Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This Planetary Grindstone

The force of metaphor....

And what else have I seen? A beautiful and far-famed insect -- do not mistake, I mean neither the Emperor, nor the King of Sardinia, but a much finer specimen -- the firefly. Their bright light is evanescent, and alternates with the darkness, as if the swift wheeling of the earth struck fire out of the black atmosphere; as if the winds were being set upon this planetary grindstone, and gave out such momentary sparks from their edges.

-- From LETTER VII (June 8th, 1824), in The Letters of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Elking Mathews & John Lane, London, 1894.

You Do Not See

A striking distinction between types of poetry (and types of fiction, too): "You did not see before," versus "You do not see."

"Having to know and being unable to know characterizes all the various Symbolist poems discussed in this chapter; it is a statement of their essential method. Now, poets and critics have been shouting up 'strangeness' for a long time. Perhaps the most persistent shouters of late have been the Russian Formalist critics, who proclaimed ostranenie ('strangifying') as the cornerstone of all imaginative literature. But for these critics, as for others, strangeness is nearly synonymous with newness, and, as has been pointed out, there is nothing novel about that kind of strangeness in poetry.
"The quality seen in [Symbolist poems] is of another order.... The strangeness of Symbolist poetry is identified with mysteriousness -- in other words, not only that which had been previously unknown, but that which is unable to be fully understood, that which perpetually lies just beyond our grasp. The difference is great. Where a poetry of newness says, "You did not see before," a poetry of strangeness asserts, "You do not see." Whatever its preferred subjects, themes, or artistic creeds, a poetry of this kind always has the same refrain: that the most basic structure people hold in common, language, is not held in common at all. To the extent that such a poetry can have meaning, to the extent that we can participate in its unfolding, it is a triumph of our ability to sense emotion in tone or to grasp fundamental similarities and parallels. It is, for all that, a triumph in the midst of incomprehension -- a victory in a world where, as readers, our own uncertainty and separateness is being established in the same breath."

-- From
The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, by James L. Kugel. (Chapter 4.)
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1971.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Out of Your Whispering

Yet, methinks,
The manner of your death should much afflict you:
This cord should terrify you.

Not a whit:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smotherèd
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways; any way, for Heaven sake,
So I were out of your whispering.

-- From The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster.
Act IV, Scene 2.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Unfinished Traceries

F. L. Lucas on Thomas Lovell Beddoes:

"At war within, he spared neither his country, nor his contemporaries, nor himself -- poor dramatist devoid of dramatic gift! But he was too hard on his own work. It is difficult to read through. I have done so twice, and never shall again. But I return with ever fresh astonishment to his fragments. The unfinished traceries, the ruined aisles of this gaunt sham-Gothic cathedral that he left half-built and roofless to the scorn of Time, will outlast many a newer and more finished edifice; saved by the almost unearthly perfectness of here a carved line, there a sculptured monster; and by the strange owl-light of its atmosphere in which Death's Jester wandered to his early and disastrous end. There is often more quintessential poetry, I feel, in three lines of his than in as many pages of other poets not without repute. Only wreckage remains of him; but enough to sustain his memory in that sea of Eternity into which he heard Time's river falling, himself so soon to fall."

From "The Playboy of the Netherworld," in
Studies French And English, by F. L. Lucas. Books For Libraries Press, New York, 1969 (Original publication, 1934).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Never Connect

Facebook is like a cell phone: it allows you to speak to yourself in public, and the few passers-by never suspect that your phone is dead.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I suspect that for many people, life is a series of problems to overcome.

But for others -- people who write, or paint, or compose, or dance -- life is a condition to explore.

For that reason, I can't blame the first group for shaking their heads in frustration over the second.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Challenge Me

Challenge me to understand the implications of your stories, and I'll brood happily for decades.

Challenge me to understand the meaning of your sentences, and I'll go read someone else.

A Fantasizing Sensibility

Strange verse, fantasy verse, call it what you will: when I was younger, I preferred it to "regular" verse.

I was wrong. Or perhaps I should say, I was looking in the wrong direction.

Reading Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, Mervyn Peake, John Keats, and so many others, has made me realize that what I value in strange verse is exactly what I find in the regular verse of these poets: a unique perspective that transforms personal experience into something new and striking; a fantasizing sensibility that sees the unusual in the common; a verbal skill that allows the poet to communicate a glimpse of inner life.

In short, what matters are not the fantastic concepts these poets might use, but the personalities and perspectives communicated through the verse.

This is not to say that I dislike strange verse, or consider it less valid than verse that grapples directly with everyday topics. Instead, I feel that strange verse can succeed or fail by the same standards applied to regular verse.

A few examples:

Autumn Orchards
Clark Ashton Smith

Walled with far azures of the wintering year,
Late autumn on a windless altar burns;
Splendid as rubies from Sabean urns,
A holocaust of hues is gathered here.

The pear-trees lift a Tyrian tinged with blood;
Strange purples brighten in the smouldering plums;
The fire-red gold of peach and cherry comes
To storm the bronzing borders of the wood.

Rich as the pyre of some Hesperian queen,
Feeding the ultimate sunset with sad fires,
Is this, where beauty with her doom conspires
To tell in flame what death and beauty mean.

O, loveliness grown tragical and dear!
My heart has taken from the torchful leaf
A swiftly soaring glory, and the grief
Of love is colored like the dying year.

This is very much a Clark Ashton Smith poem, and one of my favourites. But only one thing, here, is fantastic: the intensity of the writers's perception.

A Character
by George Sterling

Blunt as a child, since child he was at heart,
And sun-sincere, my friend to many seemed
Dull, rude, aggressive, tactless. Add to all
His bulk and hairiness and stormy laugh,
And one can find them some excuse for that.
'Twas seeming only. We, who found his soul
Thro friendship's crystal, saw beyond the glass
The elusive seraph.  In his mind were met
The faun, the cynic, the philosopher,
But first of all, the poet. Give to such
Apollo's guise, and matters were not well.
Too glad to pose, ofttimes he held his peace
Before the jest that sought his heart; but let
The whim appeal, and all his mind took fire --
The shifted diamond's instant shock of light.
Beauty to him (as wine's ecstatic draught,
Richer than blood, and every drop a dream)
Was like a wind some hidden world put forth
To baffle, madden, lure -- at times, betray,
Then win him back to worship with a breath
Of Edens never trodden. Yet he stood
No dupe to Nature in her harlotry,
Her guile, her blind injustice and the abrupt
Ferocities of chance, but swift to face
The unkempt fact, and swift no less to snatch
Its honey from illusion's stinging hive --
No moth that beat upon Time's enginery.
Yet loved he Nature well, as one might love
A half-tamed leopardess, for beauty's grace
Alone. Within his enigmatic soul
Sorrow and Art made Love their servitor,
For he would have no master but himself.
To what best liken him? Some singer must
Have used the star-souled geode's rind and heart,
Telling of such as he. Let me compare
His rugged aspect and auroral mind
To that wide shell our western ocean grants --
Without, all harsh and hueless, with, perhaps,
A group of barnacles or tattered weed;
Within, such splendor as would make one guess
That once a score of dawnings and a troop
Of royal sunsets had condensed their pomp
To rainbow lacquer which the ocean pow'rs
Had lavished, godlike, on the gorgeous bowl.

This is typical of George Sterling's approach: unexpected comparisons, vivid metaphors, a riot of imagery... but again, at the service of the everyday, to transform the common "into something rich and strange."

London 1941
by Mervyn Peake.

Half masonry, half pain; her head,
From which the plaster breaks away
Like flesh from the rough bone, is turned
Upon a neck of stones; her eyes
Are lid-less windows of smashed glass,
Each star-shaped pupil
Giving upon a vault so vast
How can the head contain it?

The raw smoke
Is inter-wreathing through the jaggedness
Of her sky-broken panes, and mirror'd
Fires dance like madmen on the splinters.

All else is stillness save the dancing splinters
And the slow inter-wreathing of the smoke.

Her breasts are crumbling brick where the black ivy
Had clung like a fantastic child for succour
And now hangs draggled with long peels of paper
Fire-crisp, fire-faded awnings of limp paper
Repeating still their ghosted leaf and lily.

Grass for her cold skin's hair, the grass of cities
Wilted and swaying on her plaster brow
From winds that stream along the streets of cities:

Across a world of sudden fear and firelight
She towers erect, the great stones at her throat,
Her rusted ribs like railings round her heart;
A figure of dry wounds -- of winter wounds --
O mother of wounds; half masonry, half pain.

Again, this is a matter of perception, one that allows Peake to transform a modern city into a realm as alien and grotesque as Gormenghast. There is no fantasy, here, but there is a fantasizing mind.

This importance of personality and perspective can be seen in prose, too, which is why J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun can be as unsettling as anything in science fiction, why L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between communicates the same dread that we find in his ghost stories, why an everyday story like "The Almond Tree" brings up the same unanswered questions that we find in Walter de la Mare's supernatural tales.

What this implies, for me, is that labels are useless. What matters is perception and skill, and these, more than topics, more than concepts, are what create the fantastic and the strange.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Five Amazing Fantasies

1) "Der goldne Topf," by E. T. A. Hoffmann (usually translated as "The Golden Pot.")

When I studied German 40 million years ago, I read many good stories, but this one shocked me with its utterly modern approach to parallel universes, doubles, reptile women, and the power of imagination to transform a dull existence in what was then modern day Dresden into something very strange indeed. If you want to understand why Hoffmann had such a huge influence on 19th Century fiction, then read this: not a fossil, but a fast-moving work of brilliance.

2) "Les Escales de la haute nuit," by Marcel Brion. When I read this back in the 1990s, I was convinced that it was, by far, the most vivid "dream" story I had ever seen; reading it again a few months ago, I felt the same way. When a night train stops in a town of buildings that are merely facades, a restless man wanders with a garrulous stranger and a living doll from one eerie landscape to another.

As a fine example of visual writing, it compares with anything by J. G. Ballard or William Sansom, but it also moves rapidly, like a story by Hoffmann. Brion paced his emphases; he understood the need to balance detailed passages with fast, simple paragraphs, and the result is a clear, light touch that never feels too thin or too heavy. If the story is like a painting, it's a painting that moves.

L’homme s’endormit. A son tour, la poupée, cessant de grogner et de renifler, glissa dans un sommeil épais. Je restais éveillé, seul dans ce wagon, seul dans ce monde, regardé par cette lune épouvantée qui venait demander du secours contre le garrot des nuages.

The man fell asleep. In its turn, the doll ceased to grumble and sniffle, and slipped into a thick sleep. I remained awake, alone in the compartment, alone in this world, watched by the frightened moon that cried for help against the noose of the clouds. [My rough translation.]

3) "The Colossus of Ylourgne," by Clark Ashton Smith. I could fill a list of favourites with stories by Smith, but I'll hold myself back. This one deals with a mass resurrection of the dead in medieval France, and a mad plan for vengeance against the world.

Smith's ability to put the reader there, right there, in the settings and circumstances of his plot, has rarely been better, and the story moves rapidly, vividly, from setpiece to setpiece until it reaches a giant monster climax. Widescreen Technicolor fantasy? Why not?

So, all that night, and throughout the day that followed, Gaspard du Nord, with the dried slime of the oubliette on his briar-shredded raiment, plunged like a madman through the towering woods that were haunted by robbers and werewolves. The westward-falling moon flickered in his eyes betwixt the gnarled, somber boles as he ran; and the dawn overtook him with the pale shafts of its searching arrows. The moon poured over him its white sultriness, like furnace-heated metal sublimed into light; and the clotted filth that clung to his tatters was again turned into slime by his own sweat. But still he pursued his nightmare-harried way, while a vague, seemingly hopeless plan took form in his mind.

4) "The Coming of the White Worm," by Clark Ashton Smith. When a mobile glacier threatens to freeze the world, its monstrous inhabitant offers one man a choice between death or death-in-life. Once again, Smith pours on the visual details to create a waking dream, and the results are unforgettably grotesque.

In all the world there was naught that could be likened for its foulness to Rlim Shaikorth. Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. And amid the visage a mouth curved uncleanly from side to side of the disk, opening and shutting incessantly on a pale and tongueless and toothless maw. The eye-sockets of Rlim Shaikorth were close together between his shallow nostrils; and the sockets were eyeless, but in them appeared from moment to moment globules of a blood-colored matter having the form of eyeballs; and ever the globules broke and dripped down before the dais. And from the ice-floor of the dome there ascended two masses like stalagmites, purple and dark as frozen gore, which had been made by the ceaseless dripping of the globules.

5) "The Tree," by Walter de la Mare. The most vivid and troubling fantasy I've read in years, this one is far more quiet than the others I've listed, but will not let me go. It nags at me. Is it about the inability of human beings to accept the everyday marvels of life? Is it about the curse of an artistic perception that can destroy even as it creates? Perhaps it is, and more. All I can say with assurance is that every time I read it, the story grows, both on the page, and within my skull.

These were not eyes -- in that abominable countenance. Speck-pupilled, greenish-grey, unfocused, under their protuberant mat of eyebrow, they remained still as a salt and stagnant sea. And in their uplifted depths, stretching out into endless distances, the Fruit Merchant had seen regions of a country whence neither for love nor money he could ever harvest one fruit, one pip, one cankered bud. And blossoming there beside a glassy stream in the mid-distance of far-mountained sward -- a tree.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Canon in Front of Them

For the most part, I respect critics, and I find especially useful those who write about the historical context of a given work, or those who examine the techniques used in a given story. But I have no use for critics who set up a canon of "essential" writers, because I've often learned more about writing from people on the margins of a field than from any central figures.

And so, for example, I've learned more from individual stories by Shamus Frazer, Edward Lucas White, Charles G. D. Roberts, Bernard Capes, and Ralph Adams Cram, than I ever did from Lovecraft, Ligotti, Barker, King, or from any number of writers who are often considered important in the field of horror. I believe that we take away those details of craftsmanship we need to create our own stories in our own styles, and that the best way to find solutions to our creative challenges is to read widely. I also put my trust in random discoveries, in the joy of picking up a magazine, collection, or anthology, and of digging up treasure that might appeal to no one else, but might also show me what I need to do.

I leave canons to composers; they know how to use them. But I read for pleasure, and to learn.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Not only in the brain's grey spaces

Those who love Oscar Wilde's "The Sphinx," George Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry," and Clark Ashton Smith's "The Hashish Eater," might want to read Mervyn Peake's "A Reverie of Bone," printed for the first time in its complete form in the FyfieldBooks / Carcanet Collected Poems.

Although it seems unlikely that Peake would have read Sterling or Smith, at one point he did read "The Sphinx," and like that poem, "Reverie" is a long meditation on a theme. But unlike Wilde, Sterling, or Smith, Peake draws his elaborate metaphors and riotous imagery not from the world of Romanticism, but from "vast and valid landscapes" of the world as we know it, and as he would later do in the Titus books, he discovers the fantastic in the down-to-earth:

There is a pearl white arabesque of bones
Behind my eyes where the harsh brow encloses
These bones my visions conjure; I can see
Them lying pranked across a brow of stones.
Beyond them a dramatic mountain raises
High flanks of cold and silver-coloured scree.

And yet not only in the brain's grey spaces
Which, at the imagination's astral touch
Flare into focus, all horizons failing...
Not only through the wastes of thought uprises
A ghosted mountain lit by the full torch
Of a sailing moon that never ceases sailing...

Not only in the brain, nor in the heart
Nor out of love, nor through untethered fancy,
Is that cold mountain littered with the white
Residue of the dead, as though its bright
Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy --
Nor any other death-engendered sight
Which I envisage in deserted places --
But, in the ruthless regions of what's true --
And I can only hope to grasp the worth
From vast and valid landscapes, while Time passes
Beneath my pen-nib as it trails the blue
Thread of my thought behind each glimpse of truth.

Because fantasy is not a genre but a matter of perception, a shift in perspective, a construction of imagery and metaphor, "A Reverie of Bone" can hit the same nerves that Wilde and Sterling and Smith struck in their own fascinating ways, even as it remains true to this world of life and death and physical transformation by the slow artistry of time.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Stars in Her Scowl

I can still see the splendid scowl and hear the gorgeously hectoring tone as my last girlfriend turned to me and said, "That's not the 'Big Dipper,' that's the Great Bear." Love, you knew I was a peasant when you kissed me.

That was years ago. Tonight, I thought of her as I biked home beside the Gatineau River, because the Bear stood right in front of me whenever a gap appeared between the branches. For a long time, the Bear never moved, until I veered away from the Gatineau and pursued Arcturus for the last few kilometres.

Alone with cold, clear stars and with 500 billion crickets, I felt happy... but not as happy as I was back in the years of that splendid scowl.

L'occulte hostilité de haineux paysages

Another attempted translation.

by Iwan Gilkin.
Towards new countries peopled by other faces, irretrievably dragged by steam, I shiver, I suffer: arrival frightens me. Through hypocritical omens, I forsee

Great castles that sour the bitterness of ages, walls mildewed with boredom from which a torpor oozes, and, despite their adorable, misleading smiles, the secret hostility of hateful landscapes.

-- Rocked by the carriage as by a vessel, I jerk up with a start at the moment of approach, in the same way that a sailor is jolted awake by fanfares.

O distant hearts, in the shadow of a hazardous night I see your fires glare like beacons, where voices call to me from shores unknown.

- - - - - -


Vers des pays nouveaux, peuplés d'autres visages,
Irréparablement traîné par la vapeur,
Je frissonne, je souffre: arriver me fait peur.
Je devine, à travers d'hypocrites présages,

De grands châteaux qu'aigrit l'amertume des âges,
Des murs moisis d'ennui, d'où suinte une torpeur,
Et, malgré leur sourire adorable et trompeur,
L'occulte hostilité de haineux paysages.

-- Bercé par le wagon comme par un vaisseau,
Au moment d'aborder je me lève en sursaut,
Ainsi qu'un matelot qu'éveillent des fanfares.

Dans l'ombre de la nuit hasardeuse, je vois
Vos feux, ô cœurs lointains, briller comme des phares
Sur les bords inconnus où m'appellent des voix.

La nuit, by Iwan Gilkin, Second Edition. Mercure de France, Paris, 1911.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"J'ai vu. J'ai lu. J'ai su."

I'm always happy to find a writer even less cheerful than Leconte de Lisle, but I can't do justice to his words....

by Iwan Gilkin.

The black angel offered me a black onyx goblet
From which I drank, in sinister fashion, a cerebral liqueur.
I poured this death into the tomb of my mouth:
O, the charm of terrors! The splendors of despair!

Thought: acrid poison, ratlike nibbler of energies
That destroys happiness, love and health,
You dissolve every hope and desire
In the hearts transformed by your dark magic.

What a cadaver's reek from this horrible wine!
-- I viewed. I perused. I knew. I know that all is vain.
All of my pleasures die before birth.

What is the point of Spring to my Winter soul,
Which no longer feels joy, nor wants know,
Which would spurn a flower for the steel of a handgun?

"J'ai vu. J'ai lu. J'ai su." So simple and elegant. There was no way I could match it.


L'ange noir m'a tendu la coupe d'onyx noir
Où bout sinistrement la liqueur cérébrale.
J'ai versé la mort dans ma bouche sépulcrale:
O charme des terreurs! Splendeurs du désespoir!

Pensée, âcre poison, rongeur des énergies,
Qui détruis le bonheur, l'amour et la santé,
Tu dissous tout espoir et toute volonté
Dans les cœurs altérés de tes sombres magies.

Quelle odeur de cadavre en cet horrible vin!
-- J'ai vu. J'ai lu. J'ai su. Je sais que tout est vain.
Tous les plaisirs pour moi meurent avant de naître.

Qu'importent les printemps à mon âme d'hiver
Qui ne peut plus jouir et ne veut plus connaître
Et qui préfère aux fleurs l'acier d'un revolver!

La nuit, by Iwan Gilkin, Second Edition. Mercure de France, Paris, 1911.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My weak translation of a famous rondel from Pierrot lunaire.

by Albert Giraud.

The sun has opened its veins
On a bed of russet clouds:
From the mouth of each hole,
Blood ejaculates in red fountains.

Convulsive limbs of the oaks
Whip the insane horizon:
The sun has opened its veins
On a bed of russet clouds.

Like a rakehell filled with disgust,
Who, in Roman shame,
Has gone to bleed sick arteries into a filthy sewer,
The sun has opened its veins!

The original:

Coucher de Soleil

Le Soleil s'est ouvert les veines
Sur un lit de nuages roux:
Son sang, par la bouche des trous,
S'éjacule en rouges fontaines.

Les rameaux convulsifs des chênes
Flagellent les horizons fous:
Le Soleil s'est ouvert les veines
Sur un lit de nuages roux.

Comme, après les hontes romaines,
Un débauché plein de dégoûts
Laissant jusqu'aux sales égouts
Saigner ses artères malsaines,
Le Soleil s'est ouvert les veines!

Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques, by Albert Giraud. Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1884.