William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa Espinasa
Photo: Teresa Espinasa

Finding Blake welcomes another powerful voice to our explorations. Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction and a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. In a compelling series of posts for Finding Blake — marking the publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, in Mexico today — Adriana shares with us her remarkable journey from discovering Blake on a family trip to Texas, immersing herself in his work and her own in Mexico, the USA and London. 


When I think of where I first found Blake, the words come to me: “I found William Blake in Hell”. I like the idea.

Hell in this case was a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas, during the last holiday I spent with my family before leaving home. I must have been eighteen. I had heard of Blake before in terms so vague I can’t remember where or how, though I know I was curious.

Now, what was I doing in a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas? And, even more perplexing, what was Blake doing there?

I was born in Guadalajara, in Western Mexico, around the area where the country starts longing to become the north. There are some striking differences between north and south over there, with the north generally looking even more northwards — the ultimate goal being the USA. I’m not sure to what extent this is the case still now, but in my time certain kinds of families had this bizarre idea that going shopping in Texas could be called a holiday. The dogma was that things were so badly made in Mexico (all things: clothing, shoes, make-up, stationery, sweets, LPs, you name it… even people!) that it was necessary to cross to el otro lado (‘the other side’) to get quality stuff that was indispensable for living without sorrow. We made the expedition every year.

Hell - the shopping mall Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Hell – the shopping mall
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Outgrowing the dogma

For years I believed in the dogma, but by the time I made that last trip I had outgrown it. At 16, after having read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, I had decided that I didn’t only ‘like’ writing, but that I would become the real thing.

The discovery of vocation came with the side-effect of coming to thoroughly hate those shopping orgies, and on that last one — with all the drama that a teenager worth the name is capable of — I was thinking in despair of ways of saving my soul and intellect in the midst of that temple to vacuity at which my family, and many others, worshipped every day during those trips. “I don’t want clothes!”, I cried to myself in fury (though deep, deep inside I knew I did want some). “I want the things of the spirit! Where can I go in this godforsaken place to avoid contamination?”

The shopping mall had, believe it or not, a bookshop. And it was browsing its shelves in desperation that I came across the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s Complete Poems. Maybe it was its thick spine that first called my attention, as I was yearning for pages to literally submerge myself in and swim away. I pulled it out and saw the cover.

I had never seen a Blake illustration before, and now I was suddenly confronted by Death on a Pale Horse: some irate deity, face hard as stone, riding on a white steed, seemingly torn between the powers of darkness and light… and darkness winning. It was powerful. Strange and slightly threatening, so utterly other from anything I had ever seen before. Then I read the back cover, which summarised the trajectory of an artist and poet who had been colossal: a visionary, rebellious, and misunderstood. “This is it,” I thought, and bought it.

Death on a Pale Horse Artist: William Blake c 1800
Death on a Pale Horse
Artist: William Blake c 1800
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Soon Blake would be crossing the border to Mexico with me.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Some years would pass without my seeing any more of Blake’s illustrations. Meanwhile, I endeavoured to read his complete poems. The journey started easily enough, but got more and more complicated as I moved forward. To start with, my Penguin edition displayed poetry in a way I found unnerving: with lines from alternative versions of the poems in brackets, the poems themselves divided according to a ‘plate’ number. I hadn’t understood the way Blake worked, nor in what an extraordinary manner his poems had been originally printed, and I resented the interrupted flow of words.

Then there were the words themselves. I was first drawn by the mirroring drama of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as much as by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The latter’s prestige as an emblem of seditious poetry had reached even Guadalajara — which perhaps wasn’t that strange, it being in those times such a conservative city that poets there had truly no other choice than burning.

I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and knowing that The Doors had taken their name from a Blakean verse (or from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, but he had taken it from Blake in any case) put Blake among my favourites way before I could claim I understood him. I was into Rimbaud and Les Chants de Maldoror. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seemed to me to be in that league: untamed, daring all conventional notions of good and evil to stand unshaken in the light of fierce lucidity. I was provoked too by the mystery I sensed in even what appeared to be Blake’s most straightforward poems. However, when I got to what we now call his Prophetic Poems, I was utterly baffled.

Changer of worlds 

For years too, I don’t think I understood them at all. But I wanted to. One thing I knew: that there was an energy contained in there which, though its core eluded me, had the power to change a world. I was intrigued and irritated by them in equal measure, upset at not being able to crack them open. Not even at that tender age was I so naïve as to believe that poetry could change the world — mainly because you’d first need for ‘the world’ to want to change, which is unusual — but I knew that it could certainly change worlds, and I wanted mine to be among them.

Gradually I got to see some reproductions of Blake’s illustrated poems, which brought one of the various quakes which have forced me to reformulate my appreciation of Blake throughout the decades: here was a man who, not contented with being able to change worlds, had created a whole universe himself. Through the union of word and image, that universe lacked nothing.

His pages formed so much more than a conventional poem, a conventional pictorial image or a conventional book. They were unrefutably alive, their elements woven with threads of most exquisite beauty, ignoring all common wisdom about formal rules. He was fierce like a wild beast, playful like a child. It was then that the text on the back cover of my Penguin edition took its fair dimension — William Blake was a free spirit. Freer than anyone I could think of. Maybe even freer than Rimbaud!

However, even in that discovery there was puzzlement. There were a couple of illustrations I didn’t like at all, particularly if seen against the stunning beauty of his other images, both the most ferocious and the most delicate ones. My general sense was that Blake had been a poet and artist in constant overflow, indomitable, for better or for worse. In this I was close to the truth, though I still didn’t know that much about his life, and it enticed me because I had an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art (Blake would call it exuberance).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake (1790)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
William Blake (1790)
Library of Congress

He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published today in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

 

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana recalls her adventures in breaking into Blake’s world, translating his poems into Spanish, creating a Blakean ‘sound collage’ for a Mexican rock band, and embarking on her third novel. But the real world also breaks in, in the form of a horrific massacre in Chiapas state, and the meaning of Blake’s prophetic poems takes on a new clarity for her. 

Serge Arnoux, Surrealism and William Blake

Robert Campbell Henderson becomes our latest contributor, beginning a series of posts for Finding Blake with this intriguing account of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake, through an accidental discovery at a scrap yard…


Proverbs of Hell: a French connection 

It’s not so easy to find or write something new about William Blake. Hopefully, this might just be an exception. A few weeks ago I made a visit to a scrap metal yard in Sarlat, France, looking for material for my printmaking. Boy did I get lucky! I bought some copper plate destined for the furnace and it turns out I’d bought 27 etched copper plates by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux, based on some of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from 1790.

“Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”. Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

The plate above, and my print from it, is labelled “Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”, which in Blake’s original is: 

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

All the plates are in a surrealist style and from my initial research seemed to have been destined for a book. I can’t be certain at this stage but I believe they were made in the seventies. Looking at the plates, I think only around a dozen of them were actually ever printed.

La sexaphysique du texte

Arnoux often collaborated with other artists, including French poet and composer Leo Ferre and American poet M.S. Merwin, making illustrations in a similar surreal vein. He also made and published books under his own name.

‘La sexaphysique du texte’

The images above are from one of his own books, La sexaphysique du texte. Interesting title! The booklet was printed in large folio format, 23 double pages with typography and layout in the manner of the surrealists.

From plates to an exhibition

For me as a printmaker, to find etched plates by another printmaker, the late Serge Arnoux, and discover that they were based on work by poet, writer and of course printmaker William Blake seems like fate. It can only be an interesting journey of discovery! 

I am going to print all the plates, with full accreditation to the artist. I am writing a blog about the project and the ultimate goal is an exhibition of the work — hopefully in the UK, but certainly France. 

Here are a few more of the prints from my initial proofing exercise, as a taster for what is to come. The original titles in French, and what I believe to be the corresponding line from the Proverbs of Hell in English, read from left to right. Of course, I assume being from the Blakean world you already figured that out.

 

“La prudence est une vieille fille riche et laide que l’incapacité courtise.” Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.

“Des pierres de la Loi on a fait des prisons des briques de la Religion on a fait des Bordels” Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

“Femme nue, chef d’oeuvre de Dieu” The nakedness of woman is the work of God. 


Notes

Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com

Robert wants to share his experience of researching, printing and hopefully exhibiting these plates over the coming months. You can read Robert’s blog at his site (which also includes more on Serge Arnoux) and we will be sharing more of his accounts of this intriguing French connection here at Finding Blake.

As the Wikipedia entry on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell notes, “In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought.”

Several of his proverbs have become famous:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And another  

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

has given the title to a recent translation of Olga Tocarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, which the Guardian’s review describes as not just a murder mystery but “also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.” Another reminder — as with the plates of Serge Arnoux — that Blake’s importance and influence travel beyond the borders of his own place and times.

Finding Blake, Looking Back and Forwards

Six months on from our website’s launch, Finding Blake creator and driving force, filmmaker James Murray-White offers this update on work to date and to come, focusing on those elements which will form part of the full Finding Blake film next year.

 


I wanted to update all our many readers and subscribers with what’s going on with Finding Blake, particularly since the great ceremony in August to unveil the new gravestone at William Blake’s burial site, which had been a big event to focus on. It was such an experience to be there on the day, with so many Finding Blake supporters and other Blake devotees!

The Lark, watercolour over traces of black chalk
Artist: William Blake
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

I’m now wading through the many wonderful hours of footage I have. You can see many of the clips at the Finding Blake films at a glance page in our Bleakean Archive. Some of the highlights for me include: 

Finding Blake, documenting his new memorial

I have great memories — caught on film — of visiting Jordan’s Mine to see where the stone was cut; accompanying master letter-cutter Lida Kindersley as she chose the stone; being with her in her workshop for much of the process, as she bevelled the stone, then drew the letters for the inscription — and then the lovely long, slow process of the letters being cut. Amongst all that, there is an interview with Lida about Blake, talking from the heart as she cuts the letters that would soon mark his final resting place!

Leading wonderful interviews

Finding Blake has brought us opportunities to meet and talk with so many fascinating people with a shared passion for Blake:

  • Poet David Whyte, giving it to us from his heart in the depths of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (a special day that really felt like we had Blake on our shoulders!);
  • Psychotherapist Carol Leader, talking to us from her consulting room in London;
  • Writer and priest Malcolm Guite, in his study at Girton College, Cambridge;
  • Rapper Testament, delivering his powerful reflections on Blake’s influence on him, speaking on the streets outside a London theatre;
  • Blake Society chair Tim Heath, talking about his passion for Blake in Blake’s only surviving rooms in London

Participating in Blakean events

We’ve filmed at a number of talks by leading experts in different fields, including:

  • Carol Leader’s stimulating lecture in Oxford on Satanic Error – the value of William Blake’s mythology for clinical practice and everyday life;
  • William Blake, Biblical Prophecy and Jesus, a pair of talks in a Cambridge church by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland, both vicars with an interest in exploring Blake from religious perspectives;
  • the Unveiling Ceremony itself, with all the wonderful speeches, candle-lighting, and personal responses, including an as yet unidentified African song, by the grave!

Creating original performances

William Blake’s creative vision speaks to many people and appeals to the genius of other creative practitioners and performers. We’ve been very fortunate in the generosity of talented actors in offering their interpretations of the man’s poems on film. 

  • Finding Blake invited actor Matt Ray Brown to read several of William Blake’s poems on location in Blake’s rooms at South Molton Street, London, including Jerusalem, The Tyger, and The Little Black Boy;
  • During our interview with David Whyte at the Ashmolean in Oxford, David delivered his reading of The Garden of Love.

Bringing personal projects into harmony with Blake

During the cutting of Blake’s new gravestone, Lida and I agreed a barter: she would make a memorial stone for my lovely mum’s ashes, and I would film it. What a wonderful trade! I’m editing that project now, whittling down many hours of beautiful conversation and cutting, as well as the sounds of the workshop, and silence too. Naturally, the conversations flowed between Blake and many aspects of creativity: including Lida talking about her late husband David, the master of letters and steeped in the craft’s heritage from Eric Gill and beyond. It’s a lineage that is so present within the workshop today, in the work of Lida and her two sons Vince and Hallam, and expert cutter Fiona (who completed mum’s memorial stone), plus a range of apprentices — and former apprentices who come in to help on other jobs as and when.

So I wanted to share with you here two outtakes from that other project (which might possibly be used in the Finding Blake film but, if not, can happily rest here on our project page) which give another flavour of the creative work:

‘Reaching the golden vein’ outtake 1 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

‘Bank it up’ outtake 2 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

Next steps for Finding Blake

So I’m working through all this material, and more, making notes and beginning the edit. And I’m now thinking hard about the third option within the film: either dramatic recreations of some of Blake’s art, or an element of animation, or projection. Possibly a combination of all three!

I’ve always felt passionate that we could bring Blake’s images to life on-screen, in addition to the spoken words and other elements. This feeling has been particularly over the past year as I’ve stood in front of a Blake image, be it in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge or Tate Britain in London, or at the magnificent show at Petworth House in Sussex; many of these images shine out and dazzle with their bright illumination and their sprite vision.

So, I’m in discussion with several folk on these ideas, and we are awaiting some responses to funding applications, and further discussions.

I have been talking with an institution about possible screenings of the finished film late next year, which I will announce hopefully when finalised. We have agreed to a showing of a rough-cut of the film, or pieces of the film, with The Blake Society, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, in January. We’ll post about that nearer the time …

In the meantime, I’m back on the edit, and the numerous other projects that consume my days.

Linda Richardson has kindly donated her canvas of Tyger, which she painted with children at a primary school in her village (see her post here with the children’s Bleakean art too!) so that Finding Blake can auction this to fundraise for the project: more details to come soon. We thank Linda for that generous gift.