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October 03, 2014

Diary of a Permaculturalist 24: Poetry's Carbon Footprint

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 23: White Noise Syndrome from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

(Thinking through Miriam Nichols' chapter on Susan Howe in Radical Affections: Essays on the Poetics of Outside.)

"Howe writes the figure (voice, persona) as a finite infinitude. Figure emerges from "love's infolding"; the phrase positions agency in the selections one makes and the affinities one cultivates." (234)

Explaining this in terms of Heraclitean time and a sense of Agamben's "irreparable", Nichols posits the idea that our lifespans are finite and our options (for action, for what we 'make' of living, for how we construct ourselves, our identities, our speaking voices in poems) within each moment of the present, are infinite:

"The path of the subject is utterly finite and unique. However, the component elements of the figure are common, infinitely combinable, and haunted by the pastness from which they come. Howe's visual poems illustrate this idea formally. On one hand, they are impossible to paraphrase. The complicated relations of sound and sense as well as the overwriting of one line by another are such that the poem cannot be gathered into a concept or reduced to a narrative ... At the same time, the potential of the words, phrases, sounds, and associations to combine into various meanings is virtually unlimited. And of course these materials are quite common, often drawn from publicly available sources." (234-5)

A problem in this: the seriality here seems to produce infinite potential out of finite resources, but only if the elements are deployed in ways that remain 'sustainable', in environmentalist terms. But place this against Jason W. Moore's suggestion that peak oil has been reached, and peak everything - the "end of the four cheaps" - has exposed the finitude of earth's material composition. What emerges is the suggestion that even thought - meaning - as a material exposition, has material limits. Infinity, in Nichols' terminology, must by definition be transcendental, immaterial, an ideological topography. And hence a fantasy in terms of ecopraxis.

Hence a problem generally in how capitalism's infinite accumulation positions against the finite material it bases its accumulation upon; and the potential for infinite recombinations of material into an infinite range of 'meanings' or commodities. It may seem dangerous to equate meaning with material remaking, or commodification, but this seems an essential investigation in an era of climate catastrophe. Even the process of material remaking of language requires the consumption of finite energy resources. And then: What are the ethical limits to recycling meaning?

This question raises a spectre of ridicule, as I write it. Can we genuinely talk in terms of calories burned to type out our responses to a poem? Or to cutting and pasting pieces of a found text into new configurations? Howe confesses to using a Xerox, and her books are material objects, the printing of which, as Lemenager has shown, potentially leads to toxic contamination of waterways. Yet the discussion of the material limits of meaning, or in the crudest terms, poetry's carbon footprint, is the end result of serial ecopoetics: this isan unspoken trajectory of a material ecocriticism. Books, particularly those created as beautiful objects, are designed to create 'permanent' artefacts, removing those materials, soil nutrients and all, out of permanent ecological circulation. The implications of digital book making are hardly worth comparing as an alternative: 7bn, let alone the projected 12bn people on the planet, cannot each own a digital reader without having an inconceivably damaging impact on the environment.

There may be standards for publishing, such as FSC accreditation for paper from sustainable forests, or ISO 9706 for "permanent paper" and similar. Yet these may not take into full account the interconnected problems of land use for paper production, and the processes of papermaking and book or page printing which go hand in hand with paper production processes. Ultimately, the few instances of paper making I've encountered which attempt to bypass these problems, particularly the question of toxicity, are unscaleable, or running out of feasible supply lines. Ecopoeticsjournal, for example, used recycled denim for one issue's cover pages, and similar handmade papers, but not for the inners. And Peter Larkin mentioned a few years ago that Prest Roots Press was struggling to find sufficient and affordable quantities of handmade paper for its pamphlet printing.

What permanent paper actually means, as a standard, has no bearing on this particular notion of permanent meaning, or the permanent circulation of ideas. Books are, by necessity recyclable, transient artefacts. If they were not, then the current rate of production would reach the levels Marx calculated for a money system based on actual material gold resources (can't find an accurate link for this, but David Harvey mentioned it in a talk at Warwick, based around his Seventeen Contradictions).

This is a tip to wider discussion I'm not sure I can fully get my head around until I've made my way through the thesis. But I see this kind of thinking as a component to ecopraxis, which I am trying to investigate along the way.

December 19, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 23: White Noise Syndrome

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 22: Social Ecological Revolution from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

Just caught my eye on a new documentary, called Chasing Ice which sadly, from the trailer, looks no better than iceberg porn. Yes, the icecaps are melting, yes you’re doing something interesting in trying to solve the problem of communicating scale and speed to people who are used to an instant culture, but what exactly have you ended up with? A load of decontextualised ice and water, looking inordinately dramatic and pretty as it moves. “Look ma, another’s going!” “Ooooooooh.”

This reminds me of the Greenpeace helicopter footage of the tar sands forests, a 45min documentary of evergreen pine forests, mists and clouds, and then evil – though still pretty and dramatic – mining projects and scarred landscapes. “We did this?” “Cool!” “Yeah, but think about the environment, dude!” “Uh, ok.” “Ok.” “Still looks pretty cool, huh?” “Maybe a bit.”

It smacks just a little too much of lowest common denominator targeting, of not having the means to tell the narrative we need to tell, because we’re so used to telling stories about pretty nature and the awesomeness of humanity because we know how to fall in love and have emotions and shit. We’re writing atrocity with the gentility of a romcom, we’re the barbarians Adorno was trying to correct us from remaining.

White Noise Syndrome(WNS): in DeLillo’s novel, the middle classes walk up the hill with sandwiches and drinks (no doubt stored in plastic bottles, and left behind on the hillside) to watch the beautiful sunsets created by the noxious cloud from the nearby factory. The problem of disconnect occurs: should we interrupt certain behavioural practices because the origins of the phenomena that trigger a certain response is known to be negative?

I’m more analogy than depth at the moment; another occurs: changing diet for political reasons. I never really changed my culinary response to the taste of meat – I find it politically abhorrent to be fuelling an industry that is destructive, unsustainable, cruel and driven by profit over envrionmental issues. But I still salivate in response to the smell of certain cooking meats. I have had to train myself to think against this response, slowly. (But then, owning a particularly murderous cat, I have to deal with the killing of small birds and animals on a regular basis. Some time earlier this year I had to terminate a badly wounded robin, which I still haven’t fully recovered from. I don’t consider myself squeamish about this, but neither would I consider cooking and eating roadkill, or any kind of meat now. I would find it hard to think my way around treating the cat as a meal, if I went back to meat-eating.)

You could say it is like fiddling while Rome burns, this WNS. But that might deny the specifics of the environmental problem. Fiddling is doing something impractical for the situation. The activity of going to a disaster site to document the event is more like smoking a cigarette and staring out at the burning city. There is the issue of bearing witness to catastrophic events, of not looking away from the disaster, but there’s also a very different question of agency.

If it is within one’s power to change the disaster, then fiddling is an aggressive action. If it is not within one’s power to prevent the ice caps from melting, then filming the calving ice is permissible, in my books: you may as well document the end of humanity, as just ignore it and get on with whatever you were doing, or do something you’ve not done before because, you know, it’ll be your last chance.

The problem really is whether we believe we have agency or not, in the face of climate change. There are a number of options in this regards:

1. We have no agency. No one does. Inshallah/God willing/by the great Earth Mother, we’ll get through this, else it’s the divine will that we be destroyed.
2. We have no agency. Agency lies with regulatory bodies, with the powerful – the Kyoto Protocols and subsequent meetings, with governments and their ability to influence corporations.
3. Agency lies beyond individuals and even democratically elected governments, in corporations.
4. We still have agency, despite the actions of the powerful – they are humans too, and can be convinced to agree with us.
5. We are solely responsible for enacting change, on an individual level; unless we act ourselves, then we cannot expect anyone else to act. Lead by example.

The point I’m trying to make here is, either we decide that there is nothing we can do (point 1), or we decide there is still hope (points 2-5). The latter options outweigh the former: in other words, there are many more opportunities to be hopefully, than to give up. Giving up is deciding to lose faith in humanity, to cease to act in relation to climate change.

If the makers of Chasing Ice are acting in what they feel is a direction against climate catastrophe, then they must believe in one of the options 2-5, or else another that at least believes in agency lying somewhere in reach of human grasp. Sure, there’s a chance they are nihilists documenting the end of the species, but the rhetoric on the website seems to deny this.

Particularly the Make a Difference part of the site, which I take serious issue against. Any serious climate activist would see the points being made are a complete waste of time.

I could go through it point by point, but it basically says, “Live the same life you are living, just turn down the heating and aircon a little bit.” Like, “Mow your lawn with an electric instead of gas mower.” Really?

I’m so angry now I’m going to start swearing. Switching from gas to electricity, in any of the contexts listed, will not help. Also, how can you point out in the first section that “Plastics are made from petroleum” so cut them out, when you then recommend you buy a new mower, new power strips with energy saving modes, and so on? What the fuck are those made from? Carbon-reducing vegetable matter?

The section on transportation really does my head in; there is only one reasonable response: get rid of your car and change your lifestyle so you don’t need one. That’s it. That’s the only solution. There is no other significant way to reduce the carbon emissions of your transportation needs. Bicycles. No, really. “What about…?” Fucking hybrid cars? Really? Fuck off.

Ok, deep breath.

I think the point I am trying to make is, WNS is indicated by a number of symptoms, including a hypocritical approach to delivering a message on the issue of climate change and the kind of responses we should take to reduce the scale of change. The act of capturing the beauty of events relating to global warming, or ecological devastation, isn’t, in itself, a symptom; it does, however, require a holistic examination of the politics of the documentary, in order to determine whether the intention is to be effective, or simply to cash in.

I don’t intend to offer any financial help to Chasing Ice until I’m convinced that they know what message they’re putting across. I appreciate they may be targeting a soft message at a skeptical (note my US spelling – it’s an exclusively US-targeted film, from what I can see) audience, but aiming for a lowest common denominator is a definite syndrome of WNS; climate activists need to stop patronising audiences with condescending rubbish. It is happening; if you deny it is happening then a soft message isn’t going to do anything to you. And all those pretty images – they might even entertaining you, which is far more than you deserve.


On a side note, some of this thinking came up when talking yesterday with fellow eco-researcher, Chris Maughan. We’re running a conference in March, called Planetary Cancer focusing on food security, Marxist ecology and ecocriticism. Chris commented, in relation to a paper by Imre Szeman, published earlier this year, called Crude Aesthetics: The Politics of Oil Documentaries “Why didn’t we get any submissions looking at the politics of food documentaries?” Or more generally: why isn’t anyone critically examining the politics of representation around climate change, in the way that we want?

I guess they are, but we haven’t found them yet. Until we do, we’ll have to do the work ourselves. (I guess that puts me somewhere between 4 and 5 on my earlier scale.)

March 08, 2012

Etgar Keret Short Story with Foyles

Writing about web page http://www.foyles.co.uk/etgar-keret

Etgar Keret has a new short story out, Suddenly, a Knock at the Door. Foyles have included a mini-feature on their website about it, with a sample story, 'Shut', available to read.

I read The Nimrod Flip Out a few years ago and loved it. Something of Dave Eggers' energy to his writing, but with the added political edge of living in the Middle East, dealing with issues of conscription, trauma and so on.

Read on!

February 22, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 22: Social Ecological Revolution

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 21: Socially Necessary Labour Time (tm) from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

Reading this John Bellamy Foster stuff is both highly depressing and highly inspirational. In creative terms, there's a drive that stems from desperation. Not just in the Dostoevskyan sense of, 'Oh shit, deadline', but also in the craving arising from having to read repetitive, depressed ecomarxist theorists, for something imaginative, creative, lucid, original.

At the same time, here's what Foster takes 260 pages to finally come to, about the social ecological overhaul:

the new system... must put the provision of basic human needs--clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, social transport, and universal healthcare and education, all of which require a sustainable relation to the earth--ahead of all other needs and wants.

Let's break that down into a concrete list for social revolution. In order for the Great Transition to happen, people will need to:

(In short term transition phase)

1. Seize control of the means of food production.

2. Seize control of the means of energy production.

3. Seize control of the means of food, energy and water distribution.

4. Revolutionise methods of production in these areas along ecologically sustainable lines.

(And in longer term transitions)

5. Seize control of sewage management and redirect city waste into natural fertiliser production.

6. Develop ecologically-balanced systems of education and health.

7. Develop a system of maintenance for all systems, a monitoring loop, which is in itself ecologically neutral, or positive, in balance and process.

Methods/systems for ecological sustainability exist already in all these areas, but are anti-capitalist by nature, so overlooked for their lack of profitability. They would merely need to be championed and implemented by people - in fact, some areas of Britain are already working along these lines, divorcing their internal systems from the capitalist production flow.

One or two algorithms/data sets would need to back up the transition. In particular, a ratio of land needed - according to permacultural methods by regional specificity - per person, for a basic balanced diet. Secondarily, a social accounting that would provide vital services of health, education, sanitation and so on, by unit of society, which doesn't fall into obvious traps of over-abstraction (i.e. an alternative metabolic rift to that of capitalism) or communalist issues of redistribution and misapplication of personal skills. If a given unit - a village, say - requires one doctor, one biodigestor, one x, one y, etc. per z population, all well and good, but what if there's a major shortfall in, say, doctors? Do you demand the village idiot retrain as a surgeon? Or the spare surgeon retrain as a sanitation supervisor? Certain problems in social accounting in communal systems have not been solved for me, from my reading. Utopianism is rife.

Interesting comparative example of rice versus wheat growing in Foster, suggests Europe will need to move to a rice-based diet in order to maximise calories per hectare, along the Fukuoka Method of growing. However, there is a risk of monoculture in this that may not be effective.

This all said, the transition will probably require an unacceptable degree of 'Barbarization'. I've not yet read the Global Scenario Group's document, 'Great Transition', which outlines the main pitfalls of social upheaval. Foster isn't particularly helpful on this document, given his militant ideological stance.

Alternatives, then, would involve democratic transitioning - like transition towning, but taken beyond just food: transition of food and energy resources by area which see villages and region literally cutting off from capitalist providers of electricity, gas and food. The reduction of overheads and the need to only pay for council services could see a form of privatisation into communal management, particularly of waste systems, so that soil nutrients are valuably regenerated, even positively. Food and energy supplies by region could therefore be freely distributed to residents, with growth carefully managed to maintain a positive soil-nutrient return ratio, either through fallowing/rotation or similar.

Water management is something I can't fully encompass in my head yet - suggestions welcome if anyone's reading. Clean water supplies are limited and water tables are essential to biodiversity, so rainwater and river harvesting would have to be very carefully managed. Resevoir systems, grey water recycling, etc. Every house would have to become a resevoir of sorts, in balance with groundwater reserves. I've been to houses in Herefordshire villages which are disconnected from a mains supply, and their personal wells have run dry, forcing a switch to bottled water.

Anyway, early thoughts about unsustainability and untenable revolutions, but the possibility of outcomes. Cities look doomed from any which way I look at them.

February 15, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 21: Socially Necessary Labour Time (tm)

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 20: Statement of a Problem from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

John Bellamy Foster, in a recent book called 'The Ecological Revolution', makes a lovely, (self-)redemptive statement about innovation's relation to capitalism:

To associate the drive to innovation exclusively with capitalism is wrongly to attribute to a specific economic formation the creative drive of human beings and human culture and civilization in general.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes. I think that was the line I was teetering on in my last entry. To say that capitalism is a model that invades all instances of characteristics that signifies its presence, is to suggest capitalism has become a substitute for species which invented it, which holds those characteristics. In other words, it is to argue that humanity = capitalism. Which is dumb. But that's what you get for reading a blog about someone's thoughts being written out loud.

At the same time, some joy in allowing creativity permission to try and bypass inherent flaws in capitalism, to come to a way of human society that is permaculturally defined. Something my co-conspirator/considerer in PhD land recently discussed with me (ta Chris Maughan), was whether there's a way of tackling the Jevons Paradox (or Jevons Effect) in a different way.

Something I noticed in reading Foster/Wikipedia on the Jevons Paradox, is that there's an implication of given wealth available for purchasing energy. If consumption of energy increases as energy costs are reduced by technology to meet 100% of the altered price, then it sounds to me like people are spending the same amount of money on energy as they had already planned for, taking up as much as is available at the new, lower price, and perhaps being less frugal, or not being monitored in how they use those new amounts.

Hard to say, but here's a concrete example. Your factory (house, barn, etc.) needs 1 lump of coal a day to heat. You see from current markets that you'll need to spend £1 per lump of coal, so you budget for £365 for the year ahead. In March someone invents a new spade that shovels coal at a lower labour cost. You can now buy two lumps of coal for your £1. Instead of spending £182.50 (half your annual budget) on coal for the year and blowing the rest on a pub crawl, you spend the budget you had (this is a common issue with forecasting and accounting, especially in not-for-profit or charitable organisations, though private households, especially lower income ones, would have more freedom to regulate and more need for redirecting savings elsewhere): the money's there anyway, so use it on what it's for. You end up with a two year supply of energy. Hooray!

Do you budget for two years or, with the sudden influx of fuel, double your own output, or stay open later, or, given the big pile of coal you've now got, be more wasteful in your fuel consumption?

A portion of society does have a use-it-or-lose-it budget allocation, given at the start of the year. There are incentives, therefore, to make sure you spend all the money in a particular pool (overheads, etc.) within a financial year, else that budget may be reduced in future. This can go wrong, as there are fluctuations in energy uses, prices, needs, according to climatic averages, unexpected spikes in weather, etc. In other words, you would always hope for more in a budget pool than you're going to need, although financially speaking a surplus in a budget implies money not being put to good use. Margins, etc.

This whole system, the idea of the Jevons Paradox/effect, is unrealistically detached from the reality of socially necessary labour time. It takes a particular amount of time and labour to dig up a lump of coal, currently. A technological innovation might reduce the cost of time/labour in some way, but won't resolve how much energy you can get from a lump of coal (assuming 'lump' has a corresponding value on a metrical scale or something). Take this across to essential resources - water and food - and you can see a problem.

It takes a fixed amount of time and water and sunlight to grow a potato. These factors can't change without major scientific advances in GM cropping, or perhaps the sun just getting a little bit bigger for no apparent reason, which isn't going to happen because we want it to, so don't plan for it. So the only reasonable target left for savings in potato production is on labour.* This is of course where exploitation and the metabolic rift emerges.

But what if - talking creatively with Chris, now - we invented a new measure for this bottom line of value? How many 'ecos' does it take to grow a potato? Measure that in terms of human resources and put a tag on it. Protect the most basic needs of a human being: by nutrients, not by something that looks juicy but is full of water; by shelter; by health needs; how many ecos does it take to treat a cold, or a broken leg? A government-regulated system separate to free market systems will ease the transition to a sustainable market economy, from where we can go to a sustainable society.

One point to JB Foster I will make here, having not read enough yet, but hey-ho: no fully-signed-up ecologist would reject a solution to the current metabolic rift/antagonism between capitalism as world economy and world ecology, if capitalism were to come up with it. Capitalism's drive for new markets, for innovation, is a defining characteristic and has the potential to come up with a solution - even a solution that will destroy itself in the process. While Foster very rightly identifies reasons why capitalism is positioned against finding an ecological solution and is highly unlikely to do so, there's no reason to say that it won't do so by accident. Fingers crossed, eh?


* Human labour is also has a fixed cost, humans are a part of nature, and labour is a resource. The number of people available to work, the amount of money needed locally from a task to buy potatoes to survive to the next day... If you reduce labour costs below a certain point, your labour force might well drop dead. This has happened, still happens and is the side to capitalism that no morally aware human can ignore without being evil and sick.

February 08, 2012

Diary of a Permaculturalist 20: Statement of a Problem

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 19: Master Gardening on your doorstep from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

Solutions or responses welcome.

Current developments in Marxist ecology point to how the capitalist project, with its issue of the metabolic rift, is arriving at a dead end. Naomi Klein's identification of disaster capitalism, in The Shock Doctrine, is one example of how capitalism is reaching its limit in geographical exploitation of resources and now has to manufacture crises in the supply chain of resources to generate market instability and open up new markets.

New markets is a buzzphrase at the high end of free market capitalist systems. New resources, new ecologies; these are overlooked in favour of the global hunt for the most profitable area of exploitation, which can only grow the rift between the human/nature dynamic. Yet ecology's response, as a perspective, is now one that increasingly not only accepts, but asserts, the fact that humanity = nature, is a subset of. So we are only destroying ourselves as part of the planet we are destroying.

Recently, though (OK, about ten minutes ago) I've begun to have doubts about the methodology of Marxist ecologists. The method of capitalist critique is one that I've seen elsewhere, such as in union battles with employers. Searching through law, through social structures, for a valid critical approach to defend workers' rights, union legal teams often have to fall back on an approach that they hope will create valid change, or, more than likely, deter continued detrimental change. So, for example, in recent UK battles, on a local level, unions are attempting to exploit Health & Safety laws as a way to find leverage in increasingly hostile-to-employees Employment Law. Prior to that, in my limited union experience, the struggle centred on cases of unfair dismissal, harrassment and so on, but these laws, as I understand it, have been tightened to protect employers.

So, a model arises in which unions select a cause, one that is effectively within the scope of a 'new market' in terms of being a battleground that hasn't been fought over before. The problem as I see it lies in how the environmental movement, by developing into social ecology, has merely found a new market to exploit in its anti-capitalist battleground.

In other words, from this perspective, the anti-capitalist movement in the form of the ecological movement, is adopting a capitalist model by which to launch its attack on capitalism. This feels as much a psychological conditioning in myself, however: that I am trained to read through capitalist structures, and training further to identify capitalist structures. Yet I can't help feeling, underlying all this, that the futility of the alternative PR project is futile because it isn't drawing on an alternative to capitalism: ancient religious fundaments, or perhaps something so antiquated - barter systems, foraging, similar social structures that are improbable in light of current population scales - that the new approach will defy capitalist structures utterly.

It's easy to think yourself into a bind when you haven't read enough, or the right books. But all this unloading of chest-weights is helpful while you're on the road to change.

January 21, 2012

Moffat on Sherlock

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who?newsfeed=true

There's very little TV I like, generally, because the medium is so curtailed by budgets and ambition and producers with their heads in the clouds of assumptions about what audiences really want, but I have followed some of Moffat's Sherlock, if only because they are close enough to film length and self-contained as to basically be films. The hype has left me repeatedly talking about it in terms of what isn't quite satisfying, or something I don't trust about the over-produced moments, the under-explored character depths, etc. etc. and I still can't shake off the feeling that it's one of those shows that only looks good because it's surrounded by dreck.

But this is still a worthwhile interview with Steven Moffat. Perhaps a little bit for the wrong reasons, once again, though the article also shows current limitations to mainstream journalism. Jeffries has to use the hook of the Sherlock show's cliffhanger to draw you in and then tries as hard as possible to get a serious conversation about writing out of it.

The most interesting point Moffat makes is that Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes are supposedly both written for children. Really? Moffat makes some very entertaining comments that suggest the whole idea of writing for children or adults is rubbish. In fact, when he says: "I get irritated when people say on Twitter: 'It's too complicated. I'm not following it.' Well, you could try putting your phone down and watching it" you can imagine him thinking some adults lack the concentration levels of children, hence writing for children is the more satisfying challenge.

Or in other words, the reader should elevate themselves to the level of the show? Or stop making snap judgments based on partial or even no effort readings. (Which has been annoying me lately in other walks of life.)

November 08, 2011

University Pension Disputes / Soft Science, Hard Facts, Power Narratives

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/insite/news/intnews2/latest_uss_valuation

Just saw this link to the latest on the USS pensions valuation. The title there is acutely misleading; the word "reveals" and "valuation" leading me, as intended, to believe that there is an actual gap of £2.9bn in the scheme, rather than a predicted gap.

I had an interesting chat in July with a lecturer from the Accountancy Dept. here at Warwick. I was surprised to hear that they had a module called, 'Accounting in Context', which teaches critical perspectives in the field. I thought only the Arts used that kind of woolly thinking, but it turned out, to my naive surprise, Accounting is an equally interpretive discipline. They even have a journal called Critical Perspectives on Accounting.

So when a particular team of actuaries drum up a set of "assumptions", a reader can't automatically assume that they're operating with the employees' best interests at heart. In fact, the current dispute over pensions is entirely a battle of narratives over the state of play of the USS pension fund.

And, given the stacking of power, and the USS board, in favour of the employers, the only thing in the employees' favour is their right to withold labour. And then it comes down to a battle for dominance of one narrative over another. This article, then, relies on people's assumption of accountancy and financing as being a kind of 'hard subject', with concrete numeric outcomes, and so on.

Yet, as we all know, the concept of forecasting is an inexact science. The modern soothsayer is fond of using graphs in place of animal bones, spreadsheets in place of the crystal ball. The science underlying these approaches are the same - reading clouds, reading markets, reading habits. Behind it all, is an attempt to understand and predict human nature: the brief, whimsical burst of years we spread across the planet and leave behind in a sear of smoking footprints.

October 26, 2011

Diary of a Permaculturalist 19: Master Gardening on your doorstep

Follow-up to Diary of a Permaculturalist 18: Avaaz vs. the Amazon (Jungle) from George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme

An exciting discovery on campus this week! Warwick's dark satanic halls have buried within them a green and pleasant bit of wild field, upon which hath been demarcated a patch for growing food. Somewhere southeast of Tocil and Jack Martin Residences, or east from the lakes below the Health Centre, you'll find a fenced off patch of land for students and staff to use as an allotment.

Nick Hillard, UoW's Environmental Manager, has given that land over to student societies to manage. He has even offered, should the project begin to thrive, to double the space available. While I was down there last Sunday, pretending to be young enough to dig a trench, a few students showed up with white buckets of kitchen scraps, to add to the compost heap.

One of the people managing the space, Carla Sarrouy, is also a Master Gardener and is all set to help train up students and staff to make use of the space, and their own gardens, for growing vegetables in a sustainable way. There'll be a meeting soon - probably on Sunday this weekend, to talk through new plans for the space.

At the moment there's a need for postgraduate and staff volunteers, as the academic year doesn't match up with growing timetables, particularly if you're fallowing in winter. At the same time, perhaps some winter growing could happen, if every kitchen on campus got rigorous about bringing kitchen waste over.

Also, I've been thinking about the kind of teaching that could take place in a garden like that. Imagine, for example, a class on the 'Dig for Victory' campaign, combined with actual gardening? Somewhat gimmicky, maybe. What about reading Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney (both these links are a bit ad-heavy, be warned) while holding a spade in your hand? A bit more illuminating, perhaps! And a chance to expand upon their metaphors, to come up with new meanings for the act of digging.

Or a session with Prof. Liz Dowler on food sustainability, ethics and social issues? Or perhaps a talk by Nick Hillard himself on the campus environment, biodiversity, and water management (the Canley Brook runs across campus, with parts running along the edge of the allotment). Or even someone from Warwick's Food Security research group? Or outside speakers - how about setting up Permaculture training?

December 17, 2010

PN Review Launches Archive

Writing about web page http://www.pnreview.co.uk/

Received an email from Carcanet recently, announcing the launch of their digital archive. Forty years of magazines right there, for the eye.

Almost: it comes for a price, of course. While resources like the Poetry Library's Poetry Magazines website (incidentally, you can read PN Review's predecessor there, Poetry Nation) have relied on generosity and the basic assumption that poetry makes no money most of the time, PN Review and Carcanet are essentially commercial, though both the archive's creation and the publishing house are propped up substantially by the Arts Council and other funding. (Corona beer features on the back of every issue: "The drink of poets everywhere!") Let's not begrudge them, or anyone else, trying to survive and thrive off poetry; they've maintained a strong editorial line and excellent standards over the decades, under Michael Schmidt.

Yet the part of me that has got used to getting my poetry fix for free online still begrudges coming up against the firewall. I'm working on crossing these wires with the part of my brain that likes to fling money at charities via online payment systems.

They offer generous rates for students, you'll be relieved to hear: £18 for online access and 1 year/6 issues of the print journal. That's 50% off adult rates! As a resource for learning about contemporary poetry, especially of the high-modernist descent, it's excellent. The prose I've found to be rigorous in thought and intelligence, leaning towards academic style (I don't want to typecast the whole, as it's impossible to generalise with any magazine, but sometimes I've found parts a little dull-edged, while at others very vigorous), generous and quotable material for researchers. I think our university library still subscribes, and we've a handful of sample copies in the Writers' Room if you want to take a look.

You'll also find, if you visit the website and click the relevant subject headings, that there's a wealth of free sample material - hundreds of poems, and, at a quick glance, a good fifty each or so of interviews, articles and reviews, plus a selection of reports. For example, this wonderful discussion about the New York School and New York in general, between John Ashbery and John Ash:

I like some of the Language Poets though I've no idea what their movement is all about.

-- John Ashbery, 1985

Carcanet's Full press release follows:


16 December 2010

Last night in the centre of Manchester an unusual celebration took place: the magazine PN Review launched www.pnreview.co.uk, its complete digital archive, including more than 200 issues and four decades of literary writing.

The website, designed and implemented by WebGuild Media Ltd, the Cheshire-based web solutions company, makes more than seven thousand items – interviews, poems, essays, features and reviews – by 1625 contributors immediately available to subscribers, with much material open access, in an unprecedentedly easy-to-navigate and user-friendly form.

At the launch, surrounded by writers, subscribers and academic colleagues, Michael Schmidt OBE FRSL, editor of the magazine since its inception as Poetry Nation in 1973, said: ‘Considering what we have here, it feels as though we’ve achieved as much as a dozen magazines. The conversations with Isherwood, Genet, Beckett, Lennox Berkeley, four Ashbery and three Murray interviews, for example, the many now-famous poems first published here, a host of writers making their first appearances in our pages… modern literature has much to be thankful for, and it’s suddenly all here at our fingertips!’

Four years in the making and realised with assistance from Arts Council England, this major online resource reinforces the critics’ claims that PN Review is:

…the most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK's poetry magazinesSimon Armitage

…the premier British poetry journal... Marjorie Perloff

...probably the most informative and entertaining poetry journal in the English-speaking world. John Ashbery

…quite remarkably good – it must have a claim to be the best anglophone literary magazine there is. Sir Frank Kermode

…the most incisive voice of a vision of poetry and the arts as central to national life. George Steiner

PNR is a journal in the tradition of Criterion and Scrutiny. It combines discovery and appraisal of new writing with reappraisals, celebrations and advocacies. It is committed to modernism and its aftermaths and sets vital, alternative agendas for modern poetry. PNR champions the work of the New York School; the Antipodeans (Les Murray, Judith Wright and Bill Manhire); it stands up for experiment and keeps a weather eye on the poetries of Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia. It is also a magazine of new writing: Andrew Motion, Blake Morrison, Sophie Hannah, Sujata Bhatt, Sinéad Morrissey and Jane Yeh are among those who published early in PNR. And it is a journal of re-discovery, in which W.S. Graham, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Laura Riding among many others have featured.

For further information about PN Review please contact:

Eleanor Crawforth at Carcanet on 0161 834 8730 extension 21

For further information about WebGuild Media Ltd please contact:

Angela Bent at WebGuild Media Ltd on 0161 428 1102

December 16, 2010

Villanelle exercise

Just a quick draft written during Can Sonmez's session in week 9.

A Year of Dry Seasons

The river's stones are piled bone dry
magnificent to look at, touch and climb.
Some seasons have no sense of country,

which is why the water's gone and why
the reeds are the spines of a broken comb.
The river's stones are piled bone dry

against the year's endless sunrise
and maybe tells us something of the times:
some seasons have no sense of country,

or its unlucky people's lives
and cloudless skies don't know to rhyme
the river's bone-dry stones

with the ruined fields, the brittle sties
a plywood bandage on the fences' lines.
The river's bones are piled stone-dry
by seasons with no sense of country.

October 20, 2010

On Posterity and Cultural Conservatism

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/04/gabriel-josipovici-modernism-tom-mccarthy

"In cultural terms, we live in deeply conservative times. Editors at several major publishing houses have to run novels' synopses past reader focus groups before being allowed to publish them; "literary" festivals feature newsreaders and other media personalities. We shouldn't imagine, though, that things were that different in the golden age of modernism. Ulysses was printed, in 1922, on a small, private press in Paris, in a run of 1,000; Kafka's Metamorphosis, on its small-press publication in 1915, sold 11 copies – of which 10 were bought by Kafka. Yet can anyone, now, name the successful middlebrow writers of 1922 or 1915? Of course not."

(Tom McCarthy, reviewing Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? for the Guardian.)

What the fuck is a reader focus group?

How do I get onto one?

June 08, 2010

Pensioners and Poverty

One of the stranger, but very rewarding freelance jobs I've been doing for a while now is editing British Pensioner. It's published by a (non-party affiliated, but mostly Old Labour) organisation called the British Pensioners & Trades Unions Action Association (BPTUAA). One of their slogans is, 'Don't vegetate, AGITATE!' A worthy slogan. The man who invited me to start editing the journal, Jack Sprung, was General Secretary of the BPTUAA at the time, was in his early eighties, taking about seventeen different pills a day, writing poetry, taking watercolour painting classes to keep his hands agile, and attending protests around the country.

Every now and then I receive a letter to the magazine that really kicks. Here's one below, going in the latest issue.

Down Memory Lane

I am now in my eighties. Some time ago, friends asked me which day in my life did I remember most.

No, it wasn’t my wedding day, or the cost of the Queen’s Coronation, or the day (in the forties) when I joined the army. Nor was it the day when I returned home from service in the armed forces.

My everlasting ‘memory day’ was in the early 1930s, as a very small boy, clutching my mother’s hand, visiting the office of the local PAC (Public Assistance Committee). Yes, we were poor. And my mother almost had to beg for a few shillings, to feed herself, my blind father, and me and my little brother. The self-important clerk in the office verbally abused my mother, almost reducing her to tears. She had to thank him for four shillings, four shillings. I can never forget that day.

Well, back to reality, we have just had a Labour Government who could deal in trillions of pounds, not just millions, yet the poor are still with us.

(Four shillings.)

Albert Rollinson

April 16, 2010

On the side of the Angels – Elytis on Greek Poetry and Light

Writing about Lorca: Theory and Play of the Duende from David Morley

In response to David Morley's post, Lorca on duende, I found this article (originally at Dragoncave, but I've now ordered Elytis' 'Open Papers' from Copper Canyon) by Odysseas Elytis:

It has been said that I am a Dionysian poet, particularly in my first poems. I do not think this is correct. I am for clarity. As I wrote in one of my poems, “I have sold myself for clearness.” I told you that I am critical of occidental rationalism, skeptical of its classicism, and that I feel the breach opened by surrealism was a real liberation of the senses and the imagination. Could one possibly conceive of a new classicism in the spirit of surrealism? Is this a contradiction in terms? Do you know the work of Hans Arp? There you have great simplicity! He is a classical sculptor, isn’t he? Yet he was a surrealist! In other words, the world of surrealism had its classicists and romanticists. Essentially, it was romantic movement. But Éluard, for example, I personally find more classical than romantic.

I never was a disciple of the Surrealist school. I found certain congenial elements there, as I have told you, which I adapted to the Greek light. There is another passage in my “Open Papers” where I say that Europeans and Westerners always find mystery in obscurity, in the night, while we Greeks find it in light, which is for us an absolute. To illustrate this I give three images. I tell how once, at high noon, I saw a lizard climb upon a stone (it was unafraid since I stood stock-still, ceasing even to breathe) and then, in broad daylight, commence a veritable dance, with a multitude of tiny movements, in honor of light. There and then I deeply sensed the mystery of light. At another time I experienced this mystery while at sea between the islands of Naxos and Paros. Suddenly in the distance I saw dolphins that approached and passed us, leaping above the water to the height of our deck. The final image is that of a young woman on whose naked breast a butterfly descended one day at noon while cicadas filled the air with their noise. This was for me another revelation of the mystery of light. It is a mystery which I think we Greeks can fully grasp and present. It may be something unique to this place. Perhaps it can be best understood here, and poetry can reveal it to the entire world. The mystery of light. When I speak of solar metaphysics, that’s exactly what I mean.

I am not for the clarity of the intelligence, that which the French call “la belle clarté.” No, I think that even the most irrational thing can be limpid. Limpidity is probably the one element which dominates my poetry at present. The critic Varonitis has perceived this. He says that in my book “The Light Tree” there is an astonishing limpidity. What I mean by limpidity is that behind a given thing something different can be seen and behind that still something else, and so on and so on. This kind of transparency is what I have attempted to achieve. It seems to me something essentially Greek. The limpidity which exists in nature from the physical point of view is transposed into poetry. However, as I told you, that which is limpid can at the same time be altogether irrational. My kind of clarity is not that of the ratio or of the intelligence, not clarté as the French and Westerners in general conceive it.

You always look somewhat puzzled, I notice, whenever I contrast Greeks with Westerners or Europeans. This is not a mistake on my part. We Greeks belong politically, of course, to the Occident. We are part of Europe, part of the Western world, but at the same time Greece was never only that. There was always the oriental side which occupied an important place in the Greek spirit. Throughout antiquity oriental values were assimilated. There exists an oriental side in the Greek which should not be neglected. It is for this reason that I make the distinction.

Let me conclude by reading to you a concise statement I have prepared concerning the aims of my poetry:

I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality. It is for this reason that I believe, to the point of idealism, that I am moving in a direction which has never been attempted until now. In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.

Here's my own take on this:

Greek Fire

My most unnoticed acts
and my most veiled writings—
only from these will they know me.

—‘Hidden Things’, K. P. Kavafis

the mountains and the buried light
                 where goats ritualise the thistle
fire’s demesne in stasis
                 irrigated with root and sediment
whetted firestones underfoot
                 signified by hesperidins
and bronze fruit chipped by the flint
                 in these things she activates
apollo’s chariot unhorsed
                 leaf’s citrus in barium blazes
canopies pipetted with sparks
                 crows harlequins, magnesium flaring
the smokestone skies, no green
                 in the abattoir light where remorse
usurps every abscess that remains.

April 15, 2010

Why can't poetry reviews be like this?

Writing about web page http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation

Zero Punctuation is possibly my favourite review series on the internet.

April 13, 2010

Why poets should not be allowed…

Writing about web page http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=23

Ta to Andrew Bailey for the link.

April 10, 2010

1, by Pater Sparrow

Writing about web page http://www.1film.hu/main.php

And another film, this one Hungarian and based on a Stanislaw Lem essay, 'One Human Minute'.

Somewhat reminiscent of what I'd like to do in a creative writing class. At least in part...

Sessions Magazine call for submissions!

Message from Paul Hague, one of our current MA students, about submissions for the second issue of Sessions:

Sessions magazine issue 2 call for submissions.

Prose, poetry, whatever - surprise me - wanted (max 1,500 words)

All submissions to this email as .doc files.

Paul likes surprises. 1500 word poems, anyone?

And issue 1 is delightful, nicely done. Weird bloodstained typewriter on the front. Can't find where I put my copy, though.

April 09, 2010


Writing about web page http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VlpZIalRxk

New trailer for a Greek film out in the UK in a few weeks. Looks marvellous.

April 07, 2010

China Miéville wins British Science Fiction Association's Award

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/07/china-mieville-bsfa-award


Just heard on the wire (from Dan Barrow) that China's latest book, 'The City & The City' (or, 'The City & Teh City', as I like to call it) has won the best novel award from the BSFA. This, with Amazon rating it one of its best books of 2009, will hopefully put China in a good place to take even more risks with whatever he's working on at the moment.

(That said, his next book, 'The Kraken', is billed on Amazon as launching in May/June this year. Going to be colossal. Haha.)

Great also to see an endorsement of the book from the SF community, which shows an anti-purist line by supporting a novel that starts from a crime genre, but develops weird elements.

April 18, 2008

copper spires

On slate roofs
Terracotta pots
Filled with melted
Autumnal skies
Begin to spill

White washed as
Wood sorrel walls
Hearths swept
And scattered
With sesame seeds
Moved in dancing feet.


He held her head, in between the shifting curtains
Her face slanting off the sun you couldn’t see the bruises
That curved around his fingertips whose
Prints were stained
Guilt, watched her hands rest on the sill, in the split wine, congealing.

Her husband made love to his imagination
The curve of his hands face down
In prickly sunlight, to her whose
Imagination was spent
Body, made love to his

Promises flaked and fled from word
Their lips brittley unopened
Under tilted roses whose
Petals were still shut
Just as
His eyes remained blind to her stare.

He clutched at her rather, tried to rub her bare of marks
Panic at the spreading spill
Chameleon in the shifting light whose
Lucidity illuminated only truth
Clarity, stung him.

March 13, 2008

book on a red bench

it was under a false acacia. the bin overflowing
i remember it. you left the book on a red bench
i think you were french but i left without knowing

it was just a photogrpah effluvio greve of lillies growing
of two people with a tension but no intention
it was under a false acacia. the bin overflowing

two people that wont ever have stories, owing
to the fact that there was no middle to the book on the bench
i think you were french but i left without knowing

we’d read the last lines you see, growing
enamoured with each other, the thirst with no quench
it was under a false acacia. the bin overflowing.

i thought about leaving my life and going
with you to find our ending that was just right.. the little wench and her Mr. French
well, i think you were french but i left without knowing

but after living opening lines and finding no middle there really was no knowing
so we stopped all that nonsense, the glue of the spine afterall smelt of fish and wasn’t strong

it was under a false acacia, the bin overflowing
i remember it. you left the book on a red bench
i think you were french, but i left without knowing,

March 07, 2008

red acacia drips of dawn

In red acacia drips of dawn
Your fingers tangled in my hair
I roll to where the sheets are warm

I watch our bodies and the shapes they form
Bodies naked, stretched out without aesthetic care
In red acacia drips of dawn

in which the plots for our arguments are drawn
Undoing themselves in morning’s lucid glare
I roll to where the sheets are warm

The wind has changed. You can’t fly kites in storms.
You couldn’t win a thumsy war or hold my stare.
We sit inside, drenched in red acacia drips of dawn.

I try to fathom if this rocking could become my norm,
I ponder you in those elated spotlights, sunlit, rare,
I roll to where the sheets are warm

and lie staring up at where the curtain’s torn
‘us’ and the curtain need repair
But not now, not in this ficticious time of yawns
in these red acacia drips of dawn.

February 18, 2008

A whole lotta poems

Okay, so I haven't posted any of my poems this term because I have been lazy.  Very lazy.  And now here they ALL are:

Week 2:

Her caucasian hair’s bleached blonde on top, and

She’s soaked the bottom in silk cold coffee.

She puts gloss on with the car mirrors like

She’s going out tonight. Combat boots and

Her shortest skirt – rocker dress rehearsal.

She plays groupie, a “love destiny” mind,

He plays bass, feels entitled to the goods —

He’s a demigod star in the mirror.

He looks down through the bright blowfish colors

She looks up, embraces her destiny.

She’s beyond the backstage doors, another

Socal Susan for the demigod.


The Diamante Form was created by mestizos in Latin America sometime between 1639 and 1652. It is said to have been the favorite form of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It is intended to take the shape of a diamond when completed, but only great proficients and ancient wise-people have been able to create a perfect diamond on the page. The poem must start out with no more than 8 letters. For the first half of the poem, each new line must be one letter longer than the previous line and one letter shorter than the following line, until exactly halfway between the beginning and the end, at which point the proceeding and succeeding lines are both one letter shorter than the middle line. Following this point, each line then becomes increasingly smaller, letter by letter, until it matches the length of the first line of the poem. The letter limit does not include punctuation, but the letter “h” cannot begin any word in the poem. Diamante poems are usually one stanza in length, although there can be any amount of stanzas so long as they each follow the overall rules of the poem.


are you

going my


little gem?

O pearl ‘mong

flora, flower

divine! Whence

‘ave you arrived

and whither your

way? Tell me, flower,

or you risk quick

decay. For I will

pluck you, take

you away. Will

you still be

pretty and

new? No, you

shall be



Week 3:

Here are a few "different" versions of poem 1 from Week 2, none of which are really all that different:


Her hair’s bleached blonde on top

And she’s soaked the tips in silk cold coffee.

She tilts her head, piles gloss on over last night’s lipstick

Looks like she’s going out tonight.

Slinky black boots and a skin-tight skirt

The regular rock groupie uniform.

She’s got destiny on her mind like its got to be love

The natural outcome, no other conclusion.

He plays bass and girls and basketball,

Accepts the complimentary sacrifices,

While he checks the mirror every six seconds,

Makin sure he’s still there, still sexy.

He dedicates the next song to himself

She sings along, smiles as she’s beaten down

Doesn’t notice pain, pierced by images of him

Bright colors blind her, bind her to the truth

And she’s guided backstage,

Offered up, compliments of the region

Another sacrifice for the demigod.


Her hair’s bleached blonde

The tips, silk cold coffee.

She piles gloss on over last night’s lipstick

She’s going out tonight.

Slinky black boots, a skin-tight skirt

The regular rock groupie.

It’s got to be love

No other conclusion.

He plays bass and girls

The complimentary sacrifices.

He checks the mirror

To make sure he’s still sexy.

He dedicates the next song to himself

She sings along, smiles

Doesn’t notice pain.

Bright colors blind her, bind her

She’s guided backstage,

Compliments of the region.

Another sacrifice for the demigod.


Hair’s blonde on top,


The bottom, silk cold coffee;

Coffee from the border.

She puts gloss on like

It was made for her.

Combat boots, a low neck line.

Just add her shortest skirt.

She’s dressed up for the kill,

A “love destiny” mindset,

Fixated with fate.

He feels entitled to the goods —

They throw themselves on his altar.

The mirror says he’s

Without a true reflection.

He looks down through

The dark haze;

She looks up, begins to fray.

Neon bracelets lift her up

And she’s crossed the river,

Another innocent

Given to the demigod.


Heir’s bound, unstop’d,


He bought them, and Wilkes told Cathy;

Copied from an order,

Shepherd’s blogs online —

It was maid fur.

Come by boats, alone recline.

Just had her du jour Kurt,

The rest is up to Bill.

Hello, just tiny, mines hit,

Rebated with weight.

He goes and tattles to the guilds

They thrill stem cells on a salter.

The mere cess ease

A thatch roof infection.

Elixir Dan threw

The arcades;

Sheila locks up, big ends to pray.

Yawn braces live, erupt.

Banshees crops deliver,

Another in her sin

Gin to the dumber guy.

Week 4:

Okay, and here are two Sestinas and two Word Poems, because I am wishy-washy:

Charlie made the sweetest candy

Honey drops the color of earwax

Seb would come in and check his pocket-watch

Eye the sweets laid out like polka-dots

Or a fiery array of party tea-lights

And, of course, the streaks on her apron.

Then Charlie would take off her apron

And stand by Seb to survey the candy

And think about taking out some old tea-lights

Remembering when she’d tried to light a thimble of earwax

The smoke of which left her skin with angry red polka-dots

And ruined Granddad’s pocket watch.

Granddad loved that pocket-watch

So she’d hidden it in Grandma’s lacy old apron

Which Cousin Tawny had covered in crayon polka-dots

After eating an inordinate amount of candy

And using 53 Q-tips to scrape out her earwax

Before burning up all Grandma’s favorite tea-lights.

Grandma found the burnt up tea-lights

Just as she found the broken pocket watch

And the 53 Q-tips with bits of earwax.

She kept the ratty old apron

And wore it to make candy

And died in that old thing, covered in polka-dots.

At the funeral her dress, too, had black polka-dots,

And surrounding her coffin were candelabra tea-lights.

Charlie put in a tin of homemade candy

While Granddad stood fiddling with his pocket-watch

As perplexed as when he’d seen Grandma in that ugly apron.

And Tawny talked to Uncle Mort about earwax.

I’ve eaten Charlie’s candy the color of earwax

And seen Grandma in the apron covered in polka-dots,

If you can still call it an apron.

I think of it when I light tea-lights

Or when, in a repair shop, I spy a pocket-watch

And I feel the want of a cozy kitchen and homemade candy.

I’ve tried; I’ve made candy the consistency of soggy earwax,

Timed it with a pocket-watch, laid them out like polka-dots,

But they looked like melted tea-lights and my hands stuck to my apron.

Outside my window there was a tree

The perfect picture for a postcard

With at the bottom a bed of thyme.

We used to pick and put it in the pantry

Dry it for some evening to, on the terrace,

Burn it and divine our futures in the smoky plume.

When I was sad I would see in the plume

Some handsome prince climb to my window by the tree

And waltz me out on that same terrace

And take me on a Continental Tour, sending postcards

Back to my mother to hang on the door to the pantry

Near the springs of drying thyme.

And when I was happy the thyme

Would tell, though a similar plume

Of disasters so devastating that I’d hide in the pantry

Or climb up in my window-tree

And think of those Continental postcards

And avoid for a time the terrace.

Eventually I’d be drawn back to the terrace

With my brother and a sprig of last summer’s thyme

Prodded, perhaps, by the real postcards

Sent by aunts and uncles, not seen in some plume

Drawn in tacks on Tim’s map, spread like branches of a tree

With all the postcards on the door to the pantry.

I played a lot in that pantry

More so than on the too-big terrace

Though my favorite place of all was the tree

And the yet uncut, fresh growing bed of thyme

At twilight turned prophetic, blurred to a plume

Like on the helmet in one of Aunt Barb’s postcards.

I used to sit and stare at the postcards

On the same stool I used when I hid in the pantry

Before we caught it on fire and tried to read its smoky plume

When no one was around out on the terrace.

It burned so much better than the thyme

That we also threw on branches from a tree.

The tree branches burned like a bonfire postcard

Much better than all the sprigs of thyme in the pantry

Until the fire left the terrace and the smoke became more than a plume.


The word Tingle. Tingle. I can’t say it without feeling the result spread across my skin. That first bit, the “tee,” the prickle of excitement, anticipation, height! The flying “teeeeeeee!” And then the “gle,” drawing it out, bringing it down, finishing it off with a soft polish. Vibrating, yes, but fading too. A tingle would still feel like a tingle if it was called a klaburt. That’s a fact. You see, anthropologists living with bushman tribes in Africa have found that of all the words they’ve read the tribesmen from the OED (as is the wont of English anthropologists), tingle is one of the few the tribes-people have understood without any need for description or of hand motions (along with blue, jingle, and arachnophobia).

        The word itself dates back to 1189, the year King Richard I ascended the throne. And it was Richard I, in fact, who revolutionized the word. Before, the sensation of prickling and light stinging across the skin was called after the French word “tintement.” However, when King Richard, after various attempts to steal the throne from his father and brothers, finally managed to attain the crown, he allegedly told a friend at the coronation after party, “What I’m feeling isn’t tintement at all… it’s a… tinglen!” That’s the legend that surrounds this word, anyway. And, of course, over time “tinglen” has wisely lost the n on the end and become the word nations, from England to Cape Agulhas, know and love as “tingle!”


        Alrededor… that word, which, from the first Spanish lesson has been as fun to say as it has been elusive to memorize. Alrededor. Say it. Roll your erres in an over-the-top, almost obscene manner. Alrrrrededorrrr. How could the Spanish language novice, that neophyte of the Romancitc tongue not succumb to the siren call of that word. Alrededor. In fact, the word so calls to the souls of the students of that language that each of you stops caring about the meaning all together. As the high school teacher reads off words from the vocabulary section:

“Ábaco – abacus, abandonado – abandoned, adaptación – adaptation, alba – another word for dawn, alrededor –”

you stop. You don’t hear the rest of the vocab, much less the meaning of the word because in your mind you are saying “Alrededor… alrededor… alrededor!” each time with more and more passion and excitement. When you try to study your vocabulary for the quiz coming up you don’t even notice the meaning of alrededor because you are so caught up with the sound of it. You fail that vocab quiz, five years go by, and so it is that you are a great proficient in Spanish, but still don’t know the meaning of alrededor. You’ve looked it up many times in the past, but always you get distracted. Alrededor. You could guess around at what it meant, alrededor, but you never know for sure. The meaning escapes you. This is the power, the beauty, the danger, of Alrededor. I’d tell you what it means, but that doesn’t matter. The beauty is in the sound, and, anyway, by tomorrow you’ll have forgotten the meaning all over again, and all that you’ll have is that word. Alrededor.

Week 5:

Triolet: Barley’s boot(s)

When everything was a kind of live quiet,

I heard the thump of Barley’s boot

Which looks a little like pirate loot,

When everything was a kind of live quiet.

If I had the money I’d surely buy it,

But since its Barley’s my desire’s moot.

When everything was a kind of live quiet,

I heard the thump of Barley’s boot.

Villanelle: Erased faces

None of the victims have full faces

Even in pictures their outlines dim

Nameless as water and time erases

A litany of unsolved cases

The finding of a severed limb

None of the victims have full faces

Bodies of women found in different places

Most seem to have gone for a swim

Nameless as water and time erases

The killer has only left small traces

Body pieces that stood out to him

None of the victims have full faces

The girls’ absences leave unseen spaces

Like that relevant, unsung hymn

Nameless as water and time erases

A new victim the old replaces

With some foreign patronym

None of the victims have full faces

Nameless as water and time erases

Pantoum: Morbid Thoughts

We all walked slowly to the Mead Gallery that day

Or perhaps quickly, but not quickly enough

And when we got there, we were afraid to talk

Although eventually we began to speak among ourselves,

Or perhaps quickly, but not quickly enough

To stop my morbid thoughts and imaginings

Although eventually we began to speak among ourselves

And I found I was not the only morbid one

To stop my morbid thoughts and imaginings

I went over to a group in the corner

And I found I was not the only morbid one

Because they were discussing Chinese water torture

I went over to a group in the corner

To keep my mind off mutilated corpses

Because they were discussing Chinese water torture

I didn’t find much help there

I wanted to keep my mind off mutilated corpses

But when we got there, we were afraid to talk

I didn’t find much help there, since

We all walked slowly to the Mead Gallery that day

Week 7:

Okay, and here are my translation poem, my word poem, and my name poem, in that order:

If you’re tired of following fog tracks,

Tired of catching sins like common colds,

Tired of spinning yourself a cocoon of ominous verdicts,

Then come to our moon commune.

There are no secrets here on the moon

Where six suns shine down continually

Like six omens that bleach sins clean,

Or at least bleach them invisible.

The spaghetti tastes like hand rags,

So don’t come for the food, served in a room

Hung with Tusken Raider skulls.

But don’t worry, don’t worry; they’re long dead.

Here you’ll find yourself tied to the tracks,

Like that popular scene from Old West cartoons.

You won’t escape, but don’t worry, don’t worry.

You’ll be reborn.

Yes, the train will run you over,

Make a mess of you, you can’t escape.

But then maybe you’ll find

That it didn’t matter anyway.

So bring your sins, your cocoon, your elusive searches

and your SPF 500 (it won’t help, but habits…)

to our friendly commune on the moon

Where the six suns burn up all the fog.

You’ll probably find there wasn’t anything there to begin with.

"Hang Out"

Picture this: you are a girl. You might have to dig deep for this, but trust me, it is there. Got it now? Okay, you are a girl and you’ve spent the last four years positively sequestered at an all-girls school. There were a couple of male teachers with bushy beards and ‘Nam stories, but you have been more or less completely surrounded by girls day and night, night and day. You’ve graduated (not top of your class, but not too bad) and moved to a university, far enough from family that you have the blessing and curse of not being able to go home on the weekends. At this university there are dorms and study rooms and, so they say, boys. In fact, there you happen to meet one of these hither-to elusive specimens. He introduces himself as “Exhibit A.” Exhibit A is “nice” and “friendly” and after a suitable amount of chat about the “nice” weather he mentions that he has a car and offers to take you (yes, YOU!) to the mall to “hang out” sometime. Ah, now there it is. That fakest of fake phrases, that Beelzebub among the other, more straightforward invitations. Remember now, you’ve just come from four years of fun “hang out” time with all your friends back at the all-girls school. All your all-girl friends. Warning lights are not worsening the migraine that is not forming at the front of your mind from the thought you aren’t having. Your own private set of police sirens, for better or for worse (read: worse) are switched off. No, no, instead you are thinking “Oh, wow! My first guy friend. That wasn’t as hard as I was expecting.” You enthusiastically agree (it’s the all-girl’s school way, after all), and the following Friday you go. Now, let’s just fast-forward here, because the things he said, the things you said, the awkward silences, the things he shouted and the tears you cried aren’t important. In fact, at this point, if you happen to be finding the whole you-as-a-girl thing distracting, you can stop imagining that you are anything-but-you. If you find you kind of like it, go right on ahead. Right now you need to focus, though, on that prince of deceivers, that dirty little phrase which just caused so much imaginary damage.

Hang out.

What a disgusting word! It is triply disgusting because for the first part of your life, your childhood, it meant something innocent and fun, and when it changed, when it went from “let’s all hang out and play football and have happy platonic fun” to “let’s hang out, just you and me, and I will make suggestions to you that may or may not catch your interest,” no one told you. It’s like Anakin Skywalker joining the dark side without first sending an inter-office memo to people like Padme and Obi-Won saying “Sorry guys, I’ve decided to pursue other career opportunities.” No, they had to figure it out on their own. When did “hang out” make that “dark side switch?” I guess that’s what I want to leave you with. That image of “hang out” personified and wearing a chunky black breathing apparatus. I mean, I don’t have the answers. I’m as baffled as Obi-Won, reviewing all my teaching lessons trying to figure out how I could have skipped the “Don’t Kill Younglings” lecture or the “The Dark Side Doesn’t Have Casual Dress Fridays” lesson.

Canto I


That’s my name.

Kind of simple.

Okay, really simple, actually.

None of that extra a-h “nonsense” (I say nonsense ‘cause I’ve got a friend named Meaghan whose gonna flip her lid when she reads that). Actually, I think of the whole Megan Meghan Meaghan thing as a kind of friendly rivalry amongst a group of clearly superior girls.

A very LARGE group of clearly superior girls.

And then we have to go and add “Harrison.”

Do you know how many Megan Harrisons there are out there???

Okay, I don’t either, but there are at least three in California (at least)!

Yeah, real original.

And then there’s Jane.

Plain Jane. As in “John and Jane.” “Jane Doe.” “What a pain, Jane.”

So that’s me. Average name.

Everything else is pretty average too.

Average like beans.

Canto II

When I was little — I don’t mean just one year, or something, but all the little years — I used to dream I had a pretty, English name.

I watched Errol Flynn movies obsessively, so I knew names like


and Elizabeth

were the British names to have.

I couldn’t have them.

My name was (and still is, actually) Megan.

Like beans, remember?

And you can’t change beans.

If you did, to something like Hicklebingerportencedes, they’d still taste, smell, and congeal the same, they just wouldn’t be able to fit the name on the can as well. They’d have to use .5 font size.

And substitute teachers will always mispronounce Hicklebingerportencedes.

Anyway, I couldn’t ever be Mary or Elizabeth, so I invited them over to afternoon tea. They were just names, so they didn’t have faces or anything, but they could faint just like the women in the movies.

Canto III

I used to spend a lot of my after-school afternoons imagining.

I imagined I was a Governor’s daughter, like Olivia d’Haviland.

I imagined I was the Scarlet Pimpernell’s neglected wife.

I imagined I’d married Blue Beard by mistake.

I imagined I’d been transported back in time, and met stunningly handsome Indian guy who would help me escape ritual sacrifice.

Okay, so pretty much everything I imagined was stuff I’d read in books or seen in movies.

But just like Anne and her hair, I couldn’t imagine my name away. For my French roles I managed to squeeze into Marguerite, but everyone still called me Meg.

And I’m pretty sure Blue Beard never married anyone named Megan.

Canto IV

I went to a far-away summer camp once

Where they gave out sour gummy worms at the entrance

And I didn’t know anyone.

Someone had put Mom up to this idea. This “hyphenated name” idea.

She signed me up as Megan-Jane.

She introduced me as Megan-Jane.

I didn’t mind. There are Mary-Janes, but not as many Megan-Janes.

I met my cabin leader: her name was Squeegee.

“Hi! You must be Megan-Jane. That’s a bit of a mouthful. Mind if I just call you Megan?”

“Everyone does.”

Mom wasn’t even five minutes down the road.

I didn’t tell her, though. She was so excited about that hyphen idea, you know.

Canto V

In high school nicknames were all the rage.

We gave them to all our friends.

No one gave me one.

I gave myself a few, over a period of time, you understand, not all at once… but they didn’t stick.

I was always Megan.

“Hey Panda! Hey Pip! Hey Zebra! Hey Char!

Hey Megan!”


Canto VI

Usually I can’t escape my name.

Open the door — Megan.

Wash my hands — Megan.

Travel to exotic countries full of strange spices and ancient traditions — still Megan.

There is one way, though.

Its called Deadline.

“That 10 page research paper due in two days, with no research done and a questionable thesis? No, I don’t think I’ll start that till tomorrow.”

Oh yes! As I feverishly read about the way to make crepes more crunchy (add more eggs) and wonder if I can make it last an entire paragraph I slowly lose all forms of identification.

I am an intrepid adventurer searching for clues —.

I am a prison inmate trapped forever in a small, sunless cell —.

I am a sleep-deprived, slightly crazed student adding dubious secondary sources to back an already flimsy argument — no time for a name!

Not until I hand in my paper and stumble into the light do I start to feel human again.

Canto VII

Bronze. Sterling silver. Wood. Grass. Dogs. Underwear. Brown. Sticks. Tissues. Trashcans. Cardboard. Pavement. Curtains. Mud. Rope. Chairs. Bacon. Buses. Windows. Samuel L. Jackson. Frozen pizza. Apples. Rotting bananas. Hairballs. Black umbrellas.


Ha!  That is really long, and I certainly hope no one read all the way down to here.  Or do I?