Monday, February 23, 2009

Incidents with my tea that make me think I am in a picaresque novel

First, in order to fit it into the pan, I cut the tail off a flounder with a pair of scissors. The flounder was frozen so I had to use some force, and when the tail came off it flew back behind the cooker, so that I had to rummage around and retrieve it with a broom. When I'd done so, the tail on its own amongst the dust and balls of dog hair looked a bit like a seal's paw, and a bit like a human hand.

Then, once the fish was poached, I discovered that it had never been gutted. I'd assumed that the fishmonger had gutted it, and slung it straight in the freezer when I got home. When cooked it oozed blood and sat in a rusty pool on the plate. It was delicious, though.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fresh Cabbage

I've spent the last few days having a first read through of Rob Mackenzie's book The Opposite of Cabbage, and very enjoyable it is too. At this point I feel like I can only point to some things I particularly liked –

The quiet rhyme of 'Light Storms from a Dark Country'; everything about 'White Noise'; in 'Scotlands', the complaint that the grass is 'Much too green', and the well-judged repetition of 'bitterness'; the rarity of a successful pantoum in 'Hospital'; the deep blankness of 'Sky Blue'; and, from 'Advice from the Lion tamer to the Poetry Critic':

Quiet poems need subtler handling
than roaring ones,
but all poems are in thrall
to their own voices.

One reason why I'm hesitant to say more is that I'm finding it difficult to digest the technical development of influences. For example, I know that Rob has read John Ashbery and Michael Hofmann in some detail, but the book doesn't simply regurgitate or amalgamate their styles. There are unreal/absurd/bizarre moments and passages, but it isn't simply Scots Ashbery; there are cynical/bleak agglomereations of resolutely contemporary materials, but it isn't cod-Hofmann either.

One poem which approximates Hofmann's style more or less closely is 'Married Life in the Nineties', from the mixture of high- and low-cultural allusions to the dysfunctional love affair which is the poem's subject. There are some delicious, hilarious, sad moments: 'A magic tree laced your neck/in place of a crucifix men couldn't help kissing'; '[I] held out/for whatever was due beyond Windows 95'; and the ending, where the beloved goes off with someone else, 'leaving me, I presumed,/either self-sufficient or without hope'. It's good stuff, but I am more interested in (unsettled by) one or two other poems which take aspects of Hofmann's style into different territory. 'Berlusconi and the National Grid' makes a historical parallel with Fascist Italy which is not less effective for being conspicuous. 'Plastic Cork' seems a more generous, more open love poem than Hofmann would write. 'Nuclear Submarines' is something else - it takes a quite Hofmann-ish device, the nuclear threat used as a figure for personal and social unease, and turns it into something less cluttered, more lyrical than Hofmann's work:

For now, they seem content to drowse

resolutely without wit or purpose
like autistic sharks ballooning

through seaweed, rock and sand
of fish cities deep in blackout.

(I can't help remembering Ted Hughes's 'Pike' here too. It's a clean, grotesque, sad poem, and I like it more each time I read it.) There are fewer jokes, and I feel like I need time to reread this in order to work out how tone, irony and subject matter (not to mention the influence, perhaps greater, of Ashbery) configure themselves in this and other poems in the book. It ain't - thankfully - simply imitative, but this makes it more difficult to get a handle on.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sentence I particularly enjoyed in Engineering & Technology Magazine

There's an interesting piece by Vitali Vitaliev in a recent issue of Engineering & Technology magazine, discussing a novel-writing program called PC Writer 1.0. The program's authors uploaded various works of Russian literature to serve as a stylistic (and, presumably, structural) base. The result is what Vitaliev calls 'a grammatially correct and free-flowing Russian-ese mongrel of a modern novel'.

It is of course gratifying if not surprising to learn that the program does pretty well on the whole, but fails to give its characters (and one would hope it's style generally) much peculiarity. The novel, True Love.wrt, is populated by characters from Anna Karenina, or at least by characters bearing their names. The following quote from Levin could have been uttered by several Tolstoy's characters and any number of Dostoyevsky's, but it hardly recalls Levin himself:

'You know what: I would have been very scared of what's to come had I not been so drunk.'

Friday, February 13, 2009

If you eat my ice cream I'm not going

I briefly heard a mention on BBC News at Ten last night about Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta (formerly Abingdon) Island Tortoise, a subspecies of the gient Galápagos tortoise. I can't find a record of it online, so I don't know if the news was that he has died, or just that there was no real news yesterday. But it reminded me of Al Purdy's poem 'Adam and No Eve', about the same tortoise (yes, literally about the same individual):

They have posted reward money
these scientists
but no female has ever been found
Lonesome George's relatives
brothers and sisters and cousins
stern great aunts and harrumphing uncles
are gone from Abingdon Island
and the world

It's awe-inspiring to think that while Purdy is now dead, in the time since the poem was written George has advanced slightly into middle age. Even if he's at the upper end of estimates of his age, he'll probably still outlive me.

The poem of course laments the fact that 'Not again shall mud conceive/or the stars bear witness', that 'one female tortoise (shaped/somewhat like an old shoe)/has taken [love] with her alone/into the darkness'. It brings death into odd relief to think of a particular individual whose own death will also be that of his species. (I wouldn't be surprised to see Purdy's stock rise, in view of his environmental concerns.) It is also sad in a spurious anthropomorphic way, to think of an old man utterly alone in the world (he isn't an old man, of course, but he looks like one). Then I think that on the contrary, he is oblivious and behaves exactly like any other tortoise would do if it existed, and this gives him a sort of dignity. And then, as is dignity's way, this makes me want to laugh at him. And back to sadness.

Monday, February 09, 2009


There are two images running round my head which I'm tempted to work into a poem together: mobile phones going off inside lockers while their owners are in the swimming pool; and the toothpick fish, which swims up a stream of urine into the urethra of the unfortunate urinator.