Sunday, January 7, 2018

ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse

David Campbell's Evening Under Lamplight, 1976, begins with lyrical language and no dialogue: "When horses gallop at night, the sound is mysterious. There was Billy, frowzy with sleep, ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse. The frost, after a week of rain, had sharpened the hoof-falls. The horse's paunch creaked, and Billy was aware of the silence. He was aware of the cemetery on the dark ridge where the owls moped."

After a page and a half this lyricism vanishes and people speak ordinarily:

"It was easy, he said. "When Len's sick, I'll get the horses in every morning. You're only a girl."
"I'm older than you are."
"That doesn't count."
But Janet only smiled.

So on until the end of the book, though it comes back again a little in the last story while a settler in the bush is contemplating a fox: "The fox lived its own life and he lived his. And the gold trees grew from stone."* Most of the stories follow Billy the child, who is said by the introduction and the blurb to be a fictionalised version of Campbell himself (did Campbell ever say so or did he only let them believe it?), and the later ones tell you about men flying planes in World War II, where he himself flew planes.

Why is the entrance of Janet at breakfast like an ice age that cuts off an earlier way of life in the book?

David Malouf, who wrote the introduction to the 1987 edition, never lets dialogue get in the way of the contemplative-lyrical tone in his own books; he ploughs on through, and you remember the castaway in Remembering Babylon, 1993, meeting his compatriots in Australia after a long time with the indigenous people and getting his words confused so that he says, "I am a British object," instead of subject. And that has a penetrative meaning.

But the dialogue words in David Campbell do not try to have any kind of penetrative meaning. I don't think it occurred to him that they should have one, even though Malouf tells you that prose and poetry are one in the mind of a writer: they do not separate them: "it is the same world he is moving in … however different the demands of the medium he is the same man, bringing with him the same sensory equipment." And this is true because the dialogue in Campbell's poems is as plain as it is in the book – see Outback (No. 1) for example.

I wonder if this is part of his New Bulletin past, this Henry Lawson idea that the lyrical meaning in dialogue should be conferred through narrative events around the spoken language and not through the language itself, as at the end of The Drover's Wife, 1892, when the son says, "Mother, I won't never go drovin'; blarst me if I do," which makes a strong impact in light of everything that has happened. So that if people are lyrical it is not because you have rudely gone inside them and pretended to express their thoughts, but only because you have pointed to plain things around them which could be verified by other observers, though there are no other observers for you are the author, the only one who observes; and yet you are behaving as if there are observers who might accuse you of rudeness or lies, and so you are protecting yourself from the accusations of these non-existent people, the ones who know that Janet would not speak like the woman in the book I'm reading at the moment, who describes river water "spilling over the oar with a pure metallic lustre, like blood" (Narcyza Żmichowska, The Heathen, 1846, tr. Ursula Phillips). But if you can say that Billy on the nighthorse can feel inside him that "to his heartbeats the horses were suddenly galloping," then you can have him wholly and lyrically.

*When I say lyricism I am thinking of that kind of gold-and-stone language in which things are made of beautiful, solid substances and the characters' attention to small, distinct things like creaks is noted; everything is sensation and fluid but there is also a suggestion of eternity as well as attention to the way that a word like "ridge" sits against "moped."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

another begins to grow and spread

Water rumbles down the mountainside, gurgles in ditches and drainpipes, pours along the guttering that protrudes from the roof of our villa over the balconies and out across the garden, washing away in the sun an enormous icicle that hangs down the height of a half story and drips like a stalactite onto a second, planted below a tree, a freakish stalagmite overgrown with black branches. That tree is forever destined to bear its crystalline mistletoe – scarcely does one bunch melt in the sun, when another begins to grow and spread.

(Zofia Nałkowska, Choucas, 1927, tr. Ursula Phillips)

It is said that in times gone by
They formed forests and that birds
Also called dragonflies
Small creatures like singing hens
Looked down from them.

(Sarah Kirsch, Trees, from Ice Roses: Selected Poems, tr. Anne Stokes)

Friday, December 29, 2017

looking two ways

Before a busy day, one wants to "get" a lot of sleep.

(Lyn Hejinian, My Life, 1980)

The Ambassador

Underneath the broad hat is the face of the Ambassador
He rides on a white horse through hell looking two ways.
Doors open before him and shut when he has passed.
He is master of the mysteries and in the marketplace
He is known. He stole the trident, the girdle,
The sword, the sceptre and many mechanical instruments.
Thieves honour him. In the underworld he rides carelessly.
Sometimes he rises in the air and flies silently.

(Stevie Smith, The Ambassador, from the New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith, 1988)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

reared with pious zeal the massy pile

Here, still sequestered, Penmon's sacred dome
Recalls to mind the inmates of the tomb
Who reared with pious zeal the massy pile
And filled with notes of praise the echoing aisle;
When Idwal, born of Cambria's regal race,
Beheld with guardian eye the happy place.
Alas! what is it now? the damp abode
Of slimy snails, the spider and the toad,
Where waking owls in screaming concert call
Their prowling mates when evening's shadows fall.

(Richard Llwyd, Beaumaris Bay, 1800)

If one is not in one's motions (drops out of these, separated) – by not attending, these motions don't even occur (in one) – one has the sense of not living in that instant or at all. Terror at night of not living at that instant at that night.

(Leslie Scalapino, Dahlia's Iris: Secret Autobiography + Fiction, 2003)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

without return

Up the hard road he chased his phantoms, neck and neck with fear. But the old mare was a stayer, and on the hill-crest day was breaking. Serpent-heads tossed in the first light; a breakaway gelding bucked, down in the skyline; but the mob came in to the whip. In the heavy stockyard the horses stood steaming, hock-deep in mud.

(David Campbell, Evening Under Lamplight: Selected Stories, 1976

The museum institutionalises the truly radical, atheistic, revolutionary violence that demonstrates the past is incurably dead. It is a purely materialistic death, without return – the aestheticized material corpse functions as a testimony to the impossibility of resurrection.

(Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

who wants to be worthy of the events

Definition of a clown: a man who wants to be worthy of the events of the day.

(Louis Aragon, Treatise on Style, 1928, tr. Alyson Waters)

A country postman, as my 27, 000 comrades, I walked each day from Hauterives to Tersanne – in the region where there are still traces of the time when the sea was here – sometimes going through snow and ice, sometimes through flowers.

(Autobiographical statement by the artist Ferdinand 'Le Facteur' Cheval, quoted by John Berger in Landscapes: John Berger on Art, ed. Tom Overton. Translated by Berger?)

Monday, December 25, 2017

like Empson's Milton, finds "all" useful

The lake's level, or the balance of branches on a tree – human beings only take advantage of orders already present. It is just that nature gives no clear priority to such orders. It is also flow and fissure. The snake is horrible above all because it has no level, no centre of gravity – it is endlessly obscene motion. The man reaches out preeminently to put an end to that.

(T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death: an Experiment in Art Writing, 2006 (The snake is the snake in Poussin's Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648.))

The encyclopaedic nature of Ashbery's work – inextricable from the matter of attention – might best be suggested by his use of a small word, namely, all. William Empson wrote of "all" that "you could hardly parody Milton without bringing it in." This is also true of Ashbery, who, perhaps like Empson's Milton, finds "all" useful "because of its very obscurity; it provides confusion only at the deep level where it is required."

(Andrew DuBois, Ashbery's Forms of Attention, 2006)