Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith

The massive Eggborough coal fired power station recently announced its closure. On being asked how they felt, the miners chorused, "devastated." A West Sussex family were "devastated" just before Christmas to realise that they would have to leave the country and return to city living in London. The death of Pavel Srnicek, former Newcastle United goalkeeper, left the manager "absolutely devastated". The one and only David Beckham found himself equally "devastated" by the Paris atrocities. The adjective "devastated" has become a media cliche, which many grasp at as if it is the ultimate tragic emotion that can be felt. Unfortunately, for the many, "devastated" isn't an emotion and if the grieving were asked to enlarge on their devastation, they probably would have little to offer as an explanation.

The experience of personal devastation is best described by John Donne in Holy Sonnet XIV. Well aware that devastation means "to be made empty" and refers to warfare and the sacking of homes, Donne describes himself as "an usurpt towne". He longs for God to "enthrall" him, enslave him in effect, and finally "ravish" him, with ravishment carrying a double sense entwined: rapture, rape, intercourse and defilement. As a result of this devastation, in having his male body assaulted like a town, Donne believes that his feminine soul will be made chaste once more.

The contrast between Donne's metaphysical sense of being "devastated" and the modern usage of the word shows how clumsily we approach emotions (as a culture). Though there was a period some years ago during in which "emotional intelligence" became a buzz phrase, the education of emotions has waned. The deterioration has accompanied the dying of the Arts in education. Emotional training or an awareness of "felt form" has no place in the new Govian, Conservative curriculum with its emphasis on facts and bits of knowledge. Teachers now teach students the recognition of similes and how to write a simile rather than how to emotionally respond to a poet's usage of a simile or use a simile to convey a personal, emotional response in their own writing.

Tiffany Watt Smith's The Book of Human Emotions (2015) is a wonderful antidote to the current devastation of education. Written in association with The Wellcome Trust for (mental) health, the book is a collection of short, well-researched, wise and funny essays on emotions and how they relate in real life. The book is compiled in alphabetical order, Abhiman to Zal, from wounded dignity to melancholy. The book benefits from incisive thoughts and clear illustrations...and ranges across emotions from diverse cultures. In her essay on Resentment, Watt Smith captures its depths and dangers, seeing how this emotion underlies the terrorism of organisations such as ISIS; and how the correct response is to pin it down as a low-status bitter response, to deny its fake heroism (exactly how the terrorist recruits: by up-grading spiteful emotions into glorious ideals). The book is also characterised by a witty understanding of language and emotions rooted in words-- Disgruntlement is derived from the grunting of pigs! 

In reading this book, the reader not only discovers a new emotional language, but experiences emotions too. There is Joy in reading Watt Smith's thoughts on Fagu...compassionate care...and Sadness in Awumbuk, the heavy fog left when someone dear departs from a place. For the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, departure is a time for filling bowls with fresh water to absorb the heavy air that is left behind (in the mind and physical world). The Book of Human Emotions is a humane and wise book, one that is emotionally satisfying to read. It is best read an essay per day, at a time allocated for quite thought, or flicked through so as the many surprises gather.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Race War at Oxford, The Colossus of Rhodes.

Four years ago, the Sutton Trust for educational mobility, reported that 4 of the top independent schools and one Cambridge based Six Form College sent as many student to Oxbridge as 2000 other schools. The bias in admissions is not new. The worst aspect of the recent criticism, in December 2015, by the cross-party Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (Oxford continues to discriminate against applicants from lower class backgrounds) is that nothing has changed since the previous damning report.

In 2011, PM David Cameron criticised Oxford’s racist policy for only admitting one Black UK student. Not surprisingly, being educated at Eton (one of the independent schools with privileged access to Oxbridge) and not au fait with details of ethnicity, Cameron got the figures wrong. Only 1 Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford: Caribbean does not equal Black! Laughably, Oxford responded with indignation: its figures showed that it had admitted 27 Black UK students. Is 27 better than 1? Well, yes, 26 better, but hardly much to boast about. That 27 would be only 3% of the students supplied by the elite schools and a minimal percentage of all students admitted to Oxford.

The negative attitude within Oxford University towards lower class students and Black students is entrenched. So, the current race row at Oxford is interesting to watch and survey. Oriel College has a commemorative statue of Cecil Rhodes affixed to its college wall: Cecil Rhodes, founder of apartheid as an acceptable philosophy, the man who legislated for the right of owners to beat their slaves (thus reversing what had been removed by the Anti-Slavery abolitionists earlier in the C19) and the Imperialist who believed that White dominance was an educational necessity. Not the best advocate for an Oxford College, but then, maybe he is: Rhodes stands as a prime example of upper class supremacy, elitism and prejudice.

Should the statue of Rhodes be removed? The emeritus fellow of Magdalene college, R W Johnson thinks not. It would be an act of philistinism, much like the destruction of cultural buildings by Islamic terrorists. That isn’t the best comparison for him, as a Rhodes scholar, to make of the Black leader of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. Suggesting that Ntokozo Kwabe (another Rhodes scholar) is a terrorist really evokes the language of apartheid.

The noted Jamaican academic Stuart Hall once commented that what he most disliked about being a Rhodes scholar at Oxford was the “distilled Englishness”. This also finds voice in the protesters against the Rhodes statue—it is a symbol of a prejudiced curriculum at Oxford that upholds White supremacist values.

All of this sounds like Dambudzo Marechera at Oxford. He did not know what to do with Oxford and Oxford did not know what to do with him. He realised that he divorced apartheid for an unhappy Black-White educational marriage. Marechera expressed his views on Oxfordian Rhodes and his liking for young male servants, his “lambs”, by transfiguring him into a Black transvestite in “The Alley”. Marechera also summed up his view of Black students at Oxford, in a mocking version of Fanon's Black Skin White Masks, as “chimpanzees…chittering about Rhodes and bananas.” ("Black Skin What Mask", The House of Hunger p.103). Nothing has changed that much.

Privilege arguing against privilege. Oxford should be re-curricularised? Who cares beyond those at Oxford? Would it change much for many? Not at all. Using Rhodes as a figure-head for an attack means little outside Oxford and the Oxfordonians who want to enter the debate. Most of Rhodes’ precious Englishmen and women will not know his reputation. The whole on-going saga stinks of hypocrisy. If Ntokozo Kwabe is so opposed to Rhodes and Oxford, why did he not refuse the Rhodes scholarship and stay away from Oxford? Because he knew that it would be good for his future career, that is why. Really, it is “let’s have the revolution after I’ve gained what came for”. His argument that the Rhodes scholarship money was just taking what Rhodes plundered from his people is worthy of a future barrister/politician. The principled stand would be stay away from tainted funding. It is all very well for Cameron to pluck fine words about too few students in Oxford, but this is the man who allowed Gove to turn the education curriculum backwards and—in a truly Rhodesian move—enshrine the teaching of "British values". If Cameron truly cared about Black pupil achievement, he would recognise what Fanon once said: you do not go around tilting at statues, you set about “decolonising the mind”. If we—as a culture—were engaged in decolonising the curriculum, indeed, removing the restrictions of a curriculum, opening up the education system at primary and secondary levels such that disadvantaged Black pupils are educated rather than schooled, then there might be less Black pupil failure, more Black pupils ready for Oxford and Cambridge…or better still, thinking students ready for more creative and valued degrees outside Oxford and Cambridge. The notion that Black students are disadvantaged and therefore do not succeed likes to place the fault within the the social background of the students. (In  the past centuries, it was within the mental capacities of the students). The real issue is that the curriculum is the cause of disadvantage, having little for Black students to identify with or take inspiration from. Cameron has no interest in radicalising Oxford, his Oxford, or the dissolution of the private elite establishment that fashioned him and placed him in Oxford. His words are nothing more than beating nanny with a silver teaspoon and the latest Oxford debacle is a storm in a fluted champagne glass. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Afriboy's Hermetical Gay Art

Orokie/Afriboy/or A-Free-Boy was born in April, 1979, on “ a small island of Lake Victoria”, Uganda. He was educated there, in Kenya, and finally in Spain. From an early age, he drew secretly, using pictorial storytelling to explore his understanding of male-male love and sexual desire. (The word “gay” isn’t a term used by Orokie in his art, as he draws from African rather than Western traditions).

“I was grown drawing” he once wrote. And by this he meant more than “I grew up drawing”. Drawing was his education…it drew him out of himself, stretched him, and through drawing he learnt how to grow. At school in Kenya, where art was forbidden and water scarce, he painted using the water from drinks of tea.

Drawing developed Orokie's awareness of self and allowed him to shape his osotwa identity, which he felt was indigenous to Africa, part of its “tones of nature”. Osotwa, in Kenyan Maasai terminology, carries two important meanings: it is both the umbilical chord/navel and a bonded community. Osotwa is a sacred word for Orokie: it is a psychic link, an antenna chord at the centre of the body that links male lovers together. 

Osotwa 1 (showing fused navel chords).
The graphite image was pure language for Orokie. 

Eventually, he moved to ink, watercolour crayon and watercolour paint. He thinks in orokieglyphs, using symbolism and collages more easily than words and thus avoiding colonial language, the language of the oppressor that enslaved him and others and continues to do so. (This language is connected to The Bible and how it continues to be a source that justifies Africa’s hatred towards “homosexuals”). The following illustration is a good example of his humorous thinking and playful awareness of Hermes and Hermeticism, one that visually rhymes Hermes, the god, with Hermes, the fashion brand; African sexuality and Western capitalism; male super-models (Salieu Jalloh) and the racist commodification of the Black male body.

In March 2006, Orokie returned to Kenya for a visit. This became the beginning of a terrible ordeal in which he was attacked for his “homosexuality”. Whilst journeying home, he was wounded by an armed gang, receiving a panga blade to the skull. This and other injuries left him critically ill and facing blindness. Over a year, Orokie recorded this trauma in the Black Notebook Daler 3404Orokie returned to full-scale painting in January 2008. He was never free of health problems, however, and had to cope with deteriorating eye-sight. In a series of works called Orgone, based on Reichian therapy, he later developed an hermetical symbolism (recalling the visual puns of Leonardo da Vinci) that notated his recovery towards drawing and painting once more. 

The art of Orokie/Afriboy is a vital record of same sex love in Africa. His work has appeared in Black: The African Male Nude 3 (2006) and 8 (2008) and Mein Schwules Auge 6 (2009) and a careful selection of his work (chosen by himself) can be seen at the online Homoerotic Museum. The art of Orokie is individual, but always aimed to his African perception of sex, one that unites and serves a communal and political purpose. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Physical, Poetry and Andrew McMillan

Andrew McMillan’s Physical was recently nominated for the Forward Prize for Poetry and won The Guardian First Book Award, in November, 2015.  It was a deserved win and one notable for a number of reasons. Physical placed poetry on The Guardian First Book Award list for the first time in 16 years. (A shocking reminder of how a powerful cultural force historically has become side-lined among the point that only two poets have ever made the shortlist). The accolade also acknowledged the talent of a gay writer whose themes are not immediately in touch with the lives of the many book-groups that took part in the judging process: a tribute to liberalism and fair-mindedness. (Curious, though, how the book groups felt the need to recognise the difference and remoteness in McMillan's gay life yet somehow felt close to a mythically inspired novel about a fishing expedition in Nigeria! Perhaps, that fact tells us something about reading habits and genres: when it comes to novels, readers actively seek fictional worlds beyond their own reality; when it comes to poetry they seek an endorsement of their own world). And finally, the win recognised a poetical voice that is Northern and rooted and mercifully free of dreaming spires and Englishness.

At the presentation in London, McMillan paid tribute to his editor at Cape, Robin Robertson, and that seems a sensible place to begin this review of Physical because so much of how poetry appears these days is down to the work of a poet and how that work is manipulated by publishing houses into its final form.

The introductory blurb by Cape promotes McMillan’s poetry as an “almost religious celebration of the flesh” in “colloquial Yorkshire rhythms with a sinewy Metaphysical music”.  That “almost” is quite revealing, for it notes that this description isn’t McMillan’s work exactly; in fact, the tone of worship is about as close to religion as the semen stain that Gunn memorizes with such precision on “the toe of a boot” in “The Miracle” (The Passages of  Joy, 1982). Each night it is polished and renewed like "a saint’s blood". It is unfortunate that, in England, when it comes to male-to-male sexual writing, we are unable to promote naked flesh without dressing it in spirituality. One of McMillan’s achievements is that he is able to love the flesh for what it is and write with candour…and wit. The Cape blurb has led some reviewers to hear the blurb rather than the actual poetry and talk of “hymns to the male body”, as if McMillan is Michelangelo addressing Cavalieri. (This is encouraged by the cover’s representative gay, naked male, which echoes the provocative design that Carcanet produced for Neil Powell’s True Colours, in 1991. Carcanet dared to go as far as a bare torso with open trousers and a hanging leather belt. Cape has gone as far as a crack-shot, de-capitated and de-membered, so as the viewer can add their own desires to the smooth, marbled, classical body. McMillan's honest poetry has nothing to do with the body-beautiful. But a beautiful butt sells better than normality). Seduced by this, Alison Flood has felt a “heavy scent of sensuality” in McMillan's work. Probably, only a female reviewer with no unfortunate knowledge of male toilets could describe a poem about male urinals as possessing a “scent”. The wit of McMillan is learnt more from the twisting debates of Gunn and his ability to transform a poem with a surprise conclusion is learnt from St. Thom rather than directly from Donne and Marvell. As with Gunn, there is a modern Elizabethanism and like the poet who paid homage to Hermes in Moly, McMillan is well-aware of the poetical trickster. He uses the flow of words (no punctuation) to create rich, Mannerist effects. What is most likeable about McMillan is his love of verbal tricks rather than the usual dull accounts of tricks picked up in gay bars. The “colloquial Yorkshire rhythms” are heard in the middle section of Physical, in the re-published pamphlet “protest of the physical”. And, maybe, they are heard too obviously, for comic effect:

                        drunk man to the drunker woman
                        where you from?            Barnsley

The northern voice is heard more effectively in the weighting of certain syllables and words, in a dryness and flatness of tone. The long poem “protest of the physical” has been compared to Howl and McMillan to Ginsberg. It isn’t comparable and he isn’t:

                       the men are weeping in the gym
                       using the hand dryer to cover
                       their sobs  their hearts have grown too big
                       for their chests…

That could be Ginsberg’s Howl, but for the conscious irony and analytical mockery. There is surrealism in "The Men are Weeping in the Gym" that is closer to Liverpool, Patten and Henri, than Berkeley, California. Those northern readers who know Route Publishers, in Pontefract, and have read Howl for Now (2005) will not be fooled by such empty comparisons. (There is critical life outside the South). McMillan is McMillan and he possesses his own voice. In truth, “protest for the physical”, though important to McMillan, as it got him out of a writing-rut and into ploughing new fields;- isn’t the strongest work in Physical. The most memorable poems are those such as “Urination” and “Yoga” where there is direct communication with the reader and you listen to the voice in the words, on the page, and the shifts of humour and pathos and a sense of what comes out, not in poetry, but in the gay photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, where every little thing matters and homeliness and the commonplace exist alongside existence and uncertainty:

                       the toilet is an intimacy
                       only shared with parents when you are young
                       and once again when they are older
                       and with lovers when   say   on  a Sunday
                       morning stretching into the bathroom
                       you wake to the sound of stream into bowl
                       and go to hug the naked body…

I would rather read that, on a Sabbath, than go to Church! That is poetic communion. “Strongman” has wonderful humour and pathos and an ability to present complex ideas in clear images. “Finally” is a plangent lyric with a moving ending.

The problem in assessing Physical, is where to place McMillan as a gay poet, something that current reviews avoid. (Do the reviewers know any gay poetry outside Gunn and Ginsberg?) And something that Cape's publishing blurb and public recommendations avoid too. Even Mark Doty alludes to "male desire" rather than be direct about the nature of the poetry, allowing the reader to deduce that this must be gay poetry because Doty, as the most well-known gay (American) poet in the UK, as a Cape poet, is praising it to his gay Cape readership. All of the biographical, journalistic pieces written about McMillan dwell on his gay sexuality, yet this is rubbed away in the volume's shaping. Richard Scott, writing for Ambit, places McMillan alongside Jee Leong Koh…because he writes about “cocks”. He also sees McMillan as “Doty-esque”. Indeed, there is influence from Mark Doty on McMillan: it is heard in the blend of narrative construction and lyricism. Yet, Doty-esque he isn’t. The diminutive (though Scott means it as praise) is not just. Like Randall Mann, in Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), McMillan writes with an eye on Gunn, but his writing is truer to the spirit of Gunn and possesses a greater technical range. As Gunn learnt from Robert Duncan without copying technique, so McMillan has learnt from Gunn without becoming Gunn-esque. Gunn is the signpost at the Yorkshire crossroads. It points in many directions, towards the Pennines and beyond-- across the Atlantic. When writing, McMillan makes leaps in thought and syntax that are like climbing a staircase and missing a step. Ground disappears and re-appears. The love of language and how it can dazzle and deceive (like the physical body) is reminiscent of Reginald Shepherd, though McMillan does not push as far into realms of multi-layered perceptions. Shepherd is the true gay Metaphysical poet (and Duncan). He is careful not to make his poems into poems about language: they are poems about personal human experience. They are confessional, yet they are not genre poems about coming out. They are individual, contradictory poems that arise from the enquiring body that lived and carried them. Physical is a significant debut by a poet who can write about sexual identity without the dreary polemics of identity politics. McMillan is an intriguing poet and a valuable, emerging gay poet.