Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The vault of light as the sun goes down


Philip Terry is an academic at Exeter specialising in the Oulipo and experimental writing - he recently edited The Penguin Book of Oulipo and described the experience in an article for The Irish Times. Carcanet have recently published his new book The Lascaux Notebooks, which they describe as 'the oldest poetry yet discovered, as written down or runed in the Ice Age in Lascaux and other caves in the Dordogne, and now translated – tentatively – into English for the first time.' 

In his introduction, Terry claims to have come across the name of a local poet, Jean-Luc Champerret, while on holiday in the Charente. He was given a box of the poet's papers, which took some opening but were found to contain a set of notebooks. In these he found what appeared to be modernist poetry derived from 'diagrams reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy.' Champerret, Terry learned, had been sent into the Lascaux caves soon after their discovery in 1940 by his Resistance cell, in the hope that they might prove a good hideout. Getting there before the archaeologists, he noticed that some of the marks on the walls resembled a kind of code. Speculating that they were a form of Ice Age poetry, he noted them down and then over time managed to produce translations them by imagining the signs' likely meaning. Initial versions were simple grids of words but, like a translator from ancient Chinese, he added some connectors and imaginative interpretation to render them as French poems.

 

 

If Ice Age people had poetry, there would probably have been frequent mention of their landscape in it. The extract above from the list of Lascaux signs used in these poems includes markings interpreted as meaning forest tracks, rivers, mountains and caves. They are of course reminiscent of Chinese ideograms, which were so important for Ezra Pound and which I've discussed here before as natural signs - see 'Climbing Omei Mountain' and 'Water falling, drop by drop'. They also reminded me of the poetry many of us find in studying the legends of Ordnance Survey maps! 

I'll give one example here of a Lascaux poem, but Terry's books is pretty long - 400 pages - so I can't really do his whole project justice. The 3 x 3 grid poem I've reproduced at the start of this post is rendered as follows:

                                light              sun             night

                                birdsong       birdsong     waterfall

                                track             river           mountains 

This is turned initially into simple sentences with the addition of a few words, e.g. line two: 'the song / of the birds / by the waterfall.' The text then undergoes two more transformations (which it is tempting to describe as Oulipian). First a version is made with slightly extended vocabulary - 'the bright song / of the birds / by the waterfall'. Finally, inspired by this, a more recognisable poem is presented: 'The vault of light / as the sun goes down / before nightfall // suffused by the song / of the birds / by the waterfall's torrent // the twisting track / following the river / winds into the distance.' 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sea and Sand Dunes

Here's what you see when you enter the Royal Academy's new exhibition, a view of a bay with oddly sketchy waves, scattered black buildings and stick trees like Chinese characters. In Jonathan Jones' Guardian review he says

'Avery is sometimes hyped as an American Matisse but he is much stranger, and better, than that. Far from simply emulating Matisse, he translates the pleasures of beach life and summer days the French fauve painted into the brooding land and seascapes of America with wild results. Little Fox River, from 1942, seems joyous and summery at first sight, with its butter-yellow landscape surrounded by blue waves, but then you notice how big and inhuman the waves are, how tiny the swell of the sea makes the frail houses and church look.'

 Milton Avery, Little Fox River, 1942

The first room of the exhibition begins with some of Avery's early, unremarkable Impressionist-style landscapes and a range of later ones which can seem wilfully ugly in their choice of thin paint, dull colours and awkwardly drawn animals and buildings. But he could also hit on a combination of forms that seems wonderfully original and appealing, like Blue Trees (below - available to buy as a jigsaw in the RA shop!) My favourite works in the exhibition weren't the landscapes or his snapshots of city life, but domestic scenes which he painted in increasingly simplified forms, like Reclining Blonde (1959). Here's Laura Cumming describing his technique in another five-star review:

'Avery thinned his oil paint to the diaphanous consistency of watercolour so that it lay on the surface in floating patches and veils. Sometimes he scribbled upon it – the outline of a pencil or a pipe, a fleet of horizontal nicks that somehow manifest as leaves on a rust-coloured autumn tree. Sometimes the brushstrokes of one colour merge into those of another to produce a soft frisson, as in the snow-white nude against a black background, where the overlap glimmers.'

Milton Avery, Blue Trees, 1945

I first came across Avery years ago when I was reading a lot about his friend Mark Rothko, but I've never seen an exhibition devoted to his work - unsurprising as there hasn't been one in Europe. This one was a real pleasure and, despite the glowing reviews, not too busy with other visitors. It ends with paintings from 1957 inspired by Cape Cod, where, as the curators explain, 'Avery spent four consecutive summers, often in the company of Rothko and Gottlieb. These later works, with their larger scale and more abstracted forms, reveal the influence of the younger painters. Intensifying what he had striven towards over the previous five decades, Avery omitted detail, distorted forms and used non-associative colours.' These non-associative colours are evident in the painting I photographed below, Sea and Sand Dunes, a truly weird landscape in shades of red, white and mauve. A painting like this actually looks more contemporary than the abstract expressionists, reminding me of Alex Katz or Peter Doig. Jonathan Jones concludes that after visiting this exhibition 'you’ll never be able to see a Rothko again without picturing a seashore at dusk where the red blazing sky is layered above the wine dark sea, in an apocalyptic revelation.'

Milton Avery, Sea and Sand Dunes, 1955

Friday, June 17, 2022

Chessboard fields

 

I remembered how from the air the valleys, hills and rivers gained a certain distinction but wholly lost that quality which is perceived by a countryman whose day's travel is bounded by the earth of three of four meadows, and whose view for most of his life may be constricted by some local rising of the ground. In the air there is no feeling or smell of earth, and I have often observed that the backyards of houses or the smoke curling up through cottage chimneys, although at times they seem to have a certain pathos, do as a rule, when one is several thousand feet above them, appear both defenceless and ridiculous, as though infinite trouble had been taken to secure a result that has little or no significance.

This is a paragraph from Rex Warner's novel about the arrival of an aerodrome in the middle of the English countryside. It was published in 1941 and I am sure there must be many other stories from this period with Nietzschean pilots who look down on historic landscapes that can no longer contain them. In John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance (1932) the industrialist Philip Crow purchases his own aircraft to fly to Wookey Hole, the extraordinary cave system that he wants to fill with modern electric lights and then transform with a tin mining operation.

As he watched down upon the earth, that clear March evening, and watched the chess-board fields pass in procession beneath him, and watched the trees fall into strange patterns and watched the villages, some red, some brown, some grey, according as brick or stone or slate predominated, approach or recede, as the plane sank or rose, Philip's spirit felt as if it had wings of its own ... How small and unimportant Wells cathedral had looked from up there. ... His brain whirled with the vision of an earth-life dominated absolutely by Science, of a human race that had shaken off its fearful childhood and looked at things with a clear, unfilmed, unperverted eye.

But at the end of the novel a flood inundates Glastonbury. Mayor Geard, who has tried to create a new spiritual centre drawing on the town's legendary past, feels his earthly work is done and heads off in a small boat. He comes upon his antagonist Philip Crow, who is keeping his head above water by standing on his submerged plane. Geard surprises Crow by asking to swap places. Crow needs little persuading and Geard leaves the boat to rest on the plane as it gradually sinks. At one point he kicks it to help it on its way. Eventually the wing beneath him disappears and Geard, with one final glimpse of Glastonbury Tor, follows it down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

I leave my door open when spring days get longer


I've discussed Red Pine's translations from Chinese poetry before (see 'No Trace of Cold Mountain' and 'A terrace of incense lit by the dawn'). His enthusiasm for tracking down and exploring the landscapes experienced by the ancient poets is particularly relevant to this blog. In 1991 Red Pine visited the mountain on which the Zen monk and poet Stonehouse (Shihwu, 1272-1352) had lived. Five years earlier he had self-published a set of translations, having discovered this relatively obscure poet whilst working on Han Shan. Now he and a couple of friends were heading up Hsiamushan in a battered Skoda, having stopped on the way at a temple Stonehouse knew that had been almost completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Near the summit of the mountain they encountered soldiers at a radar station. The commander kindly cut a path through the bamboo and they reached a farm that had once been a temple. This was where Stonehouse had made his home in a simple hut - the spring he mentions in his poems was still there, along with slopes of tea and bamboo, although the pines had disappeared. Twenty years later Red Pine returned and found better roads, a water bottling plant in place of the military blockhouses, and the farmhouse replaced by a new temple. Stonehouse's stupa must be somewhere in the mountain cemetery, where the inscriptions are no longer legible. His memorial stone has now merged into the hillside.

To give a sense of this place through poetry, I've chosen ten elements of the landscape. First I'll quote couplets from Stonehouse's poems, then in italics some information from Red Pine's explanatory notes. 

 

Bamboo

'a trail through green mist red clouds and bamboo / to a hut that stays cold and dark all day'

Bamboo grows so thick on Hsiamushan, trails don't last long. When I first visited the mountain in 1991, the army officer who led me to the area where Stonehouse first lived needed a machete to reach it.

Drifting clouds

'As soon as a drifting cloud starts to linger / the wind blows it past the vines.'

Clouds are often used as metaphors for thoughts, while vines represent convoluted logic. Drifting clouds can also refer to monks.

Flat-topped rock

'sometimes I sit on a flat-topped rock / late cloudless nights once a month'

The flat-topped rock is still there, just up the slope from the water-bottling plant. Local farmers call it "chess-playing rock".

Gibbon howls

'gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down / few visitors get past the moss by the cliffs'

Gibbons and their eerie howls were once common throughout the Yangtze watershed but are now found in the wild only in a few nature reserves in the extreme south.

Hibiscus

'a winding muddy trail / a hedge of purple hibiscus'

The hibiscus is found throughout the southern half of China, where it is often grown to form a hedge.

Orange tree

'down by the stream I rake leaves for my stove / after a frost I wrap a mat around my orange tree.'

The Yangtze watershed is the earliest known home of not only the orange but also such citrus fruits as the tangerine, the kumquat, and the pomelo. Apparently Stonehouse's orange tree (or "trees," as Chinese is ambiguous when it comes to number) didn't make it. He never mentions it again.

Paulownia

'I leave my door open when spring days get longer / when paulownias bloom and thrushes call'

The paulownia is one of China's most fragrant trees. It blooms in late March and early April and is the only tree on which the phoenix will alight - should a phoenix be flying by.

 

Pine pollen

'when Solomon's seal is gone there is still pine pollen / and one square inch free of care.'

The root of Solomon's seal, or Polygonatum cirrhiflium, contains a significant amount of starch. It is usually dug up in early spring. Pine pollen is slightly sweet and also has nutritional value. It is gathered in late spring by placing a sheet under a pine tree and knocking the branches with a bamboo pole. The "square inch" refers to the mind.

 

Thatch

'mist soaks through my thatch roof / moss covers up the steps on the trail'

A thatched covering of grass or rushes is still the most common roofing in the mountains. However, hermits who can afford them use fired clay tiles. 

Tiger tracks

'dried snail shells on rock walls / fresh tiger tracks in the mud' 

Until recently, hermits in China often reported encounters with the South China tiger, which is much smaller than its Siberian and Bengali cousins but still dangerous.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Sea View Has Me Again

The 'Sea View' of Patrick Wright's recent book was actually the name of one of the two pubs Uwe Johnson frequented during his final decade, living in Sheerness and almost failing to complete the fourth volume of his novel Jahrestage (Anniversaries). Johnson did have a sea view from his house on Marine Parade, although it was almost blocked by a defensive flood wall that was still under construction at the time of his death in 1984. Wright notes that 'views over water mattered greatly to Johnson', and windows feature in his novel as a device for framing the vistas of New York visible to his protagonist Gesine, providing a surface on which she pictures scenes from her youth. Looking out towards the icy New Jersey shore she is reminded of a winter morning on Lake Constance, but the moment this happens both memory and present view begin to 'corrode'. Instead of regaining a complete image of an earlier landscape, she can only experience scraps and shards of it. The streets of New York can suddenly be transformed, smog covered houses recalling 'a soft rolling landscape, forest meadows', but the memory remains partial, like somewhere seen from a boat and then obscured from view, although 'reachable not far past the shoreline cliff.'

In his chapter 'Beach, Sea and 'the View of Memory'' Wright discusses the importance of lakes and rivers for Uwe Johnson. Indeed 'Anniversaries itself comes to resemble the geography of Mecklenburg', where Johnson and Gesine grew up: 'sea-edged and filled with marshes, inland canals and lakes as well as rivers and the occasional swimming pool.' When I read Anniversaries I found this unfamiliar and complicated geography further confused by Johnsons' references to both real and imaginary places. I am no more familiar with Sheerness, never having been there, although any reader of Wright's book will learn a lot about its history. At several points it touches on resemblances between Sheerness and Mecklenburg, which could offer some explanation for Johnson's puzzling decision to move to this unloved corner of Kent. 

Wright concludes his exploration of Sheerness with the story of a Second World War ship full of explosives that has never been removed - Johnson wrote an essay about it entitled 'An Unfathomable Ship'. This essay suggests that Johnson saw the sea as 'a non-human force that is nevertheless the witness and even bearer of the murderous history that keeps troubling the surface of Gesine Cresspahl's consciousness.' It features in Johnson's books not as a unified force, resembling simplified political narratives of the historical tides that swept over Germany, but as discrete waves, 'singular and yet interconnected', like the 365 days that make up the chapters of Anniversaries. The first paragraph in the first volume of Johnson's novel describes the action of waves on the beach at New Jersey, and this sea view reminds Gesine of her childhood by the Baltic.

'Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their greenest. Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round activity of air crushed by the sheer mass like a secret made and then broken.'     
(translation by Damion Searls. For more information on The Sea View Has Me Again see Patrick Wright's website).

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Grass pillow

Natsume Sōseki's Kusamakura ('Grass Pillow'), published in 1906, was an attempt at a haiku-style novel, a reaction against the enthusiasm for European-style naturalism that had recently entered Japanese literature, and it works so beautifully (at least, to my mind, in English translation) that it is disappointing he didn't try anything like it again. Maybe one luminous book is enough. Its narrator is an artist escaping fast-modernising urban Japan for a solo-walking tour in the mountains, where he stays at a hot-spring resort and encounters a beautiful and enigmatic young woman, Nami (which means 'beauty'). His project is to see the world in aesthetic terms and experience everything he encounters as if it is a poem. Like Sōseki, he is at home in Chinese, Japanese and Western literature and over the course of the novel he quotes Basho, Wang Wei and Shelley. I should probably refer here to the parts of the novel where he theorises natural beauty and discusses landscape art (at one point he describes British painters' inability to paint light - 'nothing bright could be produced in that dismal air of theirs'.) Instead I will include one of his paragraphs of word painting. This is from near the end of the book, where the narrator lies down on the grass among wild japonica bushes, sensing as he does so 'that I am inadvertently crushing beneath me an invisible shimmer of heat haze.'

'Down beyond my feet shines the sea. The utterly cloudless spring sky casts its sunlight over the entire surface, imparting a warmth that suggests the sunlight has penetrated deep within its waves. A swath of delicate Prussian blue spreads lengthwise across it, and here and there an intricate play of colours swims over a layering of fine white-gold scales. Between the vastness of the spring sunlight that shines upon the world, and the vastness of the water that brims beneath it, the only visible thing is a single white sail no bigger than a little fingernail. The sail is absolutely motionless. Those ships that plied these waters in days gone by, bearing tributes from afar, must have looked like this. Apart from the sail, heaven and earth consist entirely of the world of shining sunlight and the world of sunlit sea.'

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Dewpond


I realise I've been a bit remiss in posting recently, partly due to pressure of work (my day job is on climate change) and partly due to a lot of other non-landscape interests that have got in the way. But I said recently I'll keep these brief from now on and will just highlight a few interesting things I come across, such as this recently published limited edition book by Angus Carlyle, Mirrors. The book grew out of a series of tweets used to register runs that took Angus past a particular dewpond (see my earlier post on these runs, which gave rise to an earlier book, A Downland Index). You can see more images of the book at the publishers' website (as it's sunny outside this afternoon, I couldn't resist dappling mine with leaf shadows). I particularly like the shapes of the runs (see below), recorded using a sports watch and reproduced in the text along with the position of the dewpond and a brief text, limited in length by Twitter's character limit. 

 


Angus mentions some earlier admirers of Downland dewponds (or dew ponds), such as Hamish Fulton, whose 'Dew Pond on the South Downs Way' has concentric rings created by some disturbance in its water. For years now I have had a postcard on display of Jem Southam's photograph Ditchling Beacon (1999), picked up at an exhibition at the Towner Gallery - it shows Angus's dew pond with a white surface reproducing a blank sky. Angus quotes Jem Southam on the distinctive character of dewponds: 'full, they are like a mirrored disk or an eye reflecting heavens. Empty, they resemble craters made by celestial objects crashing into the ground.' New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art uses this quote on its page about Southam's photograph and also points out that these ponds were often artificial features, constructed following the enclosure of common land.

I will conclude here by quoting one example of a walk text from Mirrors that captures well the soundscape of the South Downs:

Across the valley calm, the rapid, ringing, drilling of a woodpecker; up on the ridge, the year's first ascending lark heard through strengthening wind; wading ankle-deep grey farmyard sludge, buzzard's mews, echoing shotgun blasts, wood pigeon flaps, whoops from mountain bikers.