Thursday, March 29, 2012


Jonathon Green appreciates Urquhart, the miraculous 17th cent. translator of Rabelais, with (appropriately) a list:
So gross a member doubtless merited so extensive a list: ‘One of them would call it her pillicock, her fiddle-diddle, her staff of love, her tickle-gizzard, her gentle-titler. Another, her sugar-plum, her kingo, her old rowley. her touch-trap, her flap dowdle. Another again, her brand of coral, her placket-racket, her Cyprian sceptre, her tit-bit, her bob-lady. And some of the other women would give these names, my Roger, my cockatoo, my nimble-wimble, bush-beater, claw-buttock, evesdropper, pick-lock, pioneer, bully-ruffin, smell-smock, trouble-gusset, my lusty live sausage, my crimson chitterlin, rump-splitter, shove-devil, down right to it, stiff and stout, in and to, at her again, my coney-borrow-ferret. wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue.’

Here is a passage once tumbl'd from Rabelais; here is the useful Gutenberg e-text of Book 2, and here is a list (of books).

And I should link to Stephen Burt in memory of Adrienne Rich, and also to Stephen Burt on Rich in the LRB last month (the latter might be gated; is notable mostly for quoting paysage moralise of Rich's, beginning "Here is a map of our country"). The New Yorker has linked to some charming old poems of hers, which I distinctly prefer to the drab programmatic ranting that is so much of her oeuvre. I will also link, perhaps cruelly, to an old letter of hers in the NYRB that to my mind perfectly captures some of her flaws; and also, to make up for that, to "Snapshots of a daughter-in-law," which is her best poem that I'm aware of.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Sand / Is grand / But oyster / Is moister"

From the larder, a newly unearthed poem by Housman, concerning oysters and cucumbers. (Previous local coverage of Housman here.) Naturally the juxtaposition of Housman and moisture brings up that Auden sonnet:
Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor. 
Also new to me: A.D. Hope's response to the Auden sonnet. And I am reminded that I recently stumbled upon this astoundingly bad translation of Aeschylus ("with nurture-milk it sucked the clotted blood"!). (Connection is via Housman parody that Calista pointed me to upon being sent the Aesch.)

Some unrelated linkage: Leigh Hunt's wonderful apostrophe to a fish (and the fish's response); Alice James's self-description of her body as a "mildewed toadstool".

After some grief, the defense has been scheduled! Key outstanding task now -- other than various admin. horrors -- is to write the introduction. Given how heavily my research depends on "reducing to previously solved problems," this is a delicate task; one cannot, as in papers, simply point to the appropriate references, but a detailed introduction to all the relevant ideas would entail unimaginable bloat...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pallid putti

Pigs' heads among the pralines (via Arbroath):

I am reminded of a Christopher Reid poem that I will have to type in from memory:

H. Vernon

The butcher, tired of his bloody work
has made a metaphysical joke:

Five pigs’ heads on a marble counter
leer lopsidedly out of the window

and scare away the passers-by.
The vision is far too heavenly.

With ears like wings, these pallid putti
— hideous symbols of eternal beauty —

relax on parsley and smirk about
their newly disembodied state.

A van draws up outside. The butcher
opens his glass door like St. Peter

as angels heave in flanks of pork
that are strung with ribs like enormous harps.

-- Christopher Reid

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Another kind of backwards flute

(Because this post is about Craig Raine, I should pass on the information that "the last words of Larkin's last ever poem were 'Raine (Craig)'. Rhyming with 'dumb and vague'.")

I had posted last year about Craig Raine's view that '“Asshole” is a possible translation of “arsehole” but it isn’t the right translation,' but did not know then, as I know now, that the word plays the same central role in Raine's poetics as "gleam" does in Tennyson's or "greazy" in Swift's. A couple of exhibits: (1) From his novel Heartbreak: "The beautiful blot of her arsehole. A dark-pink peach-stone. An astonishment of lips". (2) This poem, Verlainesque but -- and this is why I cannot avoid posting it -- ending with the word "ambergris" (also, inevitably, evocative of Gas-Poker -- cf. "the pucker that she held up"):


It is shy as a gathered eyelet
neatly worked in shrinking violet;
it is the dilating iris, tucked
away, a tightening throb when fucked.

It is a soiled and puckered hem,
the golden treasury’s privy purse.
With all the colours of a bruise,
it is the fleck of blood in albumen.

I dreamed your body was an instrument
and this was the worn mouthpiece
to which my breathing lips were bent.

Each note pleaded to love a little longer,
longer, as though it was dying of hunger.
I fed that famished mouth my ambergris.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I have been reading John Burnside's book Black Cat Bone; I'll be posting more about it, but for now: (1) here, qua teaser, are some bits that are available online: "Late Show", "Nativity" and "Loved and Lost" (the latter has a wonderful ending), the long narrative poem "The Fair Chase", "Notes Towards an Ending", and "Pieter Brueghel: Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, 1565". (2) Burnside is very good; he is one of those obsessive airless writers without much scenic range -- I am reminded most powerfully of Charles Wright (also, but mostly by coincidence, of Joyce Carol Oates); Burnside often uses the late-Wright trick of starting a poem with a stage-direction line like "Night" -- whose interests are fashionably liminal. There is a lot of dawn/birth/spring ("the trees emerging, piecemeal, from the cold"), a blur of intimations-of-the-otherworldly, and a wealth of headlights. (3) The real point of this post is to note a lovely word that, as far as I can tell, Burnside made up; it appears in the closing lines of this book:
this is the time of year
when nothing to see
gives way to the hare in flight, the enormous

beauty of it stark against the mud
and thawglass on the track, before
it darts away, across the open fields

and leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded.

The meaning is fairly obvious -- I won't embarrass myself with a paraphrase, but will recall this -- and it is the sort of word that ought to be a word, but I cannot locate any uses outside of Burnside's poems. (There is another, earlier poem with "a litter of small gold apples, newly fallen, / wet with thawglass.")

"Hisses, treadlings, clunks and saw-edged whines"

Some clippings from Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, while I wait for the dryer downstairs to free up. (My Kindle and my computer are rarely in the same place at the same time.) First, an overall note: it starts off wonderfully but runs out of steam, mimetically I guess. The book is about Russia between Stalin and Brezhnev; Spufford is interested in fairy tales, and wants to think of the Khrushchev era in terms of the Russian fairytale trope of the "self-victualling tablecloth"; the shoe doesn't quite fit, but comes close enough that the book isn't entirely silly. It is arranged in groups of vignettes that are each supposed to illustrate daily life in some part of this era; each group is introduced by a brief historical overview. The social range extends from low-level party workers to Khrushchev. Because the fairy tale was supposed to be powered by science, there is a lot of writing about mathematical economics and genetics and the like. I thought this was variable in quality and generally suffered from Spufford's preference for metaphors over explanations. A chapter about a scientist dying of lung cancer, in particular, narrates the progress of cancer through one's genes cells at inordinate length and with a hideous overreliance on the word "gloop." It is probably the worst science writing I have ever read -- esp. because, as I hope the clippings here and in prev. posts indicate, it's written by a remarkable prose stylist -- and deserves an award of some kind.

Nevertheless, here are the clippings:
a discordant symphony of hisses, treadlings, clunks and saw-edged whines

(about a plywood factory)
The train passed through Baltimore, Philadelphia and Jersey City, America turning its back view to him as the carriages slid athwart streets and behind rows of red-brick buildings. He gazed and speculated. It was like looking at a man facing away from you, and trying to guess what was in his pockets. He saw rusted fire-escapes clamped to the back of buildings and bundles of electrical wires in fat festoons looping from wall to wall. He saw oil storage tanks, he saw rubber tyres burning on a wasteland in a black smeech of smoke, he saw billboards advertising trinkets and cigarettes. The Americans seemed keen on neon signs, not just for important or official purposes, but everywhere they could be fitted in, violet and green and red, in humming sputtering anarchy. Troyanovsky translated some for him: MOTEL, CRAZY GOLF, JACK’S VALUE AUTO. Sometimes the view turned disconcertingly to blank virgin forest, as if America had tendrils of Siberia reaching right up into its metropolises.
(Re fire escapes, cf.)
Outside, the late summer day had become one of those evenings where the sky has the pure, clear colour of darkening water, moving to black through deeper and deeper blues.

an expression of bafflement on a face like a sweating cheese

Ask the computer and it would obey, as ready as a genie in a bottle – and as intolerant of badly-framed wishes.

What has come over me? thought Sasha. He remembered a joke. What is a question mark? An exclamation mark in middle age.

The closer a science was to practicality, the more it was co-opted into serving the practical needs of power. The closer it was to the dangerous ground of social science, on the other hand, the more distorted by ideology it tended to become. And the more abstract it was, the more intellectually uncorrupted it was likely to remain. The result was a landscape of intellectual lives laid out very differently from its counterparts abroad. Where the United States (for example) was a society ruled by lawyers, with a deep well of campus idealism among literature professors and sociologists, the Soviet Union was a society ruled by engineers, with a well of idealism among mathematicians and physicists. Law, economics, history were sterile, insignificant fiefdoms, ruled by ‘little Stalins’

The car was not in good shape. The muffler banged and the gears stridulated as it lurched off the snowbank and away. Also, someone had been sick in the back and the mess had been incompletely cleaned up. Chekuskin pulled the tails of his overcoat up and sat as far as he could from it.

Alexei Nikolaevich Kosygin was a neat old, solid old, dry old pol, with deep lines running from his nose to the outside corners of his upper lip, which lifted his cheeks, when he smiled, into little sardonic bunches of muscle as round as billiard balls.

And, amid the wreckage of the lung cancer chapter:
True, it is a disgusting noise he makes. It begins as a commonplace wheeze in his throat, but tumbles down into his chest where it hacks and rattles and audibly moves clots of viscous wet stuff around, till the wet stuff has been dragged up into his airway, and he’s in a gasping, gargling struggle to get it off his epiglottis, and out, so that he can breathe again. He spits into his handkerchief, clean this morning, now stiff and crusty, stained with nameless emulsions. He’s been bringing up the traditional jade mayonnaise of bronchitis every winter for as long as he can remember, but this is something different, something thicker and redder and meatier, like liquescent liver. He folds the handkerchief away, and tries to muster his persuasive powers.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Pearls-for-eyes redux

Francis Spufford, I may be some time:
The ice had preserved John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine as yellowed revenants from 1846. Their lips had drawn back from their teeth, and their eyes, oysters of water-ice when the coffins were first opened, proved to have sunk back beneath the lids [...] the preserving ice does something curious to history. It does not distinguish between the recent dead and the remote dead; all are glazed over alike.
I am returning to this book after a week's travel, exigencies of packing for which have left me with a number of half-read books that I must now try to finish.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"By the time Collins was being pursued by a woman with green tusks, you sense he was in big trouble"

Back from Boston, where I had a pleasant few days, to "fyre and flete and candlelight," and the (more urgent than I had realized) task of finishing up my thesis. Some linkage:

1. Engaging review of Peter Ackroyd's (apparently dull) biog. of Wilkie Collins.

2. Geoff Dyer on porn and Thomas Ruff. Inter alia I am grateful to GD for teasing out the pun in "coming to our senses." (Which also enriches that Frost line, "going home / From company means coming to our senses.")

3. From Guy Davenport's diary in The Hunter Gracchus:
The white frost that made the fire feel so good, and the quilt so comfortable, had also reddened the maples and mellowed the persimmons. Cloth shoes stink by the fire. Foxes bark in the deep of the wind.

Opossum:persimmon::moth:mulberry. Christmas Island (South Pacific): imperial pigeon, noddy, glossy swiftlet, reef heron.