Monday, December 22, 2008

A Harvest Bird Compendium


When I first got the idea for my dissertation, I planned to write it as a hypertext. I wanted to talk about memory and forgetting not as discrete things that precede or supersede one another, but as complementary by necessity, one always subsuming the other and then yielding in turn. I wanted to talk about a culture that is terrified of remembering too much, and nothing at all. There was something about the linearity of a book or a bound thesis that didn't lend itself to my eventual argument, I thought. The word "argument", even. I wanted to map a problem, not solve it. I wasn't enthusiastic about having to write an introduction - marking a starting point - much less about reaching a conclusion where all would be revealed.

That was the embryonic plan anyhow, and both my supervisors were keen for me to pursue it. But the university, in its august wisdom, had different ideas: you could submit a hypertextual thesis, they explained, so long as the examination copy and the library deposit were still readable from page 1 to n, in traditional linear fashion.

I've since heard myself many times over say "yes, darling, you can do that" to each of my children whilst also adding such crippling preconditions. Not the least of the similarities between parenthood and running a complex institution, if you ask me. And ultimately perhaps they, too, did it with my best interest at heart: for a long and laborious and expensive training had gone into teaching me how to construct forensic-type arguments full of persuasive and clearly-drawn conclusions; was I so sure that I could turn my back on all those years of ingrained habits and hard-earned skills just as I was about to approach the longest project of my twenty-year school career? Stick to what you know, son.

I'm sure it was actually for the best. But now that the bastard has been knocked off - and don't get me wrong, I'm happy with it and, yes, proud of the achievement, thankful for the help - I'm drawn again to that embryonic plan. And I've come to realise that what I was actually meaning to write, before I even knew what one was, was a blog. For a blog too is a text without memory, its phantom premises tucked away in a hypothetical and non-existent 'page 1', its approach always starting from the last, the latest page.

I speak as somebody who is bewitched by Google Analytics. This instrument of the devil tells me that every week I pick up some new readers, thanks in the main to the kind people who link to these endeavours, and that, if I'm lucky, along with the current offering they'll sample a previous post or two, rarely more than that. At the same time, the older posts that I thought dormant and forgotten begin a second life in the great word jumble in the sky, popping up in searches that range from the pertinent (plato worried about writing oral) to the bizarre (homer go to the floss store). Now, I of all people ought to be comfortable with this: if it sounds like the fresh approach to each new day of Leonard in Memento, or like the scroll forgotten-in-writing by Latro in Soldier of the Mist (remember the post A History of Blogging in Ancient Greece?), it's because the similarities are both stark and fitting. The blog-as-form reflects (on) today's reconfigured textualities and reading practices; it cuts you down to size by pushing last week's effort into instant oblivion, and flatters you that you shall never be forgotten for as long as busy fingers will wonder about what Homer said at the dental floss store.

And yet I'm also compelled to resist this, to interfere. Instant forgetting is a feature of the culture, yes, and is favoured by the medium, but one doesn't have to be happy about it, or take it lying down. There can be valid reasons - beside narcissism, I mean - for wishing one's words to linger a little longer, time enough to hopefully establish stickier connections.

And besides, most bloggers do this, and are far more sophisticated about it than I am. If you look to the sidebar you'll notice for instance that I'm travelling with the standard-issue retrograde chronological archive that is one of only two flavours in the Blogger template. Savvier users favour a more accessible list of previous posts, unencumbered by dates, or other layouts that include a brief description of the topic. Also, thus far I haven't used tags at all - I'm beginning this week as a matter of fact - and other than a slightly jocular "classic bat-bean-beam" feature, you won't find traces of an archival effort anywhere on this page.

So how do I account for this? Well, for one thing I'm still mulling it over, and am open to suggestions: it's one of the advantages of having readers who - with very few exceptions I suspect - know more about blogging than I do. And secondly, I plan to introduce from time to time a break in proceedings for the express purpose of producing tables of contents - thematic, chronological, alphabetical, based on the cycle of the tides - and doing some stocktaking. Slowing down blogging to the point of not moving at all is just the kind of thing that I would enjoy every now and again.

And today is one of those days. It is also the day I acknowledge the single happiest thing that has happened to me on the way to writing a blog.



Those of you who have ventured into the comments section will have noticed the appearance in week 4 of the furtive figure of Harvest Bird, poster of poems. And how it all came about is this: over at Spleen one week she and Stephen Judd were dropping rhymes on the subject of the respective ancestry, as you do - or rather, I suspect, they do - and I in turn, in the normal course of admiring the exchange, might have made some snide and silly comment about the fact that not all bloggers were as lucky as Mr Judd, and before you know it, certainly before I knew it anyhow, Harvest Bird had accepted the oblique invitation and I've been trying not to get rid of her ever since.

It has already been remarked around here that the poems are the best thing about this blog, but it's not just that. It's the sharing of time and talent, unburdened by assumptions or expectations, informal but no less serious, that yes, of course, in the first instance delights me, but also feeds into an idea of memory that is dear to me - a state of knowledge that is reached with the help of others - and challenges the persistent delusion that this text that goes under my banner and by-line is a product of my intellect alone, and that I control it.

Acknowledging Harvest Bird at this modestly symbolic juncture - the first change of calendar year in the young life of this blog - is appropriate too because she occupies another position, belonging as she does to a group that includes the Russell Browns and the Jolisa Gracewoods, the aforementioned Stephen Judds and the Paul Littericks, the Mercs and the Emma Harts, and a bunch of others, bloggers all, and more specifically New Zealand bloggers, that this expatriate needs to acknowledge, because it's been overwhelmingly from New Zealanders that I have learnt about blogging, and it's a community that values cooperation and the pooling of resources, and that relates in unique and often unexpected ways, of which "yes, I think I'll write poetry on your blog for a while" is but one example.

So without further ado, here's the blog thus far (update: as at 19 April 2010) according to the sequence of Harvest Bird's poems.

1. The Trouble Started with a Google Search
(no poems yet)

In which the author foretells the economic crisis after it had already happened.

2. The Platonic Half-Volley
(-2 weeks)

In which the author writes the last word on Plato (it's zygomorphic).

3. O Time Your Pyramids
(almost there)

A hypothetical Bat-Bean-Beam drinking game would involve doing a shot every time I mention Philip Dick or Jorge Luis Borges, and taking part would lead in short order to cirrhosis of the liver. This is JLB's turn: drink.

4. Recipes (1): Mericonda
Eating our way
to the centre of the Earth;
we'd heard it was all magma
but tasted only dough

5. Objects to Remember With
What bends the necks of the Omenoni?
Some thought, some sight, some long-worn knife?

6. Recipes (2): Pane Ferrarese
ganascino
look at that boy
so serious, such a young wise face
as delicious as if he were made of dough
so
who can resist
the pinching between the fingertips
the kneading in the palms
look!
time, fleshy, doughy, in our hands

7. The Curtained Wall
As the traveller's mouth extends to breakfast again and again,
so the flying boxcar rounds the horizon,
shunting daylight before it:
Thus the world is round.

As the weight of the traveller's body secures the transit bed,
so the blind wall maintains the hotel ceiling,
nothing to be seen and no eyes to see it:
Thus the world is flat.

8. Stop Forgetting
Liberace had a system for names:
little did his hostesses know
that they were tightly tied to objects

keeping instead this feeling that they were known by him
(Liberace, for it was he)
that trap-tight mind, that holding of the gaze

that face whose giant frescoed double
beamed down, radiant and empty
from the ceiling of a closetless bathroom

stop, stop, stop forgetting

9. Memento (1)
Mike from Neighbours
fell in love with a glamour model
thus breaking, for a while,
the heart of adoring Jane

while the blokes of Coober Pedy
spied that Adam was not a woman
by the ropey sinews
that gendered his arm

Ed Exley seasoned his bile
at the strain of corruption
not too late he understood
that they all were soaking in it

an actor's career is a palimpsest
new characters are painted with old brushes
you can scrape the words from your arm
but the stories are still there

10. Memento (2)
Betty had Alzheimer's
when we met
though neither of us knew this 'til later.

In the weekend, in the spring
we'd sit in her garden with our dogs
while she told me her memories.

India, Burma, Himalaya
the time there was rabies in the army camp
(all dogs had to be destroyed)

even when she didn't know what day it was
she still answered the phone the same:
"Megan!
I was

just

thinking

about
you"

11. How to Brush Your Teeth
fowls' teeth
fools' teeth
the whistler's gap
the mass beneath

get your teeth in
or get them out
the hardened gum
the mouth's redoubt

(all moa gone
shell middens, full
these ruined jaws
historical)

12. The Museum of You (1)
Arthur with puppy teeth
snipped in half
the jet pendant I brought back
from my trip to Whitby --

while Piper, our house guest,
tore at the corner
the hall wallpaper
just outside the bathroom door --

Millie, little firebrand,
ate the guts from two couches
thereby colonising
their sentimental value --

the twenty-dollar desk
at which I long-time annotated
the poems of Robin Hyde
had its leg chewed back by Evie --

while Eddie, and Fern,
puppies of the LolDog age
were surely the pure forms
for whom we coined Nom Nom Nom --

My house is a museum
of chewings, tearings and shreddings,
molar marks and indentations:
true stories of heroic animals.

13. You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages*
The jungle is filled with hypotheses,
for the reasons that I'm about to explain.
The Euro of course put an end to all that,
amongst the verdant and luxuriant flora.

The old book is still capable,
and he points to the last page:
the chap in the picture is Vincenzo Bellini.
It wasn't terribly hard to find.

Don't waste your time retorting.
The murderer was the reader.
Can't you see? Over there, look, between the trees:
Lector in fabula.

14. Caravaggio's Lost Painting
Matthew went to Antioch,
as did the people who made him their book;
they wrote it after Titus took
or rather, took out, Jerusalem.

This new-made gospel, I was taught,
was built on a bed of I-told-you-sos;
the temple that expelled the cult,
now ashy rubble on the hill.

15. Recipes (3): Panettone
How to Get the Most Out of Your War Rations
and Every Girl's Cookery Book


spell minor miracles made from dripping
or cabbage boiled for twenty minutes

but also stand a test of time:
the oven timer, the tasting test

(from Grandma I learned a lesson in love:
for whom you cherish, you bake a slice).
17. Gaza
Nos habebit humus, nos habebit humus

Inside the doll is another doll,
and inside that another, and
inside that, finally, a knot of wood and metal.
Outside the doll is home, made, or a rocket.

Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus

Would you have back 1938,
the allied soldiers firing on the Munich agreement,
raze to the ground those ghosts that every day
are here razed, pre-emptive, yet now post hoc?

Nos habebit humus, nos habebit humus

Behind that mother are the Levantine weapons,
or behind that boy are Occidental dollars,
or behind that father, another dozen martyrs,
kids gone to their deaths who won't swallow crow.

Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus

These pretas here will eat us all to death,
These asuras bring our houses down about us,
At boundary's edge, the barbed-wire sea coast,
At sea coast's edge, the ancestral, roiling sea.

18. How I spent My Summer Holiday
Elbow-deep in the material world,
how do we tell the story of our telling?
Eyes forward for the heresy, right for the schism,
the hands of the Presbyters, cool at our left,
without relent will jog us home.

19. 7 Grams
C02
scene anew

chickpeas
cheque, please

corralling Google
kit and caboodle

air miles
inciles

20. The Museum of You (2): Somebody's Home in Leipzig
On Kristallnacht in 1938,
one of the city's most architecturally significant buildings,
the 1855 Moorish Revival Leipzig synagogue,
was deliberately destroyed.

After the devastation of the war,
the restoration and reconstruction of the city
were carried out under the communist policies
of East Germany.

It is reported that on one occasion
Bach became so upset with Görner's playing
that he snatched off the man's wig
and threw it at him.

21. Mad Men Live on Mars (Oppressed Women Live on Venus)
The belt that's cinched above the waist
must match that which it sits atop.
A girdle first constrains beneath
with bone the midriff's fleshy spread.

What everyone and no-one knows
for sure will circle there the hips:
the private belt that holds in place
a mass-produced containment system.

Her body, not so very evil,
accepts these lighter punishments
enjambèd here, whose rouge imprint
cross hatches her at end of day.

22. The Dullest Person I've Ever Come Across
Innumerable soft, flat shoes,
twenty or more cardigans,
some house coats,
petticoats,
others I think were thrown away
by the nursing staff.

Her jewellery and its box
were separated,
one to daughter, the other to granddaughter:
they shared her possessions as they share her name.

You cannot have her;
she is dead.
You cannot say her name
save in her absence.

(When we asked
why she didn't see her father before he died,
she cried:
"I can't --
I can't remember.")

23. The Stuff of Life
i.

People with head injuries
will keep breaking our hearts:
the spinning of the wheels,
impending bank --

no traction.

We can say goodbye every day,
say it at breakfast and afternoon tea;
we can be on our death bed
and still not be done.

ii.

Philip McCabe, aged twenty-four,
came off his motorbike in '48:
that was that, but not for her.

iii.

no traction;
refraction
but no interaction.

no scan
can make the image of
that man.

24. Unbecoming
Stoned kids in Amsterdam, far from home
get stuck on Anne Frank's narrow stairwell
They goggle their eyes at the photos of Belsen:
a bad trip and a worse destination.

Downstairs there, in the quiet gift shop,
you can buy that gone girl's diary
in most of the written languages of the world
though for Arabic, you'd look in vain.

Not far away, by end of evening
glow the red-lit signs for the live sex shows.
They light up in English and sometimes Arabic,
which neon surmounts the former script.

The stoned kids giggle and stare in the windows,
make sport of the motionless women for sale.
We're taking our history in here through the eyes,
we're floating home glib through a sea of sights.

25. Live Bookmark loading...
The wayback machine
does not render me you
nor do your letters,
nor our photos,
nor the friends pictured within.

Sometimes here I trawl your name
and marvel at the lack of trace:
your quiet life so lively lived
but not for any virtual reach.

Not our friends pictured within,
nor their photos,
nor your letters
still can render me you.
We have no wayback machine.

26. Live Bookmark feed has failed to load.
It may be possible to continue normally.
That girl with cloudy eyes who lacks her memory:
Her lesser option, here, to wait and see.

The young wave jumper balancing above the sea,
Whose move requires a weaker form of gravity
(It may be possible to continue normally).

The screen that tells which one of them deserved to be,
The fetid house, the long-gone family:
His only option, here, to wait and see.

The fire-damaged pictures that you came to see,
The museum wall a family-album parody:
It may be possible to continue normally.

The click of death that halted the machinery,
An abdication of your poor authority.
Your present option, here, to wait and see.

Quotidian events became our destiny,
A coming-up-for-air before the tragedy.
Our last-ditch option, here, to wait and see:
It may be possible to continue normally.

27. Looking Good in a Barrel
Those to whom history happens
may find its end come sooner after all --

the high, wide face of her soldier-rapist
crossing the Elbe in early spring

or the drowned tube tunnels at Balham
when the road split open like a maw.

Too much time
for looking back on your teleology;

the strange yet griefless memory
of life once lived as successive events.

28. Zombie Ideas
"'A zombi is a dead person
who seems to be alive
or a living person
who is dead.'"

Rhys made Rochester
mad for the unknown;
his wife, lovers, servants--
what had they that he did not?

On the other side
of our modern legend
is Pratchett's Reg Shoe:
whose revolution needs the dead

(no purgatory, no island torpor),
too much to do.

29. Reverend Awdry's Revenge
What happens to an engine's mind
when he is walled up in a tunnel?
Is he comatose, or is it quietude?
How fares his moral reason

without steam?

and Oh
says Henry
my friends are in retreat
and Oh
the world is very moral
and Oh
will my engine eyes never scan
the island's godless sky again?


30. Earthquake
From Taishō to Shōwa
with parentheses of fire

these Heisei skyscrapers belie
how flat this plain can be.

31. The Seven Words You Can Never Use on the Web (except, not really)
The graves on which we spit and dance,
will be tamped to sea level by summer's end.
God's Wounds, by Mary,
or what the deuce,

we can go to the Devil,
we can die in a fire.

32. The History of Your Blood
1.

Martin Heidegger
that famous Mitläufersaved some figures of speech
for cattle and people:

the cross-country route,
the wheels of industry,
unspeakable abattoir,
Arbeit macht frei.

For this turn of mind,
he won't be forgiven:
the wartime transported
made animal again.

2.

A short walk from here
is the Sockburn abattoir,
quiet hub of the south-west
a bloodied green belt.

Still, I live my life
in furious inverse:
the best that I have
reserved for my animals.

This act of folly
is a kind of atonement.
I measure myself
by what I won't kill.

33. Liveblogging the Apocalypse
Our coming death certificates
get written by others every day:

one thousand million choices
will cumulate, futilely, at our grave.

The world's a-flurry with augurs
who cast grand lots on the what-might-happen:

my money's on the safer bet
that what I'm now doing will one day kill me.

34. Fascists on Mars
That imaginary stone woman
who comes toward you
in an uncanny, truth-like drift,
is holding high a mirror.

Behind the mirror are the laurel leaves,
or beams of anti-meridian light,
or starry variants that intertwine.
It doesn't matter. They're in her hair. That doesn't matter.

In the mirror-glass
you see yourself
but not as you are. You've been remade.
Look at that high truthful brow,
that purposeful expression. Just like those
beside you.

From this first mirror,
you'll be charged to make your own.
Keep the sharp edge of the shard
outwardly directed.
It's up to you,
or those beside you:
they'll decide who's reflected
and who's not.

You can call it a lie. It doesn't matter. That uncanny, truth-like drift
was just a metaphor. That doesn't matter. The sharp edge of the shard
is not.

35. This is New Zealand - Asian Edition
Underdog with Dairy Cow

1.
Here the trees now grow like grass;
to bear aloft a modern people.

Tane Mahuta, in a yoga headstand,
will render his mother 100% pure.

The face of Tu at Anzac Cove
with poets and publicists makes the nation.

A hall of parliamentary portraits
not bigots, fools, but friendly ghosts.

2.
You and I are world-class,
multicultural, cosmopolitan.

Prizefighters of a leaner polity,
an underdog with dairy cow.

This hall of mirrors in our waters,
none other than a global stage.

We feint and dive across the paddock,
to punch above an unknown weight.

36. The Museum of You (3): Something You Lost
Three correspondences

1.
The letters she wrote me
I stored with devotion,
inside a drawer that was
dense with keepsakes.

Though her stories took up
the whole of that space,
when exposed to the light
the sun shone through.

Her handwriting changed
as she shifted continents.
Whatever I wrote her
got lost in the moving.

2.
He didn't love me,
this I knew early,
yet still I wrote letters
I composed coming home.

They were too long, too detailed,
and ripe-sentimental,
though of what they were made
I wholly forget.

He read them and biffed them,
this he said often,
though his then-future wife
later pored over traces.

3.
The night you moved in, you gave me your school reports to read, as if to say this was the best and worst of you.

We've never been apart long enough to write, so I keep your choicer text messages in the saved folder on my phone.

I love you in words and pictures: that bright-eyed child who grew up to send me images of a hat you wore at a party; the photos of the dogs; the photos of our fridge.

37. The Pixel Years
Galaga

"They're going to come in waves and there's always going to be another wave after the one you just destroyed. Which is also a lesson in capitalism, if you think about it."

Racing thoughts, panic attacks, the return of the repressed.

Vomiting-viruses, Chemo-nausea, Parkinson's tremor.

Midges, labour pains, children after sports matches.

Evil aliens, sinful deeds, the giggles.

38. Heartfield
The ossified bones
of national stories;
the dull competition
of blunted ideas;

a nation soon bound
in a poisoned hide;
an imaginary body
with a slow-spreading rash.

A heritage charges
we find the right metaphors;
be prescient, organised
stubborn and swift.

To sever the thong
that bound the fasces:
a pantomime motion,
a thousand feints.

39. The Supermarket of Babel
My eyes made wide and
bulging

this glut of labels
reading.

Our electronic
spending

my grandad's thrift un-
ravelling.

40. Matariki
At Seven Sisters I changed
(I think) to Edmonton Green.
To the north of North London.

There was a low-rise mall, with
market traders. You could walk
(I think) to Enfield Lock.

It wasn't a long visit, but I forced
some decisions.

They may not have been the best,
but they were mine.


(and this, from Keri h)

A long time ago, before I was adolescent, I met an old lady who fed the stars.
I knew of her - she was lame with arthitis; her two sons had died
at El Alamein
and her daughter had
'gone up north for a while'
and never come back-
she was never Taua- just Mrs' Looney'
and while she knew us beach-wild mongrels
she only liked one of my younger sisters
-who was winsome and blond (and scared)

when I came out that frosty night
-I saw a tiny spark fire up on Raumoa and it
might be just my shady shaky eyes again-
and I hated that idea, so-
and there she was, old Mrs Who
wobbling around her stick and trying
to get the fire to really go

I got cracklekelp, and sticks
and huffed, and all the while
she dirged in the background-
o! run the soundtrack of that past
reciting of truly ancient words
-again? Please-

and eventually
my breath & the sea sufficed
to cook and send
whatever she had put in that accurate kete, sizzled and fried and went to smoke to feed those stars
who otherwise would have died-

and as she staggered back down that strange historic hill she howled-

"Only you! No-one really else!

She would not take my hand.
She would not hold my shoulder.

41. You Didn't Know Him
Though lost to sight, to memory dear
Isabella Foster, d. 1876

Dunedin in those days
was a town of omitters:
people whose life stories
were as webs, as ephemera.

The kind of town
where a mother and father
could drift in for a wedding
then wash out again.

Their son, hopeful young man
not long in the city
was the first time a widower
in less than a year.

Isabella
buried there
Catholic father,
Melbourne-born.

We found your name
at the Mormons
and when we cheered
they shushed us down.


Little girl, little wife
how long before no-one said your name?
By the time of my grandfather, at least,
his father -- your husband -- didn't speak of you,
but then
he was an old man then,

by then.

Traces find their way through though, don't they?
It was there in the marriage certificate -- his, not yours --
it was there in photocopied script;
"Widower". It was you. You were there despite the silence.

Little girl, little wife,
we talk about you all the time;
we've got your death certificate.
We say your name. You and your dad
there in South Dunedin cemetery.
Kin of our kin, little girl.
You're in our story. We've got you. We've got you.

42. Places of Memory, Memory of Place
At the north end of the Thames Highway
turn right at Bill and Max's
then right again at the top of the street.

Their cul-de-sac's just before Centennial Park.
Their car's away in the garage
so your car can fit in front.

There is the man
who waves in the window,
who waves with his left arm.
His right's retired at his side.

You can run up the concrete steps,
double back on the long ramp,
reach up to the high door handle
on the deep back porch.

Everything in this house is dark and high,
the corners are full of beautiful shadows.
The man in the kitchen loves you very much:
oh, this is incontestable.

43. Too Loud a Solitude
Robin Hyde at Waiatarua
wished she had her Malory there. Inside was a specific illustration
of a scene that had stood,
a little earlier,
for something she didn't want to say.

This she wrote in '37.
It was published in '84,
one in a series of 'scripts and fragments.
I had a second-hand copy of that volume.
I think my mother may have found it for me.

By the turn of the century
I was a funded student of Hyde,
all passion but not too many ideas.
Michele Leggott suggested
I pay attention to
some of the things Hyde had read.
I wanted to find that Malory.

Editors and inventors had
come out of the long skirts of Tennyson,
to tell Malory-stories
again and again.
Rackham, Beardsley engraved and illustrated.
The story was compressed
for softer sensibilities.
This was before the Winchester manuscript,
before Vinaver. All adpatations
were out of Caxton.

Hyde had mentioned Rackham
as her illustrator.
I fed my inquiries through interloans.
They found me a copy
in the Invercargill Public Library,
a Great War-era abridgement.

The drawings were by Rackham, but
the illustration to which she clung
wasn't there.
That whole section of the narrative
wasn't there.
Hyde always was a beautiful mis-rememberer.

I cast a browsing arc
to proximate editions.
I sat in the narrow aisle
between the library shelves.
I looked through the donated volumes
in the library's possession.
I found the picture,
found the volume. W. Russell Flint
the illustrator's name.

There's not much that's concrete
in literary academia.
Books buckle under the weight of
the ideas heaped upon them. Originary objects are viewed under vitrines,
or touched through gloved hands.
Texts are visible through contexts,
which we cannot transfer.

Yet I had this book, and this evidence.
I saw the picture that she remembered.
She mislaid her copy before she went to the bush.
It was borrowed from a friend, who died.

44. Binge Thinking
What are you doing, @harvestbird?

Form

#Writing with a famine of #keystrokes.
This invisible salon exerts a vacuum.

I feel the short-form's #pressure
to finely-turn my phrases.

Censoring, in slowish motion,
my duties, #fears and pleasures.

Where elsewhere I might lumber,
here, I yet #fizz.

Content

Either:

It is here much like anywhere else:
define #yourself by what you're not.
Long-spar with life's antagonists
in constant flow of idle #words.

Or:

I was #hapu there
and then I was not.

Or:

Attention seeking
becomes attention deflecting.
Sometimes on the internet
too many people, #listening.

After W.H. #Auden

Twitter makes nothing happen:
it survives, flows on south
From the busy griefs; it survives,
A way of happening (#lol!), a mouth.

45. What Do You Know?
What do I know?
Smashed oracle, small blogger,
keywords in a centrifuge.

working and depression
high-functioning depression
potter's ground


For advice on how to live your life,
you'll have to infer through squinting eyes.

street teenagers
adventurous people
ear popper

soft flat shoes


My stories
will exchange for stories;
an anonymous trade.

your baby is the size of a cucumber
miscarriage symptoms
pregnant dog
language metaphors


all over the keyboard
we're gambling on the future

cheese wedding cake
average amount spent on a wedding


(the prophetic sky, the archival deep)

matariki seven sisters
octopus illustrations
the soul doctor


46. The Death of Cinema
Dear pen drive, little USB-stick,
dear data in a thumb-sized stub,
your final mutability
was an irksome transformation.

Dear cluster of plastic and metal
whose end was abrupt and which
consumed some files I needed that day:
I don't suppose it matters.

I improvised my talk, recurred to
electronic sources for my handouts;
I'd backed you up on networks
which in turn back up to networks,

but still, my hand dives into the
back of my bag for you
by habit, impulse; dear little amputee,
dear toy.

47. Employment, History
Google-Babel-Alphabet-Whispers

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God
and the Word was God

In die begin was die Woord, en die Woord was by God
en die Woord was God

Në fillim ishte Fjala dhe Fjala ishte me Perëndinë
dhe Fjala ishte Perëndi

في البدء كان الكلمة والكلمة كان عند الله
وكان الكلمة الله

У пачатку было Слова, і Слова было ў Бога,
І Слова было Бог

В началото бе Словото и Словото беше у Бога;
И Словото бе Бог

Al principi era el Verb i el Verb era amb Déu;
I el Verb era Déu

在太初的道與神同;
而道就是神

Cesta je u početku u Boga u istoj;
I Riječ bijaše Bog

Cesta je na počátku u Boha ve stejné;
A to Slovo byl Bůh

Stien er i begyndelsen hos Gud i det samme;
Og Ordet var Gud

Het pad is in het begin bij God in hetzelfde;
En het Woord was God

Tee alguses Jumala juures selles;
Ja Sõna oli Jumal

Gawin ito sa simula ng Diyos;
At ang Salita ay Diyos

Tee näin alussa Jumalan
Ja Sana oli Jumalan

Pour ce faire, au début de Dieu
Et le Verbe était Dieu

Para iso, a comezos de Deus
Ea Palabra era Deus

Aus diesem, dem Beginn der Gott
Und das Wort war Gott

Για αυτό, οι αρχές του Θεού
Και ο Λόγος ήταν ο Θεός

לכן, עקרונות של אלוהים
והמילה היתה אלוהים

इसलिए, परमेश्वर के सिद्धांतों
शब्द ईश्वर था

Ezért az elveket, az Isten
Isten szava

Því að meginreglur Guðs
Orð Guðs

Untuk prinsip-prinsip Allah
Firman Allah

Chun na prionsabail a bhaineann le Dia
An Focal Dé

I principi di Dio
La Chance parola

神の原則
単語のチャンス

하나님의 원리
단어의 기회

Dieva principi
Word of iespējas

Dievo principai
Žodis galimybių

Божјите принципи
Збор на можности

Prinsip Allah
Word peluang

Il-prinċipju ta 'Alla
Opportunità Word

Prinsippet om Guds
Opportunity Word

اصل خدا
فرصت ورد

Bóg Artykuł
Szansa Verde

Deus artigo
Chance Verde

Articolul lui Dumnezeu
Chance verde

Статья Бога
Шанс зеленый

Члан Бог
Могуће Зелена

Boh členských
Prosím, Zelená

Boga država
Prosimo, Green

Dios miembros
Por favor, Verde

Mungu Member
Tafadhali Verde

Gud Medlem
Please Verde

สมาชิกพระเจ้า
กรุณาเคป

Üye Tanrım.
Lütfen Cape.

Члени Богу.
Будь ласка, мис.

Các thành viên của Thiên Chúa.
Xin vui lòng mũi.

Aelodau Duw.
Os gwelwch yn dda trwyn.

מיטגלידער פון גאָט.
ביטע נאָז.

Members of God.
Please nose.

48. One.
i.

When they saw her
manuscripts' disorder,
then they knew
her depression was mortal.

ii.

My affairs I conducted
between towers of paper;
one sweep of the arm
and all order was gone.

iii.

When first I set off
the alarm at the library
I imagined a Venetian
midget would stab me.

iv.

These poems are policies;
this verse, standing orders.
Don't look now;
I'm ticking the boxes.

v.

At Kent Street
I slept in the study.
I read the titles
on the spines of the books.

Thirty years later
I remember that wall.
Their home was my home.
Those names, my backbone.


49. Investing for Dummies
Oh, we invested in you,
a kind of futures trading:
time, money and mobility
yet to be set aside.

That's the way it goes,
baby, often and often enough:
the word for you was "blighted"
although by whom, dunno.

The last thing we spent on you
was giving you a pronoun:
only once you'd gone from us
were you in the second person.

50. Recipes (4): Making Pizza with Lucia
You whom we made,
you whom we need,

Needless, to say,
mindfully, risingly,

needing, needling,
kneeling, kneading,

the pounding of the dough.
The heart set, to-and-fro.

51. Home/Not Home
look back harder
through emptied spaces
no force of hindsight
can move the dust motes
indefinite shadows
the plants' life cycles
our words exhaled
the leaves sucked in.

52. Milan, City of Fashion
Trip, trap, trip, trap
What's the cut of that uniform?
The bus goes where? Oh please inform;

(trip, trap, trip, trap)
who are those you don't adorn?
The drowned girls on the beach folorn?

(trip, trap, trip, trap)
This national pride's a gull.
Full scorn
to half-concealed fasces borne.

53. Airports (1): Dubai International
A man, eaten by a worm
holds his credit card aloft
while hands that look well-meaning
pull him out, or in,
to the body of another worm.

To travel, you must be consumed,
the body's clock that eats itself, enamel cracked, politest teeth:
hot towel, sir? Your length of stay?
(the time that was, where once you were).

54. Il Divo / The Deity
They know something we don't know,
the singing coffins beneath the streets,
the walls pulled down for paving stones,
the skull of unexpected smallness.

Vox populi or vox humana
get busted up like broken tiles
or start that way, as murmurs, rumours,
the truths so easily taken back.

55. The Labours of Herakles
Lionised;
Ironised.

Hydra-man;
hydro-dam.

Golden hind;
Double-bind.

Pig hunt;
Waterfront.

Clean stables;
League tables.

Bronze wings;
Arrows, slings.

Cretan Bull,
Farmer's fool.

Mares of Thrace,
Last Race.

Amazon Girdle,
Temperance Hurdle.

Geryon's Cattle,
Taonga Battle.

Hesperides' fruit,
Kōuka root.

Cerberus taken,
Plans mistaken.

56. Reshaping the Invisible
Beautiful women, falling from heaven
hope not to land in an aisle with a spill.
The blockish heels on their work-shoes
aren't enough to stop an awkward slide,
and the metal-edged shelves offer no support.

Beautiful women, falling from heaven
get bruised knees when they land at low tide.
It's fortunate that their high-riding skirts
don't usually come too close to sea-level,
since beauty abhors a darkened hem.

Beautiful women, falling from heaven,
rattle their keys and their consciences at dusk.
They need hairspray, insoles, needle and thread;
they're sewing themselves a safety net,
and need to get off the metro before the shops close.

57. The Canto of Ulysses
Penelope at the door
or Penelope on the shore

knows no-one's coming home.
The house is over-run with

idiot suitors; the slaves
build coracles that each day

sail further and further out.
The birds of prey nest low;

their eyes measure her for
carrion. Carry on. No-one's

coming home, but no-one. No-
one's coming home.

58. Authoriety
I'm going down to Alphabet Street
for the which, with sounds of woe,
some child, born in a marvellous year
will learn, Computer Says No.

Just you know why, why you and I
thank my beauty. I am fair that shoot
the most beautiful fraud in the world,
to tear out this charnel's darnel-root.

59. Truth Comes to Aotearoa
Out of the scourge of metaphors
comes a different kind of falling:
a knife through Babel as through butter,
for hearts that dropped, a newer order.

I'll see you your imagination
and raise you waste upon a wasteland:
the blow that fell upon your neck
steered by another hand, out back.

60. In the Shadow of No Towers
You did not die at Brighton,
nor your young son at Picton,
nor your husband at Sydenham,
nor his children, in time.

The trace of you's not seen on me
so we might say, you never lived
by definition: here we are,
another place where you are not.

I could take my lies to Linwood
where monumental masonry
for now, at least, says otherwise
in trickster's thin air.

61. Psycho-Cybernetics (and Ghosts)
Almighty and most merciful Father;
Elf Your Face
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
Transform your face into a Christmas cartoon that looks like you.

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
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We have offended against thy holy laws.
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We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
Breastfeeding photo comp
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
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And there is no health in us.
Get MY SKY HDi now
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Now’s the perfect time to get SKY and experience the magic of MYSKY Hdi – Everything’s in here.

Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults.
Cosmopolitans at yours?
Restore thou them that are penitent;
Easy! Shake over ice and garnish with mint or lime.

According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.
Bumper Xmas Foodie Prizes
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake;
Competitons, Celebrity Chef blogs, recipes, forums, reviews.

That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
There's probably no God
To the glory of thy holy Name.
Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. Amen.

62. 2012, 2025
I hold out my arms to 2027
the original falling due of my first mortgage
which, by force of will and fixed-term payments,
I draw daily ever closer to me.

2014 is the most recent date
to which I've tied its timely death.
Though the front porch sags with a rotten post
My debt-free house wouldn't dare fall down.

My new husband duly takes his place
with interest behind the magic dates.
What dares obscure the shining path?
I cast it aside, as knight to knave.

63. Lambrusco Socialism
Draw out now
and bear unto
the governor of the feast --

What I've got
you got to get
and put it in you --

you! Take some time
to love me.

**

The thing not to do
said our history teacher
is confuse
lebensraum with Liebestraum --

but really,
my house
my table

my ancestors
our rules.

Shut up and drink.

64. A Rare Opportunity to Individualise your Lifetime
The fibreglass butterflies ascend
the front of the unit. There is a

flower-shaped windmill with a
happy face, planted in the ground

below. It rattles when it spins.
A small ceramic gardener displays

a length of butt-crack; china
flowers and toadstools inter-

mingle with the pansies and
lobelia. Once I saw a golliwog.

Hand-painted pins and badges stick
to the side of the letterbox like

fungus, though the back flat's
portion is completely bare.

Tourists draw up in rental cars
sometimes, mostly visitors from

Asia. They take pleased photos,
stare at the proliferation. You

can imagine the owners' hands by
night, extending through the front

window, affixing objects man- and
home-made with all the happy slap

and pop of a kitchen fridge-magnet,
a plastic suction-cup.

65. Haiti, in 3D
Lazarus Voodoo, buried under blocks, pushed upward: the stone gave way above his palms. He sprang backward into the light, out of the pit, into the place, into the arms of Mary and Martha and Yeshua.

He never told what it was like down there. After a while, this didn't matter; there were enough stories of that kind anyway, the dark, the heat.

66. Postcolonialicious
Yeshua had family in Florida. The others didn't especially want to go, but really, for what, for now, was there to stay? So they went, with the clothes they were wearing, Lazarus V. as ever doing his little turn as they got on the boat, looking back.

It was Yeshua's friends, not Mary or Martha, who'd given L. his silly nickname. Now, there was no reason for it not to stick; he'd come up out of the ground! They called him "Voo" and took him to the movies. "Hey, Voo." He imagined it was "vous", some English-language misuse that included his sisters, who came too, came with Voo.

In the theatre he slept, hidden behind his glasses. Maybe his sisters did as well. The green came through his eyelids into his REM, into his dream, imaginary water.

In the foyer, Mary handed over her glasses and whispered, "I don't remember a thing". Martha took his hand. "I wonder if we're going blind." Yeshua and his friends were already in the carpark, beyond the bright lights of the interior, looking for their ride home.

67. This Is Our Land!
Nativists and atavists, one and all,
come here,
under the wide white wings of the bear.

This Pegasus for a different age
comforts or crushes us all, together,
no room for slurs, no time for words:

new populist for a shaggy people.

68. About Dustmen
The Staffie in the passenger seat
of the rubbish truck on its Sockburn round
and the Huntaway on the top of the ute
that crossed the main road in Karamea:

this is our job
this is our purview
this is the man with whom we do it.
Look at us while we ride up front,
the pride with which we hold our heads.

69. Human Terrain
On the back road from Karamea
the bobby calves were gathered
muzzles at the wire
using cows for cover.

After a day of driving
Aeneas started to waver
lacking the stomach for Latium
tasting the air of Hades.

He'd gone down and down and down
saw his wife, father and lover
without a thought of the meat dust
on the road from Karamea.

70. Pompeii
Plaster, poured on Tonks Street, might
trace the short road down to the shore
and thus pollute North Brighton but
not show us much of where she died.

Her trace got left us somewhere else;
a short life and a briefer death.
Three artefacts to crack the heart
put incompletely back together.

One family photo: there she is,
a fair-haired, round-kneed, chubby child.
One story: she had rheumatic fever.
Her sister carried her on her back.

One tree: the weeping silver birch
whose roots protrude, whose branches show
the still site of her unmarked grave
abortive tale with seasonal shade.

71. Pain Relief
There was a classroom poster of all the birds and their names,
mostly in English. The most
dangerous birds (to you) at the

top, the least were at the bottom.

I read it to avoid the other
readings (water safety,
fire safety, burning children and
drowning girls) and read it again.

I watched the wall and read it again.

Hot August night, under covers in
someone else's room, someone else's town
I could hear the sound of my own groaning.
After a while the birds came into focus:

beak, wings, breast, bearers of pain.

This is the New Zealand Falcon
and behind it, this, this is the Kakapo.
Sharp motion followed by dull ache.
The adults at the door in the dark.

I don't remember what happened after that

to me or to the pain; it must have stopped.
We were miles from the city hospital.
The beating of the wings,
the scuffling of the claws.

I was ashamed of the metaphor

and of the pain. (Fire, water, learn.) The birds retreated to the wall, the poster superseded.
The lesson never got repeated.

72. School
The playing surface is on fire,
the writing surface, under water.
The buildings raise a mountainside,
the bodies cowering as they died.

The angry kids assemble here
for snacks and quiet in lieu of play.
The future migrants walk the coast
for rusting hulks to use as boats.

73. The Phoenicians
When Dido fell upon her sword
Anna took up historiography.
The burning waterfront was her idea:
a lie for cowardly lovers to read.

What the smoke and flames obscured
was a princess with her architects.
There wasn't much time for what she planned:
the whole damn city underground.

74. Shadow Children
What to do about that girl-of-twelve
who, though bright enough
cries a lot,

doesn't want to mix with others,
gave up swimming and
can't take a joke.

Academics and such are all very well
but if she won't fit in soon
she never will;

She needs to jog or jolly along
ask fewer questions and
get on with it.

75. 'The Dream Is Over'
North Beach was for when you had nothing
save the dunes that protected the houses from the worst of the wind.
The women were breadwinners, by and large;
they did knitting, or mending, or took in boarders.
What the boarders did
came out in memoirs much later;
suffice to say
it was neither Christian nor kind.

The men stayed and worked, or came and went,
the children knew a little of what they didn't have.
There was a density of churches
and prayer, no doubt, too;
polite conversation, in lieu of gossip
effaced the density of suffering.

Some of the children grew up to the middle class,
a different kind of walking wounded
from their peers, the war veterans.
It wasn't just the men who had things
not to talk about.
Their hurt stayed silent for years
then broke out in retirement:
depression, confession, the ranks of the evangelicals
brought back bad angels for good people
who'd assumed, somewhere, the fault was their own.

76. Marked
We will die here,
or at least our labour will
or at least the printed pages'
simulacra of our thought.

Inside the emptied tower block
the new rewriting, ex cathedra,
invisibly reaches to occupy space
to harry or hurry the slow and the old.

77. Time Travel (1) - Leningrad in 1963
The intersection where you died
gets a lot of traffic
and why not? It's central to the
city, as well you know.
You died at rush hour
doing something stupid. My good
fortune is that my stupidity
has yet to kill me.

What a mess a white wooden cross
would make of that good clean intersection,
or rather, what a mess the
buses that turn across it would
make of the white wooden cross.
You know what I mean. I don't
miss you like I used to, and neither
I suppose do your mates; it's good,
I guess, that the violence of your
going doesn't keep us awake like
it used to.

Still, I wish sometimes for some
sort of memorial, just like I wished
the day after you died for a report
other than in the freebie evening paper
which I doubt you ever read. I grumble
at the fact of that celebrity kid
who died just after you (though
technically the day before). We'll
never joke about your last minutes
the way people joke about his.

Indeed, you wrecked the Manchester precinct
for me for years, boy. Those shops
and nightclubs were like mausoleums to me; cavernous mouths pouring kids like you
on to the streets, still, still, still.



Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Recipes (3): Panettone


There is a beautiful Italian word, spoetizzarsi, it literally means feeling the poetry drain out of you. I shall illustrate the usage with a little story that I am fond of telling. I had been in New Zealand for about six months, home sickness at an all time high, when I came out of the City Limits Café in Wellington and for a split second I had an intense, endorphin-laden sensation of being back in Milan. It was the smell of home. I turned around just in time to see the delivery truck that had just left the parking space next to me disappear into traffic.

That was my Proustian moment, then. Exhaust fumes. I was utterly spoetizzato.

By choice, I would have selected other moments, far more poetic aromas. How about the day in October when they would start the yearly production of panettone at the Alemagna bakery near my place? Not only it was a fabulous smell, a portent of butter and eggs and candied fruit, but also a prelude to Christmas, and the reaction among the kids in the area was practically Pavlovian. At least that's how I choose to remember it - the bakery closed down a long time ago - but I recall what the smell itself felt like, effortlessly, and needless to say it wasn't the same whiff you got by opening a box of the stuff so many weeks later. It was the smell of a moment in time, the cranking up of the season.

The exact origin of panettone is uncertain, but is generally made to coincide with the days of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke who hired Leonardo da Vinci as the city's main artist and engineer. Of all the many variations on the story of this happy invention, however, none that I know attributes the dome shaped bread-come-cake to Leonardo. It seems that the name is a conflation of pan del Toni, Toni's bread, and this Toni naturally we assume was a baker. That's about all we know. But we have some idea of the ritual that panettone fitted into, and it's a suggestive one. On Christmas day, the Milanese families used to congregate - as they had for centuries - in front of a block of oak lit in the hearth over a bed of juniper. The father would pour a glass of wine, drink the first sip and pass it around for everyone to have a taste, then he would throw a coin into the fire and dispense one coin each to the others. At the end of the ritual he would be handed three panettoni (which in earlier times had been wheat loaves), and he would cut a piece off one of them, which the family would have to keep intact until the following Christmas. This special piece was attributed thaumaturgical powers, and a great misfortune awaited those who should fail to preserve it.

So it goes like this: a non-liturgical ritual, that quite possibly predates Christianity and hasn't survived until the present day, has left us a cake, or rather, a recipe, a series of gestures and procedures for producing a smell capable, on a small industrial scale, to spread through a neighbourhood and make young minds think of Christmas.

It is just as well we cannot digitise smells, some might opine; but they, too, are the stuff of memory. Besides Proust, it was Patrick Süskind I think who most famously attempted to restore this most neglected of senses - in literature, I mean - setting his Perfume in the smelliest place in all of 18th-century France, and trying oh so very hard to make his words, fit for your eyes and ears, tickle the parts of the brain that would, if they could, speak in smellese. But at the end of the day his are no more than olfactory descriptions, and remain anchored to the page. I shall venture to suggest in fact - although naturally you should feel free to take issue - that when lost in a book you and I often find it quite easy to see with our mind's eye. But smelling with one's mind's nose is quite another matter.

I am not a good cook, and I know I shall never do justice to those of my mother's and my nonna's favourite dishes that I have doggedly tried to reproduce over the years. The taste will always leave something, possibly a lot, to be desired. But there comes a time in most preparations when I get something right - the smell. And I have every faith that even if I botched one or more aspects of the following recipe, if the panettone fails to rise or is misshapen, if no matter what I do it always burns on the outside and remains raw on the inside, hell, even if I should set fire to the kitchen, there will nonetheless be a moment when I shall, perhaps briefly, get hold of that smell, and be once again a boy walking past the Alemagna bakery.

Panettone alla milanese


Makes three panettoni of one kilogram each. (We're working on a quasi-industrial scale, remember).

1,350 g white flour
400 g butter
300 g castor sugar
250 g fresh baker's yeast
200 g currants
50 g candied citron
50 g candied orange
15 eggs

Tip on a wooden board 150 g of flour and create a fountain shape. Crumble the yeast in the fountain with a little warm water. Mix the flour in slowly to produce a soft dough and knead it well. Shape it into a ball and leave in a warm and dry place, inside a bowl covered with a cloth, for at least three hours, until double in size. Tip on the board another 130 g of flour, and create another fountain. Put the risen dough from the previous preparation in the middle and mix it with the rest of the flower, adding a little warm water in the process. Again you're going to make a ball, and place it in a covered bowl in the same dry and warm place, this time for two hours, again it ought to double in size. Dice the candied citron and the candied orange. Wash and soften in lukewarm water the currants (for no longer than fifteen minutes), then drain and dry them thoroughly.

Tip on the board 1 kilogram of flower, mix in two teaspoons of salt and create the usual fountain shape.

Melt on a very low heat 300 g of butter.

Melt the sugar in one inch of warm water. Whip in 12 yolks and three whole eggs. Put the container in bain-marie until lukewarm.

Take the twice-risen dough out of the bowl, place it in the middle of the fountain and, adding the warm melted butter first, then the egg and sugar syrup (also warm), mix in gradually all of the flour. Knead the dough vigorously for about 20 minutes, until it assumes the consistency of bread dough. Add the currants and candied fruit. Divide the dough according to how many panettoni you want to produce (which will depend in turn on the size of the oven), roll them, wrap them with cardboard bands and leave them to rise for another six hours in a warm place. Place them, without removing the cardboard, in a heated oven (200-220°C). Cut in pieces the remaining butter and put it quickly on the surface after five minutes of cooking. Put back in the oven for the remainder of the cooking time, which ranges from 45 to 90 minutes depending on the size of the panettone.

Translated and adapted from Anita Moretti, Le ricette della mia cucina milanese e lombarda (Milano: Edizioni del Riccio, 1980), pp. 148-149.




Francesca Belotti and Gian Luca Margheriti. 'Che storia il panettone'. Il Corriere della Sera.
Anita Moretti. Le ricette della mia cucina milanese e lombarda. Milano: Edizioni del Riccio, 1980.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Caravaggio's Lost Painting


In 1597, Caravaggio received from the patrons of the Contarelli chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome his first major commission. He was asked to produce three large paintings depicting the three major episodes in the life of Saint Matthew: his calling by Jesus to become an apostle, the writing of the Gospel and finally his martyrdom. These works would eventually launch him as a major artist among his contemporaries, but he had to endure a highly publicised setback along the way. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel, reproduced below, was greeted by a unanimously negative, if not derisive, response, and rejected outright.


If you're not familiar with the circumstances, you might try to guess why. Go on, I'll wait.

Ready? Here's what I think you might have guessed: could it be the almost satirically undignified, irreverent depiction of the saint, his humble demeanour, his obvious illiteracy? In his mega-best selling The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich has this to say:
Caravaggio, who was a very imaginative and uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down to write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Matthew with a bald head and bare, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer's hand as a teacher may do to a child. When Caravaggio delivered this picture to the church where it was to be placed on the altar, people were scandalized at what they took to be lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again. This time he took no chance. He kept strictly to the conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like. The outcome is still quite a good picture, for Caravaggio had tried hard to make it look lively and interesting, but we feel that it is less honest and sincere than the first had been. (p. 12)
Which makes for a lovely story, exemplary of the struggles between art and power, truth and beauty, a resolute commitment to the real and the trappings of convention and tradition. Except it's almost entirely false. Documentary evidence shows that Caravaggio had already finished and delivered the other two paintings of the commission, in which Saint Matthew appeared rather different. In The Calling, below, he was depicted as a well educated tax collector of Caravaggio's own times, reacting with perhaps justifiable surprise at having been chosen to join a group of men of supreme virtue.


Whereas in The Martyrdom the saint is an older man, but not the same older man - at least in terms of demeanour and social condition - who earlier penned the Gospel according to Caravaggio's own depiction.


How to explain this paradox, then? In a watershed study published in the mid-seventies, Irving Lavin argues that Caravaggio intended to convey a specific message that justified breaking away from the continuity of depiction of the saint across the three paintings, and that it was not in fact a message of anti-establishment proletarian realism, but rather one wholly consistent with the ideology of the counter-reformation regarding the continuum between Paganism, Judaism and Christianity, as mediated of course by the Church.

The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, that much is true. But the new canvas, reproduced below, was far from conventional. As Lavin explains - and it's hard not to capitulate under the weight of his learned, supremely well-documented argument, which I cannot begin to properly summarise here - it represented another departure, eschewing the tradition of Renaissance evangelical portraiture in favour of the medieval iconography, reinvented so as to cast Matthew as a 'stunned intellectual' instructed by a 'heaven-sent process of strictly rational analysis and exposition' (p. 81), and conveying a message opposite but complementary to that of the rejected painting.


When I came across it in researching this post, dear reader, I resisted Lavin's compelling argumentation with all my sceptical fortitude. I was really fond of the Gombrich-esque, traditional version of the story that I had heard somewhere as a kid, and that cast my beloved Caravaggio (did I mention I was a rather peculiar child?) as a subversive realist - for how could realism be but subversive in the age of the Baroque and the counter-reformation? - forced by the hated Clergy to adhere to the norms of representation at the service of the established power, and yet managing to subvert them and rewrite them as he does so brilliantly throughout his major works. And I was - genuinely, and again perhaps a little peculiarly - sorry in the extreme that I would never get to see the first, rejected, proletarian Saint Matthew, whose intervening vicissitudes I ignored, but that I knew had perished during the bombing of Berlin in 1945, and that has remained for me a symbol of the power of war to destroy not only lives but also culture.

A similar story, but with a happier ending, I was curiously unaware of. When I was in Milan recently with my son, I took him to see The Last Supper, or rather I took us, since I had never seen it myself. These days you have to book months in advance, and they let you in for fifteen minutes at a time, but I imagine it would have been much easier when I was younger, and besides I was often there on account of the fact that the church is next to where one of my very best friends lived. Be that as it may, this was my first time, and in the waiting hall I came across the story of how the fresco survived the war.

This is the basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie on the 17th of August, 1943.


The fresco you can make out on the bottom right of the picture is the (very mediocre) Crucifixion by Donato Montorfano, which is painted on the wall opposite the Supper, so the picture must have been taken by someone who had their back to Leonardo's work. Apparently they had erected a scaffolding lined with sandbags against the fresco for protection, but it's easy to see how much of a close shave it was: most of the refectory - the ceiling and two of the four walls - is completely gone.

Had the fresco been destroyed in 1943, as it very nearly was, we'd still be able to at least know what it looked like thanks to the copies made by other artists throughout the centuries and especially the photographic record, the same (black and white) photographic record that means that Caravaggio's painting - in spite of the title of this post - isn't in fact completely lost to us. Now, I realise that some of the preoccupations that I articulate in this blog expose me to the risk of giving a wrong impression, so allow me to say at this point that I'm not against recording technologies, or computing, far from it. I do happen to think that we (myself certainly included) are liable to not always fully appreciate their materiality, and that much of the rhetoric concerning our digital presents and futures is in need of some serious recasting. But properly understood materiality is there to be exploited, too. And indeed, more so than traditional, film-based photography, or artists' renditions, modern digitisation has tremendous potential when it comes to safeguarding our artistic heritage, so long as it is understood not as a substitute, but as a form of emergency insurance, or of cultural redundancy if you will, primarily thanks to the relative ease with which it can be disseminated at fantastic speed to multiple new storage sites.

The looting of the Iraq Museum of Baghdad, albeit not of the scale that was initially reported, and the deliberately memoricidal fire bombing of the National Library at Sarajevo are two recent tragedies that pale in comparison to the much greater tragedies they were inscribed into, two conflicts that killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But they are tragedies nonetheless. The West, that has the money and the resources, could laser-scan entire museums and collections, and store them not only for remote access by the masses (that I would strongly advocate, but we don't need to make it an issue here), but also to initiate a plan B should a conflict or other major imminent threat arise: these repositories could then be distributed around the world in the form of torrents, too large for a single computer to store and view in their entirety - at least with the hard drive capacities available nowadays - but with the potential of being pieced back together at a later time by uploading them back from the destination computers, not all of which of course would have to be still accessible and carry the information, so long as enough people had downloaded each chunk for at least one of its copies to survive. I know I'd gladly volunteer a portion of my hard drive for such a project. The haunting image of the human chains outside of the library of Sarajevo, made of people who were risking their lives in order to save as many books as they could, would be enough to make me want to sign up.

That is the challenge, to explore and understand and celebrate the material dimension of our cultural artefacts, and counter the escape velocity of some of the discourses surrounding the digital, while at the same time recognising and exploiting the potential of cyberspace to become a new home and refuge for older treasures, and a place where to carry out precious memory work. Things won't remember themselves, you know.



E.H. Gombrich. The Story of Art. Oxford: Phaidon, 1972.
Renato Guttuso. 'Antiaccademia'. In Angela Ottino Della Chiesa (ed.), L'opera completa del Caravaggio (Milano: Rizzoli, 1967), pp. 5-9.
Jacob Hess. 'The Chronology of the Contarelli Chapel'. In The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 579 (Jun., 1951), pp. 186-201.
Irving Lavin. 'Divine Inspiration in Caravaggio's Two St. Matthews', in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 59-81.


Update 1: Pane Ferrarese

I tried my hand at pane Ferrarese the other day, and I am happy to report a significant improvement on my first attempt back in Italy, where the hurried circumstances proved not conducive to proper kneading. I tried the mezza coppia, which is slightly easier to shape, and the results are below (they include a slightly abortive coppia - plenty of room for improvement there).


The taste, not bad at all. Unfortunately they proved so popular with the family that I wasn't able to do the third- and fourth-day test, to verify if the loaves were harder but still delicious - longevity, some of you will remember, is a major selling point of this bread. Next time I'll have to hide a couple of loaves.

Update 2: You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages

Lucia engages in a close reading of David McKee's masterwork.

Monday, December 1, 2008

You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages*


As some of you will know, I hid a five-dollar note in last week's post. It wasn't terribly hard to find, but none of the first 35 unique New Zealand eligible readers who did in fact navigate to the page claimed the prize. It took Russell's help to broaden the field and locate a winner (it's in the mail, Steve of Aro Valley, Wellington). I understand of course that accepting money from a stranger or quasi-stranger, and not all that much money at that, has some ick value. I respect that, but I was keen to complete that particular transaction, for the reasons that I'm about to explain.

Finding objects in a text

I don't know what it says about me or my value system that I remember this, but once when I was a teenager I found 5,000 liras in a book of mine. Don't be impressed by the zeros, that's the equivalent of five New Zealand dollars - not that much money, in other words, even if you do factor in the inflation. Certainly not enough even back then to buy a new CD release, that much I remember. Liras have been supplanted by the Euro nowadays, but this is what the note looked like, front and back.


The chap in the picture is Vincenzo Bellini, a nineteenth century Sicilian composer. He is by no means the most illustrious in the rich musical history of the country, but then he died when he was barely thirty-four, and you simply cannot afford to give somebody of Giuseppe Verdi's class a fifty-four year lifespan advantage. Still, Bellini got to at least enjoy a second life of sorts by having his likeness stamped on a piece of money, one of the highest honours to be bestowed upon a person nowadays. You've really made it when you can be exchanged for a coffee and a newspaper. Or dinner and a movie.

By way of a little digression in this already digressionary post: my son's primary school includes a block that subscribes to the Montessori method. So when I went back to Italy earlier this year I thought I'd get our Montessori teachers a sample of the last of our 1,000 liras notes before the introduction of the Euro, the basic unit of currency and therefore symbolically akin to the one American dollar graced in that proud country by no less a person than George Washington. In Italy, for this highest of monetary honours the mint had chosen Maria Montessori: not a general and father of the country, but a progressive educator who believed in the dignity and creativity of children. Nice.


The Euro of course put an end to all that, nowadays the banknotes sport generic ancient and modern monuments, non-existing composites of buildings scattered throughout the continent, pallid icons with no history. Just so they didn't have to choose the Parthenon over the Colosseum, or Erasmus of Rotterdam over Francis Bacon, I assume. Thus the Union lost the umpteenth chance to foster a conversation about its own cultural roots, and counter the growing suspicion that it's nothing but a giant trade pact and collusion of powers and economic interests.

Back to my current shores, and Steve's loot: in New Zealand the five-dollar note is the lowest paper denomination (the dollar is a coin), and it depicts the rugged profile of a young Edmund Hillary: mountaineer, philanthropist, aspirational national figure par excellence - especially for the males of the species. A honouree of doubtless worth. Few New Zealanders would enthuse nearly as much about the current monarch, whose visage you get to look at whenever you come across a twenty-dollar note. The rest of the line-up comprises women's suffrage movement leader Kate Sheppard on the tenner, Maori politician Apirana Ngata on the fifty and physicist Ernest Rutherford on the hundred. Oh, and on the back of all of these banknotes: native birds.

So Steve is getting a portrait of Edmund Hillary, and of a hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin. The vintage is fairly recent: there is no date but the signature on the note is that of our current Reserve Bank Governor. Not that this has any impact on the value, of course. Unless you had a particular reason to be attached to a particular piece of money, like Scrooge McDuck to his fateful Number One Dime, than each item of a given denomination is as valuable as any other. But a piece of money is also an object. We are so consumed (pun intended) by its exchange value that we forget that sometimes. Last week's post was about materiality and memory, which is also to say about objects and textuality, so the point of the competition really was: find this object I hid in the text. It could have been anything: buttons, a wheelbarrow, three blind mice. Or a pressed flower.

The title of this week's post is a sentence that bounces in my head whenever I think of the differences - also in terms of gestures and habits of mind - between print culture and our newfangled electronic ways. There are various things that digital textuality achieves especially well, and none more so, it seems to me, than the following two: (1) undermining the notion of a final version, by rendering each text infinitely and indefinitely editable, and (2) connecting different texts to one another in a way that a print artefact could only aspire to. Both of these aspects of course matter a lot in relation to memory. But equally there are things that electronic textuality doesn't achieve quite so well, and as always in the midst of a cultural and technological reconfiguration I am most interested in what is lost or about to be lost.

These losses include some that go under the unfairly disparaging rubric of the novelty book. Case in point: you cannot recreate a pop-up book in electronic form. And don't waste your time retorting that you also cannot flash-animate a print book, I'm not trying to argue that the old book was better, just that there are things it did better, or differently in an interesting way, due to its peculiar material characteristics. And a different physicality can be a carrier of different meanings. Allow me to illustrate: in the postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco explains that some folks at Oulipo had tried to come up with the matrix of all possible mystery stories, reaching the conclusion that they had all been written, save the one in which the murderer was the reader. Years later an Italian novelist by the name of Raul Montanari tried to fill that gap in Sei tu l'assassino (You Are the Killer), a work of convoluted conceit in which - spoiler alert: but really, who cares? - the murder is precipitated by an electric shock shown to have been caused by the reader. We're almost in the territory of the novelty book here, since the Sei tu l'assassino comes with a card that makes the particular reader the actual murderer, but it's not hard to imagine an electronic version of the novel working in much the same way, if not better.

What I have in mind, though, is another, far more brilliant solution devised by David McKee in Elmer's New Friend, a classic 2002 title in the popular series featuring Elmer the patchwork elephant.


'Have you heard the latest? Elmer has a new friend!' proclaims one elephant to its companions on page 1, and soon the jungle is filled with hypotheses about whom this friend could be. Everybody asks Elmer for clues. "Can your new friend jump, Elmer?" "Not as high as you can, Kangaroo." Or: "Is your new friend tall, Elmer? "Getting taller, Giraffe." Finally the animals congregate and beg Elmer to show them this elusive character. "Can't you see? Over there, look, between the trees." And he points to the last page, where amongst the verdant and luxuriant flora sits a small square mirror.

Lector in fabula, the reader has become part of the story, and it's been achieved by means of a reflecting surface, a device of disarming simplicity but that you cannot reproduce on an electronic screen. Which is the more interactive medium, then? The computer, I won't dispute that. But the old book is still capable of dealing some brilliant blows of its own.

Plus you cannot press a flower between two web pages*.



*Or can you? Answers, please, on the back of the usual postcard.

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