The Unmentionable Odour of Death

In his poem ‘September 1, 1939’ WH Auden (1907-1973) referred to the ‘unmentionable odour of death’. That was at the outbreak of the 2nd World War. But now we are into the second month of Putin’s war against Ukraine and the revelations from Bucha recalls Auden’s line, but sadly, even if the odour of death is unmentionable, we can well imagine it, all that way, away from the actual grim and unspeakable horror that is Bucha.

Borges’ Undr

Emil Cioran (1911-1995) poet and prophet of pessimism, an existentialist, but one who abhorred meaning-making, whose philosophy focused on the tragic and meaningless, the despair in existence. He wrote ‘I have seen one man pursue his goal, another that one; I have seen men fascinated by disparate objects, under the spell of dreams and plans…

The Forest of Cedar

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written over 5,000 years ago. It is regarded as the first great work of literature. My interest today is not in the usual emphasis, that is placed, on the examination of the nature of friendship, the treatment of the duties of kings foreshadowing ‘mirrors for princes’ in the Epic. Today, I am preoccupied with the motif of journeys in literature. This theme is most explicit in Homer’s Odyssey and in Aeneas’ Aeneid. 

Alejandra Pizarnik: poet of mists and shadows

Reading Alejandra Pizarnick (1936-1972) is like standing by the drystone wall leading towards Hardcastle Craggs from Hebden Bridge in the darkening evening, just before Crimsworth Terrace. And looking up the valley, a valley draped in mist, a subdued greyness like a gauze hanging there with the surreal shadows of the hills, just about visible. And then, looking at oneself, a dense pith of darkness, there and not there, again just barely visible. That is what her poetry is like, all mist and shadows, slippery yet sharp as a knife edge, grazing against the sky, sometimes brushing the sky and at other times kissing it.

What are so many straight trees to me?

Frieda Weekley met DH Lawrence in March 1912. She later eloped with him, leaving her husband Ernest Weekley and her three children. After obtaining her divorce, they were married in July 1914. This blog is about the complex ramifications of a woman leaving her children and her husband for her lover.   I have known…

Spitting flames from his gums

The winter solstice has been and gone. Nightfall starts practically mid-afternoon and it is still night well into what would normally count as morning. Even after all these years, my body, my immigrant’s body, that is, still finds this shortening of the day and the reciprocal lengthening of the night disconcerting, if not just short…

Silence and Absence in Rumi

Rumi (1207-1273), astonishing for a poet, was preoccupied with silence. Now, on superficial examination poetry, writing, speaking is the antithesis of silence. But, for Rumi, silence like absence was the ever-present nothingness from which things, including speech and poetry, emerge. This insight, a miraculous insight, upends our usual understanding of how the world is, what…

The cellar of memory

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) described Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) in 1945 as   immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features and an expression of immense sadness.   I never met her except in her poetry. When I first read her poems, I found that they were charged as like with intensely powerful…

I pass as all things do, dew on the grass

The title of this post is from Bazan's death poem. He died in 1730 at the age of 69 years. His death poem refers to “dew” an image of transience in Buddhist literature. In my childhood, too, dew would settle, overnight, on the blades of grass, on leaves and flowers like a miraculous secretion on…