Categories
Guernsey Guernsey Literature Painters, Poetry

Keeping Guernsey Legends vibrantly alive

Guernsey Legends by Jane Mosse & Frances Lemmon, Blue Ormer Publishing

jane-mosse-and-frances-lemmon
Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 14.53.39The stories in the gorgeously-produced Guernsey Legends by Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon are not remote reconstructions from some antique past. One story, about an enormous spectre of a nanny goat, played a real part in my own island childhood. Le Coin de la Biche was a stone’s throw away from my family home on La Rue des Grons. My grandfather always accelerated past this corner at night. Although we used to laugh nervously about La Biche as we sped past, by night a fiery-eyed giant nanny goat leaping out of the hedges certainly seemed possible.

The book’s introduction also mentions Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon’s debt to the peerless Marie De Garis, the author of Folklore of Guernsey (1975).  But the text of Guernsey Legends, contains stories collected by Sir Edgar McCullough and Edith Carey, which were first published in 1903. These stories are then responded to in poetry, by Jane Mosse, and visually, by Frances Lemmon.

It is a huge relief to see we are in such safe hands. Writer Jane Mosse is well known on Guernsey not just as a fine poet, but for championing Guernsey literature, and the memory of G.B. Edwards and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, the best book written about the island. In this collection Jane Mosse’s poems are typically playful, engaging and full of a folkloric darkness. The effect is often that we are reading rediscovered poems, and Jane Mosse’s conscious use of  anachronisms is particularly effective and sympathetic in rooting themselves into the soil of the original stories.

The Cuckoo is one of these examples, where the poem is almost like reading an old Guernsey spell.

The Cuckoo

When you hear the cuckoo call
Sew you then your wedding shawl.

Count the months before you wed
Head thee to thy marriage bed.

Wedding ring already worn?
Count the years to your first-born.

When you’re agèd list her cry,
Count the years before you die.

This poem about finding a witch caught up in thorns works its magic in the same way.

The Witch in the Hedge

Thorns
tore
at the silken skirt.
Fine tatters
fluttered in the furze,
as the juice of the sloes
leached into her bodice
staining the fragile lace of her shawl.

When old Nicolette
espied the gentlewoman
ensnared by blackthorn,
bleeding midst the brambles
her gentle hands reached
to pluck
barbed spines
from grazed flesh.

Pride wounded,
raven scoop askew,
the hag
spat
out her warning.

‘Hold though thy tongue
speak to no one
lest a single word
of this tale be heard.’

Frances Lemmon is the pre-eminent painter on Guernsey, who unfailingly manages to get to the symbolic heart of the island, with striking compositions that somehow mythologise features of the island. Her style is deceptively simple, employing planes of vibrant colour, and simplified depictions of people and animals. The book is worth its price alone for having collected Lemmon’s stunning and mysterious pictures.

Guernsey Legends is divided into five sections: animals, fairies, magic, rocks and stones, and festivals, and the subject matter is incredibly rich. We learn about an invasion of murderous fairies from the west, drunken (and untrustworthy) Jerseymen who tried to steal Guernsey by hitching a rope to it to, to shape-changing witches and shape-changing rocks and all manner of other matters.

This is a beautiful book. The original stories wonderfully enhanced by Jane Mosse and Frances Lemmon who have gone about teasing out new approaches to the legends with consummate skill. In their hands Guernsey Legends are vibrantly alive, and bring authentic Guernsey folklore to a new generation of readers. This is another timely and excellent publication from Blue Ormer.

Categories
Guernsey Guernsey Literature Poetry

Versatile, unflinching and soulful. Richard Fleming’s tour de force

Richard Fleming
Richard Fleming launches Stone Witness

Stone Witness by Richard Fleming, published by Blue Ormer Publishing

Richard Fleming’s new collection is a tour de force, harvesting poems which include some of his strongest work to date. The best of Richard Fleming’s work is possessed by soul; that unmistakable sense that the poem you are reading is inhabited by something other than mere words.

Stone Witness collects 40 poems , and it feels like a major collection. The two longest poems are the title poem, and The Murchen Quartet, quite magical in its hare imagery.

Midnight; a sickle moon, black trees in silhouette,
tall, jagged tops,
an electrocardiogram
scribbled on the night sky.

(The Murchen Quartet)

Into this charged landscape, a stranger arrives.

Kneeling, he opens a satchel,
secured by leather-made leash
and gently releases,
as though giving birth,
two leverets, supple and sinewy-soft

(The Murchen Quartet)

One of the many skills Richard Fleming has at his disposal is to conjure the natural world. But this moment of a man mysteriously giving birth in a meadow is starkly contrasted to other poems in this collection that brood unflinchingly on ageing and death. There is a  woman in Quarry drowned in time and drawn down by death’s dark current.

                            Drowned daughter
she descends through grey seams
hewn by generations
of quarrymen long dead

(Quarry)

while in Next Please, the horror of ageing is coldly explored.

staring, fearful, at the ceiling
or some mirage, in the corner,
no one else sees. The disorder
of their lives is like a puzzle:
pieces fail to fit together,
sky or trees or roof is missing.

(Next Please)

Richard Fleming was born in Northern Ireland, and in poems such as Titanic (built in Belfast) and His Mother Dances, and Picnic,  he strives to recall childhood details to give us glimpses of his early life.

The first image
is always a tartan rug,
then, swiftly, other items follow:
Dad’s parked Austin, monochrome,
Mum’s picnic basket, acres of beach,
Atlantic breakers rolling in
and, there, behind my milk-white shape,
huge sand-dunes rising.

(Picnic)

Richard Fleming’s experience of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, worked a strange magic on the poet. Instead of publishing poems about that conflict, his reaction was to celebrate life, in sometimes joyous poems that extol his adopted island home of Guernsey. Much of his writing on the island was collected in A Guernsey Double (2010) (aided by the Guernsey Arts Commission) as a two-person project with the current writer to pool our poetry about Guernsey and create a poetic landmark in the writing of the island.

To my mind this project culminated in October 2016, when Richard was commissioned to write a poem about the island, which stands as the eponymous centrepiece of this collection, Stone Witness. The broadcast of this poem was a magical moment, which celebrated the mysterious La Gran’mère du Chimquière, the 5-3,000 year old menhir standing outside St Martin’s Parish Church in Guernsey. This poem is destined to become a paean to the island itself.

Stone,
old, old stone, I groan with age.
Gran’mère, Earth Mother,
I stand sentry beyond the churchyard gate,
and watch, with sightless eyes,
the snail of human traffic creep along.

I am old and granite-cold: your islands anchor stone.

Your father’s fathers came to me
to pray, to lay or lift some minor curse:
an endless chain of island men,
one generation to another,
linked.

(Stone Witness)

There are moments of humour in this collection, such as his tribute to Philip Larkin, or in the miniature Eden: The Short Version, which can be fully quoted.

God gave Man
Paradise.
It all went
pear-shaped.

(Eden: The Short Version

This is a rich collection, and I cannot do justice to its versatility and scope here. There are apocalyptic visions, such as the extraordinary Last Moments, sketches of lost friends and family, and more political work such as Flotsam where we see a refugee washed ashore.

She lies face down
barely breathing,
a human starfish,
one black asterisk
referencing nothing.

Great credit is due to Steve Foote, the publisher of Blue Ormer Publishing, who has brought the island the book by Edward Chaney Genius Friend, about G.B. Edwards, author of The Book of Ebenzer Le Page. which I blogged about here.

As the pre-eminent poet on Guernsey, Richard Fleming’s wonderful collection is an important addition to the Blue Ormer list, and to the story of Guernsey poetry.

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