Thursday, May 17, 2018

Leslie Saunders: 'Praise song for a pair of Earrings'. Puzzling over value #6

First the whole poem.  from  Nominy-Dominy, by Leslie Saunders  published by Two Rivers Press. 2018
Praise song for a Pair of Earrings 
‘Then Anchises by divine will and destiny lay with the immortal goddess, the mortal, not knowing the truth of it….’

A man may be shipwrecked in a dozen different ways,
by how a far-off cloud resembles land, the longed-for
shore obscured by mist and glimmer; or by how

across a room of friends an unknown woman looks
at him a moment longer than she should-and so
a suitor may wait a lifetime for his lover. Or, maybe,

just this once, his luck is in; a goddess has fallen
for a mortal man. He’s ready to believe whatever
she may tell him-that she’s girlish, untouched

by love and all its dusky fingerings, its sweetest
of nothings. She’ll be his bride. His hands tremble
as he fumbles with her girdle, trespassing, lingering,

then lifts the veil-god-her beauty is unbearable.
He shades his eyes from the blaze, the torques and cuffs,
in her soft lobes the flower-buds of hammered gold;

then the tumbling crown of hair. He knows, and chooses
not to know, the truth. From somewhere deep within
he cries her name, a wedding-bed is made, and history begins.

It is a sign of the current climate in poetry world that calling something clever needs an immediate qualification. Clever carries with it a host of accompanying adjectives like elitist, and the sense that something that is exhibiting  'cleverness’ is somehow incomplete or lacking.
This is a clever poem. Clever here is a straight-forward compliment. 
In a world of selfie poems, which seem like nothing more than weather reports from a country you didn’t know existed and have no desire to visit, and the opposite extreme where syntax does acrobatics and the screams of the plundered thesaurus echo along the lines, it’s easy to forget that there are still poets writing intelligent, memorable, well-written poems which offer the reader more than the spectacle of the poet writing a poem.
This poem comes from the book Nominy-Dominy. I am not this book’s Model Reader. I have very little knowledge of Classical literature, not having been to the kind of school where Latin and Greek were taught. Poems that not only allude to stories but rely on that extra textual knowledge for their effect, are always in danger of seeming willfully obscure to those of us who don’t know that story.  
However, Saunders sidesteps that problem in this poem in two ways. The first is by providing an epigraph. Even if you don’t know the specific story to which it alludes, it provides an adequate outline: a man sleeps with a goddess. The second way is more interesting and is a characteristic of Nominy-Dominy:  myths are always potential metaphors. They are often specific, idealized or perhaps distilled versions of a general experience. 
The opening of the poem shifts the story into metaphor; ‘meeting as shipwreck’, and in doing so manages to suggest the experience is universal and timeless. The shift occurs in the first two verses, from shipwreck taken literally to shipwreck as metaphor; that sudden moment of arrested recognition across a room, capturing that strange moment when, for once, the story plays out immediately in all its unexpected, baffling euphoria.

A man may be shipwrecked in a dozen different ways,
by how a far-off cloud resembles land, the longed-for
shore obscured by mist and glimmer; or by how
across a room of friends an unknown woman looks
at him a moment longer than she should-and so
a suitor may wait a lifetime for his lover. Or, maybe,
just this once, his luck is in; a goddess has fallen
for a mortal man. He’s ready to believe whatever
she may tell him-that she’s girlish, untouched

The language of the poem is proof that the thesaurus is not necessary. A good poem can be written without the poet searching desperately for words that no one else would think of using. Although some of the expressions could be described as commonplace if you were wedded to the idea that poems must be 'verbally inventive': ’just this once, his luck is in’, there’s a lyricism to the lines, and the way the words are marshaled and what they are doing that makes them work. 
You can see the skill required for such ‘plain English’ if you try and alter the words. Take ’that she’s girlish, untouched /by love and all its dusky fingerings’ and try changing or removing the adjective ‘dusky’.  
Once the opening lines shift the specific story into metaphor, the poem becomes a way of thinking about what happens when one person falls abruptly for another; the odd ways in which understanding and knowledge play against willful not knowing, contained in the apparently simple phrase ‘He knows, and chooses/ not to know, the truth’.
Everything leads to the revelation: ‘her beauty is unbearable’. In the poem, he recognizes the goddess. It’s a neat but complex image: on the one hand, there is that moment of awed recognition when the reality of the other is revealed. On another, the sense that recognition shocks us into realizing we had underestimated either the other or the encounter.  Whatever was casual or insignificant or commonplace about this event is abruptly challenged by this moment of awareness.  
As with the diction, the poem is quietly impressive technically. There are only two end stopped lines and one of them is the final line.  Sentences run over stanzas pulling the reader onwards. While this is not in itself remarkable (most of the poems in Nominy Dominydo this), in this specific case, form preforms content.   
He’s ready to believe whatever
she may tell him-that she’s girlish, untouched

by love and all its dusky fingerings, its sweetest
of nothings. She’ll be his bride. His hands tremble
as he fumbles with her girdle, trespassing, lingering,

then lifts the veil- god-her beauty is unbearable.
 That abrupt stop after ‘nothings’ followed by the shortest sentence in the poem arrests the man’s progress as he falls and shipwrecks on her beauty. The poem too falls, in a series of tumbling lines and stanzas until: ‘Then lifts the veil-god-her beauty is unbearable.’
The heavily end stopped line performs the ship wreck. Though if you spend too long thinking about this, you’ll end up wondering why ‘god’ and not ‘gods’ and that’s a rabbit hole worth going down.
The last line ends 'and history begins’. The statement is doing double duty: history as the story of the couple, their time together, the version of the meeting they will relate later, and whatever happens next that is caused by this meeting. It’s also (probably) a reference to the results of Anchises’ decision. In the Roman’s national epic, the product of this meeting will found Rome and his parentage will be used as a guarantee of Rome's divine destiny . 
Another pleasure of this book, is that after you’ve enjoyed the poems as poems, there’s the pleasure of discovering more about stories you didn’t know. A writer in medieval England might think that British history begins in this meeting, and that is a story worth pursuing.   
Although I’ve just spent over a thousand words enthusing about this one poem, without in any way exhausting what is good about it, the quality is characteristic of the other poems in the book. Enthusings about the whole book should follow but if you like this poem, then the book is full of similar pieces and the quality is consistent throughout. 

From Nominy-Dominy by Leslie Saunders. Published by Two Rivers Press. 2018

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Pierre Michon, 'Winter Mythologies' and Faking the Middle Ages.

 ‘Winter Mythologies’ contains two collections of very short stories by Pierre Michon: ‘Three Miracles from Ireland’ and ‘Nine passages from the Causse’.

Michon is a fascinating writer and there is so much to admire about these stories. They are far more seductive than something like Nightfall or The Last Kingdom. Perhaps because they are so good,  they provoke the question: how to retell medieval stories, or stories set in the middle ages, especially when it comes to dealing with matters of belief. 

Yale University Press publishes the English version, translated by Ann Jefferson, as Winter mythologies and Abbots. In the French ‘Edition Verdier’ Mythologies d’hiver the first three stories are called Trois Prodiges En Irlande. While prodige can be translated into English as miracle, it can also mean prodigy, which can apply to a thing or event as much as a person. ‘The fervor of Brigid’, ‘The sadness of Columbkill’ and ‘The levity of Sweeney’ are all prodigious. But none of them is a miracle in the religious sense of that word.
At first glance the stories mimic the brevity of medieval chronicles but on closer rereading, Michon tells them from the viewpoint of a skeptical modern sensibility, within the framework of modern understanding and belief. This is ‘faking the middle ages’.

Medieval miracle stories are commonplace. Read Bede, or Gerald of Wales, read any early medieval chronicle, they are full of stories of the miraculous.  So are saint’s lives and the records of their cults and shrines. People went on pilgrimage in the honest belief that the Saint’s relics would cure them.

We know there were fakes and we know there were skeptics even in the early middle ages, but the evidence suggests that the majority believed in miracles; in the ability of saints to intercede on their behalf and the fact that while the world worked to laws that existed but were not well-understood, God had the ability to alter those laws to show His favor, displeasure, or power. It should also be remembered that there are still people who hold these beliefs.

Michon’s three Irish Stories refigure this belief as a prodigious type of desire in search of an object. But this is a desire for something more than the tactile world can provide. It is an innate yearning that can never be satisfied.

Both Brigid and Columbkill want, in both the older and more common usages of the word. Columbkill desires the psalter. Denied his copy he goes to war, wins, takes the book only to discover: ‘The book is not in the book’. In the first three stories only Sweeney is happy with who he is and what he does. Michon doesn’t say whether Sweeney’s acceptance of his life as King or Bird is a kind of sanity bordering on sanctity, or proof positive he’s mad.

But if Michon accepts the existence of this desire, he is not prepared to believe in the existence of its object. When Saint Patrick is introduced in the first story, we are told that to convert the pagan Irish, ‘il suffit de quelques abracabras druidiques’ which sounds even more contemptuous than the English translation’s ‘all it requires is a few druidic spells’. Patrick is a fake who knows he’s a fake: a conjurer who is growing old.

Because they are juxtaposed in the one book, it’s possible to read the story of Saint Enimie, which runs through five of the Nine Passages on the Causse, as an elaboration on what is presented as a form of dishonesty. There is nothing holy about Enimie. Her own self titled story makes this very clear. She becomes a saint centuries after her death to meet the institutional needs of a religious foundation. Her posthumous career is created at the intersection of the shifting needs and literary abilities of the monks. It is based on a lie.

 If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then in this version, religion is what you get when that desire is given an object that can’t be grasped. Inherent in that idea is that manipulation and exploitation are inevitable. Those who desire can be manipulated and exploited by those who can supply and claim to control that object. It’s how advertising and propaganda work. It is hardly an earth-shattering observation until it is applied to religion and medieval faith.  Accept the desire; deny the reality of the object of that desire.
And that’s where the modern mind and the medieval one part company.

We know the church as an institution became corrupt. We know its beliefs became easily exploited by the greedy and unscrupulous. There were enough fragments of the true cross in Europe to build a decent house and some of John the Baptist’s many fingers looked a lot like chicken bones.

But that doesn’t mean it was all faked. Bede and his audience expected miracles both from dead saints and living holy men and women. Miracles were the visible, tangible proof of an invisible power or an exceptional grace. When the Pagan priests and the Christian missionaries faced off in post Roman Britain, it wasn’t the equivalent of a conjurors’ Ok Corral. Writing it as though it were is entertaining and comforting to the modern mind, but another conjuror’s trick.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’: the scholarship poem revisited.

‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’ is a small part of a much bigger writing project. 

You can read the poem ‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’ here: on pages 72-73)

I’ve been reading and then reading and writing about the Brut since about 1981, when a disgruntled undergraduate, me, was told he couldn’t use Malory for his Honours thesis but should ‘do something with Laȝamon’.

The questions that interest me now are ones that a conventional academic approach, confined by the discipline of whatever methodology, cannot answer. This is not to denigrate scholarship. Without scholarship, mine and others, what I’m trying to do would come untethered and drift off into pseudo-historical fantasy-writing.

If writing a poem can offer a unique way of thinking through and in language, then writing poems to rethink stories can lead beyond the various walls that hedge scholarship to suggest ways of thinking about the Brut, its author and their time. A question as simple as, ‘Why does Locrin put Aestrild in an ‘earth house’ with ‘ivory doors’? lead to the Bronze age tin trade. Whatever the poem suggests can then be tested against the evidence. It’s a fascinating process because it leads into areas logic and reason might not consider.   It’s Pound’s ‘scholarship poem’, or Graves’ ‘poetic method’ taken seriously. 

I set out to retell four stories from theBrut. But as the project developed, it became a many-sided conversation with a strange variety of textual participants: the history of Dark Age Naval power, tin trade in the Bronze age, Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, the archaeology of post Roman Britain, the history of early Medieval Wales and England, the English Parish clergy in the 12th century, the writings of Gerald of Wales…and while trying to translate the prologue, I found I’d started writing about Laȝamon himself. 

You can read what that process lead to here:

It's too long for a blog post.

Five new Poems in Meniscus

Five new poems published online at Meniscus.....

Click here

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Gerald of Wales on the writing life

In the preface to The Description of Wales, written in the 1190s, Gerald claims he was slow to gain promotion because  I am so keen on literary pursuits that I pay too little attention to the things of the world…and commented looking over his shoulder at Virgil: 

There is no respect paid anymore to authors, they say, whether they are historians or poets. Now that our leaders are no longer literate, no one they say, has any more time for Humane letters. If you want to become famous today,  you must try some other approach. 

(Second preface to the Description of Wales, trans Thorpe p. 216.)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gerald of Wales and Time Travel

A fortuitous find: two middle English Translations of Gerald of Wales' 'Conquest of Ireland. The book is a reproduction of an EETS text originally from 1896 but I love the typo on the cover. Apparenly those clever Dubliners were able to translate a book that hadn't been written about an event that hadn't happened in a language that didn't exist. Time travelling Renaissance scholar/magicians? An English ship lost in the pre Bemuda triangle...the possibilities are limitless

Friday, February 2, 2018

Nightfall, Pilgrimage and filming the middle ages

Filming the Middle Ages: Nightfall and Pilgrimage.

Warning, opinionating in progress yer honour

Both Nightfall and Pilgrimage are set roughly around about the same time. Both are set in historical contexts. Both revolve around a sacred relic. The difference lies not in ‘historical accuracy’ whatever that might mean, but in the attempt by Pilgrimage to capture a different way of thinking about the world, and the total failure of Nightfall to even make the attempt.

 What interests me about films or tv series set in 'the middle ages' or 'the dark ages' is their attempt, successful or other wise, to evoke a different world. You may not be interested in this aspect of films set in the past, and if not, its presence or absence should not affect your attitude towards them. 

Exactly what Nightfall is supposed to be is a problem in itself. Although from the history channel it’s obviously not ‘history’ in the sense of documentary history or reenactment. It’s fictional entertainment. But it’s pseudo historical entertainment, containing names that occur in the historical record.  And so, the question is why didn’t the writers create their own fantasy world, why did they hang their characters on real names, and place the action in real places, when they’re obviously not interested in how those characters would have acted. It’s possible they are simply shirt tailing the words Templar and grail, exploiting what people think they know about Templars or the grail in order to establish an intial audience base.

The rivet counters can complain about the fire bombs and the exploding ships and castles, the holy grail, the fact that some of the knights are called Gawain and Percival, and that there seems to be some confusion between Knights of the Temple and the Knights of the Round table. (It would take a far more subtle approach to pull this one off; the Templars were a religious order, the Knights of the Round Table were not.) A queen of France who wanders the streets of Paris alone and unattended? Mounted Knights who dismount to fight superior numbers?

I have no objections to any of this as entertainment: the minute the word Grail appears we’re in the land of fiction.

What put me off the story from the first episode is the idea of a ‘Master of the Temple’ having an affair with the Queen of France.

What most versions of the middle ages on film fail to take into account is how different these people were in the way they thought.  They were not you and me in fancy dress. The Bold and The Beautiful in medieval costume doesn’t work except as pastiche or parody.

We’ve become inured to sex as an essential part of narrative, especially as part of historical fiction.  Everyone it seems was dropping their clothes at the drop of a hat. But the morality of an American soap opera doesn’t translate into the European middle ages.

In the story world of Nightfall, our central character does not believe God exists. He Knows God exists. He has touched the relic of the Last supper.  For him Jesus is an historical character and he has seen the evidence. He wants to reclaim the Holy land for the Christian church and is willing to die fighting for it because of this faith. It motivates him powerfully.

This man has sworn to this God a vow of chastity and poverty when he joined the order.  He knows adultery is a sin. He also knows that adultery with the queen is treason. And his sensuality will undermine everything his order stands for, if it’s found out it will hand his enemies a weapon he cannot fight against.  He cannot play the games soap opera characters play; I’m sorry, it didn’t really mean anything, it was just sex, a bit of fun. I won’t do it again.

Nor is it a matter of whether or not they can get away with it. He cannot ‘get away with it’ because his God is watching everything he does.  And in the crowded world of Paris, it’s unlikely that someone isn’t going to notice him climbing a wall and wonder where he’s going.
So this man is a lying, adulterous treasonous hypocrite. And a fool. If he’s not caught he’s going straight to a hell that he believes in. Even if he believes he can find absolution for his sins, when he is caught his death is going to be horrific and will damage his order irrevocably.

It’s this failure to understand that sex is out of bounds, and  the queen is simply off the planet that suggests the writers have not bothered to consider their material. There’s no attempt to understand the difference between now and then, and that reduces this to farce.

It’s interesting to compare Nightfall to the film The Pilgrimage (2017). Again your average rivet counter could probably find fault with the monks’ habits, their belts, their tonsures. I’m fairly sure a weapons expert might have something to say about some of the weapons on show. And the graphic violence might be off putting to some.

But what the film does is catch at something alien: a profound belief in the reality of relics. As someone says, ‘it’s a rock some dead saint bled on’, but for the monks, it is manifest holiness, and terrible in the precise meaning of that term. For the Cistercian and his masters, it is a thing of power that will aid them in their plans. For the Normans in Ireland, it is a piece that can be used to secure their future by giving it to a King struggling with the Pope.

There is an immanent violence all through the film. It’s not glamourized or sexualized, there’s nothing heroic or sexy about it, but it is there and the casual brutality and indifference to suffering that explodes sometimes unpredictability add a menace to the story which is missing from Nightfall.  In Pilgrimage faith exists in the face of such ugliness. And there are different types of faith, shades of belief and devotion, and in the case of the Cistercian, it is an ugly and unattractive faith.

The characters: the Monks, the Cistercian, and the Norman, Raymond, all feel like they belong in a different time. Raymond is by far a better character than the central Templar in Nightfall as an imaginative attempt to answer ‘what would someone in that time and place be like’? He is proud, brutalized, seething with contempt, worried that this family’s position is jeopardized by John’s unpredictability but still not ready to get rid of an aging father. And his ferocity simmers beneath a barely controlled frustration with the world. The Norman invasion of Ireland was not pretty, and the Irish resistance was not a matter of knights meeting in the open field. It was an encounter that brutalized both sides.  Just as the crusades did.

When, searching for the relic, Raymond says ‘I will find another rock and pretend it is the relic’ or words to that effect, he is not expressing a modern skepticism about relics, but a profound disillusionment and consequent lack of faith that defines him as a character against the believers in the film.

He would not have sex with the queen. Even if Isabella of Angouleme was the stunning beauty she is rumored to have been.  But if he’d lived, you can imagine him a few years down the track, having run out of patience, joining the baronial revolt against John and meeting the cruelty of John’s mercenaries head on.

My reaction to these two films is probably clouded by the fact I’m currently working my way through translations of the Works of Gerald of Wales, who was still alive at the time of Pilgrimage, who described the Norman Invasion of Ireland and the English and French attempts to subdue Wales. I admit I’d rather read Gerald than watch either, but Pilgrimage seems to resonate with his writing. Nightfall doesn’t.
End of opinionating.