sat 13/07/2024

Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology review - wild writing to stimulate the senses | reviews, news & interviews

Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology review - wild writing to stimulate the senses

Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology review - wild writing to stimulate the senses

An ambitious collection inspired by life's eternal backdrop

Among the French composer Claude Debussy’s greatest and characteristically subtle innovations was to put the titles at the end of his pieces.

He did this in his piano collection Preludes: the titles, trailed by ellipses and clothed in brackets, appear more like suggestions than statements. Completing the collection a few years before his death in 1918, with it Debussy seemed to fulfil his mission of edging the cerebral late 19th century musical language towards the more sensuous zone of timbre, texture and colour. The player (Debussy’s ideal listener) is made to handle these luminous little works without gloves, as it were, each image like an impressionist painter working “en plein air”. According to pianist Stephen Hough, it is like making out the shape of something as “intangible as mist” as it descends, drifts, disappears.

There is something similarly impressionistic about Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology, compiled by acclaimed nature poet Alice Oswald and poetry editor Paul Keegan. Much like Debussy, they shift titles and dates and other literary clutter to the back of the book. The aim, as the editors write in their thoughtful preface, is to ensure the “texts are hatless”; to leave them as “exposed to each other” as the writers were to the elements when they were writing, at least mentally. Thanks to this, and their decision to jumble up prose and poetry, anecdotes and asides, the anthology has a generous capacity for surprise – for brief, enriching encounters – as well as whimsy. One word or line or sentiment from one text can conjure up the next entry, or it might not.

Many of the texts themselves have this same shapeshifting atmosphere. Within the improvisatory freeform of the book are suites that riff on the sort of weathers that dissolve hard edges and short-circuit sense-making; that make things both indistinct and immediate, like being caught in the middle of a thick fog. Indeed, fog, mists, clouds, rain and the blur of storm and wind keep coming back. Theology professor John M. Hull has an out-of-body experience listening to the downpour outside his window. We see Nathaniel Hawthorne wading through the London air like a distillation of mud and Robert Louis Stevenson under “fathoms and fathoms of sea-vapour” in the Napa Valley (neither of them exactly where we would expect them to be). On the extreme end, we get volcanic eruptions, from Vesuvius to Laki in 1783, as well as mushroom clouds (glimpsed in an extract from Hiroshima by John Husey), comets and eclipses. Of course, some of these events could be said to take the definition of weather to the extreme. Given that hurricanes, sandstorms, heatwaves, tornadoes, droughts don’t get a look in, it seems strange that the anthology makes room for astronomical events under its umbrella. At least Virginia Woolf’s diary entry on the 1927 eclipse, which closes the anthology, mentions it gets a little cold when the moon passes over the sun.

The eclecticism of Gigantic Cinema results in something that feels quite broad – entertainingly widescreen – but also occasionally narrow in focus. Oswald and Keegan claim their “ruling idea was to have no ideas: to dispense with writing ‘about’ weather, writing that knows what it’s talking about” in favour of “writing that is ‘like’ weather”, so many of the entries shade into fantasy or slide into the realm of the speculative and surreal. There is a piece by Rabelais about thawing souls frozen at sea. German zoologist Ernst Haeckel tries to figure out how to produce “snow-soul”. These and others on display suggest that weather is pretty much what you make of it, maybe even that the weather is literature. Buttressed by other bracing passages from the Classics, the anthology’s longest entry is the sea-storm in Ovid’s retelling of the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx in a 1567 translation by Arthur Golding, which comes down like a torrent of words. However, as is so often the case, it is some of the drier, clearsighted writing which falls outside the jurisdiction of that idea that proves the most compelling. The well-meaning sententiousness of Samuel Johnson on the nobility of chatting about the weather; Joan Didion on Californians under the sway of the maddening Santa Ana winds; even a meticulous (pedantic?) description by architect Vitruvius of how to fortify walls against gales are all a welcome tonic to the more extravagant writing. Much like the shipping forecast, a verbatim copy of the Beaufort scale that helps to measure wind speed by sight, which just is poetry.

The anthology’s other, less conscious constraint appears to be geographical. In its second entry, Frank O’Hara is reminded during an early morning conversation with the sun that he shines on “the jungle…on the tundra/the sea, the ghetto” but the book doesn’t venture anywhere near that far, or if it does, not for long. There are a handful of works from China and Japan, a couple of fascinating dispatches from rural Russia and Africa, and one stunning Swampy Cree lyric which alone seems to speak to our dwindling resources and disengagement with nature in the Anthropocene – a notion mentioned almost as an afterthought in the editor’s preface. There, again, they state that their selection “privileges the perceivable, the particular, the local over the global” which in reality risks privileging privilege, missing out on vast swathes of  human experience that are as 'local' as John Clare (who gets his fair share of airtime) watching haymakers shelter from a storm. More adventure might have helped to  usher in more material that doesn’t already seem ripe for re-domestication. 

The anthology’s unusual theme does revive a few dead metaphors – the storm that buffets Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”, or the heavy rain shower that leaves the black bough wet in Ezra Pound’s famous two-liner about being on the Paris Metro. When we re-encounter the “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” at the beginning of Eliot’s “Prufrock”, it feels refreshed, like a colourised film, especially after a group of quasi-psychedelic pieces from Walt Whitman, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Goethe and Edvard Munch, recounting the moment that supposedly inspired The Scream. But revisiting Eliot’s poem also reminded me  how that ominous fog ended up feeling right at home in some well-appointed Oxonian drawing room: “Curled once about the house, and fell asleep”.

Nevertheless, by keeping to familiar surroundings, some of the fun of the anthology is seeing well-known faces in different guises – Byron vulnerable in the Alps, an insight into Wittgenstein family banter and the forward-thinking John Ruskin obsessed by “plague-winds”. These moments definitely live up to the editors’ desire for “exposure” – moments that  benefit from knowing just a little bit about where the text comes from. I suspect Oswald and Keegan know this. Instead of throwing out all textual ID, they leave a little rivulet of names at the foot of each page: a loincloth placed on the naked text. Whether this means that, in the end, we get the best of both worlds is up for debate. But it definitely whets the appetite for looking up the references, the context, searching out more writing – other “stuff” – which is, arguably, the best anthologies can do.

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