I am, infamously, Not Good with poetry. But, googling around after falling for the record SING AS THE CROW FLIES by Laura Cannell and Polly Wright, I found this short book of Polly Wright’s poetry, COLD BLOW MARSH.
It arrived as the temperature dropped here, so “Winter, Always Winter” immediately struck a resonant note.
It is gorgeously written, with surprising bursts of humour, and it speaks of places I know. The rusted melancholy of broken microwave ovens laying in fields with their mouths lolling open, old homes being eaten by vines.
Teeth rattle in tobacco tins with rusted corners
she says, and I know exactly what she means. It’s a book of the life of the haunted marshes, the sparse woodlands we throw out old dreams out into, and the sounds of the past whistling through the long grass.
I must have been around 14. Rayleigh Library and the Oxfam shop a few doors down the high street from it, which someone was clearly using to pay things forward and warp younger minds. In a single year — may even have been just spring-summer-autumn — these things happened to me:
ON THE ROAD, Jack Kerouac. I wasn’t reading particularly widely at the time, so god knows why I picked it up. I have a dim recollection of Alan Moore likening Eddie Campbell, whose comics I’d just discovered, to Kerouac. It may have been the first time that prose spoke to me like music spoke to me. An album I never wanted to end. In the next four years I read everything Kerouac in print at the time. (UK) (US)
NOVA EXPRESS, William Burroughs. I was mostly a science fiction reader at the time. This was exploded science fiction, a league beyond the Philip K. Dick I’d already devoured hundreds of pages of. I loved, and love, Philip K. Dick, but this was the real unfiltered sound. (UK) (US)
A CURE FOR CANCER, Michael Moorcock. I read this before THE FINAL PROGRAMME, in fact. And, in a weird way, it let me connect up Kerouac and Burroughs, in that you could fracture narrative and also be of your time and place no matter where it was. (UK) (US)
CRASH, JG Ballard. Which, to me, was the new horror fiction, and talked about landscape and society and change in new and thrillingly relevant ways to a kid who could see, literally week by week, the roads widen and the concrete spill over on to the woodland. (UK) (US)
SHIKASTA, Doris Lessing. Which was like dropping a bomb on the four other books. That book is so underrated, even today, so misunderstood, with such brilliant, jewelled and incredibly human prose. Even the pen-portraits therein feel like condensed books, and I would spend minutes staring into space and just thinking after each page. (UK) (US)
(Written 16 March 2015, recovered from morning.computer)
MALIGN VELOCITIES by Benjamin Noys is a recent work on the subject of accelerationism, a notion whose general thrust is that, in order to achieve the goals of revolution, capitalism should be unchained, turbo-charged, and driven to its natural conclusion so that it explodes and dies. Noys provides an extremely thorough historical context for the idea, and it’s a fascinating deep dive. I lingered on a wonderful bit about the Italian Futurists, which lead me into some memory-refreshment on the Vorticists. There are times, in the early part of the book, where it feels like Noys has some score-settling to do, but it quickly becomes a superb and largely non-technical exp;loration of a very interesting space. For me, it didn’t sustain towards the end, with a Freudian seizure of a chapter on “anal capitalism” and a tangled final statement, but everything up to that was marvellous.
Accelerationism is, for me, worth studying briefly, as it seems to me to be a response to pervasive capitalism brought on by the mental illnesses that capitalism has induced in people. (Schizophrenia is talked about, a lot, e.g. “in Nietzsche’s ‘schizo’ delirium he announced ‘I am all the names of history’”) Noys himself calls them “the fetishists of capital” at one point, but I have a feeling, and Noys often implies, that it’s a deeper malaise.
Capitalism is lately cast as that Lovecraftian force that some people should not look directly at for fear of going completely mad and being banged up in the Arkham Sanitarium. Maybe meditating upon it as some Dark God From Beyond Space that is crushing the world into new shapes just leads some people to rub their mouths on it and plead for it to go faster. And never stop.
(Also: accelerationism, like speculative realism and its surrounding notions, kind of strikes me as Science Fiction Condition philosophical enterprise. its roots may indeed go back to the 19th Century, but the modern conception is something else.)
Wayne Chambliss put me on to Georg Buchner’s LENZ, which I read in its entirely before sleep one night. Because me smart.
At last it grew dark inside him, he experienced a soft, profound compassion for himself, he wept for himself, his head sank down upon his chest, he went to sleep.
It is a speculation upon the true story of Jakob Lenz, who, having become increasingly “eccentric,” is sent to a rural location by his associate Goethe. Lenz has a complete mental break. Buchner imagines that descent into madness. It feels completely true, and is completely chilling.
In his breast hell was rehearsing a song of triumph.
It’s been described as the beginning of modern prose. I was aware of Buchner, having discovered DANTON’S DEATH as a teenager, but had never read this. Wayne put me on to it because I’d been talking about cosmic horror and this, to him, had its overtones – perhaps even its original notes. He was quite right.
Next morning he came down and told Oberlin quite calmly how in the night his mother had appeared to him: dressed in white, she had stepped from the dark churchyard wall, a red and a white rose fastened to her breast; she had sunk down into a corner and slowly the roses had overgrown her – she must surely be dead; he was quite untroubled on that account.
It’s a magnificent act of immersion in an alien mind. It has utter truth. It has real, human horror – looking out through the eyes of a man losing his mind. I’ve seen people describe reading it as transformative, and I can see why.
On the morning of the 8th he remained in bed. Oberlin went to see him; he lay there almost naked and was greatly excited. Oberlin wished to cover him, but Lenzcomplained bitterly, saying that all was so heavy, so very heavy! that he did not think he could walk at all, that never before had he felt the immense weight of the air.
LENZ is most readily (and, I think, cheaply) available as part of a collection: (UK) (US)
Dead Papa Toothwort exhales, relaxes, lolls inside the stile, smiles and drinks it in, his English symphony.
LANNY by Max Porter is about England, to be sure. His awful Dead Papa Toothwort, Green Man and spirit of an English village, could probably be productively read against Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM, in fact. That earthly, faintly malign, strutting and lolling poisonous Englishness.
Dead Papa Toothwort has seen monks executed on this land, seen witches drowned, seen industrial slaughter of animals, seen men beat each other senseless, seen bodies abused and violated, seen people hurt their closest, harm themselves, plot and worry or panic and rage, and the same can be said of the earth. He has seen the land itself cut apart, its top layer disembowelled, stripped and re-plundered, sliced into tinier pieces by wire, hedges and law. He has seen it poisoned by chemicals. He has seen it outlive its surgeons, worshippers and attackers. It holds firm and survives the village again and again and he loves it. He wouldn’t do well in a wilderness.
Dead Papa Toothwort is the spirit of a rural village which has recently become home to Robert, a financial services worker, Jolie, an ex-actor working on her first novel, and their young son Lanny. Who is, immediately, of the land, like a bud from Papa Toothwort. To try and channel his wild dreamy nature, they convince a local artist — known in the village as Mad Pete, a part-retired avant-garde artist of the 20th Century — to give him lessons.
Dead Papa Toothwort has lessons he wants to teach, too.
Glorious, he sings, as he swings his way back into the woods, flinging himself in thirty-foot arcs between telegraph poles, dressed as a barn owl with car-tyre arms…
Reviews of LANNY alight on different things, I’ve noticed. It’s a novel of three parts. The longest, and most enjoyable, is an exploration of spirit and art. The language is often astonishing, and I recommend it chiefly to swim in Porter’s sentences. The second part is harrowing. And the final part is disturbing, and can be characterised as a trial. What do you alight on? The woman writing a crime novel finds herself living a crime novel? The moment where hope is punished on the stage? The way the rankness of old England reclaims the wondrous and renders it declawed and quotidian?
It’s about England. It’s about how cities and towns and villages want to knock the art out of you. It’s about how you stop listening to the world and start doing what the invisible voices tell you to.
Note: buy this in print, or use something other than a basic Kindle. It does tricks with word art that an e-ink Kindle can’t render.
I need to get into the habit of logging book purchases, too. Wayne Chambliss put me on to this.
…the tale of the real-life writer J.M.R. Lenz’s nineteen-day stay in Waldersbach in 1778, describing his wanderings around the mountainous surroundings and his worsening fits of madness, eventually culminating in his removal, under guard, to Strasbourg. Valued both as a chillingly convincing exploration of the reality of paranoid schizophrenia and an influential forerunner of literary modernism…
I’m reading FALL, OR DODGE IN HELL by Neal Stephenson this week, and was amused to see characters refer to social media as The Miasma. Maybe a little obvious, but so was that “Dark Forest” piece that was circulating the other week, and the Miasma mixes its metaphors less.
In the early parts, there are cynically-conceived attempts to crash The Miasma – not in an INFINITE DETAILS just-fuck-the-whole-internet way, more like techbro over-engineered GAN-y game-y bot-y ways. Sociocultural accelerationism, basically, where the bad parts are ramped up and overheated until social media crashes into a wall of reality.
It’s not offered as a solution, of course, because this is a piece of fiction. But there does seem a growing sense that fiction should now be the lab for speculative solutions to The Miasma.
Personally, I’m about to declare RSS bankruptcy, edit my subscriptions and start from scratch. If you’re blogging and I know you, please drop me a note so I can make sure I’m following along. Thanks.
…what the artist really needs is only occasional relief from the necessary loneliness of his creative situation.
I have, for a long time, been moving slowly through an old book, THE PHILOSOPHY OF SAMUEL BECKETT by John Calder. It is hard going in places, and demanding, with, naturally enough, dated language. But, looking back today, I find I have highlighted a lot of sentences and passages.
He saw art as an encumbrance, a deflection from a will that should be concentrated entirely on hating God.
I mean, if you have no great interest in Beckett, it’s unlikely to be for you, unless philosophy is really your thing. It does, however, get into his method from time to time:
Above all he weeded out, in the later work, any superfluous implantations, thereby achieving a prose of maximum economy where adjectives were sparingly used and anything in the present time of the speaker that was not within eyeshot or hearing would not be present, except as memory.
And this, which I found fascinating, as a devotee of the plays:
Beckett’s rehearsal notebooks, which have been preserved at Reading University, contain the author’s drawings of the Godot stage movements in the productions he directed: cruciform designs abound, both in the walks of the characters and the crossed heaps of bodies when Pozzo falls in the second act and is unable to rise. Besides crosses, there are many circles to describe how the characters should move around the stage, and the origin of these is Dante’s concentric circles of hell. So the visual language and the spoken combine to create a new dramatic vocabulary, in its way as stylized as Chinese opera, every gesture having significance. The audience should find its initial fascination with this new non-naturalistic, sometimes balletic and mimetic, drama gradually turning into curiosity and the desire to know more, as it begins to realize the symbolical quality of the play.
Hard going, occasionally somewhat asking to be put in a corner to think about what it just said, but rewarding.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF SAMUEL BECKETT, John Calder (UK) (US)
My friend Kristen Sollée, with whom I attempted to drink How The Light Gets In dry last year, has a new book announced. She’s very good, very smart, and if you read WITCHES SLUTS FEMINISTS you already knew that.
This is the write-up:
“Interweaving historical research, pop culture, and original interviews, Kristen Sollée reclaims the cat archetype as a source of feminine identify and sexual power.
“The cat: A sensual shapeshifter. A hearth keeper, aloof, tail aloft, stalking vermin. A satanic accomplice. A beloved familiar. A social media darling. A euphemism for reproductive parts. An epithet for the weak. A knitted hat on millions of marchers, fists in the air, pink pointed ears poking skyward. Cats and cat references are ubiquitous in art, pop culture, politics, and the occult, and throughout history, they have most often been coded female.
“From the “crazy cat lady” unbowed by patriarchal prescriptions to the coveted sex kitten to the dreadful crone and her yowling compatriot, feminine feline archetypes reveal the ways in which women have been revered and reviled around the world—in Greek and Egyptian mythology, the European witch trials, Japanese folklore, and contemporary film.
“By combining historical research, pop culture, art analyses, and original interviews, Cat Call explores the cat and its indivisible connection to femininity and teases out how this connection can help us better understand the relationship between myth, history, magic, womanhood in the digital age, and our beloved, clawed companions.”