Thursday, December 17, 2020
Friday, December 4, 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
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
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.
Saturday, October 10, 2020
Did the Medieval Troubadours invent 'Romantic Love'. Is 'Romantic Love' always linked to death and misery?
The link below takes you to Dick Davis, who is both poet and translator, talking as a guest on 'Entitled Opinions'. They discuss the beauty and complexity of Persian poetry, with fascinating links to Medieval European texts. There's a priceless reading of a short extract from the 11th Century 'Vis and Ramin' in Persian, for those of us who can't speak that language .
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Jeremy Hooker: Selected poems 1965-2018 (Shearsman Books 2020)
It’s a strange feeling to hold a man’s writing life between two covers, and it would be presumptuous to pretend to be able to ‘asses’ it on such short acquaintance. But the book is very good. One of the great joys of interest in poetry is that there are always so many fine poets to discover. Ignorance is a fine place to begin, as long as you take it as a place to leave.
My prior knowledge of Hooker is limited to the fact he was the author of a ‘pioneering study’ of David Jones, which I admire.( ‘David Jones, an exploratory study of the writings’ (1975).
I bought the selected because the blurb named David Jones and George Oppen as formative influences and I was having difficulty trying to imagine how anyone could combine those two very different writers.
The poems in the selected are grounded in places and things. They epitomise what Donald Davie called ‘a poetry of right naming’. In full knowledge of the slipperiness of words, or the slippage of the signifier if you want to be French, the poet doesn’t ‘Flinch’ into language or in it (to misquote Seamus Heaney) but tries to be as precise as possible.
What I love is the fact of it.
A channel kept open, shipping
stone for the cathedral;
blue Cornish slates;
coal from Woodmill
to Blackbridge Warf.
A channel used, disused,
restored, until the last bridge
passed under the railway bridge
now abandoned, framing
water that is going nowhere,
but silts, with passages
the colour of stonedust
and boys rowing, a surface
silver and boiling
where blades dip and turn.
from Itchen Navigation p. 102 (last stanza omitted)
The resultant poetry is lucid and compulsive. I can’t remember the last time I read a selected poetry from start to finish and then went back and read it all again. Although Hooker discusses the idea of Ground in the essay at the back of the book, and in more detail in his recently published essays, ‘Art of Seeing: essays on Poetry, Landscape painting and Photography’ (Shearsman 2020), the places in the poems shift: the Solent, Wales, Holland, The Holy Land. The poet is not so much tied to place as exploring places.
The book also provides on answer to a writing conundrum.
What kind of poem would you arrive at if you avoided a regular rhyme scheme and the predictable rhythms that gave melody and memorability to so much poetry in English written before the 20th century?
And then went further. If you avoided the tricks of the Avant Garde: no pyrotechnics, no disordered syntax or paratactic clauses? If you refuse to treat the poem as some kind of puzzle that the reader is invited to solve? If you were to avoid ‘clever’.
If you avoided the thesaurus, and choose words you’d use in normal speech placed in normal order. If you avoid the temptation to be ‘poetic’, not pretending to thoughts and insights no one ever has in any given situation? And if you avoid the temptation to show off your considerable reading by dropping in allusions to other poems and poets?
If you avoid the selfie poem, where the words on the page are the debris left by your incessant scratching at your private itch, hoping your readers will sympathise with your pain for the length of time it takes them to scroll down to the next offering?
Take all that out and how might you end up with anything worth reading?
One answer would be Hooker’s selected poems. It’s the absence of the usual tricks of the trade that make them hard to discuss. What to praise in words used carefully with a respect for the thing described. An unobtrusive control of rhythm. Poem as record of an intelligence moving through a landscape and recording its impressions, inviting the reader to not only look at what is being presented, but to look more carefully at the world he or she is moving through where-ever that might be?
Reading the selected reminds me of reading Ruskin’s Modern Painters. After reading Rusin on clouds, or light on water, you may never paint a picture, but you from time to time you find yourself paying attention to the detail in what you’re looking at.
Hooker’s poem have the same effect. As he wrote about R.S.Thomas:
We have heard his voice.
It will not be unheard.
We have looked with his eyes.
What he has seen
will colour our seeing.
‘Eglwys Hywyn Sant, Aberdaron’ p. 251
And that is a gift gratefully received.
Friday, September 11, 2020
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.
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Warning, Enthusing in progress….sometimes books deserve their reputations....
Mathew Francis. The Mabinogi, Faber 2017
This is an excellent performance. I read praise of it that claimed it ‘Does for the Mabinogion what Heaney did for Beowulf’. This is unfair to Francis for several reasons: if you need a comparison it might be more accurate to compare it to what Logue did for Homer. And as far as narrative poetry, retelling an older source, that’s about as good as it gets in term of praise.
In the version of ‘The Mabinogion’ that you buy as the standard prose translation, there are 11 stories. The collection is not coherent, and splits itself into three groups. There are three ‘Romances’ which read like Welsh versions of stories by Chrétien de Troyes. There is a cluster of ‘native tales’ which range from the elliptically odd to the sprawling magnificence of Culhwch and Olwen. And there are the ‘Four Branches’, the ‘Mabinogi’ which stand at the head of most translations and are rightly regarded as the jewels in the crown.
They are four uniquely strange and beautiful tales.
Francis retells the four stories, shifting poetry to prose. He admits he can’t read the originals and that perhaps frees him from their syntax and means this in not a translation but a version. If you don’t know the Four Branches you are not at a disadvantage. If you do, the act of selection and emphasis implicit in any retelling will provide readers with much to think about.
His basic unit is a fourteen line stanza organised syllabically. To help the reader follow the story marginal ‘signposts’ are included.
As poetry, the collection shows an unobtrusive verbal inventiveness which muscles along in service to the story. It rewards frequent rereading, from the small details:
The trunks of birches are like ‘Nobbly moonbeams’ (p.54) Efynysien is ‘unhorsing a king/one cut at a time’ (p.28).
To larger descriptions of setting and character: In the first branch, Pwyll, disguised as Arawn, enters the latter’s bedroom:
The room is many rooms, coming and going
At the whim of its flames. The red fire
Utters yellow, and magics
A bed out of dark,
A cave hewn from curtain where they lie
In the candle’s buttered light (p.6)
Or the description of Branwen, seen through her half brother’s eyes:
And his swan of a sister, who seems to walk
Without moving her feet, nudged at times
To right and left by currents
Only she can feel…
But the world of the stories is also richly sensuous with the presence of the physical world; woods, rivers, coast lines, hills, contrast with halls and rooms. It’s one of the ways the story world differs from the contemporary one. These characters are very much at home and part of their landscapes. Francis allows this into his writing, and keeps it in view, so that the book begins:
Here at the turn off the leaf a horseman is riding
Through the space between one world and another,
Warm in his company of noises. (p.3)
The third line being particularly good.
Throughout we are reminded of landscape and its natural inhabitants. Later, in the third branch, when Dyfed is under enchantment
The land managed without them. Woodpeckers ratcheted,
A beetle cantilevered from a soft log,
Spangled flies twitched between slants of sun
That tip toed across the ground
Marking the non-hours. (p.5)
Retelling these stories presents a modern writer with a host of problems, and Francis acknowledges some of these in his introduction. ‘Stories’ unavoidably evokes modern prose fiction. But if you approach the four branches looking for character development, plot coherence, thematic unities, you might be disappointed if not confused. Pryderi may be the one character who appears in all four branches but there’s no noticeable ‘development’ of his character from one to another.
Attempts to make them into modern stories run the risk of killing off what makes them special. (This point deserves its own discussion.)
While Francis does streamline the stories, the effects of his cutting and rearranging are positive.
He moves his narrative swiftly, which in the case of the third branch’s repetitions is something readers should be grateful for. In the fourth the speed doesn’t give anyone much time to stop and wonder at Lleu’s stupidity. (He not only tells his flower wife the unique (utterly improbable) way in which he can be killed, but willingly demonstrates how it can be brought about. Inevitably he’s speared during his demonstration).
There has been much discussion about the relationships between the four branches. And these versions bring some of the links alive. Changes made to the first story affect the third. Cutting the ‘badger in the bag’ incident isn’t a great loss to the first, but it does mean we don’t get to see how smart Rhiannon is, and by removing the incident Francis removes the motivation for the malicious enchantment in the third tale. Modern coherence demands Francis alter the reason behind the revenge since the original motive has been removed; medieval narrative would have ignored the problem.
The major changes seem to be to the fourth story. But the changes pay off. The story is in some ways the most famous: it’s the one where Gwydion the magician magics a wife out of flowers for his nephew, but while that gets quoted and remembered so much more happens and the beginning of the story is tangled.
Long before we reach the the flower wife, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, two men at the court of Math the King, plan the rape of Goewin. However, to get to her the two men have to get Math away from the court. Gwydion uses his powerful magic to steal Pryderi’s pigs (yes) and start a war. This leads to Pryderi’s death and their punishment. It’s only after this that the tale of the flower wife begins, and she is only the last of Gwydion’s attempts to side step the last of the three curses placed on LLeu by his mother.
Francis cuts the rape of Goewin, the planning that goes into it, and Math’s uniquely appropriate and repetitious punishment of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Scrapping Goewin’s story frees him to shift the death of Pryderi to the end of the book. Since the first tale includes his birth, his death now brings the stories to a close.
His other major change is to make Gwydion into a storyteller who is entertaining his hosts. Instead of a 3rd person tale about him, the fourth branch becomes a first person tale told by him. This alters a tale about magic into a story told by a great storyteller who claims to be a magician in the story he’s telling.
Francis hints that all the stories in the four branches are told by Gwydion. The link between the magician who can make a ship out of sea weed or dogs out of mushrooms and a poet who constantly presents one thing as another seems a fair one. But the idea seems to appear in the final branch rather than be a consistent motif all the way through.
Rereading this book over several weeks, I haven’t found anything to dislike. There’s so much to admire.
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
|150 episodes means I've recorded readings of 150 poems. From Ancient Egypt, by way of Rome andGreece, though Old English to the present day. Versions of English, including readings in Old and Middle English, and many poems in translation. The link below takes you to the full index.|
The podcast began as a way of 'listening' to poems, mine and others, an enjoyable way of learning about poetry while enjoying it. A way of building an audio anthology of poems that interested me for one reason or another. Denied a classroom to read aloud in, the podcast became a surrogate.
To my surprise, it's racking up listeners.
Despite dogs, traffic, police helicopters, incessent building works and the ubiquitous, increasingly popular parrot, there's complete readings of long poems like The Wasteland and The Ancient Mariner, as well as much shorter pieces.
To celebrate the 150th episode a reading of one of the most popular poems in English.
Saturday, August 1, 2020
Ranting in progress.
Divine Cartographies : God, History, and Poiesis in W. B. Yeats, David Jones, and T. S. Eliot
Monday, July 20, 2020
For someone interested in stories and storytelling there was so much to play with.
Although written to stand alone, 'Ruins' is the overture to a full length story of Vortigern, which will follow on from 'A Presentment of Englishry' (Shearman 2019).
You can hear a reading of an earlier attempt at this here: The poetry voice Podcast
Thursday, July 2, 2020
Edited by Andrew Michael Roberts.
Friday, May 29, 2020
A Dominican talks about his interest in David Jones. It's a neat, short introduction which I think benefits from the Catholic perspective. And i finally know how to pronounce The Anathemata.