1st February 2002

More lunar excursions...when I was a teenager I used to have a notebook containing the names of the dark patches on the moon. The names are incredibly romantic and evocative, and were first applied by the Italian Jesuit astronomer Riccioli on a very detailed lunar map he made in the 1650s.  Some examples:

Not forgetting the Sea of Tranquillity, where the first Apollo landing was made. I can't find a good reproduction of the Riccioli document, but here's a fine photographic map.

2nd February 2002

Constable: Cloud Study

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

 - Auden, Roman Wall Blues

Nuagoscopy? Nebuloscopy? Numinoscopy? What would be the correct term for cloud-watching, that escapist pursuit which has similarities with staring into a fire: the loss of awareness of one's surroundings and absorption in another, exotic, there-but-not-reachable landscape, in which one's imagination can wander at a distance, peopling a utopian world.
The pastime of looking for shapes in the clouds, similar to the lunar ideas below, is nephelococcygia, coinage by Aristophanes. But I prefer to build cities, states, empires.

4th February 2002

The Curse of the Five Portions

Reading Conrad's Victory - the most surprising thing about it (apart from the constant surprise of just how good Conrad is) is the humour. Example (a hired thug speaking to a hotelkeeper):

"I am like a kid for sweet things. And by the way, why don't you ever have a pudding at your tablydott (table d'hôte), Mr Schomberg? Nothing but fruit, morning, noon and night. Sickening! What do you think a fellow is - a wasp?"

5th February 2002

I recently heard on the radio readings from Walt Whitman's Civil War hospital notebook, written while he was visiting military hospitals near Washington. Very simple and moving accounts of life during wartime. But I haven't yet found a transcript or book, alas...if one had a fast connection, a good light and a free weekend, one might make one's own from the excellent Library of Congress site (which also has scans of other Whitman notebooks); but I have none of these...
   It kind of seems that poets and institutions connect well - think of Randall Jarrell at Benton, the progressive college from hell, and of course Cal:

Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.")

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback
(if such were possible!),
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale -
more cut off from words than a seal.

This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
Porcellian' 29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig -
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

- Robert Lowell

What to expect if you choose a career in publishing...

6th February 2002

"I dreamed that the winter number of the Journal of Sociometric Studies had come early, and it was all tables..."
      - Professor Whittaker, in Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution

Last night I dreamt I went to Alamut again, and it was all pictures...and so it is...

10th February 2002

illustration for Stevie Smith's short story, 'Sunday at Home.'

11th February 2002

Charlie is my darling

Not content with being on the tenners, the great man now has his own day...
(Does Richard Dawkins still look like that? Surely that picture was taken twenty years ago...)
Of course, in Darwin's day, being a naturalist meant getting things into a formalin bottle as fast as possible:

'In the evening we reached the island of San Pedro, where we found the Beagle at anchor. In doubling the point, two of the officers landed to take a round of angles with the theodolite. A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.'

from The Voyage of the Beagle, 6th December 1833

In the future (and can't you just hear Andy Warhol chuckling in his grave), people will advertise themselves.

12th February 2002

...they were never wrong, the Old Masters

The Death of Actaeon

Reading the Journals of the painter Keith Vaughan (John Murray 1989, o/p). He can be splendidly cranky:

'After lunch and a short snooze, to stave off a threatening cloud of depression I drove to the West End and walked to see the Titian Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery. Crowds of young people in the gallery who interested me much more than anything on the walls. I could see nothing in the painting but a tired, cliché-ridden bit of clever picture-making. It is not about anything. The landscape setting is a 19th-century operatic backcloth. Diana is posed in order that her right bared breast with central nipple faces squarely to the spectator. Her 'bow' is a heavy length of carved mahogany which couldn't possibly be bent, or even if it could there is no bow string. The quiver of her arrows being in the small of her back quite out of reach. She is neither a hunter nor a goddess. Just a model posing. Actaeon is so badly drawn and painted as to be scarcely credible. He wears a sort of ass's head between his shoulders and might have come from a 3rd-form's production of Midsummer Night's Dream. The dogs (they are certainly not hounds) paw at the figure. One has a face which resembles a baby bear. Considering the drama and mystery latent in the subject it is the most abysmal failure of the imagination.'

- Journals, 23rd January 1973

Escapist Game Theory

'I hate racing games. I just want to cruise. As I've said before, I'd just like a highway simulator that let me drive down a clean road on a lovely day behind the dashboard of a 57 Belair, listening to the radio, occasionally swinging into a town, stopping at a cafe, reading the local paper.'

- James Lileks

13th February 2002

Three Ways of Listening to a Blackbird

As I got up this morning our local blackbird was singing: the first time I'd heard him for months, it seems. Perhaps the dawn chorus is now sufficiently early for me to hear it - up till now we've been getting up in the dark. Soon he'll be singing before I'm awake.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

from R.S. Thomas, A Blackbird Singing

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

from Edward Thomas, Adlestrop

A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.

from Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

14th February 2002

'Je t'hypnotise....'

'Il y a un grand temple qui est le temple de déstruction.'

Watching the Melville/Cocteau Les Enfants Terribles. The crazy febrile claustrophobia of the characters' world intensified by the crazy expressionist score: Bach and Vivaldi performed with a force now unknown, since the movement towards period instruments and authenticity. The music seems to egg on the characters to greater excesses of jealousy and deceit, speeding them towards their fates.

15th February 2002

aequataque machina caelo

Edward Hopper - Approaching a City (1946)

They were talking on the radio about 'approaching London' landmarks, waymarkers by which you know you're now in the city: signs, towers, giant clocks, the sparkling Lucozade sign by the M4...
When I was a child living in Cambridge, we made occasional trips by train to London, and I was always impressed by what Sax-period Kerouac used to call 'vast dooms' of urban railway architecture on the way into Liverpool Street Station - huge ravines and canyons of blackened brick, unknowable and, it seemed, unused or populated by humans, as the Romantics saw Classical ruins in the early nineteenth century. The above Hopper picture takes a stab at it, but is emotionally rather tame - at first these abysses scared me, but then came to be recognized as part of a cityscape and were at last looked-for. Tiny details were fascinating: a sooty light dangling fifty feet up a wall, far from any possibility of maintenance or human contact - what did it do there all day, all night?
I still love this kind of large-scale build-it-and-ignore-it construction: also the edges of industrial estates, where the concrete meets the weeds; dust and pollen mixing; the present as future archaeology; Ray Bradbury's Mars on Earth....

18th February 2002

Ray was mulling over the origins of the phrase 'Is diss a system?' - OK OK, so it was in December, so I'm a bit behind . . . anyway, he posted a fine Nize Baby story by Milt Gross. And here's another, catchphrase and all:

De Pite Piper from Hemilton

Oohoo, Nize Baby, itt opp all de rize witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tail from de Pite Piper fom Hemilton. Wance oppon a time was a willage from de name from Hemilton. So it was ronning along avveryting smoot wit Ho K - accept wot it was one acception: Was dere a hobnoxious past from rets. Hm! sotch a pasts wot dey was de rets. Wait, you'll hear - . . . more

19th February 2002

six point two billion

Who is he?  Where is he now?  What a story;  what stories . . .

Gorgeously photographed wild ginger, like a nineteenth-century botanical engraving, via The Magnificent Melting Object.

20th February 2002

Paul mentioned this years ago, and it's been in my head ever since - I still haven't read the book though, alas. When I saw this image yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery, it came instantly to mind:

Von - despatch rider, by Edward Barber

"Of course," they told him in all honesty, "you will be a slave."

His big-pored forehead wrinkled, his heavy lips opened (the flesh around his green, green eyes stayed exactly the same), the ideogram of incomprehension among whose radicals you could read ignorance's determinant past, information's present impossibility, speculation's denied future.

"But you will be happy," the man in the wire-filament mask went on from the well in the circle desk. "Certainly you will be happier than you are." The features moved behind pink and green plastic lozenges a-shake on shaking wires.

from Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel Delany (opening lines)

                        Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

- The Waste Land

22nd February 2002

Keith Vaughan:

Tutankhamun - death mask

The Egyptian looks at you with infinite understanding. He asks nothing. He judges not, nor censors. He looks with your eyes and you look back. And there is an indescribable understanding and sympathy and love.
. . . You are more beautiful than anything in the Classical world.
. . . Understanding and compassion. And you lived and died quietly - not saying anything we know - not doing much - lived only half the life of Jesus. Founded no religion. Caused no wars or misery. No one was tortured to death in your name (so far as we know). You make rather nonsense out of Christianity.

- Journal, 16th Dec 1974

24th February 2002


In bhikku's garden (Sempervivum sp.)

25th February 2002

I've never seen this movie.
But this still (by Steichen, no less)

Paul Robeson, The Emperor Jones

makes me want to.

Paul is posting cloud studies, as I did a while ago. Must be the time of year . . .

26th February 2002

Party Animals Vegetables

"In the evening went to a party. It is a bad place to go to - thirty or forty persons, mostly young women, in a small room, warm and noisy. Was introduced to two young women. The first one was as lively and loquacious as a chickadee; had been accustomed to the society of watering places, and therefore could get no refreshment out of such a dry fellow as I. The other was said to be pretty-looking, but I rarely look people in their faces, and, moreover, I could not hear what she said, there was such a clacking - could only see the motion of her lips when I looked that way. I could imagine better places for conversation, where there should be a certain degree of silence surrounding you, and less than forty talking at once . . . These parties, I think, are a part of the machinery of modern society, that young people may be brought together to form marriage connections . . . I derive no pleasure from talking with a young woman half an hour simply because she has regular features."

- Thoreau: Journal, 14th November 1851

Even Professor Whittaker in Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution does better than this:

This was a party: he wished to laugh whenever he should . . . the curve that his arm described, from his shoulder to his martini, seemed to have been taken from some graph, or table in a study called Vector Diagrams of Good Fellowship.

But I know just how Thoreau felt - he obviously didn't, as I don't, possess the famous human attribute Cocktail Party Ear; which is why at parties you'll always find me in the kitchen, looking hopefully into the fridge.

27th February 2002

Now, he's going to bring this out of the sky, and have 150 tons hit the earth at 150 miles per hour. That usually smashes the eggs, alright. When it comes down and there's music playing, and everyone is putting on their coats, and paying no attention to this incredible capability. Now, at that contact, something goes on here. What goes first? The pneumatic tires hit first, distributing the load. And then what happens? We've got hydraulic struts and there is enormous pressure on it, pushing water through enormous systems using the friction of the system. We distribute that load. It's the only place where man has actually done his designing as Nature has done her designing of a tree or a human being, with hydraulics, only in the landing gear of that airplane.

from Buckminster Fuller, Everything I Know

More beautiful and soft than any moth
With burring furred antennae feeling its huge path
Through dusk, the air-liner with shut-off engines
Glides over suburbs and the sleeves set trailing tall
To point the wind. Gently, broadly, she falls,
Scarcely disturbing charted currents of air.
Lulled by descent, the travellers across sea
And across feminine land indulging its easy limbs
In miles of softness, now let their eyes trained by watching
Penetrate through dusk the outskirts of this town
Here where industry shows a fraying edge.
Here they may see what is being done.
Beyond the winking masthead light
And the landing-ground, they observe the outposts
Of work: chimneys like lank black fingers
Or figures frightening and mad: and squat buildings
With their strange air behind trees, like women's faces
Shattered by grief. Here where few houses
Moan with faint light behind their blinds,
They remark the unhomely sense of complaint, like a dog
Shut out and shivering at the foreign moon.
In the last sweep of love, they pass over fields
Behind the aerodrome, where boys play all day
Hacking dead grass: whose cries, like wild birds
Settle upon the nearest roofs
But soon are hid under the loud city.
Then, as they land, they hear the tolling bell
Reaching across the landscape of hysteria,
To where larger than all the charcoaled batteries
And imaged towers against that dying sky,
Religion stands, the church blocking the sun.

- Stephen Spender, Landscape Near an Aerodrome

28th February 2002

Heart of Darkness

Congo - the place to avoid if you're afraid of thunderstorms . . . (from the world lightning strike map, via Bubble Chamber at Tensegrity).


Vent frais
Vent du matin
Vent qui souffle
Aux sommets des grands pins
Joie du vent qui souffle
Allons dans le grand vent . . .

Holly he hath birds a full fair flock;
The nightingale, the popinjay, the gentle laverock;
Good Ivy, say to us, what birds hast thou?
None but the owlet that cries How! How!

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

- Ezra Pound

When I was young I sat by fires
and now I'm old I sit by fires again
although now I do it more slowly.

- John Berryman

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