Monday, June 30, 2008

26. Night Train / Litany - Michael Hofmann

Quite a few poems on the theme of remembering towards the end of the Approximately Nowhere section of MH’s Selected. The final poem, Litany, is a list of people, places, and scenes from “months of transition/ in a room on the Harrow Road,” a merging together of disparate beauty and chaos, set out like an address to a divinity, although the “Dear god” at the beginning could also be a expression of world-weariness. It’s a terrific poem, full of inventive language and images.

The penultimate one, Night Train, is entirely different. Like Malvern Road, it’s a memory of a memory. The narrator is on a train thinking about another train journey made years earlier. He’s “in the half-compartment/ set aside for the handicapped,” which indicates, I think, more a state of mind than any physical disability. He remembers this old journey in which he suggests to a woman that they might elope, or at least:

I put it to you, not joking,
though you weren’t to know that then

The casual ease of these lines half-disguises their terrible sadness. There’s already a sense of melancholy, an inevitable rejection - in fact, more than a rejection, not even realising there was anything to reject. The train goes on from this place in the middle of nowhere towards London and a bar where the woman works. The poem unexpectedly turns to the way the woman dresses and wears her hair as suggesting someone not knowing whether she wanted to be the goddess Venus or Joan of Arc.

The poem riffs on hopelessness – the handicapped carriage, the narrator feeling “parched and let down,” his plan (not taken seriously) to elope and walk into the wild away from a conventional existence, and a woman unsure of her own identity (or, at least, that’s how the narrator portrays her).

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Shore Poets, Euro 2008, ...or Both?

Here’s the dilemma. Tonight, the Shore Poets have an excellent programme of readers – Richard Price, Angela MacSevany, and Simon Pomery. It starts at 7.45pm.

Tonight also is the final of Euro 2008 between Germany and Span, which starts at 7.45pm.

So what should I do?

It partly depends on getting a babysitter, but I might be able to do both if I record the match. That way, I can see the poets and then watch the game when I return, as if it were live.

The obvious problem with this solution is getting home without knowing who won. There will be many hurdles to overcome – Spaniards and Germans (there are many in the city at the moment) wandering around Edinburgh after the game, either singing at the top of their voices or looking utterly inconsolable – a dead giveaway. Conversations about the game on buses or on the streets, TVs replaying the vital goals in shop windows, flags raised from bars and restaurants. I’ve considered a taxi, but it’s odds-on that the driver will start talking about the game. Wearing ear muffs and a blindfold might draw me too much unwanted attention. It’s a tough one.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

25. Malvern Road - Michael Hofmann

Malvern Road took me aback. The first few stanzas follow a couple moving in together, their first house, poor but happy, and full of hope. I read the first line, but it slipped from mind until I read the poem (one sentence long over two pages) again:

It’s only a short walk, and we’ll never make it

That’s like a warning to the reader that things aren’t going to turn out too well. The narrator is close to the old house and seems to be addressing his partner years on in L3 with his “Do you remember?” The memory of moving in follows, and then plenty of detail, intimate detail:

the health centre padlocked and grilled like an offie,
the prefab post office set down at an odd angle,
the bank that closed down, the undertaker who stayed open

It looks like a poem of nostalgia, memory of a more hopeful time despite difficulties. And then comes the final few lines, and it’s those which took me aback. They come almost out of the blue, until you go back to that first line and see how it was inevitable all along. But I find those final lines ambiguous and sudden:

…you whimpered comfort to your phantom baby boy
you didn’t have and said you’d mind him, as now,
to my shame, you have and you do.

I’m probably being really thick, but I keep changing my mind on what I think those lines mean. Is the baby no more a phantom than all the other memories he’s outlined? Or are all the memories as much phantoms as the baby?

Or - taking things in a more literal sense - could it be that they lost a baby in the womb and that he's forgotten (surely that's impossible?)? Or that she wanted a baby, he didn't, and she's reminding him of that now - almost as an accusation, and as a kick in the teeth to the romantic nostaligia?

I read a review in which the reviewer said this poem seemed “less finished” than most in this Selected. But I don’t know…I think the jarring suddenness of the close is deliberate and provocative.

Friday, June 27, 2008

24. XXXX - Michael Hofmann

I'm just hoping that title doesn't bring a whole load of people to this blog who are looking for something very different from poetry! I'm sorry, hardcore people, but blame Michael Hofmann who chose the title. You might like this better in any case.

XXXX is about being 40. But it’s as though the narrator is going through a kind of male menopause! He pisses in bottles, chews longlife food, identifies with a fox, and decides to “spend a wet evening under a tree.”

The images are wacky but not so wacky that they appear unbelievable. He veers near the edge when he writes;

For half an hour, amid palpitations, I watched
two children I was sure were mine.

The humour is dark, the sense of chaos not unfamiliar. Only the radio, which he keeps on as much as his father ever did, gives him a sense of equilibrium and stops the world from sliding away from under his feet.

I loved this poem, while feeling slightly scared by it, maybe because the unstated truths it hints at are rather close to home. My favourite lines are:

I’m forty. I free the jammed light-push with my fingernails
to give the hall a rest.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

23. Intimations of Immortality - Michael Hofmann

I’m not certain of what’s going on in Intimations of Immortality, but the images are surprising and the usual ironic humour is present. It’s set in Gainesville, in Florida state.

The images revolve around the theme of time – life and a possible future – so you have the “retirement country” with “cryogenics to follow”, and the narrator drinks orange juice “till it fizzes and after.”

The poem begins and ends with what I presume are local expressions – “Have a nice day and get one free” is the beginning. MH’s vocabulary is, I think, amusingly ironic – old ladies “squinny” and “bimble” – and the absurdities of life are given a bleakly humorous twist in a town:

where they give a man
five death sentences
to run more or less concurrently

I liked this poem, the images operating by suggestion and not easily codified into some overarching ‘message’.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

22. Cheltenham - Michael Hofmann

Cheltenham recounts the story of a literary festival at which MH’s translation of his father’s book is being read by his mother. The poem starts with his elderly parents shuffling round the main square to the festival venue. The town is gloomy, an “old folks town.”

Ted Hughes is in the audience and afterwards asks MH’s father if he has ever “like an Innuit/ dreamed of his own defeat and death.” The next stanza is a classic:

My father, who’s heard some questions, but never anything
like this, doesn’t know Ted Hughes,
perhaps hears ‘idiot’, gives an indignant no
in his miraculously clear English.

The poem ends with the short November day coming to an end with a “grumpy early night.”

I suppose this poem was partly a vehicle for MH to tell this memorable literary anecdote, but the way he frames the poem does get to the heart of his father’s grumpiness, which was also the root of genuine humour. There’s some very good writing in this poem, especially in the first two stanzas.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

For Gert Hofmann, died 1 July 1993 - Michael Hofmann

A confession: although MH’s ‘father-poems’ have been widely admired, they don’t tend to be my favourites from his work. They are good poems, mind you, but I usually prefer his other stuff.

I didn’t find the father-poems from Acrimony (1986) to be quite as acerbic as I’d been led to expect (that's not necessarily a criticism!). In the section from Approximately Nowhere (1999), there are several more, and these are supposed to be more forgiving, more positive about his father.

It starts with For Gert Hofmann, died 1 July 1993. The poem describes the family house – both the changes and what stays the same, the marks he has left on the world. The blinds are at half-mast, the place where his father sat is empty, the clock ticks on, the wastepaper basket is abraded by “so much balled-up paper/ nosebleeds and peach-pits,” the books are the same as ever, the berries are already reddening.

There are also images of separation – water separates the lettuce from its greenflies, there are two chairs – one for the father and one for the mother, an African mask hanging on a wall is supposed to keep away evil spirits.

I thought this was a good poem – moving, capturing a moment of separation. It doesn’t get maudlin – the father is presented as:

for once not at his post, not in the penumbra
frowning up from his manuscript at he world.

But even this is a scene of loss, even the frowning is missed.

The ending is intriguing. The berries are reddening, a symbol of aging, approaching ripeness, but MH then adds that “the inscrutable blackbirds will scorn them months more.” It’s an image connected with mortality. The berries appear ready but won’t be taken for another while. Perhaps MH is feeling that sense of mortality in himself.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Magma Launch

Tomorrow, Monday 23rd June from 8pm, I’ll be at the Troubadour Café in London for the launch of Magma, issue 41. I have a couple of poems in the issue, so I’ll be reading them on the night, along with many other contributors. Carol Rumens and John Hegley are the special guest poets.

I’ve recently been appointed associate editor with the magazine (I submitted the poems a few months before this happened). I’m not sure exactly what’s involved in that yet, but I’m sure I’ll soon find out! Magma is one of the best magazines in the UK at the moment and I’m pleased to be connected to it.

20. Guanajauto Two Times - Michael Hofmann

In Guanajuato Two Times, MH imagines returning to the same places in Guanajuato he’s already been and writing about them, an exercise in nostalgia; also, the dull safety in never doing anything new. He reflects on José José, one of Mexico’s most celebrated singers who battled with an alcohol problem late in his career and who seemed a different person to his younger self.

I could slowly become a ghost, slowly familiar,
slowly invisible, amiable, obtuse…

MH captures the sense of the familiar seeming invisible. Although the subject may recognise himself in revisiting old memories, it’s only a shadow of his present self, which will mean little or nothing to anyone else – hence the next line, “I could say, ‘Remember me?’ to the blank bellhop.”

I love the blank humour of the lines,

I could learn the Spanish for
‘I shall have returned’…

The future perfect tense, ironic in itself, and rarely used.

I wondered whether the ending was a little too self-pitying – there’s the bleakness, but not quite the usual black humour. He hears bells,;

not real bells
but recordings of former bells,
and never for me.

The final line makes the point of his invisibility to the world, even though he is at the centre of his own existence (as we all are), but I think it could be one line too many. I like the poem generally though. It’s the last one in this section from Corona, Corona.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Being Earnest

I always enjoy reading Patrick Kurp’s blog, Anecdotal Evidence, and this post on Herbert Morris, a poet unknown to me, was no exception.

Kurp quotes Eric Ormsby, who contrasts Morris’s work with the “career-building narcissism” and “sameness of tone” he detects in many poets. The rather discomforting quotation is worth pondering:

Earnestness is a splendid virtue; while essential to social workers and scoutmasters, it is, however, of limited value to poets who usually prove to be better writers when they are shifty, unscrupulous, and shamelessly insincere--in matters, that is, unconnected with their craft. Earnestness, by contrast, deadens; it homogenizes the sentiments; it may flirt with irony but never dangerously so; it subordinates magic to agenda; it seeks to please rather than to charm; it hankers after acceptance and respectability, however much it may squawk the opposite--and was any great or good poem ever truly respectable?

19. Las Casas - Michael Hofmann

Las Casas describes a Mexican town. Or more than that, unobtrusively describes the contradictions, oppositions and juxtapositions within it. He’s an observer and makes no claims to understand the nuances of the culture – the opening line is, “I leaned round the corner in a Gold Rush town.” There’s the mix of people from Europe, North America, the Ladinos and the Indians, “everyone a source of money to everyone else.” The shops have a weird mix of products on their shelves and well-built houses share space with burgeoning pastel shacks “whose quick spread swallowed the airport.” There’s the noise during the day and the deserted streets after eight o’clock. Fireworks produce “jubilation, and no eyes raised.”

I presume MH is talking about San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern Chiapas region. I’ve been there and, I must admit, I loved the place. It’s painted in the off-the-beaten-track tourist brochures as an ethereal place, and it certainly is a bit dreamy, the mirage of a haven a tourist might dream of settling in. But MH cuts straight through the superficial romance.

I liked his description of the living and the dead both heading to the “aquamarine graveyard” to the sound of music (bright colours, death, and music appear inseparable in Mexico), but my favourite lines are those which close the poem:

the scrape of rockets up the sky, a flash in the pan,
a percussive crash, a surprisingly durable cloud.
Jubilation, and no eyes raised.

Friday, June 20, 2008

18. Pastorale - Michael Hofmann

I’ll skip past the odd but very interesting Days of 1987 with its fabulous opening lines:

I was lying out on the caesium lawn,
on the ribs and ligatures of a split deckchair

Instead, I’ll stop at Pastorale, which is about as far from rural idyll as you can go. The narrator watches the cars racing down the motorway from the verge. He also sees roadkill, old cans, haystacks and sheep, which he describes as “ancillary, bacillary blocks of anthrax.”

Humanity and nature are set in total opposition. In fact, even nature seems to contain oppositions within itself. While the farmer tried to make order, the narrator walked “contre-sens” (more French, perhaps because no English equivalent quite gets that idea of contrariness and senselessness in the one phrase), the cars “razored past” – everything speaks of a split, and death is all around. It’s a ten-line poem, set in five unrhymed couplets, and my favourite two lines are probably these ones following, which compress so much into few words. The narrator walks:

noting a hedgehog’s defensive needle-spill,

the bullet-copper and bullet-steel of pheasants

So another bleak view of the world slicing through a veneer of beauty. You wouldn't expect anything less from MH.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

17. From A to B and Back Again - Michael Hofmann

That’s me two behind now, after missing yesterday. Ah well…

From A to B and Back Again belongs to the Absurdist school. It begins with the Northern Line whose tracks are like a “curving cicatrice” (a mark, impression, scar). It ends with a woman in a maternity hospital “on an empty drip” who shows the narrator her scars – “one in the metropolis” and the other in the “unconcerned suburbs.” In between, the narrator drops into the Barnet maternity hospital “by accident” and finds in there the woman with the scars, whom he calls “my love.”

So there are the cicatrice/ scars and the train journey/ metropolis–unconcerned suburbs connections. There’s the question of why he should drop into a maternity hospital “by accident,” given that his lover is in there. Why would she be on an “empty drip?” The hospital porter is illiterate but he and the narrator manage to find the lover’s name among the Os. All quite odd.

The language and rhythms are lively enough. But I don’t really know what this poem is getting at. It could be that it reveals a detachment in the narrator, that the images reflect his painfully superficial attitude to the woman and to other serious events in his life – his visit is accidental, the woman’s name among the Os makes me think of zeros, he’s made the journey from the metropolis (London, I presume) to the “unconcerned suburbs” of Barnet, mirrored in the woman’s body – maybe…these are all guesses.

I liked these lines:

There was Barnet, my glottal stop, trying hard
to live up to its name, colloquial and harmless and trite.

The line-break made me think something positive was coming, as did the first phrase of the next line – but the three adjectives that follow progressively destroy the place (poor old Barnet!). But it’s also the narrator’s stop and “glottal stop”, so he is implicated in his own description.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Les Murray in Glasgow

Last Thursday at Sloan’s Bar in Glasgow, I enjoyed hearing Australia’s greatest contemporary poet, Les Murray, read a selection of his poems.

Murray’s 1986 Selected Poems on Carcanet Press was one of the first poetry books I bought. I had been blown away by the ingenuity of The Quality of Sprawl. I can’t remember how or where I first came to read that poem, but I felt compelled to seek out more of his work. I hadn’t read all that much poetry and didn’t find the Selected easy, but it changed my life, one of those pivotal books that turned me onto what good poems could do.

It was great to hear Les Murray read. He came over as a very relaxed, companionable person – intriguing in itself considering that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. He reads his poems as if he’s chatting to friends in a supermarket queue. Again, considering how tightly crafted they are, that was surprising. As an example, have a look at An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow and then listen to Les Murray reading it. See what I mean? He read fairly quickly too – not always easy to take in – but many of the poems were stunning.

All the books he had on sale disappeared instantly, but I’ve just ordered his latest collection, The Biplane Houses and look forward to reading it.

Afterwards, I joined a bunch of Glasgow-based poets for a couple of drinks and caught the 11.30pm bus home. It’s always nice to catch up with friends in the West.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Contessa Miseria

More Carmen Consoli. This time becasue I like the song and this is a terrific version of it, even better than on the studio CD. Partly also because I would just love to be up there on that 'stage' with the whole city of Rome as background!

16. Up in the Air - Michael Hofmann

What to make of Up in the Air? The poem shoots about from image to image, but there’s no coherent single scene, no narrative, no obvious sense. And yet, it’s a terrific poem!

It seems to me that each phrase implies the next phrase. At times, the links are no more than faint suggestions. For example in S1 and S2, there’s an alcoholic, which leads to a divorcée with a dogseat, which leads to “birds barking in the trees”, which leads to a heron on a river bank, which leads to ‘soul survivors’ from the Titanic, which leads to ‘My Girl’ (a soul classic), which leads to a dancing girl etc.

It’s impossible to say what the poem is ‘about’, but again I’d feel that it reflects an inner psychology, a sense of everything in the narrator’s life being ‘up in the air’, unsettled, blurred. There are so many brilliant lines and images in this poem, such a bizarre imagination at work, that the poem demands re-reading. I love the “alcoholic devotedly spooning/ pâté from a tub,” the girl dancing “like the alphabet/ mostly like the letter A,” the fingers as “sheep’s knuckle-bones dicing for the seamless garment” and the airport “with its complement of tiny, specialised, ministering/ vehicles.” Just fantastic stuff. My favourite section:

.................................................…I was Ajax,
I had stolen another man’s captive, slaughtered sheep
like a maniac, counted my friends till
I fell asleep, now I would have to swim for it

in the greasy, yellow, woollen waves…

This is unhinged madness and brilliance. Both conspire to inhabit every stanza of this poem.

Monday, June 16, 2008

15. Freebird - Michael Hofmann

Freebird mixes up registers and juxtaposes details to build up a picture of a hot summer’s day in a squalid part of town. It begins with a quote from DH Lawrence – “One forms not the faintest inward attachment, especially here in America” – which leads me to believe that the poem must centre around the detached, observer-narrator.

The poem begins with girls tanning themselves around a swimming pool, as if we’re in a holiday resort, but it soon becomes clear that the pool is a curious anomaly and the tanning is happening in “Stranglers’ weather”. The birds flying overhead are “mockingbirds” (no accident surely). The place smells. People mentioned include a tattooed con man and an anguished pest control man dealing with cockroaches.

Two phrases struck me. The first is “I was cuntstruck and fat.” That’s obviously meant to be noticed! It comes out of the blue. In this poem, the narrator looks at the tanning girls, hears a young couple making love in a flat above and the loud blast of Lynyrd Skynyrd from somewhere (presumably the song of the poem’s title with a “seven-minute instrumental coda” thrown in). But he seems pretty lethargic about it all.

The second phrase is the final line, describing the love-making girl – “Her little screams petered out, inachevée.” Now, why the French word here? It means “unfinished” and could suggest the girl's dissatisfaction at a premature end. The literal sense is that she’s drowned out when the Lynyrd Skynyrd is turned up. Freebird recalls those mocking birds from S2, flashing green as they pass over - surely a view of the narrator’s state of mind. Indeed, the whole poem is like a loose metaphor for inner turmoil. The narrator might feel detached from his surroundings, but they have inserted their hooks into him.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Andrew Philip on Salt!

Great news! My friend, and fellow HappenStance poet, Andrew Philip, has been signed by Salt Publications. They will publish Andy’s first collection, The Ambulance Box, probably sometime in 2009.

As you’ll see from Andy’s blog entry, I’ve read a few versions of his manuscript in draft form. I suspect it would have been accepted for publication even the way it was first time I read it, but he’s taken his time and strengthened it over the last nine months or so. It will be a really good book!

14. Marvin Gaye - Michael Hofmann

The next seven entries on Michael Hofmann’s Selected Poems will be from the Corona, Corona (1993) section. The first few poems are very interesting, but I can’t cover everything. I’m going to kick off with Marvin Gaye. It gives the illusion of prosy reportage, but it’s not really.

The poem is written in unrhymed tercets. Each stanza contains a few facts about Gaye, some background facts, a little information (“Including duets, he had fifty-five chart entries.”), and so on. But the more ordinary facts are juxtaposed with some quite strange ones, everything in the same flat tone. So we learn that Gaye’s life “followed the rhythm of albums and tours,” but also that “He thought there was another word for ‘virgin’ that wasn’t ‘eunuch’,” a weird detail for a poem which appears to be setting out the significant facts of someone’s life.

The effect is unsettling. The poem effectively coveys the idea of a strange individual, of madness, and when we learn that “In Ostend he felt the eyes of the Belgians on him,” his paranoia is no surprise. The distancing effected in the final line – “A dog collar shot a purple dressing-gown, twice” (Gaye was killed by his clergyman father) – continues (shockingly) the flat tone used to describe Gaye’s life.

Plain style, a deliberate flatness, is often used in contemporary poetry, but sometimes the poems are really little more than prose narratives cut up into lines. I mean, they are poems, but I often think they could have been written far better. I write such poems myself at times and you can see them splashed all over current literary magazines, but I’m not often satisfied with the results - either the ones I write or the ones I read.

However, here, the flatness works really well. The emotionless reporting of facts, the way no single detail appears more important or relevant than another, is chilling.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

13. Old Firm - Michael Hofmann

Well, after all the family wars of these poems, the book finishes with Old Firm, which reveals a bond between father and son that goes deeper than surface arguments. There’s no epiphany here, no false hope, but the bond exists in spite of everything.

MH acknowledges that his father kept them fed when young. He wasn’t a bad father in that sense. A thunderstorm makes the family huddle around a phone box to keep dry. It turns them “into a family group.” They even joke together about an interview the father had just given in French – not his best language, but MH understands him. However, the poem ends on a double-edged note:

Who else understood? Your edgy, defeated laugh?
The modest, unhopeful evangelism of your final appeal
to the people of Montreal not to stop reading?

A bond of knowledge holds them together. Despite the sense in earlier poems that his father was unknowable, MH knows him better than anyone, and yet what he knows isn’t necessarily what his father would have chosen to reveal. But the revelation is, in itself, a sign of affection and the final image arrives with MH’s trademark bittersweet humour.

Friday, June 13, 2008

12. Fine Adjustments - Michael Hofmann

I’m a day behind. No chance yesterday and I’m writing something today in spite of feeling tired, but I’ll catch up in due course.

Hard to decide which two poems to choose from what remains of the Acrimony section. I’ve gone for the last two in the book, Fine Adjustments (today) and Old Firm (tomorrow).

Fine Adjustments is a good poem. It leaves plenty of questions but the connections it makes aren’t the obvious ones. I like the beginning:

By now, it is almost my father’s arm,
a man’s arm, that lifts the cigarettes to my mouth

That sense that MH is becoming like his father is then complicated when we learn that they have just had a bitter argument. There have been previous arguments during which MH left a note with a Joseph Roth quote saying he had no father, but that his friend had one, “as though he had a parrot or a St Bernard.”

MH recalls his jibes at his father when younger and remembers his father chasing him round a table, falling, and breaking the arm he was going to spank him with. The connection with those first lines in the poem (quoted above) are intriguing and admit a multiplicity of interpretations.

The current argument has a long history and MH doesn’t try to assign blame. There’s a tension between father and son that is maintained throughout the poem. Although MH records his own jibing, there’s also a feeling of him not being listened to. The radio was always on and no one could speak over it. MH described his own part in the relationship in several memorable lines, from which I’ve picked out:

I was a moving particle, like the skidding lights
in a film-still. Provoking and of no account

Carmen Consoli

I was talking about her after the Les Murray reading (more later) last night and I love this song - so here it is!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

11. Giro Account - Michael Hofmann

Giro Account has the appearance of something straightforward. MH is a “remittance man” travelling about and drawing on his father’s giro account. He is 19 and “on a delirium of self-sufficiency.” The poem ends with a phone call from his father.

What’s slightly odd are the details MH gives – the poem starts off at a porn cinema in the train station and then moves onto a train, but there isn’t a straight narrative. The images are like snapshot memories – companions he avoids, a Peruvian woman he stares at in a nightclub, a girl who announces her engagement, the hotel manageress who lets him take away his leftover rolls at breakfast.

The father’s phone call comes as a cover-up, presumably for an affair. He’s supposed to be at a conference but clearly isn’t and most of what he says is pointless. I was intrigued by the fact that the father called so as to have MH as “an alibi, proof of my harmlessness.”

The father sees MH as harmless, not exactly how people like to be perceived. MH won’t give anything away. He’s living dependent on his father and is watching life, avoiding companions, uninvolved. But distance has instilled a delusion of independence and freedom. As for the father, his only interest is in his “new novel plot.” And yet, there’s another unexpected moment earlier in the poem, a sudden shift in tone, which reminds us that moments are seeping away:

At the end of my feeding-tube, I didn’t realise
that to stay anywhere on the earth’s surface is to bleed:

money, attention, effort…

Captions and Alcohol

If anyone can suggest better captions for the photos at my Great Grog post below, then I’d be pleased to hear them, and might replace my efforts with them. I keep feeling, for example, that Mike looks more to be going through a mystical experience than talking about dogs (which he did) and Kapka appears more to be overcome with emotion than talking about her collection.


Two fascinating articles by Jim Murdoch on writers and alcohol. Part 1 looks at attitudes among writers to drink and Part 2 (which I found particularly interesting) gets down to practice itself.

I’ve not got time just this minute to say anything more, but I will in due course.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Poetry at the Great Grog - In Pictures

Nice to have a big crowd for the last Poetry at the Great Grog readings before the summer break - hardly a spare seat in the house. The poetry was excellent as ever: four fine poets - Jim Carruth, Mike Stocks, Eleanor Livingstone, Kapka Kassabova - performing their work very well. But here's the story (or part of the story) in pictures and a few words which, like many poems, blur fact and fiction (all photos by Helen Beaton - click on the images to make them bigger):

Rob: "By next year, these poets are going to be this huge..."

Jim: "What did I mean when I wrote that line?"

Mike: "Every book should have a dog in it. I've no time for books that don't."

Eleanor: "If my daughter was here, I couldn't read this poem. But as she's not..."

Kapka: "I'm going to read from Geography for the Lost, a title which needs no explanation."

10. My Father's House Has Many Mansions - Michael Hofmann

Jumping past many good poems again… But I thought I’d shift to the ‘Father’ poems, which make up the second half of the Acrimony collection.

My Father’s House Has Many Mansions immediately references John’s gospel, chapter 14, a godlike quality to MH’s writer-father. The poem shows MH trying to be like his father, walking with the same posture, wanting to share in his life, but never quite being able to carry it off. The father wears “echoing clogs”, but MH has the “scruffy tennis shoes/ - seen but not heard.” The father calls the shots and MH tries to emulate him, but there’s never an “offer of equality.”

The father has a second house which MH visits, a “half house,” much of it unfurnished. It’s presumably a place where the father writes as well as seeing his “girlfriends,” a place where “family was abasement/ and obligation.”

The poem closes on two images from the garden. Growing bushes scratch the father’s car and a “heraldic plum-tree/ surprises you with its small, rotten fruit.” The images are ambiguous. They could refer to the father’s disappointment, his lack of satisfaction with his life. But the references to “growth” and the word “heraldic” (the connections of the word with genealogy) make me think that it may have reflected the father’s attitude to MH himself – or, at least, the father’s attitude as MH saw it.

Not the most striking poem in this collection, but an important one nevertheless, a poem around which many others seem to revolve.

9. From Kensal Rise to Heaven - Michael Hofmann

Missed yesterday. I’ll try to catch up.

From Kensal Rise to Heaven is a series of snapshots of urban squalor, written in unrhymed quatrains. A description isn’t just a description but a view through the poet’s lenses, a snapshot of his sensibility and opinion.

The “passed deadlines” on old posters must be “disappointed/ to find they still exist”. Numbers for prostitutes adorn the public phone booths, dogs and pigeons rake through the rubbish, the street is spattered with blood from the evening before. The usual black humour is much in evidence. MH describes the repainting of a local Chinese restaurant around a naked calendar girl and finds time to mention that “I see an orange topcoat calls for a pink undercoat.” As for the plague of flat-roofed houses– “some are truncated pyramids, others whole glazed shacks”, the mix of the positive-sounding ‘pyramids’ and ‘glazed’ being entirely undercut by ‘truncated’ and ‘shacks’ (note those thumping stresses at the end of that line too) – a long way from the title’s ‘heaven’ of course. I’m sure there’s a name for that technique…

There is a political dimension to this although it’s never specifically mentioned. This is 1986, Thatcher’s Britain, the age of the yuppie, what was billed as a time of privitisation, the emasculation of the trade union movement, an economic boom and prosperity (soon followed by a bust), but Hofmann’s poem captures how things really were for most people, many of whom – inexplicably – had voted Conservative.

My favourite lines are:

The surfaces are friable, broken and dirty, a skin unsuitable
for chemical treatment. Building, repair and demolition
go on simultaneously, indistinguishably. Change and decay.
– When change is arrested, what do you get?

‘Change and decay’ is lifted from the hymn, Abide with Me – “Change and decay in all around I see. O thou who changest not, abide with me.”

Sunday, June 08, 2008

8. Nighthawks - Michael Hofmann

Shifting forward a few pages (and missing several good poems along the way), I come to Nighthawks, dedicated to James Lasdun. The narrator and friend (MH and JL? Hard of course to know where fiction begins and ends in any poem) have missed the second-last train. The late evening around the station is full of derelicts, prostitutes, “shoals of men laughing off their fear,” a hamburger joint…

For me the poem revolves around this line, addressed to the narrator’s friend:

your hollow darkness survives even in this place.

The darkness isn’t a negative quality. In the poem, the street-lamps are described as “snakes’ heads”, the “neon” burger bar is a “bright hole,” a hospital is “lit like a toy.” The darkness seems preferable to MH, as if it’s important that it survives the neon. It’s that “weight” that ABJ mentioned in a previous comment, a gravity taking its place within a too airy world. The fourth stanza is both tragic and uneasily (as ever) funny:

I met a dim acquaintance, a man with the manner
of a laughing-gas victim, rich, frightened and jovial.
Why doesn’t everyone wear pink, he squeaked.
Only a couple of blocks are safe in his world.

So the men laugh off their fear in S2, the laughing man is frightened and jovial in S4, but the narrator’s friend’s darkness survives the onslaught. It’s like a Hofmann manifesto, without a trace of preachiness creeping in.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

7. Ancient Evenings - Michael Hofmann

So I’m onto the selection from Acrimony (1986), one of the most widely admired collections of that decade, and I can see why.

It starts with Ancient Evenings, a recollection of a relationship with a woman named Antonia. MH inserts the tone of romanticism, “but I had you – my Antonia!” into this plain style poem for comic effect. The images are astonishing – the friends being photographed under daft advertisement hoardings, the tins of soup the narrator boils in his kettle – still in their cans! – the ridiculously strong coffee he brews in the dark. And Antonia’s quietness, so great that “it seemed like an invitation/ to be disturbed.”

The poem never quite goes where you think it’s going to go, and the final image is one out of the top drawer of surprises:

..........................................…I sat us both in an armchair
and toppled over backwards. I must have hoped
the experience of danger would cement our relationship.
Nothing was broken, and we made surprisingly little noise.

What seemed like an important relationship meant next to nothing. I guess that’s what he’s trying to say. Also the experience of being young and ‘overheated’, but with no cement.

Poetry at the Great Grog - Sunday 8th June

Final reminder of the Poetry at the Great Grog readings, which will be at 8pm this Sunday 8th June, finishing around 10.15pm. That’s 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh. The cost is £3, concessions £2.

It should be an excellent evening of poetry. Click on the names to find out more.

And you can visit the Poetry at the Great Grog site to read bios and poems by all four readers.

Kapka Kassabova
Mike Stocks
Eleanor Livingstone
Jim Carruth

Friday, June 06, 2008

6. Nights in the Iron Hotel, and Body Heat - Michael Hofmann

I couldn’t decide whether to choose Nights in the Iron Hotel or Body Heat today, so I’ll mention both.

Nights in the Iron Hotel, also the title of MH’s first collection, is set in a Prague hotel room. A couple confess infidelity and talk all night about separating. They are self-aware to the point of obsession, but there’s a cold distance about it all, despite the wall decorations which produce a darkly comical “Palm Beach effect”. The chill is mirrored in the room’s setting and in the name, ‘Iron Hotel’. The narrator pushes beds together which had been “at a hospital distance”, although the act doesn’t exactly bring the couple closer together. It’s an eerie poem written in a plain style, discomforting and effective. The poem is equally bleak and funny, if that doesn’t sound like one juxtaposition too far. The most haunting image comes right at the end:

The TV stays switched on all the time.
Dizzying socialist realism for the drunks.
A gymnast swings like a hooked fish.

Body Heat involves two people waking up in bed together – in a scene of poverty and bottled-up anger. There are some great images, but what’s most interesting is the return to the hedgehog/leaves image of the first poem, White Noise. In that poem, the loner in his room is swept into a corner, “delirious, trembling/ a pile of leaves.” In this one:

The poor hedgehogs,
they must help each other to pull off the leaves
that covered them while they were hibernating.

The image contains a crumb or two of hope – the fact that they can help each other – but the very comparison to hedgehogs also suggests genuine desperation.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

5. Furth i Wald - Michael Hofmann

I loved Furth i Wald, a poem about border towns, borders being one of my own favourite obsessions. MH presents the towns (on, I think, the German-Czech border) as bleak, lonely, nondescript places, but manages to describe them in vivid terms. “A tractor stalled in midfield/ between two goals,” says it all. The towns shift throughout history from one nation to another, so that they have to keep “a spare name in the other language to fall back on.”

The image of nations being like “irregular parcels, tight with fear” is pretty good, and I gritted my teeth at the irony of “the play of searchlights,” as if that’s the single source of amusement. But the closing lines were my favourites:

....................................................................Der Neue
dawns only twice a week nowadays. With its
progressive-sounding name and millenarian ideals, still
holding the fort for a dwindling readership…

The irony in this poem couldn't get any heavier. It's political without thumping any tubs.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

4. The Magic of Mantovani & l'an trentiesme de son eage - Michael Hofmann

A quick word on The Magic of Mantovani. MH writes with considerable irony on this light orchestra composer (“careful brass/ for the darker moments – the blood of Spain.”) and its audience (“well dressed and supplied with contraceptives”) before coming to his father disappearing “into his own thoughts” while Mantovani’s music plays in the cinema before the ads. What strikes me is the sudden shift at the end:

Ice cream was no longer on sale in the foyer –
the end of kindness…I thought about mortality,
and cried for my father’s inevitable death.

From ice cream to an end of kindness to mortality. That’s the conclusion of a poem on light music. At first I thought the leap was too much, too easy. But I’m now coming round to it. I’m not sure whether it’s further irony, the sentiment of the music bringing out such thoughts? Or whether MH is deliberately reacting against the light stuff and filling his head with something heavier? Either way, the lines made me think again about what I’d read up until then.

And a double-bill today. The poem l’an trentiesme de son eage is about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Ida Baker. KM is in a sanatorium suffering from tuberculosis. She is continually irritable with Ida, her lover, criticizing her appearance, her personality, her lack of intellectuality. Life there is cold and miserable. She buys flowers etc for her husband Murry, even though “he is in England, advancing his career/ as a man of letters.” She writes to him, “I love you more than ever now I am 31.”

It’s quite prosy, matter-of-fact, few verbal fireworks, dispassionate. The poem works partly because of its intense underlying sadness – the love KM expresses for her husband who isn’t there, and her criticism of the woman who sticks around. “It’s hardly the scandalous lesbian affair/ you read about, but a sad, bitchy one.” I suppose it’s what often happens – people are nastiest to those who are least likely to reject them because of it.

No particular line jumps out at me from this poem, but the overall effect is pretty sobering.

Yesterday, I chickened out of discussing the title, as I am no Ezra Pound expert, but it’s worth noting that the phrase “l’an trentiesme de son eage” comes from the end of the first section of Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (although Pound may have borrowed it from somewhere else?):

Unaffected by "the march of events",
He passed from men's memory in l'an trentiesme
De son eage
; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses' diadem.

I don’t know enough to be sure of how that connects to MH’s poem. KH has just passed her 30th year. I find it quite ambiguous. She is out-of-time, someone who was her own person, unaffected by the prevailing currents? I’m probably barking up the wrong tree entirely. I really don’t know.

Poetry at the Great Grog - Taster for 8th June Readings

Over at the Poetry at the Great Grog site, you can now find a poem and bio from Kapka Kassabova to go along with those of the other three poets - Jim Carruth, Eleanor Livingstone and Mike Stocks - who will be reading on Sunday 8th June.

It should be an terrific evening: four diverse poets of high quality. Readings begin at 8pm. The venue is the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh (go up Hanover Street, turn left along Rose Street, and the venue is 30 metres walk). The cost is only £3 with a £2 concession. Date: Sunday 8th June. Don’t miss it if you’re anywhere near. Tell your friends etc…

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


ABJ just told me that Simon Armitage's band will be performing live on BBC2's 'Culture Show' from 10-10.30pm. However, he also mentioned that Sparks will also be performing. Amazing! It's now 34 years since they unleashed this piece of genius.

We could certainly do with more lyrics like:

Zoo time is she and you time
The mammals are your favourite type, and you want her tonight
Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat
You hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers
This town ain't big enough for both of us
And it ain't me who's gonna leave

Flying domestic flying
And when the stewardess is near do not show any fear
Heartbeat increasing heartbeat
You are a khaki-coloured bombadier it's Hiroshima that you're nearing...

I note from YouTube that Sparks have a new album coming out soon. One of the tracks is called 'Lighten Up Morrissey'! It's pretty good too...

3. Family Holidays - Michael Hofmann

There are 103 poems in Michael Hofmann’s Selected Poems and only 30 days in the month, so I can’t cover every poem. Usually, I’ll do one a day.

Family Holidays is like a rehearsal for later poems about the writer’s family, particularly his father, also a writer, with whom he had an uneasy relationship. The family are on holiday in the sun. The father sits inside typing, the mother staggers about “like a nude”, attempting to run things. The sisters sunbathe endlessly, the little brother plays with other small kids. The poem ends:

…Every day, I swam further out of my depth
but always, miserably, crawled back to safety.

So there’s a longing to escape, a longing to live dangerously – but feelings of dependence always win over. Not a happy existence, from Hofmann’s point of view. Each member is contained in his/her separate stanza. The plural title suggests this wasn't just one holiday, but a constant state of affairs.

The most striking image is of the mother. She is wearing clothes – a hat, high heels and swimsuit. Yet, Hofmann tells us that she “staggered about like a nude.” The staggering makes me think of drink. If she had been nude, it would have been an immediately shocking image. I’m thinking Isabella Rossellini towards the end of Blue Velvet. But “like a nude” is somehow even more of a shock – the fact that she’s clothed and still seems naked. There’s a vulgarity exposed (so to speak) in the juxtaposition of “like a nude/ in her sun hat, high heels and bathing-costume.”

Monday, June 02, 2008

2. Pavement Artistes - Michael Hofmann

Pavement Artistes is labelled ‘after E.L. Kirchner’, the German expressionist artist. I don’t know much about Kirchner’s work, but a quick search provided me with good examples and information. The poem centres on the women in Kirchner’s Berlin paintings and my googling suggests that he was most interested in painting prostitutes.

Hofmann describes them in terms of birds, but not common, domestic creatures. They “wear veils to cage the savagery/ of their features.” They are simultaneously alluring and frightening.

But Hofmann doesn’t stop there. He shifts the poem in the final couple of stanzas to an entirely unpredictable place by seeing the women through the eyes of the men in the paintings. The men categorise the women as either “policeman” or “clown”. Both types are “bowler-hatted” and afraid of shadows and test the heat of the pavement with a “long foot.” The poem captures the wilful distortion in the paintings, the odd angles, the weird facial expressions.

Kirchner’s paintings were condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate” in 1933 and many were destroyed in 1938. The trauma led to his suicide a year later. Hofmann doesn’t refer to these events, but his poem is a fitting tribute to and affirmation of the chaotic beauty of the painter’s vision.

My favourite bit refers to the women. It’s dynamic, imaginative, and perfectly describes how Kirchner places human characters against a background urban landscape. In three lines, Hofmann paints a dramatic picture using only words:

Their control of outlying stairways and arches
is ensured by their human architecture.
The gothic swoop of shoulder, waist and hip.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

1. White Noise - Michael Hofmann

Here’s my first NaPoReMo post. The basic idea is to read a poetry collection this month and comment on individual poems through each day of the month. The difficulty, as some have pointed out, is to write something worth reading for readers who don’t have the poem in front of them. That difficulty, of course, is precisely the challenge! Not easy, I know, and I’m sure I will sometimes succeed only in boring the pants off readers. The entries won’t be long though. I’ll try to compile a link-list of those taking part over the next day or two.

I’ve chosen Selected Poems by Michael Hofmann.

The opening poem, White Noise, is a real cracker. The poem’s subject, an unknown “you”, spends every day in his “monochrome room” with only the crackling of a radio, the “pre-war drone” of his vacuum cleaner, and awful music, for company. No surprises ever break into his routine. He still needs his daily vitamin pills though! But for what?

The poem could easily have drifted into maudlin depression, but doesn't, due to wicked black humour and originality of description. And also, a dramatic shift at the end whereby this man who operates his vacuum cleaner becomes the one swept into a corner of the room as “a pile of leaves.” Modern-day life conveyed as hedgehog existence.

To find a favourite line in this one takes some doing, as there are so many great lines, but this appealed to me:

“You hoover twice a week, and in my eyes
that amounts to a passion for cleanliness.”