Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ (p.61-68 in Long Poem Magazine issue 21, spring 2019.)
Warning: Enthusing in progress…
Susan’s Watson’s poem, or sequence, is divided into pieces of varying length and form, each with its own title. The prose introduction states that in 1979 its author was writing an honours thesis on Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. It also refers to ‘the‘end of an era’ marked by the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. The poems are written in third person ‘because I wanted to distance myself from the nameless young woman reading.’
Literary criticism and autobiography made into public art. It’s a very impressive balancing act.
Of all the poems in the magazine, I read this one first for a very superficial reason. If I were to take one book to a desert Island, I’d take an untranslated Malory. This is the only book I’ve written poems to and about. So, there’s an element of envy in the admiration that follows.
There’s also a personal irony; in 1980, I was planning to write an honours thesis on Malory. I was gently but firmly told to do something else. Had I been allowed to follow my obsession, A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) might be about Malory, Lollards and the War of the Roses and not Laȝamon, Anarchy and the legendary history.
I start with this because I recognise the quality of Watson’s reading of Malory. There are other fine poems in the magazine, but this one stands out.
The first poem in the sequence is called ‘Why she began to fall in love with the works of Sir Thomas Malory’.
It stands as an overture to the rest of the sequence. Each of its irregular, short stanzas presents a reason ‘why’, but each introduces ideas and images that are picked up, extended and passed on as the sequence unfolds. This means the intelligence is there, in the architecture, where it should be if a sequence is to be more than a collection of random pieces.
This first poem begins:
Because of the narrative voice
a plain voice threading beads
The first two lines announce the validity of the reading, and the writer’s skill: the unobtrusive metaphor is effective as a description of Malory’s style. The idea of things in sequence, like beads on a thread, how they can be similar and yet vary, how repetition can be a form of variation, are all important ideas in what follow in the poem.
As a reading of Malory, the sequence provides interesting ways of rethinking the book. Malory’s knights eagerly fewter their spears and charge at each other before the hat has time to drop. Sir Thomas obviously loved to write about their endless foynings and slashings. But as Watson points out the ‘customary moves’ of this ‘courtly love dance’ repeated so many times, like those almost identical beads on the thread, lead up to the sudden shock of their disappearance in the combat between Mordred and Arthur.
At one point Watson describes the act of academic writing:
She’d already explained all the things
That blood meant and means
In those customary terms that she had borrowed
which felt like a great sheet of iron
preventing things she really thought and meant
But the poems, not being essays, have the freedom to move around those sheets of iron, to explore and suggest possibilities, to make their own links.
Initially, Maying reads like a reflection on one of Malory’s most famous passages, alternating its long lines, some about the passage, some evoke the physical reality of reading, but then the piece bends gently to suggest something about Malory himself while perhaps also suggesting something about the poet’s life and choices at that time. To get that many things happening coherently in a poem is a tribute to the writer’s skill.
Guinevere is perhaps Malory’s great creation. She is his great contributions to English literature. It’s hard not to wonder where she came from. And it’s hard not to occasionally feel the author is suddenly speaking in his own voice about things outside the story. In the post-modern world of dead authors and author functions one might feel awkward advancing such an idea in an essay, but the Maying opens a space for reflection:
‘Also she likes
the sudden subtle taste of cinnamon in the raisin cake, this voice, this brief scenting of a voice: Sir Thomas Malory Knight
Her idea of essayists:
men sitting in towers looking down, judging, but not like this. What had happened, what made those lines flow out just then?’
As Watson writes, ‘Contrition and sorrow lie lightly under the surface of those words’, leading to the final line, ‘ So he had forgiven her then’.
It’s done lightly, and well. The cinnamon in the raisin cake is another one of those metaphors you might miss if you weren’t paying attention.
The danger is that if the reader isn’t interested in Malory, the poem could sink. However that is not the case here because the sequence is more than just ‘a reading of Malory’.
Even in Maying there’s a feeling of life choices being considered by the narrator: ‘Adventures’ or the quiet of books; a withdrawal into the library or the risk of riding out.
People fall in love with a book. The academic essay rarely manages to capture the untidiness of recognition and obsession but ‘The time of the Angels’ as a whole, effectively conveys the way a book inflects the world of the reader, providing new ways of thinking and seeing, while the world inflects the reader’s way of seeing the book.
In ‘New year 1979’ the gothic arch on gothic arch, leading away down the corridor, is both a physical description of a place, but also an image of Malory’s narrative. Since everything is predicted at the start, the story leads inexorably to its final point, like the vanishing point in a drawing of perspective, but the doors leading off, opening and shutting, are like the strange sub texts that bubble under the stories.
The world in 1979, in England, was cold, and threatening. The poem is dusted with snow. Margaret Thatcher was about to come to power. Although Woods didn’t quote it, her description of going to the polls, and her feeling of frustration, evokes Malory’s denunciation of the English: Alas! Thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.
What I initially thought was my only criticism of the poem, on reflection, might be an example of how good it is.
The sequence ends:
‘Was Merlin there in the polling booth?
He’d never have told her
She’s taken the aventure
set out on a quest, without knowing,
chosen the man she’d marry.’
I initially thought the last two lines are the only point in the sequence where an ambiguity suggests something hidden and personal. ‘The man she’d marry’ has made no appearance in the poem, unless we’re still with metaphors and the man is Malory. But on reflection the stanza underlines the difference between the book and lived experience and allows the subject to exit the sequence.
In Malory you know how the story ends from the start:
Because of the prophecies
Like setting books down on a table
Those things must happen[…]
But life isn’t like that. Merlin doesn’t turn up at the polling booth (though political pundits would like to pretend they have the power of prophecy). There’s no one to tell you how the story ends. Encounters are random and meaningless until they are given significance in retrospect.
The paragraph introducing the sequence says that ‘this is part of a longer poem’. I would very much like to read the whole thing.
End of enthusing