Quarterly

Cloud in the sky’s apex pinpoints summer’s final symphony. Coming full circle as blue stretches its grin into one long band of paint. Miró’s Bleu III which instantly makes me think of McEwan’s megaballoon, bright red augury of punctured hope. Pixellation point as dusk ploughs the sky, all grains and kernels (and then the first fall of the apple and autumn turns again). There is an odourless coolness , a  fraîcheur, when you step outside, like a yet unidentifiable cliché that catches you off guard.

Today we drink a steady flow of Turkish brew, poured from Pyrex. “New statue./In a drafty museum” of late summer light. The exhibit has let its guard down; its sheet has been flung aside and we’re here again, showing up to another circular ritual. Late afternoon coffee and cake with clouds blotting the sky, pen on the brain, writing the unconscious, emotional perception of the daily. We’re flexible, self-professed enthusiasts, navigating our twenties! Sontag is the epicentre of conversation, spun around snippets of sophomore gossip and anecdotes about people, places, things yet to be mapped on the hypothetical timeline. A foray into the working and living mind; masculinity; the north-south divide, waxing sing-song poetical into the lyric of our lives…

Here’s to a travelling twenties, an unshakeable and rootless aliveness and eye-wide gaping alertness to all things living!

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Retrospect

I’ve abandoned the cliché of procrastination and its holding on to illusion. An anthology of future writings that never pens itself into being because of the fear. Of not making something of one’s life; of death;of living a lie. Expiry dates and must-haves. Yet these are all illusions also, passing passions. Perhaps all writing is a deflowering? We accumulate experiences, adding to our inner anthology, only to lay it bare and subject it to recollection. Where do all these layers lead to, once they have been peeled back?

We’re sat in the back garden, two pools of coffee laid out side by side in Le Creuset mugs. Their imprints- Olympic rings- are half-way marks, proof of parallel projects that have coincided in conversation around this sunlit table. Two for twenty, for millennials, for shared ideas. You’re twenty-three and bright, saying how much you look forward to being forty and the stretching wisdom of age.  We talk about ritual, only half-aware of these encircling spaces, table, mugs, spoons. The swings and roundabouts of our comfortable present. If there is a plan and the universe is unveiling as it should, then what of our belief in the human capacity for change? If every day is a blank slate over yesterday’s faded script, then can we really forge a new narrative?

The fragmentation of this modern life and its technicolour screenworlds could ennoble this vision for infinite change and self-transformation. In linear time, the points may have been plotted, but the routes can change. In lived time, the pack reshuffles and the free-fall play of events eludes, puzzles, pushes to the point of despair. Yet living is always forwards and promises a becoming: our awareness widens with each passing day and we know that within each snap in the aperture we will develop.

A grainy residue sits at the bottom of the past hour,drained. As you’re talking I can’t help but think about how much I want to record, write, express a response to this conversation as it is happening in real time. To capture it simultaneously would create a further rupture, deviation, deferral.

 

 

Dart and other meetings

 Here is a response to Alice Oswald’s poetry which was commissioned by The Isis Magazine, “the longest-running independent student magazine in the UK”. You can view the article in the Culture section of the site, here: http://isismagazine.org.uk/2017/03/dart-and-other-meetings/

A whimsical flick through the Faber and Faber Poetry Diary 2013 led to an encounter with Alice Oswald’s ‘Woods etc’. I remember reading that poem aloud several weeks later, during a lunchtime of poetry in the school library, and feeling the nerves of public speaking fizzle into the goosebumps that only a rare poem can provoke. The same invisible tingling buzzed through the room when Oswald gave a recital at Keble in Hilary Term of 2015.

Experiencing Oswald’s poetry, first- or second-hand, is to linger on “the threshold of listening” around which her words hang. This is a writer that demands “lend me your ears!” and presupposes an attention to sound. Reading or hearing the various voices in her poems is more than just handing over free will in the hope of absorbing the trickling magic of the lines. In one particular collection, Dart, which won the T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2002, Oswald gathers together the “loose tacks of sound” left on her voice recorder after spending two years interviewing the people who live and work on the River Dart in Devonshire. There is a voice that recurs across the neat groupings and temporal markers; it seems to say that there is always a potential for more, of which the unspoken and untapped element of language is a reminder. In “Woods etc”, the starting ripple of this thought-flow, an image emerges of “my throat, the little mercury line / that regulates my speech began to fall / rapidly the endless length of my spine”. In this respect, words have a will of their own; they can enter into free fall outside the parameters of a corpus, human or otherwise.

Allowing language to perform its shadow dance and embracing its power to enhance our daily perceptions is a primary mode of most literary talents, and Oswald’s Dart is illustrative of such a skill. Her verses fall like the stones she writes about, dropped softly yet deliberately. She charts a chronicle of a river and its people, using nature’s great moving mirror to reflect the myriad meetings that occur throughout life. Flashes of genius will catch even the most discerning reader off guard, just as Oswald’s characters are often dazzled by their fished-out discoveries. At times it feels as though they are incubating in silence, preparing for their next masked metamorphosis.

It is in the midst of this drama of self-awareness, “falling back on appropriate words / turning the loneliness in all directions”, that an unveiling occurs; the unmasking of a transformation. The river bends become meanderings of thought and their point of confluence is resolutely existential. Here, it is tempting to call up Ted Hughes. Oswald is seen as an heir to Hughes but it is important to show how she writes differently, as this is arguably what makes her a great poet. Her voice is not lost amongst the patriarchal tradition of nature poets but achieves something that is at once ancient and modern, formless and genderless. Just as Hughes’ “Wodwo” has “no strings / fastening me to anything”, so too does Oswald’s “eel watcher” by the bridge, as he slips in and out of forms:

“Who’s voice is this who’s talking in my larynx…

who’s talking in my lights-out where I pull to

under the bent body of an echo are these your

fingers in my roof are these your splashes”

While Oswald’s work is resonant of Hughes’, it is perhaps more fruitful to see their work in parallel. What Oswald ultimately moves towards, through digging deep into the soils of nature, are the wriggling existential questions that plague our minds.

In writing ‘Quarrel’ in response to ‘Dart’, I have this tension between sight and self in mind, as well as this poet’s idiosyncratic awareness of sound. There is a primary association between “dart” and “quarrel” as nouns; the latter historically meaning arrow or crossbow. In this sense, I suppose, I am tapping into the way objects can lose and regain their links to certain actions. Just as the river Dart has drifted from its original roots as old Devonian for “oak” and has become “a jabber of pidgin-river”, so too has “quarrel” got a fork in its etymological path.

I have also used a Cupid metaphor, but it pales in the face of Oswald’s Memorial, a sizzling soundscape recreation of the Iliad. Aside from the imagined meeting between former lovers and the question of reconciliation, I am trying to convey the gut-wrenching dart of emotion that lurches in your stomach when thinking of certain people who have crossed our paths. Of love that has now been displaced by time and the infinite tenderness you feel in spite of yourself for moments elapsed while you were together. That faded figure you refuse to fully shake from the anchor of your memory. And another, whose name will always conjure up that mad reptilian rapture or the shadow of it, tainted by an aftertaste of what was not.

Quarrel

Brazen student, wide-eyed, true:

she darts her gaze right back at you,

settles on the bull’s eye of your pupils.

Hair flies, shorter than it’s ever been, she pedals hard and committedly

down Broad Street, which bows:

bows its pavements in anticipation, admittedly,

of an eventual embrace

Tears furrow

And flow, droplets of a storm that mottle

down either side of each eye:

And I see you then as if I’m a hundred and you’re ten

And hold you then as if it is I who has been the shipwrecked one!

Such is the power of language: to bring us back to those moments and heal the wounds of past “I love”s. And yet the eye – or ‘I’ – of hindsight isn’t always enough; we need to engage with a fuller sensory balm, one that infuses a remedial tune into our lives of flashing urban excess. Come back to the depths of Devon and let the river run its course; let your life flow like the time that courses through its veins. This is what Dart seems to urge: a return to “the real Dart”, if there is one. There is an eternal internal combat; “in the water it’s another matter, we’re just shells and arms, keeping ourselves in a fluid relation with the danger.” We’re all just treading water, really.

And so we return to that “little mercury line”, the gravitational sway that seems to alternately centre and decentre Oswald’s language in a universe wrought with the iron echo of Anglo-Saxon. Her latest collection, Falling Awake, is perhaps the most perfect approximation of this contradictory (dis)orientation. How can this rootless clamour of identities be resolved? “Quarrel” is, maybe, an attempt at this impossible reconciliation of selves. A stone’s throw from a whim and you arrive at the water’s edge of a poem; you’re back for another look in the mirror. “This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy” speaks a voice from the cave at the end of Dart; the protean hum “of things not yet actual”. Perhaps we must look forwards instead, moving with the river, the fluid will that drives us forward in spite of ourselves.

 

Why did Sontag die…?

Why did Sontag die

when I was nine?

 

that our lives might have collided

on the cliff of time!

 

I bet she wore tobacco like perfume

Just as anyone in vogue would douse themselves in CK One

As she lay dying

in 2004.

 

“The Dark Lady of American Letters”

they named her

 

And down the decades her strident cry

received a reel of paper praise

From critics who would cast

their nets into the New-Wave.

 

I wonder what it would have been like

To feel

her incandescence for syllables and their footwork?

 

A peddler of belles lettres

Rebel of the sexes who loved in equal measure

A man’s robustness and a woman’s softness!

 

On foggy days, when my brain brims with stanzas ,

I look across the shore at the so-called

 

canon

 

And hear the song of her bullets fired

into the spray.

Last Septembers: Ibsen in Lisbon

In the introduction to her collection of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that photographs “are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” Like the photographer, the theatre director must task themselves with bringing us round to a certain “ethics of seeing”: a slice of dramatic life as they know it. They are translators, first and foremost, of a visual agenda. And where better to begin than in the setting of a photographer’s studio, for the enactment of this dramatic vision?

The vision came into focus over a ten year period, after Tiago Guedes’ first encounter with Ibsen’s 1884 work, The Wild Duck. A conversation with an actor-friend provided the initial spark of inspiration, echoing down the decade in his memory, until the current artistic director of Lisbon’s National Theatre Dona Maria II commissioned Guedes with the challenge of staging this classic tragicomedy, ready for its month-long run in the early autumn of 2016.

 Vildanden,as it is known in the original Dano-Norwegian versions, is a work which lends itself well to the process of revision and adaptation demanded by such an undertaking. Ibsen’s text is underscored with a vital capacity which surpasses the social contours of its fabric, sharing the same breath of life that is written into the script of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is a play about vision itself, as seen through a director’s selective lens, and it is no accident that Guedes has chosen to emphasise the dynamic between Ibsen’s meditation on the transcendent power of truth and the necessarily surreal medium of photography. Indeed, this dynamic also concerns the wider endeavour of artistic works and their envisioned process:from the moment an edition is made of a work’s surviving manuscript,the game of versions begins, as editors and translators alike transmit the text beyond the reaches of its origins.This decentering effect calls for the setting of a new north on the literary compass; seeing a work with new eyes requires a projection beyond the tangible dilemmas of updating a text for the contemporary audience,or indeed linguistic translation for the international scene. Guedes’ version is fresh precisely in its staging of the more conceptual cues that Ibsen left behind.

Returning to the photographer’s studio, then, as the play’s visual focus, we watch the spatial expansion of a family conflict. Gregers’ arrival at the Ekdal household in Act Two disturbs beyond the inconvenience of a late-night intrusion, breaking up the domestic space and exposing the forced merriment of Ekdal and his wife. We are made aware of the mechanisms of performance- stilted deliveries and mannered gestures- which are set against the simple set. The advantage of the minimalist approach Guedes takes to scenery lies in the way it directs the audience’s attention towards the few props which have been singled out for contemplation. More weight is given to these objects  because of the silence and space which surrounds them.The effect of this decision highlights what lies beyond the immediate circumstances: the disjointed tableau of chairs, table and door frame point towards the surreal dimension of performance. A decluttered set represents a mode of extreme reality, shaped by the hand of artifice, in which objects are overshadowed by their own pending implications. In the surreal mode, they inhabit a plane of awareness that embodies the sham of selectivity and yet is more real than life, in its stark display of the material world. The surreal can be more real than the real,just as comedy can be more tragic than tragedy.

So, how to continue with the setting of this surreal style? In Guedes’ version, the backstage has been wheeled onstage; the entrance hall to the family home is a skeletal dressing room, replete with coat hangers for the characters to recast themselves with the aid of a vestimentary shorthand. These coat hangers signal an index of metatheatre in their own right: their beaky outlines nudge us towards the recognition of yet another visual echo of the play’s central symbol. To this end, the set operates at a kind of second-order level of meaning;an amplifier to capture the overall effect of the performance, as dialogue combines with gesture  to overstep the threshold of the metaphorical. Background becomes foreground,as staid furniture offsets the wry twinkle of polished glass.This is an upcycling of reality, viewed in real time.

 Reproduction betokens representation in this enactment of The Wild Duck, and faithful imitation must give way to refinement of perception in a process not dissimilar to the photographic enterprise. The many lies of life emerge as partial representations of an exploded truth, like a series of camera stills displayed in rotation. And how apt, too, that Hjalmar, the most misguided character, should concern himself with the development of photo proofs when his reality veers so far from the photographic ideal that Old Werle has fashioned for him. These proofs, visual minutiae in the bold cosmos of Ibsen, function once again as a testament to the equivocal status of truth in the play.

In this sense, they work as stand-ins for the lack of incriminating visual evidence in the revelation of the great lie: that Old Werle has provided Hjalmar with a wife and livelihood not out of universal kindness but merely to protect his own name. Yet we only hear echoes of this deception via the characters’ multiple narratives. “My father seems to have been almost a kind of providence for you,” remarks Gregers Werle to his childhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal, as we hear of how Hjalmar came to be a photographer and marry Gina Hansen, a former servant in the Werle household. The audience, too, remains blind to the visible spectrum of events as they happened. Instead, the cast must be held accountable for their delivery of the dramatic word.  

 But you have to be adept whilst handling such material. When the weight of a character’s inner world hangs on the gamble of a syllable, there is all to play for. From the moment speech escapes from an actor’s mouth, another betrayal has occurred, as the text is moved from page to stage. Guedes makes a lot of this heard dimension. In the eternal dice game of language, the spoken wrestles with the written and, absorbed into the magic of their own enactment, words lose their point of origin. Speech marks loosen their grip around each phrase, as we are no longer sure of any concrete centre from which they may have sprung.  The most dizzying derailment of the written text occurs in the final act: at the shot of a gun, the dramatic patchwork has been unravelled and, shed of their shallow novelty, we see the characters for who they really are.Perhaps the tragicomedy lies in the possibility that Gregers the moralist is no less of a quack than Hjalmar the idealist.

The vital lie at the heart of the action, a blindness that kids itself of its own stunning clarity,is thrown into relief, and yet without a trace of monochrome in the urgency of its delivery. A resonant reminder of this shortsightedness is one of Hjalmar Ekdal, poised at the table as if frozen in a camera still ,in silent contemplation of his genius breakthrough: the unrealised project that each of us dreams of and eternally puts off. An everyman procrastinator in a failed inventor’s disguise, he sits amidst a tale of exposure at all costs, with a disinherited daughter as its misplaced centrepiece.The claustrophobic implosion which prompts Nora to leave her doll’s house is transformed in this play into something broader and more expansive.There seems to be no final say on the moral ground at stake,and the image of the wild duck is elusive,called to mind only through indirect pointers, until its full exposition in the concluding catastrophe.

In a letter to Frederik Hegel, his publisher, Ibsen himself expressed his hopes for the small yet revolutionary impact that this play might have to offer: “I can believe that The Wild Duck can perhaps tempt some of our younger dramatists into new paths, and I would consider this to be desirable.” Guedes’ version takes the path of encouraging  its audience to appreciate the play in its fuller theatrical dimensions. As such,Guedes does not appear to be tempting us towards any single social, political or religious interpretation, and yet still reveals a professed faithfulness to the text. Perhaps Guedes’ production has a photographic kind of fidelity to the original; photographic insofar as it affirms the lies just as inherent to art as to life.

 

Beginnings

A Sunday morning in mid-February. The sun rises at 8.19 am and I’m rising up the frozen mud trails, tyres flicking mud everywhere and treads following the gentle bends of the Erdre river. The Erdre is a right side vein of the Loire river in western France. A trusty tributary, one might hope. For three weekends, now, I’ve kept coming back for a closer look in its mirror; warily waiting at its edges for the right time and weather conditions. However,what I’ve found out is that there is always one external variable that will throw your limbic system off course. Better to brace your mind and learn to navigate the currents.

Just stand up with both blades held together and push your leg out to the side

I’ve pushed off for the first time unaided from the pontoon, and the fear of overturning is beginning to abate. It’s an unhelpful fear that takes so much grace out of the smooth cycle of a stroke. I watch as the rowers around me take the stream in their scull’s stride; they deftly manoeuvre the oars with a slight and momentary pressure on one side to adjust the direction of the bows and again they’re back into an effortless and balanced central diversion of energies. How efficient and elegant! It’s not even a knack; it’s one tiny intention that spreads from the delicate bones in their fingers, in a long invisible line all the way to the finish as the arms draw in the wide arc they’ve traced and prepare for the next cycle. The thought- “brilliantly, concentratedly/ Coming about its own business”- becomes action and then enacts itself, over and over. Its shadow is there in the ripples left scuffing the mirror’s surface.

There are moments of pure light on this morning.Unhindered reflections shine forth from the surface as I drift under the bridge; the familiar clack of blades entering the water waking me up from my daydreams. The coltish energy of a sculler behind me is an invitation to pick up the pace, yet I’m so unbalanced and dig too deeply for what should be a soft dappling of the fingers, reaching out for that initial contact with the water. In one (literal) clean sweep, I’m overtaken by an ambitious-looking women’s pair. Their strokes bite into the water as they hinge their hips forward and deliver their deadly serious punchline, before elastically opening their backs like Federer’s racquet as it prepares to meet fluorescent felt. I’m lost in thought again, prey to that half-flow which can make or break a stroke. On the one hand you need that simultaneous awareness; a peripheral vision that balances out the eye you’re keeping on your own motion. But sometimes a lapse in concentration, when you’re caught off-guard between two awarenesses, can cause a small puddle of chaos.

Attention! Attention! Nous sommes trop près…

And just inches away, I manage an escape from a men’s quad. Cast out into the middle of the river by my own lack of skilful steering  and blown out of line by the wind’s unforgiving pronouncements, I become a prime target for this shell. Clumsy and slow, I try to correct my misalignment,but none of them are looking back to check for a clear path of moving glass.

Mais qu’est-ce qui se passe là?!?! Attention!!

Now they look back in anger. “I’m sorry”, I repeat, “It’s totally my fault; I don’t know the river well”. They resume focus and their sharp strokes serve as a withering reminder of my utter incompetence. But this blip is just one wobble in a long stretch of snags and eddies.Why give up now? “It’s a learning curve”, a schoolteacher used to say, whenever a pupil found themselves stumped in the process. If you’ve shown up, then how unfulfilling it will be to abandon in the midst of the baby steps and tumbles.There will surely come a day when the New becomes the Automatic. Or else not so surely, but at least hopefully.