Archives for posts with tag: Semapolis | City of Signs

Resting tenderly, tiny bubbles on the underwater stems of cut flowers, the bouquet bound together by frayed string, in a half-pint milk bottle once belonging to the Co-operative Dairy Society Ltd Guildford. Tenderness and repose: two qualities I treasure, perhaps because I am cold, selfish and ascetic by nature, and my spirit is restless, so that both repose and tenderness are rare in my life, dedicated as it is to the cool greed art has become in this era, at least insofar as I am capable of making it. Lethargy is different to repose: lethargy I possess in abundance, a terrible internal sloth, like a slag heap amassed over centuries of mining, a mountain of black waste that has permanently changed the ratio of earth to sky, and which can’t be shifted — all that can be expected of it is a trivial modulation in topography, a creep and trickle at the edges, the wind blowing dust on the surface, nothing moving at the core. If the women who lay by my side could have sensed this doomed landscape within me, would any have stayed longer than, in the end, they did? Why would you? There are lost causes too lost for a person ever to contemplate even an attempt at futile loyalty to them. Certain kinds of futility may be enjoyable, in an odd way, and some may be beautiful, but remaining loyal to a species of unwitting treachery is just stupid, a pouring away of life. I should know this: it takes us back to that cool greed, takes us back recessively, insidiously and yet, as well, emphatically, in the fashion in which, according to that description by Yeats, a good poem is meant to finish, with the sharp neat click of a closing box. Words and self-regard are never far away. Hence, a cycle of wandering and fear, emptiness and restlessness, Ulysses under the Tennessee pines. Which leads, in turn, to the language of Bedouin and Hottentots, of tumultuous, silent Patagonian clouds, of stooping and kneeling to drink with our bare hands from Arctic streams, the knife-cold waters entering us with an atrocious clarity, worth the sins we committed to get here. But this, as you will have realised, is beside the point. Tenderness, and repose: wonderful in themselves, but together, inexpressibly lovely. The text begins to put off its own references, we are heading out to a place of indifference, like a waking sleep. If it is lonely there, it is lonely because of those hands that may still reach forward, and touch, those lips that have not yet lost their taste for kissing: the space, I mean, is very fine, and renders us, even now, very sensitive. The old war has cleansed the bones, the new war is yet to begin. We can take our time, knowing that death has its own rules, and we have earned our rest, after a long and honourable race against oblivion. Leaving at dawn is endlessly postponed, but the freshness of dawn and of the unknown prepares us, a clearing of decks. Stillness comes. I don’t love you.


from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)


The city inside him rarely fell still. It was a mistake, he was sure, to think of himself as separate from the city, a sovereign state, even though, it was true, he could leave the city and go elsewhere if he wished, a village on the moors, a small port town on the south coast, with a snub white lighthouse, in winter. He didn’t contain the city, as a phial contains a particular liquid; and he wasn’t a passive object, like a white screen upon which the city was projected in a series of images. Everything was more porous than that: the city was a field of interactivity, in which the citizens were participants, coming into and out of existence as thoughts fire and fade in the mind, as lights go on and off in a building. Pronouns felt increasingly deceptive to him, the clumsy “I” and the “you”, the “it” and the “me”. His mother was in the advanced stages of dementia, and despite the grief and disorientation he experienced at watching her metamorphosis, he marvelled at the way his mother’s brain had progressively jettisoned parts of what had once been essential elements of her life, including her son, whom she had loved and cherished for decades, and including even herself. It was terribly cruel, to be introduced to her over and over again, the person she’d borne in her womb, and dandled and taught, guided, punished and adored, now he was somebody with a question mark for her, a “Joe?”, or “the television man?”. A conjuror inside her was making items vanish — a goldfish in a bowl, a white rabbit, doves — but never returned them, so her world, in theory, grew smaller and smaller, less and less populated, more and more empty. She was a periodic table, dropping members, first without mercury, then without sulphur or plutonium: failing connections plucked from her titanium, cobalt, zinc… Instead of the full 98 elements, hers was a table of 50 or 40, a dwindling amount. She was far less her “self” than she had been ten years earlier, her husband, two children, pets, her home, all had been mislaid in the mysterious zone of forgotten memories, their status problematic, their survival unknown, perhaps they were only extant in fragments, shards among the shards of broken dreams. Was she any less of a person? Of course not! She had her world, her routines in the assisted facility at the hospital: it was only that, quite evidently, she was not in control of who she had been, and she was not in control of who she was. She was not her self. Other powers held her in their sway, and yet they weren’t malicious or impish, they had no sentience, they were impersonal, systems that ran with no aim and no choice, cells that helplessly mutated, chemicals that were forever combining and re-combining in different formations, atoms that rose and fell in their own tides, swept back and forth, fluid and unresting… In other words, she was a collection of energies, but not in a stable or fixed condition, but like the collections of great patrons and museums, over the ages, first accumulated, painstakingly, treasures sought and added in, built and built up, then broken down, when finances or circumstances forced it, scattered, some artefacts destroyed, others lost, still others drawn into the holdings of new collectors, representatives of nascent empires, newly wealthy republics. And he was like this, and even the city was like this. And the girl in the boat looked so lonely, he felt like weeping: did she have any idea, how sad and how funny it was to mourn an illusion, to cling to a wreck that seemed so young?


from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

Everything is made of loneliness | which may be defined as a particular proximity to death | a state of intimate estrangement with one’s surroundings and with other people | a sense that life is sterile, childless | If one is alone, somehow one’s voice doesn’t carry, and other people’s voices, even those of close friends, don’t quite seem to reach you | There is a shortfall, a zone of muteness, at once vague, occluded, peripheral, but acutely cold and clear, motionless, like bright sunshine on a landscape one early morning after heavy snow | Distance permeates each object | the sugar cubes in a café bowl are precisely sugar cubes, but in a calm and unspectacular way, have Samarkand in them, or Atlantis, the Sea of Tranquility | Paradoxically, they contain what they are not — they contain where they are going, what they have been, how, at a point in their past, they were not sugar cubes, and how, at a point in their future, they will cease to be sugar cubes… | Is loneliness lack of love? | Not necessarily, not directly | A lonely person can be deeply loved, and love deeply, but the same odd embargo on intimacy remains enforced | Indeed, a lonely person who is loved may feel even more lonely | even more childless | A mockingly precise relation to space is one hallmark of the lonely | but even more so, a fraught relation with time, a hyper-awareness of moments and months and years passing | an instinct for ephemera | that each thing is lost, even in the event of its approach, the exquisite | instant of its presentation | its brilliance lying, in part at least, in the fact it cannot return | it must go this way | it must change | it must pursue its natural path | into other things | even the dead | mighty as they are | still possess a butterfly delicacy | a flit and ragged lift | they evince | an inability to stabilise their meaning to us | (sometimes we think of them, sometimes we do not) | they are restless | pinned butterflies in cases whose wings | unnervingly | still occasionally move | A lonely person has a very poignant relation to monuments, and to the monumental: in Rome, you can be very lonely

Looking across the city, he felt as if the churches had cracked, the palaces slumped, statues lost arms and heads | As if a whirlpool of fluid stone and tarmac, brick and plaster | were turning slowly | and at the centre, a darkness, calm oblivion, drew the whole city towards it, and downwards | into nothing | His friends might laugh at him | flip a coin | angle a bottle of beer into themselves at jaunty café tables | mount their scooters and snarl away into the bright, warm evening | driving off somewhere into the intimate splendour of their lives | but what had they left behind, in the shape of the person they knew by his name? | His loneliness proved the whirlpool was there | Into his existence, silent and beyond blame or cure, the city stealthily crept and crumbled | moving, invisibly to others, but tangibly to him, with the seething inevitability of fresh lava | a whole planet on the move | heading into the hole in his head | where children lay | sleeping soundly | so sure, the previous evening, that they would never sleep again


from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

Each thing is prolific. The lamp, the courtyard, the lime tree. They are seasonal, episodic, undergoing periods of stillness and inertia. At such times, they do not publish, they abide, patiently. At other times, and particularly under the excitement of a human eye, they begin to pour out new works, volumes of association and electricity, sketches of shadows and nostalgia — broadsides, epigrams, histories.

If you were to take an ontological slice through any item, no matter how inert and quiescent it may seem on the surface, you would discover that it is actually teeming with life. If there were an instrument that were capable of capturing relations, and you passed the most common article – a button, a shoe, a paintbrush – beneath the lens, like bacilli blooming under a microscope, you would see at once stupendous forests issuing out from the object, a web of threads and anchors so complex it would defy your ability to process it, and would ultimately fade out at the edges of comprehension, as with dreams at their beginning and end…

Often, a person is completely unaware of the spectral flurry of activity they cause in the objects around them. People follow the lines of utility, of immediate desire: they’re conscious of the lamp’s switch, the sticky glisten of the lime in spring; they don’t notice the wings, the moonlight, the tides, the Carboniferous. The extraordinarily subtle shimmer of possible relations, evolving right before their eyes, is almost entirely intangible to them. Perhaps only on rare occasions may they be aware of the murmur of the sea in their heart, the endless ramifications of the waves, the bleak squawk of seabirds swirling and diving around a black granite cliff…



from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

Returning to old haunts | quarters of the city you haven’t visited in years, or perhaps only for months – how, with you, they’ve changed || An ancient churchyard, with its green gardens, surrounded and walled in by office blocks and skyscrapers, kept back like a secret or held in reserve | like a kind of spiritual fire escape | it isn’t quite how you remembered it || The copious rain of this summer has slicked and beaded and lubed the plants with moisture, the stone is darker from the years before, even the shadows feel wet, and the gloom of the interior, sliced into a slender vertical slat through the partly open door, seems almost submarine, belonging to the stoven-in hold of a sunken galleon, or to a building from a drowned village on the eastern coast || Today, as the rain cocoons the violet skin of your umbrella, you recall the signorial heat of last August, how the sun filled this courtyard with its direct light and late afternoon shadows, and in a corner the grass pulsed to the dry serenade of an urban grasshopper (how did it get so far into the city?) || Like oil floating on water, your consciousness flows over the mumbled headstones, paths and encroaching vegetation, a smooth but (to you, at least!) a sometimes unsatisfactory co-habitation, and the sea of the streets and buildings | carries you / as you carry them | away… || On that occasion, as you ate a sandwich, sipped from a bottle of Evian, you looked through a book by Luis Cernuda || In the end, you don’t have much time left, and who knows if it isn’t better to live like this, stripped of possessions, perpetually ready for departure | You kept glancing up, sensing this place was the location of a hidden and recurring | nativity | but the nature and identity of the thing being born seemed to fall just beyond the limit of your conception || Perhaps you already knew that those moments would be the subject of a gently fraught nostalgia?

If you stand and observe a thing for any length of time, presently the rind of your assumptions surrounding it begins to fall away, like a fruit being peeled, and what lies revealed is an entity without context or purpose, self-enclosed and serene, offering a scent of alien sweetness



from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

Planes in the sky | stacking | climbing | descending | Airport | Chain-link fences | the sky so | pale and | fine and | beautiful | And all the gods and the dogs of | summer | hang their heads and are | bored ||  ||  || Planes in the sky, the hot summer, fire trucks on the ground | The runways ripple in the heat, baggage crews assemble for their shift, they will handle | the scent of cinnamon, Tracey’s V, the crumbling petals of an emperor’s lotus || City of souvenirs, on conveyor belts or carousels, the capsules of memory are gathered for a few minutes before beginning their long journeys of dispersal

He felt his life was disintegrating | Every morning he woke with a feeling of something banal and yet ominous – which, he realised, was his own heart – and with the kind of sensations you might feel as, after a left turn, it dawns on you that you are driving | the wrong way down a one-way street



from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

There was a severe winter | In a way it was like a fairytale, with icy cataracts and burial snow, the grip of an ancient weather || She felt marooned || She was old, and slowly the city had been growing | greater and greater around her, further and further, more and more unknown and | mysterious | It became harder for her to negotiate stairs, to take a bus, to navigate | tubes and timetables | A lift out of order would block her way, it was a major setback, may send her home | Her knees had | gone | she had pain in her joints and muscles, she had begun to | wizen | So, she went out less and less, and her city | shrank || She became a blurred creature, quasi-spectral, lost between the two lenses of perception, the public and the private, they would not | focus on her || If you had asked her how | this white-haired, delicate figure | had appeared | out of the nubile / cocoon / of her student days, perhaps she would be | at a loss | to answer, or say her only explanation | was a form of dream or the product | of incantation | As in classical mythology, when the gods roamed our world, she had been | metamorphosed, changed | profoundly, only not in an instant but in | a series of instants so extensive and elastic that, at times, it appeared infinite, and all her days / were entire worlds… || Gradually, now, she is becoming | rooted | and the spell of the years | cast over her | Her body twists and stiffens | the agile | mercury of her pulse | grows sluggish, torpid | and she begins to exhibit | the two major signs | which mean | she is ready to be | marked | in the book of oblivion: she forgets, and she is | forgotten

I really just want to create work that’s beautiful. I think people are drawn to beauty, and want to be beautiful, and beauty is that moment you | are caught | without an answer to a question that is most insistently | being asked by you. Of course, the question is endlessly changeable. Sometimes, the answer is | no.



from Semapolis | City of Signs (series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

The serene world of electrical circuits and steel stanchions and railway lines | unagitated by running deer or by wonky metaphysics | The marble floors of stations, these are hands | A spew of wires from servers, these are eyes | Dawn over the city, gold tips church vanes and temple pinnacles | The girl whose body | was turning to crystal | inside her | The dates, the names, the maps, the graves: ancestral data | pixels and vellum | limestone and Indian ink | that is to say | inanimate things | Their trail leads to the heart of the problem | Archaeologists of the future may stumble on | the factory | where sometimes there are workers, regulations concerning the control of dust; sometimes | there are stains and pools | where water has entered the building after long neglect, and sparrows nest among the girders | The mineral creep of semen, the relation of ideas to stone | The great cemeteries of the living brain, each idea a grave | The great hospitals of the living brain, each idea a child | Coffins and cots, coffins and cots…

It had been a long bus journey, and she’d dozed in a room with dark red roses on cream wallpaper, then woken, half, then slipped away into the ordinary, dimensionless world of sleep again, then woken… | Why was she dreaming so much? | The bus rumbled and droned around her, and the vehicle’s ambient vibrations ran through her body, cupped her / She felt terribly deflated | Love was over for her, she would never love again | Now there was just sorting through things, so many | things | Moving articles around in the morning | storing them | maintaining them | keeping them clean | disposing of them when they ceased to work | She would have to think, to be hurt, to deal with colleagues at work, but without love | it was more arranging of atoms, obedience to rules | She would function, she would appear | She would fulfill her obligations, fill out the forms, pay her taxes, vote, but without love | there was a zombie quality to these events | the tiny, hot, raw purpose of her life had gone, and with it | the beginning and the end, from now on | her story would be all middle | digression, back-story, but it would all | be oddly plotless | There would still be tides, still be Jupiter and Neptune, her flat would still have a number, a post-code, but without love | she would be absent from her own world, there would just be translucent husks of routines and motions | Instincts would flicker like dials, reminding her | she was most certainly alive, but her heart | was disconnected, now, it had fallen into the world of orbits and mass, velocity and inertia, other people’s laws | The bus rumbled | Rumbled, rumbled… | The traffic thickened, the bus slowed, idled | Why was she dreaming so much? | While she slept, she was young, and she was in love




from Semapolis | City of Signs (series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

All cities are superimposed one upon another, seeking the city, but the city | evades, and is, them all // Time fills the streets, he was early for a rendezvous, he sat in a café and doled out moments into the traffic and the women passing outside on the pavements, and the men he didn’t care about so much, and the sunlight / with its complacent emptiness / shone everywhere and meant nothing || He wished he could attach to all the strangers just a few fragments of his own feelings, the heightened melancholy he experienced, the burnished sense of fragility, but he realised, ruefully, that he couldn’t even attach those fragments | to himself, and so | the day passed and he paid his bill

She flicked through photos on her old Mac | What had these images become, she wondered? – mementos, pointing the way back to lost time, sweetly and perfectly illustrating | the secret aspects of her life | and | poignantly | the greatest secret of all, that her life | wasn’t her life

If you cannot get control, then achieve at least the illusion of control.

In the German Gymnasium, no swordsmen but liqueurs. Spectacular arrangements of flowers, their seductive display of pure nudity — is there anything more naked than a flower? — and green and white geometry, architecture of sulphur and cream. A muted air of the glasshouse, a waxy residue of plastic-wrapped passages through the conduits of commerce, attaches itself to the lilies, and the establishment’s ambiance is subtly compromised: dead feelings. Contrived into position, the petals emit a faint under-image of barcodes and spreadsheets and vans.

In the German Gymnasium.

The joy of modernity is over, the forced games of post-modernity are over, or should be over, but both hangover.

This is no longer the London of Karl Marx and Rimbaud, nor of the Blitz or of a brutalist concrete revival. The city has settled eerily, like a sunken ocean liner on its side. The damage is ingeniously massaged away and dispersed. Neither fascist excess, nor revolutionary zeal, nor liberal decadence hold sway: that would be absurd, any significant re-structuring of the capitalist vessel seems to belong less to the domain of necessity or possibility than to the arena of taste, of manners. Bad taste, and bad manners. If you cannot gain control, you cannot lose control either.

I am of Puritan stock, a whey-faced, doughty roundhead among cavaliers. The clink of my pike and pot helmet and breastplate can easily be heard in the charming landscape dotted by the translucent, ethereal volcanoes of martini glasses. Tramping up the stairs in my Paul Smith armour, I feel guilty, incapable of taking pleasure in a place designed for pleasure and the performance and embodiment of style. No matter how hard I try, I cannot relax into the present era, the fashionable scene. I am clunky and humourless, and of course no less narcissistic than the cavaliers around me — indeed, probably more so.

The new has become a brand, like sonnets, like handguns, like Tarantino. Modernity is a sheath over the past. Make of that what you will, o my masters!

Calmness is a signature look in the German Gymnasium. Not sabres, not rapiers, but mobile devices and Tissot watches. Complete command over the syntax of the efficient expenditure of wealth is highly desirable. We speak in control. We express success.

No Prussian hard-cases, no punch bags the dark tobacco colour of gleaming tropical beetles.

The poets of that era, with their dueling scars of hashish and an innocent belief in art and in the efficacy of iconoclastic weekends in mountain retreats or dingy bordellos, each carrying the neat, jumbled prospectus of the future in suitcases of glass or ivory or petroleum, would not fit in with the clientele of the German Gymnasium.

The icons come self-broken. The weight has gone — for all the impressive floodlighting around the latest urban grand design — the substance has been syphoned off into the realm of the digital, the bombs begin as pixels and the dead have their twitter accounts, their extensive menu of clichés to choose from, the bereaved have information packs on funeral services and coping strategies, the astringent snow to heal in Norwegian fjords or Swedish cabins.

The poor and their “explosive cause”… The magma of history, churning away, unseen, in the chamber below ground: only when it is extruded onto the surface does it become lava.

In my notebook, “social injustice”, “relative deprivation”, the policy statements of politicians haunted by the notes from silver horns — a cold jubilance on winter mornings calling to the hunt — fluttering pearl-decorated fans or strutting in tight breeches. The prophylactic of modernity. The glass pyramid of I.M. Pei, stretched over the treasures.

In the German Gymnasium, the energy of coherent errors is no longer available to pump the situation up into the status of a symbol.

I wondered, as I looked around, whether the sensation of gaining control, or of losing control, offers the greatest bliss?