The Oxonian Review http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp Mon, 28 Nov 2016 16:57:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Theophilus Kwek: Two Poems http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/two-poems-2/ Mon, 21 Nov 2016 13:38:13 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28996  

The Crabs

Langkawi, December 2004

All afternoon we followed as they fled
Across the sand, scooping them unawares
In our soft palms to where the older boys
Worked on the defences: heights and towers
Around a cliff-edged pit. Here we dropped
Our struggling prey, stopping only to laugh
At how the more we caught, the harder
They threw themselves against the banks,
As if they also found in not being few
Some greater urgency of escape.

Two weeks later, when the world unlatched
We heard in cadences that we could name
Grief like a wall of water, the sea coming in
After dark to fill our shallow moat,
Break all the windows, and with skint hands
Lift our captives up as if from one death
Wide-eyed, limbs flung into another.

 

In Those Days

‘No-one in my large family wrote poetry.’ – Anna Akhmatova

There must have been no need, in those days
For books to shut a trapdoor’s mouth, or, laid

Spine to spine, to double a mattress
Against the chilly ground. No need for covers

With colours that bled and stained our clothes,
Boards so bare they let the daylight through

Or jackets, already paper-thin,
To hold fort against snow, keep dry the skin

So raw, so prone to splitting. Strange luxury,
Not to need our dog-eared sheets, the frenzy

In them as yet unthinkable, creases
That seemed to hide the way cheekbones rose

Against our palms’ salt lines. Instead, to have
Still another season to bind the leaves

Fast in their stations, before the curve and shrink
Of winter came to rip the wood clean,

Put a sag in the shelves, then buckle the dead
Dark timber with its flightless load.

 

Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society.

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Hex: Two Versions of a Witch Tale http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/hex-2/ Mon, 14 Nov 2016 15:44:52 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28942 Kanta Dihal

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51txiBAFxxL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Hex
Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Adapted and translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
Hodder & Stoughton, 28 April 2016
404 pp.
ISBN 9781444793215
£16.99 (hardback)

Hex
Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Luitingh-Sijthoff, 22 June 2013
304 pp.
ISBN 9789024560257
€ 16,95 (paperback)

 

 

 

 

 

The Netherlands might be the last country one would imagine as suitable for producing a horror novel. There are no towering mountains, no age-old dark forests. The only wolf to have been sighted since the eighteenth century was dragged in, dead, as a practical joke. There are hardly any places where one would not see a town on the horizon. Although horror film director Dick Maas, best known for Amsterdamned (1988), managed to break through internationally, there is hardly a tradition of commercially successful horror authors: Jack Vance is one of the very few whose works have been translated to English.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (1983) thus broke with all nonexisting Dutch horror traditions when, first, in 2013 his novel Hex caused a stir for being a thoroughly unsettling, well-written horror novel set in a twenty-first-century Dutch town, and second, when in 2015 he won a Hugo Award. 2015 was an astonishing year for these science fiction and fantasy awards: for the first time ever, the winners included translated works. Liu Cixin won Best Novel with Santi (The Three-Body Problem), and Olde Heuvelt won Best Novelette for “De vis in de fles” (“The Day The World Turned Upside Down”). These winners were all the more surprising as this year, two conservative groups, threateningly named ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies’, attempted to boycott “academic” and left-leaning nominees by pushing several works onto the nomination list that were endorsed by them. As this included authors such as the homophobic John C. Wright, most voters responded with disgust and withdrawal. In nearly all categories, voters decided to elect ‘No Award’ rather than something that carried the mark of puppy approval. And in some categories, the fans went for the few untainted works: works by authors few had heard of before, by authors who had hardly been translated to English before. The poor puppies’ boycotts backfired, and Liu and Olde Heuvelt, innovative authors bringing new cultures and languages to the Hugos, were awarded. Naturally, Olde Heuvelt’s most famous novel, Hex, had to be translated into English after this victory.

Yet Nancy Forest-Flier ‘s 2016 English version of Hex is not a mere translation. Olde Heuvelt decided to seize an opportunity not many writers are in a position to do: he rewrote the book for the translation, creating a novel with a different setting and ending, a ‘second edition’ that is usually only produced by textbook writers. This version was then translated to English in consultation with Olde Heuvelt, who has a degree in American literature. Whereas the revision of the storyline is largely beneficial, the Dutch reader would be surprised to discover that Olde Heuvelt has uprooted the story from its Dutch setting and planted it in a village in New York State instead. Only the witch remains Dutch.

The premise of the story is the same in both versions. The village of Beek (Black Spring) has been haunted by Katharina (Katherine) van Wyler ever since she was hanged as a witch in the seventeenth century. She appears and disappears at will throughout the village, standing in people’s bedrooms at night. Though her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, whoever gets too close to her or touches her will hear her whispers and become suicidal. Whoever settles in the village cannot move out again, or they will face this same fate. The government’s security services are aware of the situation, and help the villagers live through ill fortune without revealing the witch to the outside world: the village has their own security service, HEX (heks is Dutch for witch, too), which filters the internet and tracks the witch’s whereabouts via an app. The village teenagers, however, are not happy with the many ways in which their freedoms are restricted, and prepare to let the world know about the witch.

So why does the English version take place in a different country? Olde Heuvelt explained his motivation behind Americanizing his novel in a blog:

To thoroughly scare readers, you have to create a perfect sense of familiarity in a story and then rip it to pieces as soon as they’re hooked. And here’s where the Dutch setting becomes problematic. If I’d read a horror story set in, say, rural Azerbeidzjan, I’d be worrying all the time about what the place actually looks like, what’s the norm for these people, what are they scared of and oh, by the way, how do you even pronounce their names? Bang! Familiarity gone, and a missed opportunity to make me scream at night.

It is easy to sympathise with this choice in the case of an author whose first novel is about to be translated into English, which remains an impressive feat for a Dutch author. It is also easy to attack Olde Heuvelt for having ‘sold out’, but this particular moral decision in one that lies with the author— who, besides, recognises success when he sees it. My main issue with the second edition, however, is that Olde Heuvelt’s arguments in favour of it are not convincing. The reverse argument is easily made. The most popular horror author in the Netherlands is, unsurprisingly, Stephen King. His Dutch readers can easily get over the fact that in their country, the death penalty does not exist (The Green Mile), there are no mountains to be snowed into (The Shining), and a sixteen-year-old girl would have known about menstruation from compulsory sex education from primary school onwards (Carrie).

Most importantly, Olde Heuvelt seems to have thoroughly underestimated how frightening his work already is. The Dutch setting does not influence this effect as much as he seems to argue – wouldn’t that make the Americanized translation equally inaccessible to a UK reader? In fact, one of the more unsettling parts of Katharina/Katherine’s history as a witch sounds less impressive in a North American setting: the village she was hanged in emptied out overnight. It is widely known that such a thing really happened in the early US settler colonies, and is much more likely to happen there than in the by then already densely populated Low Countries. Rather, it is the deeply unsettling way in which Olde Heuvelt shows that the things that used to terrify us can still do so in this technology-ridden, global, open world. We do not need cabins in the woods, areas without phone reception, medieval settings. In Hex technology coexists with age-old anxieties as successfully as in Paranormal Activity and Koji Suzuki’s Ringu.

At the same time, the changes that he made ‘Americanize’ the story no more than superficially. The setting has changed, but the witch and her actions have not. Olde Heuvelt claims that some of the actions in Hex are characteristically Dutch: “If a Dutch person sees a seventeenth-century disfigured witch appear in a corner of the living room, he hangs a dishcloth over her face, sits on the couch and reads the paper. And maybe sacrifices a peacock.” However, the inhabitants of Black Rock do exactly the same. Is this a typically Dutch sense of practicality, or a universal acceptance that will come over everyone who has this happen to them from the moment they move to a haunted town?

Although one can empathise with Olde Heuvelt’s perspective, as it indeed is very rare for a relatively unknown writer to be translated for the US market, the translation did make several entirely unnecessary edits to the names. “I mean, how do you actually pronounce Olde Heuvelt?” he writes when explaining his edited version, ignoring the fact that horror fans have been perfectly capable of dealing with the name Cthulhu since 1928. The boy Max is called Matt in the US version; Jasmine inexplicably becomes Bammy. An even worse name change has occurred in the character of Gemma Holst, who is called Griselda in the US version. This is a book about a witch; why insert a name that sounds so witch-like it turns the character into a parody? A more appropriate name joke has been inserted through translating the mayor’s name, Kobus Mater, into Colton Mathers.

The best part of the English version of Hex has little to do with this translation/Americanization, but with the fact that Olde Heuvelt has been able to access the storyline a few years after publication and improve on it. Although most improvements are very minor, such as the removal of several (but not all) unnecessarily gruesome birthing scenes, the final chapters and the epilogue have been rewritten completely, significantly improving the realism of the horror story. In the Dutch version all hell literally breaks loose in the final two chapters, leading to a scene that, as Olde Heuvelt writes, “only found its equal in Dante, in De Sade, in Jheronimus Bosch” (“vond alleen zijn gelijke in Dante, in De Sade, in Jheronimus Bosch”). For the English edition, Olde Heuvelt merges the final two chapters into one, removing this supernatural sadism and making the ending more realistic. These horrors are now caused by humans rather than by a grudging witch alone, reinforcing the point the book makes throughout. In the aforementioned blog, Olde Heuvelt points out that publishers interested in translations to other languages have always chosen the English edition to base their own translations on: this is entirely understandable not because of the changed setting, but because of the improved storyline.

The majority of Dutch secondary school graduates are able to read novels in English. This means that with his English edition of Hex Olde Heuvelt has become his own competitor: should Dutch readers read the original Dutch version, or the English edition, new, improved, yet mediated by another voice? As the plot improves the story more than the US setting is likely to distract any non-US readers, this translation would in fact be recommended to any Dutch reader fluent enough to handle it.

Kanta Dihal is a third-year DPhil candidate in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.

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Three Poems http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/three-poems-6/ Mon, 14 Nov 2016 14:13:18 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28769  

Kevin Cahill

City Flowers

What bombshells of slight
feather-like
pattings on the keypad
cross our Republic
like murderers:
horned caps, ur-speak,
fists of mail
phishing across our regions
in a raging typeface.

Forwards and backwards,
blog-like, undead cities
simmer in a zinging
ping-storm of bullets –
punching us up
with their spreadsheets.

Everything tuts about us,
looks a bit cold. Cut-off,
convent-cowled magnolia pray in their boxes,
under a broken nose
of sepal: there in the plastic

erect a streetlit piece
of nature: streetwise plants
in little doggèd pots…
gamboling with God-like,
Adam-and-maiden-like colour
beside our dim task bar.

 

Doomsday

After the Great Flood of Cork, 2009

Here in Cork, as in Phi Phi, we brighten
our puddle with bikinis. Our death-toll
passes like a cloud.

Above us, the sun’s boozed-up barcarole
communes with the mouthy swimmers
bathing street by street.

The day after this is not written
but on TV people clear buddies and refuse
out of their houses,
fix the plasma-screens, people carriers,
scrub down the walls
and toss their Spot
into an unoffended dustbin.                                             .

The clerical collar of ring roads
whitens after impact, as life
freshens into petrol; the world
dancing with another man
who trundles her on
past anyone’s guessing.

 

Boy Strangling a Goose

is all I remember from the apostolic alleyways
and monumental crumb of that city.
The arms astride her flabbergasted abdomen
ruining her feathers. The boy
grabbing that whooping bird
just like the boneshakers we gripped
a long time ago
in all innocence. Handlebars
we bent into provinces
fifty odd degrees North –
sandalled, helmeted, pedalling into ghettos
and across streams
as we flirted with earth and its Rhines, and Danubes,
there for the taking.
Our love for the glory
that was impossible to master, until mastered,
for something in us too was pillaged:
and the goose won us over
and all of Christendom said Wicked.

Kevin Cahill is graduated from University College, Cork. After working for the European Commission and as an academic librarian, he is now a full-time writer.

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Under the Magnifying Glass http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/beauty-under-a-magnifying-glass/ Mon, 14 Nov 2016 14:12:00 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28748 Alex Assaly


Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission
Anne Toner
Cambridge UP, 2015
288 pages
ISBN: 978-1-107-07301-2
£60.00

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What sorts of beauty do we find under a magnifying glass? The precision and balance of the foliate patterns in an illuminated manuscript. The deep colours of a semi-precious stone. The complex designs made by the veins of a leaf. But, what do we lose? An entire passage of scripture. The stone itself. The bough, the bark, the tree. A detail may reveal a thing’s essence; but with equal likelihood it may distract from a thing’s larger significance. Any reader of Anne Toner’s Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission (2015) will inevitably put undue pressure on these questions. Do we gain anything by such detail-oriented scholarship? What do we lose? Toner’s book, like John Lennard’s (her PhD supervisor) But I digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse (1991), is certainly the type of scholarship done under a magnifying glass; and, both Toner and Lennard have had their share of critics as a result. If their intention is to fetishize punctuation at the expense of the meaning or spirit of the texts in which they feature, then, perhaps the criticism is deserved. But in my view, neither one of these works devolve into fetish-worship. Rather, they encourage a positive refocusing of critical attention. They successfully jar the reader out of his or her complacent disregard for the ordinary (punctuation). As Toner’s analyses of Ben Jonson, Samuel Richardson, Lucy and John Aikin, George Meredith suggest, they reveal the critical potential of a detail, and do so with only the occasional lapse into the completely banal…

Toner’s study is largely a historical overview of the development of the ellipsis in its many uses and forms (as hyphen [- – – ], dash [—], asterisk [***], and point […]). To the detriment of her work, any critical analysis that is not historicized is left to a bare minimum. Toner begins her history with the earliest use of the ellipsis in English literature: the 1588 edition of Terence’s play, Andria (trans. Maurice Kyffin). The mark appears in the work three times. In the first two instances, the speaker is interrupted by another character. In the last instance, the speaker interrupts himself. The ellipses, here, signal a dramatic lapse into silence precipitated by either an external or an internal interruption: the mark was innovative. Until the 16th century, printers restricted themselves to three punctuation marks: the full stop, the comma, and the question mark. In the 16th century, printers began to invent new punctuation. Nevertheless, punctuating an incomplete sentence was difficult. The use of a full stop was troublesome: a new student of Latin, for example, might be misled to seek a complete sentence where there is a fragment. Some printers avoided this problem by adding a gloss in the margins of the text that would draw attention to the line’s fragmentary nature. The ellipsis bypassed this process by abbreviating an entire gloss into a simple mark.

The ellipsis (in its signifying of a dramatic interruption) became a common feature in English drama. By 1627, editions of Andria (ex. trans. Thomas Newman) contained up to twenty-nine ellipses. Ben Jonson found the mark particularly fruitful. In the quarto version (1601) of Every Man in his Humour (a play presenting “deeds and language such as men do use”) there are a total of sixteen dashes; but, by the folio version (1616), there are seventy-seven. While fifty-three are terminal and thus signal Jonson’s awareness of the mark’s dramatic force, the remaining twenty-four appear to be the result of censorship legislation passed after the quarto’s publication. In spite of such censorship, Jonson, Toner suggests, may have found some use in these externally imposed censorship dashes. In the folio text, Jonson intimates blasphemy where there is none by changing “by Phoebus” to “by—.” One hundred years later, Joseph Addison, aware of the reader’s response to these suggestive dashes, fully exploits the mark’s comedic potential.

The history of the ellipsis is characterized by various inversions of this sort. In King Lear (1606), William Shakespeare questions the idealization of perspicuity by making Cordelia, in spite of the love she has for her father, incommunicative. The ellipsis, here, becomes a potent symbol of emotions too intense to be captured in language. At the end of the century, linguists were sensitive to the connection between emotion and the ellipsis. Bernard Lamy writes:

A violent passion never permits us to say all that we would: The Tongue is too slow to keep pace with the swiftness of its motions; so that when a Man is cool in Discourse, his Tongue is not so full of words, as when he is animated by passion. When our Passions are interrupted, or diverted another way, the Tongue following them, produces words of no reference or analogy with what we were saying before.

Writers noticed that the ellipsis’s capacity to capture emotions created an illusion of reality. Consequently, the interruptive, the suggestive, and the passionate all became staples in works of mimetic integrity.

In the 18th century, the ellipsis flourished in the sentimental novel. Novelists, increasingly occupied with trying to imitate the real world, began to present their dialogue in formats familiar to drama. In Clarissa (1747-1748), Samuel Richardson avoids all attributions of speech (“he said”s or “she said”s) and dramatizes his dialogue with terminal ellipses:

No vices, Madam!—
Hear me out, child— You have not behaved much amiss to him:
We have seen with pleasure that you have not.—
O Madam, must I not now speak!—
I shall have done presently—

The sentimental novelist also began to expand the function of the ellipsis by having it figure not only on the level of sentence structure, but also on the level of narrative structure. Novelists started to actively avoid closure in a manner that mirrored the terminal interruptions featured in their dialogue. The Gothic novelists were particularly avid in their exploration of the orthographic and narrative potential of the ellipsis. In “Sir Bertrand, A Fragment” (1773), Lucy and John Aikins “close” their story with ellipses in order to leave the reader in a haunting obscurity, as though he or she was reading from an old and fragmented manuscript: the line between where the novel ends and where reality begins was blurred.

While elocutionists like Thomas Sheridan and James Burrow took note of the efficacy of the ellipsis in recording speech, more orthodox grammarians like Robert Lowth and Hugh Blair avidly denounced their use. In the 18th and 19th centuries, perspicuity and the complete sentence was still the poetic ideal, and even writers were critical of the ellipsis. In A Tale of a Tub (1704), for example, Jonathan Swift parodies the overuse of ellipses by having his narrator’s lacunae-filled argument dissolve into a series of asterisks:

* THERE is in Mankind a certain * *
* * * * * * * * * *
Hic multa * * * * * * * *
disiderantur * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * *
* * And this I take to be a clear Solution of the Matter.

A distaste for the ellipsis survived into the 19th century: George Eliot, for one, avoided the use of ellipsis with increasing caution. Towards the end of the 19th century, the ellipsis flourished again. George Meredith would find these “dots […] the best symbols for rendering cardisophical subtleties intelligible” and Samuel Beckett would famously show his sensitivity to the mark when instructing Billie Whitelaw to “make those three dots, two dots.” The most groundbreaking use of the ellipsis appeared in Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer’s collaborative novel, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901). In their short novel, Conrad and Hueffer aimed “to get into situations […] the sort of indefiniteness that is characteristic of all human conversations, and particularly of all English conversations that are almost always conducted entirely by means of allusions and unfinished sentences.” The result was a novel filled with stutters, dead-ends, interruptions, and silences, all indicated by means of its 400-plus ellipsis.

Toner ends on this relatively positive note. But we find in her work a lacuna which she herself acknowledges: experimental poetry. To include experimental poetry, however, would be to pull the rug from under her study. The Ellipsis in English Literature would have had to become as fetishistic as the experimental poets she would have included. Toner’s study would have become a parody of itself, pushing the limits (or leaving the limits behind) of what the ellipsis really represents. If that were the case, the punctuation mark would remain the hobbyhorse of a small group of fixated enthusiasts. As I finish this article, I have, on my Internet browser, the twitter page for derek beaulieu’s “Erasing Warhol” project. The twitter page features a number of pages from Andy Warhol’s a, A Novel (1968). Each page has all of its text erased, except the punctuation marks and the onomatopoeic words. Most of the resultant pages are a nice array of full stops, commas, and…ellipses. The project’s twitter account has 467 tweets and just 201 followers.

Alex Assaly is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge.

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Say a prayer for the cowboy http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/say-a-prayer-for-the-cowboy/ Mon, 14 Nov 2016 11:59:25 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28811 Judyta Frodyma

It’s 1968. Leonard at the time is living in a small cabin in Tennessee. Nineteen-year-old Suzanne Elrod is an occasional resident, having met him in a hotel lobby some time before. Leonard buys a horse, a grey mare, from Ray “Kid” Marley, a young rodeo star living next door. The horse is unbreakable, a joke Leonard takes in stride as the price for being a ‘city slicker’ in the country. Attempting to ride it is unthinkable; the mare gets away before he can mount a saddle. The cabin sits on 1500 acres, with lots of space and a barn and some hay. The horse comes and go as it pleases. Leonard, after hearing that horses like sugar, stands at the fence, hand outstretched, loosely grasping some sugar cubes. She slowly comes over, eats the sugar, and runs away again. Suzanne laughs, and says “Leonard, just let it go by / That old silhouette / On the great western sky.” Leonard pens the ‘Ballad of the absent mare’, and both are gone, like the snow, the smoke, the song.

Leonard outlives Kid Marley by ten years.

~

It’s 1965 and Janis Joplin is staying at the Chelsea hotel. She enters the elevator, around three in the morning, and there is Leonard again, still tanned from Hydra. He is a self-proclaimed master of “the buttons of that elevator”. She isn’t looking for him, she is looking for Kris Kristofferson. He’s much shorter than Kris. She never lets on. They go up to her hotel room, Janis talking brave and sweet, hair unmade, the bed unmade. “She gave herself completely, and when she decided to stop giving herself, she cut out completely. That was Janis.”

Those were generous times.

~

Around 1948, a teenage Leonard is watching girls play tennis behind Murray Hill Park with their tanned legs and white skirts. William Lyon Mackenzie King is Prime Minister, or maybe it is St. Laurent by then. He meets a Spaniard playing the guitar, and captured by the rapid fingerings and chord progressions, he asks him to take a few lessons. The two settle on a price and meet three times in his mother’s house in Montreal. He teaches Leonard what starts his performance career: how to tune a guitar, six chords, and a trick for playing tremolo. The flamenco pattern underlies his early poetry readings and governs his later songs. The Spaniard never shows up to the fourth lesson. Leonard phones up his boarding house and the landlady answers, saying the man has taken his own life. He knew nothing about him — what part of Spain he had come from or why he had chosen to live to Montreal. He did not know why he was staying at the boarding house, nor why he had appeared there in that tennis court. He did not know why the man had taken his own life. He said he was deeply saddened.

We are deeply saddened, too.

~

Leonard Norman Cohen died on Monday 7th November, 2016. He was buried in his hometown of Montreal on Thursday 10th November in a traditional Jewish memorial service. He observed the Sabbath for all of his life.

Dr Judyta Frodyma is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada. She was the Editor-in- Chief of The Oxonian Review in 2013 and has a DPhil in English Literature from St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

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‘Like a long-armed candlemaker’: Leonard Cohen’s poetics http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/like-a-long-armed-candlemaker-leonard-cohens-poetics/ Mon, 14 Nov 2016 07:32:41 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28779 Pierre Antoine Zahnd

The Energy of Slaves
Leonard Cohen
Jonathan Cape, 1972
127pp
ISBN 0-224-0078

 

 

 

 

Leonard Cohen was akin to Jean Cocteau in that he, too, had started as a poet before becoming known as an artist of many crafts: beside his output as a multi-instrumentalist Cohen was also, of course, a novelist and an illustrator. Although most of his most notorious and defining literature comes from his song lyrics, his life-long practice of page poetry constantly fed into his other work and was in turn informed by it. But while the poem and the song have a clear common origin in his work, Cohen’s poetry tended to move towards autonomy from the song structure; that is, to produce the sort of meaning only poetry can achieve.

Cohen often exploited the formulaic origins of poetry in cross-rhyming quatrains reminiscent of narrative and balladic forms, while pointing at the structure of his recorded songs:

The flowers were roses
and such sweet fragrance gave
that all my friends were lovers
and we danced upon her grave

(‘Ballad’)

You tore your shirt
to show me where
you had been hurt
I had to stare

(‘You tore your shirt’)

Another related technique is his use of end-stopped lines (rather than enjambments) to enact the consciousness of song. The pacing of song lyrics (and of Cohen’s in particular) tends to be determined by line units, with a breath or a pause at either end. In Cohen’s page poetry, what this produces is an element of surprise, an inflexion in setting, tone, and mood at the onset of each new line:

So once again
I tried to set my throat on fire
this time in silence
and not thinking of you at all

(‘I could not wait for you’)

His poetry in freer form also strives to ground itself in the oral tradition, in mythological and imprecatory speech. The curse ‘Death to them’ recurs across The Energy of Slaves with the same fervour as the Hebrew Hineni, the Abrahamic ‘I am here’, resounds in ‘You Want it Darker’, the opening track to his last record. The lyrical poem ‘Song’ from his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, quickly develops a heroic tone as the speaker becomes ‘anointed’ general with ‘wind on my breastplate/sun on my belly.’ Here Cohen, like often, channels the ancient Greek tensions between Eros and Thanatos in his love discourse, while playing out intimacy on an epic backdrop:

Whatever cities are brought down
I will always bring you poems
and the fruits of orchards

I pass by.

(‘You All in White’)

And it is this layering of intensities and tones that make the best of Cohen’s poems so textured and open for readerly interaction. His writing is often an attempt to start articulating some kind of cosmic sense out of minute happenings:

we still love beauty
which the lizards express for us
spinnakers of red membrane
blow from their throats

(‘There is nothing here’)

Metaphor and simile (bringing several things together; acts of imaginative interpenetration) were perhaps particularly suited to Cohen’s temperament. In ‘Disguises’, remembering an old factory worker, he recounts: ‘I loved the machine he knew like a wife’s body.’ But in a broader sense his interest in description often works more dramatically than this, by implication rather than representation, by setting up a peripheral detail for the reader to engage with in order to interpret the full event:

I could not wait for you
to find me dead in a rented room
with sunglasses dusty
on the card table

(‘I could not wait for you’)

As a poet who knew the classical tradition and wrote very much about himself as a lover, it isn’t surprising that he tried his hand at ekphrasis, a typically phallogocentric exercise where the writer describes the beloved, usually isolating and itemising bodily features. As his first published, not entirely palatable attempt goes:

Body from Goldwyn. Botticelli had drawn her long limbs.
Rosetti the full mouth.
Ingres had coloured her skin.

(‘Ballad’)

Sixteen years later, in 1972, he would take a radically different take on the exercise in ‘Portrait of a Girl’:

She is profoundly worried
that her thighs are too big […]
There is a fine mist caught
on the dark hairs above her mouth […]

There is no information about this person
except in these lines
and let me make it clear
as far as I’m concerned
she has no problem whatsoever

His most successful ekphrastic love poem is, perhaps, the one in which the least description occurs:

With Annie gone
Whose eyes to compare
With the morning sun?

Not that I did compare
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone

(‘For Anne’)

Cohen’s form here is entirely relevant to the effectiveness of the poem: with its capitalised letters at the beginning of each line and its terza rima-esque rhyme scheme, the poem reads like a witty mock-exercise thinly camouflaging a song of hurt.

Form, particularly in the sense of visual arrangement across the page, is essential to Cohen’s poetry. Consider another descriptive poem, ‘All there is to know about Adolph Eichmann’, a Nazi officer:

EYES: ……………………………………………………………… Medium
HAIR: ……………………………………………………………… Medium
WEIGHT: ………………………………………………………… Medium
HEIGHT: …………………………………………………………. Medium
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: …………………………None
NUMBER OF FINGERS: …………………………………….Ten
NUMBER OF TOES: …………………………………………. Ten
INTELLIGENCE: ……………………………………………….Medium

What did you expect?

The triteness of the form brings out the pathos of the piece: the anti-cathartic realisation that one of the major supervisors of the Holocaust was neither abject nor superhuman, but rather an entirely average and common man. But Cohen goes further in suggesting the unlikely kinship between a poem and a character evaluation sheet. The piece plays on two basic poetic features, repetition and variation: the successive questions about the colonel find single-word answers that work as a close rhyme scheme, most lines delivering ‘Medium’ with the expected sameness.

Of course, Cohen often plays with lineation in subtler ways. From ‘Destiny:’

I want your warm body to disappear
politely and leave me alone in the bath
because I want to consider my destiny

The effect of this segment could not be reproduced in songwriting, creating and disrupting as it does various expectations across line breaks, travelling with the reading eye from eroticism (‘I want your warm body’) to murderous instinct (‘to disappear’) to social ennui (‘leave me alone in the bath’), and finishing on the bathetic image of a thirty year-old thinking of himself grandiosely in the tub.
One of the most striking passages of The Energy of Slaves unfolds similarly, with the tension of a line break and the added breath of and indent, when instead of a ‘prayer’ what Cohen gives us is longing at its barest:

I have often prayed for you like this

Let me have her

But although Cohen himself is very biographically involved in his text, his poetic figure is impossible to pin down completely. As Roland Barthes puts it: ‘the more textured a discourse is, the harder it to locate the source of that discourse.’ Cohen was a largely apostrophic poet, but it is not always easy to discern where the shout came from: in one moment he is addressing God:

I made this song for thee
Lord of the World
who has everything in the world
except this song

(‘I made this song for thee’)

In the next he is taking on fellow male writer Norman Mailer:

Dear Mailer,
don’t ever fuck with me

(‘Dear Mailer’)

In ‘The cuckold’s song’ he casts himself variously as first-person narrator, butt of the joke, and narcissist onlooker:

The important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohen. […)
I repeat: the important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohen.
I like that line because it’s got my name in it.

A common mood in much of his poetry, however, is that of a consciousness questioning itself about the very act of writing. Unsurprisingly, this occurs in an entirely self-centered way, but one that is ultimately meaningful. In The Book of Longing, he gives the reason why he writes at all in a peripheral way that discloses enough and conceals enough:

You’d sing too
if you found yourself
in a place like this

Throughout poetry collections Cohen maintained this reluctantly Orphic persona, sometimes to the point of total solipsism:

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it

(‘This is the only poem’)

These concerns become more interesting and affecting when acted out in a social framework, when he is genuinely reconsidering the potential of poetry for human communication, and whether speech is ever an improvement on quietness. From ‘Gift’, a poem about trying not to write a poem:

You tell me that silence
is nearer to peace than poems
but if for my gifts
I brought you silence
(for I know silence)
you would say

This is not silence
this is another poem
and you would hand it back to me.

The line between creative success and failure is so tenuous in certain poems that he refuses to be seen for very long in them:

So I see it is not safe at all.
I am not sitting at the old table.
I did not come home. I am not fair and tall.

(‘I think it is safe to tell you where I am’)

For this reason particularly, it is important to see Cohen’s poetry partly as a text of flux: as he once put it, ‘poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.’ He frequently moves away from objects once they have been articulated and exposed: while in ‘Owning everything’ he establishes a kinship between speech, knowledge, and possession, he also observes the transition from the free-moving unknown to the qualified known with usual melancholy:

With your body and your speaking
you have spoken for everything,
robbed me of my strangerhood […]

You worry that I will leave you.
I will not leave you.
Only strangers travel.
Owning everything,
I have nowhere to go.

Pierre Antoine Zahnd is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.

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Wrap Up The Week: On Stupidity, Cynthia Ozick, Why Hate Poetry, Snow, And The Nobel Prize http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/28724-2/ Sun, 26 Jun 2016 20:23:13 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28724 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. ‘The War on Stupid People’: Going back to the 1950s, David H. Freeman examines the shift in our cultural attitude to the ‘nonsmart’.

2. ‘Cynthia Ozick‚Äôs Long Crusade’: a portrait by Giles Harvey.

“The writers who insist that literature is ‘about’ the language it is made of,” she has said, “are offering an idol: literature for its own sake, for its own maw: not for the sake of humanity.”

3. ‘What‚Äôs The Matter With Poetry?’: Ken Chen reviews Jonathan Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

“I read The Hatred of Poetry as a referendum on the lyric, at whose altar Lerner worships, and which I find, to use the language of post-structural hermeneutics, kind of gross. While I may happen to disagree with Lerner‚Äôs often-conservative account, he is unique among contemporary poets for holding out a poetics and a position, which he discusses with remarkable amiability.”

4. ‘A Mind of Winter’: Charlie Fox ponders on artists’ fascination with snow.

5. ‘Mixing memory & desire’ : Dominic Green examines the choice of recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, with particular attention to Patrick Modiano, the 2014 winner of the award.

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H. – A poem / a history http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/h-a-poem-a-history/ Tue, 21 Jun 2016 12:41:43 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28700 Theophilus Kwek

The sum of his possessions when
We took him: mortar, pestle. An

Inkwell, dry. Fine dye, coins to weigh
Leaves of grammar, a pillow for

The wrist. Robes, bound in crisp paper.
Where he towelled his feet after

Rain, a stool, chiselled to a squat.
Outside the door a low stair led

Under the alley where they mourned
Their lost seamstress and her husband

To a musty basement, and here
We found last year’s olives in jars,

A little fruit wine, incense like
A talisman. Half of these we took

As gifts to the infirmary,
Leaving the rest for when the time came

To close the accounts, sell the house
With its furnishings complete. Those

Who moved in afterwards, we found,
Had all the right convictions.

Haggai of Oxford, a Christian Deacon and student of Hebrew, was burnt alive in 1222 after embracing the Jewish faith ‘for the love of a Jewess’. – The Dunstable Annals

‘I’m writing this in my favourite spot in Oxford – by the tall, clean windows of a cafe made famous by countless episodes of Endeavour, where the baristas know my order and, in the quieter hours, stop to chat. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of concerts, talks, literary events, and exams, all part of the all-consuming circuit of university life, and uncannily effective at shielding me from the events that have captured hearts and headlines at home and across the world.

I’m reminded that my beautiful city, with its bright windows and bustling community, hasn’t always been like this. A century ago, few of my ethnicity would have been admitted to the university – certainly none who weren’t royalty or otherwise well-connected, and even then, not without a grasp of Latin and the classics. It isn’t just about race: my college only admitted women in 1980, and its first female Warden in 1994. Previously, other markers – visible, invisible – would have ruled out many of my friends as interlopers, outsiders.

Last week, taking a break from revision on a clear evening, I cut across a less familiar part of the city: south from George Street on Bulwarks Lane, down Castle Street through Paradise Square, round the churchyard of St Thomas the Martyr, venturing briefly across Osney before finding my way back down Hollybush Row to St Aldate’s and the city centre.

Here were the landmarks of some of those less visible markers. St Thomas’ church kept a memory of its dedicatee alive after he was condemned by the crown, and later housed the nascent Oxford Movement when they were persona non grata in Oxford’s larger churches. Paradise Square itself, once the gardens of Greyfrairs Abbey, was turned over to planting, then paved over and built on after the Abbey was suppressed, but lived on (in its unusual name) as a folk memory of the frairs’ beautiful topiary. And St Aldates, formerly Great Jewry Street, was home to Oxford’s early Jewish community before many were expelled, and had their properties turned over to the University oldest colleges.

Reading around these spaces, I came across the story of Haggai – the name taken by a Christian deacon and student of Hebrew at the University – who converted to Judaism and was tried for apostasy before being burnt at the stake. His case, recorded by contemporary scholar Henry de Bracton (1210-1268), became a ‘landmark’ in England’s legal tradition for the prosecution of heretics and apostates.

Little more is known about Haggai: in fact, he is often confused with another, Robert of Reading, who also took the name Haggai upon embracing the Jewish faith half a century later. Even less is known about his wife, consigned to the footnote of a footnote. I wonder what persuaded him to embrace the lot of those which his city (and his church) chose to persecute – and what harrowing conditions this couple would have lived under before finally being brought before the authorities. At what point the medieval church, eager to condemn, decided to end this man’s life.

Oxford, today, is a much more inclusive space. The church I which I love and worship at (which has been part of the life of this city since Haggai’s time) has, in my time here, proven slow to judge and always eager to engage: a faithful reflection of Christ’s own example.

But of course within and beyond this city, these are no less pressing questions now than eight hundred years ago. One can’t help but hope that the windows will always remain tall, clean, and open; the light always as bright. The city I’ve learnt to love has, in its own way, been learning to love too.’

Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society.

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Landscape and Politics from Reef to Desert http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/landscape-and-politics-from-reef-to-desert/ Mon, 20 Jun 2016 07:01:58 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28631 Benjamin Pope

Winton

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir
Tim Winton
Picador, 2016
256pp
ISBN 978-1509816910
£12.08 (hardback)

 
 
 
 

Tim Winton’s “landscape memoir”, Island Home, begins with his sense of dislocation as an Australian expatriate in Europe, takes us back to his formative years in Western Australia, and to his eventual return. Winton is known in Australia not only for the Booker-nominated Dirt Music and The Riders, but also for his environmental activism, being especially famous for leading the campaign to preserve the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. In his breakthrough novel Cloudstreet, I found it difficult as a schoolboy reader to disentangle my distaste for its cloying sentimentality from my anxiety about its excessive revelry in the cultural cringe. In Island Home, Winton reflects, “what troubled many critics was a potential loss of face in front of our ‘betters.'” When he recounts how he was asked, regarding Cloudstreet, about “what were they supposed to make of it in New York”, I felt a painful recognition of the anxiety I think all Australians have felt at explaining our culture to others – especially in a place like Oxford.

In this memoir, Winton takes on an altogether different tone from Cloudstreet, alternating academic discourse on Australian history, geology, politics and environmentalism, with gorgeous personal commentary on his experiences growing up, moving away, and coming home. He uses it as a frame for an erudite and passionate discussion of the importance of landscape and the natural world; it is perhaps one of the only failings of the book, that Australia is very much the protagonist and Winton, as always, the narrator, and I was left wishing, unreasonably, he had offered more of himself. The land’s starring role is, at least, executed admirably, and is the thread that ties together his politics, his life and his intellectual interests:

In my own lifetime Australians have come to use the word ‘country’ as Aborigines use it, to describe what my great-great-grandparents would surely have called territory. A familial, relational term has supplanted one more objectifying and acquisitive.

The erasure of place from politics is not simply an erasure of identity – it is an expropriation of it, of all the pasts to one present. Paul Kingsnorth has sparked controversy with a recent essay in the Guardian, `England‚Äôs uncertain future’. He baits controversy, blaming left-wing internationalism and immigration for at least some of the problems of England. On the face of it, this is a thesis that is hard to like, and I have no intention of trying. I nevertheless find it interesting that Winton and Kingsnorth, with quite different ostensible political orientations, are both reclaiming the value of place and the parochial: Kingsnorth asks

Is there a future, I wonder, in a kind of ecological Englishness – an identity that sees everyone in England as part of its landscapes and thus its history, and that has us all paying closer attention to them: nurturing them instead of concreting them over in the name of the future, or driving past on the way to somewhere else? Could this help build an identity to compete with, and perhaps replace, both the tired pomp of establishment Britain and the deconstructed coldness of the internationalist left? Could that old, smaller England come out from behind the shadow of Britain once more?

This is a stirring statement of an idea creeping now into mainstream discourse in Britain: George Monbiot’s calls for rewilding Britain, and Robert Macfarlane’s lyrical adventures through place names and old ways command the bestseller lists across the country. But while English landscape and native-Englishness are objects for the Right, as in the case of Kingsnorth, as a colonial state the Australian equivalent is tied intimately and exclusively, so far, to traditionally left-wing issues. This movement must necessarily take a different form: as a land traditionally known not by the Bronze Age ancestors of Macfarlane’s Old Ways, but stolen within living memory from the stewardship of Australia’s Aboriginal people; and as a country whose vast, largely-intact wilds are under attack and conservation is a mainstream political issue. Winton moves freely between these two themes and builds a careful study of his relationship as a white Australian to both issues.

Before colonization, before the dispossession and the genocide, Australia was a quilt of songlines shared by or differing between three hundred thousand or so people in three hundred or so broad nations. Winton notes how

People were chanting and dancing and painting here tens and tens of thousand [sic] of years before the advent of the toga and the sandal. This is true antiquity. Few landscapes have been so deeply known. And fewer still have been so lightly inhabited.

Across language families more diverse than English and Turkish, Banumbirr the Morning Star’s journey was told across the hot north, taking in rivers, forests, coasts, plains, the wet and the dry and the cycles of time. Cultures of disparate customs were and still are tied not only by threads of myth and legend, kinship and exchange, but also by the commonality of the land’s conditions and the particularities of their manifestations. On the 23rd anniversary of his famous Redfern Speech on Aboriginal land rights, former Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke again about Aboriginal Australia:

Aboriginal art and culture draws from the land, for Aboriginality and the land are essential to each other and are inseparable… Whatever our identity today is or has become, it is an identity that cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia. For their fifty thousand years here has slaked the land with their resonances, their presence and their spirit. Our opportunity is to rejoice in their identity, and without attempting to appropriate or diminish it, fuse it with our own, making the whole richer.

Winton is careful to neither appropriate nor diminish: he refers extensively to Aboriginal philosophers and activists David Mowaljarlai and Bill Neidjie, ‘Songlines’ author Bruce Chatwin, conservationist and documentary presenter Vin Serventy, and poet Judith Wright, and indeed takes his title from Warumpi Band song ‘Island Home’. I admire his attempts to understand and learn from the Aboriginal relationship to country, which he writes about sensitively and with caution, but I worry that as a cultural movement there is a fine line to tread between respect and appropriation and erasure. Winton treads the line well, but I nevertheless feel uncertain in the broader cultural context.

Winton is on firmer footing discussing environmental issues. While his folksy style occasionally leads him on tangents, for example in a rather trite chapter on our relationship with cars, ‘The Steel Coccoon’, more often, his writing soars with a love of the strange beauty of the landscape, as when he climbs the Cape Range, the shore of the Ningaloo Reef, finding a pair of mummified kangaroos in a cave “like an ancient priestly caste keeping vigil” while “zebra finches animate the middle distance like midges.” His enthusiasm for the Ningaloo is infectious and his activism inspiring, and despite the dire condition of the Great Barrier Reef on the other side of the island continent, Winton reminds us that hundreds of thousands of activists were able to conserve the Ningaloo and there is hope that the same may yet be done further east.

Any account of politics which purports to be universal must also be particular. It must be rooted in the places and experiences which are shared by a community, and also alive to the personal and the private. An Australian identity and an authentic Australian politics must be of this sort: a bond of solidarity based on diversity but also commonality, a fostering of love and respect not for a flag or the pervasive military mythos of the ANZAC Diggers, but for summers at the shining beach and miserable sweaty offices. For old trees cracking pavement and jasmine on railings in spring and jacarandas blooming for every child of the Baby Boom and heralding the crisis of exams. I am drawn to Kingsnorth’s phrase: “A nation is a process, not a fixed thing, but it has continuities nonetheless. It may be a story, but it is not fiction.”

Tim Winton is an ambassador for this Australia. I was particularly struck by one passage, where he describes his reaction as a 14-year-old to protests against whaling in his native Albany, WA:

I was troubled by the high-handedness of some protesters. There was a contempt for working people in general, and country folk in particular, that disgusted me. The inclusive, democratic impulses of visionaries like Judith Wright and Vin Serventy were too often subsumed by something cultic and exclusionary, and the memory of these excesses helped temper my work as an activist later in life.

Given the tortured relationship between the Labor Party and the Greens in the recent and present Federal election campaigns, seeing the common ground between red and green will be crucial in finding any coalition capable of overcoming the nation’s relentless destruction of the natural environment and its heartless persecution of refugees and Aborigines.

Australia is not, though its leaders might be, a “country of second rate people.” Nowhere is. But it is a country of second rate history: it has tried to impose one vision on a continent, a one-size-fits-all just-so story of blokey Diggers and battlers. The history wars are a chronicle of exhausting, slow, bitterly opposed attempts to open things out a little. I am delighted that this book exists, as it gives me hope that a synthesis can be made between the sides of our polarised national identity.

Benjamin Pope is studying for a DPhil in Astrophysics at Balliol College, Oxford.

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Khetwadi Hush http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/khetwadi-hush/ Mon, 20 Jun 2016 07:01:36 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=28606 William Ghosh


Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All
Until 6 November
Tate Modern, Bankside

In a 1962 New Yorker profile of R.K. Narayan, the essayist Ved Mehta coined the phrase “Malgudi hush”. “Malgudi” ‚Äì the setting for each of Narayan‚Äôs novels ‚Äì was a small, fictional town in South India: “an infinitely simple place” whose “landmarks ‚Äì the Albert Mission College, the Regal Haircutting Saloon, the railway station, the temple [‚Ķ] ‚Äì all, from book to book, chaotically change position.” The “hush” referred to the quietness of these provincial towns: between the silence of the village and the cacophony of the city. For Narayan, this “halfway house between a static village and an anonymous industrial city‚Äô was the ‚Äòbirthplace of a good novel.”

Bhupen Khakhar was born in Khetwadi, in Maharashtra, in 1934. Like Narayan, a Tamil who lived in Mysore, Karnataka, Khakhar ‚Äì from a Gujarati family ‚Äì did not grow up in his ancestral or linguistic homeland. Also like Narayan, he was (in Mehta‚Äôs words) an ‚Äòhomme de ville‚Äô, “happily urbanized,” yet more at home in a provincial than in a metropolitan setting. “Although it was notionally in South Bombay,” Amit Chaudhuri writes, Khetwadi was “distinct from it [‚Ķ] a small town in a big city, one of the many provincial settlements in a Bombay that made claims to be a great cosmopolitan metropolis.”

After initially training as an accountant, Khakhar studied art criticism at the Baroda School of Art, again (at that time) a small provincial town. Baroda provided the source material for some of his first mature works, his “trade paintings” (as he called them) of the early 1970s. These portraits ‚Äì of a barber‚Äôs shop, a tailor, a watchmaker ‚Äì recall the simplified landmarks Mehta picked out in Malgudi. Painted as if from the street, the square canvas of Barber‚Äôs Shop (1973) shows the barber, tall and rigid, staring out at the viewer, while the customer looks away, absorbed by his own image in the mirror. The “WEL-COM” and “Good-Luck” signs over the door and in the doormat suggest transience and traffic, but the barber here is isolated from the customer, from the street and from the viewer. Depicting contiguity but not closeness, loneliness but not anonymity, it is an arresting portrayal of the melancholy of the provincial high-street.

The title-piece of a major new retrospective ‚Äì which runs at the Tate Modern until November 6th ‚Äì develops this theme. You Can‚Äôt Please All (1981) shows a single, nude man, in the foreground on a raised balcony, looking down on a provincial street scene below him. A man‚Äôs torso disappears under the bonnet of a broken-down car; two men talk; two sit on a donkey; through a window a group can be seen at prayer; a child is seen trying to beat down an orange from a tree. The title of the painting is taken from one of Aesop‚Äôs fables, in which two men are successively ridiculed and censored for walking beside, then riding, a donkey. The moral, Khakhar concludes in a video accompanying the picture, is that “if you can‚Äôt please all you might as well please yourself.” In one sense, the man at the front of the picture does please himself: he is naked and at leisure. But he is also detached from the life of the village, high up on his balcony, leant behind a grey-stone balcony to hide his nakedness from the public gaze.

Dovetailing their interest in townscapes and the provincial, the curators give similar emphasis to the homosexuality of the artist. If small-town life is generically lonely, it can be singularly lonely – or so these paintings suggest – for gay people. Khakhar was openly homosexual and male figures dominate throughout his work, but his portrayals of same-sex love become more explicit in his middle age. Khakhar’s fascination with the penis becomes an object of self-satire in his An Old Man from Vasad who had Five Penises Suffered from Running Nose (1995), whilst Two Men in Benares (1985) and Yayati (1987) are more serious, tender paintings.

Khakar’s unusual way of drawing human figures – the limbs are long and rubbery, the hands and feet enormous – preclude these works from being erotic (the nude in You Can’t Please All, my friend noted in the gallery, looks like he is made up of sausage meat or yoghurt). Instead – for example in Yayati – what is prominent is the urgent attention the two men pay each other. Here, unlike for example in Barber Shop – the two men do not just occupy the same space but look into each other’s eyes. The Yayati legend, in the Mahabharata concerns the contrast of age and youth: King Yayati, sentenced to old age in the prime of his life, allows his son to take on this premature age in his place. Khakhar was interested in mixed-age relationships, and in his version a middle-aged man with silver hair (evidently a self-portrait) descents – with angelic wings – to embrace a blurred, disintegrating figure, gaunt with age. Here, as in many of his pictures, Khakhar includes a doorsein – public scenes in the background of his canvas: two men walking on the river front, three at prayer by a temple – but here, unlike in earlier works, the two central figures have no awareness of the outside world.

In 1998 Khakhar was diagnosed with prostate cancer, succumbing to the illness in 2003. The work of his final years shows a further development on his earlier style. Now, genitalia and anatomical fluidity become grotesque. At the End of the Day the Iron Ingots Came Out (1999), He Took Enema Five Times a Day (1999) and his last painting Idiot (2003) each show the body – and in particular, the penis – draining. In this last painting, the stream flowing from the penis becomes a third limb, running into a shoe, whist a second figure winks at the audience, mocking the grimacing man.

There has been some controversy in the British press about the quality of Khakhar‚Äôs painterly technique, and the organisation of the retrospective. The collection, which includes some juvenilia, is not of a uniform quality. The best pieces ‚Äì some of which I have described here ‚Äì do sit alongside experiments, fragments, and some less successful works. Moreover, the contexts of some of the later, more explicitly political work such as Bullet Shot in the Stomach (2001) was not always sufficiently explained. Nonetheless, Bhupen Khakhar: You Can‚Äôt Please All ‚Äì offers a glimpse into the mind of a fascinating, mercurial artist, and of the provincial, urban world he inhabited. Khakhar‚Äôs provincial “hush” is not the same as “quietness” ‚Äì to hush implies constraint, the suppression of noise, a murmur rather than a silence ‚Äì and the retrospective, accordingly, is not silent but has an understated story to tell. His canvases offer vistas of a now-vanishing mid-century landscape and milieu, and make difficult, sad suggestions about loneliness, constraint, and old age

William Ghosh is a DPhil candidate in English at Exeter College, Oxford.

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