the illustrated Alistair Noon

notes by Michael Peverett

Entry to the EU:  the Serbia/Hungary border crossing at Horgos (when it was temporarily closed in 2015)

[Image source:]

Horgos is one of the entry points to the EU.

The following sonnet by Alistair Noon (in Earth Records, 2013) was discussed by Peter Riley here:

Late at night the Balkan languages clog
at Horgos, where they wait to gain admittance
to the circle of stars. A see-through smog
surrounds the returners from the remittance
economy: static, running exhausts
and the world’s greatest mass cigarette break,
as coaches queue up for one of the ports,
bays with a quay, where the night shift’s awake.
We hoot, or cheer each inch; the wise just doze.
No border guard knows the meaning of soon.
Priština, Niš, to Dortmund, Ulm. One
goes to Miriampol. (O beautiful moon
of Miriampol… Sat in East Berlin,
Bobrowski looked up). Here’s Europe. We’re in.

Here's the Johannes Bobrowski lines that Noon remembers, a lyrical evocation of Bobrowski's hometown a long time ago (Bobrowski was born in 1917).

Schöner Mond von Mariampol! Auf deinem
strohernen Rand, mein Städchen,
hinter den Buden
kommt er herauf,
schwer, und hängt ein wenig
nach unten durch. So geht der
Pferdehändler, er kauft
seiner Mutter ein Fransentuch.

("Wagenfahrt", Stanza 1)

...That is, a time before the Mariampol massacre in 1941. In Bobrowski's youth the town - now Marijampolė in Lithuania - had been predominantly Jewish. For more about this, see:

Aerial view of the Serbia/Hungary border crossing at Horgos

[Image source: . Photo by Civertan]


Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source:]

Here's one of my current favourite poems in Alistair Noon's collection The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2015):

Meeting the Family

Take me to greet your relatives
emplaced around the low hills,
covering their ears against familiar
chatter on the New Year visit.

Let's bump out there to inspect them,
the old spring-rolled into back sets, the young
clutching the sides of a bare-backed truck,
surfing the potholes, next

to arrive with an hour's supply
of Gatling Gun crackers in the breeze,
to mow down a Square of Heavenly Peace,
put five generations on trial.

Here we are. Your ancestral homes
are of earth and tufted with grass.
Like wriggling dragons, the annual paths
aren't happy or sad. Let's burn our banknotes.

Your eldest brother has the farmhouse.
The second, the haulage firm, Audi,
and Country & Western ringtone.
Your sister, the unspecified business.
You have the punk drumkit.

Third cousin, a pleasure to meet you
and feast in a room of resemblances
and filling, revolving tables. Thanks!
We're glad to be here among the iron trees,

where I might sink into the earthquake zone
and mime the unrelated individual
when centuries hence they find the pit
and my DNA here in the chicken bones.

Noon's poetry is all-active. Here the sound-scheme is understated, just the ghost of a vowel-rhymed abba , --  and with absolute regularity of stanzas avoided by that one extra line in the fifth stanza. But the word-scheme is a wonder, right from the start...    from that word "emplaced" in line 2, a word typically used of big guns and fortresses...  to let us know that the relatives of  line 1 are ancestral tombs rather than living individuals.

But I think we should start even further back, with the opening words: "Take me..."  It's the first of three imperatives in the opening stanzas.  We understand, of course, that the protagonist (I'm going to call him Alistair, with the usual caveats) is not actually the one making the suggestions about what they're all going to do. His use of the imperative conveys, actually, enthusiastic assent -- even, perhaps, a touch over-enthusiastic --- pardonably, of course. He's making the broad smiles and exaggerated gestures that most of us make when meeting people for the first time and anxious to make a good impression.  Because this "Meeting the family" isn't just about greeting the ancestors. Alistair is also meeting his friend's extended living family -- the five generations who find the incessant firecrackers rather a trial, in Stanza 3.

There's a train of cultural references to make it clear that we're in East Asia, almost certainly China.  ("Square of Heavenly Peace" is a rendering of Tiananmen Square).

As often in Noon's poetry the scena is a sort of deflated but undefeated globalism. The poem is too honest to deny Alistair's flitting thoughts.. for example, that everyone round here looks much the same ("a room of resemblances") ... and the wryly self-regarding fantasy that some future researcher might pick out his own DNA from the quake.

On the surface, that ending insists on Alistair being a stranger, unrelated to the family in question. But isn't the poem as a whole talking about something else? Namely, the Human Family, to which he is very much related and which he is now meeting, albeit in an unfamiliar part of the globe... (The poem has already juggled with the word "familiar").

There's a lot else about this poem - themes that hover there, mostly unstated. Can we meet a family and not join them? Yet isn't that balancing act what society enforces? Is the idea of regarding the whole world as our brothers and sisters a sentimentality that's only attainable in the barest terms of equality before the law, not in terms of the real acquaintance that defines what a family can really be? Actually, what is a family, today? Is it a tribal buttress, asserting common identity by tribal practice, or can it be something that opens out with the welcome to strangers seen here and in so many other parts of the world (though not, all too often, in property-owning Britain.) Is the family necessarily punitive towards difference and foreignness, or can it be something else?

Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source:]

"among the iron trees"

That line in the poem probably has nothing at all to do with this Tertiary relict species,  Chinese Ironwood (Parrotia subaequalis), an extremely rare but lovely tree that was properly identified only in 1992 --- in a small area of eastern China. (Its only close relative, Persian Ironwood, grows some 3.5 thousand miles to the west.)

Anyway, it makes for some nice illustrations to this post.

Photos of a wild specimen of Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source: , an article in Arnoldia by Jianhua Li and Peter Del Tredici. Photos by P. del Tredici. ]

(Other possible interpretations of Noon's line: 

1. A large decorative indoor plant with mottled spiky leaves, a bit like an agave, famous for flowering very rarely... it is known in China as  the Iron Tree.  (looks to me like a species of Sansevieria...)

2.  Artificial metal trees for New Year decoration, similar to fake Christmas trees.

3. (Unlikely) Lamp posts: ... Lampooned (ha, ha),  when first installed in Shanghai, as "iron trees bursting into bloom" -- proverbial for an unlikely overturning of the world order.)


Dancing forest on the Curonian Spit

[Image source:
. Photo by Anton Agarkov /]

Another poem in The Kerosene Singing begins thus:


The wagtail's plumage a woodcut,
the sandbank a log
traffic balances along
between lagoon and Baltic
and into Lithuanian mists.

"Oblast" means province or region and is an administrative unit used in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but the topography leaves no doubt which oblast we are talking about in this case. This is Kaliningrad, the Russian semi-exclave between Poland and Lithuania. The sandbank is the Curonian Spit, and the lagoon is the Curonian Lagoon. (We're about 100 miles from Marijampolė, as the crow flies.)


Here's the second stanza of Noon's poem:

The bricks cohere to a Kirche,
squat and ziggurat-roofed.
The Word seconded to Slavic:
nave hung with fresh icons
now the interregnum
as a barn has passed.

The stanza alludes to the forcible dispersion of the German-speaking population at the end of WWII, and their replacement by Russian-speakers . The "interregnum" is the era of Soviet atheism before the church came back into use.

The church in question is in Rybachy, the largest settlement in the Russian part of the Spit. Wikipedia notes:  "The red brick former Lutheran church was built in 1873 when the village was still part of Germany. It is one of the oldest remaining buildings in Rybachy. After the Second World War it was used for wheat storage. Only in 1992 was the church handed to the Russian Orthodox Church to be renovated. It is named after St Sergey of Radonezh and is in use once more as a church, now catering to the Orthodox community." (,_Kaliningrad_Oblast)

Describing the church as "ziggurat-roofed" is a bit impressionistic, but I  do see what he means:

Church of St Sergey, Rybachy

[Image source:,_Kaliningrad_Oblast]

Reconstructed facade of the great Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq

[Image source:]

With scrupulous sequence, the final stanza of the poem moves SW down the spit to the National Park exit near Zelenogradsk. Here the spit is at its narrowest. (The National Park is Kurshskaya Kosa, the smallest in Russia.)

They sow the alders
to halt the dance of the dunes,
the lagoon smooth as a salt plain.
Cattle gaze from the tarmac,
and a pig is loose in the village.
The coach will take us
under the turnpike
and out of the National Park.

{The village with the pig might be Lesnoy.]

The poem opens up progressively to the emptiness and space in the landscape. By the time of that deadpan last sentence, it's hard to say what was ideal, what real; what kind of threshold had been crossed here, and as the poem ends is it now un-crossed?

Sandbank: Curonian Spit

[Image source:
. Photo by Anton Agarkov /]

Found anecdote:

“I love fishing here. We used to come here for flounders when I was just a kid,” says Vitya, a young red-nosed fisherman. “Back then we didn't just catch fish, we used to bake crows! Nah, honestly! We'd lay our fishing net out on the ground and bait it with fish. We could catch more than a hundred crows a day.

Then we'd pluck them, chop the heads and legs off and sell them at the market. Of course, the buyers didn't know they were buying crows! We even made up a special name for them — we called them ‘Prussian Doves!’”

(from an article by Daria Gonzalez here:]

Curonian Spit - Dancing Forest

[Image source:]

The strange forms of the mysterious Dancing Forest - a pine forest that grew up  on a former Nazi air-strip - are naturally associated by many with the dancing sand dunes among which the forest grows. A less romantic but still unproven theory is that the unusual bases of these pine trees reflect contortions of the young shoots due to infestation by caterpillars of the Pine Shoot Moth Rhyacionia buoliana . Or the fungus Melampsora pinitorqua . Or maybe there was human interference at an early stage, perhaps with the intention of growing timber with a natural curve (though pine is not a suitable timber for boat-building).

A similar mystery surrounds the Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarnowo, a village near Gryfino, West Pomerania, Poland. This is another pine plantation, thought to have been planted around 1930.

The Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarowo

[Image source:]

András Tiborcz

[Image source: . See Noon's poem "The Transsylvanians at Supermolly" in The Kerosene Singing.]

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed