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The Secret Language of Love

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

The latest editorial meeting began in somewhat sombre mood – understandably, of course, with the pandemic and climate change and problematic politics across the globe. Rami had just given a lecture on the poetry of Octavio Paz, however, which turned out to be an effective if unlikely antidote to current woes.

‘It’s not as though turbulence is new,’ Rami said. ‘The sixties were even more fraught, and what people remember are miniskirts and the Beatles.’

‘And the lesson is?’ Kim asked.

‘Maybe the lesson is that we should be wary of learning lessons,’ Rami said.

‘What do you mean?’ Patrice’s tone bordered on tetchy. From his perch in Hongkong, he is preoccupied with ominous undercurrents in the Chinese body politic.

‘The variables are infinite,’ Rami said. ‘History is unpredictable. Mankind is “the personification of indeterminism”. I think Paz was right about that.’

‘He had certainly seen a thing or two,’ I noted. ‘Spain during the Civil War, Mexico in ’68.’

‘He was also good on climate change,’ Rami said, ‘which was unusual for his time. And when he accepted his Nobel Prize he spoke about how the free market pollutes souls as well as ecosystems. He warned that love and friendship – and people – are being bought and sold like consumer products.’

‘Oh, the free market!’ Patrice said very gloomily. I thought he was going to add something, but he didn’t.

‘The point is,’ Rami said, ‘people can buck the trend. Eras of upheaval, as Paz and others have noted, produce great art, great poetry. Maybe the present age will witness a cultural renaissance.’

‘Oh, Rami!’ Kim said with considerable feeling. ‘That stretches optimism further than it ought to be stretched!’ Being about to vote in Illinois, Kim is acutely attuned to the momentous course setting now underway in the United States.

‘Didn’t Paz and the other Latin Americans opt out a little, though?’ Dimitri asked. ‘Magical realism and such are surely a kind of retreat from everyday experience?’

‘A retreat to things that matter,’ Rami said. ‘He believed that reconnecting with the world is the lifelong pursuit of all human beings, after expulsion from the womb.’

‘That’s not going to fix the present state of things,’ Patrice grumbled.

‘It is and it isn’t, as Paz might have put it,’ Rami said. ‘Art changes nothing and it changes everything. It changes how we understand what happens, even if it doesn’t change what happens.’

Tus dedos de agua mojan mi frente, / tus dedos de llama queman mis ojos, / tus dedos de aire abren los parpados del tiempo,’ I said. The lines were from long ago, when I first encountered Octavio Paz’s wistful world of Iberian melancholy. ‘The lover’s fingertips,’ I said, ‘are imagined as water and fire and air – the elements of reality disarticulated and then assembled once again.’

‘Oh dear, but they’re still fingertips,’ Kim said.

Esta hora tiene la forma de una pausa / La pausa tiene tu forma / Tu tienes la forma de una fuente / No de agua sino de tiempo,’ I quoted some more Paz, maybe just because I could.

‘Enlighten me,’ Dimitri said.

‘The moment is a pause that assumes the shape of the lover, which in turn is a fountain – a fountain of time.’

Even as I spoke, I grasped the fragility of words in the face of reality, but Rami said, ‘And the man who wrote that was a diplomat. His world was tumultuous, with duelling superpowers and civil unrest at every turn, but he believed, quite rightly, that time spent on metaphysical conundrums is well spent.’

‘It isn’t absolutely satisfactory, though.’ Patrice spoke with a kind of gentle resignation. ‘I’m with Dimitri. There’s a kind of retreat here – a retreat into wishful thinking.’

‘But perhaps it’s enough,’ Rami said. ‘Paz argued that poems are translated into new sensibilities as well as new languages. Poetry is the secret language that allows us to communicate across the things that divide us – culture, ideology, physical distance. It doesn’t solve problems. It’s better than that, it enables us to live; it enables us to love.’

This, I felt, was a bracing conclusion, but I remembered another line by Paz. ‘And in the end,’ I said, ‘desembocamos al silencio.’

‘Alban!’ Kim said, ‘You know very well that none of us will ever be silent!’

‘That’s true,’ Dimitri said.

‘It is,’ Patrice agreed. ‘And when you look at it that way, it does seem less depressing.’

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The Power That Being Changed Can Give

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Kim has split up from her partner. She told me of this sad development when we were the first ones to come online at the weekly editorial meeting. ‘She’s run off to pastures new,’ was the way Kim put it.

Kim and I know one another’s views on poetry; we inhabit the same corner of the academic universe, but we’ve never actually met. Her remark about pastures new did rather shake up at least one basic assumption I had had about her. I had supposed that her partner was a man.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said.

As far as I can gather, the relationship was relatively short (though this, no doubt, is not much consolation to the partner who’s been abandoned).

There was a pause as I contemplated the likelihood that my minimalist response may have conveyed more surprise than solidarity. Then I asked, ‘What’s Mat short for?’

The inanity of the question struck me only after it had been asked (as is so often the case).

Kim was patient. ‘Mattea,’ she said. ‘Her family is Italian.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

Since the question had been inane, the monosyllabic response to the answer may have been apt.

Kim is short for Kimiko, and Kimiko is actively engaged, as a poet and an academic, with the Japanese-American experience. I had assumed that Mat stood for Matsuo or Matabei or something along those lines.

So, wrong on another account.

‘Other fish in the sea?’ I asked hopefully.

I’m not really very good at this sort of thing.

Kim ignored the question. ‘It has put me in mind of Larkin,’ she said.

I don’t suppose a domestic rift would put most people in mind of a Larkin – the poet, Philip, or any other Larkin, for that matter. ‘How so?’

‘It’s a little melodramatic, but I’ve always been fond of An Arundel Tomb,’ Kim said. ‘Those lines about the passage of time – And up the paths / The endless altered people came – the people who visit the mediaeval tomb where the lovers hold hands. You remember the line at the end: What will survive of us is love.

‘That’s comforting,’ I said.

‘It’s more than comforting,’ Kim replied, rather sharply.

I was, I realised, being an absolutely inadequate shoulder to cry on.

‘There’s a harder edge to Larkin,’ she continued. ‘More realism, that’s why it works. The beauty comes amid bleakness.’

I suppose if professors of poetry have to justify the utility of their profession it must surely involve the facility with which, in the midst of day-to-day misfortune, emotional and philosophical insights are always to hand.

‘He isn’t sentimental,’ she said. ‘He’s rather harsh. He speaks, you’ll remember, of girls / In parodies of fashion, and mothers loud and fat.’

‘The Whitsun Weddings,’ I said.

‘Yes, and after he paints an unflattering portrait of tasteless wedding parties, he speaks about all the power / That being changed can give.’

‘Yes!’ I said – clearly, Larkin was better at this sort of thing than me. I gathered that Kim was referring (with commendable fortitude) to the possibilities of the future, post-Mat.

A sense of falling, like an arrow shower,’ she continued, ‘Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’

‘All things must change,’ I said, ‘sometimes for the better.’

I fear I have shocked you, Kim, said.

I had been found out. Considering now the presumption and ease with which I had entirely misunderstood fundamental and important aspects of a colleague’s life, I was a little ashamed.

‘Am I late?’ Dimitri asked. He emerged beaming onto the screen, first his walrus moustache and then the rest of him.

‘Yes you are!’ Kim teased. ‘We were discussing Larkin. I know he’s a favourite of yours.’

‘Larkin?’ the voice was Rami’s. Her picture came up as a postage stamp and then expanded. ‘I’ve always been a fan.’

‘No!’ Patrice has a way of investing even monosyllables with gallic panache. His mugshot took its place in the top right-hand corner of the screen. ‘Larkin is rather passé and much too British – and there’s a touch of bigotry too.’

‘No doubt,’ I said, ‘but flawed assumptions aren’t limited to time or place. We’re all guilty. Aren’t we?’

‘Oh, Albus,’ Kim said gently, ‘remember the power that being changed can give!’

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The Prize and the Presidency

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

 

‘It isn’t Gluck,’ Patrice pointed out. ‘It’s somewhere between Glick and Glook.’

‘I had wondered,’ I said – untruthfully. For twenty years I’ve been referring to this year’s Nobel Prize winner as though her name rhymed with luck.

‘That’s what the umlaut is for,’ Rami said.

‘Of course,’ I replied, perhaps a little peevishly, ‘I see that.’

‘We should have something about her in the next issue,’ Rami continued.

‘Certainly!’ This swift agreement no doubt matched a desire to mask my ungracious response to being corrected in the matter of pronunciation.

‘Really?’ Dimitri asked.

‘You don’t think that’s a good idea?’ I had assumed everybody would approve.

‘It would be a good idea if we were the only poetry magazine on the planet,’ Dimitri said, ‘but by the time our next issue appears, Ms Glück and her opus will have been well covered – which means taking attention away from other voices.’ Dimitri, naturally, pronounced Glück with the deft and absolutely inimitable panache of Mitteleuropa.

‘No, Dimitri,’ Kim said, with some feeling. ‘This is important for everyone: Glück’s celebrity will help other poets.’

There was a pause, as the rest of us waited to see if Dimitri would argue the case.

Then Kim continued, ‘And she’s worth discussing quite apart from new-found Nobel celebrity. Her work merits the attention it will get – including attention from our humble magazine.’

‘You are quite right,’ Dimitri said (more gracious when corrected than I had been). ‘And there’s another angle we might look at.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘The rehabilitation of the Prize,’ he said.

‘Rehabilitation?’

‘You haven’t forgotten what happened last year!’

‘I certainly haven’t,’ I said, ‘but what’s last year got to do with this year?’

‘The notion that art can have integrity when it is wilfully disengaged from manifest truth,’ Dimitri said. ‘It seemed to get some traction in 2019. This is the beginning of a response.’

‘Taking a nuanced view of atrocities isn’t the same as condoning them,’ Patrice said.

‘That’s not just disingenuous, it’s impudent,’ Dimitri replied, more than a little fiercely, ‘In my part of the world we are still living with the legacy of that sort of nonsense.’

‘I was referring to the argument,’ Patrice replied evenly, ‘not subscribing to it. Like you, I see the essential truthfulness in Glück’s work as an antidote to ethical myopia.’

‘She is accused of being bleak,’ Kim pointed out, ‘but I think that misses the point. Confronting reality doesn’t mean capitulating to it. There is a search for significance; there are glimpses of redemption.’

Whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice,’ Rami quoted.

‘That’s it!’ Kim said. ‘I am trying to remember the rest.’

‘I have it here,’ Rami said. ‘From the center of my life came / a great fountain, deep blue /

shadows on azure seawater.’

‘You might describe that as optimism not wished, but observed,’ Kim said

‘That’s an intelligent reflection of life,’ Dimitri said. ‘And, Patrice, I know you were referring to the argument, not subscribing to it.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘We seem at least to be in the business of precise debate.’

‘One could take the view, then, that this year’s Prize is already having a positive effect,’ Kim remarked cheerfully, ‘It would be nice if that spread into other areas.’

‘You mean politics?’ Rami asked.

‘Well, our politics in particular,’ Kim said.

‘You could write about that,’ I said. ‘The Prize and the Presidency – two institutions mired in ethical uncertainty.’

‘I hadn’t made that comparison,’ Kim said, ‘but it’s a good one.’

‘The omens are positive,’ Dimitri said, ‘There’s a tipping point when a charlatan’s antics simply expose him for a charlatan – though there will always be those who prefer to carry on believing in myths even after they’ve been exposed as myths.’

‘Glück speaks in one of her poems about “the abstract tide of fortune”,’ Kim said, ‘and about how “good will come of simply trying”.’

‘I like that,’ Patrice said.

‘Perhaps the Nobel people are trying,’ Rami said.

‘To make amends?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Dimitri said, ‘and so they should.’

‘We’ll have our chance to do the same in November,’ Kim said.

And there was another pause.

 

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The Fault in Our Stars

 

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

 

The first part of this week’s editorial conference digressed, with a sort of melancholy passion, into analyzing the Biden-Trump debate; the second part – very much event-driven – took a Shakespearean turn.

Just one of the five editors is a US citizen, but of course this election has a certain global significance. We don’t have a vote but we do have a stake in the outcome – enough of a stake for three of us to have stayed up half the night to watch the debate.

The policies to be debated were pertinent and pressing, but it is, alas, a truth now universally acknowledged that policies never had a look in. The thing was all about projecting personality.

One candidate exuded swagger and resentment. (‘A tale told by an idiot’ Rami remarked. She didn’t add ‘sound and fury’ and ‘signifying nothing’, those being understood.)

The other aspired to empathy and optimism – though ‘shut up, man’, (the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ of another age), infused the genial persona of the happy warrior with an understandable but nonetheless off-message tetchiness.

‘Those who will not reason, are bigots,’ Dimitri said, ‘those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves – that popped into my head in the first half hour, but I had drunk quite a lot by then, so other things popped in too.’

‘That’s a good one!’ Rami said. ‘Coleridge?’

‘Byron.’

‘Look at CNN!’ Patrice said.

‘Patrice!’ I struggled to assume the gravitas required sometimes of an editor-in-chief (or, indeed, a debate moderator), ‘We’re in a meeting. You shouldn’t be watching CNN.’

‘Trump has Covid!’ Patrice said.

The figures on the screen in front of me did that thing that people do on such occasions. All eyes looked away from the camera, and the spell of the virtual meeting was shattered. Everyone reverted to the actual reality of their physical space, visibly scrolling through the news options on their home pages.

‘He will portray himself as the victim now,’ Kim said.

Kim is the only one of us who has a vote in this election, or, more correctly, who has had a vote, as she has – she told us at the beginning of the meeting – already posted her ballot.

‘One man in his time plays many parts!’ Dimitri said.

‘It’s hard to play that part when you’ve made a virtue of swagger,’ Rami said.

‘And there are so many more victims,’ Kim said. ‘People who got sick and died because others wouldn’t wear a mask.’ Her tone betrayed, I thought, an uncharacteristic bitterness.

‘What did Camus say about the plague, Patrice?’ I asked.

‘Quite a lot,’ Patrice replied.

‘Something about not being on the side of the contagion.’

‘Il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes, et il faut refuser d’être avec le fléau,’ Patrice said. ‘There’s the plague and there are the victims – all I can say is don’t be on the side of the plague.”

‘But no one is on the side of the virus,’ Rami said.

‘Downplaying the threat doesn’t help to contain it,’ Dimitri pointed out.

Kim’s eyes darted across the screen as she skimmed a new report. ‘We’ve conflated government with personality,’ she said. ‘As long as we make decisions based on personality instead of policy, we will have a soap opera instead of a government.’

‘Soap operas are a window on the world,’ Rami said, ‘though an unreal world, of course.’

‘Such stuff as dreams are made on,’ Patrice quipped. (Patrice has a very French – and bracingly independent – perspective on US politics and appears sometimes to take the matter less seriously than the rest of us.)

We are the problem,’ Dimitri said. ‘Soap operas – and this particular presidential soap opera – are merely the symptom. The fault, dear Kim, lies not within the stars, but in ourselves.’

‘Shall we return to the business at hand,’ I asked. But by then the news had entirely hijacked our collective concentration.

‘He will make mischief, even from his sickbed,’ Kim said.

‘The fool doth think he is wise,’ Rami said. ‘but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’

Which was a rather gloomy conclusion, but undoubtedly a pertinent one.