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Sympathetic Magic

18 Jun


What is it that makes me collect these animal models, wherever I go in the world, whether they be hand-carved wooden shapes of exquisite beauty, a water bird sculpted from whale bone, a tatty and cross-eyed Mexican coyote made from God knows what, or these cheap plastic creatures picked up in a Banff tourist store? The animal world predominates in the imagination, and constantly invades my dream life – this I share with much of humanity . . . but there is more, and it relates back – at the risk of sounding either grandiose or ridiculous – to the cave paintings of our ancestors. The term sympathetic magic leapt out at me when I first came across it, and seemed to serve as a comfort, almost a cure for so many of my own, interior afflictions. It seemed to answer a fundamental question about being in the world.

Helen Macdonald, in her coruscating reflection on loss and grief, H for Hawk, writes: ‘I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explain that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’

Something I wrote years ago, in Walking on Bones, comes close to speaking to the subject, but I feel the need to revisit the theme, as we (humans) become more and more distant from the environment we inhabit and the animals we share it with.  It has something to do with the search for congruity, both in our interior lives, and in our relationship with the planet. My stay at Banff, amongst other things, has allowed me to re-think that relationship, and perhaps the semi-conscious purchase of some plastic toys, however trivial, and their residency here on my desk, serves as a reminder.


Camels Trotting

The soul travels at the speed of a trotting camel. Nowadays, when humans venture any distance, they choose a mode of transport significantly faster. The result? Lost souls, everywhere. Once when I flew from Athens to London, stayed ten days, and then returned, I reckoned that I passed my camel over Serbia, going in the opposite direction.

From the parched membranes of a feigned amnesia we conjure cowled faces against a starlit sky, folds of black silk, tufts of animal fur, dried blood, stale sweat, the cold night air of the desert crossing. The rhythm of this memory is that of a human heartbeat. The images retained by the eye are formed at exactly the right speed, and fade in time for the next one. Food is chewed and digested in the recommended way. Water only is drunk, and preciously conserved. The pernicious attributes of a godless world are simply unimagined. Animal images predominate. The deeper you dig, more beasties come at you. Everything has its animal corollary.




Banff journal: on Jaramillo, Borges, and living between languages

16 Jun
Town of Banff, from Sleeping Buffalo. Mountain

Town of Banff, from Sleeping Buffalo Mountain

After a long day that a resourceful weather-forecaster might summarise as wet and irritating, my attention depleted by sleeplessness – mood, to continue the meteorological analogy, middling to crabby –  I am due to give a presentation on the topic that brought me here to Banff: my translations of the Colombian poet Darío Jaramillo. This goes OK, although as it is a pretty informal affair I feel I am underprepared (if it were a formal affair, I would no doubt feel the same, or else the opposite). I talk about Darío’s work, how it is themed around Paradox, The Double, Loss, and Time (safe enough ground: who can contradict any of these things?) and I read a couple of his poems. My sleeplessness roars in the recesses of my brain like a turbulent sea crashing on distant rocks. I stumble and sway between the uncertain home comforts of English and the rusty ambivalence of my Spanish. Someone points out what might be an instance of mistranslation in one of the poems, and of course I forget, while answering her, that I have already addressed and twice changed my mind about this line; someone else asks me a very good question that I can’t think of an answer to straightaway so I tell him that it’s a very good question and that I will think about it. I try to wind up within the allotted time, and then I remember that I forgot a quotation I like, about the occasion when Darío was selected by his High School to be one of the two students to meet Borges, on the latter’s visit to Bogotá in 1962. He was 15 at the time (Darío is on the right in the photo).

Dario with Borges

‘La única vez que hablé con Borges yo tenía unos impertinentes quince o diez y seis años y le pregunté por qué afirmaba tal cosa en una parte y exactamente lo contrario en otra. Borges me contestó que estaba claro que yo había leído sus textos más veces que las que él las había escrito.’

(The only time I spoke with Borges I was an impertinent 15- or 16-year old and I asked him why he had affirmed such-and-such a thing in one part  and exactly the opposite in another. Borges replied that clearly I had read his texts more times that he had written them.)

The quotation neatly illustrates a point I was trying to make in my talk, but I forget which.

Of course, it is unlikely, in reality, that anyone would read the texts of a writer as many times as the writer herself, unless of course, it were the translator. Borges’ answer was a classic instance of authorial evasion, of which he was a master. His standard response to any interlocutor offering an ‘interpretation’ or critique of his work has been set down by one of his English translators, Norman di Giovanni, as follows:

On numerous occasions I heard his stock reply to anyone who laid it on the line and told him what some piece of work of his was really all about. Borges always smiled, humbly, and sweetly, and ‘Ah, thank you!’ would come his ambiguous put-down. ‘You have enriched my work!’

And this notion of doubleness, of being (at least) two different people depending on the occasion, reminds me of something that came up in conversation with Alastair Reid, when I visited him in south-west Scotland and which I recorded, thankfully, as he died only two months later. Reid was a friend as well as an excellent translator of Borges, and accompanied him on tour occasionally. He was aware, more than most, how Borges could be a different person, depending on whether he was speaking English or Spanish, a state of duality in which I often find myself. I will finish with this, as it is a theme which, finding myself amongst so many translators, may be of interest:

‘there was one time when we were at the PEN club in New York, Borges had agreed to give a talk, and as always he said ‘will you come and help me with la charla’ and he always said the same thing [to the audience]: ‘I would prefer if you could write your questions on pieces of paper’, and so we would have a little thing with scraps of paper, which we never bothered about, because I knew the things, the temas that would really get Borges talking fluently so I would make up the questions, [and] he’d say (secretive voice) ‘don’t bother about the questions – look at them and see if they’re interesting’ anyway at one point Borges said, [he] was talking about some poet or other . . . and he said ‘I too have written a poem, at least I refer to it as a poem’, and he said ‘and I will read some lines from my feeble effort’ . . . and I said to Borges: ‘you refer to your own poetry in a phrase that . . . you talk about mis pobres versos – that’s what critics say, you’re not really entitled to refer to your poems as your ‘pobres versos’’, and I said ‘sometimes, Borges, you use modesty like a club’, because that’s what he did, Borges was always apologizing . . . ‘and I have written two or three sketchy lines’ and then he would read . . . and it really was a tic that he had about apologizing . . . he was, as we might say, ‘well brought up’, extremely respectful, and then if he reverted to Spanish, and if Bioy was there, or some people he knew he would be very bawdy and nasty and jocular . . . he was gossipy in Spanish, but never in English . . .’


A dichotomy of deer.

A dichotomy of deer, Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.

Cretan threads: Jacqueline Saphra, Tacita Dean, John Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor et al.

2 Jun

John Craxton, Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85


It began with a poem, which Bill Herbert used in teaching an MA class at Cardiff last month. The poem was ‘Crete, 1980’ by Jacqueline Saphra, from her collection All My Mad Mothers. I reproduce it here:


I lived on hard-boiled eggs and yogurt

with a slug or ten of ouzo as my waist grew


waspish and my flesh indifferent

through my lean and solitary season.


I was girlish and abandoned, took my bed

of sand, those oh-so-green and casual boys


for granted, dreamed on beaches

naked, mouth grazed with the taste


of smoke and strangers’ kisses

and I howled into the drunken dark for


stupid reasons and I thought

this was an education.


The poem had me thinking about my own time on Crete; first a prolonged stay in 1975 as an awestruck eighteen year old, when I spent three months squatting a deserted shepherd’s hut that overlooked the Libyan sea; then an ill-fated trip in the autumn of 1977 as one side of a thorny love triangle, and finally a stay of nearly three years between 1981 and 1983, when I lived mainly in Hania.

I have been back only once, in 2004, to research a novel I was writing, but the island lives deep inside me and from time to time I visit it in dreams. It has had a similar effect on other people I know. So any reminder, especially one that stirs such deeply entrenched memories as those dislodged by Saphra’s poem, is bound to linger, and breed a contagion of contingent reminders. This is how synchronicity works, as a cascade of little jolts, each one nudging you into the realisation of something you often cannot quite put your finger on. But this time, clearly, it was Crete.

I have been looking for a picture that might go on the cover of a new collection of poems concerned with (largely) imagined journeys in the Eastern Mediterranean, and I immediately thought of John Craxton. On Thursday I ordered the wonderful book on Craxton’s life and work by Ian Collins which arrived in the post yesterday.

Just before the delivery man popped it through the door, I had been reading, in the TLS, of an exhibition by Tacita Dean – ‘Landscape’ at the Royal Academy, and shortly afterwards, leafing through my newly arrived book on John Craxton, the artist’s name leapt out at me again:

‘Tacita Dean met John Craxton by chance in Crete when she was 17, and he said her rotary-pen drawings of street scenes, plants and people had ‘linear confidence’. But his way of life was even more inspiring. She says:

“He was having fun and living doing what he loved. It was the first time I’d met a REAL artist and suddenly I could see such a life was possible. I still carry around the dream that I might one day live my life in the way that I imagined then John Craxton was living his: peaceably making my work in a beautiful room with the light from the water outside reflected on the ceiling – deadlines, budgets, emails and unremitting travel as yet unimaginable ingredients of my artistic life. It’s good to remember these fantasies of the unattainable, in order to make some adjustments from time to time.”’

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dean makes a reference to W.G. Sebald, which further excited my demand for overlapping interests:

‘She cites the late German writer WG Sebald as an important influence on her method, in particular the way his writing made the life of the past so present, as if in a dream. “I really liked his description of his work,” she says. “He said when he worked he was like a dog crossing a field, following its nose.” She picks points A and B in the National Gallery air, and traces a slow meandering line between them with her finger.’

(The idea of ‘working like a dog’, by which I mean following one’s nose like a dog in a field, chimes with me particularly strongly just now. My own dog, Bruno, now in his twelfth year, and somewhat arthritic, takes his time crossing any open space. I may be projecting here, but in the past year or so, it has seemed to me that his prolonged dawdling – the achingly long caresses of snout on grass as he inches across park or field – involves a kind of remembering; that the savouring of the scent, indulgence in the raw odour of matter, involves the stuff of memory, a comparing of smells encountered by his doggy brain across the years, and that by sniffing he is remembering, and in remembering, the urge to sniff simply grows and grows, in a hall of scented mirrors.)

So it is with me and the jolts to the imagination that – by analogy – these reminders of the part of my life I call ‘Crete’ continue to bring about.

I remember the first time I met John Craxton. It was in 1981 on the harbour front in Hania. I was with Peter Green, painter and piss-artist extraordinaire, who introduced us: ‘This is my friend Richard, he’s a poet’ – the kind of thing I found deeply embarrassing, having published precisely nothing at the time. I also sensed that Craxton did not suffer fools lightly.  All I knew about him in those days was that he designed the covers of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s books. And there lies another story, as over my nearly three years in Crete, I devoutly followed the PLF trail, and even – without planning it,  following an introduction from a Cretan friend – spent an afternoon in the village of Tavronitis chatting with George Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner.

I came across John a few more times and we exchanged greetings but little else, as he was a regular visitor to To Diporto – The Two Doors – a rather insalubrious fish restaurant in Hania’s Leather Street (Odos Skridlov) in which I worked as the (only) waiter through the winter of 1981-2. To Diporto has been closed for many years now, but in the 70s and 80s it was a favourite haunt of Greek sailors, a cacophony of local low life, backpackers, students and terminally stoned hippies on their way back (but where to, man?) from India. I always suspected the Craxton painting reproduced above was set there, and am now convinced, having read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s notes to the 1985 Christopher Hull Gallery exhibition of Craxton’s work:

‘the composition . . . finally took shape in a cheap taverna in the lanes of Hania, none too clean, and very noisy, in spite of ‘NO BREAKAGE BY ORDER’ on the wall. The walls are green, the table blue; the red plastic bread-basket nudges the used beer-bottles [Amstel, as I recall], now recycled as carafes to hold bad wine.’ This could only be To Diporto.

And here another memory begins to twitch: I do remember a very young English woman in Hania in 1982, who was always drawing, and with whom I chatted on a couple of occasions when she came to eat at To Diporto. She was staying up above the harbour, in the part of town where John Craxton lived . . . could she have been Tacita Dean?

According to Ian Collins’ account, Craxton ‘revelled in the continuous settlement of Hania from early Minoan times, saying: “I like living on a dung-heap. I love the idea of thousands of people underneath the house. Nothing would put me off painting more than living in a new town.’ A similar sense of wonderment at living on the ‘dung-heap’ of human remains lay behind my own 2000 collection of prose poems, Walking on Bones, many of which are set in Crete.

If these synchronicities happen for a purpose, I am still figuring out why this one came along, and is with me still. I had better get along to the Royal Academy of Arts and see Tacita Dean’s exhibition, and find out where that leads. Perhaps to Bloomsbury, and to John Craxton’s exhibition – alongside Nikos Ghia and Patrick Leigh Fermor – at the British Museum. And then, with any luck – like Bruno the dog – I will simply continue sniffing my way across this particular, fragrant Cretan field.

Borges and the infinite dance of entropy

24 Apr


As discussed in a previous post, time is not real. There is no flow: past, present and future cannot be sensibly defined and there is nothing yet to counter the position held by the second law of thermodynamics, namely that entropy – the general disorder of the universe – is always on the increase. Otherwise, I feel much as Augustine of Hippo did when he wrote of his understanding of time as a kind of hunch: ‘If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.’

But ever-increasing disorder, that I can understand, both in the dictionary sense of: Entropy: lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder – but also in a more general, or literary way.

Last night I read two late stories by Borges that seemed to be tugging at the same idea: that we live in a world governed by forces of increasing entropy. The stories were ‘The Book of Sand’ and ‘Blue Tigers’. While I do not wish to limit either of these to a single explanatory reading, it is interesting to consider the way they approach the same conceptual material through slightly different means. In ‘The Book of Sand’ (published in the collection of that name in 1975, when Borges was seventy-six) the narrator, a reclusive Borges figure who lives ‘alone, in a fifth-floor apartment on Calle Belgrano’ and who used to work – as Borges did – in the National Library on Calle México, is visited by a stranger who bears a strange book: an ‘infinite book’, in which, as the visitor explains: ‘No page is the first page; no page is the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way, but perhaps it’s to give one to understand that the terms of an infinite series can be numbered any way whatever.’ He goes on: ‘If space is infinite, we are anywhere at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.’

The narrator is sold. The book, as he can see, is unique. If you find a page – as he does, with  a small illustration of an anchor drawn in pen and ink – and then you attempt to find it again, you will not. That page will have gone, and will never return. Nor is it possible to find the book’s beginning, or its end. It is, the narrator decides, ‘a nightmare thing, an obscene thing  . . . that defiled and corrupted reality.’ But that realisation comes later. First, he must acquire it, and to do so he exchanges his pension (from the library) and his very valuable black-letter Wyclif Bible. The monstrous book obsesses him. He spends the day leafing through it, never finding the same page twice – infinite entropy – and the nights, during ‘the rare intervals spared [him] by insomnia’ dreaming of it.

In the end, he returns to the library in which he spent his working life, and which contains ‘nine hundred thousand books’ and he hides it there, ‘on one of the library’s damp shelves’.

This exploration of infinite chance, or – which may be the same thing –  infinite chaos, neatly reflects, or expands upon, the principle of the second law of thermodynamics; that entropy can only increase over time. And as if that were not enough, Borges re-visits the idea a few years later with his story ‘Blue Tigers’, published in his final collection, Shakespeare’s Memory (1983). Incidentally, both this volume and its predecessor, The Book of Sand, open with a variation on the same theme: a meeting between Borges and his doppelgänger. ‘The Other’, the opening story of the 1975 collection, tells of a meeting on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between a seventy-year-old Borges and his twenty-year-old, Geneva-dwelling self, while ‘August 25, 1983’ tells a parallel story between an eighty-four year old Borges and his sixty-one-year-old double. Curious – or, considering this is Borges, not so curious –  that the themes of time and chance should be so consistently, or insistently linked in each collection.

But to move on: ‘Blue Tigers’ tells the story of a somewhat tetchy individual, a Scottish professor of ‘Eastern and Western Logic’ [?!] at the University of Lahore. The year is 1904. He is obsessed (as was Borges) with tigers, especially, curiously, blue tigers, of which he dreams: ‘tigers of a blue I had never seen before, and for which I could find no word.’ One day he hears rumours of a blue tiger roaming near ‘a certain village miles from the Ganges.’ He has to go there: ‘Once again I dreamed of the blue tiger, throwing its long shadow as it made its way over the sandy ground. I took advantage of the end of term to make a journey to that village, whose name (for reasons that will soon be clear) I do not wish to recall.’

At the unnamed village, things do not go well for the Scotsman. Although the villagers speak vaguely of the tiger, and recite rumours of its deeds, he never catches sight of it. The villagers are wary of him, evasive. Moreover, he hates the jungle: ‘It crept virtually into the huts. The days were oppressive, and the nights brought no relief.’ Next to the village is a hill, which the villagers never ascend. They claim it has sacred properties and appear afraid of it. The Scotsman has the notion that the tiger lives up the hill so one night he climbs to the summit, which is not very high, and there he finds lots of tiny blue stones, in the shape of disks. They are the same blue as the tiger of his dream. He collects a few of the stones and puts them in his pocket. He returns to the village and sleeps. In the morning the stones have multiplied: ‘’When I opened my hand, I saw that it held thirty or forty disks: I’d have sworn I’d picked up no more than ten.” And so it continues. The stones, or disks are what the villagers call blue tigers, hence their evasiveness. The Scotsman’s relationship with his hosts becomes problematic. He is obsessed with the stones. They too are an embodiment of ever-increasing entropy: they increase in number without cease and the same stones never appear more than once. He returns to Lahore with a handful of stones in his pockets. They multiply. He experiments with them, cutting crosses in them, drilling notches through their centres. Mostly, the marked stones disappear ‘forever’. One stone, cut with a cross  reappears ‘from its journey into the void’, but it is an exception. ‘What mysterious sort of space was this, which in obedience to inscrutable laws or some inhuman will absorbed the stones and then in time threw an occasional one back again?’

Like the infinite book presented to the ex-librarian in ‘The Book of Sand’, these ‘insensate stones that propagate themselves’ are an abomination: they too defile and corrupt reality. The Scotsman seeks redemption at the mosque of Wazil Khan, plunging his hands into the water of the fountain of ablutions. There he is approached by a beggar, who asks for alms.

‘In the soft light I could make out his turban, his sightless eyes, his sallow skin, his grey beard. He was not very tall.

He put out a hand to me, and said, still softly:

“Alms, oh Protector of the Poor . . .”

I put my hands in my pocket.

“I have not a single coin,” I replied.

“You have many,” was the beggar’s answer.

The stones were in my right pocket. I took one out and dropped it into his cupped palm. There was not the slightest sound.

“You must give me all of them,” he said. “He who gives not all has given nothing.”

I understood, and I said:

“I want you to know that my alms may be a curse.”

“Perhaps that gift is the only gift I am permitted to receive. I have sinned.”

I dropped all the stones into the concave hand. They fell as though into the bottom of the sea, without the slightest whisper . . . ‘


Throughout Borges’ career, he was preoccupied, as he himself once said, with ‘games of time and infinity’, and he returned again and again to the theme of time, of the inexorable journey from a past we cannot revisit to a future we cannot know. But he was also, it would seem – especially in his later years – obsessed with the indecipherable nature of a reality in which matter – things – repeat themselves in the infinite dance of entropy.

Waylaid by a man-root in the Pyrenees

9 Apr



As we follow a trail across the Alberas – the lower ranges of the Pyrenees as they dip towards the Mediterranean – I am stopped in my tracks by an outgrowth of woody root-stuff in my path, in the shape of a man. It is quite perfect in form, and the thought crosses my mind that it is sitting there with intent, and that it possesses intrinsic intelligence. After we have moved on, I am reminded of that other root, the mandrake, which was once considered to possess magical properties, and which, because the plant contains hallucinogenic alkaloid properties, probably did.

Returning to the village, I pick up a book by John Berger. Berger’s relationship to landscape, especially the landscape of the French Alps where he made his home, resonates powerfully with me, which is to say, I stand in awe of him.  He writes, in Bento’s Sketchbook, of his deep and longstanding debt of gratitude to the philosopher Spinoza, interjecting his own text with snippets from his seventeenth-century mentor. He also draws, and his sketches accompany the text. He says of this: ‘We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.’ Under which, I have scribbled, in pencil  – how true! – & not only of drawing . . . On the facing page, a quotation from Spinoza ends with the words: ‘So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration.’ And it occurs to me that the little man-root that popped into my path earlier in the day, up there on the mountain, appeared just there, just then, in order to point the way to my incalculable destination, also.



What if the future determines the present?

6 Apr


Retrocausality is the ability of the future to influence or alter the present (or of the present to do the same with the past). This is not, I think, to be confused with the fundamentalist protestant idea of predestination, of one’s life being mapped out in advance by an all-knowing God; although it might, at a stretch, map onto the notion of what anthropologists call ‘all-embracing determinism’, as practised in certain (actual or imagined) societies.

Sometimes the universe, or providence, conspires to move in a certain direction and the same signs or symbols keep cropping up in one’s life. Not long ago a series of events – or coincidences – occurred, which got me thinking about the strange possibility of retrocausality, and then, of course, my reading kept producing lines that seemed to confirm what was going on in the so-called ‘outer world’ was somehow being steered by its outcome, rather than – or in addition to – ‘working its way towards one’. It means, for a moment, putting everything we have always believed about causality on hold, and looking at events from another, or even the opposite direction.

Sometimes, we even write things, and then they happen, as I’ve discussed before:

There are times, when: ‘a fictional event or perception or concept is reproduced in reality after the story, or poem, or literary artifice, has been put down on paper. In grammar, cataphora is the reference to a textual item that has not yet been mentioned. By extension we might consider cataphoric reference also to be the way phenomena sometimes manifest themselves in the world after they have been written. On these occasions it is as if the workings of the inner world, the confabulations of the writer, had somehow seeped through into the outer world; as if there were a reflective symmetry between the devices of the imagination and events in reality, a kind of sympathetic magic, which is the idea that you can influence an outcome by concentrating your energy on an analogous object, invoking the desired effect through similitude. Georges Bataille refers to something of the kind when he describes writing as a form of contagion, the conjuring of contagious energies. This can happen either by accident, or intentionally.’ (The Vagabond’s Breakfast).

It is not too much of a leap, from here, to consider a kind of retrocausality at work, ‘with the unconsciousness of the predestined,’ as Robert Louis Stevenson phrased it, in an essay describing how he came to write Treasure Island. I love the idea of the ‘unconsciousness of the predestined’. It encapsulates the idea of inspiration (in its traditional sense) alongside that of the future determining the present. But is this all the fantasy of the over-excited literary mind? I’m not sure it is. It seems quite feasible that the present – or ‘now’, as we conventionally imagine it – is an illusion, and that we live in a universe ‘shot through with retrocausality’, in which past, present and future merge inseparably. This would appear to make sense in the quantum world too. Consider this, from the  17 Feb issue of New Scientist:

‘In its marriage of space and time, Einstein’s great theory [of general relativity] fatally undermines the concept of “now”. What is happening “now” in a particular location depends on where you are and how fast you’re moving, so two different observers may see different things at the same time in the exact same spot. This makes “now” an illusion. Time doesn’t really pass at all, and our perception that it does is due to our limited perspective on the world. In reality, past, present and future form a single, ever-existing block.

In a block universe, quantum retrocausality wouldn’t look so strange. If the past and the future coexist – if past events don’t fade away before future ones come into being – the future could easily influence the past. . . But if the quantum world is a block universe shot through with retrocausality, why don’t we see retrocausality in our everyday lives? After all, we are all made of quantum stuff. The answer boils down to quantum uncertainty. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. So there are features of the quantum world that are persistently hidden from us, and this is ultimately what allows for retrocausation without letting us send signals to the past.’

While I don’t claim to understand all of this, I can get the gist, I think – at least to the point where a terrible kind of clarity forms itself; and I can envisage the present – insofar as it exists – as being as much the consequence of the future as of the past. Which raises the question of where to go from ‘here’.

To be continued.






I have wasted my life

24 Mar



Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.


When I first read the poem – my friend Clare Potter showed it to me after she had been using it for teaching – I was a little shocked by that last line, not sure what to make of it.

Since I am currently teaching a microfiction class, I decided to introduce my charges to a wonderful exhibition of photographs currently on show at the National Museum of Wales. ‘Swaps’ contains examples of the private collection of Welsh photographer David Hurn, the pictures he has acquired from photographer friends over half a century. It was only after re-reading the poem that I realised – for reasons I will describe below – that it might serve very well as a preface to visiting the exhibition.

So I researched the poem a little, and found a couple of interesting articles. In one of them, from the Paris Review, by the wonderfully named Dan Piepenbring, the author asks, of the last line: ‘is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”?

But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:

‘here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, “I have wasted my life.” Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You can’t win.’

Ben Lerner, writing in the London Review of Books, also says something that might relate to Wright’s poem:

‘Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.’ Perhaps that comes close to explicating James Wright’s final line: the Perfect Poem never exists; indeed (as Lerner would insist) every poem is a failure, and the reason every poem is a failure goes something like this: ‘you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.’

The novelist David Mitchell, who apparently keeps a copy of the poem pinned above his desk, regards it as a kind of exhortation to ‘be observant’:

‘I hear him [James Wright] exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.

For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.

We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.’

For myself, I believe that the poem can be read as a paradoxically joyful manifesto to other readers (and, especially, to writers). I have no idea why it makes me feel good about life, when the ending is – at first sight – so dismally self-judgemental. That is the wonder of good poetry: that we are not limited to one response, that we can enjoy multiple responses, even ones that seemingly overlap or even contradict each other.

Perhaps the poem is, at heart, an entreaty not to be distracted, or rather, not to be distracted to the point of confusion: but to look closely, to watch the world. There is, after all, a close relationship between looking closely, to seeing – as expressed so lyrically in the first twelve lines of the poem – and the act of writing itself. You learn, in David Mitchell’s words, to look at the relationship ‘between objects and people and light and time and mood and air’. And animals, I would add. And fire, and water, and rock and grass and leaves. And this watching, this capacity to experience the moment, is something that, of all the arts,  photography does best. As David Hurn puts it, in the notes to one of his favourite photographs: ‘What photography does terribly well is to point out how peculiar and how wonderful the world is. It allows you to see and point out to somebody the things they might not have seen themselves’. Which, of course, goes for poetry too, even if every poem is a failure.