The Annunciation

The Annunciation on the Wall

“Some great paintings are inexhaustible wells, forever self-replenishing,” Michael Glover writes in The Independent’s Great works: Annunciation (1438-45), Fra Angelico.  In a well-written article, he refers  to a number of other works on the same, very popular subject. Most of these other paintings include symbolic elaborations and allusions which may be said to clatter the subject.

Fra Angelico’s image is sparse: there is no holy book on Mary’s lap, other paraphernalia or decorative allusions pointing elsewhere. Mary and the angel, both with folded arms mirroring one another and looking into each other’s eyes, seem to be quietly and calmly accepting of the message of the conception – of the realisation (incarnation) of the divine. There is an acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation, respect, as well as certainty that it will be carried through.

More importantly, in this Annunciation there is a pervading sense of stillness. In the instant depicted, contact, communion, acceptance have taken place and now there is stillness and silence. Mary and the Angel face one another in a moment pregnant with meaning. They, and we, know that a whole new chapter is to follow.

For me, great works of art, or literature, are great because they are timeless representations of humanity’s most precious treasures. In this case, The Annunciation is the metaphor for the creative moment, when the “aha!” experience is reached (in-spire), when a new thought, a new conception arises in the mind. In this sense, the annunciation transcends the narrower context of Christian belief to emerge as a universal symbol of the creative, generative moment.

A print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation – which for me captures the universality of  inspiration at the moment it materialises in the mind, as it becomes flesh, or ink, poem or book – hangs on the wall of my house. I pass it with pleasure several times a day, always looking and waiting for the “Angel” to appear.

“ArTherapy” in Gazi

"ArTherapy" in Gazi

At this year’s (2010) Munich Film Festival I watched Nikos Perakis’ new film “ArTherapy”.  I found it an intelligent, exciting and enjoyable film, mixing documentary with fiction.

The protagonists, young students of the National Theatre School of Drama, mostly middle-class, politically conscious and wholly devoted to their art, work tirelessly in the face of adversity in the Athenian capital. The portrayal of the young, the intensity and aliveness of Athenian life, the wonderful development of the culture centre in the centre of historic and multicultural Athens, aptly named Technopolis, made me feel proud of my Greek roots. And yet, however much I enjoyed the movie, I felt there was something missing: something about the context, the place, the area was lacking. There were interviews with a few locals, but overall, I was left wondering who was the art therapy for, who is in need of it and why? An unfair question, perhaps, or even an irrelevant one. And yet.

Of course one answer to this question might be that it is the young generation addressed in the film that needs it, the generation of Greeks facing high unemployment, debt and deficit, of a politically traumatized youth, but this too did not seem enough to help understand my unease. In addition, a more complete answer might be that the fans need the art therapy too: “There is no better time to offer your fans an artistic therapy against the period of an economic crisis and fear from the forthcoming social shock. Told in the style of Fame Story…” the GR reporter wrote about the film. Of course…and perhaps!

I followed my usual pattern when in doubt: I googled Gazi. Taking its name from the Public Gas Works, which existed there for over a century, Gazi was, for most of its existence a poor area, where poverty, prostitution and immigration went hand in hand. And then I came across an article in Balkanologie about the people of Gazi.

The author of the paper, Dimitris Antoniou, wrote about the late immigrants to the area who arrived from the 1980ies and 1990ies onwards: Muslims from Northern Greece, from the Western Thrace migrating internally to Athens. Influenced by the Treaty of Lausanne, as well as the Greco-Turkish volatile relations and tit-for-tat policies, these people had found it hard to settle in Western Thrace, with scores migrating to Turkey, other countries, as well as to Athens, whenever possible. Antoniou followed their settlement patterns in the capital, their struggle for survival from earning a living through establishing cultural and religious associations to working out a distinct identity as a group.

Five years after the publication of this paper, I cannot find any further information about the people described and how they fared in the face of the massive redevelopment of the area.

Given the importance of this area as migration destination of Muslim Thracians, I now wonder what impact development has already had or might have on this group of people. Would it lead to the complete demise of this community in the name of progress, or might there be a new way of helping to engage and support the community in its search for and expression of its social and cultural identity? Would there be a way that the arts and crafts flourishing in the Gazi Technopolis might aid the survival of this community? That could also be a form of art therapy!

(Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gazi_Technopolis.jpg)

(The) Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh

The Wise Silence before and alongside Words: The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Wise Silence
Silence

In The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh explores the different and overlapping worlds of (scientific, written-down) language, and intuitive, oral folk tradition, and silence. This exploration takes the reader through an experiential process in which the customary way of reading a novel is challenged.

The novel begins at an unspecified time in the near future, when Antar, an employee of LifeWatch, a public health consultancy, is asked to find out what happened to another employee, L. Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995. The plot is complicated (reviewers described it as “mind boggling” and “Rubik’s Cube of a novel”), and demands a special sort of concentration, as it shifts between different time periods and perspectives. The major plotline being that Murugan had asked to be transferred to Calcutta to investigate the life of Sir Ronald Ross – Nobel Prize winner for his work on how malaria enters the organism – but had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I shall not attempt to summarize the novel here, as this has been done already quite competently.

Ghosh explores a complex web of themes: science, myth, language, silence, society and the individual. It is a web skilfully span, as he pairs the most unexpected themes, only suddenly to juxtapose them in the most astonishing patterns. For instance, silence is presented in various relationships to language, including scientific language. A character says about silence: “I see signs of her presence everywhere I go, in images, words, glances, but only signs, nothing more…”

Perhaps wisely, Ghosh does not attempt to describe in words this kind of silence. The implication being that by using language, we enter into a relationship with the background of silence similar to that we have as train travellers through a landscape, though infinitely more complex. For to say something is to change it. In a manner reminding me of the observer effect (in Quantum Mechanics) – the observer and the act of observation affecting the system being observed, regardless of the specific method used – the novel presents scientific knowledge as altering the landscape of the silence it tries to describe. Ghosh rather provides allusions, hints, pointers to it.

Language introduces other drawbacks. A scientist investigating a topic is burdened by scientific language, with particular ways of seeing and describing the world in the scientific community. A lay person, on the other hand, free from the restraints that scientific community and its language impose on him/her is well placed to make new discoveries, Ghosh is saying. It is as if, if you don’t know where to look, you may be in a better position to find what you don’t know you are looking for. Except in the novel, the natives know what they are looking for, and they are using the scientists’ results, and the results’ by-products, to gather the information they are seeking.

Taking the two major ways of knowing, scientific effort and language on the one hand and intuition, wisdom and silence on the other, Ghosh skilfully explores the opposition and mistrust that exist between the followers of the two. The setting being India, he also takes the reader on a reflective journey between the British colonial attitude of knowing best scientifically, and the native Indian one, of also knowing best, intuitively! There is more opposition and antagonism between the two ways of knowing in this book than there is in The Hungry Tide.

It may well be the case, as John Thieme wrote in The Literary Encyclopaedia, that in The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh explores “the possibility of an alternative subaltern history, which exists in parallel with colonial history as an equally – or possibly more – potent epistemological system, albeit one which has traditionally operated through silence.”

One of my own associations is to W. R. Bion, the British psychoanalyst born in India, who also wrote about knowledge and the processes of transformation that it has to go through in the mind before it reaches the potential of being knowable. Describing this process, Bion wrote about the shared human preconceptions and their journey to become concepts in the mind of the individual.

Bion valued the state of reverie, in which the mind sits quietly and allows things to unfold “without memory or desire,” or without expectation and aim-directed behavior. In this state, he believed, what had been obscured by the glare of expectation, wishful thinking, knowledge and assumptions would be allowed to show its true color, to shine through its own presence. In such a state of mind, one does not identify with, but rather becomes the thing thought about.

Bion wrote in a style which – although described as “not reader-friendly” – invites the reader to work with the text, to associate, feel and think for herself, i.e., to make or become its meaning. It seems to me that Ghosh too, in this novel, through his weaving of text and plot, knowledge, not-knowing, and guessing, attempts such a feat – risking, however, leaving the reader in a state of bafflement rather than becoming. Ultimately, the reader of the novel has to go through the process of experiencing it and form her/his own idea about it.

The Garden of Eden

Garden of EdenDoes the Garden of Eden look like this?

A steady flowing river, whispering reeds and listening fish;  a flowering meadow,  a gentle mountain breeze, green to delight the eye, colorful mosaic of insects. It certainly felt like the Garden of Eden.

If not, what does the Garden of Eden look like?

Perhaps my twitter poem earlier in the Spring caught something of this quality, though the Cornmill Meadows are in the outskirts of London while the landscape in this picture is in the valley of the river Ammer near Ettal and Oberammergau.

At the Cornmill Meadows

dragonflies rest on nettles

comfrey, buttercups

and the smooth stones

of the shallow stream.

(Published in Escarp, a “review of super-brief literature”)

Photo Credit: Attentive Eye

Whatever you think about football

Handmade Football

Whatever you think about football,

think again. There is a story in the New York Times article “To Those with Nothing, Soccer is Everything,” about how Jessica Hilltout documented the continent’s love of the game. The Belgian-born photographer loaded her car with soccer balls and drove through southern and western Africa taking pictures.

Driving through villages, Hilltout found a genuine love for the game, people playing soccer for the sheer joy of it. In this sense, I would say the people playing the game, instead of nothing, do have something very important: the capacity to find enjoyment and pleasure in their environment.

The article, by Celia W. Dugger, singles out the most soulful of Ms. Hilltout’s images: those of homemade balls using the most improbable materials in the most ingenious ways: paper, plastic, strings, socks and rags, bark, amongst others. I must say I agree with her. The balls and the other pictures – look at those goalposts – look wonderful. You can see for yourself here.

Her photographs are exhibited in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Brussels galleries; there is an accompanying book “Amen: Grassroots Football,” published with the help and encouragement of her British father, and some of the photographs can be seen on her website.

What did she do with the factory-made soccer balls in the car? She gave them to the children in the villages who were reported to be delighted to get what they considered to be the real thing!

Perhaps the pleasure of the game, which we all share, whichever continent or country we live in, expresses our common humanity; realizing this may help to create a better atmosphere when acknowledging and coming to terms with colonial memories and wounds.

Handmade Football 1

Photo credit: Jessica Hilltout

Sugar Cube Horror

Yesterday, I tweeted the “11 of the most craziest things about the universe,” a short photo essay by Marcus Chown, science writer. Chown alerted us to the fact that “if you squeezed all the empty space out of all the atoms in all the people in the world, you could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube.” He explained that this is because matter is “empty.” An atom, the most basic element of matter, orbited by electrons, is an incredibly empty thing with immense distances, relatively speaking, between the electrons and the central nucleus.

I was reminded of Sartres “Hell is other people.” Not the way he meant it – which was that if our relationship with a particular person is  bad, then our being with them becomes hell;  but the way it is usually understood, namely, that all other people are, and our relating with them is, torture.

I wonder what Sartre would have made of the idea that all humankind could theoretically be squeezed into a sugar cube! Horror of horrors! He might well have been a bit more appreciative of the already existing space inside and in-between other people’s atoms.

Now that’s a thought (for a short story).

I see that the ideas in the photo essay are explored in Chown’s “The Matchbox That Ate A Forty-Ton Truck: What everyday things tell us about the universe.” Well then, I am off to get this book…

For an essay on the quote “Hell is other people” see: http://legacy.lclark.edu/~clayton/commentaries/hell.html

Also, for the real thing:  http://www.sartre.org/

No Exit, the play from which the quotation arises http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Exit

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marcus-chown/11-of-the-craziest-things_b_628481.html#s107477

Photo credit:  Constantina Pierides

Pascale Petit, Frida Kahlo and the Mirror

Dividing my time between England and Germany means I miss a lot of events I would have liked to attend. I would certainly have gone to a reading by Pascale Petit from her new book What the Water Gave Me. As it is, I rely on reviews such as
Ruth Padel’s “What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit” in The Guardian, or
blog posts such as Kathleen Jones’ “Pascale Petit and the paintings of Frida Kahlo” in her blog A Writer’s Life; and
Adele Ward’s “From Pain to Paint to Poetry: Pascale Petit” in Adele Ward the poet at the Bus Stop – well written and thoughtful reviews.

I love Pascale Petit’s work. She has an imagination bubbling with creative and often electrifying ways of seeing the world. What Les Murray said about a “powerful mythic imagination” in her poetry is certainly true, though for me, while she draws from the whole gamut and history of art and culture, she fizzles with new ideas of her own. As a result, on reading her poems you acquire a new set of eyes, different with every single poem.

This is what makes it even more remarkable for me, namely, that she is able to put herself into another person’s perspective so well, with sensitivity and humility. Her poem “War Horse,” from The Treekeeper’s Tale, an earlier collection, inspired by Franz Marc’s letter to his wife Maria, is a beautiful instance of this. Writing to his wife from the slaughter fields of World War I, at night, he speaks through Petit over the distance of space, time, and culture to us as individual human beings.

It seems that Frida Kahlo is given the same treatment. I have not read the whole book yet, but from the poems and the reviews I have read, it seems that Pascale Petit is putting her remarkable imagination and empathy to excellent use. Taking her lead from a painting titled “What the Water Gave Me,” in which images from Kahlo’s life float in the bath water of her painting, Petit gives voice to this remarkable woman.

Kahlo became internationally known late in the twentieth century, long after her suffering polio, then catastrophic injuries from an accident in her teenage years, and her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Kahlo wove the strands of life, pain and art in her work: she used her injuries to inspire and fire her art, and her art to cope with her injuries and pain. The details of her injuries and private life have had a powerful effect on generations of women in particular, and have been written about extensively. It is a pity that a large number of her fans are said to be more fascinated with Kahlo’s tragic life than with the greatness of her art: the way she used life, pain and paint to speak in a unique language of painting. It is a unique “language” which conveys in colour, form, and Mexican folklore what it is like for a courageous intellect such as Kahlo’s to be looking at herself in the mirror.

One wonders what might have happened had Kahlo herself written poetry instead, or in addition to, her painting. Might she have coped in a different way, perhaps better than she did in her life? We will never know. Now, however, through Petit’s book, we can hear her voice.

While there is a plethora of writing about Kahlo, not many have managed the task of letting her speak for herself. Petit transforms the paint into poem in the same way that Kahlo transformed pain into paint. Unafraid of death, anger, blood, ugliness, loneliness, of the monkey and the other animals in Kahlo’s portraits, of Diego Rivera, and other disturbing realities in Kahlo’s life, Petit empowers Kahlo to speak and the reader to hear her.

The Voice of (the) God (particle)

The Voice of God

Poets, writers, artists, and composers have always tried to listen to God. Through words, paints, colours, notes, they have often succeeded, as is attested by the quality of literature, art, and music in the treasure-chest of humanity.

Now, scientists are getting nearer to hearing God. Or rather, nearer to the sound of the Higgs Boson particle, nicknamed God Particle. Using a process termed sonification, they are converting scientific data collected though the LHC at Cern, into sounds.

You can listen to the sounds produced so far: http://bit.ly/b0zMG2.  I personally prefer Bach – or at least Mozart’s interpretations of the voice of God!

Photo credit: Maria Pierides /p>

The day after Refugee Day

The 1951 Refugee Convention establishing the United Nations refugee agency declares: a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” http://bit.ly/aix15K

Refugee Day (20th June 2010) has come and gone. Refugee week too. Congratulations to the people taking part and above all, to those organizing the events, the publicity, the media, those attracting attention to displaced persons fleeing persecution as well as those celebrating the achievements of refugees.

But what now? What comes the day after? And the day after that? Will our attention be drawn somewhere else, to another, no doubt, worthy cause? The refugees are still here, many under the skies, lacking water, food, warmth, traumatized. Let us not wait for next year’s refugee day to remember them. Let refugee awareness become part of our everyday consciousness and conscience. Part of our lives.

Here are some pointers to organizations that help:

Facts about refugees: see information http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/InfoCentre/Facts

Though the 2010 refugee week has come and gone, the information on this site is valid and useful:  http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/Events

For the best resource,  see the United Nations Refugee Agency website: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home

Highlighting the plight of tens of thousands of refused asylum seekers who are destitute, homeless and not allowed to work in the UK: http://stillhumanstillhere.wordpress.com/

“The largest refugee organization in the UK providing advice and assistance to asylum seekers and refugees”http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/

The Hungry Tide: Language and Silence

The Hungry Tide

I just read The Hungry Tide, a novel by Amitav Ghosh, published in 2004. It has taken me a long time to find out about it, as well as its author, but, as they say, better late than never.
Such a well-written, well-researched, good read! But the added reason I bring it here is that it includes, among a number of other topics, the story of a Bengali refugee group, settled on Morichjhanpi island of the Sundarbans, forced to flee by the newly elected government of West Bengal, and the massacre of 1978-79. I have an interest in refugee groups, their experiences, itineraries and development – a refugee group appears in my forthcoming novel, Alexandrias’ 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, as well as the one I am currently working on – and Ghosh’s story describes one such group, in a different part of the world, in a sensitive and engaging manner. In such a manner, in fact, that one might say that the refugees find a home and a voice in Ghosh’s novel. While they flee one way, and then the other, like the ebb and flow of the tide, they are given a presence, a ‘stable’ place in history by Ghosh.
He writes in English, weaving fact and fiction into a wonderfully clear, informed and at the same time enchanting tale.
While the refugee group is an important pivot to the story, the ebb and flow of the tides in the Sundarban islands off the easternmost coast of India, and the ebb and flow of language and silence, are the true stars of the novel. The main characters, an American Indian female researcher, an Indian male translator and an Indian male illiterate fisherman, carry the tidal shifts and currents between language and the areas around it, those places which inhabit the heart and the elemental areas of the psyche shared by all humans. This shared humanity provides the ground for the – unfortunately often undervalued – capacity to communicate with one another. “…Words are just air,” a character says, “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.” (see also my comment:  http://bit.ly/aGNY1P)

Ghosh’s achievement in this novel is to illustrate this ability through the relationships between these three characters and someone who, through his diary, is telling the tale of the refugees, using political, philosophical, and religious themes linked with passages from Rilke. In this novel, history, politics, poetry, biography, religion and myth are brought together in their varying forms of narrative language and yes, narrative silence, to tell a seamless story of incredible beauty.
More than that, however, the novel – through its metaphorical and symbolic richness and its assumption of the perspective of the American Indian scientist and the Indian translator, while contrasting them with the different qualities of the Indian fisherman’s discourse, and its unfortunate reception – reaches further into the colonial and post-colonial waters and invites critical reflection.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially for the outstanding achievement of bringing together so many strands, including the horrific tale of the refugee group, loss, history and a love story with so much humanity and humility.

A Tale of Two Passions

A Tale of  Two Passions

It is often said that life is stranger than fiction. Fair enough, I wouldn’t argue with this. Here I wish to point out two cases where fiction, narrative, or stories influence life. Admittedly, this is not any story, but the story based on the Passion.

Kazantzakis, perhaps best known for having written that other passionate character, Zorba the Greek, published his version of the Passion, Christ Recrucified, in 1948. It is a novel set in a Greek village in Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire. The villagers are given a free hand in the running of their village affairs as long as they keep quiet, and the Agha (the local Ottoman governor), who likes to enjoy life’s little pleasures, happy.

Trouble, and the plot, comes to the village with the sudden arrival of a group of refugees led by their priest – their village was destroyed by the Turks in the fermenting tensions between Greece and the crumbling Empire. The locals don’t want the refugees in their village, but turn a blind eye, initially, to their camping on a barren mountainside just outside the village.

It is Easter Week approaching, and the village elders are preoccupied with allocating the roles of the Passion story to the locals: who will be “Judas,” “Christ,” or “Mary Magdalene?” Once the preparations for the Holy Week are underway, the chosen actors begin to identify with their allocated characters; they become more saintly, with the exception of “Judas” who becomes treacherous. The novel then takes off, with the actors coming in between the newly arrived refugees and their needs for food and shelter, and the resenting and increasingly intolerant locals. It has a terrific climax, wonderful psychological portraits both of individuals and social groups; it is one of my favourite Greek novels.

Well, in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, in the foothills of the Alps, another Passion Play has been performed for centuries. In the year 1633, the village suffering from the plague, struck a deal with God: they would perform the Passion Play every ten years if God, in return, kept them free from the plague. Both sides seem to have kept their bargain – though the villagers did not hold the metaphorical plague of the World War II against God – and the play goes on. This year, 2010, sees the 41st performance.

The village performs the Play wholeheartedly, with villagers living and growing up with the preparations and performances all through their lives. Their aspirations, dreams and competition for the main roles achieve the status of basic needs. However, only those born and bred there, or those who have lived for at least twenty years in the village, are allowed to take part. Over two thousand locals (half the village) are involved in the performances that last the whole summer, from May to October, performing to an audience of over four thousand people daily! The rest are involved in the catering for and accommodating of the thousands of visitors in a small village.

Now the reason I brought these two together here, the novel by Kazantzakis and the performances of the Passion Play in real life Oberammergau, is more than that they share the same basic story; more important than the fact (and my need to brag about it) that I will be going to see the Play this year; more than the influence that Kazantzakis’ novel had on the background to my own novel, Alexandria’s 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree. It is how in both, Kazantzakis’ novel and the village of the Passion Play, a similar psychological phenomenon seems to be taking place. The actors tend to become more like the characters of the Passion story. The villages tend to show similarities with the folk of the original story.

In Oberammergau, one of the locals cast as Virgin Mary, I read, refused to marry afterwards; one of the “Jesuses” kept ‘blessing people’ long after the performance was over. One of the actors playing this year’s “Jesus” is reportedly tempted to defer to the actors who played previously “Jesus” and let them mount the donkey entering Jerusalem. There is also the story of King Ludwig II, making presents of silver spoons to the actors of the performance he attended, with the exception of “Judas,” to whom he gave a tin spoon. As for the village politics, they are reported to be tinged with the sometimes polarizing passions of the original story.

In the Kazantzakis novel, a similar but more pronounced process seems to be taking place. The main characters of the Play take on the qualities of those they portray. The actor Judas behaves like “Judas,” the local prostitute starts behaving like “Mary Magdalene,” similarly “apostle Peter” and “Christ.” The villagers and the mob equally seem to become caught in a web that almost dictates a necessity of action that follows the Passion. It is as if a need arises for the Play to become embodied and concretely played out in the village of the novel.

It is this unsettling echo between the two depictions I wish to highlight. Even on the side of the spectator, newspaper articles about the Oberammergau Play, inchluding the Spiegel online,  attract our attention by reporting that one of this year’s chosen inhabitants to portray “Jesus” is a psychologist; “Mary Magdalene” a Lufthansa flight attendant. This points to an expectation in ourselves to weld together the roles in the Passion Play with the Oberammergau locals playing them. When they do not fit – after all who would have thought of Christ been played by a psychologist? – a sense of discrepancy, perhaps a sense of the Uncanny arises.

An interesting analogy may be found in the discrepancy between what one wants to say and the way one expresses it through language, which is smaller in one’s native language than in a second/adopted language. While in the first case the metaphor of “bathing in language” is appropriate, in the second – when the gap between what one wishes to say and the way it is said is too wide – the expression “like bathing in a ski-suit” has been used by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. A shift from the latter, uncanny experience to the more comfortable one of having the appropriate linguistic tools (the “bathing suit”) to express oneself is accomplishable through practice. In real-life Oberammergau, the endless rehearsals, revisions and reworking of the text, the advice sought and given, ensure that the fit between the Passion and its performance improves with each passing decade.

Kazantzakis’ novel, of course, has the advantage of setting this theme of the actor, the role and reality on a fictional stage. On this stage, the actors no longer simply perform but rather re-enact – as if the role fitted them like a glove. Better still, as if there were no distance between the narrative of the Play, the specific role, and the self. Or, as if: “World and dream are one,” as a boy in the novel sings to the Agha.

But then perhaps I am making too much of this: after all, one of the Oberammergau inhabitants who played Christ in the year 2000 performance is now, in the year 2010, playing Judas!

Dragonflies

I went for a walk to the Dragonfly Sanctuary in the Lee Valley Park,  near Waltham Abbey, in the outskirts of London. Peaceful and dreamy, idyllic… though a different note entered my mind when I read the information provided about dragonflies: the lower lip technique of the dragonfly nymphs catching their prey, the cannibalism as a way of regulating population…
Reflecting on my experience, I wrote this poem which can be read both as a perfect idyll, with the dragonflies resting within a sssssh soundscape of silence; and as the calm before the next rush of the dragonfly for its prey.

The poem was published in escarp,  a text-message-based review of super-brief literature (www.escarp.org).

Comment on “Suicide Note”

Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s poem “Suicide Note” was published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

This poem is a suicide note addressed to a number of unusual addressees, leaving the content of the note to the reader’s imagination. It puzzled and haunted me for the last few weeks: its exquisite, lyrical tone, its mysteries and the ways it brings nature alive through its lines.

A Critical analysis by Tammy Ho Laiming and Jarno Jakonen appeared recently in A Cup of Fine Cha. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both, poem and analysis, and kept them with me for weeks, chewing on words, mulling over the subtle allusions.

Tammy Ho Laiming and Jarno Jakonen’s analysis of the poem, as well as the comments, provide a beautiful and multi-faceted context to the poem. There is whole list of addressees in this “Suicide Note”: “frog, cicadas, rain clouds, gardens, worms, grass, deer, curtains, noise, lights, glass trails, heart, hands, ink, bruises, rivers, summers, monsoons and thunderbolts,” which the analysis and the comments fully and thoroughly explore.

I have nothing to add, except one question: Where are the people? Where are the relationships with people? The nature described in the poem is giving, generous – though providing what is usually offered by humans: warmth is offered by glow worms, for instance. And as if to emphasize the point, neighbours and strangers appear only impersonally as in “the shining lights of the neighbours and their last ashen cigarettes.”

So, for me, there is so much loneliness and sadness in the persona pouring out every time nature stands in for the human touch: friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, or even kind strangers. What could be more indicative of sadness, and indeed despair, than the need to use “broken glass trails that will show the way to strangers”?

From this perspective, what if, in a well-encrypted way, we are led to ask: does the poem take the line of praising nature instead of criticizing fatal failings of the human heart?

After Anatolia: Memory and Identity

Memories of home, of childhood, of life events and life losses are human universals. They belong to the scenario beautifully described in the myth of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and the expulsion from Eden – as well as rendered in the rich, painterly iconography of this story. One might say that this story serves as one of the archetypal scenarios framing our thinking.

With this in mind, how are we to conceive of experiences and memories of losing a home, family, country, culture through war and forced displacement? A pressing question, for there are so many groups in this predicament all over the world now. Arguably, the real losses and trauma suffered by those forcibly and traumatically expelled fracture the symbolizing processes, reducing the facility to employ them in creating meaning in everyday life. As a result, these experiences may acquire a different mental status, require different resources and be put to different uses by our conscious and unconscious minds.

Frequently, memories of such losses remain hidden, out of reach of linguistic elaboration for years – or even generations, as seen in families of holocaust survivors.

Sometimes, memories of the home lost, as well as of the traumatic circumstances of the expulsion, have been used as building blocks to construct or reinforce a sense of identity and community. This is illustrated in Alice James’ perceptive article, Memories of Anatolia: generating Greek refugee identity.”

James studied the construction of the refugee identity of the Greeks of Anatolia who fled Mikra Asia, the western part of Anatolia in 1922. Up to that time, more than a million, perhaps a million and a half of Christian Ottoman Greeks had lived there, in Greek settlements going back millennia. However, after a disastrous series of wars in the Balkans and between Ottoman Turkey and Greece in particular which resulted in the catastrophic defeat of the Greeks, the surviving Christians of Anatolia were forced to flee from their homes. Many perished. Most of the survivors fled to Greece where they settled – though a significant number went to other countries and even other continents.

For those who settled in Greece, the country became their new home, even if they spoke little or no Greek. They encountered acts of kindness and generosity as well as negligence, and animosity. As a result, many of those who had survived the war and persecution in Anatolia, died. James refers to a League of Nations source that quotes mortality rates among the new arrivals reaching 45% at one point. Survivors grouped together and developed ways of coping with the losses they had suffered and the difficulties they encountered in their new country.

Concentrating on the refugees of Chios, the largest island closest to Smyrna, James quotes a refugee describing their situation, “like the leaves from the trees when the wind takes them away and they blow right and left without knowing where they are going.”

James notes that “The refugees were no longer attached to their land, and only by producing a group identity could they feel grounded.” This identity was produced through processes that helped translate the experiences and generate a distinct identity as Mikrasiates; all these processes helped recall and often show concretely the difference between the earlier wealth of the life in Anatolia that was lost, and the deprivation that followed the expulsion and refugeedom.

Efforts concentrated on continuing or preserving traditions and customs. Chief amongst these were those associated with the Greek Christian-Orthodox religion, which had been a pillar of their identity under the Ottoman rule. Christian Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on ritual and custom (such as celebrating Saints’ days, associated with the name days of those sharing Saint’s name), provided a continuity between the past, present and future generations.

Referring to Hirschon’s study of a refugee community in the Kokkinia district of Athens, near Piraeus, James points out the importance of memory for identity formation. Museums and collections or archives of memorabilia, photographs, and film were used by the Greeks from Anatolia to generate an image of themselves in Greece, as a distinct group, the Mikrasiates. By holding on to personal and cultural belongings and heritage, such as the Byzantine heritage, photographs, song, music and other memory devices, the story of the refugees’ lives, traditions as well as their loss is not forgotten, but incorporated in the process of identity formation, and bestowed upon future generations.

Beyond the communities studied by James and Hirschon, it would be interesting to think about how identity formation works in situations in which such uses of memory are discouraged, or non-existent: for example, the situation of those Greeks who fled, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to communist countries vis-à-vis those who managed to stay behind; the situation of the Muslims of Crete who went to nation-building Turkey after the treaty of Lausanne as compared to those Muslims who stayed on in Northern Greece, and others. It would also be of interest to think about other factors and processes involved in generating refugee identity, and their interaction with memory.

Please feel free to add your comments, impressions, views on these themes in the comments box below.

PS Some of these themes of loss, strategies of survival, and the vicissitudes of identity formation, I touch upon in my forthcoming novel “Alexandrias 40: Under the Lemon Tree.”

On “Where were you last night?”

In this beautiful and haunting poem, Tammy Ho offers interesting answers to this question. The poem is part of a project in which she writes poems on demand. She asks that those interested email her something about themselves – an incident, a piece of information, a photograph – and she will then write a poem dedicated to them, inspired by the material they sent.

The poem “Where were you last night?” was written for a photographer friend; his photograph of a pair of bedroom slippers with the words “Her bedroom sippers,” used for inspiration.

The poet rose to the occasion, a difficult one, since it does not simply involve writing in response to a photograph, but a picture by a photographer and friend. How close is the friendship, one wants to ask, how much information is one not privy to, why bedroom slippers, what is the artist’s intention? And yet, on reading the poem, these questions lose their urgency, as we enter, or rather are led into, a world we feel we know, which however appears magical at the same time. From a book launch, to fairy tales, to Moscow, to Chelsea, to hotels and linguistic stops, we are taken round the world and back into the poet’s arms.

There are so many things I like about this poem that to single out one thing would do injustice to the rest. Nevertheless, I will pick out a theme which resonates particularly strongly with me.

The first stanza gives a clue that serves as an entry point. The narrator might be asking herself the question “Where were you …?” The book launch she attended was a boring event, too many writers’ egos, neat piles of books and lots of wine on an empty stomach! But we know you can’t judge a book by its cover. This leads the narrator to crack open the book pile, and the stories, fairy tales, metaphors, characters come tumbling out in the subsequent stanzas. The writer is never bored, or alone… and the reader is certainly entertained and amused, but also puzzled.

At the same time, a sense of longing and loneliness comes across in the poem. “Where were you last night?” might also be a question asked of the “you” in the poem – as if the narrator wished the “you” had been with her. The repeated question suggests feeling excluded, or left; and all that within the context of closer intimacy claimed by the words in the photograph “Her bedroom slippers.” In asking the “where were you” question, the narrator implies “you” could have been with her, “at home,” in her own arms, with her wearing “her bedroom slippers.” Perhaps, the fact that “you” were not is just as well, as one might imagine that, had that “you” been at home with her, the poem might not have been written!

In this sense, for me, this poem also explores the source(s) of creativity: is the feeling of a lack, of longing and of loss an essential ingredient of creative work? What other ingredients are there? And why is inspiration and creative effort so often experienced as capricious, and fragile, needing to be nursed and safeguarded? There is a powerful hint in the poem at our anxieties about the fragility of the creative process: one snowflake and we can be blinded for ever… There is a display of poetic force in this poem which transcends and transforms the longing into a poetic journey well worth embarking on.

Eleanor Ross Taylor

Disappearing Act, Eleanor Ross Taylor’s poem can be read in The Guardian by clicking http://bit.ly/c98Rhi

It is a brilliant self-reflective poem, based on experiencing the human body as a thinking as well as a feeling person.

Winner of the 2010 Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly award, she made the news at a time when she was almost forgotten.  Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, commented on her “sober and clear-eyed serenity,”  and her strong reserve. “We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and Taylor’s voice has been muted from the start,” The Guardian reported.  Others, commenting on her award, made strong references to her age.

Her poetry, though, speaks for her talent and originality; her making us see the world anew – in this case, our own body.

Hope in a Changing Climate

Two lakes inside old volcano, Africa. on Twitpic

Creative Climate is a media and research project about climate and the environment run jointly by the OU and the BBC.

The Creative Climate website is full of interesting information from experts around the world: videos and articles to take your breath away – though not literally! On the contrary, there is a lot of hope in the contributions.

The documentary Hope in a Changing Climate drawing on success stories from China, Ethiopia and Rwanda, demonstrates how barren and decimated land that was thought to be beyond redemption could be brought back to life by local residents. Planting trees and selected vegetation in patterns that encourage the soil to retain water, they managed to transform within five years the arid plateaus to lush, fertile and life-sustaining land. The film of the work carried out by the locals in the Loess  Plateau in China, is both beautiful and inspiring.

Restoration of the environment is possible; the process of decimation is not irreversible. As if proof were needed that it is a matter of belief, determination, and dissemination of knowledge… all to do with the climate of opinion influencing the climate!

For lack of pictures of these areas to show what has been achieved, I include the photograph of Two Lakes in a Volcano taken from space and tweeted live from the international Space Station by Soichi Noguchi http://twitpic.com/1exv5i Thank you Soichi Noguchi for this gem of a picture! It also attests to what can be achieved through co-operation, ingenuity and determination.

Circumnavigation: Searching for home?

Iris Law’s poem Circumnavigation

chosen to be included in the 2009 Best of the Net Anthology is a beautiful poem. Read it here:

http://www.asiancha.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=367&Itemid=176

It works on many levels, as Tammy Ho’s critical analysis, and the responses to it (including mine) demonstrate.

http://finecha.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/a-cup-of-fine-tea-iris-law/#comments

The level that hooked me was the one hinting at the hunger for home and the wish to return to it.  Real or imagined, a literal home or a metaphorical one, the womb or country of origin, it is always there, calling. Going round the world, we carry that hunger, that need, hear the siren’s call, knowing at the same time, the impossibility of returning…

Iris Law speaks of the pain of this recognition, the moment “the spear hit home.”

Kavafis knew this problem and wrote about it in his Ithaca.

Odysseus had to find out for himself. Tellingly, he set out again, soon after he returned home.

Looking and Seeing

The Observer’s John Vidal, in his article ‘How food and water are driving a 21st century African land-grab,’ 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/food-water-africa-land-grab

wrote about what is now often referred to as ‘the 21st century new colonialism.’ Bigger/richer countries, companies, pension funds, individuals and others acquire or lease land in Africa cheaply on which they grow food and export it back to their home markets.

In Ethiopia, for instance, farm land twice the size of the UK is being used to grow food, flowers, as well as crops for biofuels. At the same time, millions of Ethiopians threatened by hunger and malnutrition, displaced, are not even being told of the existence of the farms or the plans to extend them. There is a similar situation in over 20 other African countries, and more and more projects are given the go-ahead, profiting the richer countries, companies and individuals at the expense of the indigenous population and local farmers.

Lorenzo Cotula, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, in his ‘Deals can be good news when not made behind closed doors,’

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/africa-land-grab-food-water

argues that this need not be the only outcome. Rather, some of the development can be good news for the people involved, if there is proper consultation and negotiation of terms that are mutually advantageous. This is a good point – and something to aim towards. At present, unfortunately, not enough support is forthcoming for those affected, neither from their governments nor from abroad, that would enable them to become involved in such negotiations.

Turning a blind eye to the practice of using poorer countries as farms for the richer ones, while their people are starving, is becoming an urgent, practical as well as moral concern. And the implications and consequences of this practice are snowballing. Survival International is campaigning for the tribes of the Omo Valley, in south-west Ethiopia,

http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/omovalley/novoice#main

where a massive hydroelectric Dam is being built which will end the Omo River’s natural flood cycle. The tribes along its banks cultivate the fertile silt it leaves behind. Their fragile livelihoods are threatened as their farming is dependent on the river and its floods. However, these tribes have high illiteracy levels and lack the resources and infrastructure needed to employ the legal teams to negotiate terms on their behalf. Their government has so far ignored their plight.

If we don’t ‘see,’ who will?

http://www.stopgibe3.org

On the Omo Valley: Survival International is working jointly with International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, Counterbalance and Campaign for the Reform of the World Bank on the Omo Valley.

Survival International has a number of articles on these issues and various options available for those wishing to help with their campaigns.

www.survival-international.org

What is Creative Climate?

Photo: Constantina Pierides

Creative Climate is an online diary project set up jointly by the OU and the BBC to chart the ways in which people see and respond to environmental change over the next decade. Through the diary, people from all over the world, will be able to share their views on the changing environment, as well as their ideas on how to meet the coming challenges. In this sense, the Creative Climate diary, will become “a huge living archive of our experiences and ideas in one of the most important decades in human history.”

For a sustainable future, we will need all the creativity, determination, will-power and strength we can master – and as many perspectives as there are. I will be reading the entries and following the diaries.

http://www.open2.net/creativeclimate/about.html

Szirtes defends Poetry

George Szirtes defends poetry: Poetry conjures the presence of things, their physicality… it is experienced through the body as much as the mind. “…but the chief use of poetry to sense the presence of the toad in language, without which sense nothing happens, without which the language enterprise is all imaginary gardens in which only ghosts can live.” Read it by clicking here: George Szirtes blog Then, go find that toad, say, by reading one of his poems: “Say

Song of the Aegean

I wrote this poem thinking of the Aegean, the stories attached to it, from the Trojan war, to Odysseus’ crisscrossing the sea to return to Ithaca, to the sponge divers risking their lives to earn a living…


This poem appeared in Poetry Monthly, issue 150, October 2008. (This was the last edition of the magazine; afterwards, it came back as the online journal Poetry Monthly International)

Song of the Aegean

Sea, azure, shoal, white sails,
Pines, sponges, diving tales

Winds, caique, bitter waves,
Oars, wreckage, soulful prayer

Odyssey, memory, dolphin leaps,
Marble, Kalymnos, Ariadne sings.

Literature, Art, Culture, Society, and lots of Haiku