Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Art of the Small

Bonsai trees
drop tiny leaves.

Geisha girls with needles
pick them up.

© Jonathan Wonham

Image courtesy of Keeper of the Snails

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Iceberg

The iceberg is calved.
Like the rest of us, it doesn’t ask to be born.
It floats away, nine parts hidden.
Some say: the most important parts.

The iceberg doesn’t think about it.
The iceberg feels stable. That’s enough.
Like all the other icebergs it floats south.
It doesn’t know why.

South, where finally it will melt
somewhere short of the equator
adding its own fresh water to the endless salt water,
slowly, minutely, diluting it.

It does not detest the salt water
although the salt water, we know, eats into it,
gnawing away at the great white sides,
the bellying underneath.

Gone are the days when an iceberg could sink a ship.
Gone are the tragedies of icebergs.
Now, there’s something faintly comic about them.
Like fat children who can always be evaded.
Big, lumbering, purposeless things.

Still, there are always the oil rigs
that an iceberg might chance upon, be swept towards.
Tethered, there’s no escape for those.

Not that it wants to do damage of course.
Not that it wants to cause loss of life.

Even then, someone sees it’s coming,
drags a giant lasso around it.
See how they get some pootling tugboat
to drag the iceberg away, set it free
where it can’t do any more harm?

Not that it wanted to do harm.
Even three parts hidden.
Not that it wouldn’t suddenly roll over
if you happened to climb on board.
It doesn’t even consider such stuff.
It didn’t ask to be born.

© Jonathan Wonham

Saturday, March 25, 2006

French Quiz No. 3

Have a go at French Quiz No. 3. It's a multi-choice quiz with questions to test your knowledge of France, just for fun.

You'll be asked for your e-mail, but you can make one up such as:

Leave a note of your score in the comments, then we can see how badly you all did...

And if you missed the earlier quizzes give French Quiz No. 1 and French Quiz No. 2 a go as well.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Ten French Words

I have been fortunate enough to have received about eight years of French lessons from my employer. Even after all this assistance I'm not that marvellous at French, although I can communicate well enough and can understand just about everything. I say fortunate because I had a series of great French teachers who were always sympathetic, amusing, intelligent and never berated me for not doing my homework. They were also all women.

The first was quite attractive, even sultry you might say. I always felt as if she might start seducing me, sat opposite, feet nudging mine under the table. But she never did.

The next teacher was more practical. I don't believe she had a different outfit for every day of the year. But she was very kind and encouraged me to discover French literature. One week she gave me Prevert's 'L'Ecole des Beaux Arts' to learn by heart. It was the first French poem I translated into English and it has since been published in The Dark Horse magazine edited by Gerry Cambridge.

I encountered my last teacher in France. She never spoke to me in English. She was young with long dark hair and quite serious. She did her best to keep me on the straight and narrow, but I had advanced now to the level of fluent conversation and I was able to ask her about all the strange things that people said or did in France. One of the first things I wanted to know was: what is this strange language people are speaking? It doesn't sound at all like the one I've been learning for the last six years.

The french use a lot of colloquial words when they speak. Here are ten words that prove invaluable, but which you will generally not be taught in a formal French lesson. These are not the words to use with your boss, in general.

mec: a guy. Very colloquial. Normally refer to unnamed men as 'homme'.

salut: a way of saying 'bonjour' to your pals. But only to your pals. Don't say 'salut' to someone you've only just met.

dingue: If you say: "c'est dingue" it means that something is crazy or a bit peculiar.

connerie: a stupidity. You can also say 'il est con' which means 'he is stupid'. Made famous by the 'Diner de Cons', a film in which successful businessmen get their kicks from inviting stupid people to dinner. It sounds awful, but it's rather funny, and the 'cons' get their revenge in the end.

merdique: used to describe something that causes you to be metaphorically mired in shit ('merde' is shit). An emmerdeur is someone who causes you to be metaphorically mired in shit. There is currently a succesful play on in Paris called 'L'emmerdeur'.

truc: stuff. Can be used for just about anything.

chouette: literally this is the word for a female owl, but in practice people use it to describe something that makes them feel pleased. This blog for example is 'chouette!' You pronounce it like the soft drink: Schweppes, but ending in 'wet'.

bosser: a colloquial verb meaning 'to work'. As in "j'ai bossé tout le weekend" (I worked all weekend).

sympa: this is used by some young people quite frequently to describe something or someone who they think is nice. "Il est trés sympa" (he is very nice). To my ears it sounds a bit twee, especially when they say someone is "supersympa". I would not like to be considered "supersympa". Sympa is short for sympathique. The Spanish have something very similar: Simpatico.

santé: finally, and importantly, instead of cheers you have to say 'santé!' which means 'to your good health!'.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


As a student of geology, I would often have to visit working quarries to record the geology that was being revealed before it was carted away in the back of a truck. Sometimes it was sad to see beautiful geological structures being destroyed. But there wasn't much point getting sentimental about it: better just to take some good pictures and wait to see what would be revealed next.

Arriving in one quarry that was been worked in soft, friable sand, I discovered a face which had been recently cut by a large yellow JCB shovel. I began to examine it, marking the unusual colour of the sand and the particularly high organic content that gave the sands a dark colour. The texture was most unusual and the structures in the face looked nothing like those I had seen in other quarries nearby. I started using my spade to clean up the face and then I discovered an important surface at the base of the sands, marking an abrupt change from the more familiar greenish sands below. I thought I had discovered something really interesting.

Just then the quarry manager turned up in his Land Rover. I explained to him that I thought I had found something new and unusual. He looked at the dark sand and he said: "Oh that? Yes, Geoff put that there two years ago. It's a hole we filled in with sand. You can see it again because we just cut this track through."

Oh did I feel stupid... There was no interest at all in studying this. Geoff had created it two years ago. Geoff and his JCB were the environmental process that had created these rocks.

But why wasn't it interesting? Why was this pile of sand any less interesting than the pile of sand I had been studying in the quarry next door. Well, it was simply because I knew what had created these rocks. It was Geoff. The rocks in the quarry next door were separated from the present not by an interval of two years, but by an interval of one hundred million years. It would require a significant leap of the informed imagination to reconstruct the depositional processes of those rocks.

Generally, the further back in time a rock was created, the more difficult it is to understand how that rock came into being: the evidence is more disparate, fragmentary. It requires more imagination to build a model from this slender body of evidence. The world was different in the past, and the further you go back through time, the more different it was. No one can tell you: "Geoff made those surfaces", you have to look at the surfaces, look at their shape, try to understand what process was responsible: was it the wind, the tide, a storm, a cataclysm?

Often there will be abundant clues, particular signs which indicate one origin over another. Each of earth's environments is associated with a particular set of chemical and physical processes whch will mark the sediment grains. In addition, there may be particular biogenic processes which leave their signature in the sediment: the crawling traces of worms, beetles, snakes, birds and quadrupeds. These, and the traces of plants, can tell you about the environmental conditions. Eventually, a fascinating story will emerge. And the more you look, the more it will fascinate. This is why geologists can become slightly obsessive. They no longer wholly inhabit the present. A part of them remains stuck in another world, probably quite different to our own: a desert place with huge dunes or a vast chalky sea in which giant ammonites swim.

The tracks of man are quite rare. the picture at the top right of my blog is a fossil footprint some 9000 years old. It was revealed by the retreating coastlines of Southport in NW England. Tracks of bare-footed adults and children walking side by side through the soft estuary muds have also been found.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Crystals and Cells

A homeostatic system (ultrastable) cannot evolve unless it is attacked by events coming from the external world. An organization must thus be able to harness these periods of change and use them in its evolution. It is therefore obliged to adopt an operating mode characterized by a renewal of the structures and a great mobility of men and ideas. Indeed, any rigidity, scleroses, perenniality of the structures or of the hierarchy is obviously contrary to a situation allowing evolution.

An organization can be maintained either in the manner of a crystal or of a living cell. The crystal maintains its structure thanks to a balance of forces which are cancelled at each node of the crystal lattice. Thanks also to redundancy, which is to say, repetition of the same motifs. This static state, closed to the external world, does not allow it to resist disturbances to the surroundings: if the temperature increases, the crystal becomes disorganized and melts. The cell, by contrast, is in dynamic balance with its environment. Its organization is not founded on redundancy, but on the variety of its elements. An open system, it is maintained via the continuous renewal of its elements. It is this variety and this mobility which allow adaption to change.

The crystal-organization evolves with difficulty: in the jolts of radical reforms and traumatic changes. The cell-organization seeks to favour occurrences, variety, any opening to the external world. It does not fear a momentary desorganisation, the requirement for a more effective readaption. To admit this transitory risk, it is to accept and desire change. Because there is no real change without risk.

translated from: 'Le Macroscope' by Joël de Rosnay

Saturday, March 18, 2006

French Poetry by Women

It's shocking how writing by women has been consistently underplayed in anthologies of French poetry. I started thinking about this subject the other day after reading an article posted on poezibao deploring the under-representation of women in the publications of Gallimard, the highest profile poetry publisher in France.

I realised when I read this article that I could barely name a single French woman poet outside of Joyce Mansour. In fact my lack of knowledge about women writers reflected what I had learnt from anthologies of French poetry where women are heavily outnumbered or not present at all, and from browsing bookshop shelves where books by women poets are almost completely absent.

At the end of this article, I have listed the results of a survey of nine French poetry anthologies in order to review how French women writers are represented as compared to men. My review includes both anthologies edited in France as well as collections of translations published overseas.

From all the anthologies I have reviewed, which are fairly representative of French poetry during the 20th Century, I arrive at an average figure of 7% for women contributors. From a similar number of representative 20th Century anthologies in English, I arrive at a figure of 23% for women contributors. Canada seems to have achieved the most balanced output with 45% of women contributors in the large anthology '15 Canadian Poets x 3' edited by Gary Geddes.

There are similar trends in both English and French poetry anthologies with very few women poets writing in either language managing to establish a reputation at the beginning of the 20th Century. Towards the end of the 20th Century, anthologies such as 'Pièces détachées' include 21% women contributors, but anthologies from Gallimard continue to be dominated by male writers. A recent anthology of poems about Paris called "poètes de la ville" from Gallimard had 45 contributors and no women. Another recent anthology "Orphée Studio: Poésie d'aujourd'hui à voix haute" had one woman poet among 30 contributors. The editors of these anthologies should be truly embarassed.

In fact, the representation of women in anthologies reflects two things: firstly, the number of women writers publishing books and secondly the biases of anthology editors. It is notable that the editors of the French poetry anthologies I have found are, without exception, men.

If editors in publishing houses do not encourage women writers, no books by women will appear and women will not be represented in anthologies. This is what seems to happen in France chez Gallimard where according to poezibao only 4% of their entire output of around 400 volumes contain work by women poets, a number of these being women writers from overseas such as Emily Bronte. The absence of an outlet for women writers will lead to women becoming delusioned and ultimately not bothering to write. Not only that, but women generally in France will not be interested in poetry.

The second factor concerns the will of anthologists to include women writers in their anthologies. Paul Auster should hang his head in shame for including only 1 woman poet in his anthology of French poetry with 48 contributors (see below). I reckon there were at least 15 or so established women writers around at the time he put his anthology together.

It seems if you're really interested to discover French poetry by women you have to look for a specialist anthology such as Women's Poetry in France, 1965-1995 : A Bilingual Anthology (ed. Michael Bishop, Wake Forest University Press, 1997). The publisher's notes talk of "radically opening and altering perceptions of recent French poetry" and of many among the 28 poets represented in the anthology who have been "unjustly neglected even in their own country".


Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe siècle, Volume 1 (ed. Michel Décaudin; Éditions Gallimard, 2000) contains 3 women poets in a total of 82 contributors (3.5%). They are: Anna de Noailles, Catherine Pozzi and Marie Noël.

Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe siècle, Volume 2 (ed. Jean-Baptiste Para; Éditions Gallimard, 2000) contains 15 women poets in a total of 189 contributors (8%). They are: Marie Étienne, Anne-Marie Albiach, Gabrielle Althen, Marie-Claire Bancquart, Silvia Baron Supervielle, Nicole Brossard, Andrée Chedid, Michelle Grangaud, Françoise Hàn, Anne Hébert, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Rina Lasnier, Joyce Mansour, Anne Perrier and Liliane Wouters.

The Random House Book of 20th Century french Poetry (ed. Paul Auster; Vintage, 1984) contains 1 woman poet in a total of 48 contributors (2%). She is Anne-Marie Albiach.

Mid-Century French Poets (ed. Wallace Fowlie; Grove Press, 1955) contains no women poets among ten contributors (0%).

The Penguin Book of French Verse (ed. Brian Woledge, Geoffrey Brereton and Anthony Hartley; Penguin, 1980) contains 1 woman poet among 23 contributors in the 20th Century Section (4%). She is Catherine Pozzi.

20th Century French Poems (ed. Stephen Romer; Faber 2002) contains 7 women poets from a total of 53 contributors (13%). These are: Anne Hébert, Gisèle Prassinos, Marguerite Yourcenar, Claude de Burine, Marie-Clare Bancquart, Jacqueline Risset, Valérie Rouzeau.

Poètes singuliers, du surréalisme et autres lieux (ed. Alain-Valery Aelberts and Jean-Jacques Auquier, 10/18, 1971) contains 8 women poets among 57 contributors (14%). These are: Yvonne Caroutch, Leonora Carrington, Joyce Mansour, Anaïs Nin, Valentine Penrose, Danielle Sarréra, Flora Tristan and Marianne Van Hirtum.

New French Poetry (ed. C.A. Hackett; Basil Blackwell, 1973) contains 2 women poets from a total of 22 contributors (9%). These are: Louise Herlin and Joyce Mansour.

Orphée Studio: Poésie d'aujourd'hui à voix haute (ed. André Velter, Gallimard 1999) contains 1 woman poet from a total of 30 contributors (3%). She is Michelle Grangaud.

Pièces détachées: une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd'hui (ed. Jean-Michel Espitallier; Pocket, 2000) contains 7 women poets from a total of 33 contributors (21%). These are: Nathalie Quintaine, Cécile Mainardi, Anne Portugal, Katalin Molnár, Vannina Maestri, Michelle Grangaud, Valère Novarina.

There are other women writers as well, of course, who are not represented in any of these anthologies. They include Patrizia Gattaceca, Michèle Metail, Heather Dohollau, Claire Laffay, Marguerite Duras, Janine Mitaud, Helene Cadou, Claudine Helft, Anne Teyssieras, Denise le Dantec, Denise Borias, Jeanne Hyvrard, Martine Broda, Jeannine Baude, Marie Redonnet, Claire Malroux, Esther Tellerman, Celine Zins.


15 Canadian Poets x 3 (20 women poets among 45 contributors giving 45%).

The Faber Book of Modern Verse (5 women poets among 61 contributors giving 8%).

The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (8 women poets among 35 contributors giving 23%).

The New Poetry (2 women poets among 28 contributors giving 7%).

New British Poetry (11 women poets among 36 contributors giving 31%).

The New Poetry (17 women poets among 55 contributors giving 31%).

Poetry of the Thirties (1 women poet among 46 contributors giving 2%).

Poems on the Undergorund (around 54 women poets among around 210 contributors giving 26%).

In the Criminal's Cabinet (around 30 women poets among around 90 contributors giving 33%)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Peepee de Chat

I was back at my monthly wine tasting class yesterday, trying out three wines from the Loire Valley region. Our guide excelled himself in his description of the first bottle we tasted, a white aperitif wine.

He could scent: lemon, Granny Smith apples, the citronella herb, acacia flowers, honeysuckle flowers (chèvrefeuille), dried figs and, get this: peepee de chat - which he later clarified as a musky odour but not before one of the audience had agreed: "yes, a young cat, male, castrated..."

This wine, a Sauvignon cepage, had a very pale straw yellow colour (called 'jaune paille'), and "was ideal", said our instructor, "for getting the mouth salivating before a meal". Which indeed it did. Fortunately, there was some bread on hand. It struck me that an intelligent restauranteur might serve a glass of this wine absolutely free immediately before taking the dinner orders...

What interested me even more was that our professor informed us that the wine had a mineral scent of 'silex' (flint). Other wines also have mineral bouquets apparently, some being 'craie' (chalky) and yet others with a distinct aroma of hydrocarbons, particularly a number of the more recherché Reisling wines of Alsace. Presumably they don't actually taste of petrol...

Finally, I start to understand Jilly Goolden's comment on the BBC's Food and Drink programme. She was well known for her flamboyant wine descriptions, but one I particularly remember was: "this wine smells like the engine of a small propellor aircraft taking off."

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Reading in Paris at WICE

I'll be reading my poetry next week at an evening event on Thursday 16th March at WICE in Paris along with other editors of Upstairs at Duroc magazine.

The reading will start at 7pm and to quote the official publicity: "Come hear new Poetry & Fiction by the hard-working, fun-loving & slightly crazy people who put together the magazine, & stay after the reading to chat over a glass of wine."

AT: WICE, 20 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75015 Paris.  Metro Duroc/Falguiere

A buzzer on the wall next to the large atrium door will let you open it. After that, just keep walking forwards, through another doorway, across a small courtyard and by a double glass door into WICE.

Fugitive Colour

My parents were in Morocco on holiday last week and when I rang them up the other night they told me how interesting and aesthetically pleasing the geology of Morocco was. Some of the hills they saw were bare of vegetation “with colour streaks like contour lines” and others looked as if they were covered in grass, but on closer inspection turned out to be made of green rock.

If you go down to your local DIY hypermarket, you will undoubtedly discover a paint colour labelled ‘stone’. You can probably imagine what this colour would be like: a warmish tone of grey.

In reality, rocks, minerals and soils can be almost any colour you care to imagine. Geologists have their own colour charts for describing rocks, the standard one being the Munsell Rock Colour Chart. The Munsell Corporation make two versions of their chart that I know of, one with 115 different colours used for describing rocks and another with 395 different colours for the description of soil.

Find any rock colour on the chart and the Munsell notation underneath gives you the value (degree of lightness), the hue (colour) and the chroma (degree of saturation) for that colour. The idea is that geologists can use these notations in their writing to communicate exact colour information that anyone can understand (so long as they have a Munsell Colour Chart).

The Munsell Corporation takes its name from A.H. Munsell who, in 1941 published “A Color Notation: An illustrated system defining all colours and their relations”. The Munsell system dictates that color is three-dimensional, consisting of value (or degree of darkness and lightness), chroma (or degree of color intensity), and hue (or location on the color spectrum). There are five primary hues: red, yellow, green, blue and purple . Munsell also established intermediate hues of yellow-red, red-purple, purple-blue, blue-green and green-yellow.

While researching this post, I arrived upon an article in which a soil scientist describes having an argument with another soil scientist about the piece of soil they needed to describe. The debate seems to have been of some significance since its outcome related to the land being classed as a protected wetland, or not, depending on whether the soil was hydric. Eventually they had to agree to disagree when they discovered, on close comparison, that the supposedly standard colour tables that each had were slightly different when overlaid. In fact they were both right, it was one, or both, of their colour tables which was wrong.

Colour is a fugitive phenomenon, not easy to pin down. I have often tried turning a piece of stone in the light to see its true colour. In reality there is no 'true' colour. I remember watching the red Hopeman Sandstone cliffs near Elgin in Scotland where I grew up, turning from dark red to livid pink as the evening sun settled lower and lower in the sky. We try to impose order on the world, but in some ways, the more we try to pin down the characteristics of a thing, the more elusive that thing becomes.

Last week I also attended a lecture about seismic attribute analysis. A substantial part of the lecture concerned the apparently simple matter of choosing a colour scale for the attribute that is being displayed on the monitor screen. The subject is more complex than it first appears, since all colour display depends on the fitting of a colour scale of a certain range to a set of number data that is to be displayed using those colours. If the two ranges do not fit, or are unsuited to each other (perhaps, for example, because the number data is logarithmic in character) it will not be possible to display the data in a convincing way.

In addition, a colour scale which looks good on the computer screen may not look good on paper since the RGB colour scheme used for screens will be mapped onto the CMYK colour scheme used for printing and this mapping may result in loss of certain tints.

The lecturer also told us that the colour magenta was named after the town of Magenta in Italy since “someone had been there and picked up a magenta-coloured rock”. Well, it would be great if it were true, but the truth, according to Wikipedia, is rather more convoluted. Magenta, which is a hue of purple, was one of the first aniline dyes and was discovered shortly after the Battle of Magenta in 1859 which took place near the town of Magenta in northern Italy. The color is named after the battle, and hence only indirectly after the town. It appears it has nothing to do with the rocks that occur there.

There are actually very few colours named after rocks, perhaps because rocks make such unreliable colour scales. The poet George Szirtes, who trained as an artist, has frequently used the names of artists' colours as titles (and touchstones) for his poems: Chinese White, Romanian Brown, Solferino Violet, Kayenta Black, Payne's Grey... These names, like the name of magenta, hint more of history, specific moments in time, than specific natural properties, as if these hues were fleeting, their moments past, connected to a sort of permanent nostlagia for a particular historical moment.

Like the colour ‘khaki’, a word originally used to describe the sandy brown colour of British soldiers’ uniforms during the time of British rule in India. The word comes from the Urdu meaning “dusty”. But the colour 'khaki' has now changed to a greenish tinge, because soldier's camouflage unforms have adapted to more temperate climes. Another colour derived from the stone it describes is ‘turquoise’ which derives from ‘pierre turquoise’, the french for ‘Turkish stone’. But again, it describes a certain historical moment, when stones were brought from Turkey, rather than the properties of a particular rock. Who knows now if the rock was pale bluey green or pale greeny blue?

Emerald and ruby are also used as colour signifiers with the strange result that Ireland, which contains no emeralds at all, is known as the Emerald Isle just because of the ‘fresh verdure of its herbage’.

Attempts are sometimes made to dissuade people who are colour-blind from becoming geologists, but I did once work with a geologist who was colour-blind. It is a typical characteristic of geological correlation diagrams (correlating the same stratigraphic horizons in wells for example) to use particular colours for types of surface with common genesis. Unconformable surfaces will often be shown with a red line while transgressive surfaces might well be indicated with a green line. Unfortunately for my colour-blind colleague, both these colours looked exactly the same to him.

His inability to identify these colours had a powerful effect on his ability to comprehend particular moments of geological history. He would often have to ask: “And so, the transgression occurred when exactly?”

In the end, it has to be said that geologists are generally somewhat suspicious of colour as a property. They know that the colour of a rock need not adhere to it at the moment of formation, but may have stained it at some point in its subsequent history. It is only when the colour can be proven to be related to the processes of deposition that it really becomes of interest.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Michaux's Furrow

Last week I was in Belgium, staying in an establishment which had, rather surprisingly, an enormous collection of books by Belgian poets. Henri Michaux, whose work I have been translating for the past few weeks, was born in Belgium, although he rejected his country of orgin and, as far as I know, never wrote about his childhood there. Nonetheless, his work was well represented in this miraculous library and I was able to browse it at leisure, also leafing through books of his art work (which was very extensive) and a thick biography published by Gallimard.

One book which I found particularly interesting was 'Miserable Miracle', a study which Michaux made of his experiences of using the drug mescaline. The images which he drew while under the influence of mescaline immediately struck me as being very geological and put me in mind of images I had seen of the great Mid Atlantic Ridge which runs from one end of the globe to the other, is several kilometres high and over a thousand kilometres wide. The ridge is offset along its length by transform faults which are exactly the type of structure which Michaux draws offsetting what he calls his 'furrow'.

Reading through Michaux's account of his mescaline induced hallucinations which can be found here, one is immediately struck by the intensely geological character of the experience.

As his trip begins, he hears the words "Krakatoa!" and "crystal" repeated untiringly like a mantra until he feels like a castaway on an island, the word becoming everything to him, staring at the ocean out of which it had just come and out of which he felt he had just come.

Suddenly, preceded by the word "blinding", a thousand dazzling scythes of light, start furiously splitting space open from top to bottom with gigantic strokes, passing furiously from impossible heights into abysmal depths, with the ruptures ever more monstrous, insane...

These strokes create Himalayas that are higher than the highest mountain, sharply pointed, ever more acute, rising to the very edge of space. While Michaux is watching, possessed by intense urgency, he settles on the letters "m" of the word "immense" which he was mentally pronouncing, and the "m" begins stretching to become enormous baroque cathedral arches ridiculously elongated.

The Himalaya producing machine had stopped, but now it starts again and great plowshares plough up a stretch of space. Michaux has the sensation of a fissure which he tries to hide from, wrapping his eyes with a scarf. But there is the furrow, a furrow with little, hurried, transverse sweepings. In it is a fluid, mercurially bright, its behaviour torrential, its speed electric. It seems elastic, swishing, trembling.

Michaux feels as if the furrow were crossing his skull from the forehead to the occiput. It is strange for him that he can see it. It is a furrow without beginning or end, a furrow that seems to come from one end of the earth, passing through him and continuing on to the other end of the earth.

He contains the furrow, except for the extremities which disappear into the distance, and yet it is himself, it is each of his instants, one after the other, flowing in its crystalline flux. In this flux his life advances. Fractured into a thousand fractures. He stands in front of a rock. It splits. Then it is healed. Then again it is split in two. Then once more it is no longer split, and this goes on indefinitely...

The furrow remained the central problem of Michaux's halluginogenic visions. He drew it over and over. Could this trench, which had been so dominant, and so constant for hours on end, and whose existence he found more evident than his own, could it have been a sign? Or was it perhaps only a simple comparison? A word reflection meaning "I am more open". Why did mescaline always come back to this same, or an equivalent, image?

Even twenty days after his mescaline trip, the furrow was still there, passing straight through Michaux's head without paying any attention to the brain, splitting him from one end to the other, joining him to infinity, by an infinite path, a magnetic field linked to what... he knew not.

It was these images of Michaux's that put me in mind of writing about plate tectonics and Mid Atlantic ridges. Reading the description of his experience makes me feel certain that he had some access to a geological model with had fleshed out his halluginogenic experiences. The last part of Michaux's description of his furrow precisely describes Mid Atlantic Ridge formation: rock splitting, healing, splitting, healing again, splitting again, indefinitely. This is how the two sides of the Atlantic spread apart, opening a fissure into which with upwelling magma continuously flowed, rehealing, accreting on either side.

Miserable Miracle was published in 1956, a time when oceanographic research into Atlantic topography had been continuing for some 15 years. Bruce Heezen, Maurice Ewing and Marie Tharp of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory were the scientists who first discovered the Mid Atlantic Ridge while carrying out marine survey work and creating the Heezen-Tharp physiographic maps of the world's oceans. From this citation to Maria Tharp we learn that "in the early 1950s, Tharp found the first evidence for mid-ocean ridge rift valleys and stood by her finding in the face of long-held, deeply entrenched beliefs that continental drift was scientific heresy. Soon after, with Bruce Heezen and Maurice Ewing, Tharp helped establish the existence of the Earth's most dramatic and fundamental geological feature - the globe-encircling, 40,000-mile-long mid-ocean ridge system."

It would seem the timing of this amazing discovery in the depths of the oceans was perfect for inclusion in Michaux's exploration of the depths of his unconscious. And after one hundred and fifty million years of splitting and rehealing, the kind of infinity to which mescaline gave Michaux access, here is what the Mid-Atlantic Ridge looks like today.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

8th of March is Women's Day

Today, the 8th March, is International Women's Day. The woman president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has visited France to celebrate the occasion and the papers are full of articles relating to women's issues.

It's a sad fact that there are few books by women poets on my bookshelves. In fact, I can number them all on my fingers and toes. They include: Wendy Cope, Sophie Hannah, Jennifer K. Dick, Lavinia Greenlaw, Zsuzsa Rakovszky, Edith Sitwell, Patty Scholten, Alice Oswald, Mebdh McGuckian, Lisa Pasold, Anne Stevenson, Kate Clanchy, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Polly Clark, Agnes Nemes Nagy, Marianne Moore, Christine Rossetti and Elizabeth Bishop. Since I have a whole bookcase of poetry books, this is a rather shaming fact.

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why I have so few books by female writers. But I know I'm not alone in taking a one-sided view. I have discussed this issue with female friends who have told me they read mainly female writers. I can think of quite a few women writers who I OUGHT possibly to have a book by, just off the top of my head: Carol Ann Duffy, Gertrude Stein, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Gwyneth Lewis, Denise Levertov, Kathleen Jamie and Grace Nichols.

Up until perhaps the 1990s, British poetry was heavily dominated by male writers. There were way too many male writers and I was not at all proud of the fact that when Faber published my poems in 'Poetry Introduction 7' there were no women writers represented among the eight new voices presented.

Some of this bias has been countered by the seemingly conscious efforts of the publisher Bloodaxe to redress the balance. There are now many more women poets getting published and read.

It seems that this problem also exists in France, only worse. A recent article posted here on Poezibao laments the presence of only fifteen books by women writers among Gallimard's poetry editions which number around 400 titles and which dominate the poetry section of FNAC bookshops all over France. It seems that at least half of these writers are not even French but well known American, British or Russian poets in translation.

As if to rub salt in the wound, a recent Gallimard anthology which celebrates the city of Paris includes 45 contributions with not a single one by a woman writer.

By way of redress, when I've finished translating Michaux's long poem 'La Ralentie', I'm not going to publish any more translations of male poets on this blog until I've translated work by several French women poets. I have no idea at all who to start with, so if any readers have a suggestion, please leave a comment. And if there's some interesting women poets I've left off my list, leave a comment about that also, especially if they write about geology or science.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Expanding Earth: Part 1

Many people have heard of continental drift. It was one of the big scientific ideas of the last century proposed by the German geologist Alfred Wegener in 1912. Wegener proposed that America and Africa were once joined together as a supercontinent called Pangaea. He provided evidence to show that the two continents had once been joined together by the shape of their coastlines and by the occurrence of the same fossil species on both continents.

Wegener's ideas were strongly rejected in America until the 1950s when new evidence from oceanographical studies showed that there were stripes of magnetic polarity reversal running either side of the mid-Atlantic ridge and that the two sides of the ridge formed a mirror image of each other. Knowledge of magnetic polarity reversals had existed for much of the 20th Century and the reversals had been dated using lava flows on land. It only remained for Vine and Matthews in the 1960s to match the land reversals to the ones observed in the oceans to show the timing of the ocean spreading. The two continents had moved apart with lava emerging at the mid-Atlantic ridge between them.

The concept of plate tectonics evolved from that of continental drift in the late 1960s. The model proposes that the surface of the earth is covered by plates of solid rock some 100 km thick that float on a weaker rock layer called the asthenosphere. At their boundaries, the plates may move apart to form mid-ocean ridges and basaltic oceanic crust, or thy may converge together, one plate diving down underneath another, a phenomenon which is thought to occur on the western seaboard of America where the Pacific ocean plate is subducted underneath the American plate. A consequence of this subduction is the uplift of the Rockies and the Andes and the related volcanic activity.

With the plate tectonic model in place, many aspects of the structural evolution of the earth were finally understood. The previous model of the earth which dated all the way back to the French philosopher Rene Descartes in 1664 came to seem completely inadequate. This model proposed that the earth had original been hot and molten and that during its cooling a crust had formed which wrinkled and deformed to create mountains. The picture at the top of the page shows Descartes original illustration of this deformation under cooling and contraction.

The plate tectonic model suggested that the earth was not cooling and contracting but simply staying the same size. While some parts of it were moving apart, other parts were moving together. But some geologists have questioned whether the expansion of the Atlantic ocean, today more than 4000 km from one side to the other, is really matched by an equal and opposite subduction effect. Might it not be possible that the earth was in fact expanding?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Beneath the Skin

Do you think about your body much? I mean, what goes on inside your body?

I can't say I do. I just accept it. My body goes on doing what it does and I go on doing what I do and we don't generally have much to do with each other.

The other day I met an engineer for the Renault Formula 1 team, a woman. She was giving a talk on her work, which involved taking oil samples from the engines of Formula 1 cars and analysing them to see how much metal was in them. From what I understood, increasing amounts of metal in the oil indicate wear in the engine and need to be recognised so that when an engine blow out occurs, the engine can be rapidly replaced.

She described the taking of a sample in the same terms that a doctor would use, taking a blood sample with a needle to check the health of a patient: white blood cell level, the chloresterol count. The taking of a sample like this is intrusive. We have to cut through the outer membrane of skin to find the information we need.

But there are other methods to find out what is happening inside. We can listen with a stethoscope. Then we find that the outer calm of our bodies is somewhat misleading. Inside, there is a frenzy of activity. All that food and waste being shifted around. Blood pumping to and fro. Gallons and gallons of watery lymph filtering through us as if we were some sort of artesian reservoir. When the doctor takes out a stethoscope and puts it to your chest, he can hear it all.

And when we put our metaphorical ear to the earth, listening to seismic tremors, we can hear the same kind of thing going on. Distant rumbles and shudders. It is by listening to the earth that we know what is going on inside it. The earth which has a crust that is thin like the skin on an apple and which, at the centre, is a liquid ball with almost half the radius of the earth (about 3500 kilometres), flowing with a viscosity that is about the same as sugared brandy in a chocolate liquor. And at the centre of that liquid outer core? A ball of solid iron about the size of the moon.

Geologists know the earth is liquid around the centre because there is a shadow zone where an earthquake on the opposite side of the earth cannot be registered. All of the energy from the earthquake is deflected outside the shadow zone by the earth's liquid core.

The core is liquid because the temperature is so high. The temperature increases as we go deeper into the earth. Already, at the bottom of the deepest petroleum wells, around 6 km, the temperature is around 200 degrees centigrade. But at the centre of the earth, some 6370 km down, the core may be as hot as 5500 degrees Celsius according to calculations a few years ago.

If the earth had no skin on it, no crust, we would not be able to live on earth. Equally, animals rely on their skins to protect them from the outside elements. These skins, so different in nature, are equally alive and active: shedding, wrinkling, sloughing, being regrown.