[This was one of the last of my early prose poems, written shortly after I arrived in Brazil]
How to Describe a River
It takes time, normally, for water to inscribe a relatively permanent mark on the earth’s surface. Hence, the antiquity of the words used to describe it: rivers, lakes, mires.
A river: something it is impossible to embrace. Hence the neurotic debonair quest for origins; the melancholy of seeing one pour itself out into the sea; the sadness of abused estuaries.
A river describes a line no geometry can formulate, showing up with merciless accuracy, every strength and imperfection, every weakness and resistance of the underlying land it slowly scours.
… And there are rivers, it is told, in the heart or horn of Africa, that discharge their mighty bodies of water not into an ocean, but into searing desert sands in one last epic gasp of evaporation, translated by a distant but omnipotent sunlight into vapor and air.
No need to describe a river: its banks, the boulders, pebbles pushed patiently, wearingly along its bed, the willows washing their hair mournfully in its still green bends, the white exhilarating rush down mountainsides; lilies, trout, swans, waterfalls. No need to describe a river. A river is its own autograph.
[Coconuts is one of the first poems I wrote in Brazil. It can be viewed as a companion piece to Flints, written five years earlier, and reflects my continuing interest in the tradition of prose poetry]
Each one is a miniature Argo. Absurdly over-fortified. A living fortress. A galleon, obsessed by security. Shut tight as a rock. A puritanical seed. And yet, their modesty holds no surprises; no pearls or gold. Not much more liquid than a spit. A coconut is a cup closed at birth. A breast we have access to only by the hatchet.
They contain water when young but as they grow old and hirsute bear a sweet white milk. The opposite of us. They mature into lactation; in a clutch of testicle-like breasts, like a graven idol, promise limitless manna. An aged wet-nurse, long past child-bearing; offering, like a housemaid, her obstinate labor to express this barren milk. A uterus within a stone.
Their palms lean out over the sea like refugees. Like castaways, imploring it to conjure up a passage home. Though they know not where home is. They cast their seed upon the waters in absent-minded hope; but thereby only multiply the generations of waifs. They cannot dance capoeira to remember, nor drink rum to forget; cannot sing unless the wind aid them; they know no beat; they cannot fight back against their imposed exile; as they age they just lean out more and more urgently into the sea. Their saudade eventually destroys them; their tough roots designed to make a home even of sand are outweighed by their nostalgia and they crash at night into the shallow waves. Their leaves and bark are gradually stripped off by the tides and their trunks charred by the salt as they lie prostrate in the wet sand. No god comes to them in their distress. But, like Orpheus, they are disintegrated and, limb by limb, washed out to sea. Finally they re-appear on the beach as driftwood, where their porous bleached limbs may still inspire some fleeting enthusiasm in children or artists.
In places, where the sea’s transgression once laid milky mud over Southern England, a gel, subtracted from the decomposing armour of crustacean, has been concentrated by the corpses of sea-anenomes and other once lived-in pockets and concreted into brownish cryptocrystalline tubers, thereby causing to arrive on earth these most helpful stones known to man.
No stone was ever more eager to be held. A flint is a willing quarry; keen to lend a hand; a disposable external bone. It breaks open like a coconut and its conchoidal inner surfaces, unlike the scales of fish, slot ideally into finger-joints and palms. Its glazed, slightly greasy, mottled, white reflective coating a pleasure both to feel and to behold. Flint is brittle but it cannot be broken without thereby multiplying its virtues. Like other uncomplicated organisms, it reproduces by fission.
Flints do not occur in a single mass, but in static shoals set fast in the chalk; they are discrete stones. Reserved; as if for us, to use. Flints, although they have never been ripped by an igneous uplift from the earth, can be taught, by a sort of accident, to ignite of their own accord. Through this latent talent they are mighty as blatant thunderclouds. But, because they do not flaunt their power, but exhibit it with modest reluctance, only on request, they are gifted with fabulous longevity.
It is thus quite impossible for us to grasp the immensity of their translives, which cannot thus be said to exhibit epic scope.
Once the bliss of jelly has ceded to the joy of substance and angles, flints are happy to lie dormant for ages in their hosts, where they occupy no more living space than the volume of their own growth. They do not need extra room to breathe. Their forbearance is from time to time rewarded by exotic travels. For such odysseys, these amphibious minerals need no ships; take no risks: they cannot be drowned. And, when washed up on distant beaches, they are never attended by princesses and tell no tales.
At best they are admitted for a time as minions, and in battle will act with unswerving loyalty as their master’s right-hand man. In time, they are displayed in museums and admired by writers, geologists or artists, whose lives they will as long outlast as they have already outdone them in their work. Were it possible to imagine that there are souls, which survive the decomposition of the flesh, these could not be as air, but would have to be hard, discrete, like flints. Convenient, but resilient, figments of hope. Though there may be no souls, flints occasion some hard proof that there is much more to life after death, but that this after-life, although more durable and protracted an existence, bears but little impression of its transient, gelatinous precedent.
Nothing befits an English landscape more pleasingly than lines of electricity pylons. Leisurely they hold up 50,000 volts like clothes on a washing-line. Some, for instance on the edge of motorways, are so large they could comfortably accommodate a small herd of sheep or goats in the area described by their feet. The perimeter rimmed with barbed wire. Others contort themselves into bizarre shapes, like the faithful at some charismatic worship. Various as the letters of an ancient alphabet. Or uniform, converge in lines of increasing frequency, like dockers looking for work, to unload their cargo at the power station.
Each one is a miniature Eiffel Tower that cannot be brought back from Paris as a souvenir. Nor are many honored by representation in picture postcards. Having legs and a sort of head and work to do, they are almost human. They are human, since they serve no purpose but to serve us. Have no place in nature. Which is why nature so gladly accepts their decoration. No uglier than tinsel on a Christmas tree. No more menacing than cartoon monsters stomping innocently over England’s green farmlands.
And perhaps, one day, these steel beasts of burden will become obsolete. Most will then be tugged down without a thought and used for scrap. But the odd one, will through chance or neglect, be left standing. Will rust; fall into disrepair. Shorn of its load and its vital bond with its co-workers, will become a monument. Will become an attraction for future tourists, who will come, like Winckelmann or Byron to admire and speculate upon the forgotten function of this rusting megalith.
Yeast is the ghost of life. It drowns in the liquid fruits of its own labour to inspire men with wine. By its death, yeast says yes to life. Animates us. Kneaded easily into dough. It inspires unleavened loaves.
Yeast was the first domesticated animal. More ductile than goats or kine. A kind of animal ore.
Yeast unites both the three states of matter and the four more original elements. Gas and liquid flow utraquistically from its solid body. Born on the breeze, it smells like something just torn from the earth: dank yet sweet. By its death, it creates a quintessence of water that ignites the minds of men. Incarnadine as air in leavened bread, as fire in beer, it satisfies both our carnal and our intellectual needs. It equilibrates for a few hours the imbalance, by which we, unlike it, are cursed: our bellies always too empty, our brains always too full.
As for our spiritual needs. Yeast is the spirit itself. It drowns in its own sweet sweat. Doesn’t try to swim. It gives way to its own way of being. Of expiring. As spirit.
[This programmatic prose poem dates from a period before I started teaching English but already betrays my fascination with the lexis and phonetics of my mother tongue. The poem owes no small debt to Francis Ponge’s Ode Inachevée à la Boue.]
The word MUD is remarkably well adapted to the function it performs. The word MUD thus sets a good example to other less efficient words. For a start it is short: one syllable, three letters; one for each phoneme. Further, each phoneme is entirely necessary for the articulation of the word, adding nothing of itself alone that is irrelevant to mud. These letters are professionals not dilettantes, and here they are superbly directed, their talents neither squandered nor vulgarly showcased. The M, having acquired a precocious talent for expressing that which is round and malleable, extends its repertoire here to include the signification of that which is sticky and amorphous. The word MUD draws full advantage from either sense, but so as not to overemphasize the semi-fluid state, counterpoises the M with the D, which brings to bear here its capacity for density, depth and perhaps a little of its inscrutability too. And yet at the same time brings things down to earth. The vowel, better (although this is not always the case) if pronounced with a Southern English accent, in which it has a more neutral quality, adds to the D a sense of humdrum uniformity and extendibility and smoothes out the potentially jarring juxtaposition of M and D. It is possible furthermore to examine the perfect location of MUD in relation to the neighboring lay of the linguistic field. It is noticeably isolated. Only the word BUD lies very close to hand, which itself is a very finely crafted word and could hardly be endowed with an array of connotations more different from those of mud. MOOD too lies somewhere nearby. BLOOD and FLOOD are not far off. All this seems exactly as things should be. It has taken many centuries of constant wear and use, for MUD to settle to its precise place in the English language. It brings to newer uglier words a hope that they too may one day find their own singular niche.
[Continuing this series of posts from my back catalogue, this somewhat whimsical piece from 1991 stems from a time a when I was re-experiencing the joys of having access to a refrigerator after a longish period of deprivation. Gratitude for small mercies and creature comforts is a theme that I revisit frequently in my poetic work. The Classical authors whom I studied at school and university are also never far from my heart.]
— Heraclitus cited in Aristotle De Partibus Animalium Book I Chapter v
In a corner of the kitchen a rectilinear volume made of plastic and soft metals isolates from the room’s temperature an artificial winterscape. Not quite a snow-scene. But a cold January morning, too cloudless and dry for snow, when the sun’s rays have just begun to thaw the night’s ground-frost and ice, imperfectly forming on the rim of ponds, is crumblingly just beginning to melt. Not quite a Bruegels. For although there are signs of human life – marks left by a serrated knife in cheese, a thumb-impression in a silver bottle top – there are, unless gingerbread men have recently been made, no miniature representations of them. There is room for no more than one pair of hands at once. Things are not too cold to touch.
The refrigerator is caressed by a steady circulation of coolants in coiled tubes. The refrigerator is a coil of metal tubes containing coolants and caressing an empty inner space. Frost sometimes forms on them. Arctic snakes.
And perhaps you will catch me one day in July, as I ease open the fridge, enjoying the unclunking of the just resistant north and south magnetic poles that secure the door, and on my face the outflow of the cold air; as I pause before extracting from this miniature, semi-arctic space, a jug of iced tea and a bowl of plums. And as I turn to greet you, I shall not perhaps, look as cozy or at ease as a philosopher, but still, in my sunshades and my shorts, far more cool.
[Here is the second in my new back catalogue series of postings. This simple prose poem was written around 1990. The greatest influence upon me in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the prose poetry of the French post-surrealist poet Francis Ponge, some of whose works I translated at about the same time. But my work also reflected my interest in modern and contemporary art, about which I wrote as part of my job at a publishing company.]
As a child, being closer to it, I was able to undertake a more scrupulous examination of the pavement.
The pavement is a flat, unique landscape of irregular cracks and cambers strewn with grit and dust. Like magnetic tape it illegibly makes record of all activities—performed by shoes or rain—that have ever impinged upon it. The gaudy bright black tarmac has grown grey smooth uniform.
The pavement is a particular type of rock that is deposited in parallel strata along the roadsides. Intermittent manholes or gas mains remind us of the subterranean utilities. It is a type of rock exposed to the vicissitudes of time, but it is also a machine that works.
Robust plants and dusty grasses, which, because they are not flimsy and sensitive to weather or rough treatment, we are rude enough to call weeds, cause and exploit its fractured crust. Pavement falls into disrepair more quickly than rubber, metal or plastic. Although technically artificial, it is accepted as part of the ground; not exactly used. Still less scrutinized. As adults, we are inclined to trip less often, and, therefore, are wholly disoriented when we find ourselves fallen, nose to nose, with this parallel, Lilliputian lower world.
All the slightest imperfections in the pavement are marked with small pools or fluvial systems by the unerring flow of rainwater.
I dare not wish to copy the pavement as accurately as this rain. I would lose my wits to its miniature microcosm. But, if I were responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the city pavements, I would order detailed annual photographic records, in full color, to be kept of each stretch. These would then be bound in huge volumes, made accessible to the general public for inspection and contemplation in local libraries.
The pavement is no mundane convenience; it is a world in its own right. A lesson to be learnt. Worth scrutinizing.