More of Daljit Nagra

By Rob Packer

Daljit Nagra’s latest poetry collection (I wrote here about his debut, Look We Have Coming to Dover! and read the title poem here) was recently released in paperback and has the—quirky, unwieldy, memorable—title of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! Yes, dear reader, count how many exclamation marks Nagra has used in the space of two published books. I have a feeling that this unorthodoxy is deliberately to send sensitive punctuators away huffing and puffing, making it both a pretty ballsy move and a mark of confidence (bad content plus conspicuous title would be, after all, embarrassing for all concerned).

The title, which I’ll be calling White-Man-Eating Tiger from now on, comes from a musical automaton now in London’s V&A, which shows a tiger mauling a European soldier and belonged to Tipu Sultan, a late 18th-century king of Mysore, close to today’s Bangalore. The symbolism is obvious, but those adjectives and exclamation marks—as well as the circus-style design on the cover of the hardback—actually make things more ambiguous and made me wonder where the comedy, satire or spleen begin and end.

Tipu’s Tiger
(Source: Wikimedia Commons and Victoria and Albert Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O61949/mechanical-organ-automaton-tippoos-tiger/)

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Disquiet in David Harsent’s Night

By Rob Packer

A man roams his house at night, runs down two flights of stairs and, to his surprise third, and is suddenly drinking a margarita in a cellar bar when a stranger turns to him:

‘I never envied another man’s life,’
he says, ‘the way I’ve envied yours, the full and fine
day-after-day of it, a house so full of song, a wife
so sleek and quick to please, your music, your books,
those times in the summerhouse with friends and wine;
or candles shifting the shadows, and soft rain
stippling the darkened window as she turned to you again.

This comes near the start of ‘Elsewhere’, the quest poem that closes David Harsent’s 2011 collection, Night and at first glance, looks the epitome of idyllic bourgeois fantasy. If you re-read it, maybe you’ll catch a twinge of misogyny in the “quick to please” wife, or a hint of menace in the shadows encroaching towards the end of the stanza, or just as likely, you’ll take the idyll at face value. By this stage of the collection, however, you should have learnt that looks can be deceiving and to expect the worst. Throughout, the poet makes the familiar uncanny, gradually and subtly creating its own world of realigned and juxtaposed imagery

In an earlier poem—which clearly resonates here—the narrator waits hidden in a darkened, rainy garden looking in (spying?) on a woman setting the table; in another, he’s “shitfaced” at 3am “lost in your own backyard”. Memorably in ‘Spatchcock’ the boundaries between sex, sunbathing and barbecuing a chicken are gruesomely indistinct. In others, birdsong is redefined as the sound of death and ghosts, or an enclosed garden becomes a trap and the key no more than a talisman:

Here is your key. It was specially cut. If the door
to the garden blows shut as you enter, at least
you’ll have your own key, though the way out is not
really the same.

The effect is cumulative and you learn to arm yourself against the underlying tension and unexpected twists, making it almost unsurprising when the barfly continues, saying:

‘But more than anything, I envy this: the day you woke
to the knowledge that true sacrifice is gain
and junked the lot, setting out at once, a bleak
road ahead of you, the weather closing in, her last
desperate kiss still cooling on your cheek;
and I’m more jealous of that touch than of the least
part of what you’d just flushed down the pan.’

It seems a paradox that the stranger’s deepest jealousy is of a “desperate kiss” with its implications of pain, but it echoes through the rest of the poem, a dark epic through a nocturnal cityscape, where “promises freely offered are better taken by force”. It’s a strange, amorphous place where streets suddenly change, mannequins come to life and the narrator’s guide is a dog that may (or may not) metamorphose into women. It feels like an elaborate metaphor for something, but what? A dream? Depression? Drunkenness? A journey to the underworld, Aeneas-style? The clue for me was in the leitmotif of night and the narrator’s inability to forget, reminding me of Borges’s story, ‘Funes the Memorious’ with its meditation on insomnia.

But ultimately, any “meaning” feels equally indistinct among the tension, uneasiness and sometimes disgust that Harsent creates, based as much—if not more—on what is not said than what is. In a lot of ways, these feelings reminded me a lot of the anonymous warzone of his 2005 collection, Legion, most memorably in the sniper in a bell tower allowing people below to survive by his grace alone (with its echoes of the Yugoslavian wars). Where Night is different, though, is where it puts a similar tension in a far more familiar, domestic setting. In some ways, that is what makes it even more disquieting.

David Harsent, Night, Faber & Faber, 2011

Midsummer and White Nights

By Rob Packer

Well, as far as I know, you never actually get white nights in England and it is pretty much the same photo as last time. Having said that, this is pretty impressive for 11pm in London.

Sunset

A hole in the cloud
Opens, the sun swallowed whole.
Three fingers slip out.

The British Library, Carol Ann Duffy and Pubs

By Rob Packer

A few weeks ago I went to Writing Britain, the British Library’s summer exhibition, which looks at the landscape of the British Isles and its influence on literature. With illuminated manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales and W. B. Yeats, notebooks of Blake and Coleridge, and 150 other bits and pieces of literariness, I found it engrossing. But after a good three hours of geekdom, I started to wonder how much background knowledge you need to appreciate a show like this—probably a common problem of curating books. For example, if Mrs Dalloway or Wuthering Heights immediately evoke Woolf’s London or the Bronte’s Pennines, it’s probably because I’ve read them and know both places. On the other hand, if it’s something I’ve never heard of, much less read (such as Walter Brierley’s 1935 novel, Means Test Man), it tells me about an aesthetic movement and that industrial landscapes encouraged literature, but not a lot else. As a result, the exhibition is only at its best when it reminds and evokes, as well as informs.

An exception is poetry and song, which just work quicker, and there are some great pairings that use different media, like the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ with videos of 1950’s Liverpool, or recordings of poems from Ted Hughes’ Return to Elmet (1979) reunited with Fay Goodwin’s photos (maybe more on that some other time). My easy favourite was Carol Ann Duffy’s paean-lament for the British pub, ‘John Barleycorn’, which recalls an archetypal Britain, creating more of a personal mind map, than anything cartographical.

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Terrifying

Today’s surprise out of the loft is: a dead wasp nest.

It. Makes. My. Skin. Crawl.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to see this. If you must, satisfy your macabre curiosity here: Read more of this post

Spots of Time or Tricks of Memory in Leipzig

By Rob Packer

We left Berlin on the knife-edge of a summer’s day. The heat had built up for days and the air had a tang, as if the flap of a butterfly’s wing would bring the summer crashing down.

As we drove south across the plains of Brandenburg and Saxony, the blue skies greyed and between Wittenberg and Leipzig, a curtain of darkness had been drawn across the Autobahn. At some point my mother—this part of the trip was more pilgrimage than holiday for her—had put the ‘Goldberg Variations’ on the car stereo and they were our soundtrack as we drove who knows how many times around Leipzig, asking for directions: they kein Englisch, we kein Deutsch. The butterfly had flapped its wings and the city had become a labyrinth.

Had I understood the butterfly effect then, I would have imagined its wing-flapping in Bosnia. That summer, Bosnia was on all our minds as the war intensified and whispers of the horror of Srebrenica filtered out barely reaching us. Just six years after the end of communism, parts of Europe were tearing themselves apart as we watched powerlessly; peaceful areas seemed—at least from a Westerner’s perspective—part hopeless grey morass, part our continent’s new frontier. To me it also said future: it was the summer before I was to start German and Russian at school which, I imagined, would lead to me discovering my lost Romanian heritage—more about that in this blog—although life ultimately turned out very differently.

Seventeen years later these memories seemed all but disappeared, as I stepped into a honey-scented spring evening at Leipzig’s steel and glass airport and took the train to its enormous shop-filled station. In the centre the next day, memories did start to come back, but more as hazes of remembered images than real memory.

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Overcoming a Literary Nemesis: Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Rob Packer

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Reading tics and habits develop over time, but a lot of mine came from studying German literature at university. Novels, plays, secondary literature, late-night essay-writing, rowing almost daily, college bar, going out, friends, drinks, procrastinating, you get the picture. Ten years ago the best place to cut corners seemed to be with short texts: plays and novellas were in, novels were out. This nascent fear was only confirmed when a bout of bad planning meant I read the 800-odd pages of Buddenbrooks one rainy weekend (don’t try this at home, kids!). Thomas Mann deserved more and—at a more leisurely pace—is now one of my absolute favourite writers. What hasn’t changed is the irrational fear of starting long, or “hard”, novels. I flick the book’s pages, wince at the number of pages, a commitment-phobe’s Pavlovian shudder runs down my spine, the book is back on the shelf, I’m reading something else before I know what’s happened and the tome sits on my bookshelf mocking me. One of these long-time nemeses is, or was, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz—admittedly, not that long, just with a reputation for being difficult. It is, in a word, incredible.

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The Joy of Anonymity: The Bode-Museum

By Rob Packer

We were followed by the sound of jangling keys. From room to room the doors were locked behind us and another dark uniform stood there by the door, fingers on keys, up and down, up and down, metal against metal, kerchink, kerchink. As we stopped to examine a Cranachian gruesomeness of hell, the metronome of the keychain picked up from adagio to andante. I could feel eyes focusing on the back of my head, whispered conversations in German and the kerchink kerchink of the keys. Didn’t we know they were closing soon?

The next time I was in Berlin it was 1998 and the Bode-Museum had closed for its decade of renovation. Living in Berlin one midsummer night, a wisp of daylight in the northern sky, I remember that blank neo-Baroque façade rising triangularly sheer out of the Spree, its moat, bridges connecting it to the river’s other banks, cut off by the railway line from the rest of the island’s museums. The Bode-Museum would forever recall that certain socialist officiousness that I remembered from that first foray into East Berlin, one sweltering summer afternoon in 1995. (My other, equally vivid, memory of that afternoon was on Alexanderplatz, where a drunk decided that my grandfather’s Ich spreche kein Deutsch, “I don’t speak German”, was a contradiction.)

Although the Bode-Museum reopened in 2006, I hadn’t got around to visiting until last month. Where once key chains had marked the hours, the museum today is bright spacious—and almost deserted—galleries of an amazing range of European (mostly religious) sculpture and Byzantine art. Rather than the headlong dash around enormous galleries to dutifully see famous painter after famous painter (I think we’re all guilty of this), the mostly anonymous sculptors here is actually quite refreshing: you can really concentrate on the aesthetics of these lifelike (or sometimes not so lifelike) pieces.

Take a look at the photos and judge for yourself.

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