Poetry and Paris

Here’s another piece of mine from the Goteborgs Posten in English from last year.

A great sadness in my young life was to have missed Paris in the Fifties: those existentialists sitting morosely in the Deux Magots (did Beckett really pour a glass of beer over his head without showing any sign of emotion, and continue simply to sit drenched at his table?), the Beats hanging out stoned and anarchic at Shakespeare & Co. I got there as fast as I could, aged 16, but everyone I had in mind had gone, and all I found was a very attractive Portuguese painter and too many cockroaches in my hotel room to cope with.

At twenty I tried again and spent half a year in Paris, mostly with American students and refugees from the Vietnam draft, staying in a perfectly rundown hotel on the Left Bank where many of the Beat poets had previously stayed. They had existed on crusts and washing-up jobs. I wrote a film script, washed a couple of floors (badly), gave English conversation lessons and typed up an English translation of a dreadful novel set in sixties’ London. I lived up to Paris’s image: I was full of angst, young, broke, smoking dope, reading poetry and philosophy in cafes, arguing about books and movies, and rattling around in the city that echoed time, literature and revolution with every breath I took, in a way that London just couldn’t for me. My romantic months.

In 2011 I went to Paris again – almost for the first time since then (a couple of brief visits intervened, but not memorably). This time I tagged along with the Poet (my live-in…oh well, husband) to a three-day conference called ‘Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today’.  Let me explain, since my early twenties I have understood that the world is a better place for me not writing poetry. The Poet is always trying to see my juvenile verse, but it’s tucked away behind decades of clothes in the attic which only someone as small as a grandchild will ever get to. I’ve read poetry, quite a lot, but I don’t feel I’m up to its challenge. I don’t really know what poetry is, what it’s for or why exactly poetry is poetry. This makes living with the Poet quite interesting.

When he isn’t teaching 20th century literature at Cambridge, he writes the kind of poems which, and is engaged with the kind of poets who, refuse to allow themselves to be easily classified. He taught an MA course called ‘Reading Difficult Poems’ which includes such writers living and dead as: Ezra Pound, W. S. Graham, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olsen, John Ashbery, J. H. Prynne, Tom Raworth, Veronica Forest Thompson, Keston Sutherland… poets many of whom you, like me in my pre-Poet days, may well not have heard. The term ‘difficult’ is used somewhat ironically and pedagogically: difficult until you are prepared to think very hard about how to read them. But after years of life with the Poet I remain an outsider even as a reader: too scared or lazy to think that intensely.

The Poet rages about the pointlessness of popular poetry – by that he mean what most people think of as modern poetry: the established poets published by large publishing houses who constitute the judges and winners of poetry prizes, or who are made Poet Laureates. The acceptable face of poetry, that offers easily recognisable emotions and subjectivity in uncomplicated forms, and wants to make itself immediately accessible. The Poet’s poets, the difficult ones do something else, although I’ve never been quite clear what. At a Christmas party in London, before I went to the conference, I was raged at by a poet of the other kind who berated the Poet and his sort for inaccessibility, elitism, for not giving people what they want. Mr X was even crosser about the Poet’s poets than the Poet is about Mr X’s popular, easily palatable sort. So much crossness, and me a kind of idiot on the sidelines not knowing what to make of it all as poetry, but inclined generally to think that popularity is not likely often to produce the kind of intense commitment to the investigation and writing of either poetry or prose that I so admired about those in Paris in the 1950s.

When I was coming up to my sixtieth birthday, the Poet started wandering around the house, opening and closing the far too many books on the shelves, muttering and generally being very annoying. It was a poem he said, a project. That was all he would tell me. Why don’t you sit down and write it like regular poets do, preferably with a quill pen, I said irritated by the mystery. The mystery was solved on my birthday, when he presented me with a lengthy poem, along with a minimalist drawing that I had admired in a local gallery, of a simple bisected rectangle, something like a window – pencil on white paper. The poem was called 60 Windows For Jenny. It consisted of 60 lines he had found with the word ‘window’ in them, on page 60 of 60 books. A great piece of research, and when read, a stunning poem that had grown to be itself out of the almost but not quite arbitrary choices from the words of others. Straightforward, simply understandable, obviously narratological it wasn’t, but compelling and thrilling it was. Not that I got it. Help me, I said. I don’t know, he said. So annoying. You must know what you’ve done and why, I insisted. Why, he asked.

What is really exciting to an outsider – neither an academic or a poet – is the passion these poets express for a particular way to write, the seriousness of the project, the assumption that making meaning with words is all you can do in a world where you know really that there is really nothing you can do. It’s heroic and determined this poetry, these poets, young and old, and some of it is very funny. They refuse to separate form and content: what a poem looks like, how it is laid out: what the words do visually or across the space of the page is an essential part of the poem, not decoration. The reader needs to read and think, give time and effort, really work on a poem, struggle with it. Perhaps this poetry is the continuing struggle that is the essence of a left-oriented engaged politics.

Keston Sutherland, one of the younger poets, gave a talk at the conference about Marx’s theory of accumulation and circulation, and connected it to the use of language in literature. Poetry is like capital: you can circulate it or hoard it. Either way, it becomes a commodity. I think what the Poet’s poets are doing is trying to find a way to bypass the easy common sense of the poem as commodity by breaking it apart, holding familiarity and comfort at bay, and requiring readers to read hard and think with the poem, rather than simply to consume it. Whatever they are doing, hanging out with them, listening to them being passionate about writing in seminar rooms, bars and restaurants in Paris, was as close to the Paris I never saw as I will get.


My Melancholia

 This is a piece I wrote for the Goteborgs Posten, a Swedish paper for which I write a monthly column (which is translated into Swedish).


I’ve spent a good deal of time lately reading up on the set of historical, medical and philosophical conditions known for centuries as melancholia and more recently as depression. My interest is that I’ve been commissioned to write a book about melancholia, but I’ll be writing it because it’s a subject I’ve lived with and thought around most of my life. I wonder what took me so long — and then again, I don’t. As far as I can understand it, I’ve had bouts of depression since I was a child. When I was little, it was called being ‘in a mood’ or ‘sulking’, and no one, including me, thought to query that definition. Looking back, the sense of hopelessness, despair, of seeing no way out of the dark place in which I suddenly or gradually found myself completely trapped, was just as present when I was ‘in a mood’ at the age of eight or nine, as it was when I was first diagnosed as clinically depressed and hospitalised at the age of fifteen, and then at twenty, and then at thirty-four, with non-hospitalised episodes lasting weeks or months plentifully in-between. 

I came to think of myself as chemically prone to depression. Not that I reject the idea that the circumstances of my very messy family had been a perfectly reasonable cause, but undoubtedly, given the many possibilities of psychological responses, depression was how it took me. I’ve never had the slightest tendency towards symptoms that might define a schizophrenic illness (aside from taking drugs). Never heard voices, seen things that were apparently not there, felt impelled  to act by something alien, outside or inside myself. I was perhaps tipped into a lifelong depressive illness by my experiences as a child, but never into psychosis. 

Life and chemistry makes good sense to me as a pairing, and though chemistry might cause the problem on its own, I doubt that how you respond psychologically to life is unconnected to the balance of your physiology. Chemistry affects how you respond to experience and experience affects the chemistry of mood. That doesn’t mean that one’s psychology is absolutely determined and unalterable: talking therapy and medication can change what might be an impossible life into one that functions quite well. Freud spoke of returning people to ‘ordinary unhappiness’. Sadness and mood variation are not illnesses but part of life unless they become overwhelming. No one sloughs their life experience off like a lizard its skin, but with assistance it’s possible to use experience rather than let it use you. At any rate, up to a point.

Nevertheless, the history of the idea of melancholia and depression is as vivid and fascinating as any other subject that turns out to be so broad that you are unlikely to come to the end of learning about it. The actual writing of my book is still in progress – there is so much to read on such a range of topics that I have forcibly to stop myself reading and making notes, and get to grips with actually writing a book that is intended to take in as many aspects of melancholia (including a whole spectrum of my own experiences) as it’s possible to grasp or speculate about. But then that’s probably true of any book one ever wants to read or write. 

I started, of course, with the key text: Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, written in the early seventeenth century. In well over 1000 pages, Burton informs, infuriates, amuses, terrifies and delights the reader with everything that was or might be known on the subject of melancholy. Like the French essayist, Montaigne, no possible digression is left unexplored, and also like Montaigne, Burton claims to be writing his vast book in order to keep his own melancholic condition under control. Unlike Montaigne, he isn’t explicitly exploring himself or using his own experience as an example of both the particularities and generalities of humankind. He wants to establish an order for the subject (melancholia as an Elizabethan fashion, as an incredibly varied medical diagnosis, as religious excess, as a love disorder) and show everything that can be known about it, as well as to suggest ways in which afflicted people might be cured. But like many humanist texts at the time of the Renaissance, and maybe all good books, it is even bigger (in more than just its brick-like size) than the subject it claims to be about.

At the same time, I read that watershed text in thinking about mood disorders, Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, as well as more recent commentaries and reports of neurological findings. What strikes me most at the moment is the language which Burton (and, for example, Hidegard of Bingen, or Saint Theresa of Avila) uses to describe the medical and moral condition. It goes back to the humoural theory of the Greeks: the four ‘humours’ that coursed through the body and in various combinations caused one of four main personality types: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic. Galen, Burton, Hildegard and St Theresa describe a very specific physiology – the places in the body and activity of the humours. They discuss the intricate circulation of the humours that had their source in bodily organs and affected the heart and the brain – when the brain was overheated with the fumes of too much ‘burnt bile’, the eyes spilled out liquid tears to relieve the pressure which were believed to be of a different kind to those tears that were the result of physical hurt.  No one was in perfect balance, and medicine’s job was to adjust the proportions. Too much black bile from the spleen was the main cause of melancholia, but it was much more complicated than that. It is a plausible system in its world, but by the time that Burton had finished writing his Anatomy, the new experimentalists, like Francis Bacon, were doing away with humoural theory and insisting on the visible evidence discovered by cutting up bodies and describing what was found.

Jump ahead four hundred years and I am struck by the similarity between the somewhat haphazard theories of depression then and now. For years now, I have taken a maintenance dose of a serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor (SSRI). I decided after sitting through many of my depressions, that it was only a matter of time before the suicidal thoughts beat the natural tendency of depression eventually to lift. I figured I’d been there and done that, and so took and continue to take an anti-depressant which, even if it doesn’t make me giggly and happy-go-lucky, at least seems to stop me becoming immobilised for months by despair. The pill is said to work by increasing the amount of serotonin in my brain, a neurotransmitter thought to be involved in mood disorders. The idea would be that for reasons of physiology or life experience I was not producing enough of it. Anti-depressants are said to work on a monoamine imbalance, though no one I’ve spoken to has explained exactly why. The pills are supposed to be rebalancing my unbalanced brain chemistry.

But recent research in the United States has shown that there is not very much statistical difference between the effectiveness on depression of SSRIs (50% positive) and of placebos (30-35% positive). One serotonin enhancer (tianeptine) has been found to decrease serotonin but it does not induce depression – which makes the theory of monoamine imbalance look doubtful. There is something that professionals call ‘treatment resistant depression’. It means, I suppose, that they don’t know why some depressed people stay depressed, which suggests a less certain understanding of the nature of depression than we might expect with all our medical and technological science. The longer I look into modern theories of mood disorders, the more they start to look strangely similar to the old humoural theories and remedies. Too little of this, increase that. If that doesn’t work, try some hellebore. Neither Robert Burton nor a medical psychiatrist can explain exactly what happens physiologically when a person becomes depressed, nor why precisely this or that remedy does or doesn’t make a difference. And I know even less, for all that I have spent much of my life thinking and reading about the issue. What looks like an airy-fairy made-up description of complicated channels of unknowable humours in Burton’s physiology of melancholia means no less to me than the serotonin I so easily talk about and take a remedy to enhance. I might as well be following Galen’s prescriptions as my doctor’s for all I really know of my brain chemistry. Just as the old physicians had suggested, in the early 20th century a physiologist discovered that tears of grief and sadness were indeed chemically different from tears of pain. Remembering his time living with the Azande people of north central Africa, the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard said after he returned to England that he thought their habit of studying of chicken entrails was as good a way as any he had come across in his life of making decisions. I have a feeling that Galen’s and Hippocrates’s humoural imbalance theories are in much the same relationship with modern monoamine imbalance depression theory. And perhaps that’s even a bit of a relief.

Nothing Is Hidden

This is the Introduction to Nothing Is Hidden, a collection of photographs by Lynne Cohen, published by Steidl in May 2012.


There was a game we used to play at gatherings in the mid-Sixties in the arty middle-class world I found myself in during my teens. After supper and smoking a little pot (garden grown, cured in the airing cupboard), sitting on the floor in a circle, we’d begin turn by turn. You are walking along a path…describe it. You get to a house…describe it. A room…A table…A cup on the table…What are they like? Do you drink from it…what is it, how does it taste…you meet someone…who are they? And so on. It was a psychological inner truth game, played by people who prided themselves on their sensitivity and insight. Everyone made their path, house, table, cup, person as ornate and mythic as they could manage. The house a traditional timber or ginger bread cottage deep in the woods, or a multi-crenellated castle, the cup a bejewelled goblet, each gem sparkling a meaning, the meeting peopled with a figure of powerful Jungian significance. Imagination was at a premium. One evening we were playing it with a stranger in out midst (you see how this kind of role-playing gets into your head and prose?). He was a young German guy I’d met somewhere that day and brought back to the house (things were very liberal as well as psychological). He was travelling Europe, a little older than I was, and brought up in post-war Berlin, with all that meant. While the rest of us strove for intricacy and psychological depth, my new friend answered immediately and with a note of contempt in his voice. Path? A three-lane motorway. House? A post-war pre-fabricated concrete high rise. The room? Empty, damp, paper hanging from the walls. The cup? A tin mug. ‘Oh, come on,’ someone said. ‘Use your imagination. Make it special.’ ‘OK,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s chipped.’ Person? An American soldier.

Everyone disapproved of my sour young man’s lack of a vivid imagination and complex psyche. Evidently shallow. A disaffected youth. Disaffected of the wrong sort, since they were all in favour of complicated young people working through their difficulties (which was why I was there). But interestingly, if you don’t mind. This young man did mind. I was impressed. He wasn’t playing anyone’s game. He really knew how to be angry, and it struck me that his objects were as vivid, and perhaps more truthful than the older people who thought they knew so much and had such special inner lives. He wasn’t a very nice person – finally he disappeared with my beloved typewriter – but why should he be? It was a memorable lesson in dissent and a certain kind of clarity, that made better sense to me than the fol-de-rols of a supposedly fascinating psyche. Both approaches were knowing, but his, I thought, actually more knowing than the others And, too, essentially comic in the face of our sententiously elaborating elders. His inner landscape has stayed with me, call it his vision, but a vision that insisted on looking at the minimal, and at what he really knew, in its examination of what kind of creatures might create and inhabit such a landscape. It may be chilling, sometimes quite alarming, nevertheless the stern gaze can conceal a wry humour that speaks of something more substantial than style alone. 


I think my heart beat faster when I had finished leafing through Lynne Cohen’s photographs for the first time. My young German friend came back to me, along with a degree of panic which I needed to suppress, along with bursts of laughter which I didn’t hold back. So many rooms that I didn’t want to be in. Places in which, if I were placed in them, my spirit would sink to a grim low. No surprise that they are empty. Who wouldn’t flee from them? But perhaps my spirit sinks low too easily. Put me in an anonymous prefabricated hotel room, or a practical waiting room, and I have to gasp for breath I become so dismayed. I made an effort to look again.

There are many rooms and most have furniture or fittings of some sort in them, both of which must indicate human beings. What else on the  planet needs walls with ninety-degree angles and specially designed machines such as chairs, desks and shelves to oppose the gravity that would otherwise have us and everything at the lowest possible level? They are formal, practical rooms, mostly it would seem designed without much concern for the spirit of those who might be in them, working at the desk, lying on the bed, or sitting in the armchair. They all have some human purpose. All human rooms (and there are no others, I suppose) have a purpose. There’s a reason to be in them, desk work, improvement of the body, developing and practising skills of hand-eye coordination, or simply waiting – that essential human activity. However no one is in these rooms. They are purposeful rooms, but without anyone making use of them as they were designed to be used, they defeat their purpose. All done up and ready to go, they look not just empty but also ridiculous, comical, absurd, sinister, often quite frightening. They are rooms at a loss. Excessive in their muteness.

I find myself thinking about all the rooms on the planet that are empty. It worries me, and again gives me that vertiginous feeling of the mind spinning out of control I used to get as a child when I lay in bed and tried very hard to imagine infinity. The brain is not designed to take in the concept of all the empty rooms in the world. But now I’ve thought about it, I have to wonder if there are any empty rooms in the world. What about that tree standing in the park, the one Bishop George Berkeley wrote about in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710?

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding… But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than raming in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them?…The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden, or the chairs in the parlour, no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.


 Later the question was put a little differently: if no one is there to hear a tree in the forest crash to the ground, does it make a sound? Common sense says  it does, George Berkeley is adamant that it doesn’t. Of course, if it’s not there, it can’t crash to the ground; but let’s give a little leeway to more recent thinkers who insist there will certainly be a sound wave. Even so, if ears don’t perceive it, there can be no sound. Sound requires the translation of the sound wave. It isn’t a sound until it is ‘heard’ by ears or machines that emulate ears (and even then, what if the machine doesn’t play the sound back to human ears to hear?). I’m not sure if rooms, just being there, doing nothing, with no one in them, make a sound. Certainly they would ‘sound’ different to a person who has just come in from outdoors or from another room where a CD of Tom Waits was playing. Lynne Cohen’s rooms are present in the book, in an exhibition, but silent. For your eyes only. 

Unless the book or the exhibition space is closed. And then?

So another question emerges. Do empty room exists when not only are they not seen, but they are not even being thought about? The book is closed, put back on the shelf, and it’s time for you to meet up with some friends for a drink. Those pictures you were just looking at are there somewhere in a coded form in your hippocampus – later to be transferred to the frontal lobes for long term storage. If something should spark their recall, or for no obvious reason, they will suddenly come to you while you are listening to your friends discussing the merits of Tom Waits. Once you have seen, you can’t unsee. You can only archive or repress. 

But what if you haven’t looked at them yet? For some reason, you’re reading this before you look at the photographs. Still, someone has seen them. The editor, printer, others who have been to previous exhibitions by Lynne Cohen. The photographs or their content exist in other brains. And even if they didn’t exist in others’ frontal lobes, if she had chosen not to exhibit them, they exist, because Lynne Cohen has not only seen the photographs – they are in her head as original concepts. She took the pictures; she made them, chose and arranged them in the first place (though the actual first place is the creation of the room and its own history). The photographs have Cohen’s consciousness as a basic insurance of their existence.  Just as Cohen’s existence is assured by the material-world fact of her photographs. 

Once they have been captured on film, the rooms in that form remain undisturbed. This is true of all photographs. But we are more used to people frozen in time. We have a ready-made set of responses. There is a sadness about old photographs of people. Old photographs of old people, old photographs of young people. And new photographs of the old and the young, which will become old photographs. Every portrait is a memento mori, its model, even if an infant, ageing or already dead. Photographs of people point to a direction and to a terminus. They freeze a moment and in doing so remind us painfully that we can’t restrain time. What of a photo of an empty room? Perhaps it’s not so very different, apart from our ability to project on to peopled photographs. Rooms and everything in them decay. Even without people, entropy hovers over a held moment. Objects don’t die, though they outlive their usefulness and deteriorate for lack of (human) attention. When rooms run out of people to inhabit them, they become potential ruins. And ruins, once again, tell us stories of how time and things and we ourselves pass. You can be one of the tourists clambering around the Acropolis marvelling at history, or you can stand back and watch the tourists and the Acropolis together and then imagine all those people gone, and the ruins ruined with every passing generation. Many people who take pictures on holiday say they want to show that they’ve been there, prove they’ve had the experience. It must be so, because the beautiful or stark places they go to in order to bring photos home, have excellent images available on postcards, in books and on the Internet, without the need to make the effort of going yourself to take the picture which assures you that you were there. What sort of experience does Lynne Cohen retain? Those tourist shots, like old photos and portraits, aren’t narrative as such. They are mute until a human mind turns them into stories. And for the most part human minds can’t help but make up stories, even where stillness and silence offers them a way out of narrative. Does Lynne Cohen take her photographs to prove that she has been there, or to prove that photographs exist, to document a fact that will alter, to suggest a story? Does she care what happens when others see her photographs? I suppose she must, or why else would she show them.? But does it concern her what we do with them, how we understand them, feel them, turn them into narration, interpret her intentions or even deny them? Sometimes I’m at a loss faced with art. I can see why it is made, why someone would want to make it, but I don’t understand why it is exhibited. Or at least why anyone who makes art wants to know the response from others. Empty rooms don’t care, but people taking their photo offer them up to their fellow humans. To share, as they currently say in such a way that makes the notion of sharing sickly? To task others to look as well or to give the stuff inside your head material reality by putting it in front of others’ eyes?

But to return to those rooms, waiting silently for attention.

In fact, the rooms in this collection are certainly not empty. It only seems that way. All of them invisibly but necessarily contain Lynne Cohen and her quite cumbersome camera, her lights, and they have been seen, picked out, and managed. They are far from empty, actually. Moreover, most of them have their own lights on. To elaborate on the popular description of an vacant person: the lights are on, so somebody must have been there. Did they leave and forget to turn the light off? Even so the expectation is that someone will come and turn them off. And if they don’t, the trace of someone who has acted on the room is there in the bright bulbs. These lighted rooms conjure up people in every way. How could we see a bed or a gurney in a room without imagining a body? A tank filled with uncannily untroubled water is patiently waiting for the disturbance of a person diving into it, or making some vibration that will cause the surface to ripple. Machines wait for flesh to be shut inside them and sweated by creating steam. They have no other purpose. Reception halls cause anxiety without a receptionist at the desk. You may not be there now, but you need to know you will be received. The rooms in the photographs all, however vacant they appear, evoke people, and are at the very least always and already peopled by the unobserved but ubiquitous photographer, and then by the implications she imposes on the static scene. 

The rooms do not even all lack human figures. It’s true that there’s nothing of flesh and blood here, just as there’s no ‘outside’. There is an inside-out room carpeted in a grass substitute and painted green, a forlorn undersized Christmas tree in a corner, two blinded windows facing each other. A chilling marble hallway is wall-papered with a forest, or hideously painted with a waterfall. Humans getting their own back on Nature. An hilarious arrangement of tall branches hung with a variety of decidedly desirable hats rests in a corner. It’s a relief, actually, to get back to the unambiguous interiors. As with outside, so there are flesh and blood substitutes dotted around. Sometimes they are flat, two dimensional images, of soldiers or passers-by in what we recognise as military shooting galleries. Some are to be killed, pointing their guns at you, some to be avoided, harmless old ladies (a sad assumption) with their shopping bags, but all of them are stand-ins, a practice for the real thing. There are images of people on walls, or hanging silhouettes, that seem to be little more than wisps or decoration – though decoration requires someone more sensate than these mere slivers to appreciate it.

Sometimes there are more substantial figures. In one room a drama seems to be playing out, albeit statically, but surprising nonetheless in these generally unpeopled roomscapes. It’s as if you’ve turned a quiet corner and found yourself walking the mean streets. Three life-size characters in a barely completed makeshift room look anxiously towards another window, curtained, so again that there is nothing to see. (Though now I think, why life-size, why shouldn’t they be tiny in a miniature room?) They seem alarmed, waiting. But all figures seem to be waiting if they are immobile and made of plastic or fibreglass. Think of those brides, party girls and lolling sportsmen waiting expectantly in shop windows for life to happen to them. A man and a woman in this ceilingless room are complete although strangely disjointed. They barely hold together. Another women is only a torso on a cupboard with a balloon attached to her dress, pregnant or armed with an exploding device. All of them are spattered. Naturally, we think of blood. A large whitepad on an easel waits in the corner for someone to write on it. There’s a story here somewhere. In another picture four female torsos lie in open suitcases. Inconsequential and definitely not human, but if they were they would tell of unspeakableness and tragedy.

And here I am persistently making meaning. A writer’s curse, I think. Most writer’s envy visual artists. What can you do with words when confronted with a picture or the world but assign it a story? The only alternative is to anatomise it structurally. I would prefer to let them be, Lynne Cohen’s photographs, also the world, but it’s impossible for me to let things be. I notice when on a sea voyage a constant attempt to describe the sea I gaze at day after day: it’s like this, then that. The similes queue up to get their turn in the spotlight. One day I thought: the sea is like the sea. It doesn’t leave me with much to write about. I think I might have preferred this essay to have been 11 rather than 3000 words long. 

Lynne Cohen’s photographs are like Lynne Cohen’s photographs. Look at them.


This and that continued

In one corner of the internetosphere is my old blog site: Biology of the Worst Kind. Elsewhere is my website, www.jennydiski.co.uk with a This and That page which I keep more or less updated with what I’ve written and where it’s published. My Twitter feed is @diski. Also, from time to time, I post on the LRB Blog.

The truth is that I’ve forgotten how to log on and manage my original blog so I thought I’d set up another place, this one, to put longer writings that don’t fit on to the This and That page on my website.

Or I won’t.