Literature

"Church Going" Philip Larkin, read by Tom O'Bedlam (The Less Deceived, The Fortune Press, 1955)

A little obvious perhaps, it’s certainly one of the most famous poems written in English, well-known to any school or university literature student, but it’s still one of the most beautiful, especially in this reading. Often it’s stated baldly that this is not a religious poem, or is used to describe the increase of secularisation in Western countries, but the final verses remain ambiguous to me, as if the need - as we have seen in Paris recently - for some kind of communal space, whether it’s linked to religion or culture remains a keep aspect of what it is to be human.

“Bored uninformed knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation--marriage and birth 
And death and thoughts of these--for which was built
This special shell? For though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth 
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete 
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious 
And gravitating with it to this ground 
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in 
If only that so many dead lie round.”

(It pleases me to stand in silence here).

Linton Kwesi Johnson, "Street 66" (Bass Culture, Island Records, 1980)

The room was dark
Dusk howling softly 6 o'clock
Charcoal light
The fine sight
Was moving black
The sound was music mellow steady flow
And man son mind just mystic red, green, red, green
Your scene

No man would dance but leap and shake
That shock through feeling right
Shape that sound
Tumbling down
Making movement, ruff enuff
Cos when the music met I taps
I felt the sting, knew the shock, yeah, had to do and ride the rock
Outta dis rock shall come a greener riddim
Even more dread than what the breeze of glory bred
Vibrating violence is how wi move
Rocking with green rhythm
The drought and dry root out

The mighty poet I Roy was on the wire
Weston did a skank and each man laugh and feeling irie, dread I
Street 66, the said man said
Any policeman come here will get some righteous, raasclot licks
Yeah mon, whole heapa licks

Hours beat, the scene moving right
When all on a sudden
Bam, bam, bam, a knocking pon the door
"Who is dat?", aksed Weston, feeling right
"Open up, it's the police, come on, open up"
"What address do you want?"
"Number 66, come on, open up"
Weston, feeling high, replied, "Yes, this is Street 66, step right in and
Take some licks."

Retro poetic: ‘Thieves in the night’ Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Rawkus Records, 1998) plus Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?/And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? 

Langston Hughes, 'Let America Be America Again' (1936) 

Listening to “Thieves in the night” now, a song I know well and have listened to so many, many times over the years, what strikes me most is its intimacy, in particular, the verse of Talib Kweli. This reflects the way it’s recorded, there seems to be no space between the elements; this makes the music sound close to you. But it’s also the way Kweli sounds so sincere, so urgent, when presenting his verse.

Urgency is a key defining quality for me when appreciating the work of an MC, especially when you can sense something of the artist's personality and if it feels true, sincere. I’ve had plenty of conversations with hip-hop fans, more knowledgeable than me, who argue for the quality or cleverness of rhymes as being the key defining element of an artist's worth. Often such talk comes across as mathematics. For whatever reason I hear the music/feeling first – the way the music sounds, the way it’s put together.

Strange, though, to be speaking of this in relation to “Thieves in the night” that is at once heartfelt and political. I won’t summarise/paraphrase the politics as it’s there for you, written on the page, but this is politics as lived experience, as something that is deeply felt. The genius lies in the way the song allows for sentiment to co-exist with the message. See, for example, the wry quality of the hook, with its mild admonishment that can still make you smile – ‘now who the nicest?’ – while savaging the compliance, complicity of the oppressed.      

[Hook: Mos Def, (Talib Kweli)]
Not strong (Only aggressive)
Not free (We only licensed)
Not compassionate, only polite (Now who the nicest?)
Not good but well behaved
(Chasing after death, so we can call ourselves brave?)
Still living like mental slaves
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice

***     

[Verse 1: Talib Kweli]

Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow
And so tomorrow coming later than usual
Waiting on someone to pity us while we finding beauty in the hideous
They say money’s the root of all evil but I can’t tell
You know what I mean, pesos, francs, yens, cowrie shells, dollar bills
Or is it the mindstate that’s ill?
Creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build
Over money and religion there’s more blood to spill
The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal, what’s the deal?

Produced by 88-Keys, the only track he produced on the record and inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye 

Thieves in the night is also the title of a novel by Arthur Koestler, published in 1946 and described by this contemporary New York Times review as ‘bitter, sardonic, probing and introspective, and it is given an ironic kind of pity and terror by the struggle between yogi and commissar that still seems unresolved in Mr. Koestler's soul’.

Many of the listeners commenting below the YT video single out Mos Def’s - Yasiin Bey's - verse, understandably perhaps, as it is a classic example of an MC speaking directly to the listener, as if he is sharing some essential truths, “most cats in my area be loving the hysteria/synthesized surface conceals the interior …” The line about “America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages” connects with the repeated refrain in the hook about “illusions of oasis.” Mos Def here is relating a kind of false-consciousness, as it used to be called. Certainly, there’s frustration in the following:

America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages
More than usually, speaking loudly
Saying nothing, you confusing me, you losing me
Your game is twisted, want me enlisted in your usury
Foolishly, most men join the ranks cluelessly
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past
Looking gassed with them imported designer shades on
Stars shine bright, but the light rarely stays on
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement
Put you on a yacht but they won’t call it a slave ship
Strangeness, you don’t control this, you barely hold this
Screaming “brand new”, when they just sanitized the old shit
Suppose it’s, just another clever Jedi mind trick
That they been running across stars through all the time with
I find it’s distressing, there’s never no in-between
We either n*ggas or Kings, we either b*tches or Queens
The deadly ritual seems immersed in the perverse
Full of short attention spans, short tempers, and short skirts
Long barrel automatics released in short bursts
The length of black life is treated with short worth
Get yours first, them other n*ggas secondary
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal
Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you
Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain’t directed
That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive
Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained
Our sincerity’s rehearsed in stage, it’s just a game
Not good, but well behaved cause the camera survey
Most of the things that we think, do or say
We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave

But there is also great tenderness in this verse. It is written from the perspective of someone who is speaking to those who like him are trying to make sense of a frequently hostile environment, where their very existence often seems to be open to debate. Such writing is comparable in impact (and theme) to the famous Langston Hughes poem, ‘Let America Be America Again’ published in 1936 in Esquire. 

A poem that would have had an enormous impact when published in that era of Jim Crow in the way it presents unspeakable truths, while giving voice to people not commonly heard. Here is an extract, the poem can be read here

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

Strangely, or perhaps not so much, the poem’s title has been misused, co-opted by a number of (white) politicians in the US, as Wik explains, ….

"The title of this poem was used by Democratic United States senator John Kerry as a campaign slogan in his 2004 presidential campaign. In 2011 an exploratory committee for conservative Republican former senator Rick Santorum used a variant of the phrase ("Fighting to make America America again") on its website; told of the slogan's derivation from the Hughes poem, Santorum stated he had "nothing to do with" its use by the committee."  

Even the most extreme and successful example of a white supremacist politician, the current US President, seems to have co-opted the title in his inane campaign slogan that is all about race-based exclusion and violence. This co-option reflects what I often think is a degree of awareness among white racists that the very foundations of their bigotry are not only morally abject, but untenable. Everything, in the end, is stolen. And they know it.

And yet, despite or perhaps because of this, the poem by Hughes has a kind of secrecy about it that gives it enormous power, particularly in the repeated refrain, (America never was America to me.) Never before has the use of punctuation been so charged, full of meaning. But this secrecy is also there in the italicised lines and the poem's conclusion, which contains apparent contradictions within it in terms of its tone. It includes extremely tough depictions of suffering (the perpetrator of the crimes remaining nameless) to end on a kind of rallying cry.

Langston Hughes, like his descendents sixty years on, had the capacity to speak on many levels, while maintaining emotional intensity. This underscores their status as great writers. But Hughes inevitably was also writing in code, able to share one hidden, unacknowledged truth – “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” – but only by cloaking it in the notion that this suffering was universal and might lead to a greater good. This interplay can be seen particularly at the end in the final verses of the poem. 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (New York, Vintage, 1998)

After a long, long time of reading, certainly, but reading snippets and slashes, feasting on morsels of information/arguments – so many arguments – chosen by others, unfolding in an endless scroll, I am reading books again.

Appropriately, the second book since this return is one I first read many years ago: Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, published in 1995. What struck me this time around was how strange, in the best possible way this novel is despite its massive commercial success, both in Europe and the United States and elsewhere. (The same success that makes me hesitate to even write on the book at all: it was selected as a favourite on Oprah’s Book Club).

Something about the depiction of the central character, Michael Berg, struck me as incredibly true, so honest; the way Schlink evokes his silence and apparent indifference, but decades-long devotion to this woman he had loved as a teenager. Reading the novel the dominant impression you get of this man is that he has no feeling, he seems callous to the point of indifference (when, for example, Hanna Schmitz is sentenced). But still, he makes cassettes for her – reading aloud – for her to listen to while she is in jail, for years with no messages included in the packages he sends.

I never made a personal remark on the tapes, never asked after Hanna, never told her anything about myself. I read out the title, the name of the author and the text. When the text was finished, I waited a moment, closed the book and pressed the stop button.

It is the combination of the repeated act and the way that it is presented that conveys the power of the unspoken commitment. In contrast, Hanna's responses have a wonderful spontaneity about them, as she responds to the authors as if they were still alive: 'There were always only a few lines, a thank you, a wish to hear more of a particular author or to hear no more, a comment on an author or a poem or a story or a character in a novel, an observation about prison.'

‘The forsythia is already in flower in the yard’ or ‘I like the fact that there have been so many storms this summer’ or ‘From my window I can see the birds flocking to fly south’ - often it was Hanna’s note that made me pay attention to the forsythia, the summer storms, or the flocks of birds. Her remarks about literature often landed astonishingly on the mark, ‘Schnitzler barks, Stefan Zweig is a dead dog’ or ‘Keller needs a woman’ or ‘Goethe’s poems are like tiny paintings in beautiful frames’ or ‘Lenz must write on a typewriter.’

'Alone' Tomas Tranströmer, trans. Robin Fulton. New Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2011

     I

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies. 

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.

Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.

    II

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone's door.

Many.

One. 

transtromer1962-2000px-jpg.jpeg

Reading Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality – Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, trans William Weaver   

Two days ago, I made my way down Avenue de Clichy to the northern edge of Paris, where I collected the documents needed for my son’s entry to middle-school; this part of the city has always appealed to me, partly for its raffish edge (the bars/restaurants with all the chancers, scroungers, the kinds of outsiders you might find in a Lou Reed song, circa 1978).

Grimy, but it’s also an extremely physical, a sensual urban space – partly because of the very many trees that provide cover, dappling the concrete in shadows – but largely because of the constant movement of people. This is not an elegant environment, but rather an ‘uncontrolled’ space that reminds me of Zamalek in Cairo – it has the same faded grandeur, very dusty - a place I visited when I was a teenager with my parents, perhaps because of the unkept forgotten architecture; the way the residents live in tiny spaces, in darkened rooms that look out on to the street.

This part of Paris could be any southern city, somewhere where there are warm nights, subtropical: densely populated and insalubrious. Close to the final intersection that marks a redevelopment site, or sites, I saw this ‘hut construction’ filled with some books, kept together with thick black tape.

I moved forward to take a photograph of the ‘hut’ on my phone. A man suddenly was standing beside me, with an impatient feel, so I stated the obvious – and said what I was doing, that I was taking a photograph. I then went on to ask the obvious, ‘Can we take these books?’ You can, he said, and walked away. Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality in English translation.

The collection of essays, written for newspapers mainly includes a piece that I have since learnt was deeply influential on activists wanting to disrupt the messages put out by the media, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ .  

‘The mass communication universe is full of … discordant interpretations; I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications. The messages set out from the Source and arrive in distinct sociological situations, where different codes operate,’ Eco wrote.

Such thinking is now commonplace – almost reified, it often seems via the simplistic stances of mass media versions of Identity Politics. Back in 1967, though, this idea that the way someone interprets a message was context-based – or as it became known later, identity-based – was new. When I was studying journalism decades after this essay was published, it was still open for debate, with some believing that the media had the power to directly shape and form opinion in a unified fashion, as if the message was similar to a syringe inserting information/viewpoint directly into the public’s consciousness.

There is much to appreciate in this collection, a highlight for me was his 1979 essay, more like a piece of reportage, on an Afro-Brazilian rite of the Candomblé, ‘Whose side are the Orixà on?’ It is very vivid, full of detail and recreation of an experience with people desperate to fall into a trance and thereby lose themselves for a moment.

Much of it is funny as well, with a wry touch, especially the beginning section where Eco asks himself questions about the value of the real and the fake, as he visits a series of wax museums in the United States and the Hearst Mansion, where he writes what offends is the ‘voracity’ of the selection, what is distressing is the 'fear of being caught up in venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavour, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sexual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass.'   

Avenue-de-Clichy_Louis-Aquetin.jpg

'Avenue de Clichy' Louis Anquetin, 1887

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Paris Récit: Strasbourg-Saint-Denis

Just a few minutes, before the stop Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, a young woman

Dressed in a T-shirt that shows the word Belfast sits down beside me, reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire, page 38-39, ‘She was my darling: difficult, morose -- But still my darling …’

So, he asks me: ‘What happened with that friend of yours you couldn't reach, that one in the US ...'  It ended up being okay, I guess you could say that, um; it turns out he was depressed - he's fine now.

You can understand, you can understand – just imagine, just imagine … How it would be.

‘Maybe, though me, I’d much prefer it,’ he says, so says Fousseyni. ‘Better than how it is here, with all the hehehehehehehehehe …’   

Scrunching up his face, he repeats: ‘Hehehehehehehehe’  

Giggling once more, this man from Mali does his best impression of the fake-laugh of a white Frenchwoman, la blanche in all her hypocritical duplicity.

‘Come on, now Fouss, here, in Paris you can breathe;

they leave you be. It’s not like when you’re out on the street you’re being shot by the police,

it’s not like in the Etats-Unis.’  

Mmmm, Fouss pauses, scrunches his face once more, says, mmmm.

He’s not so sure.

Says he’d much prefer it over there, in the US, at least over there in the US, it’s direct,

It’s in your face, the racism and all that bullshit, and all that crap and nastiness is made explicit, it’s something you can see.

Strasbourg-Saint-Denis

Celebrating ‘small magazines’ - Meanjin (in a minor key cont.)

One of the Internet’s negative aspects is also its greatest strength; everyone and anyone can be published, with no intermediary: it’s DIY in excelsis. No-one could argue against this, but it has also weakened the status of print publications, such as literary magazines (and newspapers, of course).

In this era of vast mass publishing, there is a constant hum of content where high/low jostle for attention. Readers skim, scan, jump & start up again, go to the comments, make comments. It’s a totally new process of reading. Lost here, though, is any feeling that you are entering a private space. Choosing to read something, over an extended period of time – just like choosing to listen to a record over an extended period of time … - is personal. The fact that you have made that choice makes it more intimate.

My father sent me two books for Christmas: Ten ways not to commit suicide the memoir by Darryl McDaniels – aka DMC (from the legendary 80s hip-hop group, Run-DMC) and the most recent issue of Meanjin, a literary magazine that has been in existence since 1940. I’m reading both in bits and pieces as a break from my reading/writing on the (terrorist) ‘brothers’ and haven’t finished either. Reading Meanjin again, however, reminds me of the value of small literary magazines and independent publishers …

As we all navigate our way in a more venal and frankly stupid political world, which includes the primary-school antics of El Bizarro in the US (how could he think that having Putin as ‘a fan’ is a compliment?) I think it’s time to go ‘elitist’, niche as way of affirming an alternative community. In the words of one of our wise men:

We brave in the heart, playin a part, amazingly smart
Razor sharp, futuristic raps, state of the art

Refusing the norms imposed by tabloid jesters, affirming something completely apart, can also be political and an act of transgression. 

In a literary magazine, such as Meanjin there is no effort to contort the writers, or the pieces they have written to fit into some kind of house style; the mix and diversity is what counts. Having said that you can also feel the imprint of the editorial team in a way that is unimaginable within the vast store-room of a newspaper or many online news & entertainment sources (unless they are self-consciously esoteric). And then small magazines support the eco-sytem of writers, those starting out and established, forging points of connection between disparate voices that could not, or would not fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a newspaper, or magazine showing any interest in publishing those long essays on Borges, or Houellebecq, for example: Heat edited by the understated, but crucial figure in the Australian literary world, Ivor Indyk was their obvious home. (The essay on Lou Reed appeared in an earlier issue of Meanjin).

Only part way through Meanjin I’m already been impressed by the range: Alexis Wright’s essay on Aboriginal (literary/political) dispossession, ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ followed by Ben Wilkie’s piece on a ‘seven-metre obelisk of grey granite’ that was put up by white colonists to mark the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun/Oombete Poonyan, who was thought the be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.

I liked the way the two pieces of writing – different in style and voice and sensibility and perspective, necessarily – were side by side; reading the two together was valuable, as this desire to ‘mark the passing’ of the First Nations people (the monument included the dates, 1840-1883, which Wilkie says marked the period when the local Aborigines were ‘displaced’ - his word) is, of course, problematic.

It is also rare. In Australia, as with the United States, or any country where there is a history of long-term race-based, or colonial, violence, it’s almost unthinkable for those who claim victory to keep a public record of their brutality. Wilkie ends his essay this way, in part:

As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in our country towns (…)

There’s still much more besides in this issue of Meanjin – a wonderful memoir of a Polish Jewish actress who survived, Sonia Lizaron by Arnold Zable and a really strong poetry, fiction selection as well. The story by John Kinsella, ‘Sisters’ included this description of the wastrel junkie who came to stay that appealed to me: ‘He was high maintenance, but he was hardcore’.

No need to smooth any of the rough edges in any of this, the value is to be found in the clash and intersection of radically different voices; this is what gives it its spark. And again, is something unique about small independent magazines – and publishers – who are not so taken with the notion of branding themselves to compete.

Commentators offering advice on how to survive the next four years, let’s hope the Weird One loses interest in the low-energy nature of daily 'intelligence' and returns to his playground, so high up in the clouds, before then, have repeated the importance of supporting independent media, I can only endorse this.

Subscribe to small magazines, if that’s of interest, and/or support the big newspapers as they are the only vehicles with the heft and capacity to cause damage, if that is something that appeals to you.

To find out more about Meanjin, including the most recent issue's contents, go here.