Questions & Answers, after Paul Celan

twenty poem nest-boxes, Southwark Park
commissioned by CGP Gallery

what’s love? day sees, day / is, day’s us (Epithalamium for DL)

CGP gallery is physically and socially at the heart of Southwark Park – walks with Judith Carlton, the director, are punctuated with cheery hellos, updates about the birdlife on the pond, and chats with dog walkers and strollers – and this project succeeded, for me, as a response to a place, in a way that, if I am honest, not every sited project does. The scale felt right; the number of boxes, the size of the park, the time it takes to wander between them.

No-one wants a world in which the civic realm is dominated by art: nest-boxes have enough informality – being variable, interesting but imperfect geometrical forms – and are, anyway, not only there to satisfy human needs.

There’s a lot of talk about site-specific artworks and much effort made towards community engagement these days, but the results are often dubious. For one thing, the artist, on a tight budget and with limited time, is assumed to have the magic and guile to milk a community of meaning in a way that a commissioner would never expect to achieve themselves. Too often we’ve lost the role of the curator as a person who speaks for a community and a place.

But sometimes, as a visiting artist, one is able to pick up on the embedded knowledge and, just as important, the fondness a curator has for a place – I think of Alex Hodby when she was based at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, or Emma Nicolson of Atlas, on Skye – and then, when you are lucky, the commissioner also becomes, to some degree, a collaborator. You can see into the place with them, and through them, as well as finding those few locals who hold the spirit of a place. Questions should be asked whenever this doesn’t happen.

what’s tea? an old pond / to fish in

In my ongoing work on mapping and ecopoetics in The Cairngorms I’ve been discussing the idea of walking with. Some of the examples I had in mind include Robert Macfarlane’s walks guided by Fraser Darling – who walked with red deer more than people – and, on Lewis, Finlay MacLeod and Anne Campbell, whose maps and name collections reveal the moors, peat roads, and airigh, àirighean, of the island, insisting on the richness of that landscape; Tim Robinson’s studies of Connemara and Oileáin Árann, which grew from maps that seem to detail every stone, dyke, and bog; and Kathleen Jamie’s walks with archaeologists and RSPB rangers on the islands of Rona and Coll, which un-fussily share glints off the mosaic of places.

Questions and answers is partly a work of walking with Judith.

what’s summer? sun is shining / send in the cones

Of course, the landscapes of MacFarlane, Robinson and Jamie reek of character – wild, remote, challenging, weather-beaten and mossy. One walks with a guide there for a reason, to turn the key in the lock of the place, in terms of ecological niches and the paths of language. By contrast, Southwark Park is a modest grassy and, dare I say, relatively ordinary rectangle within the metropolis. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t alignments, memories, personal and historical traces, mappings, signifiers, and meaningful phrases of speech.

It’s hard to say whether urban London or The Cairngorms are more remote to me personally, but that’s hardly the point. The knack of the poet, which comes from training, is to be open to the various methods of attunement that exist in terms of representing a locality – close observation, familiarising oneself with the codes and cryptic meanings in a culture, humour, playfulness, puns, and other forms of mimesis.

For instance, a line borrowed from Bob Marley’s political anthem to peace, ‘Sun is Shining’, stitched together with a parody of ‘Send in the Clowns’ that I once heard June Tabor sing, ‘Send in the Cones’. And using colour as another way to settle the work into its locality, the next-boxes are painted using my usual approach, colour specification, to match the leaves – summer and autumn – of the trees, or pick out the colours of a lifebuoy, London brick in the park gate, or even the red of a rubbish bin.

I tuned into the park through Judith and the people she introduced me to. Even her love of ice cream made it into the work. And then I spent time watching how different people enjoyed The Park, walking, sitting, jogging, exercising, cycling, flying drones, playing with radio-controlled cars, getting stoned, snogging, keeping bees, eating lunch, consoling their loneliness, passing time.

where’s heaven? through the rose garden

That awareness of The Park doesn’t mean every poem has a localised meaning. Some do – there are questions referring to things that are within view, like the tower blocks beyond Dilston Grove, the looming silhouette of The Shard, the sculpture of two Caryatids, and a poem which locates Heaven, or the Tree of Heaven, just through the rose garden. But there’s also a desire to make a coherent body of work, by its own measure.

what’s London? a shard with its sides / rent by The River

A suite of twenty poems on nest-boxes isn’t a book – it is a text opened outward, and the surroundings insist on taking part in the making of meaning. It is a body of words, and they needed to be played together until they worked, as a thing. A typical book of poetry circulates among a narrow community of readers who are, in their way, experts in language assemblage, whereas words that are placed in a public setting like this are going to be encountered by anyone and everyone, maybe once, but more likely over months and perhaps years. One simple way to acknowledge The Park was the inclusion of a poem for each season.

In a setting like Southwark Park I was interested to try and weave together local speech with texts I already had. These punned and riffed, for instance, this poem pre-existed the project and helped define it:

    less than a call or song : tweet

This short glossary gives a sense of the reference I made to urban dialect, localising the work in its hood.

Bare: very, a lot.
Chirpsing: flirting.
Ends: area, neighbourhood.
Rinsed: overused, used up, all gone.
Yard: house, garden, where one lives.

Daisy Lafarge is a poet who spent some of her childhood in South London, and she did a helpful edit, tweak, and boost of the text in its latter stages, which further authenticated this local aspect. She knew those South London usages. I also spent more time with Tim Atkins wonderful Horace and Petrarch, which are London.

what’s a friend? bare love

The project for CGP began from an early Romanian poem by Paul Celan, translated by Julian Semilian and San Agalidi, composed of questions, a form Pablo Neruda and Edmund Jabes have also adopted.

In 2000, as part of my research into shared consciousness, I published a newspaper of young children’s questions as part of an artist project, in collaboration with Baltic, which later became a book, The Book of Questions (2005), a set of postcards, and of pencils.

And in 2010 Ken Cockburn and I used the question and answer form in the road north, where they preface sections of our journey, helping to define, poetically, the landscapes forms, ecologies, and cultures, we were entering.

    what is a river?

    a river is a flower
    with its roots in the hills

Heather Yeung collaborated on an expanded sequence, after Celan, and I read some of these at the launch of the project at CGP this March.

The open-ended nature of the question-and-answer poem, where the reader is implicitly encouraged to supply their own answer, works well in a public situation, where one has to imagine a dog-walker passing a text every day. Hopefully some poems reveal their answers speedily and others slowly.

what’s the sky? jug of blue

If Celan’s poetry is hermetic and richly allusive, the argot of the streets belongs to the young, who, being the most innovative and intrepid transformers of language, also give speech a cryptic quality. Alice Becker-Ho of the Situationist International identifies one reason for this: ‘To belong to a House, Family or Order is already, in itself, a force, if not a power.... Argot is also the sum of all the procedures that deform language (verlan, largonji, javanais, etc.), and that are used
 in a certain milieu, among individuals who are able to recognize themselves through them. Argot is disguised language.’

The same could be said for speakers of cant and polari, the toked-up exuberance of mountain climbers, and code-words that circulate within all marginalised communities.

The poems on the nest-boxes should be experienced in Southwark Park; rather than only listing the twenty texts presented there. I have gathered together a wide range of the examples of the form by myself, with Daisy, along with a couple of contributions by Heather Yeung.

What is forgetting? An unripe apple stabbed by a spear.’

– Paul Celan

what is a garden?
a garden is culture & labour
which produces an annual
surplus of colour

what’s trees?
trees are Ys

what is a hut?
a hut is four thin walls
nailed around a stove
set in woods, wilds

what is a loch?
a loch is an acre
of crofted water

what is a beach?
a beach is an abacus
which counts in lines
powered by the moon

what is the sea?
if the sea knew
what it was
it wouldn’t keep
coming back

what is an air-bed?
an air-bed is something
that lets you down
all night long

what is illness?
illness is strangeness
felt inside us

what’s a pigeon?
not what, but …
            who, whoo

what’s the moon?
a coin in the high
rise slot machine

what’s winter?
gates closed early

what’s a friend?
bare love

what’s love?
day sees, day
is, day’s us

what’s a park?
walks on grass

what’s summer?
sun is shining
send in the cones

what’s a lake?
a glass rinsed
by cloud

what are dolphins?
I’ll answer
in two clicks

what’s the sky?
jug of blue

what’s tea?
an old pond
to fish in

what’s London?
a shard with its sides
rent by The River

what’s a tweet?
less than a call
or song

what’s spring?
time to chirpse

Thanks to Judith Carlton and all the team at CGP Gallery, Daisy Lafarge, Jenna Corcoran, Tim Atkins, Chris Ellis, and Damian Griffiths.

Supported by Southwark Council, Co-op Local Community Fund, and Arts Council England.

CGP Gallery London
Gallery by the Pool
1 Park Approach
Southwark Park
London SE16 2UA

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