Dogme in Poetry and Film Part II

Dogme in Poetry

So far as I am aware, there is no formal or informal dogme movement in poetry. A Google search throws up no hits relevant to the subject. Neither do I know of any poet other than myself who professes to be influenced by this style of making films. If there are any out there, I would very much like to hear from them and read their work.

Dogme has also had a strong influence on how I write poetry. In fact, even before the dogme movement even existed I was writing in a manner that was clearly compatible with it and thereafter started following dogme principles more self-consciously. The principles, of course, are not necessarily entirely new, and are related to the Renaissance movement towards writing in the vernacular rather than in Latin and to the emergence of prose poetry and free verse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I tend to eschew formal stylized rhythms and rhymes and try, as much as possible not to write anything that some real person in real life is unlikely to write or say. This gives my work either a stark quality (as in the earlier prose poems) or a seemingly glib and vulgar one (as in the later poems). It also informs my interest in experimental ‘found poems’ and crowd-source-authored work.

But, like Dogme film makers, this does not mean that my work is not stylized. It is not documentary; it is not real. In fact, it is more stylized than many traditional poems that cram barely-veiled clichés or arcane formulations into fixed meter.

The aesthetic I am trying to achieve derives less from linguistic pyrotechnics than from ambiguities in otherwise banal language. Every word (even a pronoun or a preposition) is loaded with a multiplicity of potential meanings derived from real-life usage.

My aesthetic broadly follows the dictates of the Dogme film-makers, although, like them, I inevitably breach them all the time. Recently, sifting through old papers, I chanced upon a dogme poetry ‘manifesto’ that I drew up a few years ago.

I have adapted my original version a little for the purposes of this post.

  1. Dogme poetry is an art-form that strictly confines itself to the use of a written form (or written forms) of naturally-occurring language, normally on a small scale.
  2. Musical effects should come from the words alone and not from any artificial external devices, such as rhyme-schemes and scansion, nor from an accompanying musical support.
  3. A dogme poem should be contemporary and derive from a social context familiar to its author or authors; it should not be set in any historical, exotic, mythological or fantasy setting.
  4. A dogme poem may be written in prose or lined, either arbitrarily or at the bidding of the author. It should be published in a uniformly-sized plain font with no decoration apart from standard punctuation and diacritic marks.
  5. The poem should eschew any language or turns of phrase that deviate significantly from contemporary vernacular usage.
  6. No dogme poem should strive to conform to any pre-established poetic form, nor should it aspire to establish any new kind of such form.
  7. Any form of publication that involves a financial transaction is strictly forbidden. Copyright issues are irrelevant to dogme poets, in so far as any copy (or iteration) of the ‘original’ is regarded as a new creation, by dint of occurring in a different context.
  8. A dogme poet may include his or her name or pseudonym, or details of collective authorship, on the title page of selections, but not on individual poems. When an author’s name is included, it should appear in a font size significantly smaller than that of the regular font used for the main text.
  9. Multiple, collective and transferred forms of authorship are strongly encouraged.
  10. The use of Internet search engines, computer-generated organization of text and other innovative uses of new technology are strongly recommended, so long as they do not breach Principle #5.
  11. Provided it has first been composed by writing (Principle #1), a dogme poem may be presented orally in public, but not by its author. Oral presentations should preferentially be delivered by duly remunerated professional actors or spontaneously by members of the general public.
  12. A dogme poet is free to diverge from any of the above principles, so long as any such breach is in keeping with the general spirit of these principles.

Final Remark: Dogme poetry is not, principally, an exercise in the free-expression of individual or collective desires, identities or feelings. Dogme poetry aims, instead, to mine and exploit, to the fullest possible extent, the already existing wealth of linguistic possibilities thrown up by the already existing dynamic language-bound social world, thereby contributing, as effect rather than cause, to the emergence of possible new social, linguistic and cultural identities.

Advertisement

Dogme in Poetry and Film (Part 1)

Part I  Dogme in Film

I have long been a huge fan of the so-called Dogme style of film-making, which emerged in Denmark in the 1990s. I like its clearly outlined set of principles and the way that the best Dogme-influenced films tend, nevertheless, to be those that infringe these self-imposed regulations.

The original idea of Dogme was to produce films that are as close to real life as possible but without concealing the essential artificiality of the process. Shorn of all stylization and special effects, the aim was not gritty social realism in the British mode—that would still be stylized—but a sort of post-modern TV realism, in which the artificiality of the medium is exposed by the very lack of artifice, hence, ironically exposing the ‘real life’ that lies behind it. It is similar, in some respects to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt and the way this was taken up by new-wave film-makers in the 1960s. Godard’s masterpiece Weekend springs to mind.

Dogme films, however, are far more ‘puritanical’ than these antecedents. There is no incidental music; there are no tracking or long shots; nothing occurs on screen that the actors are not actually doing in the studio; the camera is always hand-held (home-movie style), focusing primarily on the actors’ talking heads and eschewing painterly cinematography.

One of my favorite early dogme films is Italian for Beginners—a tender funny tale with an ensemble cast and unusual for an early dogme film in that it is a romantic comedy rather than a dour psychological tragedy. The film follows a group of night-school language students, whose teacher dies suddenly and who decide to continue the course without a teacher, working it out for themselves. The film has a pleasing lightness of touch and and quirky clunky beauty, and its theme has given rise to a whole ‘dogme-style’ movement in English language teaching.

It is almost impossible to make a pure Dogme film and even the earliest efforts that received a Dogme certificate deviate substantially from the rules. Dogme has since filtered down into the mainstream and is a stock-in-trade of modern-day TV series.

The Night Manager, directed by Susanne Bier—once a stern dogme advocate, now tipped to direct the next James Bond movie—uses dogme-style features to produce a delicately layered and very female-gaze take on a classic spy novel.

The restaurant scene, in which the arms dealer’s son is the target of a faked kidnapping attempt, employs the dogme rules to masterful dramatic effect and, since the kidnapping is fake in the story, doesn’t actually break any of the original dogme rules in this regard. Take a bow Ms. Bier.

There is also a fantastic scene, in the fifth episode, if I remember rightly, in which the arms dealer and a dubious client watch a pyrotechnic display of military hardware in the Syrian desert. This is obviously far from the dogme ethos but there is a sort of added thrill to the prolonged scene in that you are aware that Bier is getting as much of a kick out of transgressing the sometimes stifling dogme protocol as the characters are from their violent criminal activities. Again, Bier is careful to craft the scene in such a way as to reveal, at the end, that all the acts of extreme violence displayed were ‘merely’ fake, for demonstration purposes only, thus, by a pinch, not entirely breaking dogme rules.

The best TV series to have aired recently in my view—although The Night Manager and the first season of True Detective run it a close second and third—is The Leftovers. This essentially science-fiction genre series is clearly not dogme in nature but draws on the style in interesting ways.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed by the long-awaited third season of this series. It was good but not as good as it was billed up to be, principally because it recycled so much of the highly successful material from previous seasons. The final episode, however, was an astounding tour-de-force that redeemed and tied up the whole series for me.

The writers and directors of The Leftovers were left with a dilemma at the end of the second season. They had agreed that the series would come to an end in the third season but were faced with various mysteries that needed to be explained (or not). They decided (I think highly courageously) to go for fully explaining the main mystery of the mass disappearances in the last episode. It would have been so temptingly easy and yet cowardly to leave everything open and ambiguous, without risking ridicule or bathos. They chose, thankfully, not to do this, but rather to reveal the truth behind the mystery in a very specific, very touchingly dogme way.

The basic premise of The Leftovers is that 2% of the world’s population has suddenly disappeared in a rapture-like event. This has left the ‘leftovers’ traumatized and directionless and they seek out various forms of cult and self-help to overcome the trauma.

In the final episode Nora Durst (the Sprecher of the series, played with admirable understatement and self-restraint by Carrie Coon) is convinced by a cult that she can be reunited with her departed children and husband if she undergoes a sort of death by radiation on earth. Nora eventually agrees to the procedure, but it is clear from her demeanor throughout the lengthy processing scene, that she has her doubts, but doesn’t care, because death and being reunited with her lost children are all the same to her.

The second half of the final episode skips forward a decade or so. Nora is living as an eccentric in rural Australia. It is clear that she has survived the process of transition to the place the departed disappeared to, but seems not to want to talk about it. In the final scene of the series, she opens up to the new boyfriend she acquired in the course of the first two seasons, who has now come looking for her.

She tells him how she did indeed cross over to the ‘other side’ and how that there things are much worse: 98% of the population have disappeared, her children are the lucky ones because they have each other. This is all filmed entirely through talking head dialogue. No attempt is made (wisely) to visually depict this bizarre experience and the camera focuses in instead on the signs of ageing on the actors’ faces. It was moving, technically brilliant, totally in the tradition of the ancient Greek dramatists’ strategy for presenting difficult-to-stage implausible episodes by way of an (ob scena) verbal report, and, of course, very dogme-based.

The final episode of The Leftovers reminded me of Solaris (both the Soviet and the more recent US version). I re-watched the original Tarkovsky version recently, having spent many years watching and re-watching the George Clooney American remake. The films are in fact more similar than I had remembered. Both depend on the conceit that a crew of space-travelers have been driven to madness by the mysterious effect of an alien planet they are surveying. A psychologist is duly dispatched to sort out the problem and is then himself sucked into the same kind of psychological problem that the other crew-members are experiencing—namely extremely enticing delusions. In the case of the psychologist, the delusion takes the form of his beautiful deceased wife and he finds himself powerless to resist.

There is a scene in which the crew decide to kill off this very physical apparition by ejecting her into space. In the original, it kitschily involves putting her in a nuclear weapon in skimpy Sixties-style attire—James Bond villain style—in stark contrast to the otherwise dour tone and slow pace of the film. In the US version, it involves a lot of high-tech McGuffin about quantum physics, with a sweet side-dish of good old-fashioned American sentimentality. In both films, the actress seems unperturbed by the elaborate execution process and, of course, simply returns to haunt them nicely moments later, in the manner of one of the friendly yet infuriating ghosts of ex-wives in David Lean’s film version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

What all of these films show is how the pared-down dogme-style technique, even when avant-la-lettre, is capable of producing a powerful work of art, even (or perhaps especially) within genres (science fiction, spy thrillers, ghost stories etc.) that traditionally tend to be outlandish and sensationalist. Furthermore, the more disciplined dogme approach enables more extravagant scenes to be introduced (the pyrotechnics in The Night Manager, the execution/exorcism scene in the two versions of Solaris) to much more powerful dramatic effect than is achievable within the conventional high-adrenalin special effects driven action movie.

Sonnets on Autism Nos.6-9

Sonnet on Autism #6

I am ashamed to write you,

because I am always too clever-clever,

while you are always too ass-ass

and always right.

*

I am always at best

slightly wrong and left behind,

making up for the mistakes,

putting myself straight,

*

while you are the luxury of a mistake,

put in the world so properly

to laugh at and to laugh at me.

*

I do wrong; you are wrong.

And in between lies all the difference

between being justified or not.

 

Sonnet on Autism #7

All play and no work makes jack

a very dull boy indeed. All play

and no jack means jack can’t get

nothing off the ground anyway.

*

Though he try and try and try

and play and play and play,

he just can’t get It to work

out right. Never mind. We are all just jacks

in a pack of knaves

and some of us work out alright,

and some fall through the cracks,

and some just jack off.

And that’s that.

That’s the way it goes.

 

Sonnet on Autism #8

There is no-one out there.

You know that at least

and that is the most significant

and damaging thing anyone can know:

that no prayer can get through

the fog and frost around our always

already rusted drains of eyes and ears.

And touching is always just

clutching at sucking straws.

Everything is agitation.

We are all better off dead.

*

Solipsism is the last refuge

of the scoundrel repentant

and the homepage of one who always knew.

 

Sonnet on Autism #9

close all stores, eyes & mouths

or better still just close

because we who are already always

closed as blessed stones know

*

there is no blooming reason

to flower out into the world

& make a mess of it

as we will

*

we will our selves into being

because we are pulled by others

who cannot really love us

*

you close off to a point

& knowing that there is no point

point to that

*

with my closed eyes in your hands

& we are somehow close

 

Sonnets on Autism Nos. 18-22

[Continuing the process of posting my previously unpublished longer poems on this blog, today I post a batch of five of my Thirty Sonnets on Autism.

This series of thirty poems, which I first wrote fourteen years ago and have never published in their entirety, are some of the most complex I have ever penned. Although ostensibly inspired by living with an autistic child, they are in fact more about a turbulent relationship with his mother and the main message of the series, I suppose, thus involves the ultimate impossibility of communication and therefore also of love, which is (ironically for a poet) a recurrent theme in my work.

Autism appears here both more straightforwardly as a metaphor for miscommunication and more complicatedly as the source of a kind of borrowed non-language, in which the author is far from fluent, but which he attempts to use in the hope that this might somehow bridge the gap.

As a whole, the series has a very troubling tone and the themes it covers range widely from philosophical metaphysical and religious ones to those of a more emotional and sexual nature. The poems often chop up familiar philosophical, biblical and literary quotations in a perverse way, rendering them virtually unintelligible. They are interspersed with psycho-analytical language, without this providing any resolution whatsoever. The conclusion seems to be that the autistic boy in fact makes far more sense than we supposedly normal human beings usually do. Nonsense makes more sense than sense.

This batch of five forms a thematically consistent unit within the second half of the sequence. Sonnet on Autism #19 has already been published in an earlier post.]

Sonnet on Autism #18

Every magus must have his wand.

But, unlike you,

it is not usually in his mouth.

You have no urge

to effect an illusion

in the minds of others that you cannot know,

still less to pretend your magic

controls a real world.

*

You know there is a space

between truth and illusion

and that it is too comfortable for comfort,

twitch and cry for release.

But I cannot help you.

For you have already fallen through the interstices of the world.

*

Yet, if my hand cannot reach out to yours

and bring you back to somewhere you have never been,

I am tempted to let you drag me down—

take me with you,

angel who is never fallen

always gliding on the fall.

 

Sonnet on Autism #19

between between

there is a little double world

that you are too familiar with

& I am not

*

beyond in

there is something better

that makes you bothered & bored

with mere being in the world

*

you hit me because you can see

through the lie of preposition

I hug you because I cannot

*

I love you

because you cannot lie

when you play with my toes as if they were yours.

 

Sonnet on Autism #20

you know there is no such thing as in

and therefore seek it desperately,

like a thing we cannot say

that cannot say we

*

you are always beside yourself

and never in yourself

because you know

in is a lie

*

but you lie so peacefully in sleep

as I twitch and turn

bothered by the world

*

I am not really in the in

that gadflies you by day

that every day your absence of an in prods me towards

 

Sonnet on Autism #21

I do not know why they think

me wise

and you an idiot

or all manner of other technical things in the same vein

*

I call you wise

and you respond

and we know that you are the wisest idiot

of all

who has opted to withdraw

totally from the social world

and yet come back from time to time

*

to prod us from our lazy unreason

and remind us that Platonic solids

must be separate

not prettily imposed upon one another

as the schoolbook so foolishly guides

and mean so much more than us

in their faraway land of forms.

 

Sonnet on Autism #22

You vanish into the vanishing

point of reason,

wishing you were not here.

And I am tempted

by your total attempt,

and tried

and judged,

because I feel

your way of being still

will still be in the world,

when mine is not

and long forgotten and gone.

 

 

Prince Henry Does the Cape

[Here is another recent poem produced while I was struggling to conclude 64, with which it shares some themes.

The Prince Henry of the title and first section refers to the historical figure of the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator, who was one of the pioneers of the European colonial project and funded the first successful efforts to navigate the so-called Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, although he never travelled on a voyage himself, as the Portuguese national poet Camões did. The rhythm and content of Camões’s epic are mocked here by turning them into a sort of rap.

In the second part, Henry takes on more of the character of another modern day Prince Henry, who may be familiar to some readers. The poem ends with a reference to the Portuguese/Brazilian Messianic/apocalyptic cult of Sebastianism, according to which the Portuguese King D. Sebastião, who funded Camões and disappeared during a battle with the Moors deep in the Moroccan desert in the late Middle Ages, will return one day to reclaim the kingship and redeem the world—a Portuguese King Arthur of sorts. This cult most famously inspired a conservative popular uprising deep in the semi-arid region of Brazil, in the late 19th century, which was brutally suppressed by the recently installed Republican régime. It is recounted much more extensively and poetically than I ever could in the epic prose of the Brazilian writer, geographer and military engineer, Euclídes da Cunha, who was embedded as a journalist in the ultimately savage campaign.]

 

Prince Henry Does the Cape

In fourteen hundred and thirty-eight,

Prince Henry, hopped up on hope and hate,

set his long sights on rounding the Cape,

with sugar and slaves and all things nice

and swords and cannon balls to scythe

the fertile crescent of the nascent Islamic state.

*

The crow’s nest sways over the waves,

as the tsunami hits

and legs & bowels give way to the scurvy

and the eyes of the Virgin Mary tear up with blood,

remembering the flood,

foreshadowing the final fire.

Guns are hired, high-fives all around,

as they scupper dhows and junks.

Musket shot bows the necks of infidel punks,

cannonballs pound the cities that stink of spices and skunk.

*

& the coast of Ceuta is packed with refugees

& the streets of Kabul, Mosul, and Ferguson

are patrolled by Humvees.

Palates pleased with mangoes and curries

cry out for sweet mercies,

as the memory of the poppy sap in the brain

fades and cries out for more

& the whole wide world goes giddily down the drain.

*

Tea was a good idea, the admiral concludes,

as he gives orders to unleash

a barrage of deathly shells onto the shore,

that would make Shiva proud.

*

Prince mutters populist inanities,

as he steps dashingly from a helicopter.

Prince dons his cape,

kissing, kicking ass, saving

near-extinct species & souls & grace,

bagging game, winning arms

contracts and sports contests

is his game, he grins to much applause.

*

Burma ink blots the copy book.

Kamikaze ravens blacken the sky.

Rivers run red with eutrophic bacteria

and the sea is a plastic stew.

*

Seb goes out in a blaze of glory

in a dust-storm, gripped

by the talons of a djinn,

returns some day on the shores of Amazon,

blow-pipe in hand, or veiled

in the depths of the desert,

bent on revenge.

64 Epilogue (Parts 30-35)

[Here, finally, is the final Epilogue section of 64. The first part returns briefly and somewhat comically to the wedding reception. The second is a Song of the Fates, echoing Catullus’s original poem, which I have already posted as a free-standing poem entitled The Rope on this blog. The third, perhaps most difficult part of the poem, is a dour prophecy (still in the voices of the Fates) regarding the future of Peleus’s son (Achilles in the original and the murder of the Trojan princess Polyxena). The fourth part flashes forward to the ultimate fate of Peleus and Thetis and they disappear. In the fifth part, as in the Catullan original, the tone changes completely, introducing a pastoral flavor, albeit interspersed with dark themes from the preceding sections. The last part constitutes an ‘epilogue within an epilogue’ and attempts to present the moral of the tale.

I have mixed feelings about this poem that I have spent a good 20 years or more of my life working on but is very different from most of my other work. I feel an odd mixture of pride and shame: proud that I have finally finished the damned thing, but also somewhat ashamed that the unrelenting nastiness of it reflects negatively, but somehow necessarily, on myself and on the times in which I have lived. Catullus, coming out of a long period of brutal civil war into a new supposedly more stable order based on tyranny must have felt much the same.]

 

                                        EPILOGUE

                                               (30)

                                      HANGOVER

The wedding-guests wake with horrible hangovers,

slumped over sofas and armchairs or bunched up

more closely together than usual in sleeping bags

on the living room floor. The pools of puke

in the deep-pile carpet will take some cleaning out

and various domestic ornaments that may have held

some sentimental value lie shattered. Someone cries “Fuck!”

as they cut their foot on a shard rushing for the loo.

The best man is still comatose in the bathroom, people banging angrily on the door.

Some have done vaguely remembered things they vaguely regret.

Lawsuits, family feuds and courses of antibiotics for STDs

may well ensue. The Fates, like family-court judges, oversee

the proceedings with looks of unsurprised disdain.

 

(31)

The Rope

Clotho binds the thread; Lachesis pays it out;

Atropos sells it on to the handyman, builder, soldier,

cowboy, sailor, slaver, torturer, executioner

with her winning sales exec smiles and seductive ways…

 

& the various types of fella are roped in

and pegged out like dirty laundry

hung out to dry on a washing line:

joker, wheeler-dealer, ladies’ man, the silent type; Jack the ripper

Jack the lad, diamond geezer, Johnny lunch bucket, family man;

incorrigible bachelor, perfect gent; head-butting nutter, upper class twit;

harmless drunk, helpless nerd, boy band reject, dumb jock, seven-stone-weakling, nervous wreck

salt of the earth; wife batterer, drug addled waif; self-lover, self-loather alike,

every neighbor who mows his lawn in shirt sleeves every sunny Sunday afternoon….

Give ‘em all enough rope

& sure as eggs is eggs

Sure as night follows day

Sure as hell, in the end,

the scissors or the dump or the drying out clinic

will find them out and reel them back in again.

 

The Fates have a single eye between them

that you can borrow when you watch TV

through which you see their work in rosy light

and feel assured that all is right.

 

(32)

The Fates poke about Peleus like urologists,

boney fingers fingering his prostate and prick

& predict a son…

 

“A nasty foul-tempered piece of work,

with a weakness for war for pay and young girls,

Sonny-boy will set her hair alight

and laugh as his boys rape the princess,

and by way of a grand finale,

conclude the proceedings

with a sharp knife-stroke across the throat,

mercy of sorts,

and will toss her atop the bonfire

of other burning bodies

in the charred vanquished village,

an Elvis-style snarl on his lips,

and will wipe the blood from his medals

and move on his troops.

*

‘What did Daddy do in the war, Grandpa?’

a wide-eyed granddaughter will one day inquire….”

 

(33)

Death plants her scythe on the stone floor,

scraping the rusty blade back and forth across the flagstones

& tapping a single impatient foot,

scissors snipping like gypsy castanets,

waiting for them to heed her Siren call…

Peleus won’t go…

Long since lost to a stroke,

Thetis dribbles

and wets her wheel-chair.

No longer with us anyway, poor dear.

 

(34)

Back in the good old days, when hearty fun

could be had by cowherds splashing water on giggling smocked girls

from the water trough or the bucket drawn from the well,

and dirty children’s feet dangled in clear streams

as summer sun cast a golden hue over the growing corn,

all was well. Till the wars came

and the boys came back in pine-boxes

or with condoms and nylons and sticks of gum in their pockets,

PTSDs and a thing about guns,

whistling at the legs of passing Penelopes

put to work in the munitions factories, GI brides

too impatient to wait for their heroes to come home.

Any passing yank will do.

And then the Bomb with its grim exclamation point of a cloud

saying “What the fuck!” “Everybody’s going to die.”

“Best drop out, get stoned and laid.”

And the workers turned out of factories and pits

by robots, outsourced child labor, global warming,

hopped up on prescription drugs to ease their pain,

riot now and then and are beaten down by police.

Things go from worse to worse, No bottom lies in sight.

Only ourselves to blame. We do nothing to avert the decline.

 

(35)

No wonder then the gods

don’t drop in on our wedding feasts

that often these days, don’t much fancy

being seen hanging out

with the likes of us,

bar the occasional dream.

 

64 Section 5 (Honeymoon) Parts 27-29

[The second half of the fifth section of 64 continues to follow Peleus and Thetis on their honeymoon, through Paris, a city that is not dwelt upon, except dismissively in retrospect, on down to Gibraltar. As they move further South, the vulgar free verse tends to metamorphose into gentler poetic prose and to be more infused with my own voice. This section ends with a sort of redemption, as Thetis ‘takes a dip’, a kind of secular baptism, in the now heavily polluted Mediterranean sea that was her mythological spawning ground, echoing the section in the courtship part of the poem in which Peleus, in flirting but cruel jest, threatens to throw her back into the cold Irish sea from whence she came, like an unwanted sprat.

The fish-like qualities and features of Thetis are more heavily emphasized in this section and there is a slight suggestion that she is now pregnant, as the result of a ‘quickie’ on the back seat of a night-coach on the long journey through Spain. This will be picked up (nastily) in the final Epilogue section. Things are not going to end well for Peleus and Thetis (do they ever?), but there is no suggestion that the couple do not otherwise, despite a dismal and ill-starred beginning, live a long and at least somewhat fulfilling life together, as our parents and our grandparents, on whom these characters are broadly based in my imagination, largely did, despite their physical, cosmetic and moral flaws.]

(27)

                                       Nightmare

Thetis starts, her fins twitching frantically,

before paralysis sets in and she goes into REM,

as if she were being strangled by some incubus

or thrown up on deck by a fisherman,

struggling for oxygen through panting gills.

She is not sure whether she has pissed herself or come.

There has always been something fishy about Thetis,

her dozing brain thinks, as she burps,

rolls over. What the fuck. Back to her dreams…

The Nazi officer in his freshly pressed uniform

is at once cool and cruel with his boots and his whip

but that’s nothing compared to the shaving and parading she gets from the Résistance.

My name, she says, as she jerks briefly awake, is “Marianne”… I appear on bank-notes

and my bared breasts are known to the whole world.

‘Vive la République!’ she cries out in an ecstasy of humiliation,

as hubby, kitted out in the clean-cut clobber of the SS

has her ass through the ripped open bottom half

of an old-fashioned French maid’s outfit.

*

“Weird dream I had last night,” she comments casually,

as they mull over a disappointing continental breakfast

and the hotel windows are lashed by rain.

Peleus grunts. He is already having a bad day.

 

(28)

Postcards

Calais doesn’t have much to commend it

apart from the giftware and the hypermarkets.

Thetis picks her way through the kitsch,

like a schoolgirl combing a polluted beach for shells,

wishing she were back on the boardwalk in Weston-super-Mare,

but happy to have a hubby in tow…

Wishing secretly they had opted for Penzance.

An Isolde deceived by potions and pirates on the ocean

between mist-tinged Tintagel and Brest;

her virginity smuggled away in some secret sea-lashed cave overhung by cliffs…

*

Hubby has bought a clutch of post-cards depicting classic paintings,

the power of Van Gogh sunflowers and Monet water lilies

long since sucked out by mass-reproduction

and suitable for decorating walls. Delacroix’s Wreck of the Medusa

incongruously among them: the cross, the mast, the sails,

the wooziness of travel by sea. Thetis catches herself from swooning…

Peleus calculatingly folds up a wet umbrella, like something out of a Magritte.

We are all cannibals of sorts, she thinks,

feeding on one another, eating each other up.

 

(29)

South

As they move south out of Paris, the poetry in motion of the great city of lights gives way to the grass and vineyards of prose. Paris was a bore of bistros and bars and seedy hotels that happen expensively to look out on the Eiffel Tower or Saint Cloude. The ghosts of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine leave a bitter taste in the mouth and make them toss and turn in troubled sleep. Both wake up on the wrong side of the bed somewhere non-descript in the Midi. Thetis thinks it is already too fucking hot by far.

The trip moves south; Autobahns seem to straighten of their own volition, except for the bus-driver union regulation stop-offs at service stations with fast-food joints attached, where the staff still think they are waiters and that waiting on half-drunk, half-asleep passing tourists is a sadly neglected and peculiarly French form of performance art.

France too has its deep south. Land of the lizard, the orange tree and the mimosa… Half Muslim, half crusader and El Cid. Troubadours and mosques rub shoulders. Village after village puffed up with pride for their local vine or cheese. National Front posters, untouched by vandals proudly adorn the ancient crumbling walls of aqueducts. As if Caesars and Popes had only recently scorched the earth here and the locals are still keen to please.

Crossing the border into Spain, there are still armed guards milling around, as if the Second World War were still not over, Spain still neutral, Vichy France still a firm outcrop of the axis of evil of that age. The toll-booth is the last refuge of a bitter little Hitler, waving you reluctantly through.

The coach moves through most of Spain by night, skipping Guernica and the Basque country. The New Guggenheim crouches sleepily in the dark, like a toad or a turd, as Peleus snores and the coach roars by. The hills are so high they make ears pop as the vehicle descends hastily from barren plateau to orange-tree-lined seaside. Peleus and Thetis have a quick fuck in the dark of the back seat, before stopping off at dead of night in Toledo for burgers and beer as the drivers sip coca cola and mock Moroccans dumping rubbish under the wheels.

Gibraltar comes as a relief. They can catch up on the gossip in the Sun and get a decent bag of fish and chips, as they watch Africa shimmering in the distance across the straits.

Ceuta, with its refugees clambering desperately onto boats. Bodies already floating in the blue waters. Thetis titillated by the latest gossip, Peleus gawping at tits.

A mosaic in the hotel lobby shows a bull dragging a virgin onto these cool and fertile shores, as if it were a tacit advert for sex traffickers.

Bare-breasted and burkini-clad women jostle for a place on the sunbeds.

Thetis takes a dip in the vast blue warm calm enclosed sea fed by the effluent of twenty-three overpopulated surrounding nations.

 

64 Section 5 (Honeymoon) Parts 24-26

[Here is the first half of the fifth penultimate section of 64, entitled Honeymoon. In this section the tone changes somewhat, as we return to the main characters, Peleus and Thetis, and follow them on their honeymoon as they travel across the English Channel to Calais and then down through France and Spain to Gibraltar. This section, like the previous one, is not based on anything that explicitly appears in the original Catullus poem.]

(24)

Foreplay

Peleus is eager to get there and get his leg over.

The car ploughs through the darkness of country roads,

blue lights flashing on the dashboard,

his feet pumping angrily at accelerator, brake and throttle,

Thetis grumbling as they go over bumps.

*

The ferry across the channel is grounded by fog

so the happy couple check in to a cheap hotel.

There is no disabled access. The wounded of Dunkirk passed through here

years ago, coming the other way.

The groom—ever the gentleman—attempts

to hump his bride breathlessly over this temporary threshold

as she wriggles and groans.

*

The place is more Bates Motel than bridal suite.

You can hear the faked shrieking orgasms of whores through paper-thin walls

and see the stains other guests have left on the unclean beds.

Thetis flops onto the sheets and casually flips her knickers off

with a teasing wink.

Hubby staggers back from the minibar with two opened bottles of beer

and chucks up over her prolapse…

*

Hastings looks resentfully out at France over the sea.

The morning mist is of the kind on which pixies and the wisps of spirits

and persistent coughs thrive.

Water heats in a kettle.

They breakfast silently on black instant coffee

in prison-orange plastic mugs.

 

(25)

Crossing

It is hard to tell whether the catamaran cares little for the violence of the waves

or the waves for the catamaran. The queues for the toilet are long.

Staff mop up puke from tilting cheaply-carpeted corridors and urge

passengers towards fruit machines and duty-free booze.

Peleus thinks the peaked-caps of the long-suffering stewardesses make them look cute

and flirtingly orders a prawn sandwich, as his wife throws up in the bog.

Pale-faced passengers wander groaningly around, zombied by the churning sea.

A Goth kid tries to be cool, lies back and pulls a black hat down

over his face and lasts a while,

before spewing up spectacularly, all down his trendy long dark trench coat.

Peleus laughs… Sea legs are his forte.

Thetis wobbles back from the toilet on her crutches.

The pair hobble together hand in hand onto a foreign wharf.

 

(26)

Europa

Hubby has always had it that wogs begin at Calais.

It is lunchtime and almost everything is closed.

Workers siesta on discarded cardboard boxes

flattened out into ad hoc crucifix-shaped beds.

They drift into a bar, where there is whiskey and pool,

peeling posters proclaiming the patriotic credentials of the Front National,

a smell of booze and unfamiliar food.

The grinning gold-toothed bad-breathed landlord

keeps them topped up as they totter

around the pool table and the juke box.

They are happy that this place is not that much different from home,

though the toilets are foreign as hell,

Thetis shrieks.

*

Calais looks out bitterly towards Hastings across the newly fog-bound sea.

Ferries honk and wink at one another in the dark.

Thetis has had enough, zonked out on the dirty unmade bed,

as hubby drains the minibar and watches moored ships

rocking quietly and creakily swaying cranes;

wisps of yellowish petrochemical pollution mar the air.

 

 

64 Section 4 (Katabasis) Parts 18-23

[The second half of the 4th Katabasis section of 64, still channeled through Padraig’s drunken dream world, focuses on the character of Dido, who has, much to the delight of the other residents of Hell, now become a religious extremist. This section contains a seemingly flippant description of a terrorist attack that some readers may find upsetting. The section ends with Padraig disappearing into the oblivion of London-town homelessness and taking all the ‘secondary’ characters from the ekphrasis/katabasis sections (Dido, Ariadne, Theseus etc.) away with him. It concludes with another poem within a poem, The River Biss, which is the only part written entirely in my own voice.]

 

(18)

Padraig stands staggeringly to the strident strains of the Irish national anthem

they play at lunchtime chucking out time here

and toasts the bombers of the IRA with his last call.

Spends the afternoon shouting at ducks in the park:

“If ye dunna wan’ me fucking crumbs of bread ye can fuckin’ fuck off!”

Beds down on a park bench, the winter sun setting over his rosy cheeks.

“What was it happened to that Dido babe now?

Got God in hell.”

 

(19)

Soon enough, Dido is strapped up

with semtex under her burqa and bra

and sent back up in the elevator

to a tourist resort.

“Not many get a chance like this,” screws hiss.

“Not since Eurydice. We wanted that Orpheus’s head off.

Fucking poet! Fucking ponce! That Lorca. That Pasolini.

Them too. Make sure you don’t fuck up.”

The elevator creaks upwards revealing the light of the sky

seeping through the cracks. Dido bends in prayer.

 

(20)

Dido’s Hymn to Friday

‘Freya’s day. Frigga’s day. The day of love.

Women’s day. The day Jews scurry off

for their lazy Sabbath at the sight of a single star;

the day Christians knock off work

to enjoy an extra day on the beach debauching

and fighting on the football terraces.

Saturn’s day. Day of Death. Before returning

to worship a pagan god in their hypocritical churches

and cut up sacrificial beasts for lunch.

The Sun on Sunday. News of the World. They work

at their adulterous summer holidays, while we bow down in prayer.

Friday. The day I was born. Freya’s day. The day

of love and respect for women and the oppressed

non-European peoples of this world.

Friday’s child is loving and giving. My time to give love has come.’

 

(21)

“Next thing she knows, there are bloodied body parts

and bits of a bus all over the place and she is back in hell

with the screws all high-fiving her. Job well done.”

 

(22)

Uncle Padraig jolts out of his slumber. Night has fallen over London.

“Fuck! What kind of a dream was that? And I fucking pissed meself again!”

He weaves his way through the city, dodging anything that looks like police.

 

(23)

A passing drunk sings a song about his home town.

 

The River Biss

‘They call it Biss.

As if there were some joke in there

about never being able to step into it twice

or the L having long since dropped out.

Paradise lost.

*

Biss runs between concrete banks

along a concrete bed

around the Gateway Supermarket,

a car park, and the old cotton mill

no-one yet has bothered to pull down.

*

And you can

follow it along the concrete riverwalk

interspersed with newly planted trees

up or down stream.

*

Down to the run-down factory and the park

to ply the ducks with crumbs

or steer a toy boat about

with a remote control on the stagnant pond

or pay respect to the bird-crap wreathed

copper monument to the war dead,

worn greenish blue by acid rain,

*

Or upstream to the railway station

to catch your train out of town,

to the tune of pigs led to slaughter

and the smell of pork pies

wafting from the butcher’s shop nearby.

*

Biss runs through the blood

& it’s no wonder a punk girl now and then

harms herself with a razor-blade

to let the poison out.

It’s no wonder the streets are littered

with bodies, heads in plastic bags,

amidst discarded tubes of glue.

*

Attachment

needs a super-strong adhesive these days,

and lies only a spot of shoplifting,

a shady DIY shop counter,

or a dealer’s cool leather jacket pocket

away…

*

A church squashed between shops

is clogged with zonked out punks.

Cripples hobble hopeless and homeless

through pedestrianized zones.

*

‘There we all go,’ we think,

‘but for God’s grace, perhaps,

or a giro from the DWP.’

 

64 Section 4 (Katabasis) Parts 11-17

[The next two sections of 64 are entirely non-Catullan, in that they do not refer to anything that appears explicitly in the original, although they do still reflect its spirit a little. Section 4, entitled Katabasis (descent into hell), the first half of which (parts 11-17) I am posting today, imagines (still through the voice of the rhapsodic Uncle Padraig) Ariadne descending into hell (conceived as a sort of prison) and meeting up with Dido, former Queen of Carthage.

In Greco-Roman mythology, Dido and Ariadne share the dubious distinction of being the ditched foreign lovers of ‘heroes’ (Aeneas and Theseus) who went on, as myth would have it, to found ‘empires’ (the Roman and the Athenian respectively). In this first half of the Katabasis section, the empire-builders’ exes seem to find some kind of redemption together, albeit in the underworld.

I should again warn readers that deliberately vulgar and sexually explicit language yet again pervades this section, as it does the whole poem. This section also contains the perhaps more reader-friendly free-standing poem, Ariadne’s Ode to Thread, which I have already posted on this blog.]

 

KATABASIS

(11)

The doorstep has been Uncle Padraig’s pillow for the night

and his shoulder’s fucking killing him.

He brushes the dust off his wedding suit

and wanders off down the pub that should be open not too long from now

for a liquid Sunday lunch. “What was that story I was telling myself now?”

 

(12)

“& Ariadne slips away quietly in her sleep,

her fingers still clutching a vodka bottle to her breast like a baby,

as the elevator sinks down to hell.

And in hell, all the dealers and the pimps

are all over her,

because a new girl here is hot merchandise,

& a young one at that—a right cash-cow—

and she is steered into the cell where needs are met.

‘Best catch since Persephone’, surrounding shades coo.”

 

(13)

“No sooner she’s arrived than top-dog Dido is all over her too,

with curses and nails and tufts of hair all over

and a pair of scissors she has snuck out of the dressmaking shop.

And the screws—if they exist in Hell—

are on top of the pair of them

struggling to keep them apart

& they end up in adjoining solitary cells…

Dido screeching all night and bashing at the metal door

and pebble-dashed walls with a plastic tray,

as Ariadne sings quietly to herself.”

 

(14)

Ariadne’s Ode to Thread

‘I am not the path.

I am not the guide.

I’m not patient & not

the pattern of your life.

My foot taps to a speedier beat.

*

I am the Singer who plies

her Siren song in subtler thread.

*

I am not the cotton;

I am not the cut cloth.

I am neither sorceress

nor slave.

*

I am not your mother;

I am not your lover;

I am not the wicked witch.

*

I am a grown child

coming out of a maze;

nudging you.

*

I am not the doctor.

I am not the nurse.

I am not the disease.

*

I am the stitchwork

stretching out behind,

before and beyond you,

& the moment in which you pause.

I am time itself.

*

I am the entrance and the exit:

your first step, your way out.’

 

(15)

The Screws’ Chorus

“Who would take this job, if they didna have something to hide

or didna believe they really deserved to be here the best half of the day.

That Persephone gets the whole Spring to Summer holiday on work leave,

and conjugal visits to boot, while we scoop up the scum of the earth.

We screws come out only at sundown and spend our nights in bars,

drowning sorrows, calming the furies in us, picking up

pricks that turn out to be cunts by morning.

And, if, once in a while, one of us has some idea of redemption,

she is laughed off and away. We strike

but do not appear in party election manifestoes.

No-one votes for the likes of us.”

 

(16)

“A small flame licks over the underside of a teaspoon,

melting the drug. The queen slurps the liquid up

into a syringe & taps the bubbles out

& plunges it safely into a torniqueted obtruding vein,

pausing half way through to relish the rush,

then pushing the other bloodied half

of the delicious mixture into Ariadne’s thigh.

HIV can’t kill her here,

and the only bother with dying in Hell

is that you have to go through the check-in

and body search over and over, like suicides

and working girls do…

“An inferno in a teaspoon,” Ariadne giggles

druggily and gives the queen a sweet little kiss.

 

(17)

“Aggro over, the pair go down on one another,

as search-lights scan the night sky for drones.

Aeneas is busy wreaking havoc

across the Italian peninsula

& Theseus is working on a Constitution

& sowing seeds of internecine war;

Aeneas is courting pale Lavinia

to curry favor with her father,

while Theseus is off with his boys.

And the whole business of the unfurling of empires—

the bloodshed, the betrayals, the crucifixions,

the millions dead in the silver mines, the palace intrigues,

and the civil wars pass by

in an instant of eternity, as the two exes

slurp at each other’s sexes, lost in each other’s pleasure,

in a netherworld where there is no Athens and no Rome” …