Sunday, June 30, 2024

A thickening flurry


Determined now to rid ourselves of Netflix and save some money, we have started watching a few last films that we hadn't got round to before cancelling: last night it was Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). At some points in this, Jessie Buckley's character is a landscape painter (I won't spoil the story by explaining why I say "at some points"). There is an awkward conversation over dinner at the parental home of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), where she tries to explain that she imbues landscapes with "interiority". David Thewlis, Jake's father, says he wouldn't understand a landscape to be sad unless there was a sad person in the painting looking at it. Elsewhere in the house there is a reproduction of Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) - a man looking at a landscape, but one that is so obscured in mist that it may not even exist. Jake's father will descend (or has descended) into dementia, gradually forgetting everything. Plemons and Buckley spend a lot of the film surrounded by darkness and a blizzard of snow.  

When Jessie Buckley pulls up some images of her paintings on her phone to show the parents, they are actually by Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) - later we see posters of his work in Jake's basement. Blakelock was a fairly obscure painter until late in life when his work began attracting attention and started selling for high prices. But he never got to enjoy the recognition - he had succumbed to mental illness in the 1890s and spent his last two decades in institutions suffering from schizophrenic delusions. There are echoes of this in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, with Jake's feelings of paranoia and the way he slips into an elaborate fantasy at the film's climax (winning the Nobel prize on the set of Oklahoma!) 

Ralph Albert Blakelock, Moonlight, c. 1885-89 
Source: Google Art Project

This Blakelock painting in the Brooklyn Museum also features in Moon Palace, a novel by Paul Auster, whose work occupies a similar territory to Kaufman (I've been an admirer of Auster since New York Stories and was sad to read of his death in April).  'A perfectly round full moon sat in the middle of the canvas - the precise mathematical center, it seemed to me - and this pale white disc illuminated everything above it and below it: the sky, a lake, a large tree with spidery branches, and the low mountains on the horizon...' I won't quote the full ekphrasis, although you can find the extract on a website for German English teachers. Instead I'll end here with the moment Auster's protagonist starts to notice something odd about the painting.

The sky, for example, had a largely greenish cast. Tinged with the yellow borders of clouds, it swirled around the side of the large tree in a thickening flurry of brushstrokes, taking on a spiralling aspect, a vortex of celestial matter in deep space. How could the sky be green? I asked myself. It was the same color as the lake below it, and that was not possible. Except in the blackness of the blackest night, the sky and the earth are always different. Blakelock was clearly too deft a painter not to have known that. But if he hadn't been trying to represent an actual landscape, what had he been up to? I did my best to imagine it, but the greenness of the sky kept stopping me. A sky the same color as the earth, a night that looks like day, and all human forms dwarfed by the bigness of the scene - illegible shadows, the merest ideograms of life...

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Mountains and Seas

Page from The Classic of Mountains and Seas in the National Library of China

The Chinese Classic of Mountains and Seas, the Shanhai jing, composed between the third century BCE and second century CE, ought to be a brilliant source for ancient landscape ideas. Three thousand places are named and briefly described. But unfortunately they are very hard to identify and their is little on their appearance - instead we get information on the presence of valuable deposits like jade and gold, plants (often medicinal), animals, mythical creatures and gods. Anne Birrell, who translated the Penguin edition, is so adamant that the whole book should be seen as mythology that she refrains from supplying any notes speculating on real locations and gives everywhere an English name - so for example Book One, Chapter One starts with Mount Magpie, Mount Raiseshake, West Sea, River Sveltedeer and so on. 

Why can't these mountains and rivers be pinned down? Apart from the fact that ancient cartography is inevitably unreliable, Chinese toponyms are always changing. The book may preserve some historic names from pre-Zhou times - geographical units were overhauled by the early Zhou emperors and all changed again when the dynasty fell. But it's more than this - the moment you start reading the descriptions you realise they are unlikely to be about real places. Just one example:

Two hundred leagues further north is a mountain called Mount Northpeak. Oranges, wild date, and hardwood trees are plentiful here. There is an animal here which looks like an ox but it has four horns, human eyes, and the ears of a sow. Its name is the all-dote. It makes a noise like a honking goose. It eats humans. The River Alldote rises here and flows west to empty into the River Hubbub. The dwarf sturgeon is plentiful in the River Alldote. It has a fish's body and a dog's head. It makes a noise like a baby. If you eat it, it will cure madness.

'In sum,' Birrell concludes, 'although there are some recognizable landmarks in the early part of the Classic [I wish she had footnoted them!], due to the vagaries of regional culture, the process of historical change, the lore of ritual practice and the mythological mode, the world the reader is invited to circumnambulate, for all its seemingly precise details and place-names, is largely an imaginary and mythical landscape.'

Friday, June 21, 2024

Cry woe, you glades


Still thinking about the landscape of Sicily (above) which we saw on our holiday at Easter, I have been re-reading the Idylls of Theocritus, along with translations of other bucolic poems and fragments collected in the Loeb volume Theocritus, Moschus, Bion. Theocritus and Moschus were from Sicily and Bion also wrote in the Dorian dialect but originally came from Phlossa, near Smyrna. I thought I would focus here on the Lament for Bion which has always been published with work by Moschus but cannot be by him - the author is unknown. Here, translated by Neil Hopkinson, is the first stanza, in which the whole landscape weeps for Bion.

Cry woe, you glades and you Dorian waters; you rivers, weep for the lovely Bion. Lament now, you plants that grow; moan now, you groves; you flowers, breathe your last, your clusters withered; you roses and anemones, bloom red now in mourning; you hyacinth, make your letters speak and take on your leaves more cries of woe: the fine singer is dead. 

Begin, Sicilian Muses, begin your grieving song.

The reference to the hyacinth's letters here is interesting for anyone who likes the idea of finding writing in nature. Its leaves had marks that resembled the letters AI. Myths related these to Ajax or the exclamation "aiai" (alas!). In one of these stories Apollo, lamenting the death of Hyacinthus, creates a flower from his blood and inscribes its leaves with the word "alas". The plant referred to here is not actually the modern hyacinth, scholars haven't identified it (maybe they could trying using AI? - sorry!!)

One thing that strikes you in reading the Lament for Bion and other pastoral poems is the way they focus on sounds. In the Idylls of Theocritus, 'song is such an integral part of the countryside that in essence it becomes its metonymy' (Ippokratis Kantzios in a book chapter, 'Theocritus Idylls 11 and 6: The Limitations of the Natural Landscape'). 

In the pastoral world, it is not only the cowherds and shepherds who constantly engage in singing competitions and pipe-playing. It is also the cicadas, frogs, linnets, finches, trees swaying in the wind, the falling water of the cascades, even the pebbles, when struck against one’s boots. The pastoral world, as imagined by Theocritus, is inconceivable without its melodious component.
In the Lament for Bion, nightingales 'lament among the dense foliage' and their song is picked up by 'the Sicilian streams of Arethusa'). They perch on branches with swallows and sing dirges to each other. The swans of Strymon also sing a lamenting dirge - Strymon was the river in Thrace that carried the head of Orpheus, still singing (a strange image I still recall from reading Russell Hoban's novel The Medusa Frequency many years ago). Bion was an oxherd and his cows also lament the loss of his music, unable to graze, while the mountains around them are silent. Meles in Smyrna, the 'most musical of rivers', grieves again because it was said that Homer, like Bion was born nearby. 'They say that from your lamenting waters you made moan for your fine son, and the whole sea was filled with the sound of your voice.' Mythical figures who cried at their loss are invoked by the poet: a Siren on the seashore, Aedon on the crags, Chelidon on the high hills and Cerylus on the green waves.

Bion himself is best known for The Lament for Adonis, a poem referred to by Ovid and Catallus and a source of the long tradition of classical elegy which would eventually lead via Milton to Shelley's poem on the death of Keats, read out in Hyde Park by Mick Jagger in memory of Brian Jones: "Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep / He hath awakened from the dream of life..." The Lament for Bion ends by imagining him in Hades where Persephone resides, able to play for her a sweet country tune. 'She too is Sicilian who used to play on the shores of Etna, and she knows the Dorian mode.' And perhaps the goddess will even restore Bion to the hills, as she once gave Eurydice back to Orpheus. 


Friday, June 14, 2024



It is nearly a decade since I featured Laura Cannell on this blog soon after she released her debut solo album Quick Sparrows Over the Black Earth. In that time she has made records that respond in different ways to specific landscapes and sites, bird and animals, folklore and local legends. Her current project is 'A Year of Lore' - a set of 12 EPs released one a month. These began in January with 'Sealore', inspired by the red deer antler harpoon found in 1931 by Norfolk fishermen off the coast of Cromer, once owned by an inhabitant of Doggerland. The latest is 'Ravenlore' which 'embraces the low tones of Raven vocalisations and was improvised and recorded live in St Andrews Church in Raveningham, Norfolk.' 

I was curious to see a map of the buildings where she has improvised and made recordings, so I made one (I'm sure this isn't remotely exhaustive). St Andrews Church is the place she keeps returning to, for New Christmas Rituals, The Sky Untuned, Sing as the Crow Flies, Reckonings and that early record, Quick Sparrows over the Black Earth. In 2022 she made We Long to be Haunted using the church's organ and 'overbow' violin, plus 'field recordings of bells and a tawny owl from her garden.' Here's how she described the experience of arriving at the church: 

In the blazing August heatwave I drove along the Waveney Valley past scorched remains of the recent field fire at Stockton. I turned into the long drive of the Hall grounds where the church resides and rattled over the cattle grid, slowly passing the animals who were sheltering from the heat together under a single tree. I longed that the church would still be cool from the night before and empty of people. Leaving my car on the dry meadow I walked the stony path alongside the woods and pushed the oak and iron door open. Inside I said hello to the familiar names carved into the stone floors and marble walls and began our conversation.

A year earlier she was engaged in These Feral Lands, a year-long project with Kate Ellis and a few other collaborators documented on Caught by the River, although as this was still the time of Covid it didn't involve too much travelling about. Another recent venture is the zine Marshlore, focused on East Anglian folk stories. I said at the start of this post that Laura Cannell responds to landscapes but she cast doubt on this notion in a 2022  Wire interview: "I don’t think about the landscape at all, so it’s interesting to me when I’m associated with it.” She says much the same thing in Justin Hopper's recent Uncanny Landscapes podcast, although she accepts that 'landscape' is there in the music. When Quick Sparrows over the Black Earth came out, "people were describing it in such a way that was so related to the landscape... It's exactly what I was in but I just never knew you could hear it."

Sunday, June 09, 2024

At the brink of dawn, the morne

 At the brink of dawn, the morne, forgotten, forgetful of blowing up.

- Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land 

Near the start of Césaire's long poem about Martinique there are five passages beginning 'at the brink of dawn, the morne.' To an English reader it sounds like a reference to morning, but he is actually talking about a West Indian landscape feature. The Bloodaxe translation by Mireille Rosello and Annie Pritchard includes a glossary and this is their explanation:

morne: In the West Indies, the word 'mornes' designates hills of volcanic origins. Metropolitan French people would not be familiar with the term. Symbolically, the 'morne' is linked with marooning because runaway slaves usually tried to hide there. Sometimes groups of maroons managed to establish more permanent settlements. In Caribbean literature, a paradigm exists opposing the plain, cane fields, submissiveness and the 'morne,' marooning, revolt and the woods.

I have never travelled in the West Indies but a quick google will show up 'mornes' in various islands aside from Martinique (where le Morne-Vert, le Morne-Rouge and Gros-Morne are the names of three Communes). There is Morne Fortune on Saint Lucia, Morne-à-l'Eau on Guadeloupe and various Dominican volcanoes with names like Morne aux Diables and Morne Plat Pays. Travellers to Martinique like Paul Gauguin and Lafcadio Hearn encountered mornes. A University of Plymouth blog post describes a visit to Morne d'Orange in pursuit of the vantage point from where Gauguin painted Martinique Landscape, now in the National Gallery of Scotland. A Telegraph article mentions Morne Lacroix in this context and quotes a curator who says it was painted from Habitation Beauregard - anyway, it's a bit confusing, but safe to say a morne is undoubtedly involved somewhere!


Paul Gauguin, Martinique Landscape, 1887


Lafcadio Hearn's Two Years in the French West Indies includes another definition of mornes: they 'usually have those beautiful and curious forms which bespeak volcanic origin even to the unscientific observer: they are most often pyramidal or conoid up to a certain height; but have summits either rounded or truncated;—their sides, green with the richest vegetation, rise from valley-levels and coast-lines with remarkable abruptness, and are apt to be curiously ribbed or wrinkled.' Search for 'mornes' in his text and you'll find numerous descriptions of landscape. I'll quote just one here, on the mornes of Martinique (ths could literally be described as purple prose):

Day wanes. The further western altitudes shift their pearline gray to deep blue where the sky is yellowing up behind them; and in the darkening hollows of nearer mornes strange shadows gather with the changing of the light—dead indigoes, fuliginous purples, rubifications as of scoriae,—ancient volcanic colors momentarily resurrected by the illusive haze of evening. And the fallow of the canes takes a faint warm ruddy tinge. On certain far high slopes, as the sun lowers, they look like thin golden hairs against the glow,—blond down upon the skin of the living hills. 

This is not how mornes appear in Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. Césaire's island is a 'sick paradise' (Mireille Rosello), with colonial diseases, rural poverty and a long history of slavery. Hearn describes a beautiful sunset view; here is Césaire's morne at the brink of dawn...

At the brink of dawn, the morne squatting in front of a boulimia a craving for thunderstorms and mills, slowly vomiting its human exhaustion, the morne alone and its spilt blood, the morne with its bandages of shade, the morne with its rivulets of fear, the morne with its great hands of wind.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

The Angle of a Landscape

The renowned American poetry critic Helen Vendler died a few weeks ago; there was a nice piece in The Atlantic by Adam Kirsch comparing her to Marjorie Perloff, who also passed away this year. I thought I'd pick three poems from Vendler's Emily Dickinson anthology and quote from her illuminating commentaries. I'll begin with this one, which has one of those arresting first lines that draw you straight into Dickinson's poems (see my earlier post on how these have been used by artist Roni Horn).


Our lives are Swiss—
So still—so Cool—
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between—
The solemn Alps—
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!

Here, Vendler says, 'while the blocking Alps are obscured by mist, one cannot even speculate about what lies beyond; but when they let down their guard, and forget to draw the curtain over their landscape, one can see, beyond the passes, an ecstatic vista. The still, cool, white life of an Alpine region remains untroubled until one senses a possible warmth. If only one could traverse the mountains!' I've always loved this idea of glimpsing a promised land, somewhere sunny and beautiful summed up in that italicised word, Italy. The Alps here are both solemn - "thou halt not" - and sirens, leading us on. Eden could be ours if it weren't forever barred from us.


The Angle of a Landscape – 
That every time I wake – 
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack – 

Like a Venetian – waiting – 
Accosts my open eye – 
Is just a Bough of Apples – 
Held slanting, in the Sky – 

The Pattern of a Chimney – 
The Forehead of a Hill – 
Sometimes – a Vane’s Forefinger – 
But that’s – Occasional – 

The Seasons – shift – my Picture –
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake – to find no – Emeralds – 
Then – Diamonds – which the Snow

From Polar Caskets – fetched me –
The Chimney – and the Hill – 
And just the Steeple’s finger – 
These – never stir at all – 

Vendler describes this as three sequential poems in one. The first three stanzas provide 'an enticing picture of a small sliver of landscape that is familiar to Dickinson because she sees it every morning between the edge of her curtain and the wall of her room.'  Then she moves through autumn and winter with emerald leaves replaced by diamond frost and snow. Finally there are the last three lines which leave us with a static chimney and the finger of a steeple. 'The denuding of the landscape in the last stanza is an almost invisible process' and we are left with 'a heartbreaking picture of a once-enhanced Nature which, with the death of its participatory observer, itself suffers rigor mortis.'


To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Vendler ends her book Dickinson with this beautiful epigram, long a favourite poem of ours and one I've quoted on this blog before. She looks at the poet's word choice - for example, "prairie" is a good rhyme, distinctly American and reflects in its spelling the Latin pratum, "meadow". She also analyses the poem's linguistic game that is one of its most appealing features: the way "a" and "one" reverse their order. A bee needs just one random clover to sip nectar from, but in the second line they are separated by a comma and joined by the third essential term, "revery", which seems to arise 'as a "surprise" even to herself'. The word "revery" has various meanings, ranging from a vision to a state of being lost in thought. Its three syllables make it 'spread out' in a way you wouldn't have with the simple word 'dream'. This poem's last six brisk monosyllables bring us 'out of the dreamy reverie itself (here a clover, there a bee) into the poet's argument for the power of reverie alone, even when it is unsupported by correlative natural images. Dickinson is a rapturous poet of nature's flowers and bees, but her more abstract meditations can arise powerfully from reverie alone.'

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Bitter Rice

I was at the BFI this week to see Bitter Rice (1949), a classic Italian neorealist film that also draws on elements of film noir and (in its climactic scene) the Western. It has four fine, photogenic lead actors: young Vittorio Gassman as a charming thief, Doris Dowling as his reluctant partner in crime who hides in a train full of women leaving Turin to plant rice in the Po Valley, Raf Vallone (an actor who had once played in midfield for Torino) as the good guy, a soldier stationed near the paddy fields, and, most notably, the extraordinary nineteen-year old Silvana Mangano (above) in a star making role as one of the rice workers. Its director Giuseppe De Santis, like the later nouvelle vague auteurs, had started out as a film journalist. In 1941 he wrote an article called 'For an Italian Landscape', arguing that there are 'some emotions that man cannot give voice to so we must draw on everything that surrounds him to express them.' The rice fields (which have recently suffered severe drought) act in this way, a sunlit tree-fringed mirror when the workers first arrive and a churned-up sea of mud when torrential rain threatens their livelihood.   

Pasquale Ionnane recently included Bitter Rice on a list of 10 Great Italian Pastoral Films. Although his choices are set in rural Italy you wouldn't necessarily think of them as landscape films, although I did once write a blog post here about one of them, Le Quattro Volte. The list includes Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders (2014) and he quotes an interview with her from when it was released: “my desire to show the changes the Italian landscape has gone through – the transformation of the countryside from a place of work to a theme park celebrating ancient values […] I wanted to show how agricultural work in the here and now isn’t being safeguarded.” Rohrwacher's next feature film Happy as Lazzaro was set in a landscape lost in time (not exactly an idyll though...) Her most recent one La Chimera, which I saw with my son a couple of weeks ago (we loved it), concerns the search for Etruscan antiquities lying underneath the Italian landscape.