Poem: ‘Children beguile me’

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Children beguile me
‘Eyes open’ means ‘awake’.

Nimble-footed, they
Trade in pebble-diamonds

Make witches’ brooms
Of fallen branches

Pursue the cow to ask
For a taste of the grass.

Vulgar by education,
Grown-ups only plan to
Eat the best-cut steak.


Review of ‘Frantz’

Frantz, France & Germany, 2017, directed by François Ozon

Post-war romantic saga or clunky assertion of our common humanity? You can almost taste pre-twenties Europe in this well-styled film that could do with lopping off the last few twists in its plot. (And Anna’s hats are quite something.)

Frantz opens with a puzzling occurrence in a German town in the year after the First World War’s end. Anna, who is visiting the grave of her fallen-soldier fiancé, Frantz, gleans that an unknown Frenchman has been placing flowers on the grave too. He tries to visit the home of her former in-laws-to-be, where she is staying, and is kicked out by Frantz’s father for being French. There is some back-and-forth as Anna seeks him out, and eventually introductions are made. The visitor, Adrien, whom it turns out had some form of connection with Frantz, brings new life to the home and we even get the sense that there could be some romance between him and Anna.

Tension cultivated, denouements are tossed at us with gusto for the rest of the film. Halfway through the 113 minutes there is a Big Reveal, a this-man-isn’t-who-you-thought-he-was. This would probably have been enough, but then we are treated to a number of other untie-the-knots, namely: deceit from the protagonist, Anna; an attempted suicide; a you-thought-he’d-died moment; and even a surprise fiancée. (Incidentally, the surprise fiancée is one of the most compelling characters in the movie, despite only having a few minutes’ screen time to show it.) By the end, it feels like the energy you’ve put into suspending your disbelief is being exploited somewhat.


Édouard Manet, Le Suicidé

Though artistic tropes are rather over-used (poetry-sharing, violin-playing, appreciating paintings, and dancing all feature in both the burgeoning relationship and the lost one), the use of the Manet painting Le Suicidé is surely one of the best things about the film. Appearing repeatedly (in disguise at first) to tie together the different turns of the storyline, the painting depicts a man who has committed suicide lying on a bed. Unfortunately, as Anna stares at it in the ending of the endings, we are lacking in knowledge about what her hopes and dreams might be. Perhaps they lie in the young man next to her in the museum: the one she has a brief conversation with. God forbid she has any hopes and dreams that do not involve marrying fragile young artists. (True, we do see her playing piano a few times; but always as accompaniment to Adrien.)

Pascaline Chavanne’s styling is sumptuous and full of glorious details that feed you that pre-flapper-and-suffragette moment like a plain-looking but surprisingly tasty hors d’oeuvres. Adrien’s hair is always falling in his face, and not in a suave way. His moustache looks like it has just landed and perched on his upper lip: a precarious arrangement, fitting for a sensitive person. Anna spends every second looking immaculate, with earrings glistening out from under carefully tilted pinned-brimmed hats.

Anna’s styling being quite glorious for its own sake, the characterisation doesn’t match it, though Paula Beer’s acting is outstanding. I am left wishing I had a clearer idea of what aspect of her personality her style has been designed to represent. This is surprising in a film from the director of 8 Mujeres. Still, wishy-washy character design doesn’t stop Beer from playing every scene with consistent, sparkling subtlety of movement and expression. Pierre Niney (Adrien), too, holds up a very effective sensitive young artist with a secret. I feel that I type the same comments too often about films: that the script didn’t warrant the outstanding quality of the acting.

If the protagonist could have been more three-dimensional, the theme of common humanity across borders is successfully brought to the front of our minds. Working out how best to take it in (French-German audio; Catalan subtitles) was a labour of love for me. That we can one minute be learning each other’s languages and the next minute killing each other is a point explicitly made by Adrien. Here the sharing of language – the epitome of connection – is contrasted with killing each other: the epitome of disconnection. Multilingualism in films often adds to their universality; here it was effective, if not subtle, in doing so.


La poésie

‘Francophone’: the state of being a French-speaker without necessarily being French.

Writing in your second language is harder because the expressions make the journey from heart to mind (and from feelings to words) less organically. You have to push a bit and rummage about. It can also be more fun, because you’re less limited by painful awareness of the social and linguistic nuances of what you’re saying. You put less pressure on yourself to get it right because it’s a bit of a shot in the dark anyway. Result? More freedom.

At the recent International Day for Francophonie, there was an open mic in Barcelona. We did some poems.

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Here is me.


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Here is a poem of mine, with translation below.


Une chanson sourde
Pour les syriens,
dont le monde
ne se souvient
que lorsqu’ils sont
a la une.
Écoutez les larmes qui coulent dans nos ventres
On les digère si doucement
par peur que ça s’entende
Par peur que tout s’effondre
Mais nos cœurs ne chantent qu’une chanson sourde
Ne croit-on plus aux mélodies:
Ne sait-on plus qu’elles dissolvent les armes?
Moi, j’en ai marre de ce silence fatale
Qui consume mon énergie et mon être
Et nos enfants? Si on se tait,
On va les noyer la-dedans!
Vaut mieux qu’ils les entendent,
Nos cris et nos gémissements
Ils trouveront la fraîcheur dans la douche
De nos lamentations
Si cette cage possède encore sa batterie
Dans la nuit, la meme que celle de ceux qui souffrent,
On accueillera l’aria de la lune
Et les clochettes des étoiles, et la sonnerie du ciel
Ne cessons-pas de battre le tempo du chagrin
Pour que ceux qui viennent de nos ventres
Aient le coeur fait de musique
Et salés par nos larmes
Unheard Song
For Syrians,
Whom the world
Only remembers
When they are
To the tears that flow through our bellies!
We digest them so gently
For fear of hearing.
For fear that everything might collapse.
Our hearts sing an unheard song.
Do we no longer believe in melodies
Or know that they dissolve weapons?

I’m sick of this fatal silence
That consumes my energy and my wellbeing.
What of our children? Our silence
Will drown them!
Better they hear
Our cries and groans:
They’ll find freshness in the shower
Of our lamentations.

If this cage still has its drums,
Then, in this night that we share with those suffering,
We shall welcome the aria of the moon
The bells of the stars, and the ringing of the sky.
Never cease to beat the rhythm of our sorrow
So that those who come from our bellies
Have hearts made of music
Salted with our tears.

Spoken Word brings poetry home

poetry, n. writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm – Merriam-Webster

When I started writing spoken word poetry, it came to me as words I was speaking to myself. A major part of the essence of the poetry was in its performance, even though during the writing of it that performance was only to myself.

Since I was younger, I have always assumed this: Poetry is a thought condensed. Prose is the opposite: a thought elaborated. Spoken word seems to straddle both of these definitions and to step outside of them.

Originally I thought that ‘traditional’ poetry was passed on in print. But this misconception comes from years in school, studying Blake and Wordsworth and Owen and then at university Akhmatova,  Blok, Pushkin. Even though sometimes we’d be asked to read it out to the class, we studied it mainly by looking at the words on the page.

Reading written words was not the ‘original’ method of passing on poetry. Poetry began with Chinese folk songs and oral epics such as The Iliad. From the Middle Ages, think of the Catalan troubadours, whose oral verse occasioned the codification of the Catalan language. Writing it down was merely a way to ensure that it wasn’t forgotten.

Poetry was a way to connect, instantly, with one’s audience. I would argue that spoken word poetry is the closest art form to that today. In spoken word, the words come forth like a stream of consciousness: as I speak the words, my audience understands what I am saying. There is no break or study period needed in order for them to connect.

When ‘traditional’ or ‘establishment’ poetry is read out loud, on the other hand, the words may sound beautiful, but it would take several readings for me to begin to really connect with the meaning of the words. Realistically, one needs to study the words visually and allow them to seep into one’s mind over time in order to decipher the real meanings behind them.

The very concept of a ‘poetry reading’ is alien to the spoken word scene, because spoken word poets feel that the performance of their work is absolutely integral to its existence; it is a part of the very essence of the work. The pace, tone, timbre, beat, rhyme, possible musical backing, amplification, acoustics, the general atmosphere, and the audience themselves are part of the poem. The work cannot exist outside of its being performed.

This makes spoken word – often seen as a less high-brow genre – in fact a sub-genre that brings us closer to poetry in its original form. Poetry is not always a thought ‘condensed’: it can be condensed, elaborated, tossed about, stretched, mocked, ripped apart and put together again; in any combination of visual and auditory elements.

Jaded by the Trump Chatter

I did not go to the women’s march nor feel inspired by it, and I have been trying to work out why. At first I thought it was because I’d been to a feminist protest the week before and needed a break – but there’s more to it.

I am jaded by the way Trump conversation is unfolding – even in the publications that normally offer us some perspective. I recently opened the London Book Review of January 18th and discovered that the first-page article is yet another outline of how misogynistic Trump is. It feels like the new paradigm is simply to keep reminding each other of how angry we are about it. Is it only now that we are angry? Only now, when we see this particular ignorant rich buffoon on our screens on a daily basis? The world was full of misogynistic people in power before Trump. Why didn’t all these people care about that beforehand?

If we reflected for a moment, we might discover that we have more in common with Trump voters than we think. In his article from January 17th, John Pilger reiterates his view that ‘identity politics’ are the scourge of our age. He believes that they are leveraged by transnational capitalism to obscure class, and end up demonising white working-class men who have nothing to turn to but neo-nationalism to make sense of their woes.

He somewhat undermines this argument by referring to Chelsea Manning as ‘he’, making it sound like his opinion is coming from a rather reactionary place. Still, I believe that Pilger has a point: working-class white men are also an oppressed group, and in the conversations about intersectional struggles, not many folks are speaking up for them any more. This is how Trump happened.

Pilger calls out today’s writers for not speaking out against the mechanisms of power. He lambasts journalists for not taking risks, not challenging the status quo, not stepping back and calling out the awkward truths. In particular, he accuses journalists of using identity politics to relieve themselves of the burden of speaking up for somebody, and failing to dig down into the things that are actually uncomfortable: namely, the effects of corporate transnationalism, and the gap between rich and poor in America. In other words, the inequality that the educated liberal ‘elites’ – and often the journalists themselves – benefit from.

The idea that ‘we’ are using identity politics to obscure the issues of class and inequality that we are a part of – that needs to be more widely heard. There is a certain comfort that ‘we’ are taking in reassuring each other that we think it is all quite terrible and shocking and that something must be done. It keeps the focus on Trump and his misogyny. It enables us to avoid asking ourselves awkward questions.

I didn’t go to that particular women’s march because I felt that its politics were ‘misorientated’; they focused too heavily on one (admittedly powerful) misogynist and thereby wilfully obscured part of the issue. I feel that this is a time for a unified approach to liberation. The ‘other’ disenfranchised, those who voted for Trump, would have seen it as a march against them. But what we need is for the disenfranchised to come together and recognise each other’s oppression. This is unlikely to happen because that requires each side to recognise that they are also an oppressor.


Enjoy yourselves! no not like that

The UK government has been busy legislating what we can and can’t see online, ignoring the seemingly important criterion of whether or not the content is harmful to anybody. What’s new?
1916, when the first list of criteria for film censorship was created:

T.P. O’Connor, BBFC President
“We need to keep the masses in check. Let’s censor anything that threatens the social order!” [My summary. For the fuller version, read this book.]
A century later (after two world wars, several failed attempts at building better societies via communism and fascism, countless revolutions across the world, the global civil rights movement and the digital democratisation of information):
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Karen Bradley, Minister for Culture
[same conclusion]
If they paid any attention to research on this matter, they would discover that the activities they have just banned (such as videos depicting female ejaculation) form part of a kaleidoscope of adult activities which, in departing from social norms in online porn, are often empowering to women and other groups. They would also discover that the non-normative activities they have banned are linked to healthier psychological profiles.
Many folk will understandably be reticent to voice their opinions about this. It’s our culture of silence and shame that allows legislation like this to happen.
For interest, here are the reasons O’Connor and colleagues decided that a film could be banned in 1916:
1. Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging
6. The modus operandi of criminals
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding
10. Nude figures
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
12. Indecorous dancing
13. Excessively passionate love scenes
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
15. References to controversial politics
16. Relations of capital and labour
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
18. Realistic horrors of warfare
Image result for the cinema its present position and future possibilities
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
21. Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute British prestige in the Empire
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
25. Executions
26. The effects of vitriol throwing
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
30. ‘First Night’ scenes
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality
32. Indelicate sexual situations
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
34. Men and women in bed together
35. Illicit relationships
36. Prostitution and procuration
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
40. Themes and references relative to ‘race suicide’
41. Confinements
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialisation of the conventional figure of Christ
Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities, National Council of Public Morals, 1917

Freedom of thought is under attack in some islands currently called ‘Britain’

Photo: Very Brexit Problems

‘If you believe you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are a citizen of nowhere.’

Theresa May, Oct 2016

To anyone with a drop of empathy in them, nothing much needs to be said about how abhorrent this statement is. What a regressive and nationalist point of view, which ignores the universal nature of the human condition and our duty to respect and care for one another regardless of artificial boundaries drawn by history.

In particular, how painful it must be for Syrian refugees to hear something like this, in their time of desperate need. They are forced to rely on the kindness of those in other ‘countries’ and the leader of one of the most powerful European nations is claiming the moral authority to negate their very right to exist.

But there is something more deeply worrying about this statement. May didn’t say, for example, ‘Remember, you are a citizen of the UK; not a citizen of the world!’. Instead, she attacked those of us who hold certain beliefs. ‘If you believe you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are citizen of nowhere.’

May was excluding, through her rhetoric, the cosmopolitan, educated liberal elite from being considered British citizens. Making a beeline from the world of rich Tory post-imperialism to the disgruntled working classes, she cut out the liberal intelligentsia from citizenship as a concept.

Let me say that again. May announced that those with certain beliefs – beliefs about their own identity and nothing else, nothing hateful or harmful – do not have the right to consider themselves British citizens. And it wasn’t just any group of people, but the educated liberals; those of us who have the material and educational resources to stand up to the horrific directions her government is taking.

One of the first things Lenin did when the Bolsheviks attained power was deport 220 prominent intellectuals. The pursuit of aggressive ideological metanarratives does not allow for a plurality of educated views. We saw the UK start to go in this direction when Brexiteer Michael Gove announced that the country ‘had had enough of experts’ – almost all of whom were for remaining in the EU.

Now, those of us who have a cosmopolitan outlook are under attack. We are privileged to have the education and resources that we have; and it’s easy to make us scapegoats. Liberal policies are blamed for allowing the immigration that ‘took our jobs’ and ‘ruined our health service’ (and contributes millions to our economy and immeasurably to our cultural fabric).

I am not going to mount a defence of immigration here. Anyone seeking to protect white Britain from the responsibilities that follow centuries of imperialism and slave trade has probably stopped reading already. With May’s statement, what is in jeopardy here is freedom of thought.

‘Hostility to universal citizenship is, I submit, the main characteristic of fascism.’ Gáspár Miklós Tamás

May is not stripping away our passports just yet; but this is a key shift in rhetoric that presents us with a red flag. We cannot rest on our laurels any more. If the PM can say something like this and get away with it, it means that a good proportion of people in the UK think it makes sense.

Let’s not pretend we are a post-class society. Our education system has failed; the social mobility that creates a meritocratic pool of intellectuals has not been implemented. Disgruntled workers need scapegoats. Powerful post-imperialists need scapegoats. Those of us being pushed out must fight back.