The Machine In Shaft Ten

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M. John Harrison – The Machine In Shaft Ten

Mock-up for initial design.

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Gifco – M. John Harrison

Gifco (1992) from Things That Never Happen

The unnamed narrator and his wife are dealing with the death of their daughter in their own separate ways. Neither are openly grieving, repressing their grief, moving away from their old family house and starting life anew in Peckham. A derelict house across the street from their new home, with the seemingly meaningless word Gifco scrawled on a boarded up window, begins to play a dark role in their lives.

The narrator is cold and unemotional and the reader is kept a distance from events by his impassive recital. He puts a strong emphasis on his dreams; within which meanings and language aren’t fixed. His dreams reveal his repressed feelings. The reader can never be quite sure of what the narrator is disclosing is in fact reality as the narrative itself starts to take place within “that zone of slippage between waking and dreaming.” It’s as though his repressed grief has erupted into the narrative itself, disrupting the quotidian with the weird and the uncanny.

He breaks into the Gifco house. This tenebrous space seems to operate outside of reality. The narrator can hear the lunch-time traffic outside, but inside this dark interior feels more like his inner space, his psyche where dark happenings occur. The place where his mental disorder is made real. A space cut off from reality, a space out of time and place (almost Lovecraftian.)

He has a terse relationship with his wife; there is no mutual consolation between them. The narrative is littered with her brusque, indifferent exchanges and we intuit her deep dissatisfaction. Her inscrutability is not diminished in his memories of the holiday in Tenerife, where he would first meet her. Their first meetings show that there never was an emotional intimacy between them; and their physical intimacy was determined by her omnivorous, insatiate desire.

It is also in the Tenerife memories that the psychological source of the Gifco house is disclosed. The darkly enigmatic character of Allo Johnnie looms over these passages. He is the out of place immigrant, the foreigner, the alien but also in a weird interlude, a kind of lifeless Golem. The Gifco graffiti resounds with the narrator so much, it is as though the narrator’s subconscious has made a strange kind of connection with the meeting of his wife and the death of the daughter, with the character of Allo Johnnie as some preternatural dark midwife to this association.

Despite the unsympathetic characters, it is the emotional punch of this story that remains with the reader. There is a deep sense of loss here. Memory, identity and a sense of indeterminacy. Nothing is fixed. Everyone lost within their inner selves, slave to their own obsessions and false desires.

It is interesting to read Harrison’s blog entry referring to Gifco as a summary of thematic concerns and postscript of sorts:

Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!

https://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/those-who-know-gifco/

 

The Ice Monkey – M. John Harrison

An achingly beautiful and enigmatic tale that could be a seminal text for Harrison, as it marks a shift into the mature style seen in the rest of the stories in The Things That Never Happen collection. It concentrates to few brilliant pages Harrison’s concerns of desire, memory, obsession in the face of a bleak, run-down reality.

Jones, impractical to all else in the world except rock climbing in which he excels, has conceded all his connections to society. He asks Spider, the narrator, to help in practical concerns like liaising with his estranged wife over maintenance payments. Maureen lives in a dilapidated flat at the centre of an urban wasteland, “the ruins of East London, the rain”, from which she surveys the broken landscape, like an abandoned lady in a tower, “Maureen, in E3 where all horizons are remembered ones, dwelling on vanished freedoms.”

The writing is beautiful, Harrison captures the characters’ inner states of mind and subtle atmospheres of time and place in a single sentence: “Jones in a cafe, watching with his head tilted intelligently to one side as the sparse traffic groaned away south and a kind of mucoid grayness crept into the place through its steamed up windows.” The characters seem real, dialogue rings true, there is a strong sense of life as it is lived. There is an undercurrent of poignant despondency to the whole thing, of loss, death, defeat and forgetting.

The Ice Monkey title and three brief sentences concerning a necklace add a faint supernatural element that is at odds with the rest of the story. The fact that the story was written for a horror anthology gives a context to this tale that invites a certain kind of reading to it, even though the text resists that reading. There is a kind of textual friction at play here, forcing a certain reading of the text and denying it at the same time. Which all adds to the enigmatic power and brilliance of this story.

Blood Meridian Notes

Notes as I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

On Nature
Nature is sentient. The landscape alive with hostile, insidious intent towards man. The land is bloodily bound to the ideas of fate and destiny, were the life and death of men are the price and the penance. “yet if he gave thanks to any good at all it was ill timed for the country had not done with him.”(p204)
“As if the very sediment of things contained yet some residue of sentience.” (p247) The Judge, and to a lesser degree Glanton and his gang, are at war with it. They have a will to dominate it.

The Kid’s Weakness
Kid has an unexpected brotherhood with Tate and the lame horse. Surprisingly he doesn’t abandon him. Is this the weakness that the Judge will see in the Kid? Is this empathy for others the reason the Judge will try to kill the kid? These displays of empathy, show he is not a part of the Judge’s project.

Cosmic Imagery
Cosmic imagery is Shakespearean channeled through Melville. The language of the novel is a melting pot of the King James Bible, Milton, Shakespeare and Moby Dick.

“The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven, a barren range of rock so enfolded in that gaudy house that stars lay awash at his feet and migratory spalls of burning matter crossed constantly about him on their chartless reckonings.” (p213) The Kid seems to ascend into heaven, weak, frozen, hallucinating.

The landscape is malicious and primeval, a bloody theatre where man’s fate is played out. “A pale green meteor..”

The Judge’s superhuman feat of lifting the meteorite displays his mastery of this malicious universe. This display gives him mastery over these cosmic forces. “That great slag wandered for what millennia… unreckonable corner of the universe…”

Fate / Destiny
Gaston on fate (243) “men’s destinies”. He believes in destiny, yet usurps his own destiny by choosing his own.

Judge: the order you see in creation is only what you put there.
Destiny as a dark gravity pulling at men’s orbits.

”As if in the transit of those riders were a thing so profoundly terrible as to register event to the uttermost granulation of reality.”(p247)

Nature and man conjoined: “… a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships”

“Destinies… bound and indentured.”

“Events have moved on and left man behind. Left man looking at million year old stars no longer there. Or celebrating the ascension of a leader already deposed, the coronation of a king already dead.” (p312) Man is remote from reality.

The Kid tells all to the old woman in the desert, wishes to conduct her to a place of safety, but when he touches her, he realises she is just an old husk who has been dead for many years. A confession to the dead. A wish to procure safety on the dead. Is the kid so remote from the living that he feels closer to the dead?

Massacre at the Mexican bar – the novel in essence
McCarthy set piece on destiny.
Seemingly chance events, build up of small things, McCarthy details the build up of small things happening simultaneously. This focussing on small, seemingly unrelated events creates the tense atmosphere leading up to the massacre. But non of the events are random or happenstance. It is in the nature of things. The nature of dogs behaviour. The funeral procession. Farm workers on a lunch break at the bar. It just happens the they all coincide at one geographic place, the bar, at one specific time. The dark gravity of destiny has pulled all the disparate factors here. McC builds the component parts like cogs in a machine, each component playing its part, all turning and intersecting and interacting. The cold machinery of destiny. It results in a massacre of innocents. All the mexicans are slaughtered. There are no repercussions for the perpetrators. They are not punished by authorities nor wracked with guilt. There is no moral indictment. The massacre just is, in and of itself.

The perpetrators become the witnesses to it. There is a stress on witnessing. Otherwise these events are lost in time, unrecorded. Is there a cold solace in bearing witness? Is that man’s ultimate purpose in this cold godless universe?

“Everybody don’t have to have a reason to be someplace.”(p328)
“But order is not set aside because of their indifference.”
There is an order to the universe. Fate. Destiny. The cogs of the universe turn on. With or without man. The Judge calls it all a ceremony, a dance, a ritual. And all true rituals need blood.

“War is god” Life and death, the wager itself.

M. John Harrison – Things That Never Happen

harrisonA stunning collection of short stories, gathered from 1975 – 1999. These are character driven stories, with elements of science fiction or fantasy positioned evocatively in the background. Harrison is a realist with elegant and precise prose. His main focus is on the minutiae of reality, the interplay of alienated characters, the ties that bind them, atmospheres, moods, the subtle play of light. His prose builds up an intimate portrait of reality, the physicality of the world.

There are a few tropes and themes that occur throughout these stories. The very sick woman is a character that reappears in story after story.  (The Fisher Queen as China Mielville calls her.) Dislocation in urban environments and a movement to healing in wilderness and isolated places, like moors and mountains. The idea of transformation. The desire to escape the quotidian. Reality’s strong gravitational pull on that desire. Fantasy as consolation. It is the pull and push of these forces that sets up the inner dynamics of many of these stories.

The stories appear chronologically and the earliest here, Settling The World, is from 1975 when Harrison was still editor of New Worlds magazine. It is the most distinctive fantastical science-fiction story here, and in this  way it is at odds with the rich realism apparent in the rest of this collection. It opens with a paragraph of light brevity which tells of the discovery of God, his return to earth and society’s transformation into a utopia as a result. The narrator falls in with Estrades, a rebel, an anarchist, who wants to destroy God. Although there is something of the Ballardian hero in Estrades, he is a typical Harrison protagonist; a character going against the grain, rebelling against the mundane, obsessed, looking for transformation, the ecstatic.

Running Down (1975)
Recounts the dysfunctional and destructive relationship between Egerton, the narrator, recovering from a mountaineering accident, and Lyall, an acquaintance from his Cambridge days. Lyall has a dark energy about him (“he carried his own entropy around with him,”) that seems to influence the disintegration of objects and relationships. This erosion is echoed in the background as the political system breaks down with the rise of the Patriotic Front, and Britain is engulfed in violence (“and by noon England, seventy or eighty years too late, was taking her first hesitant but heady steps into this century of violence.”) With the scenes set in the Central Fells, Lake District, there is a strong sense of place evoked, of wild nature, liminal spaces at the edges of civilisation, primal space.

The Incalling (1978)
Austin, the narrator is invited by Clerk to the Incalling, an occult ritual. Over the course of the next few weeks Austin observes the weird instigators of the ceremony, the peculiar Sprake family, and watches the dissolution of Clerk. The occult ritual is another of Harrison’s preoccupations, which will be seen again in The Great God Pan in this collection and in the novel The Course of the Heart. Harrison is generally not concerned with the purpose or aims of the ritual. Here, Austin is skeptical and questions its authenticity, seeing it as something of a sham, the Sprakes as charlatans. Harrison is interested in the ritual as an operation to incite profound change on his characters’ psyches. They desire change, transformation, escape or healing and the ritual mediates that desire.

The Ice Monkey (1980)
An achingly beautiful and enigmatic tale that could be a seminal text for Harrison, as it marks a shift into the mature style seen in the rest of the stories in this collection. It concentrates in a few brilliant pages Harrison’s concerns of desire, memory, obsession in the face of a bleak, run-down reality.

Jones, impractical to all else in the world except rock climbing in which he excels, has conceded all his connections to society. He asks Spider, the narrator, to help in practical concerns like liaising with his estranged wife over maintenance payments. Maureen lives in a dilapidated flat at the centre of an urban wasteland, “the ruins of East London, the rain”, from which she surveys the broken landscape, like an abandoned lady in a tower, “Maureen, in E3 where all horizons are remembered ones, dwelling on vanished freedoms.”

The writing is beautiful, Harrison captures the characters’ inner states of mind and subtle atmospheres of time and place in a single sentence: “Jones in a cafe, watching with his head tilted intelligently to one side as the sparse traffic groaned away south and a kind of mucoid grayness crept into the place through its steamed up windows.” The characters seem real, dialogue rings true, there is a strong sense of life as it is lived. There is an undercurrent of poignant despondency to the whole thing, of loss, death, defeat and forgetting.

The Ice Monkey title and three brief sentences concerning a necklace add a faint supernatural element that is at odds with the rest of the story. The fact that the story was written for Ramsey Campbell’s New Terrors horror anthology gives a context to this tale that invites a certain kind of reading to it, even though the text resists that reading. There is a kind of textual friction at play here, forcing a certain reading of the text and denying it at the same time. Which all adds to the enigmatic power and brilliance of this story.

Egnaro (1981)
Lucas, a second-hand fantasy book store owner, becomes obsessed with Egnaro, a fantastical land at the edges of the known world. The pragmatic narrator, his accountant, has no time for Lucas’ fantasies, viewing his fantasy books as feeding a longing for the past, the simplicity of childhood, when desires were more easily consummated. To him, fantasy is merely adolescent desire. Lucas’ obsession takes over and his livelihood and his health suffer.

The setting of Deansgate is vividly realised in its dishevelled state of urban neglect. A transient urban space where office workers and students pass through the rundown streets on their way to their destinations. The bitter winter winds blowing through the drab streets are contrasted with the warm sun-soaked landscapes of Egnaro. Deansgate is a society without a culture or a soul. Why wouldn’t you chose the fantasy when reality is this bleak? So fantasy is a consolation to the quotidian mundanity of life. But it is more than merely escapism. Egnaro is many things, a fantastic realm at the edges of reality, the conspiracy to keep its location hidden, a longing for childhood simplicity, a desire for what is lost. Desire itself. Also and maybe the most obvious, it is orange spelt backwards. Even in the title, Harrison undercuts the romantic longing with the banal.

The New Rays (1982)
The first appearance in this collection of  Harrison’s recurring character type – the very ill woman. (see also Ann The Great God Pan, Isobel Avens, Mona Science and the Arts. From his novels, Audsley King Viriconium, Pam Stuyvesant Course of the Heart, Anna Kearney Light.)

The Quarry (1983)
The narrator is recovering in Yorkshire moors from an emotional breakdown in the city. Convalescing in nature, he is pulled back to the quarry of the title. There he dreams of the Green Woman, a twist on the pagan green man of folk tales. He keeps running into a an odd couple, which he watches with fascination – a blind woman and a paraplegic man, they are co-dependent on one another, and seem to transform ino one beast. With the quarry and its environs, Harrison’s great nature writing evokes a strong sense of place.

Small Heirlooms (1987)
Kit, returns to her writer brother’s house to take charge of his literary estate after his death. She reads his diaries which recount his pre-war travels in Austria. Sex and tarot with a gypsy girl. She wonders what death befell the the girl after the rise of Nazi Germany? She wonders about their child. She dreams. She awakes to the smell of attar of roses perfume, haunted by her brother’s concerns, the ghosts of the past.

The Great God Pan (1988)
This story charts the last despondent meetings, the end of the relationship between the narrator, Lucas and Ann, who are bound together by the magical ritual they participated in as students at Cambridge twenty years before . The ritual itself, its purpose and what was involved, is never disclosed, indeed the narrator has lost all memory of it. But there are hints in the text that it enabled the participants to access the enigmatic Pleroma, of which nothing else is told. The participants now pay a high price for this access. They are all damaged in some mental or physical way, none more than Ann, who suffers from epilepsy, migraine headaches, is paranoid and anxious. Lucas suffers from hallucinations and illness. The cost of accessing the Pleroma has, as Lucas puts it, “ruined something in ourselves.”

The Gift (1988)
Nine alternating chapters depict Sophia and Peter Ebert’s separate lives in the same city. Both are solitary, lonely figures. Sophia lost in alcoholism and casual sex. Ebert’s life is suddenly given meaning when he receives a tattered book by a stranger on the underground, the book becomes his obsession. The narrative charts their journey to each other.

The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It and Be Changed by It Forever (1989)
Structured into ten chapters named after cards of the Tarot. Like a piece of performance art, a young man bestows meaning to objects and events from train journeys chosen using the Tarot deck. Meaning is seen to be ultimately mutable, randomly assigned.

“Two men were molding in brass something which looked at first sight like the stripped carcass of a turkey that exact, sharp-edged cage of bone which reveals itself so thoroughly through all the strips and flaps of flesh after Christmas dinner. It turned out, though, to be something less interesting, a classical figurine, a Poseidon or Prometheus which systematically lost its magic as the layers of casting material were knocked off carefully with the back of an axe. This was so essentially disappointing – a striptease by which, by removing veils of strangeness and alien signification, the sculptor revealed a value ordinarily and easily understood.”

There is something essential to Harrison’s writing in the opening paragraph quoted above and shows his attitude to writing within genre and writing in general. He is not interested in the ordinary and the easily understood, the comforting tropes and cliches of genre. His is the pursuit of the reality of things, the struggle with language to depict something not overused, hackneyed, but true, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that language itself may not be up to the task. The next paragraph, in which the narrator replaces the disappointment of the foundry he saw on TV with one of the imagination, offers a solution to the consequent question, then why write at all?

“Another foundry, somewhere in the night, somewhere in history, in which something like a horse’s skull (not a horse’s head: a skull, which looks nothing like a horse at all, but like an enormous curved shears, or a bone beak whose two halves meet only at the tip, a wicked, intelligent–looking purposeless thing which cannot speak) came out of the mold, and all the founders were immediately executed to keep the secret. They had known all along this would happen to them. These men wear the great craftsmen and engineers of their day. They could have looked for more from life. Yet they crammed down their fear and got on with the work, and afterwards made no attempt to escape.”

Gifco (1992)
Gifco is another high point in this anthology. The narrator and his wife are, in their own separate ways, dealing with the death of their daughter. Neither openly grieving, they seem to be repressing their grief, moving away from their old family house, starting life anew in Peckham. A derelict house across the street from their new home, with the word Gifco scrawled on a boarded up window, begins to play a dark role in their lives.

The internal space of the Gifco house seems to operate outside of reality. He can hear the lunch-time traffic outside, but inside this dark interior feels more like the narrator’s inner space, his psyche where dark happenings occur. The place where his mental disorder is made real. A space cut off from reality, a space out of time and place (almost Lovecraftian.)

The narrator is cold and unemotional and the reader is kept a distance from events by his impassive recital. He puts a strong emphasis on his dreams; within which meanings and language isn’t fixed. His dreams seem to reveal his repressed feelings. The reader can never be quite sure of what the narrator is disclosing is in fact reality as the narrative itself starts to take place within “that zone of slippage between waking and dreaming.” It’s as though his repressed grief has erupted into the narrative itself, disrupting the quotidian with the weird and the uncanny.

He has a terse relationship with his wife; there is no mutual consolation between them. The narrative is littered with her brusque, indifferent exchanges and we intuit her deep dissatisfaction. Her inscrutability is not diminished in the memories of his holiday in Tenerife, where he would meet his wife. Their first meetings show that there never was an emotional intimacy between them; and their physical intimacy was determined by her omnivorous, insatiate desire.

It is also in the Tenerife memories that the psychological source of the Gifco house is disclosed. The darkly enigmatic character of Allo Johnnie looms over these passages. The Gifco graffiti resounds with the narrator so much, it as though the narrator’s subconscious has made a strange kind of connection with the meeting of his wife and the death of the daughter, with the character of Allo Johnnie as some preternatural dark midwife to this association.

Despite the  unsympathetic characters, it is the emotional punch of this story that remains with the reader. There is a deep sense of loss here. Memory, identity and a sense of indeterminacy. Nothing is fixed. Everyone lost within their inner selves, slave to their own obsessions and false desires..

It is interesting to read M. John Harrison’s blog entry on Gifco as a postscript of sorts:

Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!

Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring (1994)

A seminal M. John Harrison short story in which all the author’s obsessions appear, notably the profound yearning for the impossible that leads into obsession and neurosis. The narrative, concerning the intense love affair between Isobel and Mick Rose, is a tangled chronology; scenes alternate between their relationship’s  lust-filled early days  to the twisted, detached end days.

Despite being in love, Isobel yearns for transformation, and beyond that, transfiguration. Love is not enough. David Alexander (in the patriarchal sciencist/doctor role seen in The New Rays), a mediator for the promises of total enablement late-capitalist society confers on the individual, facilitates Isobel’s transformation.

She returns home after her treatment as foretold by the poetically laconic title of the story, with its metaphors of re-birth. But Isobel has transformed into something eerie and unsettling, something post-human. There is spring-like new growth but nothing natural about her new state.

Empty (1995)
Set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, the ghosts of the dead, the moors murders, missing children haunt this story of ageing, death and of how the past indelibly marks itself on a landscape.

Seven Guesses of the Heart (1996)
Falkender, an old magician and his wife are grieving over the loss of their daughter through some magical mishap. Set in the land of Autotelia, the quiet realism of this story focuses on the characters, their grieving and their loss with subtle shifts of mood, atmosphere and feeling. Another sad and beautiful tale.

The East (1996)
The narrator befriends and later follows a strange old refugee as he visits sites around London. The old man says he comes from the land of Autotellia, (see Seven Guesses of the Heart). Harrison describes the outsider immigrant experience and milieu reminiscent of Iain Sinclair / Rachel Lichenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room.

Science & The Arts (1999)
The early days of relationship between writer and artist. Quantum mechanics and the body. The injured woman, healed. The wound becomes naturalised. The bleeding, part of life. This brief final story is a kind of summation, an insight into Harrison’s concerns and a fitting end to a brilliant collection.

Ezra Pound – Towards the Ideogramic Method

Imagism, Vorticism and Cathay

Ezra Pound Cathay coverEzra Pound’s Ideogramic Method, as formulated in Guide to Kulchur and in practice in The Cantos, arose out of a continuous evolution of the Luminous Detail principles he set down in 1911, in conjunction with the principles of Imagism and their expansion into Vorticism. It is the fusing and interplay of these elements in his poetry that became the system of thought through which the guiding principles of The Cantos were developed. The name itself and an acceleration in its formulation is instigated by Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Method for Poetry”, which Pound received in 1915, by which time all the separate elements of the Ideogramic Method were already present in his work.

Here I’ll attempt to chronicle Pound’s continual evolving theories of poetry during the years 1911 to 1915 and will support these theories by finding evidence of his ideas in action in his poetry of these years. Special attention will be given to Cathay, as it seems that Pound’s interest in China, its thought, history and language, as well as its poetry, becomes central to an understanding of the later poetry. I will begin with the presentation of a concrete and self-contained image:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

This is the final line of Pound’s 1913 poem ‘Liu Ch’e’ and in the poem it is separated from the preceding five-lined strophe to both emphasise its concluding nature and to imbue it with weight as a single enclosed image. The previous five lines economically present a deserted courtyard with the wind blowing leaves around it. The absences of sounds that a loved one had made, “The rustling of silk is discontinued…”, “There is no sound of foot-fall…”, are emphasised by the amount of space given to such effects to highlight her absence. This concise presentation of the situation concludes with a colon, then a space, then the new image disembodied from the poem; “A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.” However, it is not totally disembodied from the text. Grammatically, the conjunction ‘that’ links it to the poem as an object in search of a subject. The subject is noticeable by her absence. The word ‘leaf linguistically links to the “leaves/ Scurry into heaps…” of the centre of the poem. The colon acts more than the words ‘is like’. This image is more than a paired-down simile or a minimally presented metaphor. The colon is more akin to the mathematical `=’ in an algebra formula. A rough paraphrase of the poem would read: The absence of my lover = A wet leaf that clings…. The active verb ‘clings’ holds a key to an interpretation of this formula. In his reading of literary history, Pound had already noted the power and resonance of the ‘picturesque verb’. “… [T]he [poet] makes his picture, neither by simile nor by metaphor, but in the language beyond metaphor, by the use of the picturesque verb with an exact meaning.”¹ In ‘Liu Ch’e’ the use of the picturesque verb transforms the inactive leaf into an agent of some force. To return to my paraphrase of the poem, we can now add an additional layer to the formula: the memory of the absent loved one still clings to the speaker’s consciousness. This is implicit in the poem but the use of the image equivalence evokes an emotional response in the reader beyond the emotional resonance contained in the linguistic value of the words alone. It is as though Pound has discovered a direct route to subjective emotions through the deployment of an objective image equivalence.

`Liu Ch’e’ is both an example of an Imagist poem and an example of a Poundian translation, or to be more precise, the re-working of a pre-existent translation. That these separate notions are combined in the same poem is an example of Pound’s search to find poems that followed and illustrated the ‘Doctrine of the Image’ in other periods and other cultures. The poem also marks the first example of an overt Chinese influence in his work, as opposed to the influence of the Japanese haiku that is apparent in the contemporaneous sequence of short Imagist poems.² His introduction to Chinese poetry came via Herbert Allen Giles’ A History of Chinese Literature, which contained many models for the enriching of his Imagist theories, including the untitled poem by the sixth Han dynasty emperor, Liu Ch’e that Pound re-fashioned.

To follow the development of these theories is to follow a continually evolving series of statements. Even Pound admitted that his “thoughts about [Imagism] will not remain absolutely stationary.”³ The initial Imagist ‘manifesto’, printed in March 1913, is more of a practical guide than theoretical and gives three fundamental rules for the writing of Imagist verse:

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.[4]

All three directives are present in ‘Liu Ch’e’ and they are present in the original. Pound had called Liu Ch’e a “presenter of the Image”[5], redefining Imagism, not as some new and innovative movement, but as a method of poetic composition that had already been utilised by a great literary tradition.

Pound’s definition of the Image was “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”[6] It is the instantaneous transmission of this Image resonating against and incorporating the previous lines of the poem in the reader’s mind that creates the Imagist effect, or ‘complex’. The instantaneous transmission of this perception played a large part in Pound’s shift towards the development of Vorticist ideas, in which he attempts to displace the time-based act of reading onto the plane occupied by the un-time-bound plastic arts of sculpture and painting. In his Vorticist writings, Pound concentrates on this analogy between the plastic arts and poetry, describing his work as a “sort of poetry where painting or sculpture seems as if it were `just coming over into speech. ‘”[7] What appealed to him about Chinese poetry was a reflection of the principles he found in his own work; their strong, concrete images, their syntactical minimalism, a reduced grammar devoid of embroidered figuration, as if indeed they were “just coming over into speech”. In these writings the idea of the Image is developed away from its singular, static nature into “a vortex or cluster of fused ideas… endowed with energy.”[8] This theoretical work is always informed by his poetry. The genesis of a classic Imagist poem, ‘In A Station Of The Metro’, is used to demonstrate the Vorticist principles of reduction and intensification to at once contain and transmit the energy produced “when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”[9] His theoretical work from the Vorticist period is furnished with a diction borrowed from the discourse of physics; a diction of forces, energies, and dynamisms and patterned units. While basically rarefying his ideas of the Image, the Vorticist writings serve to highlight the increased complexity of the effect of a multitude of Images in relation to each other within a single poem. It is this belief in the complex fusing of Images, extending the short, concentrated units of his first sequence of Imagist poems, that is seen in practice in the longer poems of Cathay.

ernest-fenollosaSo it is seen that Pound was already deeply interested in Chinese poetry before Mary Fenollosa gave him her husband’s notebooks. It was probably because of this very interest allied with the fact that his own work had deep affinities to the spirit of Chinese poetry that she selected him to be the literary executor of her husband’s manuscripts. Previously, Pound had fashioned his Chinese poems from others translations; now he had access to the original Chinese ideograms, the Japanese professors’, Mori and Ariga, phonetic transcription, Professor Ernest Fenollosa’s translation of each ideogram into English, and also his prose translation of each line. This triple-layer process of translation, Chinese into Japanese into English, appealed to Pound’s method of creative translation and it is one he would use again after Cathay.[10]

The super-imposition of culminating images in a poem like ‘Taking Leave of A Friend’ generates dynamic inter-relationships of images that form a unified whole. It must be said that this culminating image effect is present in the originals, but that is precisely why Pound selected the eighteen poems in Cathay out of the one hundred and fifty in the Fenollosa notebooks.[11] Here is the more intricate advance on the single-image poem:

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other as we are departing.

The first quatrain shares similarities with ‘Liu Ch’e’ in that it presents the situation in four self-contained, one-line units. This one-line unit is the dominant mode of Cathay. The vivid scene-setting parallelism of the first couplet is echoed in the more subjective and emotional couplet of the second quatrain, binding both together. In the third line Pound uses the active verb ‘make’, as opposed to ‘separate’, generating an effect that both distances the language from a regular speech, highlighting its foreignness, and forces an emotional current into the friends’ compulsory leave-taking. A return to the external natural image of the sheer size and scope of the landscape the two protagonists are engulfed by in the fourth line directly contrasts to the delicate emotional note struck in the preceding line. This harsh contrast of the internal and the external is continued into the downbeat note of the line ending ‘dead grass’, which, in its negativity, reflects back on the previous line-ending ‘separation’.

In the second parallelism, unlike ‘Liu Ch’e’ and the earlier Imagist poems, Pound surprisingly adds the words ‘like a’ and ‘like the’, opting for a simile for the completion of the Imagist unit instead of the oft-used colon or semi-colon. Fenollosa’s word-for-ideogram translation reads more like an Imagist line “just coming over into speech”: “Floating cloud wanderer mind/ Falling (Setting) sun old acquaintance emotion”.[12] But ‘Taking Leave Of A Friend’ is not a one-image poem. It is as if Pound has decided that the use of the colon would be too harsh in this context, or at this stage of the poem. The amount of images in the poem seems to govern its internal workings, dictating how each one is to be presented in relation to the whole. The seventh line presents a still image of the heavy silence between the two friends, a silence that can only be acknowledged with their wordless gesture of farewell. This silence is broken in the next line by the pathetic fallacy of the horses’ neighing. It is in the concluding half-line that the effect Pound achieved in the one-image poems is now produced and intensified. He breaks the line unit to end on the words “as we are departing.” Broken of and isolated from the preceding lines, its effect is dynamic. The images in the poem vigorously flicker between the objective world of nature and the subjective world of the two friends’ mood. The broken last line fuses these objective and subjective worlds together; the horses embodying nature bound together with the subjective sorrow implicit in the words “as we are departing.” The dynamic forces of the poem lie in this flux “when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” It is a strange dichotomy that Pound’s Vorticist theories expressed in the diction of physics, with its “…clusters of fused ideas, endowed with energy… “,[13] when put into practice, as in this poem, produce something of a beautiful stillness, latent with an authentic, unforced and unsentimental, human emotion.

`Exile’s Letter’, the centre-piece of Cathay, and the poem in the collection that meant the most to Pound,[14] is in the familiar Poundian genre of extended monologue. The letter writer reflects on his life with an air of pathos and resignation. He conjures up episodes of his life in concentrated, but vivid form, revelling in this act of telling, keeping these memories alive. The memories of happier times, of true camaraderie with the recipient of the letter, of the travelling of vast distances, moments of ecstasy and wonder, moments of leave-taking and recollections of personal failure flood over him. One by one, he lets them go until the final lines present the portrait of this solitary aged man in his present life.

The poem economically displays many moods and timbres, reflecting them in modulations in tone of voice and rhythm. One such example is the conclusion of one set of ecstatic memories: “And my spirit so high it was all over the heavens…” This soaring elation is instantly followed by “And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars, or rain.” This sudden, enforced departure, told matter-of-factly, creates a deflating effect after the musical rhythms of the preceding lines. And yet these very different moods are bound together by the collocation of ‘heavens’ and ‘stars’ in the consecutive lines; bound together as a “radiant node or cluster.” Another sudden shift in tone is introduced with the short, understated line “And what a reception.” This introduces the poem’s climaxing section, which deals with the day of the two friends’ reunion. The letter-writer proceeds to list the exotic elements of this meeting, describing the scenes of euphoric merriment around them. This series of external images is the equivalence of their jubilant inner mood. The continual rush of opulent images of “…ripples like dragon scales, going grass green on the water…”, “…courtesans, going and coming…”, “…willow flakes falling like snow…”, “…vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset…”, “…the water, a hundred feet deep …”, builds a dense, accumulating pattern-effect of sumptuous one-line units. This effect intensifies with the focussing on the “…girls singing…”

Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song,
and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.

This intensification comes with the sheer sense of movement in these lines, heightening the excess of the scene to almost Bacchanalian proportions. The events are depicted like an intense ecstatic vision, with the constant repetitive “And” acting as a mantra and the verbs in the present continuous both helping to keep all elements instantaneous and in play at once. With no image superseding another, all are present at once in a dizzying swirl of motion. All are present until the sudden

And all this comes to an end.
And is not again to be met with.

and it is as if the carpet has been pulled from under our feet. The flurry of levitating, swirling images falls to the ground in a heap, and the poem shifts into the darker toned and reflective final lines of failure and parting. The dramatic contrast of the vision sequence to the quiet introspection of the closing lines holds up the two major modes of the poem in relief; nostalgia and lament. It is the play of these in relation, held in the reader’s mind simultaneously by Vorticist means, that is finally condensed and resonating within the final word of the poem. It is this that imbues the understated last line “And send it a thousand miles, thinking…” with a force that instantaneously communicates the letter writer’s sense of sorrow and grievance and that leaves the reader with a reverberating after-image of a sense of loss.

Alongside the one hundred and fifty Chinese poems in Fenollosa’s notebooks Pound discovered the essay ‘The Chinese Written Character as a Method for Poetry’, detailing an aesthetic theory of poetry that Pound was already practising. It is this essay that accelerates him towards the formulation of the Ideogramic Method. In the essay, Fenollosa advocated that the Chinese ideogram was closer to the processes of nature than an alphabetical language. He argues that an ideogram is “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”[15] In his detailing of the dynamic “operations of nature” Fenollosa almost sounds like a Vorticist; “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap shots…. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things…” Pound could not help but be attracted to a theory that states that ideograms evoke vivid and concrete “thought pictures” and that a series of them contain “the quality of a continuous moving picture.” It is from Fenollosa’s postulation that when two radical ideograms are compounded together they do not produce a third meaning, “but suggest some fundamental relation between them…” that advanced Pound’s 1911 notions of the Luminous Detail.[16]

As initially laid down, the Luminous Detail was a concentrated literary or historical extract of some particular significance that would be extracted from any source and presented without comment. These Details, although without their original context, would contain an inherent energy that enabled them to illuminate a literary work or a historical period. In this light, the poems of Cathay can be viewed as Luminous Details; transposed from their original context, original period and original culture and being relevant to the Western society of 1915 and today in both terms of content and form. Fenollosa’s essay encouraged Pound to compound these Details together, setting them in relation to each other, rather as he had done with the Image’s development into Vorticism.

The development of the Ideogramic Method in these years incorporates the initial spark of Imagism as it expanded from the static single image into Vorticism’s complexities of the superimposition of Images in motion. Beyond the years I have limited this essay to, Pound’s poetic method would develop into a system of thought that attempted to circumnavigate “the tyranny of medieval logic”,[17] juxtaposing themes and ideas, ideas in relation, which, according to Fenollosa, was “the ideal language of the world.”


Notes
Spirit of Romance,p.33.
2 These poems are ‘After Ch’u Yuan’, Tan-Piece, For Her Imperial Lord’, `Ts’ai Chi’h’, which appeared in the first Imagist anthology, Des Imagistes (Mar. 1914).
Selected Prose,p.344.
Literary Essays, p.3.
5 Sullivan,p.48.
6 Literary Essays,p.4.
7 Sullivan,p.47.
Selected Prose,p.345.
9 Sullivan,p.54.
10 ‘Canto I’ is from Divus’ Latin translation of Homer.
11 For a detailed analysis of what Pound contributes to the translations (which is not as much as may be supposed) see Yip and Qian.
12 Qian,p.170
13 Selected Prose,p.345. 14 In Umbra (1920) Pound cited this poem alongside `The Seafarer’ and ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ as one of his “major personae.”
15 Fenollosa, Instigations.p.362
16 Examples of Luminous Details from articles first published in The New Age magazine include translations of The Seafarer’, Guido Cavalacanti and Daniel Arnaut
17 Fenollosa, Instigations,p.380.


Bibliography
Alexander, Michael. The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.
Davie, Donald. Studies in Ezra Pound: Chronicles and Polemic. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991.
Hesse, Eva, ed. New Approaches to Ezra Pound: A Co-ordinated Investigation of Pound’s Poetry and Ideas. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
The Pound Era. (repr. from 1971 ed.) London: Pimlico, 1991.
Miner, Earl. “Pound, Haiku, and the Image,” Hudson Review, IX (Winter 1956-1957). Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays. Walter Sutton, ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963.
Pound, Ezra. Collected Shorter Poems. (repr. from Personae: Collected Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound. 1949 ed.) London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Guide to Kulchur. London: Peter Owen, 1952.
Instigations of Ezra Pound: Together with an Essay on the Chinese Written Character by Fenollosa. (Essay Index Reprint Series) (repr. from 1920 ed.) New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1969.
Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. T.S. Eliot, ed. (repr. from 1954 ed.) London: Faber and Faber, 1960.
Selected Prose: 1909 —1965. Cookson, William, ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.
Spirit of Romance. London: Faber and Faber, 1910.
Qian, Zhaoming. Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.
Sullivan, J.P., ed. Ezra Pound: A Critical Anthology. (Penguin Critical Anthologies) Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970.

Alan Moore, M. John Harrison & Me

The night I read M. John Harrison’s The Great God Pan, I dreamt I went to the Magus of Northampton, Alan Moore’s house for elucidation. His house was a Dionysian temple as re-imagined by Capability Brown, more an Eighteenth Century version of a Greek temple built on a snug scale for two or three occupants. From the outside it looked as though an immense solid stone block had been dropped from a great height and embedded itself into the city street. Inside, there were three levels to it. The entrance off the street led into a snug living space, the width and length of the whole building. The thick stone walls muffled all sound, as though we were in a subterranean cave. Six stone columns rose through the room and I sensed that they spanned all three floors of the building, connecting basement to roof.

To one side of the room were two wide stone stepped staircases, one leading down to the basement and one leading up to the mezzanine and living quarters. Above us, the main light source, a the large glass dome extending the entire length of the ceiling, the only light source in the entire house. I could see that the glass surface was old and weather-beaten, encrusted with thick moss, which gave the light inside a thick green cast. I looked up the staircase that lead up to the top floor, but felt somehow that it was off-limits. An irrational compulsion not to even let my mind imagine what was up there. As though I were neither worthy nor trusted to take those steps upwards.

So Alan took me down the stone staircase to the basement. It was dark and musty, the light from the large ceiling glass didn’t percolate down to this level. Full bookshelves bordered every wall. Ancient books, large hard-backed grimoires filled the shelves. Most of the dream was spent down here, in the silent dark, as Alan Moore, in grave hushed tones, gave me pointers on how to read The Great God Pan.

Afterwards, upstairs in the light, I was enthusiastic as Alan Moore showed me around his house. I could suddenly sense a change in my host’s mood, as he began to tire of my wildly enthusiastic responses to the smallest of mundane details. Not wishing to impinge on my host’s hospitality any further, I said my goodbyes and opened the large wooden front door, and made my way out onto the street. I looked back at the house one last time and saw that it was indeed a small Dionysian temple, with the most intellectually appealing dimensions. Something of the Golden Section in its proportions, conjoined with the perfect aspects of scale in relation to me. I awoke from the dream to those pleasurable feelings of inherent rightness.

What Alan Moore said in the basement – How to read The Great God Pan

melispsalter-munch

Alan Moore began by looking for clues to the mysterious magical working that binds the four protagonists. The ritual to access the Pleroma. The ritual occurs years before the story begins, and is only alluded to, never in detail. Even the narrator has forgotten what happened. But that slippage of memory can be seen as part of the working, as all participants in the magical ceremony  lose something essential to their inner selves. None more so than Ann, who struggles with epilepsy.

How is the Pleroma accessed? What working would grant access to it? Alan Moore begins to search his shelves, rifling through great tomes, seeking clues in the paintings and illustrations that are mentioned in the text. We study the strange spermatoza shapes in the Melisendre Psalter, echoed in the borders of Edvard Munch’s Paris paintings. We make imaginative leaps from spermatoza to conception to birth to the cocooned twins of the story. Alan Moore puts forward the theory that accessing the Pleroma would involve some kind of sex magic. This could explain why Lucas and Ann get married later, when the working has failed, and they have to face mundane reality, to validate the forced intimacy of the ritual? To comfort each other, a consolation after the glimpsed joys of the Pleroma?

But what is the price for accessing the Pleroma? Why are all the participants in the ritual damaged in some mental or physical way? Alan Moore reaches to a shelf and pulls down Carl Jung’s Red Book. Consulting it he tells me that the dreadful cost of accessing the Pleroma is related to the soul. The clue is again in the spermatoza-like shapes in the Melisendre Psalter, which on closer inspection are revealed to be stylised alchemical symbols, shorthand for alchemical operations. The ritual separates the anima from the psyche and it is externalised, made corporeal, damaging the interiority of the participant. This psychic damage is what Ann is suffering from, and her and Lucas’ externalised anima/animus is seen in the story as the ghostly floating couple, dismissed by the narrator as a shared hallucination.  This couple, briefly glimpsed in the narrative, both “writhing and embracing” are an alchemical symbiosis, the externalised anima and animus, conjoined, hanging in the air “like a chrysalis in a privet hedge”.

Reading from the Jung book, Alan Moore intones; “Should any tensions arise between the conscious and the unconscious, the figures of the anima and animus, harmless until then, control the conscious mind in personified form and behave like systems split off from the personality, or like part souls.” He declares the conjoined floating twins to be Ann and Lucas’ part souls, separated from their respective psyches, by the workings of the ritual – the high cost of accessing the Pleroma.