Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves

I don't remember when I first read this story.  Carter wrote a lot, and a great deal of it is impressive, but 'The Company of Wolves' may be my favourite short story along with Le Fanu's Carmilla. 

You don’t read this story; you enter it.

You walk into a room, doesn’t matter how rustic it is, but it does have a fireplace, and you sit down on one side and Granny is on the other.

Maybe you belong to a generation that didn’t have a granny who told ghost stories. Mine told the most frightening ones I’ve ever heard. They were frightening not because they involved multi colour deaths, CGI and a thumping sound track; they were frightening because she believed every word she said. And it was that understated conviction that returned after the lights were off to keep me awake.

 But you may not have had a grandmother like that, so enter, sit down and turn your phone off.

Carter takes two risks early on. If you know this is a version of Little Red Riding Hood she makes you wait for  four pages (in the edition I’m using) before Little Red makes her entrance.  But your average modern reader doesn’t know much about the werewolf, so the information has to be delivered. It’s delivered in a rambling, anecdotal way.  

Her second risk is that her opening hops around from anecdote to one liner. You didn’t hear it but you must have asked Granny about wolves when you sat down, or you made some disparaging remark about people who believe in Werewolves and granny is putting you straight. 

The narrator is heterodiegetic. Not a participant in the story but an inhabitant of the story world, and the story telling is localized. This happened ‘up the valley a little way’ or ‘in our village’ .  The wolf lore is balanced against the mundane: a woman is stirring her macaroni; a man is too shy to piss in a pot.  And if, dear listener, you’re impatient or not paying attention, you are not going to understand the ending of the story.

The style is an enviable combination of voluptuous extravagance and precision. If you think of it as excessive you miss the point that excess can easily become meaningless overload.  Carter’s language calls attention to itself, but remains precise. A simile moves its bored audience from one thing to another that is similar. But you enter Carter’s similes and they surprise: you can stay inside them for a long time as they create a loop. Wolves are as unkind as plague. Think about for it a while. What does it tell you about Plagues. What does it say about Wolves. 

I think Carter understood something primal about Folk tales. I don’t mean she knew them. Obviously she did. She had translated Perrault. I think she realized how old the metaphors and symbols are. It would be easy to use a word like cruel, or unsentimental, but the stories belong to memories of times when terms like ‘cruel’ were meaningless. The world was the way it was in the forest and understanding was the price of survival.  

I think Carter knew in her bones we all still live in the forest. Despite the sugary nonsense of Walt Disney and Wedding Planners, relationships are dangerous. It’s why Vampires were such potent symbols. It’s why the werewolf is such an obvious, powerful way of thinking about human beings. That nice young man might become an animal with his clothes off?  How to deal with him?

The story offers something missing from Perrault. Perrault’s story is didactic and authoritarian. Men are predators: girls are victims. Step off the path, you die. It’s a frightening moral about obedience, the death of curiosity, and ridged gender roles. (And if it’s a while since you read his version, you should go read it. Little Red dies. End of story.)  Carter knew her Freud well. In Perrault, Wolf is Id and Little Red is ego, and they are at war and one or the other must win.

Carter offers a much more interesting ending. Ego accepts Id: Id is tamed by Ego:

You were paying attention to the beginning weren’t you? 

Josephine Balmer's 'The Paths of Survival'.

I’ve been rereading, ‘The Paths of Survival’ since it arrived. It is such an enjoyable, thought-provoking book.  It also looks good. Cover design and blurb are exemplary.  

 A book length sequence of poems, each poem identified in place and time. The sequence begins with one of the the book’s few anonymous speakers, standing in front of a glass case in a museum, looking at a fragment of Aeschylus’ lost play Myrmidons, a scandalous piece of work which celebrated Achilles’ love for Patroclus. The sequence then moves backwards through an imagined history of the text as the editors, translators, copyists, book lovers and Aeschylus himself speak, stepping out of the shadows at the point where the text intersects with their lives.

It’s an impressive feat of imaginative reconstruction, this bringing to life a fragment of text. The voices lead back to a heavily footnoted reconstruction of what little survives of the play.  At the back of the book, ‘Historical Notes and Sources’ provide a short note on each poem, identifying speakers and contexts. Between the play and the notes a final quote…I have been silent too long. The play is not the end, or beginning of the sequence, the play gave shape to something that existed before it.

I have to admit that part of my enthusiasm for this book is that it’s about books and language and I recognize myself in the situation of the first speaker.

Still I am drawn to it like breath to glass.
That ache of absence, wrench of nothingness,
Stark lacunae we all must someday face.

I imagine its letters freshly seared
A scribe sighing over the ebbing tape

                        (Proem: Final Sentence.p.11))

In my case I was standing in front of the Exeter Book, one of only four books containing Old English poetry to survive from 6 centuries of Anglo-Saxon England.  I was in the cathedral library, with the librarian hovering nervously in case I broke the glass, tucked the book under my arm and had me an escape out the windows.

It’s impossible not to imagine the scribe who wrote it, or the incidents and accidents of its history that lead to its survival, when so much else has perished.

Those vague thoughts are brought into focus by Balmer’s poems. They give human form to somethings as abstract as the love of books that allowed for their careful transmission and survival, for the lovers of words who scrawled a favorite line or two on the back of other documents, and for the hatred of ideas that lead to their burning, as well as the casual destruction in which they were ‘collateral damage’.

Each speaker participates in the chain of accidents, sometimes unaware of the significance of their actions.  Librarians, antiquarians and book lovers have their obvious reasons, but lovers who find in the fragments words to inspire them, scholars who are horrified by the content, people who hate ideas, paid copyists bored, hurrying so he can get to the brothel, and the flight crew of the 2nd world war bomber, one of the most anonymous of the voices, that records ‘Targets; both destroyed. Stray objects hit; one’ all participated.  

One strand running through the voices is an absolute belief in the value of the written word.  

                              Books are

The twisted paths of our past.
This is who we were and what we are.

(The Pagan’s Tip p. 43)

No books and we are condemned to memory and the immediacy of a physically present speaker.  In ‘The Librarian’s Power’ subtitled (The National Library, Baghdad, 2003) with its stark opening line,  ‘We carried what we could to safety’ the librarians have to cajole the locals into letting them use ‘their one precious generator’. Asked why they are struggling to save books when so many people were dying, they replied:

We could only say that, if not flesh,
here were dividing cells, bare blocks,
of collective memory. Conscience.

The vast record of all our knowledge
and of our faith. An ancient Quran,
the House of Wisdom we had built;
the learning we alone had salvaged
and then protected for the Greeks--.

Culture and civilisation are fragile. Culture is not an abstraction, some rough beast that slouched out of the Fairy Queen to lock us in the prison house of language. Culture is the sum total of people and their actions and Balmer’s voices give testimony to this. History includes the casual destruction of texts and people, and the knowledge that intolerance and stupidity are not new inventions:

We’ll storm their prized libraries
strip the dwindling shelves bare.
Who needs poetry or philosophy
When you have faith and orthodoxy

(The Christians’ Cheek. P.42)

Survival requires human agency. And often a bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat. After describing the sack of Constantinople, the clerk ends his witness:

                                    Let them mock.

Where they had cruelty, we had culture.
Where they had greed, we had Greek.

(The Clerk’s Crusade. P.32)

There is a different greed though, and one that is celebrated here, the greed for knowing which is a form of lust.

Back home. I caressed my acquisitions,
tenderly; afraid their soft skin might tear.
I had no lovers. I knew no passion
Except for this, for words. My life’s breath. Air.

            (Hoard. p. 30)


I’ve quoted so much to show the voices. The blurb calls them dramatic monologues, but that sounds too formal and substantial. They are more like fragments of speeches from an unwritten or lost play.

Balmer’s craft is enjoyably subtle; the variations between poems are small but significant.  An unobtrusive rhyme scheme varying and sometimes absent, sometimes a barely noticeable patterning of sounds. There’s nothing pyrotechnic to obstruct the speaking voice.

The intelligence lies in the architecture and the control, which is where I think it always should be.  The speakers are arranged in groups, each group described by a line or phrase from the play. Each group providing a comment on the line as the line comments on them. The sequence is organized by the text it responds to.

If the subject sounds esoteric: “the survival of a fragment of a play by some dead Greek Dude’ the poems aren’t.  The individual speakers are too interesting in themselves. And it’s a thought provoking book. It’s a rare modern example of the suitably classical Horace’s belief that poetry should ‘Delight and Instruct’.  Read it for the pleasure of the voices and learn along the way.  

You could give ‘The Paths of survival’ to any intelligent reader, to someone who doesn’t normally bother with poetry, and they would enjoy it. Then the next time they buy a Penguin Classic, or one of the Oxford World’s Classics, they might stop and wonder how Herodotus or Sophocles made it to paperback.


Colin Simms 'Goshawk Poems'

I’d never read anything by Colin Simms before which just goes to show that there are so many fine poets at work and I've never heard of them. A book of poems about Goshawks might not sound interesting, and it could have been disastrous, but this is a fine example of Donald Davie’s ‘poetry of right naming’, recording decades of close observation. It reminds me of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Ruskin with his notebook and pencil, trying to capture the sea or light on water or clouds. It’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a book.

At first the exuberant abundance is overwhelming: 150 pages of poems, often with two or three to a page. But once over being intimidated the book rewards repeated reading.

I don’t like poetry books that don’t need readers: this one does. It wants its Model Reader to pay attention, to look carefully, and then keep looking as the poems turn the subject in different lights, different settings.  The poems want the reader to share their fascination and to realize how paying this kind of attention is rewarded not with repetition but endless variation.  Perhaps the great achievement here it that for all the decades of attention Simms pays to them, the Goshawks never become domesticated or humanised,  are never translated into some comfortably symbolic figure. They remain beautifully, fascinatingly other.

The best poetry sometimes sounds familiar. There’s echoes of Ivor Gurney, Hopkins, Bunting, (Bunting and MacDairmid make fleeting appearances in the poems) but while there’s a sense of continuity and tradition, this is not to suggest that these poems are  just a combination of those poets, or other ones other readers might hear. Beyond the familiar echoes is something unique unto itself.

Many of the poems have the provisional feel of a rapid sketch, the language hurrying to catch the movement of the hawk across field, the scatterings of prey, the omnipresent weather, and the way it alters light and activity:

Wind lifts beech leaves progressively in a pattern of little waves
a tide towards the wood’s enclosing slopes, heaping-up this November
Alan and I looked vainly for woodcoks’s through. Under the timber
wings blow a path parting the same leaves in lesser musical staves
even the wings of Bramblings. (p.64)

 ‘Provisional’ is not a way of suggesting the poems are badly made or unfinished. Speak the lines aloud, listen to the way the verse moves. This is not accidental. It is enviable.

My only problem with this book is that there seems to be many other books by Simms I now have to read.  An economic problem,  but something I look forward to solving.