Friday, December 29, 2006

Drawing the Line

My last post for 2006. Happy New Year, everyone.

Drawing the Line

What could be simpler than this?
To distinguish past from future,
old from new.

To turn the year like a page,
rediscover our taste for happy endings,
our need for regret.

“You have to draw the line somewhere”
you say.

But always the hand trembles,
the eye fails,
and the heart cannot keep
its memories straight.

Life, like poetry,
is never drawn to scale.

How strange that the shortest distance between two points
should be our most fundamental of separations –

the line,
that can both emphasise and cancel –

so that you draw a margin on the blank page
not only to underline the emptiness,
but also to make it yours.

We exist in a world of shapes and parallels,
imagining lines everywhere –
stencils of states we partition our maps with,
checkerboards of calendars,
and the diagonal of God,
dividing eternity from oblivion –

we are like children
cutting their food into squares,
inventing definition
to make the world easier.

You could say this is make-believe:
that the border between what was and what will be
is too absently crossed;
that the songbirds cannot tell night from day,
past from possibility.

Yet how could we live
without the parentheses of beginning and end?
How could we hope
without Time’s punctuation?

We exist in the hair’s-breadth
of the immediate,
creasing the stationery of our years
with birth, death and festival
to mark our place in it.

Let it be so:
to believe in the trivial
is to have a faith
that cannot be shaken.

Let us celebrate this day
not in the illusion that things will change,
or that the spilling over of time’s circle
means something,

but in the knowledge
that this day is special
because we share it
with each other.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

The short, sad tale of Benny Florino - mobster poetique

Benny Florino was born on the South Side of Chicago in August 1909, the fourth son of a Sicilian family that had recently emigrated to the United States. Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking if he was Sicilian he must have been with the mob, but that's just a rotten old stereotype. Sure, Benny's folks had connections to the Family (Benny himself was named after his Uncle Benny, who was lost during the Atlantic crossing when he sank his own ship because the captain refused to pay him protection), but Benny's father ran a Pizza parlour, and he was as honest a man as ever put Tuna on his pizza and called it anchovy.

Times were hard for the Florino family, though. They lived under the perpetual threat of disease, destitution and the ghastly prospect of becoming flashbacks in a Scorsese movie. Growing up in this emotionally charged atmosphere, young Benny took refuge in the work of the great French poets, finding particular comfort in the writings of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

A shy but perceptive child, Benny's life was changed unalterably at the age of 14, when his father, who was a great believer in the importance of division of labour, told Benny that rather than go to college he must join the family business and learn to raise dough. This resolution, repeated before his uncles at an annual family gathering, caused them to instantly adopt Benny and make him a part of their operation (well, of course they were mobsters - it wouldn't be a stereotype if it weren't mostly true, now would it?).

Having thus fallen victim to a common cultural misunderstanding of his time (the US census department estimates that the 'raising dough' euphemism caused over 10,000 sons of bakers and pizza makers to be lost to the dark side between 1910 and 1920 alone), Benny now embarked upon a life of crime. His initial forays in the underworld were marked by spectacular success. His blood-thirsty nature drew the immediate attention of the mob bosses, who were impressed by the zeal with which he spoke of "rape or arson, poison, or the knife" and frankly approving when Benny gave orders for a murder victim's heart to be cut out, so that he could "throw it down for my favourite dog's eating". A young man with such ideas, they felt, would go far.

Accordingly they promoted him and put him in charge of all the East Side gambling dens, where again he prospered, his chop-houses soon becoming so famous for their gloomy atmosphere (complete with harlots pale and quivering, dull smoky chandeliers and croupiers with lipless faces and blue-cold lips, if lips, of toothless gums) that people came from near and far to gamble in them.

By the time he turned twenty then, Benny was already a legend in the making, and the Family decided to honour him by giving him independent charge of the whole South-East side, the youngest person to ever be given such power. And yet it was this elevation, this opportunity to give free rein to his imagination, that would prove to be Benny's undoing.

At first things went well. When Benny had his opponents killed by tying them up and throwing them into a glass case filled with wild butterflies to be tickled to death, the other mobsters marvelled at his ingenuity; and his diabolical plan to fit a man with a catheter connected to a clock so that every time the clock ticked he would lose a little more blood was universally applauded, going on to win the Malcolm Baldridge Award for Excellence in Ways to Do People In.

It was then that Benny made his fatal mistake. Bouyed by his initial successes he hit upon the idea of threatening people by sending them bouquets of flowers. His idea was that the flowers would serve as warnings to the effect that even the most beautiful and blooming things may be cut down in their prime, but the recipients of these warnings, who had, alas, none of Benny's poetic sensibilities, seemed to view these missives in an entirely different light. Demonstrating an appaling lack of vision, these philistines remained unfazed even when they received so sinister a warning as a bouquet of two dozen roses. Some of them even seemed to think it was a goodwill gesture! And when Benny subsequently had these cretins gunned down, he found himself pulled up before the inner circle of the Family, who were all for bloodshed, of course, but felt that gunning a man down without first placing his pet's head in his bed or talking to him with cheek-pads in your mouth and a complete lack of facial expression (a popular form of torture in this period, called, for no discernible reason, 'Method Acting') was downright unsporting. Benny was relieved of his charge, and the dishonour of this, coupled with the casting director's confirmation that his character would, in fact, be played by Danny DeVito, meant that people began to steer clear of him.

His days of glory over, Benny was soon forgotten, and ended his days at the tender age of 23, cut down by a sawed-off shotgun while attempting to rob a liquor store with a nosegay.

Those of us who were around in the old days still have fond memories of Benny, though. His funeral, for instance, was a sight to see. All the top mobsters came, and they all brought firearms to place on his grave - revolvers, rifles, tommyguns - and not a flower petal anywhere. It made you want to cry.

P.S. If much of this seems unintelligible, you really need to read Fleurs de Mal

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

YATTL for 2006

Everyone else is doing it, so why can't I? Here it is, then, Yet Another Top Ten List of books published in 2006 (in no particular order):

1. Irene Naemirovsky: Suite Francaise

Written in prose that would make Flaubert proud, Irene Naemirovsky's Suite Francaise is a genuine classic - a novel that is at once grand and intimate, complex and compelling. Naemirovsky's great achievement is that she combines the epic sweep of historic events with a narrative that is deeply compassionate and the result is a book that is memorable as much for the nuanced quietness of its story-telling as for its near-cinematic scope or unquestionable literary merit.

(My review of the novel here)

2. Haruki Murakami: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Anytime Haruki Murakami comes out with a book, it's a pretty safe bet that it's going to make my top 10 list. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is no exception - a fascinating collection of short stories that plunges you deep into the heart of Murakami's surrealistic yet strangely authentic world. Murakami has few peers in style or imagination, and his short fiction is vivid, dreamlike and heartbreaking. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is far from his best book - at least some of the stories seem derivative, and there's a sense that the book has been padded with stuff left out of the novels - but for Murakami fans it's a pleasant update on the man's work, and for those unfortunate enough to never have read Murakami before it's a superb introduction to one of the finest writers of our time.

3. Margaret Atwood: The Tent

Is there no end to Atwood's talent? It isn't enough that she's an accomplished poet and an incredible novelist, she has to go reinvent herself again by coming out with this whimsical collection of short pieces , many of them no more than 2 to 3 pages long? The Tent is not the only Atwood book to be released in 2006 - she also came out with a full length collection of short stories, Moral Disorder, which features one unforgettable story called The Last Duchess (yes, it's based on the Browning poem) and a sequence of stories about a couple on a farm - but it is, for me, one of the more exciting and unique things she's done. Atwood's writing is as crisp as ever, and her talent for social criticism / satire has grown, if anything, sharper. And yet there's a sense of playfulness to The Tent. It's as though Atwood, that most astute of conjurors had decided to dazzle us with a swift succession of magic tricks, shifting effortlessly from the nightmarish to the comic, trying out and discarding voice after voice with a fluency that only someone with her phenomenal talent could pull off.

4. Kay Ryan: The Niagara River

I've blogged about Ryan's new collection extensively over the past year (see here and here and here) but I'll say it again: this is a fascinating book, chock-full of poems that are unforgettable for both their lightness and their precision. Ryan's pithy, sparkling lines seem deceptively simple as they trip off your tongue, but they are, infact, an awe-aspiring achievement, marrying vivid imagination to poetic insight, and spicing up the mix with an acute sense of humour.

5. Jon McGregor: So Many Ways to Begin

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Jon McGregor's second novel, So Many Ways to Begin is that it's not a let down. After the sheer brilliance of his debut book - If nobody speaks of remarkable things - it seemed hard to imagine the McGregor could live up to his promise. The fact that he does is thrilling. So Many Ways to Begin is a quieter, more intimate book than If nobody speaks of remarkable things, though you can see flashes of the earlier book's inventive lyricism in the restless ease with which McGregor moves backward and forward in time. What makes So Many Ways to Begin a truly rewarding read, though, is the fact that much of the hi-jinx of the first book seems to have given way to a richer, more contemplative style. So Many Ways to Begin is a graceful and generous meditation on the nature of memory, of the infinity of coincidence and circumstance that shape a man's life, of the impossibility of knowing where the story story really begins - all rendered in prose so accomplished it puts McGregor firmly in the tradition of writers like John McGahern and Graham Swift. Take my word on it - Jon McGregor is a writer to watch.

6. Olga Grushin: The Dream Life of Sukhanov

If McGregor's first book was the debut of 2003, this year that prize belongs to Olga Grushin, whose mesmerising first novel is at once colourful and visionary. This is a book that blurs the line between dream and reality, between personal identity and political allegory, between the ballet of memory and the high trapeze of the imagination. In scope and execution it is a work of art every bit as daring, and every bit as moving, as a Chagall painting.

(my review here)

7. Yusef Komunyakaa & Chad Garcia: Gilgamesh; A Verse Play

Combine one of our finest war poets with a three thousand year old epic and what you get is a work of sheer genius. Conceived by Chad Garcia and written by Yusef Komunyakaa, Gilgamesh is a spell-bending re-imagining of the Sumerian legend, a verse play in the grand tradition of Walcott's Odyssey. If you've never read the Epic of Gilgamesh, this is not the right place to start, because the play deviates from the plot of the original considerably, using it as the foundation for an exploration of the epic's central themes of power and mortality. Komunyakaa's poetry leaps off the page in rapier like lines, by turns deft and visionary; and under his skilled pen the ancient legend is transformed into a strikingly contemporary fable about a man who discovers too late the cost of violent conquest. Komunyakaa's Gilgamesh bears a strong family resemblance to a returning war hero, sated by the horrors of death and battle and desperately searching for meaning in a world where human life is ephemeral and cheap. "Teach me to die a man" Gilgamesh cries at the close of the book, suggesting that wisdom, in our tired age, may consist of simply knowing what it is we want to learn.

8. Sarah Waters: The Night Watch

This one should need little introduction. Sarah Waters' Booker Prize shortlisted novel is a sublime exercise in the blending of the personal and the public, a graceful and sombre book about the hardships of both love and war, about the earth-shattering power of these twin catastrophes, about the sacrifices they demand and the heroism required to navigate them, about the extraordinary acts they make the most ordinary people capable of, and about how survival, in certain circumstances, can be a kind of victory.

(see my review here)

9. Louise Gluck: Averno

What can one say about Gluck, except that she's one of the most lyrical poets writing today? Her latest collection, Averno, is heartbreaking and beautiful, an exquisite book that has all the emotional impact of a singing violin. Gluck's poetry makes myth seem not only familiar, but personal, almost necessary. As an exploration of mythological themes, Averno is not so much an act of invention, as one of discovery - a collection of poems steeped in the knowledge of the grand and mournful themes that move through our everyday melancholy.

(extracts from Averno here)

10. Yiyun Li: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Every now and then the award ceremonies get it right. Yiyun Li's A Thousand Year of Good Prayers is a marvellous collection of short stories, well deserving of the praise heaped on it. Li's writing is tender and accurate, and her stories, though ostensibly explorations of China's changing society and its interactions with the West, have the authentic ring of the universal. This is a book that deserves to be read twice - once for its intriguing accounts of the encounter between East and West, traditional and modern, communist and capitalist; and again for the pure joy of reading some truly superb story telling.

P.S. The list is limited to stuff published this year that I've read. There's a long list of books published this year that I'm still trying to get my hands on (the new Pynchon and McCarthy spring to mind, as well as the new Vikram Chandra).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

More evidence that the world is not fair, and Christmas Music

What is wrong with the Guardian?

Isn't it bad enough that the world is full of nitwits who like this Paulo Coehlo guy, without the Guardian encouraging them by publishing this vapid short story as a Christmas special. I mean, seriously, this thing is so putridly sentimental that even the folks at Doordarshan would be embarassed to make adaptations of it. It's the kind of story I would have rejected summarily if someone had sent it in for my college magazine. And the book section of the Guardian publishes it as Original Fiction (original forsooth! can you imagine anything more hackneyed?). What are they going to do for St. Valentine's day, publish Mills and Boons?


In the Guardian's defense, it has to be said that Christmas is, after all, a time for universal sappiness. Take the music for instance. Barely are we into the third week of December, before stores and restaurants everywhere are suddenly invaded by 'Christmas Music' - cloying syrupy tunes rendered in all their awful tinniness. I know it's all part of the Christmas spirit and c., but does the Christmas Spirit really have to be tone deaf.

John Eliot Gardiner, over at Guardian Blogs, makes a pitch for celebrating Christmas to the sound of Johann Sebastian Bach, a suggestion I strongly second, reaffirming my vote for the Christmas Oratorio from last year.

Other Christmas favourites include Lennon's Happy Xmas (which KM blogs about here), Simon & Garfunkel's version of Silent Night and, of course, Lehrer's immortal Christmas Carol.

But my all time favourite Christmas song is, without doubt, Joni Mitchell's River. Now there's the true Christmas Spirit for you.

Monday, December 25, 2006

'Twill not be Christmas

What will it be? I need to know.
The day lies abandoned in the hall.
‘Twill not be Christmas, unless we make it so.

We sip our happiness, take it slow –
we hardly feel the sting at all.
What will it be? I need to know.

New wishes melt in our hands like snow,
the blessings escape us, the years fall.
‘Twill not be Christmas, unless we make it so.

Ice-cubes, like prophecies, gleam and glow,
new stars dissolving in a whiskied pall.
What will it be? I need to know.

The wind stops by to say hello,
the stars are gift wrapped, night comes to call.
Yet ‘tis not Christmas. Unless we make it so.

Celebrations come, celebrations go,
hope is large and memory small.
What will it be? I need to know.
‘Twill not be Christmas, unless we make it so.

Season's Greetings all.

Whether or not you choose to celebrate Christmas is your own affair. Here's hoping you manage to get drunk making the decision.

P.S. I have this persistent vision of Santa coming into work one Christmas Eve, taking one long look at what the night has in store for him, and deciding to chuck it all and go get loaded instead. After all, those ruddy cheeks of his have to come from somewhere.

This poem started off as a conversation between a hung over Santa and one of his elves, though at some point it developed a mind of its own.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Stirred, but not shaken

Seeing as I'm probably the last person on the planet to watch the new Bond film, it seems a little redundant to be writing a review of it, but I've never been one to let irrelevance get in the way of pontification, so here goes:

Casino Royale (2006) [1] is an exceedingly juvenile film - an unconvincing mish-mash of staples from the thriller genre (I mean, please, an oil tanker fight, a high speed car chase AND a poker game!) with a plot that has the consistency of Swiss cheese, duly seasoned with liberal dollops of mush. For most of the movie, its protagonist lives perilously on the edge of the ridiculous, and for all its tortured soul-searching the film has the emotional depth of a three day old puddle. It's an almost complete waste of time, except for one not so minor detail - Daniel Craig.

This new Bond is as beautiful as bitter almonds. He is, quite simply, the most dangerous thing to come out of Britain since Margaret Thatcher's economic policies. He's a thug, which is a shock in itself, but he's a particularly lethal thug, a new species of man whose survival instinct seems to be predicated on the belief that offense is the best defense. To watch Craig explode into action on the screen is to see the true poetry of violence brought vividly This is not a man who needs to be corseted in fancy weaponry to get the job done, this is someone who kills with his bare hands with the skill and discretion of a masseur; give him a handgun and he's liable to take out a few buildings. Even walking out of the sea in nothing but a blue swimsuit (and looking divine) he has the physical presence of someone who's been wrestling sharks for fun.

Much of this is conditioning. Long years of watching M/s Brosnan and Moore fiddle about with their cuff-links have left us thinking of the 007 tag as a sort of onerous duty, a kind of obligatory bad manners, never to be discussed in public. With Craig playing the role, it begins to dawn on you that the designation could be a privilege, that perhaps the license to kill is not so much a form of permission but a way of setting limits to what the killer can get away with. Craig's 007 status is not a driver's ID, it's a hunting license. Forget bony fingers and a sickle - if there is a Death, he has eyes as blue as glaciers and perfectly toned abs.

It's a testament to just how good Craig is that all the high speed action sequences in the film seem entirely natural - what seems like a stunt is the bit where he stands stil, wearing his tuxedo. He looks good, but you can't help wondering if there were special effects involved. The truth is that when it comes to turning on the charm, Craig doesn't quite cut it. Oh, he tries, and every now and then the sheer anomaly of seeing a smile on that butch face will get to you, but his talent for conversation is limited, and he tackles light repartee as though it were Shakespeare. Other Bonds deliver their lines with polish, our man simply chips them out with an adze.

This is not without its own raffish charm (especially if you remember what he looks like in a swimsuit [2]), but it means that the corniness of what he's saying is mercilessly exposed (at one point he greets a Swiss banker with the line "Didn't you bring any chocolates?" Gah!) and the fact that he has an unusual (for a Bond flick) amount of 'emotional' dialogue to get through only makes this worse. You have the urge to push machete wielding bad guys in his way just so he can stop talking and start beating them up. M (Judi Dench) calls him a blunt instrument, and she hits the nail right on the head (or, as happens at some point, punches it into the skull with a pressure tool). There's a scene where his side-kick, a Ms. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), says (approximately) "You've got your armour back on haven't you? You're not going to let me in". But it's not armour this Bond is wearing, he just doesn't have the range as an actor.

(Not that Craig is entirely incapable of charm. There is one scene in the film where he is genuinely winning - it's the bit where he's being tortured by his opponent and refusing to talk. How can you not love a secret agent who's more of a smooth talker under intense physical pain than with a woman?)

All of which leads us to an existential question - Craig is great, but is he Bond? Who James Bond is, exactly, is a question we haven't needed to ask since Connery, because it's been well understood that every other Bond has been a pale imitation of that hallowed ideal. In Craig, however, we have a new original - an alternate vision of Bond as a relentless killer who can fake the smooth stuff when he needs to, but is, at heart, a roughneck, a glorified bouncer on Her Majesty's Secret Service.

On the whole, I think I'm going to come down against Craig as Bond. Don't get me wrong - I love the fact that 007 has been rescued from the effete attentions of lounge lizards like Brosnan. When M. gets a microchip implanted under Bond's skin so she can keep track of him, that shot in the arm you hear is the entire Bond franchise getting a lift out of the realms of farce. And there's a part of me that would really love to see a major franchise that tracked the career of an action hero who was entirely unfeeling and ruthless (note to the filmmakers - can we cut out the soppy romantic stuff next time?).

But the thing I've always valued about the Bond franchise, the thing that Connery had and Craig doesn't, was a sense of its own ridiculousness. Connery's Bond, like this new one, went easy on the puns and witticisms, but watching him on screen you couldn't shake the feeling that he got the joke. It was this sense of not taking himself so seriously, even while he was fighting in deadly earnest, that made Bond superior. Like the new Bond, Connery's Bond wasn't superhuman - but there was always a hint of bemusement in his actions, a sense that he was play-acting just a little, like a cat toying with its prey.

My problem with the new Bond is that he's too sincere. Daniel Craig's Bond feels more like a combination of John McLane and Philip Marlowe than a version of 007. He has the killer cred, but he doesn't have the sense of humour.

I also can't help wondering whether, if Bond is going to keep on the way he is, it isn't time for him to defect. This new Bond feels as though he'd fit better at the CIA (or the Hollywood version of the CIA) than at MI6. Surely his bluntness, his recklessness, his obvious disregard for tact, diplomacy or teamwork and, above all, his overblown aggressiveness, are all qualities that would be appreciated more on the other side of the Atlantic. To watch him tear into an embassy in search of a terror suspect, and blow it to bits in the process, is to see White House foreign policy in the last 6 years in microcosm. The whole point of the classy, self-aware British agent was that he would beat the Yanks, not join them. This new Bond may be hell on wheels, but he's also the defeat of the Great English Hope.

You could say that all this is stereotype, that characters need to evolve with their time. And certainly the new Bond does much to break free of the upper-crusted mould of the recent films. But it's worth remembering that the whole point of Bond, the reason we love him, is because he's a cliche. In trying to break free of the old stereotypes, the new Bond runs the risk of losing the very things that define his identity. And that, in a world crowded with action heros, could be as fatal as a bullet from a Walther PPK.

[cross posted at Momus]


[1] One mustn't forget, of course, that quirky, delightful and entirely unofficial rendition of Casino Royale from 1967, starring David Niven as Sir James Bond, Peter Sellers as James Bond and Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond.

[2] It is my firm conviction, btw, that the focus on Bond's body throughout the film is less a symptom of changing gender roles in society (as some people have argued) and more to do with the fact that, given Craig's lack of sparkling dialogue delivery, it's the only way to make the idea that just about any woman would want to fall into bed with him plausible. If you only saw Craig dressed to the nines, chatting up women at a roulette table, you'd wonder what they saw in him - once you've seen him emerging from the sea like some deadly male Venus, the answer to that question is, literally, a no-brainer.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sound of Muzak

Pictures we'd like to see dept.

Scene opens to Julie Andrews and Charlton Heston enjoying a quiet stroll together on the planet Smerf. Suddenly, Julie notices an infinitesimal movement beneath her feet. "The Hills are Alive!" she screams, "run for it!", then stops to watch the gruesome spectacle of her co-star being swallowed alive by geography. There's a moment of terrible suspense while the audience wonders whether Heston will manage to change his facial expression, or whether continental drift will get there first. Eventually Heston is gone, and while the Hills are still trying to chew their way through all that rubbery meat, Julie makes her escape, flying away on the special umbrella that she will later employ to such devastating effect in Mary Pop-off - that thrilling saga of a deadly assassin disguised as a children's nanny.

End of scene. Roll opening credits

(Director's note: That opening shot has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It's only there so the people who show up late don't miss anything)

Scene opens on the Jedi monastery on the planet of Nabu. Julie Andrews is Maria, a young Jedi warrior who's considered too flighty and is therefore being sent on a mission to the planet Psolaris, where the gravity is stronger. She is to be accompanied on this journey by the Captain, a melancholy Russian scientist still mourning the death of his wife, and the Captain's seven children, who were initially all clones of each other, but having been brought up in Russia have since fallen prey to varying stages of what is either malnutrition or radioactive decay or lithium poisoning. The Captain's eldest daughter's boyfriend, a young man named Hans Luftwaffle, will also be on the trip.

After a fairly uneventful take off (marred only by the mutterings of the orchestra, who were told not to play Also Sprach Zarathustra, but don't understand how you can have a movie set in space without it) the group is on its way. It seems, however, that before they left, Junior, The Captain's youngest son, accidentally swallowed a frog. (Junior claims the frog was in a piece of chocolate he ate, but this is obviously a lie. No one puts crunchy frogs in a chocolate. What's next - lark's vomit?). At any rate, the frog is inside Junior, growing at an alarming rate, and one day in the galley Junior croaks and the frog explodes out of his chest and proceeds to give all the others a terrible tongue lashing. The others are unperturbed by this, but run screaming in terror from Maria's cooking. Soon the crew has scattered randomly through the spacecraft, thus making it easier for the monster to snack on them, and an atmosphere of gloom, despair and mournful pipe music fills the ship. From now on, another crew member will turn up missing every ten minutes or so (mean 583 seconds, standard deviation 42), each macabre death marked by a place where the fiend's tongue has wiped the walls spotlessly clean.

Meanwhile, The Captain has sunk into a dreamlike reverie, the ship having restored his dead wife to him, or something that looks exactly like her. The Captain isn't sure if she's real or some kind of shape shifting ectoplasm, which makes him wonder if he shouldn't use two condoms instead of one. Maria isn't sure that this wife-returned-from-the-dead is real either, but she knows that if you kill her she keeps coming back, and that whatever it is that she's made of, it tastes really good when cooked with lemon juice and a touch of paprika.

Eventually, after all the crew members except her and Hans have been killed by the Monster Frog, Maria makes the incredible deduction that Hans is really an android (it always puzzled her why he constantly needed to be close to a plug point; plus there was the way he kept running out of blades). It transpires that this whole mission is an evil plot hatched by the Nazis from Spiegelman's Maus to diversify into other life forms. "Forget the Aryans", Hans tells Maria, before she peels the label of his back, thus invalidating his warranty, "Frogs are the new master race. Just look at Herr Goering."

Alone and afraid, Maria decides to turn to the Mother Superior for help. Buzzing up Yoda on the Transgelitenic screen (which is really Gene Rodenberry's old 15' TV from college, blown up by extreme camera focus) Maria asks her for advice, to which Yoda replies "Every mountain. Climb you must." - a singularly unhelpful suggestion to someone who is a) on a ship in deep space with nary a mountain in sight and b) has a deep-seated fear of mountain ranges (see! this is why the first scene was required - it's the 21st century, folks, you can't make a movie about a superhero without providing the pschyo...errr...physcio...errr...seiko...err.. the background). Left to her own devices, Maria eventually stumbles upon a blueprint of the ship and sees something called the "Escape Pod", the first part of which, she feels, might be an important clue.

Arriving at the Escape Pod, Maria discovers the Monster Frog lying in wait for her. Fortunately, she has changed into her Princess Leia Gold Bikini (TM) so that the Frog is distracted for a moment. This gives Maria the chance she's been looking for, and she immediately starts to teach the Frog the degrees of the diatonic scale. Trying to sing along with her, the Frog soon discovers that its tongue, though incredibly adept in other ways (for instance, in touching the tip of its nose) is entirely incapable of singing 'Fa' and the despair of this causes it to leap from the spaceship and take its own life [1].

The final scene shows a triumphant Maria sitting down to write a letter to her agent pointing out that now that she's saved the world from certain destruction, it seems only fair that she be allowed to play the lead role in My Fair Lady, instead of that Hepburn hussy.

Fade. Roll Credits. Orchestra, needing to be mollified for Zarathustra snub, plays that other great Strauss tone poem, Till Euthanasia.

Musical highlights include hit numbers 'How do you find an acronym for an aria' 'Nothing comes from nothing, but existence precedes consciousness' and that powerful, moving ballad 'A dull voice'. (you know the one - "A dull voice, a dull voice, every morning you greet me", etc. etc.)

Tag-line: In space, no one can hear you yodel.

[1] Or at least so it seems. The real reason the Frog killed himself was that he found Ms. Andrews accent too annoying. But you won't find that out until the sequel, when this startling revelation will become the inspiration for a heroic attempt to wipe out the entire population of the Frog planet using only Ewan McGregor's voice.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In the Python's grip

What image best captures the meaning of Man's existence?

A haggard, Crusoe-like figure, staggers out of the wilderness. His clothes are tattered, his breathing ragged, his long beard tangled and dirty. It is clear that he is exhausted. His feet can barely carry him, yet he knows his task is urgent, and so he stumbles and falls, crawls his way to where we stand waiting, out of breath by the time he arrives. With a final, heroic burst of effort, he delivers the message he has been sent with, then collapses to the ground.

And what does he have to say for himself, this Kafka-esque messenger? His message is one word long. It's "It's". Yes, that's right. I, t, apostrophe, s. It's.

It's his only line.


People will tell you that buying yourself Christmas presents is just sad. This may be true, but it has the important advantage of ensuring that you get something that you really want. Like this set of the Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes that I just had delivered to me this morning. Yup. 1749 minutes of M/s. Palin, Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle and Jones all just a press of the play button away.

So, what are you doing for Christmas?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fear Death by Water...

...or where has Martin Rowson been all my life?

Imagine The Waste Land as film noir. Imagine good old Christopher Marlowe, navigating his way through the seedy underworld of Eliot's masterpiece, pitting his wits against the evil duo of Bleistein (with a cigar) and Burbank (with a Baedeker service automatic), trying desperately to find Phlebas the Phoenician while warding off the advances of the Hyacinth Girl. Imagine a graphic novel that includes the line "I'd walked in on Madame S. playing pixie poker with some arty types who looked like they'd write a Haiku if they ever heard something go bump in the night. I took the drink offered me by Tinkerbell the butler and cased the joint..."

Or better yet, just go read Martin Rowson's The Waste Land. It's all in there.

P.S. Am I the only person on the planet who had never heard of Rowson? I discovered him by chance yesterday - I was browsing through the graphic novel section of the UPenn Library, and came upon a version of Tristram Shandy. Now Tristram Shandy has long been a favourite of mine, and the idea that someone could make a comic book out of it intrigued me, so I went ahead and borrowed it. It proved to be a hilarious take on the book. So then I go look up Rowson in the library catalogue, and it turns out he's done a version of The Waste Land.

I was outside the library at 8:30 this morning, waiting for it to open.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Newly Weds

A new couple has moved into apartment 4 D. That is to say, they've got the movers to come in and dump their two dozen cartons on the floor. They haven't opened them yet - it's too cold - they've turned on the heating but it'll be a while before the room is warm enough for them to unpack. The cartons lie scattered about, each cardboard box a small private god to be knelt before and worshipped.

They have only been married a week, so there is no furniture.

It feels like there is something they could be doing in the meantime, but they are not sure what. They sit there, in their gloves and caps and winter coats, wondering why it is that they can find nothing to talk about, when this is what they've been planning for, all this while. They tell themselves it's just that they're tired after their long drive. They tell themselves it'll be better tomorrow.

And they remember to feel relieved, thinking their boxes have arrived safely. While unknown to them something has broken, and the stain of it will be on everything.


It is two weeks before they get the curtains up. Two weeks in which they pretend to be bashful of strangers when it is really each other they are embarassed by.

When he turns off the light tonight, she says nothing. He's right, she thinks. Best to stay in the dark a little longer.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Treadmill

When it all gets too much for her – the fights, the recrimination – she goes down to the gym, gets on to the treadmill.

The truth is she’s going nowhere. But she likes to pretend she’s running, likes to pretend she can escape.

And when people ask her how she stays so thin, she just smiles.


Author's note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any actual gym is not just coincidental, it's downright amazing, given that I've never been in one.


Saturday, December 16, 2006


Why does no one ever plagiarise me?

Every time the folks at DesiPundit come up with another of their posts about a site that's ripping off other bloggers, I rush over, hoping to see these familiar words reproduced under some outlandish name. But it never happens. Everyone else gets copied blatantly, while I carry on in my pristine, unviolated isolation. Even when people do actually use stuff I've written, they're polite enough to cite me (Happy Blog Birthday, Chronicus). It's enough to make a grown man go out and buy glycerine.

What am I doing wrong, I wonder? What is it about this blog that the plagiarists don't like? How can I make myself more available to people who want to use me [1]? It's not fair, you know. Even authors of penny romances for teenage girls have got Harvard undergraduates copying them. Is it asking too much to expect that there'd be at least one stuggling writer out there whose third paragraph on page 27 would bear striking similarities to my post about death in elevators?

The night is dark. Elsewhere in the world, spyders are scuttling about in their ethernet lofts, stealing content from unsuspecting blogs and squirrelling it away in their ersatz websites. While I sit here, deserted in my involuntary inimitability, dreaming of the day that Ian McEwan will decide to write a novel about lonely, unloved bloggers and 'borrow' a few phrases from this post.

After all, it's the only way I'm ever going to get published by Jonathan Cape / Vintage.

[1] A question I often ask myself, and not only in this context.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What remains, however probable

“Our conclusion is that, on the evidence available at this time, there was no conspiracy to murder any of the occupants of the car,” Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, who led the inquiry, told reporters as he presented his findings here. “This was a tragic accident.”
- The New York Times, Dec 14th

As a general rule, I never make fun of people's names, but Kirkwhelpington?? Kirkwhelpington?!! And I used to think Wodehouse was joking. A tragic accident indeed.

You have to feel kind of sorry for Lord Stevens. Not only does he get saddled with a name like that, he also gets the unenviable task of spending $ 7.3 million and the 832 pages [1] of his report stating the obvious. How Lord Stevens must have salivated at the prospect of actually finding something through his investigations. How he must have dreamed of unearthing some dread conspiracy, and going down in history as the man who brought down the monarchy, the man who took on MI 6, a sort of new age Thomas More, soon to be immortalised in the Oliver Stone production of A Man for the Four Seasons. Instead, he's going to have to go down in history as "another one of those Kirkwhelpingtons". Not a happy thought.

I still remember when Diana died. The media, as expected, outdid itself in foolishness; Elton John managed to resurrect his deservedly failing career by ripping off his own work, thus proving himself either the no-talent phony one has always suspected him of being, or a subversive master of comic irony; and my local barbershop renamed itself the "Lady Diena Hair Cutting Saloon" in a somewhat misguided attempt to cash in on largely non-existent popular sentiment.

Ah, the good old days.

[1] I have to admit I'm curious to know what the 832 pages consist of. How do you describe a terrible plot that never happened? Do you just rehash all the old Agatha Christie stories and then deny them? Pg. 641: "Diana could have been poisoned in her hotel room and a crash test dummy put in the car in her place, her body, suitably mangled, being swapped for that of the dummy's in the ambulance carrying her from the accident site. We are glad to report, however, that this never happened."

Thursday, December 14, 2006


On this site
I still can't distinguish
tentative walls from scaffolds.
I don't understand
where the mechanism of construction
stops, and its body begins.
Amid dust, wood,
and the shouts of carpenters,
I fail to separate
object from project,
product from plan.


The silence between one page and the next,
the long stretch of land to the woods
where shadows gather
and shirk the day,
where night blossoms
separate and precious
like buds on a bough.
In this dazzling,
mapped-out delirium,
I still don't know
whether to be the country I'm crossing
or the journey across


There is a moment when the body
collects itself in a breath
and all thought is suspended, and wavers.
When everything
touched by the moon
likewise submits to the sigh of tides
or to the sweet sways of the eclipse.
And the wood of boats
swells in the undertow.

- Valerio Magrelli, Nearsights: Selected Poems, translated by Anthony Molino (Graywolf: 1990)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The White Dancers

A surprisingly recent instance of human evolution has been detected among the peoples of East Africa. It is the ability to digest milk in adulthood, conferred by genetic changes that occurred as recently as 3,000 years ago, a team of geneticists has found.
- The New York Times, December 11th 2006


They called themselves the White Dancers. No one was sure where the name came from. Some people said it was a reference to the Gmklah dance, where the young men of the village smeared their bodies in chalk to propitiate the wind gods, others claimed that it came from a vision the old medicine man had claimed to see before he died - a strange fantasy of hideous monsters, shaped like men but with white skin, dancing to an Oogoomba drum louder than any ever heard by mortal man. Whatever its origin, the name had stuck.

Not that it got used much. The old people of the village disapproved of the White Dancers, and the younger ones had learned to conceal their admiration, so no one ever spoke of them. Mbutu's father, for instance, would spit on the ground every time someone mentioned 'those boys' in his presence, and Mbutu's mother would shake her head and remind his sister to stay away.

Mbutu himself found the White Dancers fascinating. Four strapping young men, dressed in deerskins that couldn't have been more than a year old, sitting by the great Usabda tree at the edge of the town, talking and singing through the day. It was rumoured that the White Dancers were men of exceptional strength - mighty hunters and fine cattle herders as well - but everytime Mbutu saw them they seemed to be lazing about, lying in wait for the girls to come by on their way back from the well so they could tease them.

Not that the girls really minded being teased. Not by the White Dancers. There was something special about them, something almost magical about the way they sat and moved and talked. Something about the way their skin glowed and their teeth shone. They were sleek and deadly, these men - they carried themselves like spears - and yet you had the feeling, somehow, that they would not hurt you.

One day, Ndok, the eldest of the White Dancers, caught Mbutu staring at him and wanted to know why. At first Mbutu tried to deny it, tried to pass it off lightly, but when Ndok would not relent and dragged Mbutu over to his circle of friends to be interrogated, the combination of fear and awe at being in the presence of his gods made Mbutu blurt out the truth. He admired them, he said. He wanted to be like them. The White Dancers laughed at him at first, then, realising that he was serious, tried to dissuade him, telling him he was too young, that he should come back when he'd had a chance to grow up. Eventually, hoping perhaps to scare him, they offered to let him take the terrible test that every White Dancer had to take if he wanted to be part of their group.

Mbutu called their bluff, of course. Which is how he ended up, one moonless night, slipping through the side of his parent's hut where the grass had worn thin, making his way half a mile along the village path to where the White Dancers waited, their faces grim in the flickering bonfire. He wondered what the terrible test would be. Would he have to hunt something, perhaps wrestle with some wild animal? Looking around him, he noticed that there was a cow tied to a tree at the edge of the clearing. Could the cow be part of the test? But a cow was not difficult to handle - surely becoming a White Dancer required more gruelling a challenge. Perhaps the cow was bait, he thought, meant to draw some feral monster out of the darkness.

"Are you ready, Mbutu?" Ndok asked him. He nodded. "You're sure? You can still leave, you know. We will take mercy on your tender years." Mbutu shook his head emphatically. "Very well, then, let us begin."

At Ndok's nod, the youngest of the White Dancers moved over to the cow, carrying a bowl. Then, as Mbutu watched in horror, he proceeded to place the bowl under the cow and bending down, laid his hand on the cow's breasts. The very sight of it made Mbutu feel queasy. He had imagined many things on his way to the clearing - all manner of gruesome acts had passed through his head - but he had always assumed that they would be honourable acts, acts befitting a warrior or a hunter, nothing so depraved and disgusting as caressing cattle. Were the White Dancers nothing but perverts then?

It got worse. Having spent a minute feeling the cow's breasts, the young man proceeded to squeeze at her nipples, aiming the jets of white, viscous liquid that spurted out of her into the bowl he had placed on the ground. Feeling the eyes of the others on him, Mbutu forced himself to watch, wondering how he would react if they asked him to do the same, trying to imagine touching that pendulous tit, the feel of it in his hands, the squishy sensation of the liquid running through his fingers. He didn't think he could do it.

But it didn't come to that. Instead, when the bowl was three quarters full, the young White Dancer stopped his squeezing, and picking the bowl up carefully, came towards Mbutu. It was then that Mbutu understood what his ordeal was to be. Meekly, absently, he accepted the bowl from the young man, then stood staring down at its contents. The liquid was disgusting - pasty and white and flecked with bubbles. Small islands of fat floated in it, like old man Gnsingo's dandruff. No one could drink that. He remembered stories he'd heard about how the bodily secretions of the cow were poisonous, of people being forced to drink them and being violently sick and even dying. Were the White Dancers trying to kill him? Surely not. And yet who knew that he was here, that he had come to meet them? Could it be that they had decided to murder him for his insolence?

"Go on, drink." Ndok said. For a moment Mbutu considered flinging the bowl aside, trying to make a break for it. But the four White Dancers were standing right next to him and he could not hope to escape. An obscure sense of pride took hold of him. No, he would not cower, would not try to run away. Let them poison him if they wished, he would take it like a man.

Closing his eyes to keep out the sight of the nauseating liquid, Mbutu took a deep breath and brought the bowl to his lips. The liquid tasted sickening, thick and clammy and reluctantly bland. He felt himself starting to retch, but there were hands holding his head up now, hands steadying him, and someone was keeping the bowl from being spilled. He took another deep breath and went on drinking.

By the time the bowl was empty he felt sullied, violated. It was as though some essential innocence, some innate lightness of spirit had been washed from him by this unholy fluid. And yet, now that he let himself feel it, there was also a sense of fullness, a warmth that flowed through his limbs, making them feel not heavy, but at peace. As his body slowly recovered from the torture of these last minutes, he felt himself returning to a deeper gravity, a more complete being. The waves of nausea were starting to die down now. He felt released, almost happy.

The White Dancers were smiling at him. Hesitatingly, he smiled back. Then they were laughing and slapping him on the back (he felt a spasm of nausea again), telling him he was one of them now, that they had known all along that he would make it, that he was one of the chosen. Soon, he too was laughing with them, joining them in the idiotic dances they danced around the clearing, throwing his head back to sing the songs he'd heard them sing amongst themselves so often that he knew them by heart.

It was almost dawn by the time Mbutu made his way back home, having promised to meet the others later in the day under the Usabda tree. On the way back to his parents hut, he stopped to wash his mouth out. He had to be careful. He couldn't let anyone at home smell the milk on his breath.


Monday, December 11, 2006


Two slices of white bread. Two pages torn from a crumbling notebook. The screech and crunch of the toaster like some ancient torture machine. Each slice descending into its own private hell, the grill of its cage glowing red.

Sir Nicholas is making breakfast.

Above him, in Apartment 3 B, a man stands by his kitchen sink, drinking his third cup of coffee. He's running late, he knows, but he has to get his hands to stop shaking, has to be able to hold his portfolio without spilling it. It's the least they will be looking for. He shouldn't have had so much to drink last night, not with the interview this morning. But regret won't help his hangover, only coffee, and even that doesn't seem to be doing the trick.

Inside the toaster, the bread has turned golden, and the first hints of brown are starting to leave their thumbprints on its surface. If Sir Nicholas liked his toast lightly done this is the point at which he would pop the slices out, but Sir Nicholas is a man who prefers his toast a little on the burnt side, so the bread stays in. Meanwhile, Sir Nicholas has put the electric kettle on to make some tea and is nosing about in the refrigerator trying to decide which preserve he fancies today. Apricot? Strawberry?

The man in apartment 3 C is calling the doctor. His wife is worse. Again. It's the same routine with the clinic, the same barely polite voice informing him that there are no appointments for the next two weeks, and his own voice subservient at first, then threatening, trying to explain that they can't wait that long, that it's urgent, that his wife had another episode and so, yes, it is an emergency, well it is to them anyway; finally giving in and agreeing to the date next month, putting the phone down with a sigh and wondering what he's going to do till then.

Sir Nicholas drops a tea-bag into his cup, goes over to peer into the toaster. Should be soon now. He puts the cup down, begins to lay the table.

The man in 3 B has finally got his hands to stop shaking. He feels nauseous, but he doesn't have the time for that and doesn't dare risk getting anything on his best suit. His only suit. Besides it's probably the three cups of coffee on an empty stomach that's making him feel this way. I'll grab something to eat on my way out, he thinks to himself. If only I can make the interview work, just this once. He realises he said that last bit out aloud. He wonders if he's going crazy. Spasmed by doubt he opens the portfolio again, makes sure he hasn't missed any of the good ones. The soon-to-be-important ones. The sight of the photographs calms him, as it always does. Time to get going.

The man in 3 C is leaving too. He hates to leave her alone this way, but he's already used up most of his vacation, and besides, there's nothing he can do here. Except make sure that the next time it happens, if it happens, he's by her side. He's given her the regular dose of medication, even though it's clear by now that that's not working, as well as the sedative the doctor had prescribed for emergency use. He's put everything he thinks she might need on a table by her bed. With any luck she'll sleep through the day and he'll be back before she wakes up. Briefcase in hand, he stops to check on her one last time. She's asleep, her hands folded together underneath her head, like a child praying. He nods in reluctant satisfaction and heads for the door, taking the phone off the hook on his way out.

Sir Nicholas smells something burning. Remembers he's forgotten the toast.

The man from apartment 3 B and the man from apartment 3 C both step out of their doors at the same moment. They look at each other and smile - politely, absently - the smiles of two people caught up in their own thoughts.

The toaster pops. The slices of bread, slightly charred around the edges, leap exuberantly into the air, then fall right back into their slots. Sir Nicholas reaches out for them, careful not to burn his fingers.

The two men step out of the building one after the other, each man turning his face gratefully to the sun as he goes down the steps and into the busy street.

Sir Nicholas watches them go, the butter melting rapidly as he spreads it on his toast.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

This morning...

...the winter is waiting outside your front door, summons in hand. You don't realise this at first. You peep out and see what looks like a normal enough day, a bit shabby perhaps, but nothing to be afraid of. Then you step out of your building and he lets you get three steps from the door before he comes up to you and says "Mr. ____________?" "Yes, that's right." "I have something for you, sir."

And then he hands it to you - the cold you've been dreading, white and crisp and official, like paper. And you wish you'd never left your house today, you wish you'd hidden away in your house, under a quilt or a pile of old clothes, but it's too late for that now, too late, and he would have got you eventually anyway, how long were you going to stay locked up in your apartment and he's off already, no doubt to find his next victim (yes, yes, you know it's his job - but a victim is what you feel like) while you stand on the sidewalk, feeling all the warmth seep out of you.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Elevator Music

I'm walking down the corridor. The doors I pass are dark blue with discreet silver letters on them, the walls a faded off-white, the carpet grey. Neon light drifts from concealed tubes like fine ash. There's the dull hum that accompanies you everywhere in this city, the faint ringing in your ears that tells you you're inside, you're safe, you're part of the machine. When I get to the elevator someone's there already, waiting. A man, must be in his mid-20s (somehow I know that's much younger than me), shoulder length hair, jacket but no tie. I have the feeling that I've seen him before somewhere - here, perhaps, at this elevator - that I'd expected him to be here. While we wait for the elevator to arrive I take off my glasses, polish them with my tie (Yes, I'm wearing a tie. And a suit. I'm formally dressed, though I can't remember for what, just that it is something important).

The elevator arrives. The doors slide open and a square of bright light floods the worn carpet in front of us. He waits for me to get in, then follows. Instinctively, we stand as far away from each other as possible. He takes the front left corner, I occupy the back right. I watch as he presses the button for Parking. So he's a resident too, then. I look away, staring up at the display over the door, watching the light skip from number to number 34...33...32. The tinny sound of the Blue Danube floating down to us from invisible speakers.

A sudden movement from my companion makes me turn towards him again. He's pointing something at me. A gun. He fires and I feel the bullets hit me. There's no pain, no physical sensation at all. Just the realisation that I've been shot, that I'm dying - the surprise of it entering me, the panic spilling out like blood. I fall back against the elevator wall, feel myself starting to slide down. I want to reach out, hold onto something, but my arms don't move and I know that there's nothing to hold on to except the smooth glass walls. I collapse in a heap on the floor, my head falling back.

The killer is leaning over me now, his hand is at my throat though I can't feel it. He's making sure. He steps back, satisfied, puts his gun away. I'm dead. For a moment I wonder how it is I can still see, then I realise that my eyes are still open and the scene before me is reflected in my pupils. I see the light blink above the door, though I don't hear the familiar 'pling' of the elevator stopping. We're at Parking Level. The killer tenses, afraid there might be someone waiting to get in, but there's no one. He hurries away, out of sight. He doesn't even bother to take a last look at me. The elevator door slides shut.

I wonder what he did it for?

I lie there, staring at the yellow glow of the P on the console above the door. It's late at night, there won't be too many people coming and going. I wonder how long it'll be before they find me. I hope it isn't some children, or someone with a nervous disposition.

I'm still thinking this when the doors slide open again - someone is coming in. It's two men. They're wearing masks over their faces and there are guns in their hands. They start back at the sight of me - their guns pointing towards me like magnets seeking the North. One of them almost shoots me again. They're taken aback to see me. Agitated. They jam their backs against the doors and have an urgent discussion about my being here (at least I assume that's what it's about - I can't hear them, of course). A third man, similarly masked, appears in the doorway, peering in suspiciously. Then one of them shrugs. He continues to hold the door open while the two other men vanish from my sight for a moment, come back hauling something between them. It's a dead body! I watch them lean down to place it next to me, then stand back to stare down at us, their eyes moving from my face to the face of this other, this invisible stranger who's joining me in death. One of them says something and the other two laugh. Then they too disappear and the door slides shut again.

I lie there, staring up at the glowing P wondering how long it will be before someone calls for the elevator. I can feel myself growing stiff. I know it must be the rigor mortis but I imagine it's a response to this new dead person, this corpse lying next to me, this intruder into my space. I resent having to share my death with this person, resent that he will get to share my headlines, resent that people will think we were linked somehow, that the investigation into what will now be considered 'our' deaths will probably allow the real killer to get away scot free. What if this other dead guy's wounds are more gory than mine? What if he isn't even a he, but a woman? Then he / she will get the photographs in the paper and I'll end up as just a small footnote in the story. It isn't fair.

After a while it occurs to me that I can't hear the music anymore. Nor the distant hum of the machine. This is silence - the real thing.

I never did care for that Johann Strauss anyway.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Just when I think the Buddhists
are wrong and life is not mostly suffering,
I find a dead finch near the feeder.
How sullen, how free of regret, this death
that sinks worlds. I bury her near
the bicycle shed and return to care for
my aged mother, whose suffering
is such oxygen we do not consider it,
meaning life at any point exceeds
the price. A little more. A little more.

- Tess Gallagher, 'Not a Sparrow' from Dear Ghosts,

It was more complicated than that. Lives were changed and moved by much smaller cues, chance meetings, overheard conversations, the trips and stumbles which constantly alter and readjust the course of things, history made by a million fractional moments too numerous to calibrate or observe or record. The real story, he knew, was more complicated than anything he could gather together in a pair of photo albums and a scrapbook and drive across the country to lay on a table somewhere. The whole story would take a lifetime to tell. But what he had would be a start, he thought, a way to begin. What he had would be enough to at least say, here, these are a few of the things which have happened to me, while you weren't there. This is a small part of how it's been. You don't need to guess any longer, you don't need to imagine or wonder or dream. This is a small part of the truth.

- Jon McGregor, so many ways to begin

The bullets inch forward. The spray of arterial crimson descends gradually - a slow, hideous dew...The gap between us narrows. Ten metres. Nine metres. The bullets are moving faster now. Seven metres. Screaming like a slowed-down audio-tape, a woman falls backwards in stop-motion. Four. Three. Zero. The dead woman is screaming.

- from The Ballad of Halo Jones script by Alan Moore, graphics by Ian Gibson.

Don't you just love reading multiple things at the same time?

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Romancing? The Stone

"He was a hardworking farm boy. She was an Italian supermodel. He knew he would have just one chance to impress her."
Ad for some sort of penile enhancement technique? For the latest line of designer clothing, perhaps?

Wrong. It's the ad for something called the Rosetta Stone, an interactive language learning software of some sort (the ad calls it 'the language tool of choice' - making me suspect that it may be a penile implant after all), which appears with predictably regularity in the New Yorker (no doubt brought to you by the same people who promote the Pokeboat).

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Are we to assume that the Rosetta Stone software is specifically designed to help you pick up hot women in the language of your choice? (In which case I would suggest that the $296.10 they're charging for the whole package is way too low) Or is the logic here that the supermodel in question will be so blown away by the fact that Junior speaks real Italian (as opposed to all other Italian men who speak English, only with a fake Sicilian accent) that she will fall into his arms without paying attention to what he's saying[1]? Or is the idea that since his chances of getting an actual living supermodel are statistically zero, the software, speaking fluent Italian, will be a good substitute - because clearly it's her fluent punctuation that makes her so ravishingly attractive to him (Rosetta Stone! Gee whiz! Any relation to Sharon Stone?)

Now, me, I know nothing about charming women and I've never met a supermodel in my life (at least I don't think so - though I'm one of those people who are bad with both names AND faces), but it seems to me that if you're a barely literate farm boy trying to win a woman's heart, then long, poetic speeches or witty repartee are not the way to go [2]. You're much better off playing the strong, silent type, preferably with your shirt off. It's the old core competence story. Not to mention that you're probably better off going after farmer's daughters, who, let's face it, have a lot less choice.

The picture that accompanies this marvellous piece of prose is even funnier. It features a fairly dim looking young man standing in the middle of what is indisputably a field, gawkily clutching his baseball cap and looking woeful and concerned. This despite the fact that in his other hand he clutches a box containing the magical Rosetta Stone software. Apparently in order to learn Italian you don't actually need to plug the software into your computer. All you have to do is walk around in the fields holding the box in your hand and look as if you're concentrating and before you know it you'll be quoting Petrarch and Dante. Isn't technology wonderful?

One can almost hear the argument behind this picture: "We should have a shot of him outdoors, otherwise how will people know that he's a farm boy?" "No, no, we need to have a shot of the product in there somewhere. Didn't they teach you anything at advertising school?" "Guys! guys! stop fighting. What say we compromise?" So what if the productivity of European agriculture (such as it is) gets halved because a whole generation of farm boys are wandering around doing their chores with a copy of the Rosetta Stone software in their hands? What do the makers of the software care? It's not their problem if all of Europe starves - just as long as they starve while talking to each other in a dozen different languages. Corporate greed, I tell you.

The ad also goes on to tell us about Rosetta Stone's Dynamic Immersion method ("Help! I'm drowning here!" "No, you're not. You're just dynamically immersed") which makes it "so effective that NASA, the U.S. State Department, and a variety of Fortune 500 executives have made it their language tool of choice." That's a lot of people with a yen for Italian Supermodels. How many of these supermodels are there anyway[3]? Is there a way I can buy futures in them?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this ad is side-splittingly funny or heart-breakingly touching in the original Italian and it just doesn't translate well. Maybe hardworking farm boys with the hots for Italian women are the fastest growing consumers of language software worldwide - which is why pitching this thing as a product for corporate use would be ineffective. Hell, maybe the reason I can't get a date is because I'm talking to women in English, when I should be wooing them in Esperanto. In qualche modo, non penso così.


[1] Which, given how most language learning sessions go, is probably something like "Excuse me, could you tell me the way to the railway station / airport / bus stop, please?"

[2] You could, of course, try the Love Actually approach - say completely random things in a language she doesn't understand, with a suitably soulful expression on your face "I try not to feed my cows hay that's more than a season old - it gives them the runs" can seem charming and lyrical if spoken with the right intonation.

[3] To be fair, the Rosetta Stone software is available in 30 languages. So it's not just Italian supermodels. It's also supermodels in Spain, France, Germany and Japan.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

An Abandoned Umbrella

She has been lying there, folded into herself, ignoring these autumn days that bring light, but no comfort.

Then, today, the downpour. The people running by clutching newspapers. Do they not see her? Do they assume she belongs to someone else? As the wind howls, the folds of the umbrella lift and fall, like wings.

(55 words)

Friday, December 01, 2006

The End of the Line

From the New York Times last week:

For all the sound and fury in the last year, the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program continues uninterrupted, with no definitive action by either Congress or the courts on what, if anything, to do about it, and little chance of a breakthrough in the lame-duck Congress.

Okay, so my phone is tapped. Even as I don't speak, some guy with a black suit and a degree in political science is sitting in a secret room somewhere, wearing a pair of headphones and listening to all the conversations I've had with my friends over the last month. Right about now he's probably wondering what "hold on minute, I need to get my clothes out of the dryer" is code for. Any day now, I expect to be picked up by a black, unmarked van and harangued with shouts of "You never write! You never call!" by a guy in a crew-cut.

The thing is, if there are people listening in on our phone conversations[1], I feel sorry for them. Talk about a boring job. So here's what I think we should do - I think we should try and make their lives more exciting. Here, therefore, are the Top 10 Things to Do if You Think The NSA is Tapping Your Phone

1. Rename your dog Osama and get into the habit of calling him while you're on the phone ("Just a minute, Larry....Osama! Osama! Where are you? Ah, there you are. Come here, Osama, sit here next to me....Yes, Larry, you were saying?")

2. Shout "Sleep no more! Macbeth hath murdered sleep!" into your receiver at 3 in the morning. Follow it up with the murmured sound of a man sobbing in Spanish.

3. Learn how to say "Can you believe that some moron is actually translating this thinking he's onto something" in Arabic.

4. Learn how to say "That new film about the World Trade Centre was a total bomb at the box office, wasn't it?" in Arabic. Don't bother translating the 'bomb' though.

5. Make a list of 1-800 numbers with the longest wait times / most annoying recorded music. Call them in sequence at regular intervals and just leave yourself on hold.

6. Call your advisor and say (in a suitably disguised voice) "Dude! That stuff you gave me last week was BAAAD shit. My friend smoked one joint and we almost had to take him to hospital." (congratulations! you just earned yourself another 3 years and 6 months to do your dissertation. With good behaviour.)

7. Find out the number of your local NSA chief as well as his wife's name. Call his home and say "*Name of Wife*? It's me. I know we said I shouldn't call you at home, but I just wanted to say I've been thinking of you all day and I can't wait to see you again. You will come tonight, won't you? Usual time, usual place?" [2]

8. Find out the number of your local NSA chief as well as the name of his teenage son. Call his home and say "*Name of Teenage Son*? It's me. I know we said I shouldn't call you at home, but I just wanted to say I've been thinking of you all day and I can't wait to see you again. You will come tonight, won't you? Usual time, usual place?"

9. Every time a new big-budget Hollywood thriller comes out, make sure you go see it first day first show and then discuss it in detail with your friends on the phone, making sure to give away all the important plot twists.

10. In the middle of a conversation suddenly shout "Oh my God! the Leopard! the Leopard!", then drop the receiver noisily to the ground and disconnect the phone. Practise doing your best Katharine Hepburn impression for when the medics come bursting through your door.


[1] When I say 'our' I mean, of course, my conversations and, seperately, your conversations. I know that blogging is not the same thing as talking to someone on the phone. I'm not totally delusional, you know. Even though I think it's strange that you never call, despite the fact that your reading this blog makes us family.

[2] If you're a woman, just reverse the sequence of 7 and 8. If your local NSA supervisor is a woman, make that husband and teenage daughter, in the appropriate order.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

By heart

Over at the Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog, Nick Seddon has this post about committing poems to heart, and asks readers for what poems they would pick.

So here, in no particular order, are the 12 poems that I find running through my head most often. Understand, these are not my 'favourite' poems (whatever that means) they are simply the poems I find most useful, poems that have become an integral part of how I think.

1. Robert Browning 'A Toccata of Galuppi's'

Well, and it was graceful of them--they'd break talk off and afford
--She, to bite her mask's black velvet--he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions--"Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths--"Life might last! we can but try!

"Were you happy?"--"Yes."--"And are you still as happy?"--"Yes. And you?"
--"Then, more kisses!"--"Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?"
Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be answered to!
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins 'No worst there is none'

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
3. Pablo Neruda 'Poetry'

I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

4. W. H. Auden 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats'

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

5. Percy Byshe Shelley 'Ode to the West Wind'

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
6. Robert Frost 'Desert Places'

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
7. John Donne 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
8. W.B. Yeats 'When you are old'

How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false or true
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
9. T.S. Eliot 'Portrait of a Lady'

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression ... dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
10. W.H. Auden 'Lay your sleeping head my love'

But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

11. Emily Dickinson 'I cannot live with you'

I cannot live with you,
It would be life
And life is over there
Behind the shelf

12. Agha Shahid Ali, 'Beyond the Ash Rains'

I had still not learned the style of nomads:

to walk between the rain drops to keep dry.

Okay, okay, go ahead. Tell me what I've missed.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's nice, but is it German?

Remember the post about enjoying poetry in languages you don't understand?

It turns out I have company, and fairly distinguished company at that

I believe my favourite country's German.

I wander in a calm folk-colored daze; the infant
Looks down upon me from his mother's arms
And says - oh, God knows what he says!
It's baby-talk? he's sick? or is it German?
That Nachtigallenchor: does it sing German?
Yoh, yoh: here mice, rats, tables, chairs,
Grossmutter, Kinder, der Herrgott im Himmel,
All, all but I -
all, all but I -
speak German.

Have you too sometimes, by the fire, at evening,
Wished that you were - whatever you once were?
It is ignorance alone that is enchanting.
Dearer to me than all the treasures of the earth
Is something living, said old Rumpelstiltskin
And hopped home. Charcoal-burners heard him singing
And spoiled it all....And all because -
If only he hadn't known his name!

In German I don't know my name.
I am the log
The fairies left one morning in my place.
- In German I believe in them, in everything:
The world is everything that is the case.
How clever people are! I look on open-mouthed
As Kant reels down the road im Morgenrot
Humming Mir ist so bang, so bang, mein Schatz -
All the nixies set their watches by him
Two hours too fast....
I think, My calendar's
Two centuries too fast, and give a sigh
Of trust. I reach out for the world and ask
The price; it answers, One touch of your finger.

In all my Germany there's no Gesellschaft
But one between eine Katze and ein Maus.
What's business? what's a teaspoon? what's a sidewalk?
Schweig stille, meine Seele! Such things are not for thee.
It is by Trust, and Love, and reading Rilke
Without ein Worterbuch, that man learns German.
The Word rains in upon his blessed head
As glistening from the hand of God
And means - what does it mean? Ah well, it's German.
Glaube, mein Herz! A Feeling in the Dark
Brings worlds, brings words that hard-eyed Industry
And all the schools' dark Learning never knew.

And yet it's hard sometimes, I won't deny it.
Take for example my own favorite daemon,
Dear good great Goethe: ach, what German!
Very idiomatic, very noble; very like a sibyl.
My favourite style is Leopold von Lerchenau's.
I've memorised his da und da und da und da
And whisper it when Life is dark and Death is dark.
There was someone who knew how to speak
To us poor Kinder here im Fremde.
And Heine! At the ninety-sixth mir traumte
I sigh as a poet, but dimple as ein Schuler.
And yet - if it's easy is it German?
And yet, that wunderschone Lindenbaum
Im Mondenscheine! What if it is in Schilda?
It's moonlight, isn't it? Mund, Mond, Herz and Schmerz
Sing round my head, in Zeit and Ewigkeit,
And my heart lightens at each Sorge, each Angst:
I know them well. And Schicksal! Ach, you Norns,
As I read I hear your - what's the word for scissors?
And Katzen have Tatzen - why can't I call someone Kind?
What a speech for Poetry (especially Folk-)!

And yet when, in my dreams, eine schwartzbraune Hexe
(Who mows on the Neckar, reaps upon the Rhine)
Riffles my yellow ringlets through her fingers,
She only asks me questions: What is soap?
I don't know. A suitcase? I don't know. A visit?
I laugh with joy, and try to say like Lehmann:
"Quin-quin, es ist ein Besuch!"
Ah, German!
Till the day I die I'll be in love with German
- If only I don't learn German....I can hear my broken
Voice murmuring to der Arzt: "Ich - sterber?"
He answers sympathetically: "Nein - sterbe."

If God gave me the choice - but I stole this from Lessing -
Of German and learning German, I'd say: Keep your German!

The thought of knowing German terrifies me.
- But surely, this way, no one could learn German?
And yet....
It's difficult; it is impossible?
I'm hopeful that it is, but I can't say
For certain: I don't know enough German.

- Randall Jarrell 'Deutsch Durch Freud'

Meanwhile, right on cue, the New York Review of Books has a Rilke poem:

Komm du, du letzter, den ich anerkenne,
heilloser Schmerz im leiblichen Geweb:
wie ich im Geiste brannte, sieh, ich brenne
in dir; das Holz hat lange widerstrebt,
der Flamme, die du loderst, zuzustimmen,
nun aber nähr' ich dich und brenn in dir.
Mein hiesig Mildsein wird in deinem Grimmen
ein Grimm der Hölle nicht von hier.
Ganz rein, ganz planlos frei von Zukunft stieg
ich auf des Leidens wirren Scheiterhaufen,
so sicher nirgend Künftiges zu kaufen
um dieses Herz, darin der Vorrat schwieg.
Bin ich es noch, der da unkenntlich brennt?
Erinnerungen reiß ich nicht herein.
O Leben, Leben: Draußensein.
Und ich in Lohe. Niemand der mich kennt.

- Rainer Maria Rilke [1]
Actually, it seems to be the season for dead poets. Over at Blackbird, there's a newly discovered Plath poem. Ach, du.


[1] Translation:

Come, then, my last and latest acceptation,
pain in this fleshly web beyond all cure:
as once in mind, see now my conflagration
in you; the wood no longer can abjure
agreement with that flame which you're outthrowing:
I feed you now and burn in you as well.
My earth-born mildness in your fury's growing
a fury not of earth but hell.
So pure, so planless-free from all to-come,
I climbed this dizzy faggot-pile of pain,
so sure I'd nowhere sacrifice, to gain
a future, all this heart's uncounted sum.
Am I still that, unrecognisably
consumed? I snatch no memories inside.
O living, living: being outside.
And I in flame. And no one knowing me.