Exposed at last

 Posted by at 11:14 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 292011

Long after the yarns have dried up, the gossip exhausted and the jokes no longer funny. Long after most have drifted off to wrap themselves in blankets and let go into the varieties of sleep and dreaming. Long after the fire has burned down to whitish ash, occasionally glowing red when the breeze visits, blessing the huddled bodies of horses and women and men, there remain a few still sitting hunched in their thoughts and dawn can’t be far away, and look at that, in stalks Judith Butler. I can only imagine her in her black biker leathers, exactly as I saw her dressed when she spoke at a conference I was attending. It must have been the mid-eighties; some psychoanalytic one day affair in Bloomsbury. Though the theme of the conference and what she said I have no memory of. Such is memory! So, in stalks Judith Butler and demands that we – the assembly – give an account of ourselves.

    Somewhat alarming in the chilled air of this high plateau an hour before dawn; there is the implied threat of being dragged, probably naked, into the dock and held up to ridicule, subjected to cruel and clever questioning. Guilt is the only possible outcome. Let’s not imagine that dignity will suffice, nor begging for mercy, let alone presenting some pathetic extenuating circumstances.

    This must be why we, the apple of God’s eye, the human race, invented torture. There must be some way to stop the bad stories, the defensive nonsense, in order that we can get down to the nitty-gritty. What makes it doubly awful and desperately despairing is that torture doesn’t help – makes it worse in fact. Tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it!!

    It seems that truth and language often have a conflicted relationship. Words appear momentarily to point (waveringly) in the general direction of truth but then a few minutes later it all proves to be bright lights and mirrors. (I have to admit I can’t get the image of Tony Blair out of my mind, or for that matter Cameron, Osborne and Clegg – consummate liars might be one way of describing them). So we in turn have to become consummate students of the silences, the gaps; we have to read between the lines.

    Do I have to take all my clothes off? Please, no, not that. Though I suppose our bodies carry a certain narrative truth . . . but really I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you. Look it’s getting light, we need to get on, reheat last night’s coffee, chew on a heel of bread. We leave in ten minutes.



 Posted by at 12:40 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 252011

The cold night wind is blasting across the pampas, the horses are tethered, and, huddled around a camp-fire beside the Dust-Poet and his bulging saddle-bags, there is the impossibility of saying it directly, of standing up and declaring loudly in soap-box style, See here you – Listen to Me!

What a ridiculous proposition this is within the context of our circumstances, aside from a certain intrinsic jokey quality, because the words don’t last a second, violently dragged away from our mouths, and lost in the screeching wind.

For instance, last week la Fiebre Amarilla knocked me off my feet, the yellow jack that is endemic in these parts and this time of year, fever, pain, nausea but thankfully no black vomit, and I composed and sent a letter to the Chairman of the Policy Review Department about the proposed NHS health reforms, which, in my delirium, I crazily supposed as a self-redundant ex-GP doctor I should stand up and speak out about; “It will be a disas-s-ter!” – I began before continuing – as the Strictly Come Dancing judge said of the Right Honourable lady competitor, who spoke all the best lines, but whose performing capabilities were simply not fit for purpose. And so on… two whole pages in the same vein.

Another absurdity. No, we have both learnt, and at the cost of black eyes, bruises and several broken bones over the years, this sort of approach does not get us very far. But still on the occasions when we are febril, a madness comes over us, which, more often than not, we are unable to withstand, actually an intoxication, an unstoppable desire which we are unwilling to cede, and, we cannot help ourselves, out the words pour.

Put another way, it is the nature of what we encounter and meet in the wilderness that we are being constantly called upon to give an account of ourselves*.

* I am being encouraged to this thought through my reading of Giving an Account of Ourselves by Judith Butler (New York 2005), early on coming across this quotation – “We begin with a response, a question that answers to a noise, and we do it in the dark – doing without exactly knowing, making do with speaking. Who’s there, or here, and who’s gone” (Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility).

East or West? Don’t let’s talk about leaders.

 Posted by at 3:24 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 212011

East or west who knows what’s least or best? I thought I had a firm grip on the compass, especially after those jaunts on the moor (a few years ago now) when I found myself stranded in the mist. At least I still knew, or believed I did, which was up and which was down. For that matter even on the clearest of days landmarks which were strikingly present a moment ago disappear, only to be replaced by those gently graded hills that refuse to give any distinctive feature. But then, here I am squatting atop a tor in the early evening of lengthening shadows, soft muted colours faded into a sort of perfection, in fact perhaps it could be likened to that certain glory which brings peace. And for those moments all is well with the world.

    Though at the same time as being very precisely in this exact spot – identifiable with a carefully placed X on the appropriate O.S. 1:25000 sheet – yes X marks the spot – as I was saying, at the same time I am being pulled into a dream, a pulling that is gravitational, what physicists seem to call a weak force, but at the same time inexorable. Weak is always a relative term.

    When I can no longer battle to follow the pseudo narrative, the politics of the Bullingdon vandals: Look! Look! See how we’ve got them all jumping through hoops, what glorious fun, hehe! They’ve swallowed every single one of our hooks. And we’ve persuaded them that we just have to allow those swollen bellied bankers to keep their snouts in the trough. Wonderful isn’t it. There’s only so much one can stand of all that and so that's where this other world of dream comes in. I guess it’s the wilderness territory of poetry and isn’t it wonderful when you discover a novel that holds its place in that same mythic place. You know that image of Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel in which God’s finger touches mankind’s finger, it must be an image of the birth of myth.

    Ah, at long last, we’ve stopping for the night, I’ve managed to catch up with the rest of you and the fire is already lit, stars blaze in the near black velvet of the sky, there is laughter, ribald conversation and the stamp of the horses. Somebody pours me a coffee and it’s your turn to pick up the narrative.


Raconteurs of Obscurity

 Posted by at 7:05 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 182011

As for the horses, we broke them in for ourselves from out of the herd that ran wild, so we can be confident that they didn’t belong to anyone else before, the two mares in foal which we were able to tempt into the gully with fresh grass before we blocked the exit, and then patiently waited the years as the young ones grew strong on the water meadow grass, far from the prying jealous eyes of the cattlemen and bankers, Or even MacKay himself, I think, In this instance he is quite capable of looking after himself for the time being. Yes, like it has been said, Here even the beggars ride on horseback.

Out on the pampas, where it is dry and hot, and the wind blows without ceasing, the days in the saddle are long, and my friend says that there are times when he doesn’t know who he is, or where he is heading, It is east we are going, not west, I remind him. Or that he has forgotten his name, and some time ago the thought came to me and I began to think of him as the ‘dust poet’, and I have even tried calling him that a few times, following the trail of Borges’s line ‘cuando el polvo sea el polvo’ and Francisco de Quevedo, the last line of whose poem Amor constante más allá de la muerte runs ‘Polvo séran, mas polvo enamorado’.

Dust they will be, but dust that is in love.

I don’t much like the translation given here, but is that enough adventure to be going on with? He is also beginning to look the part more and more, the bleached white stubble and hair, and deepening lines on his face, and look in his austere eyes that remind me of the pictures I have seen of Macedonio in later life. And his bulging saddle-bags, it is not polvo-de-angel dust, but another kind of treasure, and I tell him that he should publish his poems as a collection, Out here far from the city who would read them, he says turning his back to the wind.

Later then, when we get to the city, I think, and he meets her – broken hearts to go with broken bodies – at the places, whose names I have also overheard and remembered, like ‘The Poet in the City’.

Pushing on

 Posted by at 3:05 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 142011

Where is the sense of adventure? What is it that will make me look up and breathe more fully? And as is not unusual at this time of year, ask myself (and you?), what is important?

    You’re right, of course, the horses are stamping in the courtyard, their breath gently steaming in the early morning cold; the chill of the hour before dawn. Beyond the walls, beyond the closed gates, an internal combustion engine is cranked and on the third attempt, wheezes into life. A chugging sort of life, made irregular with missed beats: a sort of Frankenstein’s monster on four wheels because walking on two legs is a very complex mechanical adventure. This monster which is announcing and ushering in a new age of speed laced with black gold, uniting gods of earth and sky, promising millions of sacrificial deaths. In fact it’s probably all part of the industrialisation of death. Meanwhile the alcohol and caffeine crazies are staggering out into the courtyard shivering and shouting for stable boys to connect them with their mounts. Shouts and whispered swearing, calls for silence amidst the creak of leather, the shuffling hooves fill the air as men haul themselves on to the horses’ backs, settle their protesting flesh into the harsh hide and finding order in a single file they follow on through the now open gate and head west, their backs to the now lightening sky.

    It’s impossible to know where they are heading and what they will discover. Who will be the winners and who the losers? Of course, it could be the opening thoughts of a novel but who would write it and who would read it?

    Is it me who has to rise early and go out into that courtyard, find the horse that is given? I need some sense, some different sense of adventure in my life but can I put a petition in, to ask that I be not broken again . . . oh, that causes not a little merriment . . . ok it was a stupid thing to even think let alone say.

    Apparently Robert Schumann  set out with great and misguided hopes for his life (NYRB December 23 2010). His aim was for big and serious and was consequently less than satisfied with his “small” but brilliant pieces that were admired enough to enter the concert repertoire. Here at the wtw printing press we have to find contentment with small and barely read but on the other hand we are pushing on into another year – shoulders to the wheel – so some cause for a minor celebration. IMG_5466



 Posted by at 12:29 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 122011

So we can pick up from where we were, on horseback…

…And find MacKay there looking out over the pampas, the flat and featureless wilderness of men and horses, where the horses were said at that time to outnumber the human population by as much as six to one, in vast herds running wild beyond the limit of the observation powers even of the most skilled cattleman and wily banker to calculate.

There are no fencing improvements here whatsoever, he recorded in one of his regular letters back to his people in Scotland, before continuing, “Every man, woman and child in the country rides. One might fancy one’s self in the land of centaurs, amidst a population half-men, half-horse. Even the beggars ride on horseback” transcribing the words from the Historia Argentina of Sir Woodbine Parish, although he claimed them for his own.

A thief among the Lapiths, MacKay's letters also stole from the mythical accounts of the infamous killings within families and other transgressions which marked out this race of beings since their origins, a race renowned for their capacity for extreme violence and savage civil conflict as well as their weakness for women and wine, before that part of his Archiv was entirely lost in the fire of 1912 which occurred as a result of a lightning strike that also destroyed his entire property, as if in just and divine retribution for his own crimes of theft.

So only the ash of his own memories, and those of his relations who were able to pass on the occasional remembered phrase or fragment of story remained, which passed into oblivion with their deaths, and only the echo can sometimes be heard, say, within  the later writing of another creolo such as Borges himself or, more reliably, of his mentor Macedonio Fernández.

Thus I take as an example Macedonio's famous poem 'I believed' which was published in the year of his death in 1952, or shortly afterwards.


No a todo alcanza Amor, pues que no puedo
romper el gajo con que Muerte toca.
Mas poco Muerte puede
si en corazón de Amor su miedo muere.
Mas poco Muerte puede, pues no puede
entrar su miedo en pecho donde Amor.
Que Muerte rige a Vida; Amor a Muerte.

I do not dare yet to translate the poem however so as to scandalously claim it as my own, since the 'musical component' of the essential fugal form, rhyme scheme ABAAACA, measure and beat of the lines, and calm sense arising from the flow of the soft consonantal sounds of the words, which must be intoned out loud, is quite beyond me. As for the condensed meaning within the story, the savagery of the violence of the struggle between Death, Love, and Life is clear enough: - Not to everything does Love reach, for it cannot / break the goring with which Death beats. / But little Death can… / if in a heart where Love is fear itself dies. / But little Death can… / because fear itself cannot enter a chest where Love… . / That Death rules over Life; as Love over Death.

Once And For All

 Posted by at 2:16 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 072011

Another year opens, another closes and with this closure there is much work of handing over to the army of archivists – I think I’m right in assuming that their training is not dissimilar to that of the bomb disposal heroes currently out in Afghanistan – who even by Epiphany have hauled many of the vast bales of the paper record down to Level 7 of the catacombs.

    What sort of order will result? I believe it is generally referred to as dis-order.

    Will I ever succeed in finding anything of 2010? Only if history repeats itself.

    They carry out their work in the dead of night when the rest of us are pleasantly locked in the dreamy arms of Mother Kali.

    Meanwhile that brave bunch known as the adventurers or pirates, or, I guess, piratical adventurers (why not), are fighting through any number of hostile boardrooms and jungles to line their pockets and to watch from on high (or low) as their off-spring fight over the glinting gold in their eyes. Would it be true to say that the grand old US of A was founded by these dysfunctional rapine (the OED only refers to rapine as a noun but I rather like the sound of it as an adjective) invaders? Those beasts who turned their backs on the civilising effects of the coffeehouse in search of gold and guns and freedom and learned with their ABC that socialism was to be fought against with every muscle fibre in their tough little bodies.

    How soon can we hope to see that breed herded on to intergalactic or interstellar (please let it be beyond this solar system) to find their beloved freedom between the stars.

    Their teapartying descendents moved in as Scrooge MacKay was out there in Texas ordering the wilderness with barbed wire and then, with scarce a backward glance, setting sail for fresh territories to plunder in the south. Come to think of it, he must be prospecting in Antarctica at this very moment. In other parts of the world (Afghanistan?) the Matador Grab-what-you-can Company, shouting their mantra: profits (for me) and freedom (for me).

    Meanwhile back in the coffeehouse I surface from my dreams of derring-do, reflect on Jonathan Franzen’s happy ending to Freedom, ask for a shot of grappa and read again the final stanza of Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain (page 18 in Human Chain)


             That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,

             A letting go which will not come again.

             Or it will, once. And for all.


The Life and Times of Scrooge MacKay

 Posted by at 2:27 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 042011

Based on the ‘Uncle Scrooge’ McDuck comic strip story by Don Rosa, which followed the main events of his life between 1877 and 1947, at which point, they say, he first met his nephew Donald, or was perhaps reunited, thereby exploding his presence into popular consciousness until the ‘present time’.

‘Present time’, Why inverted commas?

Meaning these flickering moments in which an essential mix of architecture (city, or wilderness as you prefer), moving images (and sound) intertwine and swarm with our texts in a Mixed Media Entertainment (or opera), without which these days words have no agency; in inverted commas, and thereby not to be confused with present time itself of course, the inverted commas category being under the umbrella of the ‘Just Past’ (go talk to Uncle Walter for further explanation).

So it was that I was able to trace back MacKay to his relationship with that larger than life Texas to Wyoming cattleman Murdo Mackenzie (1850-1939), with whom he had had professional dealings, as it is still politely described during the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth. They say it was 1882 when ‘Uncle Scrooge’ actually met Murdo, being the same year as the founding of the Matador Land & Cattle Company and purchase in December of Texas and other properties; “about 100,000 acres in fee simple… all range and other rights and privileges in or over 1,500,000 acres… 40,000 head of cattle… 265 horses and fencing improvements”.

“Fencing improvements”? Barbed wire was just coming in, and it is an easily checked historical fact that Murdo Mackenzie, who went on to become manager of the Matador in 1892, was to oversee this momentous change to the customs and traditions of wandering the Great Plains and prairies of the American Midwest, until his resignation in 1912 when he went to Brazil.

As can be observed, this is also essentially a forensic methodology, one that is securely grounded in the tradition of the novel – ‘Brazil’; so that I was quickly able to reach up to a high shelf in an older part of MacKay’s library for the plain cream coloured tome of the same name (Bulletin No 7 of the Bureau of the American Republics, Washington USA) issued in June 1891, in order to conclude that our man MacKay got there first. Sao Paulo, and thereafter south to Argentina and Buenos Aires, and home to the young Borges, where, who knows, perhaps he also was instrumental in encouraging the Borges family to leave for Europe in 1912, in contrarian style and economic contrast to Murdo and the tide of other adventurer immigrants heading in the opposite direction at that time…

… in this story that here encompasses the ‘western provinces’, as well as the ‘eastern provinces’ simultaneously explored, and which nicely coincide, and now authorise a moment’s pause and dawdling, with that other book I am reading currently – Visitation (Heimsuchung) by Jenny Erpenbeck, in order to quote from page four and five, concerning an incident from around the same time;  “When a woman gets married… the horses wear two ribbons on the outer edges of their bridles, red for love and green for hope. The whips display the same ribbons”. That are, as I have said before, the editorial commands; Red flag / Green Flag; Walk / Don’t Walk.