
tasted, felt, or smelt in thunder or in flowers;
sonatas played by subtle plays of light;
things seen, not heard (as children used to be,
so we are told): all bade me back
and spelt out why
she called her works
small children of a soundling God;
why nothing now could slake my thirst
but her primeval sounds.

She'd meant to play him Phantom of the Idle Moon,
a psychic tour de force if ever there was one -
a psychic force, in fact. It would have stoned his mind.
The reason that she did not follow through
was down to his much altered state of mind,
because of which she did not pick up on his vibes.
He being now anonymous to mystic sense,
she missed his hour-long, second transit of Grey Moon.
He passed unnoticed and unsung,
without the contemplated change of tune.

Near where he'd walked had been
the other boys, the ones with knives, the ones
who'd thrown them at the hares.
They'd called to him. Perhaps he'd like to join their gang?

He would, part of him would, a big part would, a lot of him.
One word, a yes or no, but at its back.
those clamourings of fantasies;
ghosts carried under lock and key since prepubescent days,
now spilling out, too long denied - a fledgling mugger, he!
The boys had split their sides, derided him.
No matter then, the truth was there for all to see,
the genie out, no chance of its recapture.
The truth made manifest in words - and he within himself
could feel what others must have seen. And so,
from those who'd known him best he'd disappeared,

Like colours in a rainbow or like ink in milk,
his memories beyond that point, bleed one into the other:
Gutted he's missed out on the tall ships, slips. An old man
helps him to his feet; the Mallows ask him why he's crying.
(Boys don't cry.) They promise him a breeze
in Sea Sprite; catch the tall ships; picks
his bunk, sees not one sign of a tall ship; slips
silently to sleep, to dreams of snakes and spiders,
mushrooms and the Mallows -
who are fondling his hair.

There is a diary. A log. It doesn't seem to help.

... and still no sign of a tall ship, no ship of any sort,
nothing more than blackness like a sea of ink -
and navigation lights, occasionally them, though even they
are not reflected by this unresponsive sea.
Perpetual night.
I can't explain the total truancy of day. Nor dizziness,
not motion sickness, mal de mer... there is
no movement. And yet still the darkness dredged
up from the ocean floor, from Davy Jones's locker.
Hour on hour it works on me.
My mind begins to hang in shreds, like torn sails in a storm.

Then comes a sudden change of style:

... waking up last night and thinking I was buried...
Someone thought I'd died and buried me.

By contrast, dreamt of being born,
but not of woman, of the sea;
a whirlpool hurled me high upon the land - or deck,
I am a sea-horse made of quartz.

A little light, but half-awake, the day and I.
I stagger round the deck half dry
and try to catch a flying fish - of which
the sky is full. I see them falling back into
the sea, the sea, the sea holds everything.

The night outside is like a woman's gown,
jet black and starred with diamante, the whole robe
hanging on a living frame. Some life form is behind
the sky, beneath the sea and making inroads in the boat;
you see it in the way it moves,
the way the folds flow round the form.

The radio reports my sister's death. I shall jump ship
and make my way - hitch-hiking home - along the coast.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

So now it's Jim and me!

Okay, I put my hands up, I have been a trifle tardy in getting round to coin a few words on Jim's book, Living With the Truth. Actually, that is partly because I was a trifle tardy reading it, and that in turn was because I had to finish War and Peace first, which, foolishly I had chosen for my bed time reading, which would have been okay but for this tendency I have to nod off as soon as I get into bed. (Senior moment type 2.) Why didn't you read it during the day, then? I hear you ask. Because the tendency to nod off is even greater then, I reply. (I didn't nod off reading Living with the Truth funnily enough! Make of that, what you will.)

But to resume: finding myself (not for the first time in my life) the tail-end stooge, I thought I might put aside my desire to review the book for a while yet in order to hit the blogosphere with it when the intial excitement had died down. In fact, it was just beginning to dawn upon me that this might never happen, that Living With the Truth might become a web phenomenon, when, Lo and behold, I hear that Jim has dished out a blog award to me. Naturally, I would want to say a word or two about that, so putting those two developments together, it seemed now might be a good time after all to rush into print with my review.

The award first - of course! My initial reaction was much like Jim's: a certain concern that the method of making the awad - i.e. the blogger having been given the award, then chooses up to five further blogs to be awarded - has the potential, eventually, to award everyone and make the award itself meaningless. My instinct was to suppose there should be some criteria at least, on which the choice is based. That's the professional coming out in me, I am afraid. I was overlooking the traditional amateur nature of the web, which is in fact one of its strong points. Being given a commendation by someone whose judgement you rate highly is in no way inferior to be awarded it by a committee ticking all the boxes. This one has come down to me via Jim (see his Kick-Ass Blogger Award post) and Cataherine at Sharp Words, so the pedigree is as good as it gets - which means I now have to contemplate choosing a blog or blogs, a task I fancy I will not find easy. Not because of their rarity value, but because there is no shortage (so far) of worthy blogs who are yet to be awarded, and because the choice will, by definition, be personal and to that extent subjective and therefore prejudiced. I will do my best, for which read: I will take a day ot two.

So to the book. Living With the Truth. In a sense I feel there is little I can add to what has already been said, and in the main, well said. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable book, and an easy book to read - that not being intended as a criticism by the way. Quite the reverse. It is a serious book that pretends it is no such thing, and a humerous book that does not care who knows it - a combination which I find particularly attractive. The seriousness runs below the slightly acerbic wit and sarcasm, but not invisibly so; it shows in the same way a bone structure shows in the shape of a face. The net result is a gentle and humane portrait of humanity.
The first two sentences set the tone admirably:-

Had it been death that had called that day everything would have been all right. After all, he had been waiting patiently on death for some time and, by his calculations, The Grim Reaper was well and truly overdue.

But it wasn't Death, of course. It was Truth. Hence the consternation that the call would occasion. Death, he was ready for, Truth... ah, well that was an altogether different matter! Our protagonist, Jonathan Payne, is in a sense Mr Everyman: he tells lies to himself, mainly about himself. His is a very fashionable attitude, but one with all sorts of dire - though initially unrecognised - consequences for himself. Some of Truth's colleagues get cameo parts (Destiny for one) and just when you think it might turn to farce it clicks back to serious.

If you know Jim's blog you will already have a fair idea of what to expect (and if you don't know it I would recommend that you remedy that forthwith): the width of his interests and knowledge, for example; the well thought-out and thoroughly researched material; a well-paced and lively, lucid text that leads you into areas you had not altogether expected. Actually, it always gives you rather more than you had expected. It does so here. Read it, read it anywhere: if you have not yet taken your holiday, read it on the beach or in the plane. You could even read it in bed - but not if you want to fall asleep.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Myself and Harold Pinter

Dream time

This is an account of a dream I had some short while ago. Doreen, my wife, is giving an address of some sort. She is standing on a dais in what appears to be a lecture hall. A rapt audience is sitting in what looks more like the nave of a church, though they are sitting in the sort of study chairs more usually found in lecture halls. Doreen is relating an anecdote about a woman who is "kicking off" in a supermarket. It is obviously going to illustrate something. She begins to gesticulate rather excitedly. "No one can do anything with this woman, so they send for the general manager..." She is really warming to her story now, and continues with it even more animatedly than before. "The general manger arrives, goes straight up to the troublesome woman and says..." She comes to a sudden stop. There is silence. Has she forgotten the punch line? Some of the audience begin to smile, but they are still looking earnestly towards her. She does not look discomposed or worried, she is standing in a relaxed manner, arms hanging limply by her sides, regarding the audience. I am reassured. She knows what she is doing. The pause is planned. It will be part of the point she is about to make. I look back at the audience. The first signs of embarrassment are beginning to show, a slight restlessness is apparent. Still there is no sound, either from them or from her. I look back at her. The same pose, the same demeanour. The fidgetting of the audience is growing, though still silently. They are most definitely embarrassed now, occasionally looking away from the dais towards their neighbours. Nothing, though, perturbs my wife. The silence continues, and I am thinking that whatever is coming next had better be good, when I realise the cause of the silence: I have woken up, I have obviously been awake for a few seconds, maybe a minute, difficult to know, dreamtime not being quite the same as real time, and me not being quite sure which one I'm in. The sound must have switched off when I awoke, but not the vision. I can still see my wife or the audience, whichever I choose to look at. I open my eyes, not having realised until then that they were still closed. It is quite dark and for a few seconds more I can see what is happening in that lecture hall, though now I can also hear what is happening outside, car doors are banging, an animal of some sort is screeching, someone shouts. Then the faint outlines of the bedroom replace the lecture hall, and the dream is over.

They say that when you die your hearing is the last faculty to go. I doubt it will be so in my case. Or does someone out there know better? On a scale from "dead common" to "unique" how usual or unusual is this? Does anyone know? It has never happened to me before.

Quotes from Harold Pinter.

"In a career attended by a great deal of dramatic criticism one of the most interesting - and indeed acute - critical questions I've ever heard was when I was introduced to a young woman and her six-year-old son. The woman looked down to her son and said: 'This man is a very good writer.' The little boy looked at me and then at his mother and said: 'Can he do a W?'"

I've had two full-length plays produced in London. The first ran a week and the second ran a year. Of course, there are differences between the two plays. In The Birthday Party I employed a certain amount of dashes in the text, between phrases. In The Caretaker I cut out the dashes and used dots instead. So that instead of, say: "Look, dash, who, dash, I, dash, dash, dash," the text would read: "Look. dot, dot, dot, who, dot, dot, dot, I, dot, dot, dot, so it's possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes and that is why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point. You can't fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot from a dash a mile off, even if they can hear neither.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Almost Lovers

It was something of a surprise to get comments and emails asking for more information on my poem A Tale for Today. I did not have any further info' on the story. None that would have satisfied, that is. In a moment of weakness I mentioned the possibility of a sequel as a way of unearthing more. This is not it, but is... could be... might turn out to be... don't hold your breath... a step in that direction. Think of it as a possible presequel. It has not come as the other did, as a gift from heaven - orsomewhere. This one I have had to work for, and I think it shows. But like A Tale for Our Time it is not a final draft. However, if any good person feels inclined to offer a critique, I would be very happy for it to be written as of a final draft. This way of writing is new ground for me.

Jan, sister of the boy who slipped from view, found bed
exerted nothing like the pull
of those bleak hills at night -
of death perhaps (she thought him dead),
as if in some familiar field or wood
he might take shape where he had disappeared.
Then early in the second week and in the early hours
she and the one they called
The Strange One met by Sangster's Copse.
His footpath had come out on hers; they'd stopped
and eyed each other - she suspiciously, but still
she did not take exception when he chose
to walk beside her, tried to keep in step.
The next night he was there. And then the next,
and every night from then, no matter what the hour.
He'd sidle up as if he knew her brother's whereabouts or fate.
One night came partial clarity: an understanding, not
of how, but consequence, of end result, that she it was
who'd waylaid him that night. And more: that each
time either took a dark walk to the copse,
the other would be there, would wait. They'd meet,
no customary time in mind and never by arrangement.

So much about them has not been explained,
perhaps is inexplicable; their rendezvousing just
the way they did; and how, like lovers almost, they
could understand, instinctively, the other's needs:
some warmth or tenderness, perhaps; some
privacy or solitude. They neither of them spoke
the other's language, but by a certain look, a side-long glance
from those green eyes, a murmur as of heart,
or by his yawning silence, she would know.
He'd hear the sounds of simple words,
their tone, that charge of feeling that non-lovers
misconstrue, then take unerringly
the next step in their primal dance.

If you had seen them walking on the hills - which no
one ever did - you might have thought them lovers, though there'd be
the odd occasion when he'd vanish from her side -
heard something in the bushes (or the ditch), the murmur said -
to reappear almost at once, with blood around his lips. And once
her parents, over breakfast, asked
about the blood trail down her chin.
"A nose bleed, nothing more," she said,
who'd never had a nose bleed in her life.

High in the hills on Three Cairns Way they'd hear the strains
of Miss Melissa's violin. Her Motifs Interlude, interminably
played beside a window open to the hills. He'd feel
the strain and howl in pure frustration or in fear, his mind
for one brief moment, turned - or as Jan often felt, unhinged.
For her part, Miss Melissa claims she did not hear
those wild, unearthly wails. (An oddity of nature, is it not,
the way sound scales a cliff face, but will funk it coming down?) But be
that as it may, the sounds of voice and violin
would thin at those times, lose their body, seem
to be in dialogue or difference. But when
the night was cold and Miss Melissa had her window closed
Jan let her mind lose on the neighbourhood. Then, looking down
she'd see the tesselated fields arrange themselves more formally.
In chess board style, her brother's board... it had to be...
the ponds and pollards, burns and barns his pawns and pieces... half -
just half - a kriegspiel game. The scudding shadows thrown by moon and
were pointers to the moves he'd made: a field he'd crossed; a coppice
Pawn to king's knight four. Illegal move...
But somewhere out of sight, she knew, were other boards:
his adversary's with his adversary's pieces;
the umpire's with an umpire's overview.
And that was how she saw things from the hills,
and seeing them the way she did, her mind, as if by fate, was set
to find the umpire's board, its insights, full position, black and white;
and lastly to wind back the game, back to that first forbidden move;
and set the bad position straight.

By early hours she'd feel the lack of sleep, they'd nod good-bye
and turn for home. As like as not she'd see the Mallows on the path
that climbs up from the bay where Sea Sprite spends her days,
too far away to speak, which pleased her well.
If you had asked about the sack that weighed them down,
you might have heard of fish that swam by night out by the bank,
of a good catch, and then of how they'd caught that Jan,
not only trespassing, but spying on their land,
and how she was at risk and ought to be in care -
and no doubt "will be when The Social's told".

Just once she took her Strange One home.
Her brother's birthday treat. She gave the surrogate the gift
he should have had, a school cap like the one
he'd lost - now something to be worn next time they met.
They shared a cake and spent the night (not quite) together in
the garden house, her brother's trains and model boats between them on
the floor.
By morning he was gone. They found her late that evening,
laid (or so it it seemed) to rest in Badgers' Brook.
Savaged was the way the press described her death -
though no one thought to mention (either then or later)
that on her torn breast lay two sprigs of mallow crossed.

The farmers organized a shoot to cull the local foxes.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Chalk and Cheese

Found in the Attic

Sometime during my previous life, as part of an investigation into the relationship between the development of language and thought, itself part of my studies for a teaching diploma in special needs, I set up an experiment in an infant school in which a crystal ball on a perforated metal base was placed on the work surface of one of the classroom storage trolleys. The base of the crystal ball concealed a microphone and the line from the microphone was passed through a small hole in the centre of the worktop to a tape recorder in the lockable storage space below. Other items that I thought might catch a child's interest were placed around the globe and the whole was then covered with a large cloth.The tape recorder was set running and the cupboard locked just before the children, chosen for the experiment by the headteacher (I suspect primarily on the basis of dependable behaviour), were admitted. They, and I, sat round the trolley. I introduced myself and gave them an edited version of what we were going to do, before removing the cloth to a muted chorus of "oooh"s. At this point, and by prior arrangement, the school secretary entered the room and, as per our arrangement, pretended to whisper in my ear. I thanked her, she left the room. I apologised to the children and said I had to pop out for a minute. I told them they could talk amongst themselves, but they were not to touch anything on the trolley. I then left the room. Just recently I found the following transcript of what occurred when it became necessary to turn out the attic preparatory to the insulation being beefed-up.

June: Which way ee go?
Janet: 'Wards Mrs Smith's room.
June: Don't go the office that way!
Janet: I know... ssstaff room.
June: Phone's in office.
Michael: So?
June: When she comes in and whispers like she did, is always urgent, 'coss they's wanted on phone.
Michael: No, t'aint.
June: 'Tis
Michael: Aint.
June: Is
April: Anyone hear what she said.
Michael: Nope!
April: Sounded to me like "bananas, bananas, bananas..."
Angela: Would have been rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.
April: I never heard you say you heard what she said.
Angela: Don't 'ave ter.
April Ow you know then, what she said, if you never heard?
Angela: Well, I do know, then, see! I know 'coz I know that's what they say,
April: Who say?
Angela: People who aren't saying things, but want you to think they are.
June: What are you on about? What people saying things?
Angela: No, people NOT saying things.
June: And how comes you happen to know so much?
Angela: My mum's in am dram.
April: Where's that?
Angela: It's not a place, silly, its acting. They dress up and go on stages and do stories and things. Then people pay to go and watch them, and sometimes they like pretend they're whispering to each other on the stages, but really and truly truly they got nothing to say to each other, so they just say "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb".
Alfred: Incredible absurdity!
April: Could just as easy say bananas, bananas, bananas!
Angela: No they couldn't, then. That's quite wrong!
April: Oh? Is it then? Why?
Angela: Wouldn't sound right. When people whisper, words sound all smooth, like. Like rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, but bananas, bananas, bananas sounds lumpy. Don't sound right.
James: Sounds like rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, if you ask me! What about... What's these things here we mustn't touch?
April: Get orf! Don't touch any of them - not 'till ee comes back
James: I aint!
April: You are - you nearly did!
Michael: It's a crystal ball ...
April: Tells you what's going to happen in your life.
Michael: I was just going to say that! My mum's had hers done.
June: 'Er what?
Michael: Her future. This woman told her all what's going to happen to her.
James: Crap!
Alfred: Incredible absurdity!
June: How?
Michael: She had one of them. We could now. You look into it and you can see the future.
June: All I can see is the windows upside down!
James: They aint upside down, just bent at the edges.
June: Round this side they's upside down!
Michael: You have to cup your hands, see, like this. It cuts out earth light so there's only light in the ball what's came from the future. See, like this... now I can see the future.
James: Crap!
Michael: Yes I can, I see a cloudy path...
Sally: Oh yes, so can I...
and you are walking along it my dear,
things will get difficult for you, I fear!
April: That rhymes, it's like a song.
Michael: That's how they speak, singy-songy - fortune tellers, that is.
June: Had one at the fete last year.
April: Sally's a poet!
Michael: Now it's getting misty!
James: Let's see.
Michael: Don't push!
April: Now see what you've done!
June: Oh! You've moved it! You've done it now. ee'l arf be cross with you now, we wasn't meant to touch it. We never touched it. You did!
Alfred: Incredible maladroitness!
Sally: 'Snot much. 'Ee won't notice that...
Michael: No? Well, I jolly think he will... Hey! Hold on a blinking half a mo'... What have we got here?
Sally: What?
Michael: Only a wire coming out the bottom of it, that's all, my men!
James: What sort of wire? Is it electric?
Sally: Electric! That's why he said not to touch it! We could all get eletrocooted! Shocks an' all - or something!
Michael: Don't think so, not from this, not the sort of shocks thatflings you across the room. It's a thin wire, not dangerous. I know! - Could be a bug, P'raps ee's bugged us!... It's going inter the cupboard... See?
(Long Pause)
Sally: Miss Piper (the head) wouldn't let 'im do that, would she?
Michael: Might.
Alfred: Incredible misdemeanour!
Angela?: ??????????????????? (indecipherable)
James: So lets open the door, see what's inside.
(Long Pause)
Jake: Trying to - it's locked. Dodgy, that. They never ever ever locks these cupboards.
Michael: Oh, well, that's it then, we's all shot. No good pretending we didn't do nothing - eez 'eard it all!
June: I didn't do nothing!
Sally: 'Nor me. Who saw me do what? (long pause) See!

At this point I decided to return - and they all with one accord began to chat about the other articles on the trolley.

The Man Born Blind

They built an eye for a man born blind,
they gave him underwear prickly with pins,
with tingles in low resolution, whims
of the software, rogue pixels were there,
dragged like fish from the deep,
mapped from the lens and laid into skin.

Imagine a door or a tree in braille,
the edge of a wall, the shape of your chair,
think of your partner's face in your chest,
and suppose for a moment you took it all in
and imagined the world was exactly like that...
You do that exactly. Every day.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

A Tale for Today

Near where a boy had walked
who had been walking home,
who would never be seen again,
had been other boys, playing with knives.
That is, they said that playing had been the whole of it,
they told the police they had only been playing,
and even as they told the police it was play,
the boy was walking home who would disappear
somewhere between the edge of the wood
and that new monster hotel they are building - and all
while Miss Melissa was playing her violin. (Bliss
themes mostly, from Things to Come and the ghostly
Motifs composition of her own.) Much has been made
of Miss Melissa having played her violin
beside an open window - knowing, his parents now
maintain, that he would pass that way, and knowing
the very disturbing and unprecedented way
her Motifs acted on his fragile mind.
It has been established, almost beyond doubt,
that the boy did pass her open window,
that he passed it as he was walking home,
that he stopped to listen, as she had known he would,
and that he did all this just before he disappeared.

It has also been confirmed that the Mallows were arguing.
It is thought that the boy heard their angry voices
and was never heard of again.
From the Mallows' cottage you can see the sea,
and just where the sea is deepest blue
a tall ship taking part in a tall ships' sail-past,
had thrown its canvas to the wind. The boy, who loved the sea
and vessels of every sort, and had perhaps been making for
the jetty (just a small diversion from his journey home)
to get the best view going of the passing ships,
would not have seen its graceful lines - nor any others - glide
out from behind the headland like a dancer from the wings,
would not have seen its bows and curtsies to the tides and winds,
would not have seen it cast its shadow long on sea and dune
as if it cast a net, as if
the fading footprints of the boy
were small fry in its mesh; as if
a crumbling edge of sand was all the world could know
of one strange lad who'd loved its touch-and-see-ness,
then had vanished from it just a breath ago.
The Mallows could no doubt have vouched for what had passed: the boy,
supposing only that he had been found, could have said only that
before the schooner cleared the bluff
they'd watched him disappear for ever.

It might or might not be coincidence
the way they found the bird's egg smashed
beneath the large oak close to Sangster's copse,
and on a bough above the nest, the boy's cap snagged,
and on the smashed egg
two fresh sprigs of mallow - crossed.

Outside The Prince's Arms, not looking where he was going,
the boy was seen to trip and graze his knee.
An old man helped him to his feet. The man, not being
recognized by any locals, has been dismissed by them
as having been a tramp. The boy, thanking him
asked did he like his trainers - they were new.
The old man knew nothing about trainers,
but knew something about sad boys with knives
and earlier had seen the boys who had said they were playing,
throwing their knives at the hares in the Mallows' field -
the field which had the tree, the boy's cap snagged,
the smashed bird's egg and the sprigs of mallow.
The old man warned the boy to take great care
and said the boys with knives had all been smeared with blood
and had been laughing, even boasting of a stray dog they had killed,
some mangy old dog that had strayed their way.
The boy, while maintaining that he could perfectly
well fend for himself, promised to be careful,
then advised the old man to go
and listen at Miss Melissa's window,
to which the old man said he surely would -
and all of that ocurred soon after the boy had disappeared.

The police, who admit to being baffled by his multiple
meltings into thin air - and even more so by
their synchrony, have appealed for witnesses.
The missing link in the evidence, they think,
is being held, all unwittingly, by someone
who didn't see the boy at all that evening.