Tag Archives: Derek Walcott

Jaguars, snakes, rabbits

3 May
Jaguar duality

Jaguar duality

If you travel, Blanco thinks, if you just travel, go from place to place, walk around, you should never get bored and you should never lack for things to do or write about, if this happens to be your thing. At least that is the theory. Blanco has a minor epiphany: he must go to Coatepec (the accent is on the at): it fulfils the single major criterion he has always employed when deciding whether or not to visit a place: he likes the sound of it; it carries the resonance of something remote – in time and culture – and yet somehow reassuring. He is walking down the hill from the Xalapa museum of anthropology, and after an entire morning within its confines he has become saturated with Olmec images of human figures and jaguars and serpents, and he flags down a taxi driven by a man with stupendously fleshy earlobes; earlobes that remind him of small whoopee cushions or rolled dough or moulded plasticine. The taxi driver chats about corruption in Mexican politics. It is raining. It has been raining all morning and all last night, and throughout the previous evening, and as far as we know it has never not been raining. Outside of Xalapa there is a roadblock. The young policeman carries an automatic rifle and wears black body armour, leg armour, the works. He inspects the taxi-driver’s I.D. and stares at Blanco for several seconds. It continues to rain.

More duality

More duality

We arrive in Coataepec and get stuck in a traffic jam. Nothing moves. The taxi driver asks directions, but that doesn’t help the traffic move. Blanco spots an interesting-looking restaurant, pays the taxista, and gets out. The restaurant has a nice inner patio with a garden area, and tables around it, out of the rain. In the garden there are roses and other flowers. A large family group are finishing their meal and then spend at least twenty minutes taking photos of each other in every possible combination of individuals, so that no one has not been photographed with everybody else. They have commandeered the only waiter in order to help them in this task. Every time Blanco thinks they are about to leave and release the waiter they reconvene for a new set of photos. One of the men (a Mexican) has very little hair but a long grey ponytail, which cannot be right. One of the women – I suspect Ponytail’s sister – is married to a gringo, it would seem. He has long hair also, but not arranged in a ponytail. He speaks Spanish well, with a gringo accent. Blanco orders tortilla soup and starts leafing through a magazine he bought at the anthropology museum. His phone makes a noise that tells him he has received a message. It informs him, in Spanish: Health: Adults who sleep too little or too much in middle age are at risk of suffering memory loss, according to a recent study. He looks at the message in consternation. Too little or too much? So, hey– you’re bolloxed either way. Who sends this stuff? The screen says 2225. Then another one: Japanese fans of Godzilla were very upset with the news trailer of this film to find that Godzilla is very big and fat: read more! 3788. Then a link. Blanco shakes his head sadly.

Coatepec is full of interesting buildings with courtyards. Blanco heads down to the Posada de Coatepec, a nice hotel in the colonial style, and goes in for a coffee. A slim man with fine features, a neat little moustache, dressed in polo gear, greets him in a friendly fashion, and Blanco greets him back, once again under the impression that he has been mistaken for someone he is not. A blonde woman, also in white jodhpurs, follows the man. There must have been a polo match. How strange. The hotel offers a nice shady patio, but we don’t need shade, we just need to be out of the rain. Blanco sits on the terrace outside the hotel cafe and writes in his notebook. Before long, the man who was in riding gear comes and sits on the terrace also. Immediately three waiters attend him, bowing and scraping, one of them is even rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee at the opportunity to serve this evidently Very Important Person. Mr Important takes off his sleeveless jacket, his gilet, and immediately one of the waiters – like a magician with a bunny – produces what appears to be a hat-stand for midgets, but is, presumably a coat-stand. Clearly the Important Person cannot do anything as vulgar as sling his coat over the back of a chair. Another waiter opens a can of diet coke at a very safe distance, and only then brings it to the table, along with a glass filled with ice. He is bending almost double, as if to ensure that his body doesn’t come into too close and offensive a proximity to the Important Person. It is one of the most extraordinary displays of deference I have witnessed in my life. Then all three waiters – the one who brought the coat-stand, the one with the coke, and the one who was rubbing his hands, a kind of maître d’ – vanish inside like happily whipped dogs. Left alone, the Important Person makes a phone call in a loud voice. He is barking instructions to some underling. He is clearly someone who is used to being obeyed, like an old school Caudillo. Must be a politician. When he has finished his call, he looks around and gets up to go inside the restaurant, where his company – family and friends, I guess – are seated. He walks inside with his drink, and within seconds one of the waiters appears out of nowhere, grabs the coat-stand, and follows him in with it.

A White Rabbit

A white rabbit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A white rabbit taking his leave

A white rabbit taking his leave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have to go. I have arranged to meet a poet back in Xalapa and discuss literary matters. He is called José Luis Rivas and has translated T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott into Spanish.

 

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

 

 

Coatepec Church

Coatepec Church.

 

 

El Caporal, Coatepec.

El Caporal, Coatepec.

 

 

Brodsky’s Venice

15 Apr
Colleoni statue with bird, evening.

Colleoni  (he of the three testicles) and bird, evening.

I have long admired the poetry of Joseph Brodsky – although with reservations – since hearing him read at Cardiff’s County Hall alongside Derek Walcott (a veritable pairing of poetic satyrs). Before travelling to Venice last Friday I purchased his Watermark, to see what he had to say about the city, where he spent a four-week vacation from his job as a U.S. college professor every winter for seventeen years. In the past I have read Jan Morris’ famous book on Venice, which I loathed, and Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City, which by contrast I enjoyed very much, and I approached Brodsky’s essay with trepidation. One hundred and thirty pages of large double spaced print, it is published as Penguin Modern Classic, though how it qualifies for this status is quite beyond my comprehension. It is a minor work by a once significant poet, who was the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize (he was 47), perhaps awarded as much for his status as political opponent to the USSR – this was 1987 – as for his literary achievements. Early in the book, we accompany the young Brodsky on his first arrival at the city’s railway station, where he is to be met by a woman for whom he harbours amorous thoughts (his sentiments are not reciprocated). Then this: ‘The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious.’

When I first read that line I thought it sounded interesting, but something nagged at me, because a thought does not really become coherent until after it has passed through the ‘subconscious’. But I didn’t wish to be unnecessarily antagonistic, so let it go. It sounds pretty, after all. Then some pages on, another nice passage: ‘The fog is thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.’ A nice conceit, I thought, which complements the earlier line well – but why spoil it with the literalism of that ‘likely to stay open for half an hour’, which sounds like the answer to a request made of a pub landlord.  And here: ‘Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet says, time’s very flesh and blood.’ My response to ‘Every surface craves dust’ was one of admiration, even if it is what “a poet” says (irritating, as we want to know which poet), but why ‘flesh and blood’? Dust is flesh, but not blood. Dust is decidedly bloodless, and dry. Dried, desiccated flesh.

The essay is self-regarding and repetitive (not a woman enters these pages without Brodsky’s lecherous gaze resting on her, however peripheral her appearance). Then there is the prose: I realise English was not Brodsky’s first language, but there is too much in this short essay that is merely confusing: describing unenthusiastic meetings with the ex-pats he comes across in the city, he begins to fantasise about ‘some local solicitor’, and inevitably, as it is Brodsky, ‘his secretary’ (yawn): “Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if one needs a formula, that is.” Pardon me?

And this, of Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, who famously enjoyed the attentions of a bull while sheathed in a cow-outfit: “perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since the bull’s horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons?” What?!

And so on. I don’t wish to disparage the dead, but this is a very meagre piece of work, and is by no means a ‘Modern Classic.’ As a book set in Venice it comes ahead of Hemingway’s catastrophic Across the River and into the Trees, but not by a long way.

Perhaps it is a warning though. If you travel to Venice, be careful what you read. I have been to the city six or seven times, but it is only in the past few years that I have become interested in the literature about the city, from Casanova, who spent a while locked in upper reaches of the Doges’ Palace, to Régis Debray, who loathed the place and saw in it a reflection (and the source) of all the evils of Western Capitalism. On this last visit I dipped into Hugo Pratts’ Secret Venice of Corto Maltese, which came highly recommended from a friend. I was not familiar with the graphic stories, but you don’t really have to be to enjoy the itineraries around the city’s less visited corners that this anti-guide book offers, describing seven walks that lead you off the beaten track, into hidden nooks and across secret portals. Don’t take it with you around the city, but jot down a few notes first, otherwise you will end up like the perennial Venice tourist, leaning on the parapet of a bridge, trying to figure out why the map of the city you hold in your hands does not correspond to the physical actuality of the place around you.

Perhaps the best book about Venice is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which does not set out to be a guide at all, except for the imagination.

 

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnival photos

18 Feb

Here are a few pictures from Wednesday’s carnival in Granada, Nicaragua, where The Tears of Disenchantment (or broken-heartedness) were buried, allegedly.

 

 

Minotaur, checking the layout of things

 

 

Orange dancers

 

 

Carnival hearse

 

 

Mr Tom Pow, poet of Scotland

 

 

 

 

Mr De'Ath

 

 

Trio of Devils

 

 

Ron Winkler, poet of Germany

 

 

Blanco reads his poem 'Rules of Conduct'

 

 

A coven of devils

 

 

Rose and Sasja take a breather

 

 

 

Carnival interaction

Brief interaction

 

 

Ann Cotten, Poet of Austria

 

 

Derek Walcott in carnival carriage

 

 

Policewoman with flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devils with coffin

 

 

 

 

Brief from Nicaragua

15 Feb

At four in the morning there is a noise of riotous celebration from the nearby square, but I cannot be bothered to make it to the balcony to discover its source. Then there is an hour or so of quiet before the deafening screech of birdsong that signals both the beginning and the end of daylight in the tropics. From the trees circling the park hundreds of birds dance, joust, leap and dive in a frenzied avian fiesta.

 

Cloud forest at Mombacho

 

Yesterday began with an excursion to the cloud forest volcano of Mombacho – in which we saw howler monkeys

 

howler monkey from rear

 

and many birds, including the black headed trogon (trogón cabecinegro, in Spanish) pictured here,

 

Black headed trogon

 

after visiting two coffee plantations, sampling their delicious brews, and witnessing a possum asleep in a bucket

 

Possum in a bucket

Our excellent guide José, and friends, at Mombacho

 

- and concluded with an interminable poetry reading, extremely mixed in quality, but beginning with a single (new) poem by Ernesto Cardenal on the sacking of the museum of Baghdad, and ending with Derek Walcott, again reading a single poem, Sea Grapes. Between these two octogenarian maestros – and with one or two exceptions – a number of distinctly indifferent poets went on for far too long, though I will refrain from mentioning the worst offenders.

Granada is an extraordinary festival, which is growing in importance and recognition, but which needs reining in and the exertion of greater balance in the selection of invited poets. This year, like last, I have met some wonderful individuals, made new friends, and learned a lot, but have also had to listen to far too much bad poetry. Fortunately, Walcott’s Sea Grapes does not fall into this category.

 

 Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

 

Or you can listen to Walcott reading it here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burying poverty and misery

9 Feb

 

The banner photograph at the top of Blanco’s Blog was taken last year in Granada, Nicaragua at the VII International Festival of Poetry, towards the end of a rather hectic afternoon, on which misery and poverty were cast into Lake Nicaragua, encased in a coffin. Whether or not it worked I am yet to see, but am returning to Granada this weekend, with Mrs Blanco, so may find out. I doubt very much whether Daniel Ortega’s re-election as president will have secured the objectives aimed for by the coffin-carrying devils of last year, pictured here by the Scottish poet Brian Johnstone, but next Wednesday, apparently, Las Lágrimas del desamor or the ‘tears of indifference’ will be done away with and buried. We’ll see how that goes.

But to return to the photo on the blog’s banner, a couple of people have pointed out how the black-masked demon pops up behind the three amigos: he is easy to miss, as he seems an integral part of the background. This picture has haunted me for a long time, and I have practically no memory of taking it; everything was happening very quickly, and I certainly didn’t notice the reaper coming up on the left.

The Festival is held every February in the ancient city of Granada, supposedly the first to be built by the Spanish on the American mainland. Poets are invited from around the world: last year over fifty countries were represented by around a hundred poets.  My main interest is concerned with a project I have been working on for the past eighteen months: I am putting together an anthology of contemporary Latin American poetry.  This year, apart from the many poets from Latin America who will be attending, there are big names from the English-speaking world: Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky (as well, of course, as my other Scottish compadre, Tom Pow).

More will follow.

Radio Bards and an Homuncular Misfit

19 Nov

Saturday Morning Porridge

Few things are quite so guaranteed to make me come out in a rash as a BBC Radio 4 poet blathering on in rhyming couplets while I’m attempting to stir the porridge. This morning I almost fell over the cat as I hurled myself across the kitchen to switch off some dementedly cheerful bard on Saturday Morning Live.  I don’t think it was Wendy Cope or Pam Ayres (though I really have no way of discriminating between these people, they are all equally awful). In fact Roger McGough is not much better, or (yawn) Andrew Motion or any of the other so-called interesting poets who jolly along in a British sort of way. I can’t say I enjoy listening to poetry on the radio at all, it’s something about the terribly twee way the BBC goes about presenting the stuff, and the awfully selfconscious way that poets go about reading their work, as though they were reciting from the Bible – or worse, were super-selfconsciously reading from the Bible when pretending NOT to read from the Bible, with all those awful Eliotesque or Churchillian High Rising Tones at the end of lines that actually make me want to barf, make me want to have nothing to do with the stuff. Toxic, it is.

Which might strike you as kind of odd coming from a poet, or one who writes and performs poetry, like myself.

The problem is, I don’t really enjoy poetry readings either. Maybe one in a hundred, and then I absolutely love them. But they are incredibly rare events and I can never predict when it is going to happen. I managed to truly enjoy a joint reading by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in Cardiff County Hall back at the beginning of the 1990s. I heard an amazing reading by Sharon Olds in Stirling in 2004. I listened to a hugely powerful reading by the revolutionary poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua last year. But granted these were practitioners of excellence (and I have heard Walcott read on other occasions when he has not been that clever). And occasionally I enjoy cosy, informal readings by people who understand that poetry does not have to be a form of display behaviour, such as my friends Patrick McGuinness and Tiffany Atkinson, who both read very well. And a handful of others. But even the ones I like I can only abide in small doses, and even then am not certain I would be able to sit out a full-length radio performance without beginning to fidget.

The truth is, I suppose, that, unfashionably, I prefer to read poetry, in the quiet solitude of my darkened room. I prefer to read it to myself, and imagine its sounds, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, but in solitude: just me and the poet. Then, if I don’t like what I’m hearing I can just turn the page, or close the book; something which is not so easily achieved at a poetry reading. Even when the poetry (as at most public Open Mics) is so appallingly bad as to promote immediate self-immolation, it is difficult to leave without drawing attention to oneself. Even propelled by an immediate need to leave the room, to breathe fresh air, if not to commit some terrible violent crime or murder an innocent bystander, one risks the condemnatory glances of audience members (all of whom are aspiring bards themselves). The awful, depressing truth is that every one of the participants at these gloomy affairs believes, at heart, that they are touched by genius. If only others could see it, the world would be a better place. It makes me want to weep, honest: it is such a tragic expression of doomed human endeavour. But still.

David Greenslade is an extraordinary, shamanistic, performer of his work; and a writer of a different order. One of the most startling and memorable readings I can recall was his performance at Hay-on-Wye some years ago, surrounded by an array of glorious vegetables, items of which he would produce from time to time during the course of the event – leek, radish, rhubarb, beetroot, soil-encrusted carrot – in sequential explosions of purposeful poem-making.  And his latest book, Homuncular Misfit is, true to form, both bonkers and brilliant. It is, en passant, both an evocation of the alchemical reality of the everyday, as well as a profund, and at times searing account of personal dissolution and nigredo. The sequence of poems relating to the poet/narrator’s adoption by a crow while living at a mysterious Oxfordshire manor house, or indeed a hospice, inhabited by invisible Taoist swordsmen and Chakra cleansers, the kind of place one goes for an ontological enema, is particularly impressive:

 

. . .  For a moment I thought

it might be the same bird that flew

from the glove of Mabon son of Modron

into the mouth of a shepherd

known to Henry Vaughan.

It had appeared as effortlessly as

a piece of clothing I never knew I had

until I bent to pick it up . . . .

. . .  Why Crow had come, I couldn’t explain

but it didn’t go away and it did change everything

about that retreat I’d planned, considered

and thought I’d carefully arranged.

As so often occurs in Greenslade’s work, the phenomenal world intercedes in the poet’s life, seeming to take things in hand of its own accord. In his other works vegetables (as we have seen), animals (check out an article of his Zeus Amoeba here), bugs, articles of stationery, random broken things, all break in on the alchemy of the everyday and cast rationality in doubt. This time the crow follows the narrator around whenever he emerges from the house. In one poem, he contacts the RSPB and RSPCA, who both advise to scare the bird off,

But it wouldn’t go. I tried

to be as fierce as a vixen

driving off her cubs.

Defied, the crow would glide into the trees

but return within an hour.

Soon it started waiting near my window.

 

Unsurprisingly, the bird begins to acquire mythic status in the poet’s mind, taking on the appurtenances of a famous bird from the Mabinogion:

 

One night, with the hostel

all asleep, I waited mesmerised

beneath the fig tree where

Brân the Blessed perched,

Both as Bendigeidfran

and as Branwen

son and daughter

of their liquid father Llyr,

whose half-speech I now learned.

While soft, slow, pearls of rain

sparkling by kitchen light

fell in glistening strings,

dollops of scintillating guano

puddled freshly opened oysters

on the courtyard’s medieval tiles.

 

The crow persists, of course, and acquires an increasingly menacing aspect. But we never know how much is in the narrator’s head or how much is (ever) verifiable, because this is the borderland, the zone, the place where weird stuff happens, as Greenslade’s not inconsiderable pack of avid readers have by now learned. Elsewhere the poetry invites favourable comparison with the very best of British poetry currently being published, with a hybrid strain of influence from North American and classical Japanese poets (Greenslade lived in Japan in his twenties and is an ordained Zen monk) as well, of course, as that recurrent dipping into Welsh language and mythology. It might, gentle reader, serve as a fitting stocking-filler for an erudite beloved homunculus of your acquaintance, and is available here.

Dog waiting for Blanco to stop blogging and take him for a walk, finally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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