The rain came abruptly

I have a torn sheet of paper tucked inside my copy of Gigantic Cinema, and this is a line from one of the entries in this anthology of weather, edited by the poets Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan and published by Jonathan Cape in 2020. As I read, I made a note of lines written out of time by writers I could only guess at.

Here are some of them.

Keeper of the winds
One time before the Plague was begun
But a storm is blowing from Paradise
The earth tossed twelve hens in the air
But the other two eyeless Dragons remained in place
And outside it’s raining and raining
Enter a cloud
A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind
As I ran past the palaces oddly joyful, it began to rain

Re-reading my scrap of paper makes me feel oddly joyful. These are words that gleam and tug in my head.

I was not being entirely truthful about the writers: I could find out who they were. I just had to glance down at the foot of the page where their names were given, ghost-written, in small caps. No dates, no sources, just the name. Sometimes I was surprised by what I found—most especially by ANON, who kept turning up. I started underlining the names of writers whose writing I admired.

Here are a few. Or more than a few.

ANON. DAVID JONES. WASSILY KANDINSKY. DANTE. HOMER. ARISTOPHANES. DANIEL DEFOE. NAN SHEPHERD. TADEUSZ ROZEWICZ. NORMAN MACCAIG. OVID. JOHN CLARE. T.S. ELIOT. W.H. AUDEN. EDWARD THOMAS. EZRA POUND. SHAKESPEARE. JAMES FENTON. FRANCIS BACON. BASIL BUNTING. JOHN DONNE. GEORGE CHAPMAN. CHAUCER. CONRAD. BRECHT. ANNE CARSON. LI HO.

So many men in this list. Where are the women?

ANON. DAVID JONES. WASSILY KANDINSKY. DANTE. HOMER. ARISTOPHANES. DANIEL DEFOE. NAN SHEPHERD. TADEUSZ ROZEWICZ. NORMAN MACCAIG. OVID. JOHN CLARE. T.S. ELIOT. W.H. AUDEN. EDWARD THOMAS. EZRA POUND. SHAKESPEARE. JAMES FENTON. FRANCIS BACON. BASIL BUNTING. JOHN DONNE. GEORGE CHAPMAN. CHAUCER. CONRAD. BRECHT. ANNE CARSON. LI HO.

And so many ‘masters of the art’. Reading this anthology was almost an education for me, and I wouldn’t want it any other way—the writing is so good—but where are the contemporary writers and the writers with different voices? We talked about this in our climate reading group and someone said it could come down to the practicalities of publishing: contemporary writers are not out of copyright and fees will be involved and the time required to negotiate permissions. Maybe. Maybe it felt more timeless to go all the way back. Someone in the group pointed us to a text that turned out to be by Virgil. It began: ‘The rain never catches them without warning’ and it ended: ‘then with her deep voice the raven summons the rain, evil and alone she paces the dry sand.’ In the Acknowledgements, it states that unattributed translations are by the editors, so I think we have Alice Oswald (maybe also Paul Keegan) to thank for this and other lucent, vivid texts.

This is a glorious anthology. All it needs is a volume II, encompassing the wider world and the angry, fearful voices of today.

The weather is always with us, clamouring or still. We step out from our shelters and there it is, breathing down upon us, battering us, soaking our skins, freezing our toes and our fingers and the tips of our ears and our noses, warming our bodies and our hearts. Lighting up the hills and the skies and the streets where we live. Laying waste.

The weather rains down upon the world whether we are here or not.

Yet we do like to place ourselves at the beating heart of it all—as though without us there would be no record of it. Gigantic Cinema consists of entries numbered 1 to 300, some short, some long. I have two examples for you; the first is the whole text; the second is an extract (of a translation in the early twentieth century of a poem written in the eighth century).

Here they are.

At 217, ANON comes up with this:

Sometimes I,
I go about pitying myself
While I am carried by the wind
Across the sky.

At 181, Ezra Pound gives his version of ‘The Lament of the Frontier Guard’:

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
             to watch out the barbarous land:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?

And sorrow, sorrow like rain.
Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning.

It is hard to know where to go after that. The texts that are old, or timeless, still have contemporary resonance—despite the absence of anger or fear or rage. Or even ideas. ‘Our ruling idea’, say the editors in the Preface, ‘was to have no ideas: to dispense with writing “about” weather [in favour of] writing that is “like” weather, that has the sovereignty of sheer event… Weather interrupts thinking’.

So I recommend Gigantic Cinema to you, with all its ‘hatless’ texts and ‘abrupt’ interruptions. The title, by the way—taken from an observation by Virginia Woolf—is a riff on the idea of weather commanding a stage, playing to an audience. ‘The height of the weather’, say the editors, ‘is a measure of man. …If the Anthropocene is us, and is upon us, we are being orphaned by it on a scale that has no measure.’

‘Enter a cloud’, writes W.S. Graham (at 163), and he ends as he began:

Gently disintegrate me
Said nothing at all.