Throwing the Bloody Book at Them

In the 1960s, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote a book entitled ‘Of Grammatology’. It is the only book I have read in its entirety in three different languages—English, French and Portuguese. In this book and in his other works, Derrida proposes something that he calls ‘the end of the book and the beginning of writing’.

Since I like writing—far more than speaking—yet prefer freedom of expression to bookish authoritarianism, that idea has always appealed to me.

Derrida, like his philosophical antecedent Spinoza, hailed from a complex Jewish background, well acquainted with racist and religious persecution.

Spinoza had been expelled from the synagogue for espousing rationalist non-Biblical views, but was still persecuted by Christian authorities. Derrida grew up as a French Jew in occupied Algeria, where his thinking was assailed from an early age from three sides: by conservative Jewish tradition, by the radical secularism imposed by the French education system, and increasingly by the radical Marxist, anti-colonialist and nascent Islamist views espoused by the Algerian insurgency.

All of these ‘bullying’ movements involve ‘bookish’ notions (Torah, Bible, the declarations of the French Revolution, the Qu’ran, Das Kapital, little red or green books) that Derrida would later go on to question, often (it should be said) with more showmanship and populism than befits a serious academic.

For this reason, Derrida is still a bête noire in many intellectual circles and I still worry that the misapprehension of some his ideas and the way they were expressed may have been the ultimate progenitors of the vicious discourse of the likes of Steve Bannon, Bolsonaro, Boris and Trump.

Derrida, however, achieved something fundamental that no-one has ever done before or since. He systematically set about undermining claims not only to the absolute authority of individual books and bodies of belief but also, perhaps more controversially, to the immediacy and validity of spoken discourse and rhetoric.

‘Of Grammatology’ ends with a plea for a more networked kind of interactive writing that does not depend on the authority either of set texts or the enticement of person and voice. Fifty years later, we all now have the kind of communications technology that Derrida and his contemporary Ivan Illich imagined, readily available at our fingertips. And, for good or ill, we are all now still dealing with the inevitably unforeseen and unintended consequences of this silent revolution.

It was interesting that, during the Brazilian election last Sunday, left-wing PT supporters opted to take books to the polling station rather than guns or flak-jackets. Books are obviously more benign than firearms or body armor. This was obviously a nice gesture, but no more meaningful than taking flowers to a funeral.

However, from a Derridean point of view, there was something rather backward-looking and self-defeating about this tacit protest.

No-one I know who participated in this protest had actually read the contents of the book they took to the polling booth, still less pondered on it, commentated on it or shared these comments with others. The book was therefore in a sense no more than a weapon: a way of saying, I know more than you do because I have a book under my arm.

Years ago I wrote a stage-play in Portuguese in which a drug dealer converts to evangelical Christianity and starts using the Bible to threaten people in the same way that he used to employ a gun.

Bolsonaro used exactly the same tactic in his poorly recorded home-made YouTube victory speech, placing the Bible, a copy of the Brazilian Constitution and a biography of Churchill on the table before him.

I used to work as a librarian and I can tell just by glancing at it whether a book has been opened or not. None of these had been.

But weren’t the PT activists doing exactly the same thing, when they marched to the polling stations bearing un-thumbed volumes of Foucault or Marx?—whose theories contradict one another, by the way.

The whole parade was a nationwide display of fake bookishness, fake authority, and education by osmosis on both sides. A contest between two equally mendacious teams: one of whom has never read a book and another that only pretends to have done so.

Recently I went through a phase of calling ‘Of Grammatology’ ‘that bloody book’: a book that had warped and corrupted my political sensibilities from over-early age.

Increasingly, however, I am coming to see it as an ‘anti-book’, a non-partisan, non-ideological plea for a more open fair-minded way of doing thinking and discourse, policy and politics, in a way that eschews dogma and embraces debate, without descending into subterfuge and prestidigitation.

This requires a new kind of reading and writing, a new kind of participatory communication. After all, if no-one actually reads a book or engages with it or criticizes it (and, let’s face facts, none nowadays do), no book is more than a brick with a bumper sticker slapped on the cover.

Let’s start writing and truly communicating—not just smooth-talking or pointing guns at one another or bashing each other over the head with bricks of books.


200 Section 2 Witness

[Section 2 of 200, entitled Witness, kicks off the narrative proper and introduces the poem’s second overarching theme of ‘witnessing’ and ‘evidence’ and the ways in which these mesh with the fuzzy boundary between truth and falsity. This will clash throughout the poem with the theme of mathematical discipline and mental arithmetic introduced in the Prologue. Despite the inherent difficulty of the themes addressed, I am trying to keep each section short, sharp and vernacular. Fictitious and semi-fictitious characters appear fleetingly, stereotypically and with cartoonish superficiality, as is usual in my current work. I have no interest whatsoever in creating a simulacrum of psychological ‘depth’ or a ‘documentary’ of ‘reality’. In my view, no such things exist.]

200 Section 2 Witness

The afternoon sun

is already declining

in the chilly white sky

behind the steeple,

as Jeb and Gem watch

Yu and the General stagger

out of the pub at chucking-

out time and chuck up

their ploughman’s lunch

into the bin outside the cathedral.

“Look at the state

of those two,” Jeb exclaims,

looking at his watch. “And it’s

only just gone three.” “And he’s

old enough to be her grandfather,” Gem

adds, “Yuk!”, as Jeb hurries

her away from the ugly scene.


200 Prologue Part 3

200 Prologue Part 3

The swish young philosophy students

gush over the coffin

of recently-deceased Georg-Wilhelm-Friedrich Hegel.

“His spirit has been liberated

from the contradictions

of the material world,” one wag

proclaims to much applause.

There is much life in death. Darwin,

Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Dawkins,

Thatcher, Putin all take note and applaud,

while Kierkegaard rummages

glumly around the churchyard

for bones, Cantor sings of infinities

in his Prussian padded cell, and

Gödel goes down on uncertainty

and starves in a land of nothing burgers,

to the grim yet beauteous accompaniment

of Collatz’s organ music soaring up

into the empty mystery of the world.

200 Prologue Part 2: Mental Arithmetic

[Here is the second part of the prologue to 200. It is inspired by the 19th-20th century Russian social-realist artist Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky’s painting Mental Arithmetic in the Public School of S. Rachinsky, which can be viewed here]


Prologue Part 2 Mental Arithmetic

The poor boys are drilled to do hard sums.

Some scratch their heads, some mess around,

some great grand-dads of future

Google, Facebook, KGB, Wikileaks

operatives mill around the chalkboard

to work the puzzle out together for themselves,

as others sycophantically whisper

the already worked-out solution

into the Master’s kind compliant ear.


Thus brains are nursed and made

to make bombs, rockets, toxins, psychotropic drugs,

to be turned in turn

against the very brains that made them—

a snake swallowing its tail,

a tree uprooted and interred,

upended in peat, photosynthesis thwarted,

the root structure ossified and worn to a deadwood table,

lab bench, benchmark, bully pulpit,

for sacrifice to chthonic prehistoric gods

to guide the path for future drillers of oil

and Valkyries flying off into the sky.


The lesson ends with a stirring Cossack kick-dance.

Testosterone and xenophobia

scent heavily the already musky air,

as headscarved girls peep in from outside

the enchanted enclosure in absolute awe.

Wary chiefs and tsars cling to scam-artist

shamans, as young men climb the ladder

of the knowledge and education apparatus

into space or death

or fall into a slum bedsit,

or under the wheels of fortune

of a locomotive engine or automobile

or put a bullet through an archduke’s cerebellum,

or a lobotomizing icepick into the empty brain

of a down-on-her luck slum landlady

or through the eyeglass

of an egg-headed dissident intellectual.


“Luck doesn’t do much good,” Markov

jokes nihilistically to his dark-coated coterie

of starving students at the academy lecture

about Gogol’s overcoat and random walks.

Much promise is lost to the Monte Carlo wheel,

the possibilities of Diophantine equations

shimmering away—so many clubs, diamonds, hearts and swords,

dash-board-like in impressionable minds.

Boys sitting over a chessboard or a fruit machine,

do nothing

but pluck low-hanging fruit

or play the great game of chess,

plotting chaos and deceit,

sending bleeping sputniks out into

space, putting

suitably suited men

onto the Moon or the Red planet of Mars.

Advice to Young Poets

[I should be writing something about politics today. It is long overdue. But, I am so distressed and depressed by the recent election results in Brazil and elsewhere that I feel compelled to remain silent on this subject. Besides, for a long while now, I have found it more rewarding to post poems that merely touch tangentially on politics and current affairs, rather than addressing such issues directly in some long-winded tub-thumping discourse that no-one will read. Writing loosely politically-themed poetry is a way I have found in recent years of reaching out somehow to others, embracing nuance, and evading bubbles and trolls.

Today, then, instead of writing about politics or publishing yet more poetry, I post a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece entitled Advice to Young Poets.]

Advice to Young Poets

  1. My main advice to young people thinking of writing poetry, is DON’T DO IT. Your creative talents will serve you better making movies or TV shows, taking up photography, working in the advertising industry, becoming a contemporary artist, doing stand-up comedy, wiggling your bum on YouTube, or selling your soul to the alt-right radio chat-show circuit.
  2. If, for whatever perverse reason, you insist on persisting further in this unnatural artistic pursuit, please, please, please don’t write anything that could just as easily be conveyed in one of the above-mentioned genres. This does not of course mean that you should eschew any kind of subject matter that might be contained therein: cats, love, shitty relationships, flowers, death, politics etc. But always remember that poetry is about language the way painting is about paint, not the matter portrayed. The subject matter doesn’t matter that much. If you get really good at manipulating the phonemes on your oral canvas, this may shed some new light on the subject matter too. But don’t take that for granted either. Most probably it won’t.
  3. Likewise, don’t write anything that would be better placed in a therapy session or a love letter. Do therapy or write a love letter instead. In fact, it is better to start out with a wholly impersonal style and put the personal stuff subtly in later, when you have more experience of life, a more distinct voice, and a more accomplished way with words. Haiku courses are good at training this.
  4. Draw on past masters and mistresses but don’t just copy them. If you must emulate illustrious forebears, at least put a tweak in here or there to show that you have a healthy disrespect for your elders and betters and a voice of your own. Poetry is an exhausted art form. Almost everything has already been done.
  5. Be ironic and playful. Experiment with styles and forms that mock previously accepted norms.
  6. Think like a comedian. If your work doesn’t elicit a guffaw or at least a chuckle or a wry smile at least once in a while no-one will be that interested in it.
  7. Break taboos. Like comic books, non-mainstream poetry is one of the few artistic genres that still permit a considerable degree of latitude so far as ‘political correctness’ is concerned. This is one of the main reasons why I have chosen in recent years to write poetry mainly about acts of violence, often in a jokey ambiguous fashion that would be totally unacceptable (and rightly so) in other more popular media. After all, the first recorded European poem—Homer’s Iliad—was about violence, wasn’t it? Another, perhaps more compelling reason, is that I live in a country that seems nowadays to be tottering troublingly between past and future dictatorial regimes and in a world teetering on the brink of ecological apocalypse.
  8. Embrace nuance and ambiguity. Clarity of expression is NOT what poetry is about and ambivalence is a much needed virtue in these polarized times.
  9. Don’t bother about publishing. Hone your own style and put it out only when you are satisfied with it, preferably for free, and only when you have fully digested the previous eight points. After all, remember: you are NEVER EVER going to make any money out of this. Poetry is a thing between you and the language given you by God. Think Emily Dickinson, not Kanye West or Taylor Swift.
  10. Bear these rules in mind, but feel free to break them whenever it feels right to do so. This last rule applies not just to poets but to everyone everywhere in this world, whatever they do.

200 Prologue Part 1

[Though I finished 17 only a few days ago, I have already started work on a third long poem, entitled 200. This new poem is based–very loosely–on the recent nerve-agent poisonings in Salisbury, England. I apologize, yet again, for the dark theme. That is–like it or not–what I do as a poet. This first half of the prologue is entitled boringly Prologue Part 1 and introduces some of the poem’s overarching motifs.]

200 (1)

Prologue Part 1

Body and brain

are a bag of nerves,

glia and astrocytes,

electrolytic fluids flitting

& flowing

back and forth

across the gaps of synapses,

flickering between flight

and fright, being and

not-being, singularity

and reproduction, irrigating

mitochondrial DNA. Division,

multiplication, addition

and subtraction do their dirty

snipping work

on stems, cells, genes, nerves,

memes, nation-states and social relations.

And the Yggdrasil that blossoms

in the gray matter of the mind’s eye

has its roots in the blood-tainted bludgeons,

bullets, balls, lips, tooth and claw,

by which its trunk is nourished, undermined

and finally undone.