Monday, 25 September 2017

Reference Back

The first book I borrowed from the new Halifax Central Library was the second collection by London born poet Katharine Towers, The Remedies (Picador 2017).  


For much of the book, the poet - whose debut collection The Floating Man (Picador 2010) deservedly won the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize, and who is also the Poet-in-Residence for The Cloud Appreciation Society - focuses on natural subjects, including a beguiling section where she re-works the stories of supposed remedies associated with various plants and herbs, and I was attracted to the folkloric quality of her writing, as in Field Oak, whose subtle lyricism turns what might, by a lesser poet come across as a series of blunt bullet points, into a thing of wistful beauty:

the riddled bark
the sap that heals the broken heart
the staggered reach
the secret passed from leaf to leaf 
the stalwart roots
the tiny chalices of frost 
the watercolours of the dusk
the tried and tested triplets of a thrush 

But it is the short poem Grass, with its irresistible paraphrasing of Larkin, which captured my attention most acutely.
If I were called in / to construct a religion, the poem begins, I should make use of grass.  

 

But the poem is not an attempt to put a new spin on Rastafarianism. Instead, just like the Larkin which inspired it, Grass seems thematically oblique, with the fervent swishing  of the grass perhaps as metaphoric as the idea of a faith its self.  The poet's liturgy, which would employ vegetal whistling / and blurted worshipful shrieks floats through the mind's eye with a windblown quality, but the repetition of "s" and "sh" sounds lend it a deceptively gentle essence, contrasting with the wild, musical nature of the actual words used. In 2017, the idea of worshipful shrieks carries chilling undertones.

In Katharine Towers' grassy ideology,  churchgoing would involve swishing through couch and wild oats, conjuring images of strolling through the ruins of old chapels, and when I stop to picture the these verdant services, I must admit I would be tempted to count myself among the congregation. No doubt even an Agnostic like myself would meet many a kindred spirit.


Enticingly, deliciously, oddly disturbingly, Grass leaves the reader pondering without resolution, feeling a sense of having been present at the birth of something we know quite now what of.  This feels to me an apt sense in contemporary Britain, but from a personal angle the poem actually worked for me on a retrospective level.  I think the reason for this is twofold: firstly there is something about the quiet idea of fields or hills of swaying grass that lulls me into nostalgia.  The second is the nod to Philip Larkin.  







Written in 1954, and published exactly fifty years ago in the now defunct literary magazine Listen, Philip Larkin's poem Water appears in his famous 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings, which I studied for English A-Level, and which was my introduction to Larkin and his work. 



WATER


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry; different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

 

I remember in the college class - the ramifying imagery of water with all its Earth-replenishing implications, its pervasive power and capacity to be both life-preserving, and destructive.  Perhaps rather more immediately apparent was the irreverent flippancy - Larkin's casual suggestion that he might be "called upon" to devise a new religion prompting considerable amusement.  "They wouldn't ask him," one of my fellow students wryly opined.  He did not specify who "they" would be, but then neither does Larkin: in his whimsical imaginings, he leaves it to the reader to wonder whether his unlikely theological appointment might be thrust upon him by the governmental or spiritual authorities, or some other, undefined source. 



The poem is at once seemingly sarcastic and profound, a micro-treatise wherein thousands of years of theology are compressed within four stanzas - the first trio structured like a Trinity with their three short lines, the final, Biblical fourth.  For the poet Christopher Reid, Larkin's poem suggests a sort of "cleansing ritual," whereby The gritty attrition of experience can be washed away, and a moment of transcendence offered as light and water meet.  







Having living in West Yorkshire's Calder Valley for five and a half years, I meet the imagery of water with a somewhat more jaundiced eye than I might have done twenty years ago.  Certainly I am well aware of its power for good, in this region which was run on water, and which today is laced by revitalized canals, boats bobbing beneath my window.  I am in awe of our heavy rains, refreshing the hillsides with rekindled verdure. But it is less than two years since the Boxing Day Floods of 2015, the latest to ravage our Valley, which ripped through its heart, deluging homes and businesses, knocking down walls and leaving streets literally waterlogged to knee level. 


The two-day long furious, devout drench met a concerted local effort at rebuilding, emptying premises and delivering emergency supplies, and later, once the initial deluge had subsided, musical and poetry events for fundraising.   
It was a terrible time, it was a heartening time, as we came together as a community and beyond - groups came to the Valley from as far afield as Israel to help with the relief.  It was a reminder of the incredible strength of water, and of why societies of old may well have ascribed to it a spiritual essence.  Indeed, the profusion of water deities, stretching across the Millennia and straddling the world from the river gods of Ancient Greece to the sea dragons of China, the Hebrew Leviathan to the Vedic goddesses of the Ganges, is a testament to how many of those previously "called in" to create the faiths, myths and legends of yesteryear beat Larkin to it.


Larkin's Water offers a kind of Pantheistic alternative to Anthropomorphized, Anthropocentric religious norms  -which shouldn't especially surprise us given that he is the same Larkin who infamously pronounced the Bible to be "beautiful, but balls" - but I suspect it is essentially a personal vision, or at most one which would ideally stretch to only a small group of adherents.  He envisages himself raising a glass of water in the east, suggesting only a solitary place of worship, and rather modest ambitions for the growth of his creed.  Not for Philip Larkin the globe-robing reach of traditional religions and their aims of mass conversion.  Maybe that's a good thing.

I can see the grass-woven rituals of Katharine Towers spreading more widely and harmoniously, especially if its services include the couch grass and wild oats she lists as key among its offerings.  The latter is clearly another wink to Larkin, his Wild Oats, also from The Whitsun Weddings,  in which the poet reflects on a bygone relationship. About twenty years ago, the poem begins, Two girls came into where I worked - and he then describes the comparative qualities of  A bosomy English rose / And her friend in specs I could talk to.  The story ends unhappily.

Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt,


Wild Oats gives a glimpse into Larkin as a younger man - a sort of back-story to the character in Mr Bleaney, maybe, or a notion of how he might have framed those earlier years within his own typically self-deprecating nostalgia.  


But it is the twenty years ago that hits me now.  At sixteen, reflecting after two decades of intervening space was an impossibility.  Now, its second nature, and as I find myself remembering that first autumn out of school, encountering not only Larkin but Hamlet,  Swift, Swinburne, Keats, Blake, all for the first time in that large, high-ceilinged room at the northern edge of Leeds city centre, I cannot help but see the irony.  Larkin was recalling the early 1940's, a Blitzed Britain in an era of wartime ration books and bomb shelters. 
In contrast, my "twenty years ago" is the glistening tip of the 1990's, a period which seemed to herald a new age of progressive promise.  To have commenced my days at the Leeds College of Art in 1997, high on the sugar rush of Tony Blair's New Labour, was desirable and apt.  Twenty years on, I no longer feel I am living in a progressive age. I feel no faith in our present government, nor the tainted Labour, and the idea of religion seems more trouble than it is worth.  It is a different country now, one I barely feel a part of.  Many have lamented, rightly in my view, the rising extremisms which apparently characterize contemporary life. But rather than any clearly drawn lines, I get the sense that Britain is in something of a jumble - a discordant din of conflicting, contradictory crusades, in which no-one seems to know quite what they stand for but is nonetheless determined to stand for it as loudly as possible, and where all who disagree are wrong.







 




Truly, though our element is time, writes Larkin in the same book,
We're not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
 
Our society's current cycles of unease will surely resolve themselves in various ways.   Or they won't.  Who can say. But either way, twenty years is twenty years, and between the brackets of those two eventful decades, the whole of life has altered - new technologies, new vocabularies, new threats, new fears, new miseries, deepening like coastal shelves and leaving us facing new realities which could not have been imagined in the closing years of the Twentieth Century - or "The End of History."  I add to this the memory of being sixteen years old, and the gulf becomes impassable. 

Never such innocence again.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Bustle of the Approaching Train


It has been a whirlwind of a few weeks, taking in the opening of the new Halifax Central Library, and the performance event Exploring the Brontes, devised and delivered by myself and actor and writer Caroline Lamb, which has enjoyed previous performances at Morley and Todmorden, and which we brought to the new library as the concluding part of its opening celebrations.  The piece consists of a first half of poetry and readings, by and about the Brontes, given by myself, before a second half featuring Caroline's brilliant monologue The Cold Plunge, which explores the Brontes' legacy through the imagined words of Mary Taylor, a correspondent of Charlotte Bronte, and shines a light on matters of identity, economics, gender and ambition - and the age-old plight of artists in a largely inartistic world. The monologue was described by Nick Holland, author of the recent book In Search of Anne Bronte, as excellent and moving, and discussed in one of his recent blog posts, http://www.annebronte.org/2017/09/10/anne-bronte-mary-taylor-the-road-to-moravia/
.

 Both of these activities - the opening of such a wonderful library, whose design represents a beautiful bend of the modern and historical, and whose shelves are almost overflowing with an abundance of books - and the delivery of Exploring the Brontes, its first outing in Halifax, have given me much to write about, and I intend to. 
There is so much to say on each, not least because Caroline and I have plans to expand the this autumn to take Exploring the Brontes further on the road, and new library's poetry provisions have already plied me with an enormity of newly discovered talent.
For now, I will sign off with one of the poems of Branwell Bronte, subject of my film A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years, in which Caroline also appears and which was premiered at the former Halifax Central Library, enjoyed successful screenings at the Bronte Parsonage  and Bronte birth town of Thornton, and is currently showing at various venues, before its dvd release later this autumn.  Branwell worked at the railway stations in Sowerby Bridge and Luddendenfoot, and his poem captures vividly the sense of a young, ambitious literary man, waiting in the wings of his own life while passing away the hours of the working day amid a railway station by turns peaceful and lonely, and full of bustling activity.  It is a poem which I can imagine being scribbled by Branwell in his notebook, while he waited between trains, and a perfect introduction to his work. 

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

I when I heard it sat amid
The bustle of a town like room
Neath skies with smoke-stained vapours hid,
By windows made to show their gloom-
The desk that held my ledger book
Beneath the thundering rattle shook
Of engines passing by
The bustle of the approaching train
Was all I hoped to rouse the brain
Or startle apathy.
 
 





Monday, 28 August 2017

Starlight and Sapphire - The Poetry of Dragonflies



The landscape above Luddenden is defined by verticals: craggy hillsides sweeping steeply down to wobbly cobbled streets, thin columns of disused factory chimneys.  Up on the tops, you could almost be in the Scottish Highlands, as gowns of purple heather are draped across the moors; rugged looking sheep chew the fields which peter out to the boggy borders of Wainstalls and Warley.  You might be watched through grass by the bulging eyes of bulls and cows, reclining lazily among blackberry and boulders.  In winter, the view is almost Scandinavian: I have walked there in January, the valley below steeped in frost; flurries of sleet slapping harshly through the wind, the rocks, clustered like large snowballs by the sides of moorland paths, plathered in an icy rain.  The chimneyed citadel of Oats Royd Mill, once a power-base of textile magnate John Murgatroyd, now a complex of apartments, stands at the basin of the valley, its long, chunky boxes of Yorkshire stone lending an industrial hue to this rural view.  To the south, the cemetery of St Mary's climbs up the  incline towards Mount Tabor Road.  In the east, piercing the clouds against a hilly horizon, stands the 120-ft 19th Century War monument which dominates the hill of Stoodley Pike, frozen in time, like some great primeval totem pole.














 The jagged geography of this  moorland environment, toughened by stone, blustered by scissoring winds, looking cold-coloured in a seemingly perpetual autumn, even on this hot August afternoon, is the last place I would have expected to have seen the hovering, shining presence which appears in my peripheral vision, skimming the summit of Stocks Lane, the winding road that extends out of Luddenden and into the moors.

Turning, I catch full sight - a swivelling swish of emerald and jet, propelled by four transparent wings, is bouncing on the breeze, swerving on the precipice of the hillside.  A luminous black cylinder, banded by bright green abdominal spots, the dragonfly pauses, wavering in mid-air as if granting me the chance of observing it close up.  Aeshna cyanea, Southern Hawker, whose exploratory life spans no more than three or four months of a short-lived English summer, often drifting far from its typical environment of ponds, even to such stony alttudes as this. This is a female hawker, and she is prowling for prey - insects to be caught on the wing, by this flexible, curving, bending predator which can fly backwards, and is among the fastest dragonflies in Britain.
Like a turquoise torpedo, twisting through the blue, the dragonfly dips and dives, slicing a shimmering green arc above the moor-grass as she zigzags over the tumbling descent, a crystalline quill doodling her nimble stories on the wind.

I seem to have seen more dragonflies than usual in this humid, wet summer, but this glittering insect, reflecting the sun as she threads her way through the tangle of grasses overhanging the hill's edge, is the first I have been confident to name.  Most of the dragonflies I've seen in 2017 have certainly been hawkers, but mainly of the blue or red variety, or seeming to fizz past me so fast as to defy a detailed observation, like multi-coloured magic carpets weaving through Arabian skies, glossy blurs of onyx, malachite, sapphire, ruby on the canvas of the summer air.  Amid the watery woodlands near Harcastle Crags, which the River Hebden chugs through like a fat blue vein, I've seen them frazzle by in splashes of fiery orange; along the canal towpath between Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd, they've flashed like lazers igniting the overcast gloom.  Then there was the dragonfly I saw floating over my garden earlier this summer, a tentative ballerina dancing across  tips of borage and Perovskia, fluttering above the feverfew like a diamond-spangled acrobat, lingering over the wall's edge as if balancing on a thin trapeze.


Like all wildlife, dragonflies are indeed engaged in a nerve-racking balancing act - the struggle to find food and to preserve the perpetuity of their genes, the flight from predators, the need for stable habitats.  Unlike many British animals, the dragonflies, of Ancient stock and numbering over 3,000 international species, are not generally endangered, though in Britain this is due in no small part to the efforts of conservation agencies like the British Dragonfly Society, a charity which encourage educational projects to promote the study of dragonflies and damselflies, and works to monitor and enhance their habitats, in the wild, and at home.  The charity's website explains how  Half of Britain's ponds were lost in the 20th century but a recent revival led to a 12.5% increase in the number of ponds between 1998 to 2007. All but five of the regularly breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly in Britain are known to have bred in ponds, with 17 species considered to be widespread breeding species in garden ponds and a further 8 breeding in garden ponds more rarely. Even a small pond can harbour dragonflies, with species such as Southern Hawker managing to exist in surprisingly high numbers in small garden ponds. 
The website goes on to list advice for gardeners aiming to create dragonfly-friendly environments, and this takes me back to a memory from more than thirty years ago, to the first time I remember seeing dragonflies, in the garden of a house on the street I grew up in.  In my mind, the memory is kaleidoscopic: a multitude of dragonflies, sweeping slotting in and out of one another's mazy flightpaths, scarlet stripes slashing through the flowerbeds, velvet wands casting azure magic over rockeries and roses.  My parents and I stood and watched them dazzling above the grass, and I was aware of experiencing something out of the ordinary, something special, for the first time.  When my mother spoke of them as dragonflies, I realized that although these unusal creatures were like nothing I had ever seen, to the grown up world they were recognizable - part of the tapestry of a natural world I was thrilled to be discovering.  The prefix Dragon seemed appropriate - so mythic did these phosphorescent streaks of magical mystery appear, that had they breathed fire from their minute mouths, I would hardly have felt surprised.  Years later, I would recall this introductory encounter in my poem Dragonflies, remembering how

We watched them
dive and swivel
like blades of circus knife throwers,
skim the sun-licked lawn,
ignite the glittering tips
and globes of flowers
in crackling splashes
of cobalt, indigo,


and when, years later, at the Fairburn Ings wildlife reserve outside Leeds, I stood with my father and watched the crackling colours of dragonflies bobbing above the ponds, these childhood memories returned, as one by one the insects shot out of the ether, seemed to glide like slices of amethyst above the water, then disappeared among the reeds, dew-dappled dreams dissolving into sunshine. 
Fairburn is one of the richest habitats for dragonflies, and when, on a blazing day last August, I watched a scarlet darter soaking up the sun on the wooden fence post beside one of the reserve's many ponds, I was transfixed by its long red body, glowing like a candle coaked in melted jasper.  The darter, completely calm in human presence, bathing its glassy wings in a shower of sunshine, seemed half at rest, and half - knife-like tarsias clenching the wood in prehensile, flexed tension - poised for flight.






 SCARLET DARTER

Rubicund torch,
black veins woven
over wings of glass,
svelte vermillion glider,
rowan-berry eyes,
spidery legs,
you settle on fallen wood,
a stained-glass crucifix,
bleed your molten body
into fibres softened
by decades, centuries
and rain.



In my 2013 collection Little Creatures, I pay tribute to the dainty damselfly, the gem-lie, willowy creatures I first became aware of when I watched them by the ponds at Roundhay, north Leeds, where I was living in the mid 2000's,

 Damselfly

Split moon-fringe,
silk slice
blue as threaded sapphire,
you haunt pond air
at July sunrise.
Floating flake, 
like a breeze-blown vein 
you come, half-visible,
a slither of translucency,

and later in the same poem go on to describe the damelflies reedy habitats beyond the pond. But whatever I write about dragonflies, I doubt I can compare with the talents of a poet across a different pond, JD McClatchy, the contemporary American poet who celebrates the dragonfly as an Itinerant clarinet, and a mob of selves that others see - Devil and Goat, Eye-on-Broomstick, Goblin tableux, which performs a Bayadere, amuses crowds, flies like a baggy clown, before Collapsing at night in a tiny starpatched sky-loft, and gradually transfiguring into a dragonfly ghost.  There is something of this starlit metamorphosis in Tennyson's 1842 poem The Dragonfly, in which the poet describes a dragonfly shedding its skin:
An inner impulse rent the veil / Of his old husk: from head to tail / Came out clear plates of sapphire mail
And when HE Bates published his memoir of childhood Down the River in 1937, he remembered watching a continuous play of blue gauze over the snowy flowers above the sun-glassy water. It was all confined, in true dragonfly fashion, to one small space. It was a continuous turning and returning, an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight. 

Dragonflies have painted their colours on our popular imagination, swooshed into our culture and imprinted their neon signatures upon the pages of our natural history.  Belonging to an order that has existed since the Triassic, more than two hundred million years ago, these magnificent insects continue to enchant, and to surprise.  Up among the knolly, craggy hills above the Yorkshire town of Luddenden, I feel this morning touched by the alchemy of Mother Nature, as this sequinned fluke sails unexpectedly by, and I'm struck by the fragility and transience of things, as the dragonfly's sharp, svelte body drifts into the distance, and the beauty of its lucent green jewels slowly disappear from sight.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Mytholmroyd Tree - A Poem by Suzi Szabó
















Just off the A646 outside of Mythomroyd, a rather unusual tree can be seen in a field backing onto the heathery fringes of Midgley Moor.  




 

When poet Suzi Szabó got up to read at a recent open mic poetry event at Hebden Bridge's Fox and Goose, and introduced her poem as being "about a tree in Mytholmroyd," I - like most others in the pub, as it turned out - anticipated that it would be this achromatic, snowy skeleton that was featured.  Paying homage to the tree's apparent death mask / of unequalled beauty, Suzi's poem articulates in stark, elegant language the solitary splendour of the antique tree.

I have passed this tree dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of times, walking back from Mytholmroyd, or zipping by in cars and making casual references to its unique appearance.  I have stood and observed it from afar, and - prompted by Suzi's poem - taken a closer look, drawn into its dreamy pallor, as it scrapes the sky like the rickety totem pole of some fairytale tribe.



I will hand over to Suzi here, who depicts the unique quality of this bleakly beautiful entity better than I could, and ends with a rousing message to all poets!
Mytholmroyd tree

I have long since admired
your bare beauty
Naked and proud
unlike the others
huddling together
for comfort

You stand alone
Unafraid
With apparent death mask
of unequalled beauty
almost white against the blue
is how I most enjoy your company

If you could talk
what would you say?
Keep writing,   
the roots are still alive!

Vegetable Verse


I have grown, but strangely never eaten, nor written poetry inspired by, courgettes - Cucurbita pepo and known by Americans as Zucchinis - but these culinary and literary omissions are about to be put right.
Yesterday, the staff room of my workplace was briefly subjected to a vegetable invasion, colonized by courgettes, as the contents of an allotment were laid upon a work surface, up for grabs.  I chose the smallest of these ambiguous squashes - like mis-shapen bananas yet too tough and marrowy to be called a fruit in anything other than the strictest botanical sense - and all the way home, wondered what ever I might do with it?





The solution to this Cucurbitous conundrum presented its self by means of words thrown forth by the contemplation of its unique shape and colours - though whether these squashy scribbles merit the title of poetry, I will let you be the judge. For myself, now that I have sharpened the pencil of my literary gaze sufficiently to take in an observation of  Cucurbita pepo, the only course of action left to me is now surely to break another duck with this weird and wonderful vegetable, by eating it.

Crocodilian-coloured carrot,
candle of green wax,
like the ridge-ribbed body
of a glitzy lizard,
your emeraldesque, 
viridian skin,
glitter-sprinkled
in a dew of glinting specks,
 you entice the knife
to puncture your facade 
of toughened flesh
and spill the wet,
life-lathered juices
bottled up inside.


Update: Following the heavy rains we have had, I was thrilled to see today that my own courgette plant is now starting to bear fruit:


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Pity the Birds - my poem for the Inglorious Twelfth


PITY THE BIRDS

Pity the birds, when the guns begin
and peace is punctured by a ricochet
of cracks.  Bellies bullet-pumped,
they’ll fall like bricks in bags
from August skies to freshly-bloodied grass.

Pity the grouse, blackish, russet-smudged 
and rustling through rushes, like hook-
beaked hens eye-deep in heather,
bodies almost globular, heads crowned
with scarlet tufts.

Unsuspectingly, they will root through shoots, ingest
the juice of moorland berries, dot rural skies
like black stars bobbling over tree-tops
until the skeleton-shredding lead bursts them open
and they drop, gut-strewn, to a chorus of dull “thucks.”

Pity these innocents, naively nibbling grass and gorse,
lapping up a landscape 
slyly set against them, so big gangs of grown men 
might laughingly maraud, 
pissed on whisky by mid-afternoon 
and smashing birds to bits, 
like tantrumming schoolboys they cock their guns,
esteemed QC’s, and crooked judges, and those who own 

whole postcodes, whose grand estates are leased
for slaughter, so that birds may bear the brunt
of their shrivelled egos - blue-blooded thugs,
men so insecure they need to kill - and kill they will, 
their violent games protected by bent laws, 
ensuring harmless and defenceless birds
are shot down by the scum of England’s countryside
on the bloody afternoon of the Inglorious Twelfth.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Baudelaire in Hebden Bridge

I hadn't read anything at a public reading for some months, until Monday evening at The Blind Pig, Sowerby Bridge, following a fantastic reading by Keith Hutson of his latest round of biographical sonnets - widening the scope somewhat from music hall to general showbiz, with a range of characters from hapless 19th Century dancers to Bob Monkhouse.  The other guest was Phil Foster, and he read a poem about Clarke Kent, in which he wondered how CK had managed to keep schtum about his secret life as Superman, and a passionate tribute to the Kurdish people, with particular emphasis on the indomitable Kurdish women.The open mic was a jolly affair, and when it came to my turn I spoke briefly about how much I had recently enjoyed the videos and images people have been sharing from this year's Pride festivals, having only ever been to one Pride myself. In particular I liked seeing the Hebden Bridge tree,



...and its umbrella theme certainly seems fitting for this pluvial summer, drenched as August has so far been by almost continual rain.

Somewhat sunnier than our dampened shores, the island of Lesbos was the birthplace of Greek poet Sappho (c.630 - c.570 BC), and, after reading from the poetry of Payam Feili, it was this Aegean idyll that I recalled in my reading: not my own poetry, but that of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, one of my long time inspirations.  Baudelaire, whose adult life was largely defined by his continual financial struggles and ultimately unrequited love for one woman, and whose controversial book Le Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) appeared one hundred and sixty years ago this year,  celebrated Lesbos as mother of the Latin games and the voluptuous rites of Greece, (where) kisses of languor or rapture, sun-scorching or melon-cool, / make lovelier the glorious nights and days - romanticizing its female inhabitants just as he had done in earlier poetry:

Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a poursuivies,
Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains,
Pour vos mornes douleurs, vos soifs inassouvies,
Et les urnes d'amour dont vos grands coeurs sont pleins

 You whom my soul has followed into lairs infernal,Poor sisterhood, I pity and adore,
For your despairing griefs, your thirst eternal,
And love that floods your hearts for evermore!

(Trans. Roy Campbell)



For the socially anarchic Baudelaire, more truth-seeker than decadent, the vision of an isle of the sultry swooning nights like the myths of Delphine and Hippolyta, would evoke Utopian notions of transcendence: I can see him, penniless and bedraggled, trudging through the grime of  a Parisian winter, turning through the narrow streets and absinthe-poisoned alleyways, his tortured, tired mind drifting into dreams of the sunlit island, where kisses cascade fearless  into fathomless depths, /
sobbing or chuckling, stormy or secretive, seething or profound;/ Lesbos, where the kisses cascade down, personifying - deifying, even - the island as a queen of the realms of gentleness,/ lovable motherland, queen of the inexhaustible subtleties of loving.  With his ideological compass swinging between the revolutionary and the reactionary, and eventually settling into an almost nihilistic detachment, his religious impulses alternating wildly between Satanism and devout belief, Baudelaire simply did not fit into the defined territories of his times, and as such a great many of his poems and proclamations provoked incensed receptions, always taken literally by an easily scandalized reading public:

"There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions."


Censored, prosecuted and harassed, Baudelaire would face the wrath of the authorities for his Fleurs du Mal, his artistry criminalized, his works confiscated and withheld from public view, until a shortened version of the book found publication in 1861.  Among the Pieces Condamnees - which would not legally appear until their limited Belgian publication in 1866 - was Lesbos, and in its counter-cultural reproach of Patriarchal prudery, we might find presentiments of the indignant bluster with which his own ignominy would be greeted, as the poet taunts the Gods: Let greybeard Plato frown with his reproving eye ...asking rhetorically, Lesbos, which of the gods shall presume to be your judge /if the golden scales fail to weigh the deluge of tears / your streams have poured into the sea? /
Lesbos, which of the gods shall presume to be your judge.

Baudelaire's poetry sometimes seems like a plea for beauty and truth in a world of ugliness and falsity:

Sometimes I have seen,  in a third rate theatre,
lit by the sonorous orchestra,
a fairy kindle miraculous dawn in infernal sky,

a being who was naught but light and gold
overthrow  gigantic Satan,
but my heart ...
is a theatre in which the gauze-winged being
is forever awaited in vain

at other times, it is drenched in a brooding introspection too profound to be labelled as self-pity:

I am fuller of memories than if I had lived a thousand years...

I am a graveyard that the moon abhors,
in which long worms crawl like remorses,
always battening on the dead I hold dear

in places philosophical:

This life is a hospital
in which every patient 
is obsessed with the desire to change beds 

and elsewhere, downright suicidal:

In a rich soil full of snails
I want to dig a deep ditch for myself
where I can stretch my old bones at leisure
and sleep in oblivion like a shark in the sea.


With his poems of devils, rape and vice, his blasphemy and descriptions of prostitutes, tramps, murderers and vampires - as well as his spirited defences of clandestine love - condemned by hypocrites and envious contemporaries, Baudelaire fumed against his situation in a letter to his mother:

"I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality ... But this book, whose title says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public."

 

I see Baudelaire stumbling in clumsy grace into Keith Hutson's pantheon of vaudevillian heroes. I imagine him centre-stage, performing sinister magic under the lamps of Covent Garden, or pulling serpents out of hats at the Batley Variety Club. I see him as neither Superman or Clarke Kent, but instead championing Lex Luther.  I can picture him in Hebden Bridge, not wining and dining but wandering the canal banks late at night, weaving starlit trysts with hash-hazed fellow travelers, composing poisoned sonnets and howling at the moon. I see him on the fringes of cities, avoiding the crowds but discreetly drinking in the atmosphere, dazzling at poetry readings but vanishing before the end. I see him on the side of the Kurdish women and today's femmes damnee of Russia, Zimbabwe, Iran and Pakistan, writing poems of protest but drifting quietly into the background, living in the world within his hallucinatory mind, a world and deity-defying delights and beautiful madness . And to be quite honest, I see him, if he were living now, very likely being just as ill-treated, just as marginalized and as misunderstood in today's  supposedly enlightened world, as he was in the turbulent atmosphere of his own turbulent times.