The Tournament of Shadows or the Great Game: Return to Issyk Kul 1
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 at 21:21
I've been thinking about those ex-Soviet republics... here's something I started working on last year following my visit to Issyk-Kul in Kyrgizstan. The sequence got massively out of hand as it veered madly towards an appreciation of geo-politics in Central Asia from the time of the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great, through Stalin to Putin. I might revisit it, but meanwhile here's a sort of prologue. The lake - Issyk Kul - was where the Soviets tested nuclear subs and torpedoes. Guess what? They're back.
1. A Lake in Kyrgizstan Summer, 2018
That Central Asian Shangri-La –You sure?
Issyk-Kul: the lake that never freezes.
Usefully secret throughout the Colder War;
we shiver again when Vlad or the Donald sneezes.
So hugely landlocked, a lake left high and stranded
in the rocky shifts of the Tien Shan;
then warlords watering horses, as each demanded
tributes for themselves, or for some distant Khan. 天山
An epic land? –The Celestial Mountains float:
bright snow skied high above the pumped-up cloud;
their peaks rear up beyond each village street,
oversee this tarmacked stretch of old Silk Road.
War, migration, trade and geo-politics:
parked up at the crossroads, the lorry drivers kip.
China peeks over shoulders, surveilles their sleep:
sun scales the watchful dragon to the east.
The northern range prickles with Kazakhstan;
more ‘Stans – Uzbek, Tajik – to south and west,
ex-Soviet republics which cut but never (quite) ran.
And just off stage… (you guessed it) Afghanistan.
Oblasts which stood and stand, still blasted, caught
between empires – that old Great Game for the ancient routes
where Mongol hordes and Cossack irregulars fought
to wash their feet in a lake lined with their boots.
Russians still bathe and drink on the northern shore.
Forget the deaths, the stings, the ageless hurts:
the country’s cheap: hospitable though poor
– they welcome backpackers to their nomads’ yurts.
We take the back tracks south; for us it’s time
to head towards our artists’ lakeside camp;
find yurts from which to paint, or maybe rhyme,
retreat inside when outside’s cold and damp.
issyk kul 2
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 at 21:17
This is what I saw from my yurt.....some rhymed notes, rather than an achieved poem here, but maybe a theme to return to.
View from a Yurt
The lake – I hear it lapping from my yurt,
and, on top from where they briefly perch,
coded communiqués from the look-out birds
before they twitter off to base and chicks.
At this altitude things quickly shift;
the mountains are moody, storms can brew up fast.
Birdsong turns to radio silence; rain thrums
its threnody on the mandala of the yurt’s tight drum.
Through the wooden doorway I can see
mountains, sky; and blue shines through the shell
where broken windows frame the scenery
beyond a dilapidated Soviet factory.
They say that here they made their heavy water
– no need to worry, you could drink that stuff –
though the background buzz of Radon Daughters
means what’s naturally occurring’s more than enough.
(I hear, to avoid perceived misogyny,
the new-coined term for these products of decay
‘s the now non-gendered Radon Progeny.
– Time now to think about the way I say…
well… just what it is that I want to say?)
The Soviets also mined uranium,
now that’s a trade requires some care;
the official line’s to play it dumb,
but the Geiger blabs, birds sense the air.
So the Russkies dumped their nuclear waste
All over bloody Kyrgizstan,
– Rarely troubled to check each place
Was free from grazing flocks or Man.
The Kyrgiz called in western outfits
To help mop up this decaying shore
Of all those dumps that Boris left us
still shooting rays out from their core.
In Soviet times, this lake was out of bounds,
a zone they hid between the folds of maps,
where submarine sonar tracked the sounds
of warheads fizzing from the silos’ traps.
Back then, they used this place to test torpedos.
Now, the northern shore’s the touristy bit:
wearing suntans and smiles, tattoos and Speedos,
the Russian’s are back, but in skimpier kit.
Islam’s very liberal here, let’s see:
no veils, some mosques, and vodka still hits the spot;
lakeside is crop-tops, micro-skirts, bikinis.
(Now there’s a word that takes us back,
to another world in fuzzy greys and black,
and then that sudden shock of flesh and flash,
– Todd AO, Technicolor, South Pacific.
O sea awash with irony!– those Tests.
And many hundreds more, both East and West.)
You think it’s over but it’s never quite:
Peace is just the Charm Offensive’s smile,
the one with gleaming teeth which also bite.
Some say it’s all kicking off again
– but the World Cup’s looking good in Russia.
And Novichok, Polonium, Ukraine?
That’s History. What’s the real fuss here?
It’s Two Eighteen and Lies are News.
It’s Two Eighteen and…
Death is back, he holds his breath
and glides right through the deep and dark,
then grins up swiftly De Profundis,
your Requiem’s a cobalt shark.
Tuesday, 9 July 2019 at 15:26
In the blog post last December, I posted a photo of me taken many years ago in front of Mayakovsky's grave in Moscow. My recent trip to Georgia, where he was born, has had me thinking about him, and his literary reputation again.
Mayakovsky was born, of a Russian Cossack father and Ukrainian mother, in Georgia in 1893 and he attended school in Kutaisi until he was thirteen, when his father died and the family moved to Moscow. In 1909 he was sentenced to 11 months in prison for Bolshevik activity. He enrolled at Moscow Art School in 1912 and began publishing his first poems in the Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, calling for Puskin and the old idols of Russian poetry to be thrown from "the steamship of modernity".
As well as experimental futurist and lyrical poems, Mayakovsky turned his hand to what he thought of as being ideologically useful art for the masses in the service of the Revolution. He illustrated about 3,000 posters and placards and wrote the words for twice that number. The contradictions did not escape him and he was conscious of standing "on the throat of my own song." He was an enormously popular performer of his poems - a sort of Soviet rap star - though the tensions between his experimentalism, satirical impulses, and ideology led to him being both revered and reviled, often by the same people - both politicians and artists. Lenin and Trotsky criticised him. Stalin claimed he had betrayed Communism.
In 1930, he commited suicide, shooting himself through the heart with a revolver he had used in a film some years earlier. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral. After his death, his works were banned, then Stalin suddenly revised his opinion of his fellow Georgian, stating "Mayakovsky was a remains the best and most talented poet of our time. Indifference to his poetry is a crime." There is some speculation that he did not commit suicide, but was mudered by the state.
Canonization by Stalin effectively ruined his reputation: "Mayakovsky's second death", according to Paternak. Marina Tsvetayeva wrote in 1932: "For twelve years Mayakovsky the man has been destroying Mayakovsky the poet. On the thirteenth year the Poet rose up and killed the man… His suicide lasted twelve years, not for the moment he pulled the trigger."
For many years Soviet children had to learn officially approved and highly edited Mayakovsky pieces by heart. Pasternak said these poems were "introduced forcibly like potatoes under Catherine the Great." This was enough to turn generations away from him. In Bagdadi, Mayakovsky's birthplace in Georgia, there is a museum dedicated to him, and the village was renamed Mayakovsky in 193; the museum has few visitors now and the village has reverted to its former name. Various statues of Mayakovsky have disappeared since independence. The largest is rumoured to have bee sold for scrap in Turkey.
Outside the Soviet bloc, the lyrical, radical, experimental Mayakovsky has always has his few though fervent admirers and translators. (Edwin Morgan's versions in Scots Wi the Haill Voice are fun and catch the often Burns-like satirical energy.) In Russia, the sanitised and bowdlerised official editions of his "second death" have largely gone and he is once more being recognised as for his invention and wit.
For a good introduction to him, try Ian Sansom's documentary on Radio 4's Archive Hour "Resurrecting Mayakovsky":
A Cloud in Borrowed Trousers
Tuesday, 9 July 2019 at 12:38
Back in the mid or later 90s, at a Poetry Society workshop, David Morley challenged the group to respond to Mayakovsky's "A Cloud in Trousers" and I came up with this abbreviated version. The idea was to produce a piece that had something of the spontaeity and energy of the original.
Edwin Morgan translated some of Mayakovsky into Scots in Wi the Haill Voice (1972) and noted "There is in Scottish poetry (eg in Dunbar, Burns, and even MacDiarmid) a vein of fantastic satire that seems to accommodate Mayakovsky more readily than anything in English verse." This may be true of the mainstream, though I think that the out-of-the-way spikiness of, say, John Marston's satires and the English tradition of nonsense verse may show another way forward.
My version could be pushed at least a little further. I'm now wondering, especially as I've been learning Russian over the last year or so, if it might be worth going back to this, or other Mayakovsky poems
A Cloud in Borrowed Trousers
A fragment after the Russian of Vladimir Mayakovsky's
"The Cloud in Trousers." Or, more precisely,
Cliff's Cirrocumulus in Mayakovsky's Kecks:
taken in here, let out there, patched everywhere.
Original inside leg measurement
for a much longer pair of Russian strides.
Think of these threads as cut-offs, shorts.
I'll mock your soft-boiled thoughts, Egg-Head!
Egg-Belly sprouting Humpty-Dumpty
arms - ya big numpty,
numbskull bum dumped on a Laura Ashley sofa.
The joke's on you, Yolk-Face,
as I rip open my chest, like Superman,
to reveal my sacred bleeding heart
twisted into a serpentine S of kryptonite.
My soul's sleek black:
flat-top, No 2 razored at the back,
no worms of curly gray.
And it roars, tall, dark, cool,
invincible and forever twenty-two.
Your saccharine strings' muzak,
mail-order lovers' rock
compilation makes me puke.
My balls are my drums, my cock's
a screaming Fender.
Your head's up your arse.
I turn inside out, swallow myself through my own mouth
until I am all lips to place a big wet smacker on the world.
Get out of the Graves of Academe.
I'll teach you a thing or two.
I can be so much more than I seem.
I'll climb your ladder Little Miss Bluestocking,
to your lips tight purse. Natch.
I'll spill out the treasures of your snatch.
Or, if you really want to be amazed
I'll charm you with my tongue,
whiten my heart to a boiled shirt,
a ruffle of cumulus peeking politely out of a D.J.
Not a man but a cloud in trousers.
Don't give me all that Dingly Dell guff, don't make me hoot!
I'm here to praise guys whose balls are bruised by vice,
peroxide bimbos with features like eroded
statues, blonde bombshells who,
to judge by their blackened roots,
have long since exploded.
You think this is some druggy dream?
It happened, believe me, in a place as real as East Cheam.
"I'll be there at four" she said.
Already the evening was embers,
draining from windows, decembering
into horrorshow night.
Bar-lights, switched on switch-blades,
flicked knives judder in my back,
You wouldn't know me from a mountain
grumbling with lava in its belly.
What can a hulking lummock like that possibly want?
Ahh, but there's a lot it wants.
Don't matter that my heart's hard and blue as gunmetal.
Come Saturday night, this Saturday Night Special
likes to be holstered in some soft pouch.
hunched into the window pane,
pain glows molten where glass melts around my brow.
Will love show?
Yes or no?
And what kind?
The big firework fiesta of passion, meeting of true minds?
Or some itchy bitch soon forgotten with a scratch.
But what chance
does a chunk of flesh like this
have of a great romance?
Probably just some tired affair
that gets scared when the Jumbo rumbles up into the air,
some sad timid little chick
who gets air-sick
and who'll prefer
the sedate horse-drawn carriage round the park
before it gets too dark.
It's getting late.
I still wait,
face pocked with rain,
trousers growing heavy with the traffic's surf.
Midnight, sharp as a shiv, shouted,
grabbed me, turfed
The day was utterly dead.
Midnight rolled into the gutter
like a decapitated head.
horrible faces gurned in the glass,
like bad acid imps.
How much more of this do I have to take?
I can't stand it! Let custards quake,
it's more than a man can bear in silence.
Then I hear...
It's very quiet, like a patient slipping out of bed,
a nerve sprung free,
then another, another, the whole ward hums,
dances, stamps its feet.
Kaboom! An avalanche of plaster from the ceiling below.
All the nerves gone crazy,
jerking like frogs legs galvanized on electric wires.
Night fogs up the room, mires
the wheels of my eyes right up to the axle.
as if the hotel's teeth were icy scared.
Suddenly you came in,
sharp, straight, shiny as a blade.
You twisted the gold serpent on your wrist
and said "You know,
I'm going to get married."
Congratulations! Big fucking deal.
I'm cool, unfazed, my eyes give nothing away.
I might as well be wearing refrigerated Raybans.
Do you remember?
You used to swear by old Stax vinyl,
big time passion, that whole live-now-get-someone-else-to-pay-later deal.
You were the Mona Lisa somebody just had to steal
and now you're stolen.
In love again. Game on.
My eyes stoked with all the fires of Hell.
But the homeless sometimes find their only shelter in a burned-out shell.
You taking the piss?
"You're like some Cairo rubbish dump scavenger,
- a millionaire of worms - rattling bones in a tin cup."
remember what happened to Pompeii
when Vesuvius was teased too much?
I, too, can get my wild up.
Connoisseurs of Crime,
Poker-faced Professionals of Piss-artistry,
Bachelors of Bad Behaviour, Summa Cum Laude,
Masters of Arsing Around,
Doctors of Debauchery (Cantab, Oxon, With Knobs On),
have you ever seen
anything more obscene
than my face when it's perfectly serene?
I is, of course, another.
My insides are ripped. The long-lost brother,
the hypocrite semblance, the evil twin. He shouts
and screams: a larger lager lout,
a fucking bad ventriloquising mother-
fighting his way out.
Mother Who? - No don't tell me. Keep mum.
Your son's real sick,
his heart's on fire,
his brain's addled with Tourette's,
his mouth's a farting bum,
he's machine-gunning obscenities like a nervous tic.
Tell my sisters. Quick!
Look his hands twist like claws.
His mind's a burning brothel.
From the windows, words leap like naked whores.
the smell of burning flesh, charred stiffs.
Someone's already on the phone.
The Brigade comes all red and jangling
with engines shiny and extensible as trombones.
Ladders angle like they're angling
for fish with lines of water.
Be careful now, Mr. Firefighter,
go gentle on this burning heart.
I like a touch that's lighter.
I can put out my own fire.
Pump tears onto my heart's pyre
of dangerously combustible desire.
Watch me, baby, douse my fire.
But I can't jump out of my heart.
Something's trying to escape, a little kiss.
But it's either burned or drowned
by the Brigade's big hoses as they piss
higher and higher.
Alarm bells, scary yells, then the ping!
of wires. Everywhere smoke.
How can you sing
as you choke?
Charred words, burnt phrases jump from my skull's inferno.
lies broken on the kerb.
The centuries echo
with these fears.
Resounding down the coming years.
you'll hear (lick me, lick me)
"I'M ON FIRE!"
I'm not lit up by books. Burn learning.
I used to think that poets just opened their gobs
and the inspired stuff poured out in a frenzy.
But, actually, it's more like one long hard never-ending job.
And then there's all the bloody paperwork.
You crawl around in your underwear like some mad jerk
trying to find a rhyme for "orange",
you rant or whinge,
while the rest of the world
hurls about its business or at least gets its lines to reach the far edge of the paper.
Our feeble cities.
We build and build our towers of Babel.
God knocks them down.
They're history, forgotten or rumoured in fables
distorted by the rabble's babble.
I've decided that a poet is a man
who is all mouth in God's borrowed trousers.
Today is a good day to die.
There's enough cloud up there
in that huge sky
to make a pair
And God is always on the verge of coming back
into fashion. Forget black
denim, there's enough faded Levi blue
for 501's for me, you
A jet zips up the fly,
fastens Orion's belt
tight round me.
I'm right at the top.
Time to button it.
Too many mutts have wagged their tails
and tried to hump my boot-fit leg.
But now, the universe is fast asleep,
a huge ear quick with starry ticks
flopped on its paws.
Monday, 1 July 2019 at 19:33
I've not posted anything for a couple of weeks as I've been away. I was in Georgia, just leaving before the riots in Tbilisi, following Russian pressure on Georgia, and a Russian politician addressing the Georgian parliament in Russian. There is, of course, a ltragic history of Georgia's relations with Russia, but also a more optimistic tradition of Russian writers who were inspired by the country: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tostoy... and one or two, like Mayakovsky, who had more fractious dealings.
The country has a long and complicated history, almost off-stage from Europe, but, in an odd way central to its myths, culture and politics. It's probably the world's oldest wine-producing area, its mountains are where Prometheus was bound, and modern day Kutaisi is the Colchis where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. It's where Persia, and Ottoman Turkey come up against Orthodox Christianity. It's also worth remembering that Stalin was a Georgian.
For more on this, I recommend Peter Nasmyth's Georgia, in the Mountains of Poetry. The photo was taken in the Caucasus, not far from Kazbegi, just off the Georgian Military Highway, built by the Soviets to keep Georgia under control. This is a few kilometers from the border with the "break-away" region of South Ossetia, which though technically a part of Georgia is now effectively under Russian control, as is the other "break-away" region of Abkazia.
Tuesday, 28 May 2019 at 19:44
a well for the cure of all the sad and lonely,
and that the water at the seventh source
grants solace to spinster and geek alike.
Those who married advantageously,
or for love, need none, but those who are hated
by their children have a crystal fountain.
There is one also for those who are a trial
and a sore disappointment to their fathers.
Here, you see a chalky well for dyspeptics;
another which is a specific against the pox,
unseasonable melancholy and unsociable wind.
The slime from this spring where toads and lizards bask
is balm for those disappointed in cards or politics.
to all, but is especially beneficent
to those who serve on municipal sub-committees.
It assuages ambition in the ugly and talentless,
and is known to put a smile on the faces
of both the chronically stupid and those who have learned
incompetence from long study of their masters.
A draught direct from this silver rivulet
is enough to lighten the heavy soul.
Those who grouch through late May afternoons
are immersed in this happy brook by the constables
and inundated by the prettiest prostitutes until
they can resist our glee no longer and break
into song. Listen! It has a most cheery burble.
but it smiles on rocks which are the dry residue
of bitter tears. Other wells have been analysed
and found to contain trace elements
of alienation, pogrom, Holocaust.
Here is the Lethean Pool for those who wish
to divest themselves of wrong beginnings.
Bathe here and wash away bad memories.
Forget uncaring parents, unwanted childhoods,
the cruel boarding school, yet crueller vacations.
Here less is so much more, once freed
of the purposelessness of mediocre lives,
the house, the baggage, all the impedimenta
of loathed careers, the dead-end jobs and wives
You, who have lived in the mountains, listened to the gossip of birds,
their endless chitter about their neverfound mates;
you who have heard the chink of forlorn goat bells,
the howls of disconsolate dogs and, towards evening,
on the edge of the forest, the ululations of widows and witches
as the wolves leave behind their shadows for the bars and the brothels,
you are at home, here, on the path of the crushed snail,
by the Cabin of Holy Suicides, the Shed of Gall
and Kidney Stones. Walk through the shadow of the Valley
of Bad Breath, under the halo of St Halitosis; be glad to
pray in the Chapel of the Flatulent Shepherd; account yourself
lucky to prostrate yourself at the altar of the Virgin
of Premenstrual Tension, throw yourself under the stilettos
of the Black Madonna of Fashion, the boots of Our Lady of Grunge.
sculpture, hear the echo of installation
artists weeping in their eyries and caverns,
note the gardens of zen gravel, the monasteries
with their libraries, wine-cellars, orchards,
hydroponic terraces for the cultivation
of cannabis and herbal laxatives.
Marvel at the ivied towers of astronomers,
geneticists and geomancers. The temples
dedicated to augury and haruspication.
And remember your ancestors, just where
it is that you come from: those dwellers in villages
of woodsmoke, incest, lice and larceny,
hamlets of grudges passed down the long ages.
Welcome to the Sanatorium!
You do us honour, very Respected Guest!
Allow me, on behalf of all our staff,
from Distinguished Doctors, our great Parisian Chefs,
right down to the lowliest (but all are pretty!) chambermaid,
to welcome you to this our ancient scenic town,
our state-of-the-art hygienic facility
and Temple of Hydrological Medicine.
Here all is modern and yet so picturesque.
Please, enjoy your stay in our humble establishment!
(Though it will be obvious, that no expense
has been spared in pursuit of your well-being.).
All is here, from excellent conference facilities
to mud-baths for the anxious, a cocktail bar for the tense.
We have springs, of course, for those unfortunates
suffering from hardening of the concepts, unsuitable
sentimental attachments or debilitating nostalgias.
The melancholic have their walls diffused
towards evening with playfully erotic light.
In the Caracalla Wing, those making ends meet on a tight
emotional economy may relax in perfumed waters
conducive to the cultivation of abundant attitude.
Sitz-baths may ease those deep in debt to family piety,
assuage survivors of sanctimonious spouses
and the victims of over-rigorous scholarly rectitude.
The library has great watery chairs for academics whose stipends
have been mislaid through unseemly familiarity, lewd
behaviour or simple gross moral turpitude.
may, through vitrines of absinthe and water-lily,
contemplate the faces of their critics
metamorphosed into hydrocephalics,
syphilitics or just plain dribbling idiots.
As is traditional, the Entrée des artistes
is at the back. The garret is famously host
to the consumptive but distingué ghosts
of several former symbolistes
who drank deeply of our Pierian Spring
and rhapsodised the nereids, nymphs and water-sprites
who dallied in these parts. Those same nymphs sing
of Sapphic verse, which was itself once seen
written in water at the Well of Loneliness.
Spurned women, wan, troubled by wandering wombs,
are confined by convention to the lower floors
and the tedium of chancers, impoverished aristocrats,
political emigrés, and would-be belle-lettrists.
At least they can avoid those hateful civil servants,
who have learned to be neither civil nor servile,
and are avid for a second career with their dull memoirs
of justly-forgotten administrations. Meanwhile,
in the hotel the waltzes have now already slowed
and the orchestra is the merest echo.
The dance cards are all being stored away.
We have all overheard the doctors say:
this town can’t cure itself. It needs to go to away,
to another spa, and take their waters.
The ceilings and the beds collapse,
the flowered wallpaper scarfs away
to swags of rose and bougainvillea.
The velvet curtains fade with sun,
until the mad or homeless pull them down
for something warm to sleep and piss upon.
For months, some stubbornly remain,
outfacing weather, growing heavier with rain,
until they, too, like all else fall.
Paper petals, leaf-litter, mushed underfoot.
The skeleton of the hotel shines through,
its bones polished by decades of rain.
Tuesday, 21 May 2019 at 20:32
Thanks to my friend Florin Dan Prodan, I've had the good fortune to read at festivals in Romania and I have had several residencies in the country.
Florin has organised a reading in London this Saturday 25 May to celebrate Romania.
Unfortunately I can't be there physically, but I will be in spirit, and in a video, reading Hotel Transylvania,a sequence of poems about Borsec.