Merion Jordan 'Regeneration White book/Red Book’ Seren 2012
This is the second book I’ve been reading recently which retells stories from the Mabinogion in poems. If Mathew Francis’ ‘The Mabinogi’ (see previous post) raises the question of how to retell the stories, Merion Jordan’s ‘Regeneration’ poses the questions of what C.S. Lewis, in his discussion of Obscurity in Poetry, in his introduction to another writer’s revision of Arthurian matter, called ‘Privatism’ and ‘Unshared background’.
Warning…confusion in Progress.
Jordan’s book is a very ambitious take on the stories in the Mabinogion and the Arthurian story, split into two discrete sections.
If you are reading Regeneration/Red book, you arrive at page 68 to be confronted on the facing page by upside down text and page number 84. Turning the book over, and starting at what was the back, you can now read the White Book from page one to page 84. Two front pages, two lots of ‘front matter’. This is cute.
Whether it was worth the publisher’s effort to print a book like this, is a different matter. It’s hard to see what would have been lost by presenting it as a single volume split into two discrete parts.
It also seems indicative of the overall problem the book has: it’s been over thought. Concept has been privileged over execution and the result is intriguingly uneven.
Regeneration Red book has short poems responding to the stories in the Mabinogion. These short poems are split into four ‘books’. They are lyrical responses to the characters and incidents, aslant and non-narrative. The writing is lyrical, taut and impressive.
Because these poems are responses to the story rather than retellings of the story, they raise the inevitable question of what C.S.Lewis called ‘unshared back ground’. If you don’t know who Goewin was, the poem on page 32 isn’t going to tell you, and whether the poem ‘makes sense’ without that knowledge is a moot point. Whether it will reshape your reading of her story if you know it, is another.
In his preface to Regeneration Red Book Jordan writes:
The tales’ ‘…reading, I think, depends upon an involvement not only with the space and shape of the stories but upon a landscape that is half real, half imaginary, a kind of Britain that is centuries out of reach-so interspersed with these characters and wonders I have attempted to map some of the insular localities they sought to define, the discarded components of a Britain that never was, except in the minds of the British’.
The four ‘Insula’ sections which alternate with the four ‘books’ contain some of the best poems in a book of fine poems.
In terms of concept and achievement the Red Book is superb. I would have raved about it at length if I had come across it as a single collection.
However, I’m not so sure about Regeneration White book.
For a start its link to the White Book of Rhydderch seems very tenuous. Perhaps too tenuous to justify the split upside down halves.
It’s a sequence of poems each what might loosely be described as monologues, spoken by a range of Arthurian characters. Although Malory is being leant on heavily, the familiar Englished names have been Welshed and the characters drift in and out of versions of the legend. This works as a reminder of the fluidity and variety of Arthurian stories. There are after all, only versions.
But I find it difficult to hear a difference in the voices or to care about them or their perspectives. Given a life long obsession with Malory, this is surprising. The condensed lyricism of the Red Book has given way to something much more diffuse and while there are localised moments of linguistic interest, they get lost.
To complicate matters further, Jordan writes in his preface:
‘Where I have found some point of contact between the inevitable shape of Arthur’s story and the shape of my own memories, I have tried to bring them together through annotation.’
These annotations, presented as foot notes, link the figure of Arthur to Jordan’s memories of his family, and especially his grandfather.
‘I suspect that too much precision would risk obscuring the reader’s relation to Arthur in favour of my own. Fitting my own notes to the main text, in short, was my attempt to identify Arthur and bring a grief deeply felt but tenuously experienced to light: I have tried to leave room for the reader to do the same’.
It’s a very ambitious aim, and ambition is no bad thing. But it doesn’t work in execution. The footnotes, which are Jordan’s family memories, intrude, interrupt, distract.
My copies of Malory are scrawled with maginalia. If you annotate your own books, the annotations are your personal response to the text. If Jordan’s footnotes are his equivalent, then in making such annotations public he’s claiming they are of interest to a third party, without making an effort to make them interesting or coherrent. It’s a strange way of muddying a public act of self-revelation.
In rewriting the story Jordan has already privileged his relation to the Arthur story. It is the writer’s privilege to do so; to offer his or her version for the reader’s consideration. It would have been enough to do that and leave it there.
The footnotes seem far too arbitrary. Too personal. They are examples of what Lewis called ‘Privatism’, the links are not often obvious to a third party and leave the writer and reader stuck between two stools.
For example, Poem 12, Le Chevalier Mal Fet, begins:
He coughs up blood
She sleeps alone
Dreams of the fire
The love that melts bone
To the blackened bone.
There is footnote on the first of the two ‘bones’. It begins…’You see it’s sometimes hard to reconcile my memories of my grandfather with the man he clearly was….’ There’s nothing in the rest of that footnote that links Grandfather, Jordan’s inability to imagine him as a school boy, and what’s happening here in the poem.
Regeneration White book is an ambitious approach to the Arthurian story, but its conceptual underpinning seems ill conceived. It’s possible that I haven’t reread it enough times or I’m missing something. But I think it’s more likely that on one level the sequence is too private to work for a reader, and on the other the various voices aren’t differentiated enough to hold the reader’s interest.