I first heard of Vasiliy Alekseyev from a German sinologist friend in Shanghai, Marcus Hernig, who together with the photographer Jan Siefke had undertaken a journey around Northern China in the early two thousands. Their trip followed more or less in the footsteps of the one undertaken by the young Russian sinologist with his older and more irascible French colleague Édouard Chavannes in 1907. Marcus and Jan had travelled by bus and train, though, rather than the springless carts and excruciating wheelbarrows that Alekseyev’s account of the journey, published as China 1907, unfailingly returns to.
The book of informed travel reportage and photography that Marcus and Jan subsequently put together was to appear in 2005 as Dao Le! in Chinese and Angekommen! in German (China Intercontinental Press), but its English translation (We’re There, translated by myself) remains somewhere on an old hard disk and a printout, as the publishers of the Chinese and German versions got cold feet about the commercial viability of the English translation. Feel free to crowd-source it.
Commercially viable translation – I mean commercially viable from the translator’s point of view – seldom leaves much leeway for all the background research that might be desirable. Though Marcus’ text quoted liberally from Alekseyev’s book, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the latter in a second-hand bookshop in Berlin that I really got to grips with Alekseyev himself. The edition is a generously chunky hardback with glossy pages at fairly large point size, with some great reproductions of Chinese New Year coloured woodcuts. This was a folk-art genre which Alekseyev was fascinated by for its insights into Chinese social life and linguistic symbolism, and in which he would become a specialist. The book I have is the German translation – the Russian original seems to be not just out of print, but out of all circulation.
The thing that struck and fascinated me about the account almost from the word go was the high degree, on Alekseyev’s part, of what would now be termed intercultural competence. The era was one in which imperialism still dared speak its name, and imperialist assumptions remained widespread despite being increasingly called into question. But it is evident on every page of the book that Alekseyev, though fascinated by China and the Chinese, nevertheless treats it and them as a fundamentally normal country and people, amenable to rational enquiry no more and no less than Europeans. No inscrutable Orientals here but simply ordinary folk. Nor is his approach a narrowly sinophilic one. Though clearly sympathetic to the country, Alekseyev makes criticisms and finds fault on the basis of experience, observation and reflection, but without falling into or wallowing in culture shock and antipathy.
All this is a far cry from the figure of the Oriental scholar in the late Edward Said’s highly influential Orientalism (1978), in which Said took such writer-researchers to task for their acquiescence and connivance in imperial projects, making their subjects ripe for justifications of imperial conquest. One peculiarity which Said pointed out is that in contrast to nearly every other known species of academic, the Orientalists he was writing about didn’t (and in Said’s view, don’t) actually like what they study very much: hence the image and configuration of the East as a threat. Said was careful to state that he was talking specifically about scholars of the Middle rather than the Far East (reflecting his own political concerns as a Palestinian). For several reasons, not least their geographical remove from the West, the Chinese were less amenable to being cast as Europe’s century-old nemesis and Other than Islam.
With Marcus and Jan’s book in mind, my girlfriend and I ended up retracing some of their journey that had in turn retraced Alekseyev’s journey. Just as my Shanghai buddies had found, heavy industry, mass housing and mechanized transport had of course wrought enormous changes on the area since Alekseyev’s time. All the same, there were places we visited where direct observations I made could and did find their way into the mid-length poem I would write, ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’, whose China-related parts are set in the early years of the twentieth century.
Kaifeng, once an imperial capital, had still in the mid-2000s retained more of its old architectural and street-life character than many other Chinese cities, and had a distinctive local speciality which can only be termed the Chinese kebab. The enormous graveyard area at Qufu, where Confucius’s direct descendants had continued to reign for two and a half millennia, looked not dissimilar to the contemporary photo of it in China 1907. And Pingyao is now a tourist magnet for its well-preserved old streets and a beautiful dragon wall, though in my poem I may have been thinking of one in Datong, a big coalmining town in Shanxi province.
More or less just on picking up Alekseyev’s book and reading the first few pages it became clear to me that I was onto something that could form the basis for a longer poem, something I had been wanting to write for some time but without success. I had spent time in and had some familiarity with both Alekseyev’s home country and the country he visited, meaning I could draw on some first-hand imagery in relation to both. And despite the gap of a hundred years in which China has been through a series of massive political, economic, social and not least cultural upheavals, Alekseyev’s experience of and reaction to China seemed to chime in several ways with my own.
I studied Russian at university, if not too studiously, and spent three weeks in the city formerly known as Leningrad, formerly to that as Petrograd (briefly), and formerly to that as St. Petersburg. This was in 1995, following a couple of earlier shorter visits in 1991/2 while “studying” in the provincial city of Voronezh (where Mandelstam was exiled); one of those jaunts began with me, upon arrival, going to sleep for 22 hours. I was young. Those trips percolated through into an early attempt at a slightly longer poem about Petersburg, long since gone cold and chucked down the plughole (though I got a generous and encouraging response to my effort from Edwin Morgan when I foisted it on him). I would also cannibalize bits of that earlier poem for ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’.
While reading Alekseyev’s book I noted down particular phrasings and passages, some of which got translated, reworded, lifted or otherwise grafted into the poem; the more clearly “quoted” parts (though poetically reworked by me) are italicized in the text. Another element I had in mind was the first movement of a violin and piano sonata by Prokofiev, which begins with a melody played in a minor key on the piano and which really can’t be called anything other than haunting. Prokofiev himself told the violinist David Oistrakh that this movement was to be played “like the wind in a graveyard”, a phrase which appears towards the end of the poem. A brief German biography of Prokofiev, a contemporary of Alekseyev’s, also finds its reflection here and there in the poem.
Talking of sonatas, those interested in the work of Basil Bunting may spot an attempt in the poem to do something like his application of sonata form to poetry. I guess I also had Bunting’s reworking of a medieval Japanese prose piece into the mid-length poem ‘Chomei at Toyoma’ as a model for how to make use of prose in poetry. I showed a late draft to Kelvin Corcoran (who would subsequently publish the poem through his and Ian Davidson’s imprint Gratton Street Irregulars) who helpfully pointed out that the middle section was a bit confusing.
The richness of Alekseyev’s book, backed up by my tracking down a paper which he delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the nineteen-twenties, stood in inverse proportion to what I could easily find out about his life subsequent to his 1907 journey. He taught Chinese language and culture at St. Petersburg/Leningrad I think up to his death in 1951, but to what extent the Stalin era affected him personally I don’t know. Marcus gave me the contact address of someone who had known him, but by that time enough of the poem had been imagined that I didn’t actually need that information for the poem itself, which I hadn’t in any case conceived of as a biopic. The parts that play out in the Soviet Union are wholly fictional. This is why the poem is not called ‘Memoirs of Vasiliy Alekseyev’.
‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’ appears in Alistair Noon’s pamphlet Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution (Gratton Street Irregulars, 2010). The pamphlet can be ordered here. Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here.
Alistair Noon appears at the Sheffield Poetry Festival on Sunday 2 June 2013, reading from and discussing The Bronze Horseman and his recent collection Earth Records (Nine Arches Press). Click here for more information.
Is that you father?
Are you not the citizen Antoine
swallowing your fingers purple with weals?
Choke your tears, drown that waltz
quickly gather your papers and fears
the light is finishing.
The modern city is burying its enemies.
‘Proposal for a Cenotaph’
Andrew Hirst, 1998
In spring 1998, the poet Andrew Hirst (aka photographer Karl Hurst) gave a reading with Ken Smith at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield. In spring 2013, the memory of this reading is still exercising me. In particular, two things stand out. The first is the conviction in Hirst’s voice, especially stark in the formal setting of the gallery. I recall him pausing between poems, tilting his eyes to the ceiling, and intoning: ‘Is that you father?’ The poem continued after a (long) beat; the air seemed to thicken in that pause. The second is the hand-printed poetry sampler given by Hirst to each member of the audience as they arrived (as I recall, he’d spent the best part of two days assembling them). Each of the wallets contained a different selection of poems; the covers and the typesetting were all marked by subtle variations. The poems and the covers were by him, but he left his name off. It wasn’t a calling card. It wasn’t a manouevre. It wasn’t a bid for recognition. It was a gift. It was an open-handed gesture. It was for nothing.
Hirst’s craft and conviction – in both production and performance – struck me as unusual even then. I’d attended only a handful of poetry readings, but was already seeing a pattern of amateurishness, self-congratulation and personal ambition, and was beginning to drift away. Hirst’s performance pulled me back. It showed that you could be uncompromising and generous, difficult and direct; moreover, it proved (to me, anyway) that most of the props and conventions of the contemporary poetry reading were just that – props and conventions. His reading owed more to Brechtian theatre than the standard fare (and formalities) of the UK poetry circuit; the conditions that had shaped each poem seemed to be remaking the work in the moment, for the moment. On paper, many of the poems sat awkwardly, sometimes necessarily so. Hirst’s exposure to certain European and Russian writers (Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Osip Mandelstam, György Petri) and others closer to home (John Clare, Ken Smith, Stevie Smith) was still raw and close to the surface. He was working through his influences and working out his position, but the voice, and the use he made of that voice, was – and remains – unique. What he does with it is necessary; it isn’t comfortable, but it is necessary.
It was a shared sense of necessity that led to us starting Longbarrow Press several years later. It was necessary for us to develop the press on our own terms and at our own pace, using the limited resources at our disposal. It was necessary that our publications and events should be of the world and in the world, and not the product or the preserve of an institution. Most importantly, it was necessary for the craft and conviction that Hirst had displayed on that evening in the Graves Gallery to suffice as our founding (and abiding) principles. His self-made film of his poem ‘Chappaquiddick, 1980’ (an imaginative recasting of the rhetoric of Teddy Kennedy) reaffirms this conviction; this audio recording of ‘Welund’s Lament’ (which, with ‘Chappaquiddick, 1980’ and the earlier poem ‘Tithonus, 1972’, appears in his current publication, Hello Dolly) is no less compelling. ‘A poem should last you a lifetime’, he maintains in this recent podcast. The value of a true gift – given without expectation of reciprocity or recognition – will not depreciate.
Andrew Hirst’s Hello Dolly (three pamphlets and a 3″CD in a handmade, hand-stamped wallet) is available to order here. Listen to ‘Welund’s Lament’ here. Click here for a short film of ‘Chappaquiddick, 1980′. A downloadable podcast of Hirst discussing ‘Hello Dolly’ (and a wide range of related topics) is available here.
I’ve been very lucky in my encounters with poetry editors. It concerns me that not all poets have the same experience: by now I’ve heard quite a few tales of publishing horrors. I say I’ve been ‘lucky’, but that’s the wrong word – it’s much more to do with my publishers’ careful consideration, integrity and respect for poetry and poets.
For years I’ve worked as a community poet, encouraging people of all ages to speak and write creatively. I have also worked with more experienced poets and their souls. For me ‘soul’ is where mind, world and body meet. This meeting can happen in various ways; for example, through making art, or through engaging with other people or creatures, or simply through physically moving through landscapes. However, I believe that one of the most powerful locations for this meeting happens through the mystery called ‘poetics’; and often happens when humans write, read and hear poetry. Both Freud & Jung, and so many others after them, took / take so very seriously the study and care of the psyche. So, for reasons of health, it’s obvious to me (and, fortunately, to many others) that whenever we go near anyone’s poetic sensibilities we must be extremely careful regarding their soul, their psyche, their consciousness at the point where world, body and mind complete. Any negligent or cruel activity near this point can and does cause a huge amount of damage; psychic damage.
Now, this is not to insist poets are frail creatures we must pussyfoot around (indeed many of them can be formidable beasts!). But there is danger for any poet, be they a bullish Byron or a meek novice. Anything that is unrelated to the nearest a poet can get to their ‘true’ poems is dangerously destructive. Any acts that do not hold the poet’s rights to their own poems as sacrosanct are morally wrong. (And this perhaps goes for the poet themselves, denying their own rights.)
So, where does this leave a publisher of poems? How should a poetry publisher proceed to get what they want to publish whilst not following these sentiments: ‘I expect and know that the publisher [of] poetry books will be [...] interventionist in approach.’
Well, it’s very simple … if not at all easy!
I believe that the two following statements should be attended to with great care:
No poet should be expected to publish what they do not wish to publish.
No poetry publisher should be expected to publish what they do not wish to publish.
If they wish to publish, this means that poetry publishers have to take risks (they of course do not have to publish, and may decide the risk is too great). If a poet and publisher can negotiate through a relationship that does not have one exercising POWER over the other, then all to the good.
When I was going through the process of publishing my first book with Shearsman I was told by Tony Frazer that I would have to cut the book down – it was too long, would be too expensive for a debutant and so would be bound to sink from the outset. It needed to sell at under ten quid and so it needed fewer pages. Simply as practical as that. He also said (and I can hear his laidback and friendly tones, although it was written in an email): ‘I tend to let the poets get on with deciding how to cut it.’ And the spell was cast – it was my problem, my charge. I was trusted, and the simple ease with which Tony delivered the statement declared to me that Shearsman had no doubts that I would deliver. I then worked very hard, sought further advice from poet friends, and even some not so friendly, and as a result I (under Tony’s spell) improved the book vastly. I hugely enjoyed the whole process! And of course, I grew as a poet.
Here’s Brian Lewis, of Longbarrow Press, another of my publishers:
It’s the editor’s job to be surprised and challenged by the poet and startled out of his/her complacency. I like to be given poems / sequences that won’t easily fit into a readymade format. It demands that I find the necessary resourcefulness and inventiveness to meet the poem on its own terms.
The poets I work with would, of course, expect me to let them know if I felt that something wasn’t working as well as it might (or at all), and to make suggestions where appropriate. This, however, is a conversation between poet and editor. Sometimes the poet will rework the poem; sometimes not. It’s not the job of the editor to demand or impose changes. Similarly, design is a conversation. I recently proposed two cover designs to Alistair Noon (for his two pamphlets). He liked the first one but felt that the second one lacked focus. I went away and designed a new one, which he and I both liked. The pamphlet was better for it. It’s the poet’s pamphlet. Why would I (or any publisher) want to publish something that the poet was unhappy with?
Yes, it is ‘the poet’s pamphlet’. And, thankfully, as a very young poet (attending Hobsbaum-style workshops) I was taken care of by the likes of Rob Hamberger and Michael Tolkien, who so often would say to me: “It’s your poem, Mark.”
Brian’s question at the end of his declaration, about why a publisher would want to publish against a poet’s wishes, begs some answers – because regrettably there are editors who do not hold a poet’s right to their work as sacrosanct.
I enjoy encouraging others to write poetry, but it is tainted for me; by knowing that should I ever help to get someone to become a poet they will very likely end up entering any of various literati-combat zones where their creative rights are far down the agenda.
I used to be a climbing instructor. I had to make sure that people learned and enjoyed themselves whilst at the same time coming to no harm. Mentoring a poet can be far more of a challenge than any climbing or outdoor pursuits session I’ve ever had responsibility for. It is a shame to say that, as a mentor of poets, it is my responsibility to help the poet shed (or at least knowingly engage with) any delusions inflicted upon them by the various cultural machines that construct and project competing notions of what poetry should or should not be. (I have no problems with debated notions of could-bes.) In some cases this obstacle has to be passed before I can get anywhere near my responsibility to help the poet dig out of themselves the only kind of poetry they could’ve ever written. As my ultimate responsibility is towards my mentee’s safety and peace of mind, I feel immensely angry towards people and edifices that threaten a poet’s right to that peace of mind.
I first heard The Transsylvanians in 1995, a few months after they had formed, at the Schokoladen in Berlin. Acoustic at the time – guitar, accordion, double bass and two violins – the band played traditional songs from Hungary and elsewhere in the Balkans, with melodies I’d never heard and rhythms that required dancing to. I heard them again not long afterwards, and during the break between sets, the audience spontaneously removed all the neat rows of chairs that the organizers had diligently set out.
The members changed and the band rocked up, going electric and starting to do festivals, touring round Europe, pitching up in the UK in the middle of foot and mouth and the Bradford riots. They put out their own CDs, which brought in enough moolah for them to keep going. Songs were reworked and there were various experiments, for better or worse. They did a piece by Béla Bartók.
I’ve seen them grumpy, I’ve seen them happy. A recent gig was the best I’d seen in ages. In one song, one of them strummed chords and sang while another leaned over from behind to do a bass line on the lower string, the drummer drummed on the guitar body, and someone else did something else on the same instrument as well. The violinist did his usual stage-dive.
To quote a line from Kelvin Corcoran’s poem ‘Tocharian the I-E Enclave’, totally out of context: ‘It’s only a sustained analogy’.
This is only a note
To say how sorry I am
(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)
The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics tells us that the primary functions of elegy are ‘to lament, praise and console’. Elegy (in contemporary English literature) is a category distinct from ‘poems of remembrance’: it is shaped by different pressures and ideas of audience. Elegy tends toward the quiet, the meditative, the private. Few of the ‘commonplace texts’ familiar from English funeral services are elegiac in tone, content or form. Elegy depends (at least in part) on a heightened sensitivity to detail (the details in and through which we ‘read’ the departed) to achieve presence and affect; it is too personal, too particular, to be offered up in a public setting. Conversely, the apparent anonymity of the ‘commonplace text’ lends it a pliant quality that allows it to be ‘made personal’ (or made habitable); brought into use for the occasion, it is shared, understood, held in common. Public mourning and private grief are separate, unlike conditions.
It’s interesting to consider that two of the nation’s favourite poems of remembrance, Henry Scott Holland’s ‘Death is nothing at all’ and the anonymous ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, are both cast in the second person: the dead are addressing the listeners. The burden (of loss, of lamentation) taken up by elegy is lifted here in the promise of ‘Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same that it ever was.’ While these texts lack the particularities (of character and circumstance) that we find in elegy, they can take on an almost conversational intimacy, a sense of being personally addressed: a familiar, consoling voice. Yet this familiar, consoling voice, enhanced by death’s authority, is also commanding the listener: ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’. ‘Speak to me in the easy way which you always used’. Instructions from the dead to the living.
The absurdity of the living addressing the dead (in poetry) has often been remarked upon. As Peter Reading observes: ‘Corpses cannot read.’ For W S Graham, ever mindful of the hazards and responsibilities that ‘the obstacle / Of language’ presents, the poem is always a unique (and unrepeatable) way of speaking towards an other who may or may not be absent.
Speaking to you and not
Knowing if you are there
Is not too difficult.
My words are used to that.
(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)
In a statement for the Poetry Book Society bulletin (Spring 1970), Graham volunteers this account of his practice:
I am always very aware that my poem is not a telephone call. The poet only speaks one way. He hears nothing back. His words as he utters them are not conditioned by a real ear replying from the other side.
He hears nothing back. He does not expect to hear anything back. Whether addressing the living or the dead, Graham is writing against distance, against silence, listening intently but without the stimulus of an answering voice. The poems, then, are not telephone calls (despite their intermittently conversational tone): the form they more closely resemble is that of the letter. Much of Graham’s work developed through (and sometimes outgrew) his private correspondence, and we are often invited to read these letters as poems – and his poems as letters. This tendency is apparent in his first collection (Cage Without Grievance, which includes two titular ‘Letters’) and becomes explicit in the late work, which offers poems such as ‘How Are The Children Robin’, ‘Dear Who I Mean’ and ‘Yours Truly’. Each of these poems (or letters) is shaped for a particular addressee, with its own freight of concern, enquiry, and incident; each acknowledges the difficulty of getting a message across a distance that, for Graham, changes with each new approach (addressing a ‘silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before’, as he remarks in a letter to Robin Skelton in 1970). This difficulty, this distance, gains in amplitude in Graham’s elegies for the painters Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter; however, it does not make communication – or the effort of communication – impossible. The letters are ‘undeliverable’, yet consistent with Graham’s intention; to find ‘a way of speaking adequate for the moment’. The marking out of the ‘new’, grief-given distance (between poet and addressee) is achieved, in each elegy, through Graham’s skilful use of the language shared by poet and painter; a mix of parochial detail, cryptic jokes, and conversational echoes. It locates the reader (the poem’s recipient, rather than its addressee) in a world constructed from the mutual terms of the writer and the artist (‘terms’ encompassing a shared vocabulary and the conditions of its use). Graham’s intention, however, is not simply to record the passing of an intimacy, but for the poem to achieve its own (and enduring) intimacy, an object inflected by a particular way of speaking and by a particular way of hearing; an object, finally, to be encountered by others, ‘an object that will stand and will not move’.
Peter, I called and you were away, speaking
Only through what you made and at your best.
(‘The Thermal Stair’)
The poem for Lanyon closes with an appeal to the painter to ‘remember me wherever you listen from’; a surprising inversion of the ‘memorialising’ conventions of elegy (in which the deceased are ‘remembered’), it also enacts the means by which the addressee is called into the present, while acknowledging the distance that separates the speaker from the listener. Lanyon’s absence is figured simply and repeatedly as ‘away’; the speaker makes a rhetorical plea (‘Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?’) but does not pursue the investigation. Conversely, the ‘way of speaking’ adopted in ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’ is exploratory, searching, not only in the questioning of the deceased Wynter (‘Do you want anything?’, ‘Are you there at all?’) but also of the absence he has gone into, that Graham cannot, by his own admission, get to:
Bryan, I would be obliged
If you would scout things out
For me. Although I am not
Just ready to start out.
(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)
The poem’s enquiries are softened by familiar, informal phrasing (‘Anyway how are things?’) which initially recalls, then complicates, Henry Scott Holland’s advice to ‘put no difference in your tone’ (‘Dear Bryan Wynter’ is tasked with acknowledging and managing the ‘difference’ wrought by death; as indicated in its opening lines, the work of addressing this is almost entirely a matter of tone). In part, this reflects a commitment to maintaining the correspondence (or to not abandoning it); the ‘letter’ brings news of Graham’s domestic rituals, the weather, and the landscape (albeit unsettled by idiosyncratic turns – ‘I’ve washed / The front of my face’, ‘The house and the whole moor / Is flying in the mist’ – which suggest that the ‘familiar’ has itself become unmoored). It also amounts to a further inversion of elegiac convention: here, the living are attempting to console the dead.
This is only a note
To say I am aware
You are not here.
(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)
If not here, then where? A ‘news of no time’ (offered to Wynter) is also a news of no place. Death figures prominently in these late poems, as does dream, and Graham often seems to be mapping out a territory that lies somewhere between these two states. In several poems, death – and the dead – are encountered in remembered dream; at times the encounters are stark, confrontational (‘The Visit’), at others calm, conciliatory (‘Falling Into The Sea’). The limits of death, dream, the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ lie somewhere outside the frame of the poem, or are suspended by (and within) it. The changing world is in abeyance; dream becomes memory, which then hardens into place. Perhaps the most tender and affecting example of this late style is ‘To Alexander Graham’, addressed to the poet’s father, ‘many years under the ground’. The poem is as much an elegy for a lost, irretrievable time and place as it is for his father: Graham’s childhood in Greenock, the town he longed to return to in his last years but ‘would never get back to’ (a theme also taken up in ‘Loch Thom’, in which the poet’s ‘homecoming’ is the dream of a boyhood recovered through the particulars of place).
Lying asleep walking
Last night I met my father
Who seemed pleased to see me.
He wanted to speak. I saw
His mouth saying something
But the dream had no sound.
(‘To Alexander Graham’)
The difficulties of communication are manifested in the ‘silent dream’; an effect of the dream’s soundlessness, however, is that the poem’s gestures and setting are pared to their essentials, making for one of Graham’s plainest and most personal works (in a letter to Robin Skelton in 1974, Graham remarks of the poem: ‘I think maybe, Rob, I wanted it to be understood by my father if, perchance, he overhears it.’). The dream-encounter takes place on ‘The Old Quay in Greenock’, a quay which the poem assembles from little more than ‘the big iron cannon’ and ‘that one lamp they keep on’, in which Graham sees his ‘father standing / As real as life’. The absence of sound withholds (or appears to withhold) a spoken message from the father to the son, from the dead to the living, unreadable and undeliverable. The encounter is suspended, unresolved; the son is left to trace the father’s remembered presence through ‘the quay’s tar and the ropes’ and to address questions to his absence (‘Dad, what am I doing here? / What is it I am doing now?’). He hears nothing back. Yet this ‘way of speaking’ towards (and about) the father achieves an understanding that outlasts the silence:
I think he wanted to speak.
But the dream had no sound.
I think I must have loved him.
(‘To Alexander Graham’)
All poems appear in Graham’s New Collected Poems (Faber and Faber). Peter Riley’s review (for Jacket) is highly recommended and can be accessed here.
The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W S Graham is published by Carcanet.
A good slogan is a challenge, in more ways than one. Yesterday, your correspondent and a few thousand other Berliners attended the Umfairteilen demo. The name of the demo was a play on the German for “redistribute”, umverteilen (note the pun on the second syllable). So a close-ish translation, losing the wordplay, might be “Fair Redistribution”. Or perhaps a little peppier: “Redistribute Now”. The assembly point was at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s attempt to create a central business district, complete with skyscrapers. But Frankfurt is having none of it – the banks have stayed put.
Placards translated as “If I wasn’t poor, you wouldn’t be rich” or “Since there isn’t enough to go round, the poor will have to cough up (Ernst Bosch)”. “Smash the power of the banks and corporations” read one handwritten piece of cardboard in German, from the Wedding Migrants’ Group (Wedding being the Communist stronghold in the 1920s and early 30s, and now one stronghold of Berliners with non-German origins, such as the holder of the placard and your correspondent). The Turkish translation on the reverse seemed even peppier, as far as my near non-existent Turkish could judge: Sisteminiz batsin. Attention was drawn to the 32 trillion dollars in onshore and offshore tax havens worldwide.
We passed a part of the Berlin Wall in the state it was after people starting chipping and knocking holes in it in 1989. To stop any more chipping or knocking, it’s now permanently fenced off.
Elsewhere along the demo route, a couple of other structures were cordoned off with riot barriers. The first was the Springer building. Axel Springer was Germany’s Murdoch, and the building is a classic target of left-wing demo ire. A few years back, the local Green Party usefully and ironically got the name of the street changed to Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, Dutschke being the 1968 student leader that the Springer newspapers hounded and defamed till a right-wing nutter went and shot him in the head. He survived, but died a decade later from an epileptic fit related to the consequences of the shooting.
The other structure under guard, a large but nevertheless discreet building that barely advertises itself, is the light and airy House of German Industry, right by a bridge over the river Spree. It’s where various employers’ associations meet under a glass-roofed atrium, and the Chancellor may be invited around of an evening for a glass of wine, at a couple of hundred Euros a bottle (I have a second-hand but credible source for this).
As usual, the police looked mostly miserable, but so would you if you had a riot helmet dangling off your leg, or had to march around with a five-digit number on your back (recently and controversially introduced to identify coppers who whop demonstrators over the head) and in full-body protection that made you look like you’d been on a SupersizeMe diet. Spread out along the riot barriers by the Springer building and the House of German Industry, they had that very furrowed brow they often have, except when they’re standing close enough together to chat with their mates.
As well as the guys and gals in their riot-gear look, the other constants of German left-wing demos were there: Christian Ströbele, now over 70 and white-haired, with his pushbike, pullover and black bushy eyebrows as ever, last remnant of whatever radicality the Green Party may have preserved in its Long March through the Institutions; and the song Keine Macht für Niemand (roughly, “No Power For Nobody”), demo anthem from cult 70s/80s band Ton Steine Scherben. As this was a broad alliance demo, each participating party / organization / movement brought its own van-borne sound system. The Jusos, the youth wing of the SPD (Germany’s New Labour, more or less, except that they never really needed to get New) were, alarmingly, playing AC/DC. We took cover behind Attac.
From a round, bright pink tower a few metres high, marked with the big white words “Traces of the Middle Ages”, two policemen looked down, their riot helmets in their hands, their five-digit ID numbers invisible. The tower was advertising a current exhibition in Berlin, and we passed the exhibition pavilion, which looked more like a large and slightly dilapidated greenhouse in a gardening centre, beside the three-lane highway we were walking down one side of. Along the pavement, officially sanctioned print graffiti tied in with the exhibition, explaining for example that the bridge was where logs were collected in the Middle Ages before being floated further downstream, a trade controlled and taxed by the Margrave of Brandenburg.
At the final rally, beside the stalls of various organizations and left-wing newspapers (which exist in Germany), a stage was set up that could have accommodated a band with enough space for a vocalist to run around. Slogans are even harder when someone expects you to chant them: a female/male compère duo attempted to rouse the participants into mass exclamations of Um-Fair-Teil-En! Um-Fair-Teil-En! and Reichtum besteuern! Reichtum besteuern! (the latter with roughly the meaning and certainly the naturalness of “Taxation on wealth! Taxation on wealth!”). But the rally was decidedly slow on the uptake.
In fact, it was positively comatose. It may have been the polysyllabicity of the slogans. Or else the gut feeling that a slogan needs to be intuitive and more or less – assuming a few shared principles – beyond argument. Given the enormous surplus value creamed off other peoples’ hard work 24/7 by major shareholders and top managers, coupled with the pressure on public finances for things like old-peoples’ day centres (our local one is under threat), big-style redistributive taxation seems to me a more than legitimate demand.
But much as we might agree on it, its subject matter is not as reducible to a moral imperative as old demo favourites such as Nazis raus! There’s the issue, for example, of how to ensure democratically that the retrieved tax billions are used for public services rather than more bank bailouts the next time they come. And the nagging feeling that a Marxist scepticism towards reform of the current system might not be wholly up the spout. The female/male compère duo continued their attempts to get the audience to sing along, a slight note of desperation creeping into their voices, then to be replaced by defiance again. Few joined in. I checked out the stalls. The longest queue was for the Bockwurst.
There was also a group dressed in white boiler suits, that held up a banner sideways to the march, stating that what was needed was not redistribution but smashing Capitalism (with another play on words I forgot to note down). At the rally they were chanting their own slogan, the kind prevalent among the more anarchistically inclined, that literally requires choir practice, and which one witnesses much as one might listen to cathedral choristers: beautiful to listen to, and hard to join in with.
Then we nipped off for a coffee.
30 September 2012
Alistair Noon’s Longbarrow Press pamphlets Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area are available to buy here. To listen to a selection of Alistair Noon’s poems (set and recorded in Berlin) click here. Earth Records (his first full-length collection) is available from Nine Arches Press.
I’ve never been to Walsingham. I’ve got to within about six miles of the village: an old white signpost with black lettering pointed the way. If I ever journeyed that way I would probably end up disappointed. For all its status as that most rare of things – a Catholic shrine, a place of holy pilgrimage in England – my feeling is I’d find it wholly underwhelming – that shot at chintzy religiosity, that sense of a miracle-ground somehow not quite believing in itself as special under those dull Norfolk skies. I literally like the sound of ‘Walsingham’ – the name itself has a mythic quality to it, a sense of England of old, an England that never really existed. More pertinently, I think I’m drawn to the idea of Walsingham as it is represented in the piece of literature that first drew my attention to its existence – Robert Lowell’s poem ‘A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.’ Alongside those rather far-off, alien descriptions of whaling around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Lowell – all of a sudden – goes on an imaginative pilgrimage to England: ‘the world shall come to Walsingham’.
I do have an interest in places that are name-checked in literature – in poems, in particular, though I don’t go on expeditions to find these locations out. Better by far to come on East Coker by accident. I certainly don’t think of Larkin every time I step on the platform at Sheffield station (‘Dockery and Son’) though my head did turn once on a road out of Galway when I saw a sign for a village flagged up in Paul Muldoon’s ‘The Sonogram’: ‘on the road to Spiddal, a woman hitching a ride’. For ‘Spiddal’, Muldoon informs us, read ‘hospital’ (c.f. Spittle Hill in Sheffield; Spitalfields in London). Some of my most vivid memories – in this regard – are of coming on Irish place names with a literary connection. During a car ride from Belfast to Donegal I realised we were heading into territory mapped out by Seamus Heaney when we drove past Toome (see the poems ‘Toome’, ‘The Toome Road’, ‘At Toomebridge’). Perhaps more spectacularly for me – because it was so unexpected – I drove through Oughterard on a grey autumn afternoon back in the 1990s. Michael Furey, Gretta’s long deceased lover in James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, came from Oughterard. As I drove through the town, I thought then and there that Michael wouldn’t be worrying himself over women like Gretta any more – he would be playing golf.
Occasionally I come on places that clarify or add texture to the readings of poems in which they mentioned. The best example of this I can give relates to a work by W S Graham: ‘The Thermal Stair’. The poem begins:
I called today, Peter, and you were away.
I look out over Botallack and over Ding
Dong and Levant and over the jasper sea.
That ‘Ding / Dong’ used to throw me. Was Graham talking about a church and its bells or was he being whimsical, a manner he cultivates now and then in his writing? Nearing our destination on a long drive down to Zennor, Cornwall (Graham country) we stopped at the crossroads of some leafy lane and there, to my right, was a peeling sign pointing the way to Ding Dong. It had never occurred to me Ding Dong was an actual, constructed space, that it had the same kind of veracity and tenor as say Frome, Swindon, or Quorn. Go on, look it up, Ding Dong moor.
For all my interest in place names and poetry I don’t often pin my pieces explicitly to a locale, a parish, a street. I did write a sequence of poems about the River Don and named various districts of Sheffield as part of the process of tracking its journey through the city, but most of the time I don’t push towards this kind of poetry vérité. When I wrote the extended poem ‘Death and the Gallant’, a work concerned with pre-Reformation wall art and its destruction, I wondered about providing the action with a precise geographical ‘fix’. I ruminated on the idea of a hidden or remote valley somewhere but in the end decided against naming names in this broadest sense. A real location would have meant me knuckling down to do a lot more research about the environment, the lie of the land: I just wanted to get on and write the poem. For all this regional vagueness, there are two churches named in ‘Death and the Gallant’ in the hope that it embeds a line of authenticity into the narrative. I spent ages poring over possible saints and in the end came up with Saint Botolph’s (church one) because it’s a strange and wonderful name and Botolph was the patron saint of travellers, and Saint Anne’s (church two) because I wanted a saint with a monosyllabic name to accommodate the opening line of that particular section I was thinking about (‘Saint Anne’s. The Passion on a southern wall’). From thereon in, specificity only really occurs in other aspects of the poetry: the description of wall art decorating various (unnamed) churches, and what these images signified to people in seventeenth century England.
‘Death and the Gallant’ will appear in the forthcoming Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Click here to read one of the poems in the sequence; to listen to Chris Jones reading two poems from ‘Death and the Gallant’, click here and here.
Listen to W S Graham reading ‘The Thermal Stair’ here.