Thursday, 5 February 2009

Domain revisited

My mother would have been eight-five today had she lived. As it was she died thirty-four years ago at the age of only fifty-one. I remember doing a reading on my fifty-first birthday and mentioning that I was precisely her age on the day.

The human span, or life arc, is not that long though consciousness generally makes it seem longer, almost eternal. It is very hard to think of consciousness actually stopping. Sometimes it is even possible to think consciousness governs time, that as Marvell says at the end of his To His Coy Mistress, we can make it run.

...Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life:
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

This, naturally, in the course of an argument to persuade said coy mistress into bed. The fact is she might think it was not an altogether bad argument, especially when put with such grim élan (The Grave's a fine and private place / But none I think do there embrace... and a few lines earlier... Then worms shall try / That long preserved virginity. And, 'Thank you kind sir,' she might say to that yet find a biting edge of persuasion).

Anyway here is Magda as she would have been about 1962 perhaps:

Magda, c. mid 60s

She is still at work and the photograph would have been taken in the photographers in Oxford Street that employed her, perhaps as a favour, or as a dare by one of the others. (Go on, get your picture taken!) Or maybe it was taken by GV, a professional photographer acquaintance, who had, it seems, taken some rather risqué photos of his wife, as well as of other women, since he had a sideline as a glamour photographer. But that is all hearsay. Here she looks as melancholy as she sometimes could look, except when she was angry, excited or simply exhausted.

She was only 5'1" but slender. Her fingers were very long and supple. She had a beauty spot she painted black, the spot just detectable on the photo on the left side of her face. Note the cigarette in her right hand.

The photographers was part of the domain, as would that part of Oxford Street have been, and the bus ride or tube ride there and back, and the long steep climb up to our house from the bus stop or tube station on the Edgware Road below, a climb her heart condition made ever more demanding.

Home as domain only began to matter very much, it now seems to me, once she was no longer able to work and the house became her cage. It was then she began to collect birds in cages too. Two budgies, a Yorkshire canary that sang sweetly, two zebra finches, two lovebirds and others that came and went. One of the zebra finches had a leg chewed off by the others who then pecked at it. The Yorkshire Canary was in its own normal birdcage, the rest shared a tall cylindrical one. She expended much affection on these.

Ideally she would have had a chimpanzee, but that was out of the question, as was a dog that might have been too energetic, though she loved dogs. Out in the garden, at different times, there were geese, and ducks. In the shed, hamsters and white mice.

I took the animals to be part of her maternal domain, flickers of life of which she was the centre. The radiogram downstairs might now and then play Tchaikovsky - Swan Lake as likely as not - or Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, or a Beethoven overture, or a Strauss waltz, or a Chopin Polonaise, or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, or some of her beloved tzigeuner music, violins and stagy sobbing voices emoting songs of which she knew all the words.

On Sundays there would be bridge or rummy or Monopoly and a visit to a restaurant, either the local italian caff with the beautiful, giggling Philomena or, on a longer trip, down to Schmidt's in Charlotte Street with its great halls and ancient parched Viennese waiters, plump as trussed chickens or thin as Konrad Adenauer.

And we were there of course, part of the domain, but all too quickly outgrowing it. And eventually the Iron Gates closed, or rather she drew them closed herself, since her own life was also her domain.


Norm has a very good article on Gaza here. And if anyone is interested in my view on translation there's an interview I made for a Hungarian literary website here. An excerpt on being asked what annoyed me in translations I didn't like:

I used to think that the most annoying aspect of a bad translation was loss of register, an incomplete sense of the modalities of the receiving language. I didn’t like translations that were too locally-coloured or pretended to be slangy London or New York, or any other place. I suspect translations live in an imagined terrain that is not entirely fixed. They inhabit the air between two cultures. I don’t like the moral-political option on translations in which the translator is constantly quibbling about the right of the receiving language to engage with the other text on perfectly natural terms. It irritates me more than anything when the translator takes upon herself or himself to redress a political imbalance by mangling a perfectly open text just to show that they are not simply co-opting it. That is of no help to the original at all; post-colonial guilt may be salutary for the soul but it is poison to the original text.

Tomorrow I do a phone interview for the RNIB in the morning, then go in and teach what I couldn't teach on Monday. And talk about aphorisms apropos a doctorate.


Coirí Filíochta said...

The eternal consciousness.

I watched a programme on RTE last night with John O'Donaghue from Clare talking about the spiritual. He spoke about how where he was reared made him - his sense of the eternal conversation between rocks and sea as waves spool out the rhythm of the universe, and how when he was a young man in America, he met an old Irish man who had not returned since moveing there when he was 17. He said the old boy could still reel of a litany of names of fields which demarked his world when growing up, and how he imagined him chanting them to himself thousands of miles from home as a prayer and act of remebering, carrying around a world in his head.

I have a poem called Time, which is one of those that came easily, early on, about two years after I had started writing, and which I spun once to two policemen, one old, one young - questioning me over the theft of a car as I was returning home from a pals eight hundred yards from home, pressed up against a wall beneath a still summer moon at 4 AM, after a comedy of paranioa and misread body language. The good cop bad cop routine and the face of the younger bullet headed law man betraying a firm convictuion I was up to no good, until I spoke my poem, no breath of wind, the perfect acoustic canopy for a dramatic recital, and the chance event which lifted the moment into the supernatural, as a cuckoo hooted twice during the short performance, punctuating the piece of live proof which convinced them I was not their man.

I will never forget the total silence which came when a profound realisation sunk in around us, as they withdrew, embaressed and at a loss of what do do next, until the old guy offerred me a lift home, and I declined, drifting off into the dark with a sense that, yes, poetry can effect justice in the existential realm.

Remember when we laughed at life
Square on, in days existing now
As only memories held inside,
Distanced from this moment
By rotation-measured time
We'll never halt,
Or with any words, define?

Words will conjure images
And spark all sorts of trains
Of thought careering
Through the mind
Like kaleidoscopic pictures:

But these, we only glimpse
Upon in passing, with internal eyes
That swiftly frame in wordless abstract
Any meaning they divine,

As some things lay beyond
Where conscious grasp can't reach,
For time, like truth, is each our own
Unfurls unique to one and all
And lives are lived as days have gone
No two the same beyond
The passing of horizons by the sun.

And so, should the echoes
Of our laughter then return
When suns now set outweigh
The suns for rising

Will we laugh with those
We leave behind
When our stream of time no longer flows
And lips of life cease smiling?

Rachel Phillips said...

Your mother looks beautiful in the picture. The style is very 60s, reminds me of Alma Cogan. Probably the hairstyle.

Gwil W said...

It strikes me that you could use that photo for the cover of a slim book of poems dedicated to her. There's even space for the title, something timelessly classy, also in sepia naturally.

Gwil W said...

George, I liked what you said on that Hungarian link about the translation having to have the force of the original. This is very true, especially with poetry. There's some pretty bland academic stuff around that makes no attempt or insufficient attempt, to do justice to the original. I can't translate you, even if you are Rilke, unless I can get inside your skin. We must know what makes Rilke go tick-tock before we can do him justice.

George S said...

Is that the poem you actually recited to the cops, Desmond? It's a good story, that, and maybe poetry effects its own kind of justice, though it's not a thing to stake a life on unless you are feeling particularly emboldened.

Alma Cogan, absolutely, Dubois. That's the period and the look, the hair just right. Do you know the Gordon Burns book titled Alma Cogan. Excellent book, superbly written. And now it comes back about Fashanu and Forest. There was a brutal side to Clough, and Fashanu committed suicide didn't he? Not just then, but later. His career faltered after the spell at Forest, I seem to remember.

And Gwilym, yes, if there were to be such a book it would be a picture to use. I did write a lot around her in the eighties particularly, and recently I have begun to think of her again. Once comes back around to things though in different ways. I think now I would write some of that as story.

Coirí Filíochta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Coirí Filíochta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Coirí Filíochta said...

Third Draft

Ay George, and this was the first poem that came out which I had as a calling card, party piece, something which ran beyond what I thought I was capable of. Heaney has it as the cartoon character running off the edge of a cliff and momentarily achieving the *uplift* which is part of his lexicon.

I was leaving my pals at 4 AM, who lived on the rise of a hill, thick with suburban houses on either side. My route home was down the hill for three hundred yards, right along a road which lead 100 yards to a dual carrigeway, over which lay my parents house 300 yards away.

I saw a cop car at the bottom of the road, and instinctively, the good vibe I was in when leaving my pals, effecting a straightened gait, zipping up of my top, and sort of over playing the pose by a half second one inch finishing flick of the hand, and in that moment, acting out my own public/private drama, stiffening with some affected pride, I remember thinking that that final touch of personal vanity which may single you out to those with more power as being a cocky sort, would result - by the body language alone - in getting stopped by them.

As I made my way towards the car, I could see they had fixed their attention on me, which only served to add to my self consciousness, in that way where we try and pretend everything is normal, looking to double bluff and feeling as if the jaws of fate are clamping their inevitable bite on you.

As I walked past, the younger fella said:

"Can I have a word mate?"

And as I was so close to home and knowing through experience how these things can turn out when a comedy of paranioa occurs, not wanting them to give me a full spin and knock my folks up at 4AM with the law in tow - I foolishly carried on walking, and said:

"Yeah man, I live just over the road, carry on driving and I will show you."

"Hey, hey, come here"

"Yeah man, I'm just going home"
and half walking half stopping, reacting rather than leadin the way, by now pointing in the direction of the dual carrigeway as the young thuggy looking cop swiftly exited the motor and indulged in his own physical drama of seizing my person to prevent any further step - after which it all spun out of control.

He asked me where I had been, I didn't know the number of my pals house, so told him where I had been, and then he asked for my pals number. No, come on man, I only live across the road, my friend doesn't need this.

All the time, physically holding on to me and acting like a pub bouncer would a troublesome drunk.
At this point I was on the dry, so totally sober and just feeling, why me?

England never worked out for me. There was just something about the place that was unlucky for me, starting in school when I got penalised in my O'level for having a precocious gift in speaking English. Here's me playing Malvolio at 14, straight A all through school and in the mocks, but in the real exam, I got a U, totally putting me off having any faith that all this fair play caper was a reality. It was/is, but when push came to shove, if you needed teaching a lesson for getting above yourself, the good old licence to break the rules to get the result, a la extraordinary rendition, romanticised by people like Flemming and Churchill, that right to do it for the common room cup.

Coming from an Irish family in Britain, my first dealing with the cops was as a seven year old playing out with pals and a gang of us from our street getting stopped in the road after running through the back of some wasteground, and when the cop asked my name and I told him, he sneered:

"Mick are yer?" making it plain that a mick was like a nigger or paki and that this was no far play adult speaking.

When i was about three, though I can't remember the incident, my law abiding mother got arrested over not having a TV licence and the cops, no doubt enjoying the situation which they could play as good as the best jobsworth, taking a paddy bird down the cop shop to humilate her hubby, who had to travel back from London where he was working as a contractor to get the money to feed his five kids.

So in my own experience, there is a vein of psychology perculiar to my experience in Britain, which is gloriously absent (for me at least) in Ireland. The way that others in positions of power, can automatically assume a right that you have to buy into their world view. Like the war on terror, we all had to go along with this scenario, which filtered down to the bobby in the street, assuming the worst, that you could be a terry who needs slotting, to be on the safe side, due to a con perpetrated by Bush and the now pious Blair, with a comlicit media, ramping up the fear and danger levels so we are all on hot coals.

So in this scenario, the young guy had made up his mind, I was the "other", the bad guy. The old fella who had been hitherto silent, then interjected that a car had been stolen, and they just wanted to know where I had been because of that - to which I replied, I don't even have a driving licence, i can't even drive.

And then he said, really passionatley, as if he actually did give a toss: but clearly acting:

"Some one has just had a car robbed, imagine how they feel"

And at that point I knew I was dealing someone who was acting out a role in a game. Two plod-thugs who were not interested in establishing reality, but humilatiating me, in some bloke game, to put me in my place as a fella they didn't like the cut of, an *other*, the Foreigner, in a pejorative sense, not the non-national sense.

I gave them all my details, which they ran through the radio and computer, coming back clean, and not having made them feel sufficently majestic, changed tack, asking for my folks phone number, so they could establish I lived there. Not wanting to be a participant in the silly imperial power game they probably didn't even know they were engaged in playing, I said no way, I will walk to the house with them and go in the door, it is five hundred yards away, what's the problem?

No, can't do that, we need to sort it out here, just us three, me and my pal and you fella, on your own, two against one, what we say, sticks if your thick enough to let us fit you up, like we did with the other paddies, in the good old days. ha ha.

And then the old man, talked to me as if he thought i was intellectually challenged, asking me the number, saying:

"Come on, we know it begins with 0695 4, come on Kevin, waht is it?"

"I dunno, I can't remember, 4229, erm.."

"Come on Kevin, what's the next number"


Good boy, come on, 42295, what's the next number

Hold on, 42295... hold on 957, arghh I can't remember..

I couldn't believe it, I was reacting to their pretence, and it was getting embaressing, the roles we were undertaking to act out, like being at school, but all grown up. A prefect bully 20 years down the line, no essential psychological difference, only the ages change, the mind, as childish as ever, and I thought, no it is happening again, cast as a target for getting taught a lesson.

And so, as I was sat there on the wall, pockets turned out, worrying about the idiots planting drugs on me if I really pissed them off, or more likely, they didn't have any to fit me up with, a brain wave occured and I said.

"I'm a poet, and I'm just going to recite one of my pieces."

And so I did, and the owl or cuckoo hooting twice, exactly how it happens in the tall tales - myth becominbg reality, and the liberation of it all, finally at the age of 35, beating the living emblem of that British power I had always had trouble understanding, and which, for me, had always ran against rather than for my natural bent at things.

I felt six feet tall, but also, due to the imaginative state of mind I was born with and only in the last few months put under anything resembling conscious control - aware or pretending to be, that what was occuring was part of some larger game of Creation, fate unknown to me, and the deepest heart felt instinctual patterns found in Irish mythology, made manifest the basis of what poetic tradition of filidecht here - the druidic mind lost to us - came to be and was present in that moment, as though Ogma were above winking and saying, good one my son, Freedom and faith, don't let the lies of others spoil your game.

gra agus siochain

Rachel Phillips said...

I only know a Gordon Burn book on Damien Hirst which was one of my favorite reads when I was an undergraduate at NSAD. It was a sort of day in the life of Damien type book which I used to pick me up when I felt useless; it was well put together and fun to read, if you know what I mean. 9I suppose it is the same Gordon Burn).

George S said...

Yes, same Gordon Burn. But the Alma Cogan book is one class up.