All entries for May 2005

May 17, 2005

Jonathan Coe, Writers at Warwick

Just back from Jonathan Coe's reading at Writers at Warwick. He read from The House of Sleep, The Closed Circle, and a new short stories collection, 9th and 13th.

The reading was made slightly unusual because Theo Travis accompanied Coe with a flute. Theo used some sort of digital delay pedal to loop and layer the music, creating slow, shifting and ghostly soundscapes, which clashed slightly with Coe's careful but monotone reading voice.

The accompaniment perfectly suited the first excerpts from The House of Sleep, creating an atmosphere of hypnotic unease that reflected the feelings of the main character, and the underlying supernatural theme.

Talking with people afterwards, I seem to be the only one who was impressed by the musical accompaniment. I wonder whether I am too easily susceptible to anything that resembles experimental jazz.

Music aside, it was hard to escape the subtlety and wit of Coe's prose, and the excerpt from The Closed Circle, a hilarious satirical portrait of an upstanding country gentleman with questionable hobbies, seems to owe a good deal to The League of Gentlemen, which makes me want to read the rest of the book.

Since I listen to music more than I read or write nowadays, I am very interested in recording or performing prose or poetry to music. It's seldom done, though. Perhaps the best example of it I've come across recently is Linton Kwesi Johnson, who reads his poetry with a regular, driving pulse even without musical backing. His reading at Writers last term packed the conference room and was one of my favourite such events of this year.

May 16, 2005

The Eve of the Vernal Equinox [part two]

Follow-up to The Eve of the Vernal Equinox [part one] from Joe's Blog of Funk

It's rough - very rough - but it went in my super portfolio.

Again, please reply with your impressions, comments and criticism, and be harsh if you need to be.

I must have sat for half an hour on the cold stone of the pillbox, lost in my own world of thoughts. The dusk deepened around me, invisibly. My attention was entirely elsewhere.

Then the skin of my reverie burst like a bubble, and I fumbled for the paper in my pocket and the quill behind my ear. On the paper was the aborted beginning of a sonnet:

"My thoughts are not my own: they wheel and yearn
Like birds returning home when spring arrives."

I immediately wrote:

"They trace the high equator as they turn
As sunflowers do, and yearn for your clear eyes."

I said the word "sonnet" aloud to myself, as if to confirm its reality. To a poet, form is seductive. The sonnet is a seductive thing that draws obsession to itself. Not an inert thing – a living thing, a changing thing, like a river. Its rhyme and rhythm are not laws. They are mutable and beg to be tampered with. Scores of poets have worked with the sonnet form, and every one of them tampered with it, and that is what gives it life. Life, character, a person.

Writing, though solitary, is a collaboration. There is a spirit to a poem that you must greet, and know, and be faithful to. I imagined then a girl called Sonnet, wrapped in a thin dress, with the most perfect pale skin, knee deep in cold river water.

I lay on my back while I turned all this over in my mind, draped in Hubertine's huge cloak. The whole world had turned to black and white. It was very strange. I couldn’t fathom it. I knew that I couldn’t go back to campus, that I had to remain detached from the world and from people for at least that evening. I couldn’t understand the dusty lightness in my chest and I couldn’t remember what I had done that day. The stars scattered themselves over the dusk like motes of dust, like flecks of brilliant oil paint.

I coughed, to make sure that I could still cough. I knocked the back of my head gently on the stone. I felt for my heartbeat inside my shirt. I said the word "bats" to myself – pairs of tiny shadows were flitting almost imperceptibly beneath the night sky. I was thoroughly distracted by the world around me. The first thing I usually notice in this state is the birdsong, but in the absence of birdsong I noticed the wind playing over me and sounding a susurrus in the trees.

"Nothing is happening." I whispered to the night. "Leah is away and everything is perfectly still." I hardly knew what I was saying, but it rang suddenly true to me. The world needed Leah's wind in its sails. Without her, everything was as still as a picture.

Inhaling deeply, I sat up, curling forward to stretch my spine. Then I reached for Hubertine's package. She had left me a little pot with herbs in: a rather dusty substance with a few small leaves added. She had also given me a piece of paper, which I unrolled then. It had a design drawn on it in thin charcoal, something of Hubertine's own invention, curiously detailed. A rough arc of black stars – a constellation in which the shape of a cross seemed to emerge – was topped by an orb, half-coloured: the moon. The stars were symmetrically reflected in the horizontal center of the paper, though not exactly. The lower reflection was distorted, and did not carry as many stars, nor were they defined as brightly.

I considered Hubertine's intention in designing this. These sigils – and I had used them before – were intended to be used in meditation, as a sort of vortex that pulls attention and imagination inwards. It seemed to me that Hubertine was trying to make me think asymmetrical thoughts with this sigil.

I do not know what made me decide to light the herbs, what in particular about my state of mind made me want to lose myself in imagination that night. Certainly, I was lonely. But it was not just the solitude, but a creeping and unpleasant feeling that I couldn’t be happy in the company of others, even if I wanted to. I imagined that a fair amount of drink would disappear on the eve of the vernal equinox, so it would be trivial to walk for ten minutes to the tavern and quaff ale until I became approachable. Timo would probably be there. But I knew I couldn’t.

So I lit the herbs, and placed the corner of the paper underneath the bowl. I crossed my legs and thought about my breathing. It was quite shallow, but regular at least, and my nose was clear. I worked, very carefully, on making my breaths slow and deep, such that I was soon taking very long and natural draughts of air. Air laden, of course, with the herb-smoke. Its distinctive smell brought a measure of clarity to my mind, even as I felt my consciousness gradually slackening under the effect of Hubertine's secret ingredients.

I maintained the rhythm of my breath; slowly in, and slowly out. My body began to feel slack, as loose and comfortable as the big cloak on my shoulders. My face too, melted away from its usual frown into a blank relaxation. My mind was up to something. I felt curious, like those waddling ducks I had seen earlier. My mind wanted to go places. So I brought my eyes down to the sigil.

“Flat,” I thought. The paper seemed very flat to me. It didn't interest me as much as before. As I stared at it, though, it occurred to me that even the trees around me and the stone I was sitting on were flat in this way. They did not have a life of their own, they did not surround me, but were just impressions that I happened to be regarding. And shifting impressions, although I knew they were not moving. They seemed to expand and contract with my breathing, coming into clarity with each expiration. And then the sigil was big. It was very significant to me, very interesting. It was a diagram of my own thoughts, and my ego seemed to project itself in a wobbly arc of black stars towards the center of the page.

Then the stars weren't black, but bright white sparks on a dark background of sky.

Then the sigil wasn't a sigil at all, but a place.

May 14, 2005

More long poem

Follow-up to A long poem from Joe's Blog of Funk

a John Coltrane saxophone solo
riffling through arpeggios

your smile lingers on, as
the afternoon clos-
es itself into an evening

a smile I cannot forget or mistrust
the golden howl
of Miles' trumpet soaring

dyeing golden hair darker
silverish in sunlight,
you are unhappy with how people see you.

Or does it?

Niki – you – the afternoon – a
dying golden air
into the evening…

So I have mixed up letters in a metaphorical scrabble bag and spelt out odes to my friends,
and they
in turn,
have altered me,
alteration finding,
gesturing to me, touching,
letters slowly turning.

So on a breezy afternoon,
what can further poems prove?

The heat and tone of this,
a new sun rotating above me
each day, like
a short and rapturous inspiration –

Oh! It feels,
feels like a sigh,
a laugh,
a climax
under my fingertips, welling up throughout.

But it sounds like the soft piano
on "A Kind of Blue",
chords cascading,
quietly ending.

May 07, 2005

A long poem

A few people have seen this and Katy told me to post it here so I will. It's a real life poem, so I'm sorry if you had anything to do with it.

April rain on campus
in the closing dusk
and me in hat and sandals.

I squelch toward the laundrette
half full of the bleary, and yawn.

My third term unfolds,
the misjudged sestet
of an amateur poem.

Campus is a Beauty In The Spring
I forge a path
along a road bordered by fallen blossom petals
through a car park
past a field of nothing
to the lake
that enormous reddened reflection of the sky

I call a friend at home – he's not around.
My underpants are clammy
but I collect them anyway.

An Indian
a ghost
a weak intellect amongst the corporeal
less colour than the strains of Beatles hits played on piano

a cup of tea won't

I ought to climb this pylon and fling myself in a whirl of electrons right into mediocre Earlsdon
This streetlight vista
is equal at least
to Indias of spice and mine…

An Essay on Love
I have measured out my days in cola cans and the burnt-out roach ends of famous spliffs with fresh and effervescent friends;
I saw the best minds of my generation engrossed by sonnets, peckish eccentric polite;
I have shared with them
old trinket words
dangerous naked words-

inconstant teen with bluebells
in her eyes, and skin as pale as china
or February clouds, grows
coy thoughts into civic institutions
and awaits the spring.

There hangs above her bed a chiaroscuro portrait of a Renaissance woman, her pale body naked and beautiful;
Above her bed, strewn with the petals of bluebells.

the moon is submerged
in this man's heart
alone by the lake — with a friend by the lake
jet hair a smudgy fingerprint
offering every generosity

a cat
a wistful ocean

I want to add more letters like these and then a coda of some sort. Thoughts please.

May 04, 2005

We live no longer in the dusky afternoon where evil mixed itself with good

Follow-up to We live no longer in the dusky afternoon where evil mixed itself with good from Joe's Blog of Funk

You have one more day to see the English Literature Society's production of The Crucible. It's special.

English Literature Society presents

The Crucible
by Arthur Miller

Saturday, Week 3

2pm, The Cooler. £3/£4.

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