Monthly Archives: November 2007

On nights like this 3

LC: Well, you know, there’s depression and depression. What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I have a hangover in the weekend… the girl didn’t show up or something like that, it isn’t that. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit…

– Leonard Cohen, French interview (trans. Nick Halliwell)

On nights like this 2

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or an ill-tempered string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.

– Rilke, Duino Elegies  (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

The Only Poem

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

– Leonard Cohen

The vogue of ordinariness

Most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.

– From T.S. Eliot’s preface to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, 1927


Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy – the human bond with ordinariness. I doubt if much unmitigated ordinariness can exist. As Harold Nicolson, the critic and biographer, once observed, only one man in a thousand is boring, and he’s interesting because he’s a man in a thousand. Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or substance. Got up as a cry from the heart, it is really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else.

Paul West

The man on the other bank

You who’ve watched me through my own eyes all my life. My brother, my enemy. You, standing on the other bank, witnessing. I imagined you tut-tutting at my kitsch, accusing me by your very presence, back there where I was armed and mad and ready to destroy you if it killed me. I called you a coward and tried to scream you out of your silence. But you followed me. You live on behind the names I give you, like all the women I’ve berated myself for not winning and all the men who got there before me. On calm days I know we’re one but separate; I let you work out our destiny through me as I know I must. On happy days I even see in you my perfect reflection, my self fulfilled through no move of my own. But this isn’t one of those days. I drank all night in a locked room and I’m hostile. Today I belong back there where I came from, I don’t know why I’ve come all this way. I don’t know who you are and I hate you. You make me cryptic, turn me against myself.

Ungraspable One

Don’t think that I’m wooing.
Angel, and even if I were, you would not come. For my call
is always filled with departure; against such a powerful
current you cannot move. Like an outstretched arm
is my call. And its hand, held open and reaching up
to seize, remains in front of you, open
as if in defense and warning,
Ungraspable One, far above.

– Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Inner space

The bird is a creature that has a very special feeling of trust in the external world, as if she knew that she is one with its deepest mystery. That is why she sings in it as if she were singing within her own depths; that is why we so easily receive a birdcall into our own depths; we seem to be translating it without residue into our emotion; indeed, it can for a moment turn the whole world into inner space, because we feel that the bird does not distinguish between her heart and world’s.

– Rilke, letter (tr. S. Mitchell)


He started dreaming. One night he dreamt he was enveloped by a giant winding tube that pulled him through the cosmos in an ecstasy of feminine loveliness, as in a Salvia vision… The next night he dreamt he was playing some new sport of incredible brutality, captaining the team that won the World Cup… The dreams started spilling into each other and into his waking hours. Ordinary tasks mattered less and less. There was too much pleasure in following the tows of dreams into their endings and beginnings. He felt bound by fewer and fewer ties. As the imagination takes over, the visible world is reborn and grows large and vibrant. He was already half-buried under the weight of it all. He flicked off his doubts like peeling skin. Let them cling to some other mind. This was how the eunuch dreamer of his past life had imagined it must be like. His stingy island started budding with words and images.

The skeleton

It’s when the dream passes into his waking hours that he reaches out and grasps. It’s when the dream destroys his distinctions that he clings to the sacred. He believes there are certain things that must not be confused. There’s the sacred and the profane. There’s the dream and waking life. In his skeleton world where mystery degenerates into belief we lift the borders at our peril. In the dream everything is permitted and everything can be dreamed into existence and dreamed away. When we’re awake we come up against the world with every step and have to choose between good and evil. If he didn’t have these ideas he’d confuse dream and reality. The dream would encroach on reality and he wouldn’t know who he was. He’d become like all the others. He’d live in their dream world, where borders are mirages. He doesn’t care if they don’t know who he is, if they don’t care what he believes, all he knows is that if he were like them, if he didn’t believe what he believed, he wouldn’t know who he was. He’d be like them and all would be lost. He’d rather die than live without these ideas, and he’s not afraid to tell anyone. He’ll defend them with his life, because without them his life is nothing — a wisp of a dream, smoke from a candle. And while the rest of the world is reborn again and again he stalks the earth, rattling his hand at passers-by.

Light passed light

When I awoke this morning everything had been cleaned by the rain. The colours had returned and I found I was clinging to an ugly little totem of the night before. I threw it at the wall and it shattered in a cloud of dust. I drew aside the curtain and let a new sun flood my room. Light passed light and the things in my room stretched on their toes and looked around like a clutter of cats — alive. I walked through the day picking up windfalls from ripe, silent trees.