Sunday, 22 November 2009


‘I’m 42 now and when I was a boy and a young man I was employed in The Times machine office, but I got into a bit of a row, a bit of a street quarrel and frolic, and was called on to pay £3, something about a street lamp; that was out of the question; and as I was taking a walk in the park, not just knowing what I’d best do, I met a recruiting sergeant and enlisted on a sudden . . .’ Thus the street-orderly, interviewed by Mayhew for his ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ published in 1851. This interview is not one of these used by poet John Seed in his ‘Pictures from Mayhew’ and ‘That Barrikins’, published by Shearsman - but it does have a certain contemporary relevance.

‘I served under General Nott all through the Afghan war’ the man tells him. ‘Why yes sir, I saw a little of what you may call ‘service’ . . . I was at the fighting at Kandahar, Bowlingglen, Bowling Pass, Clatigillsy, Ghazni and Kabul. The first real warm work I was in was at Kandahar. I’ve heard young soldiers say that they’ve gone into action the first time as merry as they would go to a play. Don’t believe them sir . . . You must feel queer and serious the first time you’re in action: it’s not fear, its nervousness. The crack of the muskets at the first fire you hear in real hard earnest is uncommon startling . . . And then you get excited, just as if you were at a hunt, but after a little service – I can speak for myself at any rate – you go into action as you go to your dinner.

I served thirteen years and four months and was then discharged on account of ill health. If I’d served eight months longer . . . I’d have been entitled to a pension. I believe my illness was caused by the hardships I went through in the campaigns, fighting and killing men that I never saw before, and until I was in India had never heard of, and that I had no ill-will to; certainly not, why should I? They never did me any wrong. But when it comes to war, if you can’t kill them they’ll kill you.’

When he came back, he tells Mayhew, he got a job at The Times again ‘but ‘I wasn’t master of the work, for there was new machinery, wonderful machinery . . . So I couldn’t be kept on.’

So now he’s in London sweeping the streets and, like sleep-walkers caught up in some dreadful cycle, a century and a half later we’re back there once again.


‘Visiting Exile’, my new Shearsman collection, is now out. On 6th November I read from the book at Souheil Sleiman’s studio here in Hackney. I’ve already described (see five or so posts back) Souheil’s sculpture ‘All Dressed Up And Nowhere To Go’ and its role as a powerful presence in the book. Also on the programme were two short films. Ruth Dupre showed her film ‘Les’, a portrait of a committed smoker. She is an artist specialising in glass who has recently been making films and this is one of a number of film portraits she has done which manage to be very intimate, but non-intrusive. Her ‘Childsong’, a poignant account of an early 19th century educational experiment where a group of children were brought from Sierra Leone to Dulwich where a school was established for them can be seen on the net. Her website is Secondly there was ‘Exit’ by Palestinian film-maker Mohanad Yaqubi, a film reminiscent of a performance art piece, set in a totally deserted London Underground, where a dancer enacts a sense of entrapment. And then to finish music from Hyberbolic, a group one of whose members is Souheil’s son.

Then on 15th November Tom Lowenstein and I joined forces to launch our respective collections at Tom’s house in Stoke Newington. Tom’s new book is ‘Conversations with Murasaki', also available from Shearsman.


The Bow-Wow Shop, edited by Michael Glover, must be the only web magazine to manifest itself in flesh and blood form with a launch. Issue 3 was launched with readings a few days ago at the Arts Club. A short Ashbery poem read simultaneously in Polish and Russian translation created a pleasing and oddly soothing effect. Among the other readers was Japan-based Paul Rossiter who read an electrifying poem. ‘Komachi’, from the current issue. As well as a group of his poems there’s a substantial afterword by him, ‘Thatched Huts and Instant Noodles’, where he describes in some detail the history of his encounters with Japanese poetry, starting, long before he had visited the country, with his reading of Bunting’s ‘Chomei at Toyama’ . ‘Komachi’ takes off from a contemporary No play he happened on two weeks after arriving in Tokyo in 1981. ‘Traditional No’, he writes, is performed extremely slowly, but that is as nothing compared to the pace at which this Komachi moved. In the second line of the poem I talk about her moving 'centimetre by centimetre' across the bridge, and this is perhaps an understatement; her pace was almost impossibly slow, and it took her nearly ten minutes to cover the few metres to the centre of the stage. Moreover, the production was also almost completely silent; although there was occasionally some music (Vivaldi, 'La Vie en Rose'), and the figures in the sub-plot (squabbling 1980s' neighbours who live in the apartment next door to Komachi's ancientness) had lines to speak, Komachi herself stayed silent throughout the performance. The speechlessness, the extreme slowness of the movement, and the use of No performance practices, together created an extraordinary intensity. The performance was both phantasmagoric and perfectly controlled, and it made even someone like Peter Brook look a bit sloppy. I'd never seen anything like it.’ It sounds like a piece of performance art, and suggests a resemblance that seems to exist between such traditional forms, and Zen, with western modernism. Rossiter’s piece concludes with a hilarious account of cross-cultural endeavour and confusion, again in Tokyo, involving Kenneth Koch and the shade of Amy Lowell.

Friday, 20 November 2009


Lunch yesterday at Iraqi poet Abdulkarim Kasid’s flat near Chancery Lane, to continue working on the English versions of his poems, versions he first made himself working with his daughter Sara. This method of translation has become increasingly common of course, and I’ve previously worked on the British-based Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan’s poems in a similar way. Some of those versions are among those included in a collection of his poems, ‘Sonata For Four Hands’, due out very soon from Arc Press. It’s a way of working of course that shows up a fundamental asymmetry – they know English, we don’t know Arabic, Punjabi . . .

Kasid’s first home after he got out of Iraq nearly thirty years ago was in Aden. He lived near to what was Rimbaud’s house, and one of the poems we’re working on, ‘A Volcano’, is dedicated to the poet’s memory. He has translated Rimbaud from French into Arabic and yesterday he told me he identifies with Rimbaud’s wandering lifestyle, having himself like so many others been constantly on the move through force of circumstance, something alluded to in this poem (which was in Shadowtrain a while back):

How could I know
My outbound journey
Could be the way back,
That my dreams were behind me
And I wasn’t only the walking shadow
Of a standing-still man?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Sir Alfred Lyall was nothing if not an imperialist, with long service in the most senior ranks of the Indian Civil Service. The sack of Delhi in the aftermath of the ‘Mutiny’or ‘Great Revolt’, depending on your point of view, when Delhi was retaken, sacked and many of its inhabitants killed, was a particularly dreadful episode. Writing some twenty years later Lyall, in his ‘Studies at Delhi 1876’, evokes a game of badminton being played on the spot where the battle to retake the city had been fought:

Hardly a shot from the gate we stormed,
Under the Moree battlement’s shade;
Close to the glacis our game was formed,
There had the fight been, and there we played.

Lightly the demoiselles tittered and leapt,
Merrily capered the players all;
North, was the garden where Nicolson slept,
South was the sweep of a battered wall.

Near me a Musalman, civil and mild,
Watched as the shuttlecocks rose and fell;
And he said, as he counted his beads and smiled,
‘God smite their souls to the depths of hell.’

Well at least Lyall could see it . . .