Monday, 2 March 2015
Some Lorca fresh from the hut:
The Six Strings
of the guitar,
is the bellied-sob
of roaming souls:
And like a tarantula,
she spins a great star -
to catch sighs that float
in the guts
A couple of years ago i got a late night call from New Mexico from
David Abram. You almost certainly read him, and I bashfully confess I
hadn't up until he brokered a conversation -
a conversation i'm pleased to report has continued to this
very day. So here's something about an area of his work that rubs
up clearly against my own. As usual, be prepared for a few references
for things that are not in this small piece. As should be clear,
his work is a swell place to visit.
NARCISSUS AND WORD-POWER
To David Abram, the move to the vivacity of alphabet is not something
dismissed, or even quite disapproved of. It’s held in appropriate awe. But
awe can highlight danger, and his work choreographs - like a fox
weaving a minefield - the losses and the gains involved. Both The Spell
of the Sensuous (1996) and Becoming Animal (2010) are land mark texts.
Rather than banishing the written word, David amplifies its potency:
the work gets us conscious of its power. That the human animal has
woven it’s steady way to a truly bespoke form of animism, but a kind of
aliveness that only reflects our nature. Like Narcissus transfixed by his
own reflection, written words give us a swift insight on ourselves - what
some call a mirror - but at the same time can trap us to a wider picture.
Oral culture - when speech volleys up and into the wider canopy of bird song
and hedge-rustle - catches glimpses of a shared conversation wider than just
the grind of our own mental kingdom. Speech gets tenderised and inflected
and challenged in a manner most unlike when squatted over the glowing
screen of a laptop.
But let’s own up. Isn’t it glorious to do just that? In a world seemingly
growing so abstract, a universe so unutterable vast, the split-second
reward of a finely crafted sentence can feel like something tangible,
robust, something to shelter under. And hours later, glutted by language,
doesn’t sometimes the wider world seem a little greyer, a little further
away in comparison? That’s the word-power of the alphabet.
It enables me a wonderfully false sense of security.
Do you remember, a few pages back, talk of the medieval universe?
Remember the moves of Copernicus to seemingly reveal the wizard
behind the curtain, that we revolved around the sun, rather than the other
way round ? That kind of thing rattles a sensual being. As Abram writes,
it replaces qualities with quantities (Abram 2010 :155-56). Our own
emerging, scenting, intuiting, way of being in the world is, in a moment,
absolutely secondary to the mechanisms of an exterior universe,
quantifiable but staggeringly huge. Who are we to presume our little
stories of the oak with the moss on the north flank, or the night that the
river Exe became an adder are anything but whimsy? But stories are like
cobwebs; they collect a hundred secrets in their net. Impacted, intentional
secrets between wolves and pines, trouts and river people. Well, that
storied world and its implicit relatedness has mostly fallen around our
feet. A few hundred years of this and it’s not surprising we are nervous
And where does that vast, aboriginal interior go? Entirely into the
confines of a human body, a frame woefully too small for its majesty. But
we have to get a sense of an interior, of being held, from somewhere, and
so we finally draw it reluctantly into the bone-house of our own body.
And it’s there that we enter the temple of Narcissus. There that we
build our little house of words to cope with a cosmos wrenched asunder.
It makes us feel better, at least for awhile. But down the line, are we not
busy devising a kind of hallucination? In Devon there is old folklore that
insists it is fatal to catch to catch your reflection in still water. Dartmoor,
and its preponderance for fast moving streams and rivers is more like the
oral tradition - words fly by you - but the still pool of literacy is more
like the magicians circle, a greater compression to the conjuring. And, as
with all magic, there is a cost.
When I go to the trees, and the long pale beaches of our south coast,
and the rutted little streams of Dartmoor, they don’t provide me with easy
mirrors. They do away with me feeling in control, or on top of
something. I don’t necessarily feel powerful. So, let’s be pragmatic a
second: what does that look like?
It looks like me walking a stretch of ground telling a story and bearing
witness to how the earth reacts. The long fettered silences, the moment
when a buzzard lurches from a tree, the bubbled sigh of foam on sand
enable me (to use literary terms a moment) an entirely different sense of
punctuation, full stops and adjectives. They get to work on my
imagination, they seep into the spoken words and re-arrange some of the
rhythms. I don’t see myself mirrored back to me. I see myself flooding
into some far bigger. The mirror has cracked from side to side, and I slip
through the eye of the needle.
I leant over the side with my fisherman's net, and got pulled into the big
So much of anything worth admiring in my own work I can’t take much
credit for - other than being a faithful witness. In the living world the
stories don’t immediately bounce back to me, they don’t reflect
necessarily what happened with me at my kindergarten when I was five.
They take me on Walkabout.
Hours later, soaked, sobered or a little high, depending on the journey,
I may arrive at my little hut and scrawl a few lines. But when I glance up
there may not be that tin roof any more, but a hundred million stars
whispering in their high, cold language, and no solid timber underneath
my boots, but a fragrant rug of pine needles.
Nature will show more than ourselves, back to ourselves. That’s one of
the inestimable privileges of a life. A core of aboriginal thought. No one,
least of all Abram, is calling for book burning, or unthinking hysteria.
But I think he calls for a proper appreciation of power, and how,
somehow, written words could actually enable ways to re-hydrate the
terms of our Narcissian relationship to the alphabet. We need breathing
holes for the seals in our syntax, lush passages of word-grass for Scottish
cattle to bend their hairy, gingered skulls to.
This is not just a flight of fancy, this can be practice. Localised,
maintained practice. When i tell a story to a group of people, i’ve already
been soaked in the responses of the natural world to it. Wit has arisen,
tensions have been defined and unexpected flights of imagination
negotiated by the sturdy presence of the Dart river. So a kind of braiding
to the living world can take place before a wider human sharing. There’s
already the fragile print of a starlings claw in its mud, the perfume of
apple-blossom some way back in the odour of the telling. Your conscious
mind may not catch it, but some way back, your animal body shifts in the
bracken and says yes.
Another move from Abram. At some point in this kind of conversing,
a good soul will often stand up and berate the speaker for attaching
any kind of human characteristics whatsoever to the living world. That
it’s all still anthropocentric to claim a cloud as grumpy, or the wiggle of
a bush as ebullient. They have a point.
If our emotional education has stretched no further than our fiercely
protected inner-self, they have a point. That it’s nothing but a land grab to
start prodding plants and passing rooks and describe their moods. Cheap.
But that’s not what David says we did. For thousands and thousands of
years, that’s not what we did. When you wander freely in the wider
psyche, then a ruby dark sky filled with juddered thunder is inexorably
bound to the sharp thump of feat in your gut. It’s not an affectation, not a
metaphor even, but immediate, beautifully devastating relatedness. That
very thunder is the initial educational image for a young girl on the
plains, a-swarm with anger for her sister. Earth is where she draws self
If we listen, first, to the sounds of an oral language - to the rhythms,
tones, and inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture - we
will likely find that these elements are attuned, in multiple and subtle
ways, to the contour and scale of the local landscape, to the depth of its
valleys or the open stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the
local topography. (Abram 1996 :140)
This is wise thinking, properly spell-breaking syntax. The use of alphabet
to actually wake us up from its often-trance-capacity. We witness here an
enormous clue as to how to re-braid ourselves to the living world. To
take ourselves out into, I suggest, a fairly small stretch of earth and
simply re-consecrate our speech to its contours and grit.
Again, I say this isn’t whimsy, this is something that can be learnt.
This is a tangible skill. Re-read the section about telling stories as a way
of them being shaped by the earth and start there maybe. Move back into
the sensing range of your own body. Commit to a decent stretch of time.
Not an afternoon, not a workshop, but real damn slow. Like a rock is
This reason why Abrams work is so arresting is because it’s not just
startling poetics, not just philosophy, but that it instigates something in us
honestly deep. It does chthonic work. Something rare. It instigates, dare-I-
say it - remembering. A remembering that is hard when beset by the
twenty thousand things you have to do before lunch, but it’s there. Now
In the caribou-dust of your bones, it’s there. In the pre-history of the
flames that lick your hearth, it’s there. We’re old y’know. Whatever they
like to tell you on the television. When we bend our head and sob
without reason entering an old oak grove, that’s not sentimentality,
it’s animal memory.
copyright Martin Shaw 2015
Posted by School of Myth at 08:45