Le Buffet, Paul Cézanne

‘The Apple’s Progress’, by Maitreyabandhu

‘The Apple’s Progress’ follows in the footsteps of a long history of poetry about art, famous examples including John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and WH Auden’s reflection on Pieter Breugel the Elder’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, both of which you’ve likely read if you’re already into reading blogs about poetry. I’ve got a great little book that I picked up in New York while I was being a metropolitan liberal (which is always), which is made up entirely of such poems and includes this fantastic poem by John Taggart, which you may not have read, and which I highly recommend.

Anyway, here’s ‘The Apple’s Progress’. If anyone knows how to get in touch with Maitreyabandhu or Bloodaxe so that I can get permission to reprint it here, please let me know. Equally, if you are Maitreyabandhu or Bloodaxe (or lawyers working for them) and you’re not happy with it being up here, let me know and I’ll take it down. As is often the case, I first read this one in The Poetry Review. You can find out a bit more about the poet on Bloodaxe’s website.

The Apple’s Progress

 

The rosy apple passed down by the snake

with a putto’s chubby face and toddler hands

to be taken by an already reaching Eve

restrained, at least dissuaded, by beefy Adam

in Rubens’ copy of Titian’s original

inspired by Raphael’s fresco and Dürer’s print,

appears a hundred and fifty years later

in Le Buffet, another still life by Cézanne.

 

This orange, if it is an orange, finding

its necessary weight. This lemon turned

towards the orange, which is so empathically

full-face. This propped-up apple almost erotic

in curvaceousness and stem-end. This distance –

intimate, standoffish – between the apple

and a second lemon. This fellowship of fruit,

these colours conversing together and apart.

 

The tablescape maintains a swaying balance

between illuminate and shaded – colour

begetting colour – its gaucheries at home

in evident design. Neither artful nor showy,

a few estimated and cherished things

join hands across a space as actor-objects

and sensual fruit, shadows, sugary fingers

on a plate, teacups and troubled saucers.

 

It might be summer’s marriage hymn: a bottle

taciturn in brown, a chalice-beaker,

blue and bling, a cloth and walnut dresser –

each stubborn thing relieved of contradiction

by assiduity of thought. Love is a candle

lighting many candles without surcease.

It is this apple next to this lemon next to

this other lemon in a still life by Cézanne.

The poem mainly refers to this painting by Paul Cézanne. He also refers to The Fall of Man by Rubens, the work of the same name by Titian, this fresco by Raphael, and this print by Dürer. All share the same theme and the title of the Fall of Man, or Adam and Eve (or both). Also worth checking out is this later oil painting, also by Dürer, where Adam completely looks like he’s telling Eve what an apple is:

EVE: I long for death
ADAM: You know, the Tree of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life are totally different trees, common mistake, though. I actually talk about it in my very cool blog about poetry…

Appropriately enough for a poem that is itself part of a long lineage, the theme of this poem is the influence of artists upon one another, as laid out in the first stanza: Cézanne has taken an apple from Rubens, who got it from Titian, who got it from Raphael and Dürer, who of course got it from the Bible, albeit without visual clues (it’s not even an apple in Genesis, another fun fact for you all, there – #PodFact), which itself drew on earlier texts and folklore for its account of the Garden of Eden. Maitreyabandhu’s explication of this process of artistic legacy handed down across centuries clearly echoes the serpent passing the apple to Eve, who then of course hands it off to Adam: though here he is restraining/dissuading, we all know what happens next. Per Paul the Apostle, we’re already doomed. Per Milton’s clarification, we’re ‘Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’.

Maitreyabandhu’s linking of folklore’s most famous fruit (don’t @ me) with Cézanne’s still life seems at first glance be mainly free associative. At the literal level, bar the roundness and the fact that they’re both in paintings, there’s not much to link Rubens’ apple with Cézanne’s (Cézanne’s looks more like a granny smith, whereas I’m getting russet vibes from Rubens, perhaps just because I love russets and would absolutely take one if it was offered to me by a talkative snake with a dubious back story). If any art historians would like to correct this contention, please do.

Regardless of how he got the idea, Maitreyabandhu links his various paintings by describing the Cézanne in terms that could just as well, or even a little better, be applied to the earlier painting: the latent eroticism in the ‘curvaceousness’ (and everything entailed by the usual use of that word) and the angling of the objects towards each other, and the use of shading and colour. Cleverly, some aspects noted here, particularly the ‘sugary fingers’ are literal in one painting, but metaphorical in the other. The ‘orange, if it is an orange’ echoes the vague identification of the Biblical fruit, leaning on the metaphorical resonances of the Genesis narrative that people have been picking up on from Augustine to Freud and on. So, whatever it was that initially prompted Maitreyabandhu to see Genesis in a still life, he lays a pretty clear trail for the reader to follow in making the same link.

That done, he then moves to his final rhetorical flourish. Riffing off the disparateness of items in the still life, he suddenly, almost out of nowhere, produces a final pair of metaphors: love as ‘a candle / lighting many candles’. Love, in fact, is what he’s been talking about all along: the eroticism, intimacy, ‘fellowship’, ‘marriage’ of objects/ideas weren’t just flowery poetic descriptions of, as the poet acknowledges, basically just a bunch of stuff: it’s all in there to prepare us for the final flourish of the candle. It’s like he lights it for us. And, of course, it all makes sense at another level, because everything he’s been describing is painted. The medium of painting is not oil and canvas but, as every art student knows, light. Art bringing forth the candle.

As well as preparing the ground for the sudden introduction of love with his choice of words, Maitreyabandhu also subtly varies the rhythm in the final stanza so as to make the final couplet feel like a natural resolution: having tended towards long sentences throughout, the line and a half with which he introduces the candle decelarates the feel of the poem, while the last two lines recapitulate the central theme (of handing off without losing anything) by repeating the structure of the poem in miniature, with their own repetitions (‘it is this’ in particular taking on a near-biblical resonance when repeated) likewise echoing those earlier in the poem.

The tension in the poem comes from following the chain of ideas that Maitreyabandhu links together. The jumps in conceptual space are fairly dizzying, but he makes them feel smooth: the literal depiction of an apple being handed over becomes the seed of inspiration from artist to artist becomes the shared colours between two images and that, improbably, becomes a lit candle, which is love. It’s a masterclass in using a poem to yoke together disparate concepts in a way that makes human sense, and also does all this while somehow finding a new resonance in the old metaphor of love as as a flame.

Creative Commons License
“‘The Apple’s Progress’, by Maitreyabandhu” by Frank Podmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

20 years of Ocarina of Time

Regular readers of this blog – and I’m aware that the plural of ‘reader’ is doing a lot of work, there – will be used by now to my sudden dramatic changes of topic, so will not be shocked to read 2,000 words about a 20 year-old video game (20 years and a day, if you’re being fussy). Have fun!


Ocarina of Time (or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, to give its full title) is one of those games it’s difficult to talk or write about, because the impact was so huge, you kind of had to have been there to have felt it. Watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan now – a decent performance, sure, but if you’re younger than about 70, you’ll struggle to understand just why this event seemed, to the people watching it, to turn the entire world on its head. Likewise with Ocarina of Time. In the 20 years since it was released, sprawling, non-linear, open world 3D games have become commonplace. Its innovations, like targeted lock-on for battling, switching from third- to first-person for aiming items like the bow and arrow, and context-sensitive music (which changed when an enemy got close, then seamlessly faded back to the relevant theme when they were defeated or you ran away) have either become so widespread no one notices them any more, or have been superseded..

This isn’t surprising. 3D gaming was in its infancy at the time, with Super Mario 64, generally considered to be the pioneer 3D game, having launched only around a year previously. Ideas of how 3D games ought to work were still developing, so it was relatively easy to do things in mad new ways without anyone batting an eyelid. Even games themselves were pretty young then, really: Ocarina of Time is only the 5th Zelda game in the official series; there have been more Zelda games since it came out than before it, and the same applies for the N64, on which Ocarina of Time first appeared, and Nintendo home consoles.

That said, Ocarina broke ground in almost every direction. The soundtrack was both excellent and hugely diverse, with most areas and many characters and situations having their own music: Princess Zelda, in particular, has her own Wagnerian leitmotif! The graphics were excellent for the time (compare SM64’s blobby, cartoon trees with those in Hyrule Field, for example, which have textured bark and distinguishable leaves). Pre-rendered backgrounds were blended cleverly with real time animation to create a plausible-looking world with massive draw distances and none of the fog which other games had used to cover up the fact that the consoles struggled to render distances. Ocarina of Time actually plays with this brilliantly: the area you start in has fog, but after you beat the first level and emerge into Hyrule Field, the fog vanishes: you climb the crest of a hill and, in the distance, see a walled town with a castle behind it, a river, a ranch and a mountain with a clouded top – and then you can actually go to all those places! If you’re under 30 this will mean nothing. Duh, you will say to me, like all those darn kids. So, trust me: it was fucking amazing.

The limitations of the tech are, however, quite obvious. A modern player will likley note how empty some areas, like Hyrule Field and Lake Hylia, actually are, or the fact that the game, considered remarkably non-linear at the time, actually keeps you pretty strictly on one path. You can complete the Fire Temple without visiting the Forest Temple, for example, but that’s about it for taking things out of order, bar a few sidequests.

It also came at an inflection point in video game history, as the market shifted away from just kids to young adults. Again, this is a commonplace now, but at the time, it was sufficiently significant that major players like Nintendo didn’t wholly see it coming. Nonetheless, if Nintendo did have a serious response to the oncoming revolution, Ocarina of Time was it.

This is because what really distinguished Ocarina of Time from its predecessors wasn’t technical innovations but ambition: it was the first game that truly attempted to be a work of art. Previously, games designers had wanted better graphics so that they could make games more playable, add more distinctive characters, items and levels, or perhaps just look a little cooler. Ocarina of Time, with it’s rolling, varied landscapes and use of cinematic tropes, from lens flare to contrazooms, was deliberately using the language of film in a way that was unprecedented for a video game. Sure, previous games, such as Lylat Wars and Goldeneye, had aped films: Lylat Wars has a particularly good level which is basically just the last battle in Independence Day, complete with giant flying saucer and hundreds of plucky defenders piloting comparatively dinky little craft – if you fail to beat the level in time, one of your allies flies his ship straight into the barrel of the building-destroying laser, thus saving your useless, furry arse, so you can proceed to the next level. Goldeneye, took a similar tack: despite being closely based on a film, most of its more direct nods are similarly tongue-in-cheek, from Moneypenny’s innuendo-filled briefings to the elevator muzak version of the Bond theme that plays when the player enters a lift, and even the hilarious, Austin Powers-style judo chop you unleash when unarmed, immortalised in the ‘Slappers Only’ multiplayer mode.

Despite the humour, these spoofs and rip-offs demonstrated something important: you could use the language of film in a game. So why not use it for something other than jokes? Ocarina of Time took up the challenge before anyone else saw it was there.

The game includes numerous elements that are there not to enhance the gameplay or show off the hardware, or even to deepen the realism of the world – a key claim of 3D gaming – but to make the player feel what is happening. An example: after you complete the Water Temple, the next time you go to Kakariko Village, which now houses the refugees from the game’s only town, you find the place ablaze, under attack by a malevolent spirit that’s escaped from the town well. Link, naturally enough, runs to attack the demon and is briefly knocked unconscious. This moment is important, but not because it has any impact on the gameplay. The burning houses are unscathed when Link comes to and no one so much as mentions it ever again, something else that will be a little jarring for modern gamers. The importance lies in the fact that it’s another trope from the movies, but this time not a visual one: after a few dizzying action scenes (or dungeons, in Zelda), there’s a moment where the baddie does something bad, or a quieter moment of reflection, so that we remember why we’re fighting/playing/watching (depending on medium and level of audience involvement). In Star Wars, Moff Tarkin blows up Leia’s home planet while she watches, helpless, so that we see that the Empire is deifnitely evil, and get a timely reminder of just why Luke and co. are so keen to rescue the princess. In Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits take a breather in the tranquility of Rivendell, so that we see all that Sauron will sweep away should he obtain the Ring. And in Zelda, some scary demon sets a village full of refugees on fire. What a bastard! Better hurry to the next temple and kick its arse (or, this being a Zelda game, fire loads of arrows into its GIANT FUCKING EYE).

What’s more, the game is constructed such that some of its most emotive moments (something it’s impossible to write about when discussing previous games, as there weren’t any), like rescuing your horse from the ranch, are entirely optional. If you do go and free her, there’s a cinematic cutscene complete with a musical cue (a variation on the Hyrule Field theme) used nowhere else in the game, but you don’t need to do it to complete the game. The whole sequence of getting the horse is there simply to show you that, Yes, the bad guy is bad, and to allow you to ride around having fun. You don’t have to go to the ranch at all. This also means that one of the game’s greatest pleasures (just riding around shooting arrows and jumping over fences on horseback) is totally unnecessary. This game, in other words, isn’t (just) about getting to the end credits: the designers specifically want you to feel involved in the action, to feel like you’re really helping people.

This taps into something Nintendo understood about games: that they’re escapist for a reason. You can have a shit day at school, or work, or queuing at the JobCentre, and then you can go home and be a hero. Shigeru Miyamoto understood that and, in a creative leap comparable to Stan Lee’s creation of Spider-Man (a teenage superhero for comic books’ teenage readers) made a game that didn’t just tell you you’d saved the world, but made you feel like you’d really done it.

That’s what’s unprecedented, and that’s why Ocarina of Time, for all that it’s now aged signficantly, will remain a significant milestone in gaming history. To return to The Beatles comparison, it was gaming’s Sgt. Pepper’s moment, only it wasn’t just a genre, but an entire medium, that suddenly realised it didn’t have to be ‘just’ ‘fun’.

NB: Someone’s out there gearing up to tell me that you need Epona to jump over the canyon in Gerudo Valley before the carpenters fix the bridge. Actually, you can longshot across.

‘first time “posh”’, by Andrew McMillan

I got in touch with Andrew, who kindly allowed me to re-publish the poem here, so it should be easy to follow what I’m talking about this week. Here’s the poem:

first time    ‘posh’

how many other young lads did this    took
themselves to bed in order to prepare
for the real thing    like pregnancies
in the dark ages  the self shut away
only to emerge empty yet somehow
more important    the body that is only
true in private    the undressing the legs
slightly raised  the pinch and roll that feels
almost surgical    then afterwards
something like peeling back a stocking
a possible life seeping out the end
you didn’t know to knot before binning
the tiny deaths you would come to know
the smell of  and their ghoststains on the sheets

I first came across this in The Poetry Review from summer last year.

Let’s just preface this by saying, yes, this is a poem about wanking. It’s the only one I can think of on the subject, which is interesting because it’s a fairly major aspect of human existence, and there’s been plenty written on the topic in other media, whether it’s Ulysses or American Pie. Please feel free to comment below with your recommendations for other poems about masturbation, as I’m sure they must exist.

Of course, the question of what a poem is ‘about’ is rarely a simple one. It might be more accurate to say that this poem uses wanking as a jumping-off point to discuss some other things including, but not limited to, wanking.

For those unaware, a ‘posh’ or ‘posh wank’, which is what I’ve always called it (on the many, many times I’ve felt the need to refer to it), involves putting on a condom, then masturbating. Obviously what makes this a ‘posh’ wank, as opposed to a neutral, common or garden variety wank, is the fact that condoms cost money, turning something you can quite easily do for free into a small expenditure. Yes, the British obsession with class has extended into our slang for wanking.

Andrew McMillan has gone for an e.e. cummings-style no caps, minimal punctuation approach in this poem, with most lines and the title using tabbed white space to separate clauses and suggest punctuation, starting in the opening lines: ‘how many other young lads did this    took / themselves to bed in order to prepare / for the real thing’, where the extended space in line 1 takes the place of what would be a question mark in normal prose.

Before addressing the question, it’s worth asking why so many poets, from the early-20th century onwards, have shifted away from the traditional capping up of the first letter of each line of a poem. Partly it might be a general shift away from capitalisation: no newspapers now insist on writing things like ‘HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN spoke from her residence in LONDON’ in ordinary body text to show that certain people or places are especially important. In the case of initial caps in poems, though, there’s no implied emphasis. If there was any meaning to it at all, historically, it was just a way of further marking the start of a line, which people mostly did just because That’s The Way It’s Done. But poetry is all about expression in language, and making use of caps optional rather than compulsory creates new possibilities for expression. In this case, the lack of capitalisation suggests quietness and perhaps timidity, especially when you remember that online, ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING. Either way, it makes sense for the normally private act of masturbation, and the definitely private act of an adolescent trying out this particular form of masturbation for the first time.

Additionally, McMillan is 30, meaning he’s of the first generation who have done most of their writing in contexts where capital letters really are optional (online, in text messages, etc.). There are millions of people out there who only really use capital letters when they’re writing something formal or public-facing, so avoiding them can perhaps suggest intimacy, too.

The poem starts off with a rhetorical question which the title half-answers: clearly, enough young lads did it for it to have its own slang term. The choice of the word ‘lads’ here is interesting: when I was a kid it was a faintly Scottish term of affection, but with lad culture (whatever that was) making negative headlines from the early ’00s onwards, and the founding of the Football Lads Alliance (read: a bunch of fascists), the press for the term has been mainly not good. Perhaps using ‘young’ here takes the sting out of the increasingly pejorative term. When McMillan follows up with ‘took themselves to bed’, it’s especially disarming, emphasising the delicacy of the act in question.

If there’s a spectrum of cultural responses to masturbation, at one end would be American Pie, where there’s loads of wanking, but its depicted as a source of shame and embarrassment, and at the other you could put something like The Inbetweeners, where it’s yet another potential source of macho boasting. Either way, the basic attitude is one of humour. For less-humorous, more literary approaches, that nonetheless exist on the shame/bathetically-macho axis you could go with that bloody book about Copernicus by John Banville, where Copernicus whacks off then experiences supermassive medieval/Catholic guilt for whacking off (while his weirdo brother watches), for all the shame you might need, and to American Pastoral, where Nathan Zuckerman reminisces about youthful circlejerks which were, of course, a competition to ‘see who would “shoot” first’.

McMillan takes the unprecedented approach of treating the topic with tenderness: there’s no humour and little shame, here. And the sense of intimacy and affection is increased by the choice of form: a loose sonnet of 14 lines with scansion mostly close to iambic pentameter, but no rhyme.

While there’s little suggestion of shame, we do see the self being shut away and emptied in lines 4-5. But then, it emerges ‘somehow / more important’. There’s a suggestion of coming (excuse me) of age, even though he’s explicit that this is only preparation ‘for the real thing’. The fact that the ‘you’ in the poem understands this is part of the reason the narrator’s empathy never tips into pity, which in turn is how McMillan avoids having you laugh at the slightly po-faced prep for the real thing.

It’s interesting how long it takes for a pronoun to appear in this poem, which allows it to hover between possibilities, before landing on ‘you’ – perhaps delaying the revelation that this is someone else is how the poem avoids voyeurism?

In classic sonnet style, the last couplet or-so contains the poetic equivalent of the punchline. In this case, it’s a play on the undergraduate’s old mate, l’petit mort, a concept which allowed every 19 year-old student us to fatuously link death and sex in every other essay we wrote, when we had an extremely limited conception of either. Not being an undergrad, McMillan doesn’t do anything so heavyhanded. The ‘tiny deaths’ are not the orgasms, but the ‘possible life’, the sperm, which here ‘ghoststains’ the sheet because the protagonist(s) didn’t know how to dispose of the used condom. Ghoststains is a great neologism, with its midword consonant cluster suggesting a sort of stutter.

What sets this poem apart from the ordinary cultural discourse around masturbation is the distance and the focus on the before and after, and the implications, rather than the act itself. The description of putting on a condom as ‘almost surgical’ could apply equally well to the poem: there’s a sense of peeling something back, revealing something both true and private. Meaning is layered such that the poem both reveals and manifests what it reveals.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa, by Jennifer L Knox

If you read last week’s blog on Vahni Capildeo, you may be wondering whether a less-structured, less formalist, less obviously-rhyming poem can bear the same level of analytical whatd’y’call, scrutiny, as ‘They (May Forget (Their Names (If Let Out)))’ did. Okay, in all likelihood you’re not wondering that, but I am, so enjoy the next few hundred words of me finding out.

The poem is about the passage of time, with its opening couplet setting the theme: ‘Before there was the time we see / there was the time we saw through’.  So, the present and the past. What at first seems bizarre, perhaps incomprehensible, reveals itself to be a clever way of describing the continuous now (‘we see’, rather than ‘we’re seeing’) and the always falling-away past, with ‘saw through’ (my emphasis) suggesting both that it’s over (as in, ‘We’re through’), and, more surprisingly, that it’s mysteries have in some sense been revealed (as in, ‘I see right through you’) – but as we’ll see, it’s inevitably more complicated than that. The thread of time comes up prominently again in the slowed-down, echoing bird song in stanza IV, and in the poem’s two part denouement, where the individuals in the poem are subsumed into the ever-repeating patterns of nature and made ‘eternal / immutable / from every possible angle’.

Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have

Jennifer Knox is a great example of the kind of loose, informal poetic style I associate with Frank O’Hara, who famously dashed off annoyingly great poems on his lunch break.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time drawing direct parallels between the two, not least because I don’t think I could sustain it for more than a paragraph or two, but there’s a commonality there; a sense that their poems don’t sound much like ordinary speech, but nonetheless hold themselves with a sense of ease and confidence and fun, the latter of which is rarely found in poetry, except in its all-too familiar, threadbare, donnish mode, which really isn’t fun at all.

Slanted and enchanted

This week’s poem (which you can read here), uses italics to express direct speech, first in stanza III (‘Whoa!’) then explicitly in stanza V (‘Is that a yes or a no? the birds asked’). Direct speech in poetry is always a bit irritating. Most lyric (that is, to put it simply and controversially: short) poetry tends to avoid it, perhaps because it’s hard to get the rhythms right when you keep having to chuck in the odd ‘she said’, or maybe poets just don’t like speechmarks, which do clutter the place up a bit. As we’ve seen, the use of italics here keeps things enjoyably vague in the first instance, as it’s not clear who’s speaking, if at all: the ‘Whoa!’ could be the birds, the bears or the narrator, and the italics could simply be for emphasis. Later on, we find out it was actually the birds, probably! Whoa!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111111111111111111111111111

Exclamation marks are risky business. Where I work, there’s an office rule that no email should include more than one of them, and everyone knows that using more than one exclamation marks in a row is a sign of insanity!! Here, Knox pushes things a bit with three in total: ‘woof!’ and two ‘Whoa!’s. Even more controversially, it’s a bear saying ‘woof’, which any one of my kids’ storybooks could tell you is the sound a dog makes, not a bear. But then, this is ‘the biggest bear’, so perhaps it’s best not to argue.

Green grow the rushes, o

Stanza VI is a lovely mini stanza, the scansion of which deserves analysis by someone better at scansion than I am:

Green grass grew over them,
which was a long, green love song.

I read that as

Green grass grew over them,
which was a long, green love song.

But I’m open to other interpretations. However we chop this up metrically, the effect in the is one of deceleration in the second line – I think it’s to do with the use of iambs coupled with alliteration/repetition, something about waiting for that second ‘green’, and the way the ‘ong’ in ‘long’ anticipates the end-rhyme of ‘song’.

Whatever it is, it’s a great example of how you can achieve rhythmic and emotive effects in free verse.

Onomatowhatever

(Obviously I can spell it, but it’s more fun to complain about the spelling.)

We’ve got two: woof, the sound of the biggest bear exhaling, then ‘bubbled’. ‘Bubbled’ is surely some kind of doublebonus-onomatopoeia (told you I could spell it) because it not only sounds like the thing described by the verb ‘to bubble’ but also looks like the thing described by the noun ‘bubble’, with all those rounded ‘b’s. You’ve got to hand it to bubble, is what I’m saying.

The impact of ‘bubble’ is increased by the repetition of alliterative ‘b’ sounds throughout the poem, as in ‘biggest bear’ in stanza I, and by its close repetition in two consecutive lines, and reappearance as ‘bubbling’ another two lines on from that.

Pop

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the bubble, not the bears and birds (consonance again) is the central image of the poem: the notion of delicate boundaries vanishing vanishing appears explicitly twice in the poem (they’re both exhaled and lost). The boundaries dissipate with a classic onomatopoeiac noise, although granted its ‘woof’ rather than ‘pop’. The ‘holes in space’ of the last stanza again could suggest bubbles. Then, riffing off Albert Einstein/Star Trek, Knox also plays with the idea of space and time as relative in that final stanza, where the animals and their shapes are ‘eternal, / immutable, / from every possible angle’, i.e., whether they’re viewed in space or time – or both.

Taking this time/space idea back to the bubble, we could imagine a bubble of time as a delicate moment, with discrete boundaries and a distinct ‘shape’, which reappears eternally. That is, we’re back with the continuous ‘now’: always the same, always different. What’s more, bubbles are transparent, something ‘we saw through’ back in line 2.

If I’m right, here, and not stretching too much, this solves the riddle of the first two lines: a bubble distorts the view through it; just because you saw through something (the past) doesn’t mean you saw clearly.

Water, water everywhere

The flow of time and the flow of water are frequently compared in art – think Finnegans Wake with its circular structure parallelled in Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is among other things the anthropomorphised River Liffey. Here, Knox does this allusively, rather than explicitly, with bubbles, as we’ve seen, and also in the oxbow lake with which the prone bears are compared. Interestingly, oxbow lakes are formed when meanders of rivers get cut off from the main body of the original river, usually because its eroded a quicker route to the sea. Thus, the image of the oxbow lake here suggests again the idea of an isolated or contained moment in space and time, outside of the main ‘flow’, like the bubbly ‘holes in space’.

Summing up

Should I include a reference to Finnegans Wake and A Tribe Called Quest in every blog? I probably could. Bonus points if you caught the ATCQ reference without needing to be told, and extra bonus points if you got the other ’90s pop reference, too. You don’t get any points for Coleridge.

Something completely different: Vahni Capildeo’s They (May Forget (Their Names (If Let Out)))

I’ve decided to start blogging about poetry, because it seems like it might be less stressful than blogging about politics. The approach I’m going to be using here is a deliberate and shameless ripoff of what Ruth Padel used to do for the Guardian, as collected in her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, which I recommend you immediately borrow from a library.


Venus as a Bear, Vahni Capildeo’s sixth book, was the Poetry Book Society‘s selection last quarter. The PBS seems to alternate between fairly conventional books and more avant garde choices each quarter (this quarter’s selection is mainly made up of extracts from imagined official documents. Venus as a Bear is the former because, while not strictly adhering to formalism, it’s on the whole less likely than some other poetry to make your nearest poetry-sceptic start asking questions like ‘Aren’t poems supposed to rhyme?’. Indeed, the poem I’m going to be looking at today is actually the most poemy of all poems: a sonnet.

Let’s start at the top.

Title

The title, with its nested brackets can be read in four ways:

  1. They
  2. They May Forget
  3. They May Forget Their Names
  4. They May Forget Their Names if Let Out

When written out as a list, you can see explicitly what the brackets imply: echoes or repetitions. Brackets often force (or request, or demand, depending on how compliant you’re feeling) re-readings, especially if they come in the middle of a clause, as in this sentence. So, even though the repetition isn’t on the page, the reader repeats the words as they reiterate over the last line or two to check if they’re following the meaning. Neat trick. You can also see the use of brackets to imply echoes in the name of Drone Rock band, Sun O))), and in the weird habit of antisemites online of enclosing the names of Jews in brackets, to suggest the ‘sinister’ echoing effect used on some benighted fascist podcast when discussing Jews. Fucking internet, right? At least this mention of racism bridges the gap between my rantily, didactic, political blogs, and my chilled, didactic, poetic blogs.

Anyway, back to the cheerier topic of a nice poem I like.

The title refers to the main theme of the poem: the wildness of animals, even when kept as pets. The use of ‘they’ invites ‘us and them’, suggesting the fundamental ‘otherness’ of animals. This is a theme of this section of the book, Creatures, the word choice here likewise suggesting something strange and unfamiliar, sitting oddly against the more snuggly implications of a poem about pets. Their names are a human quality, something we impose on them, so if they’re let out, they’ll forget the human signifier of their name and return to the wild.

Structure

Back to the cheerier topic of a nice poem I like: we know Capildeo is intentional in her use of ‘echoing’ brackets because repetition is central to the effect of this poem.

A glance is enough to tell us it’s a sonnet, with the traditional 14 lines and closing rhyming couplet that we’re all familiar with from GCSE English, and with a variant on the usual rhyme scheme: AABBCDCDEFEFGG here, as opposed to ABABCDCDEFEFGG (the difference is in the first quatrain, made up of two couplets here, rather than alternating rhymes).

Since at least the time of Shakespeare’s famous sonnets, they’ve been associated with (unrequited) love, and Capildeo reflects this in a tongue-and-cheek way, writing about the love between pet and owner, rather than between, um, an elderly poet and a young boy (society’s attitudes towards these things being slightly more malleable than society would like you to think).

Lastly, we have a rough five-beats-per-line metre here, reflecting good old, trusty iambic pentameter, the one poetic metre every Anglophone with a secondary-school education knows. In addition to playing with the rhyme scheme, though, Capildeo also messes about with the rhythm a lot, with dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables: ¯ ˘ ˘) predominating.

Rhyme

Not only does the poem rhyme, most of the rhymes are actually repetitions. This is traditionally considered cheating, as when Black Sabbath gave us the deathless couplet ‘Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses’, but here it’s safe to say it’s both deliberate and effective: with one exception, all the words used for end-rhymes are, in fact, repetitions.

Rendering only the end rhymes as part of the rhyme scheme does this poem a disservice, as much of the action is going on with internal rhyme, that is, full rhymes that don’t come at the end of the line. Most lines have three or more examples of internal rhyme  and most of these also rhyme with an end rhymes which, within the already existing strictures of a sonnet, shows a high level of control and technique: it means the poem relies heavily on just a few repeated phonemes. This means, for example, that the very first sound in the poem, ‘pet’, anticipates the end-rhyme of the closing couplet on pet/reset, suggesting the limited sound-world of a pet and the closed world of the home it’s never let out of, lest it ‘wild default reset’.

Capildeo additionally, through repeated rhythmical units, emphasises her use of half-rhyme, as in lines 6-7: ‘brass doorbell what name / tin waterbowl what name thrilled vomitfall’, which somehow makes doorbell rhyme with waterbowl and, um, vomitfall.

Wakeisms

Along with vomitfall, meaning obvious, and petcitement, which Capildeo’s defined, we also get carpet (pronounced car-pet, a pet who goes in the car?) and, in the last line petfetch and petcome. ‘Petcome’ suggests both ‘become’ and ‘outcome’, and so perhaps a foregone conclusion, given that default appears moments later.

Repetition

Repetition could be said to be a fundamental quality of poetry, whether it’s the sentence-length repetition throughout the Odysessy (the rosy-fingered dawn) and other oral poetry, or the repetition of phonemes and phoneme clusters that characterise rhyme, alliteration and assonance. Here we have plenty of examples from both ends of that putative spectrum.

The heavy use of repetition begins in the first two lines: ‘petcitement incitement of a pet to excitement / petcitment incitement into the excitement’. The heavy repetition of ‘-citement’ and ‘pet’, and the assonance of the repeated ‘e’ sound in pet/excite, help us through the wonky rhythm: iamb, anapaest, iamb, iamb, anapaest, then an extrametrical unstressed syllable at the end. The rhythm could be rendered symbolically as ˘¯, ˘˘¯, ˘¯, ˘¯, ˘˘¯. Or, if you prefer, typographically, as ‘petcitement incitement of a pet to excitement’. I’m tempted to descibe it as syncopated, by analogy with music; it’s actually quite close to the traditional 4/4 drum beat of bass, snare, bass-bass, snare, where the snare is the stressed beat.

One interesting element of repetition of the written word is the patterns it makes on the page. This might just be me, but when I’m reading I often perceive patterns in the white spaces around text at the edge of my vision, which are much harder to see when I look directly at them. Often the repetition of a single letter, particularly ones that dip below the line, like g and y, on subsequent lines can kick off this effect, but it can then cascade strangely down the page. It’s all quite weird. Reportedly, some people with dyslexia have the opposite experience: when they look at a block of text, their brains focus on the white space, which is why they struggle to read the letters.

I have no idea what effect, if any, this might have on my reading of the poem, though. Does it drag my eye down the page? Maybe.

Back in the poem, the first two lines, on a re-reading, reveal themselves to be mock dictionary definitions. You could render the first line thus: ‘Petcitement (n): incitement of a pet to excitement’ and the following lines as either corrections (the rhythm makes you want to emphasise ‘into’, in line 2, which suggests this reading) or as a supplementary meaning.

Overall, the effect of the various forms of repetition suggest the repetitiveness of animal sounds: barking and miaowing. They also suggest the repeating, babytalk way we talk to pets. For another literary rendition of this, see the Calypso section of Ulysess, where Bloom talks to his cat: ‘Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens’ (note Joyce doesn’t use quotes for speech, the wanker).

’90s rap references(?)

Line 12 reminds me of the last couple of lines of Dinco D’s verse on A Tribe Called Quest’s epic posse cut, Scenario. Compare and contrast:

Dinco:

Funk flipped, flat back, first this, foul, fight, fight, fight
Laugh, yo, how’d that sound?

Vahni:

from food fleece floor flea cloth car poll card dot blank bit door

Coincidence?

This raises very important questions: is Vahni Capildeo into ATCQ and/or Dinco D’s regular band back then, Leaders of the New School? Would Vahni Capildeo agree to take part in a rap battle against Dinco D? Where is Dinco D? Has anyone seen any member of LONS other than Busta Rhymes lately? Given the sheer physical mass of modern day Busta Rhymes, is it possible that he absorbed the rest of the band? Would Vahni Capildeo agree to take part in a rap battle with Busta Rhymes?

Tune in again next week, for the answers to none of these questions, and less.

The effect

The cumulative effect of the poem is of a limited world, from which it’s perhaps not surprising the pet wants to escape (or ‘walk wilder and further’). The impact of the limited sound palette is combined with the minimal visual clues (polkadot blanket, brass doorbell, the ‘turded on welcome mat’ and the door – note that all but the blanket are associated with the way in/out of the house) to suggest a narrow world, even if an affectionate one. Despite the best efforts of the owner to own its pet and create a loving world, full of petcitement, blankets and wild(er) walks, it’s the pet, the suppose subjugate, that gets the God-inflected Latin epithet ‘in nomine domini’ suggesting not that the pet is divine, but that it’s wildness is.

Next week…

I’ll be looking at a poem by Jennifer Knox, if I can remember where I read it.

Is it possible to miscast an entire show? Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a masterclass of wandering around looking mildly puzzled.

Technically, the show’s called Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D but if it’s okay with everyone, I’m just going to call it SHIELD so I don’t have to keep typing all those full stops.

You know how big films often have one-off tie-ins in other media? Like, there’d be a special edition comic book out that pointlessly explained the back story of Lando Calrissian, or whatever. SHIELD is basically that for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, except it’s a TV show that’s been going for three seasons, and every single person in it is miscast. They all stand there awkwardly for forty minutes at a time, delivering all their lines like they don’t speak English and are just reading phonetic transcriptions off of a teleprompter. But it goes deeper. It’s not just the poor actors who are out of place: the show itself is miscast on a metaphysical level. It has no idea what it is, and everything that happens in the show is clearly a product of the showrunners desperately trying to find something that actually works.

It’s not just the poor actors who are out of place: the show itself is miscast on a metaphysical level.

The show started out as a pretty standard monster-of-the-week kind of affair, where the SHIELD team would show up somewhere, fight someone, then fly off. The basic idea was to have a show about people who don’t have superpowers in a world where everyone interesting has superpowers. This was obviously a bad idea, but it could almost have worked if the writers had ever worked out why the hell SHIELD was so desperate to have Phil Coulson around that they’d literally brought him back from the dead, despite the fact that the SHIELD team never once come across a problem that couldn’t have been solved by Iron Man and/or Captain America before the first ad break. I imagine every conversation at SHIELD high command goes:

‘We need to steal a secret thing from a guy! Shall we call Cap?’

‘Nah, let’s send in this hacker we just picked up off the street.’

‘You sure? What about Tony? I don’t think he’s busy.’

‘Alright, if you’re that worried, I’ll send a tiny Scotsman with no combat training, too.’

The problems of the show were compounded by the fact that, not only did the cast totally lack charisma individually, they also had no collective chemistry whatsoever. By season two, they were trying to compensate for this by having characters announce their relationship in every other scene. ‘Hunter and I used to be married’, says Bobbi Morse, gamely refusing to let the fact that she talks to her ex-husband like he’s a total stranger get in the way of their supposed lengthy relationship. ‘Daisy’s my partner!’ bellows Mac for no discernible reason, midway through ordering a coffee. This particular clarification was triply necessary for, not only do they not seem to work together any more than the rest of the team, not only is Mac either a fully-fledged agent or just a mechanic depending on what the plot demands in any given scene, but also, I kid you not, ‘Daisy’ actually changed her name (from ‘Skye’) halfway through the show so that she could turn out to be someone from the comic books after all.

Skye turning into Daisy ‘Quake’ Johnson is totally explicable if you assume that the showrunners realised that she was totally miscast and just tried to make her into a different character in the (vain) hope that she could plausibly depict this new person. What makes it really unforgivable is that it demonstrates exactly how dumb the original ‘non-superheroes in a world of superheroes’ concept of the show was, because it didn’t even take them two seasons before they felt they had to shoehorn someone with actual superpowers into the team. And because they don’t have any ideas, they just picked a character from the comic books for her to turn out to actually have been all along.

The show almost redeemed itself three-quarters of the way through season one with the big reveal that Hydra (SHIELD’s ancient enemy) had infiltrated SHIELD so thoroughly that all-American good guy and team-player Grant Ward was actually working for the enemy all along. He promptly became extremely murdery and it was all quite good fun, especially if you ignored the fact that Joss Whedon had already done the whole ‘handsome-good-guy-turns-abruptly-evil’ thing with Angel in season 2 of Buffy, and that that original version of the same plotline was way better. Of course, it now feels like the abrupt turn-to-evil of Ward was a product of the producers panicking over Brett Dalton’s miscasting and essentially giving him a different character to play, what with the fact that they’ve done a similar abrupt about-face for a character several more times since then (see Skye/Daisy), including another change of character for Brett Dalton (yes, really), and they’ve also separately done the my-boyfriend-is-a-monster-now-I-have-to-kill-him-just-after-we-were-so-happy thing. Yes, really. This is a show so devoid of original ideas that it’s ripped off the exact same plotline from Buffy TWICE.

Nonetheless, for a few episodes, there was a genuine sense of risk (I mean, for a show that centred entirely around a fan-favourite being resurrected and then kicking some ass), and they even had some well-cast people (who they promptly killed off) appear for multi-episode arcs. In short, despite the chugging, by-the-numbers quality of much of season one, expectations for season two were reasonably high.

Having noticed that the principal cast had no chemistry, the plan for season two was clearly to randomly throw new people at it in the hope that someone would prove to be the secret ingredient that tied the whole thing together. Obviously that didn’t work, and we instead got treated to this rambling, mad season where the only decently-cast person (Trip) was abruptly killed off, Skye got superpowers, and it turned out that there was another ‘real’ SHIELD that only half of the SHIELD we had been following around were in. Where did the fake SHIELD we were watching get its money? What made them fake, anyway, given that they were called SHIELD and spent their whole time running around doing SHIELDy things, presumably still with government money, since they’d have noticed if all their funding vanished? What the hell had the ‘real’ SHIELD been doing all this time? Where did they get their money? Does Captain America know about any of this? These are all very good questions that the show made no effort to answer because hey, look, Skye’s an alien called Daisy now!

The real-world reason for this insanity is that SHIELD completely collapsed during Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While that movie largely showed the collapse from the outside, the same events were depicted from within the organisation in the good quarter of season one of SHIELD. If that all sounds a bit complicated, just know that it actually worked surprisingly well, and was part of the reason the good bit of season one was good. However, the total collapse of SHIELD (the organisation) spelled the end of any meaningful plot for SHIELD (the show), but then, because it wasn’t a one-off comic book tie-in for superfans, the TV show was forced to keep going. And going.

In season three, it all went nuts. SHIELD is now supposedly somehow an arm of the government operating against the government. Where do they get their money? We still don’t know. There are also at least two other arms of the government doing the same job as SHIELD, except they’re all working against each other, and some of them are Hydra, probably. Ward now comes back as an undead thing, in case you thought the Angel comparison wasn’t obvious enough before and while that’s happening, as I mentioned above, they do the Angel thing again with a different character. Characters keep insisting that every Inhuman (these being the superpowered people the show has belatedly acknowledged that it needs if it wants to make any sense) ‘has a purpose’. They never really explain how they know this or what it means and, like the lines asserting the characters’ relationships to one another, this assertion stands weirdly at odds with the action as it’s presented on screen. For example, one character, Lash, spends most of the season wandering around murdering Inhumans. Is this his purpose? He certainly thinks so. SHIELD, for some reason, assume his real purpose is to kill Hive, the resurrected Grant Ward-thing, and so they unleash Lash at what they deem to be the appropriate moment (it’s not at all clear why they choose his moment). However, Lash then reverses his previous policy of murdering Inhumans by egregiously failing to kill Inhuman Hive (for no good reason), saving Inhuman Daisy (for no good reason, except that, apparently, saving Daisy is his ‘purpose’) and then promptly gets killed when he’s stabbed with a very hot chain (chains being something that you can, in this world, stab someone with), this despite the fact that the show has, by this point, quite clearly demonstrated that the character is impervious to bullets. To be fair, they never said anything about very hot chains. By the end of this arc, it’s become tragically clear that when the scriptwriters kept making everyone say that Inhumans had a purpose, they meant ‘for whatever we’re saying the plot is this week’. Sadly, the characters in the show don’t know that they’re characters in the show, which must be why they all look so confused the whole time. It’s all starting to make sense now. All of them are silently screaming as words that don’t make any sense come pouring out of their mouths. Coulson explains that he’s the director of SHIELD, while his eyes say ‘I’m just an accountant! I don’t understand why any of this is happening!’ Season four will be an impossibly meta experiment in TV making where the characters break free of the mad storylines the writers have imposed on them and try and get back to their ordinary lives, so that Fitz just moves back to Inverness and tries to forget the time he dived through a wormhole to another planet to save someone he insisted he was sexually attracted to but who was actually, as far as their onscreen chemistry suggested, probably his sister. Daisy, or whatever her bloody name is now, will shave off her hair so that she doesn’t have to look at the ridiculous black dye job they gave her to show that she had ‘gone rogue’, in case the audience was too stupid to work it out for themselves. May will go back to being a fairly strict primary school teacher and occasionally be surprised that she can’t just backflip out of difficult situations, before remembering that that part of her life was all just an incredibly bad dream.

In conclusion, I’m quite looking forward to it.

Picking up my prize

On Thursday, I went down to Bournemouth, to meet Emma Scattergood again and record a podcast of ‘Fall Back’, which was my prize-winning entry for the 2015 Fresher Writing Prize. I also got to record a couple of other poems at Bournemouth University’s very cool and professional recording studio (photos to follow) with the assistance of Alan Brown, BU’s Radio Production tutor and/or guru.

Anyway, here’s ‘Fall Back’:

And here’s the poem in writing:

Fall Back

The clocks fall back:

I’m cold before I’m awake and

The whole time I was awake

Last night I was cold.

The clouds glowed a permanent

dawn, permanently fake

On mornings like this

Sunless morning at the bus stop,

like morning as a kid, in Hackney, in

polyester, I remember

the cold: It makes the fillings

in my teeth hurt, now.

                                              Then,

I felt like a raw wound

wrapped in cotton wool.

The patches of streetlight,

the exhaust fumes of cars,

cold light, cold breath.

The roads were huge, impassable,

wheels as tall as I was. Damn,

only swear word I knew, damn,

it’s cold, muttering, teeth chattering.

Steam between my lips.

Later, entirely in black and white,

(She must have had her hair dyed, then.) in the snow,

evening: Leaning in, her lips

and teeth as cold as mine were,

even colder, but her mouth was

warm. The cold was

outside of us. We

were timeless, just kids.

I’m not getting any warmer, here.

The buses run slowly by, I

wrap myself up in my coat

and myself, watching the clock run down.

 

If this is the absolute zenith of my poetic career, I think I’d be fairly happy with it. I did two takes: This is the first one. If punk’s taught me anything, it’s that the first take is usually the best.

I’m quite surprised by how not-weird hearing a recording of my voice is. I’ll upload the other poems soon. Emma’s planning to upload all of them to the Fresher Publishing site, too, so I’ll post links when she does. For now, you can buy a hard copy of the whole anthology, including all the other winners and nominees, on the site.

Hannibal and the art of making compelling TV out of shots of meat

UPDATE: Presumably in response to my tongue-in-cheek criticism of the show, NBC have now cancelled Hannibal. This is bullshit. #SaveHannibal

Hannibal is probably my favourite kind of TV show, in that it’s a stupid show for smart people. The list of things that make no sense in the Hannibal universe include: People, hallucinogens, the weather, crime statistics, medicine, psychology, the legal system, mental health facilites, American accents (or Eddie Izzard’s American accent, anyway), tastebuds, tabloid journalism, and light. It consists mainly of tasteful shots of food, human corpses and — this being a show about a cannibal — both. It’s melodramatic, over-acted and fundamentally unconvincing, And that’s exactly why it’s so good.

The cinemtographers and designers on the show apparently have no idea that they’re shooting bad pulp fiction. They’ve spent their entire time on the show working under the assumption that they’re contributing to some kind of arthouse movie where the characters are trapped inside a version of New Jersey where it’s permanently a) winter and b) dusk, and no-one’s suspicious of somebody who permanently wears a waistcoat and has a psychiatrist’s office decorated like that batshit insane version of Dracula with Gary Oldman and Keanu Reeves in, which this show, by the way, is less subtle than.

(Having written that, I have realised that the set design and casting of Hannibal make total sense if you assume that the creators were going to do a 21st century Dracula then got told at the last minute that they actually didn’t have the rights.)

Hannibal is set in a world where the number one cause of death is being eaten by Hannibal (played with worrying verisimilitude by Mads Mikkelsen) and the number two cause of death is being made into a freaky sculpture by some other serial killer or, occasionally, Hannibal. When Hannibal isn’t killing people, he’s making incredibly tasty-looking food (most of which is people), while seducing the camera with his eyes, like a terrifying, Danish, Nigella Lawson. It’s like Masterchef but with more murder and less drama.

But he doesn’t always eat the people he kills: One recurring character in the last season was killed then sliced very thinly and displayed in an abandoned observatory (what?) like something out of Bodyworks. How the hell could that possibly happen? Does Hannibal have access to an industrial freezer, a gigantic laser cutter and loads and loads of time?

I haven’t got round to watching the latest episodes of Hannibal, yet, partly because I’m not convinced that it’s going to be so deliriously insane as the first two series now that everyone knows that Hannibal’s a serial killer. How will we get by without someone saying, ‘Guys, c’mon, I think we can trust Hannibal Lecter‘ in every other episode or, occasionally, scene? Mads Mikkelsen on the run isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as him showing off for the audience while he feeds people to other people. And how is he going to find so many strange, Gothic psychiatrist’s offices, mental institutions and pig-slaughtering facilities (yes, Gothic pig-slaughtering facilities) to hang around in when he’s off jetsetting about with Gillian Anderson? What’s he going to do, stop off at a drive thru and make double-entendres about murder over cheeseburgers and fries?

To be fair, I didn’t really see how the second season could work with Will in a psychiatric ward for most of the time, but that turned out pretty well, with a finale that was totally insane: Hannibal revealing he’d somehow kept a teenager locked up somewhere for ages without anyone noticing, only to kill her, along with apparently most of the regular cast, almost immediately, then whining to Will like a teenager about how they could’ve been best friends if only Will had joined in with all the superfun murder he’d planned for them both. Aw.

Prior to that, someone nearly got Hannibal to hang himself but only by first trussing him up like he was going to be crucified, leading to some truly insane biblical imagery that only seemed to exist in order to be really weird. Hannibal recovered from this ordeal by playing the harpsichord in a threatening manner. Other key moments from season two include the time Hannibal gave someone so much drugs that they agreed to eat their own face.

I am, at some point, going to watch the third season, though not all in one sitting (I did that with the first season and had some very confusing dreams about Mads Mikkelsen and Eggs Benedict). I may follow up this blog with my general impression of whether or not season 3 is shaping up to be as good as the first two. I’m sort of hoping Hannibal goes on some kind of Young Indiana Jones-style globe-hopping adventure where he meets major historical figures (then eats them).

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

I read another of Mitchell’s novels, Ghostwritten, while I was studying for an MA and I remember liking it. So why do I think The Bone Clocks is such a load of crap? Ghostwritten was basically a short story collection occasionally masquerading as a novel when it could be bothered. Since it was largely short-storyish, it was pretty readable because even if I didn’t much like one section, I enjoyed some of the others. That made it easier to ignore some of Mitchell’s more irritating quirks.

The Bone Clocks has no such redeeming quality. It mainly revolves around the character of Holly Sykes, by which I mean that most of the narrators are men and most of them have slept with her. One of these characters is a charming sociopath who does things like sleep with Brazilian nurses (when he’s not sleeping with Holly), which of course we all thoroughly disapprove of. Of course, it’s a total fucking cop-out to have your character do things that you virtuously disapprove of while still allowing all the men reading the book (and the one writing it) to vicariously enjoy the spectacle of him doing it. It’s a cheap trick, and it sucks.

Then there’s the not-at-all-cliched character of Ed Brubeck, who is an Iraq war reporter (I told you he wasn’t cliched!) whose Iraqi employees tragically die so that he has something to feel bad about, other than neglecting his family, which isn’t a real problem. This is the exact same trick as Mitchell has already used with the Brazilian nurse character earlier in the novel: We all get the warm feeling of disapproving of something, while getting to enjoy the gruesome details of its description. In Brubeck’s case, we get two fictional Iraqi deaths that allow us to feel nicely sorry for him (‘Oh my, he’s wiping his eyes on a bedsheet while he describes how bad he feels! Someone pass me a tablecloth!’). That’s the only purpose of their characters. Mitchell somehow picks the ridiculously easy target of the Iraq War as something we can all agree was a bad idea and misses completely by having the entire war reduced to something that makes a white, British guy feel bad. What insight! What vision!

The whole of the Iraq section is told with the kind of clunkingly awful dialogue that hasn’t been seen since the previous chapter of the book. Mitchell’s characters all talk like they’re in the first draft of a B-Movie written by a cab driver. We have an American soldier who, apropos of nothing, starts imprecating liberals. We have a middle-class family featuring siblings who refer to the eldest child as ‘Firstborn’. We have vomit all over my copy of the book.

In addition to hanging out with a Redneck American and Earnest-But-Doomed Iraqi Helpers, Ed Brubeck also has a Nagging Wife and a Petulant Daughter, spends an agonising five pages deep in conversation with a Mystic Irish Lady and has a burly, cigar-smoking American colleague whose surname is Mac-Something-Implausible and is known as Big Mac. Did David Mitchell’s editor persuade him to cut out the Stripper-With-A-Heart-of-Gold or Ed’s Cool Black Best Friend? What about the DIY-Enthusiast Lesbian?

Somehow, I managed to finish reading the scene with the Mystic Irish Lady — she says ‘Ye’ instead of ‘You’, in case you were wondering — which says something for my powers of endurance. Then I got to the chapter about the writer, and I gave up. Mitchell decides to fend off criticism by having his writer-character talk about how lame it is to have a writer-character. I actually don’t think it’s lame to have a writer character, but I do think it’s stupid to spend pages trying to excuse writing you apparently think lots of people think is bad. How about just not writing it, next time?

But what truly made me give up and throw my book at the wall was Mitchell’s reference to his universe’s version of The Apprentice which is called — wait for it, don’t take a mouthful of coffee or you’ll spray it everywhere because of how hilarious this is! — Out on Yer Arse! Yes! Right? How fucking funny is that? Someone actually wrote that joke, then other people read it and said, Yes, David absolutely! It’s about damn time someone took on reality TV and let the world know how shit it is, and, by God, this joke is exactly what we need to do that! You’re so brave, talking about how the Iraq war is maybe bad because seeing people horribly murdered totally ruins a Western reporter’s weekend and then talking about how reality TV is bad in the same book! Truly, you are the Mahatma Gandhi of contemporary British writing! I’d say more, but I can’t talk with all of your balls in my mouth! Because they’re so huge!

I mean, I assume that’s how the conversation went.

Anyway, I didn’t bother finishing the book, so I’ll never get to hear Mitchell’s take on whether or not Twitter is ruining people’s attention spans, or whatever other stunning fucking insight about British culture he has to share next. Turns out all you have to do to achieve literary success is write turgid, multi-viewpoint potboilers with incoherent mystic subplots, no moral compass and loads of cliched bullshit. You could in fact write David Mitchell’s next book in the time it took you to read this blog.

I won a thing!

And there’s a photo and everything!

I entered the prize ages ago in that vague, directionless way that everyone who hasn’t been published yet does. Apparently, at least one thing I’ve written isn’t completely terrible because I actually won the prize. I don’t know what the rules are RE: republishing my poem (although I do know I retain the copyright) but I think I’ll at least let Fresher Publishing get the book on sale before I start giving it away for free.

Thanks to Emma Scattergood for organising the whole prize and to James Manlow, Bournemouth’s poet laureate, for his presentation. And, obviously, well done to all the other nominees and winners!