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Showing posts from 2012
I'm reading Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space for a long essay on Emily Dickinson. Bachelard is a self-described addict of what he calls 'felicitous reading', a term which I'll be using in the future. Bachelard - a former philosopher of science now writing on poetics - writes, 'Sometimes, even when I touch things, I still dream of an element.' I think a whole shimmering tone poem a la John Adams could spring from this phrase.
I feel as though a landmark in my reading life has arrived in the mail: the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell could – I suppose – be seen from a distance given its heft. He dwarfs Elizabeth Bishop’s output (which is not by any means a total victory).

My favourite lines in English literature (this month) come from his ‘Banker’s Daughter’:

And so I press my lover’s palm to mine;
I am his vintage, and his living vine
entangles me, and oozes mortal wine
moment to moment.
The other day at breakfast a visiting American student expressed her impatience with the way the British sign their texts – and the occasional email – with an x. ‘What is that about?’ she said, wrinkling her nose. When I arrived two years ago I was equally mystified. A new friend lent me my first mobile and I embarked on a perilous voyage through the murky waters of British texting. When I received a message with an x, I blinked. Are we twelve? I wondered. Packed inside that x was dolphins and fairies and ponies and best friend bracelets and necklaces and desperate attempts to symbolize feelings in early attempts at love letters. It made me think of a high-voiced schoolgirl a la Baby Spice. British women seem to use it more than British men, though L said he used it with his male friends. (They are, however, very posh.) What’s more, I received texts and emails from near-strangers with x’s on them. It was obviously no deep sign of affection, just an encrypted gesture. Before I knew it…

October is the cruellest month

It's coming to the end, now. So I thought I ought to celebrate this, my favourite dying month, with one of the voices in my head.

The name - of it - is 'Autumn' -
The hue - of it - is Blood -
An Artery - opon the Hill -
A Vein - along the Road -

Great Globules - in the Alleys -
And Oh, the Shower of Stain -
When Winds - upset the Basin -
And spill the Scarlet Rain -

It sprinkles Bonnets - far below -
It gathers ruddy Pools -
Then - eddies like a Rose - away -
Opon Vermillion Wheels -

Emily Dickinson


It would be the day it poured: the day of liberation from nearly three months stasis in Oxford. I took the 6.56 train Worcester, having the day’s first proper cup of coffee in the cheap Brief Encounter-ish tearoom in Worcester, and then onto Hereford, creeping along the Malvern Hills, the fields inundated with rain, the wet crops, the sheep cringing into the hedge thickets and soggy apple orchards. I’d forgotten about rural buses and their lacksadaisical reliability. I’d missed the bus from Hereford to Hay-on-Wye by five minutes and it was two hours until the next one. Cursing, I walked into Hereford (grey, depressed, with a strangely hospitable European piazza in the centre) for a bacon butty – which, I now know, is impossible to eat without coating your eyebrows with brown sauce – and a stroll through what was promisingly called The Butter Market but was really a church bazaar affair in the town hall.

And thus to my destination. Hay-on-Wye is set on a hill and impossible to navigate…
Attention poetry mavens: any suggestions for good contemporary poets (either in general or particular collections)? Have sudden appetite but very little idea where to start. Any advice welcome!
It's been raining all day, that splendid (as long as you're not out in it) gloomy continuous fall of rain which demands umbrellas and Wellies. There's a film crew on Holywell and I can only presume it's Lewis. I'm imagining a fierce sodden twilight confrontation of the murderer, macs slick with the rain, torches on angry wet faces, etc.

This is what happens a day after the autumnal equinox. It doesn't rain this heavily usually - this is a proper find-your-favourite-jumper day. It makes me think of this scene:

'It's an owl', said Peter. 'This is going to be a wonderful place for birds. I shall go to bed now. I say, let's go and explore tomorrow. You might find anything in a place like this. Did you see those mountains as we came along? And the woods? There might be eagles. There might be stags. There'll be hawks.'
'Badgers!' said Lucy.
'Foxes!' said Edmund.
'Rabbits!' said Susan.
But when the next morning came t…

The view from Southbank

Embarrassingly, last year I went to London only once. I intend to make it up this year. On Wednesday, I took my first excursion to the National to see Simon Russell Beale in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Timon of Athens. The primary plot of Shakespeare and Middleton’s play – of a wealthy man whose estate collapses due to his unrestrained generosity, and turns feral misanthrope after being abandoned by his friends – was effortlessly adapted to a satire of present day London. The first scene, in which a painter and a poet discuss the works they’ve produced in Timon’s honour, is set in an art gallery which Timon’s bounty – and name – had just embellished. (The ancient woman next to me told her friend that the large painting was Goya’s Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple). The employment of a revolving stage coyly referred to the wheel of fortune which is set against Timon (in an early scene he walks against the direction of the revolution to the next scene) as well as a c…

Spurious and Spuriouser

There have been times where I have stopped on the street and suddenly had the thought that I do not have thoughts. All around me are people whose brains are knitting and unravelling problems, meditating on beloveds or categorizing errors. Largely, when I move, I think with my body, or I fret. I may notice my surroundings, or I move with such impatience that my journey is fuelled entirely by desire but no reflection. Once, upon such a re-realization, I sat on nearby steps, desperately trying to think about thought and subsequently becoming narcissistically distressed. This is just the sort of problem that haunts Lars Iyer’s Spurious.

Spurious is the clearly signalled offspring of Waiting for Godot. The plot is as solid as a pair of worn knickers. Two academics, the unnamed narrator and his friend/antagonist W., speak, reproach, agonize, try to create meaning, try to write, try to think, try to contribute, acknowledge their own uselessness, struggle against inactivity and superfluity. …

Boxer Beetle Booker

This week, while daily commuting to London and back, I’ve been getting some reading done. Shakespeare, Sewall’s biography of Dickinson, and - at last - some non-required reading.

Ned Beauman’s addition to this year’s Man-Booker Longlist for The Teleportation Accident reminded me of my long intention to read his first book, Boxer Beetle, written at the disgustingly unripe age of 24. I have had my suspicions that Beauman is – with this tremendous head-start – going to go very far indeed, perhaps as another Amis. But those Beauman shows the same precocity, his realization is rather different.

Boxer Beetle is at heart a ripping piece of genre fiction – a mixture of mystery and smut. It has the enjoyable pace of a cheap yarn. This is not to degrade it: Beauman has attempted to marry a vividly fluid prose with a bright and curious mind which is evidently drawn to the tawdry.

The novel is the story of a modern-day Nazi-memorabilia collector who is pulled into a mystery involving a gay Jewis…

The Lives of Others

I find it hard to disabuse myself of the notion that the biography is a secondary art. It takes the stuff of other peoples’ lives, mostly the salacious bits, and tries to make a conclusive narrative out of what is essentially fragmented. Those who can’t write their own material, become biographers. Or even worse, become writers whose sole metier is autobiography: those often shapeless (or alternately, deformed with over-significance) baggy monsters. I don’t feel that way about published journals. Journals seem fundamentally more honest. It is where self-knowledge, if possessed, gives itself away.

At an Oxfam booksale a few months ago I picked up a copy of Richard Holmes’ Footsteps , an autobiography of his experiences as the biographer of Romantic figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley. I recognized Holmes; his huge Shelley and Coleridge biographies are still well thought of. It was in reading about Holmes’ younger years as a waifish biographer, living hand-to-mouth in Europe and…

The Selection

I went to Blackwells this afternoon to buy a unit of fiction and I found choosing extremely difficult. I am always plagued with the feeling that the same book is being written over and over – a novel during wartime London; a tale of young women vying for the stage in the 1920s; an affair set in the present day; an old man remembering his first sexual experience; a historical romp beaded heavily with elaborate camp; stories of young male vagabonds whose consciousnesses disintegrate while walking the streets at night. Books on shelves – with their bright loopy covers and vibrant letters and bumptious puffs - seem to mean nothing. Perhaps this is a result of not reading contemporary fiction for so long. The hackneyed book news, the schools of fiction, the masters writing classes, review readers, Costa and Orange awards; what do they mean? It took me two trips and at least an hour of choosing and then discarding everything and clinging to Diego Marani’s Finnish Grammar and thinking At Las…
A house, not in Paris, but covered in vines. I wake as early as I can force my body up – nearly noon – and scamper around the house, looking out windows and vantage points, photographing nooks, admiring sunlight in crevices or on the old chicken coop. C tells us later that there had been Easter chicks and a cock, and the woman who worked for them told them that the chickens had all been carried off by a fox. Strange, but no matter. More chickens were bought to raise. The next year, the same thing happened. All the chickens carried off by a fox. This, together with the fact that the orchard is full of healthy trees that never manifest ripe fruit, confirms C’s suspicion about the French in general and his housekeeper in particular. The French are lazy and try to get away with everything, he said with disgust, momentarily forgetting his thoroughly French heritage.

A and I walk into the village to buy baguettes. I practice the most important phrase I know, Est-ce que je peux prende deux c…

Au reservoir, Angleterre

The passport control in Dover was French and, despite me rocking back and forth, we had no problem leaving English soil. He smiled and waved us forward. And so onward: on to the ferry, that lumbering giant of duty-free shops and European tweens dressed in American sports paraphernalia and practicing their smoking and football hooliganism. On to the noticeably different French landscape, with its tall slim trees and wild underbrush, and tawny Van Gogh wheat fields. We drove into Burgundy after midnight in a lightning storm. I’ve never seen such violent electricity at so close a range, splitting the sky in several places at once, and lighting the vineyards which spread for miles on every side. C, our host, rolled down the window to crow. ‘Do you smell that?’ he said, breathing in the thick, humid storm-air. ‘That is the vines. That is the smell of wine.’ He continued to exclaim ‘vineyard!’ at every plant we passed. ‘Look at that? That field’s covered in vineyards. And on the other side…
Today the humid air turns Oxford into Southern Illinois. I cycled to the store for cold air. There’ll be a thunderstorm. Tomorrow, maybe, as the Yorkshire man at the first aid course I attended yesterday in Kidlington suggested. But we won’t be here, I hope. A friend invited us to his house last week and we have taken him up on it, setting off for Burgundy by way of Dover and Calais. The past week has severely tested our spontaneity: I won’t be sure today is not a day trip until the authorities let us – and our various identity documents - into the country. Should we prove lucky, there’re orchards and vineyards and a week of sun in store for our pale selves.

The choice, as ever, is what books to bring. The winners are:

Emily Dickinson complete poems & letters Simone Beauvoir’s autobiography, vol. 4 Journal of the Goncourts Complete Stories of Mavis Gallant Spurious Swann’s Way Mapp & Lucia

Notably, no Shakespeare. Nothing with footnotes was the rule.

See you in a week, then. Or …
The long Jubilee weekend is almost over. I didn’t go to London to see the queen floating down the Thames on her royal barge. I watched the rain pour all day and listened to the radio. No champagne, no sponge cake. Most of my friends are passionately anti-monarchy and so the hubbub has largely been afar and mostly consisting of my theft of the JCR’s Commemorative Times for a souvenir. I’ve not been converted to republicanism but I do wonder what royalists mean when they congratulate the Queen for doing such a good job, for ‘doing what only she can do best’ (without any clear indication of what that is). At any rate, the pageantry has been magnificent. And I am counting the Daily Mail’s offer of free Jubilee tea-towels after mailing in three tokens.

This afternoon I begin a two-week language portfolio exam which will count for next year’s finals. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep my brain limber and supple and quiet. So I’ve been reading Susan Sontag’s latest volume of journals, As Co…
Today in class we spoke about landscape and the Romantics: the local, the foreign. Wordsworth in the Lake District, Burns & Scott in Scotland, Byron in Italy. I read most of Fiona Stafford’s book Local Attachments, which I’d been meaning to read for the past year. Stafford’s book proposed no new theses but was a wonderful, thoughtful survey of the Romantic writers and their understanding of place. Places which created what Heaney called ‘adequate poetry’, poetry as important to freedom and survival as weapons or politics. (An assertion which friends of mine have found very difficult to swallow.) Wordsworth was lucky, as Keats recognized, to be born in the Lake District; to be able to return. I wonder if you only ever are at home if you know the names of the landmarks, of the streets or paths, the hills, the rivers, the trees and bushes. Unlike you have the vocabulary, you cannot be a part of it. But by naming aspen, alder, wych elem (as I am learning) or Rothay or Cherwell or Swar…
Glory be to god for dappled things. The sun’s out in an unprecedented effusion – five days of straight heat. No work has been done. Still,

‘Upon such days, with such-like sloth Who wants to study?..’
(Nabokov’s very long Cambridge poem)
The Great British Summer has arrived. ‘After all,’ said A, ‘if we can’t have a put on a Great Summer with an Olympics and a Diamond Jubilee, it’ll prove we are a rubbish country. We are a rubbish country.’

Finally, my Anglophilia – which I now wear under very domestic retiring colours to distinguish me from day-visitors – can blend in. The flag bunting on the streets, the window displays (the one at Boswells is particularly glorious and Elizabeth-studded). Every newspaper feature has a list of ten Great British _____ (fill in the blank.) - cheeses, destinations, monarchs, fabric prints, restaurants, novels, icons, country walks. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ motif, which has gained loyal followers in the past few years, has been maximally exploited as…


After dinner and the library is empty. Other glittering students with champagne glasses have gone to the hall. We ate mango on the steps in the rare sun. I’ve got a flash of what I thought Oxford would be, but only comes in wisps. I’m trying to find something David Hume wrote about sentiment and sensibility. The only Hume books our college library has are two huge maroon-covered tomes, donated to the college when it was a still a dissenting institution in Manchester. The date on the bookplate says 1878 and some of the pages are uncut. These are a frowning, mutton-chopped Unitarian pair of books, and the typography looks not a little Wild West-ish. Concerning Moral Sentiment, here we go...


When A told me he was getting a Kindle, I was – predictably - disgusted. The arguments on either side are tiresome. It’s better for your eyes; it removes you from reality; you can transport more books; it’s unsociable and ultimately industry-killing. I’m aware that my rebuttals are a blend of aesthetic and idealistic. Nevertheless my feelings are strongly held and immoveable. One of the reasons I told him I liked books despite their heft and impracticality is something John Updike wrote – that books are ballasts and should weigh us down. When we move we’re apt to think it’s just too easy; the regret and memories and hard work comes later. But when you’ve got books you have to plan, you have to give away, you have to store, have to half-break your back with effort. What you do physically mirrors your inner reality. Moving is difficult.
After toting my books from various libraries and bookstores today I almost want to retract that statement. The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth …

Letting go

Strangely for someone who gets sometimes debilitatingly stuck in remembering, I find the places I've lived in the past imaginatively arid. They feel like they're stuck under a coffee table and are beyond re-use. My experience growing up in George was so antipoetic that I find it hard to believe that South Africa provides imaginative wheat alongside the chaff. Aside from whatever JM Coetzee or Damon Galgut have gleaned. Or whatever Marilynne Robinson has sculpted from the Midwest. I'm sure I'm not alone in the embarrassment of one's birthplace. It's an inevitable part of weaning. But I am surprised and proved wrong.I came across the blog Letting Go by accident and I found it hard to believe that the writer is in a landscape I know well but have found unable to put into words.
The English have a long tradition of writing in the country. The words for English flowers and birds and insects and animals pervade literature. This is a common experience for postcolo…

Adopted Ancestors

I picked up ancestors at a charity shop last week for 50 p each. Now they stand on my mantelpiece. Their personalities seem quite clear to me. So let me indulge myself & frivolously divine them. This lady (Florence?) is wearing cheap mourning. She's beautiful but her face is petulantly furrowed. Quick but not a nuanced thinker. I surmise she has been left by her lover (a sham marriage, perhaps?) with an inconvenient baby. This photo was taken in Oxford in August 1876. His name might be Matthew. He's definitely studying for the ministry. A sincere (if naive) face. He will probably marry and have children but nurse a hidden unspoken passion for someone else all his life. More to come...

Lake District

It’s been a week since our return, and in this week of heavy bustling and hours of staring at computer screens and collections, I’ve tried to hold onto the Lake District. It goes so fast. And really, it took three days for the ludicrous grandeur of the scenery to sink in. We caught the train from Oxford to Windermere by way of Birmingham New and Preston stations. It’s the first time I’ve crossed England and I craned out the window to catch impressions. The prettiest stretch of country was Oxfordshire, between Oxford and Banbury, which was caught in a mist, and the Lancashire/Cumbrian countryside between Preston and Grasmere. In between were large stretches of green and of ripe yellow rapeseed, interrupted by smokestacks, dirty stations, and industrial towns; trailers penned in next to sheep. Grasmere is idyllic, the Disney world of England. Its old world prettiness makes everything beside it look contaminated. The mountains rise steeply around the valleyed village, and dry …
To the Lake District for the weekend: lakes, mountains, gingerbread, spring lambs, and Wordsworth.
This past term went by so quickly in part because I edited the Arts and Books section of the fantastic Oxford student newspaper Cherwell. (My co-editer and I enjoyed it so much we are staying on to edit the Culture section as a whole this Trinity.) The highlight was the ability to publish a brief interview with the writer Lydia Davis as a part of our double-page spread on Women Writers. Here's the interview.

Following her w(h)imsey

Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night opens with its heroine, the crime-novelist Harriet Vane, thinking back on her time as an undergraduate at Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Shrewsbury, a fictional college, is located on St. Cross Road. Vane thinks of the college fronted ‘by the trees of Jowett walk, and beyond them, a jumble of ancient gables and the tower of New College, with its jackdaws wheeling against a windy sky.’ Shrewsbury, then, is just across the road from my own college, also in the shadows of New; a propitious beginning to a book.

I read Gaudy Night while I should have been revising for my collections. Mischievously, each chapter is headed by an epigraph from a Renaissance work: prose by Burton, stanzas from Sidney or Spenser. I told myself it was revision, but it was a heady escaping plunge into the allure of golden age detection.

Harriet Vane, once accused of the murder of her lover, since liberated by the aid of Sayers’ gentleman-detective Lord Peter Wimsey, returns to Oxford to cel…