Bronze Age, Ornithology, and Bloodshot Cartography: recent videopoems

still from "Bronze Age"

Since I’m spending the summer in London, where the wifi is blindingly fast compared to Plummer’s Hollow, it would seem like a waste not to make at least a few videopoems. My latest came out of a road trip this past weekend, in the course of which we visited the Flag Fen Archaeology Park near Peterborough and the John Clare cottage not far away:

The first lines came to me in a dream as I was sleeping in a room at the Bluebird Inn, next door to Clare’s cottage, where he worked as a potboy in the early 19th century. I didn’t get back to sleep for hours, which kind of sucked, but I’m fairly pleased with how the poem turned out. We stopped along the road the next morning to shoot the extra footage with which the video concludes. The first part of the video shows a section of the 3000-year-old preserved causeway at Flag Fen where bronze swords and other items were ritually deposited in the mud in a place which archaeologists believe was favored for its liminality — part land, part water. The John Clare poem quoted at the end is “Autumn,” which ends:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

A week ago, I made a videopoem recycling an old text of mine to accompany some marvelous footage of a birder struggling through quicksand from an old home movie of unknown provenance. The metaphorical possibilities were just too good to pass up:

This followed a video I made for a poem by Sarah J. Sloat, also using old-home-movie footage in a kind of lazy person’s homage to Stan Brakhage, as I wrote when I posted it at Moving Poems.

I included some rather detailed process notes that I hope might be of especial interest to poets who’d like to get into working with videopoetry. Sarah wrote,

This poem began with my wondering whether the word ‘amazon’ had anything to do with ‘amaze,’ and finding out it doesn’t. Mix in a little homesickness, lack of sleep and antipathy for insects, and it’s done. The poem was originally published in Crab Creek Review.


In the room at the end of a hall which the body is led to by a guide: a platform with a sheet, aimed at the ring-shaped gantry; cool light coming from a whole wall of windows. In the distance, traffic threading through the bridge. The technician in sea-green scrubs has a shaven head and deep-set eyes. He reminds you of the idols carved into wooden granary posts in the highlands: arms on top of bent knees, attentive sentinels. He sets you up for what he refers to as your line. The lead goes in, bevel up. But after the catheter and needle are taped in position for the vein, you ask to use the toilet. He is kind and makes no fuss, tells you to take your time. You empty yourself one more time— another effect of the second bottle of contrast you struggled to finish that morning, the taste just tolerable but the texture thicker than sludge. Back on the platform, you draw your knees up and he slides a bolster underneath. He asks you to raise both arms straight back then loops the tubing twice around your index finger; you hold it in place with your thumb. You are told: you might feel heat flower as a sudden fever, smell and taste the smoky metallic aura of iodinated dye. You might feel like you are about to urinate. The slip rings begin to whir in continuous motion. Your body is a wand passed through the circle; invisible beams rotate rapidly around it to consolidate an image. As the trace liquid enters your veins, you breathe and hold, breathe and hold in sequence. The feeling that floods your lower regions is less like the urge to pee, than the warmth that comes either before or after sex: spreading through your insides before the eddy of withdrawal. Afterwards, he extracts the needle and tapes on a piece of gauze. Departing through the corridor, you feel your head throb slightly. You desperately want to drink water. In the steel elevators leading to the grey parking lot, you are separate again, though still subaltern— unhooked from the eye that had the privilege of looking into the body’s outposts to collect its tokens.


The doctor looks at the numbers on the sheet, then motions for her to scoot down to the edge of the table. The pad underneath crinkles. One stirrup on each side, steel horse heads whose duty is to open. Flop your legs outward like a frog, she says; this won’t take long. On the tray table: clean instruments, the first one for widening and looking in. A nurse in latex gloves hands her an extractor and hook. Dull tug and a moment’s felt twinge, after which she holds up the curved filament that lodged ten years in the mouth of her womb. By this token she’s made to understand: she’s past the period of accidental danger, past the years of fertile flush. When she stands to take off the paper robe and reclaim her clothes, for a moment it’s as if she can feel that space of newly hollow quiet. Sometimes people who are moving ask at the grocery stores for cardboard boxes that held produce— the ones for bananas marked “bananas,” the ones for oranges perhaps marked “naranja.” They put books or documents or kitchenware in them; a whiff of citrus oil or trace of ammonia lets you know what kinds of things they used to hold.

All the finishing by hand

Kissing, sex: pah! mother said to me one Saturday morning. You have to marvel at the speed of that mental leap. I had just told her I was going out that afternoon, to the movies, with this guy. I was a college sophomore but had just that year discovered: uniformly curved potato chips stacked in slender cylinders; height-changing platform sandals; and: jeans, how you could walk into a department store and pick them off a rack, try them on for size, often not even need to have anything altered or hemmed. All my life until then, she’d sewn all my clothes on the old Singer sewing machine with a treadle. All the finishing by hand— zippers, buttonholes, snaps, hook and eye closures. When I was ten and started menstruating, unsure of how to discuss what was happening to me, she went and got a book: On Becoming a Woman. There was a young brunette smiling on the cover, her lips the same shade as her cardigan and the apple out of which she was getting ready to take a bite. In the background, a bevy of whispering girls in poodle skirts, clutching schoolbooks. Inside, an illustrated flyleaf: the same girls in bridal wear on a cottage path, massive clots of flowers. Even then, I knew the underlying message: everything ripe for plucking, until beauty burns out and fragrance turns to rot.


In response to Via Negativa: Battlefield.


Up, and after some discourse with Mr. Duke, who is to be Secretary to the Fishery, and is now Secretary to the Committee for Trade, who I find a very ingenious man, I went to Mr. Povy’s, and there heard a little of his empty discourse, and fain he would have Mr. Gauden been the victualler for Tangier, which none but a fool would say to me when he knows he hath made it his request to me to get him something of these men that now do it. Thence to St. James’s, but Mr. Coventry being ill and in bed I did not stay, but to White Hall a little, walked up and down, and so home to fit papers against this afternoon, and after dinner to the ‘Change a little, and then to White Hall, where anon the Duke of Yorke came, and a Committee we had of Tangier, where I read over my rough draught of the contract for Tangier victualling, and acquainted them with the death of Mr. Alsopp, which Mr. Lanyon had told me this morning, which is a sad consideration to see how uncertain a thing our lives are, and how little to be presumed of in our greatest undertakings.
The words of the contract approved of, and I home and there came Mr. Lanyon to me and brought my neighbour, Mr. Andrews, to me, whom he proposes for his partner in the room of Mr. Alsopp, and I like well enough of it.
We read over the contract together, and discoursed it well over and so parted, and I am glad to see it once over in this condition again, for Mr. Lanyon and I had some discourse to-day about my share in it, and I hope if it goes on to have my first hopes of 300l. per ann.
They gone, I to supper and to bed.
This afternoon came my great store of Coles in, being 10 Chaldron, so that I may see how long they will last me.

we have been thin paper
in the rough
draft of our lives

our greatest word
is like a contract
for our share of coal

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 27 July 1664.


All the morning at the office, at noon to Anthony Joyce’s, to our gossip’s dinner. I had sent a dozen and a half of bottles of wine thither, and paid my double share besides, which is 18s. Very merry we were, and when the women were merry and rose from table, I above with them, ne’er a man but I, I began discourse of my not getting of children, and prayed them to give me their opinions and advice, and they freely and merrily did give me these ten, among them (1) Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much; (2) eat no late suppers; (3) drink juyce of sage; (4) tent and toast; (5) wear cool holland drawers; (6) keep stomach warm and back cool; (7) upon query whether it was best to do at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor other, but when we had most mind to it; (8) wife not to go too straight laced; (9) myself to drink mum and sugar; (10) Mrs. Ward did give me, to change my place. The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 10th they all did seriously declare, and lay much stress upon them as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last, to lie with our heads where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.
Very merry all, as much as I could be in such sorry company.
Great discourse of the fray yesterday in Moorefields, how the butchers at first did beat the weavers (between whom there hath been ever an old competition for mastery), but at last the weavers rallied and beat them. At first the butchers knocked down all for weavers that had green or blue aprons, till they were fain to pull them off and put them in their breeches. At last the butchers were fain to pull off their sleeves, that they might not be known, and were soundly beaten out of the field, and some deeply wounded and bruised; till at last the weavers went out tryumphing, calling 100l. for a butcher. I to Mr. Reeves to see a microscope, he having been with me to-day morning, and there chose one which I will have.
Thence back and took up young Mrs. Harman, a pretty bred and pretty humoured woman whom I could love well, though not handsome, yet for her person and carriage, and black. By the way met her husband going for her, and set them both down at home, and so home to my office a while, and so to supper and bed.

do not hug too hard in a tent
keep warm at night

we go to war
to lie with butchers

the green or blue
sound of the field

some deep wound
calling you down

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 26 July 1664.

What we do with what we’ve killed

In the museum courtyard, arches repeat
the past’s stylistic flourishes. A skylight

opens up to the future, supported with beams.
Everyone who’s here is here because they want

to look at art, or just escape the blistering heat.
Museum personnel walk around with a group of docents

in training. The word docent comes from the Latin docere,
which means to show, teach, or cause to know; to make appear

right, be seemly, fitting. There’s a roomful of glass
in one room: French, all swirls and jewel colors,

the designer’s name ending in -que. You can tell
who among the viewers has knick-knacks like these

locked up in a tall glass case in the foyer:
maybe that woman in a slubbed linen shirt

and loafers. Once I went to read for a book group
at the beach, in the home of one of its members.

The host met us at the door in a woven caftan. She said,
You can walk up to the second floor, or if you want

there’s a lift by the landing. But if you walk up the stairs
you can see the wood-carved statues I asked my housekeeper

to take out of storage— I thought you’d like to see them
as they’re from your home country. Like an obedient fish

I ascended the cool lucite staircase. At the top, I greeted
each likeness in turn: native madonna and child, hunter

with backpack carrying a deer; warrior with axe
in one hand, and the head of his enemy in the other.


In response to Via Negativa: Slum.


Up, and with Sir J. Minnes and Sir W. Batten by coach to St. James’s, but there the Duke being gone out we to my Lord Berkeley’s chamber, Mr. Coventry being there, and among other things there met with a printed copy of the King’s commission for the repair of Paul’s, which is very large, and large power for collecting money, and recovering of all people that had bought or sold formerly any thing belonging to the Church.
And here I find my Lord Mayor of the City set in order before the Archbishopp or any nobleman, though all the greatest officers of state are there.
But yet I do not hear by my Lord Berkeley, who is one of them, that any thing is like to come of it.
Thence back again homewards, and Sir W. Batten and I to the Coffee-house, but no newes, only the plague is very hot still, and encreases among the Dutch.
Home to dinner, and after dinner walked forth, and do what I could I could not keep myself from going through Fleet Lane, but had the sense of safety and honour not to go in, and the rather being a holiday I feared I might meet with some people that might know me.
Thence to Charing Cross, and there called at Unthanke’s to see what I owed, but found nothing, and here being a couple of pretty ladies, lodgers in the kitchen, I staid a little there. Thence to my barber Gervas, who this day buries his child, which it seems was born without a passage behind, so that it never voided any thing in the week or fortnight that it has been born.
Thence to Mr. Reeves, it coming just now in my head to buy a microscope, but he was not within, so I walked all round that end of the town among the loathsome people and houses, but, God be thanked! had no desire to visit any of them. So home, where I met Mr. Lanyon, who tells me Mr. Alsop is past hopes, which will mightily disappoint me in my hopes there, and yet it may be not. I shall think whether it will be safe for me to venture myself or no, and come in as an adventurer.
He gone, Mr. Cole (my old Jack Cole) comes to see and speak with me, and his errand in short to tell me that he is giving over his trade; he can do no good in it, and will turn what he has into money and go to sea, his father being dead and leaving him little, if any thing. This I was sorry to hear, he being a man of good parts, but, I fear, debauched.
I promised him all the friendship I can do him, which will end in little, though I truly mean it, and so I made him stay with me till 11 at night, talking of old school stories, and very pleasing ones, and truly I find that we did spend our time and thoughts then otherwise than I think boys do now, and I think as well as methinks that the best are now. He supped with me, and so away, and I to bed.
And strange to see how we are all divided that were bred so long at school together, and what various fortunes we have run, some good, some bad.

collecting people bought
or sold formerly

the city is anything but new
hot and not safe to go in

but who buries his child
without a void

night has been born
in my microscope

that end of town
among loathsome houses

come see the dead
how we are divided
that were so long together

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 25 July 1664.


(Lord’s day). Up, in some pain all day from yesterday’s passages, having taken cold, I suppose. So staid within all day reading of two or three good plays. At night to my office a little, and so home, after supper to bed.

some pain from day’s passage
a thin reading

go play at night
my little upper

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 24 July 1664.

The book-lover’s blues

Up, and all the morning at the office. At noon to the ‘Change, where I took occasion to break the business of my Lord Chancellor’s timber to Mr. Coventry in the best manner I could. He professed to me, that, till, Sir G. Carteret did speake of it at the table, after our officers were gone to survey it, he did not know that my Lord Chancellor had any thing to do with it; but now he says that he had been told by the Duke that Sir G. Carteret had spoke to him about it, and that he had told the Duke that, were he in my Lord Chancellor’s case, if he were his father, he would rather fling away the gains of two or 3,000l., than have it said that the timber, which should have been the King’s, if it had continued the Duke of Albemarle’s, was concealed by us in favour of my Lord Chancellor; for, says he, he is a great man, and all such as he, and he himself particularly, have a great many enemies that would be glad of such an advantage against him.
When I told him it was strange that Sir J. Minnes and Sir G. Carteret, that knew my Lord Chancellor’s concernment therein, should not at first inform us, he answered me that for Sir J. Minnes, he is looked upon to be an old good companion, but by nobody at the other end of the towne as any man of business, and that my Lord Chancellor, he dares say, never did tell him of it, only Sir G. Carteret, he do believe, must needs know it, for he and Sir J. Shaw are the greatest confidants he hath in the world.
So for himself, he said, he would not mince the matter, but was resolved to do what was fit, and stand upon his owne legs therein, and that he would speak to the Duke, that he and Sir G. Carteret might be appointed to attend my Lord Chancellor in it.
All this disturbs me mightily. I know not what to say to it, nor how to carry myself therein; for a compliance will discommend me to Mr. Coventry, and a discompliance to my Lord Chancellor. But I think to let it alone, or at least meddle in it as little more as I can.
From thence walked toward Westminster, and being in an idle and wanton humour, walked through Fleet Alley, and there stood a most pretty wench at one of the doors, so I took a turn or two, but what by sense of honour and conscience I would not go in, but much against my will took coach and away, and away to Westminster Hall, and there ‘light of Mrs. Lane, and plotted with her to go over the water. So met at White’s stairs in Chanel Row, and over to the old house at Lambeth Marsh, and there eat and drank, and had my pleasure of her twice, she being the strangest woman in talk of love to her husband sometimes, and sometimes again she do not care for him, and yet willing enough to allow me a liberty of doing what I would with her. So spending 5s. or 6s. upon her, I could do what I would, and after an hour’s stay and more back again and set her ashore there again, and I forward to Fleet Street, and called at Fleet Alley, not knowing how to command myself, and went in and there saw what formerly I have been acquainted with, the wickedness of these houses, and the forcing a man to present expense. The woman indeed is a most lovely woman, but I had no courage to meddle with her for fear of her not being wholesome, and so counterfeiting that I had not money enough, it was pretty to see how cunning she was, would not suffer me to have to do in any manner with her after she saw I had no money, but told me then I would not come again, but she now was sure I would come again, but I hope in God I shall not, for though she be one of the prettiest women I ever saw, yet I fear her abusing me.
So desiring God to forgive me for this vanity, I went home, taking some books from my bookseller, and taking his lad home with me, to whom I paid 10l. for books I have laid up money for, and laid out within these three weeks, and shall do no more a great while I hope.
So to my office writing letters, and then home and to bed, weary of the pleasure I have had to-day, and ashamed to think of it.

chance is a good companion
but needs are the greatest confidants

I love sometimes
and sometimes I do not care

a woman is lovely but I suffer
God forgive me for my books

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 23 July 1664.