Dark fermented red
A couple whisper in the doorway
Before they go to bed
A fox stops in the arches
Glances at the moon and back
To the red eye of the signal
Hovering over the track
3.14 am 28 September 2015
This is my version of Eugenio Montale's celebrated poem 'Meriggiare pallido e assorto' (original Italian here) , first written in 1916.
The date is significant. Though the poem appears as an anti-idyll, nature poem, it's actually permeated by the carnage of World War I.
Midday torpor, pale and vague
Beside the crumbling garden wall
Hear from the thickets and the thorns,
Snap of blackbird, scatter of snake.
Through cracks in the mud, in its wrinkles,
Marauding armies of red ants
Now breaking ranks, now interlinking
To fight over some insignificant mount.
Leaves quake as the sea below
Ripples its scales, and starts up
Cicadas shaking with rage
Screeching from arid escarpments.
Blinded where sun blazes
Shadowed by sad amazement
How our life and labours
Are followed like this path
By a wall of jagged glass.
At least startling to me.
Last night, while using a search function to find (unsuccessfully) a recent translation of Rilke poem, I stumbled across this sequence dated 5th May 1998.
This is starlling to me for many reasons. Firstly, I have no memory writing it. Many of the lines and theme re-emerged in later work for the next five years, but every time I used a line again (a lot of the third poem for example about a woman I met later that year) I assumed I was ironically quoting someone else's work: perhaps something I had translated once.
Unless I'm mistaken, I was inadvertently quoting myself.
But beyond echoes and literary themes such as Orpheus and Eurydice, is the way the imagined poem prefigures, in early 1998, the events of the next five years. The more romantic sections are - almost word for word - a pre-emption of a turbulent second marriage. Meanwhile the closing section set in the Old People's home is almost like a first draft of the poem I would write about my mother's death ('Learning to Die') five years later in the Spring of 2004.
What does this prove? That I am incorrigibly predictable in my emotional responses, and that there is a pattern I impose on events which I unconsciously fulfil? Quite possibly. A more benign interpretation would be that I was unconsciously preparing for the turbulence ahead.
I've tried, vainly, to search the internet to make sure that this isn't some kind of unattributed translation. One reason makes me doubt it. The recurrent re-appearance of the image of my dead father, especially in verse two. That image of talking to a dead father obsessed me from my early 20s (inspired by reading something in Freud's work on Dreams) and he disappeared in 1996, two years before this poem was written. He actually died in 2008.
I note I have yet to repeat or reinvest that bit of the story. Yet.
(The only thing I've altered from the 1998 original is to add a missing number and a title for the third poem).
EURYDICE AND HER FATHER
1. APROPOS OF NOTHING
Always at four in the morning
Before milk bottles sing
And babies cry
In a pool of silence
Of lamplight and silence
Darkening the page.
Eurydice may be
But what does she want
With any Orpheus?
She has her own words
Her open necked dress
And her own sharp sword
Which her father gave her
To cut off his head
Should she find him wandering
In this place of shades.
She will not rest
Till the babies cry
And the milk bottles sing.
2. THE BRIDGE OVER THE STYX
Last night she saw her father in a dream
Though he had been dead ten years or more
She engaged him in talk quite normally
Though his face had decayed and his coal eyes burned
Asked him how he was and did not stop
As they walked along the river she ignored
The silence he kept and kept on talking
Everything she could to occupy his thoughts
Until they came to the bridge
She knew when he crossed it he would see
His reflection in the water and confront
The subject she had been avoiding
How dead he was!
It was not a lesson he could take
Like a brittle stem of clematis
You bend around a frame
He would break
And face the full horror alone
His empty eyes
What choice did she have?
The border was final.
He couldn’t leave
So she had to stay
Then Eurydice remembered how he’d given her a sword
One strange occasion, long ago, when she was young
The words he’d said: ‘In another world
You may be my parent and I your son’.
For the first time she understood her meaning
The trouble of the thought passed over her face
Now clearer than the water in the river
And on it her father saw his state
‘Eurydice, he said, free me from this misery
Look away. As the moon fortnightly
Turns away from darkness and towards the light
Just leave me behind in this place of shades.
Your presence shames me. Your kindness
Dries my heart and reminds me what I was
I hate you for it. Will haunt you for it
Don’t curse me any further by staying here
Make severance our last connection
Find the sword I gave you
Cut the strings of filial love
Do us both justice
And look away’
And at that moment
The dream was ended
His memory faded
Without a trace
3. WHEN NO ONE LISTENS
We were gathered at the pub
She came down and sat with us
(No-one noticed) but when she left
We saw her place was empty
Then we knew she’d been.
And she is here at this moment
Sitting in this room, she leans over
Finishes these lines
But the moment you look up
She’s gone. You’re just read Eseoing.
That’s how you know she’s been here
No one collects her e-mails
Studies her manuscripts or fingernails.
Sometimes they see her on the Underground
And ask her what she meant
But all she can do is shrug
Unable to say
She cannot speak
when they are listening.
And she was there when the prizes were given
Smiling at everyone, putting her arms
around the guests, nodding
in agreement, and even manages
to express a little sympathy
for the deceased – herself.
Practises her acceptance speech
Waits behind the curtain
But is never called
She was there. But nobody saw her.
Orpheus sat under the trees
And imagined missing her forever
But she sits under the stairs
Imagining the dark the hope
They will find her. But they won’t.
She hides so well. No one will.
And when no one is listening
At her best
When no one listens
3. FOUR DIFFERENT ORPHEUS'
And the fourth she can’t remember at all
All called Orpheus
4. EURYDICE IN THE OLD PEOPLE’S HOME
Take from her
Nothing is more subtle
Than the whole thing singing together
A chorus without conductor
When the only audience is
The voices themselves
As they rehearse
Take from her
In her eye
And what is left?
The soul goes before the body,
The mind fails before the flesh,
Soon the deafness is so deep
She can no longer hear herself
An eagle’s feather
On an empty desk
Maybe it’s the last thing left
When the memory of the light
Of the mountains and the sky
Of wild open spaces
Blurs behind your eyes
To the vague screens they put around your bed
And you turn to the wall
And even that fades
Maybe it’s the last thing
When you look at the clock
To tell what year it is
And strangers arrive with sad
Bringing flowers that smell
Of someone else’s sickness
Call you mother and grandmother
And you’re dimly conscious
How the end of each sentence
Is lost in ellipses.
Maybe it’s the last
When fury makes the only kind of sense
How they pushed you punished you
All those years of resentment
Stole your house your son your pills
Covered you in bruises
When your life is running backward
Deeper into childhood
Back to cold flannels and wet sheets
Spooned food helpless moods
Maybe it’s the
And just when you think
There is no reason left
Just when you think
No coherence or intent
At the bottom of the pit
She finds it
Like a wish
An instinct to survive
But not like this
Her own residual stubborness
But not exist
Now at last she’s back in charge
Refusing to move
Ruling the roost
For two weeks now
She would not eat
Would not talk to anyone
Has lost two stone
She does not rage
But sits in her chair
Has shut her mouth
To love and antibiotics
And no guilty entreaties or mellow mints
No guilty tears will move
Only parting for
This is her last gambit and now she’s going to win
And that’s what she leaves them
Sometimes it seemed it was never going to end
They never end, the mortgage, new launches
Strange faces, the visitors
The neighbours banging on the door
The rattle of the trolley down the corridor
Sometimes it seemed it never would
But she takes her breath
And this at least is finished
The Great Greek poet
Recalling his nation's victories
Memorialised his heroes less than his enemies;
Hector and Priam,
Possessed and dispossessed,
Vanquished but vindicated.
And so the Trojan horse
Was a gift after all
For what it's worth.
For what it's worth
They think a woman wrote the story of Ulysses
Some bored housewife in Ithaca,
Imagining an epic husband,
And the temptations he resisted
To return and repel her many suitors,
Penelope of the suburbs.
And Orpheus' long descent into hell
Was clearly a ruse by Eurydice
To get his attention,
Which she certainly did,
Losing her by looking back
On the threshold of escape
A brilliant double bind catch
To ensure her image imprinted
Sinking into the darkness
It's Eurydice we miss.
So the first poets weren't torn apart
By envious furies,
But by the split in their hearts
The fork of their fickleness
Where they built these tremendous
“Flying is easy
The hard part is landing”
Just when they thought they had made it
Over the blood lands,
Through electrical storms,
Warm air turbulence,
The sky criss-crossed with their evasions
Divorce, death, debt, madness,
Ice on the wings,
Just then they saw
The landing strip appear
Lit up like a Christmas fair…
On the glide path to disaster
We’ll always wonder
Technical malfunction or doomed intervention?
Did their national histories shoot them down?
Or exhausted, disorientated
Having lost their horizon,
By human error, human love,
Driven into the ground?
Hail falls now
From the residue
Of their vapour trail
Under our feet
Cold hard bitter seed.
Soon we'll be diving into freezing shadows.
So long the brilliance of summer so short.
Already I hear the ominous echo
Of wood logs knocking on courtyard cobbles.
And now Winter will take its toll: anger,
Hatred, shakes, horrors, hard labours,
Like the sun in its arctic circle of hell,
My heart will congeal to a small red block, frozen.
So I quake when I hear the dropping of logs;
More deadly to me than the rap of a scaffold.
My mind is like a castle tower shattered
By a battering ram, relentless, massive..
Till I'm rocked by each monotonous blow,
Nails hammered in haste in a coffin,
But for whom? - yesterday summer, autumn now!
These doom-laden sounds - like a valediction.
I love your wide eyes, their emerald glint,
Subtle and warm, but I'm cold and bitter.
And nothing, your love, the bed, this fire, beats
A glimpse of sunlight over the sea.
Yet you love me regardless: gentle, maternal
Despite my ingratitude, unworthiness;
Lover or sister, you are that short lived bliss
Of a setting sun or a glorious autumn.
Cut short! The grave yawns, voraciously.
Oh let me rest my forehead on your knees,
And savour, while missing the white-hot summer,
The soft yellow rays of a dying season.
This is an edited version of my contribution to a conference and debate about the impact of the Internet on Literature, held in Barcelona in 2006: some of the thoughts have been rendered redundant by history: but not all of them.
What a great subject for a cafe@europa. Thanks to the internet, I am replying immediately, with my unmediated thoughts late on a Friday night/Saturday morning. I only do this because the subject is so provocative and stimulating. Otherwise I would be sleeping! I think the internet is part of the ongoing ‘electrification of the word’.
The word, the logos, is such a fixed and profound part of Hellenic thinking. It required education, expensive vellum and the social organisation of the monasteries to develop. In the age of mechanical reproduction, to be ‘published’ to be official, required either the apparatus of state or commercial capital investment.
But what do you need today? For the means of production, just a printer and a computer. And for the means of distribution and exchange? A blog site.
My personal feeling is that the age of the word – the hieratic, priestly, authored word – is the exception. For most of history, language has been oral – fluid, shared, unrecorded. The paradox of the information age is that the written word, thanks to this computer, and this internet connection, has become as fluid as the spoken word. Literacy has returned to orality. As Mikhail Bakhtin said – it’s all just dialogue.
So I agree there has been a desacralisation of the word in the information age, but I would also agree that this process began with Gutenberg, with the mechanical reproduction of text.
As Walter Benjamin explained, in mechanical reproduction text loses its direct connection with handwriting, its aura or physical residual contact with its creator.
I suppose it’s not surprising that our notions of divine creation are shaped by changes in human creativity. With mechanical reproduction, human creators became more distanced from their works, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the rise of information technology was accompanied by the theology of a ‘hidden god’ at work in nature, a deus absconditus, who employed intervening processes of gravity or evolution to express himself.
Flaubert draws on the same analogy when he says that an author should be in his work as god is in the world, invisible but all powerful.
So to me, this information age begins in the early modern period, sometime around the late 16th early 17th century – appropriately for us, around the time of Cervantes and Shakespeare – when there was a sudden shift in what I’ll call the ‘technology of knowledge’.
The question is whether the last twenty or so years are just a part of the same process of speeding up mechanical reproduction, or if something else more profound has taken place.
I would also add that mechanical reproduction didn’t mean the death of god, or the death of the author, but both creators became more distant from their works and their audiences.
About ten years ago I wrote an essay for the New Statesman, updating Benjamin for the information age. I called the brief piece the work of art in the digital domain. Some of these issues were explored there, but one paradox did strike me.
Thanks to digital technology, it was clear even then that, working alone on our computers, we could edit video, music and sound, compose and tamper with images. To me, this represented the revenge of the writer. Sound and image had also been turned into code, and could be manipulated like text. In effect, digitization turned everything into literature, ecriture, and more people into authors.
I think that is the danger in all discussions of technological innovation- the idea that the printing press, or the telegraph, or the internet, came along one day and changed everything for good.
History is not a succession of innovations, it is fragmented, parallel, and discontinuous…Nothing need ‘replace’ anything else. Every new medium has its practical constraints, and ultimately its human limitations
One common complaint i often hear about these new information technologies is that texting, emailing, and blogging are somehow undermining our standards of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
It’s certainly true that my kids ‘txt’ all the time, and message me weird coded messages on chat ‘soz dad l8 – brb’. Sorry dad i’m late for school. Be right back. However, both my msn/txt children are gr8 at school, and just as they shift their accents from the argot of the playground to the politesse of family dinners, they seem very adaptable when it comes to the rigours of exams against the acronyms of text messaging. Two styles can co-exist simultaneously, often with great wit and vigour from the cross fertilisation.
When it comes to rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling, i always remember that Britain’s most creative period of writing, and the birth place of this modern English now spoken and written throughout the world, was during the age of Elizabethan Jacobean theatre and poetry – a time in which ‘Shakspeare’ spelt his name in ten different ways, and the rules of spelling and grammar were in flux.
That’s one way that the new knowledge technologies are affecting the physics of our textuality (and no doubt our sexuality). But when it comes to ‘hypertextuality’, I always feel we are straying into areas of’ metaphysics’, indeed theology, as I pointed out in a previous intervention.
So perhaps one way of looking at hypertextuality is to go full throttle for this quasi-religious approach, and since literature and the arts have classically offered some kind of substitution for religion, then it may be germane to ask… how does the internet affect our idea of immortality?
Years ago, as a tense teenager, I longed to have a book published. I was reading the canon of famous writers, and then books about these writers – Eliot, Lawrence, eckett – and my idea of salvation was to become famous enough that someone would write a book about me. In the years since then, many things have happened – not least a realisation of the limits of my own literary talent – but I wonder if a broader cultural shift has taken place: i.e. the decline of the book, the printed page, as an emblem of social approval, legitimacy and authority.
In the era of Hola! magazine, the National Enquirer, and in literature of intrusive scandalous biographies, probably the last thing now I’d want is to be ‘immortal’ in this way – like Primo Levi or Elvis Presley. But I wonder how the internet changes our notions of fame, immortality and Parnassus.
About five years ago, I explored with an entrepreneurial friend of the idea of setting up soul.com, in which people could upload their lives to a web space memorial, complete with architecture, music, photos, poems and songs, which would act as a repository of their soul.
We imagined it a bit like the Sims or Sim City, the difference being everyone would build their own mausoleum or utopia. 700 years ago, Dante’s image of paradiso was firmly based in the hypertextuality of books; he saw every redeemed sinner as a page in god’s library. Oddly enough, with more and more people having access to publication, we all have a chance to be at least a ‘web page’ in the library of mankind, and have our fifteen minutes of fame. We have got our place in the library in the absence of god.
This seems to be the crucial problem. In this electronic era of information technology we can all be visible. The biggest anxiety is not expression, but the lurking realisation that nobody may be watching. There is presence, but no judgement. Who is going to ‘editorialise’ this mass of human expression? We don’t have a god anymore. But we do have google. Has google replaced god?
This is an old wordpress blog, usng the classic Hemingway template, I used to combine some words and photos.
I've written three books, the two most recent about the phone hacking scandal, trial and power of media monopolies. Both of these can be found on Amazon.