on odes to mud, utopian dust and insurrectionary trees

Francis Ponge [still from French documentary]

Primarily, this is a brief advertisement for CB Editions‘s irresistible bi-lingual edition of the great Francis Ponge; Unfinished Ode to Mud, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic in 2008. It’s a selection from what she has translated as The Defence of Things and Pieces, some of the latter being their first appearances in English…

So, firstly, please get hold of a copy of the book from the publishing miracle that is CB Editions whom, it’s worth knowing, work on very short print runs. I have no links etc., but urge you to take up their current offer here, while getting hold of this beautiful selection and give copies to people that you wish loved you…

‘Unfinished Ode to Mud’ itself, is also an ode to the Resistance and was written in 1942. Let me share some lines with you;

“Mud pleases the noble of heart because it is constantly scorned… Who needs such constant humiliation? …/

Despised mud, I love you. I love you because people scorn you./

May my writing, literal mud, splash the faces of those who disparage you!/…

It wards off any approach to its centre, necessitates long detours, stilts even.

Not, perhaps, that it is inhospitable or jealous; for, deprived of affection, at the least advance it attaches itself to you…

I love the way it slows my footsteps, I’m grateful for the detours it makes me take…

All in all mud delights the strong of heart, for in it they see a way to test themselves which isn’t easy… As for mud, its principal and most obvious claim to fame is that one can make nothing of it, one can in no way inform it… And I cannot do better, to its glory, to its shame, than to write an ode diligently unfinished…”

Just a tiny bit of the brilliance of Ponge with whom I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year. I hadn’t realised the degree to which I’d been left up a Derridean creek without a Pongean paddle [Signeponge-Signsponge , ‘Psyche; Inventions of the Other’.] and so -since I’ve been in e.things mode much of this year, most obviously with In Ramallah, Running– it’s been a real joy to discover such close inspiration and shared intents and to have made direct ‘use’ of classic early Ponge in a certain film work completed this year…

I’ve also spent a lot of time amongst trees, feeling their insurrectionary potency in the context of place; actual place and what that might mean to us all in this Century. More, much more on this to come. For now, one of the places that connection takes me is towards the Utopic of course and I was whizzing through some of my favourite bits of Calvino this morning, the pieces in The Literature Machine and in particular those on Fourier.

In the third of those famous pieces, Calvino contrasts the risk inherent to and in the utopian impulse with the peculiar fixity of the literary or written utopias of old [rather as I would contrast Ponge’s work with his over-literal teenage-materialist fanclub]. It reminds me of the notion I once had about ‘dirty Utopianism’, articulated best in an essay called Forting, which lays out the most thorough version yet of the fortifications built during the English Civil War by all Londoners to protect the city’s then revolutionary Parliament from an autocratic sovereign.

I wrote then of insurrectionary mud; these massive forts were built of mud, turfs and timber and would be the biggest built structure in Europe if they were still present today, not least one of the largest of them built at the Elephant and Castle. My energies have been poured in to the trees in the Elephant and Castle Urban Forest lately, and though it would provide an overly romantic gloss to describe them as insurrectionary trees it would also be dishonest to pretend that the histories implied by such a gloss have not driven and clarified my thinking in this context.

In On Fourier III, Calvino writes that line about how “one does not hand out recipes for the cooking of the future” and I think that is right. He goes on; “It is always the place that gives utopia such trouble.” Again, this is dynamite to me in my current thinking. But with Ponge’s mud in mind I can’t resist this; “Utopia has no consistency … the best that I can still look for is something else, which must be sought in the folds, in the shadowy places, in the countless involuntary effects that the most calculated system creates without being aware that perhaps its truth lies right there. The utopia I am looking for today is less solid than gaseous: it is a utopia of fine dust, corpuscular, and in suspension.”

Here is the place of the Utopic then; formless, to be formed, present in all things, times, places… including, very clearly, trees in their ground and the accessibility to all which they protect in urban contexts like no other thing. In the mid 17th Century, mud was the utopian dust that Londoners used ‘in the name of’ the people to consolidate a notion of place and leap in to the future. In the 21st Century, some of the people of London are using trees to achieve exactly the same things…

If that sounds willfully obscure you can chase links to find out  more, but things will also becomes clearer not only in ECUF’s work and play but also my own coming written work in two distinct projects.

For the moment, grab yourself some utopian dust in the form of Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud and encourage CB of CB Editions to continue doing the radical work of one of the very few real publishers around in London.

Here is a small pdf sample from the publisher.

Meanwhile, do not await the film or tv adaption of Mud, nor Ponge: The Musical…

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