Making space, taking space

Parking

The round trip to the baker—one of the bakers—takes around an hour. I walk on the long back road, on the shaded side if the weather’s warm. The black and green boxes are out on the pavement, which triggers an odd memory. In 2011 there was a referendum on the alternative vote, following what one commentator termed a ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’.[1] The vote went not as I’d hoped but more or less as I’d expected. At some point, walking along a pavement crowded with recycling boxes and looking at the state of them, I remember thinking that, if so many people had such problems sorting out their rubbish, they were not that likely to explore the intricacies of competing voting systems.

Skip forward five years and you might say that the phrase ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’ was still serviceable, though barely. Skip forward two more and I’m edging my way through parts of the city, thinking of the word ‘space’, ‘the final frontier’ as the first speech of every episode of Star Trek had it, recalling too how Charles Olson begins Part One of Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.’[2]

By way of contrast, space is mercilessly shrinking here as local government, starved of funding and agency, falls and fails. Private intrusion into public spaces; not only roads but pavements too now given over to cars, which block pedestrian pathways; neglected bushes and hedges jutting out onto pavements already littered with bins and boxes. No room for an Olson.

PNR

Opening the latest issue of PN Review, I see a review by Ian Brinton—reviews editor of Tears in the Fence (https://tearsinthefence.com/blog/ )—of Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door and Brinton begins by quoting precisely those words from Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America . . .’ They are, he writes, ‘central to an understanding of the wide-ranging poetry written by Chris Torrance, British poet who was born in Edinburgh, raised in Surrey and who moved to an isolated cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales nearly fifty years ago’. The names cited in the course of his review include Iain Sinclair, Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Barry MacSweeney, and Brinton closes by quoting a letter from Torrance, who recalls how he ‘grabbed onto Olson mid-60s’ and concludes: ‘I’ve kept at Olson ever since. I love to take the big books outside in the summer, read those wide poems out in the open where they belong.’[3]

torrance_citrinas1

I’d quite lost track of Torrance yet, without moving from my desk, I can just reach a tall, slim volume, Citrinas, published in an edition of 300, ‘of which 15 are casebound and contain additional holograph material.’ In fact, I see it’s signed, with a personal inscription – though not to me.

the birds are lost, out of sight
though the food goes, mysteriously,
invisibly, except when the imperious jay,
flashing electric blue & snowy white,
with immense black mustachios
over his olive-smoked sheath
picks up crushed oats[4]

Remembered impressions I have are of landscape, place, the natural world, the mystery of things, prompting the thought of Pound writing—in an essay first published in Quest, edited by G. R. S. Mead, leading Theosophist and founder of the Quest Society—‘We have about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of wood alive, of stone alive.’[5]

In fact I have a little more Torrance in-house, a dozen pages in the anthology edited by Iain Sinclair:

straight from sleep
to chase sheep from the garden
a bloody, dead blackbird on the doormat
’mid thousands of feathers & catspew
the world jumps
from this to that
to break the ennui
of my own tense control
all goes into the melting pot of acid
over the hill kicking a dead lambskin
what to do with all this energy, lambent, unreconciled
an atmosphere almost of terror
the planet helpless with mirth
gold coins rolling in the streets
the skylark’s interminable raga
borne aloft on shivering wings[6]

These are early poems, several dated 1970-1971, at the beginning of the poet’s time in Wales. When this anthology appeared (1996), five books of The Magic Door had appeared. The recently published volume that Brinton is reviewing apparently represents eight books in all, reaching back over forty years.

A launch event for The Magic Door is announced on the Test Centre website: Wednesday 4 October, 7 pm, Swedenborg House, where Torrance will be joined by Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher. The author’s afterword to this edition, quoted on the website, includes the statement that, ‘With this collected volume, I am only halfway through.’

A life’s work, then. At least. . .

See: (https://testcentre.org.uk/magic-door/ )

 

 

References

[1] Iain McLean, ‘“England Does Not Love Coalitions”: The Most Misused Political Quotation in the Book’, Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics, 47, 1 (2012), 10.

[2] Call Me Ishmael, in Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 17. As in Moby Dick itself, this ‘beginning’ is preceded by a prologue, here ‘First Fact’.

[3] Ian Brinton. ‘Reading in the Open Air’, PN Review 243 (September-October 2018), 78, 79.

[4] Chris Torrance, Citrinas: The Magic Door, Book II (London: Albion Village Press, 1977), unpaginated: this is ‘Retreat’, from the book’s first section.

[5] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 92. The essay, ‘Psychology and Troubadours’ became Chapter V of this book.

[6] Chris Torrance, ‘Straight from Sleep’, in Iain Sinclair, editor, Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology (London: Picador, 1996), 453.

 

Walking with a purpose

 

You pass them everywhere in Bristol now—and in what town or city do you not? In residential porches and corporate doorways, on benches and in bus shelters, living in tents, living in vans. Homelessness, the raw, incontrovertible evidence of fractured social policies and failed governance, is visibly, palpably increasing. A man that my wife spoke to had just been discharged from hospital. Though a friend had kindly paid for one night’s stay at a bed and breakfast, his address thereafter was, once again, a tent pitched on a strip of grass above the river. The hospital staff knew he would have no roof over his head but had no choice in the matter. The Secretary of State for Health assures us that there’s no crisis in the National Health Service and, since the United Kingdom is currently the world’s fifth largest economy by GDP, it can’t be a question of money—so it’s a puzzling business. It’s also a moral quandary for the individual walker. With my limited resources, if I give change to this person, what about the next—and what about the fifth and the tenth and the twentieth after that? Who do I choose—and how? And should I really have to?

There’s a moment in Richard Cobb’s essay, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, when he remarks of the abbé Germain Brice, author of the early eighteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris, that he ‘provided a completely comprehensive tour of the city; and he was not afraid of exposing his more delicate princelings to some of the filthiest, most stinking, and most overcrowded quarters of Paris; it was not just a Tournée des Grandes Ducs of the high spots, of the new centres of luxury. Perhaps his walks were also to have a moral purpose.’[1]

‘A moral purpose.’ Yes, this in turn recalls George Eliot, in a letter of 3 November 1851, telling the anecdote of Thomas Carlyle, ‘angry with [Ralph Waldo] Emerson for not believing in a devil’, in a determined effort ‘to convert him took him amongst all the horrors of London – the gin shops etc. – and finally to the House of Commons, plying him at every turn with the question “Do you believe in a devil noo?”’[2]

‘More delicate princelings’? Certainly, some of those wealthy and cushioned politicians so enthusiastic about penalising the undeserving poor or forcing invalids into morale-boosting work as roadmenders or steeplejacks, should be forcibly steered around a few choice areas of our inner cities.

‘Do you believe in a devil noo?’ Devils, like angels, are difficult to disentangle from religion. ‘The devil’, Hugh Kenner wrote, ‘it used to be thought, could only move in straight lines; pious Christians could thwart him by moving in zigzags. They did that on their knees, praying their way along labyrinths diagrammed on the floors of churches: there are still fine ones in Chartres cathedral and in the parish church of St. Quentin, in the Loire Valley. Meant to humble but not bewilder the faithful, such mazes have no branchings. They spiral haltingly inward, as if to Jerusalem.’[3]

The Simoniac Pope 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, Dante’s Simoniac Pope: Tate)

Though often in touch with religious concerns, evil can, like good, occupy determinedly secular territory. Great wickedness and immorality, the dictionaries say, especially—but not necessarily—when regarded as a supernatural force. And to be sure, from time to time, in my agnostic fashion, I picture the architect of the pernicious Universal Credit scheme (among many others, admittedly) placed by Gustave Doré or William Blake in an extremely hot environment, illuminated by a luridly flickering light, and subject to the relentless and gleeful attention of gigantic figures wielding toasting forks.

And what might we set against the intellectual vacuity so demonstrably prevailing in several citadels of power as the year closes? There’s always poetry, of course.

emily-dickinson

The Devil – had he fidelity
Would be the best friend –
Because he has ability –
But Devils cannot mend –
Perfidy is the virtue   
That would he but resign
The Devil – without question
Were thoroughly divine[4]

Yes, devilish tricky things, devils. Stories, then, perhaps the inexhaustibly quotable Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing to William Maxwell, 31 December 1966:

‘It was the kind of hotel which has a great many old ladies in it, and as a writer of short stories I was enthralled to discover how a single sentence can place a character—“Mrs Walker has China tea”—or rouse one’s deepest curiosity, as when one of the two Miss Grays (sisters but they don’t often meet) said informingly to the other, pointing to an empty table with a paper napkin in a tumbler on it, “That’s Mrs. Washbourne.” Valentine said it was like living in one of my stories but worse.’[5]

Whose story we are living in just now will no doubt become clearer as we lurch or tiptoe into 2018. I’ve heard several people say that next year can’t be worse than 2017. I hope they’re right. Always remembering that resistance is fertile, as I think I heard somebody say.

 
References

[1] Richard Cobb, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, in Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings, introduction by Richard Gilmour, preface by Julian Barnes (New York: New York Review Books, 2004), 154.

[2] Mentioned by Rupert Christiansen, The Visitor: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 118.

[3] Hugh Kenner, the title essay (1986) of Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 250.

[4] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 624-625.

[5] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 169.

 

Walking among graves (with just a touch of Whitman)

After my walk yesterday to the old haunts near the Tobacco Factory where, until the end of last year, we spent our civilized, productive days in an office on the ground floor—bonjour, Andrew, ça va bien?—I was tempted to rewrite it in the form of a political fable.

I had, as raw material, those motorists whose IQ plummets by forty points when they get behind the wheel; the cats sauntering across roads, taking appalling risks for no good reason; and . . . luckily, I resisted the temptation.

Path

Today, I walk via Baked (for a dark rye loaf) up the Wells Road to the extraordinary Arnos Vale cemetery, 45 acres, established in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession (its first burial two years later), the birdsong practically deafening on some of the innumerable leafy paths that lead off in all directions from the paved road that runs through it. You can spend quite some time here and will find yourself walking slowly, however briskly you set out. . .

https://arnosvale.org.uk/

Grass_Graves

Cemetery grass brings to mind—not every mind, I grant you—what is, I think, one of the finest images in Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.’[1]

Leaves of Grass. I consider, briefly, the oddness of that title. We speak of blades of grass, usually, not leaves. Still, the reader’s attention is constantly directed to the leaf as single sheet of paper, or thickness of paper, the page of a book; and precious metals beaten thin, gold leaf and silver leaf: these uses are often highlighted or implied. Perhaps the main force of the title, though, is to collapse those assumed barriers between poet and reader, the world inside and outside the book, either the actual barriers (print, physical distance) or metaphorical ones (conventional roles of reader and writer, of literature itself):

Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.

This is unfinished business with me. . . how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.[2]

The repetitions, the lengthening lines, the insistent murmuring of sibilants in those lines mime a rising erotic excitement. This is not a genteel, decorous reading, turning the pages in the library. This is a physical embrace.

Sunshine_Corner

I sit at a table on the café terrace with an Americano and the sun is, briefly, so warm on my back as to be uncomfortable; but I sit long enough to read Richard Holmes’ wonderful account of the discovery of a trunk belonging to Scrope Davies, in the private deposit vault of what became Barclays Bank, left there by Davies in 1820, as he fled the country following his financial ruin. ‘Everything that Scrope valued, and much that he did not, was hurled into the trunk’ on the evening of its owner’s hurried departure. In addition to clothes, letters, a lock of hair, tailor’s bills and betting slips, there were found—when the trunk was finally opened in 1976—twenty previously unknown letters from Byron to Scrope; a notebook containing Byron’s fair copy of the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (which Davies should have delivered to Byron’s publisher but did not); and notebooks from the Shelley circle, containing a fair copy of Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon as well as four of Shelley’s own poems, including two unknown sonnets.[3]

One of my favourite sentences in the whole piece, in the course of Holmes’ charting the history of Number 1, Pall Mall East and the name changes of the banks that occupied it: ‘Time passed, as it does in England.’ Which word would you care to stress here?

Sidetracks

Admittedly an unrelated photograph now, since this visiting cat is glancing not at Sidetracks but at the last few pages of William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, under the mistaken impression that its previous four hundred pages can be skipped.

Cat_Reading

No reading stamina. Wrong diet, probably.

 

References

[1] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 68.

[2] These are the opening lines of the poem—untitled, as were all the poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass—which was later called ‘A Song for Occupations’, though these lines were dropped: see Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 89.

[3] Richard Holmes, ‘Scrope’s Last Throw’, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 271-282.