Tuesday, May 30, 2017


The man at the helm in Knut Hamsun's Women at the Pump, 1920, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, is like and unlike the much earlier men in Hunger, 1890, Pan, 1894, etc, the solitary figure who dedicates himself to stubbornness so publicly that he becomes a mystery to all the other characters. This man's covert fantasy is to be the only person in the world who can act. Everyone else should be capable of nothing but reactions. He can't manage the universal equilibrium, though; he jumps in the sea. On the day that one of my work colleagues graduated university two weeks ago his flatmate slit his wrists and walked around the house for a period of time sprinkling blood over the walls and floor in every room – his girlfriend had left him – spraying everything so thoroughly that my colleague and the flatmate's mother spent the rest of the week struggling to clean the carpet. M. saw the colleague yesterday, still wiping down the railings on the patio where the flatmate was found by the police, alive and sitting in a chair. He was discharged from the hospital within hours. As far as I know he has never helped with the cleaning. Anyway, the man in Women at the Pump is more settled than his counterparts in the earlier books, enjoying a wife, a house, jobs, children, and a recognised role in the town. He is relatively satisfied with himself when you compare him to the others. After the third child is born with blue eyes he begins to stalk his wife because he's afraid she is having an affair but then he stops worrying and doesn't stalk her. They produce more children. There is a rumour that he has fathered the illegitimate son of an elderly servant and this pleases him more than anything else.

Near the end of the book you discover that his genitals fell victim to a shipboard accident when he was a teenager so none of his wife's children could have been the result of married intercourse anyway. When this fact appears in the book it is almost as if the recalcitrance of the earlier characters has been given a shape, a point, or even an answer, as though the author is saying, after years of mystification, that things deserve to happen for prosaic and sensible reasons after all, but when you look again then the mystery of the man whose knowledge is produced by his own performance of that knowledge is still there. "One is saddled with the world one creates, as all creators are," says the author. When the man declines to repeat his jealous stalking while his wife is obviously having sex with the powerful lawyer Fredericksen then you see how skillfully he has learned to play his own trick against himself for his own benefit. Now I might think of Stevie Smith in the poem Egocentric, 1966, ending a line with the word "baboon" when all she had to do was to find a rhyme for "Star."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

prams are pushed along

Wingfield’s innate and unconscious faith in authority and ennoblement is strangest in Beat Drum, Beat Heart, 1946, a book-length poem that spends its first half discussing the suffering of British men during and after World War I without ever suggesting that anyone was responsible for the war or that the soldiers might be annoyed at them. Instead a first-person man-voice wishes that some inhuman power would “Find me a cause | Or a catastrophe” to rouse him out of his postwar ennui, even if it kills him. Alex Davis in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, 2003 says that Drum “counterpoints male brutality with an exploration of the ferocity that subtends female desire” but the distance between a man on a battlefield getting a bullet in the head and a woman trying to pin down her soulmate is so wide that it’s hard to take the counterpoint as seriously as the poet wants; the man-violence and the woman-violence are operating in different worlds, though Wingfield tries to bring them together by giving the woman-half of the poem language like this:

Each fibre through my frame is used, with enough
Force and guile to split apart an empire,
Or exhaust the world with strategies.

There is no corresponding reaching-out in the language of the man-part, which mirrors, apparently unintentionally, the motion that Wingfield depicts in men and women: the women grasping for the men and the men grasping for something intangible. The language around women in the man-half of Drum is casually scornful: “And tramps unwrap things from a newspaper | And women mince, and prams are pushed along”, “But now, as salesmen moving through half-lights | We might be women traipsing | The rainy suburbs, on uneven heels, | In ugliness, unkindness and in waste”. But Wingfield believes that the right man will bring a woman to a mystic point of cohesion and this will perform the same service for her as “a cause or a catastrophe” would for him.

Opening Practicalities: Marguerite Duras speaks to Jérôme Beaujour, 1987, tr. Barbara Bray, just now I found myself reading similar ideas coming out of a different writer. It would be interesting to run Wingfield’s poem through the beliefs that Duras outlines in this chapter called Men.

About writing, Duras says:

The image of a black box in the middle of the world isn't far out.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Another List

Sheila Wingfield: Collected Poems 1938 – 1983, 1983
Kathleen Raine’s poem Night Thought, from The Hollow Hill, 1964
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950
Enid Blyton, Hollow Tree House, 1945
Arthur Machen, The White People, 1904
Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, 1928

(N.b. an inclusion in the list should not be read as an endorsement of the book. I decided to add this caveat when I was thinking of putting John Masefield in there.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

work on the drying ground

The most atypical poem in Wingfield's Selected Poems 1938 – 1983 is possibly this one, When Moore Field Was All Grazed:
When Moore field was all grazed
And Finnesburie ploughed
People were fiery, clever, glum or crazed;
Hard knuckled; and proud
Liars; and well-phrased.
The other poems in the book prefer to resolve their evocations with an aphorism, a lesson, or a short passage of reflection, but Moore Field feels no need. Not Forgetting Aeneas Sylvius, for example, ends by calling everything that has happened so far
… a reminder
Of how short is triumph,
How it never condescends.
And in The Heart That Leapt the poet finishes her description of the leaping heart by calling it a
Shame that it should
Be stilled from beating in eternity
While the narrator in Waking concludes her thoughts about Lazarus by deciding
I must, like him, with all force possible
Try out my tongue again.
Heart was published in 1938 and Waking in 1977, Moore Field between them in 1964; there is not a period when she systematically abandons or changes her habits in the direction that Moore Field suggests. Developments in poetry elsewhere don't seem to have affected her, a point that G.S. Fraser discusses in the introduction, saying that she was "quite outside the literary world." Ann Roper reviewing Penny Perrick's 2007 biography of Wingfield in The Independent, wrote: "succumbing to fear was largely the reason for her obscurity as a writer … it was fear that isolated her, that kept her from entering the very literary world she craved."

She loved her father over her mother; the same father forbade her reading and prevented her from attending university. After that, every criticism seems to have made her retract.

Moore Field looks as if it was written during a spasm of agitation that, in the end, must have seemed complete in itself, without inspirational lines at the end to confirm that the poet was thoughtful. She would have looked back over the work "in tranquillity" before it was included in the short book that would later be incorporated into the Selected, and still she kept it. When I read the rest of the compendium it is not the evidence of the agitation that seems amazing but the imaginative picture of her making a decision that contradicts the ones she made for other poems.

Every time she approved of Moore Field she was a different person to the one who liked The Heart That Leapt. Now she is a little closer to the characters in Knut Hamsun, the ones who speak as if they need to keep their ideas oblique and cryptic as if under pressure from an invisible threat. "[I]ndeed, she repressed everything that didn’t accord with her strange, self-enclosed vision of the world," said another reviewer of the Perrick biography. "Unpleasant, self-serving, snobbish, cold, hypocritical, deceitful, appalling to her children ..."

But at the same time the Hamsun characters want you to acknowledge that these feelings are intense. They need other people to understand the subterranea of their thoughts without comprehending the thoughts themselves.

My feelings towards Moore Field are something like the ones I have toward this paragraph from Hamsun's Rosa, 1909, tr. Sverre Lyngstad

It rained for two days and two nights, the fish were stacked and covered with birch bark. There was no work on the drying ground at the moment and the weather was somber and unpleasant; but fields and meadows shot up, grew thick and swayed in the wind.

I find the recalcitrance in them both very satisfying.

(In Hamsun it is the refusal to let you say the weather is bad.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

where everything is silent

It's frustrating to read the Collected Poems 1938 – 1983 of Sheila Wingfield and see how often she stops (how she halts either the entire poem or else a gesture of thought) once she has mentioned one of the words that meant so much to her; kindness, gentleness, or something that stands for them, such as trees, flowers, birds, nature in general; or else she brings up nobility or honour, or things that embody them, eg, ancient kings, as if she either feels or hopes that these things are so valuable that she must sabotage her own thinking forward movement so that their profundity will not be superseded by further speculation. She is moved in Thou Shalt Not Carry a Fox's Tooth (from her last book, Cockatrice & Basilisk, 1983) when she looks at a water-wagtail on a rock in a stream and decides that "such entirety | Such lack of harm" may be "a hint | Of grace". This notion of "entirety" seems to be common to all of the things she prefers - an entirely peaceful scene, or the king as an ultimate figure - an invocation of some spot beyond which she cannot go. Probably she saw herself overwhelmed and compelled to stop when she reached these points, possibly she even wrote in order to stop writing. "We wish to explore the vast domain of goodness where everything is silent," Apollinaire, La Jolie Rousse, 1917, tr. John Berger.

Monday, April 10, 2017

people stream past it

Walking through the Getty Center last weekend I caught sight of a painting that I recognised without knowing how I recognised it or why, and as I was recognising it I had two impressions at the same time, one, that that it was important and intelligent, and, two, that it was mediocre or ordinary.

I knew why I thought (without seeing it clearly yet) that it was mediocre or ordinary, because it was neither huge nor small, there was nothing in the picture that tried to impress you; the colours were low-key blues and browns and there was a lake in the middle; it looked like an ordinary landscape, not Dutch, but with a similar placidity. And it seemed especially flat because I had been looking at Rubens' green and red Entombment, c. 1612, which was at the opposite end of the same room.

Then, although I was not seeing any more details, I realised that it was one of the two paintings I had been reading about only a few weeks before in T.J. Clark's 2006 book The Sight of Death: an Experiment in Art Writing.

The idea that this was the same painting I had been reading about did not interest me very much. I could remember some of the things Clark had said about it but they did not change, I thought, my way of looking at the work now; and primarily I remembered how irritated I was at the end of the last chapter when he waited in the last rooms of the National Gallery recording cutting thoughts about visitors who were ignoring the other painting he describes in the book, Poussin's Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648. "[F]or several hours during the day thirty-plus people stream past it, one or two of whom give it a passing glance."

Too often at the end of gallery visits I have used up almost all of my time on other work and the terminal rooms have to be sprinted through against my desires. At the end of that visit to the Getty I wanted to stay longer with Lorenzo Lotto's The Madonna and Child With Two Donors, c. 1525-30, and also Jacopo Bassano's Portrait of a Bearded Man, c. 1550, which has an enigmatic grey shape ballooning in from the left side of the canvas. To the artist this must have been the shadow of the man's head but there is no pictorial evidence that the greenish background is actually a surface that would enable a shadow to exist and instead it looks as if someone has laid in the canvas flat on the ground and dropped a cup of grease on it. The man is looking away. Another painting in a different Getty building shows you a group of clean middle-class people gathered in a public place to enjoy the sight of a multi-coloured featureless biped performing an unidentifiable action on the paving in front of them. The label identifies it as a puppet but it might as well be a monster and I picture it as one.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

a purely bi-dimensional figure in outline upon the surface of my mind

Going back repeatedly over several days to Czurda's Almost 1 Book | Almost 1 Life I decide that what I like about it are the lines that feel like non sequiturs whenever I come across them, these cousins to the "rare, almost archaic phrases" that Proust's narrator discovers in Bergotte and which have no real force out of context: "mistresses are normal in aristocratic circles she thought and handed him his fur hat" (Mutilation With Intent). It's because of Proust that I think of them as long excerpts even though they are almost always short, or shortish anyway: but I still have that impression; he says:

I now no longer had the impression of being confronted by a particular passage in one of Bergotte’s works, which traced a purely bi-dimensional figure in outline upon the surface of my mind, but rather of the ‘ideal passage’ of Bergotte, common to every one of his books, and to which all the earlier, similar passages, now becoming merged in it, had added a kind of density and volume, by which my own understanding seemed to be enlarged.

The surprise is similar each time; therefore I can open the book anywhere, and have the pleasure that you might have in a nice dream: look, you say; we're flying again, we are aware of our situation. Books that can be sampled anywhere have to be developed by the reader who adjusts themselves internally and unconsciously as Proust's narrator does until they have their conception of the object in a state that can be regarded in the way that a petroglyph artist so many centuries ago must have regarded (judging from the way they treated it) a rock, the figures positioned without regard for the edges of the space, and no apparent idea that in centuries to come the idea of compositional framing would come to seem necessary. So, similarly the book, once you have developed it properly, has no shape or beginning, middle, end, no form like that: you have reformed it to a prehistoric ideal.