29 Jan 2021

Peter Manson: Four Poems from ‘self-avoiding space-filling curve’

only horses cry

blinking arm rasher than intelligent scissors cup

bleeding out on proposed thumbnail skitters in the pink

liminal flow reduced acetaminophen ears

less bulbous ox concentrate gang of the rule of three

thigh hiatus in lurid ego desolder pump

walk it to mark and whine petals ovary over

also vary overs as if i could challenge fact

are you ready for the beach bodies aching on time

in a pulse for crocus sold on the rising moodswing

back to deferral of sentence rewilding the sign

and repeat while home burns nightly restored unbalance

knocking the fumes we were simply past embarrassment

you and i know the calamitous cop for silence

 

 

more fun with is

my most extreme self-consciousness has a leg in it

and is structured like a second language understood

in parts when spoken slowly and more fully in print

o companionable absence of a second leg

from my inane flap now i am a kind of trousers

wearing at all times an n95 stocking mask

i rob the past confusing it and the leg with me

above my head is much that would interest my leg

my brow is still red from the kiss of the queen mother

in my new i don’t do this i don’t do that poems

shaking a loss-leader thigh gap to the sound of one

high heel treading softly on my human ball my cock

is in my pocket it is poems by iggy pop

 

 

willy’s lyke-wake

i bought a soap dish that smells of condom lubricant

with a hey the cuddie o’er the kye et cetera

and in that soap dish there was literally nothing

fegs to the barn owl wrongly identified as such

i sold a side plate with no inherent qualities

the putative barn owl has carried my snood awa

the buyer claimed it was blue and ebay sanctioned me

i inherited a trivet and left it to you

o bury my body in sussex my bi goshawk

to bequeath unheated in its original box

cremate my soul in red chernobyl mither mither

as i sense you already did though what is unclear

is the will to clarity contested this plague year

 

 

a protestant with no mitochondria has been discovered living in the intestines of a chinchilla

in the unlikely event of landing in a glass

of water outside stevenage you will not have died

so early and often as in our impatient dreams

to be alone without you in the vantablack stage

of grief is the true beginning of marketable

my pea-green uninterruptible selling point blank

as a magic tablet set up on a molehill crest

to command the half-time chiasmus of our pronouns

the socialised distance is going in for a hug

you pull out of the hug too soon but it’s still going

every pressure point a prayer a station of the hug

bent on convincing itself you’re real afraid it won’t

get to hug you again and eventually it can’t

 

Peter Manson lives in Glasgow. His books include Poems of Frank Rupture (Sancho Panza Press), English in Mallarmé (Blart Books), Adjunct: an Undigest and For the Good of Liars (both from Barque) and Between Cup and Lip (Miami University Press, Ohio). Miami UP also publish his book of translations, Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse. Most recent pamphlets are Factitious airs (Zarf Books) and Windsuckers & Onsetters: SONNOTS for Griffiths, a collaborative book written with the poet Mendoza (Materials Press). petermanson.wordpress.com for more.

29 Jan 2021

Fran Lock: Hyena

 Hyena! and the work of queer mourning

Hyenas get a pretty bad press: in Egypt, during the reign of Ramesses XI, the year 1090 became known as the Year of the Hyenas. It was a year defined by climate disaster – drought, crop failure – starvation, and civil unrest. The appellation is both literal and political. Hyena populations felt the knock-on effects of the drought, and sought to scavenge food within the precincts of human habitation. In this way the hyena became viscerally identified with famine and disease in the ancient Egyptian imagination. ‘Hyena’ also conflates these animal harbingers with the feral behaviour of human beings, with a starving populace on the brink of revolution, devolving into chaos.

Hyenas are, according to most classical sources: loathsome and savage, insatiable of appetite,  offensive of smell; they are cowardly but viscous, morally and spiritually unclean. Pliny the Elder tells us that hyenas are the only animal to dig up graves in order to eat the corpses. In legend and folklore from around the world the hyena is a haunter of cemeteries; a devourer of the dead, the mount of witches.

But the hyenas of legend have other strange properties too: they have eyes of many colours, and dogs are struck dumb when the shadow of a hyena falls on them; any animal that looks at a hyena three times will be unable to move, says Pliny. And Ovid offers us this: ‘We might marvel at how the hyena changes function, and a moment ago a female, taken from behind by a male, is now a male’. St Isidore of Seville writes of a stone to be found in the hyena’s eye; if taken and placed under the tongue this stone will induce a man to prophesy the future.

There is something magical and not necessarily benign about the hyena. It shifts between categories of species and of sex.  Neither male or female, neither cat or dog. It is said to prey upon the weak, but it is also a cipher for them: the hyenas of folklore have a symbolic affinity with the disorderly and dying, the sick in mind and body, the malcontented and the maimed. This negative iconography is deeply rooted and enduring. In 1923 a striped hyena from the San Diego Zoo was hired by Dorothy Davenport for the lost propaganda film Human Wreckage. The hyena was to represent the ‘wasted spirit’ of one ravaged by addiction, a metaphor invoked in the title of several contemporary tales of narcotics, crime, and opportunistic savagery. The hyena, like the addict, is weak but cunning, an indiscriminate scavenger. The hyena like the addict is ‘immoral’ and ‘dirty’, not merely wicked but squalid; repulsive yet pitiable. The addict is no longer a person, they undergo a radical transformation.

Therianthropy – the magical metamorphosis of human beings into animals – is one of the oldest folk beliefs. In the Cave of the Trois-Frères in south-western France there is a pictogram dating back to around 13,000 BC that appears to show a shaman figure in the process of animal transformation. The notion of hyena therianthropy is common in parts of North Africa and the Horn of Africa, and these legends are unusual because unlike other therianthropes, who started life as human beings, hyenas can disguise themselves as people. In the Middle East striped hyenas have traditionally been regarded as the physical incarnations of malevolent Jinns. And the13th Century Persian writer Zakariya al-Qazwini in his book Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing describes a tribe of ‘Hyena People’, stating that if one of this tribe should be hidden in a crowd of 100, a hyena alone could sniff them out and devour them. They walk amongst us. They eat their own.

A great collector of therianthropic lore was Charles Hoy Fort, the well-known researcher into ‘anomalous phenomena’. In his final book, Wild Talents (1932), Fort writes about the belief that under certain emotional conditions, such as grief or rage, a man might turn into a hyena. Literally. My friend, editor and mentor Roddy Lumsden had a lifelong interest in all things Fortean. It was something that united us.  By strange coincidence, I was rereading bits of Wild Talents in the week before he died, and thinking about the hyena as an avatar for certain kinds of desire or emotional experience. The news of Roddy’s death was a shock to my system – one shock in a long series of shocks – and it triggered something in me where, following a period of loss and turbulence, I’d reached a state in which animal transformation felt plausible to me, where I felt just mad enough and feral enough to turn into a hyena myself.

Mourning, I suppose, is a process or set of processes whereby all the raw, regressive anarchy of grief is absorbed back into articulate narrative language. It’s a process of mediation and assimilation through which the individual is able to communicate their experience of grief, first to their family and friends, then to their wider community, and on, to society at large. We have many rituals aimed at producing rational, linear trajectories of grief – the obituary, the wake, the funeral, the eulogy, the elegy – and all these discourses – therapeutic, clinical, and literary – that attempt to move you towards a kind of recuperation; that want to socially situate your grief.  All of which is helpful and necessary, but I think there are kinds of grief, and that there are certainly grieved-for subjects, not accommodated by those trajectories or rituals of mourning.

There are those society doesn’t account as grievableand there are some kinds of grief society doesn’t want. How to mourn thosesubjects? And what to do with an experience of loss that is so disturbing and persistent that it can’t be adequately reclaimed by language?

I began to search for a word or phrase to describe what I’m trying to do with my poetry, for the feelings and experiences I’m attempting to make space for. When talking about Hyena! I started to speak tentatively about a work of ‘queer mourning’, about poetry as a making space for the troubling strangeness that grief initiates in us. I tend to think of grief as a queering of the real, as a making strange of the world and the self to the self and the world. The character of Hyena! emerged because the accumulative effects of grief were a kind of therianthropy for me.

The hyenas of legend and lore were strange, fluctuant, threatening beings. There were moments, experiencing grief, when my own body felt strange and dangerous to me. I was changing my body in ways both involuntary and conscious: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I shaved my head. The magnitude of my feelings both provoked and demanded these changes, a remaking and remapping at the physical level. I am not the first woman to feel this way. To find, at times of great loss or stress, all her ‘normal’ bodily functions suspended, caught in arrest or revolt. The body behaving in this way is threatening to others too, wayward and ungovernable: the body that cannot bear to be touched, the body that must be touched, full of intense and compulsive desires, the body that shrinks or expands into ‘ugliness’, the body whose period stops, the body whose gums bleed; the body that resists any attempt at erotic instrumentalisation. The body that will not be managed. At our most abject we are often at our most revolutionary.

In 1957 the artist and occult practitioner Marjorie Cameron painted The Vampyre,  also known as The Beast. It features a central female figure on all fours against a black background, experiencing some form of therianthropic transformation. The figure, anorexic and deformed, twists between the human and the animal, the fragile and the grotesque. It excites both sympathy and repulsion. It has a hyena-like mane of red hair. Cameron, as she preferred to be known, made this picture during a long period of mourning for her husband Jack Parsons. It is as eloquent as any art I’ve ever seen in describing that sense of alienation, awkwardness and loathing with and inside of yourself, a queering of your own shape and substance.

The queer, I think, is an identity or mode of being that is imperfectly held within language; it is an identity that cuts across and partakes of multiple categories of vexed belonging. The hyena is a cat and a dog, an animal, man, and a spirit; the hyena is male, then female at will. This is something I connect to my sexuality, of course, but also to culture and to class identity, to the feeling that has persisted all of my life of being, simultaneously ‘both’ and ‘neither; to finding no perfect expression of solidarity, no true ‘home’ in any one territory or lexical field. Grief does this also, it destabilises you, it upsets and scatters your points of reference. To talk about death, or to talk about sexuality, we frequently resort to endlessly abstract and multiplying euphemisms; to cipher and slang and code. Language itself becomes strange as the known world tilts on its y axis.

Grief changes how we see and say, everything gets magnified, sensitised, brought into weirder, sharper focus. It changes what it is possible to think and to know; the words in which and through which we apprehend reality. In this state communication becomes complicated, the way we interact and understand one another changes. This relational uncannying is something I’ve always thought of as being part and parcel of the queer: the need to find new names, a new language in which we can speak our strange truths back to one another.

Hyenas have a language, or they have a kind of complex anti-language comprised of ‘giggles’, whoops, howls, and groans. These sounds have a kinship to those produced at the disruptive hiccuping core of human trauma; to the collapse of articulate speech that occurs when our rhetorical resources are utterly exhausted. It is not so much that trauma silences its sufferers, but that it begins in them a compulsive and repetitive need to speak: to gab and garble, jibber and slur, to laugh and cry, to be discursive and sullen in turns, and yet to come to the end of their invention without ever reaching or naming the thing they are trying to describe. It is not the case that trauma is or must remain ‘unspoken’, rather that any attempt at intelligent representation fails at, or is failed by, the limits of language. This is the difference between articulate and eloquent. When words won’t do, we recruit gesture, the body, guttural non-verbal noises.

The hyena’s laugh is repeatedly miscast and mischaracterised in folklore and contemporary culture alike as demonic, hysterical, or mocking. So too are the sounds of grief and trauma misunderstood. Women’s grief especially. I began to see – or at least to imagine – a thread of connection between the hyena’s laugh and the practice of the caoin, which exists in popular consciousness as a species of pagan noise-making. This misrepresentation was fostered by religious and occupying authorities in Ireland, who frequently demonised its practitioners as animalistic, immoral, or crazed, when in reality the caoin belongs to a highly complex and specific verse tradition, one with its own rich set of tropes, its own particular aesthetic disposition. Historically, criticisms of the caoin performed a kind of Janus-faced manoeuvre in which it was simultaneously despised for being heathen and wild, and destained as ‘immoral’, because it ritualised – and sometimes monetised – the process of grieving. The caoin was too unrestrained and artless to be quite proper, while at the same time too formalised to be authentic or sincere. For the women who practised the caoin there was no way to win, and because the caoin was embodied to such a high degree, condemnation of the form also attached to those who performed it. It wasn’t simply that the tradition of the caoin was in some way disorderly or ‘bad’, but that these qualities were also the signal moral attributes of the women who participated in it.

Hyenas are misunderstood animals. I don’t suppose there is a woman alive who wouldn’t feel some sense of kinship with their abjection and vilification, but it must be felt most deeply by the women who are ‘other’ even in the otherness of being a woman, women who are told they are mad, or perverse, or profane, for the ways they desire and the ways they grieve, women who are made to feel like animals.  Witch belief is alive and well in many parts of the world, where rumours of animal transformation still attend accusations of witchcraft. The witch has her familiars: the bat, the owl, the toad and the hyena. And the witch takes on some of their properties, she sheds her own skin and becomes a beast. Not a ‘useful’ beast either, a thing that cannot be harnessed, a thing that cannot be used for food or fuel, a thing that refuses rational control, that belongs to and in its own frightening magical world.

Magic, Silvia Frederici tells us, was a huge stumbling block to the rationalisation of the work process. It functioned as a kind of refusal of work, it was a form of insubordination and grass-roots resistance. The world – and women – had to be forcibly disenchanted before it – and they – could be dominated. Women’s claim to magical power undermined state authority; it gave the poor and powerless hope that they could manipulate and control the natural environment, and by extension subvert the social order.  So magic must be demonised, must be persecuted out of existence. If Hyena! is a witch then the poem is a spell. It is that scene of hope whose ambition is to overcome the horrible logic of death and the impossible demand to ‘heal’ from loss, to be made ‘useful’ again.

 

In the Emerald City

my friend is face-down, consulting her
hangover like a map. or else she is dead.
in a city like this is the pleasing secret
picked clean, the microclimate quick to
tears. tell me who you are. i’m all
the darkness draining from an eye. go
on, do the dead in different voices. do
the our father and the gratia plena. do
daddy issues. do the girl crush. do
the predatory lesbian. i’m a glacier
calving in a warm tumbler full of bells.
in the emerald city, an insect phrase,
closed against colour. how do you like
me now? would roundly slut my ethic
skin. the carnal hairpin noir of witches.
by which i mean – not that you asked –
they like you better dead, pressed to
their own piqued kink, gassed or slit
or bombed out of their ovaries on
pills, a row of gracious cabbages. eskar
of an old wound, how they hate. dames,
they want you good and doomed, and all
your limpid oeuvries debauched in
scalloped cotton. three women
in a room is a coven by default.
three poets in a room is fucking
riot. oh, those amatory zealots,
severed heads in a bowling bag.
listen, to cut it in the emerald city,
you’ve got to be tough, feet planted
firmly apart and screaming: come at
me, bro! with a fidgety vigour, all
omnicompetent female badass. my friend
says we shall never make it. pain is
a convex blues strained through lyric’s
syrupy extremes – edel, idyll, idol: weiss,
weiss, weiss! – my contrarian austerity
will never be enough. failure of medicine
and strict machine. i have come to
fragrance under ailment, a way of being
wrong at which the dog sniffs, the nose,
irked in its turn with dying. i am old,
and my face is a sprawling proposal.
what are the symptoms? a circular rash
like the bite of a wolf. fever’s dull urging.
exhaustion, turning, is a wire dreidel.
the enigma of ordeal, my gravel kingdoms
regained. but oh, we are so remorselessly
alive. season of doleful cirrus, spindrift,
loosestrife’s louche anathema. in the emerald
city they pull us up as weeds. herbicide
and baling wire. haul me over the burning
coals of grim contention. by the roots
of my hair, by the picking of my thumbs,
by the screaming of my leukocytes. anaemia’s
fatigue. the diminished marrow sings.
my friend, the neon crown she tilts to
rakish emblem. we were found wanton
at the animal fair. all the great old men
were there: sleekly dulapped in a staring
match with a stubbs cow. stuffed
and mounted. or antic, ripping wipers
off a ford cortina, gripping bent aerials
with their ugly prehensile iambs. listen,
the emerald city is full of zoos. vindictive
with sin. abattoirs: the punch-drunk
patiency of bovine, pedestrians, walking
pensions, students. in the emerald city
they ask to see your identity papers. tell
us who you are. we too have turned
to compost on the pillow, turned the pillow
into compost, run through your dreams
like a raptor on stilts, like a swan in
drag, a diseased mouth enriched on
its own emetic enormity, gorged
against grace. we know what they say
about us, a kind of do not resuscitate
daymare. ’cause they want you to be
a luminous dummy, all hankering
exploits and an intermittent signal. oh,
emerald city, fuck you. girl with
promiscuous ditches for eyes, fraggle
with nettles, her lines will harden
into symmetry. some cloistered furtive
screw, and the hopeless promptings
of a serious man grown thin in holding
back a laugh, fat in holding in a yawn.
when our lips move he slumps, tiredly
farting. women, there is a difference
between elegance and grace, and you,
surpassingly slag. and you, spilling over
with the soft grey fervour of a stranger.
let me design you a while, until you are
a ribboned cipher in your own stale works.
my friend and i, we will burn the emerald
city to the ground. yes, we fed communion
wafers to the cows. we drank their simmering
milk from the teat. shrews now, wasps, or
peevishly feline. no. a pit bull bitch. your
ripped throat a fillet of sweet fondness.
your fingers yet, your prizes too. oh enviable
world we have fucked to sufferance. everything
everything, wild green spoils.

 

There is a hole

into which i’d wad
your reluctant presence.
dog-eared now, or foxed,
this orphan pose. hang-
dog, dog-tired, waspish:
metaphor’s plangent
bestiary, its animal
remainders. call a fig
a fig, and a trough
a trough, why not?
manic pixie dream girl
trope at nearly forty’s
really sad. a bulbous
wreck. depression’s
croneish bent. the tedious
hokey-pokey of weight
loss, weight gain, weight
loss. there will be no
snow angels, indie mix-
tape, video spin-off,
respite. this chilly
teacup scene wants rid
of me, slip into quiet
nervosa, mutilation’s
clichéd spite, the lyric’s
mawkish dalliance.
sometimes i tell myself,
i might. the tongue
tickles its stock
of could’ve been
contenders’ speeches,
lays them on
a shelf, untried. what
is the use? going on,
your own effort closes
over you like waves
of rolling credits. to
stop is to become a pair
of floured hands, sensible
shoes, a walking condition.
the nodes grow nerves
inside of me. i am inside-
out, and it hurts, and it hurts.
there is a hole.
bigger than the body.
seen from the peak
the plateau is a hole.
the eye is a hole
but doesn’t know it.
a hole is a well
that has outlived
its water. i am trying
to tell you. that has
outlived its village.
that has outlived
its haunting, its
japanese cinema
schoolgirl drowning,
its horror stories,
freak accidents.
just a hole. there’s
a hole. which is
the mouth, when you
get right down to it.
which was always
the page. poetry
is ted kaczynski
in a satin jumpsuit
and mary janes.
is an amateur terrorist.
ulrike meinhoff played
by natalie portman.
is raving weather-
report uselessness.
poetry is a hole and i
tried to swallow you,
a light lowered down
and i’m sorry now.
at the bottom
of the hole, more
holes, a dynasty
of zeroes. the mouth
in stroppy colloquy
and i’m trashing around
like a shark in a boat.

 

I will learn to be more brazen

hyena says, rubbing her eyes until her waking
rings true. brazen is as brazen slides the gorgeous
stain inside the mouth. hyena walks into a room
like a heron in a koi pond. there are your bony,
mouldy gods; there are the women, offering up
their cloudy sighs when stepped on – puffball
fungus all. hyena had a friend, now the friend
is retaining water and talking up the dharma
of a cupped tit: babies. give her the glass slipper
of a contraceptive coil any day. no offence. well,
some offence. well, all the offence you can eat
if you must. the doctor told hyena there was
nothing they could do. he put his hand up her.
he pulled her about like a ship’s cook peeling
a potato. hyena wanted the pain to stop –
flawed and floored – just cut the bad bit out.
but no, it’s no can do, and what if you want
kids one day, and how does your husband
feel? hyena will learn to say that he is not
the one with a mediaeval jousting tournament
in his reproductive crawlspace, so how would
she know, and why would she care, and why
should it make any difference to you? if a baby
is a blessing or a miracle, then hyena is a what?
a blasphemy, a curse. she will learn to be more
brazen. she won’t sit home all day, rake leaves
against ruin, picking the bone of perfection to
a witch’s finger. she won’t bite her nails, cast
lots for a creosote tea in the shit cafe. she will
not take a swilling stand beside the urns of dingy
brew, and turn her face to the wall in crowds,
and people will not say of her that her voice
is the murky mirror of her own self-hatred.
her voice, pared down with an emory board,
an anglofile. ha-ha-ha. she can almost see
herself in red. she is moving with the furies
in precise circles, taking slow sardana steps,
reaping the corn with the hem of her skirt,
using the wet silk edge as a scythe. her feet
will foment dances, trample grapes. she might.
and no longer lie awake, burning with a sullen
fervour, eyes on the artext, breathing asbestos.
a fierce heat will flow through her fingers.
when she meets a swan maiden she will spit,
and there will grow a heart-shaped swimming
pool. hyena will learn to be more brazen,
have a male voice choir comb her mane
until it gleams with the posthumous lustre
of a victorian daguerreotype: the misty dead
propped up in their chairs. oh, she will be
flagrant. she will have cupboards full
of cordials, the sacristy bursting with candies.
a real witch. a prairie pyro inflamed by the long
dark night. she will tie the orchard to the tail
of a kite and let it go. she wants you good
and thirsty, ready to make sacrifices, spooked
by fire. on the day of her rebirth she will hold
a bal masque where everyone must come
dressed as their own worst fears: the eliot
long list, dying alone, postal voters, etc.
hyena will come as the thin white line between
savour and decipher; a mundane chill that will
not suit her coat, her mood. her most fulsome
costume is herself, wrapped in the stealth
of strong gauze. listen, you, who pity her,
she wouldn’t be you for all the lithe republics
of a country saying. these, her nimble, quickened
sounds: exalted thoughts, learning how to swim.

 

Boon companion

that i have my honeycomb strongholds too,
impossible penetralia. shall i compare you
to a milky stoat? my mucus suitor, sifting
near the heart. hair weight weaved in
the throat. shall i compare you to a badger’s
bone erection? thin migratory needle,
slivering in me. all disfigured favour now.
gallicrow for fallow fields. flailed lapels,
a fiction of thread. autumn is a spectrum
of disquiet. a finite infamy, pin in
a bubo. the blister on a lip. you
are a straw plateau made meal. the apple’s
malic sting. rodent declensions, softly.
winter’s stingeing appetites are on their
way. the mirror is your grail and your
bruise. the sun sinks its teeth into
a broken leg, the plough’s malefic: crock
and tuber, seam and sherd, and reliquary
yield, all dead things turned up. us too.
you’ve the grinning sickness now, make
dirty talk like a smirking toy. canescent
spectre of the laurels. farmyard dark
of treadles and of cleavers. crack,
like a greased teat in the cold. show me
a midden and i will skim you the world
from its watery depths. who are you to
talk of love? who fucked the susceptible
chestnuts into blight. kingdom
of wimping benevolence. you cut
up my clothes with lambing’s
six-week shears too late. a v of geese
slain in flight. the geas i lay. geist
you rouse to charm school in a pesty
dream. but i’ll have my honey-come
strongholds too, my castle keeps, my
ridding mien. keep your pastoral
appeasements. spring runs cold.
my chilling vein.

 

Fran Lock is a some-time itinerant dog whisperer, the author of numerous chapbooks and seven poetry collections, most recently Contains Mild Peril (Out-Spoken Press, 2019). Her eighth collection Hyena! is due from PB Press later this year. Fran has recently gained her Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London, titled. She is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review.

29 Jan 2021

MK Chavez: Three Poems

Swamp Thing II

 

To denote as dirty and to cognate is to muddle meaning.

Once upon a time, mud was sweet heroin.
Sweet swamp survival. What does it mean to drag
someone through the mud.

Swamp, where sometimes slavery sunk to silt.
Muddled has been used to describe my identity.

There are other lesser-known stories
such as Dr. Samuel Mudd
who treated Abraham Lincoln’s murderer,
John Wilkes Booth. What he did was considered
a traitorous act, and eventually, he was convicted.

Swamp Creatures are soft matter historical sludge.

Allegations regarded as damaging, typically
concerned with corruption.

Swampland is rich with worms, frogs, snails
and crayfish.

To mud wallow among cypress and alligators,
adapt to brackish and salty waters. To be
a part of the trembling earth.

 

 

 

Incantation for Future Beings

 

It wasn’t the election, the pandemic, or racial violence. We had reached an end. We were consuming

ourselves whole and then cast from the destroyed building to search for the key.

We were semi-divine, a type of hybridity, some might say a monstrosity. We were full

of impulse when we entered the chrysalis.

 

Key: The terrible thing had already happened

Key: Every wound had a name

Key: We looked into the abyss and we were the darkness

 

It wasn’t the death, one after the other, one after the other, or the truth of it, or the lie of it.

We were never alone in the pure and oval place. Some fought the disintegration, some slept.

 

Key: We were clearwing and golden

Key: At one time we believed the venom was the medicine

Key: We are the familiar we have been fearing

 

It wasn’t red skies, floods, earthquakes, or the physical impossibility of a breaching shark.

The mystery was in how milky eyed we had become. How we lost sight of the process,

unable to see that everything comes to an end and a beginning.

 

Key: Our umbilici coiled together into eternity

Key: The future is our past, our past our future and our future is now.

Key:  In our finest moment we are ouroboros.

 

It wasn’t Essayan playing the piano in a destroyed building, the concert of anarchy,

or the shortages of masks, gloves, and toilet paper. What we found was that we were still ourselves.

Beyond wisdom and evil. Which is to say, we are tutelary beings, a lotus blooming

on top of our heads

 

Key: The opening of the self is eternal

Key: The ego slain in the process of reincarnation and our wings wet

Key: We are forever instar and golden.

 

It was the uprising. It was the end and it was then beginning.

 

We are the vision serpent of our times. We are furious and infernal

spirits of winding roots and nerves. Look, our hands are red with rebirth.

 

We traveled the gateway and waited, found that all we have is time.

We have been and are becoming the universe.

 

 

 

I Am Here To Query Indices Of What Follows

It could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger—Jack, It Follows

 

Your body followed my body first.

I don’t know the stories you tell yourself.

I only know that we didn’t arrive here as ghosts.

 

Memories are now natural histories.

 

The day we met

we looked at each other in the eye

longer than the average 3.2 seconds.

 

How long does it take to forget a face?

Studies in facial vocabulary say never.

 

Now we communicate as supernatural entities.

 

A lure was once an arrangement of feathers

meant to resemble a bird.

There was a time you called me a chameleon.

 

You had a turtle you named Turtle.

In its old age, Turtle began biting the toes of women

who you brought to the apartment.

 

A lure was once a collective term for a group

of women. Later you gave Turtle away.

 

The we of us is dream logic.

 

The nightmare made it impossible to solve the nightmare.

 

Sticky with emotional content.

 

It remains important to note that at some point, we lost control

of the interrogations

 

I’m haunted by frame in which I stare at myself

while talking into the ether.

 

Sometimes when I see you, I say, oh, hi

as if I didn’t just click on a link.

 

We watched a horror movie together in our separate homes.

 

It was an It film.

You were disappointed. You said, It never arrived.

 

And yet, there was an end.

Everyone undid themselves and each other.

 

Backdrops

have grown to monstrous proportions.

 

 

 

MK Chavez is a writer, editor, and educator who splits her time between Portland, Oregon (the occupied territory of the Cowlitz, Clackamas, and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) and Oakland, California (occupied territory of the Ohlone people). Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including the Academy of Poets Poem-A-Day series. She is the author of Mothermorphosis, Dear Animal, (Nomadic Press), and several chapbooks including,  A Brief History of the Selfie (Alley Cat Books). Chavez curates the reading series Lyrics & Dirges and is co-director of the Berkeley Poetry Festival, and is guest curator of the reading series at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. She is an editor at Nomadic Press and poetry editor at Rivet Literary Journal. She has been a visiting instructor at Stanford University, San Francisco State University, and Mills College. She is a recipient of the Alameda County Arts Leadership Award, the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and fellowships at Hedgebrook, Caldera, CantoMundo, and VONA. 

 

 

 

 

29 Jan 2021

Khaled Hakim: Four Dances with Light

A film-poem sequence created by invitation for Junction Box – Glasfryn Project. Dedicated to John Goodby, cris cheek, and especially Rezia Wahid. The four films existed first, but I was conscious that few people these days want to watch almost abstract, soundless visuals. One part of me resents the intrusion of words, because strangely as a poet I am drawn to the discursive long form but when I am drawn to tap something lyrically short I produce these wordless films as my ‘poems’. The descriptive titles (‘Come’, ‘Go’, ‘Stay’, ‘Kiss’) relate to the film imagery but not necessarily to the text-poem.

Formerly working in film and TV, Khaled Hakim has claims to being the first homegrown British-Asian experimental poet, working with semi-improvisatory performances in the 1980s and 90s. Largely refusing to publish at the time, he abandoned both writing and film in the new millennium to become a Sufi student and musician. He returned to writing after a decade and has published Letters from the Takeaway (Shearsman 2019), The Book of Naseeb (Penned in the Margins 2020) and The Routines: 1983-2000 (Contraband Books 2021). A new book To the Hitchhiking Dead is planned for 2022 release.

29 Jan 2021

Cris Cheek: The Ghost in the Lake

This is not in the slightest a new story,

And the following text of it has been derived to

substantial degrees from books

printed and published in the year 1639

of the western Gregorian calendar.

 

“Be careful what you get good at” True Detective, “Nothing grows in the right direction”

 

The death of slithering evidence

The death of ignorance

The death of obeyance

Death of adequate words—death of precarious kisses

The arrests of death and the idea of that stranger

Who fears nothing but leaving

To the gate-keeping great contrivers of massacre, who, in a thunder of horsehair and duck under wheel blisters for want of sense ought much to muck no thanks…

 

To read the full text: The Ghost in the Lake

 

cris cheek is a documentary poet-writer, sound composer and photographer who worked alongside Bob Cobbing and Bill Griffiths with the Consortium of London Presses as printshop manager in the mid 1970s to run a thriving open access print shop for little press poets. In 1981 he co-founded a collective movement-based performance resource in the east end of London at Chisenhale Dance Space, exploring performance among choreographers, musicians and artists to make collaborations based in embodied movement. cris taught Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts (1995-2002), played music with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sianed Jones and turntablist composer Philip Jeck as Slant, collaborated on site-responsive works about value and recycling with Kirsten Lavers under the author-function Things Not Worth Keeping from 1999-2006 and has been a professor of poetry at Miami University in Ohio since 2005. Teaching across disciplines in Affect, Assemblage, Network Theory and Performance Studies cris lives in Cincinnati and London. Most recent publications are pickles & jams (BlazeVOX Books, 2017) fukc all the king’s men: the tower and a few beasts living in its rubble (xerolage, 2018) and Out cold in the library 1 (Dusie, 2019).

 

 

29 Jan 2021

Carrie Etter: Three Poems

Author’s note: In revisiting my writing from the latter half of 2017, I encountered these poems that try to articulate political frustrations and the balance one makes between “the world out there” and individual experience. They come to no conclusions, of course; the act of writing is less about making sense than increasing awareness and trying to communicate something of that struggle.

 

 

Another Threshold

 

I am sorry to disappoint. The cat was.

Every time I say Obama, a friend says drones.

 

Asleep in my lap. I should have minded the date.

Every time someone says President Trump, I am aghast.

 

How did it come down to me? The cat was not my excuse.

We all read healthcare fears on Facebook.

 

Not really, but if it was. Am I holding the pin?

We post videos of one species of animal helping another.

 

I’m looking for the metaphorical grenade. I could stay a while.

If I had more faith in petitions. If I couldn’t liken the news

 

to a succession of extreme weather: flood, tornado,

heat wave, drought, hurricane—and repeat.

 

 

 

 

In the Wake, A Proposal

 

In temperate, in cotton blend, in a combination of fluorescent

and natural light, I

 

proliferate, this petition signature posted, that direct debit paid, out

and out and out I go

 

to exhale too emphatically at the end of Body Pump, to hold

the spoonful of green curry

 

on my tongue a luscious, even lascivious moment longer,

to be inevitable

 

and for now, as yet, inexhaustible. To teem in spite of an

orange-skinned tyrant and

 

the beguiling (£350 million more a week for the NHS!)

promises of politicians,

 

I. And you.
 

 

 

 

The Many

 

And now the unbridling: I cut the straw circling the stems, and whoosh! the blooms, the scarlet, the white, the green (two bodies wrestling together, mouths, hands, limbs aflurry….), this, here, now of colour (of taste, of touch), of the nipped bouquet resuming the meadow—and yet not (O the morning). The marble floor of not. The stone wall of who did you think you. Once the flowers have been scissored from their roots, what did you— I see a young woman, just down the terrace, who from taut uncurls and rises and collapses and I can’t say, can I, how many she is….

 

 

 

Carrie Etter is an American expatriate resident in England for nearly twenty years. She has published four collections, most recently The Weather in Normal (UK: Seren; US: Station Hill, 2018), and edited Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010). She is Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. ‘The Many’ first appeared in Shearsman 117/118.

 

29 Jan 2021

Peter Hughes: Poems from ‘Via Leopardi’

Introduction.

My versions of Leopardi’s first 21 poems came out from Equipage in 2017 under the title via Leopardi 21. The following poems are from the second half of his poetic output. My Leopardi project is influenced by Stephen Rodefer’s wonderful Villon versions, especially in the employment of footnotes. These poems are therefore dedicated to his memory, and that of John James, ‘il migio fab bro, whose moving cadences, deft manoeuvres & expert nightcap recommendations have kept me going for years.’

Peter Hughes, Bethesda, Epiphany 2021

 

 

via Leopardi 22  

        

talk about these northern constellations

nor did I expect to come back here  

& contemplate our eerie dispositions

from a high window in my parents’ house

back across the evening’s vacant courtyards

you reminding me of hedgehogs & compost

from goats & donkeys’ years ago

my vast imaginings about the future 

never had me standing here like this 

still wearing these unprepossessing trousers 

& staring through my back-lit reflection

at so much interrupted emptiness

I didn’t think I’d have to spend so long

among resentful locals either 

affecting interest in their football team

as all this ancient rain goes down the drain

the damaged van abandoned 

bobbing & rotating in the flooded lay-by

 

There is nothing quite like excessive rain running down the drains at night outside a house you used to live in. Anonymous new neighbours peer out suspiciously at this stranger then quickly draw the curtains.

 

 

 

via Leopardi 25

 

the poet gets carried away again

well reckless sex on an office chair with wheels

& this severely sloping floor

will always introduce an element

of unpredictability

yet I cannot agree with the Maestro

that happiness cannot exist

before we crash into the wall

on the good ship Lustprinzip

how like you this she stepped out of her 

towel & condensation & why not

fuck to a little velvet underground

as the sticky winter Sunday afternoon

or is it Thursday wondering which way to

turn not knowing from which of these angles 

to regard you & your current presences

well this will do as well as the next

what Jack wouldn’t have given 

to have shrugged off his cardigan

anxieties & cold despair

to have spent just an hour

as the sun goes down

& so do I

& the old year

groans & 

comes

to an awareness of felicity

as you walk my plank

I walk yours &

what is that you’re rubbing

on & in my back

& front an unexpected blend of Beethoven aniseed

balls & hot chocolate

it smells a lot like guacamole

& still you hold my eye from that position

leaning slightly to the left then

banking into this tremendously 

tight bend

 

This poem was written to slip into one of those dummy books on a shelf in a furniture showroom which has sadly closed.

 

 

 

via Leopardi 27

 

love or death

love or hake

death or cake

approach it at an angle

those hours in Recanati

when you couldn’t think of love

without a little death

erecting an insubstantial

monument no sooner sensed

than woken from another

hopeless dream of goats

& gnats & scarecrows in west Cambridge

or just another Woody Allen film

I’m sorry that Tom Raworth’s gone

I contemplate his collage

where every multi-coloured window

is an opening on

love as well as death

could be an opening on

anything that was & is

or might be sometime soon

I recommend the fishcakes & prosecco

followed by the nutty chocolate hearts

keep an eye out for the odd bone

don’t go to bed

too late

 

The influence of Leopardi on Eddie Izzard was but one of the interesting topics covered in my rejected PhD. proposal to the University of Ancona, or maybe Ascoli Piceno. I’m pretty sure it was an A town.

 

 

 

via Leopardi 29

 

I was so attracted

by your static

allure Aspasia I a 

hovering sausage

dog with no legs

yet the closest I

got was you rubbing

me against your jumper

then sticking me

to the wall of the lobby

during the lowest point

of a birthday party for your kids

I thought you were a kind 

of goddess in Ugg boots

enveloped in a glowing

cloud of of mint & yogurt

flavoured hairspray

orchestrated by Berlioz

during one of his

more imbalanced sets

but now I see that all

your fascination was sprayed on

by the tanning studios of 

my own imagination

& maybe Hector’s

there will now be 

a short ballet

accompanied by a lot of

accidentally amplified clattering

& antique dust

from ancient men

cavorting in the footlights

sit down lads

it’s true I stood upon

your burning decks

in a Nelson hat

& cricket pads for far too long

but now it’s time to start again

o historically retarded

Anglophone administrations 

now the panto’s over

& Easter eggs & fireworks

are in the local shops

I’m sat in this pub garden

at half 3 in the morning

listening to a blackbird

even more fucked up than me

struggling to remember

who’s a firestarter

 

The government’s response to the latest set of emergencies has a lot to answer for. It is however reassuring to note that Eton & its stakeholders have been largely insulated. Also personal disillusionment after a relationship is sometimes a necessary phase, important for recalibration & balance.  But, like standing on one leg with your eyes closed, it should only go on for about forty-five seconds.

 

To read Peter Hughes’ Essay ‘On Translation’: On translation

 

 

Peter Hughes is currently based in north Wales where he writes, runs Oystercatcher Press and teaches creative writing. He has produced various innovative versions of Italian classics.
Recent poetry publications include Cavalcanty (Carcanet 2017), A Berlin Entrainment (Shearsman 2019), and Bethesda Constellations (Oystercatcher 2020). 

 

 

29 Jan 2021

Ian Davidson: Angharad and a House

Angharad did demand concentration. We’d walk and talk. She was a purist with little give.
‘She’s got Aspergers, I know it,’ she said, ‘I read about the symptoms in a book.’
She’d just got back from a visit to an artist friend that hadn’t gone well.
‘What are the symptoms then.’
‘Difficulty in social interaction. Selective mutism. She ignored me after the first day.’
‘Perhaps she wanted to work.’
‘I wanted to talk about work. I wasn’t asking her shopping. Another vodka tonic?’
Angharad’s house was incongruous. Despite every plane having elements of verticality or horizontality, and all the permanent surfaces worked smooth, and despite its relatively recent construction, the house looked as if it was falling down. Or the flora that surrounded it was growing upwards to climb over it, making it disappear back into the ground from which it had come. It was one or the other. Long waving grasses, their seed heads exploding, surrounded the house. A badger had taken up residence at the bottom of the garden and lived there undisturbed for years. In midsummer the last rays of the sun shot up the valley to hit the gable end.
Angharad was similarly incongruous. With a thick hank of hair that would be fashioned into a heavy loose plait, it seemed as if she had spent years living in the cold rooms with insufficient protein. She would try to engage me in complex conversations about philosophies of art via text message when I was at work, not realising that it was difficult for me to spend hours hunched over the phone pushing the stupid buttons.
‘Do you think the form of an art work is ever more than its content,’ she’d say, ‘or that the painting has anything to do with the real world.’
I’d struggle with theories of representation in a text message.
We stood in her studio in front of a painting of a house. She’d worked away at the blue until the layers of paint had gained a material form of their own.
‘You’ve three dimensions there,’ I said.
‘Yes, the house becomes a project, it sticks out of the painting. Do you think that means the paint becomes more like itself? Or it becomes more like a house.’
I’d helped her brother build her real house twenty years previously, setting fires over the rocks that were in the way of the foundations in order to break them up. He’d taken four years to build it, smoking home grown weed on a pipe made out of a lager tin with a dent in the top and holes punched in it. Every time I went back there it was like walking through treacle in a place thick with association. I remembered the house when it was a meadow, when it was a hole in the ground and when it was a square of breeze block walls. Ash piled onto ash. The ash from the pipe thrown into the trench and down the cavities of the walls.
‘Why did you paint that house,’ I said, indicating the house on the painting. The real house had faded stain coming off the bargeboards, flaking down into the planters that surrounded it.
‘That house,’ she said, pointing at the house in the painting. ‘I spent three days mixing that blue, trying to get the quality just right.’
The whole painting was blue, with a tree constructing a vortex in the right-hand side. It was nighttime in the painting and a full moon lit the scene.
‘Do you want a Becks? They’re brewed to purity laws.’
She walked slowly to the fridge. No one could stay with her or travel where she was going. It was too rocky; you were likely to break a leg or be left scratching your head on the side of the road. Extremists are hard to live up to.
‘Do you still do the cold baths’ I asked. Angharad had taken an ice-cold bath every morning for a year to build up her immune system. Her knees had never worked properly since. She’d been ok until she combined it with a monodiet of grapes.
‘They’re the perfect food’ she’d said. ‘They contain everything your body needs.’
She’d turned into a ghost of herself. That was some years back but she’d never quite returned. Anyway she was sat in front of the fire drinking Becks now the vodka and tonic was all gone. The fire was low and she added one log at a time, enjoying the thin cold air in the room. When I’d stayed there aIone I’d built the fire up, reducing the log pile outside the back door visibly. The house had been empty of people, but the atmosphere warm and thick, making Angharad suspicious.
I got up and wandered back through to the next room where her painting sat on the easel. There were splodges of paint across the floor, tubes of oil and pastel without their tops and newspaper cuttings on the wall. A sequence of other paintings, pale and faded pictures of water broken only by the flecks of the tops of waves, or still surfaces that threatened to pull a lone canoeist deep underwater, are lined up on the windowsill.
Anghard has come up behind me, Becks in hand, standing close. I feel a familiar rush. Years before in her parent’s house when she’d just come back from art school we’d leant over a map together, looking at the shape of the Swiss Alps, following the curves of coastlines. I could feel her just touching me, as if the material of her clothes held all the times we’d touched, all the times we’d got close but never close enough. It was like static, the years peeling off, like putting my hand out and not sure if it was going to get bitten. But the house on the painting looked back at us, all the layers of paint grinning through, all the blues on blues that she’d tried until the house stood out of the canvas. The house projected into the future, getting shinier.
‘Do you have any plans’ I said, ‘any alterations you are going to make.’
‘I want to live every day as if it is the most perfect day in my life,’ she said. ‘I’m going to work out exactly what I want to do and then spend every day doing it. I always wanted to be an artist and to live the life of an artist. I want to get something right, you know, completely right. But not right so that it knows it’s right, that is self-righteous, but just sitting in itself right.’
You know her mouth was still as full of life as ever, still slightly crinkled, her lips still full as they had always been and words still falling out. Her teeth still strong and white to hold things back or bite them off.
‘But wouldn’t you just get bored’ I said as she shuffled a little closer, trying to hold the moment. ‘How can every day be just the day you want? How can it be perfect unless it keeps changing?’
She had a picture of Nigella Lawson on the fridge.
I went to touch the house on the painting, just brushing her as I passed.
‘Don’t touch’ she said. ‘There are things in the oil in your skin that will contaminate the picture. The oil will just suck it out.’
I made as if to touch the painting anyway, lurching a little with the vodka and Becks. We left the room then and went back to sit next to the fire. She looked at me like I was a child. Eirin Peryglus whispered their way out of a CD player, Fiona’s voice sounding more wan than ever.
It was over two hundred years since John Evans left Waunfawr and went to America to look for the Welsh speaking Native American Indians. Angharad’s girlfriend had done the same, flying out on public money to meet the Patagonians, the few old ones left that still spoke Welsh, in villages such as Trelew.
‘They’re real Welsh out there’ she said, ‘Chapel, high tea and poetry. Not like here, where it’s MacDonald’s, lager tops and t.v. And you know those flasks in a Gymanfa Ganu? Full of whisky.’
I liked that, and so did she. The flask for tea filled with whisky both sustained and subverted the culture. A Maltese woman I’d befriended some years before had always drunk tea in the afternoon and had a Sunday roast dinner, long after the English had turned to stir fry, fusion cooking or chicken tikka masala. She also smoked an endless chain of cigarettes.
‘I wonder if they feel bad out in Patagonia as well, as if they are never quite good enough. Is that real Welsh, feeling like you’ve never quite made it? Or that what you’ve done never quite makes the grade? Or is that just human?’
‘I don’t know’, she said, ‘maybe it’s different not having English on your shoulder.’
‘Do you think Spanish is any different? And what about all those natives?’ Do they feel the same about the Welsh?’
‘I just get angry though. Feels like my life is defined by third rate Brits. That’s why they come to Wales, it’s like the times they sent the third son to the colonies, and then they sit here passing on out of date information and trying to enforce rules that don’t count anywhere anymore. Third rate fucking Brits.’
‘Yes.’
‘It’s physical what it does to you. You know the words and what you want to say but you can’t get it out. You stammer. The language is irrelevant. It’s a matter of delivery. Words mean nothing in those contexts. And then there’s a shape in your mind and it won’t go into words and you just splutter and your mouth goes dry so you have another drink and try to get the shape but then that too dissolves the closer you get. So you have another drink.’
She turned the Becks upside down in her mouth then poked the lone log in the fire so that sparks shot out.
We’d come around a corner in the car one night just before her house on the way from the pub. I was half drunk driving down a quiet country lane, and there was a woman lying down in the road with a dog sat next to her. As we came round the corner the dog got up and barked. We stopped and Angharad jumped out of the car and ran to her. The dog ran around, wagging its tail. The woman came to and told us she lived in the caravan site at the end of the road. It was a road that went nowhere, so we drove her down there. There would be no police. She tried to give us money, twenty pounds or so, but Angharad pushed it away. The helpful natives get a string of beads. The woman had a Birmingham accent. I suspect she faked her collapse in the road to get someone to talk to, but Angharad was bubbling over with excitement, and the possibilities of our running over the woman.
‘I think her dog saved her’ she said, ‘and I bet she’s done it before. Poor woman, moved out here and now just lives in that caravan.’
The woman tried again to push money on Angharad. It became a battle for control. The dog ran around, excited, and the woman became more animated.
‘Come on’, I said, and we went. As we approached Angharad’s house I realised it had become almost invisible from the road. The steep bank was now covered in grass five foot high and the tarmac strip that wound up the side was under moss and weed. I looked over to Snowdon under the moonlight and, pulling my coat around me, I stroked my beard. I wondered whether, as some believed, there was a doomsday machine under the mountain waiting for its moment to arise, or whether that was simply an updated version of the story of Arthur killing the giant Rhita Fawr and building a cairn over him to keep him from ever rising up again and claiming Arthur’s beard in order to finish his coat. It was a cairn that became Snowdon and the mountain becomes simply a heap of rubble that covers a sleeping giant, rather than a sleeping giant itself.
‘Why is Snowdon Wales’s best friend,’ my neighbour used to ask when I lived in the mountains.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Because it kills a few Englishmen every year.’ He’d laugh a bit guiltily. People froze to death or fell from the slopes, or occasionally walking up the steep sides their heart just gave out. I’d never been to the top.
‘Could you really make a coat out of beards?’ said Angharad.
Mine had gone half white now, like the badger. It would make a strange coat.
Our conversation became so intense it is impossible to write it down. We talked about everything under the sun and following its track would be like trying to reconstruct the temporary arabesque of a cormorant as it dries its wings, or even following the cormorant itself as it constructed underwater pathways during its many dives. Maybe cormorants have street lights underwater, maybe they have houses that project from the bottom of the sea. Who knows. There was no view from the top for us anyway, no clear sight of the patterns of the repetitions of the mountain ranges running off into the sea. We just had the sight of a tangle of old thorn trees and sea holly finding its way across bare ground, or the view from the bare patches under the gorse that the sheep make seeking shelter. We beat our way through, panting occasionally as we sought out new paths to follow, new trains of thought that would provide at least some headway.
‘She bullied me,’ said Angharad, talking about her previous lover. ‘But I’ve worked it out now. The bullies need me more than I need the bullies. They miss me more than I miss them. They didn’t bully me to get rid of me, but to keep me.’
‘My son was bullied. In secondary school. It marked him for years. ‘
‘I was talking about myself,’ she said.
She was working away at the house on the painting, adding layers of the blue she’d mixed the day before. The house was a growth sticking horizontally out of the painting.
Years later I got a text from her. We’d been texting back and forth. I’d just got back from a train journey through harsh winter weather on the Cambrian coastliner and I’d been trying to describe the landscape. It had been an amazing journey, with snow and ice right up to the edge of the sea, and with John Donne’s ‘inward narrow crooked lanes that purge earth’s fretful salt away’ frozen over hard with two inches of ice. As the tide receded over the salt marshes it had left the covering of ice behind to crack and collapse inwards on the multiple cuttings that drained it. I am two fools I thought, for loving you and saying so in whining poetry. The tone of her texts changed.
‘I’m really lucky that a three quarter of an hour queue and several recounts of a hundred Morrison’s vouchers are the means to a creative Christmas!’
I wasn’t sure I understood this entirely, but an image of her holding up the Christmas shoppers while her vouchers were being counted flashed before my eyes. Before I could reply I got another text.
‘…. and I did my bit for the revolution – telling the girl at the till that if she worked for John Lewis she’d be sharing in the profit of working in such a busy place.’
‘Well.’ I texted back, ‘I’m sitting at home waiting for Waitrose to deliver my Christmas.’
‘Why would you want to sit in your lazy boy armchair when you can meet people ready to stop their phone conversation just to tell you that the bus hasn’t passed yet, meet someone who has to go to Caernarfon just to get a bag of coal, someone without anything but is still giving …’
The next text came too quickly for me to reply.
‘I had twenty years of relentless moral persecution from you.’
And then the next.
‘And when you came back from away with your finger pointing at me once more I had supposedly ignored a phone call when all along it was your son to blame. Why? Why was it so hard to say sorry?’ You would have possibly saved the friendship.’
By this time I was drinking with a friend and ignoring the sound of the phone going off in my pocket. She was on a roll. The last text came too late.
‘One way you can help is to tell me why I’m someone people always pick on. What do I do that makes people so angry?’
She’d never know. Perhaps none of us ever know. We were both left asking the same question, ‘What did I do?’. I still drive past the house sometimes and the weeds are higher and the paint a little more peeled. The reeds are no longer tied in bunches like a young girl’s pigtail, but gone long and straggly. Any attempt at an aesthetic is grown over and under. I wonder about the questions she always asked. Is it real? What might it mean? How can it be? What was the reason? They are testing questions, testing you out. I always failed her, as did everyone else. Some more texts arrived, just before Christmas.
‘If I said to you that I’ve had my fill of people telling me what they think of me would you understand what I’m saying?’
I couldn’t reply in time.
‘You’d have been made up with the sisterly dynamic on the mini bus that took us to town yesterday when the real bus didn’t turn up and was stuck somewhere unknown in the snow and never seen again. It’s things like that are important, not people’s opinions.’
I was half asleep by now, watching Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire. I didn’t bother to reply and kept my opinions to myself. The final text arrived the next morning.
‘I have no interest in knowing people’s opinions if all they want to do is snigger because I go to a Buddhist class. They should keep their opinions to themselves. I don’t necessarily express my feelings or I’d have clouted you before now.’

I stopped the car and walked up to the house one day and knocked on the door but she wasn’t there. I looked in through the studio window. The floor was still covered in splodges of paint; she was careful with everything except paint. There were cuttings around the room, some yellow with age and others fresh. Her old work had been rearranged. But on the easel, defying gravity, was the picture of the house, now projecting out of the painting in perfect scale. It could all be seen in one glance. There were figures dotted around the house. They could be rubbed out and placed somewhere else. The furniture could be endlessly rearranged. It wasn’t a picture of her world, but it was her world. Everything was to hand. She didn’t even have to turn her head.

 

Ian Davidson (b.1957) was brought up and lived much of his life in Ynys Mon and Gwynedd in north west Wales. After employment variously as a farmworker and builder, and some years working in Adult Education, he completed a PhD at Aberystwyth University and became a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Bangor University. He has since worked at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, and is currently at University College Dublin. When not in Dublin he lives on a smallholding on the West Coast of Ireland. Recent and forthcoming poetry publications include ‘Coming and Going’ in Plumwood Mountain (2020), From a Council House in Connacht (Oystercatcher, 2021), By Tiny Twisting Ways (Aquifer 2021) and The Matter of the Heart (New Dublin Writing tbc).

29 Jan 2021

Harry Gilonis: Isolated in Aber Cuawg

Isolated in Aber Cuawg (first half)

 

My mind’s requirement, to be sat atop a hill -

yet that cannot move me:

short is my road, desolate my circumstance.

 

Sharp is the gale, the cattle-track bare.

As, today, the woods put on bright colours of summer,

I burn with ague.

 

I’m not able-bodied, keep no company,

don’t wander outside.

For as long as it pleases, let the cuckoo sing.

 

The cuckoo is garrulous, sing-song with the day,

profligate with melody in the meadows of Cuawg.

Sooner be prodigal than miserly.

 

In Aber Cuawg the cuckoos are singing

from flowery branches.

The cuckoo is garrulous, but let him sing long.

 

In Aber Cuawg the cuckoos are singing

From flowery branches.

Woe to one isolated who hears them continually.

 

In Aber Cuawg, the singing of cuckoos.

It troubles my mind

that, having heard them, a time will come when I do not.

 

I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivied tree.

My clothes are becoming looser.

Grief for that which I loved is growing.

 

I have listened to the voices of birds

from the topmost tip of the storm-tossed oak.

High-up cuckoo, no-one forgets what they’ve loved.

 

Singer of continual song, voice filled with longing,

intent on his course, moving like a hawk,

cuckoo, eloquent in Aber Cuawg.

 

Loud are the birds, and the valleys damp.

Luminous the moon, cold the small hours.

My mind is raw from the miseries of my disease.

 

Bright are the tops of the valleys; long the small hours.

Expertise is always praised.

Am I not to be granted the sleep due to the ill?

 

Loud are the birds, and wet the shingle.

The leaves fall, the outcast is downcast.

I cannot deny it — I am low tonight.

 

Loud are the birds, and wet the foreshore.

Bright the sky, and expansive the wave.

The heart is palsied with longing.

 

Loud are the birds, and wet the foreshore;

bright the wave, expansive its moving.

That which youth held true,

dearly would I get that back again.

 

Loud are the birds on the track to the heights.

High-pitched the yelping of hounds in the scrubland.

“Loud are the birds” again.

 

 

This is a fairly faithful rendition of the first half of an untitled 9th century AD Welsh poem known as Claf Abercuawg.  The full version, with additional apparatus, can be found in my book Isolated in Aber Cuawg, published by Oystercatcher Press (Bethesda, 2020), buyable for a fiver via www.oystercatcherpress.com/product/isolated-in-aber-cuawg-by-harry-gilonis/  This first half (which works as a separable unit) is reprinted here by kind permission.

claf is a sick person (modern Welsh, ‘patient’) and was the term used for a leper.  Diagnosis was based on inaccurate medical knowledge and covered many other conditions. The symptoms reported – pain, fever (stanza 2), loss of weight (stanza 7), sleeplessness (stanzas 11 and 12) – are typical of real leprosy; note also the legal response to being a claf, enforced social isolation (stanzas 2 and 3).  The resonances during the Covid-19 pandemic hardly need ramming home, though I will highlight contemporary parallels in insomnia (stanzas 11, 12] and mental distress (13).

Aber Cuawg is an area of north Wales around the river Cuawg, probably what is now called the Dulais, which flows into the Dyfi near Machynlleth; their combined waters (aber, ‘estuary, confluence’) make a marshy, sandy, shingly entry into the Irish Sea (stanzas 13, 14).

.

Some of the modes of the Claf won’t seem unfamiliar to readers of live contemporary poetry: the intermittency if not absence of narrative; the fluidity of genre; the shifting, sometimes absent, subject-position; the lack of coherent time-frame.  Causal links, even those as bland and low-key as a linking ‘and’, are usually withheld.  All of these devices were everyday in Welsh poetic writing of the 9th and 10th centuries – a sign that English-language avant-gardists should beware over-easy complacency. The readerly free play in which description plays off against emotional reportage which plays off against narration, all taking place in different places at differing times, with specificity inflected with universality and vice versa, is key to reading the Claf, now as then.

 

notes

This is emphatically not a scholarly translation (though I’ve paid keen attention to ‘the scholarship’). Accordingly I have not provided a Welsh text.  I have chiefly followed that provided by the Claf‘s most recent editor, Jenny Rowland (Early Welsh Saga Poetry, Cambridge, 1990). Her text and translation can be found on the Wikipedia page for Claf Abercuawg

 

stanzas 4 and 5 ‘Aber Cuawg’ is broader than the name suggests, and takes in the surrounds of the river Dulais: hills (stanzas 1, 16), meadows (stanza 4), woodland (stanzas 5, 6, 8, 9) and  valleys (stanzas 11 and 12). The sequence skips hither and yon temporally and spatially, but its physical geography is plausible.

stanza 10  For Welsh listeners the cuckoo calls cw, cw? (‘where, where?’) with an implicit sense of loss.  It is only the male cuckoo  that makes that characteristic call; their flight is very similar to that of the sparrow-hawk.

stanzas 11 and 12 Being awake in the small hours could be either insomnia – a symptom of leprosy – or part of a church penitential practice intended to atone for it (see the close of the full poem…).

stanza 15 Whereas most early englynion, in the Claf as outside it, are three-liners, this is a 4-line variant. (Later this length was to become standard.)

stanza 16 The first line’s ar edrywy ard could read “on the heights of Edrywy”, as that is a known Welsh place-name.



Harry Gilonis is a London–based poet, editor, critic and publisher (the ‘semi-dormant’ Form Books imprint). His books of poetry include Reliefs (1990), walk the line (2000), and eye-blink (2010) and a selected poems, Rough Breathing (Carcanet, 2018) (extracts from his long sequence unHealed, based on the Welsh Canu Heledd, can be found therein, along with other Welsh-related pieces). A collaboration with Rhys Trimble, NONglyns (very loosely based on englynion by Cynddelw Prydydd Mawr) should be out from The Literary Pocket Book in Pontypridd later this year. His pamphlet Isolated in Aber Cuawg appeared with Oystercatcher Press in 2020: http://www.oystercatcherpress.com/product/isolated-in-aber-cuawg-by-harry-gilonis/

29 Jan 2021

Nerys Williams: Four Prose Pieces

Accordion

There are so many stories, the child lost count of how they came to be known. Some emerged from sweet wrappers, others from a box of fly-speckled birthday cards. One epic story came from an accordion. When the child pulled it from the case it let loose an almighty wheeze. Stories flew out, mildewed, smelling of rot. The child tried to make the accordion sing. She chided it – be solffa tonic, make a pretty noise. The buttons seized on thin cloth that tapered underneath. Hoisting the leather straps on her shoulders – angry sounds tumbled to her feet. The accordion is dark blue inlaid with mother of pearl. It is the body of a horrible sound. Worse were the sweet spores as it moved in and out. The breath of a dead man encased in a trapezium coffin. A teacher told them of a poet who  described breath. The poet had been accused of using too many words to explain simple things. He made a wheeze so large it became monstrous. The noise brought up her grandmother from the shop below, who quietly told her “put it away”. However the accordion was battling for its breath, the bellows refused to close. However much the child squeezed the leather clasp, it would not shut. She wedged the box between the wall and a table, hoping it was chastened.

 

 

Plastic Passion

This year there is music in your house, your parents move awkwardly to disco  beats. Careful in crimplene and long polyester dresses, dark browns and floral patterns, shiny shoes and ruffled shirts. Lurex on the TV, the body in plastic, you drink from melamine mugs, your nightdress crackles against sheets. Two years before “Video killed the radio star”, two years after Abba’s “SOS”  you have fallen in love with Elvis Presley. At six you curate your wardrobe to match the Elvis film  on Saturday TV. The deep red embroidery of a rose on a tight denim jacket, matching jeans watching him in Roustabout on a Honda 350 Super Hawk attempting the wall of death. Forty years before you find how broken Elvis was about his film career. Hawaiian shirts in Technicolor, he tinkered with engines, the inevitable song which seemed organic at the time. His sneer, hair, hips, oil on his hands mirroring your uncle working in a homemade car inspection pit. Shovelled out of earth with no joists he hit the riverbed, it flooded and crumbled. The year in which you were happy to be taken for a boy, you wanted to walk like a boy, bouncing long strides on the pavement. Friendships with boys depended on participatory violence on the playground. Running fast, colliding into bodies, your hair was grabbed, bruises became  badges. Until four boys were taken to the headmaster for the ‘dap’, the black rubber soled plimsoll. They had given one other multiple love bites on their shoulders; you did not fully understand but  knew this was inappropriate. Like the secret shared the summer before with a ten year old girl, under the kitchen sink. Both mothers exchanging district nurse duties: a woman  left homeless, now in a shelter, the transfer of case notes, the difficulty of supporting the aged, the lonely . “Come here” obediently you did, she held a jar -  a pickled foetus. “Don’t tell” she whispered -“the mother doesn’t know we have her baby”, she slipped the bobbing foetus between Emo washing powder and scouring pads. You are reminded of this story when Esther Greenwood tells us in The Bell Jar: “I liked looking on at other people in crucial situations. If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I’d stop and look so hard I never forgot it.”

 

 

Is There a Penis in the House?

Music warned you of slick presenters who thought only about the sheen on their face, the easy words. Making money from a minority language, far from the world you inhabited. A different Welsh, a self-appointed guardianship refuting tattered or evolved expression, a club for initiates on the small screen. As a child you smelt the carbolic soap and borax emanating from male bodies, folded into permanent pressed trousers. You thought about the political situation for days, sharing with a husband, talking to friends, following an invitation to speak on TV about the national and international. You arrive, full of translated political phrases, ready for business,  waiting for war paint. The make-up  artist tells you about the island, the devastation at knowing the nuclear power station they had spent years trying to attract has been scrapped. Hastily you articulate your concern about Wales as a playground for the M.O.D., the private companies operating ballistic testing in West Wales. She looks at you with no anger – “my husband is a fighter pilot in Valley – this is what we have here.” Deftly brushing under eye, closing your lid, you look up for mascara, she powders the gap between your neck and chest to avoid a line – she was kind. Between blusher, eyeliner and highlighter you talked about small villages, bigger towns. closed shops, the large supermarkets that stalked in square kilometres. Exchanging unsaid forgotten stories, how people congregated to  talk and laugh and fight over politics, over love  in your language. Companies came with boasts of jobs  councils offering spaces rates free, facilitating big business. She tells you her mother could not buy chocolates from the retailer at the price that the supermarket sold – “Game Up”. Wearing the mascara, the blusher, the foundation, the powder with the backcombed hair you realise that things have not changed in the county you love. The presenter looks in, mouthing hello, wanting to be seen, a bead of sweat on his forehead. You are torn – to you Welsh has become a language of compassion, care, restitution a language of concessions. Not the language of argument, strategic outmanoeuvring, polysyllabic words that wind, dazzle and explode against an opponent’s tongue. In the blood beat of the ear you hear the music of your past: scraping metal, industrial sounds punctuating the breakbeat of a synthesiser. As the politicians arrive for their make-up you understand, you are gender window dressing, an unromantic exile, pebbles in your mouth.

 

 

Facing It 

Two aerial images exist, separated by forty years placed on a wall to create continuity and discontinuity. Similar to those on polished cupboards in farmhouses showing squat houses, concrete walkways, fields with black and white Friesians. Photographs that map out the importance of hedges and the maintenance of property. Machinery flattened into landscape. Travelling salesmen came infrequently, but every farm has one image displaying particular zeitgeists: orange cars, fluted yellow petrol pumps, limewashed walls, churn letterboxes, tractors with small tyres. The salesman died, his family found thousands of photos, in boxes marked according to year. Maybe they were too expensive to those with little land,  only a garden with peas and potatoes. Who wants a photograph of a home not their own in an age of digitization, drones and road mappings? Ill at ease with a bonfire of images, his son follows the b roads his father took offering vintage images of homes. He comes to our door and offers a photo that is forty years old. The photograph waits for revolution, a summer’s day, doors and windows open, begonias on the windowsills. Singing that permeates thickets carried by the river, arias while mopping a concrete shop floor. It is so easy to buy into nostalgia, the taste of cherryade, the possibilities of rayon against your skin. Hush now, breathe easier, allow the encounters of that decade: you open a bedroom door of your friend’s house and find her parents writhing on the bed bumping against one another. Later you find the father’s mags and feel the warmth in your vagina, a new sort of hurt as you  giggled at the readers’ wives. It might be the story of a nine-year old friend who came to stay a night, no parent was home, she was terrified of social services. The casual racism of that decade, its sexism, anarchy, you now understand how a culture marks your breathing, etches your DNA. Ghosts leaving this village, abandoned the language, affecting accents exhausting the ear, slippages, a minefield of grammar and mispronunciation. Perhaps there is no error only attempts at affirmation; no failure but the redefining of identity; you gild the still but enquiring face, leaf by leaf.

 

 

Nerys Williams (b.1971), originally from West Wales, moved to Ireland in 2003. Her first poetry collection, Sound Archive (2011, Seren), won the Strong prize; her second is Cabaret (2017, New Dublin Press). She is an Associate Professor in Poetry and Poetics at University College, Dublin and has written widely on contemporary poetry in journals and single authored books. Of late she has been researching and writing on poets and producers at the BBC’s Third Programme. Nerys has been a Fulbright fellow and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley (2007, 2019) and in 2017 she held a Government of Wales / Literature Wales residency at Passa Porta, Brussels. The prose poems given here are from a draft volume, Republic, which examines bilingualism, West Wales of the 1980s and 90s, midwifery, mental health and Welsh independent music.

 

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