Martin Burke was born in Limerick. Burke is a long term resident of Flanders where he is active as poet and playwright (and sometimes actor) and from where he has published sixteen books of his work in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Belgium -the latest work being BLAKE/LONDON/BLAKE published by the Feral Press, New York.
By Martin Burke
The search is on to discover the lost music which the early Greek poems and epics of Homer and Sappho were sung to. A formula has been work out based on the mathematical ratios of musical intervals which the Greeks used –an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on. This is being applied to the lyre, the reed pipes, and percussion instruments, which, from the descriptions available, will allow the experts to work out the timbres and range of pitches they produced. Use is also being made of ancient documents inscribed with vocal notations devised around 450 BC,. These documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, are offering a clearer view of what has until now been beyond understanding.
So states the G- newspaper in an article on 7/11, and it is clear that the experts with all the confidence of their various disciplines are convinced that they are about to crack open the musical code of the Greeks.
Yet I wonder –will such a discover be a true discover or will it be the outcome of calculations and premises which may be somewhat, albeit only slightly, flawed? Perhaps I am being cynical, or merely practicing the art of a non-believer in finalities, yet I suspect that if a true discovery is made then they will be left hopeless before the beauty of a note and a name they will never be able to utter.
He was always apologising. For being late. For the poverty of the food on the table. For the very breaths he inhaled and exhaled. His life must have seemed to him a burden of sin he was forced to carry –though he could, and did, break into almost childish laughter. He talked endlessly. About what he was writing, but more frequently what he wanted to write. Prague was the perfect city for this: a city cast between the possible and the improbable. Those opening sentences prove this:
“Someone must have slandered Josef K…..”
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”
“It was late evening when K. arrived.”
He frequently fell in love but found it unsettling, distasteful even. Perhaps he was seeking god in a woman, a woman who would be crystal clear but who would share his taste for ‘heavy German furniture’. Women tried to console him and told him he was an artist. This was a further burden. This was a further sin for him to carry. Which may help to explain his interest in the Talmud and his tentative plans to live in Palestine. Nothing came of it. There was a woman, Dora, involved, but again this was unfinished and Kafka died just as he was about to become famous.
But perhaps the books were unfinished and the life was unfinished so that the reader could finish it for himself beyond the last breath and comma.
She spoke little but prophecy came easy to her lips. There was no one in whom she confided. It was known that she lived alone in the Passtraat but no one had ever seen the inside of her apartment. She visited the cathedral once a month and made, what many called a pilgrimage, a visit to Delphi every year. She dressed in subtle combinations of grey and black. She was beautiful. Men frequently stopped and stared at her as she passed along the street. Stories were told about her. Contradictory versions arose. She was impervious to every speculation and small talk. She took part in no festival; she belonged to no club or association. There were, of course, rumours of lovers.
And so the stories grew and she became in the minds of many citizens of Ghent a permanent fixture of their landscape –one they could not understand, but one they could not live without.
THE BURNING OF THE SUN
When the countdown to the Trinity test at Los Alamos was in progress a nearby radio station, broadcasting on the same frequency as the scientists, broke into their counting and music was relayed to the startled listeners. Not, as would have been appropriate, some elegy by Beethoven or Bach as a counterweight against the burdened dark, not some vocal gesture which might have cancelled the obscenity of that moment, but it was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite which came over the airwaves. A moment, it seems, in which only the absurd could offer a deformed homage to the destruction which was about to be unloosed.
There were, I think, no anthems but silence above Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the aftermath of the burning of the sun.
The tanks were lined up in perfect symmetry outside various buildings and at what were considered ‘strategic junctions’ (as a result tram 22 and tram 4 had to be rerouted).
This, of course, could not be reported.
That much had been made clear in the general orders issued on day one. Nothing was to be said which did not pass the censors eye and pen which like the blue pencil of Stalin crossed out lines and names as ruthlessly and as randomly as it crossed out lives.
The portraits in the post office changed from the old elite to the new.
Brutality replaced subtlety.
The crude direct method was in force and force was everywhere.
Banning orders were issued.
The music of T- and the novels of K- were from now on forbidden to be played, read, or possessed. All such copies were to be handed over to the army who would publically burn them in a display of national purification.
Further orders were to be issued.
The army was to be obeyed.
In the days that followed various actions were repeated. Arrests were made. Travel was restricted. The newspapers had fewer pages. The cultural section was remodelled according to the new dictates. Poets were arrested. Artists were ‘encouraged’ to paint in the new style of realism. Theatres were ‘temporarily’ shut. The universities were given warnings as to the scope of their activities.
It was decided that no new novels would be published but that a select committee would choose from the cannon of the past those works suited to the new situation and these would be republished and distributed free.
The abnormal assumed the tempo and features of the normal. The soldiers seems less incongruous as the days passed. The tanks melted into the daily landscape and seemed a natural part of it.
People took to calling the leading general, Creon.
A new calendar was adopted.
People disappeared and nothing more was said about them.
Banking rules were altered three times in the first six months. Then changed again. International relations were resumed.
There were those who approved and those who opposed though there was little physical opposition.
Two newspapers were closed down. Radio stations were attentively monitored. The TV stations were ‘purged’.
And so it continued into the following generation who as soon as they were old enough to understand did not believe the old ones who said there has been a time when no tanks were on the street and the soldiers were only seen on the yearly parade.
THE INFINITE BOOK
To write a book is to attempt a form of infinity. The limited and the infinite are the paradox the writer must work between and, hopefully, achieve some resolution –a resolution which will be itself limited but which will also at the same time point to the larger world beyond its borders. K- recognised this from the outset, but since he perceived his whole life as a prologue to the moment of beginning, he assumed, he hoped, that clarity would emerge in the writing of the work –a clarity which would encompass and elucidate the paradox. His life would be the book he would write. In all its remembered details. In its ongoing flow. In the direction he assumed was its destination. He would re-create, he would preserve, he would point to a future dependent on the re-creation and the preservation of the past. Memory itself would be his guide and touch-stone, and language would be his weapon and his ally. Which was when the complications began. His history was not necessarily the history of the book which began to lead a life separate from him. He was writing by hand and it seemed as if the ink held a geography which was strange and new to him. The book began to develop its own history. He wrote. Page after page after page. Yet it felt that the more he delved into his own life the more he was doing so at the bidding of the ink and not in accordance with his first intention. Which was the point at which he adopted the name Bezalel –the name of the carpenter who built the Tabernacle and who knew the number and letter of all things. He did so in the belief that once a text exists it’s indestructible; a living force that cannot be silenced even if no one speaks it. He arrived at this after reading (he read constantly when he was not writing) of the great sage Dinanukht, who was half-book and half man, and who sat by the waters between the worlds reading himself until the end of time. And he would have been happy to continue on in this manner until he read the oldest piece of print that had been found, which was a sermon by the Buddha who asked his people to imagine all the grains of sand in the river Ganges and then to imagine a world in which there were as many rivers as there were grains of sand. And that was when he realised that his book was but one grain of that sand and could never be more than that. The infinite book of the world was writing itself in tears and sand without him and as such had neither beginning, chapter headings, nor endings. No, his book would never be the book he had set out to write, for tradition told of a sage by the waters and history gave water words to his mouth. His ambition had been monstrous and unachievable, and it was best that it remain so. The infinite book could not, by its nature, be written by any human hand, and whatever was written by him was little more than a margin note in ink that would fade with time and the paper be eaten by rain and air. The infinite book was a great fiction which like the calm of the Buddha called the believers to immobility and silence. So he abandoned the project and spoke no more about it, reverted to his original name, moved to another city where he lived a simple and anonymous life.
© Martin Burke 2014