Wednesday, 19 May 2010



* * *

In a surprise move, Tar Paulin has declined to comment on something;

... another setback for the very concept of spontaneity as Clam Ayres, poet-in-residence for Glade Nice Plugins, has been snapped in a shit dress making exactly the set of gestures you'd expect her to fucking make while near some plants;

Oxford professors rejoiced, a bit, today, at the latest shipment of Geoffrey Krill; three crates of him were extracted from a whale washed up in Henley-on-Thames;

Over in Cambridge, the city centre rose a degree above freezing today, after the discovery of an early work by J. H. Bynne which does not contain the word 'vantage';

SHOCK! Something in the wider world actually impacts upon British poetry, as climate change means carburetor-poet Simon Hermitage is now almost entirely below sea level, versifying "like a seal tiddlywinked by a tractor tyre just to keep his hair dry";

Still on sabbatical in the bee-gardens of Buckingham Palace, poet laureate Skep Ann Duffy is reported to be working on a dramatic prose piece commemorating the 300th anniversary of the rounded bevel;

further upset from technicians at the forge where Glandrew Notion's verse is extruded -- they claim that since losing the laureateship he is now "usually sesame paste" at room temperature.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Monday, 19 April 2010

[read by a Macintosh]
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Thank you in selecting that device for years, of not troubled, and peace—minded usage, in the office or house or equal hygienic proofed (is recommended) places.


1) Simplicity re- attach part labeled (1) along part labeled between ‘ankle L shew’ (see list of objects in page 2 of this pamph let) (see diagram pages in page 3 of this pamph let) and ‘between ankle R shrew’ (see list of objects in page 2 of this pamph let) (see diagram pages, in page 3 of this pamph let) keen one’s wrists past the fetlock-foam to trowel L (nominated L) and Right (nominted Right);

2) Sat down to your chair, doff recalcitrate your shoes and encourage the button ’ SLUICE ’ (see page 2 of this pamph let)

3. Dail on the left of that device is for the infreqeunt usage to be tended and Never arrived to ‘dozen’ (12).


1. There's a set of clips in an old documentary on the pyramids of Giza -- I forget its name -- cut from an interview with I. E. S. Edwards, a well-respected Egyptologist who died in 1996. His The Pyramids of Egypt was a favourite book of mine as a child, full of gentle awe and restrained wonder, and to see and hear the man talk was a joy. He was round-faced, old, white-haired, at this point, sat comfortably in a comfortable chair in a comfortable, book-lined room, in a position which made him seem neckless without being particularly overweight. His voice was delicate, without a trace of the Welshness I was expecting from someone called Iowerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards, slightly crumbly and croaky, ever so posh. The programme strays into the territory of people like Robert Bauval, a "pyramidologist", a probably self-coined term for practitioners of a more fanciful realm of totemic theorizing and pseudoscience, understandably viewed with an amount of distrust and scorn by Edwards and his rigorously academic cohorts. The sight and sounds of Edwards, during this interview, mentioning that these people are sometimes referred to among the academic Egyptology community as "pyramidiots", chuckling at it, and then struggling to continue, just because of how amusing he clearly finds this quiet pun, is one of the most delightful things I've seen on television.

2. Along similar lines, there's another documentary I remember on the Nazca lines, which also treads the dodgy path between rigorous anthropological (and, here, mathematical) study, and the slightly batshit work of people like Erik von Daniken, who published about a million books asserting that the enormous trapezoids on the flatlands of the Pampas were constructed as landing strips for alien crafts. There's was a fascinating woman, Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who ended up spending the last few decades of her life living on these flatlands, studying the geometries of the various shapes there, and campaigning to keep them protected (from human intervention, not from weather -- thousands of years have passed and the trapezoids, lines and pictures have remained unaffected by the latter). There are small clips of archive footage featuring Reiche herself, staggering across the flatlands; or sat in her small hut, wizened into resembling an actual Nazca shrunken head, or a figure painted on pottery from the period referred to as "Nazca 5" (stylistically more gruesome, grizzled, warlike, due possibly to severe drought), poring over unimaginably complex mappings of an unimaginably sophisticated, still-unexplained system of markings from thousands of years ago.

3. Yet another documentary, which I actually remember the name of -- basically any scene from Rannoch The Red Deer, which followed either the whole life, or the final year in the life of, this beast in Scotland. Every scene was gorgeous.

4. The Rotten World About Us was a fascinating and genuinely perturbing documentary on fungi, which must have been repeated a few times since it was apparently made six years before I was born; I've definitely seen it, though. Most of it is incredible, but the clip I really want to find somewhere is time-lapse footage of the 'Octopus Stinkhorn', Clathrus archeri, expanding from its egg into its full form, which presumably takes a few hours. Speeded up it's like the hand of some angered Moloch, springing out of the earth and hooking his way out of hell. Over Christmas, actually, I discovered it's amusing to get extremely drunk on whisky, do a google image search for these organisms, and stare at the page, convincing yourself that every one is the Devil incarnate; not a part, but each one the whole, containing every conceivable threat and warning in solution. Remarkably easy to do, and really quite frightening.

5. Slightly more cheerfully, Les Dawson did one particular performance of his "blowing out the candle" joke which I think's funnier than all the others I've seen, and typically it's none of those which are online.

6. Kenny Everett strides onto a stage covered in scaffolding with green and yellow lights strangely placed, and what looks like dissipating smoke from a special-effects explosion. He's wearing a torn tartan kilt, I think, and a tartan beret which he keeps adjusting. "Hello. I'm Barbara Cartland, and you're all under arrest. I'd like to read you an extract from my latest romantic novel. When Lady Penelope swoons, her bosoms pop out like balloons. The butler stands by with a gleam in his eye, and pops them back in with warm spoons." It's fucking brilliant.


Bacon frying. Sustained applause in a school hall. Seven hundred games of Kerplunk being lost. A basmati spillage on a slack kettledrum. A high-ceilinged warehouse of underpaid pistachio-shellers. Esther Ofarim shaving Abi’s back. Whatever mechanism it was that powered the organ in St. Michael The Archangel Church in Alcombe. An amplified anthill. A hundred or so fruiting bodies of the coprophilous gasteromycete Sphaerobolus stellatus, launching their spore-filled projectiles across Fuller’s laboratory in the thirties; one, apparently, hit his ceiling. As few as four gulls walking across a perspex roof. Dan’s friend Ewan running his double-bass bow through his hair again. A stadium of damp football rattles. The thoughts of a greyhound being dumped. A Besson B-flat piston-valve euphonium full of warm spit. Brown noise, apparently. A chevron-painter in Herefordshire stopping for a sandwich. Eight thousand eggboxes flashmobbing at Kilburn tube. When the stylus skips too far and your turntable starts ‘playing’ the paper label.

The steady pink-pink-pink of a can of Coke Zero that was opened at least an hour ago and has been standing forgotten ever since, while through the oblong window Bruno Lawrence wrestles with the theology and identity politics of finding oneself to be the last man on Earth. The tidal susurrations of all twenty-seven checkouts at ASDA in full service as twenty-seven trolleys are unloaded by the fistful and a further twenty-seven are re-loaded by PVC sacks that sort of hold uniquely unstable arrangements of carefully selected groceries and household goods. Thirty-nine handheld air guns connected by semiopaque tubing to a suspended array of 3/4" pipework in the two minutes or so after the hydrovane compressor is powered down for the weekend. Drumming steadily with fingers on the mattress and one's ear laid on it, stifling pillows pushed away, feeling the sheet creak against the thirteen-year-old ear, cool and smooth, pressing back, much like Antony's chest had felt in the stillness of the afternoon just gone, not having dared to push any further, but now in the certain night, there where he was not.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sealing Wax

Tad hated wearing his seatbelt. Its purpose never seemed to sink in for more than a few seconds. The people who ran the minibus had stuck four A4 sheets near his seat (the one on its own, at the back), all of them saying, in large Arial, "SEATBELTS MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES!". These were completely ineffectual, and he'd unbuckle himself as soon as he thought nobody was looking; if hindered in this, he might get slightly aggressive, and start jabbing at things with his stick. You were never sure whether he was genuinely forgetting, or was selectively doing so becuase he did, after all, forget everything else, and thought it might go unnoticed. He was ninety-eight, and these trips on the minibus were really the only occasions in any given week on which he left his house, despite his energy and general good health. He could probably have outrun you only a year or two ago, you thought. Certainly his dexterity with a safety buckle was extraordinary.

Ivy, who sat in the seat across, was less well; she was over ten years Tad's junior, but looked like a drawing of Silas Marner, giving "the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube". She was tiny, hunched. Her favourite phrase was "bugger, bugger, bugger!", a catch-all expression of good-humoured but deeply-felt annoyance, usually at her body's inability to move at the speed of her mind.

Occasionally, with Tad, there would be a brief moment of clarity. You vividly remember, once, noticing him staring at Julie, who brought the Kenco and the PG Tips, for an oddly long time, and not at all vacantly. He had suddenly turned to you, saying, "she's a kindly soul, she is. Such an unmagnificent lady, but I don't altogether think it will matter."

On one occasion, the first morning you met him, he developed a sudden sprightliness of manner — oddly, posturing himself deliberately more decrepit-looking; more compact, stooped — and, twinkling, he leaned conspiratorially over, and said: The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

Then he tailed off. He would, always, tail off. You realised, or were told, that this was something he did every day, often more than once. There would be a pause, and he would tell you where he first heard the poem. He was about ten — "no, nine", he'd say, "and ten months", slightly irritated — and his father had taken him and his family up to Landacre Bridge, on Exmoor, for a picnic. He told you the course of the river Barle, and described in detail the stonework around the five arches of this bridge. They had crossed the river and walked to Cow Castle, a large Iron Age fort on a steep hill. They'd clambered down the other side and swum in a pool; a stiller, wider part of the Barle — you can't remember its name now — and then had sat on the side. You later recalled, though you weren't quite sure why, Nell, struggling to remenisce about a springtime rowing trip to Lake Como, in Samuel Beckett's Endgame: "It was deep, deep. And you could see down to the bottom. So white. So clean."

Tad and his family had walked back over Cow's Castle, back to Landacre Bridge; and they had scraped the insides from reeds and rolled them into small off-white balls, or wrapped them round the thumb-tip and pulled them tightly, so that the seedheads flew off. They'd eaten sandwiches. And Tad's uncle, scouring the riverside for good skimmers, had looked up at him, saying: The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

And then, Tad's whole face, from the chin to the scalp, and beyond, into his ears, would break into a bright, glowing smile, and he marked each weighted syllable with a bouncing index finger in the air, as he recited: ... of cabbages— and kings! ...

"No," after a pause, he'd say. "No, thats's not right. There's another bit. Something comes in between."

The first time you met him was the first time you'd heard the poem, so you couldn't help. But he could never remember what it was that came in between, however many times he told the story. Once people caught on, it became a great game, particularly for Ivy. He'd lean over and tap her on the shoulder. "What is it, Ivy?"

"Ooh, I don't know, Tad. It's all a bit higgledy-piggledy in here, now." And she tapped herself on the forehead, giving a knowing grin to somebody nearby. She could recite more than this line; you later discovered she had the entire poem committed to memory. "Is it clogs, is it? Something to do with dancing, or— or walking? Like a walking stick, or a pair of shoes."

Tad would clap his hands together, and keep them together, tilting his head toward her: "Shoes! To talk of many things. Of shoes... of shoes, and..."

Sometimes, he would remember ships on his own; sometimes it would take a further twenty minutes of steering and easing from Ivy. Twenty minutes, at the lower end, deliberately so. Ivy dragged it out as long as possible; she'd figured out that remembering this line, the one thing he could never do, was just about his favourite thing to try to do, even while he weakly feigned grumpiness about it. Sometimes he would be skirting near the word ships (or shoes, or sealing wax, depending on the day's progress); and sometimes, he would even suggest it and then discount it: it was somehow a blind spot, like the signs about the seatbelts, something he simply wouldn't or couldn't see.

You felt he was right about Julie having no magnificence to her. The fourth time you met him, he was telling the story again, this time to an old lady from Alcombe called Jean. You saw Julie roll her eyes, entirely affectionately, and without a hint of any real exasperation (this was reserved for the seatbelts; Julie had, as she often said, "done health and safety"); and when Tad reached the inevitable stumbling block in the story, she bumbled over. "Oh, come on love. You always remember in the end! You've told it so many times I know it myself now!". She plucked a piece of paper from her pocket, and wrote in biro, in block capitals:


"There. You keep that," she smiled.

Tad had thanked her, full of genuine delight as ever to have recalled the line, and she taped it up on the back of the seat in front of him, moving a notice slightly to the right to do so. Whether or not he'd have taken it in or not, or even noticed it at all, didn't really matter: within a few minutes he'd forgotten all about his story and was gambolling out of the bus; it had arrived at a layby near Dunkery Beacon, highest point on Exmoor, and it was time for morning tea or coffee. Tad had mumbled something about custard creams.

Ivy mumbled something to the contrary, also about custard creams. She frowned, pursed her lips, took down Julie's note as delicately as she could, and put it, screwed up, into her pocket.

1. Landacre Bridge, photograph by Catherine W. Barnes, in
Snell, F. J., The Blackmore Country (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911);
2. Cow Castle, photograph by Keith Stuart;
3. North Hill, Minehead beach, and Blue Anchor Bay, seen from near Dunkery Beacon

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Taped over (1)

I've been reading Dr Bloodmoney, Or How We Got Along After The Bomb again. That world or this one, I don't care which, but today I want to be in Marin County in the afternoon, where I can walk or bicycle to the coast or even drive, and stop, looking out over the bay at San Francisco, and know that I don't have to go there unless I feel like it, and that I probably don't, and will therefore find something else to do.

From the undergrowth, a viridian crab might scutter out across the chalky-white ground, a piece of green cheese held aloft in its left claw, to be followed minutes later by a dogged pursuer, wheezing mechanically from its motor and servos, casting with a long gooseneck antenna for the wake of its intended. Trundling along anyway, happily aware of the warmth of the winter sun and the sounds from the sea, if it has the capacity, and let us believe that it does...

One point on a map exchanges places with another.

"Good morning, and how did you find yourself this morning?"

"Well, I just rolled back the sheets, and there I was."

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Echo Unvisited

INTERLOCUTER B: In his bedroom he’s got (.) he’s got this (0.2) a CD (.) it’s a stereo really (0.5) in the shape of a (.) of a jukebox and a (0.8) on the wa:ll there’s a err there’s this clock and it’s a an electric gu(h)itar (laughter)
INTERLOCUTER B: [it’s like yeah it’s like that game they play on the radio (.) only (.) you know (laughs) only it’s one thing in the shape of another.

There are those that we cannot love, those that we will not love – the unloved and unlovely. Upon such things, let us for a moment dwell. My intention first of all is to draw to mind a common scene, a British high street in the early part of the twenty-first century. It is important that you try to picture the thing I’m describing here, the herringbone bricks of pedestrianization buckled by two decades of wear; seasonally-blighted hanging baskets mounted from lamp-posts at intervals along the street. This is not London, though it might be; this is not any of the major cities, though it might be one of those equally. It is common, it is everystreet, but it is best depicted in the provinces where scale and ambition are smaller.

We have, let us say, an old Savoy Picture House on a corner: white Portland stone with statuary of Thalia and Melpomène dancing on the roof-top. It has been converted into a McDonalds restaurant since 1986. We have, let us say, a large neo-Georgian post office of the early ’30s; groaning and impressive and serving as an outlet of Argos. Banks scuttle the length of the street like apologetic hermit crabs in the vast shells of interestingly named Victorian banks long since swallowed up and forgotten about. There is a shoe-shop, probably, it may have closed; a travel-agents, ditto; a 1960’s Woolworths building now occupied by a shop that sells toilet brushes and dog food for under a pound. All of this is there, and for the most part unlovely, but it is not what I want you to look at.

Between two of these buildings there is another; it is hard to tell you what it is, it might be anything. For the purposes of our imagining though, let’s think of it as a former TSB or an Early Learning Centre. It is a small building, just a shop front and a storey above. It was built in the mid 1980s or early 1990s in a style that is probably best described as Provincial Post Modernism, though we will not call it that. We will not call it that, because I think what this building amounts to is a process common to all architecture, indeed to all artifice. Labelling its style would pin it down to an idea separate to its individual qualities, and in degrees both elevate and diminish it. I do not want us to dismiss this building, no matter how ordinary or unloved it might be to us. It is as worthy of our attention any piece of poetry or art:

Be Yarrow Stream unseen, unknown!
It must, or we shall rue it:
We have a vision of our own;
Ah! Why should we undo it?
The treasured dreams of times long past
We’ll keep them, winsome Marrow!
For when we’re there although ’tis fair
’Twill be another Yarrow!

It would be simplest for me to give you a picture of the kind of building I mean. A photograph could be found somewhere on the internet, and linked to, and you would know instantly what sort of thing I am talking about. I am not going to do that. I am not going to do so because I trust the argument given by Wordsworth in the passage above, which is a stanza from his poem ‘Yarrow Unvisited’. The poem, composed during the poet’s tour of Scotland in 1803, imagines a visit to the Yarrow Water, the river that ran beside Walter Scott’s house Abbotsford much detailed in his writing. Wordsworth did not visit the Yarrow that year, and would not do so for another decade. Dorothy noted at the time that they ‘debated concerning it, but came to the conclusion of reserving the pleasure for some future time’, and so the visit was not undertaken and it is not in the poem either.

Indeed, ‘Yarrow Unvisited’ is a poem about the process of picturing a thing before it is seen: ‘We have a vision of our own; / Ah! Why should we undo it?’ is the question at the heart of the matter. The image of the river is present and possessed at the point when it is still ‘unseen’; a point stressed in the possessive words ‘have’ and ‘own’ in the third line of the stanza. Yarrow ‘unseen’ belongs to Wordsworth in a way that the seen river would not. It is the discrepancy between these notions of seeing and possession that are crucial in the poem; how can we own the thing we have not seen? How can we not?

The form of Wordsworth’s poem, based upon a 1701 broadside ballad Leader-haughs and Yarow, reflects this issue. The first, third, fifth and seventh lines of the stanza are written in iambic tetrameter; the alternate lines in trimeter with a hypercatalectic – an extra syllable added to the line’s final foot. The effect of this is an alternating scheme of masculine and feminine rhymes – the first and third lines rhyme on their final syllable ‘known’ and ‘own’, but the second and fourth also rhyme on their penultimate: ‘rue it’ and ‘do it’. Modern readers might note of the alternating masculine and feminine rhymes a similarity to Betjeman’s poem ‘Youth and Age on Beaulieu Water’ (1945), and perhaps the effect of it in both poems is to replicate the waves and movement of water. This might be the case, but there is more happening in that form.

What we must look at is how Wordsworth views the river which ‘we have’ despite not having visited it; it is ‘unseen, unknown’. What these terms suggest is not simply negation but also reversal. Firstly, they are negatives suggesting that in the present the river has not yet been seen or known; seeing and knowing are what might only exist in the future. However, the use of the word ‘undo’ in the fourth line prompts us towards another reading; to ‘undo’ is quite a different thing, a reversal of an act that has already been carried out. We can only ‘undo’ that which has been done; in the same way, we might read the first line of this stanza to mean that we can only ‘unsee’ that which has been seen, ‘unknow’ that which has been known. We assume of the alternate lines that they are written in trimeter with an extra syllable added; but equally they might be tetrameter with the final dipody cut short. These lines, put plainly might be ‘undone’.

The act of imagining is the primary instinct in the poem. To go to and look at the river would not be to ‘see’ it; for in doing so we would find it to ‘be another Yarrow’ a thing different from our own(ed) version. To fill in the ‘missing’ syllables of the alternate lines, would render it another poem. Our lack is our strength here; we own best that which we do not have and must thereby imagine.

And so, I do not want you to look at the building in the High Street, I want you instead to see it. It is, as I have already stated a small building. It is built out of brick; not simply brick but bricks of different colours; the main body is a yellow brick, around its shop front are two blank-faced pilasters of red. Beneath the two oblong windows of the first storey are panels of a greyish, bluish brick. The building is symmetrical. It rises to a brick pediment that houses a small, circular window. This is not a real window – there is not a room behind it – merely a network of pipes insulated with silver foil, though you cannot see this for the ‘window’ is glazed with opaque black glass. The window frames are red. I think they are red. They are red, or blue, or possibly green. They are probably a primary colour. The pediment is topped with a composite stone, a little like sandstone in colour. You can see the joins of mortar between each slab; these provide a rich habitat for moss. A ball tops the pediment, a globe if you will, a little larger than a football made in the same composite stone.

Can you see it yet? I really want you to try to.

Two oblong windows in the same primary-coloured UPVC frames occupy the first storey. In both, the glass is divided into four panes; behind which there is a halogen-lit office which may, or may not, be connected to the shop beneath.

On the face of it, it is not a very interesting building; it is less showy than the Savoy Picture House and meagre in its proportions against the impressive post-office building. If buildings expose the preoccupations of the age they were built in, then this building – squat, simplistic, cheap – gives a grim insight into the last two decades that may have built it. But see it; really take in what it is about. These buildings – up and down the country, infill in streets of greater structures – wants to be something else, something better.

Look at the out-of-town supermarkets of the same period; structures not constrained by space or finance in the same way as this pitiful structure. These sprawling edifices to Mammon, do not want to look like places where you buy nappies and diet coke in bulk. They decorate themselves with long external arched colonnades, pitched rooves, a clock tower perhaps, a weathervane or two. They desire to be the old market-halls of England made large, made comprehensive. They want us to look at them and feel those same warm feelings of love that we get when we find ourselves unexpectedly in country market towns. Only we do not love these supermarket buildings; we barely think of what they look like, we often hate their intention in the first place.

The intent of our 1980’s high street building however is surely less objectionable. It cannot be claimed that it is ‘killing the high street’ in the way that the supermarket might, because it is contributing to it. Yet we still do not warm to it, we do not want to love it. Our grounds for this are predominantly aesthetic; we do not take it seriously, we don’t think it deserves our love. To a degree, it is engaged in the same false nostalgia as the supermarket; only its reference points are other high-street buildings. Its pediment, roundel, globe, all point towards it wanting to be something grander, something Palladian, but it doesn’t really look anything like. Perhaps we do not like it because we think this nostalgia is ‘fakery’; yet all its neighbours in the street are also historical shams.

Our building occupies a shape. It is the shape of some other building. In silhouette, it might not differ greatly from a Georgian house, but in detail it is something other. This is the great difference between it and the 1930’s post-office. The post-office attempts to mimic a Georgian building in its dressing: fanlights, steps up to the door, big brass knobs. It hopes that we might look at it and not consider that it is not a Georgian building, though perversely where it differs most is in its scale. It performs mimicry of style and embellishment, and we take it seriously as such. Our 1980’s building merely echoes shape; and our response is somewhat different.

A few years ago, I taught John Hollander’s poem ‘Swan and Shadow’ to a group of undergraduates. These students, eager to succeed, were honed to seek out and analyse “serious literature”. They had fallen under a common misapprehension that their task in hand – their task in studying, their task in life – was to identify things that were “good” and things that were “bad”. “Samuel Beckett is a good writer”, “Tom Clancy is a bad writer”, “William Blake is a good writer”, “Shakespeare is an overrated writer”; these are the kinds of things you hear. They are meaningless statements, easily totted out, and utterly irrelevant. Yet, I think because of the way formalised education directs us towards some things in favour of others it is common to develop a sense of value-judgement in this act.

The students, faced with Hollander for the first time, took it to be a joke; a test, perhaps – it was the Emperor’s new verse and I had put it in front of them to see if they would fall into the trap. “It’s just shaped like a swan,” they sniggered. They dismissed it as a novelty:

                           Above the
                      water hang the
                              O so
                          What             A pale signal will appear
                         When         Soon before its shadow fades
                       Where       Here in this pool of opened eye
                       In us     No Upon us As at the very edges
                        of where we take shape in the dark air
                         this object bares its image awakening
                           ripples of recognition that will
                              brush darkness up into light
even after this bird this hour both drift by atop the perfect sad instant now
                              already passing out of sight
                           toward yet untroubled reflection
                         this image bears its object darkening
                        into memorial shades Scattered bits of
                       light     No of water Or something across
                       water       Breaking up No Being regathered
                        soon         Yet by then a swan will have
                         gone             Yes out of mind into what
                               of a
                      sudden dark as
                           if a swan

Of course, it is shaped like a swan, but that is not the end of it – there is a lot more to say. Firstly, it is shaped not ‘just’ like a swan as the student said, but as a swan and it’s reflection – or, as Hollander titles it ‘Swan and Shadow’. That’s fairly interesting in the first place because what we expect is not shadow, the blocking out of light, but – and this is what the poem seems to describe – the reflection of it. It mimics the shape of another thing, much in the same way that our 1980’s building seems to. Both have a recognisable outline, but this is not all; they have a discernable form unique to themselves. If we look at the poem, what we find is that it is not simply the outward shape of the poem that is reflected in the middle line, but indeed the metre – the number of syllables in each line is mirrored in its reflected counterpart.

Though we view the poem initially as a whole; our reading experience undertakes it in parts. Reading is a progression. When we begin a book or poem we cannot know what it is about until we have reached the end. Seeing, however, fools us into believing we can understand the whole in an instant. This is the fundamental error that we make in our dismissal of buildings, art, poetry of this kind, that we assume we can understand in a moment. We must take time to read the visual in the same way that we do with the literature that we take time to study. This is in a way what the poem is exploring.

As we read, we encounter the poem in stages allowing it to ‘take shape in the dark air’ of the page, to produce ‘ripples of recognition’ as we begin to see the thing we are really reading about. This is true of all reading not only Hollander’s ‘Swan and Shadow’, yet it is a common mistake particularly amongst English undergraduates to arrive at a text with a preconception of what it is saying. Indeed it is the error that Wordsworth has already befallen in picturing his Yarrow – knowing it, owning it – before he has visited the place for himself.

When we begin ‘Swan and Shadow’ we are not reading about a swan at all:

                           Above the
                      water hang the

This is dusk; we are placed in the poem ‘above the water’ hanging in the air with the flies. This description of what is above the water ‘hangs’ there over the main body of the piece itself. Throughout the poem we find this. The ‘object bares its image’ only when the text has reached a point when it can begin to be recognised as a swan. Similarly it is ‘already passing out of sight’ at the point when the image has passed and is now becoming a reflection. The fulcrum to all of this is the final line of the water: ‘now’. It is the last moment at which we are able to look at the swan and not at the memory of it, but it is urgent because it is only in that moment, only when the swan is fully visible to us that we are really able to see it at all.

The poem is without punctuation. New sentences are implied by capital letters, and pauses occasionally seem to come at line endings. In other cases the poem’s enjambment encourages us to a continuous reading pattern. This uninterrupted movement creates for the reader both the impression of an image being assembled from ‘scattered bits of light’ or scattered words, but also the sense of the passing moment, the juncture in which something might be seen.

What Hollander’s poem explores is the process of seeing before an object is in sight, the moment at which it is seen, and the passing of it

                                              out of mind into what
                               of a
                      sudden dark

The ‘pale hush [...] past sudden dark’ is strikingly beautiful. It is both the entry of it into memory and also death, a notion instilled by the final image of the bird’s swansong. Whereas the first half of the poem opens in the physical space of dusk above the water; its ending is in the mind:

                           if a swan

This movement from the physical to the mental image is much like that of Wordsworth’s trilogy of Yarrow poems. As discussed earlier, the first of these ‘Yarrow Unvisited’ (1803) concerns the mental expectation of sight, much like the first half of ‘Swan and Shadow’. The second, ‘Yarrow Visited’ (1814) is engaged with the moment of seeing first-hand ‘Thy genuine image, Yarrow’ much like the central part of Hollander’s poem. In the last of these, ‘Yarrow Revisited’ (1831) concerns the remembered image of the day.

I have not seen this noted elsewhere but Hollander’s poem surely relates to the Yarrow poems, its title being taken from ‘Yarrow Unvisited’:

Let Beeves and home-bred Kine partake
The sweets of Burn-mill meadow;
The Swan on still St. Mary’s Lake
Float double, Swan and Shadow!
We will not see them; will not go,
Today, nor yet tomorrow;
Enough if in our hearts we know,
There’s such a place as Yarrow.

Though Wordsworth states that ‘We will not see them; will not go’ in the poem, the bird and its double are already seen. Both the poet and the reader picture them floating on the lake, as the swan in ‘Swan and Shadow’ is imagined from its outline before we begin reading it. “I see–” Wordsworth writes in ‘Yarrow Visited’, “but not by sight alone, / Loved Yarrow” and this is the crucial point here, our experience of “seeing” and “loving” must exist beyond “sight alone” or else we deliver false reactions like: “It’s just shaped like a swan.”

It’s with that in mind that I want us to reconsider our 1980’s high street building, or indeed anything that we have dismissed as being unworthy of our attention. The student’s stumbling block with ‘Swan and Shadow’ was that they immediately saw the ‘object’ of the poem, and decided it was frippery; yet the outline form of it is crucial to what the poem is attempting to deliver. What we are looking at is not swan at all, but a collection of black marks that reflect the outline of the bird. Most artifice is a kind of reflection; a painting of a swan replicates its physical appearance, the 1930’s post office building attempts to mirror the architecture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Some reflections are more accurate than others, and here there is a distinction to be drawn between reflection and echo. Here in Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus’s fate of reflection is depicted with quite staggering detail:

He feedes a hope without cause why. For like a foolishe noddie
He thinkes the shadow that he sees, to be a liuely boddie.
Astraughted like an ymage made of Marble stone he lyes,
There gazing on his shadowe still with fixed staring eyes.
Stretcht all along vpon the ground, it doth him good to see
His ardant eyes which like two starres full bright and shyning bee.
And eke his fingars, fingars such as Bacchus might beseeme,
And haire that one might worthely Apollos haire it deeme.
His beardlesse chinne and yuorie necke, and eke the perfect grace
Of white and red indifferently bepainted in his face.
All these he woondreth to beholde, for which (as I doe gather)
Himselfe was to be woondred at, or to be pitied rather.
He is enamored of himselfe for want of taking heede.

The emphasis is placed upon the body parts, the ‘ardant eyes [...] like stars’, the ‘beardlesse chinne and yvorie necke’ produce in the poem a potently erotic image of the boy. Reflection is about detail, in the way that the post office copies accurately the Georgian fanlights it admires. Echo’s fate is different, she suffers because she is robbed of bodily form reduced to just a voice that resembles that which she admires:

Ay readie with attentiue eare she harkens for some sounde,
Whereto she might replie hir wordes, from which she is not bounde.
By chaunce the stripling being strayde from all his companie,
Sayde: is there any body nie? straight Echo answerde: I.
Amazde he castes his eye aside, and looketh round about,
And come (that all the Forrest roong) aloud he calleth out.
And come (sayth she:) he looketh backe, and seeing no man followe,
Why fliste, he cryeth once againe: and she the same doth hallowe,
He still persistes and wondring much what kinde of thing it was
From which that answering voyce by turne so duely seemde to passe,
Said: let vs ioyne. She (by hir will desirous to haue said,
In fayth with none more willingly at any time or stead)
Said: let vs ioyne.

Echo is without detail. What we read of her is only her responses to the words spoken by Narcissus. She is reduced to simple resemblance that we might mistake at first for something else, and as such is defined by her lack, the thing that she is not. In a sense this is the fate of our 1980’s building – it is a shape that resembles something, so we do not care to look at its detail. We think we already know it. Hollander in writing about Echo, notes that:

In the association of Echo with Narcissus, the profoundest relations between light and sound, emptiness and fullness of self, absorption and reflection, are established. Ovid’s story of Echo’s hopeless love for the autoleptic youth follows the spurned nymph into the woods and, finally, into what will be thenceforth her canonical doom [...] Within such hollow spaces she withers away into a voice speaking out of bones; then the bones petrify in time, and the voice speaking out of the woodland caves.

These petrified bones have built the architecture of our modern cities. Buildings, which we dismiss as mere echoes, deserve listening to; deserve perhaps even our pity. We refuse to love this building because we define it by what we perceive to be its lack – it isn’t ‘as good’ as the Neo-Georgian post office, and do not consider what it is beyond this assumption. The slavish replication of lavish reflection is not, I suspect, so different from the echoed forms of these ignored buildings. We should at least try to see if not love them.

Monday, 26 October 2009


June— and the bodies swell together in the gloaming, swell together in the chestnut drunk dark passageway, swell upwards in the foam dark mild and Anaglypta to part before the spark before the spark-bright swing-door to the gentlemen’s lavatory. June— and the CD in the jukebox skips kiss you're giving me is ae is me is me is…n my crown, and the gas needs changing in the pump room downstairs. June— and leaves scuttle upwards, crisp and pale as sackcloth against the pitch blue of the dressing-gowned sky; rising in the first of the autumn’s great breezes, hurdling with the crisp packets about the legs of the beer-garden’s benches where smokers huddle in the light from the back door—June—a queequeen in all her majesty stutters Helen Shapiro—Is it? June?

And he drops another coin into the payphone. June— I can’t quite— It’s very noisy here you’ll have to speak up— June? Are you there? Pressing one finger into his free ear hole he asks June— June— Are you there? I’ll call back, June. I’ll call back when it’s less noisy.

She catches him later. Joe, she says.

His eyes are red like flecks of bacon.

Joe, she says, you use the payphone here don’t you?

He fumbles in his palm for some pence. I phone my June, he says.

It is you then, she says.

I just phone my June, he says.

It’s about that, she says, I had a call. A complaint.

Oh, he says.

That’s not your June, she says, that’s not her number. It’s a club, she says, a club in town. And the man, the man who runs it like, he’s phoned me. He says it’s always this number, the pub number, and messages on his answer phone. You’ve been filling up his answer phone, she says, every night he says it is, with messages for your June.

Oh, he says.

It has to stop, she says.

He nods, he mostly ever nods.

It’s unpleasant for her, you see, having to tell him this. It’s unpleasant and it’s not really her job to. It should be George by rights, only George has the night off and so it’s her telling him this as she gathers beer-downy glasses, and it sets her wondering: who is this June? A wife? A daughter? A friend? Some woman perhaps who gave him the wrong number on purpose, who gave him the number to get him off her back know I’d die for you, now y now y now ygone that’s What’ll it be, love? She asks and the bodies swell in the passageway; leaves stirred up beneath the hand-drier.

And he drops another coin into the payphone. June— he says, June—

Friday, 9 October 2009