17 Part 3

[Here is the third tranche of Poem 17. It contains Section 4 and Song #4. This poem is exhausting me. There are so many ghosts in it and it is so dark and sad.]

IV Bangers

Back home, Mike takes it out on the car,

kicking the weak metal panels in and firing a shot

into that bald tire. Mum and neighbors shout

about the racket: cars backfiring, that old eyesore

of a clapped out banger parked in the drive,

the noise of rows. Mike remembers

sausages popping in the saucepan

and rockets going up on Bonfire Night

and bangers thrown to the ground to explode

amusingly around the feet of fearful girls.

He unloads a volley of shots into the bloody car

and sets off down the street armed and alone.


Song #4 Child Auto Accident Victims Lullaby


The wan little ghosts hang their yellow ribbons around

traffic-lights and trees,

crossroads, hedges, suburban setbacks,

bus-stops across the road from pubs and schools, zebra and pelican crossings,

hard shoulders, sloping driveways, country roads

in the middle of nowhere, singing polyphonic threnodies

through bloodless Cupid’s bow lips for lost lives.

The cherry and the apple blossom

falls about them like a vehicular glass of snow. Blood-

stained glass windowing our wing mirrors with guilt and grief.

Like frost, they are there every morning the mercury drops,

like a dew of tears every summer dawn, damning us.

No anti-freeze can melt them away.

Singing us to sleep with their sweet salt song of tears,

they blight fertile ground with corpses too soon put into the earth,

by haste, engines, wheels, machinery, gears, cogs, hub caps, gas, ball bearings,

glove compartments, sunshield mirrors, spark plugs, bald tires spun off into the air.

All sorts of bric-a-brac

they bring back from the grave as evidence, jangling

like the trinkets of gypsy children, bidding us with their black eyes

bid them due process and due farewell.


17–Part II

[Here is the second tranche of my ongoing long poem 17, consisting of three ‘Songs’ and two Sections (II and III), entitled Picnic and Gas respectively. Like 64, 17 contains a number of free-standing ‘songs’. But, unlike 64, in 17, these are clearly marked off as such and only very loosely connected with the sprawling main narrative of the poem. As is common in my work, all sections contain acts of violence (which I do not condone) recounted in a casual unsentimental or unconventional manner that some readers may find distressing or offensive.]

Song #1 The Ballad of Robin and RedCap

Robin, hoodied, rips the copper
piping out of the new starter homes
going up in the urban jungle and sells it on
for drugs for his merry band.
Little Red, brim of Man U baseball cap
pulled down over her mascaraed eyes,
is plied with magic mushrooms and raped in the woods by the gang.
The council pulls the travelers’ shacks and tents down in the night.
The police come round.
“Keep quiet about that,” Red’s Roma grandmother warns,
“or they’ll have you ’for good.’
“The wolf is always at the door.”
Red keeps mum,
as they tramp past the graves of Hansel and Gretel
and the rundown foreclosed gingerbread house on the way back home.

II Picnic

The place makes a nice spot for a picnic, amidst the buttercups,
on the old chase just outside the woods overlooking the stately home.
The blue and white checkered tablecloth is laid out over the grass
held down at four corners by salad bowls so the wind doesn’t blow it away.
Mum shouts at the kids disappearing into the woods,
as slices of egg and sausage meat pie set in aspic and pastry crust
are set out on the plates alongside spring onions, baby radishes, shredded iceberg lettuce,
a dollop of sweet pickle, scooped out from variously sized items of Tupperware;
wasps and ants flicked away.
Mum shouts out at the kids who have disappeared into the woods,
messing about.
The first shots ring out, bringing her to her knees.
Hans and Greta return from the woods with cobnuts,
blackberries and sloes and the skeletons of a dead mole and bird
to show for their adventures, as mum lies
face down in the egg-salad, bullet-wound oozing out blood
blooming through her flower-patterned dress.
Radishes and spring onions and lettuce hearts wreathe her cadaver
and the crumbs of pork pies are wolfed up by blackbirds and stray neighboring dogs.
Sirens go up all around, as mum is zipped up in a body bag
and Hans and Greta go off into care.

Song # 2 Hansel and Gretel Duet Lament

Trashing the doll’s house was probably a bad idea, Hans thought.
Greta cried for hours but never breathed a word.
The oven-baked flour-paste homemade toy cups and plates and fruit laid out
on the doll’s house dining room table; beds neatly made;
the stiff wooden limbs stuffed in doll clothes of doll mum
and doll dad tucked up neatly in bed for the night, curtains drawn.
The fun idea was Action Man, on night ops, sneaking in
through the chimney top, like Santa Claus, for a spot of B&E vandalism:
lewd graffiti on the wallpaper, drawers emptied, and dresses
and panties strewn about. Just kids messing around.
Mum doll wakes up in a fit and Dad doll is shouting at her
to shut the fuck up and calm the fuck down and throwing his fists around.
Broken china cups and plates and a black eye. The front door left
wide open as he leaves. Greta shrieked when she saw the work of art
in the playroom in the morning and weeping carefully rearranged
everything exactly how it was before.
“Where’s Greta? Mum asks, as Hans gobbles down
his soggy cornflakes and tea. “Playing with her doll’s house, probably,”
Hans replies with an angelic twinkle and smirk.
“Picnic today!” mother smiles.
Hans and Greta punch each other on the back seat as Mum concentrates on the road.
The car winds around the forest roads. Greta coos over the grazing ponies.
Hans is bored and looking out of the window for road-kill.
The care home looks like a hospital.
“Why can’t we just go home?” Greta wails.
Hans is silent and beats up on a younger boy as soon as they arrive.
Sobs himself to sleep; a baby bawling in a cot on the other side of the ward.
The girls are all round Greta, interested in her clothes.
The pair are let out for the funeral, Greta thrusting Hans’s comforting hand away
as colleagues and distant relatives toss clumps of earth onto the descending coffin.
“You trashed my doll’s house,’ she whispers hissingly into her brother’s ear.


Mike screeches into the gas station like Marlon Brando.
He doesn’t say it is a stick-up. The gun is shaking
violently in his unsure grip and the Goth girl on the cash-register
has frozen and pissed herself. He legs it.
She is already on the blower to the cops.
They are no Bonnie and Clyde.

Song #3 Piper Alpha Gas Workers Requiem Chorus

—-“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” Psalm 51

We are the Piper Alpha crew.
We’re alphas to a man.
We pipe the gas out of the sea
and pump it to the land.

We are the alpha piper crew.
We hunt a microscopic prey,
for you to burn in homely hearths
to warm your winter days.

We take a boat from Aberdeen
across the cold gray sea.
Our muscles and tattoos are seen
by every lass we lay

Our bones are made of granite.
Our skin is soaked in tar.
We breathe a toxic fiery gas
that dragons all your cars.

We are Christ fallen
into the underworld
and coming up
with stolen fire,
to quicken your dreary days.

We are the dead who died
for your sins,
not for pleasure or for pay,
not some poor sods on a sunken cruise-ship off on holiday.
We live in Sodom and Gomorrah
with salt sea all around.
We mine a prehistoric wood
to fuel your luxury.

We go out in a blaze of glorious blinding light,
the cold sea
and the carcass of a rig
our only grave,
as body bags are flown
by helicopter to Valhalla by Valkyries.

We are the ghost pied pipers.
We crawl out of the deep
on hand and knee over the weed-strewn
moonlit sand
to entertain your children on the net.

Lucifer Falls over Lancashire: an obituary for Mark E. Smith

Like anyone my age who crawled reluctantly out of adolescence into adulthood listening to late-night John Peel sessions on a tinny transistor radio tucked under the pillow, I have always been aware of Mark E. Smith and The Fall. And, like many who were never hardcore aficionados, such as Peel himself, I would never have described The Fall as my favorite or even one of my favorite bands. But it was a sound and an attitude that was always there deep in the mix of the soundtrack to my career as a person, always there in the wing mirror as I hot-rodded my way clumsily through life, always at least vaguely visible out of the corner of my eye.

In the weeks and days leading up to Mark E. Smith’s death last Wednesday, I oddly found myself humming Lucifer over Lancashire over and over to myself in my mind, as I taxied—cripple that I now am—around this crippled city of Recife, to a dark backdrop of impeachments and coups, recrudescent poverty, politically-motivated corruption trials, and fake news.

And, like many, I imagine I am one of those, who, when I woke up on Wednesday morning and read of the death of Mark E. Smith, for the first time, started working my way methodically through listening to his entire oeuvre. And, like many, I kicked myself and told myself I should have done this long time ago. Everyone, I know, says that when someone close, important or famous is suddenly gone.

Smith’s is indeed an incredibly powerful body of work and does not need death to garnish it. But it does need to be read as a whole, not in little poppy snippets. It follows a very straight, if perverse, line, yet somehow over time reflects all the other kaleidoscopic elements of a life sound-tracked by independent music and buffeted by the vicissitudes of a post-Thatcher Britain and world.

Dead pop stars and artists come in all shapes and sizes. There are those whose deaths shock and seem unjust, those who go out in a blaze of glory or after a descent into ignominy, and national treasures who fade away peacefully after a long productive career. All of these make us feel a little sad. Mark E. Smith was none of the above. Nor would he wish to be. There was never anything mawkish about him. He had always scrupulously eschewed celebrity and sentimentality. It is just as if last orders had already been called and he had been drinking after hours—living too late, in the words of one of his most famous songs—and chucking-out time finally came. The natural order of things. Rest in Piss.

The evening star sets over Manchester this evening, but will appear again in the morning as the morning star amidst a million new stirring angry points of light and life. Just one part of the cycle. A worker’s life well lived. Much work still to be done.

17 Prologue Selva Oscura

[This is the first tranche of a new long poem, entitled simply 17. It is both a prologue to this longer poem and a free-standing piece. While the overarching setting and theme of my previous long poem (64) was the sea, 17 is set around a forest landscape. It has a very different tone.]

17 Prologue Selva Oscura

The place reeks of life and death entwined;
buds reaching up heavenwards above the canopy,
catkins drooping sneezy sweet-smelling pollen
through blent, intermittently sunlit, dank air
amongst the tangles of rotting branches and living roots.
Rodents scuttle through the undergrowth of decay
and feed uncurling ferns and sleek moss and blooming
bluebells with their gift of excrement. Sun is tempered
by leaves and berries swell and drop and rot in the dripping rain
and are eaten up and carried away.
And bark peels away as the xylems and phloems of expanding trunks
keep careful record of weather and the glacier-march of time.
In winter, it is a graveyard of frost, crucifixes and icicles.
And the men in green and black
force their slithering stealthy way on their bellies
through the undergrowth, like snakes,
knife clenched in teeth,
trap, garrote or musket at the ready for rabbit
or fellow human being who strays this way.
When shots ring out, the grouse flee through the treetops
and the leaves of elm and ash and birch and beech and oak
quiver in fear. The forest is a place set aside by law
for the rich, overseen by a corrupt local judge. The jury of owl and eagle,
weasel and wild boar, stag and hare and hen, eagerly await their turn.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 9b: Playing the Language Game

“Play” is another word that is on the rise. But it has brought together a whole different array of complex connotations from those of ‘game’. It means pretending, stage-acting; it distinguishes the main free action of a sport or game from its surrounding bureaucratic structure. Musical instruments are played. Children play. In contract bridge the ‘play’ is distinguished from the ‘bidding,’ although both are equally important parts of the game. People who like to joke are regarded as ‘playful’ and valued socially as comics, even, perhaps even especially, if they are not ‘playing the game’. Play has even—graced with a duly respectable-looking Latinate prefix—become a scientific word in the word ‘interplay,’ meaning the way that various forces interact with each other. A graceful ‘play of forces’ as opposed to a violent ‘game of thrones’.

There is a plangent irony when the two words are combined as in First World War propaganda (“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”) used to exhort cannon-fodder, or the modern concept of ‘gameplay’. A recent ad for Dell brandishes the double-imperative slogan: “Don’t just play. Game.” Underlining the extent to which the online gaming industry takes itself way too seriously.

To return to the beginning of this two-part post, there is a connection between the distinct metaphors of playing and gaming and the way that linguists and philosophers of language have traditionally viewed their prime object of study during the still brief existence of this novel social science.

Saussure effected a foundational revolution by establishing a distinction between langue and parole. He famously compared language to a game of chess: the form of the pieces and the board can be changed but this does not alter the rules of play. This metaphor already rigidifies the originally radical idea to some extent, in so far as it is not only the form of the pieces used in the game, but also the relation between them, and the very rules, that can be changed. Within that works the play.

Wittgenstein also saw language as a game, or a series of games. This has often been interpreted by post-modern philosophers as suggesting that Wittgenstein introduced an element of playfulness into the philosophy of language. It is worth looking a little into Wittgenstein’s biography to find the extent to which this was definitely not the case. Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher, in that (by his own insistence) he actually had experience of teaching children. Reports of his teaching methods, clearly show, however, that he regarded language learning and language as such as more ‘game’ than ‘play’. It is more about the imposition of the herd instinct of a rugby match by force than allowing children naturally to play. In the much-quoted passage of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein’s description of the primitive ‘language game’ sounds more like a chain-gang or a production-line than anything it would be fun to be involved in. Michel Pêcheux, in Le Discours: structure ou événement uses a strip cartoon to mock precisely this kind of factory-floor approach to language learning writ large as linguistic theory.

Wittgenstein’s game-theory of language is echoed to some extent by the Sapir-Whorf approach to language, in which language determines or is determined by the core values of the tribe, giving it a sentimental but no less authoritarian twist. Structuralism picked up this essentially sentimental and conservative linguistic anthropological ideology, especially in the work of Lévi-Strauss.

Enter Chomsky.

Chomsky emerged on the scene in the 1950s with a set of investigative tools far in advance of anything that Saussure or Wittgenstein could ever have imagined. He was concerned to counter both the apparent arbitrariness that Saussure had unleashed and the culture-bound relativism that Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf seemed to propound. He was also spurred by an unflagging, very American, view of the nobility of the rational human spirit, and was funded by IBM.

To this end, Chomsky set about fusing Saussure’s revelations with a more conservative grammatical approach to language, while attempting to eschew the illiberalism that, according to Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf, this approach would tend to entail.

Grammar, according to Chomsky, is normative but confined to the mind. It is not therefore something that governments or ideologies or cultures can impose. It is, of course, a pared down sort of ‘universal’ grammar and Chomsky’s theories immediately came up against an overwhelming body of empirical evidence to the effect that such mental grammars are invariably overruled by cultural conventions and pure playfulness. Chomsky and his colleagues thus ‘invented’ the notion of ‘transformational’ grammar to account for this mismatch, thereby fusing Saussurian arbitrariness with a sort of neo-Kantian prescriptivism.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Chomsky cashed in his intellectual chips at this point and turned his attention to a variety of liberal/left-wing causes that have sometimes verged on conspiracy theories. His followers were left with the messy business of cleaning up the contradictions he had left behind.
Leaderless yet uncomfortable with dissent, they opted for the arbitrary, while maintaining Chomsky’s originary faith in the rational human mind. A flurry of ‘transformational rules’ have subsequently merely re-written the traditional grammar books around a descriptivist but arguably less tolerant basis.

Transformational grammar merely revives a late-19th century debate that should have been laid to rest a long time ago. Should we respect people’s local way of speaking or encourage them, for the sake of self-advancement, to adopt a supposedly more rational norm? This is a very serious sociolinguistic contradiction dealt with playfully by George Bernard Shaw and George Cukor in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Like Henry Higgins, Liberal Chomskyan linguists tie themselves in knots to this day trying to reconcile these two contradictory aims.

Stephen Pinker, a liberal-minded Chomsky hanger-on and radical neo-Darwinist, bends over backwards to blandish the African-American community by suggesting (generously but patronizingly) that their argot is just as ‘rational’ as that of the white liberal élite, the implication being that, with tolerance and instruction, they could be incorporated into this elite. Black activist intellectuals argue that their discourse has more to do with a history of oppression and protest than with a common core of rationality shared with their historical oppressors. Pinker fails to do a similar analysis of the language of white trash, wherein lies a tale. In fact, he fails to do any serious analysis at all, basing his arguments on anecdote, presumption and hearsay. He arrogantly states at one point, that his argument could be proved true by a statistician in the course of an afternoon. So far as I am aware, no statistician has yet answered this puny call to arms.

Back in the trenches, a few linguists have started bucking the Chomskyan gravy-train. Word has it that the ouster of Chomsky is almost complete, as a result of a combination of serious scientific research and changing mores.

Chomsky is like the Queen of England. The grand old man whose dotty outdated view of the world academic linguists and language teachers who depend on his patronage will politely accept until he finally kicks off his clogs. After that the gloves are off, the game is on… I look forward to the fight.

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Indie

In 1871 Arthur Rimbaud wrote a poem called Les Chercheuses de Poux (The Nit Pickers) . It is one of the few pieces I would include in a very slim anthology of truly all-time great poems. Rimbaud was 15 at the time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7HDznbYwjw He subsequently, with a self-confidence that makes modern rock stars look lily-livered, trudged across the war torn fields of Northern France and went to Paris to meet up with Paul Verlaine.

Rimbaud’s first foray into poetry was obviously heavily based on the work on the Charles Baudelaire, whose style he had already mastered and to a certain extent outdone. Verlaine was also working on furthering and radicalizing the Baudelairean legacy, but his work was cramped somewhat by the Parnassian mode in which he chose to operate.

The two famously became quarrelling lovers. Rimbaud would later give up poetry to pursue a career as an arms dealer and Verlaine’s subsequent mediocre literary output was forever overshadowed by the scandal. Only in the next century was Rimbaud’s radical slash and burn approach to poetry (or for that matter Verlaine’s radical if somewhat mincing minimalism) taken up with any degree of seriousness by the modernist, Dadaist and surrealist movements.

Modernism too, however, would go astray in the desert or give up the ghost in the bistro and, with a few notable exceptions—Ponge, Plath, Berryman maybe—poetry would go back to ploughing the increasingly elitist increasingly lonely furrow it had always been inclined to pursue.


In 2016, the ageing singer song writer, Bob Dylan, was controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Rock star style, he refused to turn up for the ceremony and cribbed his acceptance speech off the Internet, as if in a deliberate last-gasp attempt to shrug off his critics.

Debate in literary circles circled superciliously around the question of whether Dylan was a worthy laureate. Snobbery apart, different, for example, from his contemporary Leonard Cohen, who died the same year, he had never actually written anything purporting to a novel or a poem. But perhaps that is precisely why the judges in Stockholm chose him over Cohen—an apparently much more worthy candidate. Dylan was Rimbaud. Cohen Verlaine.

Dylan obviously moved in Beatnik circles in the late 1950s and is clearly influenced by this literary style. A similar driving force unfurls the long rambling lyrics of Like a Rolling Stone or Desolation Row.

I am an enormous admirer of Bob Dylan, but I opposed his being awarded the Nobel Prize. He is not a poet or a writer and, even if he were, true to his radical pacifist roots, he should have rejected the accolade, established as penance by an arms peddler. Perhaps he felt the pull of his Rimbaudian roots.

There should be an Oppenheimer Prize for literature. That might focus minds more closely.


This Christmas I discovered Dandelion Radio https://www.dandelionradio.com/index.htm , which purports to continue the time honored tradition of the late John Peel’s democratically culled Festive Fifty best independent music tracks of the year.

I am struck by how so much of it is now Parnassian-style techno-music, but also by how a counter-cultural tradition still persists through this diverse genre. Gavin Osborn’s folksy, Billy Bragg influenced “I am European” made me cry for the first time in years.

I was especially impressed, however, by the number of ‘charting’ songs that involve a kind of dead-pan pared down poetry accompanied by a musical backdrop rather than singing. In the case of the No. 1 song, Paul Rooney’s Lost High Street, a lengthy and amusing discourse recited to both a musical and various sung backtracks.

However, it is questionable whether these arty pieces or Dylan or Cohen or even rap for that matter truly constitute poetry, if the words are dissociated from the music. For me, a defining feature of poetry is that it should stand up independently of any musical accompaniment, specific performance or recording. Poetry, I like to say, is ‘music without sound.’

It is worth noting that both Dylan and Cohen were failed writers who turned to popular music as a way of making more money and reaching a wider audience. The same goes for Morrissey and many other classics of popular songwriting. Rooney, like many of the artists in the contemporary indie scene, hails from an art school background and his work is arguably more video installation than the product of a master songsmith. I shall leave rap to one side for now, as I think that it is a special case that deserves special consideration in a separate post.

Previously on this blog, I have reflected on why contemporary poetry has taken such a different and much more conservative route from that taken by contemporary art. The same question could be asked regarding contemporary independent music.

Independent (or Indie) music grew out of the 1970s punk movement and evolved as an explicit rejection of the highly commercialized and hence conservative form that popular music and youth culture had already assumed by that time. Indie music, as the name suggests, is normally produced by small-scale record labels and its artists and producers are more interested in artistic quality and/or political messaging than in profit-making or widespread popular acclaim. History will probably judge these works much more highly than their mainstream pop and rock contemporaries. But that is for time to tell. The indie music scene is nevertheless a thriving cultural movement often explicitly linked to left-wing political activism, feminism and environmental issues. Contemporary poetry is not.

In my previous post on this subject, I argued that contemporary art differs from contemporary poetry primarily in the way it radically and playfully subverts the relation between surface and support. https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/why-poetry-didnt-go-dada-the-waste-land-of-contemporary-english-language-poetry/ The very provocation Dada originally posed, flirting with the scorn of the masses, eventually turned this scorn to its own advantage and it has now found a comfortable and lucrative niche within mainstream culture.

Indie music has operated differently, but no less effectively. Although there is some deviation from the norms of mainstream music, much Indie music is in fact structurally quite conservative, compared to rap, for instance. Indie music continues to thrive because it has consistently tapped into an undercurrent of otherwise voiceless popular discontent and successfully created social networks of performers, producers, DJs, political activists, visual artists and the disaffected underclass in a way that contemporary poetry could not even dream of doing.

I put the title of this post in the form of a question without a question mark. It is indeed a question that is more rhetorical than literal, a fact that requires no real explanation. Contemporary poetry could, if it wanted to, move more in the direction taken by contemporary art and indie music and would be much the richer for it. It has simply chosen not to do so. It has neither challenged tradition nor reached out to a wider network. And no matter how much writers whinge about short attention spans and poor literacy (complaints that are as hackneyed as they are untrue), there is no getting round the fact that poetry does not nowadays enjoy the same cultural status as popular music or the visual arts (or film and TV for that matter) because it has opted not to seek out this path. Poets have no-one but themselves to blame. And, given poetry’s long history of radicalism and relevance, it is a crying shame.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 9a: games with ge-, y- a-, chaos and nothing

Although language change is heavily influenced by historical and political factors over time, we should not underestimate the extent to which the forms linguistic features take are determined by play.

Infants acquire their first language largely by playing with its sounds and shapes, its vocabulary items and their relation to the real world. Arguably, adult second-language learners should learn the same way, although this may not be practicable in a world in which there is not much time available to spend protracted periods just ‘messing around’.

The other main influence on language change is laziness. No-one wants to play a boring complex game. But no-one wants to play a boring simple one either and will tend to introduce complicating elements to liven things up.

Mainstream linguists lazily tend to boil down this complex interplay of playfulness, laziness and historical determination to mere arbitrariness. This, however, tends to blanch all the meaningfulness and fun out of language, reducing it to a bare skeleton of reductionist syntactic structures, supposedly related to intracranial synapses and the stern commandments of evolutionary biology and, as a result, overlooking the role that historical and cultural diversity and other idiosyncratic creative features have to play.

My fondness for prepositions is fuelled by the way that these little words, while apparently complying with their assumed arbitrary subservient status, are forever impishly defying the assumed arbitrary authority into whose service they are pressed, marshalled or cajoled.

Sometimes they are reduced to ghosts. But even that does not deprive them of a certain revenant power.

Take ge-. Every German speaker knows that ge- has a clear function in the established grammar of the Teutonic language. It indicates the past participle of a verb. Some might, albeit unconsciously, connect this with the ancient meaning of ge- as ‘together’. The idea of the perfective aspect in Old Germanic is connected with the idea of putting things together, tying things up, finishing things off and cutting off loose ends, to create the perfect Hegelian synthesis (Gestalt), in which the real truly does conform to a noble but potentially dangerous ideal.

English and other more peripheral Germanic languages started losing this ge- prefix quite early. Old English was already reducing it to y- and this process was accelerated by a constant influx of Danes on Viking long-ships, who were inclined to drop it altogether.

Y- persists as a badge of erudition and connection with tradition in Middle English and even later as an affectation, by now hopelessly confused with the a- prefix, which came, by happenstance, to have exactly the same pronunciation, and perform a merely decorative, at best metrical, function, with a soupçon of the original sense of ge- thrown in.

The times they are a-changing.

Nowadays, a- seems more laughably pretentious than ominously portentous and ge- irrevocably consigned to the garbage bin of linguistic history.
And yet, the ghosts, as ghosts do, have a way of not wanting to stay put in the ground.

“Game” is a word that is certainly on the rise, be it as a form of virtual entertainment that mimics physical sports for the couch-bound obese or as a euphemism for the gambling industry that is the sleazy sibling of presumably nobler financial transactions on which the whole world economy now depends.
“Game” is also used to refer to near-extinct species of wildlife corralled onto reserves as easy target practice for aspirant demagogues, the entitled and the super-rich.

It is also used as an adjective to imply willingness to enter into the team spirit, with an undertone of necessary humiliation. A whole ‘Game for a Laugh’ style of candid camera TV reality comedy shows have based themselves on this premise of the group humiliating an individual and the humiliated victim being expected to endure the further humiliation of publicly accepting this treatment in good grace. The process is so effective that North Korean dictators have recently used it as cover for surreptitiously assassinating their enemies in plain sight.

It is all just a game.

The English word game derives from Old German ‘ge-Mann’, meaning a group of men together and by extension the kind of things that a group of men tend to get up to together: getting pissed, pissing around, picking fights, plotting and conspiring against one another, harassing women, trashing the environment, and claiming that the resulting chaos reflects the natural order of things. Fair game, if not fair play.

Ge- is thus, through this seemingly benign word, in a disturbing manner, muscling its way back into the English language.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 8 …but

In Part 7 of this series of posts on prepositions, I noted that ‘and’ often has a more prepositional than conjunctive flavor in modern English, outlined its nobler etymological pedigree and speculated as to the reasons for its fall from grace.

‘But’ has arguably fallen even further. Its etymological ancestor combines no less than three separate antique prepositions ‘by’ ‘out’ and ‘on’.

Clearly, like ‘and’, it was originally used as a grand contrastive flourish at the beginning of a phrase, like ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’ nowadays. And, like ‘and,’ its use in this position should certainly not be chastised. I have always been particularly fond of the peculiarly Australian positioning of the word at the end of a sentence, with rising intonation (of course)—a colloquialism clearly derived from ancient usage that may itself already be outdated by now. Similar to the use of ‘not’, in ‘not-type’ jokes, this adds a degree of smirking tongue-in-cheek suspense to an otherwise banal statement.

“But” can still be sharp as stiletto, when it chooses to be so.

I end this post with a question.

What is the difference between the following two phrases?
1. a bold but rash move
2. a bold, albeit rash, move

Both clearly mark a contrast between the two adjectives used by the speaker/writer to judge the move. But, which is the stronger contrast and what exactly is the nature of the difference between the two, if any? Which adjective (if any) outweighs the other across this fulcrum of ‘buts.’

Propertius III.vi

Tell me, boy! what you get from our girl
& free yourself from her handcuffs & chains!

After all, we don’t expect the errand boy to turn up empty-handed, do we?
& a slave always tells a truer tale with the thumb-screws on.

So, spill the beans, boy! Reel it off right from the start!
I’m all ears. & don’t try to fob me off
with some lovey-dovey shit sob story you think I want to hear.

Have you seen her yet in a state with her hair-do all undone?
How much water fall from her eye?
Have you seen her, boy! smash her compact across the bedsit wall
& kick her locked bauble-box away under the bed
& wear nothing but that same frumpy grey top over her tits day after day?

Say how her dirty black hands ain’t got no gold drippin’ from ‘ em no mo’.
How her place got an atmosphere you need an ice-pick to get through,
with her little sistas all a-gettin’ at ya all day
to tell you what got into her and what you done to make her that way.

Does she do nothin’ all day but watch crap on TV
& fill the ashtray with un-lipsticked Malboro stubs
& Hershey wrappers and tear-drenched Kleenex screwed up in little balls?

Does she jerk up and cry out in her sleep
to pick up an old bone she has to pick with me? Sleepsaying:

“You man enough, to keep your oath, lover boy?
Your word your bloody bond, boy! your ball and chain?
Perjury put you away a long stretch, boy!
You gonna do me like he dumped me, lawyer boy!
Like trash in the can, like a tramp
wi’ no place I would ever wanna call home.
He happy seein’ me like my soul
rot on death row? He think me happy you doin’ me
one, doin’ me over, doin’ me in with your manhood
& your fists like he do, far better than you, lover boy!?

“Some other bitch hook him sure and not with her cool looks
& sweet winnin’ mamma ways, no. I’m tellin’ you, lawyer boy,
she drug him, sonny, with her big wet, furry, black Santa Claus,
with her gramma’s herbs & her brother’s cheap shit-hot crack
& a ragged poppet crucified on twigs in the woods
& smeared with ooze of punctured toad
& viper-bite to draw-draw the love-juice from his flabby bones
& chicken-feathers found round a grave glued to his zombie heart
& a scrap of a shroud round his undead head
& she torched the poppet of him on a doll’s house funeral pyre
so he go up in smoke and love.

“Get it down, lawyer boy! expert witness to my dreams?
‘Cos if you don’t, I’ll have my way with the both of you,
when it all goes on to appeal. I’ll get my sweet revenge
with both of you, writhing at my painted toes like snakes or worms.
There’s still some black-assed widow a-weaving her web in your empty beds,
lover-boys! & you can have Venus and Serena
in there at the same time, honeys; I still got you
in my crosswire, lover boys!”

& when you got it down, boy, come a-runnin’
& bring the goods to Daddy, like some mista
kicked you up the ass to get you a-movin’ boy!
Cryin’ your testimony like a baby,
paid for by nights with her. Admit it, boy!
She ain’t cheatin’ on me with a toy like you;
she’s just a-playin’ with you to hot me up. On your oath, boy!
Tell her I’ll be checkin’ into rehab
& a-keeping ma prick clean for a spell
& she’ll be back.

‘cos, boy!, if I get to make up & make out
after this little Civil War,
I’m your Abraham Lincoln, boy!
& you better sure thank me & God & the Constitution
& your fucking lucky stars & stripes
for setting your black ass free.

Propertius III.v

Love and those of us who like fucking love peace;

and I, for my part, am happy enough with a favor

won in a virtual spat from a chatroom dominatrix.

I’ve not got one thousand nodding donkeys

pumping crude from the fat of the land in East Texas;

I’m not interested in snapping up Liz Taylor’s

cast-off diamond necklaces; and you won’t find me

done up like a ponce in Armani or Pierre Cardin.

But that is not to say that I am ready to slap on a flak-jacket

and go kick the ass off the axis of evil for the good of good old Uncle Sam.

Some foreign egg-head’s at the back of all the ills in the world,

I know. But he’ll end up with 2,000 volts, courtesy of

Enron and the Federal government, thumping through his liver

on a prison hospital bed one day for sure. So, I don’t care.

What are brains worth when they’re fried, mister? The only way

is the righteousness of the born-again dumb-assed soul. God bless!


Now, the anchor with the blond bob and the tits on CBS

says it’s getting rough in the sandstorms out there

but we’ve got the bastards on the run, of course,

and superiority in the air and technological stealth

and smart bombs and sensitivity to collateral damage

and depleted-Uranium-tipped tomahawks

and an overwhelming sense of right will always prevail.

But I say, after a beer or three, on the sofa

that you can have or have yourself a gilded bathtap

from a Presidential palace in Baghdad,

but you can’t take it with you, can you,

if you end up some skeleton in uniform

with your bare dumb ass sticking out of a dune.

The bones and the stinking sun-dried flesh

of homeboys and aspirant blue-eyed all-American superheroes

get ground up all the same by the eroding desert winds and mixed

with those of the Fedayeen.

Howard Hughes, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn and JFK

wind up in the same sorry shipwrecked boat

as the rest of us, once they’re dead.

That’s why I prefer heavy metal music

and working out my adrenalin in the crush

of a Kiss concert and, while I’m still young,

dedicating myself to Stolichnaya and Peter Stuyvesant

and long-necked Buds and long hair

and head-banging and amphetamines

and a fuck for the groupies who didn’t get lucky that night.

Till I’m too old and bald for that sort of thing.

Then I’ll mellow out and enrol

on a night-school course as a mature student

and study astronomy, and weather science or law.

Because I’ve always wondered why the moon

rises and falls and grows fat or thin by the month,

and how we used gravity to visit it

and why twisters come from time to time

to trash trailer homes and why there is always clouds and rain

over our holy land and why God paints a rainbow

through the sky when sun shines through purple haze

and why the tops of the pines sigh and shake in the wind

in National Parks and why, lying stoned on your back

all night on Summer Camp, the Plough goes round and round

the Northern Star and never dips into the lake and why the Seven Sisters

stick so shiningly and close together like Motown sistas

and why the sea doesn’t fly off into space

like an Apollo rocket

and why seasons and moods come and go.

And in Church I’ll learn of the hell

Where whores are broken on wheels,

and evil Nazi doctors are chained to crags

and operated on, without anesthesia,

and the unfairly wealthy are forced

to endure an eternal thirst

to the sound of Evian water dripping out of reach;

and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

are constantly a-sowing a pandemic of AIDs, rattle-snake bites,

bipolar disorders, anorexia, smoking, obesity and diabetes

over that shady, inescapable place

guarded by Rottweilers and sharks.

But I’ll know, because by then I will be an educated person

and wise through age, that all of this is merely a necessary

illusion for the dim-witted and the blessed,

who, of course, can’t handle the grim reality of cremation,

oblivion and death.

When I die what will remain of me

will be simply this simple life that I have led, am leading

and will lead.

And I leave it you who

like crew-cuts and guns and the stars and stripes

close to your breast

to do the very worthy job of National Defense.