Tuesday 29 April 2014

London, London, Oxford - and a wild cat

Courtyard at Kellogg, Rewell House

Since that last entry about Domenico Iannaco's Galahad I have been away three days out of five and feeling a little under the weather.

After the CLPE judging in London on Wednesday I returned to London again on Thursday for the launch of Ágnes Lehóczky's new book, Carilloneur, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre. I felt I had to be there because Ági is not only an ex-student but a fellow Hungarian, by now an old friend and a fascinating writer of prose poems. I am pretty sure that her earliest prose poems were born out of her love for Ágnes Nemes Nagy, and she did after all write the first English book-length study of Nemes Nagy, but she has since progressed to a kind of dialogic exploration of the way places are superimposed like palimpsests, in what might be considered a version of psychogeography but less to do with self location than with history and memory. I was to be one of the three introducers to the evening.

It's quite a long journey down - about three hours from door to door each way - and I wasn't feeling quite well (I had been suffering a seasonal, possibly allergic cough for a couple of weeks and had slept badly). I was rough when I started and was worse on the way home where, first, I met poet and literary agent,  Isobel Dixon, travelling from London to Cambridge so we chatted a little, then, on the Cambridge-Wymondham leg, bumped into Tamsin Flower returning from a performance-and-critics meeting at a theatre in Cambridge, so it was all talk and cough again, arriving home some time after midnight. These meetings are a pleasure but if they hadn't happened I would have happily dozed off.

By the time Friday came round I was more exhausted than I had been for a while and, sleeping badly again, spent the morning in bed. I was worrying about the teaching and reading I was due to do on Monday in Oxford at Kellogg College where I am invited once a year by the MSt course in Creative Writing. The visit involves two three-hour workshops and a reading where the whole event, including questions and talk, is about an hour long, involving therefore some seven hours of public voice as well as the charms of conversation. This time the day was in danger of becoming a very long coughing fit.

Normally I would travel by train (about 5 hours each way): out on Sunday, returning on Tuesday morning after breakfast. but partly because I was run down, and partly (indeed chiefly) because I suddenly realised I couldn't get back in time for a blood test  I had absent-mindedly set up as first part of a general check-up on Tuesday morning, I asked to change the accommodation booking to just one night in a twin-room in college, which kindly Becca Rue at Kellogg managed to do, and I asked Clarissa to come with me. Saint that she is, she agreed so that we could drive home - or rather she could drive home - after the reading at night and be back in time for me to attend the surgery.  Friday sleep was good.

With this in mind I wrote a litle on Saturday and read all the pre-work for Monday (about thirty pieces), making notes on every poem,  then, after another decent sleep, we drove over to Oxford on Sunday.

Sunday night was bad for sleep again but once Monday arrived I was fine as usual. The two classes were a great pleasure, and the reading in the evening, with a lot of new poems, was as enthusiastically-received as I have ever known, the applause long and loud. I meet old friends there: Clare Morgan, Jane Draycott, Amal Chatterjee, Jamie McKendrick, Patrick McGuinness, Jon Stallworthy and others. The students were great.  We had a drink afterwards and talked a little then set off.


Just before we set out from home a strange, disorientating and traumatic event occurred. While I was closing one of the two back doors of the house, Clarissa was at the other, getting the cats into place, separating them. The little one, Lily, ran out through the cat flap just when she shouldn't have and Clarissa fell, banging her head. As she cried out the other cat, Pearl, leapt on her back and started frenziedly attacking her back and arm, leaving deep bloody gouges and bruises though we did not yet know that. All I heard was a cry then two or three other shrill cries that sounded as though the cats were fighting. But the cries were Clarissa. When I rushed in she was on her knees and still out of breath. But she said she was all right, quickly pulled herself together and we set out. I drove most of the day till navigation was required then Clarissa took over. Everything was fine and calm. About four hours there

It was only when we got to Oxford that we discovered how deep the gouges were. Blood had soaked through her sleeve and her back. They were worryingly deep and I was concerned about tetanus or some other infection so urged her to go to a doctor. We asked in college and the suggestion was that she should drive over to the A&E at Radcliffe Hospital which was supposed to be not too bad in the middle of a Monday. So I got on with the teaching and coughing and she drove over to the hospital where she waited three hours before being seen and told that there was nothing to worry about, though the wounds did shock the doctor. From there she went on to meet her sister, Hilary, returning to Kellogg in time for evening meal and the reading. Home drive at night on clear roads is an hour shorter.

She has since been to the local surgery where she was given a booster tetanus jab just in case, and I have had my blood test and something new for the cough. It seems to be helping. Tomorrow I am home but on Thursday in London again. On Friday I read in Norwich. The following week the health-check up then a flight to Boston USA for two nights.

Meanwhile, what to do about the cat?...

Wednesday 23 April 2014

The Death of Galahad:
A poem by Domenico Iannaco

I think it was about two and a half years ago that a young Italian poet, Domenico Iannaco, wrote to me because he was interested in my work, in what he called the architectural aspect of it. This is what he wrote:
I am a young Italian scholar of the literature of the Twentieth Century but I have always been fascinated by the idea to put a vision of life forward in a way which can be both religious and poetic. Hence, I can say that I have been trying to find my voice as a poet. I have always admired Milton's Paradise Lost despite the fact that what I wanted to create was a model which had in it that feeling of anxiety which is one of the main feature of this age, a queer mixture of positivism and syncretism.
My mentor was the Italian poet Mario Luzi who was candidate for the Nobel Prize. I'd like to send you my attempt in English which you 'll find attached, a poem entitled Galahad. I think that your attempt is a way to create a third way for poetry between realism and spiritualism, a third dimension.
Galahad, a book length poem, was indeed attached. I read it and understood it to some extent though the English was sometimes distracting, just as it would be if I tried to write a poem in Italian - or even Hungarian. We exchanged a number of emails about it and the correspondence has continued to this day. 

As the title suggests it deploys the Arthurian legend to argue its way towards a kind of spirituality. Here is a passage from The Death of Galahad, a later version of the legend, in his own English.

Be strong my heart,
Maybe you have to tell
The same truth
In your words
And new gems are hoarded there.
The mockery
About the simplicity of the way
But now I hear
What was only mine.
The new philosophers have betrayed us
And my realm is chaos.
Can you imagine what has not a shape?
When you lose the landmark,
the shortcut is sad.
Mull over the lavishness
That's everywhere.
You'll be disgusted because you are the heir.
I mean that
the world is rich
of feeling, sensations everywhere
but you are there
with yourself.
They lost their new way
Everything must come back to Christ...

Although I could not follow all the lines of narrative in the poem there was no mistaking the passion and the desire to adapt the Arthurian legend to articulate a vision of a better world.

In the end he asked me for a short paragraph of commendation. Here it is:

The Death of Galahad is a very substantial work written in the poet's second language with all the complexities that implies.  It is at the same time full of vision, symbol and narrative detail. The poem seems to me to move between the fate of a specific individual, Galahad, a seeker after purity, and the world he is caught in which is far from pure, a ruined Europe of the spirit. The narrative is multi-layered, drawing on Arthurian legend but one is aware that this is less a historical poem than the enactment of a crisis. There are parts that are extraordinarily vivid, other parts where the voice seems to spread among the figures of the poem. Those who follow it to the end will discover a rough-hewn epic born out of a passionate and individual mind.

Such things are fascinating. There are many ways of attempting a synthesis between old epic form and new ideas. I wish Domenico luck with his project.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Goodbye David Moyes

David Moyes near the end

I am sorry to see him go, yet also relieved, both for the team's and for his own sake. He was looking very puffy about the eyes in the last interview he gave to the BBC. Many people liked him and I liked him too. He seemed to represent some old values: integrity, decency, technical nous and the ability to build a team from relatively little. Whether these values are of use now in the days of megacash is hard to say. I wanted him to succeed and would have been happy with a top four place in his first season, as would most, I suspect.

But it wasn't going to happen, and that was clear fairly early, from his late arrival at the club and the difficulty of arranging any transfer apart from the rather dubious and very expensive deal for Fellaini, and then the alleged business between his daughter and a new young player, Zaha. Possibly as a result of this Zaha never got a look in and was soon loaned out, so someone people had been looking forward to - someone fast, skilful, exciting - vanished from scene before he'd started.

Off on the wrong foot, things didn't improve from there. The complete change of staff, the change in training methods, change in manner, and an awkwardness in dealing with people, talking about them critically in interviews, a good number of gaffes, the huge pay hike for Rooney who then became captain and played wherever he wanted - none of this helped.  Nor did the departure of David Gill, the United CEO who actually conducted most of the deals, who was replaced by Ed Woodward who had neither the experience nor, it seems to me, the gravitas necessary. 

In other words it was a complete clear-out apart from the old players and Fergie in the stands. Players with close ties to Ferguson were always going to regard the new man somewhat quizzically. When somebody has been in charge as long as he had any change was going to seem one for the worse.

Then there was the change in playing style. I saw United at Norwich and they were very timid and conservative, without much initiative or daring. Not particularly sporting either. They got a win by playing for a draw then did everything they could to waste time. That was below them. It was as though Moyes had managed to reduce their self-confidence and lower their horizons.

Maybe he had. The United crowd stuck by him at matches but he was trying their good nature and patience. In the meantime it was becoming ever more apparent that he was 'losing the dressing room'. Players had ever less confidence in him and the less they had in him the less they had in themselves. The one bright spark was the arrival of Adnan Januzaj who looked to me like a young Johann Cruyff and I believe he still has that potential, but little by little Moyes started dropping him and he began to fade out if only because he wasn't getting the chance to integrate with the team. There are some very promising young players coming up from the ranks or out on loan but he wasn't using them.

There was bad luck with injuries, of course. The defence was hardly ever the same from week to week, often playing out of position. In any case it was ageing. Buying Juan Mata was a desperate throw and an odd one. From having too few mid-fielders now he had too many and wasn't playing the best (eg Kagawa) in their best positions, possibly to accomodate Rooney.

The trouble was Moyes was looking to consolidate and change at the same time. Ferguson's authority wasn't going to carry him through a spell as bad as this. I was hoping against hope that things might improve for Moyes but by the end I had stopped hoping.

What does this show? That playing any game depends on confidence and that any important position depends on respect. Neither has been achieved, the latter almost impossible after Fergie. It has been a cruel process, as dramatic as most things associated with United, and particularly tough on the central character. Now the club will go for the best available foreign manager. I am sorry about that too but can't see any alternative.(I am, probably vainly, hoping for Klopp).

I wish Moyes all the best. This will have sapped his morale and energy. I continue to like him and hope he recovers from this as soon as possible. He looks to have aged ten years in ten months.

As for the team I have been with them since 1958 and have seen much worse than this. Supporters who leave now will be rightly regarded as 'glory hunters'. I'm just buckling in now that we are human again. It's not glory, it's romance that's the name of the game.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Sándor Márai, from Hallgatni akartam
I Wanted to Keep Quiet

Admiral Horthy enters Budapest on a white horse, November 1919

Márai laments lost opportunities after the failure of the 1919 Bolshevik revolution. The country not only missed the chance of land-reform but of developing a modern form of democracy. The new regime simply turned the clock back to the feudal order as it existed before the revolution. He blames the rise of nazi ideas on this failure. Here he paints a picture of feudal society under Admiral Horthy, the Regent.

The brighter sparks among the various right wing organisations had guessed that there was a side-road down which they could drive the crowds. Their cries were Christianity, patriotism, order and anti-bolshevism but at the same time they began ('Hungarian style"), craftily, as if in disguise, to raise the barricades for the next revolution...

This revolution started on the right and merged seamlessly with the Bolshevik one that followed. It wasn't something we suspected on the day whose memory I am trying to conjure. Under it all it lay the lost opportunity of land-reform - this missed opportunity meant that it wasn't only the life of the powerful that was artificially maintained by force, but  that it produced within the overt official hierarchy an invisible hierarchy that was more real than the official version. Beyond the formal historical regalia, such as the Crown of St Stephen, in the shadow of the monarchless constitution there rose a panopticum of ever small kings: so we saw the Regent in his admiral's uniform on his white horse, the higher ranking clergy, the top military, statesmen and, proceeding downwards, the various representatives of state and security each neatly turned out in his particular smart uniform, ministers, mayors, the head of the fire-brigade. [But behind all these representatives of the feudal state] there followed the second rank of civic order: the local magistrate, the notary, the gendarme, the station-master, the janitor, everyone who relied on the help and protection of the local landowner for the provision of a train to carry the products of pig-rearing, fruit-picking, corn-gathering or simply firewood.


In this passage, written after the war and having read of Attlee’s reforms in the UK, Márai is arguing for what he capitalises as The Third Way, a Gaitskellite, Blairite centre-left position, the way we have in fact adopted to a greater or lesser extent since the war. Is Márai a Blairite then or more of a One-Nation Tory like RAB Butler, or, perhaps, Kenneth Clarke? He is what he is, a man of conscience desperate to know if he is of any use to the world around him.

Are the English and Scandinavian experiments with socialism - a human-scale, non-dictatorial socialist project -  convincing enough for us to hope that a humanist-minded middle-class might adopt it?… I have arrived at the conviction that the only way the capitalist mode of production might be able to address a world of crowded individuals and masses is by making a humane accommodation with socialism... The English experiment strengthens this hope in me…. What I have learned in the last ten years is that the one true heroic path in human affairs is always the one most hated by the fanatical tyrants of social change, that is the Third Way.

...I was brought up in the middle class and continue to be of it. I have had to put on my glasses and while the world was burning try to work out an answer to the necessary questions: do I still have a right to live and to work? Do I, as a man of my class, have a role in the world… I know I wasn’t alone in putting these questions to myself. In the last decade of revolutions, both at home and in the outside world, the same questions arose: does the middle-class form of life, does its concept of humanist order mean anything any more? I couldn’t answer the question but it kept burning away inside me.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Some passages from Sándor Márai's Hallgatni akartam: I Wanted to Keep Quiet

Anschluss 12 March 1938. Austrian crowds greet the German army.
I have translated some paragraphs from the as-yet untranslated posthumous collection of papers that would have formed the third volume of Márai's memoir Egy polgár vallomásai. I am not officially translating the book, nor am I translating closely or even in the order that passages appear in the book. Chiefly I want to get the sense across, editing for clarity and concision. It's a small selection from whatever strikes me. As to the title of the book from which I am now translating, Hallgatni akartam, I keep vacillating between I Wanted to Keep Silent and I Wanted to Keep Quiet. I am going with 'quiet' for now.

The title  of the potentially three-volume memoir loosely translates as Confessions of a Bourgeois but that is not entirely satisfactory because polgár is not to be entirely rendered as bourgeois in the sense a revolutionary Marxist or Modernist might us it (as in "How very bourgeois!") . In fact no single word in English will quite do. 

In one sense the word means simply citizen or commoner, someone with voting rights. In another it implies a member of the educated middle-class, in yet another it signifies someone who belongs specifically to the haute bourgeoisie. Márai uses the term in his fiction to describe industrialists, as well as scholars, authors and statesmen as distinct from, say, the working class, the aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie. Everything he argues hinges on the word and what it means to him. It is what gives him identity, value, and a role in life. Education is clearly important to him, but no more so than culture generally, manners, and a sober sense of responsibility for the well-being of the nation. For Márai the polgár represents the enlightened and morally-burdened layer of society.

The entire memoir is predicated on the moment of the anschluss (12 March 1938), when Hitler marched into Austria and annexed it. It is the key incident of the book that opens the door to subsequent developments.

In the following passage Márai is accusing the increasingly fascist press of 1938 of whipping up the same hatred, primarily against Jews but also against his own middle-class that the bolshevik press was to do ten years later.

When the public feels entitled, without any proof ... to accuse someone of a vaguely conceived crime like being "against the people" or "against democracy" and when that accusation is quickly followed by notoriety so the accused is ground between the mills of the  press and is in effect imprisoned or exiled without trial, the public is happy because this impersonal and therefore irresponsible game  induces a sense of euphoria and offers satisfaction to its anonymous and powerless individual members...

....The day Hitler marched into Vienna the great majority of the Hungarian middle class felt sympathetic to nazi ideas... Hungarian peasantry had never been nazi and had no real sense of what the term meant. The people at the top - I don't mean the educated lower bourgeoisie, officials and military but the higher echelons of government - were chiefly frightened of the nazis and steered clear of them. The aristocracy, that is to say the historical landowning classes, were expressly and courageously against them (a number of them were to find themselves in the camps a few years later) and condemned nazism even when their feudal interests were at stake and the 'property-respecting' nazis seemed to offer some temporary hope for the feudal system itself. The significant number of Jews in post-Trianon Hungary - roughly a tenth of the population, were naturally terrified and turned away from nazism in disgust.

But the middle-class, that confused mass of society including the retired colonel's "genteel" wife who had been reduced to running a newsagents, the vet, the lawyer, the man with a small-time electrical business, the town councillor who was also a major in the reserves, the manager of the local tannery, all those who in Hungary might be called respectable members of society [Hungarian has nadrágos ember = literally "trousered folk"] were overwhelmingly, either openly or in secret, and by this time ever more openly, happy to confess themselves nazi sympathisers.

I have some other passages waiting and will follow this up tomorrow if there is time.

Monday 14 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 4

Zig Zag, Clarissa Upchurch

Budapest is a city I am love with and this piece is to some degree a love poem addressed to her vision of the place. I want to praise the vision because of its power and sadness, because of its sense of lost narrative, a narrative of lost people and lost histories. I want to praise it for its distance and fear, and for the way in which it implies narrative of a cinematic nature but without imposing any melodramatic narrative structure on its design. Its subjects, whether these are windows, balconies, doorways, fleeting human figures or moving cars, occupy the same post-Baudelairean terrain as the work of the story-boardists.  Like the flâneur-turned-detective she catches things in flight - one set of early drawings traced a flight path round a particular apartment block – and sets a distance between them and us, so that our engagement with them remains intriguing and conjectural, as with a highly wrought story-board of a story of guesses and traces. In the meantime the pictures shimmer like Morandi’s still-lives, in a kind of metaphysical heat-haze. Things refuse to settle.

King Vidor’s crowds have disappeared from Upchurch’s work, but not without scent or trace. They made the city then retreated, some into rooms, some into the earth as the dead, and some into statuary as monuments and emblems. A few of the vulnerable living are seen hurrying or watching cars hurry down steep vistas. In other picture statues heave and pose under construction workers’ drapery. They are trying to assert their own place in this busy emptiness. Domes and towers in her ‘Icons’ series seem to revert to nature, like a mixture of tree, fire and face. The staircases are continually echoing to feet descending into cellars or rising into attics. The courtyards swim in their own deep reflections, and men in swimming pools stare towards us from the echoey water. Echo is the natural speech of the region because echo is what remains. The craft virtues of Upchurch’s work lie in draughtsmanship and painterliness. In this respect they are perfectly traditional, albeit in the broad clothes of Neo-Expressionism with Kiefer, and even Baselitz somewhere in the background. Her work is contiguous to theirs and overlaps a touch. But its positioning – quiet yet obsessive – is original and occupies a peculiar yet perfectly contemporary hinterland. It is in one of those places, on that shifting ground, where the endangered species of painters may prosper and survive. For that alone it is worth praising despite the fact that it seems to lie outside the range of debate about contemporary art, in that it is neither outwardly ironic nor specifically intellectual in its visual argument. I would want to place it closer to the centre by virtue of what it takes from and what it gives to the scope of cinematic narrative. I want to read it in terms of cinema as much as of painting because that way I can explain what I feel to be its relevance.

In one of the ‘Film’ series, ‘Film V’ a figure with its back to us is about to cross a narrow street, against a line of smeary cars, towards a solid wall of tenement blocks with deep arched doorways and thrusting balconies. Light and shadow between them have eaten parts of the buildings away. The full anthropomorphic palette of eyes and open mouths animates the street. There is a kind of hunger in the tall pedimented windows, in the overhanging brow of the eaves. We know we are in a big city, which might be as much in Italy as in Kafka land. The political history of the inhabitants is hidden yet evident in the clip of the implied movie where the man crosses the street, enters the arch and disappears, while the cars move forward or stop and our detective hero steps out into the very streets where Liberty might once have straddled the barricades. The politics of the pre-1989 world intrudes into the present in the form of half-remembered film. The very fact that one is tempted to construct fictions that partake both of romance and realism, of fantasy, history and of distance, suggest a literary context, but the literature is elsewhere. It is in the unmade movie for which this section of story-board is a functional underpinning. It is lodged precisely in that gap where irony finds it hard to reach, if only because the films have never ceased to haunt us and it is hard being ironic about something that will not stay still.


Saturday 12 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 3

Stealth, Clarissa Upchurch 2004

A sense of foreboding is to be expected in a story about crime, but the language it deploys need not necessarily be gothic. In 1928, King Vidor made a silent film called The Crowd. It is a tragedy of ordinariness, with a central character but without heroes. Its very lack of speech (in the year after the issue of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer) shielded it from sentimentality and its panoramic views and partly documentary style (“No picture is perfect, but this comes as near to reproducing reality as anything you have ever witnessed,’ declared Photoplay)  implied that the city itself was as much the subject as the individual whose life provided the linear narrative for it. Vidor constantly reminds us of the dramatic personality of the city. Like Fritz Lang in ‘M’ in 1931 he casts it as the locus for melodrama and social disintegration.  It was as well that ‘The Crowd’ was silent for it is hard to imagine dialogue enhancing it. Once dialogue becomes possible narrative exerts far greater pressure. Shades of thought and feeling may be conveyed with sophisticated accuracy. A state of mind must be accounted for and has consequences. Dialogues and detectives shift the scene to Chicago or Vienna. Enter the Mob and the KGB; enter the Bay City cops, Naked City and NYPD Blue. So we discover the hard Realisms of Chinatown, the New York of Dead End and the Newcastle of Get Carter. The negotiation between realism and Proyas’s Dark City is a complex but natural one, one follows the other as night follows day.

Meryon would have been a natural collaborator for Baudelaire, Baudelaire as the script-writer and Meryon as the designer of the new film about a phantasmal Paris. Movies do rely on designers and story-board artists to establish mood and syntax. Designs may be as fantastic and extravagant as the panoramic Miltonic landscapes of John Martin, as in Walter Hall’s designs for Intolerance in 1916 (his twelve elephant caryatids were cut down to three in the film as even D.W.Griffiths had a budget), or as claustrophobic as Henry Fuseli’s work, as in Ben Carré’s sketches for the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera.. Film designers borrow from painters as much as theatre designers do, that much is obvious.  But I am thinking here more of story-boardists than of designers; of William Carlos Menzies’s sketches for Gone with the Wind for instance. I am struck by their formal breadth and sense of anonymous action. Anonymous because, from Menzies’s point of view, it did not matter what Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable looked like. His story telling is a more distant affair, and though it is filled with action, his characters are anonymous, elsewhere. I am interested in the location of such language, and how it might provide a place of metamorphosis for hard-to-classify forms of depictive art.

The story board is a syntax provider. It is, like much of the art before the Renaissance, a functional, almost anonymous art, serving the movie instead of the church. Like the fresco cycle it is related to a firm narrative originating elsewhere, in a detailed text. In fact it positions itself somewhere between the fresco-cycle and the comic strip in its formal dramatic structure but keeps its distance from both. I think of the paintings of Hopper and Chirico, both, in their different ways, suggestive of narrative; both, in their different ways, refusing to satisfy it. Their handle on character is firmer than that of a story-boardist, but depend on diffusing character in the interest of narrative terrain.  We are aware of the characters only in action or in between actions and in so far as the actions are piecemeal and detached from the main body of some supposed narrative, we see them in suspense. They do not give themselves. Their identity has been transferred to their environment, their sphere of isolated action.

I suggest that this is the narrative reality our imaginations have grown up with. We live in a glimpsed world of cars, doorways, figures in doorways, on trains and buses, appearing at windows, round the corner of the street, and our meanings and expectations are created from our readings of them.

The works of Clarissa Upchurch inhabit this city of readings. Like the photographs they faintly resemble – by Kertész, Walker Evans, Atget, and Sudek – and the film-makers they seem to refer to like Wim Wenders or Proyas on the one hand and even Guy Ritchie on the other, they see the city as a narrative basin into which they can dip then leave. This narrative basin is as much filmic as graphic or painterly. They are further informed by a distinctly Eastern or Central  European sensibility. The films of the seventies and eighties Hungarian directors Peter Gothár, Márta Mészaros and András Jeles spring to mind. And this is scarcely surprising for her subject matter has been the same city for fifteen years: Budapest...

to be continued

Monday 7 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 2

Bowl, Clarissa Upchurch, 2009

Out of Poe and Baudelaire arise generations of gumshoes treading the mean streets of cities quoting, in Philip Marlowe’s case, T.S. Eliot, who, in turn, sees crowds undone by death flowing over city bridges recalling, as they do so, Dante’s vision of The Inferno. Chandler’s detective and Eliot’s more vulnerable, more disjunctive persona are two aspects of the same being. These complex, tough, world-weary detective figures shamble through the films noirs of the forties. With just a minor shift into the world of ideas they reappear in different guises to haunt the Gotham City of Batman and his ilk, the dystopic highs and lows of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and drift, confused, through the dissolving walls of Alex Proyas’s Dark City. Their adversaries, consisting of armies of masked and deformed criminals, secret service operatives, replicants and strangers, draw on both Baudelaire and Baudrillard for their sense of unease. They are the seven old men. They are also the simulacra that question the detective’s sense of place. The cities they inhabit lie under the edict of Dante’s remorseless God but  continually threaten to slip into further chaos, because their meanings can no longer support the narratives we demand of them. Such cities are, to return to Benjamin’s point, essentially hunting grounds whose fascination owes less to the logic of salvation or to the detective story where everything fits together and is apt for solution (murder of that sort belongs in the vicarage or the country-house library), than to that which is continually hinted at but remains unknown and incapable of being contained in a single heroic narrative.

This city is the conscious antithesis of the ideal modernist city of Le Corbusier. Corbu’s vision is a rational and classical one. It is at one with Plato’s Republic from which the irrationals, the poets, have been dismissed. There is only the one poetry here and it is absolute, the poetry of the ville radieuse of reason and towers. Such ideal cities, earthly and rational, have a long double history. One type is depicted in the trecento in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco, ‘The Effects of Good Government in Town and Country’, where orderly spheres of life are brought together in bustling streets of economic activity and tilled fields outside city walls. The other extends the same vision into the abstract, into the severe and unrelentingly mathematical realm of Piero della Francesca’s ’Ideal City’, a townscape of perfect proportions without people, a place where blind angels walk with the aid of heavenly music and which ordinary mortals have to be educated to enter. This city is one of harsh Apollonian light. In its intensity it partakes of the visionary and divine, offering a synthesis between the Apollonian and the Biblical, for the New Jerusalem of Revelations is just as geometric, glittering like a gem-stone, having twelve foundation stones and twelve gates, the plan of the city perfectly square. It is in fact a form of crystal. Geometry, reason and mystical significance are central to the thinking of the time.

The City of God and numbers constantly interpenetrates the city of man and cash, and continues to do so well into and beyond the Age of Reason. The disjunctions of  Mannerists, such as Bronzino , or the eighteenth century maverick, Piranesi, sometimes subvert the drive towards stability and rational space, but even among the inns, brothels, cellars and hovels of the Flemish and Dutch, just as in the engravings of William Hogarth, there remains a notion of clarity as implied antithesis. This vision animates Modernism and the ville radieuse in particular but never succeeds in achieving stability or hegemony over the other. 

Baudelaire and Charles Meryon were born in the same year, 1821 and died within a few months of each other. Meryon’s version of gothic, according to Benjamin, consists of an “interpenetration between classical antiquity and modernism”. This is echoed in Baudelaire’s passage on Meryon: “…those spires pointing fingers to the sky; the obelisks of industry vomiting a legion of smoke against the heavens”. Meryon showed tiny figures toiling by bridges, in the shadow of the morgue, caught in the skeleton of a Gothic city of judgment but wearing the rags of post-rational urban expansion. He showed, in short, a dramatic contradiction. Meryon’s vision is neither melodramatic nor grandiloquent. His range is too restrictive for that. He deals in black and white only.  He is – almost – a topographer, a topographer of the anonymous and the fragmentary. He is a poet of foreboding without the burden of Victorian rhetoric.

to be continued

Sunday 6 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 1

Ghost (detail) Clarissa Upchurch 2002

Clarissa's exhibition is going up tomorrow in Cambridge University Library, It will be up for some months. This is therefore a good time to put up the essay I wrote for our joint book Budapest: Image, Poem, Film (Corvina, 2006) The original is 5pp long, so I will divide it into sections. This is the first.


Endangered species survive and sometimes prosper by adapting and shifting ground. They can also interbreed, creating new, peculiar, sometimes highly effective and energetic hybrids. The first death of painting supposedly took place when one of its roles, that of recording appearances, seemed to be appropriated by photography, especially, later, by cheap, mass-market photography.  There have been many deaths since. To some degree the camera did free artists from overt assumptions of objectivity and allowed them to explore questions of pure form as well as more subjective areas with greater confidence.

But the notion of objectivity under the general heading ‘truth to nature’ (and all that that entailed socially) though much extolled by writers, had hardly been proved in the breach by painters in any case. One has only to try shifting the figures from one artist’s work to meet the figures in another’s to see how relative such objectivities were even before the period still referred to as the Renaissance. For all the similarities in technique by period and school or even studio, we know and have always known that artists are workers of the imagination inhabiting contiguous, sometimes overlapping but never congruent worlds.

There are painters who are romanced by narrative in an expressly filmic sense. I say romanced because the position taken, while complex, is not primarily intellectual or ironic, though it does not preclude either irony or intelligence. In a period of ever more convincing virtual images the position does not succumb to psychosis but believes – rightly, I think – that it can distinguish between  experience and its representation while instinctively understanding the two to be contiguous and overlapping. It is the way in which it itself understands and represents, the way it slips between the fingers, that interests me here and, in particular, how it moves around images of the city.

The experience of the city is one we associate with the rise of modernism: images of urban pace and space, of urban repetition and urban difference, of the city’s aspiration and decay, are so deeply ingrained in our memory that, taken together, they seem to approximate to our feelings about memory itself, becoming almost an analogy of memory, of the act of remembering; remembering, specifically, the moment of modernism, and of what preceded it.

‘Fourmillante cité, cité plein de rêves’, begins Baudelaire’s ‘Les Sept Vieillards’, a poem about an ants’ nest of a city, a hallucinatory terrain through which stalk the ghosts of seven hideous old men. Walter Benjamin, in his study of Baudelaire, talks of the phantasmagoria of Parisian life, at the point at which the new city, the post-Haussman Paris of arcades and wide boulevards, begins to create versions of its own nature.  He quotes early physiologues, such as Paris la nuit, Paris á table, Paris dans l’eau, Paris á cheval and so on, regarding them as pictures drawn primarily for bourgeois comfort and reassurance. These, he says, give way to the city of the flâneur, which he also associates with the invention of the camera and of the detective story as pioneered by Poe but translated by Baudelaire. The flâneur is turned, says Benjamin, into “an unwilling detective” who develops “forms of reaction that are in keeping with the pace of a big city. He catches things in flight”. The whole city, he argues, is a locus for the hidden, for crime, which does not at first glorify the criminal, though it does glorify his adversaries and, above all, the hunting-grounds where they pursue him.


Friday 4 April 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Mangalesh Dabral

As I wrote earlier the Indian poets fell into two major groups that one might call the cosmic and the humane. I wouldn't want to push those terms too far as the two are not necessarily antithetical, nor is each particular poet an embodiment of one to the exclusion of the other.

But Mangalesh Dabral is certainly on the side of the humane. What does this mean? In part it means that he talks as himself, or rather as a self we believe in. In other words he addresses us without overt ceremony, without references to forces beyond the immediate concerns of the poem. The poems present us with a singular voice, not facing particularly singular problems, often more generic ones, but there is a tenderness and suppleness in the voice, communicated particulary through pace.

I was touched by all the poems Mangalesh Dabral read. His poems are in Hindi, this one, taken from his collection  translated into English by another very fine and well known poet, Sudeep Sen

This Number Does Not Exist

This number does not exist.
Wherever I go whichever number I dial
At the other end a strange voice says
This number does not exist yeh number maujood nahin hai
Not too long ago at the number I used to reach people
Who said: of course we recognise you
There is space for you in this universe

But now this number does not exist it is some old number.
At these old addresses very few people are left
Where at the sound of footsteps doors would be opened
Now one has to ring the bell and wait in apprehension
And finally when one appears
It is possible he might have changed
Or he might say I am not the one you used to talk to
This is not the number where we would hear out your grief

Wherever I go numbers maps faces seem to be changed
Old diaries are strewn in gutters
Their names slow-fading in the water
Now other numbers are available more than ever with and without wires
But a different kind of conversation on them
Only business only transactions buy-and-sell voices like strangers
Whenever I go I desperately dial a number
And ask for the voice that used to say
The door is open you can stay here
Come along for a while just for the sake of it any time in this universe.

Eliot called The Waste Land a grumble against the universe. This poem too is a grumble but it builds to much more than that. It is a poem of humility in that, though the voice in it is complaining against universals such as ageing, change and loss, it does not assume a special status for itself. Its universality is quiet, graceful, consonant with the persona. The technique is derived from a mature low-profile modernism that needs little punctuation and eschews conspicuous formality of presentation on the one hand and a display for the more burdensome aspects of tradition on the other.

These at least are my impressions and guesses. I know next to nothing about Hindi poetry. Whatever is traditional here has moved directly in the bones. I can imagine this voice anywhere in the world. That is its internationalism: one hardly even thinks about it. That is its grace and its lightness of touch. And much credit for that goes to Sudeep Sen too.

There is more information and more work by Mangalesh Dabral at the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival site here where he reads a number of poems aloud.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Richard Gwyn


I loved Richard Gwyn's understated reading in Delhi. The poems he read came from somewhere inside him rather than being picked out of the air. Both procedures are fine, but there was a sense of some almost bottomless deep blue sea there. The tread was delicate and the balance precise, but it wasn't about delicacy or even precision in the end, but about a state of being. I read his memoir The Vagabond's Breakfast on the plane home and was gripped and moved by it.


Absolutely nothing or nobody can help you now. You are on your own. Outside a gale blows. There is a beggar lying on the porch bt you cannot let him in. He will bring pestilence, disease and chaos. His name, you have been informed, is unpronouncable except to those who speak the dialect of a part of the country you have never visited. A beggar then, whose name you cannot speak, whose needs can never be satisfied, and whose gift is turmoil. But you need to pass him if you are to leave the house. So you assume a disguise, open the front door, step onto the pavement. The beggar appears to be asleep. You ring your bell, clutching your hood tight around you face. 'Unclean,' you say, voice quaking: 'unclean.' The beggar whose name you cannot say lifts his head. His eyes are bloodshot. He smiles upat you and from deep inside his coat produces a black snake. He holds it above his face for an instant, then drops it into his upturned mouth. The tail enters last, thrashing from side to side. He belches, wipes his lips and lies down again, turning his back to you. The depth of his breathing tells you he has fallen straight back to sleep.

Richard read just one prose poem in Delhi I think, one shorter than this, titled Dust which I liked very much but that isn't in my book. I could just as easily have picked the excellent verse love poem Dissolving that was printed in the full programme of the festival (and I might return to it) but I have chosen this because it is a prose poem and for its unremitting encounter with something altogether more sinister. The you in the poem is one possible variant on the first person singular as distanced into dreamlike automatic state. The beggar might be a figure from nightmare or conjured from memory but he certainly enters nightmare with the appearance of the black snake. Despite this there is no panic, no melodrama, no cheap gothic, only the steadiness of survival, a survival in which the we believe because we know this is no fancy. This too is understated. The prose is what keeps us in the world of reported event. It comes from his collection of prose poems, Sad Giraffe Cafe (2010)

Richard also blogs as Ricardo Blanco