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Wednesday, 1 June 2016 at 23:05

Dark studio, orange lightbox Darkened Studio / model with cold light from device 

  A set-up I worked on late last year. How do you paint light? How can paint, a reflective medium, imitate a powerful light source? How can you mix colours in semi-darkness that you want to be appreciated in full-light? Here, in a darkened studio, we have the intense orange filtered light-box; the model coldly front-lit from her tablet / device; floor lamps and a wayward window light.

This was one of Andy Fairbank’s conundrums. Thursday morning life classes at Hull College's Park Street building with Andy (a great admirer like myself of Euan Uglow) have always set particular problems. Here it is light. The drawing is difficult, the forms are distorted by the contrasting lights. The light itself changes as your eyes become accustomed to darkness, see greens to compensate for intense orange; notice tonal harmonics on the edge of the light-box. All this, and then you look at your palette and see only mud.

Sir William Wilberforce looking out over Hull, again.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016 at 21:22

No Text I've been working on a couple of large (3 X 4 foot-something canvasses). The exact dimensions have been determined by the efficiencies of dividing how to cut up store-bought lengths of 2x4 wood for stretchers by what can fit into the car.

For previous paintings in this cityscape series I've been very influenced by Euan Uglow's theories of canvas proportion and have thought about and tried golden section (5:8 ) and root two (1: 1.4 something )....  but the size of the car is absolute. The car, I hasten to admit is not mine ...more on this (Euan Uglow, a sense of proportion, why poets tend not to drive, and why I haven't driven since attending driver re-education school in Doncaster several years ago) - soonish... or laterish.

Meanwhile, I've returned to the statue of William Wilberforce overlooking Queen's Gardens from the tower at Hull College. I did a few paintings of this statue early on in this project, and one of them appears on this website's pages. This one's not quite right yet and this little picture (I'm limited to 400 pixels width) can't quite give much more than a sense, but I hope it catches something of what I'm trying to do with the cityscapes.

Rilke: three Sonnets to Orpheus

Sunday, 10 April 2016 at 19:41


Here are three recycled versions of poems from Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). It's something of a shock to realise that these must've been written the best part of twenty-five years ago after I'd spent a few months working in Germany.

These poems appeared in a chapbook Strange Tongues (1994) which consisted mainly of translations and poems about language. The first also appeared in the Forward Prize anthology 1996.

A God Perhaps

“Ein Gott vermags”, Sonnets to Orpheus I.3

A god perhaps. But it’s not that simple
for a man to follow himself through guitar strings.
His mind is split. Contradictory strivings
are his heart’s paths. At his crossroads is no temple.

Song, you teach us, it’s not about desire,
not about asking for what can never be asked.
Song is being. For a god that’s an easy task.
But when are we live? When does he trip the wire

that turns the earth and stars towards our being?
It’s not enough, young one, that you love, that voice
bursts through, blooms upon your lips. Try remembering

to forget. It means nothing, whatever you’ve sung
so far. Real singing – the truth – is another breath.
Breath of nothing. Gust of god. The wind’s lungs.

He Needs No Gravestone

“Errichtet keinen Denkstein”, Sonnets to Orpheus I. 5

He needs no gravestone. The rose’s
yearly bloom becomes him best.
This is him. his metamorphosis
through this or that’s an endless quest

for himself: Orpheus. No other name. His song
echoes through all art. He comes, he goes
through everything. Whether he stays as long
or as briefly as the petals on this rose,

it has to be enough. He also fears
to lose this world. But he cannot stay.
His words go beyond and he disappears.

His wrists are not tied by humming strings.
You will not find him now. He, too, must obey.
And this is how – by overstepping everything.

Be Ahead of all Parting

“Sei allem Abschied voran”, Sonnets to Orpheus II.13.

Be ahead of all parting, as though it were
already behind you, like the winter just gone.
Know that, among these winters, is one
so endless that the heart, unsheltered, must out-winter.

Be forever dead in Eurydike. – Yet rise and sing.
For it is praiseworthy to be raised proud.
Here, in our entropic realms, be loud
like humming crystal that, even as it shatters, rings.

Be – and yet still know Unbeing, the void,
the empty cavern in which you first heard
yourself echo. Just this once, fill it with your shout.

To the sum of all the second-hand, tinny
and worn-out things on Nature’s inventory,
joyfully add yourself. Then wipe the total out.

Hole: Philip Larkin meets Dante

Wednesday, 30 March 2016 at 17:31

No Text

Big Phil at Paragon Station, Hull

I’ve long been fascinated by the opening of Dante’s Inferno: how he finds himself, half-way through his journey through life, lost in a wild wood, and his subsequent descent into Hell led by his guide Virgil, and I’d used the theme, or variations on the lines, in several poems; my most recent collection Pilgrim Tongues concludes with “Andante”, a poem about getting lost on a hike. I’m also fascinated by satire and the grotesque, shifting worlds it conjures. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Marston’s verse satires voiced through his psychopathic and hypocritical “barking Satyrist” persona W. Kinsayder, and, in various sequences, I’ve tried to summon up the ghost of the Elizabethan malcontent to see what he’d say about our world. These sequences seem like vacations from my normal lyric or elegiac mode – holidays of the sort that critics, following Bakhtin, might dignify with notions of the “carnivalesque” – but essentially they’re jeux d’esprit.

A figure you can’t avoid if you live in Hull is Philip Larkin, probably best known for the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Attitudes to Larkin and his work are sharply divided. I have mixed feelings myself, but I’ve had some good mileage out of him: the part of the university I work in calls itself “The Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing”; the Larkin Society commissioned my anthology, film and exhibition project Under Travelling Skies in which contemporary poets and painters associated with Hull responded to Larkin’s landscapes and work; I’ve written a poem sequence exploring Larkin’s life and attitudes, and exhibited various paintings in which Larkin, pushing his bike, is confronted by the various mythological figures he had no time for. The shade of Larkin seemed a good guide to the Underworld.

I started "Hole" as a sort of diversion from a project translating French poems, and working variations on their themes. This is obviously more perversion than version of Dante and, as it has rumbled on, other elements have found their way into the mix: medieval Complaint and, hanging round the Larkin figure, an incongruous whiff of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. “Difficile est satyram non scribere” wrote Juvenal, and it often does seem difficult not to write satire; or as John Marston’s alter ego W. Kinsayder put it: “Let Custards quake, my rage must freely runne!”

Hole is the March 2016 poetry feature of The Common online:

Lorca: Death and Duende

Sunday, 20 March 2016 at 20:02

No Text

My trip to Nicaragua has made me realise just how much I've missed the language and its culture. I've not done much with Spanish since I lived in Spain and Mexico in the late seventies, early eighties, but maybe that's something to remedy. I have, though, done the odd version. Here's a poem from my latest collection Pilgrim Tongues.

In his lecture “The Theory and Function of the Duende”, Lorca quotes Manuel Torres: “All that has dark sounds has duende.” This poem, the third of the four which make up Lorca’s lament for a dead bullfighter friend, seems to exemplify duende and its relationship to death, form and improvisation. The “Lament” combines the traditional elements of elegy with surreal imagery: sudden associative shifts mimic both the transitory nature of life and the mind’s response to grief as it flits from one image to another trying to make sense of loss and the absurdity of death.

Lorca’s strange, dreamlike imagery is a challenge. Timid fidelity seems pointless: I introduce Rorschach blots, usherettes, hard shoulders and radio aerials. English typically needs fewer syllables to express an idea than Spanish. I knit quatrains together with rhymes and half-rhymes to echo the repetitive vowel-music inherent in even unrhymed Spanish. Just once, Lorca breaks his quatrain: a little past the mid-point, a five-line unit rattles the lid of the coffin-like stanza. (Oddly, Dario does exactly the same in "Symphony in White Major" ... see previous blog). In what I hope is a similar improvisatory duende-summoning spirit, I break the last stanza into two short-lined unequal fragments.

On The Slab

after Federico García Lorca

"Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: 3. Cuerpo Presente"

No curving stream, no frozen cypresses,
this slab’s the brow where all dreams groan
into planets, ribbons caught up in tears and trees.
It’s just a shoulder to bear off time, this stone.

Hard shoulders. You’ve seen how those grey rains
throw up their arms, then pit the running waves
to flee the stalking, outstretched stone?
Nothing soaks through this slab. The blood still runs.

This stone gathers seed and cloud, a Rorschach:
one half at least, the other’s in our mind
with the shadowy wolf and the bones of larks,
and all that’s left of bull-rings is the boundless sand.

No applause, no suit of lights, he’s dead:
just so many kilos cooling on the slab.
His body turns to meat, weird sulphurs,
masked by that dark minotaur’s head.

All done with now. Rain gargles in his mouth.
The crazed air wheezes from his unlocked
chest, and love, drenched with creaking snows,
warms itself in crags above the flocks.

Silence creeps around us like a stench.
We’re keeping vigil with a once-bright form,
one familiar with nightingales who now melts.
He’s filling up with holes. We stare into a trench.

Who has wrinkled this shroud? Let no one sing,
weep in the corner, tear hair, or frighten off the snake.
Here I need only my own wide-open eyes
to see this forever restless body in stiff repose.

Bring them in, those strong-voiced men:
breakers of horses, tamers of rivers, the skint
but rattling skeletons who dance and sing
with mouths full of sun, skins full of wine and flint.

Bring them all before this stage of stone;
before this corpse with its broken reins.
Let usherettes shine torches down the aisles,
towards the illumination of the Exit sign.

Give me dirge. I want lament. Cry me a river,
with steep banks, vague mists to bear this body off.
Hire wailing women to mourn him gone.
Let him disappear where no bulls snort.

In the moon’s arena, let him lose himself
between the calf’s sad horns; let him sleep
with the fishes, with coral, tuning the white
aerials of smoke into their songless night.

Don’t cover his face.
It’s better that he gets
used to staring up at death;

all that bellowing hot breath.
Let him sleep open-eyed.
Even the sea dies…


Cuerpo Presente

La piedra es una frente donde los sueños gimen
sin tener agua curva ni cipreses helados.
La piedra es una espalda para llevar al tiempo
con árboles de lágrimas y cintas y planetas.

Yo he visto lluvias grises correr hacia las olas
levantando sus tiernos brazos acribillados,
para no ser cazadas por la piedra tendida
que desata sus miembros sin empapar la sangre.

Porque la piedra coge simientes y nublados,
esqueletos de alondras y lobos de penumbra;
pero no da sonidos, ni cristales, ni fuego,
sino plazas y plazas y otras plazas sin muros.

Ya está sobre la piedra Ignacio el bien nacido.
Ya se acabó; ¿qué pasa? Contemplad su figura:
la muerte le ha cubierto de pálidos azufres
y le ha puesto cabeza de oscuro minotauro.

Ya se acabó. La lluvia penetra por su boca.
El aire como loco deja su pecho hundido,
y el Amor, empapado con lágrimas de nieve
se calienta en la cumbre de las ganaderías.

¿Qué dicen? Un silencio con hedores reposa.
Estamos con un cuerpo presente que se esfuma,
con una forma clara que tuvo ruiseñores
y la vemos llenarse de agujeros sin fondo.

¿Quién arruga el sudario? ¡No es verdad lo que dice!
Aquí no canta nadie, ni llora en el rincón,
ni pica las espuelas, ni espanta la serpiente:
aquí no quiero más que los ojos redondos
para ver ese cuerpo sin posible descanso.

Yo quiero ver aquí los hombres de voz dura.
Los que doman caballos y dominan los ríos;
los hombres que les suena el esqueleto y cantan
con una boca llena de sol y pedernales.

Aquí quiero yo verlos. Delante de la piedra.
Delante de este cuerpo con las riendas quebradas.
Yo quiero que me enseñen dónde está la salida
para este capitán atado por la muerte.

Yo quiero que me enseñen un llanto como un río
que tenga dulces nieblas y profundas orillas,
para llevar el cuerpo de Ignacio y que se pierda
sin escuchar el doble resuello de los toros.

Que se pierda en la plaza redonda de la luna
que finge cuando niña doliente res inmóvil;
que se pierda en la noche sin canto de los peces
y en la maleza blanca del humo congelado.

No quiero que le tapen la cara con pañuelos
para que se acostumbre con la muerte que lleva.
Vete, Ignacio: No sientas el caliente bramido.
Duerme, vuela, reposa: ¡También se muere el mar!

Another helping of Ruben Dario

Friday, 18 March 2016 at 11:49

No Text

The ghost of Rubén Darío is still hanging around (as the poster says we are all sons of Darío and Sandino), so here's another version. He's in high symbolist mode here, borrowing the title from Gautier's "Symphony in White Major" (first pub 1849). Gautier's poem is about a very different water creature, and is quite literally a swan-song. Musical titles, hinting at synaesthesia, became fashionable among nineteenth-century writers and painters. Whistler painted several variations on "Symphony in White" (1851-62). Larkin later worked a quite different version on the theme in his own "Sympathy in White Major". Like Larkin I've allowed myself a pun in the title. I've also been quite free in bringing the maritime elements to the fore, playing with the form, and moving Darío's tropical siesta to something snoozing closer to home. I've included the original, and a literal translation.

Symphony in Sea Major

very loosely after “Symphony in Grey Major” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)

The sea, like a vast quicksilver mirror,
reflects the sky’s grey sheet. Far away,
birds flock – I’m thinking stains on the dull
sheen of the quayside bar’s long zinc.

Opaque porthole. The sun toils up
to the crow’s nest, like he did as a kid.
Wind off the sea collapses in the shade,
head down, exhausted, on tarpaulin.

This sea-dog’s grizzled, grey. Doldrum
suns have leathered his skin; he’s drunk gin,
weathered out Beaufort 12, while typhoons
shattered freighters, junks on the South China Sea.

      The waves now roil their bellies of lead,
      groaning beneath the pier where he sits
      on a capstan smoking Navy Cut.
      He is untipped, spits out what sticks to lip,
      an old tar peering through the haar.

That saltpetre-y iodine sniff lives up
his raspberry nose. It’s steeped his deckhand
wrists, tattoos, blue-grey beard, his old salt’s
sea-boots, sun-faded first-mate’s cap.

Off watch. The sea-dog snoozes. The glint
of scattered fish-scales fades to grey
as if sea-mist has worn the horizon, washed
all that lies beyond it, far away.

      The old bull-frog tries the mouth-organ out,
      hornpiped on to the wheezing shanty
      of squeeze-box lungs:
      somewhere a grasshopper rasps
      his one-string solo on a plywood violin.


"Sinfonía en grís mayor" by Rubén Darío

El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.

El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su negro clarín.

Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.

Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.

La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus biceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.

En medio del humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín ...

La siesta del trópico. El lobo se duerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.

La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.

---------------------------------- -----------------
Symphony in Grey Major (literal translation)

The sea like a vast silvered mirror
reflects the sky like a sheet of zinc;
distant flocks of birds make stains
on the burnished pale grey background.

The sun, like a round, opaque window
with an invalid's steps climbs to the zenith;
the sea wind relaxes in the shade
using its black trumpet as a pillow.

The waves that move their leaden bellies
seem to moan beneath the pier.
Sitting on a cable, smoking his pipe,
is a sailor thinking of the beaches
of a vague, distant, misty land.

This sea-dog is old. The fiery beams
of Brazilian sun have tanned his face;
the wild typhoons of the China sea
have seen him drinking his bottle of gin.

The iodine and saltpetre foam
long has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, athletic biceps,
his canvas cap, his blouse of drill.

Surrounded by tobacco smoke
the old man sees the far off misty land
for which one hot and golden evening
his brig set out with all sails set ...

The siesta of the tropics. The sea-dog sleeps.
Now the shades of grey enfold him.
It is as if an enormous soft charcoal
rubbed out the lines of the horizon's arc.

The siesta of the tropics. The old cicada
tries out his senile, raucous guitar
and the cricket strikes up a monotonous solo
on the single string of his violin.


Wednesday, 16 March 2016 at 11:25

Ruben Dario Here's a version of a 1906 Darío poem, "El Canto Errante", the first poem in a collection of that name. My attempt is pretty loose, more a variation on a theme than translation, as you can see from the original pasted in below. RD concludes by taking wing with his song into Harmony and Eternity, ("En canto vuela, con sus alas: / Armonía y Eternidad.") which strikes an odd note after his quite playful, and occasionally bathetically modern railway rhymes: "mar" / " vagón de sleeping-car"; "tren", / riding an ass into "Jerusalén". It seemed better to end with the old Routemaster bus which, in addition to an often jaunty conductor, had recognisably friendly features, rather than a single operative locked in a cab behind a flat inexpressive face. ¡Buen viaje!

Vagabundage, or the Errant Song

very loosely after “El Canto Errante” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)

The poet travels the whole wide earth;
and reckons what it’s really worth.

He sees the rich, he sees the poor,
in the white of peace, the red of war.

He sways through India (and this is relevant)
hallucinating on the back of an elephant.

In a palanquin – you’ve seen non finer –
he slides through the silky heart of China.

High on a ship of the desert’s back,
he sways into port from a Saharan track.

He’s in a Venetian gondola, black and sleek,
or a Deux Chevaux on the Périférique,

A Chevrolet’s not the only way
to cruise the highways of the USA;

he parks at Avis or Hertz Car Rental,
drives off in a Lincoln Continental.

He rides the subway under Harlem;
skis down the Alps, can schuss, plough, slalom.

He bumps on the pampas on a skittish colt,
or a nervous mustang prone to bolt.

He sails across Lake Nicaragua,
fails to find downtown Managua.

In León, he dances con molto brio,
prances up to the house of Rubén Darío,

(taking in the vista with an ex-Sandinista,
who’d given it all up for a Starbucks’ barista).

Of course he’s seen the aurora borealis
– but from a bendy bus in Crystal Palace?

He’s twinkling at night on a Jumbo Jet,
above the snowy wrinkles of Tibet.

Our poet’s been seen: during the Intifada,
crossing the Green Line in a second-hand Lada;

in a bathyscope on the ocean bed;
skimming the tundra on a Shaman’s sled.

We’ve caught him at stations, catching trains:
at Waterloo he was changing for Staines;

at the Gare du Nord in the Eurostar;
in the Trans-Siberian dining car.

On rails, or wheels, by ship or wing,
he’s on the move, he notes down things.

His Routemaster waits. The conductor rings
the bell. Once more they’re off. The poet sings

–well, he hums to himself his Errant Song.
On the road again. Ding Dong! Ding Dong!


El cantor va por todo el mundo
sonriente o meditabundo.

El cantor va sobre la tierra
en blanca paz o en roja guerra.

Sobre el lomo del elefante
por la enorme India alucinante.

En palanquín y en seda fina
por el corazón de la China;

en automóvil en Lutecia;
en negra góndola en Venecia;

sobre las pampas y los llanos
en los potros americanos;

por el río va en la canoa,
o se le ve sobre la proa

de un steamer sobre el vasto mar,
o en un vagón de sleeping-car.

El dromedario del desierto,
barco vivo, le lleva a un puerto.

Sobre el raudo trineo trepa
en la blancura de la estepa.

O en el silencio de cristal
que ama la aurora boreal.

El cantor va a pie por los prados,
entre las siembras y ganados.

Y entra en su Londres en el tren,
y en asno a su Jerusalén.

Con estafetas y con malas,
va el cantor por la humanidad.

En canto vuela, con sus alas:
Armonía y Eternidad.

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