By Renata Brites
Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds Lived and Died Here, says a street in the north of the city
The chance of rain in London in March is 43%, and maybe the day Luke Howard died somehow
his favourite cloud was around. Maybe it was a stratus, a continuous sheet of fog covering the sky and settling on mountains and cities like a ceremonial layer of slow and pleasurable awakening. Minimal chances of rain. Or maybe a Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud, the rarest of them all, a line of swirls pouring over all events like an applause. Or maybe Luke Howard was still around when a Cumulus morphed into a Cumulonimbus, witnessing rainfall become more and more likely and through that experiencing his last sadness – the calming one that comes with the visible continuity of non-sentient things. At the same time, gravity was holding and letting go of birds and seeds with meticulous purpose. And the cloud would still be moving, unaware of how we move too around its probability.
Walking past it all I wonder what happens inside buildings that reveal their inhabitants.
The chances of walking on the other side of someone else’s experience, a memory of the same
time and place but infinitely untouched, like a giant balancing along an asymptote. Past someone packing their boxes of albums and leaves and irretrievable longing. At a different angle of the studio of a painter who will one day make it. And maybe past a painter who won’t. Stepping on the same anonymous shadow that has changed softly as if on a simmering pot, the heat leaking abundantly and generously onto any human who walks past. The chances of walking past courtyards arranged like a ribcage, holding someone’s broken heart at an intoxicating party. Or the chances of crossing a bridge where leftover fireworks and leftover winter have fallen onto. Or past someone mindlessly setting the table for dinner, only one window of light in an otherwise unpowered house. Walking past instances of profound sadness and maybe missing the corner where, with precision, there is light pouring like honey over the plant pots. A light falling with an
amber quietness as if testing attention and fossilising itself at its most volatile. And there are then unnamed corners without recognition where maybe memorialisation awaits. Francis Bacon, Painter, Loved Here. Virginia Woolf, Hated Autumn Here. Leigh Hunt, Walked Barefoot Three Times a Day Here. Luke Howard, Saw His Last Cloud Here. I like to think of it as a chance for an altar to the ordinary everywhere, clouds or otherwise.
Driving past the train station, a suspended question – do you remember this place?
The station was at the end of streets so narrow swallows had to fly obliquely. Barely fitting, dancingly copying the gaps in the cobblestone, they brought their Atlantic infants. Modelling mathematical space on their wings, their flight drew winds. The bed sheets hung by the windows, like music sheets waiting for the concert to start, giving brief and shy waves to anyone walking past sufficiently attentive. The corners of the streets would build shadows in vague ever-moving shapes, to avoid the naming force of geometry which could otherwise deprive them of their own fluidity.
Do you remember this place? Yes, it’s where we returned to, and where our boxes got lost.
Those were the streets so forgotten by the speed of seasons that anyone could move by like dust. The streets were made of ripened oranges and lilacs, colours inhabiting a sky crumpled up by clouds. Stairs by the doors were accordions folded like paper fans put together by someone too small to reach the windowsills. Courtyards closed as if around vital organs, holding the quiet world around that was still palpitating with light, tea towels, the residual sounds made by the smallness of every space, the smell of bay leaves and cinnamon emanating from kitchens and meeting up to confuse strangers. Everything moved slowly there, and life had a sobriety of its own. It folded buildings before they could reach tree roots, receiving the temperature of each day and using it to
attend to self-made orchards and the cafés tracing human life.
Finding the boxes was the nature of memory, of movement, of space. Of arriving somewhere. Of a city map becoming a circulatory system.
The station had once harboured the arrival of boxes sent by families who had returned to the city after the revolution imploded in 1974. Unaddressed, arranged with urgency, pockets travelling like disoriented swallows, unable to read compasses and streets and the direction of light. Photo albums of children by mango trees, keys of furniture left behind, socks once preserved in consistent warmth, picnic cloth, freshly picked baobab leaves, semi-used matchboxes, modelling clay used to make decorative flower baskets to sell, grandpa’s accordion, photo albums containing the birth of all surrounding things in clumsy compositions, little gifts from rushed goodbyes. The boxes of parents bringing their Atlantic infants to a new circulatory system, blooming like an opening hand. Suddenly, the city received the immediacy of a habitable space filled with kitchens
cooking unknown meals, and sounds echoing through the smallness of every unmapped space. It was then that space meant time, because time was needed to let a space caramelise.
We’d stop at the station everyday looking for the boxes, despite the chances of them getting lost, misplaced or forgotten. That is the nature of chance – I suppose it’s worth waiting for and returning to. We stopped after a few months when the station was finally empty and unguarded. All boxes gone. All chances exhausted. Everything around felt like the heavy force of empty space. With the tenderness of healed loss, we kept moving.
What happens when machines learn to write poetry, asks the New Yorker.
That was the year just after I fell in love with Twitter poetry bots. Words + a learning system + 140 characters. Poetry by no one. The action of putting words together, removed. The art of randomised language and tech-assisted sonnets, sublimed. Untraceable acts of meaning. Boxed dictionaries blossoming under chance, making micro-poems out of anything.
soft drizzle / inch by inch, climb / autumn dusk, writes @poem.exe on Feb 24th 2020.
Chen Lijiang describes that we can use the possibility to determine whether a sentence is
reasonable by measuring the likelihood of a sentence being well-formed. The first sentence is the most likely correct sentence, which is 1,000 times more likely to be correct than the second sentence, and 100,000 times than the third sentence. Perhaps that is the power of chance for a poetry bot – it lets a second sentence become nutrition for the absurd, lets a third one change verses into ghostly shapes of sounds. Just words following entropy.
the kite's feathers / o snail / begin to fall, writes @poem.exe on Feb 18th 2020
Here they are – the lazy trails of things in motion.
the pear blossoming… / nestles / all mine, writes @poem.exe on Feb 17th 2020
Here they are – the parts of nature we hold on our laps, catching every birth in our concave hands.
wolf moon / of the otter's back / your hand, writes @poem.exe on Feb 13th 2020
Here it is – the delivery of moonlight, poured, outlining everything.
autumn wind / but the waiting softly folded fawn / in the evening glory, writes @poem.exe on Feb 13th 2020
Here I am, in awe that there is no intentional force moving these words along the same stream. I guess there is always a chance of clouds, a chance for loss and a chance for words to be rearranged. With them come the chance for memory and spaces, and how malleable time can make a home. And the harvest of meaning of a street, a café, a house, docks for teenagers, the subterranean, embryonic circulatory systems branching out across the city, swallows in migratory angles, lost boxes of documented love. Sentences forced by no human into meaning and observational space. All become meeting points of humanity across a place, a time and a word.
First performed at Gutter Street Nights: Chances. February 2020.
All tweets credited to @poem.exe, CC-BY (13th – 24th February 2020)
What happens when machines learn to write poetry. Dan Rockmore, The New Yorker (7th January 2020)
A Geometric Method to Obtain the Generation Probability of a Sentence. Chen Lijian et al (6th April 2014)
Luke Howard’s Blue Plaque, via English Heritage.