Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Tuesday Poem: Mural - Mahmoud Darwish

On the anniversary of Chernobyl, this seemed very appropriate. Many of those eventually evacuated weren't allowed to take any personal possessions at all, though most did.  One woman even smuggled out her cat!  Many later died from their exposure to radiation.


Death, wait while I pack my bag: a toothbrush, soap, a razor, cologne and clothes.
Is the weather mild there?
Does the weather in white eternity change?
Does it stay as it is in both autumn and winter?
Will one book be enough for me
to kill the no-time, or will I need a full library?
What language do they speak there . . .?

Death, O my shadow who leads me, O my third person,
emerald and olivine’s irresolute color,
blood of a peacock, sniper of the world’s heart,
sickness of imagination, have a seat.
Leave your hunting gear at the window and hang your heavy key chain on the door.
Mighty one, don’t gaze into my veins looking for some fatal flaw.
You are stronger than my breathing, stronger than medicine, and the strong honey of bodily love. . .

Death, wait.
Have a seat and a glass of wine, but don’t argue with me.
One such as you shouldn’t argue with a mortal being.
As for me, I won’t defy the servant of the Unseen.
Relax.  Perhaps you are exhausted today,
dog-tired of warfare among the stars.
Who am I that you should pay me a visit?
Do you have the time to consider my poem?
Ah, no.  it’s none of your affair.
You are charged only with the earthly body of man,
not with his words and deeds.

O death, all the arts have defeated you, all the Mesopotamian songs.
The Egyptian obelisk, the Pharaoh’s tombs, the engraved temple stones, all defeated you, all were   victorious.
You cannot trap the immortal.
So do with us and with yourself whatever you wish.

I wish to live.  I have work to do on this volcanic bit of geography.
Ever since the days of Lot, until the apocalypse of Hiroshima,
devastation has always been devastation.
I want to live here as if I am, forever,
burning with lust for the unknown.
Maybe “now” is much more distant.  Maybe “yesterday” is nearer
and “tomorrow” already in the past.
But I grasp the hand of “now” that History may pass near me,
and not time that runs in circles, like the chaos of mountain goats.

from 'Mural', included in Unfortunately it was Paradise
published by University of California Press
Copyright the Estate of Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish is the poet laureate of the Palestinian diaspora, but his work goes much wider and has a universal relevance. These are extracts from a very long poem, ‘Mural’, contained in his selected poems called Unfortunately, It Was Paradise.  ‘Dreams,’ he asserts, ‘are our sole utterance.’ Art is more powerful than war, oppression, suppression and human stupidity.  In the poem he contemplates the role of the artist and the difficulty of testifying in a world where the ‘victim’ is sometimes pressured into changing ‘his testimony and where ‘the actor and audience’ have ‘disappeared from view’.

‘At the door, I sat wondering: Am I he?
This is the language, this sound is the color of my blood.
Yet the author is not ‘I’.
If I come but don’t arrive, this ‘I’ isn’t me.
If I talk but don’t say anything, this ‘I’ isn’t me.
Obscure inscriptions translate themselves: ‘Write to be.  Read to find’.’


Written in 2000,  before 9/11 changed everything, before the current Syrian atrocity, Darwish reflects on an older conflict.
‘In the shattered amphora, the women of the Syrian coast
moan on their endless trail and burn under the August sun.
Before I was born, I saw them on the footpath to the fountain.
I heard the water in their pottery mourning them . .'

The poet asks, ‘Who is next after Babylon?’  Darwish uses the Palestinian experience as ‘a metaphor for the loss of Eden , for the sorrows of dispossession and exile’.  Influenced as a young man by the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish is a poet of international significance, like Neruda, Lorca, Eliot, or Yeats, and is disgracefully unread in the west.  He is incredibly lyrical, (a random line from ‘The Raven’s Ink’ - “O bell of dusk with the dark voice!”)  but often uses that lyricism to contrast with the brutality of political reality. "All the birds followed/ My hand to the barriers of a distant airport./ All the wheatfields/ All the prisons/ All the white graves/ All the borders/  All the waving handkerchiefs/ All the dark eyes/  All the eyes/ Were with me/ But they crossed them out of the passport."

In this collection the older Darwish faces his own death.  ‘What does life say to Mahmoud Darwish?/ You lived, fell in love, learned, and all those you will finally love are dead?’  But the poet’s answer is one of survival through art.  ‘Until my heart stops, I will slog over this endless, endless road . . .’ Darwish’s heart stopped suddenly in 2008, aged 66, in exile in Houston, Texas.

My favourite translator of his work is Abdullah al-Udhari, born in Yemen and a contemporary of Darwish.  Al-Udhari read classical arabic at London University and edited TR - an anglo-arab literary magazine. There is a brilliant selection of Darwish’s poems in Modern Poetry of the Arab World, a slim paperback translated by Al-Udhari.   Many of Darwish’s poems have been set to music, notably by the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. (Mawwaal - ‘Variations on Loss’ from the CD Sprinting Gazelle) Here she is singing with Jewish musician Gilad Atzmon.   A film has also been made of his love affair with a Jewish woman,  "Write Down, I Am an Arab" by the female filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin, herself an Arab woman married to a Jewish man.  Made in 2014, it contains wonderful footage of Mahmoud Darwish’s life and work.  This has English subtitles.







Sunday, 24 April 2016

Sunday Book: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

On  Tuesday it's the anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, where the nuclear reactor exploded and went into melt-down in 1986 - a terrible accident that 'was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness, and a deep-seated indifference towards the general population'. Those comments apply equally to the response to the accident and its consequences.  It remains the largest nuclear catastrophe, apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the twentieth century (though Fukushima may prove to be as damaging in terms of the environment).
The reactor after the accident - Photo Wikimedia 
The power station was in Ukraine, but the major impact has been on its neighbour Belarus, a post-Soviet dictatorship where freedom of information or freedom of speech are not permitted and any criticism of the system or political dissent likely to result in imprisonment.  Today, 2.1 million people, including 700,000 children, live on contaminated land.  Mortality rates still exceed birth rates by 20%.  One resident told the author, 'We're the raw materials for a scientific experiment . . .  It's a huge devil's laboratory.' Many preface their testimony with 'I'm not supposed be talking about this . . . but I'll tell you.'

Nobel prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich,  the daughter of a Ukrainian mother and Belarussian father, began to interview survivors and collect personal stories in the mid 1990s. They tell a story of panic, desperation, ignorance, incompetence and reluctance by the authorities to admit the true seriousness of the situation. They show a society used to obeying orders regardless of sense or logic.  Obedience to the Party was the law. Questioning anything could land you in a Gulag. For many people living in the region, that unquestioning obedience was a death sentence.  One girl whose husband was ordered to go into the Zone said: 'If I'd known he'd get sick I'd have closed all the doors.  I'd have stood in the doorway.  I'd have locked the doors with all the locks we had.'  One survivor, now an invalid facing premature death, said: 'They flung us there, like sand onto the reactor . . . They gave me a medal and one thousand rubles.'
An abandoned playground and apartment block in the Zone
For many death and love have become fused. 'I don't know what I should talk about,' says Lyudmilla, 'about death or about love?  Or are they the same?'  The 'Chernobylites' are seen as contaminated sinners - in some way to blame for their condition. 'I'm afraid to love,' writes one. 'Do you know that it can be a sin to give birth? . . . No one talks about it, but . . . it's a sin to love.'  From the very beginning love could be a death sentence.  One of the fire-fighters' wives insisted on going with him to hospital and caring for him as he died despite the fact that he was a walking nuclear time-bomb.  No one told her that the radiation he was emitting would kill her unborn child and leave her sterile. Others talk of their congenitally defective babies - one born without any orifices with surgical needs that can't be delivered in Belarus and no money or political will to ask for Western help.
Svetlana Alexievich
This is one of the most moving and distressing books I've ever read and yet it's also one of the most beautifully written and compelling texts I've ever read.  Svetlana Alexievich  has structured the stories in a way that reads like poetry. 'The wolf came into the yard at night.  I look out the window and there he is, eyes shining like headlights.  Now I'm used to everything.  I've been living alone for seven years, seven years since the people left.'  Zinaida is one of those who crept back illegally to re-occupy their homes.  Nadezhda is still in exile but longs for home. 'I often dream that I'm riding through sunny Pripyat with my son. It's a ghost town now.  But we're riding through and looking at the roses, there were many roses in Pripyat.  I was young.  My son was little.  I loved him. And in the dream I've forgotten all the fears, as if I were just a spectator the whole time.'

Statements are left to have their own weight and significance without commentary.  'We buried the forest,'  one man tells her.  'We sawed the trees into meter-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves. I couldn't sleep at night.'  Another, sent into the Zone to kill all the pet cats and dogs that have been left behind, claims not to feel anything about the mass shooting, but admits he is haunted by a small black dog who tried to climb out of the grave pit and there were no more bullets left to kill him with.
The trees are growing back
'What's better, to remember or to forget?' asks one academic.  He comments on the lack of information, the complete absence of even a mention of Chernobyl inside Ukraine and Belarus.  'I've wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren't writing much about it - they write about the war, or the camps, but here they're silent.  Why?'  In the Western mind there's an easy answer to that question.  'Chernobyl,' writes another, 'is like the war of all wars.'  Another is grateful for the lack of information.  'We turned off the radio right away.  We don't know any of the news, but life is peaceful.  We don't get upset.'

Not everyone was happy to talk to Svetlana.  'What're you writing there? Who gave you permission? And taking pictures.  Put that away.  Put the camera away or I'll break it.  How do you like that, coming here, writing things down.  We live here.  And you come around putting ideas in people's heads.  Saying things.  You're talking about the wrong things.'  Others were emphatically supportive.  A physicist told her, 'Someone's eventually going to have to answer for Chernobyl.  The time will come when they'll have to answer for it, just like for 1937.  It might be in fifty years, everyone might be old, they might be dead.  They're criminals! [quiet]  We need to leave facts behind us.  They'll need them.'

The whole book is permeated with the exiles' longing for their country.  One official, who re-enters the Zone with essential supplies for the many elderly people who still live there without facilities, tied to the land that their families have cultivated for hundreds of years, talks about her visits.  'On the way back, the sun is setting, I say, "Look at how beautiful this land is!"  The sun is illuminating the forest and the fields, bidding us farewell.  "Yes," one of the Germans who speaks Russian answers, "It's pretty, but it's contaminated."  He has a dosimeter in his hand.  And then I understand that the sunset is only for me.  This is my land.  I'm the one who lives here.'

It is also Svetlana's land and she thought long and hard before she wrote the book.  'When I sat down to write this, it was the first time I thought, "Is this something I should say?"  I had been raised on great Russian literature, I thought you could go very very far, and so I wrote about that . . . But the Zone - it's a separate world, a world within the rest of the world - and it's more powerful than anything literature has to say . . . These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown.  I felt like I was recording the future.'

Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich
Trans. by Keith Gessen.
Published by Picador 1997, 2006









Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Tuesday Poem: Shakespeare's children

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver'd o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
     And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence,
     Save breed, to brave him, when he takes thee hence.

It's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this week and I've been taking another look through the sonnets.  A few of the most famous are familiar to us all, but the others are rarely given an airing.  What struck me on re-reading was the number of sonnets in which the Bard expresses the urge to have a child,  preferably from a beautiful woman -  'From fairest creatures we desire increase,' [Sonnet I].  He begs his mistress, 'Make thee another self for love of me,/That beauty still may live in thine or thee' [Sonnet X], otherwise the 'you' of the poem will be 'Death's conquest, and make worms thine heir' [Sonnet VI].

In Sonnet IX, the poet exhorts people to marry in order to have children.

'Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife . . .
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,'

In Sonnet III

'Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another;
... Die single and thine image dies with thee.'

Sometimes the desired child is explicitly male.

'So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son.'  [Sonnet VII]

Shakespeare had three children by his wife Anne Hathaway;  a daughter, Susannah, born a few months after their marriage, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, born two years later.  Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, died tragically at the age of eleven.  His daughters survived into adulthood and married. Susannah gave birth to an only daughter, Elizabeth, who married a barrister, but had no children. This grand-daughter was Shakespeare's last surviving descendant.  His other daughter Judith made a scandalous relationship with an unfaithful vintner who had an illegitimate child with another woman. However, Judith stood by him, although Shakespeare altered his will to make sure her husband could not benefit from it.  Judith had three sons, but they all died before the age of 21.  [Find out more]

Although he didn't die until April 1616, Shakespeare had no recorded children after 1585, either with his wife or with any of the women he took as lovers. This doesn't mean that there were no illegitimate offspring, but only that they were unacknowledged.  It's possible that there were none. Sexually transmitted infections left many people sterile and female fertility was often low, due to poor nutrition (Shakespeare's eldest daughter suffered from scurvy), urinary tract and fallopian tube infections, as well as the complications of birthing children.

But if Shakespeare left no proven descendants, he left his plays and his poetry as a lasting legacy that he could never have anticipated.

P.S.  There's an intriguing theory that the sonnets contain references to a possible illegitimate child borne by Elizabeth 1st to the Earl of Oxford.  Alan Tarica has written extensively on the sonnets and their enigmatic content. 


Friday, 15 April 2016

La Grotta dell'Onda - the Cave of the Wave


High in the Alpi Apuane, above where we rent our ‘little house in the olive grove’ is La Grotta dell’Onda.  The ancient rock face of the mountain has been eroded by wind and water into a long flowing shape like the curling crest of a wave.  Under it, where surfers might shoot the tunnel, is a large cave where pre-historic people and animals once lived. It's the perfect destination for an Italian spring day.



Excavations have found human remains and the bones of bears as they dug down through accumulated debris on the cave floor.  This is old limestone and water has found its way through the rock, spouting down like a natural shower faucet.  Our ancestors had running water and even en suite showers!


The weather is warm for spring - 23 degrees the other day, despite a strong easterly wind shivering down the backs of our necks.  The wild cherry trees are exploding into blossom, and the alpine meadows are bright with flowers.  The yellow heads of arnica, wild narcissi, bugloss, anemones, lace caps, primroses, hellebore, violets  - the list is endless.


The one thing lacking is spring birdsong.  This is an area of Italy where songbirds are regularly eaten.  Occasional survivors flit nervously between bushes - a flash of feathers and they’re gone.
At the mouth of the cave

Looking out
It's too beautiful a day to relish going into the damp dark of the cave, but we do.  It goes a long way back and I'm too claustrophobic to venture very far.  From the mouth of the cave there’s a view of the sea.  Those early people had it all - fabulous views, abundant food on the doorstep, a roof over their heads, running water, a wild garden . . .   What more could you want?

But now it's time to pack my suitcase again and head back to England for another term.  Neil, on the other hand, is waist deep in packing cases for marble sculptures.  He has two exhibitions this year, both in the UK - one at the Garden Gallery in Hampshire and the other at Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire. Hard work - but still time for a cuppa!


Sunday, 10 April 2016

Consorting with Communists

I am having a few days inhabiting my other life in Italy.  It seems very strange, the complete switch of languages and landscapes, but somehow I slip into it like a second skin.  This weekend is some kind of Communist celebration here in Versilia.  Up in the mountains, during the second world war, the villagers were mostly partisans, fighting the fascists, and they've remained very loyal to a European version of Communism.  Perhaps because of their own history, there's also an amazing sense of solidarity with Cuban freedom fighters.

A Community restaurant dedicated to Che Guevara
On Saturday night we went with friends to the local Cantina in a hill village called Solaio - a community restaurant where food is cheap for members.  This one is dedicated to Che Guevara and decorated with his image inside and out.
Che looks down on you while you eat!
There was even music by local musicians and choir.  Italy - particularly it's food and friendship - can be the most seductive place in the world.


Want to hear one of the songs dedicated to Che Guevara in Italy?  This is one of them.





Thursday, 7 April 2016

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Sunday Books: Daphne du Maurier and Katherine Mansfield

I've just been reading Jane Dunn's biography of Daphne du Maurier and her no-less talented but less-famous sisters, the painter Jeanne and novelist Angela.  It did come as a surprise to me that Daphne was influenced by Katherine Mansfield. 'Daphne declared her short stories the best she had ever read', Jane Dunn notes, although they left her feeling melancholy with a 'kind of helpless pity for the dreariness of other people's lives'.  She identified with Mansfield as 'a sensitive outsider'.

Katherine Mansfield was Daphne's 'muse' and apparently she 'longed to emulate her'.  The Mansfield connection went even further.  'When the du Maurier girls were children Katherine lived in the next road to Cannon Hall and used to watch them playing on Hampstead Heath and longed to talk to them.  she was not quite twenty years older than Daphne and had died tragically young of tuberculosis when Daphne was fifteen.  Discovering this connection had made her believe that something of Katherine's creative spirit had entered her soul'.

When Daphne was at Finishing School in Paris she 'was suddenly desperate to visit Katherine's grave'. The director of the school 'organised a taxi to take them to the old forest cemetery at Avon near Fontainebleau.  After some trouble they found the overgrown headstone. [Daphne thought that] There was something poignant and pathetic about the fact her husband Middleton Murry had never visited it, and Daphne wished she could afford to pay to have the site tended.  On the simple stone slab was inscribed Hotspur's words from Shakespeare's Henry IV, words he had used when being warned of the riskiness of his plan, words that Katherine had loved and lived by: 'I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger we pluck this flower, safety.'

Daphne didn't exactly live the life expected of her either, having love affairs with both sexes - something that first came out with Margaret Forster's biography.  That book gave me a better picture of Daphne as a person and a writer, but I hadn't known much about her sisters, or that they were creative women in their own right and had spent their lives with female partners.  Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters, by Jane Dunn is a fascinating book I've thoroughly enjoyed and I'm now going back to read Margaret Forster's. 



Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller
by Kathleen Jones is available as an e-book for only £3.32,
Edinburgh University paper back £15.99