Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Last Thing

I've always had a soft spot for this song, but I've never seen this live version before. Tom Paxton is now eighty and has recorded more than sixty albums. After more than fifty years "The Last Thing on My Mind" still holds up just fine.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Hope in the Mice

The narrator of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants visits a shuttered sanatorium for mental patients in Ithaca, New York, seeking traces of a relative who died there decades before. Its retired superintendent indulges in a gleeful fantasy of annihilation:
Besides, said Dr Abramsky, all of the material on file - the case histories and the medical records Fahnstock kept on a daily basis, albeit in a distinctly cursory fashion - have [sic] probably long since been eaten by the mice. They took over the madhouse when it was closed and have been multiplying without cease ever since; at all events, on nights when there is no wind blowing I can hear a constant scurrying and rustling in the dried-out shell of the building, and at times, when a full moon rises beyond the trees, I imagine I can hear the pathetic song of a thousand tiny upraised throats. Nowadays I place all my hope in the mice, and in the woodworm and deathwatch beetles. The sanatorium is creaking, and in places already caving in, and sooner or later they will bring about its collapse. I have a recurring dream of that collapse, said Dr Abramsky, gazing at the palm of his left hand as he spoke. I see the sanatorium on its lofty rise, see everything simultaneously, the building as a whole and also the minutest detail; and I know that the woodwork, the roof beams, door posts and panelling, the floorboards and staircases, the rails and banisters, the lintels and ledges, have already been hollowed out under the surface, and that at any moment, as soon as the chosen one amongst the blind armies of beetles dispatches the very last, scarcely material resistance with its jaws, the entire lot will come down.
Dr Fahnstock was Abramsky's predecessor at the institution. Sebald, who was evidently well acquainted with the geography of New York State, may have borrowed the name, with a slight variation in spelling, from Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park in Dutchess and Putnam counties a few hours to the east. If so, he may or may not have known that the park's namesake was also a physician (photo above), one who died of pneumonia in France in the closing weeks of World War I.

Photo credit: Bobby Kelley

Monday, April 30, 2018


In the office on the 73rd floor, high above the city, the president of the company passes me a handful of letters to mail and a note with the deli order for lunch. "Quickly!," he shouts, and I rush to the elevator, which swiftly descends the great steel and glass tower until its doors open at the ground floor. A rush of wind hits me as I exit through revolving doors, and the letters are blown from my hand and scattered. Pedestrians hurrying in and out of the building trample the letters and leave their footprints on them. I gather them up and enter the deli, but there's a crowd ahead of me struggling to be served and in the confusion I drop the letters again. Now they're torn, soiled with beef blood and grease. I run outside looking for a mailbox, for a place to wash my hands, but all in vain...

Friday, April 27, 2018

Notes for a commonplace book (22)

Pablo Neruda:
It is very appropriate, at certain times of the day or night, to deeply observe objects at rest: the wheels that have covered long, dusty distances, bearing heavy loads of vegetables or minerals, sacks from the coal yards, barrels, baskets, the handles and grips of the carpenter's tool. The contact of man with the universe exudes from these things a lesson for the tormented poet. The worn surfaces, the wear that hands have inflicted on things, the often tragic and always wistful aura of these objects, lend to reality a fascination not to be taken lightly.

The confused impurity of human beings is displayed in them, the proliferation, materials used and discarded, footprints and fingerprints, the permanent mark of humanity inundating all objects from within and without. That is the kind of poetry we should strive for, worn away as if by acid from the labor of hands, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of urine and lilies, and seasoned by the various professions that operate both within and outside the law.

A poetry impure as old clothes, as a body, with its food stains and shame, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, vigilance, prophecies, declarations of love and hate, beasts, blows, idylls, manifestos, denials, doubts affirmations, taxes.
"On Impure Poetry," as translated by Mark Eisner in his biography Neruda: The Poet's Calling.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Man or name?

Two translations of the last lines of Pablo Neruda's "Ars Poetica," from Residence on Earth:
but the truth is, suddenly, the wind lashing my chest,
the infinitely dense nights dropped into my bedroom,
the noise of a day burning with sacrifice
demand what there is in me of the prophetic, with melancholy
and there's a banging of objects that call without being answered,
and a restless motion, and a muddled name.

(Mark Eisner)

but the truth is that suddenly the wind that lashes my chest,
the nights of infinite substance fallen in my bedroom,
the noise of a day that burns with sacrifice,
ask me mournfully what prophecy there is in me,
and there is a swarm of objects that call without being answered,
and a ceaseless movement, and a bewildered man.

(Donald D. Walsh)
Leaving aside the other differences between the versions (I generally prefer Walsh's, from the New Directions edition, to Eisner's, which is quoted in his new biography of Neruda), there's a significant disagreement that has nothing to do with translation methods or styles; it has to do with the text of the Spanish original. The last words in the Spanish text that Walsh is translating (his edition is bilingual) are un hombre, a man; Eisner is evidently following a text that reads un nombre, a name. Spoken aloud they would be indistinguishable (the h is silent), but which text is correct?

I find hombre a more satisfying conclusion to the poem, with the catalogue of objects and motions ending up producing, wittily, a confused man, but the other reading isn't implausible either, given that Neruda, throughout Residence on Earth, frequently juxtaposes adjectives and nouns in seemingly inscrutable combinations. Eisner seems to be following the text of the 1999 Obras completas I edited by Hernán Loyola. At least one scholar (Tim Bowron) regards Loyola's "un nombre" as "an obvious error," but further research is needed.

Monday, April 16, 2018

On Robyn Hitchcock

I have loved you from a distance
Loved you from up close
Like the tiny frog that breathes
I can nestle in your cloak

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the Robyn Hitchcock party, having discovered him in 2004 (i.e., some thirty years into his career) as a result of Spooked, which he recorded in collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I played Spooked regularly for a while, but I hadn't listened to it all the way through for years until I dusted it off again after seeing Hitchcock perform live a week ago (he was great, by the way, polka-dot shirt and all).

Hitchcock is also a painter, in a surrealist vein matching his songs; the image above is the full version of the piece that was cropped to serve as the cover art for the CD.

Hard-core Hitchcock fans don't necessarily like this collaboration (too brooding), but I think it holds up. He played only one song from it ("Full Moon in My Soul") at the gig I attended; I like that one well enough, but I think "Television" — the ultimate ode to the seductions of the medium — and "Flanagan's Song" are my favorites. Here they are: