Thursday, 28 July 2011

Happy Birthday Mr Brownjohn

Alan Brownjohn, one of Britain's best poets and poetry critics, has turned 80 today.  Hats off to this stylish, engaged, witty, gentle man.

Irish Raffle

Eyewear is pleased to report that Salmon Poetry, of Co. Clare, Ireland, is celebrating its 30th year. As well as promoting its superb track record, a special  fundraising raffle is now underway with a unique prize of  all  thirty-one (!) of its 2011 poetry collections, signed by the authors. Have your own bookshelf of some of the finest contemporary Irish, American and British poetry.  Euro 5.00 for 5 tickets; Euro 0.00 for 12 tickets.

JCS On Songs You Need To Download

Songs You Need to Download

James Christopher Sheppard divulges the tracks he has on repeat.

Korn ‘Get Up’ (featuring Skrillex)

At school in the late 90’s, if you liked metal, Korn were a pretty good starting point. Now, seventeen years since the debut, Korn release their freshest single in years. I first heard ‘Get Up’ on kerrang radio and had to double check who it was. The collaboration with master of dubstep, Skrillex, throws Korn’s aggressive thrashing metal sound into brand new industrial waters. This is the best song Korn have released since 2002’s ‘Here to Stay’. Fucking incredible.

Melanie C ‘Rock Me’

Rock Spice Melanie C finally returns with the first release from her long-awaited fifth solo album, The Sea. ‘Rock Me’ is vibrant, simple, catchy, up-beat and addictive. With her own very loyal following, and sales of over ten million albums worldwide, sporty spice still has a great deal to offer.

Within Temptation ‘Sinead’
New single from Within Temptation’s flawless album The Unforgiving is ‘Sindead’- the beat-heavy, industrial tinged dance/symphonic metal track. Yes, ‘Sinead’ is the most cross-over single Within Temptation have released and it’s gaining all sorts of attention. For the first time ever, the band have had official remixes commissioned from the likes of German hard dance band Scooter. The most surprising thing about the remixes is that they actually work. Check out the ‘VNV Nation Club Mix’.

Charlie Simpson ‘Parachute’

Fightstar front man Charlie Simpson, will unleash his debut solo album in August and ‘Parachutes’ is the second single, following the mellow ‘Down Down Down’. ‘Parachutes’ isn’t a million miles from the sound of Fightstar, but is enough of a departure to be only Simpson’s. The song is softer and relies more on acoustic sounds to build song to it’s climax. Vulnerable and powerful at the same time. I am truly impressed by the quality of this.

Amy Winehouse ‘Back to Black’

For me, ‘Back to Black’ is the ultimate Amy Winehouse song. Following her tragic passing on Saturday 23rd July, this song seems more painful and sadder than ever. Winehouse was a visibly very troubled soul, who sadly lost her battle with depression and addiction. ‘Back to Black’ will stand testament to what incredible art she created, if only for a short time. You will be forever remembered, Amy.

Pulp ‘Common People’

Since seeing the iconic band, Pulp, perform at this years Wireless festival in London, I started listening to their back catalogue repeatedly. It’s only as an older listener with a writing background that I can really appreciate just how genius Jarvis Cocker’s lyric writing is. ‘Common People’ seems more appropriate for me right now than ever, as I am a boy from Surrey residing temporarily in the depths of Hull. ‘Common People’ is an iconic and timeless song, that could be the anthem of recession ridden Britain- ‘dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do.’ Absolutely.

JCS is Eyewear's Music Critic, and is based in Hull and London.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Minding Manners

Within minutes of posting a message about a poetry issue in the UK, I was inundated with nasty personal messages.  One poet said she was "disgusted" by me.  Goodness, and I was only recommending we try and get along.  Apparently, poets are not immune to the dangerous attractions of instant messaging and the Internet.  But, as I have said before, we need to be good to each other, and to try to reign in the ad hominem attacks.  I can only imagine what it would be like to be one of the offenders in this whole PoSoc debacle, if a mere bystander can get so spammed and reviled.  This is why I have removed the earlier posts on the matter from this week.  I have no wish to continue being a part of this.  There are enough parties on both sides to handle it at this stage.

Craig Wasson 30 Years On

Thirty years ago, a young up-and-coming actor, Craig Wasson, starred in Ghost Story, a beautifully-shot adaptation of the Peter Straub horror novel.  The film was very well received critically, not least because of the casting of several elderly classic actors, including Fred Astaire.  I recall it being very new England; and a scene on a wintry country road.  It was like Frost meets King.  I think this film has become forgotten; it is not available on DVD in Britain, at the very least.  Googling for Wasson, I was disappointed to learn that, after 1984's Body Double (which has a Frankie Goes to Hollywood cameo) he mostly slipped into soaps, and one-off appearances on TV.  Wasson was born in 1954, so he'd be around 57 now.  I'd like to see some director bring him back and give him a good role again.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Guest Review: Capildeo On Slavitt's La Vita Nuova

Translated by David R. Slavitt

Vermilion is the colour of the Seraphim in the angelic choir of Dante’s Paradiso; the burning, stinging ones, according to the likely Hebrew root of their name. Red, too, is the colour of Dante’s robe or scarf, distinguishing the poet of love, in so many of the anguished-yet-muscular portraits of this man whose political life saw him driven into exile from his beloved city of Florence. Slavitt’s new translation of Dante’s libello is itself a little book, and slips ardently into hand or pocket: an ideal gift. The hardcover edition’s binding and endpapers are cardinal red. Most disconcerting, the sweetly grave dark eyes of a young lady all in shades of red and white and gold fix you with a quality that may soon appear relentless. Her posture is open, yet she is ungraspable: this detail taken from an Elisabeth Sonrel painting shows the right arm crooked around saffron lilies, while the left arm, not shown here, disappears off the book’s edge, buried perhaps in the pages or belonging altogether to the realm of the invisible. This is a promising start. Already we are focused on the double aspect of Dante’s intense devotion: the adorable Beatrice; the abstract Lady Philosophy: which informs his philosophical and craftsmanlike account of love, bereavement, memory and illumination.

Now, what of the sheer harsh strangeness of the perhaps late thirteenth-century text, not always easy for us to sense through the sugar incrustations on the nineteenth-century lens, and the perennial temptation to level out the complexity of people, times and places removed from ours? This takes us to the business of the translation proper. How does it deal with the transformative scene that sets the medieval poet/lover on his way?[1] The flaming apparition of a glad, intimidating man, carrying a naked woman draped in blood-red, tells Dante a lot of things the poet says he doesn’t understand (and doesn’t repeat for the reader), except for the all-too-clear Latin command: ‘Ego dominus tuus’ [I am your lord]. This character is holding something that is on fire: ‘Vide cor tuum’ [Behold your heart], he informs Dante. The poet again records a silence, a lapse of time, for what appalling mutual contemplation it is left to us to imagine. Lording it yet more, the masterful being — Love — wakes up the scantily clad creature in his arms and coerces her into eating Dante’s heart (just as much on fire as ever); she does so ‘dubitosamente’ and in the imperfect tense, i.e. she takes a while chewing it over. ‘Dubitosamente’: ‘hesitantly’, translates Stanley Appelbaum in his dual-language edition (New York: Dover, 2006), and Mark Musa (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2008 [1992]); while Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004, rev. ed.) strings it out so we really feel it, ‘[r]eluctantly and hesitantly’. ‘Hesitantly’ is Slavitt’s choice as well. There is no lack of Vita Nuova anglophone translations in a price range similar to Slavitt’s Harvard University Press offering.

There is also, however, no end to translating. Arguably, every translation involves a process of re-envisioning, even if making no claim (true of some) about being a new work in its own right. Even for a reader conversant with the source language, to read an array of translations is both to have a series of conversations with other, passionate readers (the translators) about what is at stake, and perhaps to see ‘the original’ anew, rather like meeting a friend in a different country or a different social rôle, or glimpsing a person thought familiar from a suddenly revealing angle. Estrangement, provocation, invitation: literary translation is not in the business of serving up a mere substitute. So what does Slavitt do that is different enough to justify the production of his beautiful libello?

Bringing La Vita Nuova to live again in our times would be part of the answer. In the scene just cited, Slavitt has Love named in English and speaking English. This evidences the translator’s commitment to readability, to making the readers encounter the text as quick and vivid, not an artifact: a laudable general aim. In my view, an important loss is incurred in this instance. Love, if allowed a perfectly comprehensible identification as ‘Amor’, would have retained the essential otherness that marks his irruption into the human dream; the Romance-language wordform could keep the reader alert to the difference (not the remoteness, not the unreadability; the specialness) of the ways of loving in Dante’s emergent world. Scraps of Latin text could easily have been footnoted; Slavitt, in fact, ends this section with a four-line historical footnote on Dante’s too-powerful poet-friend, Guido Cavalcanti.  We are, in everyday life, accustomed to the Latinate languages of authority: medical, legal, bureaucratese, perhaps ecclesiastical. We are also patient with (some of us, entertained by) the antique-effect prestige gobbledygook spouted by fantasy and historical characters in popular culture. The Harvard rendition is so keen to white out the opaque language of authority that later, in section XII, it resorts to a clunky in-line specification, ‘in Latin’, ‘in Italian’, during another originally polyphonic dialogue. Can we not cope with a little Latin in La Vita Nuova, especially in a scene that is all about forceful yet obscure communication, a scene that sets us up for progressive revelation? And indeed, by section XXIV, Amor is chatting away in the vernacular to Dante, speaking Tuscan into his very heart and helping him interpret encounters and visions.

In other words, an evolving relationship with Amor himself (itself?) is a vital part of Dante’s awakening to his new life. This is marked by a move from Amor’s unreported speech and deployment of magisterial Latin towards a kind of ordinary involvement (you know, those girls you saw in the street, well, think about it this way...). Taking this further, the linguistic hint to us as readers is that Dante the Tuscan vernacular writer is becoming the authoritative speaker on Love, and his local tongue an adequate vehicle for the highest thought. The evolution of this relationship and Dante’s status within the narrative is quite something to see diminished in the translation’s undue efforts not to alienate modern readers by presenting an approachably Englished Love from the start. A quibble over detail often yields a clue to the greater movement of reinterpretation incrementally caused by subtle repositionings of the reader.

Let us turn again to Slavitt’s libello. What are the ways in that it offers? The Translator’s Preface distances the word ‘translation’, preferring ‘rendition’, winning closeness to us by throwing in a jokey modern aside about interrogation centres. The translator claims that most of the ‘versions’ of La Vita Nuova that he has seen are in prose, ‘accurate betrayals’ failing to convey the character of the mixed prose and verse text, or prosimetrum.[2] This reviewer’s experience differs, even without recourse to small press publications or library relics. Both Reynolds for Penguin and Musa for Oxford World’s Classics make a good stab at translating the poems as poems. Reynolds is particularly eloquent about the poetic authorship, audience and subject of the treatise; about her joy before the, to her, necessary task of attempting a poetic translation that aims at ‘lucidity as well as strictness of form’. She calls our attention to Dante’s own not-to-be-betrayed love of concatenatio pulcra (the ‘beautiful linkage’ of rhyme), and the surprising plenteousness of rhymes in English.[3] By contrast, Slavitt’s Preface declares that he is guilt-free about cutting out without notice a lot of Dante’s prose explanations of his poems. Slavitt views these as ‘unnecessary’ and ‘boring’ ‘Cliffs Notes’-style encumbrances likely to cause anxiety except to academic readers, who anyway are not reading for poetic enjoyment.[4] So the pre-Raphaelite flavour of the cover art continues into the translation; Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Slavitt’s grand predecessor in viewing Dante’s analyses with distaste. (The need for dissociation may partly motivate Seth Lerer’s explicit praise, in his Introduction, for Slavitt’s rendition as being far from the Pre-Raphaelites and truly of our time). Reynolds, on the other hand, is moved to wonder whether Dante’s intention was to give a musical guide for composers or reciters, as he takes apart his poems in ways corresponding more to sense than structure. Certainly this reviewer had enjoyed both in Italian and various translations the way Dante’s own comments increase our sense of intimacy with the restless, almost geekily obsessive lover/author at work. Dante’s divisions are sometimes shockingly non-correspondent to the standardizing descriptions of the parts of a sonnet or canzone that one might find in a creative writing textbook nowadays. As only an author can, he makes us know how his poems kindle to kinetic life: a reader who bothers to add up the line references in the commentary with the lyrics commented on will find the poetry spring apart, join, echo, sink, expand, appeal, and flow in unexpected and moving numbers. These line references no longer work in the Harvard rendition, and Slavitt is ‘not unhappy’ about this.[5] It would not have been mannerly to dwell on this Preface — the rendition should speak for itself — were it not for the startling rhetorical move whereby the existence of the original and so-called ‘literal translations’ (dismissed, as seen above, somewhat without respect to their own creative claims) justifies a make-it-new slash-and-burn approach, whose cheekiness, passion and sense of entitlement are (dare one say) reminiscent of the enfant terrible persona available to popular lecturers in that very academic setting so keenly disavowed.  Slavitt clearly loves La Vita Nuova in his way, and wants a fresh and widening audience to love it too. On now to the pleasures of the text.

The cultural translation that inevitably takes place sometimes gives us an articulate American Dante, very refreshing to encounter, sure that Love ‘wasn’t merely being cute’ in his fancy advice.[6] As with all such pioneering efforts, a lot of the time this works; occasionally it does not. This Dante ‘wanting to have the feel of my pen in my hand again’ has acquired a post-Freudian (post-George Barker?) phallicism.[7] Sometimes there is a levelling out of the plain weirdness (half symbolic, half real) of the medieval landscape. Our American Dante is not on the path of sighs, cammino de li sospiri; he’s ‘on the road’ with no further ado.[8] Tuscan Dante veers away from a path molto inimica, very hostile, towards him; ours says with Robert Frost-like laconicism, ‘that was a road I did not wish to take’.[9] This focuses us on the poet in his journey rather than immersing us in the texture of his world; a valid way to guide us into the experience of La Vita Nuova. The translation is often very smart in refusing to engage with the untranslatable, e.g. ‘before he takes his leave’ is an excellent solution to avante che sdonnei (‘before he dis-ladies himself’? No!).[10]

Slavitt (or his rendition) are, again sometimes but not always, nifty at dealing with unwanted cultural spectres. He cleverly avoids ringing a heavy Proustian bell of anachronistic allusion by rendering Dante’s remembrance of passato tempo, time past, simply as ‘my loss’.[11] Abandoning Dante’s poetic self-image, in one sonnet, as sole survivor of a battlefield and putting in its stead the image of an incarcerated ‘madman or simpleton’ repeating one phrase over and over is a temporal as well as cultural refocusing through the Victorian monomaniac-in-love (cf. similar self-images for characters in Dickens and C. Brontë). This keeps our minds away from a perhaps distracting link with the so technologically different war zones of our day. [12] So far so good. The Victorian returns, however, in a phrase perhaps better lost in translation, as Slavitt is well daring enough to have done — anyone who fails to mourn Beatrice’s early death ‘has a heart of stone’, a cliché which raises the ghost of Little Nell and Oscar Wilde’s quip.[13] Slavitt takes poetic license to intensify the real-world-turned-horrible feel of Dante’s dream prefiguration of Beatrice’s death, steering us towards materiality and away from watching it like cinema spectators: when birds fall from the sky, he adds the simile in ‘dead as stones’.[14] The only glaring instance of cultural mistranslation comes in section VII p. 39, where American Dante apparently borrows from queer slang. To conceal his devotion to Beatrice, he has been pretending to court a lady as a ‘screen’ (Slavitt’s accurate, neutral lexical choice elsewhere). The screen lady leaves town; whereupon the poet laments the loss of his ‘beard’! A ‘beard’, correctly enough, used to be the term in both hetero- and homosexual contexts for a fake lover conscripted (consciously or no) to hide some real, less socially acceptable involvement. Nowadays the reference belongs very much more to queer culture. In either case, it is misleading; Dante is trying to cover up fidelity, not adultery, and at these moments he is, loverlike, too earnest to apply a self-directed wit of ironic reversal.

The action and pace of the rendition are in some instances dreamier or less obsessive than the source text. Beatrice’s verbal greeting, which gives a new push to the whole courtly-to-spiritual love drama, strikes Dante for the first time, la prima volta, in the opening scene of section III. We do not know if he really never spoke to her before (Florence was a small place and the families frequented the same narrow streets) or whether this is the ‘first time’ in the sense of ‘first meaningful’ encounter; cf. our own more recent debates about love at first sight — which may signify ‘first random sighting’, or ‘first instance of truly appreciative beholding’. This detail, or rather this spring, simply is absent in the rendition. Direct speech, staged exchanges, direct reported speech are often present in the source text, both in the poems/songs and in the body of the narrative. This is one of the stylistic features consistent between Dante the intense individual poet of La Vita Nuova and Dante the eventual author of the grand, theatrically peopled whirl of the Commedia. Such dramatic exchanges are often paraphrased or dropped from the rendition, which loses the plurality of voices, the performance aspect that can stir from a polyphonic page and bring closer the sense of the possible recitation context. The result is a book much more of the brooding self; indeed, pensare is translated more than once as brooding, rather than thinking. This is fair enough perhaps, as it conveys lyric identity in accordance with our post-Romantic ideas, compensating for the tricky river of chimes and liquids lost with the move from Tuscan to English. It is made clear in the paratextual material that this rendition seeks to win a place among a new readership for La Vita Nuova as an independent achievement, not just a forerunner of the Commedia. This may be why the English rendition of the sonnet in section IX gets rid of the faint semblance to the Inferno’s middle-of-the-way-of-life opening line, and ‘trovai Amore in mezzo de la via’ is reduced to ‘I encountered Love’, which prevents inappropriate over-reading and linking between the so different texts.

Dante’s La Vita Nuova employs a specialized vocabulary of deceptively simple words. It is probably impossible and undesirable to find consistent English equivalents for the key words such as gentilissima that, while forming part of ordinary speech, encode a second, special meaning in Dante and his contemporaries’ terminology proper to courtly and divine love.  Slavitt fluently substitutes ‘glorious’, ‘gracious’, ‘gentle’, ‘noble’, ‘noblest’ and similar terms, sometimes simply Beatrice’s name, to bring out the marked virtue and individuality of the lady as gentilissima rather than trying to replicate a label for an elevated role that no longer exists in our modern sensibilities. The slight archaism this sometimes produces is an effective reminder of the formality and deeper significance of Dante’s adoration of the beloved. This rendition resists cheap dealing in cognates, allowing nobilissima to stand forth in English as ‘marvelous’ rather than ‘most noble’.

Translation, no matter how passionately or gleefully or carefully undertaken, is always a game of both gain and loss. There is (intentional or not), another trend: the removal of words that more explicitly have a religious meaning. Seth Lerer’s Introduction identifies the road, the pathway, walking the line, as the central image of La Vita Nuova. There is another, equally strong: transfiguration (both trasfiguramento and trasfigurazione), the startlement of becoming new in life, love and understanding. Space here lacks to list the numerous instances of this animating image being secularized out of the text, la nuova trasfigurazione incarnated in English as ‘this peculiar experience’; suffice it to note the trend.[15]  We do not get to see Dante’s eyes empurpled by weeping as encircled by martyrdom’s crown, corona di martìri
.[16] Similarly, much that was miraculous, mirabile, softly vanishes away or dissolves into terms (‘paradoxically’, ‘remarkable’) less brightly Catholic. Little point in questioning the translator’s intention — to make the text an independent matter of literature? to render it more accessible to twenty-first-century readers who may not care to mix poetry and faith?

What happens is a censorship of this spiritual-philosophical memoir, which therefore relays its love-message on a more human than angelic scale. In section III, the source lyric celebrating the vision of the fiery, edible heart stars a Beatrice who nibbled it humbly, umilmente pascea, where her lamblike action shows her engaged in a rite of idealized Christian love. The Harvard rendition just has her down as ‘frightened’ (p. 34).  The delicate rewriting of this unruly, holy strand continues throughout, and with skill. The penultimate section, XLI, celebrating divinized love above the operations of the intellect (an even stronger measure of the journey of understanding made by Dante in the Vita Nuova, had the poet’s intellectualizing insistence on commentary been allowed to stand till finally overturned), has Dante speaking of Beatrice’s ‘indescribable condition’, something of a shading of the eyes before her source-text mirabile qualitade.  This is Dante in the Auerbach line, poet of the secular world.

Translations are creations of their own time, even those that are presented as faithful to their sources. This one truly records a widespread acute unease before the overinterpreted, the transcendent, above all the godly, that which doesn’t let the individual stay individual or slide away with postmodern provisionality from What It Must All Add Up To In The End. The rendition achieves its sense of finality by other means: from the Latin that has been removed from its dramatic interventions in the body of the text, and reserved for use as if engraved upon the portals of the physical book: within the beginning of the text, Incipit vita nuova (translation in brackets); at the end, qui est per omnia secula benedictus, translation footnoted, a solemn close. Slavitt’s bold and abbreviating grasp pulls La Vita Nuova into the twenty-first century by way of all the time between. This beautiful little book does something different from its companions in other translation series, and will find happy readers.

Vahni Capildeo arrived in the UK in 1991 from Trinidad, where she was born. After completing a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford University, she held a Research Fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. Her first volume of poetry, No Traveller Returns (Salt) appeared in 2003, followed by several other critically-acclaimed publications. Her work has been anthologized in The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (OUP, 2005) and appears in numerous literary journals.  She was Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University, 2010-11.

[1] Vita Nuova III.
[2] Slavitt, p. (ix).
[3] Reynolds, p. (xxxi).
[4] Slavitt, pp. (xii) and (xiii).
[5] Slavitt, p. (xii).
[6] Slavitt, p. 98; Vita Nuova XXV.
[7] Slavitt, p. 104; Vita Nuova XXVI.
[8] Slavitt, p. 47; Vita Nuova X.
[9] Slavitt, p. 45; Vita Nuova XIII.
[10] Slavitt, p. 54; Vita Nuova XII.
[11] Slavitt, p. 126; Vita Nuova XXXV.
[12] Slavitt, p. 67; Vita Nuova XVI.
[13] Slavitt, p. 116; Vita Nuova XXXI.
[14] Slvaitt, p. 88; Vita Nuova XXIII.
[15] Slavitt, p. 63; Vita Nuova XV.
[16] Slavitt, p. 137; Vita Nuova XXXIX.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Shock In Oslo

There has never been an act like it.  Though the cruelly-executed mass-murder in Oslo is not numerically the worst terrorist outrage in human history, it is hard to think it is not the worst single-person act of murder, barring mad dictators.  The individual in question seems to have acted alone, stepping out of central casting as half Nazi-arch-villain, half Scandinavian lone wolf, a Kierkegaard with bullets.

Too often the phrase cinematic is used for these insane projects, but this one was timed with the grandiose perfection of a brilliant engineer, and has the hallmarks of a barely-plausible Stieg Larsson thriller.  It is unbelievable to think one man could set off destruction at the heart of a nation's political centre only to use that as a diversion to strike at the heart of its youth, miles away, on a pleasant summer island, dressed as an officer of the law.

It is ironic, and demonic.  It is made worse when one realises the killer surrendered calmly, in no sense compelled to do himself in.  This one wants attention for his manifesto.  Like all megalomaniacs, he is possessed of terrible purpose, and a mediocre mind.  Evil, sadly, has an excellence though - in that it excels at horrifying the human soul.  The Oslo carnage can still shock us, as we reflect on how some who walk among us are so insulated from compassion as to see fellow humans as less-than-nothings, moving targets that need to be eliminated, point blank.

Winehouse, Women and Song

Nothing much left to say.  The obvious things - her joining the "stupid club" of musical self-destructive genuises of 27 who die young of excess - the tragic waste - the talent - were obvious.  The moment I saw the news, though, I was shaken.  Amy Winehouse, unlike Adele, actually was a genius - a genuinely troubled soul, with the ability to sing her heart out.  The Beatles had Martin; she had Ronson.  She declined almost as soon as she reached the heights in 2006.  Five years was a long time to falter in public, and her missing out on the Bond theme, and the broken promises and failed rehab stints, as well as the late-night punch ups and fall-downs began to create a counter-canon of pathos, or bathos.  What I cannot accept is that no one cared enough to intervene and put a stop to the ruinous life mistakes.  Too many of the tweeting names who apparently loved here are hedonistic night-livers with one foot in the grave themselves, up to their necks in dope and crack.  Conductors of chaos, they could no more get her off those tracks than halt the engines of excess; those closest to her egged her on, more than they carried her away, to a safer, saner, environment.  So - we have a handful of classic songs, likely to be standards, and a myth that's been made.  What we don't have is a living person, anymore, who could have sung to us for far longer, under better circumstances.  Fade to Black.

All Hell Breaks Loose

I was away for a few days in Somerset for a friend's wedding.  While there, human life, in all its horror, broke out across the world, oddly clashing with the sunlight and champagne of a rural English marriage.  Norway's madness, Chinas' train collision, Amy Winehouse's senseless death, and a serial killer ex-Marine in the US, as well as several other tragedies, alongside the famine in Africa, seemed to render an already-fragile sense of optimism shattered.  Yet, here I am, it is Sunday, it is sunny, and I am writing this.  The world wobbles on.  I will post more on some of this later.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Freud Has Died

Sad news.  Lucian Freud, one of the greats of British post-war painting, has died, at the age of 88.  I had the pleasure to see him several times as he dined at his table at The Wolseley.  Yesterday, according to The Guardian, that table was draped in a black cloth with a single candle on it.  Freud, whose paintings sold for tens of millions, was famously linked to Sigmund Freud, his grand-father.  I recall studying his work in art history class back at college in Montreal; we were all taken aback by and impressed with his attention to genitals, and to the gross realities of human fleshiness.  Later, in London, I looked into his late self-portrait and recognized in its slashes of dark colours genius, and dark self-reflection.  Genius can be complicated, strange, ugly, and attractive, all at once, in a compelling way; the best art usually is.  I am not sure Freud was a person you'd want to meet unless you were a beautiful woman, or someone to model for him, or a close friend; he emanated a sense of danger.  I am glad to have seen him at a distance; and to have seen his paintings up close.  One of his children, Annie Freud, is one of the best English poets of her generation; my condolences to her and the rest of his family.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Guest Review: Westcott On Williamson

Sarah Westcott reviews

The blurb on the back cover of Heidi Williamson’s first collection focuses on the poet’s “fascination” with science and the exploration of what her publisher Bloodaxe calls “less usual territories” for poetry, including maths, computer programming and space travel.  But Electric Shadow is written from a more integrated, subtle area than the traditionally diametrically opposed cultures of poetry and science and their ‘territories’.
While Williamson does indeed write about sciency subjects, this collection is less notable for its scientific substance and content - and more for its clear-eyed approach to the world and its mysteries, with poems often written in the spirit of Keat’s negative capability.
Williamson’s writing has an openness to ‘not-knowing’, a spirit of exploration tempered with quiet rationality, a drive to convey the ‘astonishing state of possibilities’ in the world.  It also stems, like science, from a state of curiosity, with clarity of thought and close observation of natural phenomena key in the search for knowledge and groundedness:

While every poem ever written
about the moon rises before me,
I wait here, in the dark,

with my eyes wide open.

Electric Shadow is concerned with forms of light - skylines and sunsets, aurora borealis and shadows on the palm of a hand, a vertiginous view of a world where ‘space is only one mile up/closer than the next town.’
Again and again the reader is unsettled and tipped into something approaching a parallel universe - Williamson’s poems are peppered with the quotidian - caravans and card games and campsites - and yet they also zoom into the troposphere with sometimes giddying speed as she explores the slippage between times and states and places with precision of thought and language.
She acknowledges the essential chaos and instability at the heart of a universe ‘running away with itself / like a child on a red bike on Christmas Day,’ and often writes from a fixed perspective, where the present is a fulcrum from which to hang this shifting, sliding world.
There is a strong sense of being a still point, a distinct consciousness in many of her poems.  In ‘James Dean escorts his mother’s coffin’ the poet addresses the nine-year-old Dean in the second person, managing to inhabit his psyche and capture the sense of a relentlessly moving world as he looks from a train window:

Each stop you check your tender cargo
is not yet lost...
The world speeds past, begins to blur to nothing.
...Something inside you is peeling away.
...Somewhere within you a small cargo shifts.
Some things take a lifetime to travel past.

The centering effect is strong, too, in the poem ‘Flickr’, an unusual meditation on photography: ‘How quickly each country contracts/to thirty-six bits...The fact of being // far away recedes, becomes a fiction / you tell yourself over and over./ You check the evidence often / lacking something to hold / in your hand and believe. Like this.’
Most striking though is Williamson’s representation of two states existing simultaneously -  be they psychological or physical realities - a conundrum beloved of quantum physicists. In lines reminiscent of Frost’s 'The Road Not Taken', she entertains the possibility that being both incorrect and correct is compatible - that multiple possibilities can exist simultaneously.
In my favourite poem ‘Circus pony,’ ‘chosen / and not chosen become pathways,’ while in ‘Old tricks,’ a wonderful description of learning to swim, a girl takes her ‘first experience of flight, buoyed up, / surviving in two directions at once.’
The numinous partner in ‘The grand dance’ is ‘always there / and not there, against my cheek.’ And the subject of ‘The Travelling Salesman Problem’ is a construct, who ‘travels in the minds of mathematicians’  and who ‘has no form but going - a pure line.’ Yet Williamson also makes him tangible, sitting in jams, flogging ballpoint pens, a fallible and frail human being.
The sense of multiple selves is captured most explicitly in ‘At the hands-on science centre,’  which describes the disorientation of standing in a hall of mirrors and saluting ‘our many selves ... apart / but linked by science.’

...A slide to the right leaves
a curved staircase of ghosts rising behind us.
We spool endlessly away, the real us just
a frame in a film running before and after

(‘At the hands-on science centre’)

There is a refreshing lack of braggadocio in Williamson’s writing - lofty scientific concepts do not create an intellectual barrier for the reader, as they so easily could. The poet leaves space for poetry to bloom; sometimes subverting theoretical concepts to create some arresting, and almost comical imagery:

For her, theoretical physics
is a bird soaring next to a plane.
(‘Schrodinger’s pregnancy test’)

A discourse on static electricity - surely the first poem to do this in the world? - is also notable: ‘You collect it daily anywhere ... You’re barely aware of the loss / as each charge transfers / from you, to you ...’ (Static.)
Some of the most memorable poems are those that draw from personal experience and transmute it into the universal. Williamson’s apparently personal writing about childhood is especially powerful, beautifully evoking a British childhood of the 1970s and 80s - an era of Little Chefs, salt n shake crisps, and plastic jelly shoes:

...Prawn cocktail crisps and card game

punctuate the rain. The salt of sea and crackers
coats my lips like doughnut sugar. The sand
works my skin, smoothing, smoothing.

The chevronned, stainless steel steps,
removable, lead my jelly shoes to a world
of bare open skies.


I was struck, though, by the number of poems written in couplets - a quick count found twenty or so in the collection - and found myself occasionally wishing for a poem that experimented or even exploded form, a craving for an opening of white space on the page, in tandem with the openness of Williamson’s ideas and the lightness of the collection.
These are open-minded poems written in a spirit of exploration which offer up a liberating, expansive view of a world where ‘meaning brims/almost always.’ Highly recommended work which wears its metaphysicality lightly and with charm.

Sarah Westcott is a poet, blogger and journalist living in London.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Sophie Mayer On Harry Potter, End of an Era

In the Guardian yesterday (19th July), Peter Walker and Charles Gantregarded what has become a virtual media monopoly in the UK – much maligned by some – and asked what will be missed when it’s gone. Not The News of the World, but the Harry Potter franchise. While the losses to the UK’s filmmaking economy and skills base are being totted up, as a teary-eyed viewer I found myself posing the question critically: what will I find myself missing when there is no HP 7.75 or 9 rampaging through next summer’s schedules?

It’s a question with two aspects: the film and the series, not least because – unlikeLord of the Rings – it is not an auteurial project, but (almost) an old-fashioned studio film series, albeit one helmed most ably by David Yates for the final four films. The plot of the final film (and indeed the whole arc), that good triumphs over evil through its commitment to love, and its willingness to lose what it loves in order to protect larger concerns, is a well-worn one, albeit more appealing than the ‘crush, kill’ narrative arc of, say, Transformers; likewise the story of the lost child who becomes, through scholarship and friendship, a hero.  The films have driven, and felt driven by, technical and economic, rather than narrative or artistic, concerns, but what Yates, following Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban, brought to the films is a grounding in both the real and magical worlds, with a strong, vivid use of locations (such as Malham Cove) enhanced by the use of digital effects to serve, rather than propel, the film. Yates’ distinction, from Order of the Phoenix onwards, has been his ability to balance strong direction of the human and digital elements of the film, managing a combination of visual panache, dramatic action and character engagement that the first two films sorely lacked.

Yates has been praised, rightly, for his sensitive direction of the young actors who have grown up on screen (not only the central triumvirate, but also Matthew Lewisand Tom Felton who play key dramatic roles as Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy, reflecting aspects of Harry as an orphaned child, and one burdened with parental expectations, respectively). But perhaps the greatest contribution of the film series, as distinct from the inventiveness of the book (there are few devices more narratively and cinematically rewarding than the Pensieve), has been its use of its ensemble cast of British stage and screen stars. A dizzying array pop up in the final film (sometimes too dizzyingly: Hagrid, once a core character, barely gets to say ‘Arry!), fleshing out the world of Hogwarts and its distorted reflection in the Death Eaters (who have far fewer stars on their side), not least in cameo turns from John Hurt as wandmaker Ollivander (managing to stay just this side of camp when evaluating a wand as... unyielding) and the wonderfulKelly MacDonald stealing a key scene as the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw.

The film is particularly striking in allowing the finest of the longhaul ensemble cast to have their moments of guts and glory: Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonogall is given the electrifying moment that her character (and stature as a performer) has always deserved, in her confrontation with Alan Rickman’s Snape, at his most effortlessly, sneeringly unpleasant. She moves from trembling to triumphant with real conviction – although the audience responded more warmly to Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) when she strikes back against Bellatrix (Helena Bonham-Carter, who has a very funny turn as Hermione-on-polyjuice-potion: Bonham-Carter captures Watson’s gawky politesse beautifully). McGonogall’s triumph is notable not only for its resonance – which bullied child hasn’t dreamed of the teacher who will see off the tyrannical headmaster? – but for being, along with Neville’s Last Stand, the good guys’ best moment in the film.  Snape’s death, while underplayed elegantly by Rickman, is hurried past in the rush to get his tears into the Pensieve and thus redeem him.

Peter Bradshaw commented on Return of the King that it lost momentum and grip because it lacked a recognisable and terrifying embodiment of evil. That’s not an error made by Yates or Rowling (although the battles in the film do seem somewhat cut-and-pasted from the defence of Gondor), as previous uber-villain Lucius Malfoy (a convincingly harried Jason Isaacs), like Snape, is pointedly humiliated by the biggest bad of all: Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort. After being a whisper and a thought through most of the films, Voldemort finally emerges fully as a character, taking over from Bonham-Carter’s Bellatrix and the meanest, most mannered and deliriously weird villain. Fiennes’ every gesture is calculatedly inhuman, from the way he curves his fingers around his wand (really thinking physically about what it’s like to have talons) to his snaky, gliding walk. But his performance, along with brilliantly subtle make-up, are at their best in the film as he becomes more vulnerable with each Horcrux, containing part of his mortal soul, that is destroyed.

Fiennes owns the final film, triumphing as a performer where his character fails, and after his dissolution (via a rather underwhelming effect), the film loses pace and focus, never managing to answer the question of why evil is so charismatically compelling – or how to address the uncomfortable fact that the good guys are compromised, as Dumbeldore uses both Snape and Harry to his own ends, and at risk of their lives. It does, however, provide a heartfelt argument for the compelling qualities of the series. After Harry has let Voldemort strike him down, he meets Dumbledore in a place much like King’s Cross station (complete, in a wry touch, with uncomfortable benches). Rather than ask the hard questions about the nature of good and evil, they maunder about expositing (a problem that none of the films quite shakes), until the very end, when Harry asks whether the scene occurring is real, or all in his head. “Of course it’s in your head,” responds Dumbledore with a glimmer of Michael Gambon’s traditional twinkle, “but why should that make it any less real?” The consoling fantasy of fantasy and magic, from making light to summoning a vision of dead loved ones as the film does powerfully before Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort, is summed up neatly. Given the strong tradition of British realism, and the disdain for genre generally expressed by literary and cinematic critics on these shores, what I will miss most is the ringing endorsement of the brilliant power of the imagination to defeat the darkest imagination of power.

Sophie Mayer is a bookseller, teacher, editor and the author of two collections of poetry, Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009) and The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011), as well as The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009). She writes about film regularly for Sight & Sound.

Famine Games

The word is not funny.  The world is not a game.  Famine has returned to Africa.  What shall be done?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sherwood Schwartz Has Died

Sad news.  Sherwood Schwartz has died.  Perhaps less well-known and beloved in the UK, than in North America, Schwartz's two key TV Sitcoms of the 60s, Gilligan's Island, and The Brady Bunch, between them created a kind of colourful post-modern Camp zaniness that came to define the telescape.  He has a genius of pop culture.

JCS On Kylie's The Albums 2000-2010

Kylie Minogue The Albums- 2000-2010

Reviewed by James Christopher Sheppard

Having just completed her massive ‘Aphrodite- Les Folies World Tour’, Kylie Minogue is releasing a stunning boxset of all five of her studio albums released since her career-changing monster hit ‘Spinning Around’ in 2000. Better than any Greatest Hits from the past ten years could be, this literally includes every track released by Minogue since signing with Parlophone in 1999.

Light Years
Including her first Top Ten hit since 1994’s ‘Confide in Me’, Light Years catapulted Minogue back to the forefront of pop. Following almost eight years of musical experimentation and collaborations with Nick Cave and Manic Street Preachers, Minogue put her shiny stilettos and hot pants back on and produced the most unashamedly camp disco album of her entire career. ‘Spinning Around’ hit number 1 in the UK and Australia and similar success followed for singles ‘On a Night Like This’, ‘Kids’ with Robbie Williams and ‘Please Stay’. The album also features live favourite ‘Light Years’, and possibly the campest song ever recorded, ‘Your Disco Needs You’.

‘La la la, la la la la la…’ Fever was released in 2001 and saw Minogue not only top the charts in five countries and go multi-platinum, but also had top five success in the USA. The classic single ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ now has iconic status and remains one of the biggest selling singles in the world over the past decade. ‘Come Into My World’ won a Grammy and ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘Love at First Sight’ were also phenomenally huge successes. Following Fever, Kylie was considered an international superstar. Other stand out tracks from the album include ‘Love Affair’, ‘Burning Up’, ‘Fragile’, ‘More More More’, ‘Give it to Me’ and… basically the entire album is flawless electro pop.

Body Language
Never one to unleash the expected, Kylie’s Body Language stunned many, as it did not follow in Fever’s footsteps, or any other record’s footsteps really. The overall sound of the album is the most urban that Kylie has ever sounded, featuring a more American R&B sound than the electro pop people had come to expect from Minogue. While the album scored Minogue her seventh UK #1 with the understated electronic hit ‘Slow’, the rest of the album had a sound of being directed towards an American audience. As a result, the album underperformed in most territories as it just didn’t quite sound like authentic Kylie. Saying that, ‘Red Blooded Women’ and ‘Loving Days’ are treasures that would doubtfully exist without the rest of the album.

Mid ‘Showgirl Tour’ in 2005, Kylie was forced to dramatically cancel the remainder of the tour following her cancer diagnosis. For over a year, the world waited to hear of Kylie’s recovery, and finally rejoiced in late 2006 when she hit the road to complete the tour. Four years after the release of Body Language came X, with first single, ‘2 Hearts’ hitting #4 in the UK and #1 in Australia. X is packed full of electro club tracks, like ‘Like a Drug’, ‘In My Arms’, ‘The One’, ‘Wow’ and ‘Speakerphone’. While some criticized the comeback album as lacking the heartache that could have been expected from a post-illness album, the collection was a success and hugely popular with fans as it demonstrates what Kylie does best- electro dance pop.

Kylie’s tenth studio album came in summer 2010 and landed at #1 in the UK exactly 22 years after her debut album hit the same spot. The Goddess of Love themed album also hit the Top Ten in dozens of countries around the world, as well hit the Top Twenty in the USA. First single ‘All The Lovers’ is literally like a slice of Kylie heaven, it’s euphoric dance perfection.  Other hits include the club strutting anthem ‘Get Out of My Way’ and feel good dance number ‘Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)’. Some of the album’s top moments were not released as singles however, as ‘Aphrodite’, ‘Cupid Boy’ and ‘Can’t Beat The Feeling’ prove. Aphrodite is the album Kylie has always been destined to make- it’s confident, upbeat, positive dance excellence.

With a low price of £11.99, you can’t really go wrong with this box set. The collection comes in a neat white box, which includes all five albums in their own cardboard sleeve and a fold out inlay. For anybody that doesn’t own even a few of these albums, this is money well spent. Fans will also love this as it’s such an awesome collector's item- with each disk printed to reflect the artwork. The Albums 2000-2010 is better than any Best of could hope to be- for the same price you get 63 tracks, some of which are iconic, a lot are brilliant and some are pretty damn good.


The Albums 2000-2010 by Kylie Minogue is available now through Parlophone Records.

JCS is Eyewear's Music Critic.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Heartbreaking But True

Came across this tonight reading his Daily Telegraph Obituary: Frank Kermode was in private a genial man, fond of a good pipe, and many felt for him when he was the victim of a highly unfortunate incident in 1996. Expecting the arrival of some men to help him move house, he blithely handed the 50 cardboard boxes containing his library of 2,500 books, including many rare volumes, to the two burly types who knocked on his door. The entire collection was duly lost to the compressor of the municipal dustcart.

Poetic Artifice

It's not all there, but here is at least some of the classic book online.

Eyewear's Top 140 Films Of All Time

January Jones in Unknown

Eyewearers may beg to difffer - but here are the Top 140 Eyewear Films Of All Time.  Many are currently available at Amazon for under £10.  Have a good summer of visual pleasure! [editor's note: I have revised and expanded this list from the original 125, after considering the comments sent to me.]

After the Fox
Altered States
American Gigolo
An Officer and a Gentleman
Apocalypse Now
Barry Lyndon
Barton Fink
Black Book
Black Narcissus
Blade Runner
Bonnie & Clyde
Bram Stoker's Dracula
Cape Fear
Citizen Kane
Colonel Redl
Days of Heaven
Death in Venice
Diamonds Are Forever
Die Hard
Doctor Zhivago
Don't Say a Word
Double Indemnity
Elmer Gantry
Eyes Wide Shut
Fantastic Voyage
Fear Strikes Out
Five Corners
Flash Gordon
Forbidden Planet
French Connection
Girl, Interrupted
Glorious 39
Good Will Hunting
Gun Crazy
Hachiko: A Dog's Story
Henry Fool
In the Mood for Love
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Jennifer's Body
King Lear
Kiss Me Deadly
L.A. Confidential
Last Year at Marienbad
Lawrence of Arabia
Less Than Zero
Let the Right One In
Lost in Translation
Lust for Life
Man of Flowers
Meet John Doe
Miracle on 34th Street
Mississippi Burning
Modern Times
Mr. Majestyk
North by Northwest
Operation Daybreak
Paris, Texas
Play Time
Prick Up Your Ears
Pulp Fiction
Radio Days
Report to the Commissioner
Schindler's List
Sea of Love
South Pacific
Sunset Boulevard
Terminator 2 (T2)
The Andromeda Strain
The Battle of Algiers
The Bounty
The Cassandra Crossing
The Consequences of Love
The Conversation
The Day of the Jackal
The Dead Zone
The Fighter
The Fugitive
The Hustler
The Lost Weekend
The Maltese Falcon
The Man Between
The Ministry of Fear
The Odessa File
The Painted Veil
The Player
The Poseidon Adventure
The Red Shoes
The Runaways
The Servant
The Silence Of The Lambs
The Son
The Sound Of Music
The Sun
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
The Third Man
The Tree of Life
The Trial
The Untouchables
The Year of Living Dangerously
Touch of Evil
True Grit
Under The Sand
Wonder Boys
You The Living


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...