Delirious Pragmatism

For a month I had a right royal battle with this poem Do continuit(y) … belie aortic jets. I think it managed to achieve a note of ‘delirious pragmatism’ that makes me feel it won out over my discomfort at some of its more delicious and sonorous ambiguities … a proper poem then. Think of it as sheet music; you should sound it out with the mouth and vocal chords, which is maybe too obvious an instruction to need giving, but I give it because all other sounding possibilities are perfectly legitimate; for example, I would also like to hear it sounded out by radically free fingers on a piano, perhaps simultaneously with the voice.

The future is behind us

M sent me a poem recently and introduced it by saying “Starting to feel the nostalgia strong these days” … the poem disturbed me in a rather useful way. It burrowed into my brain and made me think hard about where the motivation to continue producing work comes from, how its complexion changes and what the consequences of inconsistent motivations are.

Permovetur ac praegrauata (2022) collage and acrylic on canvasboard, 127 x 178mm

My first response was: “Bloody hell M, you still know how to hit the hard notes … / The emotional rollercoaster continues … I cry more than ever … grind my teeth (the few that are left) … and make stuff (compulsively, as ever) … maybe some of that comes across in the poem attached, an anxious response … am I too comfortable where I am?”

Calypso’s Cave

Diagnosis: we’ve lost that ancient ease with nomadic existence
Homosaps ... we were never meant to have such long lives
Laying down the hat cannot satisfy as it once did (when we were lucky)
Now only the impossible return haunts unspeakable dreams
Homer on homing ... carrying shrapnel in heart and brain
Stuck on an island a lightyear from the womb
What was it really like? ... the mitochondria start to lie
Won’t accept it ... can’t accept it ... of course not
The horizon is made of the notes we sing
We may not be travelling much any more
But it still moves if we keep singing

That was not enough. Something continued to eat away inside me and, without any decision to make it do so, it infected another poem, one that I had been working on for a while:

Idol says name a theme [1]

For Michael Blackburn

the burning highlight
	time and again
	makes knowledge return cold 
although the rampant habit of
	kind inattention
stares instant scorn 	without farewell Fridays
Like listening to 
	matriarchal imaginings 
does the draped puzzle 
	keep insecurity away?
Maybe a disgusted look 
	becomes a matter
of levelling 	still reticent masters 	you admire
like stretching 	the naked balance 
	of certain forgotten sounds
on marvellously exclaimed 
	monochromatic terms
on the sober conviction of 
	spoiled dialogue 
	high tension blood 	and more
Another Beckett character 
	feels staggered at the imbecilic stuff
	darting its way through 
the internally true 	in body space 
struggling alone 
	to speak into canvas 
with a viewer’s 	reasoning 	which features
dual expectations 	and because
someone reports their sensitivities 
	in rational work
turns pictures 	or issues 
into classical ruins 	that nothing grips
Vivid insults clear 
	secretly saturated colour anyway 
imagined	to nothing between 
absence 	and 	growled loads
	to nothing between 
past cruelty 	and 	imaginary control
cut later kid 
	for uncanny image work 
exclaimed 	in mysterious delights
Preoccupied in trying alcohols
	most with a 
delicious 	disheartening 	counter
the poet vanishes
	playing gravely 
	in push-staged clarity 
equal to the risk 
	that continues 	about the earth 
Its mass has my old 
	painter muscle know 
	the colours of 
foreground motifs 
the remarkable polychrome things 
	that better sound out distances
eliminate contours and mean
complete panic	of a hybrid sort
a long morning version
grabbed in fluctuations of will
but sure 	of the point
in caressing 	another effort or two

We are in different territory at this point. This is where a speculative ontological endeavour has led me as a poet: into the threshold between perception and delirium. It is where I suspect realities are made and continually renewed, a place where the difference between sense-making and reality-making becomes questionable. I am not philosopher enough to reason this out in the abstract, but I hope I am artist enough, poet enough, to explore its contours and act as witness to its moment and gravity. There is “no nostalgia in this, but definitely an affirmation of creative struggle.”

This still niggles though and sure enough a third episode has emerged. This one is less anxious, less desperate, more of a turn, a play, and it does witness the correlation of sense and reality. Yes, retrospection haunts my thoughts, but for now at least I still stumble backwards into the future.

Things kill man … uh, date of agony? [2]

In those exceedingly brittle years 
	thinking upholds the third effect of life
working aristocratic 
	and fluently expressed dispositions 
	for that 
small kick of 	grubby motive control 
and not 	for measuring
ripeness of profit 	paid in paper pansies
The majority … dream that dream nation
perhaps clearer 
	than land-owning and	politic men
	whose catholic success of crumbs 
favours 	the accidental hand
while the success of defects therein 
	dominates the present 
In idler periods 
	or little turns of years 
	for creative people
	there is nothing like 
ordering remedies
	which quietly embrace errors
	or absurdly 
pursuing problem pictures 
	by the system-fulfilling 
execution 	of weighty art 
In the settled autonomy 
	that helps ruin 
	many 	lost in service
freedom talks more 
	in boring repose 
not 	in chasing 
	better thoughts about the place 
For it is said 	in top dollar books 
that Florence’s past perturbations 
	invested a 
lively 	fitter little thinking 
rarely caught satisfying 	and next so old

Middle life is past. It is recalled in a mess of emotions that congeals into ‘dross’ (an amalgam of loss and dread). What is left but to sail for home? … Well, there is another option, whether by will or by compulsion, to ride a rocket into the cosmos, to be tossed about by many sources of gravity rather than be overwhelmed by one. Beyond the earth or under it … I don’t know how this will end. Maybe the alchemists were on to something after all and there will be gold.

[1] Sources: Delaney, Sam. Sam Delaney is at home, The Big Issue, No. 1511, 2 May 2022, p. 37; Balzac, Honoré. The Unknown Masterpiece, trans. Richard Howard (2001, New York: New York Review Books), pp. 42-4; and. Turps Banana in conversation with Nicholas Pace, Turps Painting Magazine, No. 25, pp. 79-80.

[2] Sources: Hodgkinson, Tom. Thinking Small, RSA Journal, issue 2, 2014, p. 50; and Bacon, Francis. XLII: Of Youth and Age, in Bacon’s Essays, and Wisdom of the Ancients (Kindle Location 2845-2872).

Burying myself?

Outlasts paints [i]

Phlegmatic thinking 
just outlasts the simple age
sustained 	in important war papers 
	in a frenzy of great ideas
	in your head 

Superior housing sense
	places the North 
	on time-keeping drugs
engulfing 	the mythical Jesus

Sharp talking 
	is in fact 	antiquated 
	and my message
mends	this severe kingdom
while a lunatic writes 
	of the previous end point 
giving out to 
intermittently 	still deeply 
	underground nastiness
	to which 
other 	gradually pissed protesters 
	always return

Outsiders’ big faces 
	push at central traps
	the gleefully tanned old twats 
throw anything wrong 	
	at queues
	without becoming 
slightly strange	through impenetrable help 
	before quieter things 
occasion our	now plastic 	sphere 
stream clearly 	to centre being 
turning reasonable minutes 	here
here 	but in 	really warm air 
	traditionally brought in 
to keep out 
the bar 	to inefficient becoming 
	and starting 	
the other surprise 
	clunking anywhere 	the dogs exit 
without the opportunities 
	in sorts of passion 
	and in matter’s signs 
to take the top targets 
	well this night
	and make history

For years 	people think of nostalgia
	as featuring 
everything 	once sharp 	and strong 
but to anyone honourable 
it comes 	as new things killed 
	as bodies pitched today 
	to some joke station

And I am wondering here whether there is another approach to what is perhaps ‘our’ oldest aesthetic question, that of ‘land and identity’, specifically one which reacts more directly to the English Romantic Moderns I read about in Alexandra Harris’s eponymous book,[ii] one which musters a stronger cynicism in material forms, especially those processed through the digital and subsequently embodied as ‘permanent pollution’ to become prospective archaeological treasures. I like the hint in that last point that the art, should it be ‘collectable’ at all, should be seen as enigmatically timeless enough for the more eclectic of museum collections and seen as beyond any fashionable notion of ‘contemporary’—i.e. institutionalized, politicized, socially engaged—artistic practice and therefore not really what the publicly funded ‘curated’ art scene and the associated contemporary art market is looking for. Having said that, I realize that the art market and the cultural machinery it depends upon will, in the end, deal in anything that can enhance reputations and turn a profit. So, we’re stuffed really.

[i]      Sources: Barradale, Greg. My pitch: Hugh Palmer, The Big Issue, No. 1511, 2 May 2022, p. 46; and Osborne, Richard. Up the British (2009, London: Zidane Press), pp. 132-4. Title anagram: St Paul’s Station.

[ii]      2010, London: Thames and Hudson.

With a note on an autism

Art built a rage, man. See: agony … is the serene seminar [1]

There is a hint in this of some of the effects and affectations of an autism. I would never have found a form of words as effective as this one by using a more traditional method of composition, one involving internal dialogue and “allegiance to the dead”. Two things strike me about this: 1) that by scattering attention to a de-familiarized text both traits are deferred while the bulk of a poem is generated; and 2) the ‘finishing’ that follows is consequently more effective at digging deep within (oneself and one’s reality). As an initial form-finding technique ‘reverse decimation’ is radically disinhibiting whereas, even in their more imaginative lines of flight, those ‘dialogues’ upon which the reasoning faculties rely are quite the opposite.

  1. Sources: Gombos, Paula. My Pitch: Gabriel Tataru, The Big Issue, No. 1491, 6 December 2021, p. 54; Civale, Susan. Home free, review of Anyone’s game by Lesley Chamberlain, The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5732, 8 February 2013, p. 20; and Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (2016, London: Repeater Books), pp. 127-8.

Galactic warning

Apparently this was broadcast across the galaxy on a gravitational carrier wave today:

Message from Planet Earth to all my biosphere-bearing neighbours.

I am presently suffering from a viral infection. I expect to recover fairly soon one way or another. The virus, however, may not be defeated by my fever. In fact my elevated temperature and erratic behaviour seem to have created the ideal conditions for the virus to mutate. A recent variant has proven capable of spreading through interplanetary space. I fear it is only a matter of time before the whole solar system becomes infected and the virus becomes a threat to the rest of the galaxy.

Please do not think me guilty of evolutionary incompetence. This could happen to any habitable planet. I am ill. My illness is the consequence of an addiction. I am an addict. I became addicted to biosphere-enhancement maybe 252 million of my years ago. I know it seems foolish to put such a high value on purely cosmetic effects, but once you start it is very difficult to stop. Several times I have had the most beautiful skin you can imagine, made up of millions of species of colourful, vibrant, life forms. And each time I thought, I can do better. I can do more. But this time it feels different; it feels wrong: I may have created a biosphere-destroying virus against which there is no defence.

Please take this warning seriously: “Fostering intelligent life is risky. The human H.s.s. variant is now spaceborne. Mask your biosphere and keep your distance from Earth.”

Don’t shoot

The Roman openings   [1]

prose then moaning
poem nears nothing
poor meanings then
open naming others  

Whatever movement the source stores
one guiding system unites the circle with
organ-less orientation—as from a pipe
roaring from culture’s familiar thought 
whose possibilities majesty suggested

The conservation base of nearby formulas 
handles something utopians break every day 
narrow forms crossing well on the shoulder 
for planet-quake relationships furthest down 
inside civic Gaul are themselves art

If I knew what I meant I might be ill-advised to say so. After all, where is the sense in making too much sense? That does nothing but shut out the thinker, not least the thinker in myself. I am talking about writing here. Or maybe I should say I am writing about talking.

The other day a current affairs interviewer on BBC Radio 4 told the interviewee to stop talking … he told the Prime Minister to STOP TALKING! A day or so later, in a completely different context, I came across the word ‘garrulous’ and immediately thought ‘if I used that word no-one would know what I meant.’ I had to consult a dictionary to discover it is a word I would never use correctly. So, it is OK to make a certain amount of sense, just enough to establish that what the reader is reading is readable, but any more than that? I have my doubts.

Talking Heads Stop Making Sense. That could be the name of a rock band and the title of a film of their concert performances. It could be a general statement concerning the pointlessness of uninterrupted speech, as in the case of the out-of-control Prime Minister. But I think of it as a cautionary aphorism.

And if I didn’t know what I meant? Well, to quote English Bob [2]: “… if you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied. … Now, a president? I mean, why not shoot a president?” [or a prime minister for that matter … or me?]

[1] Sources: Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures (1973, New York: Basic Books), pp. 452-3; Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (1991, Oxford: Basil Blackwell), pp. 422-3; and Jones, Michael J. Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony & Capital (2002, Stroud: Tempus Publishing), p. 152.

[2] A garrulous gun-slinging character played by Richard Harris in the film Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood, screen play David Webb Peoples.)

Say trust a rancid smile now

I am still wrestling with Kerouac, and some may like this bout.

The Lean 2015

Whether by movement and life or walking on delight, this unconscious commercial phenomenon travels. For material keys warn of material differences—sanity by all yellow scars that stars chance, including the political costs of horizontal marks above the thicker forms of our turning covers. Would the constellations, regarded for flames, risk burning irrefutable bells of general incision-shaped rushing—something certain returning dolphins fissure each greenish-grey afternoon they fight where voices be personal mince?
       The latent tower is disclosing whole gleaming angles in an independent nothing striped to crack coins—tools part-split and lounged-back overall to build the group between Hornbeam and Juniper. Albeit with ancient fumes to create demands, the spectatorial spirit may form these smooth spires, clearly calling the landscapes that make past spaces right: “the anatomy of twisted sects and the scandal of red species.” 
       The isms thus needed to spread over surface-thin desert calls are tactics that real freedom theories approach noisily from small spindles to woolly joints on one plane; they would pressure advanced corridors, take the elders, and drive in burning alliances and their energy to signify existing yellow and purple rocks shining thereafter for strangers.

I don’t invite Old Angel Midnight. The conversations are over; that’s all I am saying. It’s personal and I can’t help it. The last time I shared living space with anyone I was thirty-two years old (I am now sixty-seven). What do I know about turning about, dancing dicey dances, and singing in organum? I am pain-sensitive to the movement of microbes. How could I even dream of allowing my flayed, still-quick corpse to be brought into contact with someone life-worn and almost certainly calloused, clumsy, and cracked? I am a remote sensor, a secular Watcher, I am here if anyone needs me, but I don’t care if I am not needed, I have vital preoccupations to sustain me, I make art.

Sources: Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000, New York: Viking), pp. 290-91; Bookchin, Murray. The Modern Crisis (1986, Philadelphia PA: New Society Publishers), pp. 160-61; Cole, Rex Vicat. The Artistic Anatomy of Trees (1941, London: Seeley, Service & Co. Ltd.), p. 318; and Greenpeace, COP26: our last good chance to avoid climate breakdown, pamphlet, September 2021.

Alf Bower’s sculpture

in memoriam Alf Bower (1949-2021)

Painters invented landscape and each scene 
framed refreshes the delusion of dominion 
but Bower-man like Bowerbird thinks differently
tinker by inclination he belongs to the land
He wheels over it, his footfall makes it sing, 
he inhabits all its light and dark moments—
matinée and noir-ish features if you will—
he gathers sense, stores it all up, and then
He imagines with magic wing-like hands
reaches into rock, swales, barrows, fissures, and feels
the shape of upheavals, erosions, excavations, breakages
and finds in certain tracts how they lie with the truth 
Of magnetisms, biochemistries, tectonics and cultures 
and in layered veneers he binds the spirits in place
Geoffrey Mark Matthews, Alf 2010 – Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

In ancient Greece the siting of the amphitheatre took account of the shape of the earth and the view out to the horizon. It made a permanent connection between a specific place and celebratory goings on played out before the audience. The scenery was real.

Artists who play with this idea of the real, in a sense, reject the artistic idea of “landscape.” Landscape was invented by Renaissance painters in part to free theatre from place. Landscape is visualized, an imagined reality, it isn’t real.

Alf wasn’t a landscape painter, he was a sculptor interested in the land, in real scenery, specific places bearing the traces of human presence and activity, or as he put it in some notes he made about practice: “… my obsessions are landscape (indeed my student jazz trio went by that name!), contrasts of scale, and traces of early civilisations / cultures.”

Alf also referred to Alfred Watkins’s 1925 book: The Old Straight Track (that is very telling: it was a controversial genre-crossing book, and I am sure he had his own copy.) Alf grasped that people shaped this ancient land, and he turned his hand to sculpture to capture something of his personal feel for it, and did so in a characteristically direct, raw, and intelligent manner.

On 6 June 2020 I wrote: “Your sculptures are really resonating with me. There is something elemental about them; maybe it’s in the manipulation of the stratified, literally in the case of the plywood, but conceptually as well: sci-fi, over history, over archaeology, over mythology, over geology. I keep wondering if you are tempted to ‘distress’ the surfaces in some way?”

Alf’s reply was short: “Having a break from sculpture at the moment.”

A grave message

[1]     Revenge against absurdity: This notion comes from Sloterdijk, ‘Dead souls without testaments …’ in Critique of Cynical Reason (1987, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), pp. 419-23. It resonated with me because of the story my grandfather told me one Sunday afternoon in 1964. It included the image of “the decomposition of bodies in the mud of the trenches” which is, “everywhere at work as practiced myth” (p. 419.) and of course I realize this. The absurdity amplified to crushing political consequence between 1916 and 1933 in Germany is actually ancient; it has a ten-thousand-year arc at least. A century on most of the world seems once again to be gripped by this same vengeful insanity: it is evident in intolerant personal politics, in bureaucratic paranoia, in a toxic (digital) agora, in violent ideological activism, etc. Too often the ‘activist’, ‘socially engaged’ artist is complicit even when they claim to be otherwise, because the institutions with access to funding are themselves bound into an intensified field of inveigling ideologies. There is no revenge against absurdity, we cannot live in the fear such vengefulness generates, and the Dada that realizes this needs to be recognized as food for thought. In the poem, whether it is the voice of my grandfather, my father, or a recently deceased artist friend doesn’t really matter; what matters is that I hear the message. I hope you get it too.

Fool’s fresh-frozen poem so even future poets ache

Do not be fooled by the evasive or ambiguous or weird feel of these lines; their arcane / cryptic / elliptical / enigmatic / equivocal / nebulous / obscure / opaque / abstruse moments are highly wrought. As always following on from reverse decimation of selected texts, and inspired latterly by Kerouac’s blues sequences, I determinedly chase down a delirious quality of poetic intensity. I do this because there is a voice there that is of, and that sings and cries for, this decadent age. If the poet always fails; the poem never does because it cannot help but be of its time.

Sources: Valentish, Jenny. Suffer! These people have no use for comfort zones, The Big Issue, No. 1470, 12 July 2021, p. 41; and Jennings, Jeremy. Few illusions, review of How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions by Neil Davidson (2012, Chicago IL: Haymarket Books), in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5732, 8 February 2013, p. 23.