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It was in the afternoon sunshine at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge that I first saw David Jones’s painted inscription Quia per incarnati in the flesh. In this eccentric work of painted calligraphy, with quotations from the Latin Mass crowding for space, each letter has its own life and character. When I had first seen it reproduced in black and white in Jones’s long, late-modernist poem The Anathemata (1952), ‘Quia per incarnati’ had looked like a stone carving recently unearthed from the deep past. Seen in Kettle’s Yard, however, it was clear why Jones considered his painted inscriptions to be his “own form of abstraction”: it looked like nothing I had ever seen before, ancient or modern.

Even though this Anglo-Welsh artist and First World War poet was widely acclaimed by the luminaries of his day, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Kenneth Clark, Jones has slipped into something like obscurity since then. Yet at times, among those who know of him, it can feel like Jones is a password or a secret key that grants access to untold revelations, treasures and insights. Say his name, profess devotion, and before you know it a lost print is being pulled down from a bookshelf, a memory is shared, a book finds its way into your hands, or a promise of some pilgrimage is made. There is always a story to be told about how and where Jones was discovered, because, with all the revelation of a religious conversion, Jones must be discovered.

David Jones, Quia Per Incarnati, 1945, Private Collection © The Estate of David Jonessmall

Quia per Incarnati, 1945

This month I had a review-essay published on Marginalia, for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of the new David Jones book, Vision and Memory. The review gave me the opportunity to read the book with a leisurely eye, to spend time with its detail, but also encouraged me to remember what it was like to encounter the work of David Jones for the first time. It was a nostalgic experience as well as a critical one. The new book is fabulous in so many ways; the reproduction of Jones’s work is like nothing ever published before and does justice to the subtle inflections of his watercolours.

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One of the most interesting things the new book taught me was how to map out my own David Jones tour of the National Gallery – finding unseen connections between the delicate lines and lucid colours of Jones’s watercolours and the work of the masters who I have also admired for many years, including El Greco and Rubens.

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Rubens’s portrait of Helene Fourment, and David Jones’s Aphrodite in Aulis (1940-1)

 

 

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In November I was part of an event held at the Enitharmon Bookshop for the Being Human Festival, Being Writers: A Collaborative Conversation.  The evening centred around conversations on the relationship between creative and academic writing. The fabulous Enitharmon poets Hilary Davies and Nancy Campbell were interviewed by myself and another research student from UCL, Jess Cotton, on subjects as diverse as the environment, spirituality, translation, and poetry’s role in communicating history. We wrote a blog post reflecting on our insights from the evening for the Being Human festival website. A slightly expanded version of my thoughts can be found below.

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On the back of Hilary Davies’ third poetry collection, Imperium, the blurb-writer claims that in her poetry Hilary ‘draws from her historical sequences a rich, invigorating music.’ But how exactly can we take our research and make the sources sing? And can the poetic process of researching and writing teach academics anything about their own writing practice?

As I began to read Hilary Davies’ poetry, both the collections I found in the Southbank Poetry Library and the glimpses she sent me of sequences from her forthcoming book, I discovered a richness of historical detail and cultural reference that offered an immediate response to the concerns of the Enitharmon event. Hilary is a poet for whom research is an essential part of the writing process.

Hilary Davies’ poetry struck a chord with me, partly because of our mutual love for the twentieth century poet and artist David Jones, but also because her work spoke to a recent concern of my research: that is, the relationship between poetry and scholarship. After a summer spent in the archives of the National Library of Wales, reading the notes made in the margins of David Jones’ collection of scholarly resources and curiosities, I had been thinking a lot about how poetry might perform contemporary scholarship and creatively rewrite it. But the question I had failed to articulate before the event was what role subjectivity might play in this transformation of scholarly knowledge, and whether this subjectivity can ever be critically productive.

The Story of Nelson for Being Human

Denise Levertov writes of an ‘authentic source of myth in poetry [… where] scholarly knowledge is deeply imbedded in the imaginative life of the writer’ so that it becomes ‘an extension of intuitive knowledge.’ During my conversation with Hilary I was interested in unpicking the threads that had woven meticulously researched detail (like the recent archaeology reports that Hilary said informed one of her sequences, so that her poetry actually became more current than the current scholarship) together with Levertov’s ideal of an ‘intuitive knowledge’ gathered over a lifetime of reading and experience. What is the relationship, for example, between the actually loved and known of Hilary’s Catholicism, and the research required to write a sequence of poems based on the liturgical hours, or the story of Heloise and Abelard?

In his ‘Preface’ to his long Modernist poem The Anathemata, David Jones wonders ‘what may be owing’ to, amongst other things: ‘a small textbook on botany, a child’s picture-book of prehistoric fauna, the text of a guide to a collection of Welsh samplers and embroideries, or a catalogue of English china or plate;’ presenting us with a treasure-hoard of bound papers whose influence may be so obscure as to be untraceable. For Hilary Davies one such piece of treasured ephemera might be the Ladybird ‘Adventures from History,’ The Story of Nelson, a book that she described as having ignited her childhood passion for Nelson, Napoleon, naval history, and the frequent pilgrimages she made as a child from her home in Southwark to Greenwich. Its influence on the two historical sequences in her third collection, ‘Imperium’ and ‘Southwark,’ may be invisible to the eyes and ears of her readers, but beneath the surface-weave this childhood reading still resonates.

The conversation with Hilary made me recognise the complexity of this entangled relationship between research and our own personal experiences. In her poem ‘Faultlines’ Hilary writes: ‘the river banks/ we’ve walked ravel backwards in the night,/ Like lost highways.’ How much of ourselves ends up in our research? Perhaps like the lost highways of ‘Faultlines’ our readings are steps that can never be completely retraced; this doesn’t mean that we never made the journey.

At the end of last month an article written by Fran Allfrey and I was published in a special issue of Textual Practice, which introduced the work of the shortlisted and winning entries for the Creative Responses to Modernism Prize, 2015. It was a really rich opportunity to reflect on the curation of our medieval-modern book, A Gift for the Illuminated Sphere, and how the process of making the book related to our practice as researchers.

‘In her 1938 monograph on Picasso, Gertrude Stein described the experience of seeing the earth from an airplane:

I saw there on earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves, I saw the simple solutions of Braque, I saw the wandering lines of Masson, yes I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary, he understands what is contemporary when the contemporaries do not yet know it.

Just as the de-familiarising effects of Stein’s aerial view gave her new perspective on abstraction,  ‘A Gift for the Illuminated Sphere’ – a book curated and produced in response to The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition ‘Adventures in the Black Square: Abstract Art & Society 1915-2015’ – is designed to push the viewer towards a new mode of seeing. The juxtaposition of images from medieval visual, textual, and material culture and abstract art bring about a realisation that medieval art is as contemporary as the radical forms of abstraction conceived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As Deborah Levy said of the book, it ‘whips the rug from under modernity’s feet and destabilises it all over again.’’

 

This blog has been rather silent for far too long, but that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a proliferation of creative and critical activity keeping me busy.  So here is a very brief introduction to some recent publications which I have been involved in, in various ways.

The Still Point Journal #1

Issue #1 of The Still Point Journal launched a few weeks ago. It exists in a printed, perfect-bound edition, complete with a spine and the delicious, freshly-pressed smell of paper and ink (it’s a slim little book!). It can also be enjoyed from cover to virtual cover online and will be making its repeated debut at various venues and events across London throughout the year.

A year in the making, Issue #1 is a veritable feast for the senses: filled with creative prose, fabulous poetry and beautiful artwork and illustrations, it is begging to be enjoyed!

 

‘The Distant Star’ – The Nottingham Review

A couple of months ago, my short story ‘The Distant Star’ was published in the first issue of the digital literary journal, The Nottingham Review, which can be read online. The journal includes some really excellent and provocative short fiction and is well worth a read. My story is about academics, artichokes, and feeling out of place in other languages. It’s the first of my stories from the Chilean series to be published, so look out for more in the future.

So the anniversary of Bolaño’s death falls now within a kind of crazy hot bliss, extenuated by thirst. Bolaño himself might have enjoyed the bitter poetics of it. The chance to torture his protagonists, to prolong their discomfort: the critics chasing their dead writer. This hot Valparaíso, enjoying its stagnant second summer: the toilet bowls stinking of urine; the frustrated, choked, gurgling of taps; the water trucks circling neighbourhoods with industrial tankers of mysterious liquid; and our hands sticky with a soap we can’t wash away. This Valparaíso greets Latin America’s finest, most astute academics: the rich smell of sweat and sex palpable on dirty streets.

 

‘Paranoid Lights’ – With Regard To Light and Dark

Back in August I also had my short story ‘Paranoid Lights’ published in the literary zine With Regard To. The zine features twelve short stories and eight pieces of ambient music written and composed for the theme of light and dark, and you can purchase a copy online. My story is about the colliding trajectories of two strangers on the streets of London.

But I see no theatrics, no cinematics: only the cold glow of artificial lights on the surface of the fountains. There is no coincidence in the gathering of that smile and its weakening shadow. If you track it, it is no longer a random act of fatal London.

 

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dismorr, the engine

This month Flashpoint Mag launched an issue devoted to Blast magazine in its centenary year. Having heard about the work I did on Jessie Dismorr during my undergraduate degree they asked if I would submit something so that they could give the women of Blast the coverage they deserve.  You can read my piece on ‘Walking and Rewriting London’ here.  My essay considers the relation of Dismorr to the feminist and metropolitan cultures of her day and I argue that her writings for Blast represent a personal rewriting of the patriarchal city – an architectural prose which re-conceptualizes the London of 1915.

I discovered Jessie Dismorr’s work in Blast during my degree and enjoyed hunting down new sources for her work and exploring the significance and feminism of her short experiments in the world of prose. You can read some of my reflections on different aspects of her work and career on my old blog, where I was tracking my research: Jessie Dismorr- Vorticist Streets, Jessie Dismorr and Rhythm, The Omnibus.

But my return to Jessie Dismorr’s prose has been an ‘interlude of high-love making’ and I must get back to the ‘life of thoroughfares to which I belong (i.e the subject of my PhD!).

I wander in the precincts of stately urban houses.  Moonlight carves them in purity. The presence of these great and rectangular personalities is a medicine. They are the children of colossal restraint, they are the last word of prose. (Poetics, your day is over!)  In admiring them I have put myself on the side of all severities.  I seek the profoundest teachings of the inanimate.  I feel the emotion of related shapes.  Oh, discipline of ordered pilasters and porticoes!  My volatility rests upon you as a swimmer hangs upon a rock. (Dismorr, ‘June Night’)

Richard Warren, whose blog provides a wonderful and extensive archive of Dismorr’s work, references my work before exploring Flanerie and Loss on the No.43 bus: Jessie Dismorr and Rosemary Tonks:

‘The new Flashpoint online magazine has a useful piece by Francesca Brooks on Jessie Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, whose artworks and writings can be found extensively on my pages up above. Brooks focuses pretty much entirely on Dismorr’s two urbanist prose poems published in 1915 in Blast 2. Her tie-in of Dismorr with Guy Debord and the dérive is apt and necessary; we can easily overlook the romantic roots of situationist thought, and the dérive is derived from Baudelairean flânerie.’

A few weeks ago I was involved in a creative thought-experiment in which Anglo-Saxonists from King’s College London were invited to respond to the current abstract art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery ‘Adventures in the Black Square.’  In preparation for an event hosted by writer-in-residence, Caroline Bergvall, called ‘Adventures in the Illuminated Sphere – a meeting point between medieval culture and contemporary art’ we made a class trip to the exhibit and played with thinking medieval in a modern space. It required us to do the kind of close, superficial reading which would usually be discouraged: a reading of your own biases and interests into absolute alterity.

I thought about:

*Paper cultures/Textual Cultures

*Abstraction as a form of anarchic marginalia

*Language and script as a foundational pattern for visuals

The result of this thought-experiment was a vibrant and surreal evening for which Fran Allfrey and I produced a book of juxtapositions and uncanny reflections between the abstract and the medieval. Fran was responsible for the design and physical/digital making of the book, and we were both responsible for contributing ideas and concepts. You can enjoy the book on Issuu, it’s our gift to you.

The Still Point Twitter Cover

Along with other PhD researchers at King’s College London and UCL, I’ve been working on a new literary journal which will be a forum for creative, tangential thinking and writing related (however loosely) to our research. We’ve released our Call for Submissions for the journal we will be producing over the summer, but in the meantime we are also working on some teasers for our blog to inspire the kind of thinking we are interested in exploring.

One of our short features for the blog is the ‘The Secret Autobiography of my PhD’, a kind of confessional space in which we encourage people to reflect on what compels them to do their research and the autobiographical stories which might underlie the endless footnotes and bibliographies of their thesis. I began the series with my own confessional, something of a revelation in which I stumbled upon what Seamus Heaney would call my ‘thole-pin’ – my local and vernacular claim to the old language I study.

The other week my flatmate stumbled into my bedroom and surveyed the chaos. “Your room is filled with so much paper” she said as she looked in wonder from the books arranged anarchically across the shelves and puzzled together on the desk, to the gatherings of bills and letters, the postcards pinned to the walls, the mind-maps and the folders of work popping with paper-weights. I feel like my life is an increasingly unruly paper trail: paper breeds paper it seems, every book ends with a Borgesian bibliography which propels you towards an infinite library of more books. But my relationship with texts and with stories began before collections of material papers, before bindings. It began with my mother’s voice.

Read the full piece, as well as the first of our PhD Playlists, on The Still Point blog: https://stillpointldn.wordpress.com/.

And here’s a little of our Call for Submissions to whet your appetite too:

The Still Point Journal is currently seeking submissions of creative non-fiction, short fiction, poetry, and visual artwork, for its inaugural issue and web journal.

 A new literary journal for Arts and Humanities researchers in London, The Still Point aims to be a forum for dialogue, collaboration and experimentation, and offers a space for creatively writing through ideas in original forms.

 The Journal will feature short fiction and poetry although its particular focus is on non-fiction writing, related – however tangentially – to our research and the kind of rich thinking and exploration we do during the course of this research. These informal articles and journalistic pieces, free of footnotes or bibliographies, should feel more like a collection of conversations had with fellow researchers over coffee than academic papers. You might tell the story of a visit to an archive, or a pilgrimage in search of the traces of a writer or artist, or simply mull over some inspiration which came from an unexpected source…if you have a story to tell, we’d like to hear it.

 ‘The still point’ reflects our experience of being new researchers and represents those moments when we take time out of our days for deep thinking and reflection: when the world gets quiet but our minds are still racing. For the first issue we invite submissions in response to the quotation from T.S Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, from which the journal takes its name. Responses can be as creative and as broad as you like, and we are particularly interested in seeing work which blurs the boundaries of form and genre.