Monday, 31 October 2016

Simon Turner - The house at the edge of the woods: slight return,+Caspar+David%3A+Ruine+Eldena+%5B1%5D
The snow spiders only come into season once every ten years, but this year is the spring of their breeding.  How can we tell? you ask.  Child, I will tell you: By the impatient knocking the females make with their chitin-tipped feet in their damp wooden hollows; by the rustle of sand along the banks of the river, as the bull spiders wake from their slumber deep underground to search for a mate; by the chorus of squeals and squawks made by the jackdaws, taken mid-flight by the air-borne hatchlings; by the smell of blood and rot in the air.  The Whistling Oaks will soon be covered in a thick gauze of webbing – picture, if you can, a bundle of candyfloss forty feet tall – bulging here and there with large and pulsating clusters of eggs.  The moment of hatching is said to be a startling sight, although I have yet to see it.  Now run back to the house at the edge of the woods, and board the windows good and tight: they’re busiest after dark. 
Since I have been living in the house at the edge of the woods, I have been haunted by the strangest dreams.  It is always the same place: a coastal landscape, jagged black rocks thrusting from a heaving sea.  The shore is awash with the oily seminal effluent of blind albino leviathans, whose colossal bloated bodies, rotting at their extremities and smattered with a millennial crusting of limpets and algae, pebble the ocean's deeps.  Beyond the beach is the forest: ancient and spiderous blood-oaks weeping their sticky crimson sap, the only sustenance for the malformed monkeys who live among their highest branches, too hideous to consider showing their faces on the forest floor.  The sky is permanently lit with lightning, its roof of roiling cloud a mixture of pestilential browns and blacks, cut with sickly ribbons of over-ripe peach.  I have tried, upon waking, to render these visions in a language appropriate to the immensity of what I have seen, but I constantly fail, reduced to tics of punctuation, a forest of hyphens and ampersands and asterisks mocking the fissures in my eloquence.  My only comfort resides in the journals of the occupant who came before me: they clearly faced the same problems of interpretation, as their journals – dozens upon dozens, shelves upon shelves – are black with the same abortive, nonsensical efforts as mine.         

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Simon Turner - About the Author (4)

Harry N Emulation’s organ screams a tradition of ‘attenuated tortoises’, which in itself suggests a wheaten trauma.  Dizzyingly upholstered, palatial, wrinkly & bittersweet, though somewhat indivisible, his are not the sorts of telephones that will ever enjoy a secondary Dionysian rebirth.  However, a number of his domesticated salamanders have a late Mughal sheen, and warble their initiation rites during a brazen October: such are the indelicacies of Celtic curtain lifters.  Yet his paginations nonetheless prophesy precisely because of the ink’s shouldering of its own delinquent surmise.  There are only a few Cistercians now lens-grinding in Oslo with a more quilted aim for the clock-face, and none capable of a better resurrection of it.  His few prognostications include Selected Hangings (Versatile Fox Press, 1976) and Afternoons and Telephones (Bavarian Enclosures, 1989).


Monday, 24 October 2016

Shotgun Review #2: Ivy Alvarez's Disturbance

George Ttoouli reviews Ivy Alvarez's Disturbance (Seren, 2013)


Time taken to read: 90min
Time taken to review: 1hr (plus about 10min editing)

Where found: a freebie, possibly sent for review by Seren when I was reviews-editing for another journal.

Transparency: I read the first twenty pages of this a couple of years ago and it has stuck with me, so I'm returning to it now. I know nothing about the author beyond what's on the book. Seren sent quite a few books for review for the other journal, more than I could accommodate. Many triggered some interesting thinking, and now I've reclaimed some head-space for myself, I'm revisiting.


Disturbance is “an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events” according to the statement on the verso page; “Names, actions and thoughts of the characters are products of the author's imagination and are used fictitiously.” So there's the first challenge of this book: it's using fact to authenticate the poetry in a way that forces you to tread a fine line between thinking 'do I buy this?' and 'these events were really awful.'

Holding that unresolvable in mind, here's the rough shape of the book: poem by poem, it's a multi-vocal panorama of points of view connected to a domestic double-murder/suicide. Each poem is formally shaped to indicate different characters connected to the crime. Some are sequences in connected voices – the four policemen – others are sequences by the same speaker – most notably the murderer and his wife.

Plot synopsis: following the filing of divorce by his wife, an abusive husband and father of two (a (teenage?) boy and a daughter who is absent at university at the time) secretly copies the key to his mistress' gun cabinet, steals her shotgun and shells, then murders his son, his wife and then himself. This is bleak, realist material and while the characters are named (fictitiously, as mentioned in the verso statement), the events translate simultaneously into horror and a replicated, generic crime of passion. [*]

On first read, the structure evoked a similarly structured project, Ann Beattie's Mr Nobody At All. Published with an issue of McSweeney's Quarterly as a stand-alone novella, Beattie's collection of prose eulogies at the wake of a completely ordinary man by members of his local community is tonally completely different. It's a gentle comedic farce, carefully and consistently delivered. The traditional use of prose also allows for a far more believable construction of voice, character, actions, dialogue, etc. than Disturbance aims for.

The association, however, also demonstrates Alvarez's ambitions. Disturbance offers the emotional anatomy of a crime too terrible to make sense of. A recurring theme in the first half of the book, spoken by neighbours, police, and quested after and filled in by the journalist, is that they “don't know what could have set him off” ('A neighbouring farmer'). And this is the gap that runs through the whole book and, no doubt, the true events: why did he do it? Instead of answering this question, it features prominently and becomes a central thread through the nightmare maze of fear, horror, disgust – and love, at times.

The bonds between husband and wife, father and children, are completely broken, but there is a strange moment when the mistress speaks fondly of him in ways that no one else can. Even this, however, is retrospectively removed, in 'The Mistress Speaks':  “You think you know a man. / I guess I didn't.” The gap in knowing rewrites the bond between lovers. Even the journalist fails to fill in the gap, though claiming, “I write down what they say / and sometimes what's unsaid” ('The Journalist Speaks II').

I have many problems with the execution of the book. Being poetry, rather than plot-driven prose, the medium struggles to carry the essential details of the crime. Exposition straddles the monologues awkwardly. Poetry (with a capital P) has to keep declaring itself through rhymes, despite a sense of the intention being that the collection wants to capture everyday speech, to retain realism.

And yet, the voices are mostly the same. The formal structures of each are highly inventive (I'll talk more about this below), but ultimately there's no syntactical modulation and the daughter, the son, the priest, the murderer, the policemen and detective all seem to blend together as one voice. This voice isn't a spoken voice; to begin, there's a lot of factual detail; this gives way to abstract emotional detail; then there's the reflective attempts to make sense of what's happened; and metaphor intrudes regularly, disrupting the veracity of spoken living. So, while the project as a whole captivated me, the delivery of each slice was often unsatisfying, disrupted.

On the other hand, the structural work is surprising and worked well for me. The part that captured me most was at the end, the murder of the son. In the real events, as I understand through the book: the husband arrives, at night, at the family home, the mother and son see him coming. The son goes out to meet the father and try to stop him entering the house. The father loads his shotgun. The son starts running away and his gunned down. Then shot again and again. The mother calls the police and the operator hears the later shotgun blasts and stays on the line as the mother hides in the house.

It's terrifying in itself, but this moment is delivered over and over again in the book. Firstly, the son's point of view, in 'Tom', a prose poem in the dead son's voice. Then, in 'Witness', from the mother's perspective in the house. In 'Tony and Tom' the scene is retold in the third person, watching the interaction between father and son. Most bizarre of all, 'See Jane Run' retells the mother's version in third person, but in the style of a Dick and Jane book. (This is the most effective variance of style in the book, and it feels to me like a fairly easy decision and would have worked better if it had been backed up by more stylistic range throughout.)

The repetition of the event builds the horror. The whole of the book comes together for me at that point. Disturbance, with its subtle, police-report connotations, sets out to disturb the emotionless facts of official reports. It's a strange constellation, structurally very well organised to create emotional peaks and breaks, while also retaining a sense of serial simultaneity: time doesn't run in a straight line through these poems and the fluidity of how the events are retold draws out the emotional terror and sadness.

Some of the phrasing might be marvellous if it were given breathing space, if the collection as a whole didn't put so much pressure on (as the book blurb puts it) trying to be “a novel in verse”. The poems in the voice of the murderer, for example, are heavily woven with the colour “red”, but also offer such strikingly weird images and off rhymes as, “this is the dark / I know / chasing me / down the road / the double-tongued bark” (sixth part of 'Tony'). That darkness is an evil, chasing the poet, the reader, along this road, through the collection: the massive, unspoken, Why?

These moments of poetic energy are a little too buried by the need to carry the plot forward, to accrue energy through structure. Emotionally, Disturbance is a hard read. As poetry, it's a flawed read. But it's that energy that arrives through structure, both through the whole series and the use of shapes on the page to indicate different voices in individual poems, which captivated me most. That structure offers a kind of meaning to me: that of how hard it is to make sense of the senseless; the only option is retelling, in the hope narrative might bring meaning, even when it can't.

[*] I note the awkwardness of choosing this book as the second in a review series called 'shotgun reviews'. It didn't occur to me until I sat down to read it through from the beginning, that this might be problematic. Nothing intentional in the association. There was likely a subconscious link when I started the review series and began thinking of books I'd overlooked and wanted to return to, but nothing crass intended (for a change).

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (8): YIVO, Yivo and the challenge of standardized Yiddish

Shmerke Kaczerginski sorts through Jewish books in the YIVO building in Vilna during World War II.
Courtesy of YIVO
Futurama has long been one of my favourite shows, but despite my profound love of sociopathic robots and animated swearing, there is one problem.  Whenever I hear the name YIVO, I don’t think of YIVO, the incredible Yiddish academic organisation, I think of Yivo, the many-tentacled “Beast with a Billion Backs” (at least I’m not the only one).  While this is clearly a personal failing on my part, my defence is that Futurama Yivo was the one I encountered first, and a planet-sized purple space pervert is a pretty memorable association to have with a name.  I fear that Max Weinreich would not be impressed.
The wrong Yivo
This post isn’t an attempt to reclaim the name of YIVO, because they really don’t need any help from cartoon-obsessed נאַר like me.  However, my YIVO/Yivo confusion made me realise that space monster Yivo highlights one of the most difficult aspects of research institution YIVO, namely the standardization of the Yiddish language.
Before I say anything else, I should point out that YIVO is arguably the most important Yiddish organisation in existence.  These guys have saved a huge amount of Yiddish language and culture, and they continue to share that language and culture with overwhelming generosity.  The institution was founded in 1925 in Vilna but relocated to the US after WWII, taking with it all the materials its members and their friends had risked their lives to conceal during the Nazi occupation.  This is a collection founded on books, documents and other treasures that saw out the war hidden under floorboards and inside walls, saved by people who, in many cases, did not survive the war themselves. You can see now why I feel so bad about the whole Futurama association.
YIVO didn’t stop there, though.  They produced Yiddish dictionaries, created research archives and sustained Yiddish through decades of popular decline.  Now they provide a huge array of digital resources to the student of Yiddish, including the Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, online classes in Yiddish culture, and immense databases of archival materials.  They run summer language schools and fellowships, exhibitions and live events, all to share and preserve Yiddish language and heritage.
As grateful as I am that YIVO exists, that last sentence carries a hint of the challenge they have inadvertently created.  In seeking to preserve Yiddish in its pre-WWII state, YIVO has standardized that language.  This made sense in many ways, since any language that stretches across such a huge range of countries is bound to have variations, dialectical differences, and all kinds of idiosyncrasies that would make it difficult to teach to new learners.  In the absence of the majority of its native speakers, Yiddish had to switch from being a multitude of different variations into a single language that could be defined and recorded, in order to save it from being lost altogether.
This is where my irrepressible recollection of Yivo the Futurama space-vert becomes unexpectedly relevant.  The whole experience of language is that words evolve.  They shift and merge in response to cultural change, so as some become archaic and fall out of currency, others appear to replace them.  A language is an organic process of growth and renewal, but YIVO standardized Yiddish has struggled, understandably, to achieve that.
The result is that the Yiddish I speak is not the Yiddish of my great-grandparents.  We could have understood one another, just about, in the way that a Londoner can understand a Geordie, but there would be a lot of contested vowel sounds and general confusion on both sides.  Perhaps that is to be expected, since my whole point is that language needs to evolve over the generations.  However, a more significant problem is that the Yiddish I speak is not the Yiddish of contemporary native speakers either.  Hassidic Yiddish is now the living Yiddish, the language that has had to incorporate terms for jet-skiing and fusion cuisine and desktop publishing.  This is the Yiddish that is growing as a language, and it’s not as simple as me needing to shift my vowel sounds to match.  If it were just a case of “You say shayne, I say sheyne”, it wouldn’t be a problem, but standardized Yiddish has frozen its entire vocabulary.  It’s a little like learning English using only the works of Jane Austen.  It’d get you through, right up until the point that you need to change a car tyre or really rip into someone for queue-jumping, but it just wouldn’t sound right.  That is how a speaker of standardized or “classroom” Yiddish sounds to a native speaker – we’re speaking a fossilized language.
While there were still communities of native speakers from the pre-WWII generations, Yiddish retained its living fullness, as Nahum Stutchkoff’s work demonstrates.  I love finding Yiddish words that my standardized dictionaries don’t have, because they represent the language at its most vital.  And yet that’s what makes this whole issue so poignant: we don’t have to go back very far to find that living Yiddish with its regional variations and localised slang terms, where “gravy” can be “tunk” rather than just “zuze” or “sos”.
Learning Yiddish now, I can see that the language is changing right before my eyes.  The most recent Yiddish dictionary seems designed to counteract that sense of Yiddish being preserved under glass, and there are increasing efforts being made to allow the language to keep up with twentieth-century life, as well as to reflect the full variety of its pre-standardized existence.  Yiddish is slowly unfreezing after its period of stasis and is regaining its plasticity.  This increasing flexibility should allow new learners to appreciate not just the difference between sheyne and shayne but also between fentster and vinde, as Yiddish begins to create new hybridized words from English just as it previously did from Polish, Russian and Lithuanian.  Yiddish now has the strength to diversify again, so that there is room for both YIVO and Yivo, which makes my life easier at least.  
!האָב ליב דאָס טאַפּ־הערנערל

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Simon Turner - About the Author (3)

Rogane Windsor’s perturbations remain wilfully experiential.  In poem after pogrom after pointel, he has contorted himself well beyond the realms of Apollo’s automata towards the moss-clogged aqueducts of Empire.  A confident conductor of shuddering juggernauts, he has been vigorously exposed on a number of occasions as ‘a tropical atheist’ and ‘a wounded Elizabethan tax collector’.  He denigrates these climbing-plants with Regency gusto.  His Septembers are uniformly milky, and whisper their invitations to Reykjavik, suggesting independence from certain districts of ‘barbarian’ emptiness.  Impossibly, many of the pencils that might pickle Windsor’s dreamscapes best are snarled in a pitcher of weak French lager, placed tantalisingly just beyond whistling distance of the rackety encampment.  His peregrinations, deselected: Libya (Pig in a Dress Books, 1981); The Tropical Surfaces (Alabama Rookery, 1985); Eight Journeys with Satirical Aspirations (Hot Trowels, 1986); The Martyrs’ Frogs (Yuck Chute, 1989); Collected Heresies (Asbestos Kimono, 1995); The Steady Kingdom (Fingerless Press, 1999); Harbour (Crimson Beefing, 2010).

Monday, 17 October 2016

Simon Turner - Saying Something Back

‘Clairaudiently’, the adverbial form of “clairaudience, n., the alleged power of hearing things not present to the senses.”


‘Maybe; maybe not’: a beautiful poem, reliant on its haunted status.  Language unhitched from its originating meaning – the King James Bible in this instance – to produce something weird and unfamiliar.  It’s like a prayer on the edge of sleep or waking, words drifting free of their moorings to find other, dreamier harbours.


Every word its own double-image; every poem shadowed by its dream.


“A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself.”

– Don Paterson, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (2004)


‘Clairaudience’ comes back in ‘A gramophone on the subject’, a sequence haunted by differing voices and modes of expression: the quatrain form works exceptionally well here, both convincingly ‘timeless’ – the blunt Anglo-Saxonism of the first section could be describing a scene from last week, or ten centuries ago – and rooted in the popular poetry of the period (Kipling, the king of the iambic thrum, is quoted for the title of ‘If any question why’, and rhymed quatrains proved a pretty versatile form whenever Sassoon’s poetry took a turn for the scathing and satirical).


‘In Nice’ gets over the character, the sheer bolshie verve of sparrows more effectively and efficiently than any piece of writing I can think of: “ – Pip, sirrah, southbound / to red dust scuffles.”  Yes, yes, exactly that, yes.


Continually citing older poems / poets that themselves had an almost impossible job of memorialisation to do.  ‘A Part Song’s’ line “She do the bereaved in different voices”, for e.g., invoking the original title of ‘The Waste Land’, a poem that ‘remembers’, through its patchwork of quotation, the entire wreckage of Western civilisation: also, ‘TWH’ not only colours what comes after itself – it’s the ground zero of modernist poetry – but also what went before, what it borrows; memory as a two-way street, an impossible river.  Also, ‘A gramophone on the subject’ brings in poetry’s relation to the First World War, where poems had to / were asked required to do the (almost) impossible: to be an adequate memorial to the countless dead.


Language, the spirit of the dead, / May mouth each utterance twice.


“So it comes about the war seems, to us, to have been fought less over territory than the way it would be remembered, that the war’s true subject is remembrance.  Indeed the whole war – which was being remembered even as it was fought, whose fallen were being remembered before they fell – seems not so much to be tinted by retrospect as to have been fought retrospectively.”

– Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme [1994] (London: Phoenix, 2009): 32


“Tree seen from bed” / “Late March”: the phenomena of the natural world observed and subsequently described with an hallucinatory clarity, as in convalescence. 


Perhaps we could see dream as a starting point for the quatrain forms and nursery rhymes that seem to haunt many of these poems: language pushing at the boundaries of the rational, rhyme as language refashioning itself, finding its own harmonies and occluded meanings. 


“The syntax holds and a poem’s infinite number of overtones are magnified to a greater memorableness.  A poem is charged to that power of release that even to one man it goes on speaking again and again beyond behind its speaking words, a space of continued messages behind the words…”

– W. S. Graham, ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ (1946)


The inarticulacy of grief: language cannot, can never, go far enough; death’s the threshold that cannot be crossed, or even engaged with rationally.    


‘A gramophone on the subject’ keeps bumping up against the failure of the public language of memory, of memorialisation.  Public grief in these poems – war memorials, cemeteries, the publication of the names of the ‘fallen’ in the local newspaper – can only ever be forms of euphemism, evasion, historical whitewashing: real grief, real memory, is difficult, intractable, and won’t be so easily brought over into words (and therefore transformed into a smooth and seamless narrative): thus, the quotation from Virginia Woolf in the endnotes – “they never mention its [death’s] unbecoming side: its legacy of bitterness, bad temper, ill adjustment”.   


the King James Bible;
Conan Doyle, etc.


The tradition as a living breathing presence in these poems: works of memory engaged not simply in a personal act of memorial recovery, but a collective, cultural one too.  No, that’s not quite right: I think what I mean is that Riley’s acknowledging that poetry is an act of memory, always has been, and that the older it gets as either a field or a form, the more memory it can conceivably contain. 


What’s notable is the versatility of Riley’s line, her diction.  This is a plain(ish) language – or at least recognisably ‘contemporary’ – that’s able to absorb the colloquial, the higher registers of rhetoric (that “ardent bee” stands out) and the remembered or quoted voices of others without overt juncture, without sign-posting.  The poems are made objects, but show no joins.  I hesitate to call this craft, as it’s a massively unfashionable and loaded term, but there might be no other way to express this feeling.


Hope is an inconsistent joy.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Simon Turner - About the Author (2)

Until he was petrified, Richard Hector’s unctuous protuberances had only been briefly exposed to Vulnerable Geometries and other, more or less lizard-brained marionettes.  Nonetheless, he has since fixed his icy, retrogressive attention on the shapes assumed by machine-stitched books in England.  His Exploding Television Press provides a haven for a veritable Pleistocene of armour-plated images, internally oiled and fluid of reason, and he was one of the everlasting bridges between the Isolationist Grey Scorpion Poets and this deviated epoch, long before post-bop stranglers like Aldo Penti or J L Whiting got ‘leaned on’ within either sphere of the Guttural Turret, and incontrovertibly crumbled, like daredevil haircuts in the midst of an impossible August.  Hector is also the leafy keeper of Goliard’s Grove, and his lissom volume of evocative meat, Complications (Calpol/Goonhilly, 1996) contains the first defence of Goliard as ‘an abandoned dandy’ published in Finland after its post-war dental reconstruction.   

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (7): Nahum Stutchkoff, hero of Yiddish

One of the many joys of learning a new language is encountering new writers you’ve never even heard of before.  Until two years ago I knew spectacularly little about Yiddish literature, so most of these discoveries are just long overdue, but occasionally a writer turns up who is of such significance that I can’t believe I missed them for this long.  Nahum Stutchkoff (1893-1965) fits that category.  I’m calling him a writer, but that’s not really an accurate description of his achievements.  He did write radio plays and advertisements, but he was also an actor; he was a radio presenter but he was also, and most importantly for me, an exceptional linguist and lexicographer.  Without him, our understanding of Yiddish today would be considerably impoverished.
Stutchkoff’s two great Yiddish publications are his 1931 Gramen-lexicon (Yiddish rhyming dictionary) and his incredible 1950 Oytser fun der yidisher shprakh (Yiddish thesaurus).  These two deserve blog posts of their own (and will be getting them), because each illuminates a different aspect of why Yiddish kicks ass. The Oytser is the most beautiful of all my dictionaries (that’ll be dictionary number seven), and the one that best encapsulates the flexibility and variety of the Yiddish language.  The Gramen-lexicon (dictionary number eight – yes, I have a problem) is a wonderful creation, made even more appealing by the fact that Stutchkoff used it to help him write advertising jingles for his radio shows.
From 1932, Stutchkoff worked as a presenter at the Forverts radio station WEVD in New York, but of all his broadcasts it’s Mame-loshn that really stands out to a Yiddish learner.  This show ran for over 600 episodes from 1948, and was all about sharing the richness and adaptability of the Yiddish language.  Although I’ve not been able to uncover any recordings of it, in 2014 Forverts published a collection of segments from Mame-loshn, all of which are based on Stutchkoff suggesting English words for Yiddish terms, and visa versa.  He might have been a scholar of language but this dude was interested in how Yiddish was used in the everyday and, as such, his writing is way past some of the restrictions imposed by the standardized YIVO version of Yiddish that I’m learning.  I’ve no wish to undermine YIVO Yiddish – without YIVO it’s doubtful I’d be in any position to learn the language at all – but standardization always comes at the cost of regional variety and other linguistic idiosyncrasies.
This is where Mame-loshn really delivers.  Stutchkoff’s responses to his audience reflect the diversity of Yiddish terms, acknowledging the different linguistic branches to a level of detail that even my eight dictionaries are hard-pressed to match.  A personal favourite is his reply to a woman who asked about the Yiddish word for “gravy” or גרײװי. Stutchkoff advises those his listeners from Warsaw that they would have said “brotyoykh” and “gebrotene”, while “zuze” and “zshuzshe” were also popular in other Polish areas.  However, Stutchkoff continues, in Lithuania the term was “tunk” (a word I’ve never seen in any of my main dictionaries), and he thought that this was the most pleasing option because it suggests “a sauce that isn’t for eating and isn’t for drinking, but rather is for dunking”. [1]
It’s this love of language for its own sake that makes Stutchkoff such a hero of Yiddish.  Mame-loshn shows Yiddish in the process of adapting to life in the US, creating neologisms and adopting Americanisms as it went.  Not that Stutchkoff was unaware of the threat to Yiddish: he wrote the Oytser fun der yidisher shprakh in the hope of preserving Yiddish after the Holocaust.  However, what is clear from Mame-loshn is that Stutchkoff was very much against preserving Yiddish in stasis.  His love of the language was always dependent upon it being alive and therefore capable of evolution, and despite his desire to see Yiddish survive, he was remarkably pragmatic about the challenges it would face.  The best way of seeing this is for me to translate the segment on “Gosh” in full, in the hope that some of Stutchkoff’s inherent cheekiness and conversational wit come through: [2]

A Jewish Woman from the Bronx pours her bitter heart out to me: ‘I have,’ she writes, ‘a little boy who goes to a Jewish school and studies very hard, but it is becoming very difficult to persuade him that he should speak Yiddish at home.  What does he claim?  That it’s too difficult for him.  Recently I shouted at him: “You should listen to me, every minute with your “Gee” and with your “Gosh”!”  He raised up to me a pair of innocent eyes and said, “How do you say “Gee” and “Gosh” in Yiddish?”  I didn’t know how to answer him.  Truly, can you help me, Mr. Stutchkoff?  I have told him that I will ask you.’

I can help you.  I can tell you how Jewish children in the old country used to express their surprise when they didn’t know “Gee” or “Gosh”, but they spoke Yiddish and so their sayings sounded right.  Perhaps they wanted to fit in with the other little Jewish boys, I don’t know.  When a little Jewish boy felt really surprised, he used to shout: “OY! Mamelekh! Tatelekh!” or (in Lithuania): “Maminke!  Tatinke!”.  Or he used to say: “Really?! What are you talking about? Ze! Ova! Oy-oy-oy!”  And so, he would fit in with all the other little boys.
In that one response, Stutchkoff highlights not just the fact that there is rarely only one way to translate any word into Yiddish, but also acknowledges that for the next generation of American Jews, Yiddish was always going to play second fiddle to English.  However, thanks to his epic efforts to capture the Yiddish he knew as a living, breathing language, those of us in the generations that followed can still experience Yiddish in all its messy, non-standardized glory.  Despite his understandable fears for Yiddish’s future, Stutchkoff created some of the best resources for ensuring its continuing survival not only as a point of historical or literary interest, but also as a language of gossipy backchat.  In Stutchkoff’s view of Yiddish, bedspreads and window blinds are just as relevant as matzo and gefilte fish to American Jewish life.  Thanks to him, I can write Yiddish limericks and understand phrases that no longer appear in any modern Yiddish dictionary.  If he were still alive I’d buy him a pint, but in lieu of that I’ll just have to say, װאָס אַ מענטש.

[1] No surprise that the Yiddish word for “dunking” is “tunken”.
[2] The initial paragraph is the listener’s letter, while the section in bold is Stutchkoff’s response, or as close as I can render it.  Even with eight dictionaries, there are words here that I can’t find.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Simon Turner - About the Author (1)

Calliope Wagstaff walked barefoot from Jamaica, and a number of her outpourings have lassoed themselves around her crenulations there.  Veritably she is a centaur who tries to recognize something mythological whiffling through the fog of an uncorked July, and quite often retreats into the grykes and cleats of her tenuous marriage.  The two ‘Belgian roses’ appended here are both concerned with unexpected adultery and the coast of Greenland: her twinned secret asylums.  ‘The Beating of the Demons’ displays a grimace of brazenly elaborate colour and depth which appears nowhere else in her egg-box.  Her publications include: The Shadows of the Mandarin (Jubjub Books, 1979), The Glaciers (Beltane Umbrella, 1983) and Just Like the Horizon (Thamescape Press, 1991).

Monday, 3 October 2016

Signs and their Portents #4: "Frightened Gloss"

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
HP Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature


JG Ballard, advertisement, Ambit #33, Autumn 1967


"Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse."
HP Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu



"Everything he saw was unspeakably menacing and horrible"
HP Lovecraft, The Dreams in the Witch House


(Source: lifebuzz)

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Masterpieces of Cinema (2): Rochelle and Simon tackle Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

RS: Right, full disclosure time: I have a slightly disturbing and vaguely inexplicable love for Joseph Cotten.  Actually it’s not inexplicable, the man was a fox.  However, this is not the reason why I think that Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s best film (Hitchcock himself thought the same, by the way, but I’m not expecting anyone to take that wily bastard’s word on anything).  When I was re-watching it for the umpteenth time last week, I realised that its genius hinges on the subversive and often downright inappropriate relationship between Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and Little Charlie, his niece (Teresa Wright).  On previous viewings I’d picked up on the dodgy incest subtext, which is difficult to miss since so many of their scenes are staged to echo the standard romantic clichés of the time.  There’s the usual joyful reunion at the station, complete with them running into each other’s arms, as well as all those adoring glances and passionate declamations of mutual admiration, to say nothing of Uncle Charlie’s present to Charlie, that emerald (engagement) ring, engraved with someone else’s declaration of undying love.

What I noticed this time, though, was just how much mirroring Hitchcock creates between these two namesakes.  In fact, each of the Charlies is introduced in exactly the same way (lying on their bed staring vacantly into the middle distance) in similarly composed shots, just with the staging reversed.  The film appears to be asking, if they’re so similar, why is Uncle Charlie such a murderous psychopath, when Little Charlie is an apparently blameless and intelligent young woman? Was it nature or nurture that made him this way? Or is it that Little Charlie has the same potential for violence, if circumstances require it?

ST: I would suggest the latter, to be honest: Uncle Charlie’s violent tendencies are given some kind of contextual gloss – there’s a suggestion that a childhood accident might have unlocked some previously dormant side of his personality – but it’s perfectly clear to me that we’re meant to read his sociopathy as essentially innate, given free play by a combination of upbringing (over-indulgent parenting is definitely in this movie’s sights as a subject ripe for critique) and opportunity.  Young Charlie, meanwhile, is perhaps not indulged to the same extent as her uncle, but she has a restless, refusenik quality in common with him, which simply finds different outlets. 

When reading Hitchcock’s movies, it’s often instructive to see where they fit in his chronology, and Shadow of a Doubt falls slap in the middle of a really interesting run of films Hitchcock made in the 40s after having emigrated to the States.  With the exception of Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), which I don’t think Hitch was 100% satisfied with, his films from Rebecca (1940) through to and including Notorious (1946) follow the same pattern: nominally apolitical psychological thrillers about a family hiding a dark secret (usually a murderer), interspersed with more overtly, though ambiguously propagandistic films about the growing threat of European Fascism (this agitprop component of Hitchcock’s output’s most overtly on display in Foreign Correspondent [1940], although Saboteur [1942], Lifeboat [1944], and Notorious [1946] all qualify as ‘anti-fascist’ to a greater or lesser extent). 

Why ‘nominally’ apolitical?  Why ‘ambiguously’ propagandistic?  Let’s take Shadow of a Doubt as a case in point, as it’s the best of his 40s films, and the most troubling from a number of standpoints.  The apolitical reading would ground this solely in the familial narrative: yes, it’s undergirded by some really troubling Freudian connotations; and yes, it suggests the wholesome Rockwellian all-American family might not represent the untroubled Eden of the Eisenhower-era mythos; but even taking these facets of the narrative on board, it would be possible to begin and end your reading of the film within the limits of the family homestead, and not have to worry about what Hitchcock might be saying about the historical moment.  But what if we did bring specific political events into play?  What if we accept Uncle Charlie as an explicit representation of Fascist threat – some of his speeches about the ‘bestiality’ of rich women suggest we’re definitely meant to read the film in this way – and Young Charlie’s gradual realisation of her uncle’s misogynistic perfidiousness as an analogue for the awakening of the American people to the scale of the threat waiting for them on the other side of the Atlantic?  Then we’re wading into much murkier and interesting territory, right?              

Joseph Cotton (far right, next to the horse), in Horse Eats Hat (1936)

RS: I think so, because there is the distinct suggestion that Little Charlie is prepared to overlook her uncle’s murderous habits just as long as he leaves quietly and doesn’t cause an embarrassing scene.  The film questions the limits of what a decent person is able to put up with when it’s other people rather than themselves that are under threat.  The merry widow that Uncle Charlie encounters in the bank is a case in point: there doesn’t seem to be much overt sympathy for her imminent peril; rather it’s the family’s reputation that Little Charlie is worried about.  What’s interesting here, though, is that she tells Uncle Charlie that if he doesn’t leave she’ll kill him herself, which corresponds with the idea that such behaviour is innate, but also considerably raises the narrative stakes: the audience becomes aware that this is likely to be a battle to the death, rather than a straightforward pursuit of hunter and prey.  Perhaps this chimes with the idea of the historical moment too, in that Little Charlie’s worldview has been completely and irrevocably altered at that point, as though she’s realised that it’s up to the person in the street to oppose the kind of fascistic threat that Uncle Charlie represents.  There’s just such a contrast between Uncle Charlie and Little Charlie’s father, the latter being endlessly fascinated with plotting the perfect murder, while the former actually carries them out.  It feels as though the film is capturing that moment when comparatively innocent game-playing switches to something far darker.

ST: I would read it as more directly political than that: that Little Charlie’s father is able to treat murder as a game or a past-time because he’s a ‘civilian’ in this world, whereas the two Charlies are in effect combatants, well-versed in what violence actually entails – a knowledge that bonds them together, however monstrously – and incapable of communicating that knowledge fully to their friends and compatriots.  I think the reason I read Hitchcock’s wartime movies as radically ambiguous in their propagandistic motives – both the overt and covert pieces detailed above – is precisely because they keep foregrounding these moral questions in a manner that’s inevitably (and unusually) unsettling for an audience more acclimatised to morally black-and-white accounts of anti-Nazi derring-do.  In short, Little Charlie – like the ragtag gang of shipwreck survivors in Lifeboat, for example – must become the monster in order to defeat the monster.  There’s no real sense of catharsis in her defeat of her murderous relative in the final moments of this film, at least in part because Hitch is very careful to render Uncle Charlie’s death in decidedly uncertain terms – leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether his niece pushes him from the carriage door with malice aforethought, or whether he tumbles to his doom due to the caprices of accidental fate – but primarily because we’re asked to contemplate what comes after.  Here’s a young girl, remember, whose journey into the vagaries of adulthood has taken the form of a struggle to the death with her serial killing uncle, and her success in this grubby endeavour is predicated on the fact that she’s taken a human life, however necessary and ‘moral’ that act might have been in the grand scheme of things.  Raising the spectre of Lifeboat again, there’s a very similar moral journey made by the characters in that film, too, for all of the major differences in narrative structure and setting: both films belong much more readily to the ethical universe of film noir than to the more crowd-pleasing cinematic war efforts that Hitch’s British compatriots were producing at the same time.        

RS: I see what you mean about the two Charlies being ‘combatants’ rather than ‘civilians’.  In that final scene with Little Charlie telling Detective Graham about how they are the only ones who know the truth about Uncle Charlie, there’s a camaraderie that is quite unexpected.  It reads more like two war buddies rather than the (slightly peculiar) romantic relationship that has been developing over the second half of the film, and it’s another moment where Hitchcock successfully exploits and then undermines the audience’s expectations regarding Little Charlie’s future.  Rather than discussing marriage (like they were earlier in the film), Little Charlie and Graham are talking about concealing the identity of a serial killer, whose plaudit-filled funeral is still in progress.  I suppose long-term relationships have been built on less.

In terms of the noir tradition, Little Charlie is a strange character.  She’s no femme fatale, and she’s not really the wholesome girl-next-door – at least, not by the final reel.  I’ve always assumed that she does push Uncle Charlie from the train, simply because if his death is accidental it makes the ending neat and tidy rather than subversive and disturbing, and Hitchcock is more about the latter than the former.  In fact, that scene always reminds me of the end of Sabotage (1936), another film about an unseen, anonymous threat to democratic society (with added puppies), when Mrs Verloc stabs up her treacherous terrorist of a husband after realising he inadvertently killed her little brother (and the aforementioned puppy).  You’d have to be a cold-hearted bastard not to be hoping she gets away with it, but the fact that she does is still something of a surprise.  Hitchcock seems to be interested in capturing that moment of conflict where the audience both identifies with and is horrified by the protagonist, and there’s something similar happening in Shadow of a Doubt.  Little Charlie becomes almost monstrous and definitely alienated in order to preserve her community’s innocence, and while we don’t necessarily want to see her fail, it’s a profoundly uncomfortable feeling when she succeeds.

Hitch enjoying a modestly sized pretzel at the Psycho premiere

ST: It’s something Hitchcock keeps coming back to, even later on, isn’t it?  Witness, say, the scenes in Psycho (1960), where the audience is drawn into Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) attempt to cover up ‘Mother’s’ murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh): we watch him clean up the bathroom, remove the infamous shower curtain, and dispose of the incriminating triumvirate of Marion’s corpse, baggage and car in the nearby swamp, at all points horribly aware of how we’re being manipulated into some kind of warped empathy with this morally repugnant man.  In Rear Window (1954), too, Hitch repeats to trope of ordinary citizens stepping over the line of acceptable legality to bring a miscreant to justice: Jimmy Stewart turns voyeur [1], Grace Kelly gets involved in a little light breaking and entering, and they both collude in an act of fake blackmail, all in an effort to entrap Raymond Burr’s hulking ‘voluntary widower’. 

But even in these instances, Hitchcock never full-bloodedly returns to the truly murky moral universe of his British and early American films, to my mind anyway (although the troubling collusion between protagonist and antagonist in Strangers on a Train [1951] is probably the closest fit in terms of mood and moral implications).  It’s precisely this murkiness – which has a distinct Patrick Hamilton / C S Forester [2] flavour to it – which provides these films with their strength, and guarantees them their premier position within Hitchcock’s output, with Shadow of a Doubt the grubby jewel in a deliciously tarnished crown.  I do feel generally that the 30s and 40s get a little neglected in coverage of Hitchcock as a director, though, with his later films (Vertigo [1958] in particular) tending to garner the most critical and audience attention at the expense of the earlier movies.  Do you feel that’s the case?   

RS: Most definitely.  My favourite Hitchcock film used to be Rear Window, which I still love, but although it is so smart and visually inventive, there’s nothing like the same level of unsettling confusion that makes Shadow of a Doubt and the other earlier films so memorable.  Discussions of Hitchcock’s later films can sometimes seem to reduce his work to a succession of grisly deaths and foxy blondes, as though his points of obsession became more pronounced in the second half of his career.  Shadow of a Doubt was a revelation because it has to operate within the most extreme strictures of the Hayes code, and yet still produces the most cold-blooded psychopath of Hitchcock’s entire back catalogue.  Perhaps it’s those restrictions that promote his creative inventiveness, or perhaps it’s just Joseph Cotten kicking ass, but Shadow of a Doubt feels like a leaner, more upsetting film than any of those later examples, and as such deserves more recognition than it gets.

ST: Indeed, and I’d argue that genius in any artistic field resides not in total freedom and creative control on the part of the artist, but rather in the capacity of the artist to work within the codes and restrictions of his/her period and still produce a series of masterpieces (Hitchcock and his peers are no different to the painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance in this respect).  In curtailed and more controversial terms: creativity is constraint.  (That might be material for an entirely different series of posts, however.)  More broadly, this period of Hitchcock’s – running from, say, the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 to Notorious in ’46 – feels like an untapped resource, a hidden treasure-trove, which, precisely because it doesn’t get the same kind of coverage as the acknowledged classics that came later, is yet to fully yield up its secrets.  I’d urge anyone who’s even slightly interested in film to delve, and there’s no better place to start than Shadow of a Doubt.         


[1] Although the film’s real interest lies in the suggestion that the voyeuristic impulse resides in all of us: Stewart’s character is simply using a natural yet morbid human leaning to some kind of societal good, albeit a deeply morally troublesome ‘good’. 

[2] I’m referring to Forester’s excellent trio of seedy, proto-Graham Greene crime novels, by the way, not the Hornblower series of books, which are decidedly unmurky in character.