Michel de Montaigne – selfies be damned!

michel-de-montaigne
Michel de Montaigne

In a world almost deafened by the constant noise of social media, a world in which self-promotion seems to be the order of the day, it is worth taking time out to rediscover the pleasure of reading an author who sought to understand the nature of the world and his own humanity through self-examination.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. His work is noted for its merging of casual anecdotes and autobiography with serious intellectual insight; his volume of Essays [Essais] contains some of the most influential essays ever written. Montaigne influenced writers all over the world, including most notably, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose own volume of Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed was published in 1597.

Despite all the entrancing novelties that the Internet brings us, despite all the dazzling apps and games and alternative means of relating to one another that modern technology delivers, essentially, there is still nothing new under the sun. Undoubtedly, the wealth of knowledge available in this digital age has grown astronomically, but personal wisdom, which derives not from facts but from experience and good judgment, is as great a challenge as ever. In the words of Montaigne: “There’s no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally.”

Montaigne believed that in order to understand others and to understand the purpose of life, it was vital to know oneself first: his famous declaration, ‘I am myself the matter of my book’, was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. But Montaigne was unrepentant and spent a lifetime examining the world and human relations through the lens of the only thing he could depend on implicitly—his own judgment—and this makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance.


Below is an extract from Book 2, Chapter six of the Essays entitled “On Experience”, in which Montaigne justifies his approach:

There is no description so difficult, nor doubtless of such great use, as that of a man’s self: and withal, a man must curl his hair and set out and adjust himself, to appear in public: now I am perpetually tricking myself out, for I am eternally upon my own description. Custom has made all speaking of a man’s self vicious, and positively forbids it, in hatred to the boasting that seems inseparable from the testimony men give of themselves [. . .]

My trade and art is to live; he that forbids me to speak according to my own sense, experience, and practice, may as well enjoin an architect not to speak of building according to his own knowledge, but according to that of his neighbour; according to the knowledge of another, and not according to his own. If it be vanity for a man to publish his own virtues, why does Cicero not prefer the eloquence of Hortensius, and Hortensius that of Cicero? Perhaps they mean that I should give testimony of myself by actions and results works, not merely by words. I chiefly paint my thoughts, a subject void of form and incapable of operative production; it is all that I can do to couch it in this airy body of the voice; the wisest and most devout men have lived in the greatest care to avoid all apparent effects. Effects would more speak of fortune than of me; they manifest their own office and not mine, but uncertainly and by conjecture; patterns of some one particular virtue. I expose myself entire; it is a body where, at one view, the veins, muscles, and tendons are apparent, every of them in its proper place; here the effects of a cold; there of the heart beating, very dubiously. I do not write my own acts, but myself and my essence.

I am of the opinion that a man must be very cautious how he values himself, and equally conscientious to give a true account, be it better or worse, impartially. If I thought myself perfectly good and wise, I would rattle it out to some purpose. To speak less of one’s self than what one really is is folly, not modesty; and to take that for current pay which is under a man’s value is weakmindedness and cowardice, according to Aristotle. No virtue assists itself with falsehood; truth is never a matter of error. To speak more of one’s self than is really true is not always mere presumption; it is, moreover, very often folly; to, be immeasurably pleased with what one is, and to fall into an indiscreet self-love, is in my opinion the substance of this vice. The very best remedy to cure it, is to do quite the opposite to what these people direct who, in forbidding men to speak of themselves, consequently, at the same time, prohibit thinking of themselves too. Pride dwells in the thought; the tongue can have but a very little share in it.

They imagine that to think of one’s self is to be delighted with one’s self; to frequent and converse with one’s self, to be overindulgent; but this excess springs only in those who take a rather superficial view of themselves, and dedicate their main inspection to their affairs; who call it mere reverie and idleness to occupy one’s self with one’s self, and the building one’s self up a mere building of castles in the air; who look upon themselves as a third person only, a stranger. If any one is enraptured by his own knowledge, looking only on those below him, let him merely turn his eye upward towards past ages, and his pride will be abated, when he shall there find so many thousand wits that trample him under foot. If he enters into a flattering presumption of his personal worth, let him merely recollect the lives of Scipio, Epaminondas; so many armies, so many nations, that leave him so far behind them. No particular quality can make any man proud, that will at the same time put the many other weak and imperfect ones he has in the other scale, and the nothingness of the human condition to make up the weight. Because Socrates had alone digested to purpose the precept of his god, “to know oneself,” and by that study arrived at the perfection of setting himself at nought, he only was reputed worthy of the title of sage. Whoever shall so know himself, let him boldly speak it out.


Other aphorisms taken from Montaigne

♦ Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.

♦ The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.

♦ Let’s give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do.

♦ He who establishes his argument by noise and command, shows that his reason is weak.

♦ There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.

♦ Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out.


Utopia – Thomas More

Thomas More

In these austere times, when one of the world’s richest countries calls upon some of its poorest citizens to bear the brunt of national debt repayment, it is salutary to re-read Thomas More’s Utopia. The word ‘utopian’ has long passed into the language, but these days relatively few people take the trouble to read More’s text which was originally published in Latin by his friend Erasmus in 1516 – note the 500th anniversary comes up next year. The text of Utopia first appeared in English translation in 1551 after More had been royally executed by Henry VIII.

Utopia takes the form of a discussion between More himself and his learned friend, the narrator/traveller, Raphael Hythlodaeus, based on the character of Erasmus. They discuss the ills of contemporary Antwerp, and describe the social and political structures prevailing in the imaginary island country of Utopia. The name Utopia is normally understood to mean “no place”, somewhere which does not exist; but the term is in fact a Greek pun signifying simultaneously ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. Utopia compares the contentious social life of European states with the perfectly orderly, reasonable social arrangements of Utopia and its environs.

In Utopia, there are no lawyers because of the simplicity of its laws and because social gatherings are in public view, thus encouraging participants to behave well; communal ownership replaces private property; men and women are educated alike; and there is almost complete religious tolerance. Readers of More’s humanist work will also notice in the enlightened communities he describes, the complete absence of zero hours contracts, food banks and poverty and social injustice. Salutary reading for our times, methinks!


Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was a lawyer and a councillor to Henry VIII in addition to being a noted Renaissance scholar. Disagreement with the king on a point of Canon law led to him being tried and executed for treason. Below is an extract from More’s masterpiece, but readers can access the full text at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2130/pg2130.txt.


UTOPIA, by Sir Thomas More (extract)

“Is not that government both unjust and ungrateful, that is so prodigal of its favours to those that are called gentlemen, or goldsmiths, or such others who are idle, or live either by flattery or by contriving the arts of vain pleasure, and, on the other hand, takes no care of those of a meaner sort, such as ploughmen, colliers, and smiths, without whom it could not subsist? But after the public has reaped all the advantage of their service, and they come to be oppressed with age, sickness, and want, all their labours and the good they have done is forgotten, and all the recompense given them is that they are left to die in great misery. The richer sort are often endeavouring to bring the hire of labourers lower, not only by their fraudulent practices, but by the laws which they procure to be made to that effect, so that though it is a thing most unjust in itself to give such small rewards to those who deserve so well of the public, yet they have given those hardships the name and colour of justice, by procuring laws to be made for regulating them.”

“Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws; yet these wicked men, after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from that happiness that is enjoyed among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world? Men’s fears, solicitudes, cares, labours, and watching’s would all perish in the same moment with the value of money; even poverty itself, for the relief of which money seems most necessary, would fall. But, in order to grasp this correctly, take one instance:

“Consider any year, that has been so unfruitful that many thousands have died of hunger; and yet if, at the end of that year, a survey was made of the granaries of all the rich men that have hoarded up the corn, it would-be found that there was enough among them to have prevented all that consumption of men that perished in misery; and that, if it had been distributed among them, none would have felt the terrible effects of that scarcity: so easy a thing would it be to supply all the necessities of life, if that blessed thing called money, which is pretended to be invented for procuring them was not really the only thing that obstructed their being procured!

I only want to be with you – Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield

Dusty 

Suddenly the mild weather returns
          bringing with it grey skies
and a rising wind
          that rattles the eaves
Lethargy abounds on this annual day

          but I sit at my desk
I read      I write      I think
          or at least attempt
to gather my thoughts

          feeling my way
through the day

          For so much of my life
I have been a dissident

          a rebel
held strong opinions

          refused to swim
with the tide
         Persist in the face
I tell myself

In every space
          a hint of more

though more is often less
          a bouquet of roses
for example :
          too many
is to miss the point

My life has not been a single line
          but many strands
woven into many lives
          some but not all
at odds

In the dark night
          I am consumed
by memories of the many lips
          to which I paid service
perhaps pointlessly
          but always lovingly
and eager always for redemption
          Henceforth I shall act
so that there is no centre
          no borders or edges to my life
become an agglomerated existence
          a condensation of selves
with no hierarchy
          of moments or archeologies
all change
          all transformations
contained within
          a single singularity

Time is change of colour
          difference refracted
in the quality
          in the aspect of light
Time is temperature
          oysters consumed
at Whitstable
          or in Trancoso
Time is shadow
          that brings relief
Time is syllable
          formed in the throat
shaped between tooth and tongue
          Time is here and now
a weight that slips
          from my shoulders
Time is many particles

          of self
of selves
          held in suspension

Time is the river at Henley
          the trees shutting down 
shedding leaves
          to weather the winter :
the purity of the white swans
          on the water

herons perched on wooden beams
         the cackle of geese
dogs racing along the towpath
          all in a world of their own
worlds within worlds

          within worlds
The slow float of the evening light
          descends to the sound
of birdsong : nature in all its innocence
          disdains the mockery
of human ambition even as moths
          feed on our fabric
How will this beauty be preserved
          : by what breath
between the high cloud
          and the hill ?
So to the frail dust of success

          life’s bitter-sweetness
the tenderness of love

         the despair of failure
and inevitable loss

          Dusty Springfield
lies solo in the graveyard
          of St Mary’s Church

I only want to be
          You don’t have to say
To be with you. . .
          Just be close at hand


Portrait of A S Byatt by Patrick Heron

A.S. Byatt (Portrait of A S Byatt : Red, Yellow, Green and Blue : 24 September 1997)

by Patrick Heron, oil on canvas, 1997


The 1997 portrait of A S Byatt, by Patrick Heron, in oils on canvas, captures all the exuberance of the novelist in primary colours. It is a triumph of art over photography, in the sense that the sketching of the writer’s figure tells us more about her than any photograph could ever hope to do. Her vibrant personality, her larger than life appearance, her vivaciousness are all there, beautifully expressed. Picture her there in a room, in person: one could not fail to notice her dominating presence. But it is a domination without threat, the domination of an enthusiast for her profession, for her own art. Portraits in the Victorian mould can so often be almost photographic, the painter striving for perfection, every hair in place, every tiny detail forensically included. Imagine the consternation of these artists were they to see Patrick Heron’s rendering of A S Byatt. How can so much be achieved by apparently so little? How can such bold strokes and seemingly haphazard splashes of paint create such a profound. living, breathing representation of the sitter’s persona? 

Portraits may be simple representations – or on occasions, deliberate misrepresentations: they can be masks or disguises or false projections, telling us nothing of the real person. Like the portrait of Dorian Grey, they may cover a multitude of sins. That is not the case with Patrick Heron’s masterpiece. It is full of narrative detail, in the dress, in the tilt of the head, in the loudness of the primary colours, a veritable short story in itself. And one would never tire of this painting as one might of a photograph of the novelist. Hung upon any wall, this rendition would dominate the room, just as the author does wherever she  goes.

Let us suppose for a moment that the gallery curator decided to hang this work in a completely different room, for example, among the somewhat stuffy (in comparison, and no offence) 19th century portraits: what an effect that would have as you walked in and were greeted by Patrick Heron’s astonishing burst of colour! Time to rock the conventions and shuffle things around? The day may come!

If you haven’t seen this painting for yourself, I would strongly recommend a quick visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Charing Cross Road to judge for yourself. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!

Pearl – a short story

honeysucklePEARL

When I say I loved Betty Foster, I mean I loved her, no two ways. She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and when she left it nearly broke my heart. It all fell apart last summer, round about this time. Now I’m sitting out on my porch drinking Budweisers and staring across at her empty home and in that empty home I see nothing but my empty heart and Betty Foster gone away. Over ten months that house has been on the market and far as I can tell not a single potential purchaser has come forward. In this part of Montana real estate just isn’t shifting like it used to. These are hard times. For everyone. I run a small travel firm and believe me, bookings are down by almost a half. So don’t talk to me about economic miracles. These are hard times and we are all depressed. Betty Foster moved—up to Portland, Oregon, I hear—and in her valise she took my heart. Yes sir.

She never loved her husband, Vern. She told me that often enough. Never loved him from day one of their marriage. So why stay with him, I kept asking and she would look at me and say: Because I was brought up to believe that marriage was for keeps and that’s the way I am and I just can’t change. But you don’t love him, I’d say . That’s true, she’d answer me. That’s very true, but I won’t leave him either. It just doesn’t make any sense, I’d say back to her, frustrated and a little petulant and she’d say: So what? Who says life ever has to make sense? And to that I had no answer! Tell you the truth, although I loved her, Betty remained right to the very end a real mystery to me. All I knew was that I loved her and she loved me. And she was the best thing in my life, the very best ever. We were made for each other: how often did we tell each other that? Vern travelled the length and breadth of the country hawking the expert systems he worked on; and while he was away —often for days at a stretch— Betty and I would get together. Occasionally in my house, but mostly in hers. She forced me to take risks when it would have been so easy for her to come across to me! You know sometimes I honestly believed she wanted him to catch us, just to see his reaction, just to see what would happen. But I don’t think Vern ever knew what was going on, and even if he had found out, I’m not so sure he’d have bothered to do anything about it. Vern was a high-flyer and he lived for his work. Incidentally, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that he had a string of women tucked away in every major city who kept him company while he was on his sales trips, glamorous women. Betty was beautiful but not in a glamorous way. I always had a hunch Vern —the tall, slim, silent type— was a ladies’ man. With Betty, however, he was cool. Sometimes the two of them would invite me over for drinks at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I never got the impression he really loved his wife. Betty was a fine woman, but to Vern, it appeared, she was just someone who could guarantee him a change of clothes between trips. When we were alone once I asked Betty: Does he insult you or hit you, does he treat you bad? She laughed. Honestly she laughed outright in my face. Vern hit me? You have to be joking. He’s never laid a finger…he hasn’t the slightest interest in me. Then leave him for Christ’s sake, I’d say. Come live with me. But no, she wouldn’t hear of it. And then when Vern died in a freak accident, sure I was upset for her and naturally I never would have wished anything like that on him, but I thought, this is it, she’ll soon be mine, once she gets over the shock. Instead, she crept away in the dead of night. Portland, Oregon, they say.

There’s a smell of honeysuckle in the air and I can hear the crickets in the long grass. I open another Budweiser and gaze across at Betty’s empty house. Jesus, I can’t take my mind off that house. I still go over sometimes to cut Betty’s grass and weed the front lawn. It’s a way of keeping in touch, at least I feel it is, though something tells me too that Betty’s never coming back. Not an easy feeling to bear, honestly. I can remember saying to her, real exasperated: You don’t mind cheating on your husband that you don’t love anyway but you won’t leave him. You’re going to have to explain that one to me Betty, because the way I see things, we’re playing with different sets of marbles. We have one life only, for God’s sake. Let’s make the most of it. Come on Betty, let’s.

Appears Vern was out driving late one night when a sudden storm blew up. A real hell of a wind. One of those huge billboards—advertising I don’t know what—came crashing down through the windshield. Must have killed Vern outright, the poor bastard. His face. Should have seen what it did to his face, Betty said to me afterwards. You should have seen. It was ghastly. And then a few days later she said: My God, I feel so guilty. It should never have happened. Vern didn’t deserve to die like that. I feel so guilty. And she did, though I tried to reason with her. Nobody should die like that, I agree, I said. But it wasn’t you and it wasn’t us that brought that billboard down, so don’t go blaming yourself. She turned on me, and there was a cool, hard look in her eyes. You think not, she said indignantly. You think we had nothing to do with it? Nothing at all, I said. But I knew I’d lost her. There and then I just knew it. Could see it in those beautiful sad grey eyes of hers. That was the last time we ever slept together. Ten days later the house was closed up, the furniture was put in storage and she was away to Portland, Oregon. And we were truly made for each other.

I know every room in that house, as though it were my own home. And every window. The huge bay window on the ground floor where she would stand and wave across at me. The bedroom window with the curtains still drawn, the rose-coloured chintz behind which we made so much love. Loved her so much. To the point of distraction, and jealousy. Once, I remember, one of those rare weekends Vern was home, I sat up through an entire night —it was a Sunday. I sat here on the porch drinking whisky sours and staring up at that bedroom window while by my side a cassette player softly played over and over the Patsy Cline tapes that Betty and I loved so much. Sat and waited till around midnight their bedroom light was switched on. And then I waited some more and drank some more whisky and felt worse and more heartsick, waiting for the light to go off, which didn’t happen till way after one, me just sitting there, sipping at my whisky, gazing up at that light wondering which part of her he was touching now, and now, and now and how she was responding. And it was as though, I truly felt as though she was being unfaithful to me, that I almost had a right to run out back and fetch my shotgun and then rush across there, burst into that room and put a stop to it once and for all. Following morning, around seven, I heard their front door. Saw her standing there in her night-dress, and a moment later Vern by her side in his business suit, attaché case in hand. I saw her kiss him good-bye, saw him wave as he backed out of the drive, saw her wave back to him as he began to pull away, and when he was gone, saw her look across the road, and seeing me, saw her wave, a gentle wave, and saw her wait for me to wave back, but by then I hadn’t the heart and I saw her eyes fall as she turned back into her house and closed the door. And then I saw too that I understood nothing about Betty Foster except that I loved her and would never understand her.

How come you never married, she asked one afternoon, lying there in that bed, the pink satin sheet pulled up over her breasts, her long brown hair spilling over the pillow. Nobody gets to your age without some sort of damage. What happened to you? I’d just turned fifty-four and Betty and I’d been seeing each other for a couple of years by then. O, I said to her, turning in the bed so that I could stroke her breasts: O I guess I was saving myself, all my life I’ve been saving myself for someone like you. She just burst out laughing. Be serious, she said, can’t you just for once give me a straight answer. But it was a straight answer. I never loved anyone like I loved Betty Foster. I guess she never could quite believe that. Yes, there were others, and sometimes I did draw close and hope and get a sense of magic. But no never, never anyone like Betty.

I’m thinking about her long, smooth legs and the tiny black hairs around her nipples that I used to chew on and of what the two of us used to do in her kitchen, or in the living room in front of the open fire winter times, or the times we took steaming hot baths together, she soaping my back as I soaped her feet and kissed her toes one by one, the things we did. I’m sitting there, thinking these things when I hear a car approaching and I look up and see Bill Douglas’s blue Plymouth hatchback swing around the corner. Bill and I go way back. We were in elementary school together and I love that man as I might have loved a brother had I ever had a brother. He turns in and parks under my car port and jumps out, still in his fishing clothes. In his hand he’s carrying a string of yellow perch. These are for supper, he says, handing me the fish. Four good specimens. Sit yourself down, Bill, I say. Take a beer. I’ll just run these out to the fridge. When I get back, Bill is staring across at Betty Foster’s empty house and sipping at his beer. To Bill, just like to me, that empty house has come to be a kind of heartbreak hotel: just looking at it brings you down. Still no takers, he asks. I shake my head. Bill knows about Betty. You can’t hide a thing like that from your best friend. So how’s tricks, he says. Fine, fine, I say, snapping open another Budweiser. And you? A great day’s fishing, you see the results for yourself. It’s an honest enough answer but an evasive one also. Like me, Bill’s been through the mill recently. His wife Marjorie died just over three months ago: of a brain tumour. I’ve been nursing him ever since. Sometimes it seems like the whole of Montana is in mourning for someone or other. Like nothing lives forever, nothing lasts. Jesus, nothing at all. And he loved her. Every bit as much as I loved Betty. Bill deals in foodstuffs. And sure he’s had his ups and downs like the rest of us. But just about the time he feels he’s getting out of the woods, Marjorie goes and dies on him. Right when they were making plans for the great European tour. And it’s aged him. He’s lost hair and what’s left is greyer and his face has gone slack and pale and I know he’s struggling, dear God I know that feeling. Whenever his beer is out of his hand I catch him stroking his wedding ring. Little things like that. And I know that for some pain there simply is no cure. Betty Foster.

Smell that honeysuckle, Bill says taking in a deep breath, just smell that smell. And I know that when he says that he’s smelling something else because I’m smelling it too. His eyes are on Betty’s house, but his heart is elsewhere. Beautiful smell, I say, and he nods but does not look at me. He nods and sighs and tips back his can of beer and then takes another deep breath. Honeysuckle.

He offers to help me clean the fish but I say: No, Bill, your work is done for the day. Today I’m going to look after you. You just sit there and take it easy. I’ll have it done in no time. Now he does smile. Brotherly love just isn’t the same, but it can help when that’s all there is.

About ten minutes later I hear Bill calling through to me. I walk out to the porch with a cloth in my hands. Bill points to the small removal truck now stationed in front of Betty Foster’s place. The removal man has the back of the truck open and standing next to him there’s a woman. I drape the cloth over the railing and sit down. Bill opens another beer and hands it to me. Both of us are concentrating on the woman. The way I see it, she’s about forty-five, average height and trim figure—trim for forty-five, though Betty was a bit stouter and none the worse for that. She’s wearing a black cardigan and black pants. The removal man jumps up into the back of the truck and a moment later he emerges with the end of a table, a dining-table. The woman takes hold of the end of it and the man climbs back in the truck and between them they manoeuvre it all the way out and then up the sloping path and into the house. Bill looks at me as they disappear. My hands are still covered in fish scales, tiny flakes of silver. A moment later the two of them come out of the house. The man hands down four dining-chairs which the woman stacks by the side of the truck. Then together they take in the chairs. Next, what looks like an antique chaise longue. As the man is easing it out of the truck the woman loses her grip and the chaise drops to the ground on one corner. There is the sound of splintering wood as one of the legs snaps. Bill and I hurry across the road to see if we can help. It occurs to me that we could have offered earlier, before the damage was done.

Let me tell you, it’s a strange feeling to be sitting in Betty’s living room surrounded by all this chaos created by someone else’s furniture and boxes and bits and pieces. The air is stale, like in a mausoleum but without the body. The carpets are still in place, the fixtures too and I can’t help thinking just how utterly provisional our lives really are. What you thought would last forever is here today and gone tomorrow. Betty Foster, I loved you!

Pearl. Her name is Pearl. She is pacing up and down the living room making mental notes of where to position her furniture. Bill is fussing with the broken leg of the chaise longue. He is twisting it back and forth, trying to evaluate the damage. He shows it to me for a second opinion, but I have to shrug my shoulders; I know nothing about carpentry. Deciding that the job is within his powers, he offers to take the chaise away and return it once it’s fixed. Pearl seems a little nervous about the whole business and she hesitates before finally accepting. She smiles at Bill and it’s a warm smile and it casts a warm glow on Bill’s face. She’s pretty. Prettier than I first thought. An oval face and chestnut hair which hangs in neat delicate curls. Brown eyes and soft skin, her skin looks soft, as though she’s spent a lifetime taking care of it.

Bill and I carry the chaise longue out of the house and over to my place. He opens the back of the Plymouth, pushes the fishing gear to one side and together we get the chaise inside. Pearl hands Bill the broken leg which he places in the back also. He then locks up. I leave them sitting out on the porch while I fetch the wine. I take it out on a tray with three glasses. Do you mind red wine with your fish, I ask Pearl. Not at all, she says. Wine is wine. Red is fine. She takes the glass in her left hand and for the first time I notice her long, pale fingers, the warm pink glow of blood beneath her nails, and no ring of any sort.

Bill can’t take his eyes off her and all through the meal he’s stealing glances like a kid in high school on his first date. And I’m thinking, Betty Foster, I truly loved you, why did you leave me? But I’m also thinking Pearl is a nice name, and Pearl is a charming lady, and Bill is my best friend. You caught this fish, she says to him. He smiles. You caught this fish? This fish is magnificent. Best fish I’ve eaten in years, best in years. And Bill smiles proudly as she rolls a piece of fish around her palate.

So, tell us about yourself, I say to Pearl when the dishes have been cleared away. She lowers her head. O, she says, what’s to tell? Beyond her, across the street, a light is burning in Betty Foster’s house. The crickets have long gone quiet and there’s just a hint of honeysuckle in the air now. Slowly she raises her eyes and looks first at Bill who a while back seemed to slip into a world of his own—and I know where that is—and then with those deep, dark brown eyes of hers she looks at me—and I’m thinking of Betty Foster’s breasts—and I look back into her eyes, soft and smiling and just a little bit sad and I know that she is right. What is there to tell?

© John Lyons, 1992

Lucian Freud – Girl with a Kitten

Girl with a Kitten 1947 Lucian Freud 1922-2011 Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury 2006, accessioned 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T12617
Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten (oil on canvas) 1947

Art is analysis and projection. Art is perspective and choices. Art is narrative. Art is conscious and unconscious. Lucian Freud, grandson of the pioneer of psychoanalysis, paints a portrait of his wife, Kathleen Garman entitled Girl with a Kitten. She herself is the daughter of an artist, Jacob Epstein. Freud plays on her name: she is Kitty, and so he poses her with a cat. She appears to be throttling the cat, but it is the artist writing the narrative and so he is the one choosing to throttle the cat, yet when we examine the painting closely there are details to suggest that the cat is a paragon and the wife may be the aggressor: compare the eyes, compare the perfection of the cat’s hair to the wilder hair of the wife, compare the colours, the deathly pale of the wife, the warmth of the cat. So who is who in this relationship? Who the innocent, who the guilty party?

The entire portrait is chilling, the palette is icy. This is not a flattering portrait and one wonders how the wife would have felt when she saw the finished product. She is not a wife in possession or in repose, and if there is sentiment, it is certainly not sentimental. The bland background and the softness of her blouse heighten the intensity of her glaring faraway eyes. Her knuckles are tense with adrenalin. This is a portrait of a tempestuous relationship between the woman and the cat (or between man and wife). But the narrative is unresolved, as in a dream or a nightmare. The elements are disturbing and that too is a function of art, to unsettle, to challenge, to undermine the conventions, to go against the grain, to stick it in the eyes and mind of the observer.

As with so many canvases, the wealth of detail has to be examined in person. A reproduction can never do justice to textures, so there really is no alternative to paying a visit to Tate Britain in Pimlico to see this masterpiece for yourself.

Lucian Freud, grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin in 1922 and came to Britain in 1933. In 1946–7 he travelled to Paris and Greece. On his return to London in February 1947, he began a relationship with Kitty Garman, the eldest daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein and the model and collector Kathleen Garman. The subsequent marriage between Freud and Kitty was short-lived – they wed in the spring of 1948 and divorced in 1952 after having two daughters. Girl with a Kitten is one of eight portraits that Freud made of his first wife.


Anne Sexton – 3 early poems

anne sexton
Anne Sexton

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Anne Sexton (1928–1974), struggled with depression throughout most of her life. Her poetry is the heart she wore constantly on her sleeve, and it deals with every aspect of her private life, including her relationships with her husband and her children and indeed with the intimate relationship with her own body.

She began to write poetry as a young girl, and when she first showed her work to her mother, she felt humiliated when her mother, who also wrote poetry, accused her of plagiarism. The fact is that her mother could not believe that her daughter could be so talented. But Sexton constantly sought approval from both her parents, and in later life from her peers. In Anne Sexton, A Self-Portrait in Letters, edited by Anne’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames, there is a very touching letter written by Anne to her mother on Christmas Day 1957:


Dear Mother,

Here are some forty-odd pages of the first year of Anne Sexton, Poet. You may remember my first sonnet written just after Christmas one year ago. I do not think all of these are good. However, I am not ashamed of them. They are not in chronological order, but I have arranged them in a sort of way in a sort of a story. But not too much or too well. I have tried to give a breather between the more difficult ones that use a more modern idiom. A few are obscure. I do not apologize for them. I like them. Mood can be as important as sense. Music doesn’t make sense and I am not so sure the words have to, always.


Below are three poems from Sexton’s adolescent period not included in her Complete Poems. Anne married when she was very young and her husband dropped out of medical school in order to get a job as a travelling salesman to support her. The poems offer an early indication of the themes of insecurity that would dominate her mature poetry. Sexton studied poetry under the renowned poet, Robert Lowell, alongside Sylvia Plath: and all three had serious mental health issues. For those interested in a deeper understanding of Anne Sexton’s work, the biographical edition of her letters is essential reading.


ON THE DUNES

If there is any life when death is over,
These tawny beaches will know of me.
I shall come back, as constant and as changeful
As the unchanging, many-colored sea.
If life was small, if it had made me scornful,
Forgive me; I shall straighten like a flame
In the great calm of death, and if you want me
Stand on the seaward dunes and call my name.

*

SPIRIT’S HOUSE

From naked stones of agony
I build a house for me;
as a mason all alone
I will raise it stone by stone,
And every stone where I have bled
Will show a sign of dusty red.
I have not gone away in vain,
For I have good of all my pain;
My spirit’s quiet house will be
Built of naked stones I trod
On roads where I lost sight
                        of God.

*

TRAVELER’S WIFE

Although I lie pressed close to your warm side,
I know you find me vacant and preoccupied.
If my thoughts could find one safe walled home
Then I would let them out to strut and roam.
I would, indeed pour me out for you to see,
a wanton soul, somehow delicate and free.
But instead I have a cup of pain to drink,
or I might weed out an old pain to think.
Perhaps old wounds have an easy sorrow,
easier than knowing you leave me tomorrow.
The mind twists and turns within the choice
of some sagging pain, or your departing voice.
In the last hour I’ve tried images and things,
and even illusion breaks its filament wings
on the raw skin of all I wouldn’t know
about the waiting dawn when you smile and go.
You must not find, in quick surprise,
one startled ache within my vacant eyes.


Columbus Day – The Panels of Hell

Coronel_Urtecho
José Coronel Urtecho

The poem below was written by José Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994) in the months following the July 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. These were the days of innocence and euphoria, the likes of which had never before been known in that very poor Central American country. In those early days of the revolution the whole country was undergoing a radical transformation; the young, educated few were going out in brigades into the countryside and the poor urban neighbourhoods bringing the gift of literacy to the hundreds of thousands who had been denied any sort of education under the successive governments of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. Alongside, there were brigades of doctors and nurses and health workers taking healthcare, for the first time ever, to the same marginalized sectors of the population in order to vaccinate, to provide antenatal and perinatal care and to conduct an all-out offensive against infant mortality and preventable disease.

Coronel Urtecho, one of Nicaragua’s greatest poets, had earlier in his life been a supporter of the Somoza dictatorship but he was gradually radicalized through contact with members of the Sandinista National Liberation front, and Panels of Hell was written as an act of contrition for the sins of his earlier ideological beliefs.

My translation of the poem was eventually published by Harold Pinter in 1989 at the height of the illegal Contra war against the people of Nicaragua, instigated by Ronald Reagan and spearheaded by the Oliver North.

It is salutary, on this Columbus Day 2015, to reflect on the significance of today’s commemorations, to ask exactly who in the Amercias has anything to commemorate, to speculate how the native American peoples, for example, might be taking Christopher Columbus to their hearts, how the poor and dispossessed of the Americas might like to remember that fateful day, 12 October 1492, when according to his log, Columbus, in his search for a new route to the spice lands of the East, first sighted land in the West.

The two avatars of that discovery were (and remain to this day) wealth and poverty, or as they are known euphemistically: North and South! Happy Columbus Day!


PANELS OF HELL (extract)

Who remembers the octogenarian swine in his sedan chair the one who
          first stole Nicaragua the country the government the land for himself
                   and for his family
          the first one who saw Nicaragua as a business his own business
          the first one who in Nicaragua established the business of slaves the
                   exploitation and selling of slaves
          the first of the usurious foreign bankers and financiers in Nicaragua
          the one who first brought to Nicaragua his genocidal dogs
                   to guard over his minerals
          the one who first killed in Nicaragua ‘two million’ Indians (2,000,000)
          the first one who installed his dynasty in Nicaragua
          the first of the first dynasty in Nicaragua continued by his daughter and
          his son-in-law and his grandchildren tyrant usufructuaries of the Empire
who in Nicaragua today remembers the worst of all the Spanish
          conquerors of America and his murderous descendants?

All of them are submerged in the dung heap of History

What became of the cold paranoid filibuster robber of countries
          the ill-famed adventurer from Tennessee gone bust in Sonora
          ill-adapted in California who very nearly stole Nicaragua
          from the democrats and legitimists or Liberals and Conservatives
          who amongst themselves were killing each other to exploit
                   the Nicaraguan people
the first North American to see Nicaragua the country the
          government the land as a subsidiary business to
                   North American business
the first imperialist racist North American pro-slaver who tried
          in Nicaragua to introduce the black slave trade importing the
          slavery of the slave States of the South of North America
          through the elimination of Nicaragua’s Indians and mestizos
          but could get nowhere with the people of Nicaragua
          Costa Rica Honduras El Salvador and Guatemala

the first North American of the South or the North the East or
          the West who brought his dogs to Nicaragua and thugs or
          mercenary animals enlisted in New York and New Orleans
                   and San Francisco California

the first agent of the thieving bankers of Frisco competitors of
          the usurious bankers of Manhattan concessionaires of the
          inter-oceanic Transit of foreign passengers through Nicaragua

the first North American arsonist destroyer of Nicaraguan
          cities who would have reduced them all to ashes and left them
          in ruins and sown the land with wooden crosses and scattered
          cemeteries and common graves before handing it over empty
          to his pro-slaver filibusters but could get nowhere with the
          resistance of the people of Nicaragua Costa Rica Honduras El Salvador
                   and Guatemala

the first for us of the models of North American imperialism
          without a mask or with a mask in person or if not through an
          intermediary but in any case the model for the North American
          invaders interveners ambassadors swindlers mediators and
          for the North Americanizing dealers and businessmen and
          traffickers of the Nicaraguan patrimony-peddling bourgeoisie

the first of the first North American military occupation
          of Nicaragua never really discontinued rather immediately continued
          by the Conservative and Liberal oligarchies and from 1936 to the
         19th of July 1979 by the proconsular family of the pentagonal dynasty
          enthroned on Tiscapa Hill by the Yankee Empire
who today is aware in Nicaragua of the worst of all the filibusters of
          America—admired by Truman—and of his murderous successors?

All of them are at the bottom of the latrines of History

February 1980

Translation by John Lyons


Dead Fingers Talk

HuneferDead fingers talk. Our language comes from community, from those present and from those who have gone before us. Keep it simple! Charles Olson wrote that the breath is the unit of composition in poetry. Our texts are echoes of other texts, others have breathed before us. Truth is the raw material of poetry and has been recognised as such since the earliest days of the alphabet, the alpha and omega of writing.

In the accompaning illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the scene, from the Papyrus of Hunefer (c. 1275 BC), shows the scribe Hunefer’s heart being weighed on the scale of Maat against the feather of truth, by the jackal-headed Anubis. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart equals exactly the weight of the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the waiting chimeric devouring creature Ammit composed of the deadly crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus. 


 

Meanderings

dawnSaturday seems to me to be the day for philosophical thought. Although outwardly awake, I wake slowly in my deeper mind, turning things over, meditating, wondering about the past and what the coming day will hold.

This morning, for example, I had the image in my mind of all the days of my life lined up outside my door, as though they had come for an interview, as though they expected to be questioned, and perhaps be asked to justified themselves, to justify actions taken or not taken, words said or not said, the sins of commission and omission. Imagine this long line of every day of my life stretching down the street and around the corner all the way back to the place where I was born, to the small maternity clinic located in a patch or remnant of ancient woodland. Imagine all the characters I have played in those years, all the different styles of clothes I wore and all the hopes and dreams and ambitions that I carried with me.

The poem below is a stab at understanding that image, although I am aware that more energy needs to be applied if I am to get to the heart of any matter. As a poet, I have good days and bad days, the words flow or they struggle, depending on so many factors. But I am alive, and irrespective of anything else, that is something to be celebrated, any breath being better than none.


Meanderings

There is a sense
      in which we are all orphans
wanderers on the face of the earth
      looking for origins
looking for purpose
      striving for achievement
and hoping for love
      The years are lined up
at my door
      a procession of dates
times and encounters
      and in my mind
the echo of words
      that have never left me
Sometimes it seems
      that dust and ashes
is all that there is
      beauty is such a rare thing
but then comes the dawn light
      and breath by breath
I am revived
      charmed by bird song
delighted by the rose
      that has yet to fall
enticed by the kisses
      yet to be given
the hand yet to be held
      Today I will walk in the woods
I will hear the deathless voice
      of all the world
and shake off
      the pangs of dust
I will surrender
      the lease I hold
on time and disgrace
      and I will wallow
in the instant :
      step after step
I will draw closer
      to that ultimate nativity
and look beyond
      my mortal eyes
Now the fields lie bare
      the trees stripped
to their silhouettes
      panic among the creatures
that must bide
      the winter months
in warm reclusion
      The brittle bones of love
will carry me through
      I will dispute
the sombre sunsets
      and at night
I will usher in the stars
      number them as pearls
in my own private firmament
      whatever blessing there are
they are there
      to be counted

John Lyons