Simon Collings

To the outside observer

‘How imagine other people’s lives, when our own seems scarcely conceivable? We meet someone, we see them plunged into an impenetrable and unjustifiable world, in mass of desires and convictions superimposed on reality like a morbid structure. Having made a system of mistakes for himself, he suffers for reasons whose nullity alarms the mind and surrenders himself to values whose absurdity leaps to the eye. What are his undertakings but trifles, and is the feverish symmetry of his concerns any better built than an architecture of twaddle? To the outside observer, the absolute of each life looks interchangeable, and every fate, however fixed in its essence, arbitrary. When our convictions seem the fruit of a frivolous lunacy, how tolerate other people’s passions for themselves and for their own multiplication in each day’s utopia?  By what necessity does this man shut himself up in a particular world of predilections, and that man in another?’

                                                                         E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay


The poet as translator

‘All poetry is in the end translation, says Novalis. It translates natural language into the language of art (Kunstsprache). In this process it elevates ordinary language to the state of mystery…

For Edmund Jabes, too, the writer is a translator…But he reverses the direction. Jabes starts out from the infinite, which is the ultimate goal of poetry in German Romantic theory. He bypasses the issue of “ordinary”, or “natural” language. Or rather he has altogether rather more respect for it than Novalis…

So instead of elevating natural language into “the language of the gods”, with Jabes we translate the “language of the gods”…into our more limited actual idiom. Writing/translating does not exalt, it narrows as any passage from the potential to the actual must…our narrowing of it is fatal, the finite by definition kills the infinite.’

Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: recalling and rereading Edmund Jabes, pp.60-61.


‘The poem I dream has no flaws until I try to realise it. We find this recorded in the myth of Jesus. God, becoming man, cannot help but end in martyrdom. The supreme dreamer has the supreme martyr as a son.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, p. 272.


The landscape of memory

Another poem published in Stride today – Memory Landscape. These pieces by Ian Seed, also recently published on Stride, are very good.

Can the UK achieve it’s carbon targets?

In order to help contain global warming to within 1.5-2 degree Celsius, Britain needs to achieve a big increase in low carbon electricity supply. Is this feasible? Andrew Crossland’s website MyGridGB says that it is – and demonstrates this by comparing the actual performance of the UK electricity grid with an an alternative model.

The real-time information on MyGridGB on where our electricity comes from hour by hour, day by day, is intriguing.  The site also provides data on recent records for low carbon generation from solar and wind.

The alternative model simulation draws on actual demand and weather data to show what would have happened if the UK had more solar, biomass, nuclear, and wind, supported by a modest amount more storage capacity. These show low carbon targets being met.

Details of the model are set out in a manifesto available on the site. The costs associated with this model are not yet available  – but Crossland promises this in a forthcoming second manifesto.

Home Movie

A new poem published yesterday on Stride.

We weary of thinking

‘We weary of everything, except understanding.’ The meaning of the phrase is sometimes hard to grasp.

We weary of thinking to arrive at a conclusion, because the more we think and analyse and discern, the less we arrive at a conclusion.

And so we fall into that passive state in which we want to understand only the explanation of whatever is being proposed. It’s an aesthetic attitude, since we don’t care in the least whether what’s proposed is or isn’t true, and all we see in what we understand are the details of the explanation, the type of rational beauty it has for us.

We weary of thinking, of having our own opinions, of trying to think in order to act. But we don’t weary of temporarily having other people’s opinions, just to feel their intrusion and not to follow their lead.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. Richard Zenith)

Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos was a key member of the Surrealist group which formed around Andre Breton in Paris in the early 1920s. He later broke with Surrealism, becoming a popular presenter on radio in the 1930s.  During the war he was active in the Resistance, was arrested by the Nazi’s in 1944, and died of typhus in Terezin concentration camp the following year.

Desnos is probably best known for his poems of unrequited love addressed to the cabaret singer Yvonne George, with whom he was infatuated for several years. There is a wonderful setting of one of these lyric outpourings, Les Espace du Sommeil, by the Polish composer Lutaslawski, which perfectly evokes the disturbing atmosphere of the lover’s dreams.

A new volume of translations of Desnos, by Timothy Ades (in parallel text), has just been published by Arc. You can read my review of it on Stride.

Kenya – political change bottom up?

While Uhuru Kenyatta  retained  the Kenyan presidency in the recent elections, there seems to have been  lots of change lower down the political structure. The devolution of power to the counties, following adoption of a new constitution a few years ago, has led to fiercely contested elections for many local posts this year.  Young political activists  captured some of these positions, and will hopefully bring a new, more progressive approach to local government in the next few years. Have a look at the latest issue of African Arguments for an article on this.

A good African story?

A few weeks ago a parcel arrived for me at work from Amazon. It was a book – A Good African Story: how a small company built a global coffee brand – no note or letter with it. I had no idea where it had come from. It looked intriguing, but it took me a while to find time to read it.
The book is by the Ugandan entrepreneur Andrew Rugasira, and it tells the story of his eleven year’s of struggle to export roasted coffee from Uganda, thereby capturing value locally. The extra margin earned on the crop was to be shared with the growers, through the price paid for coffee beans, and though investment in improved productivity.
Rugasira’s battle with the international trading system is compelling reading. He’s particularly good on the kinds of ‘non-tariff’ barriers which confront African exporters, including the many practical obstacles to breaking into UK and US markets.  The story begins with some helpful scene setting, a succinct analysis of how the colonial legacy continues to shape present day African realities, and a trenchant critique of corrupt African elites.
Good African Coffee, the company  Rusagira and his team built, became the first African-owned roasted-coffee brand to make it onto UK supermarket shelves. If did not carry a ‘fair trade’ label because, as Rugasira explains in his book, it was ‘more than fair trade’. His vision went beyond paying farmers a little bit more for their crop, aspiring instead to invest in them,  transforming their lives.
Rugasira’s particular spin on the ‘trade not aid’ theme has gained him a degree of international prominence. It’s a story and a message to which we should pay more attention. His critique of the aid industry is hard to argue with. If you want to understand why so many Africans are trapped in poverty read this book, or listen to him here.
His book appeared in 2014. What’s happening right now at Good Africa Coffee is unclear. The company’s website doesn’t seem to have been updated for quite a while, and earlier this year the business was temporarily closed by the Uganda Revenue Authority over tax arrears. The coffee no longer seems to be available in the UK.

Belated birthday tribute

The online magazine Stride has just published a poem of mine – 13 Haiku for John Ashbery – written as a celebration of the American poet who turned 90 just over a week ago. I wrote the piece  a couple of years back after reading ‘37 Haiku‘ published in Ashbery’s collection The Wave (1984). I enjoyed the way Ashbery sends up contemporary hiaku writing in English in this work. My own poem is a conscious imitation of Ashbery’s  challenge to conventional haiku, and is intended as a tribute. For anyone wanting to know more, there’s an interesting essay by Dean Brink on Ashbery’s haiku here.

Stride has also published reviews I’ve written recently on Susan Howe’s latest book Debths, and Eileen R. Tabios’ The Opposite of Claustrophobia.