Four poems about fruit

Some people make pies from fruit, others crumbles and yet others poems. Just recently, I was re-reading a selection of poetry by the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das which i found on the Internet some time back and one poem in particular struck me:

Tangerine

When once l leave this body
Shall I not come back to the world?
If only I might return
Upon a winter’s evening
Taking on the compassionate flesh of a cold tangerine
At the bedside of some dying acquaintance.

(tr. unknown)

I was quite taken aback by this association of tangerines with death. Thinking about it, i realise that like most British people of my generation and background i connect them with Christmas. When i was a child that was the only time we ever ate them. They have always conjured up ideas of plenty, celebration, lightheartedness and hope. Now, juxtaposed with that is a picture of deathbed. For some reason i imagine the occupant’s hand to be cold and damp, like the tangerine itself.

Jibanananda Das was a great favourite of mine when i was at university. The slightly alien quality of his world resonated with me and i loved his sensual and yet sinister imagery: his poems were full of deer, grass and hands. The language was strange and oblique which appealed to me: i felt for once my lack of understanding of Bengali didn’t put me at such a disadvantage. In fact, it thrilled me that i could feel his distinctive style.

Another poet i discovered around the same time – actually probably a year or two earlier – and who appealed to me for similar reasons was Francis Ponge. His style was different: the poems were like free verse essays, almost extended dictionary definitions of the objects at their centre. One of my favourites was about blackberries:

Les Mûres

Aux buissons typographiques constitués par le poème sur une route qui ne mène hors des choses ni à l’esprit, certains fruits sont formés d’une agglomération de sphères qu’une goutte d’encre remplit.

Noirs, roses et kakis ensemble dur la grappe, ils offrent plutôt le spectacle d’une famille rogue à ses âges divers, qu’une tentation très vive à la cueillette.

Vue la disproportion des pépins à la pulpe les oiseaux les apprécient pue, si peu de chose au fond leur reste quand du bec à l’anus ils en sont traversés.

Mais le poète au cours de sa promenade professionnelle, en prend de la graine à raison : « Ainsi donc » se dit-il, « réussissent en grand nombre les efforts patients d’une fleur très fragile quoique par un rébarbatif enchevêtrement de ronces défendue. Sans beaucoup d’autres qualités, – mûres, parfaitement elles sont mûres – comme aussi ce poème est fait. »

Or, in English :

Blackberries

On typographical bushes constituted by the poem along a road which leads neither beyond things nor to the spirit, certain fruits are formed by an agglomeration of spheres filled by a drop of ink.

Blacks, pinks, khakis, all on a cluster, they look more like members of an arrogant family of varying ages than a very lively temptation to pick them off.

Given the disproportion of the seeds to the pulp, birds find little to appreciate, so little in the end remains by the time it has travelled from the beak to the anus.

But the poet on his professional walk mulls this over in his mind: “Clearly,” he says to himself, “the patient efforts of a very delicate flower succeeds to a large extent although protected by a forbidding tangle of brambles. Lacking many other qualities – blackberries are perfectly ripe – the way this poem is ready.”

(tr. Serge Gavronsky)

Very French! I’m not sure how i would feel about a poem like this if i encountered it for the first time now, but at the time i was enchanted by the way in which Ponge made ordinary things seem strange and perplexing; the way he made you look at things close up and at the same time distance yourself from them, so that you saw them for what they were and not for what they were to you. Blackberries reminds me of one of a postcard i have on my bookcase which shows a shoal of sperm captured under a microscope. It’s really rather pretty and people often ask what kind of ‘fish’ they are.

From a minute examination of blackberries to the raspberry as metaphor. This is a poem by my beloved Solveig von Schoultz:

Portrait of a raspberry

Just as raspberry runners travel under the sand
and put out new shoots each year
he had travelled
far from his beginnings, had forgotten
and since he only lived in his outpost,
his remotest rootlet, thought he was new
and singular to the species.
If he’d turned round
he’d have seen similar bushes the whole way:
even in the mother-bush the one he was.

(tr. Anne Born)

We might just as easily say: very Nordic. Schoultz uses images from nature throughout her poetry and in a very simple, yet powerful way. All these ordinary things, she seems to say, all these ordinary lives and ordinary sorrows which go unnoticed and yet matter so much. I can never put into words how much i love her poetry or why i love it so much. It’s often the way though: love eludes analysis just as admiration attracts it.

And that brings me to the final poem by the Turkish poet Oktay Rifat, a new poet to me. I picked up a book of his work during my recent trip to Turkey. The poem is about his love for his wife – but it does mention an apple!

To my wife

You bring coolness to the halls
A sense of space to rooms
To wake in your bed in the morning
Gives me daylong joy

We are two halves of the same apple
Our day and night
Our house and home are one
Happiness is a meadow
Where you tread
It springs to life
Loneliness comes from the road you go down

(tr. Ruth Christie & Richard McKane)

Four poems more or less about fruit: tangerines, blackberries, raspberries and an apple. Imagine a crumble made from those!

Killing Jesus

A recent encounter with a salesman – i thought he was an evangelist when he approached me – has reminded me of the scene i encountered when i was out shopping a few days before my trip to Turkey. It was Good Friday and, while supermarkets were frantically selling chocolate eggs, out on the street groups of Christian and Muslim preachers were preaching about the Crucifixion. What they were preaching however was very different: while the Christians were proselytising that this (plus the Resurrection) was the most significant event  in history, the Muslims were denying it had even happened: according to the Qur’an* (4:157–158) it only appears as if Jesus was crucified:

However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so.

Nevertheless this was the first time I’d ever seen Muslims making a fuss about the issue.

I say Muslims; but these people appeared to be Salafis,  a group which has doesn’t have much space for intrafaith differences of opinion, never mind interfaith ones. That in turn made me think of how things have changed since i was a child. Back then my best friend was a Bangladeshi and what impressed me most about her family’s religion was how reasonable, inclusive and life-affirming it was – especially compared to Christianity which seemed to have lost its way in doctrinal squabbles and evangelical arrogance. Most of all i admired the fact that there was no obsession with being perfect. It was enough to be a good human being. God was God, Man was Man.

It wasn’t until i moved to London and started university that i encountered a different kind of Muslim: ultra-pious, ultra-covered and ultra-judgemental: i remember her looking at a girl in a short skirt and saying she only had herself to blame if she got raped. At the same time however she emphasised the kinship of Islam and Christianity – even if she did make it clear which she considered superior – and never actively proselytised or rubbished Christian beliefs. In fact, it’s a startling thought, but those angry young Muslims i described earlier would probably denounce S as not strict enough. In fact, i wonder if they truly feel convinced that anyone is strict enough: for all Islam’s insistence that perfection is for God alone, it seems to me that increasingly it is developing the same obsession with it that, as i said earlier, mars Christianity.

And then there’s the irony of the fact that of all Christian beliefs it was the Crucifixion the preachers were attacking. The Qur’anic disavowal of this event** has always struck me as odd and seems to undermine the Islamic insistence on Jesus being Man, not God. It resembles a belief of the Gnostic strand of Christianity which was common in Arabia at the time Muhammad lived. The Gnostics rejected the idea of the humanity of Jesus: God, not Man. Docetism, as the belief was known, was the idea that Jesus’ body was illusory – he only appeared to be flesh and blood – and as such his crucifixion was too. This developed in various Gnostic groups into the idea that someone else took his place on the cross.

Strangely enough, i didn’t feel any great urge to discuss this issue with the Muslim preachers though. Nor for that matter with their Christian brethren who, were trying to emotionally blackmail everyone to go church (“He died for you”) a few metres along the road.

* The Message of THE QUR’AN Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad; ISBN: 1-904510-00-0; pub.: The Book Foundation (2003)

** Since this post was originally written i’ve started reading a book about the place of Jesus in Islam*** which makes it clear that (a) the Qur’anic verses relating to the crucifixion can be interpreted in a number of different ways (partly depending on how the Arabic verbs used are understood) and (b) the verses have been and still are interpreted differently by different Muslim sects.

*** Images of Jesus Christ in Islam by Oddbjorn Leirvik; ISBN: 978-1441181602; pub.: Continuum (2010)

Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

What to do…?

There are so many things that i would like to do; and I would do them, I tell myself – if only i could find a way to do without sleep and/or win the National Lottery. It seems to me that with each year that goes by i have less free time, and often the free time i do have isn’t really free. It’s packed with ‘things that need doing’ and tinged with guilt because something somewhere is always waiting to be done or else someone somewhere is always waiting for me to get in touch with them. Now i know that there are many, many people in this world who are worse off than me but, nevertheless, this is frustrating.

Of course, work is the main culprit. I could write at tedious length about the way that work tends to eat more and more deeply into your life the longer you pursue a career, however i’ll spare you! I don’t think it’s just that in any case. Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from an increasing realisation of your own limits. Early on in life it still seems entirely possible that you can learn each and every language that you might want to speak; visit each and every country in the world; read each and every book that interests you.

Gradually, that optimism fades. You become aware of time ticking away, notice the way that it seems to be forever speeding up, and begin to grasp that you do not in fact have an infinitude of possibilities. This process begins while you are still a child on the day that you comprehend that you won’t ever be an astronaut or a professional footballer. You surrender your impossible dreams but still, at this point, retain your great hopes.

Bit by bit the erosion of confidence proceeds. You discover the tyranny of money. Hopes follow dreams into the sea of limitations and constraints, careers and bills; and so it goes on. Look around you: how many people are there camped out on a last little island of ‘next year’s holiday’, ‘a new car’, ‘paying off the mortgage’ – or just ‘having enough for this week’s groceries’?

I daresay it’s my colleague’s recent death which has put me in this frame of mind but i’m very aware of how marginalised my inner life has become. Struggling, in a state of exhaustion, to read a book on the train home does not constitute having time to think. Similarly, my tired tramp along the road from the office to the railway station does not qualify as ‘a walk’.

What to do…? Some things seem obvious: time spent pursuing other people’s routes to happiness, when these are not also your own, is wasted. Yet, this is too pat. We have obligations to our friends and families. Our happiness, such as it is, stems at least partly from the time and effort those people have invested in us. We have obligations to the world as a whole for that matter. Likewise, it’s all well and good pontificating about not being in thrall to material things; but material things – books are also material things for instance – form an important part of what a truly happy life means to most of us.

I’m never going to be able to do without sleep and i’m never going to win the National Lottery. Really, what to do?

Back from a funeral

Just back from a funeral. The man who died was a colleague in his early 50s, an extremely popular man, and the suddenness of his death has left the office in his shock. “I keep expecting to him to walk through the door,” is a remark I’ve heard several times; and it’s true, it really does just feel like he’s on holiday. I’m sure it’s different for his family: for them the absence will already be too long to feel normal; but for his co-workers, myself included, grief is precluded by a feeling of unreality.

This, i think, explains the scene at the crematorium as we all waited for the family to arrive. People were laughing and joking and talking about their everyday lives. It was only when the hearses came through the gate, bearing the coffin and the family, that a hush came over us. Suddenly, we had visible proof – if only indirectly in the form of the coffin – that a death really had occurred. We stood and watched as the procession drew nearer, preceded by two men in the uniform of the undertaker: formal coats and top hats.

At this point i was aware of a feeling of expectancy – the necessary ritual had begun. ‘Finally,’ i thought, ‘ i will understand that he’s dead.’ But as the family emerged from the hearses they were laughing and joking. They had obviously decided to make it ‘a happy occasion’. I understand why they chose to do this and the ‘celebration of life’ was very moving in parts, not to mention illuminating: i’d never realised that he was a fellow Morecambe & Wise fan. Still, i can’t help but feel that we do need in some way to address the death. A person was alive and now they are dead – and they will always be dead. We need a ritual to allow us to cross the bridge from the first of those realities to the second.

As it is, somewhere inside me i’m still expecting him to be back in work – tomorrow perhaps or maybe next week. How he’ll laugh when we tell him he’s dead…

My daily life: buses that don’t turn up

Looking at the posts to my blog it occurs to me that most of them fall into three categories: examinations of ‘issues’*, reminiscences and poems. Why so few posts about my daily life you ask yourself**.

The reason is simple: my daily life consists of waiting for buses that don’t turn up, sitting on trains that have broken down and struggling to breathe on tubes which are stuffed with at least twice as many people as they were designed to hold. In my free moments i delete emails, do jigsaws and feed the cat. Oh and blog i suppose. 

So there you have it. I am not trying to conceal evenings spent enjoying exotic dancers or an exciting career which takes me all round the world and involves meetings with film stars and world leaders.

I don’t write much about my daily life because there’s nothing much to write about. Unless you really want to hear about my awful journey to work…?

No, i thought you didn’t.

* Or rants about same.
** You do. You know you do.