Sunday, 14 November 2010

A PhD in the Humanities

and then, just to turn that smirk into a tear, watch this (thanks to Karl Steel over at ITM):

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Boccaccio, by Boccaccio

Of Boccaccio's autograph manuscripts, it is arguably that of the Decameron that has attracted the most attention in recent years. Now in the Staatsbibliothek - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, in Berlin, under the shelfmark "MS Hamilton 90", this fascinating manuscript, produced in the 1370s, clearly shows an author concerned with the 'packaging' of his great masterpiece. This is all the more interesting because the late Boccaccio is often thought of as more interested in the production of Latin works, as repudiating the earlier, youthful and foolish vernacular work. The manuscript certainly disturbs any neat division anyone might wish to draw between these two Boccaccios.

While there had been some talk earlier in the twentieth century of this being an important manuscript, but it was not until the publication in 1962 of Vittore Branca and Pier Giorgio Ricci, Un autografo del Decameron (Codice hamiltoniano 90), (Padova: C. E. D. A. M., 1962), that its true importance was realized. Branca and Ricci identified it as an autograph and the former set about producing a critical text based on it. This was subsequently published as Decameron: edizione critica secondo l'autografo hamiltoniano (Firenze: L'Accademia della Crusca, 1976), and appeared simultaneously as volume 4 of Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, gen. ed. Vittore Branca, Classici Mondadori 10 vols (Milano: A. Mondadori, 1964-1998). The 600th anniversary of the death of Boccaccio fell in 1975 and was the impetus for a good deal of publications on the author and his work. So, in 1974, there appeared, under the auspices of Charles S. Singleton, Decameron: Edizione diplomatico-interpretativa dell'autografo Hamilton 90 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). This contains a very important description of the manuscript by Armando Petrucci, 'Il MS. Berlinese Hamiltoniano 90. Note codicologiche e paleografiche' (pp. 647-661); as for the rest of the volume, it really never recovered from the scathing review by Branca in Studi sul Boccaccio 8 (1974), 321-329.

In 1975 Branca produced a beautiful facsimile of the manuscript: Decameron: facsimile dell'autografo conservato nel Codice Hamilton 90 della Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz di Berlino, Manus summorum: autografi dei capolavori nella civilità universale riprodotti in facsimile (Firenze: Alinari). Well, dear reader, while perusing on Ebay what did I find only a rather reasonably priced copy of the said facsimile and before I could say Buy It Now, it was winding it way from sunny Italy to the dark and wintry North. I am so delighted to have this. It is invaluable to be able to check each passage from the printed text against how it appears in the autograph, keeping an eye on how the punctuation and capitalization are marked out. This has been rather wonderfully discussed by Lucia Battaglia Ricci in her Boccaccio (Rome: Salerno, 2000; = 'Giovanni Boccaccio', in Storia della letteratura italiana, ed. by Enrico Malato, 12 vols [Roma: Salerno Editrice, 1995], Vol. 2: Il Trecento [1995], pp. 727-877), where she suggests that Boccaccio distinguishes between narrative layers that are not always easily reproduced in modern printed editions. She makes some very important points too about the look and feel of the manuscript: it is a rather serious book that looks for all the world like a university text.

The beautiful and witty catchphrases are also a constant source of fascination for me. There are thirteen catchwords in the manuscript though there were others since the final three quires are missing. The one illustrated above occurs on f. 71v and represents Pietro di Vinciolo, at Dec v 10 37; his text reads 'che poco'. Branca saw in these an illustrative programme reflecting the work's thematic concerns. So, the figures represent the triumph over Fortune, Love, and Wit (fortuna, amore, and ingegno), four portraits for each. Six of the ten male figures are merchants, which he saw as indicating the social class in which many of the stories are set and perhaps indicating too the presence of this class amongst the work's earliest readers and copyists. (While not dissenting [too much] from Branca, I have a somewhat different take on these catchwords, outlined in greater detail in the third chapter of my forthcoming Chaucer and Italian Textuality [Oxford: Clarendon Press]).

The facsimile was set and printed in the famous Stamperia Valdonega, in Verona, in 325 copies; mine is numbered 188. The photographs were taken by Alinari; the paper produced by the Cartiera Ventura di Cernobbio; it was bound by the Legatoria Torriai di Cologno Monzense, and comes boxed in brown cloth and card. It is a thing of sober beauty. And a great addition to the library.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Hell's Half Acre, Lazarides Gallery London, October 12-17, 2010

Dante: no other medieval author continues to exert such an extraordinary force on the modern imagination. Those who've read his Comedìa never recover; those who've never read him still feel like they know the Inferno, and because it has become such a cultural norm, they probably do know it. At Cambridge, Prof. Robin Kirkpatrick has been undertaking a massive critical and creative engagement with Dante over the past couple of years in a project entitled Performance, as well as a conference at CRASSH entitled Pain in Performance and 'Moving Beauty'. This year, on October 30th, Performance 2010 will further explore Dante and other texts in a series of performances, music, dance, art and drawings.

Recently, the Lazarides Gallery in London held an exhibition (suggestively) entitled Hell's Half Acre in which sixteen artists produced work evoking Dante's Inferno in The Old Vic Tunnels, under Waterloo Station. The setting is an important aspect of this exhibition. You enter and descend into a dark series of cavernous spaces in which artworks are lit by spotlights, passing a projection of a barking dog on the way. Curiously, this not on the list of works exhibited: perhaps no-one wanted to own up to such creature. Your eyes take some time to become accustomed to the low light - I nearly fell over in my first five minutes, adding to my disorientation and considerably heightening the effect! Steve Lazarides is a name often associated with Banksy though he represents over thirty contemporary artists and his vision in putting together this exhibition in this particular space is remarkable. This short review will no do justice to the richness of the exhibition.

The Old Vic Tunnels comprise five long, wide, intersecting tunnels accommodating an exhibition of installations, paintings, sculpture and film. This has allowed works to be displayed with fairly generous space, and installations have room to breathe. It also allows the darkness of the space between works plenty of room to exert itself on the viewer's imagination. The engagement with Dante is not always apparent. A plan of hell is provided in which the names of various artists are found in certain circles, sometimes indicating a whole circle, or merely sitting beside certain sins. There is obviously a good deal of humour involved here and surely a smile was raised when deciding where to put which artist: akin to taking the Inferno quiz. It implies structure, that the exhibition is mapped against the moral design of the Comedy; and while it was enjoyable to think about the interpretative possibilities that became available, I'm not sure that it has been so mapped quite so seriously.

These are images of pain and suffering, of bodies being punctured. There are Boogie's Needles, and Paul Insect's Object Desire, a sphere of syringes with needles pointing out. Threatening, forbidding. Compelling and maybe beautiful too. There is the affecting piece by Jonathan Yeo, For What We are About to Receive, an installation of several panes of glass that need to be viewed from a specific angle to re-compose two kneeling supplicant figures. Here perspective and position are essential. To see the whole image you need to stand in one very specific spot. The act of viewing is rendered performative: it makes the art. But in another real sense, the art makes you. It forces you to stand in front of it, directly, head on. You are being controlled by it. There are often moments in the Comedy when we feel like that.

Bodies too are central to the explorations of Mark Jenkins in a sculptural installation entitled Chrysalis 1-5. These hanging bodies wrapped in clingfilm are quietly waiting, in the foetal position, for something. They are in a limbo-like stasis. Or, given that a chrysalis will become a perfected creature, perhaps there is more of a purgatorial state of becoming about these bodies. There is nothing of expiation in their hanging, it does not feel like a punishment or a purging. It points to a natural state on one hand; on the other it is deeply unsettling that their human form is so developed. They unsettle but they do not disgust. One is compelled by them, compelled to look at them, to try and see their faces (which are not visible). One wants to know who they are and why they are there. One waits for dialogue. Like them.

Readers of the Comedìa in the 1320s must have recognized figures from Florence, perhaps people they knew personally. Branca Doria could have read Inferno 33.136-138 and raised an eyebrow to have found himself there. So too, the present is more than enough for some of these artists contemplating Dante. A wonderful installation by Vhils entitled Bernie Made Off shows a painting of Bernard Madoff on a wall which has suffered serious damage. It is only when one looks more closely that it seems as if the damage, bullet holes, are in fact creating the image. It is an elegant and at the same time angry piece. Viewers have no trouble locating him somewhere in Hell. Quite far down actually. Even his name should have given something away: he becomes almost like the devils in Malebolge with their violent, cruelly parodic names, Malebranche, Malacoda, Scarmiglione, Alichino, Calcabina, Cagnazzo, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, Rubicante. Similarly, a piece by George Osodi, Niger Delta Series comprises photographs of the Niger Delta in front of a sand and oil installation. The stagnant, polluted water is surely reminiscent of the Inferno (cf. 'L'acqua era buia assai più che persa'; 'The waters here were darker, far, than perse', Inf 7. 103, trans. Kirkpatrick [Penguin, 2006], p. 63). Perhaps not subtle, but then again, not much about the destruction there is subtle. Again, one has no trouble imagining those responsible somewhere in Hell.

Hell was not the only part of the poem explored. A beautiful piece by Tokujin Yoshioka entitled Stellar had a white sphere hanging from the ceiling, made up of pieces of opaque crystal. A smoke machine filled the room (which was closed off with heavy drapes) with white smoke. I do not have a photo of this piece, but I doubt a photo would really convey the effect. Viewers walked under the sphere, rapt in attention, as we were enveloped. You could really only see people's faces, all moving in an ethereal and quite sublime appreciation of this strangely lit object overhead. It was paradisal and I found it a profoundly moving piece of work. Beautiful. Humane. And joyful.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Bolt from the Blue

via the BBC website:

This is the moment a lightning bolt appears to strike the Statue of Liberty in New York. New York photographer Jay Fine had spent the night braving the storm in Battery Park City, Manhattan, in a bid to get the perfect picture. Jay spent nearly two hours poised with his camera and took more than 80 shots before striking lucky with this particular bolt of lightning at 8.45pm on 22 September. He said he had been waiting 40 years to get the picture.

To capture the shots Jay used a Nikon D300s with 60mm f/2.8 lens on the following settings: Aperture: F/10, Shutterspeed: 5 seconds, ISO: 200.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Faddan More Psalter

Some time ago I blogged about the discovery of the Faddan More Psalter in Co. Tipperary in 2006. Conservation work has been carried out on the Psalter which has allowed for some startling discoveries (see here for more). These are discussed with some experts in a wonderful documentary on RTE called 'Treasure from a Bog' (produced by John Murray and written and directed by the great Alan Gilsenan). This documentary goes through the huge technical challenge that the Psalter presented in stabilizing its condition and retrieving as much as possible for study. About 15% of the book survives, and one single page survives almost intact. This offers valuable clues as to the construction of the book and how the parchment was prepared, pricking, ruling, and the like. However, one of the most exciting, and puzzling, discoveries relates not to the book itself but rather to its leather cover. Very few of these have survived so this was already an extraordinary discovery. Analysis revealed that the inside of the cover was lined with a material not found at all in 8th/9th century Ireland: papyrus. This is such an unexpected discovery that its importance and significance cannot be overestimated, but quite what it means is anybody's guess! Does it connect the early Irish church with the Middle East? If so, what does that mean? Exciting stuff. The Faddan More Psalter and its cover are expected to go on display in the Summer of 2011. You can be sure of an update.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

CJ Sansom, Heartstone (London: Mantle/Macmillan, 2010)

It is the summer of 1545 and the king prepares for war with France. Master Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer who has been keeping his head down and trying not to attract the attention of those many grasping and ruthless courtiers who seem to congregate around Henry and his queens, receives a letter from Queen Catherine Parr. He cannot refuse her request to investigate what has led to the suicide of the son of one of the queen's old servants. It is a hopeless case. He and his opposite number, the very disagreeable Master Dyrick, are charged with travelling to Hampshire to take depositions. While there Shardlake decides to make inquiries about a woman he has been visiting in Bedlam and the circumstances that lead to her madness. Thus Shardlake finds himself weaving in and out of two slowly unfolding, terrible, stories. Things come to a head when he must confront enemies old and new on board the Mary Rose.

Sansom is in great form in this marvellous novel. He has a wonderful sense for atmosphere, especially in the Herician court. His vulnerable hunchback lawyer is a figure always on the outside, wanting to be accepted but at the same time resisting being involved since it only leads to danger. The religious upheaval is another wonderful context: everyone is under suspicion and suspects each other. An old cleric, a little too nostalgic for the 'old ways', in a discussion about faith with Shardlake mentions that he doesn't like mysteries, that he needs to solve them. This is true in many ways: Shardlake looks first for the human hand behind the unexplained. The novel is long but not, I think, overlong. It also skillfully sets up the next installment, with a brief but memorable meeting with the young daughter of Anne Boleyn, the Lady Elizabeth. She will, inevitably, play some part in the next novel. In fact, I think she'd have rather enjoyed reading this novel and when you read you'll know why.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen

The Hebrew word הַלְּלוּיָ means Praise the Lord (or more properly Praise Yahweh, being praise הַלְּלוּ and יָ the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton), an injunction to the congregation to join in praise. During Leonard Cohen's wonderful performance of his incomperable 'Hallelujah' at Lissadell House in Sligo, he innovated upon his own song by mentioning Yeats' County. In the first half of the concert he mentioned having learned one of Yeats' poems mentioning Lissadell House over fifty years ago and could not have imagined singing in its gardens. That poem has been much mentioned in recent reviews of these two concerts. It opens Yeats' 1933 collection The Winding Stair and Other Poems and is printed below in full, alongside the master himself singing.

In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams —
Some vague Utopia — and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful.
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.

(October 1927)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Very limited edition

In the 1996 film Tiré à part, dir. Bernard Rapp, with Terence Stamp (speaking French quite beautifully) there is a scene in the study of one of the characters, Nicholas Fabry. It is a scene in which he is looking for something and so pulls all the books off the shelves, but the study itself is quite marvellous (and I've had occasion to refer to it before). Well, I've pulled a quick screen shot from a preview clip. It's a mess but you get the idea.

Wonderful study.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Beautiful Friendship

This is a picture featured in the The Observer Magazine, 25.07.10, p. 33 (Travel, 'Casablanca write large'), which shows the library of Dar Khalifa, the Caliph's House, in Casablanca, restored by its owner Tahir Shah.

Isn't it just beautiful?

Friday, 23 July 2010

Books in Bologna - and elsewhere

My trip to Italy for the NCS Congress in Siena has also resulted in the happy acquisition of a small but select number of books for my delectation and pleasure. This was a combination of picking up books I already knew were in certain shops and picking up some other things unexpectedly. In the former category was Giuseppe Corsi's anthology Rimatori del Trecento (UTET, 1969), an excellent selection of poetry with a hugely detailed critical apparatus. I'd been using the library copy and was using it enough to justify owning it. When I went to Libreria Belli in Bologna to pick it up I happened quite by happy accident upon the Romano and Tenenti edition of Alberti's I libri della famiglia, first published by Einaudi in their NUE series in 1969. This edition has, however, been revised by Francesco Furlan, in 1994, with a text that takes account of new manuscript evidence. It was not cheap but then again, this hardly ever appears second hand (and it is now out of print, like so many other volumes in this series). I'm very happy to own this fascinating work and will be using it more often, both for teaching and research.

I was also kindly gifted some books which I'm delighted to have. Piero Boitani's Letteratura europea e Medioevo volgare (Il Mulino, 2007); Prima lezione di letteratura (Laterza, 2007); and Sulle orme di Ulisse, rev & exp edn (Il Mulino, 2007 [1998]). Taken together these represent a significant part of the research interests of this fine medieval scholar and will be a mine of future reading and study.

At the NCS bookstand, there was a representative of Einaudi and, taking advantage of a conference discount, I decided to procure a copy of Chiara Frugoni, L'affare migliore di Enrico: Giotto e la cappella Scrovegni (Einaudi, 2008), and Maria Luisa Meneghetti, Il pubblico dei trovatori: la ricezione della poesia cortese fino al XIV secolo (Einaudi, 1992). This last I'd been long on the lookout for and was delighted to pick up, but the former got me very excited. It is a very substantial tome by a very famous historian. Then, while in Bologna, I was then able to pick up a copy of Giuseppe Basile (ed), Giotto: gli affreschi della Cappella degli Scrovegni a Padova (Skira, 2002), at Mel Bookstore. I read one alongside the other.

Frugoni's book is very interesting and very good. It is often much more the work of a historian than art historian, in the sense that her readings of the paintings are often somewhat straightforward. They are certainly always very plugged in to the source texts, and the volume includes an edition and translation of Enrico Scrovegni's will which will prove invaluable to contextualizing his much discussed motivations in building and commissioning the frescoes. But there was often room for a bit more verve in her interpretations. She is prompt in her disagreement with the work of other scholars (such as Laura Jacobus, Andrew Ladis, Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona) though does not explain the nature of these disagreements. For example, she takes issue with Jacobus's thesis of multiple entrances to the chapel, something Jacobus elaborates upon quite a bit in her exploration of different scenes being 'choreographed' for different audiences. I'd like to know why Frugoni disagrees. For all that, this is an engaging and informed study of the Scrovegni chapel and is well worth reading.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

NCS Siena 2010

That's it for another NCS Congress. It has been an exhausting five days but they have been of great vitality and interest and immensely enjoyable. Quite apart from the wonderful setting (and the new building in which the conference itself took place was gratefully equipped with air-conditioning), the meeting this time was in great form. I met lots of people, made new friends and caught up with old friends. We were fed and watered with care and attention. The conference dinner, at the Tenuta di Monaciano was one of the best I've ever had, in an exquisite setting. The company was delightful.

At the end of the Congress several scholars who are not Chaucerians gave a perspective on their own experiences attending: it was interesting to hear this, especially as three were from modern language departments. I wouldn't have minded a few Chaucerians talking about their own conference highlights, but this did not happen at this forum. It was the end of the conference and everyone was tired, perhaps talked out. I humbly offer some of my own initial thoughts. While there were Chaucer and Italy threads at the conference, I did think that Chaucer and Italy was not quite as well represented as it could have been, in terms of sessions and how they were scheduled and put together. For example, there was a session called 'The French of Italy', lovely. Why not the vernaculars of Italy? Looking at Tuscan dialects, Genoese, Milanese? (Joseph Grossi gave a paper in my own session on L'Anonimo Genovese, complete with very successful readings in dialect!). This was a missed opportunity, I felt. And I recognize that the opportunity is now passed, and there not much point in complaining now.

There was too the egregious absence of the man of grete auctoritee, the one who has done so much for Chaucer and Italy, who did not have that far to travel. That needs explaining.

There were some rather excellent papers. These included those in the session 'Image Trouble, 1380-1538: The Secular Image': Alastair Minnis, 'Image Trouble in Vernacular Commentary: The Glossing of Evrart de Conty and Francesco da Barberino', Kathryn Starkey, 'An Iconography of the Secular in Der Welscher Gast', and Barbara Newman, 'René of Anjou and the Heart's Two Quests'. I really enjoyed the papers in the 'Italian Encounters' session, Nick Havely, 'An English Reader of Dante in Papal Avignon' [sic Adam Easton], William Robins, 'Did Chaucer Meet Sercambi', and Carolyn Collette, 'Richard de Bury, Petrarch, and Avignon'. Robins argued that Chaucer might well have visited Lucca (and therefore possibly come into contact with Sercambi, and that the exchange might not have been all one way). He did so by outlining the travel itineraries possible in late fourteenth-century Italy while also recognizing the speculative nature of his paper. It was, for all that, a fascinating paper. There were some other good sessions on MSS, Michael Hanly on Jacopo Rapondi of Lucca, for example. And a good session on humanism and the House of Fame. There were some excellent papers in a session on the French of Italy (especially a beautifully detailed and linguistically sensitive paper by Charmaine Lee), and it was an important opportunity to think about just how linguistically complex the scene is for Chaucer in Italy. Other highlights included Glenn Burger's paper on performative reading and manuscript studies, and Martha Rust on paper and parchment and the Middle English verse love epistle, a beautiful piece of work. The plenaries were powerful, chief among them Aranye Fradenburg's. Moving, compelling, enjoyable. And it was great to see Griselda stepping out in style with Richard Firth Green.

But the highlight of the conference, and certainly among the conference's most important papers, was one that was never mentioned again. This is most curious considering how much time we spent talking about manuscripts, theorizing about manuscripts, salivating over manuscript illuminations. Estelle Stubbs gave a paper on the morning of the first day in which she identified the famous 'Scribe D' as John Marchant. The importance of this scribe in copying work by Chaucer has always been recognized, but his identification now allows us to place this copying in a much more specific context (and Stubbs threw the Guildhall into relief in this respect). It was a groundbreaking piece of work, compellingly and elegantly presented, and should have been the talk of the conference.

It was an enormously successful conference.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin wins Griffin Prize

The Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has won the prestigious Griffin Prize for her wonderful collection The Sun-Fish (Gallery Press, 2009). The judges' citation reads as follows:
“This beguiling poet opens many doors onto multiple worlds. From the outset, with the startling imagery of ‘The Witch in the Wardrobe’ – a ‘fluent pantry’, where ‘the silk scarves came flying at her face like a car wash’ – we are in a shifting realm, both real and otherworldly. The effect of her impressionistic style is like watching a photograph as it develops. The Sun-fish contains approaches to family and political history, thwarted pilgrimages in which Ní Chuilleanáin poses many questions – not always directly – and often chooses to leave the questions themselves unresolved, allowing them to resonate meaningfully past the actual poem’s end. She is a truly imaginative poet, whose imagination is authoritative and transformative. She leads us into altered or emptied landscapes, such as that in ‘The Polio Epidemic,’ when children were kept indoors, but the poet escapes on a bicycle ‘I sliced through miles of air/free as a plague angel descending/On places buses went …’ Each poem is a world complete, and often they move between worlds, as in the beautiful ‘A Bridge between Two Counties.’ These are potent poems, with dense, captivating sound and a certain magic that proves not only to be believable but necessary, in fact, to our understanding of the world around us.”
One of my favourite poems from this collection is entitled 'The Cure', and I think that it embodies so many of the qualities that I admire in Ní Chuilleanáin's work, the quietness of it, the tender observation that is never patronizing and the great sense of strangeness. There's also a very delicate kind of 'Irish' feel to it that I have trouble explaining: it is a tone that seems to characterize but at the same time to disappear before your very eyes.

The Cure

They've kept the servant sitting up;
It's late again,
Their fire burning so high they've opened a door,
And from her room

She hears them settling the great questions:
How treat a case
Of green-sickness or, again, one of unrequited love?
The fire burns down,

They close the door. She was writing to her mother,
Resumes: Don't think
Of consulting that fraudulent woman. Her sister, who
Died, had the gift.

... I understand, it must be hard for her,
So long, no news,
But surely, secretly it comforts her heart
That the child thrives.

The voices boom again, the door is wide,
She hears the bell,
Appears with her candlestick, ready to guide
A guest to bed,

Then back to her letter. The lady of this house
Keeps to her room.
The master sighs as he locks the heavy street door.
There is no cure.

(from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Sun-fish (Gallery Press, 2009). Poetry Book Society Recommendation; Winner of the Griffin Prize, 2010.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

This is how they all (should) do it!

On Sunday, I'm off to Glyndebourne to see Così fan tutte, dir. Nicholas Hytner, with Barbara Senator (Dorabella), Sally Matthews (Fiordiligi), Allan Clayton (Ferrando), Robert Gleadow (Guglielmo), Anna Maria Panzarella (Despina) and Pietro Spagnoli (Don Alfonso).

Needless to say, I'm very excited about this.

For a little taster, listen to this:

'Soave sia il vento' from Mozart's Così fan tutte from Glyndebourne on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Words Words Words

A little while back I wondered whether I should invest in Alberto Asor Rosa's Letteratura italiana (Einaudi) and in the end I did. It is a real mine of wonderful material and I have not been disappointed with it at all. It comprises 18 volumes, 6 tomes in 7 vols [I. Il letterato e le Istituzioni; II. Produzione e consumo; III. Le forme del tempo, part 1: Teoria e poesia and part 2, La prosa; IV. L'interpretazione; V. Le questioni; VI. Teatro, musica, tradizioni dei classici] plus 4 of 'Storia e geografia' [I. L'Età medievale, II. L'età moderna., parts 1 and 2; III. L'età contemporanea], plus 2 vols of dictionary and index, and then 5 of 'Le Opere'. [I. Dalle Origini al Cinquecento; II. Dal Cinquecento all'Ottocento; III. L'Ottocento e il Novecento; IV. Il Novecento, parts 1 and 2].

I have also made another significant addition to the library, also pictured here. Salvatore Battaglia, Il Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana was begun in 1961 at the Unione tipografico-editrice torinese and in 2002 was finished with the publication of volume 21, Toi-Z. I have been looking up the definition of the word bankrupt and I think I recognize it.

This completes a mammoth task of lexical work, comprising a total of 22, 504 pages, 183, 594 words drawn from 14, 061 works of 6, 077 authors. You hear it said that the dictionary is bigger than the OED (in 20 volumes, with a mere 21, 730 words), though with the online updates it is less easy to be so sure. I am already using this pretty much daily and it is just a marvellous thing.

Two volumes of supplements - which I don't yet have - have been published, in 2004 and 2009, edited by the great Edoardo Sanguineti.

Yesterday, Sanguineti sadly passed away. It is the end of an era of Italian poetry. A great man is gone.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Task(s) of the Translator

The lastest issue of Anglistik (21.1, March 2010) contains a cluster of essays on translation, edited by Colin Wilcockson and is entitled: 'Focus on Translating into English: Theories, Practices and Problems' (pp. 1-140); he has also written a prefatory essay. Several of these essays are on medieval literature and are noted below for anyone who is interested. Of particular note is the fact that almost all are highly experienced translators and so these meditations and observations will only add to our appreciation of their translations.

Elizabeth Dearnley, 'From Laȝamon to Caxton: The Evolution of the Middle English Translator's Prologue', pp. 13-25, is an examination of changing attitudes to translation through the prologues, mapped against the politico-linguistic situation in England, in particular the status of English, which underwent enormous changes throughout the period.

Bernard O'Donoghue, 'Translation Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', pp. 27-35, will appeal broadly for its incisive appreciation of the ever increasing numbers of translations of SGGK appearing in recent years. Particularly exciting is his laudatory reference to Jane Draycott's translation of Pearl, due out soon from Carcanet. Very much looking forward to that.

Barry Windeatt, 'Translating Troilus and Criseyde: Modernizing the Courtly Poetic', pp. 37-48, asserts that 'it is the courtly style - in all its formality, elevation and pattern - that proves most problematic and elusive to represent. This specialized idiom of courtly poetry is among what now seem the most culturally distant aspects of Chaucer's Troilus, remaining culturally untranslatable into the verse translation so far published' (p. 41). Windeatt goes on to explore further some aspects of this courtly idiom and highlights some particularly knotty passages that require hard choices on the part of a translator.

Colin Wilcockson, 'Some Problems in Translating Chaucer's Poetry into Modern Prose', pp. 49-58, takes its cue from Wilcockson's excellent translation for Penguin of a selection of Tales, and explores some of the challenges that he faced and the solutions for which he opted. These are often of a rhetorical nature, or have social implications, or centre on taboo words, as well as technical problems of forms of address no longer used in Present Day English.

Sioned Davies, 'Translating the Mabinogion', pp. 59-74, sees the work of a translator as necessarily one that aims to do justice to the acoustic dimension of the medieval text, to convey the performance features of the source language text: 'the medieval storyteller 'performed' his tales orally and visually before his audience; the medieval scribe wrote down tales intended for oral delivery - another 'performance'' (pp. 60-61). She goes on then to highlight a range of challenges to the translator of the Mabinogion, such as the order of the tales, punctuation, orthography, conjunctive cohesion and formulaic content, as well as direct speech and the use of the historical present.

R. Barton Palmer, 'Translation and Failure: The Example of Guillaume de Machaut', pp. 75-86, opens with some searching questions on the nature of translation, invoking Anton Popovič and his idea that source language and target language share an 'invariant core' (in 'The Concept of 'Shift of Expression' in Translation Analysis', in The Nature of Translation, ed. James Holmes [The Hague: Mouton, 1970], 127-144). Palmer continues: 'It may be a truth commonly acknowledged that translation is marked by failure. But we are less likely to proclaim that translations are most effective when their makers self-consciously identify the peculiar forms of that failure. This is a principle, I humbly suggest, that we academic translators of medieval texts might do well to keep always in mind' (p. 76). The article proceeds with what he describes as 'an anatomy of failure', drawing on his own experience as a translator.

Robin Kirkpatrick, 'Dante's Commedia: The Translation of Courtesy', pp. 93-114, opens wondering how we should address other people and begins a powerful meditation on courtesy. He observes that Dante's Commedia is 'a poem constructed almost entirely around conversations - between Dante as an actor in his own poem and the souls he encounters in the afterlife, and, equally, between Dante in propria persona and the texts such as Virgil's Aeneid, which he seeks to adjust (or 'translate') to his own purposes' (p. 93). The suggests that a general theory of translation might be developed as an act of courtesy, 'in which the translator stands as mediator not only between the words of the original text and the demands of the target language but also between the ethical principles that speak with differing nuance in differing cultures or epochs'. Kirkpatrick continues this beautiful article with examples of challenges facing the translator, solutions he himself has opted for, and brings them to bear upon a critical reading of the passages themselves. It ends by embracing the post-Babelic world of the translator. 'And if, as in Paradise when confronting the reality of God, there is no logical way in which the task can be successful, the performance itself will nonetheless have its own value. In this perspective, it should not matter at all that a translator discovers that there are umpteen previous versions of the text to which he is attending. Each new effort - like each new performance of a musical score - will stand as an enrichment and celebration of the original text' (p. 114).

The issues also contains: Malcolm Lyons, 'Translation from Arabic: The Thousand and One Nights', pp. 87-91; Walter Pape, 'Reweaving the Veil of Poetry: Translating Goethe's Faust', pp. 115-130; Bernard Adams, 'Translating Hungarian', pp. 131-140.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Getting off the Hook

Last night Paul Muldoon gave the opening address for the DLR Poetry Now 2010 Festival. I use the term address because its primary sense, as a verb, is to make straight, to put things right, in order. This was a man with things to say, things of poetry, things of family, of suffering. Of pain. It was one of the most exhilarating evenings I have had in a very long time and I would like to write about it.

The title of the evening's contribution was 'Go Fish: Six Irish Poems'. These poems were: Louis MacNeice, 'Sunday Morning'; W.R. Rodgers, 'The Net'; John Montague, 'The Trout'; Seamus Heaney, 'The Guttural Muse' and 'Limbo'; Medbh McGuckian, 'The Flower Master'; Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, 'The Shannon Estuary Welcoming the Fish'. Just as Muldoon got up to speak before an eager audience a gentleman stood up and demanded to know where he stood on Provisional IRA violence in Northern Ireland. The room froze. Muldoon stood for a moment awkwardly and said that on a good day he stood for himself and there was a nervous laugh, nervously hoping it was all over. It wasn't. The man would not be satisfied with this and persisted. 'I am from Northern Ireland and you represent me, so I want to know where you stand'. Muldoon explained that politics changes, in a way that makes it a difficult subject-matter for poetry. With a bit of heckling from the audience who were saying to the gentleman that it was not the occasion, Muldoon managed to get started.

When it came to read the first poem he paused, looked up and invited the gentleman to read Louis MacNeice, 'Sunday Morning'. It was a stunning move, generous, comfortable, from a man who wanted to involve his audience, every one of them, in his task for the evening. The politics might not be settled and remain divisive, but reading a poem together. Yes, we can do that. The man got up and you know what, he read it rather well. There was a solidity and robustness to his reading that actually worked most unexpectedly. The man finished reading and walked out. It was a pity he did. He would have heard a lot had he remained.

Another gentleman was invited to read Montague's 'The Trout', but he had forgotten his reading glasses on the train from Limerick. His reading was difficult, stilted and halting. It was a powerful and apposite reminder that reading is difficult. And that reading a poem with ease can really not be how it is in the poem at all. Muldoon stood behind him like an angel at St Jerome's shoulder, prompting him when he fell. It was heartbreakingly beautiful and I am filled with emotion even remembering it.

The work of two other poets were read by the poets themselves, Seamus Heaney and Medbh McGuckian. Heaney got up and said: "The Guttural Muse, by Seamus Heaney". As usual claiming no special place, no special right.

Muldoon continued to speak and outlined with a dazzling display of learning and deep reading his sense of a theme running through these poems of fish and water, used in a whole variety of ways with very different effects. It was an extraordinary soundscape of Irish poetry, with Muldoon pausing over words with the delicacy of a carpenter touching a piece of fine wood, a man aware of what it is, of what it was, and of what it might be.

The address was punctuated with autobiographical details. As my medievalist readers will know, and any editors surely do, punctuation can change everything and so this punctuation was everything and changed everything. He spoke about child abuse, something of which as a child he was vividly aware. And he spoke about his sister and her experience. (I couldn't stop re-reading in my mind Muldoon's poem 'The Misfits', from Moy Sand and Gravel.) The abuse of power on the part of the Church is so widespread, so terrible, dreadful—in the sense of one being full of dread. He spoke of the Pastoral Letter issued by Papa Ratzinger, of its inadequacy, its sheer utter inadequacy.

Muldoon's address was marked by a sense of a fullness of time, a timeliness, of καιρός. It was political, social, and yes, it was poetic. The time is now. Muldoon's time is now. Us readers, our time is now.

Last night the poetry belonged to the audience; it was empowering. It was special.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

DLR Poetry Now 2010

Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"

It was with this poem that Belinda McKeon, in a lecture entitled 'One More Folded Sunset: Mapping the Poem' opened the 2010 DLR Poetry Now festival, offering an extended meditation on the place of poetry and the poetry of place in the work of Bishop and in the work of this year's amazing selection of poets. She is a very powerful reader and brings sensitivity and intellectual rigour in equal measure to her reading; these qualities and skills are much in evidence in her curatorial stewardship of the Festival.

The line-up of poets include a keynote tonight, at 8.30pm, with Paul Muldoon delivering an address entitled 'Go Fish: Six Irish Poets', and Muldoon will read his own work, alongside Anne Stevenson and Homero Aridjis on Saturday evening at 8.30pm. On Friday night, at 6.30pm, Justin Quinn, Luljeta Lleshanaku and Philip Gross will read, which I am very much looking forward to, while at 8.30pm, Derek Mahon and Rosanna Warren will read. On Saturday at 6.30pm Vona Groarke, Kevin Young and Joan Margarit will read, and on Sunday at 4pm John Burnside, Sylva Fischerová and John F. Deane will read.

It's going to be a great festival. Hopefully I'll blog again about it if I can sit down for long enough.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Charles Muscatine (1920-2010)

The great Chaucerian scholar Charles Muscatine has died. Read obits here, here , here, here, and here; read about his anti-McCarthy stance here. Fixing higher education never seemed so urgent.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Boccaccio visualizzato, ed. Vittore Branca, 3 vols (Einaudi, 1999)

The eagle-eyed amongst my devoted readers will have noticed that a little change has occurred on the side-bar listing those Books I Dream of Owning. That is because I no longer dream of owning Boccaccio visualizzato but now, in fact, possess the said wonder. I have been working on the visual traditions surrounding Boccaccio for a while now and will continue to do so for another piece of work I'd like to complete. So when the chance presented itself to acquire a copy of Branca's great catalogue, frankly I jumped at it. It was a great price too, but I shan't be so vulgar as to talk about such things.

The work was published in 1999 but it had been long awaited, and a series of publications throughout the 1980s and '90s signalled what goodies it was to contain. (For reviews, see those of Christopher Kleinhenz in Speculum 79 [2004], 455-457; and Evelyn Lincoln in Heliotropia 1/1 [2003], available here). The basic idea was to publish a catalogue of images based on Boccaccian texts; these images appeared in manuscripts, on panels (cassoni etc), in paintings, and other media, from the middle ages right down to the modern era. It is a veritable cornucopia and remains a foundational resource.

The first volume contains a set of more general essays. They are: Vittore Branca: 'Introduzione: Il narrar boccacciano per immagini dal tardo gotico al primo Rinascimento'; idem., 'Interespressività narrativo-figurativa e rinnovamenti topologici e iconografici discesi dal Decameron'; Paul F. Watson, 'Architettura e scultura e senso della narrazione: Guido Cavalcanti e le case dei morti'; Victoria Kirkham, 'L'immagine del Boccaccio nella memoria tardo-gotica e rinascimentale'; Creighton Gilbert, 'La devozione di Giovanni Boccaccio per gli artisti e per l'arte'; Andreina Griseri, 'Di fronte al Decameron: L'età moderna'.

The second volume contains works of art of Italian origin. The first section is on Tuscany and northern Italy, and contains: Maria Grazia Ciardi Dupré Dal Poggetto, 'L'iconografia nei codici miniati boccacciani dell'Italia centrale e meridionale', with the relevant schede; Massimiliano Rossi, 'I dipinti - Introduzione: la novella di Sandro e Nastagio', with the relevant schede. The second second treats of the Veneto, and eastern Padania; Susy Marcon, 'I codici illustrati nell'area veneta', and schede; Giordana Mariani Canova, 'I codici dell'area padana orientale: tra Bologna, Ferrara e Mantova', with schede; Augusto Gentili, 'Boccaccio e la cultura figurativa veneziana fra Quattrocento e Cinquecento', and schede. The third and final section of this second volume treats of Lombardy, and western Padania: Antonio Cadei, 'I codici lombardi', with schede; Marichia Arese Simcik, 'I dipinti - Gli affreschi di Roccabianca (la novella di Griselda: Decameron, X 10).

The third volume deals with material produced outside Italy, concentrating on French, Flemish, English, Spanish and German manuscripts. The first section, on French and Flemish territories: Marie-Hélène Tesnière, 'I codici illustrati del Boccaccio francese e latino nella Francia e nelle Fiandre del XV secolo'; Brigitte Buettner, 'Il commercio di immagini: i mercanti, i Rapondi e il Boccaccio in Francia', with schede. Then the other geographical areas are covered in a section called 'Altre aree europee': Catherine Reynolds, 'I codici del Boccaccio illustrati in Inghilterra', with schede; and 'I codici di Spagna e Germania', and schede. A section on incunables ends the volume with Gianvittorio Dillon, 'I primi incunaboli illustrati e il Decameron veneziano del 1492'.

In a work with this much archival work being presented by such a variety of authors (the individual schede are by several different scholars), it is perhaps inevitable that there will be problems, but some are a little more serious. For example, the very famous catchwords in the Berlin autograph, Staatsbibliothek - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Hamilton 90, are described in the scheda of that manuscript (Vol. 2, p. 62), prepared by Maria Cristina Castelli, with incorrect transcriptions of the catchwords themselves. It is a puzzling problem considering how famous this manuscript is, how often it had been described, and how easily available such transcriptions are, not least in Branca's own Cruscante edition. The coverage is by no means complete either and there are several interesting illuminated manuscripts not included. Branca himself was conscious of these problems and went into print subsequently lamenting how rushed the production process was and how he would have addressed them with more time.

Problems apart, however, it is a monumental publication and a testament to the editor's extraordinary energy and capacious learning that he even conceived of such a catalogue, let alone executed it. I am delighted to have it, and it is a delighted to open it.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books

Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books

  1. The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan.
  2. Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the whole book.
  3. Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes.
  4. For concepts treated only in their general significance, examples should be given; if, for example, machines are mentioned, all the different kinds of machines should be enumerated.
  5. Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.
  6. Relationships that could be represented graphically must be expounded in words. Instead of being represented in a genealogical tree, for example, all family relationships are to be enumerated and described.
  7. A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.

in Walter Benjamin, 'One-Way Street' (selections), in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed & intr Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1986; orig. Harcourt Brace, 1978), p. 79.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

World Book Day, 2010

To celebrate World Book Day, I print a poem from a collection entitled Flood Song by a poet called Sherwin Bitsui (Copper Canyon Press, 2009, untitled poem on p. 6).

I am unable to pry my fingers from the ax,
00000unable to utter a word
0000000000without Grandfather's accent rippling
around the stone flung into his thinning mattress.

Years before, he would have named this season
0000000000by flattening a field where grasshoppers jumped into black smoke.

A Single Man, dir. Tom Ford (2009)

Tom Ford is a god in fashion. He stunned everyone when he decided to leave the Gucci group in 2004 and delighted everyone when he developed his own line. He is a man of apparently endless creative energy and has now turned his hand to film making.

I am writing this review because I find myself a little uncomfortable with many of the reviews I have read so far: these have generally been a bit snippy about the cinematography, calling it variously 'tart' or 'air-brushed'. Peter Bradshaw, in the Guardian, writes that the film looks 'like an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste, a 100-minute commercial for men's cologne: Bereavement by Dior'.

Ok. Fine. This is nicely expressed, but I think hugely unfair and if I may be so bold, somewhat misses the point. I would really like to read a review written by a fashion expert, because there is clearly another kind of language being used in the making of this film and it is one that has thrown a lot of the film reviewers.

The story is based on Christopher Isherwood's novel, published in 1964, and tells of George Falconer (Colin Firth) who is in the midst of a deep, sad, quiet grief at the death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode). George wakes up that morning and decides that today he will commit suicide: the pain is just too much.

The day is spent saying nice things to people who had never really noticed him before, and silently observing his surroundings. That is, his last day, because of this terrible decision, becomes filled with significance. George is a college professor teaching English to a class of students who are trying to make sense of the Cuban missile crises. Rather, they are trying to make sense of the crises as it is being presented to them by their parents, and, in turn, by their government. George takes the opportunity to run over time in a class that is dragging on to explain that fear is really what is at stake, not the threat itself. He goes around to his friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore), talks about the old days and the disappointments their lives have become and despite this closeness, even Charley doesn't understand what he is going through.

This is such an important aspect of the film. Nobody understands what George is feeling, the depths and the scale of his grief, his bereavement. And everything that Ford does reinforces it. The nostalgic glaze, the beautiful beautiful images throughout the film are all inextricably linked with the impossibility of George's life and the inevitability of his death.

Another critic complained that we are held at arm's length from George, that we never get to know him and that we never feel his grief. Well, not feeling his grief will vary from person to person, but being held at arm's length is very much the point. It is what he does with everyone, because he has to, and what presents his grief with such a terrible aspect of closed-ness, or inexpressibility. It is expressible because of its scale, but also because it is in the first place.

There is great sadness in this film, but it is not an emotional film. And that for me was its most powerful feature. I found it all the more powerful because I was not weeping at the end of it. Enough of the film assures me that Ford knows what he's doing, and in this too I believe he knew what he was doing. As viewers we are denied participation in the grief, and this denial is so subtly and delicately negotiated.

Quite unlike a cologne, this beautiful film has stayed with me.

I am bereft.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

King's College London, RIP

Things are very bad at King's College London. Evidently there's a budgetary crisis and they have responded by cutting two of the most successful, important luminaries they could possibly have found, Professor Lappin in Philosophy and Professor Ganz, Chair of Paleography. It is hard to believe such a decision. The logic of it makes no sense, minimal costs reaping enormous benefits. The next time King's dares to boast about its rankings on any league tables, then one can only bow one's head in shame and disgust. If they go through with this, it is hard to see how it can recover.

On a completely different note, Vice Chancellors seem to be doing rather well, despite the cuts.

I print this from the Facebook group entitled 'Save Paleography at King's':

The following from Jeffrey Hamburger:

Dear colleagues,

The letter below brings bad news. I normally do not leap into such petition drives, but in this case I think it behooves all of us to read it and to act on it by writing a stiff letter of protest to the persons named as quickly as possible. If you, in turn, know of other groups (beyond Apices, whence this comes) to which this could be circulated, please do so immediately.

Yours, Jeffrey Hamburger

King’s College London is undertaking what they call ‘strategic disinvestment’ and have informed our colleague, David Ganz, on Tuesday that funding for the Chair in Palaeography will cease from 31 August this year, when David will be out of a job. This is part of a wider context whereby all academic staff in the School of Arts and Humanities at King’s have to re-apply for their own jobs before the 1st March. They think this the “most humane way” of losing 22 academic posts.

King’s Chair is the only established chair in Palaeography in the UK (held by our late members Julian Brown and Tilly de la Mare). I am, naturally, writing on behalf of the Comite to express dismay at the loss of the Chair but the more people who write in protest the better.

The person to write to is: Professor Rick Trainor, The Principal, King’s College, The Strand, London WC2R 2LS and copy to Professor Jan Palmowski, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture
Chair, Medieval Studies Committee

Dept. of History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University
485 Broadway, Cambridge MA 02138; Tel. 617 495-8732; Fax 617 495-1769

Friday, 29 January 2010

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Mappa Mundi

Listen to Claire Armitstead's podcast on the Guardian website with the poet Phillip Gross, whose collection The Water Table (Bloodaxe, 2009) has won this year's T. S. Eliot Prize. Very interesting (though brief) remarks on good reading, on the importance of deep and engaged reading.

Since this week I heard a very engaging paper by Dr Alfred Hiatt, of Queen Mary, University of London's excellent English department, entitled: 'Maps in and out of literature', I'm going to reproduce a poem from Gross's previous collection, called Mappa Mundi (Bloodaxe, 2003).

Mappa Mundi

In the land of mutual rivers,
it is all conversation: one flows uphill, one flows down.
Each ends in a bottomless lake which feeds the other
and the boatmen who sail up, down, round and round
never age, growing half a day older, half a day younger
every time... as long as they never step on land.

In the land of always autumn
people build their houses out of fallen leaves
and smoke, stitched together with spiders' webs.
At night they glow like parchment lanterns and the voices
inside cluster to a sigh. Tell us a story, any story, except
hush, please, not the one about the wind.

In the land where nothing happens twice
there are always new people to meet;
you just look in the mirror. Echoes learn to improvise.
So it's said... We've sent some of the old
to investigate, but we haven't heard yet. When we
catch up with them, we might not know.

In the land of sounds you can see
we watch the radio, read each other's lips, dread
those audible nightfalls. We pick through the gloom
with one-word candles home... however... only... soon...
while pairs of lovers hold each other, speechless,
under the O of a full black moon.

In the land of hot moonlight
the bathing beaches come alive at midnight.
You can tell the famous and rich by their silvery tans
which glow ever so slightly in the dark
so at all the best parties there's a moment when the lights go out
and you, only you, seem to vanish completely.

In the land of migratory words
we glance up, come the season, at telegraph wires
of syllables in edgy silhouette against a moving sky
like code, unscrambling. Any day now they'll fall into place
and be uttered. Then the mute months. The streets
without names. The telephone that only burrs.


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