We are fallen in mostly broken pieces

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I imagined the wind moving through all these places, and many more like them: places that were separated from one another by roads and housing, fences and shopping-centres, street-lights and cities, but were joined across space at that time by their wildness in the wind. We are fallen in mostly broken pieces, I thought, but the wild can still return us to ourselves.

            Then I looked back out across the landscape before me: the roads, the railway, the incinerator tower, the woodlands – Mag’s Hill Wood, Nine Wells Wood, Wormwood. The woods were spread out across the land and all were seething.

Wildness was here too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, some of it was dying. But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.

Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (Granta 2007).

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Gagarina II, or the starry darkness

Image-of-Vostok-1_mission_patch Saucer

It rings in intergalactic space, not even an answering machine. Like he doesn’t exist, that his place of work doesn’t exist – in the MIR station, the Russian cosmonaut who’s been orbiting for the past 107 years, drinking his lukewarm tea from his bubble pack, finding anything and everything a good laugh, he sticks his lips on to the kiss of the lukewarm water, on the swollen sides of the shrinking bubble, as it goes down his oesophagus because of the combined action of sucking and swallowing, thus creating a depressurization of the surface of the liquid. The tea-time cosmonaut glances at the blue planet, he could drink up its oceans, spinning on and on and righting himself, only the earth to look at, or the starry darkness, with neither top nor tail, the big black dragon spitting out flames for nobody …

Marie Darrieussecq, A Brief Stay with the Living (Faber 2003, translated by Ian Monk).

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Gagarina

Gagarina

Oh, no, there’ll be a Space Age some day, perhaps thirty, forty, or even fifty years from now, and when it comes it will be a real Space Age! But it will depend on the development of some new form of propulsion. The main trouble with the present system – all those gigantic rockets sailing up off the launch pads consuming tons of fuel for every foot of altitude – is that it just hasn’t got anything to do with space travel. The number of astronauts who have gone into orbit after the expenditure of this great ocean of rocket fuel is small to the point of being ludicrous. And that sums it all up. You can’t have a real Space Age from which 99.999 per cent of the human race is excluded.

Far more real – and we don’t have to wait fifty years for it – is the invisible Space Age, which exists already; the communications satellites, literally thousands of them, television relay systems, spy satellites, weather satellites. These are all changing our lives in a way that the average person doesn’t yet comprehend. The ability to pass information around from one point in the globe to another in vast quantities and at stupendous speeds, the ability to process information by fantastically powerful computers, the intrusion of electronic data processing in whatever form into all our lives is far, far more significant than all the rocket launches, all the planetary probes, every footprint or tyremark on the lunar surface.

‘The Space Age is Over’: J. G. Ballard, interview with Christopher Evans, 1979, in Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara (eds.) Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 (Fourth Estate, 2012).Gagrina

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Wayfarer

Footpath

What do you do about it? You consider. You begin again, from a different angle: you begin with desire. What would you like to do? What do you enjoy most of all? And is it possible to turn that into a trade? Yes, of course. Someone who enjoys thinking, does everything she can to become a philosopher. Someone who likes writing, does all she can to become an author. But you’re already an author, and you have no philosophical ambitions. Your favourite thing, after writing and thinking, is walking. Surely you must be able to turn that into a trade: a vagabond. A vagrant. A drifter. A wayfarer. There have always been vagrants. But today it’s a trade and a status that’s in the process of dying out. At least in welfare Norway. And you think: someone ought to preserve this trade. Someone ought to shoulder this responsibility. Someone ought to save this freedom, this pride, re-establish this trade and its standing; yes, you will be a wayfarer.

Tomas Espedal, Tramp (Seagull Books, 2010, translated by James Anderson).

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Northern Lights, naked and scabbardless.

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“A right valiant and jaunty Chevalier is our hero; going about with his long Toledo perpetually drawn. Rely upon it, he will fight you to the hilt, for his bony blade has never a scabbard. He himself sprang from it at birth; yea, at the very moment he leaped into the Battle of Life; as we mortals ourselves spring all naked and scabbardless into the world. Yet, rather, are we scabbards to our souls. And the drawn soul of genius is more glittering than the drawn cimeter of Saladin. But how many let their steel sleep, till it eat up the scabbard itself, and both corrode to rust-chips. Saw you ever the hillocks of old Spanish anchors, and anchor-stocks of ancient galleons, at the bottom of Callao Bay? The world is full of old Tower armories, and dilapidated Venetian arsenals, and rusty old rapiers. But true warriors polish their good blades by the bright beams of the morning; and gird them on to their brave sirloins; and watch for rust spots as for foes; and by many stout thrusts and stoccadoes keep their metal lustrous and keen, as the spears of the Northern Lights charging over Greenland.”

(Herman Melville, Mardi (1849) chapter 32.)

Mardi was, famously, not a critical success. “We have seldom found our reading faculty so near exhaustion, or our good nature as critics so severely exercised, as in an attempt to get through this new work by the author of the fascinating Typee and Omoo”, wrote George Ripley in the New York Tribune, May 10 1849 – coincidentally the day of the Astor Place Riot in New York, in which 22 people, supporters of American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest, were killed when New York State militia opened fire on a crowd protesting at British actor William Macready’s ‘interpretation’ of Macbeth. The class politics of American culture, also naked and scabbardless. See http://www.shakespeareinamericanlife.org/stage/onstage/yesterday/astor.cfm

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Books, mainly fiction, I failed to read this year.

9780147712554_p0_v2_s260x420 Starting with a big fail – Homer’s Odyssey. I failed even to buy a really nice secondhand copy of the Penguin edition of the Fagles translation (I had no loose change that afternoon) and then spent several weeks awaiting another one turning up, which eventually it did, along with a copy (same series, same editor) of the Iliad (separate copies, indeed in different shops along the same street, not in the suspiciously mint boxset pictured above). Bought them both. Browsed introductions. Ploughed the wine-dark sea of the first four books of Od … then got distracted, probably by something like Pynchon Day. Thought one evening around then that I’d reread Inherent Vice (I kept seeing Bleeding Edge in nameless high street bookshops where I look at books but mainly refuse to buy them, and thinking I should buy it) so dug out my copy of the novel. Spent several evenings making some headway, but one thing led to another and a few more pressing things accumulated as Pynchon Day receded and the movie of IV suddenly became an option (not out here in the UK yet, but impending, so hey, let’s shelve the novel for the moment …). I did read ALL of Lars Iyer’s Dogma (I once examined a PhD with him so felt I owed him my full attention, and I really thought Spurious was very good, having followed it from its sort-of inception on Typepad). By chance I picked up around the same time a copy of Lee Rourke’s The Canal, which still sits on the bedside table, beckoning … I’m about halfway through it at the moment. Maybe I’ll finish it before the end of the year. I saw Iyer and Rourke do a joint reading in Manchester a year or two ago. Iyer signed my copy of Blanchot’s Communism for which he apologised, and I apologised back for not having actually read it. But back to 2014. I’m also currently trying to work through the Joshi Penguin selections of Arthur Machen (I managed to read all 30-odd pages of The Great God Pan in one sitting) and Algernon Blackwood (ditto The Willows, a bit longer but hardly a marathon). Both these are actually rereadings, or rather would be rereadings, of things I read in old paperback editions decades ago as a (yes, disturbed) kid. I managed to read most of (maybe all of, I mean without jumping a few pages here and there) William Gaddis’s short but dense Agape Agape, which kind of blew me away and made me want to stick with the more difficult contemporary-and-dead / recent-and-still-living writing (sorry William H Gass, I still haven’t finished Middle C yet, having started it when it came out well over a year ago, I forget when exactly). Ann Quin’s Berg was a started-so-I’ll-finish-later lost masterpiece of 60s angst, it says (that last bit, at least) on the cover. Anna Kavan’s Guilty (prompted in part by hearing bits and bobs about Maggie Gee’s work on Kavan) turned up one day in a charity bookshop, and now sits on the shelf next to Quin making me feel, well, guilty, for not making it beyond the opening pages, so far. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation was more hospitable and I did make some progress here, about 70 quite enjoyable pages or so if I recall. The bookmark’s just fallen out of my copy so I can’t be sure, but I’ll get back to it soon, I’m sure. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation and her Last Things were train-journey reading (I picked up the former in York, on the way back from an external examiners’ meeting, and browsed quite a lot of it as we wound our way back to Edinburgh, but I can’t say I actually read it, nor the latter, to fully-read completion). Christian Bok’s Eunoia seduced me into buying it (nice hardback! Nice title! Nice author’s name! Nice dustcover! Nice typesetting! Nice conceit!) but not, alas, actually reading all of it. Yet. I read a few blogs on Jose Saramago knowing he was an example of a more difficult contemporary-and-dead etc etc so I started hunting out his works. My preference for hardbacks, especially ludicrously rare ones, has somewhat hampered accumulating his works (it’s also completely stymied my efforts to get up to speed with Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano) but I relented a few times and picked up paperbacks of Cain (not yet read, struggled with the first few pages in a hotel in London that evening) and Blindness, this last a few days ago in a nice Harvill paperback reminiscent of a Sebald novel. I’m about 30 pages into it at the moment and will have a bash over the coming weeks. Karl Ove Knausgaard came to Edinburgh to read at the festival in August so I accumulated hardbacks of the My Childhood trilogy and took them along, two-thirds unread, for him to sign, which he very kindly did. Haruki Murakami came to Edinburgh to read too but I missed him. I picked up a signed copy of his new one, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, which I dare not read because according to ABE books it’s virtually priceless. I did read some of his other books, the one about talking about running, and Norwegian Wood, but that was a few years ago now. John Calder came to Edinburgh earlier in the year to fulminate about publishing and I bottled getting him to sign my copy of the William S. Burroughs reader that he edited. Which I have, incidentally, read. Well, I’ve read everything in it, if not that actual edition. I picked up Oliver Harris’s new editions of Burroughs’ non-existent cut-up ‘trilogy’ and very much enjoyed Harris’s introductions and scholarly notes, particularly to The Soft Machine, which I reread most of. I did read some of J H Prynne’s probably unreadable Kitchen Poems, which turned up in a charity shop. All in all it’s been a great, even triumphant, year for unread, partially read, or unreread and partially reread, books. And another major triumph is that apart from the Murakami, I’ve managed not to unread or fail to finish, or even to start reading, anything actually published this year. I haven’t even got onto the shelfloads of theory and criticism (which, hey, isn’t for actual cover-to-cover reading, is it, it’s reference stuff) I seem to have accumulated in 2014 (by people like Henry Louis Gates, Graham Harman, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, bell hooks, Sarah Kofman etc, etc, etc), most recently Slavoj Zizek’s Absolute Recoil. So far I’ve read the first few fascinating pages of this, on Troilus and Cressida, a play I’m pretty sure I haven’t actually read.

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Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains, by Dave Lordan

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The title (and first) poem of Dave Lordan’s new collection (his third) opens with a confident assertion of the creative power of the poet’s faith: ‘I believe in them, so they do exist’. That faintly insistent ‘do’ emphasises action, the poet’s power to reshape reality and, more obviously but also more importantly, to reforge constantly the language through which that reality might be expressed. This is a recurrent theme of the collection, from the father-daughter sleight-of-hand of the moving ‘Fertility Poem’ (‘Lies are the womb and seed of us’) to the long sequence ‘Notes for a Player’ (dedicated, like the whole collection, to Denis Boothman, the ‘you’ to whom these poems often speak).

In this poem, the possibility that ‘time was confounded / by telling it slant’ animates the dominant elegiac mood, lending each description now the patina of myth (‘Samhain’s high moon / of the spirits’) and now the mundane soundscape of a Sunday breakfast (‘stirring your cuppa – ceramic ding-ding – / humming along to MacCormack or Callas …’). This counterpointing of the ancient and the everyday orchestrates Lordan’s observations of contemporary Irish politics as fruitfully as his commentaries on himself as product of ‘the animal tribe of my youth’ (‘I dream of Crowds’). Another elegy, ‘Irish History’, dedicated to Paul Muldoon, melds the two into a condensed summary of all the clichés associated with its titular theme – ‘quiet chorusing rosary nuns / and docs that crack jokes’, or ‘your toothless Bogtown wife’.

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This theme becomes ‘a shape-shifting billows / of chemical smoke’ that then ‘went missing’, and is later found, extra-nationally but not extra-historically, ‘dying in dark visions and fits / in an abandoned industrial unit / on the outskirts of Manchester’. History’s absconding, its dissolution from ancient mythic grandeur into modern drugs, disease, and disarray, leaves only stereotypes and poetic homilies, a tradition ultimately boiling down, the poem laments, to ‘nothing much’.

Lordan’s poems repeatedly refute this narrative of decline, exposing its ironies and omissions, its failure to account for that which it recounts. It’s to his credit that he repeatedly effects the substantial reconstitution in word-patterns, symbolic lists, and allegorical narratives of this ‘nothing much’, offering in poem after poem a coded testimony to the superficially-disastrous-but-actually-infinitely-wealthy topical (as well as the less contested verbal) inheritance of the contemporary Irish poet. This inheritance is largely mediated through his direct contemporary influences, Muldoon and Heaney, but draws widely on modern and older Irish (and other) poetry. The epigraph to Lost Tribe is taken from Vasari’s life of Piero di Cosimo, and elides a sentence noting Piero’s ‘imitating’ of Leonardo, as well as pulling up short at Vasari’s imputations of Piero’s ‘uncouth ways’, his being perceived by his public as ‘a madman’. If Lordan’s poems are to be read in part as verbal revisions of di Cosimo, he nevertheless refuses identification with the painter. And yet: ‘We need all history’s madmen to encounter / one another in the here and now’, he writes in ‘Christine’, the collection’s appeal to the physicality of human love which is also, this poem argues, a main form of poetic inspiration, the muse’s visitation, the devastating effects of which the poet seeks analogy for in disasters of incarceration ancient and modern.

Thus ‘The whole thing reminds me of Pompeii’, and, in the poem’s closing lines, ‘I received an intimation that you are an orphan / of some previous disaster, Chernobyl maybe, / which means that I, the many, must be your father’. Father-daughter relationships recur through this collection, as do mothers-and-sons (in the powerful lament ‘My Mother Speaks to me of Suicide’), as do the cock-and-bull tropes of transmitted narratives, poetry’s function as recorder and distorter of experience. Genetic lines mutate into genre lines; the creation-allegory of ‘Christine’ leads to the icy apocalypse confidently related in ‘Return of the Earl’: ‘I saw it happening in Bantry’, this poem begins, before looping into Lordan’s favourite mode, the rhetorically emphatic list that generates multiple mini-analogies as it forces home by weight of creative detail its central argument:

All pipes congealed. All signals died. All instruments ceased.
All ways became immediately impassable. No missile could launch,
no drone take off. All orders were suddenly meaningless.
All networks of power dissolved.

The insistence of ‘All’ encircles the repetition of ‘No’, totality and its negation playing out a strange brinkmanship as the poem plots the orchestral grandeur of its ‘Tchaikovskian apocalyspe’. Echoes of Ballard (‘The swimming pool was an eerie opaque cube, a chlorinated rink’) balance Biblical allusions (‘The bins in rows in the square a fleeing tribe turned to salt’), while Yeats by way of Vico (‘Bantry preserved – until the next epochal gyre – Hyberborean Pompeii’ – that ancient Italian eruption again) counters D M Thomas’s White Hotel:

The market house of white. The whitened
millwheel at the library of white. Four Star Hotel White. The white lounge,
the playground white, the trawlers white, the big white house.

But Lordan’s literary vision of apocalypse is, like all true apocalypses, not so much an ending as a celebration of the certainty of continuity. His ‘one man’ sets off into the whitened wilderness of a snowbound Ireland to seek ‘who’s in charge now, what instructions are’.

Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains, exploiting to the full the freedoms of di Cosimo’s ‘changing manner’, constructs a strong sense of affinity, of familial and social bonds stretched, sometimes to breaking point, but ultimately bearing – just- the weights of the histories they both transcend and are burdened by. The final poem, ‘Love Commands the Neighbourhood’, is itself an extended elaboration of Christ’s final commandment (John 13:34) to ‘love one another’.

‘We must love one another or die’, Auden famously wrote, and equally famously later disowned both the line and the poem that contained it as ‘infected with incurable dishonesty’. Lordan (whose name echoes Auden’s) echoes in these impressive poems the instruction but not its disowning:

Love the first rough throat in the morning.
Love the last sad mutt in the night.

Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains will be published in September 2014 by Salmon Poetry (http://www.salmonpoetry.com).

For information on Dave Lordan check out http://davelordanwriter.com

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