Archives for posts with tag: Semapolis | City of Signs

Cities at work. The orange flashing lights on dustbin vans, the rhythmic hiss and sputter as the vehicle makes its way down a street, the saurian crunch and grind as refuse is compressed and fed into the hopper, a common sight, in a kind of mechanical ecology. Civic workers, leaving for night shifts. Contractors in overalls, maintaining the underground railway systems at night | mouths to feed. Smoke from incinerators and crematoria. The disks of sedimentation tanks at sewage plants. The city as mechanised organism, with media senses and digestive tract of enamel and plastic, cafeterias and public toilets, people’s taste and miles of sewers, points of intake and excreta. Mass living and the unique form of loneliness it produces, the melancholy of deserted playgrounds in the shadows of tower blocks at dusk, the goring cries of crows haunting the aerials and satellite dishes. The natural habitat of crowds, the headache of traffic flow and congestion. Rare moments of silence. Compilation of records, analyses of modes of behaviour, social trends, a gradual shift into digital existence, the streets eaten by their own images, filtered through maps and reviews on clubs. Funfair ride on the Northern Line, Vanity Fair on the Piccadilly Line, waltzers of stock exchanges and pantomime riots, shows on CCTV. The latest formation in a perpetual assembly. Pest control. Hygiene. Wealth. Crowd control. The lit stadia at night. The skyscraper in the architects’ promo, outlets for retail. Mood control. Purchases and services. A diet of images. Cultural effects. Security measures. News-feeds. Happiness.

Her particular interest was Persian carpets, and she was considering a trip to Iran. Although her income was modest, she had two very fine rugs in her flat, and she would often spend hours simply studying them. She was growing more knowledgeable about patterns, designs and motifs. She looked up. The driver announced delays. She sighed, and then returned to the book on her lap. There was a lovely photo of an antique carpet. What was it about the pattern that so satisfied her? What was it, made her wish to gaze and gaze? Some subtle dissatisfaction, called beauty?


from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present: this poem, January 2013)

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: this poem, December 2014)

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: this poem, November 2014)

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?

 


from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)
(this poem, September 2016)

Some rooms claim us more than others. The slightly startled and neutral space of ‘spare’ rooms, perhaps unvisited for days. The bedrooms of children away for weeks on end at college, or travelling: dolls and idols, last season’s line-up, unsophisticated models… a whole early life faintly frozen in the act of becoming irrelevant. The toy pilot’s eyes, gazing out from his dusty cockpit. Cool blue and white sections of a heat map. The congested, bony darkness of cupboards, with brooms and meters. Attics.

There is a kind of spiritual interior to buildings, the living continued within them by their users. The way, for example, the staff will possess a knowledge of a railway station that is distinctive to the knowledge the passengers have of the “same” place. For the two separate groups of users, the rooms and spaces will connect up according to their divergent interests and occupations. Although the function of a railway station is to form a locus for transport, for the staff, who earn their livelihood by selling tickets or cleaning the facilities, transit isn’t their intention in coming to this place each day. They go not to travel but to remain. They ‘live’ the station differently. || In a sense, then, it might be said that buildings possess a double interior: that of their material nature, and that of their inhabitants’ existence. Each, I am sure, keeps secrets from the other. Which leads me to the notion of a triple interior: we might view people themselves as forms of architecture, as fluid buildings. They could be said to inhabit themselves. And it could also be said, that parts of an individual, like out-of-the-way or decommissioned rooms, remain hidden from self-scrutiny, and are only rarely, if ever, visited. No one can be said to know a building entirely, not even a prisoner in a cell, who has counted the bricks making up the walls, and mapped the cracks in the ceiling. Buildings keep secrets from us: they are never unfolded into knowing. They are buds that never blossom. You only need someone to stand next to you to render the interior of a building uncertain. Indeed, you only need to stand alone in a room, and try to remember the building’s exterior, to find yourself in a place of considerable mystery.

 


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

Returning to old haunts | quarters of the city you haven’t visited in years, or is it only for months? – how, anyway, with you, they’ve changed || An ancient churchyard, with its pocket of lush garden, 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 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)
(this poem, July 2012)

Your heart is a building, you step into it and out of it | It is the place you are most yourself, where you touch / the edges of the things which make you you alone and not the others, although of course / they are also in the building with you | Often you leave the building with them, and forget / even that you have a heart, sometimes it is a key or an umbrella, you misplace it, leave it in a bar or a hospital waiting room, where the impartial light shines down on it, a spider plant in a cherry red ceramic pot / sitting on top of an olive green metal filing cabinet / the stuff of the details of / your secret, undersea life, the moraine of the forgotten, the humble / debris of the overlooked || Does your heart grow over time? Gathering more rooms as you age, expanding its footprint / accumulating height and gradually / enclosing more and more space / turning into a skyscraper of memory in which / you may wander from apartment to apartment, floor to floor, meeting the guests of ghosts of / childhood friends you haven’t seen for 50 years or your lost spouse to whom / you sent your tears and caresses, the inchoate / messages of so many days / collecting / the clicks of a ticking clock, the seeds of laughter and care of routine / growing their mountains around you… || It’s all relative they say, It’s a state of mind or | It’s a point of view | As the heart is a city, so also the city is a heart, compounded / by tram rides or bridges | the recorded voice in the lift | pigeons milling round your feet in certain public squares, the innumerable / places you left yourself / silently and almost invisibly / an enormous and fragile / compendium of traces || Perhaps, in some ways, your heart / is the most elusive thing in the world / a destination you aim for / a location you can’t / quite find on the map | and at the core of you / is an indistinct, rather nondescript suburb / home to strangers / a far-off, ocean murmur / of the blood in your head / and on the edge of sleep / a soft, familiar yet unidentifiable voice / whispering in your ear…

We took a tube from Finchley Road to King’s Cross | It was a walk-through, in which you can see right down the length of the train, and we were in the front carriage | It was evening, and I was a little drunk | The bright yellow poles receded in a flowing series, and with the perspective I felt it was like looking into a modernist forest, the trunks of the trees these slender verticals of primary colour | I didn’t have my glasses on, and other passengers / rocked and swayed / and they were like / blurred nymphs and fauns from the hazy remains / of a classical idyll in my head | Just before we reached the station, we were gabbling away about nonsense, when you suddenly turned and gave me a small kiss on the cheek, I don’t know where | that came from

 


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

Perhaps there was a stressor, who can say? | One day, he left the port city, where he had lived all his life, and moved to another city | In a state of fugue | he forgot his old job, his wife and children, his circle of friends, and wandered | He hadn’t planned this trip, he knew it was a train, he knew it was a journey, but | he couldn’t remember a departure, and | couldn’t figure out | which of the destinations belonged to him | There were further journeys, other cities | Years | passed? | In the city in which he now lived, he found work for which he appeared to have a certain aptitude | He rented a flat, began to make friends | He was a foreigner there, it was a landlocked country | Often, he found himself feeling slightly aslant of everything else, as if he wasn’t quite synchronised with his surroundings, including the people in whose company he passed the time | The continent of all the days spread around him | The past was a luminous haze, like looking at the sun through thick mist | His lack of harmonisation with things wasn’t unpleasant to him, it made his life seem to flow more slowly on occasion, and to take on the muzzy, sketchy quality of waking from a dream | Holding a tin can or a hose, he would find himself staring at these items, unable quite to remember what they were or why they were | what they were / He met a girl and fell in love, and they were married | She said she liked his gentleness, she loved the way he was so spaced out sometimes, it made her laugh | They didn’t have much money, but neither of them minded much | He felt he was a very lucky person | The future grew before him, thick and luxuriant like a forest | Sometimes, when he woke up, he thought he heard the sound of the sea

His life had become a series of upheavals | He remembered reading somewhere about a country at war, and how soldiers on the outskirts of a precious city had dug in against invaders and fought and tried to hold their lines / in a cemetery | That detail had struck him very much | He thought about how a cemetery, a place devoted to calm and order and to a sense of the sacred and of ancestral respect / with the changing circumstances of war / had become a place of battle || At times he felt very sad, and his days became events of almost constant revision, of collapsing perspectives and the struggle with exigence | His interior city shed monuments and landmarks | He fell out of love and yet, somehow, continued to feel love… / He wondered if he’d ever known his own life at all, or whether for years it had surrounded him like a kind of bland, untested mystery, or a form of complacent simulation? He feared for the future but prepared to dig in

 


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

When standing in the shower each morning, he would forget whether or not he’d just shampooed his hair, and the events of the last few intimate minutes thus became | a matter of mystery, food for Dashiell. In the same way, seated at the breakfast bar, he wouldn’t be able to recall if he’d taken his medication, and would stare uneasily down at the foil-backed packet of capsules, lost in that no-man’s-land between the moments | memory. A few instants later, he lifted his head into a forest, and found he was gazing through the mist at a herd of deer in a clearing: the morning was hushed and clarified, and unutterably fresh, as if these animals had walked only a few steps from the beginning of everything, and this whole world was | close to creation

She lifts her head from a magazine and checks the departure board | Primitive hunters move through the lounge, and the fairy ghosts of her thoughts | confect another moment of distraction | The silence of unknowing fills everything, but precisely through its ubiquity does it become unfelt, or felt so gently, it might seem a form of knowledge | They announce the opening of the gate, and the article on super-storms is already beginning to slip from her mind || This was the day they buried a great star

 


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

 


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