In March 2018 I was at a poetry course in Garsdale Head , on a day with snow, much like today, and the course tutor, Kim Moore, finished a workshop session asking us to respond (if we could ) to the work of Daniil Kharms.
Kharms was a Russian Absurdist, Surrealist, and under Stalin, decidedly antisocial
23 August 1941 at the beginning of the seige of Leningrad, Kharms was arrested for spreading “libellous and defeatist mood”.
To avoid execution, Kharms simulated insanity; the military tribunal ordered him to be kept in the psychiatric ward of the ‘Kresty’ prison due to the severity of the crime. Daniil Kharms died of starvation 2 February 1942 during thesiege ,
His wife was informed that he was deported to Novosibirsk. Only on 25 July 1960, at the request of Kharms’ sister, E.I. Gritsina, Prosecutor General’s Office found him not guilty and he was exonerated.
His “adult” works were not published during his lifetime with the sole exception of two early poems. His notebooks were saved from destruction in the war by loyal friends and hidden until the 1960s, when his children’s writing became widely published and scholars began the job of recovering his manuscripts and publishing them in the west and in samizdat.
His reputation in the 20th century in Russia was largely based on his popular work for children. His other writings (a vast assortment of stories, miniatures, plays, poems, and pseudo-scientific, philosophical investigations) were virtually unknown until the 1970s, and not published officially in Russia until glasnost.
His manuscripts were preserved by his sister and, most notably, by his friend Yakov Druskin, a notable music theorist and amateur theologist and philosopher, who dragged a suitcase full of Kharms’s and Vvedensky’s writings out of Kharms’s apartment during the blockade of Leningrad and kept it hidden throughout difficult times.
In Russia, Kharms’ works were widely published only from the late 1980s.
Kharms’ world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.
Here’s a taste of his work that Kim Moore offered us.
The Plummeting Old Women
A certain old woman, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of a window, plummeted to the ground, and was smashed to pieces. . Another old woman leaned out of the window and began looking at the remains of the first one, but she also, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of the window, plummeted to the ground and was smashed to pieces. . Then a third old woman plummeted from the window, then a fourth, then a fifth. . By the time a sixth old woman had plummeted down, I was fed up watching them, and went off to Mal’tseviskiy Market where, it was said, a knitted shawl had been given to a certain blind man.
The red haired man
What do you make of this world? Equally, how did he make it? Just how does he break the rukes? Because like all rule-breakers, he’s rule-governed, isn’t he? I just can’t figure out how. On the other hand, it gets in your head, and sticks. These are moments that draw you in.
I’ve been intrigued of late by the increased incidence in magazines, and also in workshops, of prosepoems (which is sometimes indistinguishable from flash fiction), and also the business of playing with white space, breaking up lines, making apparently abitrary line-breaks. I’m happy to accept that rules are there to be tested and stretched and broken, if only to see ‘what happens’, though less happy to see an accompanying tendency to view regularity, orderliness, evident craft and form as a bit passé. I guess my ‘rule’ is simply to ask: does it work? I’m spectacularly conscious that at the moment a lot of what I’m trying to write doesn’t work. I didn’t set out to do it, but a lot of what I write has ditched the word play, the allusiveness, the obvious rhythms and the imagery that I used to enjoy. It’s gone more reflective/introspective/personal/conversational but that’s a lot harder to do than the complicated stuff. It always was.
Whatever. I’m a regular reader of Julie Mellor’s poetry blog, and also of Anthony Wilson’s latest Life-saving lines after his welcome return to blogging. I learn a lot from their willingness to share their struggles to find new directions and forms, whether it’s haiku or finding a language that will share the experience of depression. It’s humbling.
So let me use my struggles to get my head round the way Kharms’ anti-narrative work as illustrative. Here are the three that I wrote, very fast, in Garsdale
Three tales to little purpose
There was poor forester who had three children.
He sent them into the world to seek their fortune.
In turn each of them met a wise woman at a crossroad,
The woman asked each of them for bread and they threw stones at her.
One was pursued by dogs and got lost.
One fell into a river and was swept away. Maybe he drowned
One would have married a king but no longer knew the right words.
There was a remarkably clever cat.
He was so clever that people came to him for advice.
He knew, they said, what to do when a crop failed,
or a chimney would not draw or a baby was fevered.
Some said he should be made headman of the village.
Another cat came to the village.
Shortly after, I left the village.
I don’t know what happened after that.
In the time of hunger a man and his wife found in the forest an iron porridge pot.
All that was needed was to ask for food and it was full. They took it to their cottage.
Afraid that folk would hear of it and take it from them they shut themselves in.
Afraid that folk would know they were there, they dowsed the fire.
Afraid that folk would smell the porridge, they never asked for any. They starved to death.
One day folk broke in the cottage and found them.
They set fire to the cottage, thinking it cursed.The pot broke in the heat .
The time of hunger was a hundred years. Everyone died.
I’m on record as saying that as a writer I can’t invent…which is obviously something Kharms can. He invents people and situations, but somehow deprives them of his imaginative engagement, and, I think, narrative curiosity. Somehow he’s able to suspend it/them in the way you can in a dream. Me, I fall back on the folk tale formulae and try to subvert them, but morality (or the urge to find a moral meaning in people’s actions) simply comes in and refuses to leave. It’s not easy, breaking rules in a way that works.
On the other hand, playing around, trying to find out what Kharms was up to, and whether you can use it, might lead you to do things you didn’t expect. Which what I think happened with another workshop task. This one was simply introduced with the invitation to write about other people’s dreams. The rule of three is obviously stronger than any effort I might make to override it.
Other people’s dreams
One dreamed he saw a ladder into the heavens,
angels and archangels, seraphim, and every lesser rank
ascending and descending. The light
was astonishing. He dreamed it was numinous.
Effulgent, too, and inaccessible. Polysyllabic light.
When he woke he’d forgotten all of it.
One dreamed that angels spoke to her.
When she woke up, she could still hear them.
They refused to shut up. She told the priest,
who told her she was mistaken. She told another.
And another. They locked her up until
she learned sense. She never got out.
One dreamed he was on a high place and saw,
shining on the plain, a rich and fertile land
of placid rivers, deep and loamy soil,
and cypresses. He dreamed a voice said
this was a land for him, for his kin.
When he woke, he went there with his flocks,
his family. The folk who lived there
chased him off with stones and pitchforks.
When he kept coming back they killed him.
His family gathered up the flocks, went back
where they came from.
Well, there we are. Make of this what you will. You may decide I’ve just done it to keep the Cobweb ticking over. You’re probably not far off the truth. However, next week we’ll be back with a Proper Post and a Stellar Guest. I hope you’ll join me.
Today’s (returning) guest is someone I first met about eight years ago at the Monday night workshops of The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Like another poet at these workshops, the much-missed Mark Hinchcliffe, she has a unique voice, and one that I didn’t quite tune into until I heard her do a full guest reading a year or so later. You may have had moments like this, when you suddenly hear what you’ve been missing, when you hear the tune that brings the meaning and the passion along with it. She’s a poet who has the quality of what Keats called negative capability, that ability to en-chant a place or a moment that bypasses the writer’s personality. It’s a voice that takes you on walks into, along and out of the imbricated valleys of the West Yorkshire Pennine, and along moorland tops; on walks at the edge of things by seashores and dunescapes; on walks through the thin places of the world, across thresholds. It’s the kind of quality that’s hinted at by the layered, ambiguous title of her latest cornucopia of a collection On the way to Jerusalem Farm.
When I last wrote about our guest, I said
“there are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.
I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.”
So, let’s welcome again Carola Luther. Let’s start with what pretentious restaurants call amuses bouches , like this taste of the way she she can pin down the texture , the physical reality of things encountered on those walks, the business (or busy-ness) of the world out there :
The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:
the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter
as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches
doing chores like the branches are streets
from Theft (from Herd. Wordsworth Trust 2012)
and then this which stops you short as you realise you have walked through one of the thin places into a different but flatly unignorable reality
The man who thought he was alone in my tree
croons a song of comfort. A tenor.
He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know
but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.
He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly
in Levantine Arabic, her home language.
I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise
as well as I can.
From The Rising (first publ. The Compass Review 2016)
The Carcanet blurb for On the way to Jerusalem Farm gives you a clear sense of the the range of landscapes and narratives you can expect in its hugely generous 150 pages:
Carola Luther’s new book On the Way to Jerusalem Farm explores the complexities of living in a damaged world. How, it asks, does such a world live in us, and we in it?
At the centre of the collection are three sequences, ‘Letters to Rasool’, ‘Birthday at Emily Court’ and ‘The Escape’. On the Way to Jerusalem Farm moves through the world, seeking and finding not answers, but sometimes, a means of continuing. The speaker in ‘Letters to Rasool’ travels onward through scarred and depleted landscapes, and searches for a lost beloved. The ageing residents of Emily Court celebrate a birthday and dance. Spring of a kind still comes. And in ‘The Escape’ there are colours to be found in the distant sea: ‘A whole translucent geology, / cross-sections of light and water’.
Poetry for Luther is a way of finding a way, of making connections and sharing our complex lives in an interdependent present. The roles of lover and beloved become – almost – interchangeable in these richly visualised poems.
So much for the range. As to the voice,Kim Moore wrote in one of her Sunday Poem blogposts that that a lot of Carola’s work has the quality of a ‘a prayer or a benediction’
The Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections Arguing with Malarchysays something similar, and much better than I’ve managed so far
full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.
Basically, both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.
Carola was born in South Africa, from where she moved in the early 1980s.
Her first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.
Her second collectionArguing with Malarchywas published by Carcanet Press in 2011.
She was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).
She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances including the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden.
Recently she wrote about herself and her new collection for the Carcanet blog about what a friend called her ‘doubled vision’
I suspect ‘a doubled vision’ is something that will be shared by many people who have moved from the country of their birth. I have not experienced the trauma of forced migration so of course I cannot talk to that. But for me, after arriving here in Britain as a willing immigrant and living here for decades, I still see the country through a stranger’s eyes at times, as well as through the eyes of a lucky inhabitant. Perhaps this is what my friend meant – seeing from both close and far. And close sometimes feeling more ‘home’ than far, and far sometimes feeling more ‘home’, than close could ever be.
My partner and I are currently moving house from the Ryburn valley to the Calder valley. It feels like a big deal, despite the fact that our new place is only seven miles away, and the landscape and communities, not so very different.
Strangely, I had the opposite sense when I first came to the area. Arriving for the first time in the Pennines, I had an unexpected sense of recognition, almost of déjà vu. I felt I ‘knew’ the shape of the landscape somehow – not of any specific place, but rather, its ghost geography, an imaginal sense of the moors, the weathers, the valleys, the creatures. Without knowing why, I felt oddly at home. And so I came back. And I stayed.
It struck me later with a little sense of shock, that this feeling of recognition may have come from the poems of Ted Hughes.
Having grown up in rural South Africa, I think I may also have recognised something else. This was how Hughes seemed to experience the natural world as intrinsically powerful, and bigger than us. His creatures and landscapes were magnificent. Whether calm or violent, his animals and the elements were potent.
So much has changed since then. Ecosystems everywhere feel critically depleted and fragile, and the health of the earth highly dependent on how human beings go forward. This reversal of my childhood understanding may also inform any ‘doubled vision’ in this collection. In some poems I notice bewilderment and hardly-understood sorrow for the natural world around me. But there are also I hope, poems celebrating what remains beautiful and vital – connection, friendship and the small, brave things that help us keep going.
And so to the poems. Acknowledgements and thanks, first to Carcanet for granting permissions to use substantial chunks of the work…if you read the previous post about Carola, you’ll see that that see writes long poems. And that they are packed. That there’s no slack in them. Which makes it hard to choose a selection that does justice to a 150 page collection.
Too start, I’ve chosen part of the very first poem of hers I heard (and, at first, didn’t quite get) at one of those workshops in The Albert.
two / no / three launching
to get away hsh
by trees beech / no / birch
between us and light
like shutters / no / film clips
in the pixilation
and confusion of brush
they pretend to be memories
in black and white
passengers on a platform
silent with suitcases
no / suitcases and trunks
there they go / vaulting
landscape / no / let them be
landscape / no /
carriages of trains
flickering behind landscape / no /
trees / behind trees
nnn the wind
its empty coat hung
in the trees
Back then I was stalled by the look of the poem on the page, not sure what to make of the elisions/compressions/slashes/pnonic invention. Later I learned to hear it. It’s a script for a performance of what could be an optical illusion, a trick of the light, the flickerbook images seen through trainwindows. What I hear now is the heartlift of catching sight of what may be deer, and the letdown of their vanishing. I think it’s lovely
Form the deer I’m moving to a character, Rasool, who’s never fully explained and haunts a sequence of poems that are almost, but never explicitly, set in the uprooted landscapes of the disposessed and displaced, the victims of war and poverty.
On Finding the way
Now I’ve turned the corner
I can see her Rasool
the architect of sands gazing at her small city
It looks Moroccan
and not just because it’s the colour of lions
This beach might be my longing
or yours but this morning I woke on it
The tide had receded
and the sand beneath me was cold and hard
Standing I saw no dog no bird
no woman or man
and from the flat sea which could have been mercury
no rock or whale-spout or hoop
of dolphin not even a fibreglass boat
I recalled no-one had seen fish for decades
I miss you Rasool
And I remembered how shorebirds
used to run between waves
and on their way in
and on their way out
the waves did not always
wash away imprints
three wire toes arrow
after arrow pointing
to where the bird had run from
where I should go
Who would not weep Rasool
I followed directions and turned back walked east
around the headlands
And now I can see her
her white shirt flapping
in the crook of the bay
She is crouching down
brown hands at work on her next suburb
I imagine small arched windows
walls bleached pale
or salt-pan camels
Is it a dream, this apocalyptic shorescape? It certainly has the precise physical detail of dreams and also their disjunct narratives. All I know is the way it’s anchored by that image of
the architect of sands gazing at her small city
That moment that draws you in, and holds you, along with the narrator’s unassuageable sadness. Magic.
The next extract works the same kind of spell, though in a landscape that’s ostensibly closer, geographically to the ‘home’ of West Yorkshire moorlands. It’s a poem that understand that skylines and and the shift from night to day are thin placesin which anything may happen, and when we see things as if for the first time.
Dawn on Nab Scar
I wait in the dark, as if on one foot, tense with the balance of almost
falling, other foot held above the ground. In the minutes before dawn
we are always waiting, stretched between two momentous things. Interminable,
and never arriving, the weight of proof has suddenly come, and I realise
I have missed the moment of change – there’s already more powder of light
than darkness in the air. Dawn hauls its pale mirror
up through Rydal Water; there are clouds today so I watch the clouds
whitening the lake’s surface. Mist in tufts rises like grasses.
Below the house on the farm, a pinkness used to stain the morning mist
above the Broederstroom. Tall grasses in the muddy dam.
On this day, years ago, sixty-nine people murdered at Sharpeville.
Was I implicated? No, yes, where does it begin, and end?
Above me, a whole town
wakes: the woodpecker begins its morning routine, opening and closing
the door to its castle, creak, creak, again and again; the little birds whistle
in their swept-clean market place as if no more conflict can ever come,
no bombs, no divided Jerusalem; just there in the distance, spring brightening
the greygreen, green, maroon trees reflected in the water. Two narrow deer
see me and stand, as if they too are reflections of trees with their mossy horns
and legs like the limbs of birches, and they stare, and I stare,
and we slip in and swim, we are lake-ideas, our eyes
pools of brightening water: there is the past and also the future,
something oracular about eyes and water, and if I close my deer-touched eyes,
this road below me could be the road to Woodbush, not a lane on Nab Scar
between White Moss and Grasmere, a lane I’ll walk down when I return
for breakfast, and hear on the radio news of another massacre, this time in Syria.
Why am I thinking of T S Eliot’s ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. I think this poem might just enact something like it’s opposite, as we begin on tenterhooks, barely balanced, straining. The magic happens, and somehow we’ve missed it. I chose this poem, I think, not just for its numinous quality, but also for the element of autobiography, the authentic voice of the poet as opposed to a persona. It’s a shock, that connection between an old home (which contains massacres) and a new one which shows you plainly that there are massacres wherever you go. It’s a poems that brings so many themes together. And the elusiveness of deer, too.
Two more…just a short extract from one:
I chose this because as I heard Carola read it in The Albert pub, I ‘heard’ her voice properly for the first time. I loved the glee of this visions of moorland pylons metaphormosing into vengeful witches flying widdershins over unsuspecting Halifax.
Midnight, Beltane, Soyland Moor
Ruche after ruche night is gathering, cloud piled
over the moor, dim scone
for a moon, flat pallor lidding Huddersfield, Halifax
Up here it’s cold. Dead sheep, winter –
keeps dragging back
to unfinished December
out of kilter. On the skyline, pylons. Skeletal
goddesses they hum
as if a sun-surge has come and gone
or something huge and clandestine is passing down lines
and they listen in
O soldiers of ruins make preparation
and fields remain empty. Where do we go?
The sea-starved sea. These days, screens
are our lamps, yet tonight I want oceans,
oracles stinking of goats
in the dark, ribald women
On the skyline, pylons. Tension
a kind of desire. Ambiguous
as they are, for a moment I imagine
they could show us how: Elbow. Knee. Elbow. Hah!
Give birth. Show your steel
farthingales, Hoist skirts. Pant. Point
your six arms downwards,
wake the earth. Hoist!
Let’s finish with one complete poem that I first met when the Monday Workshops became virtual, and we became inured to seeing ourselves in celebrity squares. This one I choose because of the way it shows Carola at her job of rescuing the significant and magical from the wasteful flow of minute by minute and the rush of things moving on. It’s a poem that challenges the notion that the world is completely reliable. Tractors and ploughland furrows seem resolutely solid, and smiles and waves reassure us of out connection,
but here the physical world is tilt and slivery and fluid. The tractor becomes a foundered boat, and it’s driver has vanished. Crows flock in their hundreds, in this short unnerving film of a poem.
Walking away from the town,
I passed a half-ploughed field,
furrows turning inside out and black
behind a new tractor. The driver smiled,
waved, and I waved back
watching him tilt
the balance of light. In the unharrowed part
sun rilled between bleached-out oat-stalks,
its silvery influx running like water.
Crows were landing to feed there.
On the way back from my walk,
the tractor was stuck on the field’s far side,
marooned in the dusk. As if it had foundered,
was a wrecked boat leaning
under the weight of birds
hundreds of them now,
crows mostly, flowing over
the tractor’s cabin, or hovering above it
waiting to land, occupying the green
while other birds ransacked
islands of unploughed ground.
I called out. I couldn’t see the driver
anywhere. Calm yourself I thought.
Home-time, that’s all.
So I too made my way home, and left the crows
trawling for seeds in their ragged lines,
while smaller birds bobbed
between the great, sunk wheels,
shrieking Corvus! Corvus!
What can I say? There’s no way I can do justice to 150 pages of poems, all as good as each other. It’s a bargain at £11.99, direct from Caracanet.