He who would true valor see, let him come hither. One here will constant be, come bad or fair weather. No line length can him fright, he’ll with a paragraph fight, and he will have a right, to be a writer.
Those who beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound: his strength the more is. There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent, to be a writer.
Rejections nor bad critics can daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will a book inherit. So critics fly away, he’ll fear not what they say, he’ll labor night and day to be a writer.
Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”
Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of note preocupes does not translate easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same. Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing. The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a sand-filled square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them. Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia, the where she chose to fight, not die. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, falling to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again. Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail. Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not. Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out? These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal. Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.
Codes and Coding Where’s Home? (4) A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.
“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.
Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.
The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.
But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo–Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b, c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.
This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.
When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.
It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.
“Write about that chair,” Margie said,
and I wondered what was in her head.
How can I write about that chair
when those who sat in it are not there.
Before the coal fire my grandfather sat,
snoring away, on his lap slept the cat.
At three years old, I climbed that chair,
and blew on the bald spot in his hair.
So many things we no longer know:
my grandpa did the same thing, years ago,
and years before that, his own grandad
did just the same to make his old man mad.
Now I, in my turn, when I drink deep,
like to sit in that chair for a little sleep,
and my grand daughter, there’s no grandson,
climbs up that chair, as others have done,
and sees the bald spot in my hair
and blows and blows as I snooze there.
The years roll back and I see the smiles
of generations woken by a young child’s wiles.
Comment: Talking the other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s chair, the only piece of furniture rescued from my parents’ house, and Margie said I had to write a poem about it. So, last night I did. The result is something very different from what I normally write. This is what in Spanish is called an occasional poem and it celebrates a specific occasion, a specific set of circumstances. Thus, it is written under different rules, rhyme, rhythm, stanzas. It is always an adventure to write something suggested by someone else. Poems like this cross the boundary between poetry of play (which this is) and occasionally enter the realm of poetry that expresses the authenticity of being which, to a certain extent is present in this poem too. The above photo, from our local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, is the only one I have of the chair which resides in the basement where I keep my books. The article is an old one (2017), but the photo is nice!
she said, and I imagined her
sitting before the blank spread of a canvas,
a ship’s sail waiting for a sea-side breeze
to fill that empty space with color and mood.
What routes will her paintbrush take
as it wanders over the new world
lying before her?
Plein air, al fresco,
in garden and street,
before the shops and then
on headland and shore,
alone or accompanied,
with sea birds wading
and the gull’s cry echoing its sea of sound
as the sun sets in its bonfire of brightness
and throws light and shadow, chiaro-oscuro,
Comment: The lead photo of Ruby Allan in her studio was taken in her KIRA studio in June, 2017, by my friend and fellow artist, the Peruvian pan-piper and flautist / flutist, Carlos Carty. The poem comes from my book, One Small Corner (2017), written in KIRA during my residency. It can be found on page 94 in the section entitled Artists.
In this poem I have tried to capture the idea of Ruby painting in the fresh air (plein air / al fresco) in St. Andrews-by-the-sea. Clearly, as you can see from the above photo, the sea is so important to this town, as are harbors and boats and the men that man and sail them. The light is important too as it changes throughout the day or with wind and weather. As you can see, Ruby’s paintings are filled with light and she catches those magic moments when the world seems to freeze and stand still. I try to imitate visual art when I write, and I try to fill my poetry with those magic moments as I create verbal pictures that seize the seconds and hold them, even if it be for just a little while.
I am not worthy
to be called her sun,
and yet her world
revolves around me.
She spins in my space
her own life to make
mine more livable.
I’d like to say ‘joyous,’
but tears are in all things
(sunt lacrimae rerum) and
death touches mortal minds ( et
mentem mortalia tangunt).
The best I can offer:
a salt water world,
filled with inadequacies,
drowning us in tears.
Comment: Several things of note in this poem and the voice recording. Should we mix languages in a poem? Why ever not, so long as we explain them. This Latin tag goes back over 2,000 years and links my poem (Intertextuality, remember?) into a long Western tradition. Am I worthy of that tradition? Is my poem? Well, that is a totally different question. However, I am linked in, as you might phrase it. A second question: does my reading of the poem affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how and in what way? Does the phonic word play sun / son affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how? And how does the double meaning of ego work on your mind? Does the Freudian Ego / Id stand out? Or does the schoolboy “Quiz?” “Ego!” spring to mind. Or do you immediately think of the first person singular (Latin) ego as in ego sum lux, via veritas? More important: are you aware of any of this or does the poem disappear into a desert landscape of nothingness with no apparent strings attached? Good questions all: I invite you to think about them all. Blessings and best wishes. Keep safe.
I sense the rust in her mind’s clockwork
clogging her brain, slowing down thought.
I watch her search for words, stumbling through
sentences. “Wind up the flowers,” she says
handing me the key for the grandfather clock.
When she says “water the clock” I receive
the plastic watering-can meant for the flowers.
Fellow travelers, we journey side by side on life’s
train. I watch her as she looks out of the window
at the passing countryside with its tiny stations.
She frets as she clasps her weak hand in her strong
one and I realize she’s worried because she no longer
knows when, where, or how the journey will end.
Comment: I wrote this originally in memory of my grandmother. However, as I have been involved in the rediscovering / revision / rewriting of older poems, I have come to realize that, as our visions change, our poems become more accessible to a wider audience. In other words, given what is happening right now with the pandemic, none of us know when, where, or how the journey will end. This leads directly into the twin themes of the fragility of life and the nature of memory. What do we remember? Why do we remember a particular incident? Did it happen just as we remember it or have we already doctored our memories, re-creating them, so to speak.
I have a clear memory of seeing Sir Frank Worral batting at St. Helen’s in Swansea, when I was about 11 years old. A close friend of mine, an outstanding cricketing historian, checked the details in Wisdenand told me that Frank Worral wasn’t playing in that match, so I couldn’t have seen him batting. And then there was Sir Everton de Courcy Weekes: I swear a saw him score a century at Bristol, yet, again according to my friend who checked the records, he only got fifty in that game! Games: what mind games the mind plays with us as we age. So, do I go with the fantasy land of my memories in which much has been (re)-invented? Or do I go with the world of truth and checkable reality? As an academic, I lived in the latter world: research, check, double check, avoid expressing personal opinions, facts, facts, facts, and exact dates. As an ageing poet, I would much rather live in that former world where truth and reality march hand in hand with fairy-tale and fiction, a little bit of one and a smattering of both.
How far is from fairy-tale and fiction to the dream world we inhabit at night? Just a short step, I reckon. Sometimes I remember my dreams and write them down when I wake up. Sometimes they vanish and I can only recall some vague feelings of joy and anguish. And what is life, that fragile, dream-like reality? Is it really a dream, as Segismundo tells us in Calderón’s La Vida es Sueño? Or is it a real world? And if it is real, do we create that reality or do we dream it? And if we dream it, do we sleep walk, sleep talk, sweet talk our way through it? Or do we portray it just like it really is, with no creativity, just a factual repeat of reality as we know it?
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí. ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión, una sombra, una ficción, y el mayor bien es pequeño, porque toda la vida es un sueño, y los sueños, sueños son.
What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction, and the greatest good is small, because life is a dream, and dreams are nothing but dreams, after all.
Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished
the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.
Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she
emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret
language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she
nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.
Commentary: The lead painting is the one Finley painted for me. I received it as a Christmas present, a couple of years back when she was 3 or 4. When asked if she wanted to add some more to the painting as the canvas wasn’t full, she replied: “No, it’s finished. That’s just how I want it.” Picasso once said that he spent the first half of his life learning to paint and the second half learning to see again as children see. Sometimes we complicate our art so much that we kill our inspiration and our vision. Some poets necessitate a dictionary in order for a reader to understand their words, yet when the meaning emerges, we find that the poem is convoluted, stilted, almost meaningless and even emptier than it was before.
Question: why do we try to gild the lily? Why do we lead to the slaughter the gift of the goose who lays the golden eggs? Are we writers or assassins? Are we not capable of putting meaning on paper with the directness and simplicity of a child? Good questions all. Sometimes I think that poets are like the existentialists of Albert Camus’s novels: they are the assassins of language and the murderers of direct and clear writing. And who are the victims? The words, images, metaphors, feelings that are strangled in the cradle or forced into captivity behind prison bars of jumbled lines and scattered thought.
Original ideas? No, not at all. This is the basic argument that Francisco de Quevedo (conceptismo) had with Luis de Góngora (culteranismo) in the Spanish literary salons of Madrid between 1613and 1627. The literary insults they wrote to each other are still a scandalous joy to read. These two seemingly separate styles of writing, which are actually very similar on many levels, eventually blended together and led to a total renewal of the Spanish literary language. This in turn was bastardized by second-class imitators who did not have the skills of the original ‘super’ artists. And thus the pendulum swings: innovation > standardization > parody and satire of a worn out language > fresh inspiration and innovation.
As for me: how I would love to regain the clarity of vision and the joy of words that I experienced when I was a child. Back then, the world was a magic place, the pen and pencil were magic wands, and the empty page was a blank canvas to be filled with wonder. Alas: then I was sent to school. Rules were set. Bars were installed. Blinkers were inserted. Doors and windows were locked. Creativity ended. I will say no more.
The Kingsbrae International Residencies for Artists (KIRA) requested its alumni to consider creating a ten minute video of themselves offering an instructional lesson based on themselves working in their specialist areas. You can click on the above link to see all the creative videos currently available. Note that two more are added each week. Here is a link to my own video on Writing a Poem. It is designed for people of any age and I hope that anyone who sees the video will enjoy it and be inspired to start putting together their own poems.
The photo above was taken by Geoff Slater, the Artistic Director at KIRA. He placed a selection of my books on the beach at Holt’s Point and Bingo: instant art from a master artist. My book Fundy Lines now sunbathes on a beach that has ready access to the beautiful Bay of Fundy.