Extract from The Invitation by Barry Lopez as published in the last issue of Granta (n. 133), a thoughtful meditation on language and seeing:
“When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.”
By Julio Cortazar
Have you seen,
have you truly seen
the snow, the stars, the felt steps of the breeze…
Have you touched,
have you really touched
the plate, the bread, the face of that woman you love so much…
Have you lived
like a blow to the head,
the flash, the gasp, the fall, the flight…
Have you known,
known in every pore of your skin,
how your eyes, your hands, your sex, your soft heart,
must be thrown away
must be wept away
must be invented all over again.
Quiet nights of quiet stars
Quiet chords from my guitar
Floating on the silence that surrounds us
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams
Quiet walks by quiet streams
And a window looking on the mountains
And the sea, so lovely
This is where I want to be
Here, with you so close to me
Until the final flicker of life’s amber
I who was lost and lonely
Believing life was only
A bitter tragic joke
Have found with you
The meaning of existence oh, my love
Lyrics written by Antônio Carlos Jobim (Tom Jobim) in 1960
By John Agard
Put the kettle on
Put the kettle on
It is the British answer
Never mind taxes rise
Never mind trains are late
One thing you can be sure of
and that’s the kettle, mate.
It’s not whether you lose
It’s not whether you win
It’s whether or not
you’ve plugged the kettle in.
May the kettle ever hiss
May the kettle ever steam
It is the engine
that drives our nation’s dream.
Long live the kettle
that rules over us
May it be limescale free
and may it never rust.
Sing it on the beaches
Sing it from the housetops
The sun may set on empire
but the kettle never stops.
The Passion According to G.H. (1964) is a disturbing and shocking novel by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Set in Rio de Janeiro, it tells the story of a wealthy woman, G.H, who encounters a cockroach in the service quarters of her apartment. The occurrence leads to a nervous breakdown and an existential crisis and ends in our heroine eating a part of the roach…
“The roach is an ugly and sparkling being. The roach is the other way around. No, no, it doesn’t have a way around: it is that. Whatever is exposed in it is what I hide in me: from my outside being exposed I made my unheeded inside. It was looking at me. And it wasn’t a face. It was a mask. A diver’s mask. That precious gem of rusted iron. Its two eyes were alive like two ovaries. It was looking at me with the blind fertility of its gaze. It was fertilizing my dead fertility. Would its eyes be salty? If I touched them — since I was gradually getting more and more unclean — if I touched them with my mouth, would they taste salty?
I’d already tasted in my mouth a man’s eyes and, from the salt in my mouth, realized he was crying.
But, thinking about the salt in the roach’s black eyes, suddenly I recoiled again, and my dry lips pulled back to my teeth: the reptiles that move across the earth! In the halted reverberation of the light of the room, the roach was a small slow crocodile. The dry and vibrating room. The roach and I posed in that dryness as on the dry crust of an extinct volcano. That desert I had entered, and also inside it I was discovering life and its salt.”
More from How to Be Both by Ali Smith, because it’s full of wonderful things:
“I feel the loss, dull the ache of it cause I had it, the place where his legs met his body, the muscular dark where his tunic flared up in the breeze as he went, I had it like telling the oldest story in the world cause there’s a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock : the only other thing as good to draw is the curve of a horse and like a horse a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated.”
Questions of Travel, a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, was written in Rio and published in 1956 about five years after she first moved there.
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
–Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
–A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
–Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr’dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
–Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
–And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
Named as the best Brazilian song of all time, Aguas de Março (Waters of March) was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim in 1972. The beautiful lyrics are a stream of consciousness about March, the peak of the rainy season in Rio.
It is a footstep, it is a bridge
It is a frog, it is a frog
It is a rest of bush…
under the morning light
They are the waters of March,
Closing the summer
And the promise of life
in your heart …
Extract from Ode to Bread By Pablo Neruda
Dense or light,
flattened or round,
you are, bread,
and how profound!
How to Be Both by Ali Smith is a marvelous book –gorgeous language, innovative form, a moving story, and, best of all – it’s packed with art references! One of the main characters is Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance fresco painter of whom very little is known, but nevermind, Ali has created a story for him (her), and woven it together with the story of George, a teenage girl in modern day. There are discussions about art, love, gender and sexuality, death, and more, as well as a great cover (a photograph of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, an image which is referenced in the book) and inner cover images from Francesco del Cossa’s greatest masterpiece – an elaborate allegorical fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia (meaning palace of escaping from boredom) in Ferrara, which also plays an important role in the novel.
Smith’s prose is dazzling and clever. In the extract below Francesco talks about the gift of being a painter, and in the passage below that, he describes what he sees when he finds himself in modern day (the “votives” he speaks of are in fact our smart-phones and tablets):
“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.” (p. 42)
“I am wondering where it is, grave of my father, wondering too where my own grave, when the boy sits up, faces the woman’s house, holds his holy votive tablet up in both hands as if to heaven, up at the level of his head like a priest raising the bread, cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons.” (p. 43)
The book is split in two parts (both titled part one), one which is centred on Francesco and the other on George. One of Smith’s experiments with structure was to vary the order of these two parts randomly from book to book. My book started with Francesco’s story, and I must admit that, knowing nothing about the book beforehand, I found it hard to make head or tail of it to begin with. So after some research I decided to skip forward and start over with George’s story. This made all the difference, by the time I got to Francesco’s section I had no problem understanding it. So if you’re having trouble getting through, don’t give up – just try switching it around!
Here are some images of Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, executed c. 1469–70: