Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Snow Joke

"Snow was general all over Ireland..." Well, it's falling softly, and indeed softly falling, all over the east of the country at any rate. The library is closed for two days at least!

So, if you are snowed in (and even if you are not), why not make yourself some hot chocolate (or other thick, hot beverage), snuggle under the duvet, and read my rhapsody on snow from 2016?

It's days like this that I really wish I'd kept the famous snow issue of the Transformers comic.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Missing Masterpieces

As I've mentioned already, I've been in an archival mood recently. I've been organising my physical archive of publications and manuscripts (an activity I enjoy to an implausible degree). It's stored in three metal file boxes. I'm grateful for everything I kept. I've also been organising my digital archive, which has been scattered all over the place until now.

The first pieces of writing I had published were poems in my father's community magazine, The Ballymun News. This used to be a weekly (or maybe monthly) magazine, back in the seventies, but it had been scaled back to an annual publication by the time I was a teenager. It ceased publication in the late nineties. By the time it was an annual publication, it was less of a community magazine (despite the title) than an outlet for my father's views and ideas, which he would post to various "movers and shakers" (as he put it) in a hope of influencing public policy.  He claims to have had some success with this, and I believe him.

(He's often claimed that the "Christmas pudding" radio sketch, which the legendary Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne broadcasts most Christmases, was-- ahem!-- influenced by a very similar piece in The Ballymun News.)

After this, I published poems in college publications. For a while, my verses appeared every month in The DIT Examiner. I would hand-deliver my poems to the editor's office and we would have a very pleasant, leisurely chat. I get the impression he struggled to fill his pages. Nobody ever read my poems, except once, when a lecturer (who was a devotee of Padre Pio) complimented me on a poem which is the closest I've ever come to writing anything anti-Catholic or anti-clerical. (It was a denunciation of old women who gossip together after Mass in an un-Christian way. Lord knows what I based it on, since I didn't go to Mass.)

Perhaps the strangest items in my archive are some copies of The Irish Brews Paper, a publication that some of my classmates put out, which was all about microbreweries. Despite being a teetotaller at this time (and until my twenty-seventh year), I wrote a few comical poems for it. Here is the first verse of one of them:

Oh, I'm a loony lefty 

With a wobbling double chin
But my frame did not grow hefty
Through a-tippling on gin.
I didn't turn into a Gordon Brown
Through knocking champagne and martinis down
But when me and the lads have a night on the town
It's sandwiches and beer.

I was a socialist at this time (rather predictably). Even now, I have something of a fondness for the "beer and sandwiches" tradition of British trade unionism and socialism.

Anyway, if I didn't have my old copies of The Irish Brews Paper, I'm sure they'd be utterly unobtainable now.

I had my first "proper" publication in 1998, when I was twenty-one. It was a poem about second-hand bookshops, published in Books Ireland. It wasn't bad. The first verse ran:

What bookstore chain can match the thrill
Of cast-off volume, stack on stack
Sold second hand? Come test your skill
Wade through the work of every hack
To find, if they don't break your will
Some hidden gem in paperback.

A few years later, I had a short poem about a diary published in the same journal. Aside from a poem about the Wedding at Cana published a few years ago in Spirituality magazine, those are the only poems I've had published in literary publications, despite years of submissions.

There are various oddities in my archive. I wrote the editorial for a magazine that my French class put together in the millennium year. It was a retrospective of the previous century-- and if you think that's monumentally arrogant, my defence is that my lecturer asked me to write it. I suppose I was the class intellectual, or would-be intellectual. It was entitled "The Century of Nihilim", and the lesson it drew from the twentieth century was that every effort to change human nature had been a disaster. I'm quite pleased with that central thesis. Some of the other statements are ones I'd rather forget, but there's nothing too egregious.

I also had article published in the Irish language newspaper Foinse, based on my interview with the Irish novelist J.P. Donleavy. The only reason I published it in an Irish language newspaper was because it was rejected by The Irish Times. It was, of course, heavily edited, since my written Irish was (and is) atrocious.

I had a dreadful piece of light verse called "The New Dog" published in a very short-lived family magazine called X2. (I have no idea why it was called that.) The editor not only published it, but added a short commentary, in which he said that "the political undertones run very true". Terrible as the poem is, I'm glad I kept this magazine, too. Where on earth would I find it today?

I have various certificates and presentation booklets from local literary competitions in which I won prizes. I have the print-out of the announcement, on the ITV website, that I'd won the "Millennium Poem" prize on the last day of 1999, as judged by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough. This was hosted on Teletext, which is a system of text pages on television which you can navigate using your remote control. (I understand it never caught on in America.) I remember thinking I had begun the Millennium in the most auspicious manner possible.

I joined the UCD Literary Society in 2004, and contributed a poem to its rather glossy annual magazine. I'm glad I still have that, too, since it's not even kept in UCD library! It's the only year I took part in the Society.

(I know I've mentioned a lot of this before, when writing about my years trying to be a poet. Apologies for the repetition, both here and further on.)

In my mid-twenties, I pretty much gave up on poetry and decided to write fiction instead. My imagination was kindled by reading about literary workhorses such as Isaac Asimov, who famously said "I think through my fingers", and "If I was told I only had six months to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster". (This is sometimes rendered, rather stupidly, as "six minutes to live". The misquotation used to irk Asimov. The quotation itself is a paraphrase of an answer to an interview question.)

So I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, for a few years, at every available moment.

My first novel was entitled The Black Feather. My main ambition with this novel was simply to finish it, since I'd made many abandoned efforts at writing novels from my childhood onwards. The story itself is set in a fantasy world, one in which a republic loosely based on the Roman Republic is at war with an empire loosely based on the Persian Empire. At this point, I was more reactionary than ever before or since. The novel might almost have been written by Benito Mussolini. It's a passionate defence of monarchy, hierarchy, mystery, tradition, and such things. I was still an agnostic at this point, and the story ends with my protagonist looking at a statue of God (in the form of a spider) and wondering if he really exists. My protagonist was a scion of the Republic who eventually becomes a defender of the Empire.

It's a terrible novel. Words cannot describe its badness. it's also a lost masterpiece, because I don't have the text anymore. I had it stored up until recently on two different laptops that both died within a short time of each other. I put the final chapter up on this blog a few years ago, and that's all that remains of it at this date. Bad as it is, I regret this.

My second attempt at fiction was a young adult's fantasy novel called The Bard's Apprentice. This dusted off an idea I'd had for many years, about an order of bards who wander through various fantasy worlds, pursuing quests. It's the closest I've ever come to writing a passable novel. The story was set on a fantasy world and followed a tribe similar to the Pilgrim Fathers, who left a decadent civilization to live in the wilderness. One of their number, a young boy, finds himself at one point transported to a city called Luria, the home of the order of the bards, and becomes an apprentice bard. Just as he has started his training, however, he has to return to his tribe to save them from an attack by bandits. I'd intended this novel as the first of a series. The plot is fairly good, and the novel explores the conflict between tradition and individual freedom in a way that I think is quite fair-minded.

A publisher did ask me for the entire manuscript of this novel after I'd sent them a few sample chapters. Several months later I got a rejection letter accompanied by a reader's report so savage I've only been able to read it once-- though I've kept it in my archives. A friend who read the novel, and who is himself a writer, thought it showed narrative ability and said I shouldn't give up on fiction. I still have the entire text, now safely stored on Google Drive. (Well, I presume it's safe!)

Then I turned to writing horror. I wrote a horror novel set in modern-day Dublin, under the title The Snowman. This featured an extraterrestrial being who terrorises a Dublin suburb, taking the form of a snowman. It was definitely a step backwards from The Bard's Apprentice, especially in its meandering and directionless plot. I have most of this, but some of the chapters towards the end are missing. It had some good scenes. I wanted to write a novel where it snowed non-stop. I love snow.

Next I wrote a series of horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. My idea for this collection was to avoid cliché and repetition as much as possible; I wanted a hundred stories which were truly original, each one different from the rest. As a lifelong horror fan who knows most of the clichés, I think I achieved that fairly well. Some of the ideas are pretty good. However, my big mistake was for each story to be only two pages long. I wanted them to be short sharp shocks, but I overlooked the fact that a story has to be more than just an idea. Part of the pleasure in any story is the development of the idea, the drawing out of the idea. The collection also included a framing narrative-- I love framing narratives.

A Hundred Nightmares is the spikiest thing I've ever written. I was drifting towards a spiritual crisis at this time, finding it increasingly difficult to live as an agnostic. I took some of the pain and emptiness I was feeling out on my characters. Savage and ironic twists abound in A Hundred Nightmares. Some readers of the stories told me they found them just too dark to enjoy.

A Hundred Nightmares is also a "missing masterpiece". I've lost the text. I'd put some of them up on this blog over the years, and some readers said some kind things about them. But I think most of them are missing now.

On the very day that I finished writing A Hundred Nightmares, my spiritual crisis hit me with full force. I remember it vividily. It was a very hot summer's day. I spent the next few months desperately searching for God-- and finding Him, eventually, deo gratias.

Some years later,  I wrote another young adult's fantasy novel entitled The Man Who Could Make Worlds. This was another poor effort. The basic idea was good, I think; it featured a teenager who visits his hero, a writer of "choose your own adventure" books. It turns out that the writer, a crotchety and reactionary old man, can create not only imaginary worlds but apparently real worlds. as well. (How he got this power is left deliberately vague. I was influenced in this by Groundhog Day, which never bothers to account of its supernatural element, and is all the better for it.) He traps the boy inside a fantasy world drawn from the boy's imagination; if he manages to extricate himself, the old man (who is dying) will make him his heir by granting him the ability to make worlds. I love stories about different levels of reality. Sadly, though the idea was good, the execution was dire. it's not quite as bad as The Black Feather, but it's not far off.

I thought this was another "lost masterpiece", but I found it on my personal drive at work, hiding under the filename "Moo" (for God knows what reason).

More recently, I started writing a religious novel entitled The Cross. A friend of mine read this as I wrote it and was very enthusiastic about it. So was I, at the time. But I abandoned it after a few chapters, and I've decided it's not worth further effort. Aside from anything else, what publisher is going to be interested in a religious novel? I can't see myself writing any further fiction for a good while.

I guess the moral is this. Keep your files safe! Have them in multiple locations!

At the same time, while I made an honest effort to find them, I'm not too cut up that I couldn't. I've pondered quite a bit on the strange dialectic betweeen memory and forgetting, conservation and loss. If nothing was forgotten, nothing would ever need to be remembered. The scene from Proust that everybody has heard about, in which the taste of a particular cake dipped in tea unlocks a flood of childhood memories, wouldn't be possible if we all remembered everything that ever happened to us.

"The mists of history" is a deliciously evocative phrase. I'm glad we don't live in a world where there would be no occasion to use it.

I've mentioned on several occasions that I'm a big fan of the website TV Tropes. This particular page, Missing Episodes, is a fascinating list of movies, broadcasts, books, and other things which are considered lost. Did you know, for instance, that the Iliad and the Odyssey were part of a larger epic of Troy, which is now mostly lost? Or that NASA's original high-definition footage of the Moon landings have gone missing? (The pictures we are familiar with are recordings of recordings.)

There's something quite romantic in the idea of a missing work of art. Something potentially spooky, too. Ancient Evil by Ramsey Campbell is a good novel on this theme, in which a film historian is trying to track down a "lost" horror film. The scene where he finally watches it, in an empty cinema, is deliciously creepy. I'm reminded of the lines from T.S. Eliot:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Indeed, sometimes studios take advantage of this by marketing never-before-seen episodes or scenes as "lost", when they were not lost but simply stuck on a shelf somewhere.

All in all, while I'm fundamentally on the side of preservation, conservation, and tradition, I rather like it when entropy is given a sporting chance. G.K. Chesterton's reflections on the novel Robinson Crusoe may help explain what I mean: "Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck"."

If technology ever advances to the level where no record is ever lost, what will possess this romantic sense of having been saved from a wreck-- except for works that pre-dated the new era? I am reminded of Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past", a story that made a powerful impression on me in my teens.

Well, I've veered into pretty deep waters, given the general subject of this blog post. And I'm glad to my younger self for keeping the things I've kept. (I've also kept a private diary for the last three years on the website Penzu. I haven't missed a day and it's almost a million words long now. Every month, I import a PDF copy of it which I keep in several different places.)

A final thought: a reader kindly asked me whether I keep back-ups of my blog posts. I don't. For whatever quirk of my own psychology, it seems important to me not to worry about the preservation of this blog. The National Library of Ireland have perserved my posts from 2012, in their digital archive (something I realized by complete accident). That's enough for me.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review of Bizarre Books

Here's another gem (or so I'd like to think) from my archives. This is a book review I had published in the library newsletter, some years ago. It's rather appropriate to the post about books that I put up yesterday.

First, a quick glossary. "IRM" is Information Resource Management, the department of our library that deals with the acquisition and cataloguing of books. (Or rather, that is its former name. Happily, it is now called "Collections" instead.) "RFID" is a form of electronic book tagging which lets books be borrowed and returned using radio frequency. It was a new thing in the library at the time.

The reference to telegraph pole insulators is extra amusing in hindsight, since my current office mate actually collects them, and gave me one for my birthday a few years ago. I didn't know that at the time. I'm not even sure he was working in the library back then.

Nobody in the library even mentioned this article to me. Pearls before swine. (That's a joke.) Maybe my blog readers will be more interested.

I’m sure it’s happened to everyone who works in a library, at some time or other. You’re working your way through a trolleyload of books. Maybe your mind isn’t a hundred per cent on what you’re doing. You pick up a volume. You glance at the title. Your eyes widen. You flick through the pages, growing more and more incredulous. Two minutes later, you’re calling to a colleague; “Come here, you’ve got to see this”. Two more minutes later, you’ve decided that, no matter how weird or obsure the subject, no matter how far-fetched the theory, somebody somewhere has written a book about it.

Well, guess what—somebody has written a book about that, too, and we have it in our shelves. Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake, published in 1985, is a celebration of the fact that nobody needs a license (or even an iota of good sense) to publish.

Double entendre titles, ridiculous author’s names, far-out subjects, nutty theories…it’s all here, and as respectably-sourced as anyone could ask for.

You know those children’s jokes where a book title is paired with a humorously appropriate author’s name? Well, according to Bizarre Books, truth really is stranger than fiction. There really is a book called Punishment by Robin Banks (Penguin, 1972) and another called The Art of Editing by Floyd K. Baskette and Jack Z. Sissors. There is also a Motorcycling for Beginners by Geoff Carless. But my favourite in the apt author’s name category has to be Fuel Oil Viscosity-Temperature Diagram by Guysbert B. Vroom (1926).

Then is the J.R. Hartley Award for most obscure book subject. In 1897, the National Temperance League found the money to publish Octogenarian Teetotalers, with One Hundred and Thirteen Portraits. It is, as the authors of Bizarre Books put it, “probably the only illustrated directory of geriatric abstainers ever published”. (They even reproduce an illustrated double-spread from this unjustly forgotten work.)

We also get a picture from Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book, a collection of photographs showing various celebrated people…jumping. The picture reproduced shows the Duke and Duchess of Windsor leaping in the air, shoeless and hand-in-hand, obviously fully recovered from the Abdication Crisis. Apparently Bertrand Russell refused to jump—but plenty of other notables (including Salvator Dali) seem to have asked, “How high?”.

There are other mind-bogglingly specific books—Fifty New Creative Poodle Grooming Styles and The Influence of Mountains Upon the Development of Human Intelligence deserve honourable mention. But let us move on to eyebrow-raising titles. I Was a Kamikaze (1973) definitely begs the question. Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen (1929) shows a rather funereal-looking old Scotsman on the cover, and I’m sure many people in IRM will be keen to learn The Joy of Cataloguing (1981).

(Perhaps I should mention here that we have a few crackers in our own stock. One of my favourites is Modern Thinkers on Welfare by George and Page. I was one of those myself for several months after leaving college.)

But, just as they say there’s someone out there for everyone, there’s obviously a reader for every book. As the introduction to Bizarre Books puts it: “But what is odd? It is quite clear that one person’s bizarre book is another’s bread and butter. We thought Searching for Railway Telegraph Insulators a hugely funny and esoteric title until a lecturer in electronics asked where he could get a copy of this key text.”

Now, if you excuse me, I have to get back to work on my own magnum opus on the life of the contemporary library assistant, Me and RFID…

Review of Big Miracle (2012)

I've been in archival mode for the last week or so. First I put my physical archive in order, now I've turned to my digital archive (which is scattered across various virtual locations, and which I'm centralising on Google Drive). The world would hardly recover from the loss of The Black Father, my first stab at a novel- which is so bad that even I wouldn't re-read it.

I may put various curios up on the blog. Don't grumble.

Anyway, here's a film review that I wrote for the library newsletter a few years back. Re-reading it makes me want to watch it again!

Here’s a big miracle for you; a film all about tolerance, co-operation and (literally) saving whales that isn’t unbearably dull. In fact, Big Miracle is so good that, even as I watching it, I was thinking: “I’m going to watch this again soon.”

It’s 1985, and a family of three whales trying to migrate from Alaskan to Mexican waters are trapped by thick ice. The story seems like a godsend to a TV reporter (played by John Krasinki of The Office fame) who is himself looking to migrate to a bigger pool than the uneventful Alaskan city of Barrow.

He hopes the story will get him noticed in the wider world, but the sensation it creates is beyond his wildest dreams. Soon the world’s media is jetting to the inhospitable region, an oil tycoon is trying to win some environmental kudos by joining in the rescue efforts, the only topic schoolchildren want to pick for their compositions is the plight of the whales, and Ronald Reagan is on the phone to Gorbachev to ask for Soviet assistance in the rescue attempt. (He opens the call with, “Hello, Gorby. It’s Ronnie.”)

I was drawn to this film for a few reasons. One is that I like films set in cold places. I also like films set in small, remote communities—they are quite a tonic in our world of urban sprawl and instant communication. On both these counts, I was very satisfied with Big Miracle. The film draws attention over and over again to the coldness of the climate and the obscurity of the area and its mostly Eskimo inhabitants.

Another thing that drew me to Big Miracle, from the time I saw it advertised on the side of a bus, is that the film positively screams “wholesome family fare”. And it really is wholesome. More wholesome than a bowl of porridge after a morning jog. It is brimming over with messages about the value of indigenous traditions, the price of careerism, the importance of community and other worthy themes. Nobody gets shot, nobody takes their clothes off (except to get into a diving suit), and there are no real baddies.

If all of that makes you feel a bit sick, then it’s best avoided. Otherwise, you might have a whale of a time with a film that clips along at a grand pace but still finds time for lots of funny and charming moments.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Books on a Shelf (I)

An historical claim that never fails to annoy me is that nobody cared about the countryside, or about "nature", or about wilderness, before the Industrial Revolution. I don't know whether it's true or not. I suspect it's as false as the claim that "nationalism" was discovered in the nineteenth century. But the idea is galling, one way or the other. (I suspect that the people who make such claims enjoy making them, and this is what galls me the most.)

I don't like to believe (and I don't believe) that the human race was ever that inclined to take their surroundings for granted.

To take my own case: I've been working in a library for sixteen years, but the romance of books on a shelf hasn't diminished one whit for me.

I grew up in a house full of books. I can identity with the words of C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, at least as they apply to books:

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient state of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

(Incidentally, the "gurgling of cisterns and pipes" is one of my favourite noises in the world, along with the hum of voices on the air.)

I grew up in cramped surroundings, but there were always books. My father, like Lewis's, kept every book he ever bought, and my older siblings contributed to the collection. I also grew up with the "certainty of finding a book that was new to me" on the shelf.

The books that belonged to my siblings usually had pen drawings on the flyleaves. My elder brothers would draw pictures of Greek and Roman armour, and my sisters would draw pictures of flowers and of mannequin-like female figures with almond-shaped eyes who always wore hats and had their hands folded across their laps.

The variety of books in my home was quite bewildering. Everything was there. Who aquired Portugese Africa and the West? Or V.I. Lenin's Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Social Revolution? Or The Ascent of Man, an idiosyncratic work of "theological biology" by the evangelist Henry Drummond (died 1897)? Or Into Print, a guidebook on how to produce your own newspapers and magazine, filled with photographs of very earnest and geeky-looking men from the nineteen-seventies, poring over papers? Or Trial, a far-out book of social protest by a  far left activist called Tom Hayden (who only died this year, was formerly married to Jane Fonda, and admitted to wanting the white race to disappear)? Or The Jungle is Neutral, an account of guerrilla warfare in the Malaysian jungle in World War Two?

I've not read a single one of the books listed in the above paragraph, but I dipped into most of them, at one point or another.

Of course, not all the books were idiosyncratic. There were plenty of popular novels, conventional history books, biographies, and so on. Pretty much everything was there.

I believe that this variety of books has played a role in giving me my life-long love of diversity. "Diversity" is such a vexed word, in our post-modern society. My own university has a diversity czar who has just recently announced that hundreds of bathrooms in UCD will become "gender neutral".

Needless to say, I'm not talking about this silly notion of "diversity", which is simply another word for decadence (and is generally used to squeeze out meaningful diversity, such as the difference between the sexes and between nations). I'm talking about genuine diversity; what Louis Macneice called: "the drunkenness of things being various." (The original Trivial Pursuit board, with its colour-coded squares representing the different areas of human knowledge, and its quaint line drawings illustrating these, has always been my favourite evocation of this diversity.)

But it wasn't just the diversity of these books that impressed me, on a subliminal level. It was the indeterminacy. There were too many to keep track of, too many to take in. Everything that extends further than our sight (or our minds) can encompass has an aspect of the eternal, the infinite about it.

I had the uncanny feeling that something was happening between the covers of the books, that they were "alive" in a certain sense. This idea was far from subliminal. I often pondered it. I suppose it's a relative of the old "what happens if a tree falls in the wilderness?" riddle. What sort of life belongs to printed words that nobody is reading? They are still there. They still mean what they mean. They still "say" something. The sentences still "run" from left to right, and down the page. It's extraordinarily difficult to put this idea into words, but the idea itself was far from faint-- it was very vivid.

All of this suggests that I was that proverbial creature, a "voracious reader". But I don't believe that I ever was. Today, I can't read for more than twenty minutes at the most without feeling rather fatigued. 

Did I have more reading stamina in my childhood? Again, I don't think so, because I've always felt ashamed of how ill-read I am. Literature, books and learning have always seemed like the undiscovered country to me. I suspect they always will, but I don't feel too bad about it.

Reading was always a self-conscious act for me, something that was knowingly virtuous. I felt ashamed of the hours and hours of television I watched, and (later on) of the hours I spent listening to popular music. I felt that I should be reading, and I've never felt that I was reading enough. I don't remember ever being "lost in a book", although perhaps I was. I was most certainly aware of the cultural prestige of books.

At the same time, I was an avid reader of comics, and I don't remember feeling any shame about this. In my teens, I remember encountering at least two articles in which writers admitted the shame they'd felt for reading comics in their youth. It had never even occurred to me to feel ashamed of reading comics. Perhaps this was because I lived in the era of TV, which made anything printed seem worthy by comparison.

What I'm trying to get at is that, although I've always been a fairly heavy reader by objective standards, books have always seemed exotic to me-- not my natural element, but a foreign country. And I'm rather glad of it.

In spite of this, books seem more real to me than "real life". But putting it like that is simplifying it considerably. This is what I really mean: life seems most real to me when it's captured in the written word.

Very often, when I'm some particular experience or other-- listening to the ramblings of a drunk in a pub, or looking down at the clouds from an airplane window, or standing by a river and looking down into the water-- I find myself thinking: "This is the kind of thing somebody might write about". If I was reading somebody else writing about it, it would have more of a sense of reality than when it's actually happening to me. And when something happens to me, thinking how it might be described in a book or an article makes it seem more real to me. (Perhaps heightened is a better word than real there.)

The written word is comforting, because it's definite. It's about something. Reality isn't (on the face of it) about anything. A character walking down a country lane on a moonlit night, in a story, is in a very definite and meaningful situation. The country lane represents wilderness, freedom, loneliness. The moon represents poetry and soulfulness, or some such thing. One way or another, it all means something, and it has a very definite atmosphere.

But in real life, a country lane is just there. A moonlit night is just there. The sheer indifference of the outside world to our purposes and our associations can be horribly oppressive-- at least, to me.

(I'm not suggesting landscape and the outside world never seem to have a character of their own. They do indeed. Who hasn't felt cheered by the brightness of the morning, after a night of anxiety? But when we look for this, it always seems to let us down.)

However, I've rather drifted from my theme. I want to celebrate the magic of books on a shelf.

Just as experience seems heightened to me when it's mediated by the printed word, the world itself seems more exciting and full of promise when I see it "through" a list of titles on a shelf. It comes into focus, it takes on dignity.

Here's the first example that comes to my mind: my aunt lived in a rural area in Limerick called Ballybrown. Visiting it every summer was a formative experience for me and gave me my admiration from rural Ireland. Its roads and bushes and barns and corrugated sheds were full of meaning and poetry for me. But when I came across a book about the area, entitled A Corner of Limerick, it seemed to make it more real, more definite. It gave it the written word's seal of approval.

Real life, as it's lived moment from moment, is a blur, a flux, a mist. Standing in a bookshop, or a library, or even in front of private bookshelves, breaks it pleasantly into its component parts, so that they can be surveyed and appreciated. If we see a book entitled An Analysis of Verbal Slips and Their Psychological Significance, suddenly we think: "Yes, that happens all the time. I never thought much about it. But, come to think of it, it must be packed with meaning. Gosh. What else is happening all the time, that I don't even think about?". And suddenly life seems richer, denser, fuller, more dramatic.

My abiding fantasy, when I was younger, was that I would read so many books, and become such a know-all, that every single moment of my life would be packed with meaning. I would look at a fly buzzing in the air, and remember a poem from Burns, a painting by some New Zealand artist, and a scientific treatise on the velocity and trajectory of the common house-fly. I would hear children playing a skipping game, and my mind would flick through my encyclopaedic knowledge of skipping chants through the ages. I would look into a candle and think metaphysical thoughts too deep to be uttered.

I wanted to be like the typical aesthete who Myles Na Gopaleen satirised:

He is having a lukewarm bath; it is rather good, it is something real, something that has its roots in the soil, a tangible, valid, unique, integrating, vertical experience; a diatonic, spatio-temporal cognition in terms of spacing...all around this person in the bath, life is going on, nothing is ever lost, over in Harlem Einstein is testing a diminished seventh for over-stimulated thyroid, in Milan Bonaparte is writing the letter that ends, "Ah Josephine! Josephine! Toi! Toi!", in the Bank of Ireland Silken Thomas has lain his sword on the counter what will they allow him for it, in Bohemia they are throwing the Emperor's ambassadors out the window while always waddling comically into the polyphonic auerole of the sunset recedes the tragic figure of Charlie Chaplin, This is life, and stuffed contentedly into the china bath there sits the boy it was invented for, morbidly aware of the structure of history, geography, parsing, algebra, chemistry, and woodwork; he is up to his chin in the carpediurnal present, and simultaneously in transcendental sense-immediacy....

That's what I wanted to be. Even now, transcribing it from a blurry PDF on the Irish Times archive, I feel a pang of loss. Where did the dream go? If I'd spent my teens and twenties reading, I would probably be like that aesthete now.

I have so much more to say on this topic. More to come.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Enemy Territory: a Poem from 2005

Another poem from my archives. Most of the poetry I wrote at this time is dismal, but this one is not too bad, although the final line owes quite a debt to Louis Macneice's "Prayer Before Birth".

At this time I was an agnostic, and an increasingly alienated conservative. My view of the modern world back then was even gloomier than it is now!
Enemy Territory

Don't let them tell you, whatever you do,
That nothing the dead believed is true,
My child.
Never be won and never be reconciled
To the truth of tarmac and television screens.
Hold fast to the ancient scenes;
The mother and child, and the empty country road,
And the boy alone with a book, and the wedding ring,
And never stop remembering
The world that you never saw, and what is owed
To ghosts and silent voices. Fight alone;
And rather break your heart than make your heart a stone.

Pictures, a poem from 1997

I've been rearranging my personal archives (an activity I enjoy very much). In my "Pre-Millennial Poems" folder, I came across this poem, which I think is not bad and which (some) readers might enjoy.

This poem attemps to capture in poetry the flavour of a photo-montage, and the theme itself is photography (and imagery in general).

I've always found photographs to be intensely poetic. (They can be intensely sinister, as well-- horror stories about cameras, photographs, and footage tend to be particularly creepy.) One of my longstanding fantasies is to have a collection of poetry paired with photographs.

When I wrote this poem, I was particularly intrigued by the first surviving photograph ever taken with a camera, as shown below. I liked the way it seemed to mimic the dawning of consciousness-- something new coming into the world, gradually. That is the opening metaphor of the poem.

Other than that, it's not a poem to be over-analysed, more a sequence of ideas. "Aeon" means eternity,

The poems I wrote in my late teens were generally better than the poems I wrote in my twenties. I really laboured over my poems when I was a teenager. In my twenties, I decided to aim for fluency rather than painstaking craft, and it was a terrible decision. Anyway, I hope you like this poem.

It does not begin with a bang, or a snap, or a flash;
It begins with a delicate delineation of light
And darkness, a coming of something unseen to the sight.
The world filters onto the film of the mind by degrees
When the embryo eye, just a shutter of lid and of lash
Unfolds on eternity's face, which need never say "cheese".

The world does not say why it poses for pictures, or how.
It keeps us all snapping away with sensations it saves
To keep up our wonder-- as when a boy strolling through caves
Should come upon daubings of ancient men's wishes and fears;
The mystical mirror of nature, forged first in Lascaux,
Holed up unrevealed in the darkness for thousands of years.

And those aeons ago, what awe must have welcome their birth!
Men must have stood speechless, transfixed by this singular stunt--
Transposed on the stone, but still in the torchlight, the hunt
In all of its splendour and terror-- life's flesh and life's blood
Refashioned by firelight with fingers smeared, God-like, with earth.
And so feel we still when we stand where those hunters had stood;

When we stand in their place, be it there in that cellar or not,
For the reel of the centuries cuts to unending new scenes.
New wonders await in the wings; as to what it all means
The audience whispers below, one eye fixed on the play.
In the darkroom of reason the artist develops each shot
To make sense of the tangle and catch it in black, white and grey.

The chatter of morning commuters, a photo-montage
Of a thousand perspectives and angles. A massive archive
Of footage is kept within every and each man alive;
And though of recordings unhappy and dark we would cleanse
Our files, they escape us. A copy if ever at large,
The SENSATION! EXCLUSIVE! of somebody's mischievous lens.

Paparazzi swarm round every figure that takes centre stage
Unheeding rhubarbing extras that wait at the back.
But leave that show be, and zoom in to the great chasing pack;
There is more to be seen in that unphotogenic mish-mash.
And a word or a song or a dream can develop an age;
It does not begin with a bang of a snap or a flash.