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‘Terminus ad quem’

February 5, 2012
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The spiral galaxy Andromeda: a whirl of blue gas clouds shading to purplish and white at its centre, studded with white stars.

Terminus ad quem

Then, when the lack of water killed them,
and light went through them like a knife,
there, boiling out the sap that filled them,
the last soft creatures ended life
much as they long ago began it.
Come sunset, when the silent planet
is spared the sun’s red-swollen gaze,
still trembling through the choking haze
are constellations slowly turning;
in shapes that mean for other eyes,
and none that Earth would recognise,
new stars, old embers, go on burning.
And there, a faint but gleaming scar:
the onrush of Andromeda.



Title: the Latin phrase terminus ad quem, meaning something like ‘time by which’, is used in the dating of artefacts and manuscripts to denote the latest possible production date of something. The absolute terminus ad quem for any human artefact, for archaeologists of the deep future, is going to be “when the human race went extinct”.

6: Tip o’ the pen to C.S. Lewis. Much as I dislike his theology, Out of the Silent Planet remains one of the most unsettlingly evocative titles I have ever encountered.

14: This entire poem was inspired by an idle look at the Wikipedia page for the predicted collision of Andromeda with the Milky Way, expected 3 to 4 billion years from now. This is unlikely to bother the human race much, as all life, down to the hardiest single-celled organism, will have been wiped off Earth by the overheating sun long before Andromeda gets close, and if we’ve got the technology to dodge that bullet then a galactic collision shouldn’t be too disruptive either. I say collision; galaxies are so tenuous that it would be more like two clouds moving through one another.

Character Sketch: Aiden Kane

December 18, 2011

Casing the room his pile of coppers got,
Aiden takes in the chair, the narrow cot,
and shuts and locks and bolts and bars the door.
The gaps and knotholes in the splintered floor
show from below a flash of candlelight,
a creak, a laugh; the inn is full tonight.
The storm shows every sign of going on:
best to be in before the light is gone.

Aiden sits down, back to the wall, and draws
his faithful guns. There’s light left; he ignores
the winter clamouring outside the walls,
and strokes the dim-lit rune-work, and recalls
the first they ever gave him, young and green,
a soldier minted new, his hands still clean.
The years of training meld into a haze
of bleary nights and yellow summer days;
the bells that tolled the faithful through the hours,
bright flags stretched in the wind atop the towers;
the shields on the gables, blue and white;
the river wide and radiant in the light;
the scent of lilacs drooping in the wet;
the sounds of home, his native alphabet,
the language of his homeland in the air.
But he is here, and king and kingdom there,
as far apart as they have ever been,
with half a bleeding continent between;
his masters, too, a thousand miles away:
it was not ordered, what he did today.

Across the steppe, in far-flung monasteries,
they chronicle defeats and victories:
this battle won, this lost, this vantage gained,
the war examined, analysed, explained.
Aiden does not read chronicles. Their themes
play out across his daylights and his dreams.

Before the birth of paper, there was hide,
cropped square and cleaned of blood, and stretched, and dried;
the squares made into books, and notes from scraps,
they set down scriptures, chronicles, and maps,
a thousand songs to sing and tales to tell.
Skin holds the impress of the stylus well:
a book may last – though it will wear and fade –
a thousand years or more since it was made.
And though the words should dim from black to grey
they will not fade entirely away:
beneath the scholar’s lamp they yield again
the words of wit or warning they contain.

The book that wears its skin outside the spine
so too records its travails, line by line:
wounds heal and fevers pass, but scars remain,
the fossil remnant of a buried pain.
Across the living page the reader sees
our love-songs and our ancient histories.

Aiden reloads his guns, face to the door.
At thirty-three he’s younger than the war.

One hand – the left – has bones; the other, spars,
articulated lengths of iron and brass;
a touch across his shoulder-blades would feel
the jagged seam where skin gives way to steel;
and downward, find another, older tale,
a tapestry of lines that tangle, pale,
across, across, across, again, again,
the souvenirs of capture and the chain.

Few hands have traced the scars. Aiden prefers
to keep the thick grey bulwark of his furs:
his greatcoat, gloves, half haven, half disguise,
protect him from the cold and from their eyes.

In all the time he rotted in the place
they never touched his fingers, or his face.
The colonel said it would have been a shame.
In months he never learned the colonel’s name,
nor the guards’ names, nor even where they were;
days became weeks, and weeks became a blur.

When there was nothing left, they made a deal:
hostage for hostage. Freedom seemed unreal;
the journey south, a phantom; home, a dream.
They patched him up and sent him back upstream.
Ten years, that was, ten years ago and more,
and he is not the boy he was before.
He speaks their language without thinking now;
his own has rusted. Times do not allow
for any thoughtless slipping of the mask:
he is a soldier, and he has his task.

Outside, the forest bends beneath the strain
of wind and snow that streaks the window-pane.
Drifts pile around the door. The night draws in.
Out here the winter wears the people thin:
grey, weatherbeaten, quiet, they do not care
who seeks the Empress’ gold-and-amber chair.
which distant city fell, which stands beset.
The Empress they adore in silhouette,
scarce closer than their God to matters here:
the freezing grind of time from year to year
does not respect Her Highness’ dreaded name,
nor all the prayers they offer to the flame.

Serenely, in a narrow, rented room,
the light gives way to early-falling gloom;
as the horizon claims the winter sun
Aiden reloads his pistols, one by one.

* * *

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A thing about verse

December 13, 2011

Here is a thing I have been thinking about today:

It seems to me that there is less verse around than there used to be.

Partly this must be accounted for by the gradual prevalence of writing, rather than memorisation, as the preferred way to preserve literature. The patterning of formal verse, be it alliterative, rhyming, metrical or some combination, can be a tremendous help in memorising long chunks of text; such mnemonic strategies are less crucial when you have a written-down crib available. (See also, the possibility that people memorise less general knowledge now that the Internet, repository of everything, is readily accessible.) But writing has been around for an entirely ridiculous length of time; verse continued in use. Literacy rates got higher and higher; verse continued in use. Printing happened, cheap printing, which relied on a large, literate customer base; verse continued in use. The Internet happened, and suddenly it seems that there’s more verse around than ever, because now everyone with two words to string together and a blog to put them on can put their efforts out there for the world to inspect.

Verse has never gone out of use, of course. Poetry is still a thriving art today. But at some point in that trajectory, the scope of writing-in-verse – in English, at least; I cannot speak for any other culture, and am only really speculating in any case – seems to have narrowed. There seems to be, now, a relatively narrow conception of verse-writing that is closely tied to the concept of Poetry with a capital P, as it were. Poetry, the impression seeps in, is for profound reflections. An exception is allowed for light verse, exploiting the patternings of verse for comic effect; likewise, verse set to music is exempted, because songwriting is (rightly or wrongly) considered a separate form with separate rules. But there does not seem to be, currently, a concept of the middle ground – non-musical verse works that are neither avowedly comic nor deep and serious. It’s as if prose consisted of P.G. Wodehouse on one end and Serious Literary Fiction at the other, and very little else.

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The UK’s Fail Price Stabiliser

November 16, 2011

This idea of a fuel price stabiliser in the UK has been knocking around for far too long now, despite some blindingly obvious flaws with it. It would be completely unaffordable in every way for the UK government, that much is clear: we can’t afford to lower fuel duty at all. We already have a budget deficit of 17% (for every £1 the UK government spend, they have to borrow 17p) and if we cut 10p of fuel duty it will increase by more than half a percent, £4.6 billion.* The most they could do would be to take a penny or two off, which the oil industry or the petrol retailers will eat back up in a heartbeat, and would have very little effect anyway.
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Responses to “Anatomy of an Angel”, II: Prose

October 31, 2011

As the title suggests, this is a follow-up / companion piece / exploratory essay accompanying the poem I posted yesterday, ‘Responses to “Anatomy of an Angel”, I: Poetry’.


Image from Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images, via the Independent.

Damien Hirst's "Anatomy of an Angel", a white marble sculpture of an angel with some of its surface cut away to show internal organs.

On Thursday, I went into Leeds to meet a friend who I hadn’t seen for just about a year, to catch up, make further plans, and – most crucially – append my illegible scrawl to two copies of a deed poll officially certifying that {Common Very Gendered Name} is now {Possibly Unique and Much Less Gendered Name}. We had lunch in the Tiled Hall café, and then wandered over into the art gallery. First, we looked into the temporary Damien Hirst exhibition (today is its last day), which has attracted some comment because, well, Damien Hirst.  The preserved sheep in its glass box was, perhaps ironically, the least interesting piece there, I thought; I was much more interested by the lightboxed, zoomed-in photos of what P assures me was aspirin (pills have so much detail close up) and by the enormous cabinet piece entitled “Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology”, consisting of various anatomy models – you know, plastic cross-sections of various bits – carefully arranged and painted.

The one that made me stop and stare the longest, however, was “Anatomy of an Angel”, the sculpture pictured at the top of this post. Done in gorgeous white Carrara marble, it’s an angel sculpted in a style reminiscent of a Renaissance Venus, all soft curves and sidelong gaze; but here and there the ‘skin’ is taken off, like an all-white version of one of the garishly coloured plastic models, to show carefully detailed muscle and bone underneath. It’s unearthly and uncanny and rather disconcerting and took my breath away. P commented that it looked like a zombie version of one of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who; my first thought was how alien it was to see a traditionally-styled angel represented as, well, having insides. The physicality of angels – did they eat? did they have sexes? (how) did they reproduce? – was a matter of much concern to medieval theologians, and for all I know there are still serious men with beards arguing about it somewhere, but in popular discourse the insubstantial/otherworldly idea of the angel seems to have won out.*

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