Archives for the month of: November, 2012

…and lastly, at least for now (I have asked Father Christmas for the Collected Poems, so…), I will end these limited musings on the works of Stephen Dunn on a positive note.

What I like most about the poem Happiness (in: Staying Alive. Neil Astley (ed). Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005, p.81), is the poet’s acknowledgement that happiness, like most emotions, is fleeting and transient:

‘A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying…’

But, in the the space of a very short poem, he also recognises that happiness, although transient, always remains a possibility:

‘But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above

the crocodiles,

and its doors forever open.’

I thought of Julia Darling’s poem, Chemotherapy (in: Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine. Lavinia Greenlaw (ed). London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007, p.62) in which, although Darling openly acknowledges that her life with cancer has changed dramatically – ‘I never thought that life could get this small…’, she also observes that hers is a life that is not without a joy of sorts:

‘I am not unhappy. I have learnt to drift

and sip. The smallest things are gifts.’


Continuing the Irish theme… this symposium takes place in Cork this coming weekend, and I am very excited to be attending, and contributing…

It promises to be eclectic, provocative, and thought provoking.

See you there…


The Pier was the second film I saw at this weekend’s Irish Film Fest. [Actually, it was the third, as this screening also included the short film, Pentecost, which was a gem].

I am not sure even now what I thought of The Pier, but nonetheless, there are some things that may be worth noting.

The first is a personal one. I had no idea that the film was located in and around Schull, my ‘spiritual home’. Thus, recognising the area, and the locals, was a wonderful and warm surprise.

The film itself, written, directed and starring Gerard Murphy, was a more mixed experience. It tells the somewhat familiar Irish story of the ‘prodigal’ son (Gerard Murphy) returning home. He is summoned back from the US with the news that his father (Karl Johnson) is dying. He duly returns, only to find that his father is not dying, after all. He appears hale and hearty, and as cantankerous as ever.

Although he is dying, actually and imminently. We later discover that he has lung cancer, a diagnosis he eventually shares with his son. This prompts a grudging reconciliation of sorts between the pair, which is at times touching and moving. However, the father’s role is too much of a type, a caricature of sorts, that of a truculent, difficult and bitter man, who mostly engenders little in the way of sympathy or empathy. Murphy’s character is more likeable, and understated. A confused and dour sort, his moments of kindness, particularly towards the local pair of children who seem practically orphaned, are endearing.

Religion, and atheism, get a nod too. It is Ireland, after all…

The realisation of imminent death brings out the best in the old man, perhaps too predictably, and at times slightly maudlinish.

But this is not a tear jerker. I am not sure one connects enough with the protagonists to go that far.


The more I read of Stephen Dunn’s poetry, the more I love, and gain.

I think I most love his pragmatism, his way of saying things as they are, unembellished, direct and authentic.

From his poem Sadness (Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, Neil Astley (ed), Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005, p.120):

‘I told my friend who courted it

not to suffer

on purpose, not to fall in love

with sadness

because it would be naturally theirs

without assistance’


Honest, and true, and encapsulates it all, with the merest of words…


The Irish Film Festival is on this weekend at The Tricycle cinema, and I was at the screening of Ballymun Lullaby last night.

The film had its premiere at the Dublin Film Festival last March, and has been released in Ireland. This was its first screening in London, and appropriately it happened in Kilburn. We were also treated to a flute duet by Ron and Tara (both in the film) beforehand, and a Q&A afterwards that also included the director Frank Berry.

The film opens with archive footage from RTE on the history of the Ballymun estate. The estate, ‘Ballymun flats’, was built in Dublin’s Northside as a solution to the acute housing shortage of the 1960s. The area suffered many social problems, particularly drug-related in the 1980s, and, as Ireland’s only high rise flats, became synonymous with deprivation, a label that it has never shaken off. Today, it is an area of regeneration, with most of the tower blocks demolished and replaced by houses.

The film centres on a music project, led by Ron Cooney, which has been active in the area for over 15 years. Ron’s mission has been to bring music into the schools and lives of the children of Ballymun. Passionate and charismatic, Ron tempts them into a world they would not otherwise experience. We follow Ron and the children as they prepare for and perform music specially composed for them (subsequently released as the CD Ballymun Lullaby) by Daragh O’Toole, who incorporated lyrics written by the children themselves.

Amazingly, just the director Frank Berry and a single cameraman shot the documentary, the making of the CD and its aftermath, without any funding initially, which only came through when filming had finished. The entire project comes across as a labour of love by all those involved.

As Ron commented afterwards, ‘Art is’. In many ways, the documentary highlights the fact that the music project is not just about the music itself, but more about the possibilities of what music can do, how it can add something, often indescribable but certainly meaningful, to lives. It is also about the people, the community of Ballymun who supported and encouraged their children to enter a world they never experienced themselves. Most notably, it is about Ron Cooney, who is extraordinarily committed and kind and funny. The kids love him, and now we do too.




This work has been on the periphery of my consciousness for ever. Last night I heard (and saw, as it was accompanied by a video installation) the piece performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Purcell Room, Southbank.

Inevitably, one thinks of the premiere of this work over 70 years ago, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, Barrack 27, Germany, January 1941. Messiaen had been captured while working as a hospital orderly (his poor eyesight precluded joining the army) during the German invasion of France in 1940. Fortunately, a music loving German guard supplied Messiaen with pencils and music paper and facilitated the composer creating his work undisturbed.

There was a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among Messiaen’s fellow prisoners, and he initially composed a trio for them. He later added a further 7 movements and piano, and this now constitutes Quartet for the End of Time as we know it.

The premiere was probably one of the most unusual and unique of its kind, performed in a Barrack on a freezing January night, to fellow prisoners as well as prison guards.

Of the event, Messiaen said:

‘Never have I been listened to with such attention and with such understanding.’

The story of the premiere inevitably lingers in any listening. Yet, the music itself is so hauntingly beautiful that any performance can stand alone as a sublime experience in itself. Thus it was last night. I was seduced, enthralled, and utterly moved by the music.

Messiaen was deeply religious, a devout Roman Catholic. The title of the quartet reflects its connection to the Book of Revelation:

“In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.'”

The end of time, or as Messiaen later clarified, the end of all time, appears to have a double significance here ( Firstly, it had a specific musical meaning for Messiaen. He no longer wanted time as dictated by the 1, 2, 3 of a drumbeat, but rhythms that ‘expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks’. Secondly, the end of time means the end of life and the world as we know it, presumably triggered by the experience of living during WWII, as well as Messiaen’s deeply rooted religious beliefs. The work is divided into 8 movements, the 7 days of creation followed by the final day of eternity and timelessness.

The work is not apocalyptic in the sense that we usually use this word descriptively. Rather, it is ethereal, emotional and emotive, it surprises rather than disturbs, although it entices you into a world that is almost distressingly beautiful.


I have spoken about Rothko before, both here and elsewhere ( Today we heard that the repair needed to restore Black on Maroon, which was defaced during a graffiti attack at Tate Modern in October this year, could take at least 18 months. The reason for this, is that the ink from the pen used in the act leaked deeper than first realised. In addition, as Rothko’s technique was that of painting layer upon layer, the damaged portion will need to be stripped and restored in the same manner.

Just last week, another painting of Rothko’s, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $75.1 million, the second-highest price ever paid for a Rothko piece. The anticipated sale figure had been $35 to $50 million.

Whether the graffiti episode influenced the eventual sale price, I have no idea. The man responsible for the defacement at the time claimed that his actions had added value to Black on Maroon

Re-reading Simon Schama on Rothko (, I have been similarly transfixed by the artist’s works. Schama, on the Seagram paintings:

‘Rothko said his paintings begin an unknown adventure into an unknown space… Everything Rothko did to these paintings – the column-like forms suggested rather than drawn and the loose stainings – were all meant to make the surface ambiguous, porous, perhaps softly penetrable. A space that might be where we came from or where we will end up.

They’re not meant to keep us out, but to embrace us; from an artist whose highest compliment was to call you a human being.’

Rothko committed suicide in 1970. We will never know, or cannot even speculate, what he would have thought of the current events that surround his legacy, his art.


I have only just really properly discovered the American poet Stephen Dunn. Born in 1939, he has written 15 collections, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

From what I have read so far, I love the acuteness of his poems, and their emotional immediacy. Fearless in terms of tackling ‘big’ emotions, he tackles the most painful, and real, of life events:

From Sweetness (Staying Alive, Neil Astley (ed), Bloodaxe 2002, p.121):

‘Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear

one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason…’

‘…Tonight a friend called to say his lover

was killed in a car

he was driving.’

Yet this is not a downcast or maudlin poem, more an acknowledgement of how life is, the cliches but truisms of ups and downs, positives and negatives, all of which reflect the fact of being alive, and of living:

‘I acknowledge there is no sweetness

that doesn’t leave a stain,

no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet…’

I love Dunn’s ending note, a promise of sorts that it may have been worth it, after all:

‘Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive…’

‘…As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road

it’s travelled

to come so far, to taste so good.’


Hearing about the imminent arrival of a new meningitis vaccine, I thought immediately of one of the best books I have ever read.

I bought Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (Michael Rosen & Quentin Blake, London: Walker Books, 2004) a few years ago, mainly as a way of exploring the meaning and expression (and alrightness) of sadness with my daughter.

Re-reading it now, I am again struck by its wonderfulness, by Rosen’s ability to convey sadness so meaningfully in few words, and which is so imaginatively enhanced by Blake’s drawings.

The book arose from Rosen’s grief following the sudden death of his 18 year old son Eddie from meningitis in 1999. Primarily about his sadness over the loss of Eddie, it also includes the loss of his mother, as well as loss in general as part of all our lives.

Rosen challenges pre-conceptions. The very first image is that of a grinning Rosen. Below the picture he writes:

‘This is me being sad.’

‘…pretending I’m being happy.

I’m doing that because I think people won’t

like me if I look sad.’

On page 3 we are introduced to Eddie:

‘What makes me most sad is when I think

about my son Eddie. He died.’

We see images of Eddie as a child, playing and happy, and then a blank panel, where Eddie should be:

‘…he’s not there any more.’

Although a hugely personal book, there is much here that is generalisable:

Sad is ‘anywhere’, ‘any time’, ‘anyone’:

‘It comes along and finds you.’

And much that is positive:

‘Every night I try to do one thing I can be proud of.’

‘I’m sad, not bad.’

‘Everyday I do one thing that means

I have a good time.’

Rosen also remembers the good times, and shows the power of memory to make loss bearable, and the act of remembering even potentially joyful.

An absolute gem of a book, on a topic that is corporate and universal and touches all our lives.


Watching the Culture Show on BBC iplayer (, I was particularly interested in the piece on John Bellany, currently the most celebrated of contemporary Scottish artists.

The piece links to a major retrospective on Bellany’s work, ‘A Passion for Life’, which has just opened at The National Gallery Scotland. The artist, at 70, is as productive as ever, if not more so.

Bellany’s life has been a turbulent one, dominated early on by alcoholism, which led to a successful liver transplant in 1988. What helped him through his suffering and pain, and since, has been art. He does not separate his work from the personal, believing that this is what in fact defines fine art.

In 2010, the documentary Bellany – Fire in the Blood by the artist’s son Paul was first screened. It is the moving story of a family imploding due to Bellany’s alcoholism, and then coming together again.

The artist absolutely believes that painting has saved him. Following his transplant, his work changed, becoming more colourful and vibrant. He suddenly saw the world in cinemascope, whereas previously it had been cloaked in a haze.

Of painting, Bellany at 70 says ‘I love it so much’.

He also states:

‘I love being alive.’…