Tom Leonard: “Places of the Mind”

Tom Leonard took many years to complete this book which began as a post graduate project. It turned out, in his words, to be ‘a shape, containing a biography, made slowly to the shape of the Art of another.’ Thomson, ‘B.V.’ is best known for his poem, The City of Dreadful Night which I reviewed last year. Leonard actually came across the ‘Proem’ (a prologue) to the poem in a Hugh MacDiarmid anthology of Scottish poetry some years before that. Interested readers should know that you can get the whole poem online, or buy it for a few pounds. Since the ‘Proem’ excludes almost everybody from being an interested reader you may care to look at it before we continue:

Per me si va nella citta dolente.
—Dante

Poi di tanto adoprar, di tanti moti
D’ogni celeste, ogni terrena cosa,
Girando senza posa,
Per tornar sempre la donde son mosse;
Uso alcuno, alcun frutto
Indovinar non so.

Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve
Ogni creata cosa,
In te, morte, si posa
Nostra ignuda natura;
Lieta no, ma sicura
Dell’ antico dolor . . .
Pero ch’ esser beato
Nega ai mortali e nega a’ morti il fato.

—Leopardi

PROEM

Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?

Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless innocence to try to fashion
Our woe in living words howe’er uncouth.

Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.

For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die.

Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night,
Will understand the speech and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
“I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths though out of sight.”

O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured; no secret can be told
To any who divined it not before:
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message,
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.

Leonard’s is a well researched book, clearly presented and, very refreshingly, suggestive but not prescriptive: to the extent that any biography is partly an autobiography, we gain a certain insight into Leonard himself: the long project of writing, the “shape”, is his “response to the shape of the Art of another.” The subject of the book, Thomson, is, in one way a figure who wanders in and out of a wider landscape, this of very specific strands of nineteenth century history and its (understated, modest) cultural analysis. The book is stimulating , entertaining and complete, also providing directions outward for further study.

I’ll outline some of the content and aspects of the book that struck me, and conclude by refocusing on that lonely figure on the landscape, saying at the outset that I am moved with sympathy and respect for the James Thomson recreated here.

Leonard deals briskly with the bare bones of Thomson’s biography. Born in 1834 in Port Glasgow, his father a seafarer and his mother a dressmaker, the family moved to London in 1840. His father returned seriously ill from a stroke at sea, his behaviour and personality thereafter demonstrating anger and religiosity with gross mood swings; shortly before she died, Mrs Thompson arranged for young James to enter a London Scottish Asylum. He trained as an army teacher and worked as such between 1854 and 1862: the early chapters of the book describe and examine his time at school and as a teacher, portraying him here as a popular, cheerful and with a genuine love of learning and music and the arts; at school he had been an exemplary pupil and was already becoming well read. He became associated after the army with the freethinker, Charles Bradlaugh, and a regular contributer with verse, critical studies and other prose to the secularist weekly, National Reformer. He used the pseudonym “B.V.”, Bysshe after his adored Shelley, and “V” being from an anagram, Vanolis for Novalis whom he also admired.

Leonard’s bare bones biography, it should be noted, is completed in one paragraph! There’s a very important, if barely whispered, point here – that is especially relevant in our day of wikiquotes and ‘brief histories’ of an individual or a generation (and although this is more evident in the present day, the neatly potted view of the world with its consequence of relating to that world and its people via fragmentary abstractions is certainly not new. And often those pots have been very large and tended by worthies of considerable stature).

Entering generously, sympathetically and delicately into the life of another – as Leonard does – enlarges attention, slows down apprehension, and attenuates the crude categorisation of others that exemplifies an attribute of our urgent tendency to ‘put people in their place’. Leonard’s bare bones outline of Thomson’s life is the contrast to the slow unfolding that moves our encounter from that with a minor, Scottish, alcoholic writer to a full human being. Incidentally, I’m reminded here of Arthur Miller’s attention to the Low Man, and Linda’s eulogy to her husband in Death of a Salesman: “Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

Significantly, the death of the young Thomson’s younger sister from measles which she caught from him is not mentioned in the skeletal sketch : we’ll see below how such an event may have had a crucial formative impact upon Thomson’s time on earth.

Thomson taught himself Italian so he could read Dante, also French and German, translating Novalis and Heine (Karl Marx remarking positively on the latter). He was unenthusiastic in his mercantile clerical work at home and when he spent time in Colarado negotiating mining contracts. He proved an unreliable reporter covering the Carlian War in Spain, and from here earned an inconsistent income contributing to various secularist journals. He became acquainted with William Michael Rossetti, George Meredith and several other ‘names’, including Marx’s daughter who attended his funeral. Two volumes of his poetry and one of prose were published in 1881. “He died in poverty and alcoholism the following year.”

Leonard’s book begins its unfolding by looking at the intense religious involvement of his mother with Millennianism (a movement which included ‘speaking in tongues’). Here, as through the backgrounding of the rise of secularist movements by specific reference to various movements, publications and events, the reader gains an insight to one strand of the cultural and intellectual milieu of Thomson’s time (and unremarkably, the intense rifts within secularist and religious movements). Thomson’s biting attacks on superstitious religion in print seem matched by his disdain for progressivism – largely through disinterest or cynicism. In the Proem shown above, he isolates himself and any potential reader from “pious spirits with a God above them/ To sanctify and glorify and love them,/ Or sages who forsee a heaven on earth.” Somewhat a dandy, a flaneur who enjoyed regular strolls, an enjoyer of musical concerts and billiards, an habituee where finances and circumstances permitted at social gatherings, it seems that Thomson possessed the ability to enact his considerable literary skills and social charm, outwardly for much of his life ‘happy’, while concealing, perhaps from himself in large part, an inner absence and suffering. While he wrote ‘light’ poetry such as Sunday up the River from early days, a theme that recurred was of the death of love or innocence or youth in the form of a young woman who he would long to be reunited with. It is possible that such a longing was for an ‘innocence’ contaminated by the surface cultural life on the one hand, and the deepening descent (initially hidden from public view) into alcoholism. Certainly, without security of spiritual or secular vision, Thomson was in one ‘place’ an isolated figure.

His journals, with many gaps of weeks in them, demonstrate no reflective condition. His utter cutting himself from erstwhile friends who had given him much support elicit no considered remarks. What is consistent in the entries is an almost meteorological exactitude in recording the weather, particularly attention given to clouds and various attributes of moisture; it becomes difficult to know whether Thomson is referring to the weather his own mood “Mild sloppy night”, “Stroll at dusk; greasy or sloppy.”). Leonard somewhat playfully provides us with a sequence of Thomson’s diaries based on a computer-generated random number sequence and providing 100 written entries from that period (1877 – 1881). I’d suggest that to a large extent, no matter what documentation or evidence of a person’s life we have is to a large extent fragmentary and random notwithstanding our propensity to make of what we have represent a full, transparent image of a person. And that includes people we know well too; so much more, therefore, the historical biographical subject.

These late diary entries note explicitly his deterioration physically: “accident”, “bilious”. His general decline is marked in several ways. As noted, his cutting old friends, his now more frequent ‘disappearances’, his increasingly vituperative critical articles, and his palous income with unstable accommodation. Earlier, upon publication of The City of Dreadful Night in 1874 he had sent a copy to George Eliot who replied somewhat cooly, suggesting that he take into account too the moral light side of life. He replied then a few days later added a postscript even more apologetic than his initial response, placatory in tone: this seems to suggest as elsewhere a genuine lack of confidence, self-worth and ‘goodness’.

Here was a man open to all the happier good things in life, a man capable of great friendships. Yet he was at the same time consumed with an inner darkness, seemingly never finding the foundation of true intimacy with another. Leonard suggests in passing that he may in modern parlance be termed manic-depressive (but, of course, the correct categorisation today is bipolar!). Thomson’s life as a created narrative, ultimately all lives are so constructed, specifically in biographies, does seem to follow the narratives of other lives we may be familiar with, and we do find ourselves always making sense of everything, stories included, by locating them in the context s of the familiar. Thus Thomson was ‘depressed’, lonely, alcoholic and so forth. Or he was a tormented, too-sensitive creative artist. Or, and I think the achievement of Leonard’s book is this, he was, whoever he was, James Tomson, the one and only.

Leonard gives two references to times in 1878 when Thomson did reflect and draw a line between an inner and outer life. “I often now write, as I wonder whether others ever write, conscious of a sort of dim veil separating the inner from the dictating mind. Reading over such exterior writing, I may judge: It is correct; it will do; but my inner self disclaims all responsibility for it, and simply refuses to be concerned in or about it.” His sense of alienation is expressed again later that year: “Of old I was conscious of an inpenetrable veil between my inner and my outer self; I have to live, think and work with the latter, and cannot get at the former, cold and vague and dim and aloof. This is a painful puzzle, to be shut out and cut off from one’s very own self, and conscious of the disabling separation.”

This mode of thinking, of separating mind into spatially realised inner and outer anticipates the rise of existentialism generally, psychological existentialism particularly, and specifically the Divided Self described by that other depressive, alcoholic, Scottish genius, R.D. Laing. The spatial representation of the mind into surface and depth concurs with the psychoanalytic vision, and repeats the Miltonic tropes of his masterpiece on human psychology (Paradise Lost) wherein the mind is “its own place”, capable of creating its own world, inverting the conventions, walking in “darkness visible”. Thomson’s gloomy vision is the memorable one. It places him in what’s been called the Inhumanist tradition, spreading from Ecclesiastes to Robinson Jeffers and beyond: such artists as Thomson bring us to a place that many of us have to stay in for a long time, for ever until the sweet release of kind death perhaps, or which may accentuate the lightness of the world, and reinforce the ultimate value of the things that Thomson seemed to lack: friendship, comradeship and love.

Yet there’s a coda. Despite his hard disbelief, he asked to be buried with a lock of hair in a purse. Speculation may continue as to whose hair it was. Leonard considers the candidates, and concludes it was that of his young sister who died from the measles she contracted from him; the young beauty and innocence and joy that was once so real and extinguished for ever leaving nothing but sorrow and loneliness.

Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics

What goes around comes around. I lent Buddha Da to a friend last year; she was enthralled and has just lent me this collection of short stories.

Like all good short stories these are in at the middle, out in the middle, and constructed with an immense craft which belies their apparent simplicity, immediate transparency and intense accessibility. Then the scalpel sharp endings. I think “Donovan” and smile with a good feeling at the voice, yet these stories by and large deal with various forms of pain as well as celebration.

The collection involves relationships between mothers and children, the spaces between. Also the relations between men and women: this is very much a female vision, men occupying the outskirts, few sympathetic men but there is one in particular. Indeed, it’s by suggestion that worlds are brought into being because how we are, who we are, is crucially and to a large extent a function of who others think we are. We are left to connect the understated ‘hints’ of the men who have left home, the brusque social workers, the lives of attrition faced by single mums trying to do their best.

Donovan usually weaves perfectly two or three related strands together, often by employing familiar objects or scenarios to stand for wider themes. The stories exhibit a range of method. Dindy. in particular, is a successful ‘experimental’ form that brings together the voices of three generations and deals with sexuality, woman-man, nurturing and desires constrained. The spectrum of stories moves from the world of the child at the beginning, through the adult to old age. The latter is done delightfully, gently and affectionately but one in particular has a more than melancholy tinge it veers towards the dark. Another story, Brambling is downright chilling.

A superb collection.

Dermot Healy: “The Ballyconnell Colours”

Stark poems, cold form, fierce emotional heat.

The colours of life are often drained, washed-out, running into each other like waters – or storms or skies. Location is impermanent, unmoored (a favourite trope), identity tumbling; perhaps what coalesence there is rests, moves rather, in the acceptance of the flux, the world that will not be held down. This is hard:

Sometimes I am bewildered
By all this foolish energy
Battering away
Miles from people.

I envy those
Who live upriver
At the quiet source.
Here we are forever

Stepping between
The incoming roar
Of life and the tides
That carry death out

(Prayer)

Much of the domestic detail – expressed in this collection with precise images – is lost as soon as uttered: a man comes onto the high street, and is split into not only two minds but two people with two directions which will be taken without purpose (although the purpose will come later – the narrative proceeds the happening). It’s not difficult to envisage, as in Rosses Point for instance, the equal claim to existence of the dead, “though you can’t see a soul” among them any more than you can among the living, sense though in the “solitude they lack” the living sense which is a temporary surfeit to existence, the individual consciousness, apart from its practicalities and pleasures, a correlate of the living and dead as one, as vulnerable, open to wounds.

For children in Domestic Lives , section 6:

… you will distrust the tempers of parenthood.
All our arguments to preserve your faith
Mean nothing. You will be forever alone

Notwithstanding the evidence of art and laughter.

These are love poems, love of people and place, not in spite of pain and wounds, emptiness, loss and general suffering but through them, by them, in all their colours. A companion volume to A Goat’s Song, this is largely as resonance of feeling, texture, and imagery but sometimes by direct narrative correlate as in The New Town – echoes of hospitalisation for alcohol recovery, the motif of writing itself being a temporary balm but ultimately leaving the void that all words and stories leave. Even in the intimacy of fulfilled relationship we see – in O Woman:

O woman for whom
I have withdrawn

From naming the brilliant things of the earth
Lest they might lose their vividness,

Can we now without myth
Sustain the emptiness?

It’s the sentimentalities, the convenient phrases of social enjoyment, much as they are important, that are emptied out to an honest celebration, joy and not in the least contradictory melancholy that marks Healy here. It would be wrong to end without pointing out that there are myriad points to be made about each poem; Healy has many ways of writing. Just one point I’d make is that there’s a sense of bordering on imagism of great compression(Li Po/has circles/under his eyes/from the drink….) and more extended imagery that fuses short breaths of expression into fluidity (and see the magnificent Rain is Coming as an example here).

Overall, a great collection. Storming, in fact.

Radio Days

A little nosalgia. I adored radio when I was a kid, not just the programmes but the special, warm sound of valves, and almost a soft smell. A little mix here. From about 1963 I was building radios, and even had it in my head to live on Ascension Island with Cable and Wireless. That idea finished about 1965.

(Women).

Edgelands

Personal explorations and childhood recollections by the authors (united into one voice), plus a good trawl of references to writings, art and photography informed by those ‘edgelands’ which border the city proper and the “countryside”), seen only as edges if, as usually, simply travelled through, but as territories in their own right when imaginatively visited.  This is enjoyable and easy to read, succinctly chaptered into subjects (e.g. “Dens”, “Containers”, “Paths”), and each chapter chunked into paragraphs with spaces so as not to wear out the typical modern reader. Both authors are poets: the blurb refers to them as “well known poets”, a phrase which is a crime against literacy, since if they are “well known” it seems insulting to both them and the reader to assert the fact.

As poets, they point out that poetry often deals with the mundane and overlooked, which they do here, and too they have some witty images and asides (which possibly signifies some modern poetry). How one may long, however, for a writer to realise that in dealing with liminal issues a liminal discourse, a refreshment is required rather than a tarted up trudge through familiar banality. To be fair, the method of working is to “snapshot” – as image (beyond concept), concept (abstracted from image) and metonym – a particular scene and move on quickly, to thereby evoke a running contrast between looking and seeing, between fast time and slow time; plus, for those of us who still wander wastelands and edgelands – literally and through the places of the mind – there is the delight of recognition; for those of us whose childhoods were spent in these places there is a deeper delight. Perhaps a way of expressing the book’s method analogically is suggested in the authors’ discussion of artist Edward Chell and his paintings of motorway verges: He has described the powerful visual metaphor of the verge as poised between the ordered, policed and restricted boundary spaces of the state that we are only allowed to look at travelling at great speed, and the slower, uncontrollable energies of nature…. (His images) suggest our perception in flux: the way, seen at speed, the intricacies of grassland and vegetation shift in and out of focus as our relation to the incident light changes. Because Chell is interested in vision, how we look at (or don’t look at) what lies all around us. His paintings concentrate our gaze on what’s usually fleeting and reduced to blurred texture; at the same time, their stillness seems to contain speed, and its shifting effects of light.

Clearly, there is a central focus upon what for brevity’s sake nay be termed ‘the ideology’ of land and landscape, the borders and powers of governments and private power, and the acts of subversion represented by edgelands and the human activity that takes place there. Also there is, in the thesis itself, a radical questioning of the conservative gardening of ‘beauty’ and order, and thence an interrogation of the ideology of ‘aesthetics’, and an oblique suggestion of the tawdriness of ‘beauty’ on the one hand, and the ‘beauty of ugliness’ on another.

Some of the laddish wit irritates, imagery seems clever and abstract by and large rather than ‘fleshed out’ as one would indeed hope from poets. Perhaps the better reflections and refractions are conceptual rather than poetic. A discussion of an evolutionary term ‘progressive detachment’, for instance, is offered as a ‘beautiful, poetic, idea’, yet it may be better formulated as sharing the beauty of mathematics. In science, the authors state, “metaphors change… in an attempt to be more faithful to the evidence”; presumably, an analogy is being suggested by which new imagery needs to be found to express new discoveries (such as the edgelands). As I’ve said, the whole discourse of this book, and the imagery in particular, is pretty much off the shelf and lacks a fresh approach.

Possibly some sort of category error has been made, firstly by trying to catalogue ‘edgelands’ into discrete categories; secondly by identifying them too closely with their physical location. One would have thought that by nature, edgelands are not subject to classification and territory (and hence the requirement of a more adventurous mode of expression). Strangely unpeopled except by monolithic categories of types (e.g. families en route to Benidorm or Ibiza at airports), the authors share that peculiar modern sensitivity to what they perceive as any charge of misanthropy (early on they dismiss attempts to dismiss edgelands in favour of transcendental trips to the Highlands, or as evidencing edgelands as showing the mess we have made of the planet as “shortcuts to misanthropy”). The edglelands in this book have a ghostly quality that, I am sure unintentionally, leaves out the human and exploits a detritus of attributes, dislocated and disconnected.

All landscapes are imaginary, cities are imaginary. As the writers say, “we can concentrate on the local, the immediate, and devote our attention to a few square feet of earth.” And rather than having to find edgelands in the obvious geographical border between town and country, we can see them wherever we are, wherever there is human activity. There are many strata of populations in all our cities, and the demographic metaphor is apt. We live in edgelands whoever, wherever we are.

Jackie Kay: Fiere

 

Alice Neel, Twins

Beautiful sharp and light. Goodness and love to torment a Caliban: wonderful. In these poems the woman, the poet, the human is there, a fiere, companion, friend. Unsullied, unworried by self, she gives and takes in joy, passes through others as they, as we, pass through her. A person – her or us – delighting in routes and roots, vitally sensitive to accident and circumstance, meetings, pains: she, we, losing our way in the woods, alone and dead, being found by the friend, and our finding the lost friend equally. Motifs of life and death, as losing the spark as well as losing our loved ones, always finding resolution, joy after numbing, swirling time that’s fast and slow at once. And walking always with a twin, both clarified as in Longitude and Twins (the latter after Alice Neel’s painting, a detail shown above), and towards the ineffable sense of belonging not only to another but to life itself, perhaps the fullest meaning of love.

Companion to Red Dust Road, the search for biological parents, dissolving place by evoking difference – Glasgow, the elephant grass of Nigeria – always growing, in love, so her lover loves her to bits and in return I love ye tae hale: hale, hearty, whole, healthful. Love poems to friends, son, lover, adoptive parents, Dad and Mum both wonderfully, lovingly let to wander at ease in her mind, never dead. Poems that bring paintings, figurines and statues to life, not a single cleverness used, just the image itself. Always, always letting the sound of words, her Ibo, her native Scots tongues, mix, flow or stand separate (like the black river that does not mix with the blue lake), bring us music: Kamso Ozumba/ We’ll put some whisky in the silver quaich/ and bless your fine and handsome face. Slainte mhath!

The quite remarkable Impromptu is a formal gem, a tribute to music’s power, jazz building, calling up the great Blue Notes, the poem’s turning a piano to a heron to sky, turning sounds to light to revelation that spirit will not, cannot die:They will be alive, as they’ve always been,/Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone.

Very light trills of Burns throughout, more explicitly in Bronze Head from Ife, and tender evocation of Edwin Morgan in Strawberry Meringue: visiting him at 90, he …asked after my son, and Carol Ann./ Love, you said, Ah love wistfully/If you can be friends you’re doing not bad.

Playful, mischievous with MacDiarmid (A Drunk Woman Looks at Her Nipple), she will take his poetry as starting point, as she does paintings and other objects, as in Brockit (which, I think, resonates with MacDiarmid’s The Bonnie Broukit Bairn).

This is a collection of poems upon which to find out something of who you are.

ka udo di, ka ndu di

(let there be peace, let there be life

Road to Amaudo)

Under the Volcano

I read the Picador Classics edition (1967) with an introduction by Stephen Spender. Unusually, I read the introduction first, then again after reading the novel, which I read in three sittings. I like Spender, and relate to his reading of the book.

Despite its dual reputations of being difficult and about alcoholism, it is neither. As for difficulty, it’s true that understanding Spanish would be helpful, but the saturated extratextual references to mythology, mysticism, history and so on can be taken as fragments of a disintegrating mind in a disintegrating world: the central theme is of stability versus instability, fragments against ruins, and from this erupts the permanent psychological divisions between desire’s positivity and its demonic twin of destruction. The characters are all one character, the places all one place, the times all one time, though an impossible time – that of a moment that is an ideal locus without nostalgia for past or future.

Alcohol is central of course because the character of the novel is alcoholic, and best read, therefore by an alcoholic – which is most people, for Firmin and his alternatives are merely further advanced into descent and ascent than most which makes his expression approach the ideal moment. The refusal to accept love is not a failure but an affirmation for love is part of the dreadful entanglement of contingent dual actions of affirmation and immediate denial, and it is this tangle (the novel is thick with imagery of entanglement) which is transcended by final descent into the (literal) abyss. Obviously for it could be no other, a novel of immense contradictions, impossible antipathies, and the realisation of being as antithetical to identity.

It is easy to read when one accepts its imagistic concentration. Films, stills, photographs, paintings, advertisements, thicken every paragraph to a flicker that has the paradoxical potential to, like a hollywood movie, enspectre a counterpart to diegesis – a clean, pure, fluid, immensely joyful….. illusion.

It’s a wonderful, exquisitely awful and painful novel of redemption.