A Covidyssey: Ermeticist poetry in a time of crisis

Covid-19 and lockdown in the UK 24th March 2020. Louise and I in an odd predicament – not long back from working with a really great Christian Peacemaking team of people witnessing and documenting militarized oppression by the State of Israel in Hebron in the West Bank. Now, we’re in Brighton, UK. And, tomorrow we head back towards Elgin, Moray. We don’t want to go straight there because our house sitters are there living in our house and looking after Sid, Molly and Sister Mary. They’re there until the end of April. 5 weeks away.

We had to come back early to the UK because our work in Hebron became impossible after the Covid-19 pandemic broke and schools were closed right across the West Bank around the 7th March.

We have spent a week in self-isolation in an aparthotel in Brighton; we’ve managed to source a second hand camper van (middle class bubble privilege at work) in order to drive slowly to the Far North, and home to our legitimate ‘primary residence’.

At the same time the UK population has been warned not to drive to tourist resorts, such as Cornwall, The Lakes, or The Highlands, in camper to escape the virus. Johnson’s government has just announced a ‘lockdown’ with only essential travel, and home- stay except for health, essential work, exercise x 1 per day, and food shopping.

We have equipped the van and can pretty much go off grid. The ‘plan’ is to keep a super-low profile as we slowly head home. But this journey creates feelings of paranoia out of an encultured fear of authority and always already assumed guilt. Possibly due in part to Catholic, and in my case anyway, patriarchal and authoritarian upbringings.

Sad to say, because of corona, we are tempted to wind our way back north, via the least attractive and least visited places the UK has to offer. And, without wishing to cause offence, I must say that a quick search has identified Purfleet, Essex as a top contender.

Purfleet may be lovely, or at least have some redeeming features, so, in an Ermeticist spirit, our challenge might be two-fold: a) to challenge the impending fascism descending on our heads like a tidal wave by using Ermeticist poetry (a poetic movement from fascist Italy using poetry to resist fascism, that refuses a simple direct relation between language and assumed meaning and instead uses obscure analogies or language that disrupts sense or makes uncomfortable the sense of the status quo in some way) by b) connecting this poetry with images from some of the allegedly crappiest towns in Britain. Not only will this be a form of creative non-violent resistance against Covid-19 associated fascist tendencies but will also be a way of resisting stereotypical assumptions for what makes a town crappy.

This exercise runs risks of a) exaggerating our plight as a plight when in fact we are not even in a plight but incredibly privileged, and b) exaggerated and condescending class violence. The challenge is to see and witness our particular journey for the joys it will hold, being sensitive and thankful for those whilst trying to be compassionate toward the genuine plight of the most vulnerable here, in the UK, in these allegedly crappy towns (who says they’re crappy anyway) as well as across the world.

We’ve been struck by the scale of homeless living in the streets of Brighton and by news that as charities have been forced to close the homeless have even less access to food and shelter.

At the same time we have heard disturbing reports of aggression shown towards ‘outsiders’, identified as ‘dangerous risk’ simply because they have not been ‘recognized’ by established members of so-called spiritual communities. This xenophobia may well increase rapidly in the UK as fear and authoritarian enforcement mutually enhance each other – the ‘most moral’ security forces may soon be at work here – who will be victimized?

Here’s one from Brighton, Covidyssey Day 0, 24th March 2020:

‘And suddenly it’s evening’ by Salvatore Quasimodo

https://m.poemhunter.com/poem/ed-subito-sera/

25th March 2020, Covidyssey Day 1, Shoeburyness Essex, near Purfleet – Agrigentum Road by Salvatore Quasimodo

There a wind remains that I recall afire

within the manes of horses as they slanted

their way across the planes, a chafing wind

that eats at the sandstone, erodes the hearts

of derelict caryatids cast down

Onto the grass. Soul of antiquity

Gone gray with age and rage, turn back and lean

into that wind, breathe of the delicate moss

clothing those giants tumbled out of heaven.

How lonely what is left to you must be!

And worse: to break your heart to hear once more

that sound resound and dwindle out to sea

where Hesperus already streaks the dawn:

a sad jew’s-harp reverberating through

the throat of that lone cartman as he slowly

ascends his moon-cleansed hill again through dark

murmurings of the Moorish olive trees.

Salvatore Quasimodo
Agrigentum Road
http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/2009/07/salvatore-quasimodo-agrigentum-road.html?m=1
Shoeburyness Beach

And although technically we slightly bypassed Purfleet as such, Shoeburyness beach was full of oyster shells with an expansive view across the Thames estuary way down to the Thames Barrier – we think.

26th March 2020 Covidyssey Day 2:

Poem written in 1938 to mark a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini by Montale, one of the Italian anti-fascist Ermeticist poets.

The poem was born from the encounter, in Florence in the spring of 1938, between Mussolini and Hitler. The allegiance between the two men was irreparably strengthened and this, for Montale, is a clear indication of the catastrophe to come. After the encounter, fascism took a more aggressive turn towards anti-Semitism, and racial laws were put into effect in the following September. Being Jewish, Irma Brandeis (the woman Montale loved) would migrate to the USA

https://paralleltexts.blog/2018/08/28/la-primavera-hitleriana-hitlerian-spring-by-eugenio-montale/

Eugenio Montale: Hitler Spring (From Italian)

http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/2019/12/eugenio-montale-hitler-spring-from.html?m=1

Hitler Spring

By Eugenio Montale

Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Nor she to see whom the sun turns about.

— Dante (?) to Giovanni Quirini

The dense white cloud of moths whirls crazy around

the whitish lights and over the parapets,

spreading a blanket on the ground that crackles

like sprinkled sugar underfoot. Now coming summer frees

the nightfrosts held in lockdown of the dead

season’s secret cellars and in the gardens

that climb down from Maiano to these sandpits.

A hellsent herald just flew over the avenue

to a war-whoop of goons. A gaping orchestral pit, firelit

and decked with swastikas, seized and gulped him down.

Windows are shuttered up, shabby and harmless

though even they are fitted with guns and war toys;

the butcher who laid berries on the snouts

of slaughtered baby goats has closed. The feast day

of killers meek and mild, still ignorant of blood, has turned

to a sick contra dance of shattered wings,

of shadow larvae on the sandbars, and

the water goes on eating at the shore

and nobody is blameless anymore.

So, all for nothing? And the Roman candles

at San Giovanni slowly whitening

the skyline, and the vows and long farewells

as binding as a baptism in dismal

wait for the horde (but a gem scored the air,

strewing your ice, the edges of your coasts,

with the angels of Tobias, the seven,

seed of the future) and the heliotropes

born of your hands — all of it burned away,

sucked dry by a pollen that shrieks like fire

and stings like hail on wind

Oh the wounded spring

is still a festival if it can freeze

this death back into death. Look up again

Clizia: it is fate, it is the fate

of changed you keeping up your changeless love,

until the sightless sun you bear within you

is dazzled in the Other and consumed

in Him, for all. Perhaps the sirens, the bells

tolling to hail the monsters on this eve

of all hell breaking loose already blend

with the sound loosed from the heavens that descends

and conquers—with breath of a dawn that may break

for all, tomorrow, white but without wings

of horror, on scorched rockbeds of the south.

On a house front in Clayton-On-Sea

A big question is whether the evils of capitalism can be reversed without falling into authoritarian Stalinist State-Capitalism. It is crazy that, in the UK, Corbyn and his manifesto could be forbidden so effectively, crushed by those in power. Trump and Johnson are the Hitler and Mussolini of our times. Populist, lying propagandists, irrational, thriving on nationalist myths, calling for sacrifice for the greater good in the name of neoliberal pragmaticist capitalism.

27th March Covidyssey day 3

Enemy of Death by Salvatore Quasimodo

You should not have
ripped out your image
taken from us, from the world,
a portion of beauty.
What can we do
we enemies of death,
bent to your feet of rose,
your breast of violet?
Not a word, not a scrap
of your last day, a No
to earth’s things, a No
to our dull human record.
The sad moon in summer,
the dragging anchor, took
your dreams, hills, trees,
light, waters, darkness,
not dim thoughts but truths,
severed from the mind
that suddenly decided,
time and all future evil.
Now you are shut
behind heavy doors
enemy of death.

Who cries?
You have blown out beauty
with a breath, torn her,
dealt her the death-wound,
without a tear
for her insensate shadow’s
spreading over us.
Destroyed solitude,
and beauty, failed.
You have signalled
into the dark,
inscribed your name in air,
your No
to everything that crowds here
and beyond the wind.
I know what you were
looking for in your new dress.
I understand the unanswered question.
Neither for you nor us, a reply.
Oh, flowers and moss,
Oh, enemy of death.

Will we be able to really see through the lies of ‘earth’s things’ and ‘dull human record’ that ‘decided all future evil’ as they have been spoken for many years by the right wing neoliberal capitalist pragmatists such as Thatcher, Blair, Reagan and Trump. The lies of the ‘invisible hand’, of trickle-down wealth? Is this current corona virus crisis going to prove to be the ‘enemy of death’? A door to a better society? Will those in power fear the masses and take a totalitarian turn for the worse first?

28th March 2020, day 4 Covydyssey

Lowestoft

The BBC world service at 7.06pm has informed us of ways lockdown ‘rules’ are being enforced in different countries; inter-alia: Indian police are beating people with sticks and telling them to do squats and sit ups if they break the rules and leave their houses when they shouldn’t; in Israel the secret service, the Shin Bet are tracking people via their mobile phones, elsewhere drones are being used. And so the stories go on. In the UK police have been deluged with calls from people ‘dobbing’ their neighbors for leaving their homes without good reason. So much for neighbourliness.

We’re in a free car park with a sea view in Pakefield, no overnight camping allowed. At about 8pm a police car drove in; and then drove out again. Our covidyssey northwards continues painfully slowly. Mentally duller every day. Maybe this is an early effect of oppression induced paranoia (and I check my privilege here because this apparent oppression cannot be compared to oppressions elsewhere). A laziness, languor, a stifling of any creativity. But it has been a long and strange two months, and maybe am just fatigued.

This poetry was written under fascist oppression by those who maintained a creative spark.

Here’s a poem written by the Italian hermeticist poet Eugenio Montale, written during the Second World War as part of anti-fascist resistance.

The Tempest

Princes have no eyes to see these great marvels

Their hands now serve only to persecute us

–Agrippa D’Aubigne, à Dieu

The storm that drums on the hard

leaves of the magnolia its long March

thunder and hail,

(the sounds of crystal in your nocturnal

nest surprise you, of the gold

squandered on the mahogany, on the gilt edge

of the bound books, a sugar grain

still burns in the shell

of your eyelids)

the flash that candies

trees and walls and surprises them in this

eternity of an instant–marble manna

and destruction–that you carry

carved in you by decree and that binds you

more than love to me, strange sister,–

and then the rough crash, the sistri, the shudder

of the tambourines above the ditch of thieves,

the tramp of the fandango, and above

some gesture that gropes. —

just like when

you turned around and with your hand, cleared

your brow of its cloud of hair,

waved at me–and went into the darkness

Reflection

Whilst in Hebron we used some contemporary Palestinian art and music of resistance as part of our morning reflection together: rappers and film makers from Gaza, Lebanon and Egypt (see here and here and here). Accounts of cultural resistance ( see ‘cultures of resistance in Palestine and beyond’) suggest that before the fall of the PLO with the Oslo Accords art and poetry often focused on the Palestinian national identity. But, since Oslo, cultural resistance amongst the young has focused more on social issues, inequality, poverty, and less on nationalism. At the same time contemporary art-as-resistance is easily commodified and repackaged in ways that sustain capitalism and its necessary politics of competition (envy, greed and xenophobia). It is of course always the case that oppression, whether by occupation, ethnic cleansing or capitalism, will always weaken resistance efforts as individuals have to focus on personal survival.

Lifeboat Man Lowestoft

Covidyssey has just become Covidiocy:

We’re in Old Hunstanton somewhere near Norfolk. In hindsight a silly place to be because a) we stand out like a sore thumb and b) it’s a petty bourgeoisie neighborhood full of golfing captains and retired police chiefs. So, put two and two together and we’re dobbed, and just been through a police interrogation, sarcasm : “Do you know there’s a pandemic?”, sarcasm from the police is, as usual, in my experience. Too much media-induced fear and panic out here so doesn’t feel safe – we are retreating pdq to Moray to either camp in van in our drive or, more likely decamp to our cabin – lucky us!!

Helpful leaflet given to us by local Norfolk constabulary in Old Hunstanton – it’s a very good question, if a bit deep.

Police urge Brits to spill the beans on neighbours suspected of breaching coronavirus lockdown: Telephone ‘hotline’ and online ‘snoopers’ forum are set up as scores of people still break rules after five days in isolation

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8162725/Police-urge-Britons-spill-beans-neighbours-suspected-breaching-coronavirus-lockdown.html

In my view this is bad news: I don’t mean the advice on travel etc. – which I think is well-founded, but I mean the encouragement of vigilante paranoia because this is based on the assumption that the public are not capable of self-management but must be controlled by the security forces with the aid of collaborators. This atomizes society (breaks it up into atoms of singletons desperate for security) – which is exactly what the Nazis did in Germany in the 1930s.

This ideology is that: it is a good thing to a) suspect everybody of breaking the rules and then b) to report to the security services anybody you suspect of breaking a rule even if c) it leads to further destruction of social bonds of love, respect and kindness, bonds already severely strained by neoliberal pragmatist capitalism.

The net result is that kindness, neighbourly compassion, is no longer valued by society.

It is perhaps ironic that we started out heading for the so-called crappy towns, not my term and surely a misnomer only to get dobbed in what turned out to be a precious spot of beauty (the policeman’s term). There are probably kind people there, not making us unwelcome primarily, ‘just scared’ …. mmm.

Local People

29th March Day 5 Covidyssey/Covidiocy

We subjugated ourselves to our objectivism and objectivised ourselves in the constitution of our subjectivity as obedient social-isolationists and set off for Scotland.

We didn’t quite make it back in one go as it were; a radiator leak ++ stopped us in our tracks 120 odd miles from home. Organized chaos, but luckily we had a weak phone signal and could get get through to RAC breakdown. In double quick time we have a tow truck, and appropriately socially isolated, an elevated view from the van on top of the truck. A very cold 2.5hrs on twisty roads and we’re back at Coltfield and – extremely luckily for us – a warm welcome from Cor and Nicole our Dutch house sitters – who keep a safe distance, and then we set up home for the foreseeable future in our log cabin. I know ….

A9 19 miles north of Perth – 114 miles from home on the back of breakdown truck
Lay-by 25 A9 Northbound
Water from radiator flowing down the road
Oops – it’s a breakdown
10.30pm back at Coltfield Moray, in the log cabin, log stove fired up and dinner on the go. Feeling a bit rough – wonder if it’s flu?

And one final poem from Salvatore Quasimodo:

Nostalgia and Regret

(Ora che sale il giorno)
Now the day breaks
night is done and the moon
slowly dissolved in serene air
sets in the canals.
September is so alive in this country
of plains, the meadows are green
as in the southern valleys in spring.
I have left my companions,
I have hidden my heart behind ancient walls, to be alone, to remember.
Since you are further off than the moon, now the day breaks
and the horses’ hooves beat on the stones

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