“More than kisses, letters mingle souls” Donne

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After I had turned 16 years, I went on an Ancient Greek summer school for two weeks in Bryanston School, Blandford, Dorset. This was an adventure for someone from the North of England and a first glimpse of a small portion of society that not only would I see a few years later at university, but one that would be playing a visible role at the time of writing.

Pretentious ambitions, to put it frankly, filled my mind when I was there. And one of these included letter writing. Around this age, I started to become aware that a world of words, ideas, opinions, existed and for me at that time, the ability to write all of this down, send it with real pennies, and receive a response delivered in the same way, always with some variation, was a revelation. Just like standing at payphones, waiting for your girlfriend to call you back in another country, because it doesn’t cost to use a landline. A romantic ideal in that early 21st century.

There were around 100 people, if memory serves, who ate, lived and learnt together. (It was incidentally one of my first experiences of communal living.) I became friends with a boy from Oundle School (founded in 1556, whereas my own state, free grammar of Clitheroe Royal was founded in 1554, but who’s counting?) and after spending two weeks chatting about cup-bearers and nymphs, we shared addresses and struck up a correspondence.

I remember, in my last two years of high school, saving the letter to open in the library, read at my leisure and then compose a response between lessons. I would have to look over those letters again, which are currently stored in the place of my family penates, to remember what we discussed, but I recall now the experience as liberating and eye-opening. At the Greek Summer School, I had physically seen a world far from different from my own; in the private correspondence with my pen-pal, I could imagine, create and revel in it.

With various friends over the years, I have exchanged letters. One sent a series of riddles to me, which included soaking off the stamp to reveal a clue. Another insisted over a lengthy correspondence that I pay him back for the cocktails he bought me. Yet another would be cut short by a tragic end.

Then come the kisses. Love letters. Is there a word that conjures up more romance? It has been a heady mixture: Merteuil, Byron, Catullus, inter alii. I have written page upon page, declaring undying love, announcing troubled waters, planning exciting holidays and future trysts, opening up a side of myself that existed only within the intimate space of an A5 piece of paper. And yet, these letters have flown, like speaking promises to the swift, cold wind.

And where am I now? I have no correspondents, no incoming mail I rush to the letterbox to collect, no perfumed paper sealed with a kiss; only a string of tax bills, poorly bank statements and offers to buy an apartment that’s not mine to sell.

No more are those letters that keep me writing for hours, pouring out my heart and mind to the chosen addressee. And I feel much the emptier for it. Because John Donne was right.

P.s.

Luckily for me in 2k19, there are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I get to keep varied, punctual, brief contact with friends over the world. We can share hasty pictures and electronic memories with each other to commemorate something vitally important. With Paris Lit Up, I can help organise weekly events, writing workshops and worldwide tours in a way whose efficiency seems to scoff at snail-mail. (Incidentally, it’s more my colleagues who keep a better maintenance of this communication).

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On Ambition : vanitas vanitatum!

I recently set about the challenge of writing a novel in one month. If this is a confession, then I must say that the novel was not finished. I console myself by wondering if a novel can ever be finished. I have learnt a few lessons from this experience: that it was a habit-building experience; that it showed the limits of vanity; that it remains an ambition.

It was a foolhardy mission, loaded with bravado and spunk. I told people almost everywhere I went that my objective was 80,000 words in one month. All of this was in the hope of spurning me on in the process. In the end, I managed 55,000. (But, again, who’s counting?).

In those recent heady days of a beautiful August, when I had fuck all else to do, I would pack my lunchbox and head over to the Pompidou Centre Library. I toiled away for about ten days, although in my imagination it was of course the whole month. Here, I developed a method or indeed habit from which advice was given me by someone I met at the PLU Writing Workshop. Here it is:

1. Read literary criticism (in this case, I am thumbing ‘Relire *L’Education* *sentimentale’*, edited by Glaudes and Reverzy.
2. Analyse another work (the book I am dissecting is *Les* *Mandarin* by Simone de Beauvoir.
3. Handwrite some elements of novel (passages designed to temper a certain style, a theme or other)
4. Open up the laptop and start writing (either typing up handwritten notes or launching oneself into the abyss of tell a story).

I shared with a friend over a glass of Petit Chablis that if such was the life of a writer, I wouldn’t mind being one. The ability to go to a quiet space, find a book amongst the yards of book stacks, and cogitate for up to 7 hours at a time. Et, o quel monde se retrouve aux tables de la bibiliotheque…

Now that 8th month is over and the 9th hammers back into rhythm, I still smart at not finish the novel. My ambition was cocky and I bragged about it to people, repeating often, ‘oh, in my novel…’ or ‘so, I’m writing a novel.’ Always a novel, sometimes a book, not yet finished. Maybe this is when I realise that either a) I feel no shame in not keeping my word, or b) I accept that as a natural consequence of human ambition, namely, failure.

Here we see the limits of human vanity: we aim big, as Machiavelli instructs the archer, and when we fall short, that is the end of the ambition. But do we go home? A shooting star that crumbles into the darkness of the night is at the end of its life; the chaos it left behind in its lifetime will remain forever lost from human view. If we give up our travails, and let the energy that propelled us in a time of fleeting (in this case, literary heroism), then we will come to naught. So, thus will I keep chipping away at this goddam book until it is done.

I now find myself back in the library, having finished a chapter on Flaubert’s use of money in his storytelling and writing a brief scene with my protagonist in a pub in Northern England. I have not given up the project, rather the ambition is tampered. Like a vintage model car you tinker with on the weekend, before taking it out for a spin in the summer next, the story I want to tell will taking some weekly polishing before it may ride free in the minds of others.

To return to the subject of failure, it is precisely this that the work deals with. I am convinced that we only ever do the things that we want to do. If you look back at the narrative you tell yourself, there may be parts that you wish you could rewrite, that you would have transposed to another time, or that you would simply erase. But that’s unkind to yourself; it is denying the fabric of your essence its own existence. Everything that we do, we want to do it.

I suppose, though, understanding and even accepting your own desires is a whole other story to be journeyed. When we turn the mirror of the pen to our own psyche, we will find angels and demons. If we keep looking, then we will see the cavern that they inhabit. And we put away the mirror, we will see the Book of Nature in all clarity.

Back to the library.

The Fairy Tree

Every time I tire of life,

Solace is found in woods.

Canopies shade my fears 

Trickling crystal waters

Alleviate my cares.

Minerals run wild despite

Ancient cold inertia

Restoration once more 

Imbues my weary bones.

This year, though, I stumbled

Upon a precious thing,

Which, as it stands today,

Offers no subtle hint

Of what should be and what

Should be left undisturbed.

A floral cherry nest,

That, wide enough to sleep

Waking Titania

And low enough to hide

A dozen timeless imps,

Stands proud, renewed, refound.

Do I leave it there in-
Tact, or do I dare touch

The fragile white blossom

Clinging to the branches,

Like bats in stormy nights?

I peer inside and see

A sleeping queen woven

Into the knowing bark.

Footmen, fairy princes,

Sing a verse from my youth:

‘For love awake or love asleep

Ends in a laugh, a dream, a kiss,

A song like this.’

I freeze inert, in awe,

Aghast that I might fright

This chance apparition.

Suspended like the Sibyl

She stirs not for me.

But I , as old as watch-

Ful man walked by that day,

And never saw again

Your eyes, your face, your skin,

Such grace, beauty, mystery,

As that lost silvan djinn. 

Catullus’ Dinner Plans

A liberal translation of Catullus 13.

If your schedule is not so busy this Tuesday, Sven, then you will dine like a king at my house. So long as, of course, you yourself bring the meal – and make it a large one, with wine, some Parisian ladies too, a good deal of wit and all the jokes you can find.

 If and only if you do this, venuste noster, you will dine like a king chez moi; for my purse has been eating baked potatoes for the last month.

However, I can offer you something much more tasteful and correct: a guy called Cupid gave it me on Rue Vénus – one sniff of this, Sven, and you will ask the gods to make you all nose.

 See you next Tuesday!

Catullus at the bar

A liberal translation of Catullus XIII

A friend caught me at the bar the other night and introduced me to his new woman. She was underdressed but, though a little desperate, had some good conversation. We ordered drinks, sat down and started chatting.

 Hows your job going, Ed? Not bad, I said. You made any money yet? I replied truthfully that the bossman, not the lackeys make the good money; especially if theyre so crooked as to sell their own ass sitting down, or at least that of the next intern.

 But you must be making quite a bit now; didnt you say you were going to buy a car?

 Now, to appear bigger than I am in front of this beautiful woman, I said: Fortune hasnt been so unkind to me in the private world that I am not able to buy a Mercedes.

 (Let alone a car, sometimes I cant afford a metro ticket and have to squeeze strangers asses just to get a ride)

 Wow, thats fantastic, this woman said. Can you give me a ride to the Rasputin night bar tomorrow evening? Im going with some friends.

 Wait a second, I spat my drink, what I said then – I didnt mean to say Porsche or Mercedes or whatever it was – but its my friends – Jason, no Geo, or someones. Basically, its like my own, and what do I care, I get around just fine. Anyway, woman, who are you to call out my charm? Dont you see that this is the privilege of being a poet?

 

 

A Syrian Prophecy

A free translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI Lines 83 to 97

You are finally freed from the terrors of the sea, but greater troublers wait for you on the land. The sons of Syria will reach the land of the free – you have no reason to worry, though you should be careful what you wish for.

I see wars, terrible wars and rivers foaming with blood. Damascus and Palmyra will come around again and you will see your minarets fall once more. Another enemy has already be born in the land and the weight of Western aggression will never be absent, even when you are on your knees, with nothing left, begging in European capitals to feed your own children.

A popular vote, distorted by the will of the elite, will add to the misery, once more. Do not yield, but go ever more bravely to meet the conflicts. Your destiny foretells it.

Invocation to the Gods

A translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI, Lines 264 to 267

You gods, who have power over souls, tacit shadows, Chaos, the Styx, and all those silent spaces of the dark night; grant it to me to speak of the things I have heard and to reveal with your blessing knowledge submerged in the gloomy underworld

Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes et Chaos et Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late, sit mihi fas audita loqui, sit numine vestro pandere res alta terra et caligine mersas.

 

Sounds of Evening

A tattered lamp shade projects light into the ageing night.

An airplane roars in the sky—way above where my head could ever reach.

It passes. The feeling fades.

I am alone with the muffled shouts from outside.

If I were to tell you that any cathedral outlives the wildest of Western spires,

You would laugh and say ‘stick to writing of gentle folk’.

With new light comes new eyes.

The room I inhabit is empty and the bird cage door is ajar—

Red velvet lies careless on the floor.

        Where have you flown, little bird?

        You are far from the babbling brook, singing on unheard.

        You are far from ancient wood that knows the step of mortal man.

        You are far from your Northern soil, that warmed you as a child in winter.

The final drops from the water dispenser, when you wonder—

Will you ever know home?

Repetition: You see now the cage is too big for you.

Difference: You will regret the benefit.