An unconstituted self I move through the movements of South Kensington. The science focus of Imperial College means many confident faces. Élégantes in designer dresses stride past families outside the museums, stalling the eye each time like the woman in red of The Matrix. There’s a feel around the city I remember from Dublin before. People strike up conversations in bookshops. Some of them walk like they don’t care where they’re going.
I have gone seeking for you in the twilight,
Here in the flurry of Fifth Avenue,
Here where they pass between their teas and teas.
– Ezra Pound(1)
Why not? Where will she be if not here? Pound is caught between the past and present, regretting his time as he lives it: “our modernity / Nerve-wracked and broken . . .”
Is it such madness? though you could not be
Ever in all that crowd, no gown
Of all their subtle sorts could be your gown.
– Pound, Ibid.
Back in the middle ages people flocked to the courts because they were economic centres. What has changed. To become secure you affiliate, you render service, you trade. The new lords are companies and they bind their cohorts with conventions, manners and modes in essentially the same way. Ethos is a state-of-the-art sports facility in South Kensington. (For the way we live today.)
What is “people-watching.” When the receptionist at the hotel tells me that the bar is good for people-watching, does she mean that this is where people can be easily watched, or where they go to be watched, or that these are the people to watch? Suggest I’m “people-watching” and I get annoyed. The composite doesn’t mean its components. I watch people but it’s not an activity I want pinned as a caption on a map of my daily trajectories, same as optout dis-orderings like OCD and ADHD.
Yet I am fed with faces, is there one
That even in the half-light mindeth me.
– Pound, Ibid.
I want to be absorbed in the experience of people appearing. The ever-changing landscape of the street. Between the feet and the first storeys of buildings a weather of bodies, garments, moods, expressions.
The troubadour Bertran de Born wizards nature out of sight in a neat feint of the traditional opening that becomes a hymn to acculturation. Not exactly today’s city, but its embryo:
Cant vei pels vergiers desplegar
los cendatz grocs, indis e blaus,
m’adousa la vos dels cavaus
e·l sonet que fan li juglar
que viulen de trap en tenda,
trombas e corn e graile clar.
Adoncs voill un sirventes far
tal que·l coms Richartz l’entenda.
[When I see in gardens banners of yellow, indigo and blue silk being unfurled, I am filled with sweet delight, by the neighing of the horses and the melodies of the joglars who go from tent to pavilion playing the viol, trumpets, horns and high-pitched clarions. That is why I want to compose a sirventes such that King Richard may hear it.]
The sirventes was a poem of contention or satire, a political poem. Gérard Gouiran remarks that the celebration of culture’s colours naturally leads to this kind of poem: “war becomes the most reﬁned manifestation of aristocratic existence.”(2)
In a Tube station during rush hour, the whole space between me and the metal mobility is constituted of bodies. Immediate switch to survival alert. It’s exhilarating. Composure and strategy. They illogically squeeze on and wait for the door to press their foreheads in, as if it’s life to be luggage.
The environment changes again and there’s calm. When you’re not in the open—encountering soil and basic processes—movement is a kind of abstraction. It generates itself and signifies itself. The situation is paradoxically machinic and bearing always the possibility that one face and one body might stop and there will be touch.
What is essentially different. The girl sitting with her boyfriend is utterly gentil. Sweet-voiced, sweet-faced, smiling as if it’s her main mode. I think they’re discussing some philosophical or ethical matter, but they’re doing it with such happiness and yearning towards each other it’s like watching two blades of grass in a meadow-breeze. Not a hint of pain. Next to them a woman’s eyes express a combination of shock and bewilderment. The expression is constant and applies to everything. What are you about, they ask me. Everything is too too incomprehensible. The others—they comprehend, do they.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
– Ezra Pound (‘In a Station of the Metro’)
There’s a statue of a dog beside an obscure pathway next to the Old English Garden in Battersea Park. It replaces a statue dedicated to a brown dog who suffered vivisection for two months in the early 1900s. The original statue was removed because of prolonged riots between medical students and anti-vivisectionists. This one was erected in 1985 and is quite different from the earlier, whose pictures show it symmetrically erect, with a neutral expression. The newer one has an ear raised and is twisting its head up as if inquisitive, possibly worried.(3)
The more machine we become
the more humane it seems to me.
Smiling does not deny this.
To rise and go merely about things
is what we ask of each other:
be not in my face or hair.
Helping across the road or border
is a gift you proffer when your heart
beats slow like an athlete, not winged.
– Máighréad Medbh(4)
Chirico’s cityscapes are predominantly peopled by statues: “sundials casting lengthened shadows, arcaded galleries, empty vans, factory chimneys, and spacious city squares populated only with strange statues.”(5) Why is that, when the hallmark of the urban is the crowd. Charles Sanders points to Chirico’s “shyness, his love of silence, his extreme introspection, and reverence for inanimate objects - biscuits in brilliant wrappers, candy, colored sticks, fruit, toy trains, his father's engineering instruments . . .”(6)
Culture Colour, the new nature, rises and seasons a life augmented by sophisticated tools. Highlights the steel in the skyscrapers. The stage between movement and face.
[Raven, poet and friend, deeply regretted. But essence of you remains.]
(1) “Und Drang,” VIb, from Canzoni. Poems & Translations, New York: Library of America, 2003, 167.
(2) “The Classical Period: From Raimbaut D’Aurenga to Arnaut Daniel,” Chapter 5, The Troubadours: An Introduction, ed. Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, 86.
The full poem in Old Occitan can be found here. The quoted translation is by Gérard Gouiran, Ibid.
(3) "The Brown Dog Affair" at The History Press.
(4) From “Technik,” unpublished.
(5) Quoted in Charles Sanders. “Elizabeth Bishop: Poems at an Exhibition.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 15, no. 4, 1981, pp. 45–60. www.jstor.org/stable/3332545.