Its Halting Measure

There is a tacit consent in the throat of words
Vincent Dachy

Some notes that relate to some of the work in my recently published collection ‘Its Halting Measure’, followed by three poems from the book:

Watching my granddaughter aged eleven months and just on the verge of language, there’s the remarkable variety of noises that she makes and the delight she takes in doing it. She is being half-urged and half-tempted into language. ‘She understands No’ her mother says. An architecture of prohibitions? But the sheer pleasure – is this jouissance? – that she takes in all those sounds she is making, those articulations of the mouth. How to get back to this prelapsarian state? A tube station somewhere in West London. Coming up into the sunlight and a moment of wordless bliss that greets me, like a shallow epiphany. Is that what this ‘sunlight’ in my poems is about, this self-greeting wordless encounter? An infant again – but the words were always there ready and waiting. Buoyed up by them, it was a kind of safety after all. And now? The poor art hangs like a coat on a door.

The rooms in Jeff Gibbons’ paintings. Bleak, abandoned spaces; spaces that have been crowded, so there is both presence and absence. Paintings of rooms with writing on them. I have a sort of nostalgia for institutional spaces where nothing much will happen, a kind of safety. A Teacher’s Centre perhaps, with a certain kind of neutral hardwearing carpet substitute, institutional metal-framed chairs and desks, a blackboard. There’s the fascination of a photograph of an empty room – as if I am being listened? As if there is an area of silence I am continually drawn back to, having to fill it with words.

As I once wrote: The city is full of meanings but it has no meaning. That is, everywhere you go there is this sense of a meaning, and whole days can pass in your enjoyment of this, but what the meaning is, this is something that can never be said. Partly it is just the story, the impenetrability of its plotted streets. You lose yourself in that thicket, up here and down there, between desk and pavement. Maybe in the end it can never be anything other than itself. So, there were those long walks of unravelling, where you went out with no fixed purpose, no special destination, seeking the space that is yourself. Maybe such vacancy was all you sought to lose, then find, your wish being to move through the city simply as a presence, stepping free of intentions and timetables, as if invited to a secret celebration.

On some days it was too beautiful for you to be able to say anything at all, like foliage trapped behind glass. Until one February morning you’re standing at an upstairs window while all around a certain quite definite silence waits. Then it comes, that sense of being here and not here, all things chiming at once in an epiphany of absence, and for a moment you are quite lost in it.

. . .

It is a paradoxical activity. You invent what you are invented by. It is a ‘given’, and it invents you. This ‘you’ is what is made possible by language; but you are starting to act as if, encountering it for the first time, it were something that each time is started all over again. Writing being such a paradoxical mixture of active and passive, of controlling and being controlled, moving by degrees from inside to outside, rehearsing separateness. Writing – a nostalgia for all the previous beginnings.

Is poetry a disease of language: dis-ease; wanting the signs in order to set them free? These languages a dream of the other? Language as if haunted by an idea of itself, that it could be freed once and for all of the burden of meaning and become pure song. ‘If, for Blanchot in The Work of Fire, the poet is exemplary in this, there is an uneasy slide from poetry to literature in general: “Literature’s ideal has been the following: to say nothing, to speak, in order to say nothing.” Derrida both confirms and radicalises this tradition, seeing that in Mallarmé the words “finally refer only to their own game, and never really move towards anything else”. He speaks of a writing which “despite its effect of content, is nothing other than the space of writing”’. (Roger Caldwell, PN Review 194).

Could tell it what you think rather than it tell you. Might there be a space between the two? A language and a just-before language. If you were only quick enough you might get to perform it just a fraction of a second before it gets to perform you. ‘The quickness of the hand deceives the eye’.

. . .

A photograph on the cover of a brochure for the Faroes, where we went briefly a few years ago; a man is standing on the edge of a cliff looking over the sea to spectacular distant mountains and the slogan ‘Listen to the Silence’. Beside him a few feet away is a lifebelt. On that same trip, walking through streets of handsome suburban houses on a fine midsummer afternoon in Reykjavik – well it could be almost anywhere, though these houses are rather fine, and there’s something about their colours in this very clear round-the-clock northern air – and I go into a mild trance, as if assuming something, walking through their lives and feeling a sort of happiness. Just once I’m brought up short by a ghostly face seen in a window, a Filipino maid. Then getting to the outskirts of town, scruffy and unappealing – this is where the work is done?

Somewhere between bed and mirror he accosted me, this language-talking stranger.



And somewhere like a window swinging open
A landscape with its mouthings of trees.
There are the words that will not need you
Collecting in silence all around your mouth.
They make it sound as if you almost meant it
And you want to settle the words inside you,
This language lining a mouth,
A careful heap of fallen petals. All the same
Distracted from ‘self’, set free to rhapsodize
You think it really ought to last for ever.

Lifting the camera, as if it were
A sort of prayer.
But the language was an accident
That happened somewhere in the creature’s brain.
Can you afford the planet?

A jay can bury five thousand acorns in autumn.
Somewhere inside this amiable jungle
There waits a label not designed to be read.
Here at the edge of what we almost know
It flowers, as if in hiding.
Together we have come
To the edge of what we were saying
Hung out in rows, like changeless blossom
Against a sky whose blue
Once made us intensely happy.
But noticed most when gone,
Our words like scented gardens for the blind.



The iceland poppies are on the march
bright white day
all the things we ought to look at –
thinking is a space to fill with words.
In the name of the human
vigilance propreté
animals are being torn apart
all along one side of the museum
while all the men of science, a row of heads
stare sternly out.
Yes evolution is murder!

Along the river bridges wrapped in silence
and sculpture on this one’s backside
someone has written NINA.
Madame defend me from
your inconsequential observations

I believe everything I can say

imagining life on that balcony over there
painted with sunlight like an impressionist picture.

Musee de l’art moderne: graffiti
A building wears the art on its sleeve . . .

A machine for thinking us with
one perfect spring morning.
Here or hereabout
there was something called I
whose feet in small steps covered the city

and these ‘poems’
   versions made
       at a great distance

but sudden all the same
   & browsing among the rubbish – I
      look up – an abrupt museum

    as if the windows took flight
        dinosaur skeletons glimpsed
            through windows set high in the wall

Paris, April 2010




The cloud-heart melts away
                          Lord de Tabley

So, the surprise of nothing being found
the pupil shrinks in so much light

and our restlessness, against
an odd still sea
its peculiar deeps and blues –

Danger Of Death
No Diving
No Jumping
                  the sea’s
steep syllables.

When the reader gets up from the book
it is as if almost in paradise
and still there is that expanse before him.
Imagining it an audience
and it saying ‘I want every inch of you’
but he has no name to find it with

        Mid-afternoon, yes
   but why should words help,
   what is beyond
   this beckoning?

                           It had
   fixed itself
   like a brooch
   but awkwardly, at his side

and how the night becomes us
when you’ll fit me like a glove,
you and I
meticulous graveyard of speech.