Categories
a writer's life Children's fiction Reading Skelton Yawngrave

Watch Skelton Yawngrave TV

Hope all casual droppers-in to my blog are keeping fine. Here’s my Skelton Yawngrave TV YouTube channel. I am hoping, to upload a chapter a day of my story Magnificent Grace during this lockdown.

I had such fun reading to children when I was visiting schools in Brighton and Sussex, I thought I would take it online, something for children with busy brains to do during lockdown. So if you happen to know of an imaginative whippersnapper in key stage 2, 9-12 years old, perhaps they might enjoy being pointed to to Skelton Yawngrave TV.

Here’s me reading the first chapter.

 

Categories
Poetry Reading Reviews

Exploring Janet Sutherland’s poetry

There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.

Janet Sutherland Home Farm jpeg

I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication,  Burning the Heartwood, Hangman’s AcreBone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.

Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:

Bone monkey knows himself a god
although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.

(As a God, from Bone Monkey)

62ce33_5a12595d25b24af484a55c2985a78be8~mv2

I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.

Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns
crowned with insignia of warlike deeds–
emblems stolen from the wolves
are fixed securely to his skull with cords

(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)

It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.

I think of memory
like three swans that sweep
over the river’s surface

ghosts
of the aerial
and of the deep

or like the rivers’ flow
tidal and complex
at an estuary.

(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)

The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of  association of snakes with water…

little adders fall
out of pitch-forked hay

into the stooks
floating the swollen river

(Memory, from Burning the Heartwood)  

This river’s a snake that opens its mouth
and sings, looping and undulating, leaving
a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.

(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)

Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.

                                                                 …At night
white water grinds over and over through this sieve,
and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one,
driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither
an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark
pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well,
somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.

(The Eel House, from Home Farm)

Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.

For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to.  I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.

Categories
Fiction Horror Reading

Unlocking a trove of dark and lyrical stories

Keyhole, stories by Matthew G. Rees, published by Three Impostors Press

Modulating beautifully through passages of horror, humour and the supernatural Matthew G. Rees collection Keyhole is a hugely enjoyable collection of short stories. They juxtapose a grainy matter-of-factness that moves the narrative briskly along, with tantalising glimpses of a deep and timeless magic that seems rooted in Wales.

Some are of these dark stories I found hilarious (a tough thing to pull off) such as The Cheese, which features the appalling cheese correspondent of the Llanymaen Evening Mail who inflicts the ultimate cheese nightmare on an unsuccessful author. While in The Griffin, the familiar feeling that you have lost the pub you are looking for, becomes a grimly amusing meditation of the slipperiness of time and space.

There is an unsentimental bleakness in these stories too, which are populated by haunted, isolated characters. Where there is horror it is often inflected with magic and ambiguity. In Sand Dancer an old man with a metal detector finds a fully crewed WW2 U-boat buried under the sand, he frees them and sets off with them, with disastrous consequences. While in I’ve got you, a family made from shells emerge from the sea to menace the mother and son who find them. They call the shell man, Percy Shelley. ‘Mr Shelley went after him, the whites of his rotating razor fingers glinting in the dark.’

Wales is everywhere in these stories, from the wet slate of misty hillsides to the bait diggers on the coast. This genius loci gives these stories heart and cohesion, and a concreteness that balances the dreamlike passages.

Keyhole the eponymous opening story is magnificent. Flecks of of dark fairy tale mix with a middle aged man’s crisis as he returns to his childhood home. We are introduced to a child, Brontë Vaughan, who ‘had a condition that meant she had to be kept from the light,’ confined in a house called The Fosse. Her mother, presents her with a kingfisher.

In her time her mother, a woman of great beauty grieved by her conviction that in bringing her into this world she had cursed her child, gave Brontë another and another of the birds. These mated and reproduced so that their number, swarming through the dark chambers of the old house, came to defy calculation. The birds swirled in shoals around young Brontë’s white hair and head. They clustered on mantels, perched on clock cases, their droppings striating curtains that were seldom if ever opened and flecking large, hanging tapestries that showed harts running into deep forests behind whose think and faded fabric the walls of The Fosse stood powdery and damp.

‘Keyhole’, from Keyhole — Stories by Matthew G Rees, Three Impostors Press 2019.

Lushly imaginative, lyrical, full of intriguing ambiguities and surprisingly funny interludes, Keyhole, is a wonderful collection I’m busy recommending to friends.

Categories
a writer's life Horror Reading

Doorways to Hell

In a Bloomsbury bookshop last October, two days after the death of a close friend, I found myself in the store’s horror section. On a whim I bought a collection of disturbing short stories by Robert Aickman called Compulsory Games. Only on the train home did it occur to me that choosing to read horror fiction in a moment of bereavement was a bit odd. Nevertheless Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ (I went on to read four volumes of them) sparked a concerted foray into horror and a dozen or so writers — from E Nesbit to H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson to William Peter Blatty, Grady Hendrix to Thomas Ligotti and many more. These are some findings from the weird world of horror.

Glimpsing larger worlds

I want to draw a parallel, briefly, with poetry. I respond to poems that slap you in the face like a Zen monk. I love how a line or image can jolt you to a realisation that the world is more beautiful, moving and — this is my point — far larger than before.

It may be why people with little interest in poetry will still resort to it at weddings, funerals or moments of heartbreak. Poetry provides a path away from the hard realities of life by changing our perspective. Take W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues. The poet asks us, in the rhetoric of grief, to ‘Stop all the clocks’ — not just one clock, but all the clocks in the world. Later, the poem says, ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’. This is personal grief stretched to wrap around the whole world. In my own moment of bereavement, horror did the same job for me. Why was that?

For a horror story to work, it must also allow you a glimpse of something far larger than yourself. If poetry can show us the sublime, horror can shrink us until we feel powerless in the face of vast, unknowable forces. For the readers of both poetry and horror, however, result is the same. The world has become larger and less stiflingly mundane. Horrorstör (2014) by Grady Hendrix, is a good example of this, set in an Ikea-like store whose doors open into a horrific supernatural prison and its terrifying denizens. It’s funny too.

Three entrances into hell

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft

The opening sentence of H.P. Lovecraft’s landmark essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) is hard to take issue with. But I also think that there are familiar entrances into this huge realm of the unknown. 

1. The Door of Religion

The Case Against Satan (1962) by Ray Russell and, more famously, The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty both use religious ideas of God and the Devil, to create a vast, menacing backdrop to the action. The plots have strong similarities, in both stories young girls channels wild and hellish forces. These must be tackled by men of wavering faith, who are forced to abandon their rational and scientific impulses in the face of demonic possession. 

The famous movie version of The Exorcist (1973) may have influenced the real life case of Anneliese Michel. Annaliese appeared not to respond to psychiatric treatment, and sadly died of thirst and starvation while in the care of her family and two Roman Catholic priests. These priests were later found guilty of negligent homicide.

Another story drawing its horrific heft from religion is Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) where a woman, under the evil influences, becomes pregnant with the Antichrist, the child of Satan.

You only have to think of the work of poets like Milton or Dante to realise religion and horror are centuries-old bedfellows. ‘I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost’, writes Dante. To escape this entanglement, he needed to progress through the vastnesses of hell and purgatory.

2. The Door of Mythos

H.P. Lovecraft has a towering influence in horror circles. Despite a teenage phase immersed in the stories of his friend and devotee Clark Ashton Smith, I had read very few of his stories until recently. He is a master of horror. He is also a vile racist, even for someone publishing in the 1920s and 30s. He portrays black and biracial people as horrific barely human entities. If you are able to hold your nose enough to overlook this you will discover why his influence is so great. His tactic for bringing supernatural horror to his readers is the invention of a mythology about a monstrous race from the stars, who lived before humans and will persist beyond them. The tentacle-faced Cthulhu (see above) is the greatest of these.

I am hard pressed to understand why The Cthulhu Mythos has become so influential, to the extent that it has become a shared fictional universe used by other writers — in what must have been an early form of fan fiction.

The beginning of the seminal story, The Call of Cthulhu, shows how Lovecraft engineers an immense backdrop, against which the plot about the discovery of clues to an unknown and monstrous race can unfurl. 

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. 

H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu (1926)

I would also argue here that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings certainly contains elements of horror and, like Lovecraft, this is rooted in an even richer mythos.

3. The Door of Disillusionment

During my new horror craze, I have become a fan of Thomas Ligotti (b.1953). While I find his prose sometimes heavy going, when his stories are good, they are magnificent. His work has already found its way into Penguin Classic status, collecting the stories of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe in one Penguin volume. Lovecraft’s influence is here, and one of Ligotti’s most famous stories, the Last Feast of Harlequin, is dedicated to Lovecraft’s memory.

Ligotti’s work often derives its power from the conceit that the world is absolutely horrific, and it is only through the collective madness of optimism, that we fail to see the world for what it truly is: huge and terrifying. 

An a wonderful Ligotti story, In The Shadow of Another World, the protagonist gains entry to a tower whose windows enable the scale and weirdness of reality to be properly seen.

‘For the visions they offered were indeed those of a haunted world, a multi-faceted mural portraying the marriage of insanity and metaphysics… After my eyes closed, shutting out the visions for a moment… It was then I realised that this house was possibly the only place on earth, perhaps in the entire universe, that had been cured of the plague of phantoms that raged everywhere.’ 

Thomas Ligotti, In the Shadow of Another World (1991)

This is an act of disillusionment, of the stripping away of illusion to see the vast, terrifying truth behind it.

Ligotti’s pessimism is condensed in a fascinating non-fiction book called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It is an idiosyncratic survey of pessimism, and is peppered with grim insights, such as this cheery reflection on the moment of death.

‘And for the first time you feel that which you have never felt before—the imminence of your own death. There is no possibility of self-deception now. The paradox that came with consciousness is done with. Only horror is left. This is what is real. This is the only thing that was ever real, however unreal it may have seemed.’ 

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010)

Ligotti’s handling of this vast reality belittles us into the weird pleasure of fear. 

And for me, the penny drops

In my bout of supernatural horror, I realised something that had been staring at me like a creepy marionette half my life. There is a horror in a good deal of my own work. I called my second poetry pamphlet ‘The Nightwork’, I have written poems about monsters, and doubles, and psychological horror.  All my plays are comedies, but three of them have a horrific backdrop. My short stories often have been explicitly horror or weird fiction. But only now has the penny dropped.

Poetry can accommodate horror and sublime moments, and horror can do that too. Also horror can reassure you that your life is better than, say, going mad with alcoholism and trying to kill your family as in Stephen King’s The Shining, or turning into a bestial murderer, as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ultimately, it is not this reassurance I seek. I thrill to horror’s moments of dark and expanding wonder.   

And as I detail here, this new horror craze led me to sending a story, to Matthew Rees at Horla who was kind enough to publish it. I find myself in a new phase of explicitly writing horror, and I find I am loving it. 

I think I’ll leave the last word to a poet. Here’s Rilke, from the first of The Duino Elegies (as translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender).

For Beauty’s nothing / but the beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, / and why we adore it so is because it serenely / disdains to destroy us.

Raine Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies (1929)
Categories
a writer's life Genius Prose Publishing Reading

A lost friend, agent hunting, and new collections of short stories

My friend Janet Summerton died on October 1st at the age of 79.  I was heavily involved in her care during her last two months, and that of her husband Ken who survives her. Janet was a lateral thinking champion of the crafts and craft makers – and a benign influence on a generation of arts managers in the UK.  There are plans to celebrate her life and work next year. My own relationship with her, however, started when I  was her lodger in my twenties. For the next thirty years she was a wise and affectionate aunt-like figure to me. What I learned from her is immeasurable, introducing me right away to the idea of having a portfolio career and, perhaps most helpfully, she stopped me being a genius.

* * *

Shortly after Janet died I attended a long-booked Writers & Artists ‘How to hook an agent’ day course for writers of Children’s and YA fiction, at Bloomsbury Publishing up in Bedford Square. The agents I heard from were Davinia Andrew-Lynch, Julia Churchill, and Ben Illis, all of whom were generous with their advice, and refreshingly normal and human. Lurking in Bloomsbury’s maze-like offices I kept imagining all the celebrated writers who must have visited there. My fellow attendees were a fascinating lot too, some had flown in from other countries. In the afternoon we all had ten minutes face-to-face with an agent. Pitching is part of what I have done for a living for the last twenty years or so, so the fact I made such an arse of myself was disappointing. Despite this, Ben Illis the agent I spoke to gave me excellent advice. I am acting on it.

* * *

I have been reading short stories recently, after buying two collections from writer friends, both published by Cultured Llama.

In Jeremy Page’s London Calling and Other Stories. I particularly enjoyed the novela-length title story London Calling. Its protagonist, a University drop-out called Eustace Tutt, is brilliantly drawn, and was for me like meeting someone from my own past.    Sadly, my past did not feature sharing a squat with two German girls with a propensity for nudity.  Jeremy’s stories are funny, touching and very human. I devoured the collection.

Unusual Places  by Louise Tondeur‘s style is fascinating, she has an alien’s eye for detail, and observations are made without the expected filters and hierarchies of importance. Louise is writing a crime novel at the moment, and I can’t help thinking the engaging oddness of her characters and description would make her foray into crime something to be greatly anticipated.

My other ‘discovery’ is Robert Aickman, a writer of what he called ‘strange Stories’, who died in 1981. I bought a new collection of his called Compulsory Games full of hauntingly weird stories. The story called No Time Is Passing, is one of the most disturbing and brilliant things I have ever read. It concerns a man who goes out into his back garden in West London and discovers a river at the end of it.  I found myself in the middle of the night worrying if I was going mad. I had been obsessing about the story lying awake and wide-eyed for hours. The way Aickman nudges up the weird every few sentences is just incredible. Dreamlike is a word that is overused continually, but Aickman’s stories are properly nightmarish, while rarely resorting to horror tropes.

Categories
Poetry Reading

Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, and grappling with what’s difficult

gauguin_vision_sermon

When I meet a difficult text, it invariably makes me think of the Genesis story of Jacob and the Angel, or at least its depictions in art.  I like Jacob Epstein’s statue Jacob and the Angel (1940) in the Tate, but it is Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon (1888) with women having just left church on Sunday, receiving a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel that most often comes to mind. What does the angel want? Obedience? Submission? When Jacob prevails after a night of wrestling, he is freed with a wounded hip joint and he is given a new name: Israel.

* * *

Grappling all night with difficult texts can seem an ordeal too, especially if there is an exam at the end of it. As a student, I sometimes found unpicking all the references in say T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound tiresome. I still think of this stage of modernism as an exercise of cultural collage, or mosaic work: a tessera of Dante, a smidge of Wordsworth, a splash of Bhagavad Gita. Exemplified by The Waste Land, this juxtaposition of  pan-cultural resonances was undoubtedly exciting, and a leap ahead in poetry. As a student, the better read you became, the easier it became to nod with a certain smugness, for example, when you’d traced the origins.

In the mid eighties, I was given J.H.Prynne’s The Oval Window by my friend Michael, who is now a professor in the US. This was the best kind of grappling. Michael was a Prynne advocate, and we swapped letters (yes, in actual envelopes) for a few months about Prynne’s work. My first reaction to Prynne was hostile. I got that he used language in part to portray the difficulty of communicating, a familiar trope in twentieth century writing. But itseemed to me that Prynne took this to heroic levels of wilful obscurity. Grappling with the angel of Prynne frequently left me feeling angry and baffled. But it stretched me as a reader, and something else happened that I hadn’t bargained for: I became haunted by the images in his work. Here’s a section from one of the untitled (they are all untitled) poems in the book.

Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones,
aircraft and the corpses of men, tigers
fish and pythons, “all in a confused tangle.”

This collection is full of points ‘of vantage, private and inert’, and these poems have been  a sphinx on my imaginative horizon ever since, and in the way that poems that yield their pleasures more easily simply have not. I’m still conflicted by Prynne. Do I find this language beautiful? Not really. Does it move me? Only in a weird way. Do I find myself picking up Prynne on a regular basis? Yes, damn it!

Since Prynne I have grappled with poets I find difficult, and even if I have to submit, bruised and baffled, I often feel I have at least encountered something mysterious, and that the struggle taught me something, even if only about my own limitations.

* * *

Most writers of poetry often encounter invitations to enter competitions. The majority of them exist to bolster the funds of poetry publishers, which is a perfectly good reason to support them. Sifting through hundreds of poems, those judges, however sincere and thorough, are more likely to respond to work that rapidly downloads its meaning and rewards. While these poems can be profound, my feeling is that only rarely do they provoke a lengthy engagement. The worst of them are like jokes, you read them once or twice, get the punchline and move on.

 * * *

I have lately been visiting the New York based site E·ratio, which is edited by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino. E·ratio ‘publishes poetry in the postmodern idioms with an emphasis on the intransitive’. The intransitive being writing that draws attention to the act of writing itself, in a Prynne-like way, rather than pointing to something in the outside world. I loved this bracing precision, and there is bags of challenging work on the site. I was also delighted when Gregory published a rare sortie into this kind of postmodernism by me.

 * * *

I have been enjoying getting to grips with Gregory’s Vincent St. Thomasino’s selected writings, collected in the soon-to-be-released, The Wet Motorcycle. This work, which I have been lucky enough to see before publication, includes some absolutely pyrotechnic  poems, that burst off the page and whoosh over your head.  An early sequence is called Bolts. To me they are mysterious meteors of meaning. Take Bolt twenty which pinballs between tiny fragments of perhaps, Tristan and Iseult, and Petrach, and may be alluding to the  misfortune of having to dash your brain on the harsh business of grappling with words.

Bolt twenty
Por Deu
Omnipotent
Ce
Fu pechiez
dash my brain L’
Aspre vie
Words
New
Woe

The Wet Motorcycle is also remarkable, in that it provides the theoretical background to enable you to better understand the poet’s way of seeing. He offers a  Crash Course in Logoclastics,  which employs the term ‘logoclastics’ to suggest a break or dislocation in discourse. This break is where the reader steps in to bridge the gap with ‘their own logic, sense and meaning’. I think it may be possible to read this as encouraging a more engaged reading, where the reader is co-creating with the writer. Nothing to argue with here. While I have never thought of it this way, I always enjoy writing that has ambiguity, suggestion, and territories left for the reader to explore. Leaving space for the reader is essential in serious writing.

The theory continues with a description of the ‘pannarrative’ text.

The pannarrative text. If “text-collage” is the general term for such, then a “text collage” composed of fragments (word fragments, words, sentences, verses, elements [quotation]) of narrative (narrative as found / appropriation) “stitched” together. It is a sort of “list” or “roll call.”
The pannarrative poem begins by seeing all the world as one great narration — a narrative that is known in proportion to the degree of the relation of its parts.
As an instance of the pannarrative text (or, of, the collage text) I here do offer a text. And notice, please, the composition, the assemblage, is of things from the world writ large, from the world encircling me, and these are mixed with my own sensibilities, with my own emotions (and that my poem is the analogue to the expressionist depiction, and thus an ekphrasis of sorts).

This description of how the writer engages with the ‘one great narration’ to produce his work I find fascinating.

I have just embarked on Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino’s work. Sure it is difficult. But it has rewards and challenges. But one thing is for certain, this is a way of writing that is distinctly different to my own, and I enjoy it for precisely this reason. His is a serious and pioneering endeavour, which has poetry, flash fiction, novels and theory in its ambit. It is unlike any other I have read, so must be explored.

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Categories
Poetry Reading Readings

Poetry omnivore

For me, it’s all been about poetry so far this year. Sarah Barnsley, Robin Houghton and I have been putting together an anthology from Telltale, about which there will be more news shortly. Meanwhile I’ve been editing my own 24-poem, pamphlet-length collection, and have been lucky enough to receive excellent advice and a good deal of encouragement from Robin, Sarah and Charlotte Gann.

Back in January, Robin and I went to see the poet’s AGM; the T.S. Eliot award readings. I love how this reignites my love of poetry every year. Perhaps not a vintage crop this time, but I have since enjoyed the collections by the worthy winner Ocean Vuong, as well as Jacqueline Saphra, and James Sheard.

Omnivorously gobbling poetry, my reading has included Kate Tempest and Anna Akhmatova and, returning after many years, William Blake. I had forgotten how Songs of Innocence seem almost more sinister to me than the Songs of Experience. I must also recommend Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, essays by Jane Hirshfield. I can’t remember reading essays about poetry and agreeing so much. I came across Jane Hirshfield on the fabulous Brain Pickings site.

So off tomorrow to the launch of Robin’s Cinnamon Press prize winning collection, All the Relevant Gods and Stephen Bone’s excellent Plainsong pamphlet from Indigo Dreams. With Sarah Barnsley and Antony Mair reading, it will be a really good night.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 11.32.37

Categories
Poetry Reading

He who saw the deep

humbaba
Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill The Bull of Heaven

I listen to half a dozen podcasts every week. One of these is from BBC Radio 4 In Our Time, which is hosted by Melvyn Bragg, takes a scholarly subject (from the sciences and arts) every week and discusses it with experts. I learn lots from these podcasts. The recent episode about The Epic of Gilgamesh particularly inspired me. It featured the translator of the most recent Penguin Classic Version, Andrew George, plus fellow Assyriology boffins Frances Reynolds, and Martin Worthington.

I’d read this epic (in the N.K. Sandars translation) while studying ‘The Epic Tradition’ course as a student at Warwick University. Andrew George’s translation is terrific, and does not gloss over the missing words and lacunae in the text, while the deliberate, and oddly hypnotic, repetitions in the verse are more evident.

The myth itself is rich, and I’m not going to retell it here. But it is arguably the oldest piece of literature in the world. (Other earlier writings exist, including the magical spells inside Ancient Egyptian coffin texts but they are nowhere near as sustained.)

If you think long enough about the fact that you are about to read the world’s oldest extant piece of literature, it will make your hair stand on end. Intriguingly, the story features a flood, predating the Old Testament account, and the stories are remarkably similar. The Noah figure here is called Uta-Napishti, a man who was made immortal by the Gods having survived the flood. Gilgamesh goes to him to discuss immortality, and returns sadder and wiser.

So let’s look at George’s translation of the opening lines of the oldest piece of literature we have. They are fragmentary. The triple dots are missing bits, and the words in brackets have been inferred:

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew …, was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew…., was wise in all matters!

[He] … everywhere…
and [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom.
He who saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.

He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheephold,
of holy Eanna, the secret storehouse.

The opening idea of seeing the Deep fascinates me. Towards the end of the epic, Gilgamesh dives into water to retrieve a piece of coral which will rejuvenate him, but this is stolen by a snake. But I don’t think ‘the Deep’ necessarily refers to this event. Rather it seems we are dealing with a resonant and ambiguous metaphor. By the end of the story Gilgamesh has considered the passing of time,  immortality and death, he has had dealings with Gods, and has known great personal sadness in the loss of his companion Enkidu. Gilgamesh returns to strengthen the foundations of his city Uruk and its people, for in this legacy lies a kind of immortality.

I love the fact that this opening to the poem is so ambiguous. So much of the pleasure of reading is about what is left out, what allows us as readers to puzzle and engage. He who saw the Deep is marvellous opening.

I’ve just started looking into the deep of Gilgamesh again, and I’m loving it.

Categories
Performance Publishing Reading Telltale Press

Jessica Mookherjee’s ‘The Swell’ – hear her with Judy Brown, Siegfried Baber and Michaela Ridgway 19th Oct in Lewes

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Jessica Mookherjee earlier this month

Gillian Clarke’s remarks on the pamphlet flap for Jessica Mookherjee’s Telltale Press pamphlet  The Swell are spot on. Among them she says Jess’s poems are ‘Bold, fiery, truthful, they tell an original story with power’.

Other than reading The Swell at a fairly late stage before publication, I had little to do with Jess’s pamphlet. Sarah Barnsley, who along with Robin Houghton, helped Jess edit The Swell said that, in the process of finalising the selection, Jess had a whole sheaf of possible replacements for each poem. Amazingly prolific at the moment, Jess is already well on her way to forming a first full collection, and her work is frequently cropping up in many magazines. The reason is that they are fabulous.

The first poem of the The Swell pamphlet, ‘Snapshot’  depicts the loss of a mother’s attention away from the little girl ‘I’ of the poem. ‘I passed on my birthright to all those unborn/ boys,’ the mother tragedy spills into the poem, she becomes a person who needs her ‘worried forehead’ soothed, needs to be watched over:

Stood behind my mother as she prayed
at the front door, led her to the kitchen,
made sure she looked at the babies.

but finally we are left with an image of childhood abandonment, how the absence of attention leaves its mark with an image of neglect:

There is no photograph of me climbing the stairs
two at a time, no evidence that I tried
not to slip and break my neck.

One thing I love about Jess’s work is the balance between such nuance, and unabashed boldness. In the poem ‘Red’:

The red curtains in my mother’s house
looked like someone had shot her.

A colour is shown as a symbol for domestic disagreement, and disappointment:

I tell you not to wear that that red shirt,
it doesn’t flatter.
There’s blood in the bathroom again,
this month.

The pamphlet is fraught with thwarted hopes and expectations, and its arena is the female body.  We glimpse the weight of expectation on women to have sons, to create families, to select the right partner. I find the poem ‘Mother’s Day’ to be eloquent about assigned roles. The poem opens, with typical boldness, describing a delivery of flowers:

Delivered like unwanted children,
I didn’t put them into water.

I find a passion and rebellion in The Swell.  I can’t recommend it enough. And if you’d like to hear Jess’s next reading, at the Telltale Press & Friends reading in Lewes with a fine array of poets. These include Judy Brown, whose book Crowd Sensations is becoming one of my favourites of recent times, and will write about it on here soon. It’s a great opportunity to hear Telltale’s Siegfried Baber up from Bath, and Brighton’s own Michaela Ridgway showcase their work too.

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Categories
Poetry Reading

More on project 154

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I received my copy of the Live Canon Project 154 book a day or so ago. All of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a response by 154 contemporary poets including friends like Robin Houghton, Antony Mair, Sue Rose and many more.

As a rule this kind of intertextuality isn’t my bag. Nor do I need prompts for what to write about. But rubbing shoulders with the Bard wasn’t to be missed. I wrote my response to sonnet 19 very quickly, as I only had a week, and it was a busy one. I had a decent idea. I pictured the lover trapped between the lines of the Shakespeare sonnet, like a prisoner looking through bars. I wanted the language to the similar in tone to the sonnet, so I avoided contemporary language so not to seem anachronistic.

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I went to the Victoria & Albert museum on 24th April to hear the first couple of dozen sonnets and responses read. Maybe I’m letting the side down as poet, but the phrase poetry marathon (glimpsed on the sign outside) always makes me shudder. I LOVE poetry, but the idea that it becomes some kind of an endurance test is not for me.

When it came to the moment when my own poem was read out, the poem was read by a single person in the same voice so was unintelligible. I found this very embarrassing, and it left me a bit miffed that a theatre company devoted to reading poems hadn’t sussed that this could be read in two voices. But it’s my own fault. It was however a gorgeous setting for a reading, and I heard lots of other good poems (plus the Willie the Shake stuff of course).

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In the book are some genuinely interesting responses to the sonnets. Many braved a sonnet reply, such as my pal Robin Houghton with her Suggestion from The Rival Poet, or Abigail Parry whose Shakespeare in Space replied to No.18, possibly the most famous sonnet of all, with ‘Shall I compare thee to the Milky Way?’ and uses the language of astronomy. while leoemercer’s extraordinary poem called this depict the sad moment when you realise your beatuiful relation hip clearly hasnt workt out (an anagram of shaxespeares 107st sonnet) really has to be encountered for yourself.

In reply to sonnet 70, Mo Jones’s poem is easily the most stark of all, so stark it can be quoted in full:

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My fuck up + my shiftiness = your fuck up + your deceit

We’re quits.

All in all, a collection that is thought provoking and well-worth checking out.