Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Keith Douglas: 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem'

Tel Aviv near Haifa, 1948 by Willem van de Pol

The two Keith Douglas poems below, 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem', could seem from their titles to be companion poems written around when Douglas was on leave in Tel Aviv and Alexandria, in April 1943. More accurately, though, 'Tel Aviv' is a draft for (or earlier version of) 'Jerusalem', and the two were preceded by an even earlier draft called 'Saturday Evening in Jerusalem'. The notes he left suggest that Douglas viewed 'Jerusalem' as the only finished one of the three. 'Saturday Evening in Jerusalem' is definitely less interesting, but I like to look at 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem' together.

It appears that 'Tel Aviv' was written about Olga Meiersons, a Latvian-Jewish woman who Douglas became friends with in that city, and to whom he wrote some very interesting letters. The introduction to his Letters, by Desmond Graham, calls Olga "a great and important friend...rather than a lover", but the poems and even the letters suggest there was a bit more to it than that. Olga found her way into the late poem 'To Kristin, Yingcheng, Olga, Milena' - the other three women were definitely ex-girlfriends - and in one letter to Olga, Douglas wrote: "When we meet it'll be good for us both if we do more kissing than talking." This meeting apparently led to those poems, which also speak for themselves. Keith Douglas did love girls and ambiguous situations, that much is certain.

The final poem, 'Jerusalem', opens with a wonderful and very Imagist stanza to set the scene ("the cat moonlight leaps out/between the dark hotels upon/the river of people"), and then becomes more openly romantic, with its references to Ophelia. I particularly love the line "our hands meet like strangers in a city". The image of war as a many-headed hydra (or some other mythic creature) is also very vivid.

'Jerusalem' is more streamlined and you can see the editing work that has taken place, although much was carried over from the previous version. I wish, though, that he had kept the final lines of 'Tel Aviv', which though not subtle are bold and sensual: "If/I had said this to you then, BANG will/have gone our walls of indifference in flame."

TEL AVIV (Keith Douglas)

Like Ophelia in a lake of shadow lies
your face, a whiteness that draws down my lips
our hands meet like strangers in a city
among the glasses on the table tops
impervious to envy or pity
we whose drug is a meeting of the eyes.

In your locked mind your news from Russia is
and if I think, there is waiting Libya,
Tripoli, the many heads of war
are watching us. We are not unaware
but are this evening finding heavier
than war the scents of youth, youth's subtleties.

We who can't put out a single hand
to help our balance, who can never lean
on an old building in the past
or a new building in the future, must
balance tiptoe on a pin,
could teach an angel how to stand.

Do not laugh because I made a poem
it is to use what then we couldn't handle - 
words of which we know the explosive
or poisonous tendency when we are too close. If
I had said this to you then, BANG will 
have gone our walls of indifference in flame.

                                                 [? April 1943-1944]

JERUSALEM (Keith Douglas) 

Tonight there is a movement of things
the cat moonlight leaps out
between the dark hotels upon
the river of people; is gone
and in the dark words fall about.
In the dome of stars the moon sings.

Ophelia, in a pool of shadow lies
your face, flower that draws down my lips
our hands meet like strangers in a city
among the glasses on the table-top
impervious to envy or pity
we two lost in the country of our eyes.

We two, and other twos.
Stalingrad, Pacific, Tunis,
Tripoli, the many heads of war
are watching us. But now, and here
is night's short forgiveness
that all lovers use.

Now the dark theatre of the sky
encloses the conversation of the whole city
islanded, we sit under
the vault of it, and wonder
to hear such music in the petty
laughter and talk of passers-by.

                                                             [? 1944] 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Poetry Is Everywhere (Like Spies and Sherlock Holmes)

Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Amidst being sick on and off in February and early March, a welcome trip to Barcelona, and all the vicissitudes of life which have contributed to not writing in here much lately, I've started reading novels again. Not that I ever stopped. I seriously doubt I'll ever hit the several-books-a-week levels of my childhood again, but I don't read as much as I used to, and that's particularly true when it comes to novels. Poetry takes up a lot of my headspace, and besides that, I haven't lately come across a lot of novels that I badly want to read. (Often, when I read prose these days, it's non-fiction about travel or current affairs, and often far more interesting than the average contemporary novel.)

Having immersed myself in a few novels recently, I was reminded that they can have a kind of calming effect on me that poems don't necessarily have. Of course, individual poems can be reassuring and uplifting, if that is their aim. But poetry has a couple of attributes which make it rather more stimulating than calming: it tends to be emotionally high-keyed, and in any case, reading various poems requires a constant sort of changing of emotional gears. Even a thrilling novel, with many twists and turns, is more like floating down the same river for a long period of time, rather than leaping from the river to the ocean to the mountaintop.

I couldn't get away from poets while immersing myself in various novels, even if I'd wanted to. Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, a superb novel about the French Revolution, accompanied me for a few weeks. One of its hundreds of characters was Louis de Saint-Just, a leader of the Revolution, who fell along with Robespierre. He was also the author of the epic poem Organt and the novel often makes reference to his status as a poet.

I have also been catching up on Laurie R King's series about Mary Russell and her partner, Sherlock Holmes - yes, you read that correctly. These rather wonderful books (although they vary considerably in quality, as series fiction often does) constitute my favourite Holmes stories by someone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although it's fair to say that in Holmesian terms they are rather iconoclastic. I was three books behind, although one of the three has just been released. Pirate King, a rather silly episode in Holmes and Russell's careers based on The Pirates of Penzance, rose in my estimation when I realised that it featured the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa as a major character. Russell comments on Pessoa, in a letter to Holmes: "He carries about him an air of distinction, as if his mind is on Greater Things than translating for a moving picture crew. (He is a poet, which you might have guessed.)" Garment of Shadows, which follows on directly from Pirate King, didn't contain much about poets in the story, but the title is taken from the work of a Persian-Arabic poet, Ebn El Roumi (who, as far as I can tell, isn't the same as the much more famous Rumi who wrote a few hundred years later):

...the breath of Chitane
Blows the sands in smoky whirls
And blinds my steed.
And I, blinded as I ride,
Long for the night to come,
The night with its garment of shadows
And eyes of stars.

Finally I have moved on to the new novel, Dreaming Spies, which I haven't finished yet. Poetry features very prominently here. The title is a pun on Matthew Arnold's "city of dreaming spires" (Oxford), and there are other references to Arnold's work. The chapters have epigraphs in haiku form, and above all, a priceless book of poetry by the great Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho plays a key role in the novel. I'd really recommend that anyone interested in this series starts with the first and best book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but all the poetic references in these three latest have added a lot to my enjoyment.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I finally went to the wonderful exhibition at Museum of London which has been on for some months, and also attended a discussion by the curators. This week, the title of that Laurie King novel about Sherlock Holmes, Dreaming Spies, was a keyhole opening which my mind's eye peered through to see that poetry (and poets), Sherlock Holmes and spies have something in common: they're everywhere. Holmes, to me, is something in the way of a guardian spirit of London, always somewhere in the back of my mind as I move through the city. While travelling on the Underground, I sometimes try to guess who in my vicinity might be working as a spy. And then I remembered two favourite quotations. One is from the great American poet Anne Sexton: "A writer is essentially a spy./Dear love, I am that girl." The other is from Polish poet Wojciech Bonowicz, who was in part quoting a Polish critic: "The one who opposes the fossilization of language, one who attends to its fissures. In this way the poet remains a secret agent of elusive sense."

Monday, 9 March 2015

Emily Carr at Dulwich Gallery: "A Continual Miracle"

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidegate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, 76.2 x 56.7 cm, 1980.034.001, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde

I finally went to Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition of Emily Carr, the artist from British Columbia who for me is local. For most of her life, her home was in Victoria, which is also my hometown. Her house is a museum which is a stone's throw from where some of my friends live and not far from my childhood home. Her grave is in Ross Bay Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards in Canada and just down the road from my house.

It was strange to see Emily Carr's works in a London gallery, especially when a few of the paintings and sketches depicted places I grew up with and saw almost daily, such as Clover Point and Ross Bay. In part, this exhibition followed on from the Group of Seven exhibition a few years ago, which was an enormous success. Carr was associated with the Group of Seven, but their works mostly represent other parts of Canada, especially Ontario. Emily Carr was a pure West Coaster and her works depicting areas such as Haida Gwaii and the Skeena River are iconic. I admit that part of the interest of these exhibitions is the feeling of moving through like a shadow and watching the mostly British art lovers look at paintings and descriptions of places I know, or at least places close to home, with the interest and bewilderment of those confronted by something quite exotic. The exhibition also featured artifacts of First Nations tribes from the Pacific Northwest such as the Haida, Gitxsan and Tsimshian, which helped to put the places she went to and depicted in context.

I was surprised at how richly the paintings struck me, after never being terribly interested as a child, and forgetting many except the most famous pieces. The deep forest paintings featured a rich, hallucinogenic green and shapes both rounded and geometric. In lighter, more open woods and her more impressionistic period, the trees seem to be swirling in a wind on the canvas, drawing the eye upwards. Other paintings and sketches show First Nations buildings, canoes and totem poles in vivid, documentary-style detail.

Emily Carr, Tree (spiralling upward), 1932-1933, oil on paper, 87.5 x 58.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.63, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

 Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas, Overall: 108.6 x 68.9 cm. ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970, 69/118

An extremely independent and adventurous woman, especially for her time period, Carr was also a writer - mostly of prose, but she loved and appreciated the poetry of Walt Whitman and the British Romantics. This Whitman poem, 'Miracles', was a particular favourite of Carr's, especially the last two stanzas.

MIRACLES (Walt Whitman)

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,  
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,    
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim - the rocks - the motion of the waves - the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?     

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Nice Things People Said Lately

I've been a bit offline blog-wise of late, partly due to being sick on and off in February and then travelling. But I've been meaning for ages (well, six weeks anyway) to post links to a couple of nice pieces recently about my writing.

Tim Buck at Spectral Lyre wrote some thoughtful and generous comments on a few of my poems, here:

Matthew Stewart at Rogue Strands shared some interesting perspectives on my blog here:

It's lovely to have one's writing appreciated, especially when some thought obviously went into the appreciation.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Love of the Art and Others": Rembrandt and Elizabeth Jennings

Rembrandt, Syndics of the Drapers' Guild, 1662. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A few weeks ago, the Rembrandt: The Late Works exhibition wrapped up at the National Gallery in London. I went to see it with a friend on the last entrance slot of the last day, which even by my standards is leaving things late.

Had I missed this exhibition, I would have had to kick myself around the block for eternity. It really was that good. Especially because I've been to the great art galleries in Amsterdam and The Hague, I had already seen many of these paintings before, but there were also many from the US and elsewhere that I had never seen. Besides that, it was simply overwhelming to walk through room after room filled with such masterpieces.

Syndics of the Drapers' Guild, above, is a favourite: a small digital reproduction can't show the liveliness, patience, eagerness to get back to work, and polite weariness in the eyes of the various men in this painting. Among other masterpieces, there were also The Jewish Bride, Saint Bartholomew, and various remarkable late self-portraits.

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c. 1667. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt, Saint Bartholomew, 1657. Timken Museum of Art

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659. National Gallery of Art, Washington

It's hardly original to say that when you look at a Rembrandt painting, you feel as though you gain an insight into that person's soul. But I would go a step further and say that when you look into the painted eyes of the people who sat for him, or who he imagined from stories and from history, you seem to feel what that person is feeling. No wonder this exhibition was overwhelming.

As much as I love most forms of art, I generally have my doubts as to whether art can really make us better people. But when I look at Rembrandt's paintings, I sense that they actually can make us better, for one simple reason. Rembrandt looked at everyone - including himself - with empathy and interest, and without judgment. He gave his subjects dignity, no matter who they were. And when we gaze at his paintings, they invite us in to do the same.

English poet Elizabeth Jennings wrote this poem, 'Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits', in tribute to some of the finest paintings I looked at that night a few weeks ago, and in tribute to the artist. Like the portraits themselves, the poem looks at Rembrandt both delicately and unflinchingly, seeing past the surface to all the implications of love, pain and self-scrutiny which lie underneath. You can read the poem, or listen to the poet herself read it, on the link below.


Sunday, 8 February 2015

December: With Byron and the Shelleys at Cologny

During the December holidays, I did a bit of travelling and went first to Luxembourg for a couple of days, then to visit a friend who lives on the German/Swiss border, and finally to Geneva for one night before flying back to London. Luxembourg, a beautiful (and expensive) city set strikingly across gorges, was new to me. My German friend used to live in Basel - where she still works - and I visited her there a few years ago so I knew that area a bit. As for Geneva, I had been there before, but it was close to thirty years ago when I was a small child. At the time the city hadn't impressed me much (it's not a child-friendly city) but I was curious to revisit it.

Geneva was still quiet, and this time it was cold. I peered at the floral clock, wished the Jet d'Eau was operational (wrong time of year, too windy, or both) and wandered by the lake, listening to the sailboats ringing in the wind. That was my first afternoon, when finally it started snowing fairly hard and I fled to a cafe where I drank a couple of coffees and managed to write a poem.

The next morning it was sunny and beautiful, and I decided to take a bus to the Cologny suburb to find Byron's house, Villa Diodati. Byron rented this villa from June to November in 1816, during an unusually cold and rainy summer. He stayed there with his personal physician, while Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (later known as Mary Shelley) and Mary's stepsister stayed nearby. Over the course of a few particularly rainy days when the group stayed in at Villa Diodati, reading and discussing fantasy and horror stories, they decided to come up with such stories themselves, which eventually led to the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I had a bit of a hard time finding the villa. First I went much too far on the bus, and as I walked back along the lake, the passersby I asked were either unsure of what I was looking for, or knew about it but didn't know where to go. Eventually, though, I found this:

After a good steep walk up the hillside, I eventually found the villa, which also looked over a beautiful vista of Lake Geneva. It is privately owned, but all I really wanted to do anyway was peer through the gates.

Apparently many writers have ventured to this villa to pay their respects to Byron, the Shelleys and Romanticism. I've never been a huge fan of Byron myself (more so of Percy Bysshe Shelley, while Mary Shelley's Frankenstein just isn't my kind of book), but it was good to catch a glimpse of the atmosphere which inspired these great Romantics - without all the rain.

All photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Poems for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Auschwitz - Camp after liberation (

27 January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is 70 years today since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Commemoration events planned this year are particularly extensive, as 70 years is one of the last major anniversaries when a significant number of survivors may still be alive. I think that this may also be considered a potentially dangerous tipping point, when the events of the war become a really distant memory and newer generations may be less and less interested or aware. World events would seem to indicate that in some respects the tipping point has already been reached.

I just wanted to share a few poems and past blog posts which tie into International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Two poets particularly close to my heart are Paul Celan and Miklós Radnóti. Paul Celan, a German-speaking Jew from Bukovina, lost his parents in the Holocaust and was also interned in a labour camp. He died by suicide in 1970, never able to leave the trauma of his experiences behind. I wrote about Celan's poem 'With a Variable Key', and some reflections on my visit to Auschwitz, here.

Miklós Radnóti was a Hungarian Jew who died on a forced march in 1944. I wrote here about his life and his beautiful poem 'Letter to my wife', published after his death.

Szilárd Borbély, a Hungarian poet who died in 2014, was also the author of The Dispossessed. I was thinking of his poem 'The Matyó Embroidery'. This is a very powerful and distressing poem. The first time I read it, I must say that I started to feel a sense of panic about halfway through when I realised when it was going. I suppose that it should have been obvious where it was going, but the poem's carefully constructed narrative shape makes the whole experience of reading it especially overwhelming.

Finally, Geoffrey Hill's 'September Song' is a short and very sad poem about a child victim of the Holocaust.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

'The Marvel' by Keith Douglas: Ways of Seeing

Wave Curl by Simon Turkas. Used under Creative Commons license

THE MARVEL (Keith Douglas)

A baron of the sea, the great tropic
swordfish, spreadeagled on the thirsty deck
where sailors killed him, in the bright Pacific

yielded to the sharp enquiring blade
the eye which guided him and found his prey
in the dim country where he was a lord;

which is an instrument forged in semi-darkness
yet taken from the corpse of this strong traveller
becomes a powerful enlarging glass

reflecting the unusual sun's heat.
With it a sailor writes on the hot wood
the name of a harlot in his last port.

For it is one most curious device
of many, kept by the interesting waves - 
and I suppose the querulous soft voice

of mariners who rotted into ghosts
digested by the gluttonous tides
could recount many. Let them be your hosts

and take you where their forgotten ships lie
with fishes going over the tall masts - 
all this emerges from the burning eye.

And to engrave that word the sun goes through
with the power of the sea,
writing her name and a marvel too.

                             Linney Head, Wales, [May] 1941

 In 1991, Seamus Heaney gave a lecture on Keith Douglas at Poets House in New York. Not only that, but you can listen to a full recording of the lecture here. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I nearly fell over when I discovered this recording - one of my most beloved poets speaking about one of my other most beloved (and much less famous) poets...

Early in the lecture, Heaney reads 'The Marvel' and calls it a poem "which seems to arrive from nowhere". After reading it he says "It has a certain Noli me tangere stride to it... It just walks in." I love that, and what a compliment! He also comments on the tension in the poem between the intellectual and the visceral, between aristocracy and brutality, which is very Douglas. The whole lecture is wonderful and if you appreciate Heaney, or Douglas, or especially both, you must listen to it.

My own take on this poem is that it's another riff on Douglas's obsession with seeing. I suppose that ways of seeing are the currency of poets. A poet is always looking for an alternative angle. But the array of angles and perspectives in 'The Marvel' is dizzying. In the space of a few lines, Douglas sees (most literally) through the eye of the great fish hunting its prey; through the written word and the implications of the sailor using the eye as a magnifying glass to write the "harlot's" name on the deck; through the eye of the sun itself and the power of the natural world; through the gaze of the drowned at "fishes going over the tall masts"... There is something hallucinatory but also very concrete about it.

This may be a strange comparison but when I re-read the poem this time I was suddenly reminded of Las Meninas, the painting by the great Diego Velázquez. The subjects of the poem and the painting may have nothing in common, but they are both masterpieces about physical and spiritual angles on vision, and the relationships between the viewer and the viewed.