Thursday, November 26, 2009

From Velingrad to Sozopol

News from Kristin on the translations so diligently done from English to Bulgarian at the spa hotel at Velingrad in January:

'We - VBV, Nadia and Georgi - will gather on Dec.4 to read the whole En-Bg book once again and make some final touches and go to the next step. (Things with the publisher seem to be fine.)'

So the next stage of exchange goes on. The publisher remains Altera, and the goal remains a launch at the Sozopol Festival, now, perhaps in 2010.

I can feel the anoxic waters of the Black Sea caress my sauna-starved toes even as we dream of Apollo: dream forwards, fellow Northeasters! Never dream sideways -- where has that ever got us?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Night Market Q&A

This second instalment is from July this year. Here's the poem:

Night Market

These fish have crossed the desert to be here –
belly-up, eyes still eager – and so have we;
so press among the Uigur breaking fast
on long kebabs dry-spiced with smatterings
of paprika and push towards the pile
of pomegranates like a mud-brick wall
translated into juice carbuncles, ask
the man to turn his crushing wheel for glasses
that look like lamb’s blood, taste of rust-edged roses.
The market glows with coal-flares, TVs show
Imams and kung fu, skull-caps pass for skulls
clapped on the tops of turning heads like wheel hubs
as we disturb naan sellers, chicken choppers,
with our un-native faces’ late-night shopping.
Myself and Yang Lian, both alien,
are equally remote from West Xinjiang
while Emran’s instantly relaxing – here
as in Tehran, the Muslim night adheres
to gentler pulses we recover strolling
beneath dry balconies they will soon fell
in favour of the corporate eclipse
of concrete that surrounds this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb,
the one teashop left open in the globe
where Abdul knows to rouse the owner from
his double hajj-earned slumbers. Empty room,
low-roofed, where we can be loquacious on
long-tabled platforms, thin cream cushions;
beneath the dusty beams and over tea –
black, hot – as endless as we’d like to be
ourselves, but we must break this moment up
like bread, not knowing as we drain our cups
how soon this quartet of our well-warmed breaths
will be abbreviated by a death.

Here's the dialogue:

VBV
It starts with "These fish have crossed the desert to be here –...". But I found another version online: "These fish have crossed the Gobi to be here". So?

WNH
It's actually the Taklamakan Desert, tho people tended to refer to it as the Gobi. 'Taklamakan' doesn't really scan, of course -- this is in iambic pentameter with couplet half-rhyme, and Gobi came to seem misleading. So I changed it to 'desert'.

VBV
"so press among the Uigur breaking fast // on long kebabs...". Press? There are 3 verbs - press, push and ask. But the first one sounds strange to me "press among...on..." - I am not sure I am getting the meaning. Can you help me with some clarification - what is pressed?

WNH
'Press among' is the verb unit, it's specific to being in a crowd (we also have 'press' as a noun, meaning crowd, though it's rare); it means the same as 'push through'.

VBV
"breaking fast" - It's just the phrase 'breaking the fast', yes?

WNH
Well, it's specific to Ramadan, where you fast from dawn to dusk, then are allowed to eat when the evening call is sounded from the muezzin. So it has to sound different from 'breakfast' with its morning associations.

VBV
The market glows with all these: coal-flares, TVs show Imams and kung fu

WNH
The imams and the kung fu are on the TVs (it's a reference to the mixed Turkic and Chinese society -- very polarised now, of course with the problems in Urumqi, but then seeming a blur of influences), so the glows are confined to the fires and the TVs.

VBV
"skull-caps pass for skulls" - You mean that we think of skull-caps as skulls? Or I am completely on the wrong track?

WNH
Yes, in the dimness, these little white caps look very like skulls, hence 'pass for'.

VBV
skull-caps... A synonym would be kippah, am i right?

WNH
I've just checked the Uighur term on Wikipedia:

'Many Muslims wear a kippah equivalent called a "kufi" or topi. Until more recent times, men in most Muslim societies were rarely seen without headdress of some sort. A taqiyah covers most of the head. Finally, the modern taqiyahs worn by Muslims are analogous to the kippot worn by observant Jews whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.
The doppa, a square or round skullcap originating in the Caucasus and worn by Kazan Tatars, Uzbeks and Uyghurs is another example of a Muslim skullcap. The doppa is derived from a Turkic, more pointed ancestral cap, which can be seen in some of the portraits of Jalaleddin Mingburnu.
Conservative Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia , especially in the rural areas, are often seen wearing a thin kopiah, which looks almost exactly like the kippah in outward appearance.'

VBV
Who is Emran?

WNH
Emran Salahi is the Iranian poet the entire sequence is dedicated to. He died shortly after this trip to Xinjiang. There were four of us on this occasion: Yang Lian, myself, Emran, and our Uighur guide, Abdul. Here's the little note I wrote to head off the published version:

http://www.madhattersreview.com/issue7/viva_herbert1.shtml

VBV
"...of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb". I am not sure about this... Hopes to? You mean "hopes towards" or something else... Here I am really puzzled...

WNH
The pertinent part is:

'this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb'

'Collapse' would perhaps be better understood as 'contraction' in relation to their hopes. The strollers are tired, and it's like they're shifting from walking to reclining as they approach the bulb and enter the teashop.

VBV
"long-tabled platforms" - what are these platforms? Why they are not just tables?

WNH
The teahouse consisted of a ground-level walkway between slightly raised areas on which there were long short-legged tables. These came to around the same height as the conventional table and chair arrangements in any cafe, but the raised 'platforms' were so people could sit cross-legged or recline on cushions, rather than sit upright on individual chairs.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chinataur Dialogue

I promised I'd start posting the dialogues that took place over chatrooms or by email in relation to the Velingrad stage of this project. It's taken me a long time to get going on this, but here's a first go.

This is the exchange between Kristin and myself between 28th January and 2nd February 09 over my poem 'The Chinataur'. More -- and hopefully more about someone else's work -- when I next get a mo.

Here's the poem:

The Chinataur

soon after this debacle found himself
in tunnels lined with crockery, shelf
after shelf of chipped and half-remembered sets
of saucers, fruit bowls, dinner plates:

a coffee cup that, once in childhood, held
to the now-occluded sun, revealed
a brittle geisha haloed by its base –
where had he drunk in that drowned face?

a soup bowl landscaped with grey cherry trees,
the bridge that wished to be Chinese
from which all cuckolds, lovers, cooing birds
were washed away like once-loved words;

the wineglass asterisked in gold as though
at dawn the stars refused to go;
the sea-deep jug on which some rip-tide hand
sketched ‘crayfish’, leaving ‘shore’ unpenned.

He wandered for the only hours between
ghost rows that should be smithereens,
groaned as his skeleton by sharp degrees
transmuted into cutlery;

smiled at the cellars’ sentimental clack,
his salt-and-peppered scrotal sac,
and wept as one obliged to be reborn
to feel his new-grown porcelain horns.

And here's the dialogue:

Kristin

Night Market and The Chinataur (The China Minotaur?) are your last two untranslated poems. Is that correct? Vasil and I will take them. Do you have any preferances, like who takes what?

Bill

As for the remaining two, I have no preferences, and am ready to answer all queries, so do please select between yourselves and ask me anything (except that, as Meatloaf explains, you can't ask me that).

Kristin

I'll take the Chinataur. I have lots of questions. Please, tell me what there is to know about it beforehand.
As Schwarzenegger says, I'll be back.

Bill

I'm supposed to be writing a review, but I have to build up my courage to say all those things about poetry you don't write down in case it alarms the livestock. So I'd much rather talk about the Chinataur...

Yes, it's a portmanteau term, 'china' and 'minotaur', and the image is derived from the old cliche 'like a bull in a china shop' or, as I just wrote by mistake, 'like a bill in a china shop', meaning a clumsy person creating a terrible mess. In this scenario, the labyrinth is lined with china, and we realise that it all has significance for the central character, ie it's symbolic of a smashed-up life, reassembled as a type of punishment as he undergoes a metamorphosis into the chinataur.

Kristin

1. How should I imagine the "He" of the poem - a middle age man walking among the shelves of a chance shop, trying to gather his thoughts?
2. "this debacle" is he himself or something that happened to him? Perhaps both?
3. The bridge that wished to be Chinese (I really love this one) - is it painted by the grey cherry trees or is it a china figurine itself (I find this less likely)?
4. "sketched "crayfish", leaving "shore" unpenned" - is there some "Crayfish shore" you are refering to? I couldn't find any. Do we need a set phrase? A phrase that once you mention the first word, the second one comes to mind?
5. "His salt and peppered scrotal sac" - is it just the colour? Are you implying something I cannot get?
6. "To feel his new-grown porcelain horns" - what do these horns mean? He is turning into a porcelain figurine, a useless, dusty and fragile ornament for the rest of his life because he cannot find a place for himself the way he is in this one? Or somebody had cheated on him (a cornuto)? Or the connection to the Minotaur suggests some strong out-of-the-way masculinity which he finds regretfully improper/useless/misplaced/unfeasible as it is, but which is strong enough to make him feel reborn as a horned beast, albeit a pocelain one.

I hope I am not too much out of track.

The rhyme scheme is AABB, alternating five iambic feet with four.

Bill

1. He is already in the Labyrinth, but it isn't at all the place he/we imagined it to be.
2. Both, but the idea is something embarrassing/shambolic/terrible has just happened to him, which we don't learn anything more about -- in a sense this is his default mode, something like this has always just happened to this character.
3. The whole image is depicted on a plate, actually a soup bowl.
4. The idea is the image on the jar is at once a sketchy crayfish, and like a pictogram standing for 'crayfish' -- no equivalent pictogram/sketch is visible for 'shore' -- it's an elaborate way of saying 'all at sea,' lost.
5. He is turning physically into tableware -- instead of testicles he now has a salt cellar and a pepperpot, hence the clack -- there is also a suggestion of greying pubic hair -- we call it 'salt and pepper' when grey appears on a dark-haired person.
6. These are the same assumptions I came up with -- I suppose which is dominant depends on what you think the 'debacle' was.

Yes, that's the structure, with the proviso that it's nearly but not insistently full rhyme.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Bluba Lu on soundcloud

There are a couple of sets here by the band Fadia, Mark and I worked with the first time we visited Bulgaria, including World Nostalgia. We still await the release of our much-vaunted spoken word album, Air Pants, a turbulent performance.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mark Smith in Blogaria



I found this on The Fall's labyrin-thine fora (yes, that is a map of Bulgaria), where they claimed MOJO had said the following: 'Bizarro sketches both acoustic and experimental from Fall autocrat and pal, possibly themed around holidaying in Bulgaria.'

It seems highly likely to me that the song 'The Train' concerns a journey made on that narrow gauge track which followed us through the limestone outcrops to Velingrad, and is about a small steam engine containing Burt Lancaster, various works of art stolen by the Nazis, Peter Cushing, and a large bloodsucking neanderthal with a lovely singing voice.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

More photos of sheep, wolves and steam



I've added some images from the Hotel Velina and The Sheep, Sofia to my blog here.
Some are even populated by real people.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hard at work


I've not had chance to upload others yet but will do, to a Flickr page. But here's one to be going on with...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bill's poems

A Midsummer Light’s Nighthouse

1

In Winter the Old High Light speaks
the language of the sea winds
and the hail: cold unwraps itself, sheet
after sheet, around its weeping edge.

In the spring it rediscovers sunlight,
lets the clouds peel off like gulls
from its lead-lidded eyeball. The earth wind mouths
against the landing door, yammering and keen.

But in the simmer-dim and dark it talks
in its own dialect: sudden as a stairwell
and silent as a corridor when the light-switch
flicks, it tells me how to listen.

2

Where do you think the music comes up from,
manifested in the taut ropes ringing
off masts of fishing boats, the grunt of motors rippling
like a fat moon’s dribble on the river
and the knocking tread that’s boxes, dropped upon the quays?

Where do you think the music groups itself
before the year turns over in the night?
It’s propped against these timbers like a giant lens;
it’s like a sunfish that’s warmed itself in top waters
the eye flashing as it rolls away and drops.

3

It is by how we translate silence that
the dead become retongued – listen to
this empty air that fills two centuries
and more of chamber with the dreaming crush
of families: how it holds the creases in
their faces; how it’s poised between their breaths.

4

Let the admiral slither from
his pedestal, turned from guanoed marble to
white walrus, a crawling beluga,
and pipe in his ship-whistle voice canary songs
of old calamities, wars dissolving on water.

Let the smuggler woman come
in her jellyfish petticoats, ribbons fouled with sons,
smearing the walls with rum-thickened venom,
and slur in old tobacco tones her press-gang blues,
her welcoming couplets like cold thighs.

5

The sea does not bring forth in Autumn
like an orchard – it draws back
like a page that’s pinched for turning.
We read in it abeyance, not a swell.

Therefore the mind exerts its right
to halt the story, poise us on this sill
before the river sweeps the chimes away
and buries yet another solstice out at sea.

These other lives that surged before us,
let them be the gap before this midnight’s tick:
our own no more inhabitable void succeeds it,
and the High Light is our common home.




Tyne Tunnel

These days I tune in specially
as I approach the tunnel, hoping for
sopranos, pianistic flourishes,
colouristic passages, as I pay and wind
my window up, switch on dipped lights
and descend to the river’s underbelly.

The static comes in swells, quite leisurely:
it pulls itself over the voice, the strings,
it shushes, couries, smothers, sinks,
and then it reigns like poison in the lug,
a crush of other traffic, a scrape and drag –
cans across rock, silt through gills: the gully.

I always feel it will be troubled by
some voice that breaks in with a song
you only hear down here: the tongue
compressed, half-ham, half-Janacek;
the message cold, eruptive, wrecked –
but there’s nothing till sunlight and, gradually,

the same tune altered by the weight of water.



The Shave

How to re-enter the nineteenth century
with its better class of axe murderer,
its limitless supply of tubercular
courtesans, its autonomous moustaches:
pass through the cervix of a too-hot towel
folded and pressed to your flushing face,
the apparatus of the chair cranked back
like a car-seat in a suicidal layby.
Small panics soften as the lathering brush
approaches with its cool aquatic kiss,
a giant otter on the Tyne’s soft bank.
You find there is still more to be relaxed,
vertebra by intercostal cog, your shoes
loll outwards as the blade – an eyebrow of steel,
the moon’s regard – begins, as wielded by
this nun-battered Dublin Geordie lass who lifts
your jowls gently in the snow-lit morning
and strums upon the fretboard of your throat.
For this is where all opera takes root,
the pulse of your nostalgia for unlived-in
eras, that sin of breathing elsewhere than
this greedy moment’s need to blame, verismo
is only conjured by proximity
to blood. All chatter falls like an old key falls
and cuts the slush, the orchestra of combs
and scissors seems to pause, to concentrate
on this small nearby risping shifting note
as though to cracklings in an infant’s lung.
She is the diva of scrape, the spinta of slice,
her tessitura runs from jugular
to nostril till she smacks you back
into the day you’ll haunt with alcohol
and soap, anachronistic neck,
shaven and shriven and white as a baton.



The Sickle

The second day my hand still trembled from
the sickle. We see it now as attribute,
those ageing symbols' symbol, death and work,
and like to overlook the thing itself,
bulb-handled in warm wood, the cursive blade
a darkened, runnelled metal, cheaply made
and left inside the old tin bath with saws,
fence staples, in the dust-black, padlocked shed
among the furniture and frames thrown out
of the old peoples' version of a house,
the cobwebbed halter for their long-dead mule.
We want to make it moon and question mark,
cedilla of skeletal script, a lip,
but it is quite at ease with all this mess,
the afterlife of things and half-life of
their meanings: it's accustomed to the edge
between the real and the irrelevant.
A little oil would help it sing out as
it's lifted from its bed; serrations, rust,
acknowledge its return to use, to light.
And all I did was cut the long dry grass
behind the outhouse where the washing line
plays out its yellow plastic smile. I took
their three foot nodding lengths in hand,
half baby fishing rods and half the shades
of ostrich feathers, and I hacked them once
or twice, and cut their shins and thistles' throats
until our towels could hang in peace.
And all the time the sickle silently
displayed its neatness, crooking in the strays
and never needing more than three light chops
at any head, and though I cut away
from my leg every time it whispered past
'flesh of my edge, bone of my blade,' and cut
until it was too easy to cut close,
and then I paused, and put the thing away.



The Glacier

Scrambling among the hobo pebbles, pilgrim quartz,
we were speechless on the glacier’s black back,
surfing its slowest wave, listening to its Xhosa click,
its rhotic grind, its kilometre throat’s distracted rattle.

We’d diceboxed off the Karakoram highway up
a broadening valley between the Uigur villages,
their pease pudding walls, their carved palace doors,
corncobs drying on their roofs like giant pollen.

The only oak in Xinjiang spread over twin pillars
of a little mosque, the hills behind like opened crab lungs,
their dead men’s fingers giving way to a vast flat wall
children lay down to see a poplar sit on top of.

The one mine entrance was a cathedral gouge
in a cliff-face so tall it made it seem a mousehole.
Then finally, parked by the concrete yurts painted
with scenes out of the cartoon past and walking

through the churr of magpies towards the first firs,
the first Swiss-eyed glimpse of gull-shouldered peaks,
breathless in the highland air as though we’d smoked
ourselves down to a quarter of our proper size;

there was a flight of steps up to a blind crest
you had to rest before, during, and at the climbing of –
and then it was before you, the blackberry tongue,
the exhausted shit lolly, the lava-stained granita.

It had something to tell us that we could only learn
by climbing on its dead whale belly and holding out
our mobile phones to record its auriculate melts.
There was a voice down in its rootlessness that knew

the root to all our travelling, the small dripping home
of our incomprehension. All our friends yelled at us,
and while their echoes put the eagles off their glide,
the glacier quietly carried on carrying us away.



Ghost

(Variation on a theme by Matthew Sweeney)

The ghost which doesn’t know its way but must get home
stumbles in the desert through the day
and searches through the passes in the dark.
It gathers pebbles into maps to guess at its passage
across the great steppe in winter.
It immerses itself in lakes to feel
what the birch roots feel, it sits
in the bodies of sheep and goats
whose blood can’t halt the chill.
It travels from mosquito to mosquito in
the fat summer air,
it wraps itself up in fallen trees’ bark
like the text in a rotten book.
It only knows North and consequently
may be travelling in the wrong direction for months.
Sometimes it thinks it recognises
a configuration of poplars
and a great dread descends.
It lies with the maggots and the excrement beneath
a row of toilet stalls in Knife City.
It remembers faces seen with no thought that this was for
the last time. Memories are diminished
and must be counted out like beads:
the ratchet in the old woman’s throat,
the smell of cheap newsprint in
a now nameless airport,
the hand nervously gathering a curtain,
the baby’s black button blink.



Night Market

These fish have crossed the desert to be here –
belly-up, eyes still eager – and so have we;
so press among the Uigur breaking fast
on long kebabs dry-spiced with smatterings
of paprika and push towards the pile
of pomegranates like a mud-brick wall
translated into juice carbuncles, ask
the man to turn his crushing wheel for glasses
that look like lamb’s blood, taste of rust-edged roses.
The market glows with coal-flares, TVs show
Imams and kung fu, skull-caps pass for skulls
clapped on the tops of turning heads like wheel hubs
as we disturb naan sellers, chicken choppers,
with our un-native faces’ late-night shopping.
Myself and Yang Lian, both alien,
are equally remote from West Xinjiang
while Emran’s instantly relaxing – here
as in Tehran, the Muslim night adheres
to gentler pulses we recover strolling
beneath dry balconies they will soon fell
in favour of the corporate eclipse
of concrete that surrounds this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb,
the one teashop left open in the globe
where Abdul knows to rouse the owner from
his double hajj-earned slumbers. Empty room,
low-roofed, where we can be loquacious on
long-tabled platforms, thin cream cushions;
beneath the dusty beams and over tea –
black, hot – as endless as we’d like to be
ourselves, but we must break this moment up
like bread, not knowing as we drain our cups
how soon this quartet of our well-warmed breaths
will be abbreviated by a death.



The Chinataur

soon after this debacle found himself
in tunnels lined with crockery, shelf
after shelf of chipped and half-remembered sets
of saucers, fruit bowls, dinner plates:

a coffee cup that, once in childhood, held
to the now-occluded sun, revealed
a brittle geisha haloed by its base –
where had he drunk in that drowned face?

a soup bowl landscaped with grey cherry trees,
the bridge that wished to be Chinese
from which all cuckolds, lovers, cooing birds
were washed away like once-loved words;

the wineglass asterisked in gold as though
at dawn the stars refused to go;
the sea-deep jug on which some rip-tide hand
sketched ‘crayfish’, leaving ‘shore’ unpenned.

He wandered for the only hours between
ghost rows that should be smithereens,
groaned as his skeleton by sharp degrees
transmuted into cutlery;

smiled at the cellars’ sentimental clack,
his salt-and-peppered scrotal sac,
and wept as one obliged to be reborn
to feel his new-grown porcelain horns.



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’ 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.

Metaphor for Dogs

'Dogs don't use metaphor'
Ruth Padel

I have been burying the delicious white stick.
I have been sniffing the butthole's brown flower.
I have caught the wooden wingbone:
here it is.

I have returned to the stomach's liquid child,
to the lumpy feast. I have been licking
my own soft chestnuts:
here they are.

Why do you tug the neck's strap-on tail
when this Ganges of hot bitch-scent
has just poured past?
There she is.

I make a tripod fountain.
I puddle up to the gadget of my new ipoodle.
I cock a wood'll woo her:
here it is.

She is squatting mother to the fragrant slug.
I am not distracted by the magnetic North
South East and West Poles of wee wee:
but there they are.

She's like the leg of a maiden aunt
I must embrace. She's like the trousers
of the garden invader, ripe for perforation.
So she is.

She's like the white hole in the black air
that sucks out howls. She's like the tendons
that tug the skeleton of the pack together. In fact,
here we are.

Andy's poems

Grey Blues


Grey promenade, grey sand, grey day,
Grey road, grey sky, grey rocks, grey clay -
So many different shades of grey !
Like Holyhead on Christmas Day,
Sault St Marie or Thunder Bay,
The deadened rule of grey holds sway
Upon this Headland, locked today
In monochromes of wintry grey.
These welded clouds are here to stay,
Like bunting hung across the bay,
Like dirty clothes on washing-day,
Like tide-marks of the world’s decay.
Ash-grey, slate-grey, rain-grey, steel-grey,
The colours all have drained away
To prismed islands far away.
Grey clouds, grey sea, grey rain, grey day,
This leaden rainbow in the spray
’s a covenant from God to say
That grey will rule the earth one day.

I like this place, I like this grey,
Well-handled, useful, everyday,
Familiar, dull ; I like the way
It flaunts its taste for brazen grey,
And kicks its turquoise shoes away,
Exchanging flaming gold lamé
For army surplus service grey.
But most of all I like the way
This lack of colour seems to say
This disappointing world’s OK,
Not black or white but mostly grey,
And that the spectrum of dismay
Contains no blue at all, just grey, just grey.



Just As Blue


A breezeless, sunny, Summer day
At Brooke House Farm, and I’m just four
Or five, a town-mouse come to stay,
Homesick perhaps, and not so sure
About this world that’s fierce and strange
And full of things from story-books :
The giant oven in the range,
The furnace doors I must not touch,

The home-made broom outside the door,
The baking smells of gingerbread,
And everywhere the friendly, raw
Tobacco smell of Uncle Fred ;
The cellar with its froggy holes,
A fox head stuffed with marble eyes,
The fences hung with rats and moles ;
The piglet wriggles in the sties,

The shippon gloom of dust and straw,
The diesel stink of old machines,
The high-pitched smell of fresh manure,
The dairy’s chapel quiet, its clean
And polished, buttered, sunshine taste ;
The angry, barking dogs on chains
Whose unleashed fury must be faced
If I’m to venture down the lane.

But here, against the haystack sides,
A ladder climbs to heaven knows where,
A stair up which, half terrified,
I slither backwards into air,
Till half way up the clouds unfold
Their magic carpet in the skies,
A square of blue enframed with gold,
A vast and roofless blue surprise.

How close the sky appears from here.
No child could ever paint such blue
As this, an endless, hurting, clear
And lovely, lonely, trespassed view.
Within this blue I’ve built a den,
A musty house of bales of straw
To keep out stupid one-eyed hens,
And hungry wolves outside the door.

How dreamy still and quiet it seems,
As though the giant world is curled
Asleep and I’m inside a dream
Of bean-stalks far above the world,
Where hay bales might be spun to gold,
And happy endings are all true,
Where little pigs do not grow old,
And skies are always just as blue.

As if I’ve had this dream before,
Down tunnels made with itching legs
I reach to find, within the straw,
A clutch of warm and feathered eggs,
Like magic beans which only grow
When all the grown-ups are in bed,
Which lead to where all children know
They grind your bones to make their bread.

The sleepy world below now stirs -
The milking stalls’ electric hum,
A distant tractor’s muddy purrs,
The background mumble of the glum
Suspicious cows, as they’re pursued
By Fe-fi-fo-ing dogs and men.
It’s time to leave this solitude,
The giant world’s awake again.



The Baron Munchausen Bar, Sofia

‘We drink, we sing with recklessness,
We snarl against the tyrant foe,
The taverns are too small for us,
"To the mountains we shall go."’
Hristo Botev

for Bill Herbert


You follow the yellow-brick road through the snow,
Past the topless young girls on the highway,
Through Horrible Valley and Terrible Pass
Till at last you will come to a doorway.

It’s tucked between Schweik’s and Flanagan’s Bar,
Down a side-street of uneven cobbles,
But once you’re inside you know you’re with friends
Who will help you forget all your troubles.

Inside it’s so crowded and smoky and dark
That you can’t tell one hand from the other;
Here a Yes means a No and a No means a Yes,
And the neighbouring sexes mean either.

You hang up your hang ups just inside the door
In exchange for a small token gesture,
Sly Peter will offer to buy you a beer
And ask you to drink to the future.

And after a while you can see that it’s full
Of artists in shades and black leather,
Like talking heads chained in the inferno-dark
They talk of new sins and old lovers.

Here the bar-maids are lovely as Catherine the Great,
And the beer tastes as cold as the Iskar;
On TV the football is never nil-nil,
And the Hristos are wrapping up Moskva.

And the peppers are red as CSKA shirts,
And the vegetable soup is near solid
With the flesh of the Chopski, that gentlest of tribes
Who taught us all how to make salad.

Here the regulars vote for a fairy-tale-king,
Who it’s rumoured supports Barcelona,
He doesn’t like children but comes in to drink
With the tough-looking boys in the corner.

Each night if you want you can drink the bar dry
As long as the Baron has credit,
Though the menu’s as large as the Vitosha hills,
The bill is so small you can’t read it.

If ever you leave here (and some never do)
You will find that the snow is still falling,
In Batenberg Square they’ve forgotten the date,
And the frozen tongued bells have stopped pealing;

And the skate-boarders spin round the partisan dead
In the gardens on Boulevard Levski,
And the tomb of Dimitrov’s been swapped overnight
For an oversize bottle of whisky;

And the past is as clean as the streets under snow,
And everyone’s tired and sleepy,
And the future’s as bright as the man in the moon,
And freedom makes everyone happy;

And the statues outside are stiff with the cold,
And the girls by the road are still topless;
And the children of beggars are sleeping outside,
And the cold constellations are helpless.

The Baron untethers one half of his horse
Which he tied to an Orthodox steeple,
And wishes you all a merry good night
As he flies off to Constantinople.

Some say he’s a con-man, some say he’s for real,
Some say that the Baron’s in earnest,
But don’t take my word for it, go there yourself -
You’ll never believe it all. Honest.


Zoology

Beware the wolves who hunt in packs,
The snake’s insinuating smile,
The low-browed, strong-armed silverbacks,
The sympathetic crocodile;
Avoid the vultures’ scrounging gaze
The tiger playing with his food,
The magpie’s flashy, thieving ways,
The leopard in a hungry mood;
Beware the lizards’ sleepless eyes,
The grizzly dozing in the straw,
The piglets rooting in their sties,
The jungle stink of carnivore;
Stay clear of keepers jangling keys,
The crazy dogs who bark at night,
The laughter of the chimpanzees,
The paws that scratch, the jaws that bite.

But most of all, beware the law
That rattles at the window bars,
The food-chain red in tooth and claw
Of those that hunt beneath the stars,
The moon-lit siren calls of home
Which draw all creatures great and small
To where those midnight monsters roam
That lie in wait, beyond the wall.


An Offer You Can’t Refuse

‘If sharks ruled the world they would teach the little fish that it is a great honour to swim into the mouth of a shark.’
Brecht

for Mike and Anna Wilson


As the actress takes the curtain
They are cheering in the stalls,
Mack the Knife is out of town, dear,
Though his name’s sprayed on the walls.

O the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white,
On the east side of this town, dear,
You can walk home safe at night.

Here the shark is just a story,
Some old song about some teeth,
Though there’s some who think that freedom’s
Just a name for old Macheath.

On the radio, Sunday morning,
Frank Sinatra swings this town;
You had better watch your back, dear,
When the walls start tumbling down.

Now the banks are full of money
And the streets are full of life;
Who’s that sneaking round the corner -
Is that someone Mack the Knife?

All the ladies love a blade, dear,
And the whole world loves a knave,
But he’ll leave you lying bleeding
And he’ll put you in your grave.

You are free to spend your savings
On expensive merchandise,
And you’re free to walk the streets, dear -
Every freedom has its price.

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread,
On the streets young men are shouting,
Foreign students turn up dead.

Now the knives are coming out, dear,
And the sharp suits cut like glass,
And there’s beggars in the subways
On the razor edge of class.

Unemployment keeps on rising,
While the dole keeps going down -
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear,
Now that Mackie, good old Mackie,
Now that Mackie is back in town.




Too Much

in memoriam, Geoff Croft

You always were too big, too tall, too loud,
The sort of man who took up too much space,
Who couldn’t help but stand out in a crowd,
The kind of Dad who was always on my case,
But as I watched you whittled with each breath,
Belittled by both cancer and its cure,
I needed you still louder than before,
As large as life and larger still than death.

You always were too big, too loud, too tall,
The sort of man who never seemed to stop,
Beside whom other fathers seemed so small,
The kind of Dad I’d call over the top.
But as I watched you lying there so still,
I could not fail to understand the size
Of what I’ve lost in you, to realise
How huge a gap you’ve left for me to fill.


Idiot Snow

for Sergei, Yuri and Olga


This sky’s a foreign language
Whose native speakers know
It takes the earth’s thesaurus
To catch the falling snow.
As well as try translating
The way the weather talks -
In Russian verbs of motion
Snow doesn’t fall, it walks.
It ambles, shambles, gambols,
It sidles, idles, creeps,
It bounces, pounces, flounces,
It pirouettes and leaps,
It does the hokey-cokey,
The twist, the cha-cha-cha
In a silent karaoke
In Snegurochka’s Bar.

Small children play at statues
Outside the ice-carved shops
Till everybody freezes,
And when the music stops
The speechless world is deafened
By the ringing in our ears
Like underwater singing
Or the music of the spheres.
The sound of snowflakes walking
Through Kemerovo at night
Would silence anyone who doubts
That happiness writes white,
The colour of the senses
At ten degrees below,
Where no matter what the question is,
The answer’s always snow.


They Think it’s All Over

And so our first group-game is finished,
Another World Cup tale begins.
With optimism undiminished
We hope that this time England wins,
And that just maybe Peter Crouch is
The man to pin us to our couches,
And end the forty years of hurt
That comes with every England shirt.
And yet there can be few supporters
Who really are in any doubt
About the way this will turn out;
By now experience has taught us
That hope’s a dangerous burden, which
Has no place on a football pitch.

The wrong side of the years of plenty,
We make the best of what remains.
With luck, for me, another twenty -
At least five more World Cup campaigns!
Although I don’t think for one minute
That’s long enough for us to win it,
I’ve long learned how to live in hope
(How else could I have learned to cope
With Englishness?) The generation
That still remembers Moore and Hurst,
Who’ve grown up to expect the worst
Can sometimes fall for the temptation
To mistake England for the fans
Whose tabloid colours deck their vans.

For those who landed on the planet
In ‘56, we chose a time
In which, no matter how you scan it
A word like Victory just won’t rhyme.
Five decades of imperial slaughter
Is quite enough for this supporter;
From Suez Crisis to Iraq
Old England’s never lost the knack
Of picking fights with Third World nations.
A grisly time in which to spend
One’s time on earth. I can’t pretend
That there are many consolations -
At least as far as I can tell -
Except that you were here as well.

I’m probably suffering from depression,
Brought on by turning one more page
In life’s thin book, but my impression
Is that my friends don’t seem to age.
My oldest mates are always youthful -
No, please don’t laugh - I’m being truthful!
Still hanging round in student pubs,
In parties, staff-rooms, classes, Cubs,
In Sunday-school and Party meeting,
On five-a-side courts, clapped-out cars,
In prison, readings, Russian bars -
Though art is long and life is fleeting,
There’s few things that can measure us
The way that friendship’s time-piece does.

I’m glad that you’ve been here to share it.
Without such friends, it would have been
Impossible sometimes to bear it.
A half a century lived between
High expectation and disaster
Is more than any one can master.
The years spent watching England play
And all we’ve won is sweet F.A.
And yet within this summer garden
There is another England here,
Defined by comradeship and beer;
My country’s here, not Baden-Baden,
With you, the friends who’ll cheer me up -
When England exit the World Cup.

June 2006


Song of the Banya

‘Not enough bathhouses, not enough soap.’
(Vladimir Mayakovsky)


In this city of well-dressed ambition
It is hard to peel off from the dance,
But here in the Banya, we say do svidanya
To all of that hustle and hassle and bustle -
For once in the Banya,
You’ve nothing to lose but your pants. Hey!

Hit me with your venik stick,
Hit me! Hit me!

As long as you’re stark bollock naked
You can stay in the Banya all day,
The fat and the skinny, the max and the mini,
The lean and the gristly, the clean and the bristly,
We sit in the Banya
And sweat all our troubles away. Hey!

Hit me with your venik stick,
Hit me! Hit me!

The Banya asks nobody questions,
The Banya tells nobody lies,
You jump in the water, your manhood gets shorter,
You walk in a mobster and crawl out a lobster,
The god of the Banya
Cuts every man right down to size. Hey!

Hit me with your venik stick,
Hit me! Hit me!

There’s only one rule in the Banya,
Enlightened self-interest’s our cause,
You may be quite podgy, you may look right dodgy
Be sick and unhealthy, or virile and wealthy,
But here in the Banya -
If you scrub my back, I’ll scrub yours. Hey!

Hit me with your venik stick,
Hit me! Hit me!

The Banya treats all men as brothers,
The wise man, the fool and the knave,
No matter how ruthful or truthful you may be,
No matter how youthful you were as a baby,
Outside of the Banya
The next place we’re equal’s the grave. Hey!

Hit me with your venik stick,
Hit me! Hit me!

One member one soap is our slogan,
Uniting the whole human race,
Once step through the door you can’t tell the dirt poor
From the man with the itch to become stinking rich -
If the world was a Banya
It wouldn’t be such a foul place. Hey!

Hit me with your venik stick,
Hit me! Hit me!


Metronomic

‘In the morning I go down in the Metro
There my underground life runs away.’
(Valery Syutkin)


Three hundred feet below the ground,
The Circle Line goes round and round,
De-clunk de-da, de-clunk de-da,
Four syllables to every bar.
‘Dear Passengers,’ the tannoy says,
Uncomradely, though polished phrase
In regular paeonic feet
That fits the Metro rush-hour beat
Of workers paid to feed machines.
The male voice on the tannoy means
We’re ticking clockwise round the stain
Of Stalin’s coffee cup again;
An urgent metre, keeping time,
To which we nod our heads in rhyme
And mark the stress for emphasis,
Rabotniks from Metropolis,
Or clockwork soldiers on parade;
A rhythm made to be obeyed
By veterans with medalled chests,
And Moscow girls with perfect breasts,
And Moscow girls with almond eyes,
And businessmen in suits and ties,
And college kids who text and text
Between one station and the next:
I’m on the train, I’m on the train
I’m on the train, I’m on the train…

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Linda's poems

North and South

Back in 1962 the world was
A foreign place I was just beginning
To feel at home in. I’d mouth and tongue sounds
My ears heard – Mam’s clipped consonants, big sisters’
Sing-song vowels. And people understood.

Then one night was a dream of a red room
With wheels that kept me awake, stars spelling
South. South. South, where it never snowed and we
Would live in a nice new house and I would
Go to a nice new school.
No one warned me.

Hamworthy Primary was full of kids
With straw between their teeth that made them sound
Like lazy cows. Where I came from the talk
Was quick as flocking birds. We laughed out loud –
No sneering behind hands, with rolling eyes.
Who’s her? I cried inarticulate tears.

To survive, I had no choice but to try
To make my mouth echo back their fat ain’ts,
Become a chewing cow; or at least pretend.
I parroted their slow accents, even
Though the long feathers never really fit.
I plucked them out, the first chance I got;
But discovered I’d also lost, mid-flight,
My native accent I thought was bone.

In its place was this anonymous voice,
That sounds, to me, as if it belongs to
Someone else; feels two or three sizes too large.
The words and the spaces between the words
Ring with false echoes, false compass points.


*


Elementary
for Rufus

I ask my son what he knows of earth,
of properties of metal,
the rings in the heart of wood,
what shapes he can trace in air,
how deep is the blue of water;
remind him to take care with fire.

He has a dangerous fondness for fire,
my son, learning the lessons of earth;
knows magnets are science, metal,
observes their attraction through water.
He’s aware that a kite, and he, needs air,
the paper he’s miss so much is wood.

We scramble hand in hand through the wood
near our house, feeling the damp earth
spring under our feet, the lapping of water
in the silence. The cold air
makes him cough so we go home to the fire,
welcomed by kettle’s singing metal.

His toys are plastic; mine were metal,
with sharp corners. They rusted in water.
Now the fashion’s back for wood,
carved and painted trains, trucks and fire-
engines. Things have changed. This earth
I thought I knew, and love, is mutable as air.

My son was four the year the air
blew from the east, poisoned by fire,
a fire kindled with no wood.
The smell of my sweat was metal.
We couldn’t trust rain, milk or earth,
were afraid to drink the water.

He loves to play in water
and I to watch him, in the tenuous air
of summers. I lean against knotted wood,
by the river glinting metal.
As certain as flames in fire
we’re held in the breath of earth.


I pray to the gods of air, goddesses of wood
and water, that he’ll be saved from fire,
and save, like precious metal, all he knows of earth.



*

The Lady’s Mantle Letter

She will write him a letter to tell him
how cool and wet her garden is this July,
how beautiful the alchemilla is,
a strange citrus, petal-less froth above
the green nearly-circles of the fanned leaves.

They are the shape of its other name –
Lady’s Mantle – an outspread cloak, pleats
stitched with pearls of dew, scallop-edged;
designed for wrapping and unwrapping,
a honey-scented aphrodisiac.

‘Alchemilla’ is after ‘alchemy’ –
the magic water breathes through its leaves
part of the ancient recipe for melting
metals into gold. She will tell him
what waiting is and what it isn’t.

She will write him a letter to tell him
these things because she’s feeling inside out
and he’s not there to unwrap her, wrap her
in his pashmina arms; and because
it’s him she’s thinking about when, by chance,

she places three stems of purple crane’s bill
in the same vase and catches the shock
of both flowers growing more alive,
their colours spilling into something new.
She will tell him how soft the rain is.



*

The House With No Doors

If this were a dream, you’d understand it
better – if you’d come home from a hot place,

your skin rare and fragile as burnt coral,
to a house with no doors, an Escher sketch,

somebody’s idea of a joke; to Janus
squatting on every threshold, sticking out

his two tongues, the mad arrows of his eyes –
all his gate-keeper’s laws of in and out

broken, no rhetoric to match this brazen
free-fall yawn. Every room melted into

one room, even the stairs are going nowhere,
open-plan. The pitch of it isn’t cricket –

nothing to whisper behind, to cover
your lies, your nakedness. No brass apples

to cider your palm. No click behind you
like the silence around the sound of your name.

All the colours collide and crash. All your screws
are loose. Packets and cans fly off the shelves

in the pantry onto your bed. The bath
is full of aspidistra and clockwork clowns.

Even the dog loses her nose for smells
spilling out beyond their compass – woodsmoke

and rose, garlic and toothpaste. Your house
is half-finished, undone, no longer home.

The wind has sucked away all it sweetness.
You can’t translate this word you know is empty

but see it in the ghosts of children’s shoes,
the blunt morse code of the droppings of mice.

When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar
of air, unhinged and gaping, a keening mouth.

Or the cave of your body, the trembling
ventricles of your inconsolable heart.

See how you’ve grown so used to this is this
and that is that, you can’t live with just so,

the implacable flow of the one
and the same. Enough. Let all the doors

which aren’t there be open. Let the key be
your breath as you watch it furnish your only room.



*

Bodhisattva

See how her eyes are like gulls, gliding
across the white mist of her face.
Or whales swimming in the deep of it.
So liquid is her skin, her hair hesitates
to begin. Her nose studies the curled petals
of her tiny lips and decides to name
everything lotus and lily and open.

What can you do with a woman like that
but lay your head in her lap and breathe
the heat from her belly, the in, the out of it?
Bring her the courage of your sadness
because that’s all you have left and let
the calm weight of her hand soothe you,
her total absence of drama and façade.

The map around your sternum you try to keep fixed
she melts, matching you breath for breath.
You are molten gold, older than angel hair.
You’ve lost all your edges. Which one
of you lifts up her head? Borrow her crown,
those flames. Your neck will be a column of air.
Wish all the people wisdom, wish them well.



*

The Goose and the Bottle


There is a goose inside a bottle.
There is a bottle with a goose inside.
How does the goose get out of the bottle?
How does the goose stay alive?
How does the bottle stay unbroken?
Where is the goose? Where is the bottle?
You are the goose. You are the bottle.
You are the goose inside the bottle.
Close your eyes: the goose is inside the bottle.
Say it: the goose is out of the bottle.
Believe it: the bottle is not broken, the goose alive.
Open your eyes: the goose is out of the bottle.
There is the goose. There is the bottle.
You have become the goose out of the bottle.
You are not broken. You are alive.



*

The Break


If you’re lucky there will always be
a white horse called Pandora who’ll rear
and throw you so you can’t get up and walk

away. Where did you think you were going?
That circus trick of not covering your eyes
when Pandora cries Look! Can’t you see

you’re in danger? Still you try, studying
so hard how to mend one thing, no inkling
of what else might be broken. You carry

your fractures around like a bad smell
you imagine is coming from the rooms
you walk through, the people you talk to.

Everything tastes sour on your tongue,
and you lose your appetite. Easy
to fall from there to where all of you

is aching. Until you crack open
like an egg, spilling the gold you must lay out
and count, your wound’s treasure. Only here,

your shell smashed, can the healing start;
like a myth about horses, the print
of hooves in sand. And you see nothing

is what you think it is; nothing to do
with you and what you know. It hurts
and will always hurt; and you’re utterly changed

by it. And it’s all this: steady,
as the breath that breathes you, that only needs
you to be there, tall in the saddle.



*

Moonshine


Even in the middle of saying it
I know the argument my lips
are trying to convince themselves of –
and you, of course – is fragile
as a web strung with dew,
jewel for just one morning,
air’s own fibres made visible.

Not to mention the autopsy
of words and sentences – laying
them out on the slab of my head,
picking them over for evidence
of violence, pretence, some weakness
I take out of the dark to make
sure I’m not sure about.

The brightest knowing happens
in silence, alone, those empty
spaces where I can notice how
things begin and bring their own
ending: the same way I watch
the coming and going of the moon,
enchanted by borrowed light.



*

Bowl

Heavy, cold, dark – what the earth
knows of itself – I sweeten with water,

watch it soften, cohere, lean into
a new smoothness, the deep courage

of form. Whose hand is coaxing,
easing clod into circle, hand

answering hand? Together we are
making a hemisphere, a map of the sky,

known and unknown caught in the lip
of what fire will teach me to call

bowl, a vessel that will crack
and be mended, crack and be mended,

always empty, even when I fill it full
of whatever light there is, shadowfall.


*

Your Hands and the House Martin

A ruffle of feather summons you to the top
of the stairs, fingers sweeping over cold
painted plaster, that scar where the banister
used to be. The bathroom’s a cage for
a curious house martin, diving against glass.

Your hands might be wings, snatching at air,
scattering dust until they find the bird and make
a nest for its oily velvet, its panicked breath.
You fill your braided fingers with fearlessness
and, out in the garden, unlock them, let them fly.

Markov wins medal!

From Mark:

Have you heard this news?

poetryeurope

'The first winner of the Medal of the European Academy of Poetry has been awarded to the Bulgarian poet Toma Markov. The medal is awarded once a year to a poet under the age of 40, selected by the Academy for the excellence and promise of the work. Markov was born in Bulgaria in 1972, has won the Bulgarian National Prize for Poetry and has published several collections of his work.

The medal will be presented to Toma Markov in Luxembourg at the Academy's events on 24th and 25th April 2009, when Markov will read from his work.'

From Bill:

Go Toma! (Or, as we used to say, 'Turn up, Toma!')

No Gas Worries!

Just to announce, that "Velina"-hotel is independent from the Russian gas, since the heating system there uses hot water and mazut:)
So, it means that we're going to enter a kind of "Dekameron"-experince, while the whole country is freezing...
Feel Chosen!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mark divvn't knaa

Here are the ten poems I've chosen for translation. They include a number from a sequence called The Dunno Elegies, which has within its title a pun on Rilke's Duino Elegies (from which some of the images stem) and the shoulder-shrugging way of saying 'Don't Know'. I'll be interested to see what our translators make of that! It is all work from an as yet unpublished book, though some of the other poems have been anthologised. One is Bulgaria-related.


The Dunno Elegies: One

Angel of the North, Gateshead
for Mick Henry

What use are angels when the wind blows back
our sighs with the sand? What use this song, nosing
through undergrowth like a dog roots out smells,
tired of its own hot-blooded clichés, bored
with knowing how lost and forgetful we are
here in this reciphered, recycled world.
If we knew how terrible it would feel
to be reminded that beauty exists
just a fleet moment from the walkers’ path,
in mould on a leaf or mud in a footprint,
what would we do, would breath catch or guilt grip?

No, if I were to shout, now, on this hill
above the Team Valley Business Park,
how many angels would hear it? How many
would care that my grief had blown their cover?
The change in my pocket occupies me
for a cold minute or two. The sobbing dark
chokes on my whistling, a tune that visits
and then forgets to leave. Forgive me.
I only mean to console myself.
This is a song for my mother, the past,
an echo I hear of a better world,
a trail worn out of knotted grass, folly
that pushes you on into the woods,
a place torn down that started again,
dark native mud still on its boots,
unilluminated wings stretched out.
Magpies croon and croak and try to catch it,
trees sway bare and brown, wind-blown hedges mime
the river rushing seawards holding its breath
while it takes in this hopeful new song.

The angel rusts a welcome to its brothers,
its wings embrace prayers, its sore heart escapes
the buried pithead in a gasp of song,
over the seasoned museum of the land
where the worm is king, turning like a screw
in a rawlplug, a braddle into wet bark.
The keening rises on the valley’s thermals,
rolling and tumbling into low hinterland.

But there are shadows left even by angels,
where the coal sleeps soundly, silent miles down.
The wild coast between here, there, now and then
is not so solid as it used to be.
This song was only meant to warm the air.
If it could do more it would be unbearable.
There are things only angels can forgive



The Dunno Elegies: Three

On Hadrian’s Wall
for Linda Tuttiett

The rain is running late, eighteen words for it
loose on a hillside, different tongues
boiling down what it means to be English
by clambering over some ancient stones.
The morning has blown in through a dank blur,
as if covered in moss, a hangover
worming its sorry way home to sleep.

This is bleak, a line scratched into the earth
to show the angels just who’s in charge,
a long wall walked in early morning mist,
catching shadows as they take human form
and try to be like us. The fields suck light
out of the sky and turn it into mud.
Shoulder to shoulder the hills form circles,
block out the countries we’d otherwise see.
All the angels here have swords and curses
they teach each other in the early hours.
They left few descendants to freeze here
in the grim far North, but never went home.
They dream of desert sun and of water.
All they have is rain, the endless sound of it.

What letters do they write home in their heads?
What bitter visions do they describe
from their short foreign days in the wind?
They didn’t know that they were building
a heritage for a fortress empire.
They were doing what they were told, but now
they are angelic, whatever their tribe,
and they walk amongst foolhardy tourists
in their fleece-lined jackets and woolly hats,
whisper in the ears of bright young women
those eighteen words for rain, and more for love,
love that would warm the bones, the aching bones.

Is that what survives the never-ending wind,
what divides us into those on the list
and those waiting outside for a friend with clout?
Nothing else is happening here: just sheep
counting themselves to sleep, demonstrating
the random nature of migration,
as a chain-smoking Italian teenager
brings down a bird with a flick of the wrist
and an unbecoming stone’s swift flight.


The Dunno Elegies: Nine

Teesport, Redcar

Rolling picture of the utterly here,
land still in turmoil as markets crash,
morphing and merging in hostile arrangements
when old certainties just evaporate
like red steam leaking from pressured globes
at the heart of networks of private roads.
All the power that once was here changed.
Iron made a place appear overnight,
now it is rusting the water ochre.
Ore in these dark hills, a dance in the pipe-work.
An endless mess of goods trains shuffles
through imitations of illuminations,
past stone-tongued fire-eaters and fireworks
burning messages into the heavens.
Our children wheeze, and tiny angels
keep them company in their fragile games.
This is a blank land of grey-faced fences,
barbed wire barriers and strengthened steel.
It scrubs its face raw because it is proud,
and it wants the world to be orderly.
Though the angels on the backs of trains
think it looks so shiningly chaotic
something good must come from its blissful rush,
the wind tastes bitter, chemical, beaten.
You can see its shape from Redcar beach,
nourish a warm dream of Holy Island,
so far to the North the light is different.
There is quiet there, and cleaner daylight,
permanent beside the gulls’ plainsong.

But here, gates are locked, one by one
companies become simple history.
Too many to list, those that are gone.
Molten, the angels that record their names.



The Dunno Elegies: Ten

Fitness First, Eaglescliffe

I am no good at thinking. I am only good
at noting things down and putting one foot
in front of another for a long time.
That’s what this gym is for, energy
passing from my legs into the treadmill
into the cold earth, the brownfield site
that lies beneath the car park and our feet.
Staring down the mirrored middle-distance
pains put to one side, and death just a myth,
this joyous suffering seeks a resting place.
I put grief aside, can think of the lost
without tears so long as I keep moving.
I think I am somehow making the earth turn.
If I do it quickly enough better words will come,
these sudden gusts of grief and remembrance
will be as welcome as wind on a beach.

Except our feet do not touch the ground,
our feet float somewhere just above the dirt.
I can hear voices, I can hear voices
in my head as I count the steps I make,
as I check off left then right then left again
then again then again then again until,
I look up at the wall of mirrors ahead
and see the angels walking the aisles
between the machines, shaking their heads.

These factory boys cannot believe us.
A room full of heat, lines of effort and hope,
calm self-deception, wild reassessment –
panting none can hear through our headphones,
or over machines’ arrhythmic heartbeat
filling the eaves like a kind of song.
Glances cross in the mirror, sizing up
an undertow of exposure, openness
to anything but a conversation.
Brows dip under the weight of sweat,
heads nod, shoulders rock, into a body
of lone people not communicating.
The crescendo we do not hear gets worse.

The women angels me-mo across the rows,
lips and eyes exaggerate the clarity
of their conclusions, their bemused anger,
no more than a whisper in the room
but a metallic scream in the glass.
Endurance wasn’t built in a day, it says
on the wall. They are killing themselves laughing.
They run their hands over the rails and the seats
looking for the joins, for how things are made.

My legs are moving only out of habit,
my brain frozen. A voice in my headphones speaks.

It’s not the absence of what we’ve lost
that redefines us, but the echo,
not a betrayal, but a warm embrace,
wings and chest calming the song to silence.
What is here overwhelms. So stop running.




My Name is Mark and
after Charles Bernstein

I am a northern poet, a northwestern poet,
a northeastern poet, a Stockton poet,
a Preston poet, a Teesside poet,
a domestic poet, a political poet,
an evasive poet, a formal poet, an ex-
perimental poet, a reflective poet, a strategic poet,
a part-time poet, an evenings and weekends poet,
a 24 hour party poet, a performance poet,
a preschool poet, a streetwise poet,
a smart arse poet, a wry poet,
a real poet, a male poet, people’s poet,
a blue poet, a red poet, a green poet,
a black-white-and-read-all-over poet,
a ready made poet, a donkey of a poet,
I am a love poet in the morning,
a darkly comic poet over lunch,
a post-prandial second language poet,
a crispy edge of the lasagne poet at teatime,
a pop poet watching the telly,
and an interrogative poet in the sack,
I am a creative poet, a restricted poet,
a poet making the most of slender means,
a listed poet, a candidate poet,
a could-have-been-a-contender poet,
a difficult decision making poet,
a young poet, a poet with a maturing voice,
a gritty poet, a can-I-take-it-to the-bridge-
yeah-go-on-take-it-to-the-bridge poet,
an anti-poet, a poet who hates beauty
for its own sake and its own good,
a poet after Auschwitz and the poet who
put the ram in the ramalamadingdong,
I am a vernacular poet, a poet
of exquisite juxtapositions,
a poet inhabited by inhibition,
I am a poet with a mission,
a missionary poet with a million positions,
a beat poet, jazz poet, spoken word poet,
I am an ironic poet, a post-punk poet,
a just-add-boiling-water poet,
a poet with attitude, a fraudulent poet,
a situationist poet, a dead poet,
a situation-communist poet,
I am an accessible poet, I am a poet
banging a tambourine, I am a poet with a headache.
backache and an indefinable langour,
a terminal case of ennui,
I am a discursive poet, a generative poet,
an imagist who scorns the sketch,
a poet driven by the need for results,
a leaving poems poet, a birth of your child poet
a research poet, a poet ever puzzled,
a product poet, a process poet,
an executive Top Management Poet,
I am a terraced house poet, a pacifist
terrorist poet with a pillowful of feathers,
an erotic poet, a dream poet, a dream-song-sung-blue poet,
a poet without a home, a poet in his place,
a poet crying for mother and apple pie,
a stir-fried tofu poet, a white bread black pudding poet,
I am a poet in the field, a poet at large,
a systems poet, a computer generated poet,
a small press poet, a hard pressed poet,
a depressed poet, a suppressed poet,
a poet reeling with surprise and delight,
a husband poet, son poet, brother poet,
dad poet, a dadaist poet, a sudden movement poet,
a martian poet, a poet behaving badly,
a talkin-‘bout-my-generation poet,
a post-post-post-post-post poet,
a modernist poet in the market place,
a gnomic poet on the street corner,
a never-going-to-be-on-the-South-Bank-Show poet,
a tea-time local news poet, a tense poet,
a speak my weight poet, an eat my words poet,
an educated poet, a philistine poet,
an aesthetic principles don’t butter the bread poet,
a poetry boom revival poet, a dusty corner poet,
a shabbier the better poet, an alphabetical order poet,
a dictionary poet, a tip of the tongue poet,
a poet in a mess, a you-hum-it-I’ll-play-it poet,
a stop-this-poem-I-want-to-get-off poet.



How I learned to sing

The day spins like a plate on a pole,
sunlight streaming down and around us,
carving shadows out of the beach.
A snag of mishaps has shaped mum’s face
into a taut parody of itself.
We are sent to find crabs, in pools
where we have not seen a crab for years.
The sea is a vein in the estuary,
the tide coming in a race memory,
and stranded pools dot the sand
with water still so cold it cramps
our calves before we can fight.
Then my sister is suddenly dancing,
splashing towards me with her discovery,
a small pink starfish she waves
in my dumbstruck face.
Though she is smaller, I can’t reach it,
she ducks and swerves away
like the memory of it now.
I can’t reach her, mum and dad
are too far back to help, but
I want that starfish, want to run
my fingers over its serrations,
pop it in my pocket to frighten
my mum with as we wipe sand
from between our toes later.
I start to scream at my sister,
first words and then just noises,
and the gulls turn from pencil flicks
to real birds with real blood
rushing beneath sharp feathers,
claws asking my shirt whether
it will rip or be carried off,
and now my voice has gone soft
and crying for what I can’t get
I feel my wings rise and set,
the gulls craws and my own throat
harmonise as I pale and float
up and over the docile waves,
not worrying, or wanting to be saved,
looking down on the strip of beach
at the family I could not reach,
and singing back back back.



Where Thinking Got Me

It was ideas cut my chest tight.
The dusk sang me ragged,
wrang me dry as salt.

Hollow backed with hunger
I held the face in the mirror
steady, simple as a toy box,

while I sweat myself some air.
Three deep sweet breaths
made my young neck flush

when some sudden consolation
wrapped me in papier maché,
delivered me into stereo,

then made me run everything
I’d ever done again, backwards,
all the way home.



Poem (On Realising I am English)

‘The important thing is to adapt your dish of spaghetti
to circumstances and your state of mind.’
Guiseppe Marotta


In the parallel universe where wizened Corsicans
rave over suet dumplings and rapturously murmur
improvised sonnets in praise of stotty,
barm cake, bloomer, cob, scone (to rhyme with gone)

no one would criticise me for never mentioning
the real grievance at the heart of this poem.
I’d be lauded for the tightness of my lip,
for the way you feel my teeth grit and grind,

for how I shrug off questions with a joke
about the endless spouting of emotion
I waded through to get here.

I think this as the glaze of a first pressing
spreads its lucent green over the frying pan,
ready to spit at the very suggestion of an onion.


Going

I recall it now as it will be then:
stillness suddenly present overhead
and the earth twitching madly beneath my feet,
a Thursday beaten with sticks and sickly sweet.

I will leave behind a half hummable tune,
and messages etched in the soles of my shoes.
Brickwork kicked into chunks by the gate
suggest what happened happened too late.

A Thursday when dark fades in before three,
still years from a breath of the weekend,
I will go, eyes open, not awash with pain,
but wanting them to wish I crop up again.

It will rain as they wake to how I'm not there,
as train-rattle piles through the evening air
that holds my silence and stills my tongue
as our garden fills and swells with its song.



Return

'It is better to be in love with your wife
than to be in love with your poetry'
- Toma Markov


1.
air like a lump in the throat
in this dark haired city
if a horse could lay pumpkins
they'd be like those piled high
on market stalls at Sitnyakovo
and I'd be full of ginger carrying
my swollen heart home to bake

2.
This is a long fever, secret like a wish,
pale as you and flowers in its miracle heat.
It is close to mute, and lies snug in our palms in the dark.

So quietly new is it even now a breath might break
to talk of heart, hope, and then hold still
while our blood runs hot again,

guessing how every dry afternoon would feel
if this flush didn't warm the air,
didn't catch us falling into balance.

3.
Of many parallel worlds
I choose this one.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Sheep's Intestine and the Human Sestina

Linda, Mark, Andy and I met on Friday morning and discussed which poems to send, when to do the reading, and how to get through the work.

We'll be sending the poems over the weekend -- each of us sending 10 to everyone. But we'll bring books too, in case other pieces suggest themselves as better options. We discussed how this book could be a conscious reflection of A Balkan Exchange, with us providing mini-selecteds that were both indicative of recent work, and snapshots of the way writers from the NE exemplify certain aspects of poetry in the UK.

What exactly those aspects are will no doubt become clearer when I post the selections on here -- or at least will become debatable.

We agreed with Nadya's most recent email that the reading should come at the end, on the 24th, in Sofia -- that way it can be a celebration of work done, rather than an anticipation of work to be attempted. We noted with badly-concealed snickers that it would be in a bar called The Sheep, hence fulfilling the requirement of being a sort of Burns Supper, since much of that is concerned with the innards of the ovine.

(Now I feel obliged to put in my most recent Burns poem from the Polygon book for our friends to strachil with my Scots...)

We also had a discussion about how to work, given Georgi is only present by email/chat. We wondered whether anyone else would be there, as Boris was in Newcastle? If not, we wondered about trying one to one, a la Poet to Poet's translating sessions, with the 'spare' UK poet sitting in on sessions throughout the day, and everyone coming together to discuss progress in the evening.

Georgi could 'sit in' on sessions via chat, and receive working drafts at the evening session to feed back to us all on. We'd alternate who was the spare UK poet on a daily basis, and also who was working one to one with whom.

Nadya replied last night as follows:

'I agree with the idea of working in two-s, not in four-s. Just I have a suggestion to change couples every half a day. For example: in the morning session (10-13) Kristin and Andy, Vassil and Linda, me and you, Mark-free; in the afternoon session (14-17) Kristin and Mark, Vassil and you, me and Linda, Andy-free; in the evening session (17.30-19) - general discussion. Since we have five days for work, it means that each of the British poets will have approximately 8 sessions, which might cover most of the work that has to be done...'

I thought we could make pattern out of this almost like a human sestina:

eg Day 1

Kristin/Andy, Vassil/Linda, Nadya/Bill, Mark,
Kristin/Mark, Vassil/Andy, Nadya/Linda, Bill.

and so on...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Balneology for Bongo

Despite my previous remarks about skiing, it would appear we are heading to a leading centre of balneology. We shall see whether translation can be done whilst in a Laconium, though this may be dependent on whether Russia restores the gas supply.

(Whilst I was in Guangzhou a couple of years ago, I visited a kind of spa playpark, where there were hot water pools flavoured or more properly infused with wine, ginger, tea, coffee, ginseng, lemonade (perhaps I misremember). It was an open air experience where the upper part of my shrivelling body, ie the bit not immersed in tepid water that smelled mildly of Chinese medicines, was feasted upon by mosquitoes interested only in Billneology.)

Unfortunately, Georgi is still in Berlin, and will only be sitting in the virtual jacuzzi -- assuming there's a stable enough internet connection.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Archive Moment 1

(As we kick off the newest phase of the interchange, I thought it might be salutary to glance back at the first. Here's the little piece I did for the British Council on our first trip. The original page, complete with my rubbish photos, is available here.)

An indefinite grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet and a marked reluctance to leave the same few north-east streets is not the best qualification for travelling to Bulgaria. So the British Council representative in Sofia, Leah Davcheva, could hardly have been impressed when, after meeting the distinguished British–Jordanian novelist Fadia Faquir and the poet, editor and Arts Council bigwig Mark Robinson, she was introduced to what could only be described as Intimidated Chimp Boy (me). Especially as this trio needed to work with six Bulgarian writers and two musicians (the wonderfully-named Bluba Lu) to put together a series of unique events in a matter of days.

However, a swift drive through the city, past decaying apartment blocks, loud new billboards, and what seemed a very large statue holding aloft a submachine-gun, began to work its usual reviving magic. All I need to know is how the shambolic intricacies of life go on in each new place, and I become wedded to it as My Next Home. Here it took the sight of a black-clad art student turning her back on the national football stadium to draw that giant submachine-gun as it rose over some shopping booths and straggly autumn trees, and I had bonded. That and the very large guard-dogs who were terrifying another British Council administrator as we pulled up the drive to the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency in the nearby village of Boyana.

The BTA was a timelocked 1970s paradise of lukewarm showers, bare chalet rooms, and the statutory superfluous East European lightswitch which appears to trigger nothing in the vicinity, but which may be sending the guard-dogs into attack mode elsewhere in the complex. What I assumed were owls hooting through the evening trees turned out to be wolves (hence the dogs). In a way that seemed pretty British, it was homely rather than hospitable, and I found it comforting rather than comfortable. The staff appeared astonished that we needed to play loud music after 7.00 p.m. for anything other than our own amusement, and objected on behalf of non-existent other guests when this clashed with the Chelski–Lazio game. But then they provided an endless stream of excellent three-course meals which introduced us to the particular pleasures of Bulgarian food: yoghurt and aubergine salads, roasted red peppers, numerous rissoles and very good coffee (and beer), which kept the creative turbines buzzing.

We had flown in on Air France, and rapidly found we had to continue our aesthetic odyssey by Air Pants (as in ‘flying by the seat of your’). Our plans for exercise-based writing workshops (to induce artistic dialogue) fizzled out in the face of the Bulgarian writers’ unfamiliarity with this standard Brit-poet work method. Our assumption that we were producing a single ‘show’ which could be replicated in the different venues gave a sad pop and collapsed when the musicians explained that the acoustics of a large university foyer and an open market place would oblige them to come up with very different musical strategies (cathedral-ambient and techno-industrial to be precise), and we would all have to adjust our sets to fit. Then there was the breaking down into compatible trios for the bookshops and gallery events (who? where?), and the over-riding question: what were we going to do in the prison? In the heart of Sofia Prison, to be precise, possibly without music, possibly without mikes, certainly with a couple of hundred ‘repeat offenders’ as they were euphemistically known. Air Pants was experiencing mild turbulence.

In the event, all the events went splendidly, and the dialogue we assumed we’d have to manufacture was achieved in the heat of twelve-hour days of rehearsals and one-hour ‘just go for it’ performances. The blue billiard table, with no tip on the cue and one ball missing, taught us all the ice-breaking esperanto of ‘billiardski’ – especially when we realised we were playing by two completely different sets of rules. The trio events meant we were engaged in close readings of at least two others’ work – worked with Georgi Gospodinov and Nadezhda Radoulova on a themed reading which ended with me reciting something rude but lyrical in Bulgarian while they made a far far better job of my Scots. And the group readings produced some star performances: Toma Markov’s rap that had all the prisoners stomping and clapping to the beat; Plamen Doynov’s wry greeting to the black marketeers at Sitnyakovo Market; the decidedly cool Momcil Nikolov’s extremely wierd stories (for a man who’d never read in public before, he certainly knew how to relate a nude scene with fork). Then there were VBV’s leather trousers...

But before that we had the statutary number of ‘visiting writers’ moments’: Fadia and I in the sixteenth-century Banya Bashi mosque bumping into a bloke from Luton; Mark and I straining our necks in the tiny Boyana church filled with stunning mosaics – and a guide who couldn’t stop talking; the exceedingly laid-back drummer in that traditional restaurant who bore a curious resemblance to Momcil; the photo of Plamen eating which, in the fearless search for the worst pun of the week, we entitled ‘Plamen’s Lunch’; the little man with a teapot sitting on the back of St George’s horse in the icon room beneath the Nevski Cathedral...and that late-night moment in the last rehearsal when the musicians said they were going to improvise the gig at the Back Stage Club. Erk.

This should have been fine: Dimitar Paskalev and Konstantin Katsarski are extraordinarily supple and inventive players. It was just that we didn’t have texts of similar dexterity: if they were playing a fast blues and you were due to read a slow moody narrative, what happens next? A short informative debate followed on the universal language of music and the static-ness of text (and our inability to yell ‘Spooky Celtic but not Clannad’ in Bulgarian). We fastened our Air Pants seatbelts and pressed on. In the end the hidden rock stars in each of us manifested for a spontaneous wig-out fuelled by quantities of Zagorka beer and the evident delight of the 150 strong audience who’d packed into the tiny club. And VBV’s leather trousers.

The next day, Mark, Fadia and I wandered past a building designed by Dimitar (yes, he’s a top architect as well as a great musician; no, I’m not envious, much) on route to Bluba Lu’s studio, where we laid down the vocals for what we expect to be a Christmas smash-hit double concept album. We then climbed into a taxi for the airport, having filled every available waking hour with what we all love best: words at their most passionate and boundary-bashing. Soon these writers and musicians will visit us: I hope they recognise something of the bustling chaotic brilliance of their home in the north-east of England.

Short-termism for beginners

Post New Year ruminations have suddenly begun on the forthcoming trip to Velingrad. We were all so busy before Christmas that we failed to or forgot to meet. Welcome to my wha?

Tickets are as yet unbought, the schedule is sketchy, but the barking Brits are willing. We're about to meet to discuss travel arrangements and the texts. It would appear the lure of guaranteed skiing may come to our aid in the form of cheapish tourist flights from Newcastle to Sofia.

I'm assuming we'll need to take what our Bulgarian colleagues brought -- about 10 pieces of varying lengths. We'll also need to decide amongst ourselves whether these are self-standing selections from our work, self-standing selections of new and recent work, or work which possesses some principle of cohesion as a whole.

I'm posting this so that we begin to keep a record of our editorial deliberations for this next stage of the process.