In My Head…

For those of us who like to travel and have been under Lockdown for a while, the frustration is obvious.

And some of us, I’m afraid, only like to make things worse for ourselves…

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Working on my novel A Good Place set in the foothills of Northern India, I’m not only writing about that place, but also referring occasionally to books, websites, and my travel journals on the area. Looking at lots of photographs, both my own and others.

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Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.

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I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.

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But that doesn’t make it any the easier.

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Dammit.

Crows

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This is the first poem in a series still not quite completed. Although the rest of the series needs to be read as a single entity, this one works as a standalone piece.

Crows are unsettling.

They make eye contact with you,

Like all their kind:

Rooks, magpies, jackdaws and their ilk,

Black-eyed, mocking, wind-flicked feathers,

Watching you from high branches,

Scattered trees, lone rocks and open fields.

Krra icily in the harshest breeze.

 

They could be smart, dark-suited undertakers,

Clearing up dead bodies or

Smug bankers, lounging in the hotel bar with

After-dinner drinks, bragging raucously.

 

Crows solve problems, are wary, learn,

And remember you.

They may reward kindness

With coins and pieces of glass,

With golf balls, or feathers.

But crows make up murders.

They hold grudges and will plot your destruction

If you cross them.

 

Lockdown Stream of Consciousness

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Here we are in week whatever it is of Lockdown, and I have to say I’m finding it ever so difficult to dream up a new blog post. It’s not that I’m having any difficulty writing, as I’m making good progress with one of my novels. I timetable my day so I write in the morning and don’t allow myself to look at the internet until after lunch. I go out and walk each day, I’m eating well. And I don’t mind the idea of Lockdown as such, since I’m quite a solitary person at the best of times; fond of my own company and never at my best with groups of people.

When it comes to writing a new post, though, I just seem to dry up. I think one reason for this is the major change to everyone’s lifestyles that this crisis has demanded. Not so much the changes to mine, strangely enough, but those of other people. I look at some of the posts I have partly written and think they seem somehow too trite for today. Some others are about journeys or visits to places I love, and I don’t seem to have the heart to finish them. Perhaps it’s all a bit too raw, too painful. I rarely write political pieces, and have even less enthusiasm at the moment than usual. Again, the politics are either too trite, or just incredibly infuriating. And there are more than enough bloggers covering the infuriating stuff, even if I wanted to.

Write a parody? I do, occasionally. But a parody of the Coronavirus Crisis seems tasteless, and both our inept government and the unpleasant fool in the White House are already parodies of themselves. I could do a humorous one later, I suppose. I might go and see what Bob is up to…

But I don’t feel I’ve anything original to offer at the moment, and I’m generally a subscriber to the school of thought that states if you have nothing to say, then it’s best not to say it.

So I thought today I’d pick a random photograph I haven’t posted before and put that up, and just go with a stream of consciousness, and see where it led me.

It turns out it led me here.

The Great Sandwich Schism – Again

Well, I don’t know about you, but what with you-know-what and the lockdown I feel a bit bleurgh at the moment, so to try to inject a little cheer – or whimsy, anyway – I thought I’d re-post an old one:

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, God created the world. And he looked upon the world and said ‘Well, so far so good’.

And the world was full of beautiful things and good things and a great bounty of useful things that humans would later ransack and destroy in the name of greed, although that is a story for another day.

But when the people whom God had created looked upon his great works, they said unto Him ‘How might we thank you, oh God? How might we show our gratitude for your benevolence?’

And God replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I really wish you wouldn’t bother. But if you must, just make me a sandwich, or something. I’m feeling a bit peckish after all that creating.’

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And so the people made haste to slice bread and find Good Things to become a tasty and delicious filling for the sandwich they had made for their God. And there arose minor disputes such as whether ham and cheese really went together in a sandwich, or whether mayonnaise actually counted as food, but the people settled their quarrel in an amicable fashion and so the sandwich was created and placed upon a golden plate that was decorated with the names of angels and archangels, and set about with small mountains of salad and just a little dash of mustard in case God should fancy some.

And then one among them rose up and said ‘Wait, for we must cut this sandwich before we present it to our God, unless it be a bit too large for him to handle and he drop pieces of cheese from the sides or drip mayonnaise in his holy lap.’

And all at once there arose discord, for some were found who would cut the sandwich in a diagonal fashion, and yet others who declared that would be an affront to His holiness and that the only Right Way would be to cut the sandwich into equal rectangles.

And lo, the factions took up weapons and fought, yea, even in the Holy Kitchen, and they did massacre one another and each declared that the other faction was a worshipper of Satan, who was completely bemused by all this, since he had no followers (not even on Facebook), and they did create rival churches and rival nations and declared undying enmity against each other, spending the next few thousand years thinking up new and more imaginative ways to hate and kill and destroy each other.

And God groaned and held his head in his hands and said ‘Oh verily, what a cock-up this has become. I think I shall destroy the lot of them.’

Stir Crazy – A Bit

We are not quite in lockdown, but for someone who likes to spend as much time outside as possible, it feels a little like it.

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We are more fortunate than many, in that we are a short walk away from woodland, and then a limited amount of open countryside. But I yearn to walk the hills, the truly open places like moorland and marshland. I wonder whether to take a bus or train the comparatively short journey to these places. I could be up on the South Downs in two hours, and their pull is almost painful at the moment.

And my reading and writing have been affected by all this, too. I was halfway through My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, which I was enjoying then but suddenly I have lost all interest in it. It is set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century but my heart yearns for the English countryside. So much so, that I can no longer bear to read it. So I have set it aside for now and begun to read The Moor by William Atkins; stories of myth, history and literature connected with the moorland areas of England.

And likewise, my enthusiasm for my current writing projects has dried up, and for similar reasons. I am in the middle of re-writing one novel, and over halfway through writing another, but I cannot currently drum up any enthusiasm for either. One is set in sixteenth century Persia, the other in Northern India in the 1980’s and yes, I just want to be outside, here.

I have been writing notes, though, for another idea I had intended to start only after completing one or both of those novels, but I have now decided to allow myself to begin it. I need a project I can really enthuse over, and this one will be set in the wildness of Southern England at some point in the past (I know what it is, but I’m not telling you yet!). I hope this will both give me some sort of pleasurable focus for my writing and also allow me to wander, in my mind, in those places I yearn to be.

Lost and Found in Translation

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I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?

The Oddness of Time – 2

I was eleven, and it was my first year in secondary school.

I don’t remember the day or the date, which in a way surprises me, since everything else was so vivid. But I was walking with Chas, a sometime friend, and we had just finished a maths lesson and were on morning break. The day was overcast, and I suspect it was early summer.

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We had just walked down the half dozen steps that ran down to the Lower Quad from the strip of asphalt beside the cloisters which connected the two main school buildings, and separated the Upper Quad from its lower cousin. At that point, I know I had not yet realised that ‘Quad’ was short for ‘Quadrangle’ – why would I? I was in my first year there, all was relatively new and there were more than enough new things to get my head around and cope with, without adding any unnecessary ones into that particular stew.

At the bottom of the steps I looked to my right at the large building that housed the dining hall and the geometry room, among others. There was nothing unusual or special about it that day, I just looked at it and had a powerful realisation – an understanding – that I would never again experience exactly what I was experiencing in that moment.

I might view the same view again, and perhaps the weather would be the same. Maybe even every boy in the school might occupy exactly the same place as they occupied at that moment, either outside where I could see them or elsewhere, unlikely though that might be. But it could never actually be the same again.

The universe would have changed; in one year we would occupy the same position relative to the sun, but not to all the other bodies in space. That would never be repeated. The Virginia Creeper on the dining hall wall would have changed – grown larger, grown new new leaves and lost many of the older ones. So too the other trees and plants.

We would never occupy the same point in time again.

I did not discover anything new that day. I did not add anything to the sum of human knowledge. But what I did was actually experience my existence in a way I had never done before, and have done only a few times since.

It is tempting to look back across that huge gulf – over fifty years, more than half a century – and fill my eleven year old head with profound thoughts that were not there at the time. But I knew I would never experience that moment again, yet I understood instinctively that I would forever be able to recall it. In a way like a snapshot, but a snapshot that included physical feelings and a strange sense of wonder.

Time is sometimes described as an infinite series of moments – because only the present exists – much like an old-fashioned cine film where the perception of movement is supplied by viewing a rapid sequence of still images, each one a gradual progression between the previous ones and the following ones, yet in a way this idea negates the whole concept of motion, since if that really was our experience, we should lose the consequences of motion; just think of the effects of a car crash, or a punch to the jaw, for example.

This was a snapshot in time, but it was anything but frozen. I felt it not only as a moment, but as part of continuous stream. I could still feel the rest of the world flowing past me as I stood there.

Buddhists speak of ‘Little Enlightenments’, which are moments when one has an almost overpowering feeling of existence, a strong sense of being connected to the whole world, during which that person experiences a heightened awareness – they seem to hear what is around them more clearly, see unusual detail and find that even colours appear more vivid than usual. At the same time thought seems unusually profound. This only lasts a short time, perhaps a couple of seconds, but leaves behind a powerful impression. I have twice experienced this, and each time I was somehow reminded of my experience that day at school.

And I wonder if the connection there is that I had an unexpected understanding of time for a few moments at the foot of the steps below the cloister.

 

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

Why You Should Buy Books (especially mine!)

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Hours of pleasure for the price of a cup of coffee in Bigbucks.

Like any other worker, you pay for my time. Only unlike the decorator, say, you only pay for a tiny fraction of the real time spent creating your book.

And what do you get for this investment?

Why, I bring you a whole, newly created world to explore!

I introduce you to people you never expected to meet, without the inconvenience of having to make small talk with them.

Heroes and villains, fools and wise men.

Perchance I will take you on a perilous voyage, yet you will return safely to the shore.

Encounter your deepest fears, and overcome them.

Know love, and disappointment, happy ever after and abject failure.

See through the eyes of the cruel and the eyes of the kind.

And all this for less than the price of a coffee.

And unlike the decorator, I won’t come and tread paint into your carpet, disappear for two weeks to do another job, leave your kitchen a complete mess, eat all your biscuits or drink all your tea.

I mean, really, what have you got to lose?

Review of Walk Away Silver Heart by Frank Prem

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This is a collection of love poetry, with each poem inspired by a line or phrase from the poem Madonna of the Evening Flowers, by Amy Lowell.

If I hadn’t already read some of these poems on Frank’s blog I don’t think I would have approached this collection, since love poetry is not something that usually appeals to me. Poetry is a medium of emotions, but love poetry can sink all too easily into banality or cloying sentimentality, something which is best written privately for an audience of one. Frank avoids this trap, though, by writing about the lives of the lover and the beloved – the gardening, the brewing of the coffee, the shared music – rather than the more intimate details of the relationship. Sometimes these are little more than snapshots of shared moments, at others there is more of a narrative.

Yet this makes it no less a love poetry. Each poem speaks of feelings, sometimes telling overtly of love, but sometimes this emotion is reached by a more circuitous route. In each of them, though, there is gentleness and patience. This is a mature poetry, a poetry that recognises love is something that needs to endure.

Frank describes himself as a storytelling poet, and his three previous published books all work on that level as narrative. This collection manages to do the same, only without the timeline.

One poem shall suffice as an example: Tell me everything (about you), inspired by the line You tell me these things.

tell me everything (about you)

You tell me these things.

talk to me

tell me things

you think

I need

to know

pour the yellow liquor

hot

into my shot glass

speak of love

talk in tongues

of fire

tell me of your anger

of the passion

that is the same thing

shout aloud

all the things

that you believe

hold meaning

I will turn them

on my guitar

into a song

ta-da ta-da-da

throw your glass

into the fire

then

start dancing

tell me

all these things

I

would know

everything

and all there is

about you

Although, as I mentioned earlier, I rarely read love poetry, I have to say I really enjoyed this collection and will certainly award it 5 stars out of 5.

The ebook is released on February 14th, and paperback on March 14th. It is available on Amazon, and can be pre-ordered before those dates.