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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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’.
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
And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.
I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.
And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.
And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—
There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.
Ezra Pound, Exile’s Letter, in Cathay (1916)
Language is called the Garment of Thought: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), what is it all but Metaphors, recognized as such, or no
longer recognized; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colourless? If those same primitive elements are the osseous fixtures in the Flesh-Garment, Language, – then are Metaphors its muscles and tissues and living integuments. An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: is not your very ‘Attention’ a ‘Stretching-to’? (Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Ch. 11)
We can still use notions such as Burroughs’ ‘astronaut of inner space’, or Dorn’s ‘inside real and outsidereal’, though we must be aware that for the nomad-poet, the NOET, even those distinctions have to be abolished. There is no difference between inside and outside at the poem’s warp speed. We can still use Olson’s statement that the need is to move, instanter, on – but no Interzone for us, no Idaho, in or out, no Gloucester hankering for a more perfect past. (A Nomad Poetics, p. 31)
‘The rumour about the Scots sounded unlikely – though no less likely than other tales that travellers had brought them, that a Chinese army was marching on London, or that gnomes and elves and men with badger faces had been seen dancing in the woods. Scope for error and ignorance seemed to grow season by season. It would be good to know what was really happening …’. (Brian Aldiss, Greybeard)
I retweeted earlier today a quote by P J O’Rourke: ‘Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ Currently I’m in the middle of, near the end of, or just about starting, several different books (examples currently piled on the bedside table: Brion Gysin’s The Process, Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames, Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics?, a collection of essays edited by Ian Bell on reading Ezra Pound, a recent Reaktion Press biography of Poe, David Bellos’s biography of Georges Perec; then there are more in the living room …). Some of these are re-readings; some are new obsessions; some random charity-shop finds. While I care little whether I’ll look good if I die in the middle of this pile, why I get involved in this largely pointless but somehow satisfying feat of literary juggling has been bugging me for a while now. Why can’t I finish one book before I move on to the next one? Why am I lured away from one book before completing it, to another, from which I’m then lured again by a third, and so on? Am I going to finish all these books soon (when? how soon? which ones first?), and how big will be the pile that replaces them?
This readerly situation, a kind of pleasant overwhelming, is partly to do with the nature of my book-buying habits, which have evolved (due to economic, political, addictive, and recently new-baby-related, as well as other causes) in particular ways that militate against the logic of what I’ll call sequential text completion, centering instead on chance finds, temporary obsessions, momentary but irresistible drives to completism in relation to an author or genre or movement. These have also, not incidentally, impacted in different ways, I suspect, on exactly how I read, which is what I’m concerned with here. But it’s also something to do with the nature of reading itself: simultaneously sequential (following words across the page, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter, section by section, until the end (‘The End’), and then taking up the next text to repeat the process; and diversionary, drifting as one reads from the middle to the end of the paragraph and back, focusing, losing focus, refocusing, skipping sections and then returning to them, noticing repetitions that make me turn back to seek the half-remembered earlier instance of a word or phrase, and so on. I read more than ever before, it seems, but what I read and how I read it – on the page, online, in books, in downloaded journal articles (I don’t have a Kindle but Apple’s iBooks winks at me from the bottom of this screen as I type) – is constantly mutating, bringing its own new kinds of what used to be called distraction, which are I think rather productive, enabling new interactions with texts that redefine both reader and the texts one reads.
At a conference a year or two ago one speaker presented some interesting scientific research into the cognitive activity of reading that made use of eye movement mapping, tracing the eye as it scanned a page, marking its movements forwards and backwards across texts containing surprising words, so that the tracked eye jerked back and forth at certain moments. This suggested a particular grasp of how we read sequentially and via diversions; but it didn’t address how the act of re-reading a text with which one is half-familiar might differ from the fresh encounter with a previously unread text, nor did it explore how differently motivated readings might differ in such an analysis – a student or critic performing a ‘close’ reading while sat at a desk, say, from the less rigorous or more languorous drift of the casual reader’s eye across the page during a train journey. I find myself on occasion somewhere between these exemplary extremes; unable not to read critically and thus, I hope, carefully and closely (it’s a professional and private habit, but what ‘carefully’ and ‘closely’ actually mean is becoming for me increasingly uncertain), but also drifting through the books while I’m reading them, distracted productively into a different kind of readerly interaction with them. Each book, for example, rubs off in unpredictable ways on those I read around it; Gysin’s magisterial late-modernist prose, imbued with wide cultural knowledge and a kind of mid-century American colonial confidence, bounces off the colloquial bourgeois Parisian of Zola, well-rendered, I think, in the translation by Robin Buss that I have; Peter Nicholls’ thoughts about reading Pound’s Cantos refract and intensify, even apply, some of Calvino’s limpid arguments about reading itself.
Reading functions, of course, as a complex signifier of a variety of interconnected attributes (which are also difficult, attention-demanding preconceptions) to do with cultural health (ill-read, well-read), wealth (poorly read), and metaphorical breadth of experience (widely read). It’s a signifier of gender and class (it’s to do in part with available leisure time and perceptions about how best to use it), and education (being bookish; as a mate of mine once said, ‘You must have been crap at English at school if they’re still making you do it at university’). So we tend conventionally to see reading as a cumulative and teleological action, just as we read these different attributes in terms of volumes, quantities, degrees. But, thinking about this pile of books I’m currently failing to read completely, I’m wondering these days about the significance to my own grasp of what reading means of the incompleted reading, of the unfinished, partly-read text, the book found on the shelf many years later with a railway ticket stuck between pages 422 and 423 indicating a failure to finish something once significant enough to spend time to read 420 pages of it, and the trace of that failure marked in the text as it suddenly is, on its rediscovery amongst other half-read, half-finished books, in the memory of the failed, incomplete reader.