Early November Thoughts

 Posted by at 8:55 am  ON the STREET  Comments Off
Nov 272008

We Look To the Pure Line I


A mother’s breast-feeding her three-year-old son

On the Metro

I’m standing, holding on

Swaying to the movement

Peripherally aware of a young woman taking off her jacket

One yard to my left

And to my right

The breast-feeding mother


First one breast, then a rest

His saturated head lolling

Then the other breast

An oldish mother

Perhaps forty-five

Lines round her eyes

Care worn, we say

The price of ever-giving kindness

Soft and pale

Shades of brown

Heart held


The train driver

Brakes more sharply than necessary

And I imagine him

Enjoying the thought of his passengers jerking

Recovering their balance

Jerking again

And then remembering

His wife

Suckling their infant son

Somewhere deep in the train

Behind him


We Look To the Pure Line II


 Another day, another Metro journey

Returning from a Remembrance Day Mass

Four of us men

Dark suits and ties

Poppies in lapels.

When a woman

A mother

Thin pinched

Gets on with her six year old a daughter

And a baby at her shoulder

And a bottle for the baby

She instructs her daughter in begging


After a preparatory litany for us

Her benefactors

That none of us can understand

She stands in front of us

Her hand a curled claw

She stares at us

We look straight ahead or at the ground


Baby’s sucking on the teat of the bottle

The little girl unpractised unpolished

Twisting the throwaway plastic beaker in her hand

For a moment I see it from her point of view

Or is it only from my own six year old self’s view

We’re coming home on the bus

Coming home from visiting family

On the top deck

I always wanted to travel on the top deck

The bus swaying through the dark

There’s a drunk

Shouting or singing

Dad says something to him

Perhaps it’s ‘shut up’

The drunk mumbles a response

Half-hidden I have to decode what’s going on

And what are our chances of survival.





 Posted by at 5:29 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Nov 262008

I was in Berlin on Saturday (22nd) to celebrate L _’s 50th birthday, her life and the excellence of her work, and the warmth she brings to this great city.  Here are two pieces to accompany the celebrations of that day.

1. mit tram haften Aussichten

Blank vertical

sheathed in plastic

rises into the morning sky.


One rectangular sheet

flaps in the wind

as if left out by her.


2. Verrückheit ohne Traurigkeit

Between the lines

and simplified curves,

dead ends, and cold dark surfaces,


The disc grinder tune

plays into the greater day,

the hammer on metal hammering.


1. mit tram haften Aussichten
Waking early that Saturday I looked at these words on a large sign on the opposite side of Alexanderplatz across an “empty landscape”, a huge rectangular pit the size of several football pitches (i) . Then that night I sat between two women who both live in Berlin, and we talked about the great city, and also about the writer Joseph Roth (ii) , and it triggered a memory of something Roth had written about another space he had once found in Berlin, one he called a place of ‘life-bringing warmth and benediction of movement’ (iii) .


(i) An “empty landscape” is one way I remember growing up in England after the war. Sometimes in the school playground we would call the very thin children ‘Belsen’, and I do not recall our teachers, parents, or other adults ever reprimanding us.  Then before coming to Berlin, I reread the text of the Hannah Arendt Prize lecture given by Tony Judt in Bremen in 2007. It was called The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe, and Judt too, a Jew growing up in England after the war also remembers the absence of any discussion on the topic.

(ii) Actually, I made a muddle in what I said.  I confused the name of Roth’s passionate translator into English, Michael Hofmann, with that other poet and great translator, Michael Hamburger, who died in 2007. But by good fortune, my mess-up helped our conversations interweave.

(iii) ‘Affirmation of the Triangular Railway Junction’, Frankfurter Zeitung, July 16, 1924

Joseph Roth, What I Saw , Reports from Berlin 1920-33, tr Michael Hofmann, Granta Books, London, 2003, Pp 105-8.


2. Verrückheit ohne Traurigkeit

During the day on Saturday, as many first-time visitors to Berlin do, I went to the Jüdische Museum (i) , and standing alone at the base of the Holocaust Tower, the click of the door shutting behind me filled me with fear and dread (ii) . A moment of madness, but I felt no sadness, it was another “empty landscape”, and only that night as an accordion was haltingly played did my un-warm memory recall the ‘disc grinder tune’ (iii) , which I had heard earlier in the day.


(i) Daniel Liebeskind monumental Holocaust construction for the museum continues to draw controversy and fuel debate. ‘Between the Lines’ was the name Liebeskind gave to the project and describes the way he intends the building to show the Shoah, the attempted genocide of the Jews of Europe.

(ii) I wonder if my experience in the Holocaust Tower was an instance of ‘saming’. My fear and dread was not the same as the experience of being in a gas chamber, of course it was not. One of the keenest theorist's of saming was the late Naomi Schaor. ‘If othering involves attributing to the objectified other a difference that serves to legitimate her oppression’, she observed in a feminist context, ‘ saming denies the objectified other the right to her difference’. In the museum’s effort to be universally translatable, some of those differences which we find unpleasant and especially disturbing may be being excluded.

(iii) The ‘disc grinder tune’ is the music of the building site, and that huge rectangular pit the size of several football pitches in Alexanderplatz, and I was reminded of the gypsy bands of eastern Europe, and the music of the Ostjüden, perhaps those from Galicia where Roth was born, or from further East. ‘The hammer on metal hammering’ is also the music of the building site, that hard, harsh beat akin to a porteño tango from the port area of Buenos Aires, or further West.


Into an “empty landscape” she brings life-bringing warmth and benediction of movement, and rays of colour into this great city.


Half Term

 Posted by at 9:00 pm  ON the STREET  Comments Off
Nov 172008

It’s been half-term this week. Somehow the Beda operates on
a two-semester model – the first semester ends on 28 January, then we have
exams – these are oral exams – then there’s a break between semesters 1 and 2.
The new semester starts on 16 February. But we also manage to half-term breaks!
Not that I’m complaining. The lecture programme and everything else makes for
an intense working experience.

So it was off on the train for my hols to Florence
(Firenze). Luckily a friend of a friend lives in the centre, adjacent to the
central market, and I was generously given space to stay. From a house of men I
was in a (somewhat smaller) house of women. And that was important; I was
missing my contact with women but also I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk at
length with Italians. So it was a ‘sane-making’ journey.

Just like one can find one’s position in the wilderness by
using different landmarks as points of orientation, I believe we need a variety
of viewpoints to stay sane, to know where we are.

If you haven’t travelled on the Italian high-speed trains,
they are everything you need – comfortable, fast, smooth, reliable (as far as I
know) – and only an hour and a half from Rome to Florence.

The weather there was mostly rainy but it didn’t stop me
being shown around the city by my Florentine host. We looked and we talked
about everything you can imagine plus a bit more. She works as an interpreter
so her English is fluent and she gave me lots of hints and tips on my Italian.

Walking by myself, back from an evening Mass at Santa Croce,
the street market was beginning to close, stallholders packing away their
goods, but there were the informal (illegal) sellers surreptitiously offering
their wares. A black guy, a couple of watches dangling from his sleeve, asked
me, out of the corner of his mouth, ‘need a watch.’  I smiled, almost laughed, at the comedy of it, declined his
offer, and wondered what it was about me that told him I was English.

We also got up to San Miniato al Monte that looks down over
Florence. I’m just checking The Rough Guide and it refers to this church as
‘the finest Romanesque church in Tuscany’. It had a stunning frontage of black
and white marble (reminiscent of the Baptistry and Duomo) with a glittering
mosaic of Christ between Mary and St Minias.

Inside, I was struck by the apparent three churches in one.
They were on three levels, ground, semi-crypt and choir, each one quite
different in look and feeling. The one in the choir was particularly attractive
with a soft roseate light filtering through the red tinted alabaster windows. A
small community of monks live there. They are actually of the same Benedictine
order as one of the two monks on the course here at the Beda. His monastery is
in New Mexico but he was telling me that he was staying at San Miniato for a
few days before coming to start the course.

And now the second half-term is gathering pace . . . but
hey, Christmas is looking . . . . 
ummm not too far away.

Patacara sequence: THIS ONCE, an Explanation

 Posted by at 5:25 pm  Atelier, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Nov 102008

precisely does he mean, GUITTARRA MIA,


concerns the Rules of Grace,


question being asked concerning the work of a simple activity, what precisely
does it mean for a man to have walked across the corner of a room,


In a tango,


is a way of giving meaning, as if I hadn't yet learned to speak for myself as I
should, coolly and slowly, one sentence at a time, as if I had started too soon,
as if I lacked standing,


more than one,




the first tango was already begun,


the daughter of the mother, whose laughing rebuke had once been given before,
No, I don't think so,


provides the restraint of a double negative, as for example when I say, I am at
my best in corridors or Departure Lounges,


hear Simonides (fr. 527) speaking,
is not painful among men.


are explanations for the Rules, which are guarded by her, the Nomo-phulax,
and are written down.


way of reading, the first tango, is dramatised via the play of her hands, this
way of holding and handling, and longing for, and all the textures of exchange


way of reading is by slanting example across the diagonal. It is a geographical
mapping, the second tango constructs a guitar in the shape that a mother holds
her child, (2).


way of reading is through certain buried facts, the historical uncovering of a
specimen of one kind. The third tango describes the terror of a young child’s
tantrum, and her rage


the numisma, the coinage for the whole economy (4), being Grace,


It works,

man giving and receiving said from the front room.



1. Ecce Ancilla Domine

‘Con queste parole Maria risponde all’angelo che Dio le ha inviato
per annunciarle la nascita di un figlio, concepto dallo Spirito Santo. Questo e
il titolo della mostra nata in primo luogo dall’esigenza di dostrare al publico
il restauro… sull’Anunciata attribuita a Matteo Civitali, della quale si sono
seguite le vicende connesse al suo luogo di provenczia, la Collegiata di S.
Maria Assunta a Camaoire, e quinde riflesse anche nella storia del culto.'

Italy 032
Italy 033


Ex INVITO (25 luglio – 30 settembre 2008) delle  Museo d’Arte Sacra, Camaiore, Tuscana.



2. The reconstruction of Tatlin’s Corner-Counter-Relief

‘In Late 1914 Tatlin took the dramatic step of liberating
his structures completely from the wall and produced a series of corner
counter-reliefs that consisted simply of intersecting planes of metal in space,
suspended on wires or ropes across the corners of a room. Their placement, like
Malevich’s Black Square, recalled the position of the icon in the Russian
Orthodox home…’

Ex From Russia (15 September 2007 – 6 January 2008),
Catalogue, Pp 192, Royal Academy of Arts, London


3. The reporting of the restoration of Danaë

In 1997 an exhibition was held to return Rembrandt's Danaë,
one of the most important canvases in the Hermitage collection, to public
viewing following the completion of restoration work.

On 15 June 1985 Rembrandt's painting Danaë was attacked by a maniac who poured
sulphuric acid on the canvas and cut it twice with his knife. The entire
central part of the composition was turned into a mixture of raised brown spots
with a mass of splashes, vertical incrustations and areas of lost paint.

The process of restoration began the very same day…

Ex State Hermitage Museum, Hermitage History (2006)



4. The Simonides fr. 543 (D L Page, Poetae Melici
, Oxford 1962)

‘Let us study Simonidean iconology in another, more
colourful painting, the famous Danaë fragment. 
The poem tells the story of Danaë and her infant son Perseus (* see FOOTNOTE), put to sea
in a box because of a sinister prophecy:

 … (the Greek text is omitted)…

 [… when

in the painted box –

wind blasting her,

waves going wild,

knocked flat by fear,

her face streaming water,

she put her hand around Perseus and said,

“ O child, what trouble I have!

Yet you sleep on soundly,

deep in infants dreams

in this bleak box of wood,

nailed together, nightflashing,

in the blue blackness you lie

stretched out.

Waves tower over your head,

water rolls past - you pay no attention at all,

don't hear the shriek of the wind,

you just lie still in your bright blanket,

beautiful face.

But if to you the terrible were terrible,

you would lend your small ear

to what I am saying.

Ah now, little one, I bid you sleep.

Let the sea sleep,

let the immeasurable evil sleep.

And I pray some difference may come to light

father Zeus, from you!

Yet if my prayer is rude

or outside justice,

forgive me.”]

Throughout the poem Danaë is
awake, terrified and talking; the baby is silently, serenely asleep. Simonides
has chosen to construct the poem as an alignment of two consciousnesses: one of
them is present, active and accessible to us, the other has vanished
inwardly.  One of them is cognizant of
the reality that we see stretched out around it, the other is oblivious of that
reality and apparently paying attention to something quite different behind its
closed eyes.

difference between their two states of mind is the chief subject of Danaë’s
discourse, addressed to the baby (vv. 7-21) as the sea rises around them.  Placed exactly at the centre of utterance
and her emotion is a contrafactual sentence (vv. 18-20) that operates like a
vanishing point for these two perspectives on reality:


But if to you the terrible
were terrible,

you would lend your small ear

to what I am saying.


In its perfect symmetry, the protasis (ei de toi deinon
to ge deinon en
) is a picture of the cognitive dissonance that obtains
between these two states of mind.  The
world of Danaë and the world of Perseus are set alongside one another as two
different perceptions of the same physical situation, two discrepant
definitions of the same word, to deinon, “ the terrible”. It is strange to
think how such divergence is possible…’


Ex Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost, Princeton University
Press, 2002, Pp 55-58

* FOOTNOTE Simonides fragment

Danaë conceived the child Perseus by being impregnated by Zeus in a shower of gold, no ordinary coinage, but what Sappho once described "golder than gold". Only fragments of this stuff ever reach us.


November Begins in Rome

 Posted by at 2:16 pm  OUT in the WILDERNESS  Comments Off
Nov 092008

A Remembrance Day Mass at San Silvestre, this morning, in
the centre of Rome, between the Spanish Steps (we didn’t see Audrey Hepburn!)
and the Via del Corso. A Mass celebrated in English and it had a very English
feel to it. The Beda and the English College have a tradition of celebrating
this Mass at San Silvestre. There is a Pallottine community attached to the
church and we were invited upstairs (a queue formed on the stairs to sign the
visitors book) for soup, coffee and finger food including sandwiches made with
white sliced bread with the crusts cut off. After which four of us walked back
to the Colosseo under cloudless skies and summer-like heat to catch the Metro
back to the Beda.


A further instalment on the subject of starlings: on
Thursday afternoon I had a delightful wander through the terracotta and ochre
maze of narrow streets in the centre of the city; marvelling at the continued
existence of artisan workshops, hardware shops, bookshops, interesting food
stores and cafés. A proper way to arrange things if one had any choice in the
matter. Whilst on the subject of shops (hopefully I’ll remember to get back to
the starlings) I’ve noticed that the supermarkets in Rome are small (compared
to Britain) and most of them seem to be underground – on the basement level of
apartment blocks. So on first arriving here there seems to be a complete
absence of supermarkets until you ask those in the know.


I planned to find my way back via the river, to follow that
south, cut through to Pyramide and then it’s straight down the Via Ostiense to
San Paolo and the college. But it was five o’clock and my thoughts turned to
coffee and some writing I wanted to do (cafés are great places to write). The
Piazza Navona is very lovely but very touristy and expensive so I meandered on
to the Piazza Farnese where the street sweepers were beginning to clean up
after the market and there was a pavement café that beckoned. A perfect time of
day to stop and watch the world go by and jot some thoughts down towards a
future poem. From there I found my way to the Tevere and even as I approached I
could hear and then see millions upon millions of starlings wheeling in groups
of several thousand, layer upon layer, other’s settling, roosting in the plane
trees that line the embankment. This time quite a number of people had
umbrellas up and I noticed quite a few cars (obviously been there for some
time) coated thickly in their droppings.


One can have thoughts – interfering thoughts – at the most
inopportune moments. Yesterday morning, during Mass my mind returned to some
thoughts regarding my propensity to polarise – to go against whatever
situation/culture that I happen to be in. I become a resister. No doubt if it
didn’t begin at school then it was certainly strengthened at school. On this
occasion the thought was along the lines of: as a therapist it was not unusual
to find myself opposing the thinking of the profession in general or a group of
colleagues in particular; in Totnes I turned against the all-things-alternative
colouring of Totnes . . . and now here I am in Rome, the heart of Catholicism .
. .  and these thoughts infiltrated
seconds before I was due to walk up to the lectern to read the responsorial
psalm and sing the first alleluia of the gospel acclamation. It didn’t help!
Did I imagine the extra tension in my voice? Did anybody else notice?