PERSISTENCE OF VISION

•September 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

59 Fractals - Fantasy Landscape

The span of his gaze was so great

He could not see the generations come and go before him:

Flickering, quicker than motes on a sunbeam.

Growing, rotting, burning at a supersonic pace;

Flitting between the squares of a chessboard garden

Too fast for the eye to catch.

Their monuments lasted a moment longer

Before melting, like sugar in rain.

Yet these he applauded:

Having watched great cathedrals rise and wither

Like convolvulus or runner beans –

A mite colourless (he would have approved more exotic

Blossomings) but worthwhile enough.  He wondered if

Perhaps they grew from seed; or rather, who pollinated

Them, so that their brief lives might be perpetuated,

And to what end. Before him, belligerent continents

Waged war or else, supine in defeat,

They ebbed and flowed, passive, upon the tide.

He would have liked to eavesdrop on their treaties

And entreaties: but they spoke too hurriedly, and in a whisper.

He yearned to confide in intimacies, and

He was reconciled to being alone.

31 The Copulation of Metals

In truth, they had begun to weary him.

They knew no wisdom, and their refusal to learn was

Irksome.  Clearly, this was home to the most

Rudimentary thought.  Had he been young (had he

Remembered what it was like to be young) he might

Have wept with disillusionment.  As it was, ever the stoic,

He watched the terrain crumble further into ashes,

And clasped his arms tight against the onset of

An eternal winter.

THE MAN WHO PAINTED SILENCE

•September 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

07 Beached Wave

Pain is nature, the foetal worm.

Considered pain is nature murdered by a smile:

The false smile of a man, his maggot song.

The time before Time was eternal.

The space before Space was infinite.

Mortal forms came and slipped away,

As age followed age, without age, and stone

Convulsed.  For such was the nature of consequence.

The cleaved cliffs moved, and people (meaning nothing)

Gave their mayfly lives.  Before knowledge, there was

Truth.  Before sound: grey mountains slept, unborn.

 

There came a man who painted silence,

And light where none was known to fall.

The world failed to fill him, and it was all there was –

Nor was it his to own.  He came to map the bog of

Unrecorded time: of lives that knew no context,

Were limitless and short, piled up like shale.

148 Peace (monocle)

Beguiled by the beauty of pendulums and thunder (and

Lazuli, and other forms of make-believe), he had not

Grasped that nature is, and does, because it can.

Notepad in hand, he slipped – of course – on seaweed

His cries were lost in one amorphous, resonant note.

 

He sensed that human dissolution rises from defeat.

Not so in nature.  Necessity, by nature, is indifferent.

There was no malediction from the sea, as then he drowned.

No embrace in the tide, as he succumbed.

The waves lapped; the ripped clouds fled:

The sun was a sickly pearlescence.

He was there. He was not there.

His spine cracked on loveless rocks.

The gulls were gulls.

 

Stephen Jackson

May-June 2014

An Eternal Present

•September 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

119 Odalisque (3)

She glides upon a mirror beneath which apparitions prowl.

Krakens and cockatrice: men with faces melted to their stomachs,

With the gold stare of the basilisk. Fishes with lashing, spumy

Manes: horses with grappling serpent coils – She has not seen them.

Not for herself. She seeks to plumb the limits of her world:

Fall off the edge, as medieval mariners did; only there are no edges.

She skates for days, glimpsing simply her own feet, or else reflected

Countenance – first curious, vain, perplexed and lastly bored.

143 Battersea, March 2011

Memory is allowed, but only the remembrance of infinite

Repetition. Wandering insects buzz from time to time, yet may not bite.

She yearns for a corner from which she might fight her Last Stand.

There are no corners. The air has the tart tang of some high desert.

She spies the sheen and glister of distant mountains, there to be

Climbed one day, only not yet; seeming to grieve, fret, move.  Her

Caravan sails on air: all veils, brocades; inoffensive as a Dumb Waiter.

The sky’s as clear as calcite. She thinks she’s heard a hum.

She fumbles with old shopping stubs: drops them.

She fans the blazing dreams of one who is

About to die: and has, and cannot.

She spills her silver tears of solitude.

Stephen Jackson

14-18 July 2014

DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY: What’s this book about?

•September 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

My Resonance FM broadcast, to launch the book of my poetry and imagery

Resonance FM 3

Any mention of Survivor Art, so-called, is liable to send a shudder of dread through the public imagination.   Quite  rightly  so.    I remember telling one gentle soul what the title of my book was going to be, and it was if his whole face went into spasm.  But at least, forewarned is forearmed – or as the Nineteen Forties comedian Max Miller used to boast: “I know what you’ve come for.  And you’ll get it.”  At any rate, now the fire escapes are bolted: we’re all in here together: and we have a long night ahead.

 

My title was meant to inspire a frisson of curiosity, amusement and mild foreboding.  It came from an off-the-cuff comment by the television producer Terrance Dicks, who went on to invent Doctor Who. “The Living are just dead people on holiday.”  It could have been worse.  As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put the matter:

 

Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.

 

Any human life exists in the acknowledgement, however tacit or for modern man taboo, of its own extinction.  This ecological necessity is what frames a life, what gives it shape and purpose, but it gives us an awful accountability, culpability, for each wasted day. To quote William James:

 

The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

 

Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the cynic who scans the heads of a crowd would perceive only droves of slaves by their own consent, who lived on yet in what Carl Jung called “the sin of unconsciousness”.  Fondly one might hope that that he read them wrong; and the fact that you have persevered this far persuades me that you are not of that mould.  Still, to quote a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh – not that Walter Raleigh, but the Edwardian journalist:

 

I wish I loved the Human Race;

I wish I loved its silly face;

I wish I liked the way it walks;

I wish I liked the way it talks;

And when I’m introduced to one

I wish I thought, What Jolly Fun!

The self-appointed jury, although still reconsidering its verdict with news of every fresh atrocity or unsung feat of compassion, on the whole seems rather to be against the Human Race, viewed as a collective noun. “Amusement”, observed Alexander Pope, “is the happiness of those that cannot think.”  “Most people”, declared Oscar Wilde, “are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”  Schopenhauer went further:  “We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.” Or perhaps there’s less recrimination to be found in the blameless fatalism of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again. Fail better.”

My own opinion of the human species, you may be surprised to hear, is not a disrespectful one.  As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out: Life is nasty, brutish and short. Maybe not now, when the worst we have to fear in England is ingrained social injustice or the sting of the dentist’s needle. History was forged by us, the “little” people – generally by those who received the least possible credit. And if we disown what Hobbes has to say, then we discredit the courage and Herculean tenacity of those like us who have gone before, the predecessors without whom there could be no modern world for us to wallow in, no cosy refuge for us to be vaguely amused by, or with which to be nebulously bored and dream of uses for the Tesco Clubcard.

 

Here, by W H Auden, is one of my favourite poems:

 

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen; skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing; a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

John Keats, the poet we are meant to associate with mellow fruitfulness and truth as beauty, made clear that – for him – the existence of suffering was life’s only fixed component.  Over a century later another poet, Theodore Roethke, surmised that it was in a dark time (and in that alone) that the mind began to see.

 

At this point, I sense your stomach beginning to turn.  Isn’t it self-evidently true that most people at least try their best?  What is so shameful about being in love?  What’s so deluded or frivolous about happiness?

 

To which I reply: nothing at all; so long as these feelings are the real thing.  If they are for real, these are the best things in the world.  If they true for me, authentic to me, then it does not matter whether they are valid for anyone else: in the wide world.  It is the need instead to maintain a delusion of hope at any cost that fails to enchant me – that cruel monster of falsehood, and the slavish conformity to demonstrable untruths which it must demand from its adherents and its victims.

 

Of course, Karl Marx used to say that Religion was the opium of the people.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case now: at least, not so long as we stick to this side of the Atlantic.  The truth is more likely that people are coerced into being addicted to the mirage of happiness at any cost.  This is the icon they nail to the living room wall in the same way that we used to bang up prints of tearful clowns or Trechnikoff’s Green Lady, or those Athena posters from the Nineteen Seventies.  If happiness could not be found in this life, then there had to be a sequel in which we lived happily ever after.  Yet as belief in an afterlife seems also to be losing its thrall, so the quest for euphoria (I cannot call it fulfilment) becomes itself evanescent – fortuitous, by definition: a quick fix. Gawping recently at late night television, I was promised the answer to my dreams – and the secret, it emerged, lay in toning my “Abs”. Paradise, on the Shopping channels, is all about “Abs”. These and a cure for red wine on the carpet.

 

The trouble is (and here’s the rub) that happiness doesn’t come from a happy medium, and it never did.  It won’t spring gratefully from our quiescence, our satiation, our being full to the brim.  It’s boredom that comes from quiescence.  There is no Arcadia.  There is no transcendence or even respite, except for the briefest moments.  Peace is what we wring from the end of turmoil, the surmounting of adversity.  Joy is what we find in what we could never have dreamed might come true.  It is by definition not the norm.

 

It is claimed that one of the characteristics of Britishness is its tolerance of the outsider; yet I wonder how much we can afford that to be true in the English-speaking world.  When dollars and cents are the bottom line, you can’t afford the risk of those who might fail to fraternise with the American Dream.  As for England itself: we haven’t space for misfits in this rabbit hutch of an island, at least not now.  The motto of Johannes Brahms, the German composer, was “Frei aber fröh” – being free, being alone.  “To be an adult is to be alone”, said Jean Rostand.  But not with the price of land in London at its going rate.

 

In Europe things are different, or they used to be.  In German culture of the Romantic era, a key figure was Der Einsame: a solitary being wandering in nature, drawing fortitude and consolation from his solitude.  He was the distant onlooker, shrinking from the crowd in its far pavilions; a spectator to scrutinise (without emotion, without sentiment, without moral judgment) our human affairs.   And this notion brings me belatedly to a poem of my own; which I offer because it is the nearest conceit I have to a self-portrait, a signature:

 

 

DAY AND NIGHT

It’s night, when one needs love like blood,

And a city is an iceberg of lights,

The air throbs, roars like a distant bear.

The finger of one’s mind, in indolence,

Retraces the schema of old streets

Their excess of purpose – redundant as

Antique newsprint.  I like to sense this imprint of 

Bustling, forgotten hands: the surfeit of detail in a frosted

Frieze, or else a silent mausoleum in its zone;

With dolls’ house windows that will not surrender

My own reflection.  I like it all.

 

As a child, I wore my life like a nettle

I looked out with blistery eyes

As if a scourge (as if one scourged)

Not wanting to be found.

Of late, I’m more resilient.

I watch this house of mine fall dark:

I draw it round me.

Outside, perhaps, a crusting of friendships

Of issues grown pale – or rather, simply remote.

 

I remember now.  It happened one afternoon.

There’d been a downpour.  Briefly, the clouds parted,

And in the blaze, the city shone as if pearl 

For a moment, as if cleansed – as if life itself had been

Cleansed – all purged, all forgiven. For a moment, I felt

Glad to share what was soundless, timeless:

Proud to be there.

 

It is my shame to be different

But I don’t know how to live in bad faith.

I wish I could walk among the rest, be one of the rest

Find my solace in a seamless absurdity, but rather,

Those shackles have slipped away.  For me, you see,

There is a dissonance in one’s heart, if one has purpose:

A tension, or a null that must be fed:

One needs to have some private absurd – 

Some folly dimly grasped, giving one the appetite to carry on;

There’s nothing left, once vision and apathy melt together, resigning one,

In lean despotic light, to be an outsider at life’s busy midnight feast.

Spare me the sun, this glazed horizon, this eternal present.

How frivolous is life, if shorn of meaning

How short a life, how long a day.

 

 

And yet the Outsider is something that Society needs. The outsider is the sounding board for what everyone else takes for granted: the outsider holds up the mirror that allows the rest of us to see our own face as truly it is. After all, even a Dictator will allow you to agree with him.

 

Little wonder that so many of our visionaries have had what would now be stigmatised as mental illness.  Not only Keats and Brahms, both of whom endured what is now laboriously termed, “Bipolar Affective Disorder”. In the language of our forefathers, who remembered how to call a spade a spade, Brahms and Keats were “lunatics” – literally so.  Not only them – not only Mozart and Einstein, who are now said to illuminate “the schizotypy mind”.  Over the last decade, genetic evidence has come in for sure of the link between genius and profound emotional or cognitive disorder.

 

Another of my favourite passages comes from Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminal psychologist who was busy towards the end of the Nineteenth century.  In his monograph The Man of Genius, Lombroso declares:

 

 

As Mirabeau said, “Good sense is the absence of every strong passion, and only men of strong passions can be great.” Good sense travels on the well-worn paths; genius, never. And that is why the crowd, not altogether without reason, is so ready to treat great men as lunatics, while the lettered crowd cry out when – as I have attempted to do here – this general opinion is attached to a theory… It must be added that moral insanity and epilepsy which are so often found in association with genius are among the forms of mental alienation which are most difficult to verify, so that they are often denied even during life, although quite evident to the Alienist.

Just as giants pay a heavy ransom for their stature in sterility and relative muscular and mental weakness, so the giants of thought expiate their intellectual force in degeneration and psychoses. It is thus that the signs of Degeneration are found more frequently in men of genius than even in the insane.

 

 

Dickens, Beethoven, Picasso, Michelangelo, Schumann, Balzac, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Berlioz, Puccini, Elgar, Handel, Goya, Michael Faraday, Virginia Woolf, Erik Satie, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Edward Lear, Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Ludwig Boltzmann, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Salvador Dali (as if you couldn’t have guessed), Sigmund Freud (as if you couldn’t have guessed), Florence Nightingale, Goethe, Sylvia Plath, Mussorgsky… how long must I be permitted to carry on?

 

I think I’m in danger of feeding you a red herring here; not least because, in every public talent show which currently infests our primetime weekend television, frenzy is deemed to be a satisfactory counterfeit for technique.  Excess was never a valid substitute for anything, or even an excuse.  Either you have craft, or else you have nothing.  When you forfeit structure you forfeit language itself; and your audience has nothing to see or hear from you but a small dog yelping in plaintive self-pity at the back of a yard.  As Brahms himself puts it, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”  So, no. The only point I’d like to make tonight is that outsiders, whether they were made proud or ashamed or consigned to life’s outer margins, have created the luminous cultural horizon across which the rest of us scrabble like monochromatic ants, or crabs, or dutiful beetles, or more feasibly like unborn embryos, kicking in our sleep.

 

Don’t be frightened of your isolation, but make it magnificent.  Jack Kerouac, the Beat poet, put it thus: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Or, if you’d prefer a bit more Nietzsche, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.  ‘Giving style’ to one’s character – a great and rare art!”  And as consolation he adds, “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

 

What does interest me is the way in which the creative voice might choose, quite consciously, to adopt the guise of the Outsider.   Søren Kiekegaard, a Danish philosopher, placed himself deliberately in the role of “gadfly”, as he expressed it; and he was far from being alone.  William Wordsworth too flirted with personas (masks, if you like) that could say what the poet himself could barely countenance. So you see: the artist as joker, the artist as flirt, the artist as agent provocateur: the artist in his confessional, the artist at his most profound self-interrogation.  Anything for the journey, life’s journey; and anything for the dialogue – whatever savour or spice the dialogue will take.

 

When around the Millennium I first became passionate about poetry, I was touched by a moment of melancholy scrutiny from D H Lawrence:

 

I look at the swaling sunset

And wish I could go also

Through the red doors beyond the black-purple bar,

I wish that I could go

Through the red doors where I could put off

My shame like shoes in the porch,

My pain like garments,

And leave my flesh discarded lying

Like luggage, of some departed traveller

Gone one knows not whither.

 

Then I would turn round,

And seeing my cast-off body lying like lumber,

I would laugh with joy.

 

 

Perhaps you can begin to see why I want to incinerate every Haiku yet written.  If you too yearn to strike out as a writer: choose the subject that means more to you than anything else.  This is how to make first contact with your own voice, your inner voice, if you like.   The rest comes from a musical ear, and endless practice.  But if, later, you want to learn how to spin a damned good yarn: look at how a world-class conjurer delivers his tricks, or how a top-of-the-bill comedian paces his lines.  There is as much to be learnt from cabaret and sharp comic timing as there is from Somerset Maugham or King Lear.

 

It’s true, then, that the artifice of art has much to do with guile.  Here’s another poem of mine, which concerns a geriatric ward in a hospital.  It has to do with grief, but also with technique, with mechanisms by which all arts work. The technique heightens the grief, but also subverts it in suggesting other levels: subterranean levels that are never acknowledged, yet which persist like soiled and filthy earth.  What I wanted was a huge tracking shot, like a camera in an epic film, which swoops down to microscopic detail. The trouble is that the transition from the macroscopic to the microscopic is invariably banal – banal as human suffering, as banal as I am myself.  So there’s a tension here between poetic form and encroaching chaos, extinction.  And perhaps that – for certainly not melodrama – is the true essence of Tragedy.

 

I called this one He Said, She Said:

 

 

He arrived, in a blue January twilight

At this great space: this measureless pavilion, epic

And austere.  Within it (lost), the murmurings of

Still-beating hearts: microcosms, these, as if a thousand

Dew-drops where, in a day, seasons of life and death were

Played out – intimate, ephemeral, unacknowledged.

 

At the big door he baulked; merely a novice, in this

Cathedral for the dying. One of the Sisters glanced:

He blanched, and lowered his gaze.

In upper wards the satellite channels prattled,

Television by the dead, for the dead.  But not down here.

Here there was silence without dignity, at a time

When dignity was all there was to cling to.

Here was a mollusc of metal and puny plastic filaments,

A reticulated organism, perhaps; at whose numerous

Intersections little gobbets of flesh might move and stir,

Punctuated from time to time by sacs of brownish fluid.

 

In the corner, with a head

Like a busted bag, the elegant lady

He knew, twenty years since, from an evening

Watercolour class.  Somebody senile fell back from

Ranting at an extinct cousin.  But first, dear Reader, to bedside

Watch.  There’s no response, as (quiet as a choirboy)

He folds his coat, and perches on it.  At length

He says, “Would you like to hear some nice news

About me?”   Pause, and the rattle of distant tea trolleys.

Finally she says, “We’ve been waiting thirty-nine years.” 

 

At this moment it is evident that,

Contrary to all prior intimations, Elvis has not

Left the building.  As for the seated one, his back

Makes a low arc and, as if to himself, he murmurs,

“Now I know you’re going to be all right.”

 

All art is about a journey, a journey of one kind or another; even if it’s only what the painter Paul Klee called “going for a walk with a line.”  And if there is no unfolding revelation, no soaring arch of endeavour, no light at the end of the tunnel: then you have for the sake of hope itself to make something up. When I needed to write precisely one hundred words of hype for this new book of mine, here’s what I came out with:

 

 

“The living”, they say, “are dead people on holiday”. Stephen Jackson’s book is a ten-year testimony to one man’s living death, concluding in acceptance and the chance of a kind of rebirth. The poetry here pulls apart the melancholy of encroaching age and irredeemable failure, with a candour which for most of us has to be kept stifled, silent, perhaps barely even thought. Yet this is a book to surmount despair. If these are life’s ashes, from them a phoenix can rise. “Tight and life-affirming,” this poetry has been called; with a richness comparable to John Donne’s…

 

…Enough to make me cringe.  In my defence, you know the drill. Of course the poetry of this collection was not written as a cycle.  Nobody writes in cycles; such self-conscious imposture and affectation would be the kiss of death.  ‘Cycles’ are for critics.  My poems were written piece by piece and then assembled like Lego. Truth is, that the notion of a ten-year quest here is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin.

 

There were two men in a railway carriage, Hitchcock explained.  One was wielding an enormous suitcase.  “What on earth’s in that?” asked the other.  “Oh,” the first passenger replied, “it’s my MacGuffin.”  “What’s a MacGuffin?”  “It’s a device for shooting lions in Scotland.”  “But there are no lions in Scotland.”  “Well,” the first man concluded with a scratch at his ear, “then that ain’t no MacGuffin.”

 

Really, what the book concerns is my thirty years of reflection on what it means to be human: by which I mean the nature and implications of consciousness, or what the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle was wont to call “the Concept of Mind.”  For these are eternal questions, which have perplexed human beings since Neanderthal times.  How can what is living one moment, be non-living the next?  By what mechanism or qualification does what was never alive become sentient, or at least come to mimic the nature of what is alive?

 

One bright summer evening I was listening to some Debussy, and the idea came to me for what was to become the penultimate poem in the book.

 

 

 

As I contemplate the waste that is a living mind

The moon, thin as a sabre, darkens in the sky.

More slender than my fingernail

Or so I want to think –

As if I could truly snatch it down;

As if my being here, and now

Could matter more than a folly of flies

Dancing towards the extinction of light

On a puddle. Above me: the veins of a cirrus,

Livid a moment ago,

Drained bloodless now;

Grey gossamer of a blush turned to dust.

 

Walt Whitman did not fear self-contradiction.

He was large: he contained multitudes.

So let me find a way to dignify myself and cut the loss,

As he did – 

No more, I’ll plead, than any scanty face on Southwark Bridge.

Conspirators, we seem to be, if only in oblivion – 

Each of us slipping, by insidious degrees,

Into an empire of levelled shade.

My neighbour says your inner voice keeps bright, it stays the same;

Only the flesh falls, she says.  Yet even laughter thickens, wheezing

Like a superannuated gramophone,    

Piping your chronicles of wasted time, of hollowed afternoons,

Into ears of those who, less than ever, need to know.

But I need to believe that the fact and act of thought

Are more than fortuitous.

I want to believe that somebody out there cares.

I have to believe I have the right.

 

I’m a middle-aged man

As now I never tire of saying.

They should have told me years ago

How consciousness is tyranny

And how predestination sets you free.

Let fly the caged bird

From chattered words.

To take flight needs no vindication.

A dance lives in, and on, and for, itself –

Don’t pull it down.

There is no recklessness, in a dominion shorn of purpose:

Its dynamic is serene, complete:

Balletic tension, wrought of spontaneity and determinism

Is what holds it fast: causeless, and requited by itself,

All meant to be, and nothing meant at all:

 

As the great space of creation outpaces us all,

It does not need us:

If evening envelops, as it does,

An oceanic shoal of little worlds

– cooling like basalt, or labradorite –

It is no matter.  They will come back again:

Unworded, heedlessly, not needing words

After we are gone.

Infinity does not speak to us.

It does not give obeisance

It will let us go.

As the moon incises its great arc into night

It does not die, it will return:

And clouds, flecks that melt upon creation’s face

Will flutter still like feathers

In their immemorial clime,

Or fall like petals

In the unremarked epiphanies

Of wordless things

Long after we have ceased to know.

Don’t fret about your own, diminishing sentience –

The transience of it, the loss of it,

As what has come from nothing goes to nothing;

To be dead is no worse than to be unborn.

So don’t waste time on me

When I am done:

Don’t reach towards my light

For there’ll be none,

No more than from an ant burnt by a match;

But rather, seek out the light of the world

And find, with necessary impertinence

Of all ephemeral, existent things,

Your own, your transitory moment in the sun.

 

It is through becoming part of this community of compassionate scrutiny and sharing that we know we are not alone.  It is through years of such epiphanies that we come at last to join the human race: the real human race, the knowing human race, with its knowing joy – and that is to say, joy for grown-ups.  It’s not for me to say whether one word of my work has the slightest intrinsic merit; but if I can bring a the memory of a smile to another face, or persuade another human being not to repeat my own mistakes, then perhaps my efforts have not been in vain?

 

I should like to finish with two grown-up poems; the second of them written by a man who was eighty-five years old.   But first, a piece by Sylvia Plath when first she became a mother:

 

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry

Took its place among the elements.

 

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival.  New statue.

In a drafty museum, your nakedness

Shadows our safety.  We stand round blankly as walls.

 

I’m no more your mother

Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.

 

All night your moth-breath

Flickers among the flat pink roses.  I wake to listen:

A far sea moves in my ear.

 

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.

Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.  The window square

 

Whitens and swallows its dull stars.  And now you try

Your handful of notes;

The clear vowels rise like balloons.

 

Last of all, a poem from Stephen Spender.  This one’s about dolphins:

 

Happy, they leap

Out of the surface

Of waves reflecting

The sun fragmented

To broken glass

By the stiff breeze

Across our bows.

Curving, they draw

Curlicues

And serifs with

Lashed tail and fin

Across the screen

Of blue horizon –

Images

Of their delight

Outside, displaying

My heart within.

Across this dazzling

Mediterranean

August morning

The dolphins write such

Ideograms:

With power to wake

Me prisoned in

My human speech

They sign:

“I AM!”

 

 

 

The historian Edward Gibbon put it best: “The end comes when we no longer talk with ourselves. It is the end of genuine thinking and the beginning of the final loneliness.”  If I can leave you with one word at this late hour: Courage.  For now it is time for me to take my leave, and for you to step into the sunshine; if only the sunshine of your own, your spotless mind.

 

 

DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY: What’s this book about?

•September 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

From my Resonance FM broadcast.  But first, and just to prolong the agony, you get a biographical preamble: 

Resonance FM 1

Everybody who appears on the media should be proud to swing a great giant plug around his neck.  After all, wasn’t it Dr Johnson who proclaimed that, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money?”  The plug I’m dragging today is hefty enough to tear up concrete; and mine is for a book called Dead People on Holiday, which is a ten-year fusion of my poetry and digital art: out there already in print; and due now, or within a week or two, to resurface as an eBook. I have lived fifty-some, elephantine years: I’m older than my teeth and a few months younger than Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth.  My  supreme  motive  for  writing  the  book  is  simple:  a  near – evangelical quest to beseech other and younger souls, as if from the bowels of Christ, not to repeat my own mistakes.

I was born into what is now a lost world, that of liberal English High Culture: the remnant  vision  of Bertrand  Russell  or George Orwell, as it lay wedged gamely  if precariously between the two great defining events of the 1960’s: the space flight of Yuri Gagarin, the assassination of John F Kennedy.   Both of those were headlines remote from me, utterly so; and yet for most of the Western hemisphere the Sixties were homely, parochial, suburban and drab. What united the First World was not Woodstock or Timothy Leary, but a bright naiveté  of  hope  and  that  bulwark  of  unthinking  hope:  by  which  I  mean Mother’s Little Helper itself, Valium.    And if hope of the crassest kind meant pulling down Paradise to put up a parking lot – then, whether we lived in San Diego or a North Yorkshire market town, we did that too.  We rebounded from one chemical innovation  to another as if concussed. Plastic flowers came as free gifts  with  boxes  of washing  powder:  toy  planes perfect for choking a toddler tumbled out of your cornflakes: all left us astounded.  We goggled at our first bowl of yoghurt or muesli as you would at your first Great White Shark.   I hated school intimately, and I nurtured one illness after another to save me from  bullying or – more than anything else – from being bored to death.   For what did school have to do with me?   My every whim could be satisfied  by  the books  my  parents  kept at home: chemistry  or cosmology, poetry and fine arts, timeless music, and (fresh from my Uncle Squire) the sub- atomic  world.  My  bedtime  stories  were the piano  works  of Schubert  and Schumann  and Brahms, practised by my father as I dozed off to sleep.   My mother’s sense of enchantment and whimsy  gave joy to my adventures  in introspection.  I  was  the  child-outsider  in  his  walled  and  magic  garden  of delights.   From the potential for chaos, by the power of this culture I found myself redeemed and I was given purpose, my good aim.

Here it was that my world-view was measured, circumscribed, bounded.  At the age of sixteen I declared myself an Existentialist.   My later studies in the Philosophy of Mind and of Science erected a parking lot of my very own where before there had been only floundering and vulnerable innocence, for that is what Paradise means.    My efforts  to teach  children  in inner -city Liverpool were, as you might surmise, not a great success. Instead it was the rediscovery of my childhood passion for drawing and painting that led to new beginnings. But if you want to know how to worm your way from a Sunderland dole-queue through to writing features for The Independent newspaper: the answer lies in hard work, smart timing, immense good luck and a level of pushiness  that should be stifled at birth.  A book I wrote on Schubert in 1996 almost fell into my lap, as it had been gestating in my mind for fifteen years.   The BBC was gracious enough to call me “a writer of the Upper First Division” – as it might have done for hundreds of amateurs whose best efforts never see the light of day. I was paid to interview the musicians whom I should have paid simply to glimpse from a badly-lit back seat.

No time here to describe how years of impending depression then came to a head, how I fell through the cracks in Society’s pavement.   But believe one thing: that once you have fallen through, it is as if you had never been born. I had to find a voice for the murmurs of my own long night, and it came in the co-incidence of a couple of things.    First of all, I discovered poetry.  Second, through having been made to use a computer to write my books, I stumbled upon  digital image-making,  or  what the movies  have taught us to call CGI . Between  them  they  offered  a magical potential  to transform  our preconceptions  of  what  existence  might  look  like.    And this  has  been  my second birth.  The book is its summation.

You see, it takes a shift in world-view to make creativity possible.   Here’s a passage from the English writer, G K Chesterton:

“There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture.  The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery.  It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.”

For all of them, it’s the same: for Einstein riding on a beam of light, for William Blake seeing eternity in an hour.   There has to be the freedom to ask, “What if?” or “Just suppose?”  Einstein used to say that he still saw the world as children see it; and it is the hallmark of creative people that they have failed to tarnish, failed to harden, failed to grow up.

A lot of what I explore now has to do with peeking up the wrong end of the telescope,  so as  to see in a clearer  light all those walking wounded in the universal  and  (some  might  say)  necessary  battlefields  that  litter  hu man aspirations and language. There are few outright winners here, except of the most ephemeral kind. The tiny obsessions of middle age: the games all of us have  to  play  –  these  are  my  canvas  – and  my  occasions  for  humour  and optimism. They furnish endless avenues of inquiry as well as new and welcome pleasures. It is these fruits of my own, my meagre childishness, that now I offer you.

Nearly ten years later: A New Self-Portrait

•September 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment
153 Gemma Astride

BUTTERFLIES

In a slender sunlight bubble they live

And, like all innocents, they suckle flowers.

In twilight’s umbral void they will not hide

But merely cease to be – and resurrect

Themselves, as bright day shines.

Capricious, and ephemeral as thought

Their lives are serendipity, alchemic gold on gold.

They fly in measureless and buttered time, with magic’s

Splendour and enchantment. The Innocent, knowing no

Misfortune, does not sense his bliss. He loves as a toy loves:

He returns no love: knowing nothing, no stab to the heart.

He lives and then is killed.

93 Winter Wonderland

This is the kind of talk that we call, ‘Smoke’.

The thoughts crowd in on me like ogres.

The dawn is skin so pale that it could break from a glance;

And it marks the time of vigils.  Intense, it is, like the imminence

Of death; prescient, and frail like soapsuds, or an old man’s cadaver

Eyelid. A membrane upon causeless, imminent, imperturbable

Decay, this feathered light: it is the cusp of night, of the heaviness of night,

You’d say – no more. Of a rainy night, an alien place, and broken water.