Thursday, March 4, 2021

Three readings from 'A Presentment of Englishry'.

Three readings from 'A Presentment of Englishry' on youtube, courtesy of Derek Turner's Brazen Head. You can read the second chapter of the sequel at

Monday, March 1, 2021

Vortigern in London

Chapter two of my version of the story of Vortigern is up at the Brazen head (link below) 

Chapter one will appear in the next issue (#25) of  Long poem Magazine. 

The story of Vortigern follows on from where A Presentment of Englishry (2019) left off...

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Review of Harry Gilonis' 'Isolated in Aber Cuawg', Oyster Catcher Press 2020

This review first appeared on the Brazen-head 

Isolated in Aber Cuawg

Harry Gilonis, Oystercatcher press. 2020. 19 pages.


 ‘Claf Abercuawg’ is a Welsh poem composed perhaps in the ninth century. Claf, as a noun means a sick person, a patient or a leper[i]. Abercuawg is an area of North Wales. There is an /I/ who looks out at the landscape and speaks about it and his isolation. 


This pamphlet contains an English translation of thirty two, three line stanzas, a short introductory essay, placed significantly after the poem, and some textual notes. The essay is a concise, necessary  introduction to the differences between this poem and a modern English one. The pamphlet is visually attractive, robust enough to handle the rough usage its received, and overall very good value for money. 


The opening line announces the poem’s difference:


My mind’s requirement, to be sat atop a hill-.


In the 1970s Glyn Williams translated this as:


To sit high on a hill is the wish of my heart[ii]


Superficially, Williams sounds more natural, and perhaps immediately preferable. But the differences in word choice and order reveals the strength of GIlonis’ translation. 


Generally[iii], the contemporary trend seems to be to assume that the people of the Middle Ages were modern people in funny clothes, suffering from bad ideologies and severe technological deprivation. The consequences of such assumptions are numerous and they are all bad. The logic runs that because these people are us, then their stories can be presented as we think they should have been written, or would have been written if the original composers weren’t so clumsy. And because they are ‘like us’ then they should have known better. Therefore the things modern observers find reprehensible in Medieval behaviour and ideals can be easily condemned and preferably erased, because both are easier than trying to understand the essential alterity of the period. 


The most invidious and invisible form of this domestication is when a translator surreptitiously converts a medieval text so it operates to modern, Post-Romantic assumptions of how poems should function, and how a modern person would behave or think in that situation. 


Gilonis, to his credit, avoids these traps. Ironically, part of the effectiveness of this translation lies in what he hasn’t done. ‘My Mind’s requirement’ does not sound like modern English. But it’s grammatical and makes sense. He walks the fine line between respecting the alterity of the original and turning the poem into something that works in English. He does this without domesticating the original, or turning it into a museum piece. 


The translation, as translation, can be compared with different translations. Here’s three versions of the last verse, Gilonis’ is the third.  


Jenny Rowland  [iv]


The Leper was a squire; he was a bold warrior

In the court of the King

May God be kind to the outcast.


Joseph P. Clancy[v]


A youth was Leprous; once a bold leader

In the royal palace.

God be kind to the outcast.




Isolated, once a warrior, once a champion, daring

Once in the court of a king

May God be kind to the outcast.



I prefer Gilonis’ version, but the key objective difference is the disappearance of ‘Leper’. While Jenny Rowlands goes to some length to show how the speaker of the poem is indeed a leper, she’s also aware that it is not the only option (pp.191-193). The original poem would not have excluded other interpretations. As she points out, the solitary figure in a hostile landscape, well-known to readers of Old English, is as much a symbol of life on earth (with or without God) as a literal character. But translating claf as ‘leper’ would be to choose one option and for the reader of the translation to limit those other interpretations. It also throws the poem into the distance. 


Gilonis defends his decision not to translate claf as leper in his notes. The poem isn’t distanced from the modern British or American reader and the other possible readings of the text remain open. 


Obviously the idea of someone isolated due to illness has an immediate contemporary relevance. The temptation would be to push the point: the use of deliberate anachronisms being a popular technique. Gilonis writes; ‘The resonances, in 2020, don’t need ramming home’ (p10).  In 2020 ‘isolated’ was such a loaded word it should resonate without ventilators or prayers for vaccines turning up in the translation.


One of the strangest features of this poem is that, as in Old English poetry at this period, the speaking /I/ is an empty space anyone reading the poem can step into. It’s merely a subject position, not an historical or fictional character, nor the product of autobiography. This is emphatically not a dramatic monologue in the Browning/Tennyson tradition, nor an /I/ in the tradition of English poetry from Wyatt onwards. While some speakers in the ‘Saga poems’ of Medieval Wales are characters in a fuller story, the speaker in this one exists only in this poem. 


Some Early Welsh verse, like this one, simply don’t operate to the rules we assume govern modern poetry in English. There’s no clearly developed progression from an opening to an ending. There’s no ‘internal coherence’. The poems operate to their own rules, and those rules, leaving aside the complicated metrics, simply aren’t post Renaissance or Classically inflected English. There is description of landscape, but whether it’s meant to evoke the speaker’s mood or describe a place is questionable, and which ever answer you pick in one instance will be undermined in another. 


Description is jammed against statement: but the relation of the two seems marginal, and the statements, as in the second line below, might be gnomic wisdom or just statements of fact. Either way their relevance is never obvious.:


Bright are the tops of the valleys; long the small hours.

Expertise is always praised.

Am I not to be granted the sleep due to the ill?


Temporally the poem hops around, sometimes in the same stanza. The overall effect is that the poem is swirling, but the swirl isn’t spiralling to any conclusion, just to the last word, where the poem stops. Gwyn Williams’ only translated ten of the thirty two verse, but the ’extraction’ (his term) doesn’t seem to damage the poem in any way.


For general readers of English poetry,  the pragmatic value of early medieval poetry, treated honestly as it is here, lies in the challenge it makes to the learnt reading practices of the school room and the lecture hall. A poem like this one, that obviously works, but not to ‘our’ rules, is a confrontation with the limits of our reading practice, and our assumptions about what a poem is, does, and can be. 


This difference between what worked for a medieval Welsh audience and what a modern reader of poems expects gives the translation another level of interest. The original might have been written over a thousand years ago, but this translation wouldn’t be out of place in something like Harriet Tarlo’s  2011 anthology of ‘Radical Landscape poetry’[vi].  


As such, it’s a blunt reminder that any claims made by ‘Avant Garde’, ‘Experimentalist’ or ‘Postmodern’ poets in the twenty first century for the ‘innovative’ or  ‘ground breaking novelty’ of their work is undermined, if not flatly contradicted, by the history of poetry. Whatever ‘it’ is, ‘it’ has usually been done before. Knowing this renders the familiar excuse for writing abstruse nonsense; ‘But it hasn’t been done before’ obsolete, and allows readers to focus on the question ‘Is it good’. 




[ii] Welsh Poems Sixth Century to 1600, Faber and faber 1973. p.23. 

[iii] ‘Generally’ in terms of popular culture, films, books, and public discussions. There are exceptions. 

[iv] Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a study and edition of the Englynion,  D. Brewer 1990. p. 497. This is the essential encyclopaedic text, commentary, study and translation of these poems. Rowland makes no claim for her translations as ‘literature’. 

[v] The Earliest Welsh Poetry, Macmillan 1970.  p.94 Clancy reverses the order of the last two verses so this is the penultimate in his translation. 

[vi] The Ground Aslant. An anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, Shearsman, 2011. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Carmilla 2020 or 'The Governess was Repressed'

Carmilla 2020


In 1970 Hammer released a film called ‘The Vampire Lovers’. It was their version of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s iconic 19th century vampire story, Carmilla.  It played with the narrative’s sequence, making Marcella/Carmilla’s vampiric character too obvious from the start.  While its casting was undoubtedly strange, and Carmilla is far more predatory in an indiscriminate way than she is in the story, it stuck reasonably closely to the plot and can be watched as a reading of the story. Hammer did make the obvious mistake of thinking two topless women in a room with no men was box office gold. 


This 2020 film version claims to be based on Le Fanu’s story, it also seems to think that two young women kissing each other is art house gold, but it has so little in common with what Le Fanu wrote that it’s difficult to see why they bothered to call it Carmilla.


If you know Le Fanu’s little masterpiece, a plot summary of the 2020 film is all you need. (You can use the Carmilla/Le fanu links in the side bar or below to read about both Le Fanu and Hammer's version.)


Laura is a disconnected fifteen year old living in a big house in a generic somewhere, with only her father, a governess who likes to strap up her arm to stop her using her left hand, and a generic (I’m guessing) west Indian maid. She is looking forward to a visit from a friend. She hears the friend is ill and can’t come. The Governess is creepy and lingers a little too closely over her charge when she’s in bed.


A carriage crashes. The driver is killed but a young girl is saved and brought into the house. She has lost her memory. Laura is fascinated and the two girls are physically attracted to each other. The governess interrupts them rolling passionately on the floor. 


The governess, having given Carmilla a good beating, convinces the local doctor that Carmilla is a Vampire. Her evidence is so flimsy it’s laughable. She found a book about vampires in the wreckage of the carriage, no one knows who the girl is and girls are getting sick . Oh and a dog barked at her….it sounds like we’ve strayed into The Turn of the Screw. Her attempts to convince the doctor includes an awkward sexual encounter, but whether this is just repression breaking loose or her way of making him take her side against Carmilla is hard to tell. Neither of them seem to be having any fun. 


The girls escape and drift away from the house, but not too far. The Governess, the doctor and a random estate worker easily track them down. They slam a stake through Carmilla’s heart. The father turns up and carries Laura away. He does this for a very long time. Then we see Laura standing by a pond throwing stones in the water for a very long time and that’s the end of the very long, very slow story. 


The film makers have stripped out everything that makes Le Fanu’s story what it is. Whatever was subtle and ambiguous has gone; it was gone from the Hammer film too, but in this film they have replaced it with close up shots of insects and pictures of Laura wandering in the grounds, or Laura running in the grounds with Carmilla. 


What’s most surprising is that Carmilla is not a vampire in this film. Why you’d do this to the story is baffling. In both Hammer’s version and this one, the sexual aspect is amplified at the cost of the story. More effort goes in to building sexual tension between the two girls than to telling any kind of story. And on and on. 


If they had called this Laura and the Stranger…or The Lovers or The Governess was Repressed it would at least have been honest and would have stood or fallen on its own merits as a story about repression and adolescent fantasy. It wouldn’t have been all that interesting or convincing. 

But as a version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, it’s just crass.


It’s an art house movie without art. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Ciaran Carson's 'Still Life'

My review of Carson's 'Still Life', his last book of poems, is up at the Brazen Head:

Still Life by Ciaran Carson

Wake Forest University press 2019


There’s a picture of Ciaran Carson on the back cover. He’s sitting on a bench seat. Tall buildings, trees and streetlights provide a diminishing perspective taking the eye towards an approaching bus. The bus is slightly out of focus. There’s something, perhaps someone on a bike, in front of it.


The word dapper presents itself to describe the poet. Hat, blazer, tie. The refinement of a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. The facial expression is harder to read. Perhaps a hint of a mischievous smile? Perhaps Puckish is an appropriate description?


In a book of poems about pictures, this one seems carefully arranged. Perhaps you know the story. You walk into the woods and meet a well-dressed man on a path you didn’t mean to take. He’s usually sitting on a log, or a style. If you share something with him, you’ll be rewarded with a story, though the story might take up several lifetimes and when you return to where you started, you’ll find the world has changed.


There’s an inviting space beside him on the bench. I would offer him the OED’s etymology of dapper, which I think he would enjoy. It suggests dapper was adopted at the end of the ME period ‘with modification of sense, perh ironical or humorous’ since in Middle Dutch it meant ‘powerful, strong, stout, energetic’, which might be superfluous to requirement, as the saying goes.  Mod Dutch gives ‘valiant, brave and bold’ and they don’t seem appropriate either.   


I want to thank him for ‘Last Night’s Fun; in and out of time with Irish music’, one of my favourite books, for ‘For all we know’, one of the most interesting of poetic narratives, and for the pleasure of all the other poems, translations and the weird and wonderful prose.


But of course, I can’t. He’s dead. 


The first poem in the book concludes:


It’s beautiful weather, the 30th of March, and tomorrow the clock’s go forward.

How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is is going on.

The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left

And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end. (p. 13)


Carson died in October 2019. Still Life was published posthumously that November. It’s inevitable that those two facts colour any response to the book. They don’t need to. The book doesn’t need your sympathy. 


On a first reading the poems seem colloquial, easy to read, informative, with moments of arresting imagery:


‘My dreams are filled with wavering buildings, avalanches of astonished/glass.’ (p. 19)


In characteristically long lines, with their deceptive appearance of artlessness, each poem is a reflection on a picture, which provides the poem’s title. ‘Reflection’ is inadequate because the colour and detail in each painting is a focal point, not always the beginning or end: ‘Because when looking at a thing we often drift into a memory of something else/however tenuous the link’ (p. 15).


But ‘reflection’ is also apt because the pictures become distorted mirrors which reflect the observer’s life and pre-occupations. Each viewing is a reviewing, no matter how familiar the he thought the picture was. The silent present ‘you’, often Carson’s wife, Dierdre, notices things he hasn’t. Things unnoticed re-present themselves, and perception and memory shuffle the elements into new versions of the picture.


A Carson poem is typically not a hermetic object which I think is one of the reasons he was a fascinating writer. An intelligence was moving through time and space and recording the process. 


The last poem ends:


And I loved the buzz of the one-bar electric heater as a bus or truck passed by

And I loved the big windows and whatever I could see through them, be it cloudy or clear

And the way they trembled and thrilled to the sound of the world beyond. (p. 84)


The key phrases here are ‘whatever I could see’ and ‘the world beyond’.


There is no ‘high and low culture’, no misplaced sense that some things aren’t ‘appropriate’ subjects for poetry. The verbal registers move from colloquial to technical.  Wittgenstein may be quoted, but he’s just as much at home as the small pot of daffodils broken by an idiot vandal, or the memory of ‘blue birds anticlockwise spiralling around the interior of the toilet bowl’ (p. 84). 


Carson once described a traditional music session: 

Every tune recalls other circumstances in which it has been played; and the conversations and anecdotes sparked off by the tunes are essential to a good session. It’s a mix of tunes, songs, stories, drinking, eating- whatever happens to be going on, including smoking in the days when you could smoke in bars. (Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (ed) Ciaran Carson, Critical Essays, Four courts Press, 2009 p.15)) 


Think of each poem not as a single tune but a recording of the whole session. It’s an astonishing achievement, and he sounds like no one else. 


I’d just found the book I had in mind-What Painting is by James Elkin-

When the vandal struck. Thud. What the…? The gate clanged. I looked out

The bay window to see a figure scarpering off down the street to the interface- 

What a book though. I have it before me, open at this colour plate, jotting notes

Into a jotter, which I’ll work up later into what you’re reading now. (p. 11)


The poet doesn’t live in self-imposed exile on Parnassus, occasionally sending his effusions to the plebs below.  Street names map a real Belfast and anchor him into the daylight world. You can reconstruct his daily walk which is recorded in many of the poems as possibilities on a map. Google maps and virtual art galleries, acts of minor vandalism, the insertion of a drip into the arm, a cat eating a bird, all find their way into the poems. Memory skips backwards, to bomb blasts, early attempts at writing, school days. A concern with the mechanics of writing is always present: the pen he’s using, the breaking of a pencil, memories of a typewriter, words and their possibilities.  Sounds too are included, like the phone and the doorbell, the post man interrupting him while writing, but unlike that person from Porlock, the interruptions kick the poem onward. 


However, although the poems are separately titled, this is a sequence and the intelligence and craft are in the architecture and that may not be immediately obvious on a first reading.  The poems pick up, echo and alter words, phrases, and images. The more you look for the links, the more there are.


As a single example, which doesn’t exhaust its own possibilities.


The sixth poem in the sequence is ‘Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm 1650-1651’ . Although this is the first of three paintings by Poussin to be used as a title, the artist  appeared in the first poem, where his habit of reaching among Roman ruins for a handful of marble and porphyry chips and saying to a tourist; ‘Here’s ancient Rome’ stands at the beginning of the book as a short hand for Carson’s method.


The sixth poem also refers explicitly to the second poem, ‘Angela Hackett, Lemons on a Moorish Plate 2013’, in which, ‘a fortnight ago’ Carson had placed a blackbird to sing from a blackthorn ‘for the sake of assonance’. He’s driven to look up the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn. Which also evokes the tune ‘The Blackbird’. 


But the poem also sets up what comes afterwards. Carson records his daily walk and for the first time mentions Number 1 Hopewell Avenue, ‘a beautiful house back then’ now a building site. The construction work here will become one of the markers of time passing as subsequent visits in later poems will record the developments on the site. ‘We’ remember the Goldfinch ‘you saw’ ‘two years ago’ and so on and so forth…You can pick up a phrase, a word or a detail and watch it move through the poems, threading them together. 


The most obvious link is the movement of time, which is not straightforward. Time moves forward as an accumulation of present moments, some dated, some sequenced by incidents. Time moves backwards to memory, some also dated. What is most obviously missing are references to the future. 


Time is also built into the complicated game Carson plays with the idea of the poem as a record of its own performance. The pictures might look like time frozen, but the poems often create the impression of a performance in progress, unfolding.  


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book, given the context, is that these poems manage to escape categories like ‘Personal’, ‘Autobiographical’ or ‘Confessional’. Just as a Carson poem can challenge your idea of what a poem is and does, these labels are called into question because the poems are paradoxically none of them, and all of them.  


It’s easy to imagine someone else in this situation, not knowing if they were going to live, writing self-indulgent or embarrassingly personal poems. But here a craftsman is taking pleasure in his craft and inviting the reader to share his enjoyment. 


Like the encounter with the man in the story, once you start paying attention, it’s hard to escape. The book invites rereading. Those possible etymologies of ‘dapper’ which seemed initially inappropriate are perhaps apt after all: the poems are indeed ‘powerful, strong, energetic’, ‘valiant, brave and bold’. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Maurice Scully's things that happen


Enthusing in progress.

It’s that time of year. 

At the time of writing, the T.S. Eliot prize shortlist has been announced and soon we will be treated to the usual critical contortions as judges, journalists and those in the know reach for the usual terms of praise; ‘Ground breaking’ ‘Innovative’. ‘Original’, ‘Genre bending’ and so forth and so on to try and distinguish one book of well-written poems from another.

Shearsman’s announcement in 2020 that they were publishing a one volume edition of things that happen should have been hailed as one of the publishing events of the year. Of course it wasn’t.  But if you want to see what genuine ‘ground breaking’, ‘original’ ‘innovative’ ‘sui generis poetry’ is like, you need to read this book. 

It’s fascinating and baffling, endlessly enjoyable, and it raises all kinds of questions about what you do when you read, and the problems of verbalising the pleasure given by a poem that refuses to do the box ticking manoeuvres of the kind of poetry and poems that win the T.S.Eliot prize.  

I first encountered Maurice Scully’s work by accident. I bought a second hand copy of Livelihood which is a small part of things that happen. I was fascinated because it was like nothing else I’ve ever read. There were echoes, similarities, there has to be, but the thing itself was unique in my experience. It was also compulsively enjoyable. 

A few years ago, as part of a PhD, I read as many as possible of the book length long poems, narratives or sequences that had been written since the beginning of the last century.  Most of the works shared a great deal in common, most were what you’d call ‘well-written’, some were enjoyable, many I would never bother to read again and some I wondered if my presence as a reader was necessary. But I quickly discovered that my initial impression about Livelihood was sustainable. It is one of the few books on that ridiculously long bibliography that is unlike anything else.

I didn’t know anything about Scully the Poet. Over the years, I made desultory attempts to find information but to this day I haven’t met anyone else who reads him. I am happy to believe that he is a fictional character, dreamed up by Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett who had become bored by the afterlife and had entertained themselves by designing a truly modern poet: indifferent to biography, they had only sketched in suggestive details: there was a house, and a wife called Mary and children. The house was in Ireland, then Africa, maybe somewhere else, Italy? 

In the best Beckett tradition though, their story was about a penniless poet who spent his time in a tin shed writing poetry. The fact that the shed was made of tin was crucial. It should have the complete works of De Selby lying scattered on the floor and a fractured map of eternity on the roof. The poet listened to the rain and the birds and the rust forming on the roof and made it all into poetry.

And he kept writing. For twenty five years, releasing the product in hard to find pamphlets and books. Now the whole thing exists between one set of covers.  

Almost as exciting was Shearsman’s announcement that there would be a companion book of essays devoted to the poet. Hopefully there would be erudite insight and enlightenment on offer. Maybe someone could explain why this was so enjoyable.

And while I have nothing intelligent to say about ‘things that happen’ except that anyone interested in modern poetry should read it, the essays require a longer post all to themselves.