Sunday, June 1, 2008

From London to Spain

The last couple of days in London were devoted mostly to seeing friends: the American poet Kathryn Maris; James Byrne, young poet who in addition edits an innovative poetry magazine called The Wolf; the poet Yvonne Green, one of my closest London friends; and Anne-Marie Fyfe, already introduced a few days ago in these pages. It’s not solely poetry that interests me, so let me bring up here Adam Mars-Jones, the novelist and critic, and his partner Keith King, who does ceramic sculpture. We had dinner on Wednesday at a popular place in Soho called Mildred’s, and my friends were telling me how they recently got hitched (as English law now permits people of the same sex to do). So, yes, instead of Adam and Eve, it’s Adam and Keith. My hat’s off to them and to the progressive direction the British legal and social system is taking. (U.S.A. take note, and let Massachusetts and California set the tone rather than Kansas and Alabama.) Adam is still riding high on the reception of his third work of fiction, published under the strange title Pilcrow. (Look the word up. I’d seen the thing, I just never knew what its name was.) Anyway, a fascinating book, written in the voice of a boy who suffers a major disability; and may remind readers of Denton Welsh or A.J. Ackerley because of the fine-grained observation, the lapidary style, the irony, and the bizarre sense of humor. Close to five hundred pages, surprisingly, the book is only the first of four or maybe even five installments. We’re not done with Cromer (the narrator} yet.

The focus of my time in London was seeing friends, but I did see a special selection of 20th c. American prints at the British Museum, the artists including Sloane, Hopper, Marin, George Bellows, Walter Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, and Pollock; plus many that were unknown to me like Martin Lewis (Hopper’s Australian-born teacher), Peggy Bacon, and various minor talents that worked at the celebrated Hayter studio in the postwar period. The Marin etching was (if I’m allowed to pick up this blog’s bridge theme) an expressionistic rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge, predating the Joseph Stella painting by several years. On the whole, a satisfying gathering of graphic work, much of it conceived according to 1930s left-wing positioning, to be expected, given that many of the prints were done under the auspices of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. A brief repatriation for the blogger. Meanwhile, an upcoming exhibition scheduled for July will interest me just as much, to judge by advance publicity; too bad for me, because I’ll have left London by then. It’s about Hadrian, his visit to Albion in AD 122, and the northern wall whose construction he decreed. Nearly two years ago I published a poem titled “Hadrian” in Michael Schmidt’s PN Review, a poem dealing with precisely this same subject matter, so I’m eager to see how British Museum presents it. An excuse (not needed, really) to come back to London before the show closes.

On Wednesday I met James Byrne at the British Library, before walking over to the recently renovated St. Pancras rail station to get some lunch. Up on the second level were umbrellas and tables put out by an Italian restaurant, and that’s where we had our meal. I gather tourists are coming to see the new St. Pancras for itself alone. In the middle of all the modernist steel and glass has been erected a huge bronze sculpture on a four foot high pedestal, representing a young couple in vaguely Fifties-style dress, indulging in a torrid snogging session. I guess it’s the sculptural equivalent to la poésie des départs, a bit of Casablanca for London’s new Eurostar terminal. Not too far from that there’s also an oversize statue of John Betjeman, doing his imitation of a wine barrel. The obvious explanation for his effigy is that, except for his conservationist efforts, the old St. Pancras would have gone under the wrecking ball. But I happen to know that there is another less public reason. Though married, he for decades conducted a semi-public love-affair—with his wife’s knowledge if not her complete approval. In order to meet his ladylove in her own setting, he would hop a train from St. Pancras Station to Chesterfield in Derbyshire. Details about the affair are found in the Bevis Hillier biography. (By the way, are we all too serious and modern, are our jaws so set that we can’t unlimber and enjoy light verse? For what it is, I mean? Something that makes a point—and us laugh—simultaneously? A while back Hugo Williams wrote a good, unpompous defense of Betjeman for The Guardian; he made a convincing case.)

After lunch I went to the Poetry Library, whose rooms are in the Royal Festival Hall building were closed when I was living in London two years ago. So I was curious to have a look. But there wasn’t much time to take its measure because less than five minutes after I go there, Anne-Marie Fyfe appeared, just a little behind schedule. Exclamations appropriate for happy reunions, and then we went down to the terrace outside RFH, pretending not to notice the cool, overcast weather. We had our coffee while talking about people we know in common, and various poetry-related topics. Anne-Marie is dear and funny, one of the nicest people on the poetry scene. She has agreed to let me tag on to an evening of American poetry she’d planned for the Coffee Poetry series at the Troubadour Café on the 9th of June, after I return from Spain.

Spain is where I am now, preparing to lead a course at the Almàssera Vella arts center, here in the village of Relleu in Alicante province. This part of Spain is called the Costa Blanca, a favorite for British expatriates, in fact, nearly a million U.K. citizens live hereabouts. Last night I gave a reading at Alicante University in the pretty town of Benissa. All of this was arranged by Christopher North, who invited me to teach here several months ago. He was waiting for me at the Alicante airport when I got in on Thursday, and the drive to Relleu gave us a chance to begin to get acquainted. Chris is as kind and thoughtful as friends in common had said, and I am one lucky diablo to be able to come here to teach. Course members arrive later today, and our first class is on Sunday.

I’ve already met a couple of other English expatriates, friends of Chris’s who live in the nearby village of Sella—Terry Gifford, the poet and critic, and his partner Jill Round, who has written a book about the best walking trails in the area, based, obviously, on their extensive experience here over the years. Terry happens to do rock climbing, the subject, actually, of the poems in one of his collections. It’s obviously one way to be fit in your sixties, if Terry is an indicator, though not a method I’d risk, sold on yoga as I am. Jill and Terry joined us for dinner on Thursday and then again after the reading I gave last night. As could be expected, we found a bar in Benissa that provides good tapas and sat there sampling the tasty varieties for a couple of hours. Terry has just completed a book on Hughes and told me many facts not generally known about the poet who has now outdistanced Larkin as the most admired English poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He doesn’t rate the Birthday Letters book as highly as I do, but then so much of what I write is autobiographical, it’s inevitable that BL would interest me. Still, we might ask ourselves if it really is odd to be gripped by personal narratives, considering that people (like the show tune says) are always going to be more interested in people than in any other phenomenon. For the sake of argument, let’s leave the deity out of it.

This blog is getting to be too long, but let me say that Alicante province and Relleu are stunningly beautiful, with all the components we expect in countries flanking the Mediterranean—olives, palm trees, oranges, lemons, almonds, pomegranates, lavender, bougainvillea, stone ruins, red pantile rooftops. More specific details about Almàssera Vella can be found in Mimi Khalvati’s long poem “The Mediterranean of the Mind” (The Meanest Flower). She has taught here a couple of times and made good use of the surround. Her poem is dedicated to Michael Donaghy, who died a few years ago, and who was one of the earliest poets to teach here. I want to speak about him as well, but will postpone that, considering it’s hard to read long texts online.

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