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.