Exceptionals and the Rules

FullSizeRenderI was very struck by The Guardian‘s editorial this Monday reflecting on the deaths of Chuck Berry and Derek Walcott, and thinking of poetry as something which encompassed and is lessened by the loss of both. Not only did this pick up the issue of Dylan’s Nobel in an intelligent way, it was a rare chance to see how a major cultural institution – one of the four ‘estates’ of modern society – views poetry.

The recent springing upon us of ‘World Poetry Day’, and this morning’s sad news of the death of Roy Fisher (hard on the heels of another significant loss – that of Tom Raworth – and accompanied by that of another fine critic, poet, and editor, David Kennedy), provokes reflection on the insights thus revealed.

It set forth the tenets of a generous orthodoxy, one where memorability and melody are equally at stake, where the underlying issue is: what is resonant – sonically, emotionally, historically? As such it made me think again about two areas I’ve been concerned with over the years, and test my assumptions.

The first is the relation between the poem and austerity: ‘There should be no spare words in a poem any more than there should be any missing.’

On the surface this is self-evident, or at least self-evident about everyone else’s poetry – one’s own always has to resist its own special dispensation, based on a more, um, nuanced understanding of ‘spare’.

But why should there be no spare words in a poem, no excess? Why should all poetry be tied to a fashion or cult of minimalism, or, worse case scenario, be considered a safe place for some sort of obsessive perfectionism? Why not be as messy and flawed, or ordered and economic, as the subject, tone, or approach requires? Is that principle of appropriate variance not how we get from the epic of Omeros to the lyric concision of ‘Johnny B. Goode’?

Could this be more a constraint upon the constraints rather than a virtue ascribed to them? It seems to suit those who wish to control and position poetry – editors, journalists, bureaucrats – rather than practitioners or readers. If, as the editorial goes on to say, ninety per cent of poetry is lost in time, let it be so. But it may not be because, as the article implies, they failed to be economic. It may just be an uncomfortable fact that, initially, most, and, eventually, all things must pass.

The second is a touch more contentious: ‘Poetry, music and religion must all once have been indistinguishable, but they separated millennia ago in the west.’

What, then, we might ask, are hymns? What if this were never the case, or only the case in certain cultures, or, as with hymns and psalmody, at certain but nonetheless sustained points in certain cultures? Might this apparently mythical union of poem, song and religion be better identified as a way of reading?

What if it’s perfectly alright for there to be three separate but cognate modes of handling patterned, performative, ritualistic language? David Kennedy as well as Derek Walcott had much to say about the various types and purposes of ritual. What if these poetic, melodic and spiritual modes simply formed part of a spectrum, including patterned, performative, and ritualistic prose, including legal, political, and indeed literary and journalistic discourse?

Fundamentally, if, as World Poetry Day purports to do, you cram everything you think of as poetry into a day, must we spend the rest of the year in what you suppose is prose? What if there wasn’t a single monolithic block called ‘Prose’ which encompassed all speech and all writing, and a minuscule series of ‘Exceptions’, where the supposed privilege associated with these, like that fabled former unity, was in fact a mode of marginalisation?

I am reminded by all this of a quote from Roy Fisher, who summed up his writing by suggesting, ‘Anything I have seen, I’ve only seen by…looking at what was out of the corner of the picture, what was outside the frame.’

This principle of the epiphenomenon, the peripheral, and the secondary, as a resistance to all the grand old narratives, with their focalising and their teleologies, their categorising and orthodoxies, seems to me the one exemplified by both Berry and Walcott, as well as the other writers we have recently lost. There are stories about poetry as about poets, and it is the job of poems and even poetics, not to deny the narrative as a mode, but to offer that which is contrary to those stories which, in their neatness and need for satisfactory conclusions, memorialise poetry to the margins.

As Walcott’s St Lucia, Berry’s Cadillac, and Roy Fisher’s Slakki (‘Not much of a valley’) demonstrate, as David Kennedy’s New Poetry anthology argued (‘Province Plenty, London Nil’ as Peter Porter’s review was headlined), everywhere not in the centre is yet another centre, but to be eccentric in this sense is to be alive to both locations in a manner the purported centre always struggles to see and hear, and indeed regularly requires the perspective of those peripheries to achieve.

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Waukendremes, 1

An interesting blog post from Richard Gwyn about the not uncommon experience of falling asleep while reading reminds me I’ve been exploring a few angles of this phenomenon over the years.

That odd-to-and-fro relationship of reader to writer, and of writer-as-reader to the text struck me particularly when I dropped off before a reading in Galway, and woke up with the idea for Omnesia, a book partly about just this sort of doubling, about the books you have in your head, your own as much as other people’s.

The condition is, I think, well-described by the Scots word ‘waukendreme’: you don’t quite know where the reality, if you can call it that, begins.

I’d just been noting that I was doubling my library – buying copies of Don Quixote and that already-doubled book, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, for the flat I’m maintaining in Dundee while I’m Makar, and while I’m writing/trying to write my McGonagall novel.

And I’d been looking, of the purposes of writing a blog entry, for a note about the phenomenon of doubling or echoing previous houses, modes of life, habitudes, when I’d spotted a couple of instances of nap-related (or more generally slewed-) thinking which echo Richard’s point.

(The Slew is something else again which I’m trying to write about in terms of compositional strategies, so perhaps this’ll encourage me to shift my conceptual arse. Certainly it looks like there are two or three potential posts gathering around these ideas.)

Here’s the first note. It was written in July last year on our writing holiday in Crete, when we were in the habit of having a siesta:

I was dropping off to sleep this afternoon when Debbie woke me by closing a shutter, and I realised I’d been “watching” a programme in which three people dressed up as their favourite characters from a book and answered questions about that book or its author.

The format was a not unfamiliar cross between say Mastermind and cosplay, but the interesting element was that in the few seconds I’d actually been asleep, this quiz had become a long-running ‘classic’. 

(One of the contestants was Sancho Panza, in that sense that, somewhere in every dream, a part of Don Quixote continues to unfold.)

The readiness of the sleeper to accept the dream, as well as the rapidity of the invention, is what particularly  fascinates me. On the one hand, there is that first, purest suspension of disbelief, that one is not asleep, which includes suspending disbelief in the coherence or otherwise of the elements of the dream, and perceiving it as, somehow, narrative.

On the other, I’m always amazed by how limitless the capacities of the creative impulse are once our limiting sense of the self is set aside. As Nietzsche observed, there are vast spaces between what appear to be our most reasoned or reasonable ideas.

– I’ll dig out that Nietzsche quote and update this when in the office tomorrow. For the moment, here is the second instance, which is a sort of love prose-poem – (there’s half a temptation to call it ‘Visions of Deborah’):

Waking from a mid-afternoon nap, I’m looking down on the vegetable garden from our balcony in Emprosneros, and I see Debbie moving among the dreels of peppers and aubergines, and tomatoes, her red hair catching the early evening light. 

My attention must drift for a moment in the cooling breeze coming up the valley because the next thing I know she’s on the path just below me, some cucumbers in the red colander. 

For a further bizarre second it seems to me she is in both places at the same time, like those hagiographic paintings in which the same bright figure reappears at several points in a landscape, performing its sequence of miraculous duties. 

Thus the eye tricks the mind into learning something about what the heart must be feeling.

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Two Poems for Tom Raworth and an Instant Elegy

I’m indebted to Peter Manson who, on my posting a short elegy on Tumblr for Tom Raworth, suggested I reproduce here two poems he, Peter, and his co-editor Robin Purves, first published in Object Permanence, no. 3 (Sept 94). These were after Raworth’s work in a quite specific way which I suppose illustrates how I and other writers were working in Oxford in the late 80s.

I was nominal ‘president’ of the Oxford University Poetry Society by then, working toward a mode of writing which in 1994 I would have described as Informationist, and later as polystylist, but which at that point consisted of an openness on the part of a bunch of us to both experiment and, to a lesser extent then, form (in my case in both Scots and English), without particularly aligning ourselves with, on the one hand, the Cambridge/London innovative writing scene, or, on the other, the Oxford/London mainstream groupings.

(This was not so long after the Poetry Wars, so inviting Tom Raworth or Eric Mottram or Robert Creeley to read, as we did, could be and was seen as the sort of gesture that would cause the likes of the late Mick Imlah to keep us at arm’s length.)

We were, mostly, whimsical folks who could be rejected by Reality Studios for surrealist recidivism, and we were certainly far more into O’Hara than the then-fashionable Ashbery, while the non-partisan stance of Morgan had schooled me to be wary of the approval of either Southern British camp, especially given their continued neglect of Scottish writing in the very various forms of W.S.  Graham and Hugh MacDiarmid.

For me, Tom Raworth transcended all these categories and concerns. He had effortless control of the music of discourse, bringing a wholly owned range of tones together in a polyphony that blurred found, mutated and invented phrasing into free-wheeling linked sequences. He broke open syntax in a manner we’d been experimenting with without as yet having encountered the New Sentence.

Most of all, he was fast and funny and remarkable – the work was shapely and graceful, and so in much the same way was he. He was as delightful to be with as to listen to in a reading as he is to sit down and read again this morning. He was not so much a presence as present.

I still clung enough to the Poundian notion of virtù  to recognise he was all of a piece in a manner I still wished I could become. (Though I should by then have recognised the term’s origins in the civic self of  Machiavelli and Aquinas.)

I remember the day after his reading for OUPS we gathered in George’s café in the Covered Market – a no-nonsense establishment of which I mostly recall a single sandwich filling (something with salad cream and sweetcorn and small squares of processed ham), plus large plastic mugs of instant coffee (the refinement of Georgina’s upstairs was still to come). Tom was wearing a soft plaid shirt, and he wasn’t well, but we talked, he and Keith Jebb and Helen Kidd and (I think) George Roberts, and (possibly) Joe Kelleher, and (maybe not) Gwynneth Lewis, and I, happily, for hours.

What we talked about, however, was everything to do with what we thought about poetry (we were more eager to hear anecdotes about US writers than UK ones) and how it was written and how it could be read, and therefore, as far as the memory is concerned, nothing. That he was so sympathetic and low key and encouraging made it seem completely normal.

That it felt normal – that poetry, as opposed to constantly presenting itself as the most important thing in the world, could and even should be normal, i.e. as important and as unimportant as everything else – meant it fed into at least my practice and I think that of others in an extremely direct way.

So much so that over the next week I produced a variation on each of the poems in the two pamphlets of his I’d bought, Heavy Light, and Lèvre de Poche. This was a trying on for size, the learning by imitation many student poets did in the days before Creative Writing.

The sheer what-do-I-do-nextness? of that led me to attempt a contraction of those two echo pamphlets into two poems, which is what I sent to Peter and Robin several years later. Peter later pointed out how, by then, my sense of the direction of my work and indeed the work of certain of my peers (those pesky Informationists, mostly) had veered away from not so much such procedures as the schools of writing they were attached to or claimed by. Which made the Object Permanence publication more of a pivotal moment for me than I had realised.

That is, however, an issue for a subsequent post. This one is about Tom Raworth and the liberty granted by his influence. For that reason, I’ll append that little sonnet I assembled from the tweets I posted while news of his death sank in. Social media is at once emotionally dissociative and intertextually revealing in a manner which I hope, in this instance, he would appreciate.

Two Poems for Tom Raworth and an Instant Elegy

1 Under heavy light

Can damage be described as a sky over sand
laboriously sculpted into the shape of spaghetti
a Sahara Carbonara in which the bacon is camels?
is a question which suspends injury for a time.
A: No, moving through hurt points out
a colour is not influenced by getting thinner,
as skies do towards dawn, or the green
of bottles does if rolled in seas,
the most one can say is
“these are not streets this is not Mexico”.

Healing’s not within the cloud’s palate,
certainly not the one from which the chandelier fell,
nearly hitting Captain Wedderburn, of which
she asked: “was that not the ornate street-tree,
the plum-tree light?” Bella signora, no.
The light flows from and curves toward
the rubber baby buggy bumpers,
dear lady with the flowers in her
lamp-like lap, the dank breast flowers,
her breath from a well: how do you
walk like an egg-timer?
A: Dawn may once have chopped off your fingers,
but here we have a negligible horizon,
it doesn’t reach the ground.

I’m often dreaming I’m learning to swim in your
honeydripping beehive, that I am your locust,
a nice insipid sound on your back
of the sleep like a press of moths to the margin,
smoking out your gorged thoughts,
the blue swirlishoo the shadow of a feedback:
help me towards this colour.

The sun sets inside my stomach like
a night-light in a saucer of water.
I forged the Autumn-fluctuant brands across
the sky delightedly from my eye-cave,
a dariole full of oriole, or
slime-acid windows, a relationship full
of lucid lenticular moments before
the great dune said: “here is a cat”
and then we were a story.

2 Pocket lever

With everything prepared for forwardness,
painting the kidneys, rubbing stones together
over utterings filled with bright bellows
Captain Wedderburn remembered that in America
the dance may have generated a bit of maize.
The daylight concentrated underwater, I passed
a lot of confused gestures that used
to be faces. This bath is so full of water
except it continues oddly inside its hole,
pouring through brown cisterns,
and bronze frog gods go there with chopsticks,
picking human souls out of the waters.
I see a rainbow through the orange juice,
remembering it’s impossible to smell the I,
taking hours over colours like these,
then forgetting the speech
“I still don’t feel well
in Dingle Dell”
branches freshly lopped where they couldn’t fit
that subject in, rivers and mountains
tall stumps with pale stumps on them.

Significant gestures in Spain include
getting a drummer with the evening
bees, porches with the glass-thin stars, this
rose getting too long in the petal, so liquid
collects in the sloughed skin of the light.
Infirmity tastes the radio, shyly
offering what was probably bacon,
so blue, two breaths that never met in reason.
The ladder felt the fierce clasp of his hand
in which my heart is crushed, expanding on a similar theme:
deodorant on
the adorant tongue
in the armpit,
sewers coursed with phlegm and telephone wires
like variations on veins, wet roles, the happy lie.


non-drip ghost

‘gone mental incandescence’

Farewell! You were the best of us –
may Earth 2 or is it 3 thrive and
not go all cybermenny again!
*falls to breakfasting on neighbour’s
brainin the nuclear glow*
Is it Xmas again yet already?
As the old song sings, ‘What’s ciabatta shoe?’
The one at the back is wearing a mask
but you’re already doomed because
the one at the front has let you see its face.
Everything catches me by surprise
he asserted proudly.
I got the chicken shouting blues.
I am sick and tired of being pleased for you.

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Robo-Burns: The Orfeon Translates

(By way of xenochronicitous – AKA late – celebration of the birth o the Bard, here’s an machine-generated curio. 

The Bulgarian poet Kristin Dimitrova completed a translation of one of my Burns poems – there’s mair – back in 2009 when we worked on a companion volume to Arc’s A Balkan Exchange, a book of collaborative translations from 2007, in which myself, Andy Croft, Linda France and Mark Robinson built on five years of contact with Bulgarian poets to translate Kristin, Georgi Gospodinov, Nadya Radulova, and VBV (Vassil Vidinsky). 

As that volume, a set of translations from English – and Scots – is due to appear this year (we poets are nothing if not tenacious), Kristin thought it’d be nice to greet the New Year with her translation of ‘Rabbie, Rabbie, Burning Bright’. Then Facebook’s auto-translate facility thought it’d be helpful to just, y’know, translate that back into ‘English’.

The result reminded me of my robotic alter ego from an earlier Arc volume, the roboet Orfeon (the apparition of which in Mexico City I will eventually recount). It is Unglish of a rare sort, which robots of the future are welcome to recite at their cybernetic festivals. I reproduce here first Orfeon’s version, then Kristin’s original Bulgarian, and finally my Scots antecedent. 

The latter, incidentally, was chosen by David Robinson for the Scottish Poetry Library as one of the best Scottish poems of 2013 – mebbe the version ablow will achieve a similar honour in anither hunnert year or so?)

Robbie, Robbie, living embers

Between November and now
Since the snow fell
Squatting under winter horns
In Winter and mech
Pray for spring, rainbow
And summer clothes.
May sunshine from st. Andrei
He got drunk and not grey,
In his boozy apogee
Left Home.
Heavenly Chandelier
Now throwing up.
As Knights and bold
Chopping down chickens, turkeys, geese,
We swear to spatter factory
Enemy to bucim.
Lads we are, but with ties.
Gelded dogs.
Christmas by gesture of gesture
Approaching Financial stress
But Robert Burns was born today
Oh, highest glory!
And this day glow of six
And thawing.
If lift full bŭrdutsi
Cut and juicy sausage,
Will grasp without Confucius,
That fight stops.
Peace be with you! Chillin fists
Wings and beer.
Eh, haggis, meaty zora
From January subsoil –
You still at the table in the court,
But how to start
No Burns, no song of mouth
Rhymes and accurate?
After these lush nights in chess
Wakes up every beggar,
Go tax that beating
Scots, forget fear
Read and burns!


Роби, Роби, жива жар

Между ноември и сега,
откакто паднал е снега,
клечим под зимните рога
във зимен мех и
за пролет молим, за дъга
и летни дрехи.

Май Слънчо от Св. Андрей
се е натряскал и не грей,
в пиянския си апогей
напуснал къщи.
Небесният полиелей
сега повръща.

И както рицарите дръзки
сечем кокошки, пуйки, гъски,
кълнем се, та се дигат пръски,
врага да бучим.
Юнаци сме, но с вратовръзки,
скопени кучета.

По Коледа от жест на жест
достигаме финансов стрес,
но Робърт Бърнс роден е днес,
о, висша слава!
И този ден пламти на шест
и размразява.

Щом вдигнем пълните бърдуци
и резнем сочните суджуци,
ще схванеш, без да си Конфуций,
че боят спира.
Мир вам! Отпускаме юмруци
и пием бира.

Ех, хагис – месеста зора
от януарските недра –
ти пак край масата ни сбра, 
но как да почнем
без Бърнс, без песен на уста
и рими точни?

След тези буйни нощи в шах
се буди всеки сиромах,
че иде данъчен пердах
по гърбовете.
Шотландци, забравете страх
и Бърнс четете!


Rabbie, Rabbie, Burning Bright

Atween November’s end and noo
there’s really nithin else tae do
but climb inside a brindlet coo
           and dream o Spring,
fur Winter’s decked hur breist and broo
           wi icy bling.

It feels like, oan St Andrae’s nicht,
thi sun went oot and gote sae ticht
he endit up in a braw fire fecht
             wi some wee comet – 
noo he’s layin low wi his punched-oot licht
             aa rimmed wi vomit.

We too hae strachilt lik The Bruce
and hacked up turkey, duck and goose;
and let aa resolution loose
            oan Hogmanay,
but waddle noo frae wark tae hoose
              lyk dogs they spayed.

Each year fails tae begin thi same:
fae dregs o Daft Deys debt comes hame
and we gaither in depression’s wame
             aa duty-crossed – 
but Burns’s birthday is a flame
             set tae Defrost.

Ye dinna need tae be Confucius
tae ken, if Dullness wad confuse us,
ye caa ‘Respite! Let’s aa get stocious – 
              And dinna nag us.
Grant us that globe of spice, thi luscious
            Delight caaed “haggis”!’

That truffle o the North must be 
dug frae the depths o January,
but cannae pass oor lips, nor we
              cross Limbo’s border – 
unless that passport, Poetry,
             be quite in order.

Sae thi daurkest deys o thi haill damn year
can dawn in yawns baith dreich an drear – 
sae thi Taxman’s axe is at wir ear
             fur his Returns?
We Scots sall neither dreid nor fear
             but read wir Burns.

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Omnisatire and the Ragged Sleeve

Reading The Poets of The People’s Journal, edited by Kirstie Blair, I am so far maist impressed by by the mock-rustic ‘Poute’ (Alexander Burgess), wha conducts a sort of omnisatire, in that he critiques mid-19th century assumptions about poetry, the lower class poet, poetry in Scots, and the means of its reproduction, using unorthography as well as literary allusion to do so.

The result anticipates Tom Leonard as well as thae poets influenced by Leonard, amang whom I’d include mysel, Alison Flett, and William Letford:
(My own case is of course complicated by a continued adherence to developing the Scottish forms favoured by post-Burnsian bards and, like the likes of fellow Informationists David Kinloch, Robert Crawford or Richard Price, the late modernist tenets of MacDiarmid, Morgan, and that key Scottish autodidact, W.S. Graham. That said, there’s even a hint of Informationism in Poute’s parodic adoption of the slogans of advertising in his ‘Gouldings Manur. a pome’.)

As Kirstie Blair argues in The Bottle Imp, Poute’s procedures influence even if they do not explain the tactics of McGonagall: ‘McGonagall was contributing to a pre-existing poetic culture that hovered between the satirical and the serious, and that caused difficulties for editors faced with deciding which was which.’ (The Bottle Imp, issue 14).

This resistance to middle class mediators (like the subject of McGonagall’s first poem, the Reverend Gilfillan) and their interpretation of working class verse, relates to the William Letford review by Kate Kellaway I was discussing with Harry Giles and David Wheatley a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. Here’s that link.

What I said then was, in brief, an old argument about the reception of Scots by both Scots and the English: here is the curse of the Scottish poet’s career replayed yet again, in that we are allowed but the two ways of being ever so umble. One is to write in that great impossibility, an alternative (to) English which is, as Poute so intriguingly suggests, not entirely defined by working class identity. The other is to go along with the knotty game as R.D. Laing defined it, but be as though a parody of the working class in your accent/trenchancy or chippiness of view/propensity to drink [insert favourite McCliché].*

In other words, you can be foreignised or domesticated, though in each case in the terms of the classifier, naturally. Or you can do both/neither/something else entirely including rewriting the terms, as Burns and Letford might actually have done/be doing.

It’s in this sense MacDiarmid’s title Scottish Eccentrics continues to yield meaning (a volume in which he wrote about, among other outliers, McGonagall): such centres behove us to embrace ‘eccentricity’. What if, as a sort of critical experiment, the Scottish literary tradition was redefined as precisely everything that cannot be read as ‘centric’ no matter how they/we try?

Also worth considering in this light is the Guardian Review article by Annalena McAfee, ‘The battle of the Rose Street bards’ (21st Jan 17), linking Stella Cartwright, the ‘muse’ of that gathering of poets around Hugh MacDiarmid (famously depicted by Alexander Moffat in ‘Poets’ Pub’), to the controversy over Jackie Kay’s contribution of a poem in Scots to the baby box to be given by the Scottish Parliament to every newborn.

It’s an interesting article, but just as Kellaway’s piece moved seamlessly (almost literally in respect of that ‘heart on his ragged sleeve’) from Burns to Letford, it has no room to discuss how Scottish poetry gets from MacDiarmid to Jackie, which it does through figures absent equally from Moffat’s painting or the pages of the Guardian Review – W.S. Graham, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, the aforementioned Informationists (whose group painting can only be imagined as a canvas by Stephen Campbell or Adrian Wisniewski – our prose counterparts would of course be depicted by Peter Howson or Lys Hansen).

Therefore, for want of space, the auld argument Poute is satirising way back in the 1860s, that baith Kirstie Blair and Tom Leonard (baith in his ain work and in Radical Renfrew – in many ways a parallel volume to Poets of the People’s Journal) explore, goes roond yet again.

Space, then, must equate to historical perspective, and that space which is made available is in turn subdivided by according privilege to the previously ignored, patronised or misunderstood. Here synecdoche substitutes for deeper analysis, which seems fine when the selected representative is, like Letford or Kay, amply deserving of praise. But that may explain why Poute liked to nip at the hand of his indulgent editor, or indeed why Stella Cartwright eventually went wary of the male praise of Rose Street.

* ‘They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.’ R.D. Laing, Knots

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Putting the Hair on the Heron

(A collaboration with Colin Herd written for Steven J. Fowler’s Enemies project:


The piece was performed in York on Jan 13th, 2017. Footage can be found here.)

1 The Addressing of the Herring/Folkware of the Hare

The hameless man the hare has left
is bauld and cauld and luck-bereft
except he dresses up his herrin
for Hogmanay his year’s ill-farin
sae a bonny frock wi a lacy bow
will tell his erse frae his elbow
and prove he kens oor litanies
sae we can tell his citizenry
wha kens the heron fae the hare
alane shall all oor bounty share.

The her or him hare, 
let’s call us scotart,
candidates for mayor
(maybe not Natacha Bouchart)
O’Hara, the jump-leads, the brushed off,
the depilated, the hair’s breath, 
the hare from Dorothy Molloy’s
Hare soup, souped-up. 


‘The parable is a sort of comfort food. It’s made from a couple of dubious but delicious ingredients: belief in the existence of unproblematically universal values, and acceptance of the capacity of animals to unambiguously embody these. Of course, “belief” in this context, like “value” or “animal”, is slightly too strong a term.’

(From a report on the Synthetic Parables, Proverbs & Apothegms of Nea Pieopolis, Virtual Skye)

2 Minutes from the Meeting of the Proverbs and the Antiverbs

Whit’s it called when it’s cauld?



Sooner scold a skald than scald a scold.


Some are hard o hearin, but aabdy’s heard o herrin.


Ye can aye buy caller herrin but no aabdy can collar a heron.


Whit’s the colour o caller?

S’no yella.


Ye auld yeller.

Eh’d rather hae it cauld n caller than a cold caller. 

Aye but oh.


Dog-owners tae be given a hare tae pal up wi their dog. Legally, tho, a Cooncil employee must ask: ‘Wid you like a herr o the dug?’

that’s just splitting herrs

Wad ye sooner split a herr or a herrin?

is the herring dressed or is it soused?

Whit’s the herring’s address and is it aroused?


Dog-owners will receive a herring in a red dress to pop on their dog’s heid reviving the Hogmanay tradition, ‘the herring o the dug’.

no hare will be greeted or farewelled front-on. all hares will be side-parted.

Nae vennel, pend, or wynd tae be narrower nor a heron’s breadth.

herons will be cut short, if discovered with hares on their chests, or the smalls of their backs

3 The Parable of the Hare and the Heron

Once the hare thought he would race the heron.
The heron, which did not speak Hare, was alarmed
by his jerky twerky warm-ups, and took off,
coincidentally heading for the finishing line.

Considering what had happened that time
with the tortoise, the hare gave paranoid pursuit.
Just then the Great God Pan rolled over in his sleep
and let off an earth-scorcher. Grass was burnt

from the ground, leaves blown from the trees,
and all the fur left the hare’s body. The hare
was passing a tarpit, and the divine fart also lifted
a brimstone meniscus. It then caught the heron

in its noxious blast, and, in succession, stripped
every feather from her body, pelted it in hot tar,
and enveloped it in the hare’s fur. Looking like
an Icarian ventriloquist’s dummy, the heron fell,

landing by chance on the tortoise, which was
sheltering from the fumous storm in his shell,
and her beak skewered him into the burning earth.
The naked hare limped past both to victory.

4 A Questionnaire Regarding the Hare

How was the hare?


How was the way?

The way that can be spoken of is not the fair way. 

How was the park?


How was the lark?





How was the sark? 


How was the chip?


How was the otter?

Hotter or Notter!

How were the banks?

In hot water

How was the beaver?

An Unbeliever!

How was the Salmon?

Not in the Canon!

How was the goat?

On a banknote!

Wiz it wearing shorts?

I think nort.

But how was the hare again?

Daycare again!

How was the park again?

Funded by an Oligarch again!

How was the lark again?

Sanctioned by a Monarch of the Glen!

5 The Parable of the Shames of the Hare

Once, the hare held the hare and ran with the hounds.
The hare snogged the hare and married the hounds.
The hare stood on the hare and made a documentary on the hounds
The hare took the hare to one side and sided with the hounds
The heron hadn’t seen hide nor hare nor hound
The hare put in a funding application with the hare and had it rejected by the hounds
The hare married the hare and snogged the hounds
The hare undercooked the hare and served it to the hounds
The heron was a bitter’n
The hare imac’d the hare and waxed the hounds lyrical
The hare bodypainted the hare and smudged the hounds
The hare internally examined the hare and agreed with the hounds
And so it happened that there are 2 national hares in Scotland; 10 in England and 3 in Wales.
They are not our hares, but our hares to look after.

6 A Questionnaire Regarding the Heron

How was the heron?


How was the herring?

We already said

BOTH: Let’s hope it was dead.

How was the Eagle?


How was the egret?

I don’t get it!

But how was the hare again?

Sold its shares again!

How was the cock?


How was the lock?


How was the sock?


How was the match?


How was the finch?


How was the wren?


(Pause: they shrug)

How was the wench?


How was the mensch?


How was the mention?

The mention? 

How was the mention?

BOTH: Despatched!!

(They throw their papers in the air)

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Origins, Grafts, Whispers

(As will hopefully become apparent over the next few weeks, one of my ‘resolutions’ for January 2017 was to get my act together with the backlog of posts for this and my other blogs. At the end of the month I go off on leave from Newcastle University, stepping down as I do so from the role of subject head which has occupied a certain proportion of my time for several years now (cf when my last entry here was), so clearing the decks is very much how I hope to proceed.

However I have been here before (approximately once every four years, if you want to check the blog’s track record), hence the inverted commas above, and I understand that I have a very xenochronicitous approach to all such notions of orderliness, timeliness, and, especially, the idea that what writers must do is present a coherent face to the world via social and other media, submissions to magazines and competitions, and taking part in public-facing activities via festivals and the like – all the trappings of the dreaded Poebiz which appear to have been swallowed whole by some.

My take is that you actively resist all that even to the detriment of your ‘rep’, undermining all the Biz’s and your pomposities as best you can, and instead concentrate on Doing the Work in both senses of following your nose as a writer, and your conscience as a facilitator – be that tutor, translator, collaborator, editor, judge, or indeed blogger. So it seems somewhat apt to be reviving this blog for the New Year (we’re still in my notion of the extended Daft Days in the sense that a) it’s not Burns Night yet, and b) the inauguration of Trumpo is tomorrow, when we will descend instead into the Dark Days) with a review of a writer who embodies many of those principles: Sarah Maguire.

Her work as a tireless advocate for literary translation of writers from outside the Eurocentric frame goes before her. It expresses for me an issue regarding that frame: that the choice of familiar translatees of a certain assumed stature can take on the function of contextualising a poet-translator as they wish to be seen, rather than, as the Poetry Translation Centre does, providing access to an under-recognised or entirely new-to-‘us’ literature, and sharing the energising poem or poet or poetic. Part then of Doing the Work is being at the service of that poem, poet, or poetic – and trying to learn from it.

Her own poetry has always demonstrated that same quality of conceptual, ideological, and perceptual openness with great verve, and I was very pleased to get the chance to review her in the Summer 2016 issue of Poetry London.)

Sarah Maguire, Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems (Chatto Poetry), 149pp, £15.99

Sarah Maguire’s overlapping roles as poet of frank, brilliant sensuosity, gardener with encyclopaedic knowledge of the aesthetic and healing properties of plants, and traveller/translator and facilitator of translation, primarily in a non-European context, are strikingly reflected in this gathering of her three volumes for Chatto.

The intelligent editorial decision to reorder the poems in Almost the Equinox has had the effect of emphasising a single trajectory if not narrative to the work as a whole. This allows the reader to see, as few selected poems do, the integrity of the life work, and indeed of the life as work. The poems of ‘physic’ – the intimate relation between us and our environment, between our health and the plants we use to heal us – are positioned between two unknowns – those of her origins as an adopted child, and the further worlds her work increasingly opens up to, whether experientially or poetically.

Questions of origin for Maguire always themselves originate in the body, and in placing its vulnerabilities in a specific interior or against a named landscape. As ‘The Hearing Cure’ establishes, even in present misery there is music, ‘Each night/the slow wax silts/into place/coagulating sibilance//muffling susurration…’; and even in childhood pain she finds poise: ‘the football results/came on the radio;//Scottish League Division Two…//a litany//that lulled me’.

The turn in this poem, whereby the comforting adoptive mother cannot, in her old age, be comforted, is characteristic of the unflinching truth-telling behind Maguire’s lyricism. There are fractures in our lives that can only be healed by the imagination, as in the moment of re-encounter: ‘At twenty-one I found the mother I had never known,/much smaller than I’d thought, her hands like mine.’ Ironically, it is their shared love of dance that has left the poet literally in ‘The Fracture Clinic’,  ‘beneath a star-shaped atrium’.

That inherited joyousness and that eye for forms comes together in ‘Hibiscus’, which begins with a declaration of openness:

I have no idea what is coming
as I take the hand of a perfect stranger
as I’m taken through the streets of Marrakech.

This journey leads past the intense detail of ‘the indifferent city’, its ‘tagines and harira and brochettes’, and away from ‘that one huge bud of hibiscus -/madder red, almost cerise -/that is, at this moment, coming full into bloom’. It ends in a room in the windowframe of which the poet discovers ‘A bird’s nest woven of a filigree of fine straw/and cardboard’, in which there are two eggs – ‘I watch these eggs until I know them.’

In all this the play of physical detail against metaphoric implication is accomplished with great delicacy: we are aware as readers that this is not merely an encounter with some appropriated notion of the exotic, but a depiction of the otherness that makes up our own inner world of desires and desire for security and pattern, and of how random and rare such insights are, as well as a gentle insistence that sooner or later we must realise, in Auden’s phrase, that ‘Our dream of safety has to disappear.’

The pivotal role of plants in Sarah Maguire’s work, their capacity to poison, delight or heal, and the ambivalence of the gardener, who like the surgeon, must decide how or whether their charges shall live, haunts poem after poem at the heart of this book. ‘My Grafting Knife’ which, to the young gardener, represents ‘A whole week’s wages/balanced on my palm’, is described as so sharp its unlocking ‘[hurts] the air’. At the poem’s conclusion, the description of ‘my right thumb//criss-crossed with hair-scars/tarnished with sap’ rewrites Plath’s ‘Cut’ to bring gardener and garden into a sort of sacrificial communion. In ‘Umbellularia californica’ the headache tree (which is wittily characterised in the notes: ‘opinion is divided as to whether [its] smell actually causes headaches or relieves them’) becomes the poet’s ‘lodestar’, to which, as a sufferer from migraines, she makes pilgrimage ‘not for a cure…but for a witness,/for the process/of a map.’

That process, of mapping out a life, seeing it as a geography as much as a narrative, is enacted by poem after poem in this masterful selection, which feels as subtly open to the poetics of those other landscapes as it is rooted in the London of its title poem, where the poet notes a ginkgo flaring besides St Paul’s, the nave of which is rendered cognate with the Great Mosque in Kabul, while, returned and restored, she remembers

As a child, I climbed all the stairs
to the Whispering Gallery, laid my cheek
against the painted plaster of the dome,
and let those perfected acoustics bear my changed voice
back to myself.

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