David Jones’s ‘The Grail Mass and Other Works’.

David Jones’s ‘The Grail Mass and other Works’. Edited by Thomas Goldpaugh and Jamie Collision. Bloomsbury, ‘Modernist Archives’, London etc 2019

This is a publication by ‘Modernist Archives’. The editorial statement claims Bloomsbury’s ’Modernist archives’ series ‘makes available to researchers at all levels historical archival material that can reconfigure received views of modernist literature and culture’. 

This book cost me over two hundred Australian dollars, so I have to wonder what that ‘at all levels’ means. The first question to address then, is that if you’re not an institution, but an admirer of Jones’s work, and you save your pennies or cents to buy a copy, is it worth it?

The answer, in this particular instance, is an unqualified yes.

Firstly, it’s a beautiful book. Nice binding, boards, good paper, good font. It sounds daft, but there are familiar fragments in here, and they are much more enjoyable to read on good white paper in a clean font than in the slightly slurred font on stale paper that is my Faber copy of ‘The Sleeping Lord and other fragments’ (To save time, hereafter TSL).

Secondly there is a lot of material here and some of it is in the ‘not seen before category’. ‘The Grail Mass’ is reconstructed as a coherent sequence/poem from Jones’s manuscripts into approximately 126 pages of text. Some of this has appeared before as published fragments, some was integrated into ‘The Anathemata’, but the presentation of the whole realigns the fragments. More on this later. 

There are two further sections of writing: one called ‘A True fragment, an Extraction and A Variation’, and the other ‘Origins and Endings’.  

In total something like 200 pages of Jones’s writing.  

There’s also a critical apparatus detailing how the text was put together from manuscripts, how the versions here differ from other printed versions, and a guide of sorts to the grail mass. My previous experience of critical writing on David Jones lead me to ignore all this the first time I read the book. This was probably unfair. Without the painstaking work of the editors I wouldn’t be reading the book but Jones tends to exceed his exegetes far more thoroughly than most writers.

However, quite unintentionally the ‘Guide to the Grail Mass’ does raise one of the defining problems of reading David Jones. The editors identify the speakers in the first three segments. It’s hardly earth shattering.

But the effect of this simple piece of information on rereading the poems is like walking through an opened door into a realigned landscape. The question, which I have no answer to, is given that the ‘dramatic monologue’ is the basic form of several of these pieces, what did Jones gain by not indicating who is speaking, so the reader was orientated from the start?  

The next question: Given that Jones himself was unsatisfied with the project, and didn’t feel it was ready for publication, does rifling through his files and reconstructing it, do his memory justice. 

And again, the answer has to be yes. 

The editors claim that ‘It is our contention that the parts forming the Grail Mass…can be read as continuous and unified whole that can be judged on its own merit’.

I think they’re right. The Grail Mass, as presented here, stands comparison with both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, with two qualifications, that it is unfinished, and his speakers: Judas, Caiaphas, his Roman Soldiers, humanise the material in a way that’s missing from The Anathemata. It’s funny in places, recognisably human, with all the poetry intact.

So you’ve got a copy of ‘The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments’, or ‘The Roman Quarry’. Do you need this book?

I’d say yes. Although Jones quarried the unfinished project and published fragments, they take on a new life when re-contextualised, presented in the sequence they grew out of. High Priests, grumbling squaddies and troubled tribunes add to, confirm, contradict and redefine each other’s views of the world in a structured movement that mimics the layering of detail Jones used in some of his paintings. Bunting’s ‘Then is now’ has rarely been taken so seriously and dramatized so thoroughly. 

And, again, it sounds daft, but the reading experience is much more enjoyable moving through the sequence, rather than reading the isolated fragments. 

The versions published here are also different from those previously published, which allows insight into Jones’ working methods.  Some of which I find baffling.

The irony of the book’s price is that you could give this Grail Mass to any reader of poetry, let them know who is speaking, and it could win Jones far more readers than those who have shipwrecked trying to read The Anathemata.

If you are a devotee of Jones’ writing, and there must be one or two more out there, you probably need a copy of this book. For once the content is definitely worth the daunting price of admission 

'Casket' by Andy Brown

Casket by Andy Brown. Shearsman Chapbooks, 2019. (31 pages)

I like this short collection very much.

The Casket in question is the The Frank’s Casket, a ‘whalebone’ box dating from the eighth century, covered with Runic inscriptions and almost cluttered with intricately carved and often enigmatic scenes.

For readers interested in Old English Poetry, the Casket is accidentally iconic. The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English poems’ (1966), which contained those ground breaking translations of Old English,  was a slightly blurred image from one of its panels. It is a pleasure to see the thing in the British Museum. And astonishing to see how small it is.

Brown’s chapbook consists of five poems, or five short sequences, one for each of the side panels, one for the lid. It’s very good.  I like the way it ghosts Old English.

Each poem begins with the relevant runic inscription and takes off from there. A note from the author explains the runic alphabet. Each rune has an equivalent letter and what Brown calls a ‘pictorial’ value… the word for Fish in runic script also contains the values for ‘wealth’ ‘ice’ ‘sun’ and ‘torch’’.  ‘To write the following poems I determined the sequence of images yielded by each runic word, and then used these images or variants of them, to write the poems’ (p.5).

As a concept, it’s interesting, but it puts conceptual intelligence into the architecture of the poems, where I think it should be. Whether or not you can map the runes directly onto the poems, and how much latitude Brown allowed himself in that ‘variants of them’, would require far more time than I’m willing to dedicate to the effort of finding out. The poems stand as poems.

The collection is thematically linked by the last line ‘…this shared and ever constant now’. The chapbook presents ‘the place where I live’ (coyly unspecified in a book about place)  as a palimpsest: modern golfers play where Britons and Saxons fought. On the water, New Foundland cod boats set sail and pass Danish raiders and ‘Dunkirkers’ coming home, while Flemish privateers have landed to burn the town.  Glimpses of history mingle with scenes from the present, graffiti’d bridges and frozen allotments, trail bikers and fishermen.

The poetry itself is skilfully written. The first sequence, ‘Whalebone’ picks up the echo of Old English alliterative verse. The Anglo-Saxon line with its triple crash and bang doesn’t sound good if sustained in modern English, so Brown’s handling of it here is skilful, evocative of Old English, giving the poem an onward movement but without sounding heavy handed:

This unforgiving trade, when the ice
Of February frets the core and fingers
And the sun’s declining disk smoulders
Barely bright enough to light the creek. 

The nod towards Old English is also beautifully done towards the end of the fifth section. One poem, beginning ‘I sing’ blurs the distinction between the Casket, its maker and the poet, since all three are ‘singing’:  the lines evoke the epigrammatic mood of Old English. 

This leads to that most Old English of poems, ‘the thing speaking’….(’prosopopoeia’ is not a word I get to type very often.)

Snatched from the creature’s warmth
And brought into the sun
I’ve made this voyage to artful box 

This sounds like the beginning of one of the Exeter book riddles. But ‘For month’s I knew the workman’s hands’ leads into the bone’s description of how it became a casket and we’ve moved from riddle to something more affecting. My candidate for ‘the best piece in the book’.

The last fourteen lines in the chapbook seem to offer some kind of conclusion, but I think they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. The tendency of OE to epigrammatic, generalising is captured in

We have the measure of our lives all wrong
it’s not this time of flesh and blood alone,
but the slow millennia of dissolution,
when skin and bone return to whence they came

But the sudden shift from the previously specific ‘I’ to the vague ‘we’ and the equally generalised statement which slides off the fact the Casket has, after at least a thousand years, most definitely not returned to whence it came, might be the only flaw in the collection.. 

My only reservation may be irrelevant and whether you see it as criticism or observation depends on what you want from the poems you read.

As a reader of poems, and buyer of poetry, there are thousands of books to choose from. But increasingly I feel it doesn’t really matter. There are varying degrees of technical competence but at the end of some collections I wonder if life would have been any worse for not reading them. 

The problem facing writers and readers of contemporary poetry is that lurking, ‘Nice.. but so what? ‘

Bunting wrote ‘Then is now’ and produced Briggflatts . Eliot spun whorls with time past and time present being simultaneously present in time future. David Jones started with the idea of a past permanently present in the language and built In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. The idea of ‘a shared and ever constant now’ has been the starting point of some major poetic writing.

If you read Casket, you’ll never look at the Frank’s casket the same way again. Which is a good thing, though looking at the Frank’s Casket is not something most of get the chance to do very often.

If you live in England and don’t realise you are living in a place with a deep and varied history, some of it still visible around you, the collection might wake you up to that fact.

But if the last fourteen lines offer a conclusion, they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. For all the verbal skill, there’s a step not taken, and ‘so what?’ is doing a passable impersonation of Grendel, lurking on the edges of the reading. Whether you let him or not depends on you. If you let him in, the effect is disastrous.

 I don’t know if this is an observation or a criticism.

 

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.  But what intrigues me is the way he fakes the middle ages, provoking the question: how to retell medieval stories, or stories set in the middle ages 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 they mimic the brevity of the medieval chronicles Michon purports to be using. But on closer rereading, it becomes obvious that Michon tells them from the view point of a skeptical modern sensibility, within the framework of modern understanding and belief and this leads to what I will call, for want of a better term, 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 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.

In the first story, Bridgid wants to see God’s face. She is in earnest, so much so that she will kill herself and her sisters for the chance of seeing him. In the second, Columbkill wants a copy of the Psalter he has read. Denied his copy, in what’s sometimes called the first copyright case in Europe, he goes to war in order to own the original.

Both Brigid and Columbkill want, in both the older and more common usage of the word. In Michon’s perfect phrase, Columbkill discovers ‘The book is not in the book’ :‘Le Livre n’est pas dans le livre’.  We can’t know if Brigid saw the face of God. Having killed her sisters and committed suicide, her story ends: “They are implacably dead. They are contemplating the face of God’ (P.11). The lack of any grammatical link between the two sentences does not inspire confidence in the idea that one leads to the other or that the first is not a comment on the second.

Columbkill however, got what he wanted only to discover that the thing he gained is not the thing he wanted. ‘He searches the text for something he has read and cannot find, and the picture for something he has seen and which has vanished. He searches long and in vain, yet it was there when it wasn’t his’ (p.16).  Learning his lesson, he throws away the book and his warrior’s paraphernalia and, ‘…on the bald island of Iona he sits down, free and stripped of everything, beneath a sky which is sometimes blue’ (p.16).

If a defeated Columbkill learns to become ‘stripped of everything’ and accept the world as it is, then in the first three stories only Sweeney is happy with who he is and what he does. He is happy being a king. When Finbar curses him, he takes to the woods and lives as though he had become a bird. He is happy being a wild animal. Michon doesn’t say whether Sweeney’s acceptance of his life is a kind of sanity bordering on sanctity, or proof positive he’s mad.

While Michon is prepared to believe in the desire for what is not present, his attitude towards medieval faith is that of a modern skeptic.  At first sight his pared back prose seems to imitate the style of the medieval chronicles. But on closer inspection the stories are told in three voices. There’s the flat style which sounds like objective reportage. Brigid and her sisters go swimming:

‘All three girls run through the spring dawn. They reach the bottom of the embankment and throw their clothes under the foliage’ (p. 5).

But the reportage is often disturbed by Michon’s adjectives. When Columbkill gives up everything and moves to Iona he crosses the ‘loathsome Irish Sea’ (p. 16). Why is the Irish sea ‘loathsome’?  And who thinks it’s loathsome: Brendan or Michon?  Brigid, swimming, sees that her flesh is ‘excessive’. Later when Patrick sees the sisters in the water, we are told ‘they are flagrant and excessive’. What is flesh in excess of? The similes that follow, ‘Like a dreaming King’ in the first example, ‘like Grace itself’ in the second, are not helpful. What does ‘Implacably dead’ mean?  

If the adjectives disturb the reportage, Michon’s third voice is the voice of the knowing modern skeptic. People in the past believed in Miracles, and gave witness to them. Michon translates that belief into a desire for the non-existent: there are no miracles, only things that can be explained away.

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.  ‘He would like a real miracle to occur, just once’ (p. 5). This desire explains his treatment of Brigid as does the sublimated sexuality between them which is hinted at in the story.

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 a form of dishonesty. If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then religion is what you get when that desire is given an object. 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.

What Michon does not say is that today Saint-Enimie is a place, and that her existence as a historical person is dubious. She doesn’t warrant an entry in the standard dictionary of saints and unless your knowledge of French Kings is very good, it’s easy to miss the fact that centuries pass between each of the episodes in the development of her cult.

The saint is first mentioned in passing at the beginning of the second ‘passage’, ‘Saint Hilere’. ‘He has founded a community of brothers no one knows where on the banks of the River Tarn, doubtless on the spot where Enimie, the saint with Merovech’s blood, will later come’ (p. 28).

Enimie's own brief story: 'Enimie', comes next. It reads like a small fable. She is the daughter of the King. She becomes the abbess of a priory ‘on a river called the Tarn, in a place with an unpronounceable name’ (p. 32). It’s a joke. She never goes there. Her position is merely an administrative convenience. She has sex with the major of the palace. He drops her for someone else. She dies. ‘It is said to be leprosy’ (p. 33). 

Three centuries later, the monks of a small community on the Tarn need a saint to substantiate and defend their claim to ownership. The process of creating a posthumous career for Enimie, first writing her vita in Latin, then again much later translating that story into the vernacular, runs over three more stories. The difference between the stories  'Enimie' and 'Sancta Enima' are commentary on the process.

Sancta Enimie is a fake: her posthumous career is created by the shifting needs of the monks and their literary abilities.

If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then religion is what you get when that desire is given an object. 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.

Christianity has a bad press. Fundamentalists make the headlines.  The deviant behavior of some of its clergy is used to damn the whole of the Catholic Church. Modern knowledge, from Biology to Medicine to Meteorology, can supply convincing explanations of many miracle stories. Atheism is trendy.

Whether or not a modern writer believes in saints and miracles, people in the past did. The question is then how to deal with this belief if writing about the past.

Michon translates those beliefs into a narrative underwritten by modern skepticism.  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. 

Tom Pickard's 'Winter Migrants' and 'Fiends Fell'.

Tom Pickard’s Winter Migrants Carcanet (2016) and Fiends Fell (Flood Editions 2017)

 

I wrote the first half of what follows and posted it on Lady Godiva and Me nearly a year ago. I’d been rereading Winter Migrants in a cottage on the North-East Coast of England. The wind coming off the North Sea battered the walls with a vindictive persistence as it tried to rip away the roof.  It wasn’t a review: I wanted to celebrate the book because it was the most enjoyable new poetry I’d read in a long time.

 

1

Winter Migrants

My test of a slim poetry book (78 pages) by a single author is can I live with it for a week? Can I read and then reread and not feel the urge to read anything else. And then if I put it aside and come back to it, does it still hold my attention? Most modern single author collections of poetry fail this test, miserably. 

I bought Winter Migrants as soon as it was published and I’ve been rereading it ever since. In terms of my test it’s an excellent book. 

It’s split into three parts: two sequences: Lark and Merlin, and from Fiends Fell Journal and a third section made up of individual poems.

Pickard’s poetry has almost always been the record of one intelligence moving through time and recording what he encounters in precise language. 

 

a wren

perched on a hawthorn

low enough to skip the scalping winds,

 

sang a scalpel song.    

 

This first poem from Lark and Merlin is a good example of an elegantly spare, stripped-down or stripped back poetic. It belongs to what Donald Davie once celebrated as ‘a poetry of right naming’. The poet works to find the best word to describe the world he lives through. 

When Alice complained to Humpty Dumpty that he was making the words do too much work, Humpty boasted that he paid them extra for their efforts when they turned up for their wages on a Saturday. Presumably there's a small queue at Pickard's every Saturday and they have negotiated for overtime. 

While I was rereading Winter Migrants I was also reading Baker’s The Peregrine. Both books have the same detailed observation of movement and light, landscapes and their wild inhabitants. Ruskin would have approved of both writers’ honest attention to detail. However, while Baker’s prose overloads the reader, Pickard’s poems have the advantage that everything unnecessary has been left out. What I envy most is his ability to capture the effects wind has and describe its movement over a landscape. In this he’s as good if not better than Ruskin at his best; he also has the added advantage of brevity. 

Sometimes minimalism doesn’t leave much for the reader to do except admire the poet’s skill. The Sequence solves this problem. Lark and Merlin might be a record of a relationship. There’s a she/you and an I. But the subject is absent. There’s no biographical context (factual or fictional) to distract from the poems. And I don’t understand how this works, but the absence of the subject creates the space which holds the sequence together. 

It also allows for the complexities of shifting power within a relationship, the confusion as well as the celebrations:

 

She asked about my heart,
Its evasive flight;
but can I trust her with its secrets?
 

and does the merlin, in fast pursuit of its prey,
tell the fleeing lark it is enamoured of its song?
 

or the singing lark turn tail
and fly into the falcon’s talons? 

The final section of the book contains an assortment of poems on a range of subjects and in a range of styles, from the satire of ‘Whining while dining oot’ which puts the boot into a certain type of regional poet, to lamenting a death, ‘Squire’; to expressions of frustration with his contemporaries; the marvelously quotable, ‘To Goad My Friggin Peers’. 

At the end the book returns to the sparser tone of its beginning with ‘At the Estuary’ and ‘Winter Migrants’, both short sequences.

And as a PS. As someone who has often grumbled about the absurdity of blurbs on poetry books, the paragraph on the back of Winter Migrants is a model of how a poetry book could be described.

2

 Fiends Fell

Winter Migrants contains extracts from Fiends Fell Journal, a mix of prose with poetry.

A year later (2017) and Fiends Fell has been published by Flood Editions. The blurb says it charts a single year out of a decade spent ‘on a bare hilltop near the English-Scottish border’.  It contains ‘Fiends’ Fell Journal’ and ‘Lark and Merlin’.

Journals are dodgy things. The journals of poets have to compete with Coleridge’s and that’s a non-starter. The range of possible reasons for reader disappointment is vast. You are being invited to stare over the author’s shoulder and share his or her navel gazing. There is an explicit invitation to voyeurism and your willful indulgence in it might not be healthy or edifying.

The temptation to be ‘poetic’ or ‘profound’, to claim thoughts that one never had or to edit for effect must be immense.

So I hesitated because there was also the specific fear that the journal would turn out to be a prose exposition of Lark and Merlin which would bury the poems in the details that had been originally left out.

Should have known better by now. The postman delivered it early in the day. I had plans. There were things I had to do, and I thought, I haven’t got time for this. But I want to read a bit. Just a few pages. And many hours later I’d finished it and all the other things I had planned to do were still waiting to be done.

The Journal is the record of an intelligence moving through a landscape and taking careful note of everything seen, felt and heard. It’s also, incidentally and occasionally, about the writing of The Ballad of Jamie Allan. For those of us who like that book there’s the added bonus of a short run of 6 pieces about Nell Clarke, one of Allen’s partners, which doesn’t show up in The Ballad of Jamie Allen.

It might sound like a strange compliment, but it’s honest poetry and prose which doesn’t fudge itself by pretending to ‘poetic thoughts’ or attempting to be ‘literary’.  In the wrong hands, the prose could easily become poetic pose in the worst sense of ‘poetic’: The solitary wind whipped figure served up as metaphor for the modern poet facing society’s overwhelming indifference. But one of the reasons for reading Pickard is the well-founded faith that he isn’t going to do that. 

The blurb, which is another good example of how to write a blurb, describes it as a Haibun, but the alternation of Prose and Verse you find in medieval Welsh and Irish texts feels like a comparison more appropriate to the wild landscape. The obvious comparison is with Basho, who is nodded to in the text, but Basho was never this angry, physical or funny.

There are the inevitable traces of autobiography, but in an honest journal the writer is talking not to the reader but to himself, so here there is no explanation or background, just memories and interactions picked up and passed over. The gaps in Lark and Merlin are not filled in. Rather than an invitation to voyeurism, there’s an invitation to share a walk.

The background to ‘Whining while dining oot’ is provided, but the information doesn’t detract from the poem, and, perhaps ironically for those academically inclined to believe context is everything, it doesn’t add anything either.

As in Winter Migrants, the wind and weather become characters in the narrative. Pickard records his share of memories, meetings and dealings with humans, birds rats and mice, but the weather is his significant other in this book. It keeps him indoors, threatens him at night, bullies him when he’s outside, and just occasionally leaves him alone.

There’s been a lot of nonsense written recently surrounding the financial success of Milk and Honey and the ‘renaissance of poetry’ in Britain. There’s an unforgivable ignorance in some of the commentators who seem to think poetry of direct statement was invented on Instagram. Pickard, and others like him, have been plying their trade for decades, mostly unnoticed by the press, who would rather promote the self-centred whining of the wilfully ignorant for no other reason than the success of their sales pitch and the size of their royalties.

Nothing I’ve just written does justice to the pleasure of reading Winter Migrants or Fiends Fell. Which is really what makes Pickard stand out. He’s very good, but he’s also entertaining and thought provoking, and enjoyable. 

He reminds me what poetry was probably like before it was turned into a ‘pedant’s game’ or the chopped prose equivalent of a selfie: worth rereading. 

 

 

 

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.