Monday, 28 March 2011

On Grief

In a recent blog post, I wrote about grief and quoted from Christopher Reid’s collection of poems, A Scattering. A number of people contacted me to tell me how moved they were by the poetry. A Scattering comprises four poetic sequences that chart the illness and death of Reid’s wife, Lucinda Gane, and his resulting grief.

Poetry is especially suited to the blankness, aching emptiness of bereavement. “I didn’t know what to say,” “What can you say?” are common expressions of impotency in the face of someone’s grief. The language of everyday discourse is not supple or honest enough to articulate a profound sense of loss. However, the best poetry combines both an expressive elasticity and fierce lucidity that can drive language into those hurting places that would, otherwise, remain shut to us. Poetry translates those emotional states that appear to have effaced language into something that is recognisably human.

The smallest associations with his deceased wife – a bottle of perfume, the garden, favourite songs – allow the poet to exercise that creative voice with which to sound his anguish. The internal howl of pain finds a metre and rhyme, a disciplining principle that makes some tentative engagement with loss a possibility.

The fact that a person once loved is no longer physically present sets in motion a nuclear series of transformations and adjustments. Life has changed not ended for Reid. Faithless, life for his wife, he believes, has ended. Walking past the hospital to which he has donated her body, he consoles himself with the thought that she is “doing practical work...educating young doctors/or helping researchers outwit the disease that outwitted her.”

Yet, for all Reid’s practical atheism, one senses in this poetry a yearning to break free from the gravitational pull of scientific fact. This collection begins with the word “Blessed” and ends with the word “blessing”. Deeply embed in his verse is a kind of secular benediction. A blessing on all those who have died and on all those who grieve. Here is some acceptance that the language of clinical pathology will never suffice, that the human instinct is to find a religious vernacular. This is poetry that brings his wife back to life. While the innumerable air kisses/we exchanged in passing/remain suspended to this day,/each one an efficacious blessing.

Flowers in Wrong Weather

Snowdrops, crocuses and hellebore,
which last year must have done their shy, brave thing
unobserved by me, are out again this year.

I was in the garden bagging
tree-trash the gales had flung down the week before.
No gardener, even I could tell the job needed doing.

Now it was a too-mild February morning.
The flowers looked misplaced, without some ice in the air
or bullying wind to give them their full meaning.

Or was it just that there was nobody to share
the annual miracle with? Crocuses piercing
the soil with a palpable pang: the dear

droop of snowdrops; hellebore
stoically averted: all missing the welcome and blessing
of the one who had planted them there.

A Scattering, Christopher Reid, Areté Books, 2009

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Last of the Country Gentlemen

After Sunday Mass, I was given Last of the Country Gentlemen by a visitor who works for Mute Records. I had never heard of it or Josh T. Pearson. His photo – half cowboy, half Old Testament prophet – didn’t make me want to run to the c.d. player. But, a couple of days later, I did slip the disc into the machine and sat back with minimal expectations. The slow realisation flushed over me like some sort of ecstasy that I was listening to music with an absolutely unique aesthetic. By the time, I had finished listening to the seven love songs my eyes were moist, my heart was racing. These are songs that take an x-ray of all the fissures, shadows and splits in the fragile heart as it attempts to love. I am certain Last of the Country Gentlemen is one of the all time great albums about love.

There are two states that require a heightened artistic response. The language of the quotidian – the language of cleaning the cooker, going to the office – won’t do. The music of the shopping mall and pop charts won’t suffice. Love and death need a language and music that rises to the occasion, that speaks in a biblical fashion. Josh T. Pearson has found both the language and music to diagnose the cause of his love sickness.

The immediate cause was a failed relationship with a girl in Berlin - although it could be almost any failed relationship. Pearson captures the distinctive way that men grieve a lost love: masculine emotion tightened to a thick knot. This grief is spare, picked clean to the white of its bones. Loss is expressed with no taint of hysteria but with just a few guitar parts and the occasional addition of mournful strings. The language is measured, weighed in the scales of sadness. I ain’t your saviour or your Christ or your goddam sacrifice/And when I said I’d give my life, I weren’t talking suicide/ And I’m so tired of trying to make it right, for a girl who just won’t come to the light/night after night after night after Christ haunted night.

Josh T. Pearson’s voice could make desert stones cry. It’s as if he is placing his finger in the maggot infested decay of this relationship. He crawls with a sense of his own complicity in its death. Woman when I’ve raised hell, heaven knows you’re gonna know it/ Don’t make me rule this home with the back of my hand. At the same time his autopsy, eats him up from the inside out. He’s brought to his knees as he performs his own improvised funeral rites over the relationship’s carcass. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

Last of the Country Gentlemen is a little work of art.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Clybourne Park is a winner

I wrote recently about the play, Clybourne Park, now on at the Wyndhams Theatre, London. A number of people have contacted me about this blog post and it seems to have captured people's imagination. Well, last night Clybourne Park won a prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Play...and it is.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Sir Alex Ferguson and the sound of silence

The headline is Ferguson’s silence was music to the ears. Simon Barnes (referencing Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness as only this sports writer can) explains, “Sir Alex Ferguson (the manager of Manchester United) is giving a press conference today...After Manchester United’s defeat by Liverpool, Ferguson had spread a blanket of silence over his team. But now, alas, to the dismay of us all, he is talking to the world again. The horror! The horror!”

Ferguson’s monastic silence meant that there were “none of the usual claims about referees and how their incompetence cost his side the game...No rants against the media...No exclusion of journos who dare to suggest that United’s players and coaching staff are not all living pointed little sulks and vendettas against the BBC and others who had inspired his wrath...”

Silence, Barnes argues, would allow us to concentrate on what was really important – the football. “We’d have to talk about the players on the pitch instead of the personalities of the managers. We’d have to discuss the manager’s tactical abilities rather than his skills at verbal sniping. We’d have to deal with sport rather than soap opera.”

The whitenoise of meaningless, trivial, superficial words – the chattering of the commentating classes - makes us deaf to what is essential. Whether it is the person in front of the television or down the pub or in the office – we have convinced ourselves that we all have something of importance to say. There are those who do have something to say and then there is the majority, those legions of wagging tongues, who create a cacophony of discordant opinion.

Only silence provides us with an eloquence worth listening to. As the poet, R.S.Thomas puts it, "the silence holds with its gloved hand the wild hawk of the mind." Silence alone can hew that which is sublime and truthful from language. As in the prophet Isaiah, the seraph must touch our unclean lips with a glowing coal in order to purify them of all the inane banter, bigotry and innuendo. Perhaps, it is not a press conference that Sir Alex needs but a seraph's touch?

Simon Barnes also sees this silence as leading to “the eloquence of perfect action.” He ends with this riff and a delightful nod to John Keats:

I’m talking about the eloquence of perfect action: Dirk Kuyt’s goals against Manchester United, Tiger Woods at his best, Barcelona in full song, Jessica Ennis in full flight, Rebecca Adlington’s finish, Graeme Swann’s off break, Chris Ashton’s support play, Jonny Wilkinson’s tackling, Usain Bolt’s speed.

In sport, truth is action and action is truth. Perhaps in life as well. The rest is silence.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Racism, Frankie Boyle and Clybourne Park

Clybourne Park is a play of ideas but don’t let that put you off. This play is laugh out loud, scurrilously funny. But it is much more than a sophisticated sitcom or stand up routine. In the audience’s laughter our own positions and prejudices are revealed and reflected back to us. This is theatre that is highly entertaining and provocative.

The acting in Dominic Cooke's production is of the highest quality capturing the subtlest inflections of human nature, the camouflaged cruelties incubating in our relationships. The actors (and all of them contribute to the success of this production) flesh from Bruce Norris’s text, characters that are at once, theatrical (and so provide an audience with a critical distance with which to scrutinise their behaviour), and, at the same time, immediately recognisable as one of us (thus, shrinking any distance and mirroring all that we flinch from in ourselves). All the lazy dualisms of goodies and baddies, the virtuous and vicious evaporate and all the ambivalent, moral and psychological chiaroscuro in which the human person is shaped becomes solid.

This two act play runs like a perfectly calibrated Swiss watch. Set in two separate historical periods inhabited by different characters, the acts reference each other and show how the fears and anxieties of one age remain stubbornly alive in another. The buying and selling of property becomes the locus for the unspoken grievances, political and personal, that cross historical and cultural time zones. Yet, this is no crude piece of political agitprop. Instead, ideological positions are rooted in the shifting silt of human tragedy and loss that lies within us. Nevertheless, Clybourne Park is a play of fascinating ideas.

In a liberal, permissive society what, the play asks, can be classed as offensive? John Galliano’s anti-Semitic rants in a Parisian bar or the comedian, Frankie Boyle’s jokes at the expense of the disabled? Are certain things inherently offensive or is offense in the eye of the beholder? Bruce Norris uses the nature of humour to explore this. If you prefix every potentially offensive comment with a knowing wink and “it’s a joke” does that make it acceptable? Or does the degree of offense depend on how something is said, the context and by whom? Clybourne Park makes the point that the language that some black people may use among themselves would be considered unacceptable if used by white people.

Or, perhaps, there is some correlation between the gravity of the offense and the sensitivities of the listener? This struck me forcibly during the past week. I felt offended and insulted when someone made a comment about my height (or lack of it) and physical stature. Most of the time such comments never appear to land a blow (in fact, some of them are very funny and, if I may say so, they are usually the ones I make self-deprecatingly about myself), but at that particular moment the comment hurt. Hyper-sensitivity on my part or a real, verbal offense? Maybe the question is did the person who used the comment intend to belittle (excuse the pun) me and, if so, is that where the offense lies?

Clybourne Park considers all those things that make people outsiders. There are the obvious ones of race, gender, class, sexual orientation and religion that are constantly (and properly) brought to our attention. The current debate in the United Kingdom about multiculturalism highlights this. But Norris asks the more profound question: what are these “outsiders” placed outside of? Well, it may be that certain people or groups are placed outside the many rights (for example, to personal security) and freedoms (for example, to religious expression) that most people naturally benefit from. Such discrimination is unacceptable. But, it may also be that in this mortal life we all exist as outsiders, living outside the city walls, and the idea that there are insiders is just a powerful myth. Being an outsider is our commonality.

Grief, for example, makes us all outsiders, Norris suggests. In the first act, a couple grieve the death of their son and in turn, they become emotional pariahs in the community in which they live. The grieving, as the poet Christopher Reid writes, carry “an emptiness so heavy,/ I am inclined to call it my new born soul,/ though its state may be less an achieved pregnancy than a pregnancy/ lodged oddly, for lack of a womb, in a tight gap/ behind the sternum, mid-thorax, not far from my heart.” They bear the wound of loss that others cannot accept or recognise as being part of the human condition.

For all its ideas, Clybourne Park never forgets that we are made to live lives of praise and lamentation (either suppressed or in tears) and that it is in such expressions that we find our human identity and the possibility of reaching out to each other in tenderness. Apart from all the other things that there is to enjoy in this play, I think this sad-stirring element makes Clybourne Park a must-see.