Thursday 23 August 2018

Robert Creeley, Virginia Woolf

Take Creeley, seize him by his surname, and Virginia Woolf, to give her both her names, set his tiny Hanuman book, printed in Madras, beside her Penguin Classic mode, and you have the shock of our common yet multifarious pasts, his awkwardly analytical, hers embedded with relief in her words.

Creeley pauses towards the end of his autobiography on a line from Ginsberg—'And the sky above, an old blue place'—that Zukovsky was shy of, he said, because it fouls up the gauges, makes them stick. I have read the previous 99 pages waiting for gauges to be fouled, if not shattered, if not rhapsodised.

In 1939 when she was 51, Virginia Woolf wrote in 'A Sketch of the Past', that it was her shock-receiving capacity that made her a writer, writing puts the severed parts together, that Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet are the truth about this vast mass that we call the world.
But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.
How would 'A Sketch of the Past' read as in a Hanuman Book printed in Madras?

I like to read the page as well as the words, the non-being as well as the being. Poets of the Creeley mode are less concerned with the page, or unlucky with their publishers. Tiny Hanuman does for his thoughts on this life for which he has responsibility, as he puts it on page one, 'a substantial life, like a dog, but hardly as pleasant, to be dealt with no matter one could or couldn't, wanted to or not'.

Creeley the poet is uncomfortable with the task of autobiography; Virginia Woolf tunes her sketch of the past into her writing mode. Her life or the life of someone she sits opposite on the train down from London to Sussex, one she knows and the other she can imagine: tis all the one.

Creeley is a poet, unconscient of the page, the shock, keeping everything under his surname. Virginia Woolf is a poet also,

Sunday 19 August 2018

Robert Creeley, Autobiography

Robert Creeley's Autobiography published in tiny, wonky, format by Hanuman Books, Madras and New York, in 1990, you can read alongside anything, alongside Chopin, and the ripeness of summer.
A friend's father showed us how to make willow whistles and a more enduring kind from short lengths of copper or lead pipe we'd cut with a hacksaw, to make the notch, then pull partially with wood at one end. I recall there being endless things to learn and do of that kind, slingshots, huts (as we called them) in the woods, traps, and a great proliferating lore of rituals and locations, paths through the woods, secret signs, prisons for all manner of imaged possibility including at one point the attempt to make a glider out of bed sheets and poles tied together.
I have been a shy reader of poetry, preferring what poets say once they've slipped into something more comfortable, once they've made a flute out of willow and written a hundred hand sewn pages, approx 3 by 4 inches, of autobiography in an apartment block in Helsinki in the late eighties.

Creeley, we are in a land of surnames, like Ginsberg, Zukovsky, Williams, Duncan, Olson, makes his world, or he knows where it is, and it's somewhere along the road to his understanding of what consitutes manhood.
So it's probable that what I most wanted was a world, if not of that kind, at least of that place. ... It seemed absurd to go where there were no relationships.
He has his place, his people, but not his father or his left eye or his daughter Leslie, who died age eight. He has a measure of success. The kind that poets concede rather than enjoy. He has the span of literature to situate himself among. Homer and Hesiod onward. These men, they take comfort in each other's surnames. And there are some ground rules.
'To tell the truth the way the words lie.'

Saturday 11 August 2018

Virginia Woolf, The Mark on the Wall

In recent weeks I have been to late nineteenth century Brazil and nineteen thirties Russia. Today I felt like coming home to Virginia Woolf in first world war England—less England than her inner life as it settles into words. Ten pages of the story/essay The Mark on the Wall were enough to release me on this rare—this summer—wet afternoon.

I have never been drawn to meditation but I like contemplation and the vagaries of idle thought, especially in a familiar place. Virginia Woolf in her chair with her writing board and her cigarette after tea, notices a mark on the wall and that mark leads her hither and yon.
How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it...
So does she—swarm, lift, carry and leave her mark on the wall, on the page. She is mannered and idle by today's standards. She is not going anywhere that she knows about in advance.
Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one's hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse.
She wants, she writes, to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. So this is home, and home is the place you can think from, sink from, into fluid intermingled non-facts. We need more of those.
Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one's though as a fish slices the water with his fin ...
From the mark on the wall she moves into trees—
first the close dry sensation of being wood; then the grinding sap of the storm; then the slow delicious ooze of sap. I like to think of it, too, on winter's nights standing in the empty field with all leaves close-furled, nothing tender exposed to the iron bullets of the moon, a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long.
Reading is like a series of baths, salt, sweet and aromatic.
Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner

Epitaph of a small winner, or, literally translated, 'posthumous memoirs of Braz Cubas', came out of Brazil in 1880, written by Machado de Assis, whose own ill-health encouraged him to look at life from beyond the grave as a modest, playful sequence of not-quite-events; he brushes by everything long enough to recognise and toss aside what he will not achieve. So be it.

Here is a brush with paternity, for example.
One afternoon the castle of my paternal fantasies crumbled to dust. The embryo went away, at that stage at which a Laplace and a turtle look very much alike... I leaned against the window and looked out at the grounds behind the house, where the orange trees were turning green.
All we might count as major in life is brought to size in 200 pages of epitaph; frankness, as he says, is most appropriate to a defunct. 19th century Brazil could be Portugal, could be Spain or Italy or Argentina. Clarice Lispector's Brazil half a century later included a larger swathe of society. She had the blow-in's curiosity about the entire society she had entered at the age of one. Machado de Assis was born of a washerwoman and a wall painter. He emerges from his past without looking back. His books are what he created for himself, his modest ascent represented by Braz Cubas, narrator of this epitaph.

Here he is in chapter 24, Short but Happy.
I was prostrate with grief. And yet my character in those days was a faithful compendium of triviality and presumption. The problem of life and death had never troubled my mind; until the day of mother's death. I had never looked down into the abyss of the inexplicable, for I had lacked the essential stimulus, the confusion of mind resulting from a personal catastrophe.
He views life on a clean sheet each time; every abyss is enviably new. His life may be modest but it is examined, with relief.
How glorious to throw away your cloak, to strip off all your spangles in a ditch, to unfold yourself, to strip off all your paint and ornaments, to confess plainly what you were and what you failed to be!
Machado dictated this novel to his wife. It reads quick and light, apologetic and explanatory, leaping over loves lives ambition and death like a gazelle in a theme park. In later life he suffered from epilepsy and eye problems, and thus, some think, found this dreamy talking style, talking to yourself via your most trusted listener, saving any trace of misery for the last sentence of the last chapter: 'I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.'

There are several ways of belonging. One is you're born to it. Another is you fabricate it in such words as you can call up from your own particular abyss before you fall into it.