It’s always such a gift and an honor when my artist friends make adaptations of my work. Marc Neys surprised me with this yesterday: a complete and I think effective re-imagining of the original poem. You know, what any attentive reader does. But most readers aren’t crazy-brilliant Belgian artist-composers.
My latest videohaiku is an homage to William Blake. The major Blake exhibition currently at Tate Britain features only indirectly, via a billboard above the escalators in Waterloo Station. Just to the southwest of that station, under the multiple railroad tracks, is another, permanent exhibition that Rachel and I took in on Sunday, before walking over to the Tate: the London School of Mosaic’s project Blake’s Lambeth (2005-2015):
Blake’s Lambeth is a collection of 70 mosaics installed in the tunnels alongside Archbishops Park, close to Waterloo Station. The project was part of a 10 year collaboration of Southbank Mosaics (our former company) with Future’s Theatre and Southbank Sinfonia supported by Heritage Lottery.
William Blake lived for ten of his most productive years in North Lambeth at 13 Hercules Buildings. The old house has been knocked down, but there is a plaque where it once stood on Hercules Road. This mosaic project pays homage to his genius and some of his greatest work. Our artists worked with 300 volunteers over a period of 7 years to research, design, plan, create and install 70 mosaics based on the words and paintings of William Blake into the railway tunnels of Waterloo Station, turning them from dark unwelcoming places into street galleries bright with opulent and durable works of art.
There’s also an extensive photo gallery at the blog Spitalfields Life, which is how I found out about the installation, having Googled “William Blake Lambeth”, hoping for an historical marker or something.
I messed around with the text of the haiku quite a lot while working on the video, and it wasn’t until I decided to take it in a Blakean, satirical direction that it felt right. So it’s “after Blake” in two senses. (Here’s the text of his poem “London” if you need a refresher.) Each of the three lines is divided in two, using a similar font to the one in the Tate poster.
Here’s the (longer and much more slickly produced) official video for the project:
If travel were just
the open road, I might
take to it. Not this
this intestinal clench
of visas tickets security screenings long lines wrong seats bad restrooms too much luggage no-fly lists takeoff turbulence recirculated air cramped legroom boredom soreness limbo purgatory sleepless wondering will they let us in turn us back demand proof of our identity confiscate our umbilical cords make us wait wait wait wait,
wherever we are bound.
Sleep will elude me no longer with her silver tongue. I have bought her silence from a horned god: half goat, half lion with a banker’s dreamless fingers. His purse yawns open to take its paper medicine while she, my darling captive, stares past me, like no hollow-eyed face in the mirror I’ve ever seen. Perhaps there’s someone behind me, some rider, some mare. I don’t know. She’s not talking. And the room’s beginning to tilt and turn dark.
I died with the word I on my lips.
It only took a moment,
a slight pause as if for a line-
break or a comma, a panicked thought
or the time required for an 8-ball
to cross the baize. I died,
and the cities I harbor gave way
to squalid refugee camps
where the moon went
through a new phase
of never getting out of bed.
They fed it on thin broth
that tasted like a landlocked sea.
And there I floated like Moses
in my open casket waiting to be
adopted by Mother Earth—
to be somehow seen again, if only
by the mute-belled lilies of the valley
and their brawny, tawny bee.
Fallen how? As bruised fruit, windfall—
an unlooked-for fortune? As felled tree
ready to be resourced into board feet?
No. It is we who have fallen into
our own trap, which we can’t keep shut.
She’s more resourceful than a bodhisattva.
Her limbs proliferate, as if
in an arms race with an octopus,
that other escape artist of the deep.
She practices anemochory.
Only the policeman’s black mustache
is better at improvising flight.
The song of the womb begins
on a minor key among the bivalves
and sea cucumbers, whose tunes
are all palindromes and serve
a purely decorative purpose.
The song of the womb sounds best
played by a full orchestra, despite
the many adaptations for solo flute.
It’s got rhythm—that probably goes
without saying—and sheet music.
It can be used to communicate
over great distances underwater.
Scientists say the song of the womb
may predate the evolution
of consciousness! It is not, however,
the first choice of the womb itself,
which prefers bossa nova
and the occasional hymn
for the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Lion of empire every sun
must remind you of the veldt
the burning eyes of rivals
the bleats of prey but now
when you hear rain that’s
a crowd stampeding to escape
and when you hear thunder
that’s the big guns going off
and when you hear drip
drip drip drip that’s peace.