This is Part Two of a special retrospective on the Informationists, an experimental poetry group including Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach and Richard Price. Part Two includes five more poems from the anthology ‘Contraflow on the SuperHighway’ and a commentary on the poems included in both parts of this retrospective by Richard Price.


A Portrait of Walt Whitman
(after a photograph by Thomas Eakins)

David Kinloch

There is a fall. Of shutter, of eyelid, of season. And in this moment his beard ignites; the flashbulb makes it phosphoresce: a fungus, a silvered chrysalis. Then we see the butterflies that have chosen to overwinter in his Camden snug: the gray or hoary comma fled south along dirt roads, along stream sides, and within clearings in rich deciduous or coniferous woods, in aspen parks, yards and gardens. Habitat: his beard! Or Horace’s duskywing which visits flowers up to about 4.5 feet tall including dogbane, buttonbrush, sneezeweed, goldenrod, peppermint, boneset, and winter cress. Habitat: power-line right-of-ways, his beard! Male has a coastal fold containing yellow scent scales; female has a patch of scent scales on the 7th abdominal segment.

‘Not for a single moment, beautiful old Walt Whitman have I stopped seeing your beard full of butterflies’, wrote Federico Garcia Lorca,  and it is because of this line and its literal illustration on the cover of a City Lights edition of Lorca’s ode that when I look at Eakins’ sombre portrait of Whitman on the brink of death I see ‘the beautiful spiritual insects, straw coloured psyches’ pinned there like broaches. They aren’t there, exist only in Lorca’s and my own imagination, translated from another photograph of Whitman that has been ‘treated’ by an unnamed artist.

Whitman himself would have approved of none of this explicitly, including my entomological flight of fancy. This would be scorned as ‘the art way’; when a portrait of him was ‘hung on the line’ –that is the most prestigious location in a nineteenth century gallery– Whitman was sceptical: ‘I am not so sure of it my hearty. I wonder if Leaves of Grass would be hung on the line if the galleries had their way about it? –on the line or on a scaffold?’ And when Jack Spicer comes to write the playful love letters of After Lorca he seems, unironically, to want to write Whitmaniacally, ‘to make poems out of real objects’, ‘live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits’, ‘to make things visible rather than to make pictures of them’, ‘to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.’

And yet there is a famous photograph of Whitman –which Lorca must have known– arm extended and on the index finger a rainbow coloured butterfly. This is ‘the big and handsome moth’ Whitman evoked in Specimen Days: ‘it knows and comes to me, likes me to hold him up on my extended hand.’ This is a lie and the butterfly in question is made of cardboard, some Easter words inscribed on abdomen and thorax. Whitman never destroyed the evidence of his sleight of hand and may have willed it to posterity.

At stake here is mimesis and the love-hate relationship all artists have with it. The copy must always be as translucent as a butterfly wing so that the real can shine through. It must never take its place, may only point. This is partly why Nabokov, entomologist extraordinaire, was so worried by the ‘mysteries of mimicry’ indulged in by his butterflies as they disguised themselves as leaves to outwit predators. The illusion ‘was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation’ , he wrote and could not credit natural selection with the degree of artistry deployed.

The suspicion of mimesis though is mistaken, an act of fine platonic sabotage. No Greek ever expected the simple copy of a grape from Zeuxis; they expected what Rabelais would call the ‘substantifique moelle’, the succulent marrow of grapeiness, that quiddity in things that provoked an ‘itch’ in words –when Whitman hit upon the right one. So the butterflies’ strategic ‘exuberance’ is the hyperbole that is the beating heart of mimesis, an intense form of translation that German Romantics would champion above the claims of criticism.

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes’, wrote Whitman. It is sufficient excuse. Except that it is clear now how all the portraits and photographs he commissioned and encouraged during his lifetime were seen by him as an expansion not an illustration of his work. ‘Writing and talk do not prove me’, he remarked, ‘I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face’. Of the photograph taken by Spieler, as a frontispiece for the Complete Poems and Prose of 1888, he said ‘I consider it a hit, the looking out: the face away from the book.’ His likeness was a shadow ‘that goes too and fro, seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering…’.

Thomas Eakins’ portrait is certainly full of shadow and of something darker as well. Eakins has positioned his camera so that Whitman, sitting in a high backed chair with knobs framing his head, seems to be looking down at us slightly, the beard straggling wispily over a cape or shawl. One button shines and he is probably wearing a jacket but his knees have been wrapped in a rug or blanket to produce an ecclesiastical effect.  He is a hermit, a prophet, a deity, a Tolstoy even. Sixty years later, a very different artist, Francis Bacon, will translate and intensify Whitman’s disenchantment with the direction of Western society into the enthroned agony of his ‘screaming pope’. Is this too great a jump? Too fanciful a comparison? The side of Whitman’s face nearest the window is illuminated but the eye itself is in deep shadow and the other side of his face is a lump of black framed by eyebrow and beard. Time, in a sardonic echo of history, has worn away the platinum print so that a ragged dark smudge scores the centre of the window pane in ironic counterpoint to the blacks and shadows of Eakins’ technique. Is this the Barthesian punctum? The unintended stab of pain in the photograph that lifts it beyond the documentary into art and concept? Whitman might have said that it simply shows us the humble real again, the photographer’s paper, carbon, matter, life. To me it is like a window within the window or a negative of the window’s light. I can look through the black. And what I see is butterflies again by Timber Creek: a pipevine swallowtail with a submarginal row of seven round orange spots in an iridescent blue field on its hindwing. Rare stray to Canada. Butterflies: a word.


Selfie with Severed Head

Peter McCarey

This will have been self-timer on ninety seconds
An hour since they heard a rescue team was on its way
An hour till a drone concludes we are not a wedding party
A decade on from kirk and call of duty; four more
Would bring gripe about my dentures or dementia.
Turned to the lens. Here’s looking at you.


“What constitutes a bribe?”

Peter McCarey

What constitutes a bribe? Any gift with a shadow,
Any service with a smile. If you want to bribe me
Don’t be subtle. Here’s the list:
That desk lamp like the Stobcross Crane, on Boulevard Montparnasse,
1600 francs. Dostoevsky’s complete, 3000 francs;
A 16th century Russian Anastasis, the size of a paperback,
That was 25,000 francs in 1985.
A Borsalino panama hat, an old cinquecento;
A covered swimming pool, duly maintained;
That job with airline tickets to romantic places;
The removal of those who offend me, bringing back the ones I miss;
Reincarnation as Genji, till I get bored;
Rebirth as the Buddha until everyone gets a life and there are no bribes.


Choices are not Choices

Richard Price

Urgency, and these choices are not choices, are not urgent –
to cut your finger turning a page or to tire, squandering pumped light.
There is public private news and want want want – without fathomed angst.

The screen disowns its imperatives, I have been compulsed:
high frequency, low amplitude, a constant sub-pang for a friend and a dataset.
Or absence? Or absence? Absence or else?

This push not to be,
to be in your own absence. I

love our long hours enfolded – sending, receiving; sending, receiving.
No – “thanks”, “praise”, doesn’t touch what touch is, each euphoric sense,
and I do say “love” and I do not delete darkness.

We transmit a very short distance and sometimes we read.


The Price

Richard Price

Remember when a poem could be banned
      for beginning with the word “Remember”? –
for mentioning it was a poem,
for bearing the weight of twenty-three syllables
      on the long oak bough of any given line?

(Those tiny birds, conspiring on the other side of that branch
had to be counted.
No modulated breath was safe, no high canopy.)

Remember when a poem could be censured for exaggerating –
      using that juvenile word “banned”, for example –
simplifying “exactly”, or displaying ‘exotic lite’, deploying “marram”, “palimpsest”, or “shard”?

I loved those years.
I am a Trading Standards Officer.
There should be a price on every word.

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
      a government inspector.
You’ll always be a –

I had a key for everything then, real keys and metaphorical.
Data Protection was my brief –
Magnusdottir, since you ask, Laycock, and bacon.
(I can say nothing regarding parentage but may I suggest
a widening of your diet, a little more adventure in travel?
Don’t you know questions for password amnesia don’t require authenticity –
the PsyOps mantra is “persistence of the identifier, not reality in identity.”
If you have to stay local, there’s always Io or Brigadoon.

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
      a quantity surveyor.
You’ll always be a –

My favourite key, real, had the heft of a tenon saw –
(I feel we’d better have a word like “heft” in this well-crafted poem,
we all need a guarantee, the reassurance of heritage vocabulary,
and consensus in the first person plural).
That implement liberated a certain opening in the old king’s demesne
a gate in a small postern.
It was all-weather but bore a delicate emblem:
on one half of the shield there was a furious dragon,
on the other judging balances, for the measurement of pie-wrens or hashish.
Each device was fading black on a field of deep red.
Through the warped door the forbidden forest
      must still luxuriate in the complex anthem
of leaf drip, mammal call, a soft baffling of breezes, mystery percussion.
The birds grumble but I can tell you they can be decoded.

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
      a debt collector.
You’ll always be a –

Oh you’ve lost that little padlock from your charm bracelet.
(As this is a poem I’ll just say what you already know –
let our listeners glean a little more private information for next to nothing,
actually it’s all on me.)
That silver safeguard was also a freebie,
the shining plummet from a rent but unexploded cracker.
Our first get-to-together was a Christmas burlesque in the heat of summer:
out amid the marram the pom-pom hats didn’t stay on for long
and you cut yourself on a Viking, on a Viking shard
(a piece of jagged plastic from a ready-meal packet,
and the palimpsest in the digitised object says the provenance is I-c-e-l-a-n-d)).

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
     a lie detector.
You’ll always be a –

Months later – here I’ll continue to explain what you already know,
      it’s only polite when we have company –
you agreed with a kiss you’d accept a binding contract.
It was actually winter but the aircon allowed shorts.
We’d never settled for the takeover of sharing my name.
We’d always understood we’d be equals
      under differentiated language –
and let any children choose their own ropeways.

We registered our radical grafting but I’m afraid this poem isn’t permitted
to clamber up anyone else’s family tree,
or slip down I should say, since, like the inverted offering of Tree Henge,
we are surely all in descent, the lowest tips yet in humanity’s burial darkness.

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
      a coin curator.
You’ll always be a –

I like a good ghost story. I know the cost of the arboretum.
I’m sorry we taught each other
      to specialise in adjustments of loss.
It’s no good saying now I couldn’t have known I was an expert
in short-selling, owned nothing I would risk,
that I borrowed security from your promise and still
bless the profit of our hopes – not quite held, certainly sold.

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.

A gap appears during the act of valuation:
value is an anxious covering, not an estimation of the ontic.

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
      a ready reckoner.
You’ll always be a –

There is a cost to fervour, adulation.
There is a cost to measure, to calculation. There is a cost…
There is a cost to conclusion –
you can surely hear now how this text is slowing,
it has sighted the deal, its destination.
I can sense you welcome the farewell,
as I thought I had detected, a little earlier, your exasperation –
this is a poem sinking with the pangs
      of the coming compromise of haggle completed,
the satisfactory simplicity of achieved dissatisfaction.
I should think there’ll be some sort of repetition
at the finish, the poem’s final handshake or set of receipts.
Capping a refrain’s phrases can be quite effective,
it’s knowing, but I bet it’ll be trying to raise spirits.
Yes here it is, the finale, to be honest suddenly sounding all a bit rushed,
(play gentle, Rich, play nice)
making a little rhyme of itself, self-obsessed to the last!

Play gentle, Rich, play nice.
You’ll always be
      a loss adjustor.
You’ll always be a Price.


Lion’s milk

Alan Riach

We were high, neither thoughtless nor thinking of
anything at all
but amused, and standing our ground
between ourselves, as the afternoon light became evening all
through the sky
and the lights sprinkled all over the contoured fields
of the city below, and threaded across all the bridges, like dots saying,
let us be joined,
began to come on.

The air was mild. The city was strong.

Then just as the dusk became more like darkness,
in this big and now deepening air,
the fireworks began to go off
in the distance at first, so far away there was nothing to hear,
the colours so bright and the spray in the heights so symmetrical, then
more of them, closer, a few places so we could see they
were focal, some parties going on, all along the vista, on both sides
of the channel –

And I guess we just did as you would do,
sharing a meal, at the table in the restaurant, taking our single and different plates
to ourselves, and some of us sharing a little, for pleasure, and that kind of
courteous curiosity, like a very sophisticated multidimensional duel, gifts
that were also in contest –

and we watched the whole time as the fireworks went off
and slowly relaxed into night-time, enjoying
it all, and seeing the long rounding line of the channel below in its turns and long curves,
its traffic, the ships with their lights too, shining on in the dark,

and I thought of the turn, at Akinti Burnu,
at the point of Arnavutkoy,
the Cape of the Currents, the deepest part of the Bosphorus,
where the waters flow so fast
above a hundred metres depth, where the movement churns and rolls itself around –

way below the sparkle and the sharing –
the currency, the movement –

the vision would be nothing without that depth –
the deep currents part of the vision –


In Praise of Peripheral Vision

Alan Riach

The target is, for them: the end of peripheral vision.
For us it’s what we live for, thus, to gain from, warnings, traces, things
To make use of, values in the context of perspective, co-ordinate points.
It doesn’t always guarantee good fortune. But the glimpse of just a moment
Can change your life. As right at the end of Western Union, 1941, Fritz Lang,
And Randolph Scott (yes, Randolph Scott) has made his final choice.
He knows his brother’s wickedness has taken him too far,
And now it must be stopped. He rides into the town and what we see
Is this: the view is from inside the barber’s shop, the brother and his band of evil outlaws
Look out through the curtained windows, into the night-time street. And Randolph Scott is riding in,
From right to left, across the screen. We see him looking slowly, left to right,
As his horse is pacing slowly along the street, between the curtains, caught
In the cross-fire gaze of the bad men, watching him as he passes by. Nobody moves.
The imminence and fear is palpable. He passes out of sight beyond the screen.
‘Perhaps he hasn’t seen us,’ says one bad man. The brother, turning back into the room,
Says bitterly, ‘He’s seen us.’ Finality is just about to happen.

The plaque upon the wall, in the old house I was born in
Read Semper Vigilans. I kept it with me, even now,
Long after Airdrie House is less than rubble. The family motto of Walter Scott
Was ‘Watch Weel’ – He watched well. To close the watching down
And give you only seeing, what they put
Before you, menus pre-designed
By women and men less able to make choices,
Less sensitive and less select, than you might be yourself,
Is ‘targeting the audience’. That is what they do,
The enemy. But we can get around them,
Now we know. It doesn’t guarantee success. Randolph Scott himself
Didn’t get out of that last fight, alive. But the lesson is there,
The message, still, available, for all to see, if we will,
Out of the edge of our eyes.


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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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