Sunday 29 November 2015

A Vision: Keith Douglas and 'Desert Flowers'

Keith Douglas in North Africa during World War II

DESERT FLOWERS (Keith Douglas)

Living in a wide landscape are the flowers - 
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying - 
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying

the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.
But that is not new. Each time the night discards

draperies on the eyes and leaves the mind awake
I look each side of the door of sleep
for the little coin it will take
to buy the secret I shall not keep.

I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.

                         [? El Ballah, General Hospital, 1943]

I have a habit of relating poems of the past to current events, Sometimes it's the whole poem, sometimes just a phrase. Sometimes I'm sure it's a bit of a leap. But when I do it, it always feels true. And surely the capacity to stand outside time, but within patterns and feelings, is one sign of a great poem.

I started thinking about 'Desert Flowers' again in the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris. There is so much about this poem that cuts both ways, or all must be the most delphic of all his poems. Flowers are left to remember the dead, for comfort; but in this poem of the Western Desert Campaign in World War II, they are also "the hungry flowers", devouring the body (perhaps the flowers of artillery fire?).

I wonder very much what Douglas was thinking of when he wrote this poem. It makes me think of concepts such as trauma, the reach and limitations of insight, and what we can learn from the dead. Partly because Douglas was still so young when he died, I tend to feel that he was often writing on a subconscious level that he was consciously not able to fully understand. In other words, he wanted to convey something journalistic and real, and his poems did that, but they were also much deeper than he realised. To a certain extent this happens with all good poetry and poets, but Douglas's poems have always seemed to me to have a real core depth, especially for a young writer.

Throughout the poem Douglas seems to be looking for, or invoking, other voices. In the second line he calls on Isaac Rosenberg, the great World War I poet. If you read Rosenberg's great poems, you will find similarities in their approaches - both poets strove for accuracy and detachment, not romanticism. The parallels between the natural world and the human world are harsh and striking: 'the shell and the hawk every hour/are slaying men and jerboas' - and then Douglas adds 'slaying/the mind'. This is where trauma enters the picture for me. The speaker is a man who cannot fully cope with what he is experiencing; this is one reason for detachment. The pressure on his mind, even the threat of mental death, is too much.

There is a hermetic quality to this poem, and 'the secret I shall not keep' is one of the most mysterious images of all. Is it poetry? Is it the ability to transcend the horrors that humanity witnessed in the World Wars, and that it keeps witnessing? The striving after vision in this poem is intense - incredibly intense, almost desperate. As close as he may get to the truth, Douglas suggests, his vision will be imperfect. Here, with 'I see men as trees suffering', Douglas makes reference to the account of Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-25). When the man's vision was at first partially restored, before a complete restoration, he said 'I see people, but they look like trees walking about' (Mark 8:24, New World Translation; 'I see men as trees, walking', King James Version). 'I see men as trees suffering' is also a blurred vision, but a terrible one, and wholly evocative of the horror and confusion of the battlefield - or even an act of terrorism. It's the moment after the bomb-blast.

The last two lines, as often in Douglas's poetry, seem to look onwards to his own death. The coin, which has already appeared earlier in the poem, here becomes a clear symbol of passage to the land of the dead, when laid on the speaker's tongue: Charon's obol, or the payment for the ferryman who took the dead across the river Styx.

Strangely, though, Douglas also suggests that this coin will open his mouth, or allow him to speak (or sing). How is this possible if he is dead? I see nothing in the poem to suggest that he is writing about ghostly visitations. I think that Douglas may be saying that when he is dead, his words will have a deeper meaning that they couldn't have in his life. They will become a vision that no one else could have had. And in a sense this is true: we perceive his poems differently because he died so young, in a great war, and perhaps those facts have given his poems deeper meaning and significance. This is how the dead can speak to us, in a manner amplified by their deaths.

This is perhaps where and why I thought of the poem in relation to the terrible events of recent weeks. It is a tragic fact that the dead can be transfigured by their deaths. They take on a meaning that they never had in life. Depending on the manner of their death, others (such as politicians) may also try to give them a meaning that those people would not have asked for or desired in life. And the sad thing is that although the dead speak to us in this way, living humans do not learn the lessons.

Monday 23 November 2015

Paul Celan: Sounds and Visions at Kings Place

Edmund de Waal, Karen Leeder, Grete Tartler and Isobel Colchester at Paul Celan: The Romanian Context (Kings Place, London, November 2015). Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

On Thursday 12 November I went to a Paul Celan event hosted by Poet in the City, at Kings Place (a great arts venue near London's Kings Cross station).

It was actually a dual event, the first part of which was 'Paul Celan: the Romanian Context' and featured Edmund de Waal (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes - I finally read it and it's wonderful), Karen Leeder (Professor of Modern German Literature at Oxford, and translator) and Romanian poet Grete Tartler in conversation about Celan. Grete Tartler's opening talk on Celan was wonderful. She drew attention to his various roots - German (language), Romanian (geography and his Bucharest period), Viennese (surrealist context), French (Paris for much of his life) and of course Jewish. Apparently "all Romanians are born poets" is a saying in Romania (I can imagine), but because of his background as a German-speaking Jew, when he went to Bucharest people there were amazed by the quality of his Romanian. (He wrote early poetry, much less known, in the Romanian language). Two beautiful phrases which emerged from this part of the evening described his poetry as "a music of suggestions" and "symphony of origins". Celan had a collection whose title is usually translated as Poppy and Memory, but Tartler called it Moonflower and Memory, which I found equally wonderful.

In the subsequent discussion with Karen Leeder, Edmund de Waal talked about discovering Celan at 17, through a tribute poem by Geoffrey Hill - a mysterious reminder of my own discovery of Celan, at almost exactly the same age, through a song by U2 called A Sort of Homecoming. (Never, ever disdain the origins of your passions. I still love the song.) De Waal, as well as an author, is a potter, and talked passionately about the "texture" and "granular" quality of Celan, a wonderful sidelight for someone like me who has pretty much zero grasp of the world of pottery.

The second part of the evening, 'Paul Celan: Sounds and Visions' was the main event of the evening. Karen Leeder spoke about his life and poems, and Edmund de Waal spoke again about crossover and the inspiration provided by Celan for visual artists. We saw photos of some of his Celan-inspired works, with names such as Black Milk and Lightduress, and the number of pots echoing the number of syllables in a poem - and especially the spaces and silences. "He brings breath and white to the foreground," said de Waal. Celan also wrote about home and homecoming a good deal, but we were acutely reminded that this had resonances of loss and horror for Celan: when he came home one night in 1942, his parents were gone and he never saw them again - the key moment in his life which created a trauma he could never recover from.

There was music by Webern, Berg, Harrison Birtwistle and finally a premiere, Psalm by Martin Suckling (who was sitting two seats away from me), a tribute to Celan's own devastating 'Psalm'. The music was, I admit, avant-garde for my rather conservative tastes, but I was impressed by how Psalm, performed by players from the Aurora Orchestra, created a sort of echo chamber of reaching and loss (there were three quartets placed around the auditorium). Very unfortunately, for me, the real downside to the evening was the reading of Celan's poems. The selection was excellent - many of my favourites, including 'Homecoming', 'Etched away', 'Think of it' and others. However, the readings by actor Henry Goodman went way too far into 'actor' territory, and not in a good way (working for LAMDA, I know well that actors can perform poems superbly). Poems shouldn't be an opportunity for an actor to overact, and the power of Celan's words is such that just love, respect and restraint are needed (that goes for most poetry, actually). Sadly, he injected obvious sarcasm into every pronunciation of "Lord" in 'Tenebrae', and "over the top" doesn't even describe what happened to 'Death Fugue' (shouting in a fake German accent? Really?). I hope some of those who were less familiar with Celan in the audience look for the recordings available online of him reading his own poems, in the original German, in a tentative, trancelike voice.

Paul Celan was born 95 years ago today. It is sad to contemplate the fact that he committed suicide and that he could possibly still have been alive today. It's good, though, to see that a lot of people still love him, or that they're interested at least. I spoke with Grete Tartler afterwards and at the end of our conversation I said "I just really love him. I'm very sentimental about him, actually." She said "Yes, yes! You must be sentimental about him." She certainly understood. I am not quite sure whether she meant that my sentimentality about Paul was obvious, or whether it was a necessary approach for any reader, but certainly in my case, both apply.

Sunday 15 November 2015

New Poems Published - The Island Review

Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

The Island Review recently published three of my poems. As this lovely journal publishes only work by islanders and/or in some way related to islands, it won't come as a surprise that all three poems are about Vancouver Island (where I grew up). You can read them here:

'The Provincial Museum' has actually been called the Royal BC Museum for many years, but it was the Provincial Museum in my childhood and so that name has stayed, for me. 'An Eye, Open' is in some ways a little tribute to Paul Celan. I stole the title from the title of one of his poems, and you can read it here if you're interested:!/20595433

Wednesday 4 November 2015

The Sign of Four, the City In My Head and the Map of Poetry

John Atkinson Grimshaw, The Strand, 1899.

I recently re-read The Sign of Four (or The Sign of the Four) by Arthur Conan Doyle - both the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and the second Sherlock Holmes story ever written (in 1890), before the short stories that made Holmes and Doyle really famous.

The Sign of Four has often (not always) been my favourite of the four Sherlock Holmes novels. Since I moved to London, it has taken on more (or other) significances, and especially since I moved to south London over five years ago. The Sign of Four is a real London book and a great deal of it happens in south London - near where I live, no less. There are key scenes which occur around Nine Elms and Millbank, and when I lived in Stockwell (by Larkhall Park) I was quite delighted by this moment:

Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.

"Rochester Row," said he. "Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the Surrey side, apparently. Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the bridge. You can catch glimpses of the river."

We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames with the lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab dashed on, and was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon the other side.

"Wordsworth Road," said my companion. "Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions."

For a couple of  years I was often in the vicinity of Coldharbour Lane, and it's still not a very fashionable region. I think of The Sign of Four every single time I find myself down there. Such is the power of literature at an impressionable age.

Other scenes take place around Norwood. Conan Doyle lived there for a time, but apparently the evidence suggests that he did not know London as well as you might conclude from the Holmes stories, and that he may have relied quite heavily on maps. This actually makes sense, and it works quite well for the reader. There are some extraordinary set-pieces in the Holmes stories - in The Sign of Four, one that comes to mind is this foggy description on the Strand:

Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, - sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.

There is also a very wonderful pursuit along the Thames, among other scenes. I love the south-London-ness of this book, the sense of staying in the "great cesspool" but moving into something wild and vast - north-of-the-river folk still see south London in this way. A lot of the dark deeds of the Holmes tales take place in south London or the southern outskirts of London.

There is something about the "map" quality of The Sign of Four, and the way it careers around London, which I associate very strongly with my own perceptions of the city. I feel like I carry London in my head - a map, but more than a map. In certain areas, it's as though I can see all the layers superimposed at once - past, present and future times, stories, songs, and more. And wherever I am in London, I feel an awareness quivering from other parts of the city - places I know, people I care about, all moving around and past and through each other. The way Doyle wrote, in map-speak combined with dramatic set-pieces, allows readers to fill in the gaps with their own London. I did this with his stories before I ever visited London, and I have continued to do so ever since, with the real London and with my own perceptions of it from the past and present, all layered and still present to each other.

Does this have a relevance to poetry? Well, I think that poetry is a certain kind of free-association combined with great precision, and to me there is something very maplike about it. The connections which turn into the flashpoints of poems are like transport links and connections around the city, often moving with speed to very disparate parts of London. And the map of any given poem - in physical space, emotional space, and time - builds and superimposes like the palimpsest of London in my head.

And for anyone who's stuck with me to the end of this entry - are there poems to accompany these thoughts? I had thought that this might be a moment to discuss London poems, but instead two great poems about maps and water (on one level, and among other things) came to mind. I have linked to them below. Maps and water are actually both very important to The Sign of Four, so this is appropriate. Beyond that, perhaps you will have to try and trace my train of thought with the clues I have left, and if you can do that, I congratulate you, my dear Watson.


MAPPING THE DELTA (George Szirtes)