Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ian Hamilton Finlay

The altar at Ian Hamilton Finlay's funeral
April 3, 2006
Photo by Robin Gillanders


The family welcomes you all to this celebration and commemoration. We are touched, humbled and slightly terrified to see how many of you have joined with us today to remember our father.

You bring with you the pieces of an enormous memory-jigsaw; each one a unique memory of Ian. Today, together, we make them whole.

There is a river we all cross: a river whose near shore we enter by, and whose far shore we take our leave by; the river of life and death. Ian has crossed to the far side of that wide wide river.

And there are the waters of the river, which are love; the currents that we ply in our own way; some of us with a sure strong stroke, others tumbling in, immersing themselves. Today we each take ourselves to the river.

My father was a poet. He made a world of his own within the world; he shared that world with us.

Sometimes, when ailie and I would walk back from school, Mum and Dad would come down the road to meet us, and we would set off together on the path round the moor. On the way we might dip our wellies in the burn and Dad would say, ‘you can never step in the same river twice’. (This was his Greek philosophy phase). We would protest, what a lot of nonsense, it’s the same burn as always, the same peaty water flowing by.

But not to Dad. In that startling and yet ordinary way of his the wee burn flowed with the waters Heraclitus wrote of.

Ian’s was the poets gift, of connecting words to things. He was a giver of names, casting his net over the world to make it familiar, safe. Did any other family here have pets with names such as Albers, Artemis, Serpelet; a wild hare named Cowper; a tortoise named after General Guderian?

Then Dad would say to Mum, Ailie and I, let’s walk up the hill to see the vale. I never did understand what this vale was; but off we trudged to see the sun setting over a heathery moor and, in the distance, Carstairs State Hospital. That was always his gift, to make a vale of the view.

Ian’s life was quixotic and paradoxical: he left school at 14 and ended up with a handful of honorary doctorates; he never left sight of home for 40 years, but spent the last few years of his life enjoying jaunts around Europe; he drank nothing but strong tea until Pia introduced him to good wines in his 70’s; he was an ardent Jacobin who accepted honours from the Queen.

Why so? It is difficult to say whether as a child he lost, or had to forgo, or as an adult he simply refused, a conventional relationship to the world.

We are here today to remember, not to analyse.

Ian had a stubborn strength of purpose and a poetic vision. We can list the little worlds that he embraced – the isle of Rousay, his little black sheep; the flat in Fettes Row; Stonypath, an armoured farm – and the world he made, Little Sparta, a Raspberry Republic. Many of you will be remembering time shared with him in the garden, his place.

For Ailie and I the garden that he and my mother made together will always stand as a testament to their love. to a wonderful shared adventure; a time of excitement, extraordinary struggle and, at times, of tragedy.

This was our home. It was also, in the most natural way, a place Ian invited other people to visit and enjoy. As children we knew them simply as ‘visitors’. We would look out for their cars appearing at the foot of the road and then run and shout: Mum and Dad, the visitors are coming. Both of us remember the curious mixture of excitement, chumminess and laughter that hung over those summer afternoons in Dad’s court, sat in the front porch, or outside drinking mint tea picked fresh from the ditch.

Our father was someone whose generosity carried with it a darker requirement: as a friend you always had to be with him, for if you weren’t for him you were surely against him. He made people choose sides; he required our protection. One of his Detached Sentences on Friendship is telling: Friends who abandon us may in fact have abandoned themselves.

To understand this aspect it helped me to hear this story. When he was a little boy, maybe only 8 or 9 years old, his mother and father were in the Bahamas and Ian was sent to Dollar Academy. He didn’t see his parents for three years – enough to mark any young life. As a boarder he was desperate for a safe place of his own, and so he found a hidey-hole in the grounds, some bushes which he hollowed out into a den. Then he set a booby trap made from a brick and some string. Inevitably another equally unhappy little boy discovered his hideaway and had their head split open by his clever trap. Dad was caned but i’ve no doubt he would have done it again.

I remember reading some letters of his published in a little magazine in the early 1960s, when he was still unknown. He explained how he felt lost in the city, like a robin in a pine tree, he just couldn’t nest there. For many years the world was a space of doubt for him, but when he met my mother he found someone to protect him, to share his vision.

Sue allowed him to live the life that he needed and, in a way, he was allowed a second childhood. He certainly seemed to have more toys than Ailie or I put together, and was never happier than applying decals to a freshly painted messchersmitt kit or tying the hanky sails to a new toy boat.

This was also, as we recognise now, a time of incredible creativity.

Little Sparta was where Ian could embed ideas in the forms of the world. Neo-classicism was his chosen style: but beneath it there lay deeper aspects
of his personality. He had an incredible sensitivity to nature; to death-in-life and life-in-death; a need to admit the icy perfection of the stars; embrace the cold fixedness of stone; and, at the same time, he was responsive to delicate flowers, snow-in-summer, forget-me-not’s; would trace the passage of shadows and light; take tender delight in fishing boats sheltered in a harbour. He cast a tragic shadowed halo around a world of gentle charm.

Having gained this safe haven, this garden, he needed to test it; to bring his little world into conflict with the greater world. Or did the greater world turn against his? Who can say, except to recognise that my father was like a lightning rod calling down storm upon storm. In a way, he was that same little boy with his secret hideaway; he made defences, formed his army,went to war. There are some ex-servicemen here today wearing the medals of
those campaigns.

There came into our lives events that are part-myth, part-truth, when our day-to-day was dominated by his flytings. Some were brave battles of principle, others were foolish and wasteful, descending into mutual vendettas.

My family knows the true cost of those years of conflict. We also recognise that there is no way to resolve the paradox of the poet who made a paradise and then ended up at war. Apollonian. Contradictory. Impossible. Stubborn. Delightful.

In old age Ian set aside feuding. If there is anyone who still bears a grudge or a wound from those times they should set it aside now, for he died a gentle man.

So, Ian was the man pictured on your jigsaw piece; one with his share of faults and bags of charm. Many peoples lives were enriched by the quality of delight that he could cast; many were invited into a seemingly magical world.

Sometimes I regretted that habitual gift of casting spells, for it could lead to partial relationships, too many ‘muses’. But Dad was as he was and we gain nothing by holding onto regrets. As his favourite poet Robert Creeley said, we are all fools of our own making. The family did sometimes lose out, but in these past months, the months of his illness, we made our peace with him and he with us, and we enjoyed a new closeness.

Now the family home, Stonypath, and the garden, Little Sparta, have passed into the safekeeping of a Trust. The process has not always been smooth but it is resolved and, as long as it cares to, the world will have that special place to enjoy. We hope that you always remember that the garden is a love story and that it was once a home: as we affirm that it belongs to you all now with our blessing. The king is gone. We are all visitor’s now, so let’s treat it as a true republic.

My father’s life was part-known to so many people, like a succession of brightly coloured shards. We shake the kaleidoscope of our memories and recognise that other’s feelings are just as true, just as deeply felt as our own. Many of you will have a bright picture of him in your mind. Having lost his dear company let your memories console you.

As a family we will never measure Ian’s life in terms of his achievements, as a poet, a composer of landscapes, or artist, and yet what a brave and generous achievement it was. So much of it remains in forms that can be shared, as prints and folding cards – like the one Pia made as a keepsake for you to take away with you today – as postcards and books, all illuminating that Finlayian vision of the world.

These paper-memories will circulate around the globe for years to come and be treasured by many readers. That was a thing he showed us all, how to make a poem of one word, a poem of a world, how a view can be a vale.

That vale we used to walk to seems so close to Ailie and I today, and so far away. And our father has gone into the vale now, to a distant home under the starry sky.

Alec Finlay

Ian Hamilton Finlay and Alec Finlay
photo by Norma Cole

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A tonalist rules

For the game

When we are unafraid

Narrative coincides with meaning

Flatly in love with

Rhetorical continuity interrupted

Only to be taken back up

Like two things in one

Beauty for example

The present and past enter into

A prosody of unfinished gesture

Against formal predictability

Synopsis is predicament

Irony mitigated by shamelessness

Lack of value for the conspicuous

Turning mentioned earlier

Of fate into history

Unable to be made

Unfashionable as the fact

Of particularity

When prediction becomes

Love of that


Friday, April 14, 2006

Hazy notes on Swallows at dawn

“I had no Idea but Morning”

Reading Swallows at 5am (I can't sleep) I find myself thinking of empires of the past – Greek, Roman, British – from the perspective of being caught in this strange American empire, where Martin Corless-Smith also is, though there is in this book a clear longing to be in another place and another time (as Alan Halsey points, out in his definitive review in Stride Magazine.) So the writer is exiled not only, apparently, in Boise, but in the future of his desire. He is, in fact, in the present empire with many of ourselves

We saw the yellow Tiber
battle over battle
Which gods shall we call
to aid the falling empire?

particularly when there are no gods and we want, as Corless-Smith does, to be where

Her Majesty is returned again to Nonsuch
which of all places she likes best

Instead of being impatient with what seems like nostalgia, I imagine, this morning -- it's still not light yet -- that I share it or that it is not nostalgia but an investigation of English for English’s sake. This English that we think we speak here in America but which is interestingly foreign. Or the book (gorgeously published by Fence) isn’t about a specific language but about a love of language and about love. “We are swallowed up irreparably, irrevocably, irremediably … envy the sparrows and the swallows, yea.” (These lines from John Donne appear on the back of the book where you expect the blurb.) The presentation in Swallows of a lot of quoted material allows the work to be as much about reading as writing -- as much about a love for words, landscape, birds, Latin, the vicissitudes of history as about love, though, again, love appears and memory. There is a “Theater of Memory” on page 22, a “mental Cottage” on page 44 that somehow rhymes with it.

What a happy thing it would be
if we could settle our thoughts
make our minds up on any matter
in five minutes and remain content
that is to build a sort of mental Cottage
of feeling quiet and pleasant

You are never really sure the writer has written what you have just read or if he has simply found it or if there is a difference, but there is pleasure in it. And it's finally morning.

we sit down with a book
we lie down my friend and I
and the book open reading
we are holding our breath against each other
ourselves shuddering with pulse
apart from ourselves -- the concentration
touching where we both are

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A tonalist and her world

Shelves of various perspectives at the recent SPD Open House.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Who Opens/ Suggestions at Every Turn

This is a postcard by Eléna Rivera and Norma Cole, postmarked 1995, not Suggestions At Every Turn, which is an elegant chapbook with a thick paper cover, as are all Seeing Eye chapbooks, designed and published by Guy Bennett. But something of the whimsy of the card obtains in these meditations, something a bit lighter than air.

This series of one-page poems seem to open out onto the universe or maybe it's New York. There is a sense of stasis (“There was no room”) and yet movement (“Opened at the start”). There is just a trace of New York school tone along with a plainness of address:

“Now I am sitting
by the window
looking down”

“In the night wheels go round
The square of time in neon”

There is a light touch as with a watercolor that feels almost insubstantial but then you come back to it. Reading the book seems to produce the state of reverie to which it refers. It is a nice feedback loop.

“O sky. O wind. O rain.
Give me a cigarette.”

Jesse Seldess’ new book Who Opens from Kenning Editions has a similar but different effect of concentrated energy, as if a villanelle had turned into a tornado made of light.

“Who you have continually overheard” is a line that appears and reappears in various permutations, as do others.

“As what you headed toward you

Saturated unvocalized light”

You find you are cross-examining yourself as to where you were and what you were thinking when you last read that line. Then you are brought back to light or the idea of light or the word “light.” And the word material.

“Breathing heavy

You worn material”


Is you material”

So there is a minimal approach to who this reader is and what her materials might be. There are permutations. And there is this light.

If I ask myself, for the sake of the argument possibly being made in this blog, how or if these are a tonalist, I would say that the attention to sound is one aspect of what I think of as a tonalist. The dissonance is organized. The tone is intimate and yet impersonal. The work is lyric without being centered around an emotion or little story. Speech is suggested but is only one of a number of textures. Elena’s work is more narrative. Jesse’s work has a fractal feeling compared, in Kerri Sonnenberg's blurb, to a flock of birds (that comment might constitute the only metaphor in (on) the book).

Once you read it you want to read it again.

"Emit matter to converse" the last line, sends you back to the opening line,

"Who you have continually overheard"

and, in turn, to the epigraph, from The Talmud:

"Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted."