Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Poetical histories 2

Poetical Histories No. 2 (1986)
J H Prynne
B Dubourg & J H Prynne

Christ, this poem is harrowing. It is has the feel of the weeping that one does when the crying is nearly over -- not the major-keyed relief of the first tears or the quiet, minor-keyed almost-silence of the breathing when it's over, but the awful, desperate tiredness of the moments before you can stop. It is a poem of large numbers and acrid smells and ice and fire and a single exclamation point that comes at just the wrong moment. It makes angry and grieved sounds with words before even saying anything with them.

It is riddance from the duct we line,
cheering of high degree, O Fortune
rich in spoil, surfeit in pray. The amends
of Central Production set targets
for bright-eyed fury, smash-hits

Ranking the places where happy the man
who knows nothing more or less. Don't
blink, the stairs are already destroyed
for thus, à livre ouvert, no screams ring.
Her corpse hangs, burned to ashes.
My throat closes at the hanging "Don't".

The paper--cream Ingres--is guillotined on every edge, and the red ink used for Prynne's seals on the cover is smudged infinitesimally on the back. The typography is strangely duressed -- it invokes something handwritten, under stress. Not quite in a panic, but in desolate haste, as though nothing remains but to do this thing. Furry at the edges, the descending serifs almost disappearing, the tiniest, tiniest bit too much space between the word and the colon, the tiniest, tiniest bit too little space between the word and the dash. The open spaces in letters are sometimes filled with ink -- only the vowels, strangely.

The accents are tiny angry eyebrows, flint-shaped, oddly and disconcertingly sharp-edged against the blurred letters. It makes the French translation which follows look more tired, more frustrated, spotted with circumflexes as though the poem has dug its fingernails into its palms.

But the fi ligature is beautiful, perfect, a minute architectural drawing keeping a breath of air in "filth".

Exit, pursued by a metaphor II

The second in an occasional series of Found Metaphors.

And no pedantry about similes. First, I hate the word 'simile'. It makes me think of a monkey and a spelling mistake and spilled milk. Second, I barely ever notice true metaphors. They so often seem perfectly literal to me. So best alert me with 'like', really. I like it that way.

Today's entry wins not only for being brilliantly funny, but for being the kind of perfectly evocative that baby descriptions hope to grow up to be.

In Terry Pratchett's Mort, Death and Mort are being served curry by a Klatchian waiter:
The man was squat and brown, with a hairstyle like a coconut gone nova.

Friday, June 22, 2007


The world -- the cinematic world, especially -- gets a lot of wonderful mileage out of the fantasy of the places where thinking types work. A professor of Something That Somehow Advances The Plot, peeping out from among the teetering piles of leather-bound tomes fortressing his enormous mahogany desk, not quite hiding the bookshelves behind containing thousands of wilting files bound up with string, a bakelite telephone and an astrolabe. Something Persian about the rugs. A tweediness about the place. A glass full of pens with a feather, some pebbles and a battered felt hat. Prospero hiding somewhere about. Or perhaps something more 2001ish -- serried ranks of learned writings flanking the L-shaped steel workstation sprouting seven flat screens, three keyboards, an artlessly stacked pile of papers and a sticky note with a circuit diagram on it. Matching boxfiles, a Miró half-obscured, something made of Goretex hanging on the door.

These places really exist. Dr X's office is a tiny galley, both lined and carpeted with books, hardbound theses shelved uneasily against seminal works in cultural history and Greek translation. Several desks make muted rainbows of sun-bleached coloured cardboard folders stuffed with paper, typically stacked high on a book smaller than themselves and constantly threatening to topple and reveal their contents like a croupier spreading the deck. A mile of white pinboard faces the window, curling postcards hairdressing photocopies of cartoons and family photographs from a decade ago. On the windowsill there is an ostrich egg perched in an Edward Bawden cup for the Orient Express. I could say that on the door, there is a battered navy linen coat with the pockets blown out, but actually, he never takes it off.

Dr X really works here. And so do many, doors both real and metaphorical shut carefully against the world that might disturb their thinking, feet safely planted in a lovingly created compost of paper and book, talismans and habit.

But I am part of a nomadic academic community. Not one that travels far -- just one that works everywhere. Anywhere. Around. Moving.

We work in cafés, usually. But I've heard of other, stranger places.

Some nomads I know do this because they seek exile. They can never be at home anywhere. They are like the blues singer who can never find happiness, for their art would be forfeit. They move around a lot, on a constant search for the Perfect Place to Work. They often report, bright-eyed, on the discovery of such a place. A certain coffee shop! Amazing! It has this brilliant basement bit, with these fantastic tables, and they have really exceptional pain au chocolat, and I wrote two thousand words ...

It never lasts -- soon familiarity destroys the magic. The horrifyingly homely prospect of becoming a regular presses on the exile-seeking nomad's heart and he moves on. The exile's own work spaces typically look as if someone has just moved into them, or just moved out of them, or as if ten people share the space. Nowhere can be the mind's home for them. In my favourite exile's case, I think this is because that would be to suppose that his mind lives here -- and he longs to believe that it does not.

I am not this kind of nomad. I am a nomad with a den of my own, like many nomads -- work places where our minds are stacked up in just the way we like, where seminar schedules happily pile up with snapshots, where everything is just so, or just completely not so, in just the right way. I love my desk, small under its giant pinboard with a feather and a tiny stuffed rabbit in a bee costume and the academic calendar. My weird, utterly unDewey arrangement of books.

But, heavens, how I prefer the clash and wobbly tables of my coffee haunt. The narrow, sticky line of dust that runs along the inside edge of the window as it meets the window sill. The just-a-bit-too-small table, already sporting a coffee ring this early in the morning, although I know it was wiped yesterday because I can smell the lemony surface spray they use. A crumpled paper sugar sachet getting grains of brown sucrose into my books. A woman at the next table drinking a latte with cinnamon who seems to have arranged her hairs individually because nothing else could explain the existence of her hairdo, discussing the merits of a certain Hindmarsh bag with another woman. Who, if the memetics of hair count for anything, must be her mother.

Sometimes they run out of ordinary teaspoons and they give me a long sundae-style one to stir my coffee. There's a businessman who comes in every morning. Sometimes he looks over PowerPoint presentations, and other times he reads books on things like Emotional Intelligence or One-Minute Managing. The girls from the posh optician's across the street take turns in buying coffee for the office -- only one has glasses, but they all like hazelnut latte. On birthdays, they get muffins too -- six raspberry and cranberry, and a chocolate twist, which if a croissant was a rubber band is what it would look like stretched out. With chocolate chips. For some reason, I like to think that the twist is for the optician.

It might be because the coffee place has everything. A table for my laptop, a chair for my papers and books -- not the entire library I like to believe I always need, but just the couple I can actually deal with today -- an endless supply of coffee, a parade of interesting things outside the window and going on everywhere.

But it is not that it is multipurpose -- it is that it is antipurpose. My desk reeks of obligation. It is so god-almighty fit-for-purpose I am an imposter just sitting at it. Science fiction is always filled with computers or libraries that talk to the protagonists, but I don't need that particular innovation, for mine already do. Ready? says the desk. Educated? say the ranked books, some with the rather fatigued tone of a person to whom no-one has spoken in a while. Critical faculties all a go?

They quiver with anticipatory super-functionality.

I have to run away. Who can stand it?

In my coffee place, I might not be working. I might just be having a coffee. And sometimes, I am. But if I am writing, if I am having a thought, if I am puzzling over something, it is all right. It's just a casual thing. No-one is watching. Just, you know, something to while away the minutes. While you're eating your toasted ham-and-cheese panini. It's a coffee shop! We're all here to drink our coffee and watch the world go by, obviously.

Even if everyone at every table is deep inside their laptop.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tuesday haiku

Handkerchief air-mailed
Prints of a far distant drawer
Still on its white feet

Monday, June 04, 2007

Fen whispers

This is a shot of Wicken Fen that I took from, I think, the Trevelyan hide.

I dreamed of Wicken last night. It is whispering to me. Fens do not whisper like woods, the sussurating gossip between leaves and leaf litter. They whisper very quietly of perch quivering in the current, the slushed clatter of reeds, the otherwordly sound of a thousand collected almost-silences. Swan feathers collecting on the banks. A reed bunting polishing its beak on a fence post. A cormorant rousing a mile away. Molehills making Hansel-and-Gretel tracks through the grass with chocolatey fen-earth breadcrumbs. A pony breathing.

Wicken, I am coming. I am whispering back to you.

Pop quiz

What is this a logo for?

(a) A gynecological screening facility
(b) A gym

Did you answer (b)? Gold star!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Possible solutions to life, a series

Part One
  1. Walks in the early morning

  2. Bad fiction

  3. Hypothetical blind dates generated from your friend's mobile phone address book

  4. Absinthe

  5. The time that passes while all these things are happening

Saturday, June 02, 2007


Of course I think nothing is simple. Or perhaps that complex things are simple and that simple things are not at all simple. No good is just good, and no bad is just bad. The world is dappled, and drawn with pencil-hatching, and lit like a sphere which gleams from some angles and is dark from others, has sharp edges when you touch it and blurry ones when you are up too close. No real lines; an endless series of matters of degree, fuzzy logic, things melting into other things, everything continuous.

But not lately.

Grief like hot wires. Everything made up of instants, a pair of shoes, a wild thing seen, a cup broken, a fleeting smile. Yesterday I heard something wonderful, and it was like a brilliant, shearing knife-edge of light a micron across, pouring between blast doors black and featureless and for a magical, vertiginous split-second, invisible.

Last night, a hair on my pillow that was half grey and brittle, and half one of the usual odd mosaic of tree-like colours. A moment, right in the middle, like a fretmark in a wingfeather. A lost instant ... what happened? This morning, a collared dove took off holding a lime twig carefully at its centre of gravity, a spindly charcoal-coloured line against a warming sky, to a collection somewhere of twig pencil-hatching.

In the dark I find lines -- the edges of things, something to hold onto, the crack of light that tells you where the door is.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Today I went to hear a philosopher Of Very Large Brain and generally whoa-mamma stature talk about a certain kind of knowledge, and a fascinating thing happened. I couldn't understand what he was saying.

He spoke clearly, and rather softly, and he stirred the air carefully with his hands, as if to be sure it wouldn't deflate when he baked it later. He provided a spare outline. The outline contained nothing but sentences that made perfect sense, and he never spoke anything except a sentence that made sense. But it made no difference at all -- it was like being rained on by water that is at body temperature, and not being able to tell if you are getting wet or not. The room was mesmerised in the way that you see gorillas sitting thoughtfully in the rain, with a miniature tiara of droplets in the fur on their brows.

Boy with Yellow Converse was there. Drawing in his notebook. I wonder if he felt like a gorilla in warm rain.

Attention, tourists

Caution: Snarkage

I have long since stopped expecting you to appreciate -- or even behave as if you are aware -- that this is actually still a university, and it was not made a museum in 1862 for the delectation of future owners of 7.2MB Canon Ixias.


The examinations here run for approximately three weeks between May 24 and June 15. Turning up at this time and being surprised that you are not allowed into the grounds within which students are functioning on Red Bull and beta-blockers and developing nervous disorders six ways from Sunday as a result of trying to perform well in one of the world's most intense undergraduate experiences is like turning up to Singapore during the monsoon season and being amazed that it rains in the tropics.

I'm not at all shocked that in your Look-At-Me-I'm-Having-An-EXPERIENCE! mindset the students pale against the squalling of your hungry little cameras. But, um, your travel planning? Dude. That is some A1 first-class cluelessness.

So, the attitude? You can all seriously bite me.