Leonora, Linares, and the Alebrijes, 2

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The next day I had two new fixations: getting my jacket dry-cleaned, and having a ‘souvenir haircut’. (As I have almost no hair, the second of these is sometimes replaced by the souvenir shave.) Giovanni reckoned that a short stroll through the streets near the Palacio de Bellas Artes and just outside the historic centre should turn up both.

As though all examples of such establishments were run as monopolies by the ghost of Leonora, and she had shut up shop while on tour, we could find neither. There were some excellent coffee shops, the fringes of a Chinatown, and a great stretch of streets that sold what looked like splendid car parts and tyres, but no dry cleaners, and not even a hairdresser’s, let alone a barber’s.

Eventually we found both next door to each other, opposite the Museo de Arte Popular. The dry cleaners could do a basic tidy up of the jacket in an hour or two, and the hairdressers might have been fine, but now we had time to kill. We headed for the market district, and almost immediately happened upon a little green barbershop, where an amused woman took off more and more of my hair, as Giovanni encouraged me to take it down to what I think of as the Montalbano level.

Even so, given her starting point, this didn’t take very long, and, even after stopping for an excellent coffee, we still seemed to have ages to wait, so we popped into the Museo. Where I was confronted by a series of giant multicoloured chimeric figures, surreal composites of several creatures including humans in brightly striped and stippled shades, seemingly constructed from papier-mâché. These were the alebrijes.


I’d encountered little versions of them in a market we’d visited almost upon arrival, together with the horror and fantasy writer Chaz Brenchley, and I had bought a bright octopus and a nodding-headed caterpillar, as well as the slightly too-tight hat smelling of burnt straw I was wearing against the sun. When Tiffany Atkinson had launched her book of poems (translated into Spanish by Jorge Fondebrider and others), on the way to the restaurant after, we’d seen a huge mantis-like composite which I’d thought was one artist’s version of the alebrije. But here were hordes of them, filling a courtyard, almost a plague – deer/lion/dog/lizard/bird/human amalgams the size of giraffes – all on trolleys awaiting a parade which, of course, I would leave before I could see.

Most importantly, they reminded me of Leonora. She has one piece in particular, of a cat with human hands, that seemed to me exactly in the spirit of the alebrije


Perhaps I’d found another sort of double, or rather a whole series of doubles to her absent sculptures. But then it was time to pick my jacket up – I had an event to give, and a schedule to keep. We agreed to find time to come back and find out more about the alebrijes.

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When we did get back, there was another surprise in store. On the way we came by a slightly different route, obliging us to cut up a connecting street to get to the museum. In doing so we passed an old cinema. ‘Old cinema’ hardly does justice to it – it was an aluminium-facaded Art Deco glory, if slightly bashed about, and it was called Orfeon, surely a splendid name for a cinema, combining hints of the oracular and the mesmeric.


Except it is also the name of a character in a poem of mine from more than twenty years before. The Orfeon, in The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick, is the first sentient ‘roboet’, an Artificial Intelligence programme that achieves self-awareness. It receives a critique of ‘robotic verse’, ‘The programming creates, in my opinion,/nothing but a probabilistic babble’, and, faced with being deleted as faulty, produces

my inspiration is, I take
it, Babelistic probables,
but realise the next
programme will arrive
at similar conclusions; the
essential nature of Orfeon is
regenerative, inevitable. All roboets
will contribute towards
the continuance of my song.

As they say, spooky. The sense of being, if not haunted by, then at least bumping into, doubles was palpable. I went to the Museum expecting to look round, and perhaps pick up a publication, but Giovanni’s polite, persuasive enquiries got us an invitation to meet a curator who knew something of the history of the alebrijes, and was happy to talk us through it in her archive.

She told me they were the creation of a cartoonist, Pedro Linares, back in 1936, who combined two influences: the folk art of Oaxaca, and the first influx of Surrealism. He described the moment of inspiration as occurring in the classic surrealist and indeed shamanic manner: while he was ill, and within a dream. In her version he is first walking then running through a forest, as all around him he can hear creatures moving through the trees, calling out ‘Alebrije! Alebrije!’ When he woke, he made the creatures he saw, three of which, as it turned out, were in the museum.

In fact, I misunderstood her description, as he was a maker of cartonería, or papier-mâché figures, and he produced work in this capacity for Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. But this mistake made me think of a key figure in my personal pantheon, the cartoonist George Herriman, the creator of the androgynous, language-mangling Krazy Kat, who could regard a bop on the head from a brick as a love token, if lobbed by the perpetually indignant Ignatz Mouse. 

Coincidentally Herriman’s strips had taken the leap into full page, often surreal, colour at the same point in the mid-thirties. Their setting, Coconino County, actually in Arizona, had seemed to me a fictitious realm beneath a cantaloupe moon where ancient mesas like giant hands applauded the action, and it suddenly felt like a psychogeographic double to Oaxaca, even though the two are nearly two thousand miles apart.


This is, perhaps, how the inner landscape of the imagination assembles itself from coincidences and contiguities, puns of the eye and ear, multitudes of similitudes, seeming so coherent in dreams if only to the dreamer, and reconstructed so painstakingly in the realist world of fiction, or the strange amalgam of word and symbol that makes a poem.

And indeed that was how it felt when we then visited the exhibits, entering the world of Linares’s original alebrijes. Again, I’ll confine this account to three details. One was the background of hills at night in a painting of strange figures, half-carnivalesque, half-devilish, dancing in Oaxaca. The hills were bluish, undulating, oddly like a Chinese landscape – serene in contrast to the dance unfolding to a small guitar. I could imagine they were filled with neatly coiffured bears, angry mice, perhaps the Moon that seemed to shine on this scene though nowhere visible, as though it were actually behind us, about to press down damply on my newly-shorn head.


The second was Linares’ alebrije of the skull with black and white spirals for eyes set on an upright bird/lizard body, with blue bat wings and claws and chicken feet, and what looked like an earwig’s pincer tail. Inside the skull’s jaws was a second, smaller, altogether less cheerful-looking skull. The way this sculpture seemed simultaneously to relate to and to depart from traditional Dia de los Muertos figures gave it a capricious energy, as though it might scuttle off or, worse, toward you, at any moment.


The third was an extraordinary ceramic, the despairing face of a lion/human chimera in a bright yellow and red glaze. This was a nahual, or possibly a tona, the difference being explained as follows:

‘The nahual has two forms: the nahual and the tona. The first goes a person the ability to turn into an animal generally at night in order to inflict harm. The tona is an animal that relates to an individual at birth; it possesses protective attributes and symbolically recognizes itself as the person’s double.’


I recognised something in the intensity of his anguished expression which seemed to place him in that dream landscape of rolling hills and skittering, dancing creatures. For me this brought together the images of the earthquake and the Flower God, the expressions on the voladores’ faces and on that of Linares’ alebrije, which, I realised, echoed that of Leonora’s passenger crocodiles:

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
     How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
     With gently smiling jaws!

For me the nahual’s expression immediately recalled the grief of loss, specifically the death of my father: that instant I remember exactly of understanding that you occupy the moment after a catastrophe, and that you can never get back to the moment before. There’s more to that face, of course, than grief: perhaps it’s even the moment of understanding that, like the earthquake, the catastrophe itself is continuously unfolding, that there has never been a before, and there cannot be an ending. 

I realised this was as close as I could get to either the stark beauty of Julián Herbert’s fiction, or the vertiginous claustrophobia you sometimes experience in Leonora Carrington’s paintings – the sense that the only ‘outside’ is where you are standing as the viewer. 

Was this my message from the alebrijes, I wondered – that engaging with her work at all is like releasing the figures in her paintings first into the sculptures in the streets, and then, as they appear to vanish, into your inner psyche? Was this in a sense the perception hinted at by nahual and alebrije alike, that we can never truly distinguish the world from our imagination, and that neither the world nor our imaginations are entirely ours?

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Leonora, Linares and the Alebrijes, 1

(I’ve been meaning and indeed longing to get back to this account of my non-encounter with Leonora Carrington two years ago in Mexico City, and to describe what I met instead. Revisiting my drafts within a month of the earthquake there, I’m mindful that what to me was an exciting cultural event unfolded in the indeterminate lull between recurring tragedies.

Schedule-juggling has been partly why it’s taken me such a long time to get my head round this piece. The main reason, however, has been trying to engage with the unsettling elements of my attempted encounter, and its relation to that equally unsettling directness about death, which was one of the reasons why Breton termed Mexico the most surreal country in the world, and which is explored in Claudio Lomnitz’s fascinating study, Death and the Idea of Mexico.

The European response to that directness might be summed up by Wolfgang Paalen’s ‘El genio del espacio’, an artwork made for the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1940. Daniel Garza Usabiaga describes this as ‘a pistol made out of bones through which the relation between weapons and death was made explicit.’

When I read about this first, I was reminded of a passage in Julián Herbert’s memoir, ‘Mama Leukaemia’, in which the young Julián goes with a teenage friend who wants to buy a pistol. You know it will end in tragedy, but the masterful detail is the slurred description of the gun by the addict who sells them it. As his translator Brendan Riley notes, ‘the illegal gun [is] a Smith & Wesson, which the stoned seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”.’

It is the matter of fact way that Julián Herbert finds that pun, which in turn echoes Wolfgang Paalen’s surreal pistol of bone (which in turn echoes the ‘organic pistol’ made from the inedible parts of cooked mutant animals in Cronenberg’s film ‘eXistenZ’, and so on in the infinite recession posited in that film between film and game and reality…) which reminds me of Leonora Carrington’s warning to her cousin when she attempted to find an explanation for Leonora’s origins as an artist: ‘You’re trying to intellectualise something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time. It comes from somewhere else.’

I think it is the somewhere-elseness than concerns me here. We have the habit of locating that literally somewhere else, in for instance the exoticised other that Breton made of Mexico. But it is also, as for Carrington, a way of engaging with the internal otherland of the creative act.

At one point, the poet and translator Richard Gwyn joked to me that I had a double in Mexico in Julián Herbert. Of course there is no relation whatever between the Acapulco writer and myself, and the comparison merely casts my themes and preoccupations in a rather minor light. Like Roberto Bolaño, Herbert is neither a surrealist nor what we think of as realist, but rather focussed on the crisis of a life lived among narcos and prostitution. Death, poverty, and grief are not so much the themes of his work, but the landscape he attempts to negotiate in order to approach his actual themes: what is love and identity, and what is knowing this worth?

But even where a comparison is inapt, a link is formed. I had been travelling or rather getting away a lot (for me) over the year or so between my father’s death in 2014 and this trip, and I had begun to realise I was trying to gain some space to grieve. I think I was trying to internalise the images that confronted me in Mexico City into a softer if not safer, post-Surreal, cartoonish inner landscape. It was this negotiation between recognition and appropriation in that embryonic space in the imagination which took up the time.)

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I went to Mexico City in late 2015 for a number of reasons apart from my standard excuse of having been invited. As a denizen of poetry’s floating world, it is my passive habit never to seek out opportunity nor, if at all possible, to refuse it. As a contributor to Pedro Serrano’s and Carlos Lopez Beltran’s influential 90s anthology, Generation of the Lamb, I had hoped that some such invitation might eventually come my way.

Essentially – though, with the stubbornness of Panza’s donkey, I would do nothing to encourage this – I wondered if everyone else might help me further my re-encounter over that year with the work of Leonora Carrington. Having pictured her in Mexico through Elena Poniatawska’s magical biographicist novel, I now had an image of Mexico City as punctuated if not populated by her giant sculptures, and of its galleries as being full of her works and those of her close friend, Remedios Varo. Just as I’d travelled to China and to Somaliland to translate, I had the vague idea this might be some form of ekphrastic pilgrimage. Except Leonora wasn’t there.

With anti-zeitgeistlich precision, I arrived just after the crest of the wave of revived interest in her work had passed, taking many of her actual paintings to Liverpool Tate, where I had already viewed them, on the continued momentum of which it was currently shepherding her sculptures around Mexico.

I imagined this wave as a train, bearing the sculptures in a long line, covered with tarpaulin, as though, at the sounding of its whistle, I could witness it passing, a grotesque silhouette on the horizon, as though an obsidian saw had been fashioned from the profiles of shadow puppets, or like a giant sequoia version of those pieces of wood carved into outlines of a coastline that the Inuit used to navigate.

So when I asked my interpreter and guide, the immensely polite and patient Giovanni, to take me to firstly the anthropological museum, and second the gallery of modern art, and thirdly to wherever the street of the crocodiles in a crocodile boat was, I had no idea I was setting him a fruitless task.

However, he rose to it splendidly, and we went on a hope-filled pilgrimage to sites empty of Leonora, but full instead of something not quite other from her, but, in the true sense of the double, a likeness.

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While we were walking down Paseo del Reforma, Giovanni pointed out details in the series of photographs hung on the park railings of the earthquake of 1985 (which coincidentally took place on the same day, September 19th, as the 2017 earthquake), in which there were thousands of casualties as well as massive destruction.

He told me how his mother, a nurse, was attempting to reach a hospital which, it turned out, had been completely destroyed, and so immediately set out for another, only to get lost and so to meet his father, who had not only directed her, but took her details to make sure she made it safely. Later, he called, they went out together, married, had a son, called him Giovanni, and so returned to the great continuity of normal life. As I was gazing at these black and white images of flattened buildings, desperate rescuers, and hanging ruins, I thought of the old cliché about the earth moving for lovers, and wondered what we really meant or thought we meant by such expressions. So it was we arrived at the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

Because I was on a mission to find Carrington sculptures, and because I knew my stamina for huge museums was limited, I asked if we could just look at two (huge) rooms, the Aztec and the Mayan, in that order. Because this is really an account of what we found elsewhere, I’ll confine myself to three details.

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The first is a glimpse of three spirals: one an Aztec sculpture of a coiled snake or (I fantasised, via Burroughs) a centipede; another was painted on terracotta, with a hand at the centre, as though at the end of a long, coiling arm, and the third a painting on, I think, a Mayan pot, again a black coiling line, but this time with a child at the heart of its umbilical whirl.

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The second detail was the Aztec Flower God, Xochipilli, sitting cross-legged on his throne of mushrooms, tobacco and morning glory, looking like death either warmed or drugged up – we’ve had a model of this for years, and occasionally remember to put dried flowers in his fists, so it was a shock and a delight to encounter him, large as whatever state he actually occupies.

The third was a note to an exhibit of several pots in the shapes of rabbits:

‘Pulque, neutle in Nahuatl, has a strong odour and high alcohol content. Its patron was the god Ome Tochtli, “Two Rabbit”. In view of its calorific value, adults were only allowed one drink, and drunkenness was prohibited because the excess of pulque would make people fall under the influence of the Cenzon Totochtin or Four Hundred Rabbits, which meant losing control and becoming aggressive and violent.’

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As we came out of the museum, there were a number of voladores, ‘fliers’, preparing to ascend a blue pole for the tourists. The pole was thirty metres high, and they were carefully binding rope around their waists and settling their feathered headgear, preparing for and becoming the part. At the top of the pole was a small open-framed square, like the crowsnest of a ship but open at top and bottom.

We didn’t mean to watch, but couldn’t drag ourselves away as they climbed, and the musician set himself at the very top, and began to play flute and drum simultaneously as, after elaborate, careful sailors’ knottings, they flung themselves one by one from the platform, whirling around the pole while spinning on their individual axes and descending so gradually it seemed to take an age till, suddenly, the first one and then the others were reaching for the grass with their fingertips as though rising to the surface of some absolutely clear ocean.

This was at once a ritual and an entertainment, for which everyone gladly paid. I wanted to hang back as ever, but as with the strangeness of the imagery I had tried to ration in the museum itself, the sheer physicality of what had happened – the rippling of their shirts, the neat hooking of one foot around the rope as it played out, their open-eyedness as they stared at and almost into the earth – compelled me more deeply than the notes I scribbled down could register.

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Now our search for Carrington began in earnest. At the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, I stared at a small Magritte I’d never seen before as Giovanni checked with the staff. It was one of those synecdochic images where an outsized leaf stands for a branch, or perhaps starts turning into one of his vegetative birds, and I remember it seemed to be crayon or pastel rather than paint. There were no Carringtons to be had.

We crossed the Paseo to the Museo Arts Moderno, where I amused myself booping like an owl into the peculiar acoustics of the stairs below the dome, while Giovanni established that, no, they had no Carringtons either – everything was out on tour – but there were a few paintings by Remedios Varo. Here I experienced that familiar sinking feeling of embarrassment as I realised that I had thought one of these, ‘Creation of the Birds’, was actually by Leonora Carrington. The contrast of Varo’s light delicate line and Carrington’s forceful figures and colours should have been obvious. But I could at least console myself that here was a sort of twin-as-substitute to the absent Leonora.

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Downstairs there happened to be an exhibition of the photographs of Lee Miller, and in this there were two images of Leonora Carrington – one a disturbing shot of Leonora as a young woman sunbathing topless while Max Ernst, clearly very much her elder, placed his hands over her breasts like a lecherous bikini top. The other shows her self-possessed in a black shawl, staring the camera down as she stands over a basin – is that an egg nearby,? Is she mixing paint? – I imagined this as after Ernst’s internment, when she found herself able to make do and more as an individual and as an artist.

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And that, it seemed would be that. After a snacky lunch that took almost all our remaining cash (I, as usual, had erred on the side of meanness with what I carried), we walked as far as the end of the park and the beginning of the straight line the Paseo takes to the historic city centre, caught a bus, and I indulged in a little ruefulness that it was an awful long way to come to see no Leonoras at all when, glancing out of the window, we passed a massive sculpture of ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile,’ the one where all the little Carrollian crocodiles are sitting in a pirogue made out of a larger crocodile.

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We bounded off the bus at the next stop and headed back in search of a possible street of sculptures, but there was only this splendid single piece, and we then had to walk the rest of the long way back in the considerable heat, each secretly cursing both my obsession and my lack of research.

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Pies, Poute, and the Poetry Mills of Victorian Dundee

It might make some sense to resume this blog where it left off, with a further reference to the ongoing work on Dundee writing in the 19th century. At the Dundee Literary Festival the other week, Professor Kirstie Blair and Erin Farley did a sort of double act lecture+reading from the excellent Poets of the People’s Journal, published by the ASLS. 

I re-read Professor Blair’s intro the following morning, thinking how extraordinary it still seems that so much engaged, often radical, sometimes experimental, working class Scots verse was overlooked for so long, and reflecting on the causes.

One element was certainly the ephemeral nature of the publication itself. Despite its massive circulation of a quarter of a million at its peak, and taking into account Kirstie Blair’s estimate that every copy sold may have had up to ten readers, and despite the fact that its editor, W.D. Latto, produced the paper on a weekly basis for almost forty years (1860-98), the People’s Journal was still ‘just’ a newspaper, and its grip on the cultural consciousness has faded rapidly since the first part of the 20th century. 

And yet that editorship was radical by conviction, encouraging, as the intro states, ‘working men and women to participate in a topical, politicised, satirical and self-aware literary culture…’ Poems on elections, political reform, local injustices, imperialism, industrialism, sexual mores – the diversity of the material, even in the tiny sample she could anthologise, is remarkable.

There is a possibility, realised here, that the ongoing responsiveness of an ephemeral mode of publication, if aligned to a liberal editorial position, can enable the voices of the otherwise marginalised to be heard, if only within that forum. Then the forum itself can become a way of nurturing community. My first glimpse into this radicalised version of the ephemeral was William Donaldson’s AUP book, Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (1986), where the voice that leapt off the page for me was Latto’s own, in the guise of Tammas Bodkin, a Dundee tailor who expressed himself in a rich and stylish Scots on an impressive range of subjects.

This relation between public persona and literary mouthpiece – and between Scots and English – is also present in John Wilson’s masterpiece of polyphony from the first half of the 19th century, the Noctes Ambrosianae, in which his voice, in the form of ‘Christopher North’, is pitched against the irresistible if ventriloquised Scots of ‘The Shepherd’ (James Hogg).

There is an interesting parallel here in terms of how we might read two of the poets in the anthology: ‘Poute’ (a pseudonym for Alexander Burgess), and the Great Synecdoche for Dundonian poetry, William McGonagall himself. Poute’s phonetic Scots antipoetry, which was enormously popular when it appeared in the Journal, parodied middle class perceptions of rural and working class verse (and indeed of poetry), and was a sort of Post-Ploughmanism.

This sort of sophisticated ‘bad’ writing that transcends its own in-jokery was only possible within the community of the Journal, where editors and writers alike could reflect wittily on literary tropes, the editorial process, and the economics of publication. But as Kirstie Blair points out, it also intriguingly prefigured McGonagall.

With Poute the remarkable thing is how he manipulates phonetic spelling to communicate his subtext to the reader. The issue with McGonagall, however, is precisely that we can’t determine how far he’s being deliberate in what he’s doing – is he even just copying how to be ‘bad’ because that’s how to get into print? Except, of course, that both on the page and in performance, it works gloriously in terms of pacing and punchline.

It’s important to note both this element of subtle humour and the ambivalence of intent alongside the lively politics of the Journal. (As Erin Farley put it regarding the political slant, ‘I have been looking for several years for poetry from Dundee supportive of the Tory Party – none has been forthcoming’.) ‘Athole’s Pies’, by ‘Factory Muse’ (probably Adam Wilson), not only encapsulates the sly silliness of writers like Poute – and possibly McGonagall – but is probably the maist Dundonian poem ever written.



Those without a funny bone might describe poetry like this as ‘pawky’, and, as with the term ‘whimsical’, this seems almost dismissive: just as we’re not quite sure about its author, so too we don’t know whether this is a genuine poem-as-advert, but there is an exuberance to its language and handling of the totemic Standard Habbie which transcends commercialism. 

I was struck several times during the event by this sense of tonal and formal self-awareness, and thought I saw some parallels with the presentation of poetry in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play, The Wipers Times. There it’s mock-dismissed, but many of the same characteristics are manifested: soldiers turned in the trauma of war to poetry, satire, self-referentiality, whimsy – the traits of the ephemeral. It seems reasonable to propose that this happened because, pre-war, they were accustomed to papers like the People’s Journal providing them with just such a playfully subversive platform.

In the period after the First World War, in order to clear his own Modernist space, MacDiarmid drove a nail into the coffin lid of all such poetry by implying it was either endless Kailyaird or McGonagallese, sentiment or dross. And yet, trained as a journalist, he deployed exactly the same tactics himself: founding a newspaper in 1923, The Scottish Nation, creating pseudonyms, and working with traditional forms and orthographic Scots, rather than, as Pound advised with the pentameter, breaking the ballad.

The coffin itself, however, was constructed by the merger in 1905 of Leng & Co, which owned the Journal, with the decidedly conservative firm of Thomson’s. One of the most remarkable aspects of the history of the People’s Journal is how absolutely that culture was coutherised* by D.C. Thomson’s, so that growing up in Dundee through the 1960s, and beginning to write in the 70s and 80s, I’d practically no idea we had that lively political poetic heritage, and none at all that it had ever been manifested in that staidest of manifestations of staidness, the Journal.

In the early nineties, when Richard Price and I were editing Gairfish, inspired by Tom Leonard’s Radical Renfrew, and following a lead given by Edwin Morgan, we published a couple of poems in the Whitmanic mode by the Dundee and Alyth poet, James Young Geddes. He was also the subject of a 1992 essay by Valentina Bold, and formed a third part of a study of late nineteenth century poets from 2004 by Gioia Angeletti, Eccentric Scotland (the others being two long term fascinations of mine, John Davidson and James ‘B.V.’ Thomson). His poem, ‘Died on the Street’, reprinted in Poets of the People’s Journal, is a typically trenchant indictment of the alienation he saw in industrialised Juteopolis.

Andy Jackson and I picked this thread up when editing Whaleback City, an anthology of Dundee poetry, publishing Geddes alongside McGonagall in an effort to broaden our perspective in a manner that The Poets of the People’s Journal deepens and, I hope, confirms. (I’d like to think our subsequent anthology, New Boots and Pantisocracies, based on a daily blog between the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, echoed something of the same radical ephemeralism of our nineteenth century predecessors. But here I’m straying from the ‘Athole’s Pies’ style of advertisement into a more MacDiarmidean approach to PR…)

Gradually, through studies like Bold’s, Angeletti’s, Donaldson’s, and Professor Blair’s, we’re recovering some perspective on the cultural heritage and genuine poetic achievements of the Radical Toun. Lang may its verse mills roll!

*Like ‘catharised’ but, instead of cleansing, removing all traces of the potentially alarming or objectionable, leaving only that which is familiar and comfortable, or ‘couthy’.

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Poetry, performance and place: a postcard from Dundee

A marvellous summation of the role of poetry in Dundee’s past and present. As part of the launch for our anthology, Whaleback City, I did a poetry walk with Andy Jackson a couple of years ago for the Dundee Literary Festival, and had great fun.

And Andy and I have been talking about a poetry map to illustrate what Erin is saying here – Dundee’s streets may not be paved with gold (here and there it’s mair likely tae be needles), but metaphorically they are lined with poems, and that should (as in her post) be celebrated.

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This post was written by Erin Farley, a second year PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde on the Collaborative Doctoral Award project “Poetry, Song and Community in the Industrial City: Victorian Dundee,” in partnership with Dundee Central Library. Her research focuses on how the composition, performance and reception of poetry and song reflected and influenced people’s relationships with place. She has previously worked in the fields of oral history and folklore studies, and is also a traditional storyteller. She is on Twitter @aliasmacalias.

The city of Dundee is the main character in my thesis. My research looks at the many ways in which people were creating and performing poems and songs there throughout the 19th century – a body of work which covers a huge variety of forms, mediums and experiences. Verse was printed in newspapers, sold for a penny in broadside shops, sung on the streets…

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The Three Polis: Scots and Intralingual Translation

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The panel I took part in on translation at last week’s Newcastle Poetry Festival raised a number of issues of equal fascination to both poets and translators, and, one would hope, readers of both. I found myself as excited by the far-ranging nature of the discussion, and the diversity of approaches of the panel, as I was impatient to think through how it related to my own practice.

From Jean Boase-Beier’s intense engagement with the text, usually solitary, usually focussed on the work of dead poets, trusting to etymology to deepen her investigation, to Erica Jarnes’s discussion of the responsibility of the translator to engage with and represent work outside the Grand Old Men of European heritage – thinking in particular of the Poetry Translation Centre’s representation of the poetry of minority, usually, immigrant, cultures within that European context; from Fiona Sampson’s subtle distinction between the meaning of the words in a text and the implications for meaning created by the text as a whole – moving away from what the words ‘mean’ to looking at how the cultural context of the poem independently generates meaning – to Sophie Collin’s careful deconstruction of what we mean by terms like ‘literal’ and ‘fidelity’ – it was an exciting and stimulating discussion.

Having worked with PhD students on the related topics of ekphrastic poetry, and the incipient poetry of the translation literal, I was struck by the continued relevance of the ‘Three Kinds of Translation’ listed in Sophie Collin’s anthology Currently & Emotion, which refers to Jakobson’s categories of interlingual, intralingual, and intersemiotic translation.

While we were effectively focussed on the first of these in our discussion on Saturday, and while ekphrasis would be ‘the most recognisable example’ of the third, I’ve been most concerned recently with the second, ‘an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs in the same language’ (Jakobson), or ‘any approach in which a text is adopted to a new purpose within the same language, with famous examples including erasure texts and paraphrasings’.

Essentially, as mentioned in previous posts, I’m translating the ‘Monolog Recreativ’ chapter from The Complaynt of Scotlande. What I mean by this is a sort of four part composition, a quartet of sorts, or rather a quadrilogue (as indeed is Wedderburn’s original text) in which four textual strategies are set side by side.

I’ll discuss those strategies later, and will focus first on an aspect of intralingual translation which I found impinged most directly on my other main translation project, the Poettrios Experiment, where we are investigating how translations are generated by a trio of source poet, target poet, and language advisor.

In order to include any Scots poems in those batches of work I send out for translation before an international festival, I usually have to include my own literal or interlinear to enable the translator to approach the original. Scots combines differences in spelling, grammar and vocabulary which one can’t expect someone used to translating from English to feel they have the necessary expertise in, while its proximity to English arguably places such literals somewhere in the intralingual category – but where? It might seem easier to leave it out.

To set aside all such work, though, is to present a simplified version of the poetry of the British isles – English’s dominance as a world language can seem to manifest itself as a matter of tensions about what is grammatically correct or stylistically elegant, rather than as an exercise in power, a monologue from the motherland which denies that it also functions as a complex plurality of modes (which may or may not include such significant literary units as Scots).

So it was with a heightened awareness of such matters that I was in the midst of preparing literals, notes, and glosses for the Poettrios project (the British poets involved, who include Fiona, will in our first session be translated into Dutch, and in the second, will translate from it), when I realised that I had stepped over a boundary between saying what a Scots word meant, and explaining its cultural and literary context – certain words seemed to demand both explanations, till I noted this was a luxury of exegesis not extended to my fellow poets.

This would seem to illustrate the strange relation between Scots and English, in which the former is at once less and more than a language, in that its existence, and the social and literary strategies which that involves Scots and English speakers and readers in, reveals English’s linguistic hegemony in all sorts of interesting ways. (Scots has a somewhat fraught relationship with autocorrect, for instance…)

The point about certain Scots words therefore carrying both literal meanings and strong cultural connotations hadn’t occurred to me in quite those terms. Of course all language does this – consider the nightingale – but in terms of that interrelation between Scots and English, some words were evidently symbols of almost-separate-but-proximate heritages, generating complementary but different interpretations for Scots and non-Scots.

I won’t refer to any of the Poettrios texts here for the same reason that I then pulled back in my interlinears from explaining the literary and cultural context of certain words – so as not to pre-empt the discussion in those translation sessions. But I can give an example from my work on the ‘Monolog’.

In a much earlier poem – among my first work in Scots, written back in my 20s – I’d referred to a sort of intralingual pun, where a word from my reading echoed one from my upbringing, bringing my literary and local heritage into an odd relationship. In the ‘21st Doldrum’, from a sequence of poems about the social and spiritual stagnation I felt had taken hold of my home town of Dundee in the first flush of Thatcherism, I referred to a story I’d been told by a policeman – a representative of, in Scots, the polis – of recovering the body of a suicide from the River Tay.

(The viewing platforms of the 1960s road bridge, it turned out, were pretty exactly the correct height to kill yourself if you jumped from them.)

In their role as agents of the law and witnesses of its transgressions, then, I wrote

…thi polis ur oor symbuls,
as Olson pit it, per accidens, nae kennin Scots:
‘Polis’-man as unit o thi Burg.

In a footnote, I quoted Robert Creeley on Charles Olson’s Maximus poems: ‘Polis…is never more than the aggregate of people who have so joined themselves together, and it is as members define it. Their perception constitutes the city.’

Here the Greek-as-assimilated-into-late-Modernist-discourse, and the ordinary urban Scots, with their correspondingly high and low(er) cultural references, exactly echoed each other in a manner which I thought was dramatic and relevant, and which I at least found amusing. (I have a similar reaction whenever I think of the county of Kent, which in Scots means ‘knew’ – often employed in the reductive put-down of someone who is perceived as getting above their station, ‘kent their faither’, ie I know his or her social background does not match the airs he or she is currently putting on. Scots sometimes think of the Home Counties not only as not their home, but as getting above their station in the supposed democracy of these islands.)

When I was re-reading the ‘Monolog’, however, I came across a third iteration of this pun, this time more properly intralingual. The ‘Actor’ or author, taking a stroll between writing their introduction and the opening scene of the quadrilogue (a vision of ‘dame Scotia’), recounts in encyclopaedic detail everything they see and hear, a far from restful listing which includes catalogues of birds’ and animals’ cries, an account of a sea battle, lists of tales, songs and dances (some extant, some extinct), and a mercifully brief account of the herbs they see as they fall asleep in the grass.

The central passage is an account of everything he knows by ‘the prencipal scheiphirde’ (which is so ‘prolixt’ he has to be interrupted by his wife): an attempt ‘to mak ane diffinitione of cosmaghraphie/(as far as ve scheiphirdis hes contemplit)’. This leads to a detailed description of the astronomic spheres and their influence over the weather and our health, which includes the following:

…ze sal ymagyne tua sternis quhilk ar callit the tua polis
of the firmament ane of them standis at the northt
quhilk is callit the pole artic boreal or septemtrional,
it aperis til vs in our habitatione be rason that
it is eleuat abufe our orizone, the tothir sterne standis
at the southt, and it is callit the pole antartic austral
or meridional it is ay hid fra vs for it aperis neuyr
in our hemispere be rason that it is vndir our orizon.
(My italics)

(…you shall imagine two stars which are called the two poles
of the firmament: one of them stands at the north
which is called the pole arctic, boreal, or septentrional,
it appears to us in our habitation by reason that
it is elevated above our horizon; the other star stands
at the south, and it is called the pole antarctic, austral
or meridional, it is always hidden from us for it never appears
in our hemisphere by reason that it is under our horizon.)

You can see from this why all the young shepherds used to skip his lectures and go dancing, especially as they could shake a leg to the likes of the following:

…the gosseps dance, leuis grene,
makky, the speyde, the flail
the lammes vynde, soutra,
cum kyttil me naykyt
vantounly, schayke leg,
fut befor gossep
Rank at the rute,
baglap and al…

The idea that one word, ‘polis’, could have three such distinct yet related meanings – Greek, late Medieval, and contemporary – creates a sort of dance-like energy between those meanings. The role of the writer/translator in linking them, as puns do, or as bodies do in a dance, provides a fourth meaning: the symbolic nature of such words to represent cultures across historical and etymological distinctions.

Imagine, then, if you may, a maypole round which Maximus of Tyre, Robert Creeley, the prencipal scheiphirde, Robert Wedderburn (not the one who wrote The Horrors of Slavery, though, while in interlingual mode, why not?), John Lennon dressed as a walrus (remember that ‘Mr. City policeman’?), the Chief Superintendent of Tayside, and an unnamed drowned person, are all dancing to the music of what Pound defined as logopoeia, which the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid seized upon as something of particular interest to Scots, or, as here, anyone interested in the discourses of power and pleasure: ‘the dance of the intellect among words’.

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Close, 4

(The previous post involved me testing out and adapting one of Geddes’s ‘thinking machines’ – a little bit of neural coding, if you like. It helped me recognise that my tendencies to withdrawal, incrementalism, slapstickery, and to what I identified from a fascinating article by Charlotte Higgins on Phyllida Barlow as the ‘expedient’, do pretty much govern how I go about my given roles.

Whether as pater, Makar, Professor, or poet, I tend to take the back seat, the low road, the long game, the one take – and to seek out and admire the work of those who do so too.

I’ve mentioned Phyllida Barlow, but I’m about to head off to Oxford to the funeral of an old 80s friend, Helen Kidd, and I’ve been thinking of her work, how she balanced writing and teaching, in the light of one more sad loss, this time to Dundee poetry, Jim Stewart. In all three cases, these were artists who appeared to put their secondary vocation, as teachers, if not first, then in the stronger or yang position in relation to the yin of their art.

In an unsubtle world that would seem a foolish thing to do. But my instinct is that, in an unstrategised way, they got something profoundly right, as Phyllida Barlow’s example shows. I just wish Jim and Helen had also had that late period flowering to explore the consequences of their decision, if clear-cut decision it was.

This closing post of Close, then, is an attempt to look through the lens of Geddes’s machine at the types of continuity possible if one remains true to such tendencies. An alternative name might therefore be ‘Punkademia, The Secondary, and Bartleby Syndrome: My Years of Heroic Struggle’. Or perhaps that’s just what it’s called.)

I was just discussing with co-editor Richard Price elsewhere on social media how we’ve not yet got round to digitising Gairfish, the magazine we co-edited from 1989-94, when Jim Benstead requested permission to do exactly that to an old article of mine on MacDiarmid for Chapman. Way back then, we remarked, it was normal for there to be so many litmags, now it looks almost countercultural, a manifestation of what some have called Punkademia.

Perhaps because the article was written so far back, I had no memory of its contents, and Jim had to send me a copy. I then found to my embarrassment that, in full-on MacDiarmidean mode, I’d used the article as a way to sneak in a couple of unpublished poems, which I had to request to be redacted from the article itself, (Though as the Scots poem was never collected, I’ve reproduced it separately on Tumblr). – An interesting case of rapid transition from far too far away to the closeness of over-sharing.

But the circumstances prompted reflection. If we were, with our librarian’s and archivist’s hat(s) on (and what hats exactly do those professions favour?), to digitise these publications, Richard and I were in agreement that it should be a matter of genealogies not archaeologies, pluralities not provinces, polystylism not perfectionism, contexts not prize-winners. In other words, a further editorial and, therefore, polemical act.

Regrettably, of course – and this goes to the heart of why our early 90s endeavours may seem, firstly, ‘radical’ (because they fell outside the frame of activities subsidised and hence legitimised by arts bureaucracies and/or our universities), and, secondly, so very long ago – this would occur in a literary environment where we would routinely expect such acts not to be noticed, one where such work attracted no-sales not features, hatchet jobs not laudations, youthism not depth perception, retreads not identified traditions.

In mid-career, ‘secondary’ writers and their editorial activities pass through the waist of the critical hourglass: journalism is focussed on youth, academia on the dead. In that formulation, youth ‘equals’ now, and the dead include primary living writers who have proven themselves to be ‘safe’ subjects.

In order to be ‘safe’, publishers, the media, the bureaucrats, and in some cases the academy, require any author who is not already part of a functioning mainstream network to possess a single or dominant identifying characteristic of class, circumstance of origin, race, or sexuality. Their work should either reflect that identity, or at least be monothematic. Work which disturbs this direct mapping cannot, it is assumed, appeal to a broad enough readership to be of primary significance, and is therefore consigned to an unspoken category of far-offness: the Secondary.

At this point in the discussion another friend (from Oxford in the 80s/90s), Keith Jebb, compared the relative importance of writers currently regarded as primary or secondary, and, naming no names (apart from that of Tom Raworth), we noted that while writing which is set aside as Secondary may well complicate the model set out above, it is also useful in casting light on all such acts of framing (as well as sometimes – as in the case of Tom Raworth – being very good at complicating things, as well as very good).

One could indeed argue that it’s only by focussing on the Secondary that a meaningful critical perspective can be reached on the quick or the dead, the complicating or the simplified…but as someone aspiring to be a Secondary Writer, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? – and therefore one couldn’t.

Could we nonetheless set up a Punkademic U, Keith wondered, not entirely flippantly, and I thought, not for the first time, that in such exchanges we sort of already have. I was reflecting on how I have come to use this and its brother and sister blogs in preference to conventional publication, whether in literary or academic journals, where I endeavour to continue to publish conventional work – reviews and those poems which ‘really will’ go into the next book.

Here, however, it’s not simply or, rather, primarily a matter of freedom from editorial checks (and rejections), it’s more about a more exploratory approach, essayistic in the original sense of that term, in terms of both critical and creative writing. It’s about a closeness equally to the materials, in the sense of early stage drafting, to the means of production, i.e. ‘expediency’, and to a potential readership, i.e. you.

Yes, there’s a big dash of what I’ve come to regard as The Bartleby Syndrome in that – a reluctance to engage with the PoeBiz of festivals, competitions, and commissions, the pecking orders and latest thing-ness, that many of my colleagues will recognise, although it pursues us even unto the fastnesses of Facebook, etc. We would prefer not to be doing something because it ticks someone else’s box, because somebody whose values we don’t necessarily rate thinks it will be popular.

Sometimes, of course, the clearest manifestation of such commodifying, the commission, can be genuinely inspiring or liberating, and the strategy of using a commission to drive the development of a difficult new direction is part of any writer’s palette of creative strategies. This impulse isn’t really about rejecting the Biz, but about establishing a necessary distance from it, and therefore a closeness to, an intimacy with, one’s deeper processes.

Of course this differs from ‘proper’ publishing, particularly proper academic publishing, in a number of obvious ways to do with rigour and accountability – with, in essence, that deeply problematic idea, seriousness. (When I was exchanging tweets on this matter with Keith, a comment of his prompted the couplet, ‘The joke’s the thing/wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the discipling’).

Fundamentally, a blog embraces and seeks to better define that subjectivity both lecturers and students worry about when it comes to the marking, but wish to encourage when approaching the ideation. Part of embracing one’s Secondariness is getting down off those high distant horses, of doing something that may prove only to be playful or plain introverted – ‘hermless’, in the words of the song – of sharing rather than dominating.

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Close, 3

(I was struck while reading this review of Murakami’s latest book of short stories by the parallel between his ‘dialled down’ male protagonists, and the ‘hermless’ aspect of Dundee’s male population during the heyday of the jute industry, the ‘kettle-bilers’ who signed up for teetotalism and quietly worked their gairdens. These recurred in the otaku and hikikomori figures I identified with from the doldrum years of the 80s onwards, the redundant, the unemployed, the under-deployed loafers, weirdos and losers. (See also herbivore males.)

As I find myself writing new Doldrums which appear to be about the internalisation of this state, and while I attempt to reclaim a set of pathologising phrases as creatively meaningful (procrastination, nostalgia, whimsy, secondariness), I am in a way trying to position this egosyntonic tendency in the social dynamic or lack of it from which I emerged. Thus the third part of this set of posts turns to Wedderburn and Geddes as a way of looking at civic roles.)

I’m finding it very helpful, as a Dundonian poet, to contemplate the social structure set out in what is usually agreed to be a sixteenth century Dundee text, The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549), that rallying cry against the imposition of English political will, in the form of the Rough Wooing, onto the Scottish polity. (What, parallels with now? Surely not!)

The Complaynt explores a subtly different configuration of that polity to that set out in Sir David Lindsay’s Satire of the Three Estates. Instead of the nobility, the clergy, and the burghers, Wedderburn follows Alain Chartier’s model in the Quadrilogue invectif (1422), and has Dame Scotia round rebarbatively on lords, priests and commoners (those ‘callit lauberaris’).

These three remind me of the categories of the close, the land, and the lobby, and how these units fit into the larger frame of my city (Dame Dundee). It doesn’t seem too large a leap to say it was the priests’ role to establish our closeness or distance from virtue (God), while the nobles owned the land, and the commoners had only that last limen of their labour, in which their bodies and that of their families were, precariously, their own.

But crucially, he also introduces at the outset (in the ‘monolog recreativ’ – where the echoing of Chartier’s title cannot be accidental) the mediating figure of the ‘actor’ or author, who plays a significant role in establishing the grounds for the complaint itself. In a sense, the author introduces, then acts out each part of the four way discussion.

Perhaps then a helpful model for the poet of the polis might be to pick that configuration up, and one way of doing so would be to follow Patrick Geddes’s favourite division of the city, and therefore of society, into conceptual quarters: the lanes and closes and lands and lobbies our thought inhabits.

As Volker Welter puts it in biopolis, like Wedderburn from Chartier, Geddes borrows from the French philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte the idea that a city can be divided into four ‘social types’ which have (or have not) either temporal or spiritual power: ‘Comte divides the temporal powers…into “people” and “chiefs”, and the spiritual powers into “intellectuals” and “emotionals”…’

When Geddes applies this to the medieval city, ‘he identifies as “people” two distinctive groups of the population: peasants in the country and burghers in towns. The chiefs are the barons or nobility. The regular clergy in abbey and monastery are intellectuals, and the secular clergy in the cathedral church represent emotionals.’ We can see this as a sort of composite echo of the divisions in Wedderburn and Lindsay.

Being of a morphological bent, Geddes can then apply these categories to any other type of city, including the modern industrial city, where we find the people identified with business, the chiefs with politics, intellectuals with education, and the emotionals with religion. As Welter warns, ‘The four social types cannot be seriously considered as well-defined sociological categories…This model is not so much an analytical as a moral one…’

If we treat it as such, then, but add in the understanding that all such structures have not only inevitably evolved, but will equally inevitably contain their own internal power division, ie that each quadrant contains both ordinary members and bosses, in the way that an Edinburgh close housed both masters and servants, then that might give:

1. the commons of the workplace representing the ‘people’ (both franchised and disenfranchised), its bosses therefore including those of industry and its cognate field, the criminal;
2. the council being the ‘chiefs’ (municipal and governing), its bosses being the political class at local and, especially, national levels;
3. the colleges as ‘intellectuals’ (now including both centres of learning and, frankly, the remains of religion as it is administered and delivered) its bosses therefore being vice chancellors and archbishops;
4. the clerics as ‘emotionals’ (media and artists), its bosses being press barons and bureaucratic mandarins.

Each of us has a role or more than one role in relation to these four categories. and it is in the interactions between the roles, and between the roles and the power structures they contain that we begin to glimpse our individual social responsibilities, our closeness to or distance from power.

Thus, in the first of these quadrants, like many writers, I am a worker and, like some, a parent (particularly, a ’pater familias’).

In the second, I’m a voter and tax-payer, who can be called upon to be a juror, and, as a poet in a localised public sense of the term, a ‘Makar’.

In the third I’m a professor (equally lecturer, practice-based researcher, and administrator), and, typologically, a ‘creative’.

In the fourth I’m an author (therefore understood to be employable as a reviewer or broadcaster), though, as pointed out above, actually in the problematic category of ‘poet’.

So if we observe how the major/minor, empowered/disempowered division operates in each quarter, I’d say that in some of these cases I may find myself switching between major and minor positions, but, in several, like most poets, I occupy the less powerful bracket.

Thus a worker is not a boss, but a father can be, wittingly or otherwise, an agent of patriarchy; a voter is not a councillor, but a Makar has a (sort of) public voice; any professor has a considerable amount of status, but a creative one may be seen as unorthodox, not quite academic enough; and while an author may well be an opinion-maker, a poet may be perceived as shouting in a bucket.

To the extent that each writer divides their roles between such categories, we can plot out our areas of relative strengths and weaknesses, our closeness to the communities we are part of, and, crucially, our distance from those who would control and administer them, and thus, to the extent to which a writer can plan anything, we might just be able to determine where our energies could be best spent.

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