On Sunday 1st July, I’m doing a joint reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival with the first Bristol City Poet, Miles Chambers. For me, this will be a challenging occasion: Miles is a highly engaging performance poet, who crafts wonderful things out of the daily life of Bristol – among other things! But he and I have done a reading/performance together before, so I imagine we shall both enjoy it, and I hope we’ll find lots of things to talk about, as well as reading. Do come along if you can – Ledbury is a wonderful festival, and of course there are plenty of other things to do and hear. Oh – and if you haven’t yet got a copy of my latest pamphlet, Bristol: 21 Poems, you can find one at the Hamilton House bookshop, Stokes Croft in Bristol – they will charge you £5, but it won’t come to me. It’s all in a good cause, namely the saving of Hamilton House, vibrant community arts centre as it is, from the potential depredations of developers.
Banno the Magnificent has strangely proved his worth, especially to Bruna, who has been longing for female company since we made this vast and unaccountable trek into the hinterland, sighting dissolving cities, encountering inexplicable phenomena that became dust and sand as we approached them. So Banno conjured before us a girl of consummate beauty, her slender shoulders unclothed, but her eyes snapping with bright intelligence. As always, we scarcely knew what to say, other than that which might seem brutish. We all knew we were face-to-face with the innommable, but that tied our tongues even further. Bruna – dear Bruna, whose lasciviousness knows no bounds – commented on the remarkable fragility of the girl’s clothing, as though she could remove it, or items of it, by sheer force of will; but even Bruna. who has been known to move blocks of solid marble with a twitch of her famous eyebrows – so redolent of Frieda Kahlo – realised her impotence before an elegance such as this. ‘If there were cold showers in the wilderness’, she said, ‘or even mitigating circumstances, I could go on’; but never mind – she will, she will.
On Saturday I shall be speaking at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival on the art of political poetry. If any of you out there have any good ideas as to what this public yet all too recherché art might be, do let me know. In particular, I am concerned with whether the poet of the page is now clearly a superseded item behind the performance poet – actually, I’m not interested in this in itself, but rather for what it might tell us about the condition of literary ephemerality. Nothing can be retrieved; but nothing can be finally deleted. Our own memories wizen and atrophy; the memory of the machine appears in one sense indomitable, in another utterly at the mercy of the power supply. What, I increasingly wonder as arthritis sets in and my muscles creak, is my power supply? Am I (whatever that is) in a curious kind of co-dependency relationship with my own body? If I think so, would my body agree?
It came to one or two of us (there seem to be more and more of us every day, although some, we suspect, are only copies) that perhaps this ‘gift’ was in fact Banno the Magnificent himself; but we viewed this supposition with a jaundiced eye. The man appeared to be less a gift than a kind of lesion, an unwholesome gap in the universe gifted (yes, ‘gifted’, we all said at once in one of those mutual cries that immediately seems utterly without meaning) with little more than the word that bites, the sign that tears. Yet each evening we find ourselves attending his show of miracles; the fact that we can see the mechanism of each one (he appears to make no attempt to hide them) does nothing to diminish our easily provoked delight.
A creature came by our camp yesterday. He said he had a gift, and we asked him what it was, but he professed not to understand us. Of course, he could have been right: we know that we become harder to understand as our voices merge imperceptibly closer to the pure khora, with the exception of a recent addition to our company, Banno the Magnificent, as he likes to style himself. He is redolent of the crocodile, and when he speaks words like teeth pour from him and we all stand aside to avoid inevitable consequences. The creature gave him a strange look; but then, any look from this creature would have been strange, given that there was something dreadfully the matter with his eyes. He advised us (or we think he did) to look for his gift after he was gone. Then, in some mysterious fashion unknown to us, he went.
Perhaps this recent poem of mine has something to do with the monster:
He has it on his back,
the cannibal serial killer,
‘The Great Red Dragon
and the Woman Clothed with the Sun’,
Blake’s apocalyptic masterpiece
which he can only see
in mirrors, in his terrified
nakedness, a shrunken dream of glory
like the uncertain visions
afflicting the suicide bomber
on the pathway to paradise,
or the shining, many-coloured
road to perdition.
What, in this bicentenary year of Frankenstein, are we to make of the creature, the monster, his sadness, his melancholy, his ceaseless call for a voice? The media have been hounding me all day (because I am an expert? because I am a monster?) for my views on sympathy for the devil. I say we are all entitled to a fair hearing, but the naive questions come thick and fast. Are we speaking of human rights? of animal rights? The creature is neither, but more importantly he blurs the distinction – as should we all: we are are all human (are we?) and we are all animal. Mary and Percy Shelley thought long and deeply about that; we seem to find it surprising, as though we have invented ecology. My answer could be that the creature has the rights that all created beings have, except that when I watch the TV news it seems to me as though we have no rights at all. The creature stands in for so many of us: slighted, cheated, fed lies, denied basic comforts, turned out into a hostile place. The creature is, of now, the refugee: what rights do we imagine we shall grant?
And then, as we view the transcender (our only amusement of an evening, while we wait), things float into focus. Here there seems to be a smooth venomous braggart, who claims to be ruling a powerful nation (on earth, he says, but it is not our earth), and we are to record that his name is Trump. Bruna is reminded of the Last Trump (for that is when she latterly died, having overdone, not for the first time, the diamorphine and pear juice). We are appalled. Yet, we discover (even worse) he has an accomplice (he is otherwise referred to as an adversary, but the transcender does not lie), and he is a tiny mannequin with a pumped-up chest (Fabor says it is in artificial ribcage, and he should know, after all these years under the knife). His name flickers on the screen – we think it might be Pouting, or Putain, or Pottin, but perhaps is is Putin – to us, out here, he is not dangerous, but we still feel the instinctive impulse to warn about this pair, this destructive coupling, this signifying rut in the bordello of desire.
It is becoming less decipherable. As we camp, it sometimes appears as though messages are being inscribed on our skin, or perhaps under the skin, where the epidermis meets the soft ooze of flesh. It isn’t painful; more as though we are itching from the inside, as though something is trying to speak from within. Our new companion – it seems we are being sent reinforcements at irregular intervals (or are they replacements, are we each being replaced before the fact?) – claims her name is Xenia, although this is a name we seem to have heard before, perhaps outside the blinded gates of Naples. She has, of course, no papers. Except her face. Except her face. Which is paper-thin, a slender coating of matchwood on a bone structure so fragile it reminds us of evanescent nights of childhood. Her limbs seem curiously disjointed, a kind of incarnated spiritual dysmorphia, and it makes us feel so tender, so terribly tender, to terribly tender as we observe her pale shift, her struggle to begin to speak, her strange articulation. What ragged army, we wonder, is this?
I have no idea why this might be Chapter One. It doesn’t seem like it, out here under the cold blasts. But then, all that has gone before might be preamble – isn’t that a wonderful word, ‘preamble’? Walking about before you’re prepared for it. Let us wonder for a moment about whether this might all be preamble – or prolegomena, as Kant among others famously put it. Yet I sense a certain beginning here, a beginning which will not be a drawing together of the threads – they are far too widely disparate for that, and to draw them together would imply a false cohesion of the soul. But ;et us start again. As I say endlessly to my soul mates, the cousins of my decay: let us start again.