Tuesday, January 17, 2017

no images

[Image source: http://www.nottinghampost.com/nottingham-is-third-best-place-to-work-in-the-uk/story-29506576-detail/story.html]

So first, Zoë Skoulding , who has written about Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland and Gender City in her 2013 book, Contemporary Women's Poetry and Urban Space: Experimental Cities

You can read the lucid introduction in Google Books:

She says: "Acts of looking have been a recurrent interest in my discussion, particularly in relation to the panoptic overviews of mapping and surveillance. Notley, Samuels and Carol Watts, particularly, engage with various forms of resistance to vision as a form of control, asserting the poem as site of perceptual and embodied disobedience."  (This probably makes more sense re Gender City than Tomorrowland...)

I can't help relating this to my own experience as a compulsive mapper (e.g., of Samuels' Tomorrowland). Laura and I tend to argue when we're navigating around a new area, especially under time pressure. Laura uses entirely different psychogeographic signals to me. I tend to memorize maps and use them to "prove" where we must be going. However, I often make mistakes. Laura's instincts usually work out well. So I'm not really sure which of us is "better" at navigating but I know it's difficult to articulate our points of view. When we're not under time pressure we make a great team!

Skoulding's own poetry includes the Room poems, some of which I first saw in Out of Everywhere 2. There's also some here in Blackbox Manifold:

Brd new, are these VENDÉMIAIRE poems:

A sort of french-revolutionary harvesting vintage calendar, with memories of the wineshop in A Tale of Two Cities. Here's two of the epigram-like poems:

17. Citrouille Pumpkin

time to turn into another
sunset globe hold steady

            after all what do I know about
where this carriage is heading
with its windows all on fire

18. Sarrazin Buckwheat

even grain doesn't escape otherness
a dark seed an unstable element

            the time doesn't come
as if arriving from somewhere else
you move and it's what you are


Friday, January 13, 2017

Samaniego and Phaedrus, fabulists

The wolf and the lamb, illustration by Gustav Doré

[Image source: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/172161442/antique-print-fables-la-fontaine-dore?utm_source=Pinterest&utm_medium=PageTools&utm_campaign=Share .

Today's miniature post.  So, along with my TEFL study I thought it would make sense to sharpen up my own knowledge of foreign languages, so I picked up Félix María de Samaniego´s fables and began to have a read. (Samaniego was a sceptical author, influenced by the French Encyclopaedists, whose popular fables were written in the late 18th century.)

Samaniego's fables are in verse and Spanish Wikipedia entry compares his approach to "Fedro", who it turned out, was the 2nd-Century Roman fabulist Phaedrus, an author I'd never come across before.

Phaedrus' fables were translated into English by Christopher Smart (the sometimes mad poet famous for his amazing Song to David and Jubilate Agno).  Here's one of them (like many, it's based on an Aesop fable) that struck me as well worth pondering in our hyper-accusatory times.

Fable I. the wolf and the lamb.

By thirst incited; to the brook
The Wolf and Lamb themselves betook.
The Wolf high up the current drank,
The Lamb far lower down the bank.
Then, bent his rav’nous maw to cram,
The Wolf took umbrage at the Lamb.
“How dare you trouble all the flood,
And mingle my good drink with mud?”
“Sir,” says the Lambkin, sore afraid,
“How should I act, as you upbraid?

The thing you mention cannot be,
The stream descends from you to me.”
Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know
’Tis now exact six months ago
You strove my honest fame to blot”—
“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”
“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,
And so he tore him, till he died.
To those this fable I address
Who are determined to oppress,
And trump up any false pretence,
But they will injure innocence.

 Read more Phaedrus/Smart fables here:


[Image source: https://www.behance.net/gallery/6510519/The-Wolf-and-The-Lamb . Illustration by Glenda Maye Abad.]

Samaniego's fable "El cordero y el lobo" (Book 2, Number 18) tells a different story.

Uno de los corderos mamantones,
Que para los glotones
Se crían, sin salir jamás al prado,
Estando en la cabaña muy cerrado,
Vio por una rendija de la puerta
Que el caballero Lobo estaba alerta,
En silencio esperando astutamente
Una calva ocasión de echarle el diente.
Mas él, que bien seguro se miraba,
Así lo provocaba:
«Sepa usted, señor Lobo, que estoy preso,
Porque sabe el pastor que soy travieso;
Mas si él no fuese bobo,
No habría ya en el mundo ningún Lobo.
Pues yo corriendo libre por los cerros,
Sin pastores ni perros,
Con sólo mi pujanza y valentía
Contigo y con tu raza acabaría.»
«Adiós, exclamó el Lobo, mi esperanza
De regalar a mi vacía panza.
Cuando este miserable me provoca
Es señal de que se halla de mi boca
Tan libre como el cielo de ladrones.»
Así son los cobardes fanfarrones,
Que se hacen en los puestos ventajosos
Más valentones cuanto más medrosos.

A little mollycoddled lamb who had been fattened up in a secure shed (for the benefit of some future gourmet), without once having been out into the field, happened to notice through a crack in the door that Sir Wolf was just outside, keeping intent watch, cunningly and silently waiting for his chance to grab a toothsome snack.

But the lamb, observing that he was perfectly safe, assailed him as follows:

"Know, Sir Wolf, that I am imprisoned here, because the shepherd knows what a little terror I am. But if the shepherd weren't such an idiot, there wouldn't be a single wolf left upon the earth. Yes, if I were allowed to run free among the hills, away from the shepherds and their dogs, my strength and my courage would soon put an end to you and to your whole race."

"Well," thought the wolf, "bang go my hopes of a treat for my empty belly! If the wretch taunts me like this, it's obvious that he's no more scared of my jaws than robbers are scared of Heaven."

Thus cowardly braggers, when they find themselves in a place where they can't be touched, appear the more valiant, the more timid they are. 

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

120 hours of TEFL

About a week ago I signed up to do a  TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), thinking that at some point in my post-9-to-5 future it might come in handy.

The course requires 120 hours of study over the next six months, and the penny's now dropped that 120 hours is quite a lot of study, and I've no idea where those hours are going to be coming from. But it's a fair bet that many of them will be hours I'd have liked to spend blogging.  So I apologise in advance for a likely drop in both quantity and quality up until July.

Meanwhile, here are the lyrics of Ted Gärdestad's "För kärlekens skull", a modern Swedish classic. Ted was a teenage idol in the 1970s and a very talented musician. The Abba organization tried to promote him internationally, but without success. He was mentally fragile, and in his mid-20s he suddenly abandoned the music business in mental turmoil, falling into the hands of a fraudulent religious cult. He may have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Twelve years later, in 1993, he made a comeback with this song. (Ted wrote the music to his songs, and his brother Kenneth wrote the words.) Some three years later, he committed suicide. Admiration for Gärdestad's music has grown exponentially since his death, and comparisons with Taube and Bellman are not unknown.


Verse 1:

Utanför fönstret slår våren ut
Marken blir grön igen
Allt som var dött väcks till liv
Det kan också vi
Så länge vi andas

Outside the window the spring returns
The land becomes green once more
All that was dead wakes to life
So also can we
As long as we're breathing

Verse 2:

Ute till havs styr en fiskebåt
Längs en fri horisont
Den gungar så tryggt in mot hamn
Som jag i din famn
Så länge vi älskar

Out on the sea steers a fishing-boat
Against a clear horizon
Swings so confidently into the harbour
Like me in your arms
As long as we're loving


Det är för oss
Solen går opp
Och lyser som guld
För kärlekens skull

It is for us
The sun comes up
and shines like gold
For love's sake

Solen går opp
Så oskuldsfull
Och lyser på oss
För kärlekens skull

The sun comes up
So innocently
And shines on us
For love's sake

Verse 3:

Högt på ett berg står en katedral
Och pekar upp mot skyn
Men det är för himlen i dig
Och jorden i mig
Vi älskar varandra

High on a hill stands a cathedral
And points to the sky
But it's for the heaven in you
And the earth in me
That we love each other

(repeat Chorus)

Above, Ted Gärdestad performing För Kärlekens Skull

The song has been covered many times. Yes, I'm learning it myself....

Here's a particularly wonderful version for acoustic guitar and voice, by Ulf Lindholm:

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

The story of Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland

The essay that follows has now been published on Intercapillary Space:


Any subsequent updates, should there be any, will be made to the IS version. The essay takes some material from half a dozen other posts that I've written in the past year or so.

Cover of the printed book

"And lying soft enclosures gently died and overdied with story" (Landed gently, p. 63)

"Collected stories joined inside her body
At night she sweated language on her sheets" (All the buildings made of voices, p. 72)

"told each stories to make the time" (Circumference, p. 97)

It's customary to begin by saying that other readings are of course possible. In this case I might go a lot further. The present effort is more systematic than just a personal reading and can arguably be termed a wilful misreading, since it focusses on narrative and progressive aspects of a poem whose narrative progress, if any, is very much in question.

This reading takes its principal structural bearings from the eleven titled parts (I'll call them chapters) into which Tomorrowland (Shearsman, 2009) is divided:

1. The Argument. (TA)
2. It's all good. (IAG)
3. Treasure Island. (TI)
4. Sirens. (S)
5. Neptune's open mouth. (NOM)
6. Bulwarks. (B)
7. Landed gently. (LG)
8. A little history. (ALH)
9. All the buildings made of voices. (ATBMOV)
10. The body's charge. (TBC)
11. Circumference. (C)

I think it was exposure to the audio version of the poem that provoked my interest in the story of Tomorrowland.  Listening to these superb readings-with-soundscapes brings out the long-range narrative sweep of the poem. At least that's how it seems to me. I wanted to pay tribute to that startling impression and I also wanted to encourage new readers to discover this amazing poem.

Cover of the double CD version of Tomorrowland

The audio version was first made available as a double CD in 2012 (you could try contacting the author if you want one). It's also available online at Penn Sound:


It's arguable that the reading offered here leans far too much on the distinctness and progressiveness of the eleven chapters, while some other significant (though inaudible) formal features are for the most part ignored. Two in particular: the subdivision, marked by asterisks, of each chapter into up to five sections; and the fairly regular alternation of paragraphs with and without line-capitalization.

It treats the first chapter as preludial and the eleventh as postludial. It assumes that the sequence of chapters develops in a progressive and quasi-narrative manner.

As a consequence of its focus on narrative, it takes an interest in the four named characters, while acknowledging the fairly numerous other figures in the poem who are not named. To this predilection it may be objected that what we have here is not so much four characters as four structural principles, or even four multi-functional instruments that can only be grasped heuristically.

My main regret is that this approach rather neglects the close details of verse and text, because I believe it's at that close focal range that Samuels' poetry is most easily appreciated as the essential thing it is. However, I've already said plenty about that in two earlier pieces:

Review of Paradise for Everyone  (2005)


Review of  The Invention of Culture (2008)


In compensation, and also to avoid the tedium of a poetry essay that doesn't contain any actual poetry, I've include a couple of extended quotations in their proper places.


1. The Argument.

The second difficulty is the sphere itself
As I plunk on an inclined plane

These are the opening lines (p.11).

They hint at the illustration on the book-jacket, Camille Martin's "Hieroglyphic Night". At least, that seems to show a figure plunking on an inclined plane, while in the distance we observe the rather troubled sphere of a moon.

Subsequently, the word "sphere" will make a number of what seem like quite important appearances in the poem.

"we need a bluet sphere" (IAG, p. 19)
"You see our love desire laughter whom / I recognize most thoroughly ensphered" (NOM, p. 38); "in flat spheres" (NOM, p. 42).
"as Jack unspheres on Fasti with a tender disregard" (TBC, p. 91)

Reading The Argument as a whole it's apparent that the "plane" of line 2 is also an airplane, e.g. "when the four bumps hit the ground" (p.12).

"Who have hanged peripheries so many years" (p. 11). The word "hang", throughout the poem, tends to suggest Jack, though he is not actually named until the third chapter, Treasure Island.

"We land to divination..." (p. 12). The primary narrative fact, especially in the first half of the book, is arrival. See also: "Well, initial" (IAG, p. 13),  "The crackling / Of fires will announce you found arrival" (TI, p. 28), "Arrival's song" (NOM, p. 38), "though it / thunderously keeps arriving" (B, p. 55), "Well it's been a week" (LG, p. 57).

With arrival comes the mild euphoria of those sensors switching on to a new terrain. "silly with excited premonitions" (IAG, p. 21). And especially in TI: "everyone was lovely over there"... "A curious newness in their eyes in love with acquiescent / Barriers"... "people are so perfect"... (TI, p.23).

"handmade try ... crux ..." (p.12).  Reappears as "a crux of handmade try" in IAG (p. 20).

It's notable that the last part of one section often preludes the next, and that's the case here. In this last part the surroundings become recognizably urban, and here we get our first glimpse of Eula:

"With Eula mobilizing narratives in a café" (p.13)

(WhatsApp-ing her friends, maybe)

[Eula] Eula is the most pervasive of the four named characters, appearing in every chapter but two (TIC), but not the easiest  to get your head around. (The other characters will be discussed when they first appear.) The name, in software licensing, can mean End-User License Agreement. Eula often tends to suggest to me power, technology and intellect. Perhaps "where we've come from" : Europe, LA. Perhaps us : the poem's author and readers. Yet Eula can also be associated with Maori face-painting (ALH, p. 65) and with the small-scale warfare said to be typical of tribal society (LG, p. 59). Eula is a real name, commonest in Spanish-speaking countries, short for Eulalia - "sweetly spoken" (Greek eu + laleo ).


2. It's all good.

This first full-length chapter is distinctly "metropolitan-inflected" (p. 15). "Thus both about the city we did stroll" (p.15).

Eula is the only character named in this chapter. But it's important not to limit the narrative to those four names. Tomorrowland is liberally strewn with pronouns (I, we, you, he, she) and these are considerably less random than in many experimental texts. Sometimes these unnamed characters are consistent enough to develop little quasi-narratives about themselves.  For example the "he" of  IAG p. 16, or the "man" of S pp.30-31.

But wait, could we have some help here? The book version of Tomorrowland (though not the audio version) contains some,  in the form of the epigraphs and, particularly, the page headed "Further Reading" - e.g. Marco Polo, Robinson CrusoeComus, and modern studies of cosmopolitanism and social space (the latter evidently relevant to IAG). Argentine author Julio Cortazar. Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book about teaching Maori children (B, LG, ALH). New Zealand author Janet Frame's only poetry book The Pocket Mirror. (Lisa Samuel's own emigration from USA to NZ around the time of writing Tomorrowland is a relevant background.) Rev. John Butler's Journals - New Zealand's first clergyman, he arrived there in 1818. Michel de Certeau - tactics (of subjugated individuals) in navigating everyday life. Henri Lefebvre - Critique of Everyday Life , the underdeveloped sector colonized by capitalism. William Henry Hunt (actually Burt) and Philip Grossenheider -  A field guide to the mammals. Consulting these books, or some of them anyway, would shed a flood of light on Tomorrowland; I'm sorry to say I haven't done so.

According to the back cover of the printed book, "Tomorrowland is a book-length poem of bodily transit and colonial forgetting". Inasmuch as this means the experience of arriving and settling in a new world, it makes complete sense; but of course the term "colonial" comes freighted with all sorts of serious political ramifications, and openly provokes a group of questions that every reader will have to tussle with. To what extent does Tomorrowland delimit its scope to the experience of the colonist - the explorer, trader, preacher, teacher, emigrant, tourist - and exclude the experience of the colonized?  For a poet who has grown up within western culture, is transcending that limit even possible? Would attempting to transcend it lead inevitably to something analogous to blackface? Does failure to transcend it constrain one's sense of what the poem, for all its marvellous ambition, can amount to?

This may also be the moment to say, what I keep forgetting to say, that there's a great deal of comedy in the early chapters of the poem. We're not a million miles from The Ambassadors here.

[Cracks] "The garden faces by a crack uneasily in its palm" (p. 16). "Crack" is a word that comes up quite a lot, possibly in connection with the poem's interest in building works:  "To mortar acts and build". At any rate built texture is an important theme of IAG.  Cf. "a subterranean crack" (p.21), "This would be historical enactment / Seen from the position of a crack" (NOM, p. 42), "where the cracks peeked through a glint of green" (B, p. 45), "oh laud that cracked-up paper" (B, p. 52), "my amanuensis following the crack over the rocks" (B, p. 52)

[Ships] "he builds the little ship we fly up..." (p. 16).  The dedication of Tomorrowland is "for honest dealing, and for ship goers". Ships are named and alluded to frequently throughout the poem. E.g. ""having landed their domesticated ships / with aches and prejudice intact." (TI, p. 26);  "a whole set  / life modelled after vacant ships whose keels lie / down in soft sand partly filtering..." (S, p. 29); "ship-arriving hollerer .... how does it feel / To own so many ships..." (NOM, p. 41); "when the boat comes in" (B, p. 48); "The ships piled in with separate rain, / Some from the sea and some from sky..." (B, p. 49); "disinherit the never merely boat again (LG, p. 61); "stave the boat" (LG, p. 62); "the midnight ship" (ALH, p. 67); "The boats are moralistic now" (ALH, p. 68). Nevertheless, the locales of the poem seems to me always land-based, though coastal; we have no sense of being on a ship, but rather of having arrived from a ship.

[Birds and feathers] "Ohmygosh trees, flagrant birds..." (p. 18). Birds and feathers are frequent motifs in Tomorrowland.  E.g. "Big Bird... chorus of silent flitterings..." (p. 19); NOM, p. 42; B, p. 52; ATBMOV pp. 74-75; C, p. 97. For feathers cf B, p. 56; ALH, p. 65 (twice).

"we need a bluet sphere" (p. 19)

The bluets (Houstonia species) are small but pretty milky-blue N. American wild flowers, somewhat resembling old-world forget-me-nots or speedwells from the ornamental point of view.

[Image source: http://www.wiseacre-gardens.com/plants/wildflower/bluet.html]

"Our Eula" (p. 20) matches the first appearance, in the following chapter, of "our Manda" (p. 24).

By the end of "It's All Good" we've reached a space that may not be quite so uncomplicatedly "all good", and are looking back and out to wilderness, a suitable introduction to the next chapter.


3. Treasure Island.

It begins with the "island gurney". Sounds like an animal or bird, but the only definition for "gurney" that I have encountered is a stretcher-trolley.

"Treasure Island" begins with the most sustained bit of island paradise in Tomorrowland. (Along with a crescendo of the traveller's euphoria that I mentioned earlier.)

This nature poetry is, of course, not left unproblematized; to an extent it arrogates what it doesn't own.

          While he takes his myth and puts it out there
          In the literal sense, over again incorporating oysters
          And their total inability to resist. (p.25)

[Manda] "our Manda sees inside the cells" (p. 24). The first appearance of Manda.  Manda is short for Magdalena in Croatian/Serbian, or short for Amanda in English. The character is maybe somewhat associated with childlike perception (as here) and domestic activity. According to Wes Tank's  radio talk about plans for a Tomorrowland movie (https://soundcloud.com/riverwestradio/21-00-00-to-be-continued), Manda is the trans-historical female and Fasti is the trans-historical male; he may have been told this by Lisa Samuels herself but I'm not sure.

On p. 26 "I fell in love with time's indisputable eraser..." begins a passage of a dozen lines or so that's closely shadowed, sometimes word for word, in (p. 49, beginning "I fell in love / With the moon's disputable mirror...").

[Jack] "Thus coastal disproportionate form is hanging Jack / Poorly for his unplanned sup while we watch..." (p. 26).  The first named appearance of Jack, who "plays death", according to the back cover of the printed book. Certainly Jack is associated with death and violence ("escalation's fury Jack" (ALH)). It's Jack who is presumably referred to in "he hanged himself that's what he done" near the end of TBC. The word or idea of hanging, passim,  tends to suggest Jack. Perhaps a jack tar. Or a flag. Origin: the old world: Protestant northern mist.

"If it weren't for Shakespeare we'd never have Jane Austen if not" (p. 27). Compare "If it weren't for whales we'd never have fishes if" (LG).

The final part of TI focusses on ants.


4. Sirens.

"the atolls / (Neptune's mouths)..." (p. 31) Usefully glossing the title of the next chapter.


          (A hundred years ago) the nerves of Fasti's feet
          Agree a doorlatch patiently apart
          My patrimony truly far from home in a necessary
          Curse... (p. 33)

The first appearance of the fourth named character. Like the others Fasti is a real name, though obscure (old Scandinavian). Perhaps more relevant, "fasti" are chronological lists of official and religious events (Roman, as in Ovid's Fasti). Generally he seems to me priestly. He's associated at various points with logs (in the sense of records, I think) and with astronomy. The "founding Fasti" suggests a pioneer patriarch. There's a relatively long quasi-narrative about him and his mother in the middle of ATBMOV.


5. Neptune's Open Mouth.

The preceding chapter, Sirens, links to this one via its final line ("you dip your legs into your class just testing").  [Apart from its modern-cityscape and newly-discovered-tropical-island type locales, there is also quite a lot of educational loci in Tomorrowland ; such as this "class" (in one of its meanings), in which "you" is either a teacher or a student. Cf "warm and gentle schools" earlier on the same page.]

NOM is, unsurprisingly, watery. Water is associated with sex, birth and death. (The coupling of land animals involves a temporary, damp, private re-creation of the watery environment in which our far-distant ancestors lived out the whole of their lives.)

          Under the tide my legs are musical
          display on moonlit net  ... (Opening lines of NOM, p. 36)

Both the opening and closing parts  of NOM are vaginal. Hibiscus and sea-anemone, shell and fold.

Within, the following set-pieces stand out:

5.1. A semi-emergent lyric called "Arrival's Song". That is, I should say at once, a dubious interpretation. The title words appear bracketed, as if introducing an embedded lyric, but the text that follows it isn't clearly demarcated or distinct from the rest of NOM.

It might strike the reader that "Arrival's Song" arrives a little belatedly. After all, we're five chapters in, aren't we? Isn't it a bit late for a spontaneous effusion?  That sense of a willed, even heel-dragging, performance is latent here.

And could there be the complicating hint of "A Rival's Song"? The pun seeming to be authorized by "a plea / a look a rival" (B, p. 54)

(Parallel to the Shakespeare sonnets about the rival poet, e..g Sonnet 86.)  In both an alienation effect, because lyric poetry is no longer associated with this activity that we're sharing now, but with that other person's activity (an unwelcome one, to boot).

5.2. A group of stories of a mythical or ritual type. These include a Metamorphoses-style account of a yearning lover turned into a tree, and a relatively long account of water ritual in the days immediately following a child's drowning and before the child's spirit is fully at rest.

5.3. The curiously impressive apparition of a woman, near the end of the chapter, "with hair the colour of microphones".

This is Ovidian-in-reverse. The woman appears to metamorphose out of a bird standing "gradually" on the beach*, moving its "mouth" side to side and casting off feathers. At the same time the statement that "the woman stepped out shining" suggests a bather emerging from the sea.

[* The stuttering standing of a bird, always ruffled by the startle instinct and apt to hop about a bit. Gradual:  gradually calming down, becoming less flittery. But also gradus = a step: still moving about.]

She has a shadowy audience of men, to whom the words "deferential" and "cautious" are attached.

The side-to-side head movement of the bird/woman is reminiscent of the robotic Eula in the closing lines of ATBMOV .  And this final section of NOM names Eula several times  (the only one of the four to be named in NOM).  So is this emergent woman Eula? That seems far too definite an identification. But the impression that Eula has a cybernetic aspect, part technical and part bird maybe, is pervasive.

"like Roosevelt or the moon..." (p. 40)  - probably has nothing at all to do with the notorious massacre of Moro people in the Philippines in 1906 ("President Theodore Roosevelt sent Wood a congratulatory cablegram..."). Here's the link anyway.



6. Bulwarks.

A bulwark is a defensive fortification or rampart.

          We built the wall with stone by stone interiors
          Admiring fashion's fit with iron's wear
          And where the cracks peeked through a glint of green
          We stuffed it with the faces of our enemies... (pp. 45-46).

This defensive construction might be necessary, but there's paranoia and panic in blocking up those glints of green jungle with our nightmares.

This is the central and longest chapter, about double the typical length. With Bulwarks the poem becomes less innocent. A steadier preoccupation with colonialism begins here and continues through LG and ALH.

[Implements, in general] "diminished sovereignty / In the crude bath and plan raids .... does not hold its own / tradition bath nor subterfuge / umbrella as it falls..." (p. 44) This isn't exactly a motif, but there's a number of references in the poem to simple, old-fashioned implements, such as a primitive colony might value. Umbrella again, p. 52. The umbrella and parasol of TBC, p. 90. Knife, p. 49 and p. 53. Also the shovel (ATBMOV, pp. 80-81). The adze. (e.g. ALH, p. 65 "she took her tat / and adzed it through the rockface / of the boat she knew she'd go on"; ATBMOV, p. 82 "The world collects itself for you / an adze and scarf waft"). Ancient tool. There survive prehistoric Maori adzes that were used for woodcarving. "The pounding of the adze" (TBC, p. 89)  (unexpected use of an adze).

          Come come let us be hither let us not pretend we are not
          What we wot is the hintermost mortality can muster... (p. 46)

A call to order for the colonists, the double negative summoning "the not of widom" against the scarier "not" of the Other, "the night of savage-not-to-be". A call to national identity and apartheid.

"Hither": i.e. not "hither AND thither". No promiscuity of cultures here! (Compare "come thither" ALH p. 58, and "gone hither" p. 59)

"Hintermost": the context implying a sense of achieved superiority, the term itself implying essentialism and isolationism.

Though Manda resists this coercion the feeling of defeat, of personal identity being helplessly dependent on domesticity, on a bulwark preserving national identity, throws up its hands (p. 48). Patriarchal Fasti appears to inspire his colonist society and to hold it in check (pp. 49, 50, 51, 52, 53).

Manda's interjections, the "protesting soul",  instead proposes a rhapsodic inclusivity (p.47); these creative hungers are suppressed in the official culture, "because satiety / is its authorized appearance" (p. 48).

Peace is superficially restored ("Again, we are holding hands by the shore...") but the opposed elements jostle, gall, and attempt to co-opt each other, a conflict underlying the communal experience of the next few pages.

"That's the moon crept through the kauri tired". Agathis australis, a North Island conifer of great ecological and cultural significance. Once much exploited for its excellent timber (cf. "grand houses out of kauri", ALH, p.66).

Giant kauri at Waipoua Forest

[Image source: http://www.firstlighttravel.com/modal/sacred-waipoua-forest]

"I fell in love / with the moon's disputable mirror..." (p.49) begins a passage echoing TI p. 26.

"Fasti's quotient" (p. 53). The expression reappears in ALH, p. 69.

The last section of Bulwarks (pp. 55 - 56) tells a story about Manda teaching unruly children, colonial in character, and about a somewhat chaotic growth of urbanization. Children's education remains a preoccupation through LG and ALH.

Francis Towne (final line, p. 56): English watercolourist, d. 1816. Long neglected, now admired. Refers back to the educational project of p.55: "books with articles about watercoloring".


7. Landed gently.

"Landed gently". This was the name of a book by Alan Hunter (1957), featuring his character Inspector Gently. He in turn may have intended a pun on "landed gentry". So might this chapter ("disinherit", "heir apparent", "inheritance"...). But more important, probably, is the recurrent appearance of "gently", e.g. in the the passage quoted below

The themes of children and education continue from B. Colonialism too. Considerable energy on the theme of civil restitution for colonial wrongs. And blood, and the natural. At one point (p. 62), four lyrical paragraphs begin with the word "Naturally"...

"war-torn ways" (p. 58); cf. "the war-torn country" (p. 59). Possibly referring to the permanent state of small-scale warfare said to be typical of tribal societies.

"Admonishment's a windy task that someone / takes eventually rectangular in buildings and a tithe..." (p. 59). In ALH this is more drastically developed as "Society's a way of having to be cleared / we very soon gave way all admonition / to the punt..." (p. 67).

The "Naturally" lyric, part of which follows, reflects on the network of past generations, sex and reproduction, comrades lost in shipwrecks, among other things.

           Naturally we no longer hear that sound even when our
           radios are far up into space with limbs triumphant in
           the voice of the woman is the care she cedes to no-one
           naturally climbing the next within the eggs she lays and
           hatches in each other this structure is an ornamental
           seizure for the Fasti caught in hatches own allure, his
           hard and clement fissures never so certain as

           Naturally what is lost is what we'd have to yield our
           names and call sister brother mother father child, sea-
           tender, mind-brooder, sand-counter, bird-leader, herd-
           endurer, leaf-gatherer, whale-shooter, immigrant youth,
           sober sustainer, free baby, world-renouncing dreamer,
           cloud-watching post-successive non-accreting brain-
           inveigling doom-calm yeay-say sad-eyed so-it-is-one

           Naturally such matters move in waves, and the bodies
           of those heaped through the water bump gently, sad
           if you say so, your broken heart is latched to their
           interiors, sad if you know so, the lands are moving
          slowly toward away each other tending arguments
          against the gentle trees that stir in books we hold with
          winds upon our faces from the buildings sway

(LG, pp. 62-63)

[The audio version of Landed Gently is also on the companion CD to Emily Critchley, ed. out of everywhere 2: linguistically innovative poetry by women in north america & the uk (Reality Street, 2015).]


8. A little history.

The theme of history had been forecast in the previous chapter (p. 60).

"the leopard island" (p. 65). Three more references on pp. 65 - 66. This is almost a narrative, featuring Eula.

ALH, more than any previous chapter, is progressively invaded by regular meter;  the pulse of tetrameter, pointed up by lots of rhyme and near-rhyme. Progressive, but with a sinister undertow we can't control or resist; seems to be an image of unfolding history.

"and bridge of anger to Hokianga" (last line, p. 71):  Hokianga harbour, with its giant kauri trees, celebrated as the birthplace of the Maori nation, is 3 hours' drive north of Aukland.


9. All the buildings made of voices.

          One never sees so much as through a shutter

(opening line of ATBMOV, p. 72)

Talking about the view through a window, and hence recalling the opening of LG. With a glance, too, at what is snapped by a camera.

"At night she sweated language on her sheets" (p. 72). Recurrent themes of ATBMOV  include sweat, buildings, contruction and languages. The themes are inter-connected, with literature and building intermized, e.g. "This sort of narrative city is what it's all about" (p. 74).

"hark the tui rises with perfume" (p. 73). Perfume, and stench, will become insistent features in the next chapter, TBC. The tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) is a passerine bird endemic to New Zealand, a member of the honeyeater family.


[Image source: http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/tui. Photo by Cheryl Marriner.]

Unexpectedly but appropriately, the second section of this highly-built chapter (pp. 74-78) breaks forth into extended narrative, or the nearest that Tomorrowland ever gets to it.  The story concerns Fasti, his attempts to orient himself, what he is "supposed to know", limits on what he can see, his mother's grave and his sense of isolation from her, a persistent failed quest that becomes a deportment and cannot be sustained indefinitely  ("But Fasti would be young only so long ...")

[Tā moko] The tattooed facial designs of Maori culture turn up in the poem as the woman "with blueprints on her face" (ATBMOV, p. 75) and as "our blue-stained faces revealing us as / planful admonitions" (TBC, p. 91). Less certainly, "the family carved its ink along its flesh to remember" (S, p. 30); "Then Eula took to etching ink into the hide as well" (NOM, p. 41); "Eula is a caring carving ... she took her tat and adzed it through the rockface..." (ALH, p. 65).

There's a perceptible quickening of tempo in the later chapters.... a sense of urgency, haste, multiple actions spinning out of control.  As in the first word of the passage below.

          Meantime at the mast camp Manda stirred
          the bones sighed for country
          the rearranged consent was on a paper
          bottled carefully for the occasion and extracted
          from the ground on which she fled
          seine or wood, feigned for the burial

          Such marching is as adamant as your life
          sewed stitched arrayed, loaded with wrong ideas
          stove in your head, warrantless possessions
          following each other heel on keel
          as you dance amidst the rainsocked plot
          your muddy mind could grow on
          while you gorgeously palaver all the mindsets
          close and closer to your own -- come hither hard imagined
          hard to say in this life, the blank stuff of 'knowing'
          no closer than anyone is likely to accede --
          bland parleys, blind missives,stoked defences
          piled one on one until (we reach the pinnacle
          fair minded nation state whose every desire's to
          please those waiting selves who stroved
          and borrowed just to be asked ...

(ATBMOV, pp. 79-80)


10. The body's charge.

This is the last of the main chapters (excluding the preludial TA and postludial C). That finality is announced with the opening words, distantly recalling the first line of TA.

          The second volume planned to make a method
          Of her spells and be someone entirely different collapsed
          (though she rankled trees) the fragile jeopardy stripes
          Were all along reverse of what she wrote
          She found the stripes grow down her back she reached
          Over her shoulder held the skin and pulled and
          it would not release, not go at all

The theme of an abandoned plan continues and the body is the blocker of such projections.

The poem (typically evoking Manda at this point) now enters a body-centred, helpless, sensation-centred, field.

Rest, sex, love, washing, swimming, dissolution, death, mouldering. Somehow all held together in the single word "pulcherous". (p. 86)

All this is in heavy contrast to the civilizing efforts to build in time and space that concerned the previous chapter ATBMOV, typified by its calendrical stargazing and pyramid roof-terrace.

"The body's charge" -  the charge is 1. an electrical energy, a potential energy / actual cavalry  2. an indictment, accusation. (especially on p. 88)  3. A freight, responsibility, maybe an unborn child. ("Manda's swell" p. 89).

The sudden return of Jack:

            We'll lift it up and bury us as
          orange and woody sprites become recycled selves
          in bricks and troves, in scarves and trousers
          lollipop specters nuzzling each other as the decades
          pass entranced -- the shade compels the body to follow it
          as Jack unspheres on Fasti with a tender disregard
          for the dictates of his person, ....

The burial follows swiftly.


11. Circumference.

This epilogue begins playfully but is soon conflicted, fragmentary and defensive, the opposite of triumphal anyway.  None of the four named characters make an appearance. The pronoun "I" is insistent.

                                                    I don't think
          you really want the end you're diving for... (p. 95)

Circumference's iterations of sweeping, singing and ringing sound like a lyric that fails to reassure and is jangled by an alarm-bell. Only in the last couple of lines does some sort of stability ensue.

          tested -- every ringing was the next we -- told each stories to make
          the time -- it was so fine, under the conditions and -- we were all we
          were there right -- each other trembling, our clothes symbolic travesty
          underneath our tremble chest were waves --

(pp. 97-98)


underneath our tremble chest were waves --


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Christopher Marlowe: The Massacre at Paris (c. 1592)

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, painting by the Huguenot François Dubois

[Image source: Wikipedia]

My friend, catching sight of the title, said, You're not reading about depressing news again, are you?

I'm saved the trouble (though it would really have been fun) to say much about the background to the play we are able to read, because of the outstandingly comprehensive on-line introduction by Mark Abbott for the Marlowe Society, downloadable as a 111-page PDF.


Suffice to say, then, that when Marlowe died on 30th May 1593, the play had only been performed once or twice (the London playhouses were mostly closed from June 1592 - May 1594, because of outbreaks of plague). Less than two months after Marlowe's death, on 25th July 1593, his Protestant hero Navarre (Henri IV) recanted and became a Catholic, to the delight of most French people but to the disgust of the English. You might have expected this to kill the play stone dead, but that wasn't what happened. In fact The Massacre was a very popular play and was performed frequently through the rest of the 1590s and into the early 1600s. Navarre is not a very impressive figure in the play (Marlowe was not really interested in heroes), but the Protestant triumphalism of the final scene must have taken on some unintended ironies.

Unfortunately The Massacre is one of those plays, like Shakespeare's Pericles, that survives only as a ruin. The only text, apart from a single manuscript page that is usually but not quite securely accepted as genuine (the Folger leaf), is a thoroughly "bad quarto" (actually an octavo) that is a typical memorial reconstruction. It has no scene divisions (these were added by later editors). It's less than half the length of Marlowe's other chronicle play Edward II. Like other such texts it probably represents the action reasonably fully, but it must be missing hundreds of lines. Even the lines we do have are of suspect authenticity. The verse is rough and often unmetrical. The same expressions occur more than once (e.g., in the passages below, "set the street" and "Chief standard bearer to the Lutherans").  Expansive speeches were probably abbreviated to the bare essentials, and reflective speeches dropped altogether. When necessary, the compilers invented their own crudely functional text, or synthesized it by borrowing lines from elsewhere (3 Henry VI and several other plays). What we are reading, then, is only a shadow of the play performed with such success by Edward Alleyn and The Admiral's Men.


And yet, I like The Massacre very much indeed.

It's an Elizabethan play that deals with fairly contemporary news stories (the Paris massacre was in Aug 1572 but the events of the play's final scene took place as recently as 1589).

This is not quite unprecedented, for example Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (c. 1591) deals with the death of King Sebastian of Portugal in Morocco in 1578 (there were other plays about him, too), and the "domestic tragedy" genre often dramatized fairly recent events , e.g.  A Yorkshire Tragedy (c. 1608) deals with a murderer tried in 1605. Nevertheless it's particularly thrilling in Marlowe's play, where the dramatized events were of such vital significance to his London audience.

The opening is stirring and direct.

CHARLES. Prince of Navarre, my honourable brother,
   Prince Condé, and my good Lord Admiral,
   I wish this union and religious league,
   Knit in these hands, thus joined in nuptial rites,
   May not dissolve till death dissolve our lives;
   And that the native sparks of princely love,
   That kindled first this motion in our hearts,
   May still be fueled in our progeny.  

We eagerly and instantly understand that all does not bode well, that political marriages only portray the symbolically knit hands as in a painting, and that sparks are very easy things to stamp out.

The characters are like worn heads on coins. It's difficult to sense their personalities or even their motivations. Charles, whom we have just seen allying himself more closely with the Protestant Navarre, is soon being swept along by the Catholic reaction; who knows what he really thinks? In the same way Anjou who is so much part of the massacre in the early part of the play later turns increasingly toward the Protestant side, and we never really know why. Even the Guise himself, so purely a Macchiavil on his first appearance, subsequently fails to match that theatrical stereotype at all closely.

CATHERINE. My noble son, and princely Duke of Guise,
   Now have we got the fatal, straggling deer
   Within the compass of a deadly toil,
   And, as we late decreed, we may perform.
CHARLES. Madam, it will be noted through the world
   An action bloody and tyrannical;
   Chiefly, since under safety of our word
   They justly challenge their protection:
   Besides, my heart relents that noble men,
   Only corrupted in religion,
   Ladies of honour, knights, and gentlemen,
   Should, for their conscience, taste such ruthless ends.
ANJOU. Though gentle minds should pity others' pains,
   Yet will the wisest note their proper griefs,
   And rather seek to scourge their enemies
   Than be themselves base subjects to the whip.
GUISE. Methinks, my lord, Anjou hath well advised
   Your highness to consider of the thing,
   And rather choose to seek your country's good
   Than pity or relieve these upstart heretics.
CATHERINE. I hope these reasons may serve my princely son
   To have some care for fear of enemies.
CHARLES. Well, madam, I refer it to your majesty,
   And to my nephew here, the Duke of Guise:
   What you determine, I will ratify.
CATHERINE. Thanks to my princely son. - then tell me, Guise,
   What order will you set down for the massacre?
GUISE. Thus, madam.
   They that shall be actors in this massacre
   Shall wear white crosses on their burgonets,
   And tie white linen scarves about their arms;
   He that wants these, and is suspect of heresy,
   Shall die, be he king or emperor. Then I'll have
   A peal of ordnance shot from the tower, at which
   They all shall issue out, and set the streets.
   And then the watchword being given, a bell shall ring
   Which when they hear, they shall begin to kill,
   And never cease until that bell shall cease;
   Then breathe a while.

Real history is condensed into small phrases: for example, Catherine's "fear of enemies" represents the Catholic majority's fear at the presence of men such as Admiral Coligny in their midst, a fear that boiled over into pre-emptive violence. Here's how the massacre just outlined by Guise begins, with a huddle of men on a street corner.

GUISE. Anjou, Dumaine, Gonzago, Retes, swear
   By the argent crosses in your burgonets,
   To kill all that you suspect of heresy.
DUMAINE. I swear by this, to be unmerciful.
ANJOU. I am disguised, and none knows who I am,
   And therefore mean to murder all I meet.
GONZAGO. And so will I.
GUISE. Away, then! break into the Admiral's house.
RETES. Ay, let the Admiral be first dispatched.
GUISE. The Admiral,
   Chief standard bearer to the Lutherans,
   Shall in the entrance of this massacre
   Be murdered in his bed. Gonzago
   Conduct them thither, and then
   Beset his house, that not a man may live.
ANJOU. That charge is mine. - Switzers, keep you the streets,
   And at each corner shall the King's guard stand.
GONZAGO. Come, sirs, follow me.

   Exit Gonzago and others with him.

ANJOU. Cossin, the captain of the Admiral's guard,
   Placed by my brother, will betray his lord:
   Now, Guise, shall Catholics flourish once again;
   The head being off, the members cannot stand.
RETES. But look, my lord, there's some in the Admiral's house.

   Enter [Gonzago, etc] into the Admiral's house [The gallery at the back of the stage], and he in his bed.

ANJOU. [main stage] In lucky time! Come, let us keep this lane,
   And slay his servants that shall issue out.

GONZAGO. [gallery] Where is the Admiral?
ADMIRAL.[gallery] O, let me pray before I die!
GONZAGO. [gallery] Then pray unto our lady; kiss this cross.
   Stabs him.
ADMIRAL. [gallery] O God, forgive my sins!

GUISE. [main stage] Gonzago, what, is he dead?
GONZAGO.  [gallery] Ay, my lord.
GUISE.  [main stage] Then throw him down.

[The admiral's corpse is thrown down onto the stage.]

ANJOU. Now, cousin, view him well:
   It may be it is some other, and he escaped.
GUISE. Cousin, 'tis he; I know him by his look.
   See where my soldier shot him through the arm.
   He missed him near, but we have struck him now.
   Ah, base Chatillon and degenerate,
   Chief standard bearer to the Lutherans,
   Thus, in despite of thy religion,
   The Duke of Guise stamps on thy lifeless bulk!
ANJOU. Away with him! cut off his head and hands,
   And send them for a present to the Pope;
   And, when this just revenge is finished,
   Unto Mount Faucon will we drag his corpse;
   And he, that living hated so the cross,
   Shall, being dead, be hanged thereon in chains.
GUISE. Anjou, Gonzago, Retes, if that you three
   Will be as resolute as I and Dumaine,
   There shall not be a Huguenot breathe in France.
ANJOU. I swear by this cross, we'll not be partial,
   But slay as many as we can come near.
GUISE. Montsorrell, go shoot the ordnance off,
   That they, which have already set the street,
   May know their watchword; then toll the bell,
   And so let's forward to the massacre.

Marlowe may have invented the peal of ordinance himself (impressive in the theatre). Historians seem to agree that it was throwing the Admiral's corpse out of the window (as in the painting above), that triggered the savage wave of cleansing, first in Paris and then in other towns all across France.

Dumaine = the Duc du Mayenne, Guise's younger brother.

The Admiral's head was indeed sent to the Pope, who expressed his pleasure. Marlowe didn't need to make up any of the horrors he dramatizes.

In the play as we have it, nothing is said about the Guise's personal animus against Admiral Coligny,   regarded by the Guisians as ultimately responsible for the assassination of his father. The animus seems to be there when he stamps on the body. The violence here is indeed a dramatic performance (as in Gonzago's grim joke "Then pray unto our lady; kiss this cross" -- meaning his dagger) but we don't have much sense that the Guise is only playing a Macchiavil's part here.


We've become so used to spokespersons and politicians using euphemisms to refer to atrocities that it's rather noticeable that the Guise and his allies show no such squeamishness and are quite happy to use the word "massacre".

In English, the word was effectively a new one that came into general use directly as a result of the 1572 St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. In French ("Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy") the word had existed for a long time. Like "slaughter", its original meaning seems to have been connected with the butchery trade. There is a medieval Latin instance of mazacaria meaning a meat market, perhaps ultimately from classical Latin macellum meaning a provision market. (Info from the OED.)


Title page of the Octavo, naming Marlowe as author
[Image source: http://www.marlowe-society.org/marlowe/work/massacre/history/titlepage.html]


Sunday, January 01, 2017

the vegetable soul


You now, with cherry
       tomatoes lettuce cucumber.
Every forkful entirely you,
every scrape of the plate.
    Who are you? Yes,
        that’s still a mystery.
There’ll never be another
                such as you.
You are a unique
     creation of your own soul.
One flower continually fading,

Projection of a rippling bud,
     a rose in the parchment,
     tinfoil roller behind electric bulbs,
One warm opponent.

How does it all flow back into the vanity case,
those silks?

Your feral look, your home village?
What heavy metal
     in your bones is never renewed?


Desperate for some good nutrition after the roasts, pies and creams of Christmas, I raided my own fridge and fell with unusual fury on the delicious parsley. Maybe I was short of Vitamin K, or again it might have been folic acid. I wouldn't own a great big bag of parsley like this at any other time of year; it was bought purely for sprinkling on Christmas preparations (sprouts with almonds, root vegetable mash...). The reason I wouldn't have it normally is because it isn't organic and I don´t like buying veg that isn´t organic.  In the glory days of the organic putsch, round about the late 1990s, progressive supermarkets like Sainsbury's stocked fresh organic herbs. But in Sainsbury's case complacency has long since set in; their organic range shrank back to essentials and has hardly changed at all in the last five years.

All of the vegetables in this picture come from the Iberian peninsula.

The parsley was grown by Jaime Visquert, whose farm is one of the gigantic groups of greenhouses surrounding El Ejido in Almeria. (Google Earth detail below.) The bulk of Europe's winter salad comes from places like this, where you can farm the year-round sunshine.

El Ejido, Almeria, surrounded by greenhouses (Google Earth)

The cherry tomatoes were grown by Rogiero Alves near Alcochete in Portugal (just the other side of the River Tajo from Lisbon).  Sainsbury's preference seems to be to quote individual farmers' names on their veg packaging. "Rogiero Alves" sounds much nicer than "Horticilha-agro Indústria Sa". It brings it all down to a human level, it evokes a picturesque family smallholding hung with clustered vines. But that is not how you feed a continent.

Here's an interview about Horticilha's high-tech greenhouse, at one time the largest greenhouse for organic produce in Europe:


Horticilha green-houses, beside the N5 near Alcochete (Google Earth)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bo Balderson: Death and the Minister (Statsrådet och Döden, 1968)

When people talk about the classics of the Scandinavian crime genre, they tend to mean Scandinavian Noir: authors like Henning Mankell, Kerstin Ekman, Camilla Läckberg, Stieg Larsson, Carin Gerhardsen, Jo Nesbø, Arnaldur Indridason, Peter Høeg, Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö and so on.

But the "deckare" (whodunnit) has been many other things too. Few are more off-the-wall, and yet more deeply satisfying, than the eleven "Statsrådet" ("Cabinet Minister") novels of Bo Balderson, published between 1968 and 1990.

The premise sounds like a trainwreck.  The investigator is not a detective but a larger-than-life, spontaneous, dubiously-competent, skin-of-his-teeth maverick of a cabinet minister, a post he's attained to largely by accident. The narrator is his brother-in-law, lecturer Vilhelm Persson, a reluctant and often aghast participant. The murder mysteries are classical Christie constructions with a limited range of suspects. The cabinet minister is also polyphiloprogenitive, and by the end of this first novel is expecting his fifteenth child. He's a kind of god, but Balderson has learnt the valuable lesson of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, that if you are going to introduce a kind of god into your story then the most acceptable way of doing it is to make them a bit of a buffoon.

If Balderson had submitted a synopsis, he'd never have got near a publisher. Instead, he submitted the completed novel, and publishing it must have been one of Bonniers' easier decisions: it was irresistible. The vocabulary is wide and idiomatic (a significant challenge to my Swedish-language skills), the book is full of political and social comedy in a somewhat Wodehousian style. But the fun doesn't detract from the meaty main course, an ingenious and very satisfying crime mystery which opens up unexpected depths of feeling and insight normally excluded from this type of book.

Many people, including perhaps the author himself, regard this debut novel as his masterpiece. On a small island in the Stockholm archipelago, one of the few summer residents, an elderly woman, is found murdered one evening. The fleeting figure of the putative murderer is witnessed by two other islanders. Most of the residents have no alibi: like most Swedes on holiday, they are pottering singly about their cottages at this time of day.  The blundering police investigator, desperate to make a success of his first big case, turns out to be a former pupil of lecturer Persson, a connection that's a constant embarrassment to them both. Meanwhile the national newspapers are in uproar about a cabinet minister who claims (truthfully) to have been sitting in his outside loo for an hour and a half at the time the murder took place.


We were just getting on to dessert when the door suddenly opened and a broad-shouldered stocky gentleman bustled in with a little black hold-all in his hand.

-- Might I speak to the person in charge?

He raised his voice in the way that people do when addressing a large assembly.

-- The person in charge?  echoed the minister, surprised. *

-- Yes, certainly, every camp or establishment must have a person in charge that one can speak to. Would that be you?

The minister explained that he wasn't "the person in charge" but just a normal husband and father who was having dinner with his family.

The man stepped back a pace. It was hard to say if he were more appalled or impressed.

-- My name is Dr Moberg. I have been asked to come here to see to a patient. I was on my round of home visits at the far end of the district and that is why I have been detained until now.

The minister said that the patient's wound had already been bandaged up and that he was now quite comfortable in his own home, and Dr Moberg responded by telling us what he thought of people who allowed him to set out on unnecessary journeys to remote islands. The mounting fury in his face and the way he flung his hold-all to one side suggested that expressions like "thoughtless" and "impudent" composed but a genial prelude.

To calm him down I rose and introduced the minister. Something I've observed is that it normally takes the wind out of an incensed person's sails once they realize they're face to face with a cabinet minister. Even if it's the very minister who has incensed them in the first place.

But Dr Moberg was made of sterner stuff. Informed that he was in the presence of the Home Affairs minister, he now lost all sense of restraint.

-- So it's YOU! he snarled, and the veins stood up on his neck. I've been wanting to have a word with YOU for a very long time! Do you have the least idea of the conditions your provincial doctors are expected to function in? Do you know how many hours' sleep I've managed in the past week? Or the week before that? Do you know how long it is since I last sat down to read a newspaper? Do you have the faintest notion of how many people live within my district? And what are you doing about it, you who are responsible for all this?

As if he realized it was beyond human capacity to answer all of those questions he took several swift steps towards the cabinet minister and felled him to the ground with a single, well-aimed blow.

The children helped to drag the minister to the sofa in the living-room, meanwhile uttering appreciative comments like "What a strong fellow, eh?", "Right on the chin, did you see that?" and "Daddy went down like a sack!"

Once the minister was propped up on the sofa the formidable doctor stepped forward and examined him. Clearly Dr Moberg was not one to neglect a duty of care.

-- He'll come round in a few minutes. (He seemed rather to lament this fact.) Here's my card, and here is some powdered aspirin.

Then he gathered up his hold-all and departed.

The minister woke up just in time for coffee.

He wondered what had been going on. The children told him the full story, using raw and expressive language. He rubbed his chin, shifted about as if checking that no bones were broken, and didn't say very much. But you could tell that he had quite a lot on his mind.

(Statsrådet och Döden, end of Chapter 14, translation by me)

I chose the above extract at random and immediately got bogged down in one of the book's tricky idioms:

-- Föreståndaren? svarade statsrådet begåvat.

"Begåvat" is the adverbial form of "begåvad" (gifted, talented), so the sentence literally means something like

"The principal?", answered the cabinet minister brightly.  
But both adjective and adverb are often used sarcastically in Swedish, and in the particular context of narrative dialogue this sarcastic usage is now the predominant one.  (The SAOB entry, from 1901, supplies no hint of this, but I got help from native Swedish-speakers on a translation forum.)


 ”Det är jag”, sa jag begåvat när hon svarade

"It's me", I said brightly (meaning inanely) when she picked up the phone.

”Jylland”, sa jag begåvat medan Tine väntade på att mitt minne skulle börja fungera igen.

"Jylland," I said brightly (meaning stupidly), as Tine waited for my memory to kick in.

Maken tittade förvirrat upp från en av alla de skrifter han omger sig med och svarade begåvat: - va?

My husband looked up confused from all the papers around him and answered brightly (meaning vacantly): "Eh?"

So what is really being conveyed in Balderson's sentence is not the brightness of the minister's response but, on the contrary, his bemusement, gawping, being all at sea.

Even those expressions don't quite capture the full flavour of the Swedish word, which suggests the well-meaning but hapless efforts of someone trying to seem alert and intelligent.


The novel's leading character is never given a name but is referred to throughout as "Statsrådet": The Cabinet Minister.

In Swedish this is not particularly jarring as people are often referred to by their job-titles rather than their names. (Indeed, fifty years ago this was the normal form of polite address.)

In the Swedish text "Statsrådet" is soon accepted as a familiar nickname: it acquires overtones of fondness (or sometimes exasperation).

When translating the text into English it's a constant problem that "the minister" produces just the opposite effect: it threatens to reduce intimacy, and to distance the hero from his family and surroundings.

"Bo Balderson" is a pseudonym; the true identity of the author has been jealously guarded by his or her publishers and agent for the past 48 years, and remains undisclosed.

This has proven to be excellent publicity, especially when newspaper articles have speculated that Balderson must be someone well-known, such as a senior politician or an author famous for other books. (The smart money, however, has long been on the relatively humble college lecturer Björn Sjöberg.)

A number of email interviews purporting to be with Bo Balderson have appeared over the years. I discovered this one in Svenska Magasinet, a free magazine for Swedes on the Costa Blanca, in 2008. The interviewer was Iwan Morelius, founder of DAST magazine (about Swedish crime fiction), and it was brokered via Balderson's literary agent Bengt Nordin. (Both interviewer and agent were by this time resident in Spain.)

The interview sounds convincingly genuine to me, but you never know. Some people argue that Bo Balderson was the publisher Åke Runnquist, who worked for Bonniers (with special interest in crime fiction) and who died in 1991, which would of course explain why no further novels have appeared since 1990.

IM: One final question: When will you reveal yourself? As Ingalill wisely remarked in one of her articles about you,  it seems rather a shame to be unmasked only after your death. Wouldn't it be better to plan this "disclosure" in a spectacular way perhaps, something that only you can think up? Consider!
BB: I'll do it when I'm awarded the Nobel Prize. At the beginning of the ceremony, I'll be wearing my mask, but once I've been handed my prize by the King I'll take the mask off, and then everyone'll say: "But he already won the prize, several years ago!"

Online text of the interview (in Swedish):

Here's another post about a forgotten corner of the "deckare" genre:


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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Jörg Demus plays the Claviharp at Ringve Museum (1977)

The English-style garden at Ringve Museum near Trondheim

We love the shapes of boats, and of violins. By long evolution, and by restless striving against the intractable constraints of natural forces, a form emerges that appears optimal and classical. Being an answer to Nature’s question, it becomes in a certain way a part of nature; though the violinist knows from his calloused chin that the instrument is not quite optimal, and contains many measures of failure, pain and compromise. But the pain, like a high price, to a certain extent validates the form: it is worth this. 

But if a fiddle can be compared with a yacht, most of the thousands of other musical instruments that have been invented are more like rafts. Most of them didn’t work well enough and strike us now as amusing travesties, testaments to misplaced ingenuity.

The Ringve Museum, near Trondheim, is Norway’s national museum of musical instruments. Jörg Demus is an Austrian pianist who has made many recordings. The “pianoharpe” (from the Norwegian liner-notes) is the instrument known in English as a claviharp, claviharpe,  keyed harp or harp piano. This one was made around 1870 by  Christian Dietz, instrument-maker of Brussels. (The claviharp was invented by J C Dietz in around 1813.) It is a decorative instrument, lacquered in Japanese style. It has a six-octave keyboard and looks rather like a small upright piano, except that instead of an enclosed chamber for the strings, a sweeping harp-like frame rises in front of the player’s head. The strings are plucked rather than hammered, and the instrument weighs far less than a piano does.  

The Ringve Claviharp (left)

In the recording of 1977, Jörg Demus plays a number of short pieces by Debussy, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and others on this instrument.

The chiming, bell-like tone of the melody line in the upper register is at once striking. (It seems, however, that this can be restrained, as in the piece by Bach.) I don’t know how the piano-harp is played, but I assume it is entirely by means of the keyboard and the two pedals. It hardly sounds like it. Though that clear bell-like tone is beguiling, one is immediately aware of a stealthy scuffle of apparently unrelated sounds behind it. In the bass a muffled thump half-conceals the note. There is a continuous, inconsequent background of soft thuds, perhaps a side-effect of the mechanics. Sometimes even the higher notes sound muted, and sometimes in the midst of passages we hear a quite different sound: a sharp, unresonant twang that sounds a bit like someone striking the strings of an unamplified electric guitar.   

No instrument is without its limitations, and the piano-harp would seem to have more than most.  Some of the noises just mentioned sound as if they are not under the performer’s control, fine musician though he obviously is. The tempi have a perennial flutter about them, so that the notes in a run are of slightly unequal lengths;  an effect we eventually come to accept as intrinsic, rather as we accept the stumbling rhythm of a peal of bells. The dynamics, too, seem widely varied, suggesting that the performer does not always know if a note will plang or plink. Just as precision tempi seem to be difficult, so do precisely marshalled chords; they tend to be played broken, and the pieces seem to come to a halt with odds and ends of notes.

Yet the music is delightful. It is also exciting, because it opens a door, and lets us overhear, faintly, how different our culture could have been if, through some accident, the piano-harp had stood in the piano’s place. With repeated listens we begin, without conscious effort, to learn the aesthetic of the piano-harp.

Eventually there comes a point where it is difficult to assert with real confidence that we are better off for not having to make do with the piano-harp. An instrument’s limitations, quite as much as its strengths, are what give the music and our conception of the instrument a “character”, which is perhaps the essential factor in being able to interpret what we hear as having a “meaning”, that is to say a cultural significance. Therefore limitations in an instrument do not produce limitations in the wisdom of what can be said with it; in fact, the technical challenges they create provide opportunities for exposing, and polishing, new facets of that wisdom. Just as fully functional languages can be composed from any number of narrow selections of all the noises that a human voice can make,  so we could have made music as natural and as human with different instruments. The difference, utterly transforming as it would have been, is not clearly a difference of value. [The difference that it makes whether, for instance, we grow up speaking English or Italian, is something that can only be contemplated by those who are fluent in both languages; those who are, of all people, the least prone to claim that one language or the other is superior.] 

But I have written this in the past conditional, as if the piano-harp is an odd, trivial, dead end of the sort that interests only those mostly elderly folk who knock about in museums. But in fact, to listen to it is to hear the certain future as well as a curiosity of the past. Our musical instruments, like our languages, will change and are slowly changing every day. And these changes, in any aspect of human culture, affect all the rest, so that even when something does stay the same (such as a sound recording) it is now heard differently – a recording of the Léner Quartet sounds not like a string quartet but like an old string quartet. Which is one application of Gösta Ågren’s poem, The Ego:

            The one who never changes
            becomes another.  


There was a serious fire at Ringve Museum in August 2015. Some instruments were lost on upper floors. Fortunately the ground floor rooms, such as the "Beethoven" room that contains the piano-harp, were not affected.  

Ringve Museum


Jörg Demus, LP Sleeve from 1978

Jörg Demus (b. 1928) is an Austrian pianist. He has made prolific recordings including a complete edition of Schumann's piano music. You can find lots of his musicianly and sensitive performances on Youtube. 


On YouTube you can hear several pieces performed by Daniel Grimwood on a claviharp restored by David Winston.  Here are two that demonstrate the instrument's sonorities particularly well.   


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