Saturday, 30 March 2019

SPRING EQUINOX: A poem for my niece's wedding

Last week my niece got married in Miami, and at the reception, taking a break from the dancing to music of a newer generation, I sat thinking and some moments from the past week put themselves into my mind. I picked up my place-card and on the back wrote a few lines, then sat for a while playing with them and thinking it through. What I was thinking about was the spring equinox, looking for the super-moon a couple of days before in Key Largo. I was thinking about Magnolia Warblers, and their migration, discovered in those few days in the Keys and Everglades. I was thinking about W.S. Merwin, whose obituary I had just written for the Guardian, as you will see just below. And of course the lovely wedding we had just witnessed. It all came together rather quickly, and after a few more days of thinking and tinkering, this is what I finished. I wrote it without punctuation, perhaps in homage to Merwin, but the unseen punctuation seemed self-evident, so I put some of it back. 

                                      for Julia, Donald & Camilla

Mark that momentary loss of a sense of direction:
magnolia warblers circle, midway through their migration
while we pass the sun's centre, spinning station to station
seeking signs of devotion, stopping short of salvation

Miami, 23.3.19

Tuesday, 26 March 2019


My obituary of the poet W.S. Merwin went up on The Guardian online yesterday; it should appear in the paper paper soon. You can link to it here, it is mostly as written with just a few cuts for simplicity's sake, which is instructive because Merwin's was a complicated life to unravel. I actually wrote the piece a week earlier, just before I flew to Florida, and did some changes (mostly to clarify publication details) in the airport after I arrived but before I picked up my car and headed for the Everglades.

It was trying to sort the chronology of his relationships and his early work that was the most difficult, especially because things like wedding and divorce dates, maiden names and the like are important for the paper's sense of record. Before I filed I dropped a few things I found interesting, two in particular: his secondary education at Wyoming Seminary, a Methodist-founded school between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and his relationship with Moira Hodgson. I'd know people who went to Wyoming, which tended to produce high achievers--but it was also interesting because Merwin claimed he applied originally to Princeton thinking it was an actual seminary. I found that somewhat fanciful. Hodgson seemed to be a steadying influence on him; the British-born writer was working at the UN in New York when she met Merwin; they lived together for ten years, mostly in Mexico, and he was still technically married to Dido for at least part of that time. Anyone who's read her food writing would be interested.

I also included a longer list of the fellowships which kept Merwin going through the Fifties and beyond. This ability to win them was the segue point to mentioning his charm, and I thought the idea that he was a successful 'establishment' poet was one that was necessary to make. I also mentioned that when he received the Academy of America Poets prize there was a minor controversy in that he was a Chancellor of the Academy, and the judges, inevitably were all friends.

This was interesting in light of the Great Naropa Poetry Wars. Ed Sanders had his students in 'investigative poetry' do a long report about it, and I think I read something by Tom Clark, who's the poetry equivalent of a tabloid journalist, about it at the time. But what I found fascinating was the way the poetic community divided as I describe, with Merwin representing the establishment, and some Naropans, representing the other side, the underground, whatever. I recall asking Anne Waldman about that at a reading, because it seemed to me the dispute, beyond the defense of students toward Trungpa their master, was one of 'business' of poetry, not poetry itself. She didn't like that question.

But I drifted back to it as I wrote the obit and tried to analyse Merwin's work in terms a general audience might understand. I was trying to draw connections, but apart from the obvious one to Auden (who stylistically, placing words to accentuate their ambiguities, is not as far removed from later Merwin) and the less obvious (but for proximity) one to Lowell, I felt I'd be getting into a kaleidoscope that would mean little to my audience. Merrill and Kinnell I mentioned, and would have liked to elaborate on in terms of their work.

I see links to a lot of the people who might be thought by casual observers to be on the other side of the Naropa wars. Given the obvious influence of Ezra Pound, some of the names seemed obvious. The most telling to me was Robert Creeley, who also worked as a tutor for Robert Graves, and whose work, albeit punctuated, is very similar to Merwin's in style, if someone more grounded in the personal, maybe even the romantic. I thought of Paul Blackburn, not immediately similar in the elegance of the language, but with a sense of rhythms and music that also draws from the Provencal. Merwin at his most elegant reminds me sometimes of Robert Duncan too--again not too close, too exact, but it is easy for me to think that as his own work was changing, Merwin was aware of these people already working in open (and projective) verse, and he is never looked at as someone related to that. The final comparison I longed to make was to Gary Snyder, like Merwin a Buddhist and an early champion of ecology. That's Merwin (above left) with Carolyn Kizer and Snyder, in Oregon in 1966

I was also thinking about Robert Bly, who on the face of it would look like an unlikely comparison, but whose sense of nature, if not the surreal, seemed like a fit. And John Ashberry, close than Duncan but also for the austere sense behind the words. It also occurred to me, after a comment by Helen Vendler, how many American poets were born in 1926-27: she mentioned a couple but the 1926  list includes Creeley, Blackburn, Ginsberg, Merril, Bly and W.D. Snodgrass (whose obit I also had the privilege of writing), A.R. Ammons and Frank O'Hara; while 1927 boasts Kinnell, Ashberry and James Wright. I wondered if this might have something to do with the Depression or the War, or maybe the burgeoning of poetry and new movements in the Fifties, or the growth of creative writing programmes in colleges which provided a living for many of these poets.

The Merwins' work with his Conservancy was also a step decades ahead of its time, and this might in some ways wind up being his most enduring legacy. I wondered, as I filed my copy, if perhaps he would have had a tougher road to success had he been born a couple of decades later, but if perhaps his poetry might have found a wider, more ecologically aware audience. I'm not sure the work would have been as good, but the thought that it will continue to find a new audience from that direction as well as the literary one is a heartening one.

Monday, 25 March 2019


I am going to really miss Gronk. I think he was probably my favourite active player, both on the field and off. He is certainly unique, both on the field and off. Remember when Gronk, trying to speak to an interviewer in his own language, announced ‘Jo soy fiesta’? It seems a perfect in-character coincidence that Rob Gronkowski should retire averaging 69 yards per game, as well as .69 touchdowns per game, for his NFL career. It’s as if he’s having one last Gronk laugh as he heads off into the football sunset. ‘Yo soy fiesta’ indeed. 

I’m not making this point facetiously. Well, not totally. Remember back in 2011 when the pictures of Gronk and porn star Bibi Jones created a furor? Remember Gronk’s apology for ‘letting down the Kraft family’? I would say that we live in different times now, considering what the Kraft family has been up to lately. Remember Gronk’s party ship? Jerry Jones’ bus got far less attention..

Then again you would have thought Gronk was Odell Beckham Junior II when the first photos appeared on the clickbait scandal sites of his partying on a boat after the Super Bowl (not during the season). It turned out that he was there with his current girlfriend, ex-Patriots cheerleader and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Camille Kostek as well as Jordy Nelson, his wife Jesse James Nelson, and others, just good wholesome family vacation, but a lot more fun than the guys from Deadspin have on theirs.We ought to consider the puritanical quality of the new cyber-wave of Jealousy Journalism.

I mention this because it seems like one of the most likely paths for Gronk post-NFL is reality TV of some sort—look what it’s done for Jay Cutler. Or maybe acting, though guys his size are hard to cast: he was in a movie called American Violence, and is in one coming out later this year called Deported in which he plays ‘Party Guy Jake’.

You may recall the last line of Martellus Bennett’s message to his brother Michael about his new Patriots teammates? Oh yeah, I forgot Gronk. He’s smarter than people think.’ Gronk will be able to make money simply being Gronk. Or Gronky, as Tom Brady’s daughter calls him. I see a line of children’s shows in the future.


Is Gronk the Greatest Of All Time? When I wrote a top ten listing last year I had Gronk fifth; behind Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Mike Ditka, and John Mackey (you can link to that post here.) I was assuming his career needed to continue to amass more numbers and cement a legacy. The way it stands now, he’s caught in the classic rating dilemma first defined by Bill James writing about baseball, the difference between career value and peak value.

I have no problem calling Gronk the GOAT in terms of peak value. But one of the interesting things at the tight end position is the way most of the great ones had very short peaks, because the double burden of blocking and receiving, especially in the days before multiple tight end sets and receiving first tight ends came along, wore them down too quickly. Ditka, who was the prototype Gronk, really had only 3-4 great seasons. Jackie Smith, whose pass-catching style recalls Gronk’s was the same. John Mackey, Kellen Winslow (number two on my list) similarly. And Winslow wasn’t the blocker Gronk was (hint: no great pass catching TEs, save maybe Ditka and Mackey, were). Antonio Gates hung on for a long time, but at much lower effectiveness. Gronk ends his career a four-time first-team all pro and with five pro bowls.

On the career side of the argument, Tony Gonzalez’s 17 seasons of quality receiving but functional blocking pretty much ensure he’s in first place. That’s incredibly hard to argue again, though Gronk supporters will point to the three Super Bowl wins and his incredible post season stats. Coincidentially, Gronk’s post-season adds up exactly to one extra NFL season: 16G, 81 catches (130 targets, 62% catch rate) for 1,163 yards and 12 Tds. That’s a first-team all-pro season right there.

Jim Brown is still my GOAT running back, and he retired at about the same point in his career as Gronk did. But his body was not yet in decline, nor had he missed time to injury during his career. Anyone who watched Gronk this past season could see how much he was slowed by injuries; you could see the way he had to do a skip to build up speed. The injury part of his career could be foreseen: he fell to the second round in the 2010 draft because of back problems he’d had in college. Of his nine NFL seasons, he played in all 16 games only twice, and had four other seasons you could call ‘full’ (13-15 games). The other three seasons had 26 games combined.

My call is that at his peak he is easily the GOAT, given his ability to block anyone, defensive ends or tackles, linebackers or defensive backs, you could call him the equal at least of any blocking specialist TE, and probably the equal of all but a couple of receiving first TEs, and maybe even more than that given his catching radius, running ability, and ability to make catches while not being interfered with by defenders holding and hanging all over him. The NFL’s interference rule is all about gaining an unfair advantage, and you could argue Gronk’s abilities meant interfering with him gave defenders no advantage at all.

For his career, I’m still torn by that longevity argument, and in the end I might now leave Gonzalez at number one, and move Gronk ahead of Kellen Winslow, or at least equal (Winslow was a more transformative player, but Gronk’s talent is unique) into second. He’s got to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.


While not totally unexpected, a lot of us thought that as the season grew closer Gronk's competitive juices would lure him back. He certainly goes out on a high note: you could make a case for his being the Super Bowl MVP in Atlanta. But it leaves a huge hole for the Pats, whose draft strategy has not included a future replacement for him (though I was highlighting Chicago’s Adam Shaheen in 2017 or Phailadelphia’s Dallas Goedert, in 2018, as long-term cover --both were smaller college guys who went in the second round). This surprised me, because the Pats’ offense is all about mismatches, and Gronk was a human mismatch with virtually any defender. Remember the stuff they could do with him and Aaron Hernandez?

With Dwayne Allen gone to Miami, they have no inline tight end except the recently signed Matt LaCosse and last year’s seventh round Ryan Izzo, while the receiving options, Stephen Anderson and Jake Hollister, remain unproven.

This is a strong draft for tight ends, but most of them fall in either the receiving or block-first category. TJ Hockenson will be the first one off the board because although he’s only 6-4 251, he can do both jobs well. With the Pats drafting at 32, it would take a steep fall for him to be available even for a package that could help them move up. George Fant and Irv Smith are said to be the next two: Smith is the more willing blocker, but he’s not really an in-line presence; I think Jace Sternberger might be a better fit. Kaden Smith of Stanford or Zach Gentry of Michigan might be considerations in round 2 or even 3 if they get lucky. But none is going to step in and start, much less be a Gronk.

The free agent market is limited, although the talk is of the Pats managing to snag Jared Cook away from the Saints, who had seemed to have beaten NE to the guy who had a fine season receiving last year. Or they could try to lure Martellus Bennett out of retirement to play with his brother.

Given that their wide-receiving corps is very thin as well (2 years/$10m for Cordarelle Patterson might seem more affordable now that Gronk’s opened up salary cap room) and with the best remaining free agency Pats-types being mostly on defense (DE Brent Urban from Ravens, anyone?) it’s hard to see them getting a big difference maker. They will adjust, as they always seem to do—last year’s success was as a run-first team in the last quarter of the season and the playoffs, and despite losing Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn is expected to be the starting left tackle they drafted him to be (with LaAdrian Waddle gone they need a third tackle now too) – but the question is where the mis-matches will come from. Gronk’s presence made coming up with them easier: but as he dashes off into the sunny sunset, yo soy fiesta indeed.

NOTE: This essay was written for my Friday Morning Tight End column at Patreon
You can read it there for free, but subscribe because there will be more to write about in the run-up to the NFL Draft

Wednesday, 13 March 2019


So first Ginger Sov arrives from France with a stand-up do and wicked piercings. And she's all like Scotland's my country and accent and everything and you gotta make me queen. And she tells Posh Sov she wants to be BFFs. But Posh Sov's like fuck MQS! That ginger bitch is more in line for my throne than I am, so she tries to hook her up with the super-fit squeeze she fancies, but Ginger's too woke for that and she hooks up with Darnley, who's like next in line to Posh's throne after Ginger, but he's like anyone's, an-ny-ones! after a couple of red bull and meads. Ginger's also pretty sporty, ridin' horses and winnin' battles and stuff, but then Posh goes all Scary with these poxy bumps and scars and she uses a ton of goth makeup to cover them up and hide her real face. Then she watches horses giving birth cause she's jealous of Ginger's now Darnley's Baby Momma and the baby's another one who could steal her throne. But the Ian Paisley preacher guy with the huge false beard is all like she's a whore and a papist so they kill her gay singer song writer guy who also slept with Darnley and her best-bud kidnaps and rapes her and like this goes on for two an extended episode of Neighbours

I exaggerate. Sure there isn't much new in Mary Queen Of Scots; in fact it is a lot like the 1971 film, which itself seemed based, uncredited and with liberties taken, on Antonia Fraser's wonderful biography, There are two major themes to Mary's life: Mary vs Elizabeth, which is in part England vs Scotland, but more the English Virgin Queen versus the younger, prettier, French version. The other is Mary versus the Scots establishment, particularly the church, John Knox versus the Pope, intertwined with the usual Scottish betrayals and in-fighting over their crown and the big one in modern eyes, men over the 'mostrous regimen of women' or as Mary should have called it, 'We Too'.

But to put it simply, the major question in any story about Mary is her own agency: how much she acts and how much she is acted upon, and the biggest problem with this film's approach to that is how it ultimately reverts to cliché whenever it needs to make the dilemma of agency personal. When Mary decides she loves Darnley they ride off on their horses, away from the following lords, to the accompaniment of the inevitable helicopter shot. Later when Elizabeth watches a mare weaning her colt, she is mesmerised to the point of giving herself a shadow-puppet pregnancy. This horse metaphor is so good the movie will come back to it again.

They are serious about the centrality of the distinction between Mary and Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen suppresses her desire to the point of sending the man she loves to woo Mary. Mary, on the other hand, gets married three times, and, if the movie is to be believed, has sex one time with each husband. This is an extreme point of view, based partly on the 1971 film's reading of Darnley's gayness and partly on the filmmakers decision to make Mary the victim of Bothwell, which requires them to ignore a large chunk of her life after her kidnapping and rape, which is probably the most contentious of all the readings of Mary's life. They get around the alternate reading, that Mary might have been part of Darnley's removal, that she went willingly with Bothwell, got pregnant by him (a miscarriage was the result) and stayed with him until they lost the battle of Carberry Hill.

But the film's variations with history are not something that serious, at least if you can justify them in character, and that is the hard part. Bothwell is sympathetic to the point he turns on Mary: the possibility he is actually acting with her or to protect her is unraised. I don't have problems with most of the other deviations, apart perhaps Mary's having a Scots accent. Her English was likely better than, say, Bonny Prince Charlie's, but he had been raised in the French court.

Of course Mary and Elizabeth never actually met, but arranging a secret meeting between them is not a dramatic absurdity. The problem with this meeting is that the arresting shot of the laundry drying and the two queens manoeuvring around the hanging sheets (or whatever they are), each keeping out of sight of the other, loses its visual impact quickly. It's also larding-on the presentation of Elizabeth: after being struck with the pox, she relies on heavier and heavier doses of make-up, creating thicker and thicker white masks, until she looks almost like an sf movie villain.. In case you don't realise that the real woman is hiding behind the mask, the visual metaphor will be flung in your face until you do. Given too that Mary does not age from the time she first sets foot in Scotland until she is executed (oh, did I just spoil the film for you?) while Elizabeth ages rapidly is more of a dramatic license than actually having them meet.

The other major problem I had was the birth of Mary's son. By making Rizzio, generally referred to as her secretary, obviously gay, the movie registers its view on the accusations of her having an affair with him. When Mary's actual birthing is shown in detail as gory as Rizzio's murder, it is like RoseMary Queen Of Scots' Baby: the child is outsized and almost misshapen, which probably reflects the general opinion of the Presbyterians of the time. And when we see the young boy, he looks decidedly like Rizzio—and nothing like the picture we see of the young James I of England, which indicates that Mary won the long game over Elizabeth; dying but leaving her heir to take the crown.

There are things to like here, particularly in the interior scenes, which are dark and claustrophobic, and even occasionally lighted to reflect contemporary paintings. But overall it is directed and shot like a series of music videos (Elizabeth would be a natural) or commercials, a sort of short-span story-telling. I think of the visuals of John Ford's Mary Of Scotland, which makes Mary (Katharine Hepburn) into a Holy Catholic martyr, after its love-story with Bothwell (Frederic March) – which are consistent and build toward its climax, one which reflects Ford's obsession with Hepburn as much as anything else.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as MQS—despite being limited by never aging—and I like her better than Vanessa Redgrave, who seemed too dominant, even while Glenda Jackson was more harsh. Ronan's finest moments come as she realises her position as Queen is nowhere near enough to triumph over being both a Catholic and, most fatally, a woman. Whereas, for Elizabeth, that problem is overcome by, in effect, denying her womanhood. Here Margot Robbie is more limited by the reading of Elizabeth's increasing one dimension of frustration, but there is something to be said for her starting out on more of an even footing. Guy Pearce as William Cecil is perfect, almost stealing scenes from Elizabeth. Brendan Coyle (Lennox), James McArdle (as a weak Moray) and Martin Compston as Bothwell all fill their costume drama roles well, while David Tennant as John Knox is appropriately intense, all Ian Paisley burning eyes hiding underneath a fake beard worse than the ones worn by Tom Berenger, Richard Jordan and Joseph Fuqua in Gettysburg, the greatest fake-beard movie of all time. And a special shout-out to Ian Hart as Maitland, who somehow manages to look (though not sound, thankfully) exactly like Harvey Keitel.

In the end, Mary Queen Of Scots is perhaps too much costume and not enough drama, and the various tensions between countries, relgions and queens are all subsumed into the crucial question of womanhood. Unfortunately, that seems resolved primarily in fashion terms, the movie becomes all costume no drama. Although the execution scene is visually stunning, especially when Mary is stripped of her cloak, a note from history might have been brought it more final drama. Because it took the executioner three strokes of the axe to severe her head completely. Even in dying, Mary was denied her agency.

Mary Queen Of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke
screenplay by Beau Willimon based on the book by John Gay

Tuesday, 5 March 2019


My obituary of Charles McCarry, one of the very best spy novelists, is online at the Guardian now; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper sometime soon. It appears pretty much as I wrote it, some time ago, with just brief updating on the books he'd published since then. I particularly recommend The Miernik Dossier, an assured, structurally fascinating debut novel. Tears Of Autumn is a fine novel, which I mentioned whenever I was writing about the fiction of the JFK assassination; I was lucky enough to be able to review some of his later books in various places, The Secret Lovers, with its wonderfully ambiguous title, is one of the very best.

His late return to his Paul Christopher books came with Old Boys, which I reviewed for the Spectator. It's behind a pay wall, but maybe I can resurrect it. It is partly tongue-in-cheek, but great fun.  Christopher's Ghosts was not tongue-in-cheek and had an ending whose final line explained the whole of the Paul Christopher series; a tour de force of a finish (my review is here). I also reviewed The Shanghai Factor, which has another great ending; you can find that review here.