Saturday, April 23, 2022

From Fiction in Progress: Paul Muldoon

There've been no posts for a while, as I'm working on a new book. But here's something i wrote last night which will probably form part of the new project: 

A poetry reading by Paul Muldoon in Hampstead. He read from his long rhapsodic poem Incantata, a kind of great welling up of salty sweet words, that also made me weep. Finer than any memorial poem I’ve heard, or read. It works by accumulation, all the details he shared with her, Mary Farl Powers, that cannot be opened by footnotes, that remain forever foreclosed, and that is part of the pathos of course, that we do not have access. The private exchanges that cannot survive the passing of those two who made them. Each true friendship, each true relationship, is in fact like a person in itself, that hovers between two bodies, that rises to life when two bodies come close and start to speak or touch. Each true relationship has its own argot, a thumb pressed into the other’s palm, a range of touchstones and keywords that form a world. And this poem, Incantata, an ecstatic itinerary of this world, this hovering third person, a frantic gathering of details, the still glowing pieces of friendship, the fingerprints of its essence, lost to anyone else, and here he was Muldoon, trying to scoop them all up, trying to salvage something, a presence, as from a ship that was sailing away, retrieving the details only to see the soul that slips through them, or over them, the coat tails of she who was leaving, to conjure only the breeze of departure, so that all we are left with, us readers, us listeners, is the image, not of the friend and her presence, but the racked and empty hands of the poet, the frantic and sad conjuration, the words blown away by the breeze of the loss.

But anyway, and then, he said, Muldoon, in response to my question, which was hardly a question and more a paraphrase of the paragraph above, that poets are often thought to possess a facility with language, when, in fact, the reverse can be true. Heine, for example, said Muldoon, was always marooned in silence, there was a weeping wound that words could never address, or bandage, and often, and as with Incantata, the poet uses words as magic spells to summon and carry a rhythm which - born from the tides of emotion, born from the backwash of blood - comes before and outlives them. 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Milton's Moon

Today I taught Milton. He was next on the syllabus, that’s the only reason. I chose a lesser-known poem, Il Penseroso. Partly because there’s a  Yeats poem with the same rhythm and rhyme scheme, almost as if Milton’s poem is the breath and pulse of a poem born 250 years later.  And this also changes the meaning of the Yeats poem, which is haunted by the other poem, and its lonely Protestant spirit, its curious paean to melancholy, at odds with the nationalist commitments of  Yeats’s Apologia. Anyway, It’s prolix, and slightly conventional, the Milton poem, but there was this sudden moments of arrest:

And missing thee, I walk unseen

On the dry smooth-shaven green,

To behold the wand'ring Moon,

Riding near her highest noon,

Like one that had been led astray

Through the heav'ns wide pathless way;­­­­­­­­-

 And of course, the class, having looked at a host of other poems, were quick to remind me of Shelley’s moon, “Pale for weariness”. And D. Kelly quoted Sappho: “the moon has left the sky” – a tale of amorous desolation compressed into a snapshot. But these lines of Milton were the ones that wounded me for some reason, wounded, that is, in a good way, breaking the skin that forms over passion. It wounded me, a brief wreck of beauty and madness, hooked up with the poet’s most ­­­­undisclosed part, for it is certain that there are regions of our soul that can only be illuminated by the moon, that only the moon makes legible, that only the moon rescues from obscurity, and each of these poets, Shelley and Milton, reaching back right to ancient Greece and beyond, have been similarly illuminated, and, in reviving the old image, are reaching out to those earlier poets, turning the numerous ghosts into flesh, endlessly, keeping alive not only the image of the moon, but the whole community of poets, who understand each other across the centuries, and for whom the distinction between the living and the dead is not of enormous importance. “Isn’t the moon too conventional now”, Lyle McPherson asked, “so that some of its meaning has leaked away?” But this too, I suggest, is part of its resonance, its conventional cold apartness, the leakage of meaning, of felt and spontaneous meaning: exactly the mirror and emblem of the melancholic soul. And it as if this lunar sadness was in fact not personal, I continued, in the sense of bearing one individual’s fingerprint, but a kind of common emotion of humanity, not a constant, but a kind of rare astrological phenomenon, that Sappho and Milton and Shelley have witnessed, and it is carried above and on the back of history, as it were, by the poets. I envisage this and other great transpersonal emotions, ripe for continuation, intimate but non-personal, picked up by poet after poet, not like objects passed from hand to hand, but a task, an ongoing endless task of love.

As usual, it was D.Kelly with the insight. Was Shelley’s moon an allusion to Milton someone asked. “I think,” replied D.Kelly, “It’s as if Shelley wanted to enter Milton’s poem and revive it. To read it by reinvention, which for poets is really the only true reading”. “I feel,” said D. Kelly, “that poems are always incomplete, and that’s what’s amazing about them, because that means we can continue them in our own words, in our own hearts, and we realise that they mean only when we do this, and Shelley is continuing Milton’s image, but is not completing it either, because its never complete and therefore always alive, and poetry is about recognising infact that life is an ongoing open project, just endless renewal, and what Blake said, in that other poem you gave us, endless self-delight.”

I was a good class, needless to say, and been reminded of the zeal and plasticity of young minds, which we must always touch in with, reminding ourselves how far we've fallen even with wisdom's increase. But when I got back, I spoke to C. on the phone, and she told me that last year she had a miscarriage in Bucharest. And the rest of the day, with all its joys, was suddenly underwater.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Depression and Writing

There are many books about depression. About the waning of affect; the world losing lustre and presence; the circling mind,  like a beast too long in a cage; the break-up of language - words become things in the field of vision rather than lenses that help makes things clear; the effort to speak seems like labour.  

It’s time you ended this worthless life You try sometimes to write it out, as if your depression was kept in a ventricle somewhere inside, a glossy black juice in a sac near the heart, and the writing, which has to be done with a fountain pen, is an emptying out of this bile. The ventricle fills again with air as the ink-bile dries on the page. It takes the form, this bile, of words of disgust and self-hatred. Your life has been a farce. Final verdicts of various sorts, designed to act as epitaphs, and, therefore, to stop the flow of life, to place you posthumously, looking back. These, in the strictest sense, are fantasies, they envisage you in an impossible place: outside life looking in, your existence already congealed into the closed shape of a destiny, like the fantasy of being at your own funeral. They are a form of sloth.

These words you write out are often intended to harm and to fatally wound, but they are fired – also, perhaps – so you might take solace that something remains when the vile shots are spent, something’s withstood the bloodshed, something, wordless, is left behind and cannot – by words – be annulled. This is it, I think: you know, in advance, that no matter how much acid bile you spill, at the end, you’ll be there like a luminous stone in the moonlight: inert, enduring, immune.

There is something else. It’s to do with writing. Words when they're written not spoken. This I’ve seldom read in the books. The countervailing weight of disgust when you put your depression in writing. Even if these are themselves words of disgust. So for example, I write; “The door of happiness is merely a painted door, painted on stone.” Or simply: “How can I live with this body?” But then, not ten minutes later: the disgust, the laughter, arriving with furious vengeance. Disgust like when you spit into a teaspoon and then recoil at the thought of putting cold spit back into the mouth. That first of all. And this in turn frees up the space for laughter. A cruel and mocking laughter of course, a noise for smashing up language. Nobody cares what you writethe hubris of thinking it matters,  Yes, the demons are keen to kill writing.  Their tone is strident, triumphant. The other part of you cowers, cowers with its handful of words. These contradictory movements at once. Cross it out, throw it away, deface it, accuse it of lying. Your words are an act of imposture. Sometimes you concede.

But I think I know why they hate writing. And why they will be undone. They are jealous. That dot of ink on paper, no matter what word it starts, implies and cries out to a future. The impulse to bear witness, to report, to be read, only makes sense if there is a future, a future self who will find it of use, revise and revisit. Not what you’ve written but the fact of writing is – whilst the impotent demons scream themselves hoarse - addressed to the face of Care. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

In Translation (short auto-fiction)

Everything I’ve loved has come to me through translation. I wrote this in my notebook this morning. I liked the rhythm and gnomic abruptness of the sentence. This is how it is with me; I admit. I like the shape or cadence of the sentence and then find a sense to fit it. The words arrive like a command that I must answer and live up to. I submit to the spell, like when I fell for the name ‘Thelonious Monk,’ and built my taste around it.

In this case, perhaps, I was thinking of the great writers, the pantheon as I call it: Proust, Kafka, Rilke, as well, and Celan. Each of these I received in translation, and never reached beyond the wall into German or French. I chose to remain in the room next door. This, incidentally, is how I thought of it. A wall, through which one hears the muffled and beautiful music. I remember a long time ago, reading Rilke’s Requiem for a Friend, for example, my ear pressed to the wall of English, eavesdropping on a monologue to a ghost. "The sound reveals your presence". This, perhaps, was one reason why I liked translations, that sense of blocked music, of a hidden eloquence, of being at one remove from beauty – somehow and pathetically a mirror of my own situation, as I liked to think of it, regardless of truth. And being removed from Europe of course. How pretentious that now sounds. But I like that old pretentious self, or rather I like his innocence, and his optimism, and his poetic conceits, false but strangely romantic, adhering to his illusions, yes, but as a way of refusing the world. "Refuse the world till you know who you are", that's what i always said.

But anyway, it’s not true. In the most literal sense, it’s not true. For the obvious figure is Beckett. Remember, at 16, Webster the English teacher put me onto Beckett. They made fun of him, the dullards, poor Webster, remember. We read that Ted Hughes poem about a dead pig.  'The pig lay on the barrow dead/ It weighed, they said, as much as three men'. "Sounds like Webbo," some dummy quipped, spreading ripples of giggles across the class. Anyway, he lent me his copy of  Waiting for Godot. I had the privilege of not knowing, not knowing he never arrives. It left me overwhelmed, I don’t know why. They do not move. Astonishing. And I started reading whatever I could by Beckett. In particular, The Trilogy. I borrowed a copy from Bradford library, an edition with errata, except the errata consisted of a number of photographs of Beckett that belonged in another volume. I fell in love with his face as well as his writing. The writing totally unlike a face, which is to say it never, or only momentarily, coalesced into an image. The writing was a form of tunnelling, I thought at the time, each comma a blade in the soil, beneath the familiar garden of words, and I too wanted to tunnel away, to escape, and arrive as far as possible from ordinary speech and ordinary life, and to live as a foreigner inside my own speech, dig down and emerge near the edge of the lake somewhere else, to re-enter the garden from outside, armed with eccentric equipment.

So maybe Beckett fits after all. Firstly of course in so far as English is, for the Irish, famously always an “acquired tongue”. They, the Irish - the 'mere Irish' the English used to call them - are secret agents within the English language, making it tremble or dance, introducing rude spirit into its dry and formal limbs, watering it with invention. But also because Beckett’s works are always in transit, on their way from French to English, English to French, as if each text is a different playing out of something that pre-exists them. He, the bird-faced blade-like Beckett,  mines the impulse from which the text springs, mining it in French, mining in it English, mining this hidden reserve with different idioms. But the hidden reserve is never exhausted. Yes, that’s it. That’s what unites the pantheon. The sense of that hidden reserve, that has to be dialled into language. Beckett and Rilke, Celan and Proust, experienced their own writing as a translation into language. The hidden reserve interacts with language, producing something new.

There we are, I’ve made it work after all, it’s true after all, it’s true after all that first sentence.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

New York Tarot (Auto-Fiction)

We rode the Metro back from JFK to 82th Street - a row of impressive brown and red stone houses where I would be staying, albeit in a tiny apartment facing onto an overgrown yard, a tiny apartment with great squat black steel radiators and a bed above the kitchen, and indistinct voices from every direction, and piercing horns outside, and a TV with 100 channels, and a man in a vest downstairs who came up and knocked on the door and barked out a series of questions.  

Anyway, as we emerged from underground, we saw a homeless man holding a picture frame to his face saying “I’ve been framed,” pressing himself close to us, aware we were drinking his moist rich smell; then a man in a wheelchair and military garb waving conspiracy theories around casually like a newspaper. It had the feel of an improvised movie-set, arranged for a travel novice like me, a gang of paid extras coming half-way to meet my expectations. These expectations were legion, for New York, like London, can only be, for the visitor, the vivid original of countless copies. Morris and Alice insisted this was unusual, this phantasmagoria of poverty and madness I mean. They'd never seen anything like it before. And yet I had, or so it certainly seemed, like the steam rising from the pavement and cumbersome angry yellow taxis, and all the uncanny signs of New York. 

After they dropped me off at the apartment, after they returned to theirs, I went for a long circuitous walk. Turning onto Columbia Avenue I could smell what I thought were French Fries, but it turned out to be an East European street vendor selling something called a 'knish', a small parcel of pastry filled with potatoes and onion and perhaps some sweet cheese. The food of New York carries with it, I thought, the smell of abandoned Europe: Naples, Cork, Vienna, Berlin, the foods that they all carried with them, famished, or chased or expectant.  It was delicious, partly of course because it allowed me to wear the brief disguise of belonging, a disguise I still wore when I then bought an oversized ice-cream, cherry and cream flavour, from a small shop with walls full of laminated options.

As I turned back into 85th street, a Tarot Card sign in a still lit, pink-lit window. For an instant I was tempted: to descend the tatty winding stair, the temptation to cede to Fate, or madness, to relax and relinquish the will and allow something monstrous to open up, the story to which you are an unwitting accessory, waiting for you in a basement, to be redrawn by some unknown knowledge. But also I thought that somehow this subterranean Sybil might reveal not just a future already reserved, so that I might relax and grow lazy, but also the very dark soul of New York – not, of course, that there is such a thing, but what I mean is that his light in the window was the one detail I hadn’t expected, that it might then lead to the magical door, the door that swings open when no one has knocked.  It was midnight: sweet proofs of ice cream cold on my palate. These forty five minutes were already an odyssey. I’d happily go back home, I said to myself. When I got back he was waiting, the grizzly old man in the vest. Where's Joe, How did I know Joe, where was I from and so on. "You look like Gene Hackman," I told him. This seemed to break the ice. I was a friend of Morris, I explained, who, in turn was a friend of Joe. 

I woke at 6am, which is to say 11am in London time, ready and alert despite the briefest sleep. I had lain awake, thinking about the flight, about my first impressions of New York, and about myself of course. Thinking that I am content to associate only with people who reflect back to me an image of my own “gifts”, the mesmerised piety of Finn, for example, ditto the indigent owl-like Glass who speaks of my "occluded genius". When I go back home, I will refuse these people. I will live with my ordinary talent. This will be my mantra: “live with your ordinary talent”. My image in the bathroom mirror seemed particularly haggard. I wanted it to be, perhaps. I took a shower, put on some fresh clothes and entered the street. All the shops that were open last night were still open. I called in at a bakery with people already outside having breakfast. There was no real sense of it being very early morning. The customary silence has long been cracked, if it was ever there. I bought a raisin and cinnamon bagel and a bowl of coffee. I took a seat outside. Assailed by the beautiful noises, sirens and shouts and engines, from which Gershwin composed his music in blue. Here I am now at the cafĂ©. This very sentence is a trace of my time there. I sit and watch the street as if in the Dress Circle. Drinking the dark-roast and almost charcoal-scented coffee and eating the warm doughy bread I feel an eager energy and also, in the air and light of the street, as brief as a passing resemblance, there forms a crystal of happiness, which coincides exactly with these italicised words, something lucent and indestructible, formed from the chance combination of elements: Coffee, street noises, a passing face, a clear sky, the smell of bread, the fact of writing where none was expected, the ascension of the soul after a night in the cellar. The light of the street after months underground.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Darkness at 5

From now on darkness at 5pm, the day abandons you to your desklamp. From now until March, gloved in silence, outdoors mostly out of bounds. You will turn in on yourself, listening to Janacek, notes from an overgrown path, golden notes splashing down the lanes of the mind and trickling into the body.  

The clocks had gone backwards by the time I woke up, unaware of the fact, peddling off to Gastro’s to be greeted with “Mark, you’re early!” I glanced at the clock; “Of course, the clocks have gone backwards!” And then, just as I was about to leave, a second cup of coffee “on the house”. Cuka the waitress, her thin hooked nose and large brown eyes and bobbed black hair and smoky French accent. This gift of a second coffee warmed by heart after last night. This second coffee was in fact a lit candle placed near and in defiance of the frosted window. The party was a catastrophe. I spent most of the time clutching a plastic cup full of gaseous lager trying not to look too conspicuous. People, if they talked to me at all, with one strange exception, one extraordinary exception which I will have to write about another time, quickly found an excuse to do something else – answering the door, getting another drink. I left ridiculously early, before most people had even arrived, feeling humiliated. And I walked back to my room, my books. I do not understand parties, I have no idea what people talk about, not just at parties but generally. Really, I’d like to know what people find to talk about.

Now, in Gastro’s, I am reading Rilke’s book on Rodin: an unparalleled cataclysm has passed over his work. ‘But what is this cataclysm’, I write, ‘this storm, but the artist’s own energy, or rather an energy which visits the artist, which blows apart the world’s habitual shapes, and breaks them into units sufficiently small to be reconfigured by a new individual syntax?’ I am pleased with this formulation, even if it is hardly original. Give me only this: my table by the window, my notebook, my derivative marginalia wrapped in mystical garb. And at such times, scribbling in my red notebook, in these last days of October, seeing the ink appear on the page seems to me a kind of miracle. Like my soul has escaped into matter, like the soul has made use of the arm and the hand to find its way into the world. The wet black letters on the page, their amniotic sheen.

It is true that in my life, with its tiny radius, this moment of appearing is what I most live for. And all else is a way of framing and preparing for this. And it strikes me now that the party, wherein, after that strange and diffident guest Joseph left, time wound right down almost to zero, to the stuttering repetition of the same minute again and again, and I was trapped in its circle, trapped in the circumference of a plastic cup of lager, and willing it to move, the massy wheel of time… that this party existed only to allow this present moment of glorious solitude to exist, to emerge.

To become a single moment, a single sensation: the word on the page, the shot of sharp coffee in the mouth. To contract to a point so small that it becomes for an instant the whole world, for there is nothing outside it. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021


Once when I was in Battersea, an extraordinary thing: I was walking over Battersea Bridge with a bag in which I kept my journal and pen. Looking over the bridge into the Thames, I felt the urge, or rather a demand from the river itself, to throw my bag, and all my precious words, into the rough water, a wanton wasteful act, an act of outrageous and pure freedom, freedom and its void, cutting the ties that hook you to reason, to your own interests, to your own so-called in-most self. So I did it, the unexpected whizzing bag, changed into a dangerous object, a gesture with ripples of terror and bliss, the onlookers clearly frightened, unsure of what it might portend or introduce, sensing the surface of the Law ruffled by some monster, or perhaps, better, dazzled by the flash of madness like sunlight bouncing off an opening window. How clean and free I felt, how augmented, reckless, exercising my sovereign rights in the face of humankind.

You’re asked, when you go to the doctor, when you go there because you’re depressed, you are asked if you’ve thought about ending your life. It depends what you mean by “thought about it”. That’s what I said that time when I saw the doctor who was, in an unearthly way, beautiful. It's true that I was depressed but also that I wanted to see this doctor who came from Sweden. But yes, "Have you thought about ending your life?". They - that is to say doctors- armed with this question, mean, if they mean anything as opposed to reading it from a sheet, they mean have you weighed up the pros and cons, have you begun preparations. So no, certainly I have not 
intended or planned it, or even done research preceding a plan. But surely, we’ve all, surely, let our contemplation wander into that forbidden and therefore absorbing territory? To simply roll the thought around in your mind, see how it feels, see how it sits, repellent or familiar, to feel its new texture under your fingers? Does it cause you to recoil, do you caress it, hold it up to the light like a precious irregular amber thing? The various images, as for example the top of a cliff; as for example the sea; the knife with a black plastic handle running with the blue grain of the wrist; the almost unanswerable pull from the top of the tallest building, the draw of the water as you walk over the bridge. Never pills for some reason. To map out the possible deaths, to allay the possible deaths, to fend them off, even, so they don’t take you by surprise, as suicide doubtless can, a suicidal thought, there at once like a unicorn in your bathroom, like a basilisk in your sock drawer, you’re dazzled and captured, you’re overcome, because you’ve not made the time to disarm it, nor do you have in your veins already those images which are death’s own homeopathic remedy.  

I have not, I told the doctor, been attracted to death, not at all. But I have been attracted to waiting for death. I have been attracted to the interval between now and death, and in particular to the idea of clearing this interval of events and persons, of having this interval empty. This has always seduced me, I said. How this has always been my lodestar even. Once my parents are dead, I said, I will sit and guiltlessly wait for death, and say to myself "I've been waiting for this all my life." How morbid this sounds to the untutored ear, I thought, as I talked to the beautiful doctor, knowing she’d sign my prescription, knowing this kind of talk would do the trick, alarmed at my calm and rapture, at the serenity of my exit. Nothing between me and death but time, I said, except it’s not time anymore, you’ve cut the chord, you’re drifting, drifting backwards away from the past with its lights and intensities, the dark hills of the forgotten. I’d just need a chair and a window. A cup of coffee. A glass of wine. The sky’s pure blue in the daytime, and full of stars at night. There are no human noises, nor any wind.  

But all of this, which I told the doctor, was itself just a way of thinking about death, out loud, rolling the thought out loud in the world, seeing how it felt, how much it weighed, seeing whether, vocalised, it grew bold or enfeebled, seeing whether this tangled talk might, like wire wool, plug the portals through which death, one night, might enter.