Dark side of the moon

November 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Skype Me! – an event organised (and heroically hosted) by Robin Vaughan-Williams as part of this year’s Off the Shelf Festival in Sheffield – saw local poets brought together with writers from around the world via Skype, each performer contributing on the theme of communication.  Into the October night, then, came Thom the World Poet, sitting with his buddies and his lunch in the glaring afternoon of a cafe in Texas; Jeff Cottrill, who couldn’t see us though we could see him, offering an hilarious self-referential monologue from Toronto; Liesl Jobson in the South African spring, sharing stories and poems of here and there with her friend Liz Cashdan .

The technology, as always, wasn’t perfect.  We heard the voice of Miwa Kurihara from Japan, but with no image.  Those we did see froze, and jumped, and froze, while their voices ran on or stalled, unsure.  The poems and stories shared a common chorus (‘Can you see me?  Can you hear me?’) which gave added poignancy and relevance to the theme of the night.  It was like the footage of expeditions to the moon: those pictures of faces in close-up, dark against light, peering down at us; as they spin out of reach, the signal is lost and the screen goes blank and we wait…

And while we waited, those of us invited to read or perform in Sheffield battled against a background of Microsoft-themed electronica.  Chella Quint’s wry interpretation of Pluto’s reclassification as a minor planet fitted particularly nicely (the bitchiness of the other planets underscored by the bland inhumanity of modern communication formats).

The stand-out of the night for me, though, was Andalucian poet Rafael de Cozar.  Sitting in darkness, somewhere in Sevilla, he appeared briefly at the beginning of the evening, as Robin made contact with him.  When he came back to us for his reading, it was as if he had been sitting there, in cloistered silence, throughout.  He read (in Spanish, Robin then reading English translations) two poems from a collection, Between Chinatown and Riverside, illuminating the experience of the poet visiting New York in the 1980s.  As he started to read, the freeze-frame Skype images underlaid, sometimes juxtaposed, by the rhythmic cadences of his heavily-accented Spanish with its trailing, whispered consonants, the effect was magical: that of a traveller returned with tales whose telling was an incantation, a vocative process.  It was the signal of that expedition, briefly lost behind the moon, returning with something rich and strange.

Hear Rafael’s reading at Skype Me! here.


Greek debt

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

So far, I’ve read only one of the books shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – Alice Oswald’s Memorial (Faber).  In my view, it’s a cracker.  Here’s why.  For anyone who heard Yannis Told Us performed by Tria Kalistos (Kelvin Corcoran and multi-instrumentalists Maria Pavlidou and Howard Wright) at the Sheffield Poetry Festival in April, the legacy of classical Greek poetry is its ability to convey muck and myth on the same stage.  Kelvin described how each Greek village has its own, lived Iliad stories, putting Paris, Hector and Helen within a parochial context.  Similarly, Oswald (though she focuses on the unsung dead of the Trojan War) makes her subjects vivid through what she calls paraphrase: ‘a translation of the Iliad‘s atmosphere, not its story.’  So we have DIORES dying ‘in a puddle of his own guts’; AXYLUS (‘Everyone knew that plump man / Sitting on the step with his door wide open’) dying ‘side by side with CALESIUS / In a daze of loneliness / Their conversation unfinished’; and, stunningly, ALCATHOUS:

Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband
Stood there stunned by fear
Like a pillar like a stunted tree
He couldn’t bend his stones
He couldn’t walk his roots
His armour was useless it simply
Cried out and broke open oh
There stood ALCATHOUS and a spear
Knowing nothing of his wedding
Not knowing his feelings or his wife’s face
Or her doting parents or her incredible needlework
That spear went straight through his heart
And began to tick tick tick but not for love.

That ‘oh’ – a loss of faculty, of language reduced to utterance – is utterly (see?) real and present for us, now.  It is the point (literally) where dirty reality and eternal truth meet.  It’s what Homer, and Yannis, and Alice Oswald hang the world on.  A bit of all of us.



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