The pristine space


I have experienced Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet on several occasions. The work consists of a circular arrangement of 40 speakers, each speaker playing a recording of an individual member of the Salisbury Cathedral choir singing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in allium. Visitors are invited to walk amongst the speakers seeking out single voices, to become a participant in the music, rather than simply a listener. Cardiff has said of the installation: 

While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position. With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music. Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct. As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.

I have heard the piece in pristine gallery spaces – at the Whitechapel in London and at the Baltic in Newcastle. The purity of the space, the absence of distractions (and the absence of human beings apart from gallery visitors – simply disembodied voices singing) has given it a particular ghostly resonance. So I was interested to see how my perception of the piece would alter hearing it in the hallowed spaces of the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval outpost, a gathering of French and Spanish ecclesiastical structures collected through many grand tours and bequests, and reassembled on a hill in Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River and the bucolic shores of New Jersey.


I lived in that neighbourhood, known locally as Inwood, during the summer before I moved to London. My boyfriend at the time found the sublet, attractive for its cheapness (we were both unemployed college graduates). I remember writing in a poem at the time about how the low rise 30s blocks looked like old radios. It was a proper old-style New York neighbourhood, completely untouched by gentrification, occupied by ancient Irish men, hard-up Julliard students (we had a tuba player across the courtyard from us who was not popular) and young Hispanic families. The Hispanic residents brought a bit of excitement to the place with their bright bodegas, full of votive candles depicting various saints we’d never heard of (which we used to collect and light in our kitchen), and coconut vendors, who occupied the corner near the subway. There were a lot of Haitians in the neighbourhood, and my boyfriend told me they held Voodoo ceremonies in the park on summer nights. I was never sure I believed this, until one day I found two pigeons tied together with their heads sliced off. Strange to think that the park might have been home to such rituals, and also home to the Cloisters, a little slice of Medieval Christianity in Manhattan. But that has always been the city’s gift, to be able to accommodate the community of the world in its tight  grid. 


Cardiff’s installation makes you forget all the clamour of the streets outside. In all the occasions I’ve experienced it, what has struck me is how it reduces the world to the moment you are experiencing it. In other pieces, Cardiff uses urban landscapes as stage sets for her narratives, but here, she wants you to forget everything else, so that the music allows you to explore internal narratives instead. And watching fellow visitors, you feel they are experiencing a similar shift, that they have forgotten where they are, and that this extraordinarily beautiful music is having a profound effect, whether they believe in God or not. In that respect, Forty Part Motet operates the same way in a pristine white space as it does in a religious setting – perhaps it works best when there are no distractions at all – but placing it in a chapel reminds us of the original source of the music, as a devotional piece. Conversely, it made me realise that for me the pure white gallery space is my place of refuge, and what I look for is that simple transaction between the artist and the viewer (or listener) that can change the way you feel about the world. I was just beginning to put those thoughts together the summer I lived in Inwood, the summer before I moved to London. I used to walk in the park and look out over the Hudson and wonder what my life in London would be like. Listening to that music, back in the Cloisters after many years, what I realised was that for me it taps into something much larger than individual or place, something unknown.

Home is so sad


Various discussions over the past week have triggered a preoccupation with the concept of home. As readers of Invective already know, I have made my home in London for the past 26 years, having spent the previous 21 years in New Jersey and New York. When I first moved here – with no particular plans, and probably no clear intention to stay – I found I was writing poems about my childhood in America, as it seemed I had gained the necessary distant to do so, not just physical distance, but also mental distance. At a certain point, when I started to establish a life for myself here, those American poems stopped. If it can be said that the majority of my poems are situated anywhere, it is London, or at least an urban location resembling or based on London. In my favourite poem by Cavafy, he talks about the possibility of ‘finding another city better than this one’ but the reality is that:

This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city.

Cavafy’s poem is relentlessly negative, concluding ‘As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, / you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.’ So the city becomes a metaphor for his failure, which he is fated to carry with him forever. Although I would contest his conclusion, I agree with Cavafy that a place you have spent much of your life becomes engrained in you, and any other place you visit is held against that dominant place, the place you call ‘home’. You do carry your city with you everywhere you go, like a garment you wear against your skin. But for me, that is a comfort rather than a burden.

‘Home’ is necessarily complicated for me, in that I consider London home, but I also recognise that I am not a Londoner. This is my adopted city, and perhaps for that reason, it is always precious, and I have never taken it for granted. If you think of writers like Conrad or Kundera or Nabokov, it is their otherness, the fact that they were from one place, and made a decision to reside permanently in another (and give up their mother tongue to write in the language of the place they made home) that charges their prose with a quality of surprise and energy. I have just switched from one kind of English to another (sometimes mixing my poems with both American English and British English, as I do in my speech). I think of myself as Anglo-American, and, like Plath or Eliot (if I could even begin to compare myself to them) my poems reflect the dual nature of who I am.

At the recent Place: Roots – Journeying Home weekend at Snape Maltings, the discussions began with Benjamin Britten and his commitment to place (in his case, Suffolk) in his music. The beginning of Peter Grimes just sounds like the beach at Aldeburgh; it makes sense of the place entirely, so that no other music can represent it so well. This idea of being firmly rooted was carried through to a discussion by Patrick Wright of the German writer Uwe Johnson, who, like Sebald and Hamburger, ended up in eastern England (Johnson rolled up in Sheerness, which even he thought was a dump, but somehow that awful place added a quality of stark alienation in his writing).


Wright made the point that ‘roots are also routes’, which makes me think of writers such as Bishop who was always searching for a home, and laid down roots in many places, only to uproot herself and start again. I always think of her line (in Questions of Travel) ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’ every time I embark on a journey elsewhere, impossible as it is to take away with you the ‘folded sunset’. It seems that lately I have returned to America, not physically (I have only been back once in the last six years), but psychically. When doing readings from The City with Horns in 2011, I found myself telling audiences that the New York I depict in my Jackson Pollock poems isn’t the New York I remember, but the New York of my parents’ generation, a New York that filled my early years with stories of glamorous book launches and classic cocktails. And now I am trying to recreate the New Jersey suburbs of the 70s in my novel – thinking of Cheever, and Rick Moody, and Tony Soprano, and my own childhood.

I’ll finish on this poem by Larkin, which Anne Berkeley and I were discussing during the Snape weekend – the definitive statement on home:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.


That the science of cartography is limited

is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove).

In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes:

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

The poem broke my heart the first time I read it, but it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find an explanation for its impact. It was at a talk by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of maps. At the time, she was embarking on a project called Infinite City, a radical remapping of her hometown, San Francisco. Her proposed ‘alternative’ maps included ones locating Butterfly Species, Murders, Zen Buddhist Centres, Queer Sites. ‘What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,’ she said, and it hit me that this was a way of summing up what Boland is saying in her poem. A place can be altered by time, fate, a random meeting. These alterations are not evident, they cannot be expressed by coordinates, they are simply known and felt. One of my older students told me that as a child during the war she saw an entire London street levelled by a bomb. I could walk down that street, and to me it is another street, because it carries no personal associations, but she retains the image of the street in ruins, and nothing of its present can wipe away that past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘personal’ and ‘public’ maps, as Vici MacDonald and I have been revisiting the places we charted in our Formerly project. Our field trips took two whole days to complete, as we journeyed south, then east, crossing the river at Woolwich, heading west, then north. What struck me in our travels was how much London changes; whole blocks are toppled in the name of progress. But if you have been here long enough, the folk memory of what was there before is somehow ingrained in you. What struck me too was how some things never change; there are certain aspects, buildings, streets that connect me with strangers, fellow city dwellers, who walked the same steps and saw the same sights hundreds of years before. The official maps can tell you how to get somewhere, how to plan your route, but the unofficial ones tell you how you felt while you were doing it. Solnit spoke too about the personal map, created when one has lived in a particular city for many years. On that map are sites of liaisons and break-ups, streets of friends and lovers – a series of unofficial (and deeply internal) blue plaques.

Formerly is an attempt to erect some unofficial blue plaques. The exhibition is looking lovely in its spot high over the Thames in the Poetry Library. From next week, we will be inviting visitors to create their own psychogeographical texts, based on their own wanderings, their personal maps. Watch this space.

Exhibition has now been extended until 3rd February:

Eavan Boland poem in its entirety:

Rebecca Solnit:

The Great Bear is an altered map of the London Underground by the artist Simon Patterson

The cloverleaf map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre, was created in 1581 by Bünting


As much of the country hunkered down against storms that threatened to bring a month of rain in one day, us poets gathered to take a little stroll around London (inspired by the Formerly exhibition at the Poetry Café). Our meeting point was outside Chancery Lane tube, at the dragons marking the boundary of the City. We arrived armed with umbrellas and waterproofs, but at half past ten, our official starting time, the sun crept from between two large grey clouds, and we could see patches of blue sky in the middle distance. As I said to the group, we don’t want the weather to be too cheerful, because our walk would take in the dark and clammy corners of the area that lies between Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury, an area I have always thought of as the Fleet Valley.

Many years ago, around the time I lived in North Mews, a cobbled street running parallel with the Grays Inn Road, I picked up a book at a second-hand stall entitled The Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton. The subtitle of the book was ‘A study of their effects upon London and Londoners, and the effects of London and Londoners upon them’. The subtitle was important, I discovered, as the book wasn’t so much a history of the rivers as an essential guidebook to a hidden underworld. It wasn’t until much later that I came across the phrase genius loci, which describes the spirit of a place which is made manifest through a sense of the histories of its previous inhabitants and its notable events. It explained the odd sensation I had when I lived in that neighbourhood of something I couldn’t quite place, unsettling and sinister. It was during my time in North Mews when I wrote this poem:


It flows beneath my feet, its subterranean banks
unseen. I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can’t understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I’m floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.

But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds, butchers’ scraps
staining the water blood red. The old dark brick
shifts, the city groans in its foundations
and spits me out like a sour grape into the street.

As we made our way through Leather Lane, up Saffron Hill, once the most notorious rookery in London (and the dirtiest and most wretched place that Dickens could think to situate Fagin and his den of thieves), across the Clerkenwell Road, and over Herbal Hill, I think we could all sense the river below us. Peter Ackroyd describes the Fleet as ‘London in essence’, plague-ridden and treacherous, but legendary, the tributary of all that was wild and radical in London. We found a plaque at the bottom of Herbal Hill, undated, but marking the moment the river officially became a sewer.

Outside the Coach and Horses, famed in its day for prize-fights with every conceivable weapon, cockfighting, bull-baiting and bear-baiting (which led to the death of the landlord in 1709), we stood in the middle of the road and peered down into a grate where we could hear the low swoosh of water, the only true vestige of the Fleet, still flowing fast below.

We were standing in the middle of the river, in what was once Hockley-in-the-Hole, an area of street crime and gangs, where women were attacked and stuffed in empty beer barrels and rolled down the hill. We passed under the bridge that carried Rosebery Avenue above our heads, to the inappropriately-named Mount Pleasant, and the huge, ugly Royal Mail Sorting Office that was once the site of Cold Bath Prison (to Coleridge, the site of Hell). We took in the moumental car park, the last undeveloped Second World War bomb site in central London, resplendent with weeds and garbage.

After that, we headed towards Dickens’ House, down Rugby Street (past number 18, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes consummated their relationship), over to pay a visit to Charlie Dutton in his gallery on Princeton Street, through Red Lion Square (past the house where Rossetti first painted Lizzie Siddal, and his new flatmate, William Morris, knocked up a few bits of furniture for their bedsit) and on to the Poetry Café for lunch and time to write some poems. But not before we stopped at the corner of Kingsway and Parker Street, the site of Charles Lamb’s lodgings in 1801. It was from there he wrote to Wordsworth:

Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.

The photographs were taken by Vici MacDonald, my collaborator on the Formerly project. The exhibition continues at the Poetry Café through August. The book can be ordered here:

It's raining poems

There have been many accounts on Facebook and on various blogs (including this lovely account from Katy Evans-Bush: of the Rain of Poems that showered down on London on Tuesday night, making a welcome change from the month of the ordinary wet kind of rain that’s drowned out summer. It was, as many commentators have already said, a joyous and exuberant occasion that brought poets from all over the world together with the citizens of London. At twilight, a helicopter appeared in the skies above Jubilee Gardens, and dropped little packages containing hundreds of poems which fluttered down into the hands of waiting spectators. It was a grey evening (as most evenings have been recently), and so the poems were caught in a floodlight that caused the white paper they were printed on to glow ghostly silver (more like snow than rain). In all, 100,000 poems were released over a half-hour period. Because of the light winds, poems were scattered onto the surrounding bridges, the roofs of flats, as far as Fleet Street and the Strand across the river.

The creators of this project are Casagrande, a Chilean art collective, whose practice is publishing-based and whose aim is to distribute poetry through a series of interventions and ‘art actions’ (as they say on their website) to the public. All their poetic actions and other activities are free to the audience receiving them; their slogan is ‘can’t be sold, can’t be bought’ (no se vende ni se compra). The Rain of Poems over London is part of a larger project of releasing poems over cities that have been bombed during military action. Their first ‘cargo of poems’ was dropped over Santiago in 2001, and since then they have performed the ‘Bombing of Poems’ over Berlin, Warsaw, Guernica and Dubrovnik. They have applied to re-enact the project over Dresden.

The poems that are dropped are by poets from the host nations, and they are printed in both English and Spanish. Because the London event also marks the beginning of Poetry Parnassus, the mammoth Olympic gathering of 200 poets (one from each nation participating in the 2012 London Games), they have also been represented. In the fight (yes, fight – it may be the only time in my life when I see people jostling and jumping to catch poems) to grab one of the falling bits of paper, I managed to scoop up four poems – from Andrés Anwandter of Chile, Oxmo Puccino of Mali, Tom Warner of the UK, and Katerina Iliopoulou of Greece. A completely random and accidental meeting of poets brought to me by chance and changing wind velocity.

Casagrande says that this performance ‘creates an alternative image of the past and is a gesture of remembrance as well as being a metaphor for the survival of cities and people.’ What I like about their project is the democracy of it. On one level, it is about remembrance and resilience, as they say, but on a more basic level, it is about the circulation of poetry to as wide an audience as possible, who simply have to be present (and possibly good at catching) to receive work which is distributed to them for free. It is a political statement in the stand against war, but also in its mode of publishing: I think of the broadsheets of the 17th century, which were used to circulate ideas. We have lost that culture of radical publishing (although bloggers and tweeters are bringing it back) in the spool of twenty-four-hour television news. This is the poem as art action, as object (the poems are beautifully designed and printed, on recycled paper and using biodegradable inks), as statement, as an emotional and spiritual connection of people. The performance is a beautiful and moving gesture, but also a spectacle. Shouldn’t all art and poetry bring together those elements?