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Updated: 8 hours ago


Jacqueline Saphra at the launch of Veritas

Before lockdown, we’d been looking forward to the launch of Jacqueline Saphra’s new book, Veritas: Poems after Artemisia, at one of our favourite venues, The Cinema Museum in Kennington. The following afternoon, Jacqui was set to read at the National Gallery, as part of a study day informed by their blockbuster Artemisia exhibition, and to speak on a panel with the art critic, Jonathan Jones. After lockdown, when it became clear these events would not take place, we began to consider the option of a virtual launch. Many presses and poets had already shifted their gatherings to platforms such as Zoom – a way of keeping in touch with audiences and readers in these strange days of quarantine. That’s one of the many consolations of books – reading is a pleasurable form of self-isolation.

There are other consolations too. While we were disappointed not to be able to raise a glass to the book in person, or to hear Jacqui speak about the book in the galleries where Artemisia’s stunning and dark paintings are hanging, we were able to welcome a truly international audience of over 200 to our intimate space on Zoom. The writer Andrea Witzke Slot said, “I felt I was sitting in a large theatre, shoulder to shoulder in sold-out seats, watching a group of talented people on stage.”

Two wonderful speakers were on hand to introduce us to Artemisia’s life and art. Jordana Pomeroy, who wrote an essay for the book, joined us all the way from Miami. She was followed by Jonathan Jones (we were glad to be able to bring him together with Jacqui, at least on Zoom); they talked of Artemisia’s power, talent and determination, and why she has finally been ‘discovered’ and acknowledged as a great painter 400 years after her heyday.

Jordana Pomeroy and Jonathan Jones at the launch of Veritas

We were then pleased to be able to welcome composer Benjamin Tassie, whose new pieces fuse samples of Renaissance instruments with modern synthesiser sounds. His music was the perfect way to set the stage for Jacqui’s reading. Using the formal constraint of the sonnet, she brings to life an artist trained in the methods of the old masters, but whose vision was entirely modern and dramatic. There’s no doubt that Jacqui’s poems illuminate Artemisia for a new generation of admirers.

Benjamin Tassie in his studio
Jacqueline Saphra reading from the book

If you missed the live Zoom event, or would like to watch again, the recording is now available on our media page here.

Meanwhile, the book is now in the world, and whizzing through the post to destinations all over the UK, Europe and the US (while we are all still sitting in our individual Zoom squares). If you don’t yet have your copy, you can order it here.

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Martyn Crucefix reads the opening lines of his poem 'Cargo of Limbs'. The book is available here.



LOOKING BEYOND PARADISE


Like love, a full, clear sense of our own context draws us away from the dangerous illusions of the absolute. In making judgements, in giving voice as writers, we ought always to say where we are coming from because – especially in these months of lockdown – we are having to re-negotiate our relationships with the world. On a daily basis, we are being caught in a paradox of distancing and a sense of community that may take us by surprise; a consciousness of our similarities and differences with others is even more important.

This is relativism writ large and it has long been part of my sense of self, more pretentiously, my credo. So when introducing Cargo of Limbs, my poem about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean (an on-going crisis, though reports of it have been side-lined by virus-related news) I wanted to detail its origins: in 2016 I had been listening to a reading of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. This is the book in which Aeneas journeys into the Underworld but, rather than the River Acheron and the spirits of the dead, the lines conjured up – at that time – the distant Mediterranean coastline I was seeing every day on my TV screen: desperate people fleeing their war-torn countries.

Some context: living in north London, I am more usually surrounded by an invisible fug and racket of noise from traffic, public transport, aircraft, people going about their daily business; of course, now all stopped. Even in such a unrelievedly urban landscape, I am noticing the birdsong about the house. For days on end I have no need of coins in my pocket. And yesterday, taking photographs of the apple blossoms emerging on the tiny tree in the corner of my garden – an area of twenty gardens backing onto each other and suddenly spookily quiet – I felt more than usually unselfconscious.


More context: last night we watched Location Location Location. The editorial angle was about a woman (looking to move house in Bristol) who had a PhD in something scientific. The commentary implied she was constitutionally going to find moving house difficult because she thought a lot and felt too little. Phil Spencer: ‘Too much analysis leads to paralysis’. She accepted this and garnered praise as she laid aside her intellectualising nature and began to feel more, felt less apart, particularly walking into a prospective property.

Likewise, within this house and – luckily – garden, I feel myself becoming a part, more embedded, partaking of a microcosmic landscape of noises, odours, light shifts, temperature changes that previously would have been swiftly interrupted (to spend money, earn money, to meet someone, drive somewhere). This week I have been mostly watching the apple blossoms slowly fill, break and open from their green buds. I take their picture. And promptly am ‘apart’ again – because photography is quintessentially the outsider’s view, the acquisitive view.

In 1977, Susan Sontag argued “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore like power”. I capture the blossom. And – though not my intention – I feel more powerful because of it. There are so many more photographs being posted on social media – a friend of mine is posting daily ‘beautiful things’; the National Trust has been running #blossomwatch; Alastair Campbell is posting images of particular trees on his morning walks. Who can blame us. We want to feel a bit more powerful towards a world that has turned suddenly, bewilderingly, as if viciously upon us.

Beyond feeling helpless, what do writers do in a crisis? I think of Shelley hearing news of the Manchester Massacre from his seclusion in Italy in 1822; Whitman’s close-up hospital journals and poems during the American Civil War; Edward Thomas hearing grass rustling on his helmet in the trenches near Ficheux; Ahkmatova’s painfully clear-sighted stoicism in Leningrad in the 1930s; MacNeice’s montage of “neither final nor balanced” thoughts in his ‘Autumn Journal’ of 1938; Carolyn Forche witnessing events in 1970s El Salvador; Heaney’s re-location and reinvention of himself as “an inner émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful” in 1975; Brian Turner’s raw responses to his experience as a US soldier in Iraq in 2003.

One of the film stills by Amel Alzakout illustrating 'Cargo of Limbs'. See below for more information


All crises differ but these writers were all wrestling with the opposing poles of witnessing and taking part, with finding their way around Sontag’s overly absolutist view: “the person who intervenes cannot record, the person who is recording cannot intervene”. Of course, we want to do both. But the current lockdown is dividing us along lines of those who must remain apart and those who are a part. And in one of those wholly unforeseen ironies of the historical moment, this is precisely the moral issue under debate in my Cargo of Limbs, between two journalists covering the refugee crisis.

One is a photojournalist who values and preserves his objectivity, his outsider status, remembering and admiring Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 reports from war-torn Madrid:

[…] let me file

untroubled as I’m able

to emulate a brother

sprinting the Gran Via

dodging smacks of snipers

let me not blink

at what rises towards me

His partner, Andras is a print journalist, a writer, who gradually succumbs to a sense of involvement as the horror and suffering of so many displaced people become clear to him.

The poem closes with his intervention, an attempt to disrupt his partner’s cool distance. As I was writing, I read about Don McCullin (the great British photojournalist, celebrated in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘War Photographer’). He said he was less interested in the technicalities of the photographic process: "All you have to do in photography is get the exposure right and then adjust your camera". But he added: "What you have to do is to adjust your mind, your emotions." Here’s a link to a BBC documentary in which McCullin speaks of witnessing an old woman in great danger during the Cyprus Civil War in 1964. Having taken one photo of her, he put down his camera and bodily picked the woman up and carried her to safety (see here). This is the sort of intervention I imagine at the end of Cargo of Limbs.

The strangeness of our current situation is that there is now a government edict against most of us becoming a part. Stay at home to save lives. On our little urban street, everybody emerges at 8pm on Thursday evenings to applaud the effort and sacrifice of key workers. No doubt, many of us have donated on-line to the National Emergencies Trust Coronavirus Appeal. But most other domestic commercial transactions are being conducted on-line or with contactless cards. I’ve no cause to carry cash and we will never do so in the same way again once this is all over.

The absence of those jangling coins in my pocket – that vanished sound of adult masculinity – is a sign of a change but too early yet to say of what kind. Will we emerge more distanced from each other after all this – will we forget how to converse? Or will the horrors of the present moment suggest that we ought to be revising the criteria by which we live, by which we are to be governed? I believe we should speak out from where we find ourselves, knowing others live differently. Together we will make a new kind of more inclusive, more compassionate chorus than the one we have heard too much of in recent years.

The film Purple Sea, directed by Amel Alzakout (whose images appear in Cargo of Limbs) and Khaled Abdulwahed, will celebrate its international première as part of the online edition of the 51st Visions du Réel festival. The films of the International Feature Film Competition will be accessible from the festival's website between 25 April and 2 May 2020, limited to 500 virtual seats per film.

Links to recent reviews of Cargo of Limbs:


Sheenagh Pugh: https://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/136445.html


Emma Lee in The High Window: https://thehighwindowpress.com/2020/04/14/reviews-of-recent-chapbooks-by-louise-warren-carole-bromley-martyn-crucefix-and-mike-barlow/


Ian Brinton in Tears in the Fence: https://tearsinthefence.com/2020/03/24/cargo-of-limbs-by-martyn-crucefix-introduction-by-choman-hardi-photographed-by-amel-alzakout-hercules-editions/


Martyn Crucefix's 'Cargo of Limbs' is available here

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Updated: Apr 22






Ruth Valentines reads an extract from her Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars:


Tired of the arguments, the African Fishing-boats sunk in the Mediterranean, Refugees shot at borders, I left home And strolled through fragrant cities with Khayyam. Pavilions frescoed with love-scenes, to please Some ruler and his consort; redbud trees; Wind-catchers, water-courses, Sufi songs, Santour and frame-drum, urgent melodies; Tiled domes, and alcoves formed like stalactites Of shimmering mirrors; wood-framed lattice-lights Scattering gold and crimson on a floor; Fountains under the cypress-trees; warm nights; And all along the streets, on banners hung From lamp-posts, like an epic, once begun Never to end, the faces of the boys Dark-eyed and solemn, rippled in the sun. This loved his father, helped him in the store, Learned carpet styles and textures; wanted more Than life, to work and let his father rest. Offended, life betrayed him to the war. This one a student, gifted engineer A project in his mind, to bring back clear Mountain-snow water to his desert town; Now desert dust, his gift and his career. That boy too young, who lied about his age, Wanting revenge, indignant with the rage Of centuries of empire, battle, power, Thirteen forever in war’s rusting cage. In every town, on boulevards, along Avenues sweet with lemon-trees, among Bazaars and mud-brick alleyways, the dead Stared down, bewildered, lonely, grieving, young. I came home to my city, read the news: Double-page article, a photo, views Of cousins, politicians: he was killed For walking the wrong street. A child, confused. On flyovers and high streets, Lewisham, Walthamstow, Stockwell, Tottenham, Harlesden, from Invisible banners, the reproachful eyes Of boys murdered by other boys gaze down. He would have been a doctor: no-one thought It likely for a boy from his estate, Except the science teacher, and his mum Fingering through the text-book he’d just bought. This one a baseball-player, loose-limbed, tall, A good friend, joker, party-goer. All The young girls watched him move. The quiet one He’d loved since childhood saw him flinch and fall. This one a rapper; this a loving son; This sweet and slow, an innocent; every one A cherished baby once, another lost Chance of a better future, world undone. And then their killers: boys, at the same time Or later, killed in turn, or jailed. The rhyme Two families’ grieving makes. The vicious law Of wars, local or national. Mothers climb Monuments, platforms, town hall steps, to show The faces of the dead, once smiling, now Downcast forever, futureless. The past Draws in like night around them. Can’t let go.


The complete text of Ruth Valentine's Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars is available here



Those who die of the virus are designated martyrs.

Four years ago today, 9 April 2016, I was in Isfahan. A photo keeps appearing on my laptop: it shows the great central square (Shah Square or Imam Square, depending on your politics) from the steps of the Ali Qapu Palace. Half a dozen young women in black chadors, maybe art or architecture students, are sketching the façade in front of them. The water in the long pool is blue, the sun is shining. Other tourists, French and Danish as well as Iranian, are waiting by the dazzling blue-tiled entrance of the Shaikh Lutfallah mosque. When we sit in the square to rest between sights, a woman asks if her daughter can practise English with us.

Ruth Valentine in a courtyard in the Shah Mosque in Isfahan

Today, I imagine, the square is empty.

The outbreak began in Qom, another city full of visitors, in this case pilgrims. The shrines in Qom have since been disinfected, but are still open. Kissing the shrines, like kissing statues of saints in Christian countries, is common practice, and some believe the shrines have healing powers. Mosques across Iran are open, and thousands attend them. On the first day of Newroz, the lunar new year, eight and a half million people travelled across the country, to celebrate as usual with family. The government had discouraged travel, but not banned it.

Politicians the world over act in similar ways. When satellite images showed mass graves at Qom, the government claimed there had been only twelve deaths across the country. The deputy health minister, sent out to deny a cover-up, was already coughing; the next day he tested positive for Covid-19. By 19 March, his ministry said that the virus was killing one person every ten minutes.

Still, Iran has coped better than some countries. Better, according to the Economist, at testing and tracing that the UK or US. Though you may feel that’s not such a high standard.

As elsewhere, individuals respond with more compassion. ‘We’re a compassionate people,’ says Kamin Mohammadi, who wrote the piece on martyrdom for my book. NGOs and individuals go into the poorest communities to distribute food. Forty years after the overthrow of the Shah, the gap between rich and poor has grown even greater.

We were lucky to visit when we did, not only before the virus, but while the nuclear arms deal was still holding. In return for halting its nuclear programme, Iran was promised a lifting of the international sanctions that have had so much impact on the lives of Iranians. In May 2018 President Trump withdrew from the deal; in March this year, in the midst of the pandemic, his Secretary of State announced further sanctions.

Here is the mayor of Tehran, Pirouz Hanachi, writing in the Guardian on 4 April:


"Doubtless there are things that we could do differently, like every country in the world. But we are operating against the backdrop of the most extreme sanctions regime in history. The US embargo not only prohibits American companies and individuals from conducting lawful trade with Iranian counterparts, but given that the sanctions are extra-territorial, all other countries and companies are also bullied into refraining from doing legitimate business with Iranians, even the selling of medicines.

"As a result, the ability of my colleagues and I to provide the health, logistical and other essential infrastructure necessary to combat the disease has been drastically reduced. We experience this loss every day, and it can be counted in people that would not have died."

At the end of March France, Germany and Britain found a way to circumvent the sanctions and send medical supplies. It’s not clear how much; nor indeed why this couldn’t have been done before.

Being declared a martyr gets you more than passage to heaven. It gets your family special privileges: compensation for their loss, preferential treatment in employment and services. Estimates for the numbers of new martyrs by the end of May go from two hundred thousand to three and a half million.

I wrote Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars after seeing the countless images of young men killed in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–88; and after reading yet another account of a young man killed by other young men on the streets of London. I don’t know whether ‘social distancing’ here at home has led to a drop in knife crime; I hope so. Will the faces of martyrs of forty years ago be replaced by those of the martyrs of this war? Viruses have no intent, evil or otherwise; but politicians do, and we suffer from them.

Many thanks to Kamin Mohammadi for facts and insights.



Ruth Valentine's 'Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars' is available here

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Hercules Editions is an independent press combining poetry and prose with art and archival material, to create beautiful small books and prints. We’re based in Lambeth, the site of artist-poet William Blake’s last home and printing works in Hercules Road.

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