Dehydrating the Narrative

I think of my seven/fourteen tweet pieces and those of my colleagues in Chimera Group such as George Szirtes or James Knight, or the tweet series of Jeff Noon, or his group Echovirus12, not so much as prose poems as dehydrated narratives.

Yes, the regularity of more-or-less 140 characters, plus the limitations of X numbers of pieces, acts as a poetic constraint. But the temptation to play with story is as great. We are so familiar with narrative and its genre structures that a hint of the appropriate texture is enough for the boiling liquid of the reader’s imagination to be added. This leaves space to reconfigure and play without leaving the compressed zone of the poem, where that heightened attention to language can operate.

This is significantly other than the sort of nouvelle cuisine (remember that?) of some forms of short short fiction, or the high art reclamations of, say, SciFi by literary giants, in that the created object, if reconstituted in its entirety, would still be recognisably ersatz. In fact, it is the wobble, the cheese, the pulpiness or B-movie-ness, in short, the Secondariness, that I at least am aiming for at all. (The others may wish to demur at this point.)

The idea that the facsimile is the proper goal is already obvious in both parody and pastiche, but behind both these lies the concept of the imitation as both the apprentice’s task and, in Platonism, all that any artist can achieve: the copy of the copy of the ideal.

Of course, implicit in such thinking is the role of the ideal within any artistic field, the ‘masterpiece’ which must be produced by the ‘genius’. That which in any guild or trade was simply an act of sufficient mastery, the masterpiece, displaying – alongside the payment of enough cash to the correct parties – competence to practise, is fetishised beyond access by all but the primary ones, those whose faces beam at us with cyclical recurrence from the front pages of literary supplements and magazines.

Of course, when these very faces work with genre elements, it is somehow to redeem them rather than to colonise, to perfect rather than to recycle or exploit. (And the familiar recurrence of their appearance guarantees cash or at least the status which sells advertising to the parent papers of those supplements, or attracts grants to those magazines.)

Similarly, the principle of the flawlessness of the text they produce is adhered to by all except the deconstructionist, whose attention is naturally drawn to the self-perpetuating structure which underpins its production. But that attention is itself governed by the same law of the facsimile – if the masterpiece can no longer be relied on to be of Biblical authority, then my hermeneutics must transfer to the critical processes which want to regard it in such a light, and so on, in strict recession.

The worthiness of this is, frankly, for the philosophers. A writer has, while acknowledging and exposing these processes, other means of doing so and indeed other, in the sense of additional, goals. What interests me about the dehydrated narrative is its approach to suggestion, to the larger spaces that lie behind all fictions, and, indeed, between rational progressions of thought. This, which we might think of as a suggestibility in both reader and writer, is a sort of daydream space, an almost communal subjectivity, in which certain shared stimuli may permit drift.

It is also a DIY reaction to the sort of collaborative effort you would have to deploy to enact some of these ideas – the graphic skills or dramaturgic abilities or musical competence or recording or directing or publishing expertise being beyond some of us. There is a laziness, and a solipsism inherent in this, but also a freedom to be impractical, sometimes wildly so: to transform actual settings or depart from the conventions governing fictional ones – particularly the narrative rules which draw some of us to such invention in the first place.

The formulae of ‘Story’ exist for a reason, but it is possible, by withdrawing from reasonableness, to turn to its epiphenomena, and, like the incredible shrinking man, to enter a sub-narrative realm.
Lost Ashton Smith
One example of the sort of speculative drift I’m discussing occurs for me in relation to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, one of the trio of Weird Stories writers producing a hybrid horror/SciFi/proto-fantasy fiction in the US in the 1930s. Like Philip K. Dick, the other two, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, have become thoroughly exploited mining territories for film makers, heavy metal nerds, and hipsters, but Ashton Smith began as a poet, and ended as a sculptor, and the focus of his fiction is much more on the textures of language and setting, than on what happens in them.

With mechanical recurrence, hapless, venal or intrepid explorers (he doesn’t much mind which) stumble upon a remorseless and grotesquely ‘other’ entity in a lovingly described alien realm, which eats them. It is the realm and, to a lesser extent, the eating, which engages him – and the issue it raises of what arcane vocabulary and elaborate syntax this will require of him.

There are several such places – luxuriantly (and carnivorously) foliaged other worlds, and ancient, desiccated, ruined places at the end of time, where dead (but peckish) creatures may be summoned from slumber by hapless, venal or intrepid necromancers.

The one which particularly intrigued me was the least developed of the set, a Mars on the point of ecological collapse, on which conventional SciFi ‘space traders’ encountered an ancient race of barrel-chested, cadaverous Martians, the Aihai, who perhaps had three mighty nostrils, and occasionally a third vestigial forelimb, and who lived in an ancient metropolis called Ignarrh – that we practically never saw.

The plucky but luckless Earthmen, driven of course by greed or curiosity, were, in the couple of stories Ashton Smith completed, perpetually heading out of or beneath the city in search of their spectacular and grisly dooms. The Aihai themselves were more hinted at than seen, as we would encounter examples, living, dead, and sometimes somewhere in between, of more ancient races still, from which the present, gaunt, croaky Martians had descended if not devolved.

It was the unwritten city, then, and its barely sketched-out inhabitants, which lingered longer in my adolescent mind than any of the more ‘complete’ worlds he wrote of, just as it is the slightly incoherent stage of the Cthulhu mythos, when Lovecraft is first stumbling on its cyclopean outlines, that people fixate on, rather than the more elaborated cosmology of his editor, August Derleth (though he certainly had the name for the job).

Lin Carter did the same for Howard, and Tolkien, in the form of The Silmarillion, did it for or rather to himself – cancelling out the speculative in favour of the grammar. But Ashton Smith has, so far, been spared. In a way, like a hybrid between Raymond Roussel and Don Van Vliet, he was just too damn weird.

This space for the reader as interpreter, illustrator, or even translator, of the fragmentary is in a way supported by the dehydrated space of twitter-generated texts. At present, at least in the manifestations I’m discussing, it plays with the chimeric – that which sits between forms and tones, working with absurdity and the unheimlich rather than the highly serious (it hardly has room to aspire to the sententious).

Neither prose poem nor short short short fiction, and yet partaking of both, it is at once a sort of astronaut food, the strange pills and packets we once thought would feed the future, and an older kind of border space, thin enough to let a kind of collaboration between writers as readers and readers as writers begin. Let’s begin.

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New Cartographies for Old

(An edited version of this review appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Poetry London.)
Sandeep Parmar, Eidolon (Shearsman); Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Wedding (Faber & Faber); Tony Williams, The Midlands (Nine Arches Press).

These three collections in their different ways approach a single question at the heart of what it is to write poetry: how do we gauge that element of cultural significance which distinguishes the poetic from the prosaic? At the level of the individual poem, the collection, or the oeuvre, is it a matter of form, reference, tone, or of some unique formulation of these and other elements, say contemporaneity? Or is there no such distinction, nor any need to formulate one?

While Sandeep Parmar places this issue in the juxtaposition of classical myth and contemporary history – a gesture derived from the modernism of Pound and Eliot – Tony Williams locates it instead in the dialogue between discourse and setting, how place affects our heritage of phrasings and forms, and how we locate and relocate literary tradition. Sam Riviere, by contrast, refuses straightforward access to any of these types of signifiers regarding the status of utterance, effecting instead a confrontation of the poetic mode with found and manipulated content. Riviere appears therefore to present the question in its most radical form, however, both Parmar and Williams are engaged to greater or lesser degrees in similar acts of challenging the reader as to how they assess what they read as a poem. 

This challenge was, of course, previously explored in nineteenth century art and in early literary modernism, which, having explored social and psychological alienation through literary concepts like Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, mustered aesthetic responses including Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or just a good old Dadaist épater le bourgeois. It was restated very variously throughout the twentieth century, in everything from Surrealism to the Beats, and from Situationism to Language Poetry, as writers and artists sought to find new ways of presenting the concept of alienation to a public which thought of itself as more alienated from modern art, music and poetry, than from either a globalised industrialised society or its mass media, which both encourages cultural passivity and, largely, excludes the artists’ terms of reference. Most people ignore most poetry because it’s easier to keep up with the Kardashians.

Moreover, the challenge itself has for some time now been part of the problem of engagement: how much longer can this issue appear sufficiently central to our experience of literature or art as to concern us over and above any other type of interaction with the poem or artwork? Once you understand you’re being exploited until you die and rewarded with the cultural equivalent of tranquilliser darts, does art really need to keep shouting ‘Am I “Art”? Well, am I?’? What if such gestures are now as peripheral to the poem as journalists like to declare poetry itself is from a politically responsible and culturally responsive citizen’s concerns?

Sandeep Parmar’s book is a fifty part sequence of reflections on the image of Helen of Troy, and, through Helen, how we conceive of the feminine, and indeed the ancient Greeks. The image is evoked via Whitman’s deeply suggestive if programmatic poem, ‘Eidolons’, and indeed the ingenious defence of Helen put forward in Euripides’ tragedy Helen, as explored by the great Imagist poet H.D..

For Whitman, the eidolon is the ‘life of life’ – how we imagine the world in which we live, a phantasm which enables us to conceive of that world beyond our senses. It is also a way of imagining America. For Euripides, it is the answer to the charge that Helen caused the Trojan War, with all its death, destitution and destruction: his play announces that she wasn’t there, but safe and separate in Egypt, while her eidolon, a double created by the gods, took her place on the battlements of Troy. By that token, of course, Helen or her double could be anywhere, and in Parmar’s imaginatively wide-ranging sequence, we find her very much in the modern world:

In her wine-coloured suit

and burgundy shoes

she asks the night manager

to make a reverse call

and he is struck

by her poise
in her hand

the receiver becomes some object

          cut loose

The apparent redundancy of following ‘wine-coloured suit’ with ‘burgundy shoes’ reminds us of the old canard about what colour Homer thinks his ‘wine-dark’ sea actually is, linking ancient literary epithet to Hopperesque nocturne. Then there is the curious atomisation of her hand holding the phone: we see it as almost separated from the rest of her body: the phone is defamiliarised as ‘some object/cut loose’ as if Harpo Marx has just wandered past and snipped the cable with his scissors.    

Anachronistic juxtaposition is used here in a different way from, say, Christopher Logue’s technique in War Music: figures from Greek tragedy appear on a Jerry Springer-type TV show not in order to shock us back into the contexts and consciousness of Classical poetry, but to relocate their tragic extremis among us and in our banal and scripted emotions: ‘Clytemnestra, what would you say if Agamemnon was sitting here right now?’

If Helen’s double can be anywhere among us, then, equally, her world can be doubled or reflected in ours, as when

Four US warships slink up from the coast of the Maghreb

                  toward Minoan water

their sleepless crew tally their charges

as did the Achaeans

Throughout, a parallel is made between the rapaciousness in every sense of the Greeks and American foreign policy and racist attitudes toward its own citizens. Of course for this kind of mirroring to work we must feel that something of significance is revealed by the reflection, or that, perhaps, some element of the uncanny is evoked by the haunting of present by past, of living women by a male construct, from a very distant era, of dangerous female beauty. 

The challenge for Parmar here is indeed to reclaim Helen, to explore the tensions between an unknown or unknowable individual and her endlessly reconstructed image. These poems question our readiness to seek out a person amid the refractions of personae, a readiness which is countered by their recurrent act of naming, as though the Homeric use of a single recurring epithet is no longer fit for purpose: ‘Helen, dispirited…Helen denuded…Helen fails…Helen falls…Helen dethroned…Helen in the cash only express line…’

However, there is sometimes a sense of recurrent contrast without much corresponding momentum, repeatedly pitting a borrowed materialist lexis against a lyric voice which in turn echoes the classicism of the Imagists as we remember it in Pound and H.D., as though the opposition of myth and materiality has induced a sort of stasis. In fact, one of the points where I found myself most engaged and energised by this book was actually outside the main body of the text, in the intellectual sweep of the Afterword, which contextualises the work with considerable brio.

One of the most successful pieces is the penultimate poem, in which an extended comparison is drawn firstly between LA and Troy, and secondly between the widows and bereaved daughters of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and a mother and daughter attempting ‘to plant a Troy-tree/in our Californian garden’. There is a commanding, almost choral voice – ‘Let us be as a city upon a hill…Let us be as a city/on the stones of other cities…’, but there is also a personal tone which is as if not more persuasive in suggesting that something more is at stake in this relocatory planting:

no, it will not grow on my mother’s lawn

in an exile’s confusion of lavender,

red marigold and lily flower.

Tony Williams’ first collection, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, as its title implies, took locality and the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes eccentric specificities it demands, to a highly individual pitch. You might imagine The Midlands has pulled back a little on the Richard Dadd-like intensity, but in fact this volume is if anything diastole to its predecessor’s systole, a confident demarking of the outer limits of the same territory of quiet terrors and post-pastoral intensities:

The Midlands are crying, crying for haslet and bacon,

      Crying for bridges where railways falter,

Crying for sumpters no longer needed

      On towpaths of moss and built-upon pasture

And troughs of time-stilling water…
Here is neither one thing nor the other.

It is simultaneous funny, moving, and very odd. It establishes his home town of Matlock as the southern tip of a poetic triangle stretching perhaps from Sheffield to Mytholmroyd, and encompassing the Huddersfield/Barnsley scene associated with Armitage, Hattersley and McMillan, as well as a younger generation of writers including figures like Helen Mort, whose first book, Division Street, similarly performed through title an act of cultural positioning. 

Like the Rhubarb Triangle just to the north, famously alluded to in Harrison’s ‘Rhubarbarians’, there is something strange and compelling, if singularly unforced, about the work of many of these writers. It is marked by a surreal, reductive humour, and a keen ear for where the colloquial meets the supposedly higher register of poetry. In this sense, Williams’ work in particular gestures beyond, say, Ted Hughes, to the austere map-making of Auden, marrying saga to the landscape of the lead mines, or the primary Romantic gesture, Wordsworth’s re-visioning of the Lakes. In the opening passage above, we first register haslet as the local cold meat, but then we catch the pun on the great essayist of the Romantic period, Hazlitt (and his predecessor, Francis Bacon).

In this sense, he is engaged in a cartography of discourses, and like Harrison or Armitage, treats this simultaneously as an act of locating oneself within, and critiquing, a tradition. Notions of poetic register are always countered by an invigorating awareness of the prosaic, in the sense of a discourse open to politics and the particular, as much as to the quotidian. 

In ‘The OK Diner’, the status of the ‘diner’ is subjected to a fond critical gaze (‘What is the meaning of “salad”,/here in Ohio-on-Trent?’). Can this really be that aspiration toward an American ideal of commodified plenty beloved of postmodern theorists, with ‘the half-arsed A1 running by past the window to Retford and Donny’? The specificity of naming, the poising of the cafe on the point of closure, is set against a field where, absurdly and poignantly, ‘the donkeys sit down in protest/at rust as the answer and essence of all journey’s ends’, before concluding of the waitress, baffled by guacamole, that ‘Her accent redeems it’. Voice, in other words, momentarily triumphs over false consciousness.

This crux is enacted throughout the collection by a combination of tactics: landscape is defined as simultaneously literary and post-industrial, simultaneously profoundly English and reaching north into types of otherness, simultaneously a topography and a phantasmagoria, by oxymoronic gestures like the phrase ‘The Rural Citizen’: 

I emptied the flask in the river, dropped off my rucksack

As shrine on the roadside, buried my boots

In the mud by the gate where mud-coloured cows

Had thronged to be fed or to die since enclosure,

And set off in trainers and jeans for the commonplace hill.

Poem after poem pushes beyond the mild anecdotal epiphanies of the conventional lyric into this borderland space (as defined by Farley and Symmons Roberts), where the ancient landscape, disrupted or deformed by historical change, is abandoned by modernity, and revisited by the poet almost as the Anglo-Saxons revisited the sites of the Romans, as sites of dissociative or transgressive revision. 

Here it is possible for a seamstress to fall in love with a mole (‘His name is Wudower. He carries a silver watch,/each tick a mole-year…), and, as with the waitress, her voice compels us to believe: ‘A thimbleful of cider is a lot/for a girl like me. I’m perfectly serious.’ Here, Jack Woolley from The Archers, lost to dementia, paradoxically renders his fictional world more real through dream: ‘It is the vale of lengthening shadow, the bridge/which takes each soul beyond its Am.’

Poems enact this extension by literally going over the page, out of the space of the conventional lyric moment, or by performing anaphoric developments of theme (‘Fox prints’, in its recurrent ‘We lunched…’, reveals a gluttonous appetite for transformation as much as digestion – ‘There was not much we thought unlunchable’). They distend time, as in ‘The Photocopier’, where the small miseries of technology mount up into an image of the office as Tartarus, a place where lives are eaten.

Williams works, then, by a layering of discourse with carefully marshalled cultural references, setting this against that type of perceptual strangeness that always threatens to unsettle the intellect with our embodied frailties:

the way of moving stirs

     and I remember me

the shadow of arms and legs

     continually sneaks

behind the brain…

History (and theories of history) feels like an inhabited space, but one haunted by suppressed voices and the discomfort of irreconcilable detail. The poems therefore always seem as on the move between instabilities as their restless protagonists. Their moments of poise come, if at all, as at the end of this composite portrait of another female icon wreathed in over-interpretation and uncertainty, Anastasia, with a decidedly ominous note:

A young girl sitting at a white piano, doing her knitting, asquint

at the edge of a frozen lake, naive, as the clumsy photographer

lets his own shadow intrude on her lap as he shoots.

A carefully poised act of framing allows us ingress into Sam Riviere’s depiction of the dizzying surface of our culture, seen as a species of cool delirium with its millimetre deep portraits of celebrity and its micro-seconds of baffled introspection. At the end, unusually in a single collection, but borrowing from the paraphernalia of the collected poems, two indices are included, one indicating the objects, subjects, places and people who appear in Kim Kardashian’s Wedding, the other listing the titles. 

From this we perceive both the very relative equivalence and the frisson of incongruity implied by placing a cat next to Noam Chomsky, that great gazer at Capitalism’s kings, or indeed by following George Clooney with a cloud. Equally, alphabeticisation demonstrates that there is a precise system by which terms are recombined to provide the different titles. This reinforces the impression given by the contents page, which lists a make-up routine from primer to gloss. The book is demonstrably concerned with the laminae that make up image, and if meaning can be conjured by the limina of systemic juxtaposition, it seems to ask, why is further comment necessary? Indeed, wouldn’t further comment fall into the same vacuous category as the media which surrounds Clooney or Kardashian or, via the sort of designer anarchy we see on T-shirts, Chomsky?

All this would suffice to lead us into an interesting cultural debate if not necessarily into a book of poems, but for a phrase which precedes all these, thanks to Faber’s placing of the blurb on the inner flap of the dust jacket:

‘…the process of enquiry involves the composition method itself…in poems that have been produced by harvesting and manipulating the results of search engines to create a poetry of part-collage, part-improvisation.’

Here, of course, we have to determine how much status to accord to the phrase ‘and manipulating’, and how much weight to give to the apparent equivalence implied by ‘part-improvisation’. Because the rest of the book appears to be wholly generated, as the indices imply, by discovery, selection, and juxtaposition:

You may be wondering how I learned the title.

I’ll tell you how. I have a very annoying problem.

With practised skill I play several hours

And the screen itself…I can’t.

(infinity dust)

Disconnections that suggests a deeper connection, broken off phrases – the underlying intentionality of collage is evident here, as is the discovery made by MacDiarmid in his (avant la Lettrism) use of found or, in his day, plagiarised, elements: that the borrowed material can always be read metaphorically, and that reading occurs most easily in a self-referential context. This was summed up by him in the long poem, The Kind Of Poetry I Want, in which the unacknowledged work of others was filtered to produce a series of analogies for a poetics which was actually being embodied in the poem itself, ie the kind of poetry MacDiarmid wanted was a poem by MacDiarmid about the kind of poetry he wanted. An echo of that Droste Effect occurs here in the first line’s reference to ‘how I learned the title’, especially once we realise all these titles have been generated by a particular method.

So the question of what form this manipulation takes, and to what degree these texts are part improvised, must continue to influence our reading. (‘Improvised’ in particular is a charged term, opening out a referential frame that includes jazz and comedy.) We can never fully give ourselves up to an idea of the free play of registers because Riviere has used the structural apparatus of the slim volume itself to undermine the status of these poems as simply ‘found’. This was something implicit from the outset in the more immediate antecedent to this mode of composition, Flarf. By refusing authorship of found pieces, you affirm an authorial role through selective manipulation:

…They taught me how

to dodge and lie to hide my codes.

Cut and paste the here and there.

Forget what the intentions were…

By focusing on the apparently unpoetic in terms of subject matter, you emphasise that there is a poetic you are constantly alluding to and therefore critiquing by enclosing such a subject matter within the frame of the poem. Crucially, as speakers of estuarial English can already hear, there is an element of entertainment and specifically the comic in this: at the core of Flarf is larfter (‘We’re spreading smiles every minute/with lyrics and jokes for your personal use…’).

Key to this is a kind of textual pareidolia which is at the heart of the lyric gesture. Just as we relentlessly identify faces given the slightest of visual stimuli, so too we respond to the lyric ‘I’ – and especially the lyric ‘you’, the addressee of the ubiquitous love poem, as though they must be a) the poet, and b) an identifiable actual subject – ‘Helen’ in Sandeep Parmar’s terms – and, simultaneously, ourselves: the ‘shadow of legs and arms’ in Tony Williams’ phrase, which responds to its pronoun as a dog does to its name. 

We are very reluctant to think of the ‘I’ as Rimbaud insists we do – ‘Je est un autre’ – and we are always ready to believe that we are at one and the same time eavesdropping and being addressed. Thus we keep trying to ascribe sentiments and opinions to the author regardless of the evidence to the contrary, and part of our aesthetic engagement with this book rests in precisely this area of unsettled reading:

Some years ago, it was.

I just ate some of those

things that make sour

sweet and my blood

powered a plain necklace.

I am trying to locate

variety and a feeling…

You’ll love the feather

tattooed on my flower.

One of the more substantial pieces occurs towards the end, in a position we recognise as the significantly near-penultimate poem. ‘the new heaven’ borrows from, it would seem, the type of rhetoric handed out in the street or posted on social media by evangelicals, in which a voice with the transparent agenda of conversion purports to explain something neutrally, only to reveal its agenda by the end:

This is our final ending in the Lord. following the

     judgement of the great white

throne depicted in the closing verses of chapter 20,

     John’s attention 

is next directed to the The New Heaven & The New 

     Earth’s official profile,

including the latest music albums, songs, music videos

     and more updates.

This is, evidently, another level of revelation from that presumably intended by its possible sources, but it is one which, as much as Parmar and Williams, displays voice through gesture. The conflation of an interpretated eschatology with an announcement of latest products places the irony we presume to be operating here as elsewhere on a certain plane of significance. It’s hard, for the reasons given above, to read this as affectless rather than satirical. This is writing organised with a subtlety of ear and design to demand a response from the reader we can’t help but give, but then must experience difficult in conclusively analysing.

In that, Sam Riviere’s work aligns itself with Tony Williams perhaps more than Sandeep Parmar in that it seems to be reaching less for a poetics, engaging as Parmar does with the major poetic forms of the Classical past, and more for a prosaics, a mode of bringing the poem into confrontation with the major shifts in discourse not just of modernity, but of the last thirty years, marked as they are by technological and cultural decentering, seeking not so much an authority as simply a method of addressing readers who no longer need to be shocked to recognise the new:

You have stalked this blog,

you must really like me.

Message me anytime

even if it’s just to talk.

I blog about whatever I want.

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Psychogeoferric Footnotes

(This is the last of the plunder from Tumblr: displacement activity for not finishing off the Mexico City post, which I have now no excuse not to return to apart from the full time job. And my accounts.

I’m adding these three short pieces because in their various ways they touch briefly on and perhaps even sum up the themes and atmospheres I was exploring in the four previous posts. They arise from specific photos, so, when there is next a moment, I will add those. 

But they also act as a bridge from the re-examination of nostalgia to the later posts with their exploration of the results of procrastination, ‘dark whimsy’, as a response to or coping strategy in relation to trauma, and, particularly, loss.)
1. Slomadicity

How peculiar it is to be at home in a place that at once always was and, for decades, has never been, my home. Just looking at the Tay – the movement of the tides, how the light sits on the water, how the breeze lifts the waves – seems to perform deep suture work down where we suppose we have a soul.

My daughter came up with the Joycean (or is it Carrollian?) portmanteau ‘slomad’, to describe the way we went round the same circuit of places – Newcastle, north-west Crete, Dundee and (formerly) Donegal – over the course of a year.

Slomadicity isn’t exactly the art of going slowly mad, it’s more the condition of living in two or more places on an almost seasonal basis.

Some people holiday in the same place every year, or are rich or lucky enough to maintain a holiday home because they love another place enough. Others simply live in a different city or country from the place they identify with strongly enough to need to return there regularly.

The experience of returning to any of these homes seems to refresh the eye at the very least, lending a sense of immanence to remembered and unnoticed sights alike, as well as a chance to revisit the values which laid them down in our memories in the (often unconsidered) first place.

2. Dream Tenement

There is an immense resonance about looking out of the kitchen window of one tenement in the quiet of the night, and seeing the lights in the stairwell of another tenement across your two back greens. You feel it moving through you like a music through the body. It is the exact reverse of your building, as though you were looking into a mirror, but a mirror you know you can, by leaving your flat, going downstairs, crossing the grass and the invisible boundary – the looking glass symbolised by the low fence – actually inhabit.

The light inside the stairwell seems dimmer, the colours both more muted and more russet, more golden, more intensely nocturnal, as though they were caused by gas lights, as though you were looking at a past building, or this building in its specific past, but somewhere you could still visit, though you feel any attempt to do so would be transgressive, requiring massive effort, as though moving through fathoms of terrors, as though moving into the heart of dreams.

In just this way the dream world stands across from ours, exact in its similarities and in its differences, perfectly accessible – but we resist and reject it, turning our heads away from its expanded realm, its openness to an intensity we dread as much as we desire, thinking it a chaos because we want to call this thin space we cling to an order.

3. Omphalos

This morning, after Andy Jackson and I did a photoshoot for Whaleback City down at the Discovery, I was able to visit the old childhood hub of the bandstand at the Magdalen Green, and check out its approach, interior and views.

I was also able to contrast it with a couple of ‘centres’ I’d visited a lot more recently than it: the actual omphaloi of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome on the Rock, the Wailing Wall; ‘kilometre zero’ in Madrid, the middle of the Hagia Sophia, the heart of the Forbidden City, and others.

I feel daft saying it, but this little place has the same charge for me. As in a weird way it has for the kid compelled to draw a phallus practically in the centre; or whatever accident it was left that odd little eight/infinity symbol/ampersand; or the little yellow arrow pointing to the gate.

Graffiti surrounds but somehow doesn’t encroach on that central space, in relation to which we are all eccentric, daft. Daft is good, sometimes – daft might mean you’re exactly, momentarily, home

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PsychoGeoFerry 4

(This fourth part of the 2013 Tumblr posts has a semi-conclusive air to it, as I didn’t realise what was to come – the makarship, the death – and so could imagine things were heading to some sort of conclusion. Of course, in retrospect, what was concluding was only that first phase of familiarisation, the process by which we reintroduce something novel and exciting to The Continuity, that other space in which we spend most of our less-considered days. 

The pressure of family was beginning to tell – we were beginning to understand I was there as much as a son as a writer, with the concomitant strain on my roles as husband and father. And McGonagall, that bad verse elephant in every Dundee poet’s room, continued to loom. The novel continued not to be written, as it has done for decades, even when it was being written. Me not writing The Book of McGonagall by every means possible is the secret history of me being Makar if not my writing life, as I produce ever more and more of what is definably Not It.


So the sheen was coming off the Tay, as I began to search for traces of what Michael Donaghy used to refer to as wabi sabi: the scuff and nap of things and indeed ideas. And the old circuitousness, the long-way-roundness of The Project was beginning to reassert itself, what Heaney calls ‘following the sixth sense and proceeding on the off-chance.’ There is a moment when you get the scent, then, regardless of what the job descriptions say, you’re on your own.)

4

Immediately in front of this flat, lining the concrete, barrier-less promenade that receives the waters of the Tay, are a series of dark brown metal rings set into the wall. When I was a child, I used them for scrambling up and down from the pebbly beach, and never thought anything more about them.

Of course they were for mooring boats, the sort of little boats that would be hauled up on the shore, the sort that couldn’t and didn’t survive fluctuations in the fishing industry that meant Broughty Ferry was a former fishing village long before I was born, and that its thirteen fishing families were already otherwise employed.

The rings, as though through the nose of the bay, with the two flanking piers for the horns of the Broughty bull, were genealogical traces, in just the way the name, ‘Broughty Ferry’, attests to another role the town no longer plays. The way I never thought about any of this as a child attests to the manner in which I was inside the idyll of childhood, which gradually acquires accretions of such knowledge, but as myths rather than historical fact.

Thus for me it’s still possible to lay fabulistic tracing paper over the blueprint of the Ferry: to picture the bay as a sort of Minotaur because of the occasional marvellous yacht floating by; to equate those fishing families at some level with the tribes of Israel; to think of the loss of the lifeboat Mona in 1959 as ‘our’ defining wreck, as the Deutschland was to Hopkins; to imagine Dundee, besieged in the sixteenth and seventeenth century by the English, as an after-echo of Troy or Constantinople; and, above all, to consider McGonagall’s three central topoi – the whale, the bridge, the walk to Balmoral – as being of mythic stature in themselves.

I’ve been thinking about our idea of the idyllic more and more over the last few weeks – that place we have commodified as the holiday destination, for instance, or, as I’ve done, romanticised as the childhood home, or, for the writer, compartmentalised as the retreat, the study, the room with a view.

By coming home to Broughty Ferry and Dundee and their hinterlands, I’ve been seeking a combination of all of the above, and to a certain extent have been gifted them, though with the accompanying realisations that a lot of – too much? – time has passed since I didn’t think about the mooring rings, and that not everything about this arrangement is as delightful as I would like it to be.

The last couple of weeks have turned out to be a little tougher than I might have hoped for, in what is basically a holiday period in which I would normally go away with the family and get on with a larger scale work of composition. I’ve tried to swop one idyll for another, and the substitution has inevitably not been smooth.

Family illness and the inevitable difficulties and disputes following such a move, plus the continuing time-hungry work-related duties, have combined to take the gilt off the simple pleasure of being here, and reintroduce that banal but necessary question of guilt: the cost – not financial, but personal – of trying to do something out of the routine.

What was it that I wanted? To normalise my relationship with a place I hadn’t lived in for so long that it had remythologised itself in my imagination. To make it ordinary, subject to the disappointments and arguments, the scares and dismays, but also the intense passions of interrelation, of family and friends and just-don’t-care intrusive strangers or officialdom, all that which is not just the dream.

I wanted to take it from the idyll into the actual, to give it a grounding in grift and grief if necessary, but certainly to subject it to an act of demystification. I just didn’t want to admit that to myself quite so baldly, or deal with the unpleasant consequences. This is one of the acts of lesser hubris writers find themselves performing to get on with the job at all.

And, as we all always already know, this is the only way to integrate a place into your adult life, as well as the best way to clear up any uncertainty as to what that unfortunate phrase might mean. I wanted the paperwork of adulthood signed off in my place of birth, in order to balance bureaucracy against a boyhood, and so must take on the emotional baggage too. I wanted to acknowledge the history of the mooring rings if not accept that their use – outside the imagination – was past; I wanted to tether myself to that past in order to re-tell its fables.

The beloved place becomes important and precious to us on another level, if only because it must be appreciated in the moment as well as the memory, and in the minutiae as well as the myth, while we realise yet again that presence, however problematic, is both an inescapable fact and our actual goal.

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PsychoGeoFerry 3

(This third piece is, I suppose, about the quantum level of the imagination – that space between dream and memory in which the dead do not live, but are, for a strange moment, not-dead. The act of return, of re-viewing, the possibility of material or associative continuities, things the body recognises as much as the mind, these provoke us to resist loss for that moment. And that part of us which is unable to process the fact that the past is gone, which doesn’t understand the concept of death, is wooed yet again. 

This is the new surrealism of neuroscience, of the acknowledgement of the gut brain: the realisation that the animal has its own procedures, its own memories, and that we are neither above nor separate from them. It links together all these most recent posts. 

It is a key aspect of what I think of as secondariness to confess that, creatively, you are led by the work as the ego is led by this autonomous self, the OS of body and unconscious mind, the actions of which consciousness is continually, belatedly, laying claim to. And this relates directly for me to the experience of musicians attempting to play along with Syd Barrett: that insight that they were always a beat behind.)

3

I returned this morning to the idea of viewing the distant-but-familiar through other, more recent lenses, as I was out walking toward the Yacht Club. I’d been wondering why my feet prefer to turn right – it can’t just be because I’m right-footed – and that reminded me of the opposite configurations of the stairwells in Beach Crescent and my grandparents’ old flat in Corso Street. The latter was (and remains) counter-clockwise, and so the former always feels odd as I approach it. The flat, however, has enough of the same layout for me to experience that doubled vision effect.

The rooms stem off from a central hall with a bathroom then a kitchen to the right, and a main bedroom and a large front-facing room to the left. While my grandparents’ flat then opened onto a large end-room which was used as the main living room, my flat ends in a small single bedroom, also to the right. But it remains impossible for me to enter this flat without thinking of theirs, where I spent much of my childhood.

Essentially, I went there for dinner (lunch) and tea every day of my schooldays at Blackness Primary School (the old, now demolished Blackness, not its subsequent incarnation which took over the premises of what was Hawkhill Primary). I was there most weekends as well, and visited regularly after my grandfather’s death either by myself or with my parents for almost another twenty years. It’s fair to say, a little like the layout of that old demolished school, or the streets between my gran’s and Blackness, or Grove Academy, or the shorefront and grid of Broughty Ferry streets, that the layout, scale and atmosphere of my gran’s flat haunts my consciousness at a, predictably, primary level.

It’s one of my most common lucid dreams to find myself in the flat again, realising with a horrible pang that this means my Gran and Grandad, who are often with me in these dreams, are dead. The dream constructs elaborate narratives to explain why this isn’t actually the case, but still these dreams have the sense of entering a tomb-like space, similar to those I’ve visited in China, a configuration of rooms set out in sacred wood, nanmu, or in the form of the character for scholar or knight, 士 (shí).

So to occupy my flat at all is to be haunted, from the moment I lift the key to the door and remember her Yale key, blurred by decades of use, to the last thing at night, when I glance down the hall before closing the bedroom door. Particularly powerful is the row of hooks immediately to the left of the front door, on which I hang my black cap and the broad-brimmed panama I bought in the street market in Yangzhou for a ridiculously cheap 15 yuan.

In my grandparents’ flat, this was where his bunnets and her long coats would hang, and I remember as a child staring up at this seemingly much higher and much longer coat rail, on which a large number of tweed bunnets roosted out of reach, amid the absolutely secure smell of her coats.

Sometimes I would be allowed to hold one of these bunnets, as though it were some strange breed of hollowed-out pigeon, and smell his hair-oil, and look at the label, which under a thick plastic proclaimed its origins in one of those places they visited of a summer on the bus tours they took with their neighbours, the Sturrocks or the Flemings – the Jacks never in my memory leaving his fields, somewhere in the hinterland I never knew, or her many jobs, for she was too fond of the siller to waste it on holidays.

I find myself staring at my hand and the black cap it has just placed on the hook, much as I find my feet turning right to take me along by the pebbly beach past all the benches and toward the ancient phone box on my way toward the Yacht Club, the Stannergait, the Strips of Craigie, the Arbroath Road, the town, and, eventually Blackness and Peddie Street and Corso Street itself. And I wonder for a moment if I’ve just come in, or am just about to go out. Whether I’m dreaming or awake. Whether my grandparents are alive or dead. While my hand stays on the cap, and the cap stays on the hook, it seems that both possibilities are true.

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PsychoGeoFerry 2

(This second note from 2013 is almost literally about finding my feet: I was doing a lot of walking, revisiting and revision ing and revising my perception of the Ferry and Dundee. The ‘Ginsberg glimpse’ from the flat window presaged, as it turned out, a new set of Doldrums, a re-exploration of the premisses to test what is unchanging, and what should be, in Edwyn Collins’s phrase, ripped up so one/I/you can start again. Here, it’s all about trying to see through the superimpositions of custom and consciousness to the possibility of some underlying prompt.)

2I come through to the bay window in the morning and sit down, noting as it vanishes a dark head in the smooth river – probably a cormorant, though I’d love it to be a seal. That reminds me of looking at the buoys up toward the Yacht Club yesterday, and seeing them first as I would see them in Crete around this time of year: as the heads of swimmers in the cool of the evening water at Georgioupouli.

That prompted me to write a note about the doubled lenses I’m looking through here:

‘I see my past through the frames of both North Shields and Georgioupouli: not having lived so close to the Tay before, I see the haar through the fret, and my eye assumes the buoys bobbing in the waves are the heads of Cretans.’

I look out now at the waveless but swiftly moving waters of the river, thinking how the reflections of the white lighthouse and the buildings of Tayport against the darker image of Fife itself remain constant, at least to my point of view. I’ve already been reminded of the man I saw a month ago from the same window:

‘Bloke like a thin Ginsberg (black-bearded, bald), in skinny jeans, charcoal jacket and tan sneakers, lit up as he crossed the road in front of the flat.’

I was proofing the 2nd Doldrum last night, as part of a final read-through of the Dundee anthology – one of the earliest things I wrote about Dundee – and trying to remember the figure it describes, rolling a wheelbarrow up Peddie Street from the Hawkhill, the part of town I associate with my earliest childhood. It had already dawned on me that, as the Dundee Doldrums was inspired largely by the Beats, an echo of Ginsberg was an auspicious image, but the almost filmic nature of the glimpse I had, as though of a piece of documentary film being superimposed on the scene in front of me, struck me anew.

(I had of course written a further Doldrum about the Fisher Street graveyard in the meantime.)

It had also dawned on me that the first of the two exhibitions I’d been to see, ‘What Presence?’ the photography of Harry Papadopoulos, had of course focused on the Scottish bands of my twenties – the last time I’d lived for any length of time in Dundee – including of course another personal icon, Billy MacKenzie, and had done so specifically through a sort of Greek lens. Two such events of course are mere coincidence, but their close proximity encourages me to take or make some meaning from them.

We may not perceive at the time all the possible meanings, personal and other, of a given experience, but we nonetheless feel their resonance, and grow to understand that certain experiences will yield meaning on further meditation more readily than others. We gradually gain a knack for that.

The experiences themselves remain simple, open, without the constraint of a frame. They are just occurrences which happen to happen in our presence. It’s the layering of our perceptions, their lenses of memory and their filters of ignorance and impatience, our need to make different senses at different times, that causes the delay. And the delay itself leads to a replaying and reconfiguring, a reinterpretation that translates the experience from itself into memory.

But still, at the point of encounter, we know something, and we begin to see something of the way in which all events are interpretations.

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PsychoGeoFerry 1

(Here is the first of the four earlier ‘psychogeo-‘ postings from Tumblr in their correct order. I realised when I scrolled back to look for them, that they are all pre-Makar, ie from Spring and Summer 2013, and, therefore, before my father’s death. They therefore have a certain openness I find it hard to regain. But they nonetheless read now as strongly prefiguring the concerns arising from that appointment and the posts I wrote after that loss.)

1

On one level, it’s a pretend life, this flat rented for six months thirty years too late in an idyllic position gazing over the river to Tayport, its bay window between the embracing piers that demark the pebbly beach of my childhood and adolescence, a pelvic cradle from which you can see the bridges upriver, the town and the oil rigs being worked on past the Stannergait; the white lighthouse directly opposite against the low green roll of the Fife hills, their crests of darker trees. 

The sky is as huge as childhood and, given that I’ve taken the place from May, is more frequently blue and cloudless than I deserve, with just an occasional gull, drifting almost motionless across the frame of the three tall windows as the town begins to perambulate, jog, dog-walk, drive, and generally pass before me, in communion with their river.

And the river keeps rolling in, filling the curve of railless concrete breakwater to what is never quite the brim, withdrawing without seeming to till a crescent stretch of mud is bared, depositing smashed reeds from up Perth way, and coming, coming, day or night, in its various shades of sky, the seemingly infinite slate grey side strokes of its waves sketching and erasing themselves, or rising into whitecaps as the wind drives them too, breaking more or less within my field of vision as I sit in the window, half-reclining or perching on the edge of my chair, or getting up perpetually to see some detail of a face or the movement of the swans that drift or preen within the little open bay.

I’m mapping, constantly comparing this scene to the scene that was, the scene that had to suffice in my memory and imagination for all those years, topped up by weekend or week-long trips, not always as frequently as I’d prefer, for how do you explain to family this urgent need to be in the place you came from, if they either do not feel it, or are still there, in their own unknown Eden, their commonplace idyll, so familiar that nothing is perceived as loss, that all change is still minor, tolerable.

But these are the scenes that I’ve dreamt about apparently obsessively for decades: the beach combining and reconfiguring rocks and the castle, growing to complex other places, the crossing to Fife reconfiguring itself like sand dunes, and the towns opposite acquiring strange hinterlands. This is the scene in which the waves have been disturbed by countless creatures and partly-submerged machines, the cetacean symbols of my unconscious, the steam-punk of dream’s industries combining bridges and ferries here, in this setting bathed in bright June light and simply before me now.

And yet this protean interior landscape is not ‘simply’ a product of subjectivity – it reflects the gradual shading in of history that can contort the topography of even this most familiar place. I’m not just talking demolitions, though there are enough of those. The frontage of the cinema where I used to work. The forties extension to my school that has been replaced by an entire new school, the rooms and corridors of what was the main building given over to a transplanted primary school. The fire brigade building and its adjoining cottage for the fire chief where my first girlfriend lived, gone as she has gone to that somewhere else we grow old in.

No, I’m referring to actual additions to the past, irruptions of what we think of as gone into what we suppose are the relatively stable outlines of the present. An entire graveyard, predating the ones I knew, those flanking churches, and the one my grandparents are buried in, has appeared as though a wreck returned from the sea and lodged somehow between the unchanged buildings of my teens.

I’d known some rumour of it, perhaps from our weekly meetings in the Ship and latterly the Fishermans, the group of ex-pupils, a teacher, nascent writers and pals that persisted a decade or so after we’d left school or retired. Or perhaps it was something my parents had said, but I’d searched for it among the larger houses’ grounds towards the yacht club: a sailors’ cemetery, or at least that of the fishing families – but nothing. I even began to imagine I’d dreamt it, that it was part of that shifting inner landscape undergoing its unconscious evolutions as the years went by, and my connection with place grew fainter and more internalised.

But all the while it was there, tucked directly behind the bench that itself is no longer there, just a few hundred metres from here, past the lifeboat shed – the wooden bench painted red in a flaky, old, much-graffitied postbox tone, where we’d sat during the brief years we’d gone out, that girl and I, and where I’d returned to throughout my twenties, her initials still carved in the wood in a post break-up defiance, nursing my heart-brokenness in that same interiorised way, while behind me, over a fence, was a whole unknown graveyard filled with its own set variations on our more absolute and final losses.

So when I look out over this little curve of concrete and reed and pebble and tide, and note that the red benches are gone – not just the ones spaced regularly along the pavement, which have been replaced with already battered and peeling perforated metal ones, seated sieves – but crucially the few tucked under the curve of the pier wall to the left, where old folk, parents and their kids would sit in a sort of stunned shelter on sunny days like this, I see I’m looking out on the vanishing of that certainty too: that I knew where in Broughty Ferry my special little unhappiness could be set, that I knew where I was.

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