Ammiel and the Mountains
In the early eighties a friend went to Greenham Common to protest against the cruise missiles. When she got home, Mel told me about the mixture of experience: serious women sharing ideas and feelings in a community of tents outside the missile base. She was alive with contemporary readings. She read feminist discourse going back to Simone de Beauvoir and coming up through Sylvia Plath, Greer, Dworkin, Paglia and a host of pamphlet-writers, independent voices from around the country and the world.
Next to her I felt provincial, with my nose stuck in the seventeenth-century. I spent my summer walking the Quantock hills and sniffing out the trail of Coleridge, who appealed to me more than Wordsworth as a teenager. A hick, yes, stuck in the past, turning away from the big things happening in the present. The sensation that I am somewhere up a by-water feeling the lapping wavelets of major explosions in the distance has stayed with me into the present. Not only am I far from the city in the village, but the local city is a provincial one and the province itself is hidden behind mountains. I can imagine Mel asking, “Whatever can you possibly achieve there?”
What can you achieve in the mountains?
I don’t want to come to a quick conclusion to that question. It seems to me that there are so many dimensions to it that it splinters in my head: achieve what and for whom and in what context and why? Me? What can I achieve without plumbing the roots of what I am, which may be essentially provincial? And the mountains themselves, don’t they give themselves up to reading?
If you have been following the blog you will know that I have been wandering mountains in my reading, from the Galician poet Novoneyra to the saudade of Galician tradition, and other poets that seem to me to strike up resonances: Wordsworth, Basho, R.S. Thomas and Edward Thomas, amongst others. Although John Clare never got to the mountains, he joined us too. If reading has to have a point, then I would say that the range and variety of what I am reading reflects a lifelong linking of reading and life, experience and text. I am still a geeky provincial kid who sticks his nose into books. The question, “What can you achieve?” almost shrinks to irrelevance. I do what I must.
When I was a teenager, writing long letters to Mel, who lived in the north of England, I put on a provincial pose. The fall of the Berlin Wall? No, I was not there and I did not watch it on the TV either. I fantasised about Stoic indifference when, I guess, the reality was that I was trapped by my environment, my upbringing and my own native diffidence. Right now, I am scared for the world. It really is screwed by our technological/scientific/political culture. Perhaps reading helps. But it doesn’t achieve anything, does it? Unless it helps us to think. And I really do not know what to think about the warm winters and dying trees, except to watch as things change- there will be spectacular sunsets at the end of the world.
a little history
Today I want to consider the American writer Ammiel Alcalay. It was Alcalay who brought to mind my Greenham Common friend, Mel. In his book a little history, he unpicks with the dedication of a true reader threads of thought and feeling that go back through the twentieth-century. He grabs you by the collar and gives you a good shake:
I think reading is an encounter that can be life changing, consciousness changing. It is absolutely necessary for sustenance… The key is not to make the separations that society wants us to make. Books are real, books are part of the world. Un-branded, unexpected, non-commodified experience is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Books and poems may serve as some of the surest and last pathways back into experience, back into the values of experience, and so back into the world we actually live in.
This is exactly what I mean when I say that I make no separation between reading and life, between my reading of poetry- or any other text- and the world in which I find myself. It seems to me that to do otherwise is to commodify yourself. Ammiel, however, is much closer to Mel than he is to me: he writhes with contemporary understanding.
Alacaly is a poet and a translator. He spent six years in Jerusalem where he translated Syrian poets and has written his own poetry reflecting the experience of living through the first intifada in the eighties: from the warring factions. Diane de Prima in her introduction to the book tells how it forced her to redefine her life by bringing the intimate and the political into a single arena where neither could be defined as itself. The willingness to approach the world comes from a life of reading in the tradition of Charles Olson: that powerful affirmation of the poetic mind as being capable of seeing connections in a unique and convincing way; the writing of a reader who is aware of the deletions, the subtractions and the substitutions that political life effects.
No One Cares If You Are Good Or Bad
I have read a little history twice now. I come back to the sections that deal specifically with the relationship between history and reading with a quiet frisson. It is as though I had Mel with me again, showing me how flawed the canon is and encouraging me to loosen up and spread out. Alcalay comes back and back to Olson, challenging me to think what it might mean to be here, now, with everything that is going on around me. For example, in the seventies and eighties there were countless Vietnam movies. How sick we got of the constant reworking of those themes! And we never got to read the poem The Gift by Timothy Clover, a soldier who died in the war, containing these powerful words:
No one cares if you are good or bad
When you’re a gook and I’m a white man
Who preaches ideals and takes what he can.
The blockbuster narratives of the Vietnam war, with their loathsome colonialist objectification of the gook and their sentimentalization of every maudlin feeling of whatever American soldier was “brutalised” by the experience, ought to have challenged me to find more authentic texts. But they didn’t. They induced a kind of stupor. Perhaps that is the unwitting intention of imposed narratives. Read the cracking good review of the phony shock movie Detroit by Kathryn Bigelow in the Baffler to get a much more elegantly expressed articulation of these ideas than mine. You realize that poets don’t just fall through the cracks, but are busily shuffled off behind the scenes.
The “public” only gets to read the “geniuses”, who are not allowed to be relevant. (I am going to come back to this in a post about Lorca and Dalí.)
Corruption and Pollution Shall Drag Us to the End
Ammiel knows this. He writes about Vincent Ferrini, whose nephew Henry made a documentary about Olson you can see on Youtube, with loving affection. Ferrini fell through the cracks like others due to “suppression and imposed narratives”. Yes, I think. And, yes, to Ferrini who says this:
Gloucester is catering to the tourists, all the big guns are going full blast, a sickening sign. A backlash against the conservation ‘obstructionists’, especially by one Mueller who hates us for defeating his dream of a mammoth condominium on the Back Shore. Corruption and pollution shall drag us to the End, but we’ll give them a headache on the way, and perhaps take away all their power, that, or humanity will have to start from scratch again.
Yes, I think, in Spain where the numbers of tourists do nothing but increase, the government puts its greasy fingers in, invests in more of the same, and the small people gape at the destruction: new roads, hotels and cheesy businesses selling Spain in the regions. Flamenco in Asturias- why not? It’s all Spain, isn’t it? The village filling up with functionaries while the old farmers die off, their fields turn to bramble patches and, late in the day, a project for rural regeneration that won’t work, but will give another functionary enough money for a foreign holiday, screwing up another corner of the world with his trash and bucks.
Corruption and pollution: two words that describe modern Spain in a nutshell.
Some Kind of Nuisance
Reading seems an ineffectual response to the sheer awfulness of what is happening in the world. And, no, for all his stature and claims, Olson did not stop the godawfulness happening. Nor did Mel and her friends turn the cruise missiles around. Nor will I, puffing about the environment, make a difference to the migration of people to the cities, their unhappy people, their sadness. Yet, there is something uplifting in reading Ammiel that gives me a kind of hope. “School was just a nuisance of some kind,” he says of himself age 13, “a backdrop to the things that really mattered.” And I think that I can take that message forward and pass it on to others:
You can read. And, when you do, the rest seems to fall away as some kind of nuisance.
If you want to read some more, try out the CUNY Lost&Found page.